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Snork Bait

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

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

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

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

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

He turned away from the rookie Stalker.

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

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

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

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

Wolf watched me, his expression unreadable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Two more,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

XIII

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

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

‘Yeah. The camp just seemed strange.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head. ‘Sorry.’

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

‘What’s that mean?’

‘Well, you know. Petya and all.’

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

‘Nice. Thanks for that,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shot status, Runner Three. Over.’

Shot is green. Repeat, green. Over.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hammer to Runners. Sit-reps, over.’

Runner One, double green.

Runner Two, green.’

Runner Three, green.

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

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

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

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

Acknowledged, Runner Three. All call-signs standby.

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

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

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

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

Hammer to Runner Four, status? Over.’

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

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

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

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

Runner Four, report. Over.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satisfied, I rose and ran toward the courtyard, though the only action there now consisted of occasional pot-shots and a solitary shotgun blast that was followed by the guttural snarling-groan of a dying hound.
  19:53:03  2 October 2009
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
10/02/2009 21:06:27
Messages: 4290

---QUOTATION---
Wolf closed his eyes slowly, opened them again when order was restored.
---END QUOTATION---



http://img88.imageshack.us/img88/2279/wolf0142.jpg

P.S:
Yep, noticed Syova

(ed: adjusted the image a bit)
  03:14:02  2 October 2009
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XI (ii)

psynexus: Cheers for clearing QFT up. I guessed it wasn't what Quantum suggested.
*
Thanks go to hhiker for language/linguistic clarification. She'll know what I mean when she sees it.

*****

Word had evidently spread quickly around the camp. Andriy came back down and made a point of sitting as far from me as possible. Other Stalkers followed, either ignoring me completely or casting the briefest of glances in my direction as they took their places. No one stood or sat close, preferring to huddle together well away from where I leaned against the wall. The signal was clear: I was not one of them; they were the group, I was an outsider. I’d got one of their number, one of their friends, killed. The facts may not have stacked up that way, but as far as their collective opinion went, I might as well have taken the L.85 and shot Petya out of hand.

I tried to relax, but there was a feeling in the air that had nothing to do with the job at hand and I knew that, come mission time, I’d have to watch my back. Bullets might ‘accidentally’ stray in my direction.

There were fourteen of us crammed into the shelter. Wolf had a rough map tacked to an upended table at the end of the room, although we’d undoubtedly be referring to the topographical maps on our PDAs during the briefing. Those not taking part in the raid – of which I had expected Andriy to be one, from Wolf’s comments earlier that morning – were standing guard or patrolling the village above. Four people to defend rookie camp. It didn’t seem anything like enough, although the original plan had been for only three to be left behind. It was just another way in which my presence had messed things up.

Wolf stood by the board, which was flanked by the masked Veteran Stalkers, waiting patiently while everyone sorted themselves out, stopped jostling and coughing and jerking feet away before they could be trodden on, all the general briefing area fun and games.

‘Okay, let’s have some quiet,’ Wolf called, looking over heads as the Stalkers settled down like a gaggle of unruly schoolchildren.

I stood with my hands in my pockets, listening and thinking over how familiar all this was: the banter, the release of tension, the gentle words that still carried command. The general sense of people switching on, tuning in, and getting ready for something that they may or may not survive.

I checked my watch. It was 07:35.

‘Sorry we’re a little later than expected, everyone. At least Snorkbait and Andriy managed to get back in time, even if the result wasn’t what we all wanted.’ Wolf paused until the muttering and blame-shifting was finished. ‘We’ll remember Petya in good time. Before then, we have a job to do.
‘You all know that the bandits have been a problem in Cordon, that their numbers seem inexhaustible, that nowhere in The Zone is safe from the wandering murderers and looters. Lately, they’ve been getting bolder. Their strength in Dark Valley, the access to the perimeter they enjoy from there and places in the north-eastern sectors, allows them to recruit reinforcements and ship them in by the busload. We need to do something before The Zone is overwhelmed and the Bandit factions take over.
‘The groups from Kiev, we know, are a problem, albeit a fairly minor one. The problem, however, is with the groups coming in from Moscow and St Petersburg. They are better armed and better equipped, and most of them are either ex-military or career criminals – sometimes both. What we’ve learned, via the Traders, is that Borov’s replacement in Dark Valley has ties to both the Ukrainian and Russian underworlds and is uniting the Bandit groups into a single, cohesive force.’

The reaction Wolf received was extreme. Babbled conversations immediately broke out among the Stalkers, questions were thrown in a torrent. I heard the name ‘Marked One’ mentioned again in the hubbub, though any context was lost in the babble of voices. Wolf rode it all out with supreme patience.

‘Some of you might say this means we’re screwed, powerless. Perhaps some are thinking about defecting, getting in with the Bandits if they can.’ This was said with the barest flicker of a glance at Andriy. ‘But we’re not powerless. Not alone, at any rate.’

‘Meaning what?’ Vasya piped up into the hush.

Wolf smiled. ‘Meaning we have to make alliances, force Freedom and Duty to make peace, if we can. Moves are afoot to allow that to happen. With their combined strength, we can mount enough resistance in key areas to keep the Bandits to the margins. But we also have to kick them out of Dark Valley and make their bases our own: Loners, Duty and perhaps Freedom, together, mounting a defence of The Zone and ourselves against banditry.’

‘But Duty and Freedom are totally opposed in their thinking. They’ll never agree,’ the one female Stalker in the room said.

‘Maybe not on some things, but Duty are already on-side and when both factions are faced with an enemy they can’t possibly defeat, or adequately defend against, on their own…’ Wolf shrugged. ‘In any case, the bandit threat is one we can’t take lightly.’ He paused, took a deep breath. ‘And neither can the Military.’

Another uproar, tinged with anger. Again, Wolf rode out the storm.

‘The Military are taking no active part in operations as yet. They may – that’s may – launch an offensive against the Dark Valley factories if we can provide the forces to back them up and police it.’

I raised a hand. Wolf glanced sharply over at me and narrowed his eyes.

‘Snorkbait?’

‘Don’t let him speak. He won’t even kill a cat,’ someone shouted.

‘Petya’s dead because of him!’ someone else added.

‘He thinks cats have more right to live than we do!’ said a third, who sounded suspiciously like Andriy.

Wolf closed his eyes slowly, opened them again when order was restored. ‘Snorkbait?’ he offered, and I understood how he had earned his name. He was dangerous, he might not have any time or use for me after today…but he was a fair man and one clever and cunning enough to make use of whichever ‘dog’ brought him closer to his goals – even if that dog was the runt of the pack.

‘Why can’t the military establish a stronghold of their own there? It would be ideal for mounting other operations,’ I said.

‘Yeah, he’s right,’ Vasya said. ‘They’ve got a permanent garrison at the Agroprom as well as the one up north. Why can’t they establish in Dark Valley?’

Wolf glanced over at me. ‘Simply put: manpower. They’d have to weaken their Agroprom force to man Dark Valley. It’s already the case that they’re weaker than they’d like. Manning more bases inside The Zone means reallocating limited resources, or drawing more from the perimeter – and the perimeter is leaky enough.’

‘And you know all this…how?’ Vasya persisted.

‘The Traders have already negotiated with the Military authorities,’ one of the masked Stalkers said. ‘This is how we know the Military’s position. From their side of things, they’d rather do a deal with us than be overrun by Bandits.’

‘Great. So we end up doing the Military’s job: kill the Bandits, control part of The Zone…and then they go back to shooting us on sight. Brilliant result, I don’t think.’

‘Whatever goes on afterwards, goes on,’ Wolf said. ‘Better to maybe get killed by the dickheads in uniform than definitely get shot – or worse – by Bandits.’

A few grumbles among the Stalkers indicated some level of discontent, but grudging acceptance of the situation for now.

‘So, we come to step one, with the ultimate plan being to launch a joint offensive against the Dark Valley bandits, kill as many as we can, and drive them into northern and fringe areas. Obviously, if they head north, they still have us, the army, and the Monolith faction to worry about. A big effort down here could keep the Bandits down for good. A nuisance again, rather than a serious threat.
‘As you’ll know, we’ve had a persistent problem at the Autopark since the Military moved its outpost from there to the bridge. Again, it was a manpower issue. Autopark took up to a dozen soldiers to defend and monitor the main road at any one time. The railway bridge takes six on a rotating twelve-hour pattern. Basically, they get away with using half the soldiers for what they thought was the same job – monitor the road north. Freedom was in Dark Valley at that time, so that was considered to be safe enough. Cuts also meant the outpost at the entrance to Garbage was abandoned, but again this wasn’t a problem: we Loners were considered an adequate buffer and the Military made a manpower saving…which meant the Government could make a cash saving to invest elsewhere, or redeploy the troops to strengthen the perimeter.
‘For those not around then, Freedom moved out of Dark Valley and became established in the Army Warehouses north of Rostok. Bandits moved in. From there, they could raid west into Garbage, set up their own outposts – those of you unfortunate enough to have passed too close will know where they are – and come south to take the gatehouse. They could also raid Cordon from Dark Valley or send forces down through the upper part of Cordon, to raid the Military checkpoint. In any case, since Freedom and the Military moved out, Bandits have moved in. Repeated raids have had no effect. We take ground, and we lose it again because we just don’t have the strength to defend rookie camp, Autopark, the farm north of the bridge, and the farmstead in Dark Valley and mount independent large-scale offensives. We have people in Rostok, but they either have no interest in what’s down here or can’t get past the Bandits, and the people we have in Garbage are…”occupied” with the Bandit threat up there.
‘In short, by leaving Autopark and the gatehouse alone except for occasional and isolated three- and four-man raids, we allow the Bandits to do as they please. Because of that, they’ve taken to attacking the Scrapyard and Rail Depot at will and we need those areas for our own purposes. We can’t let them fall. Sending Stalkers as defenders has proved to be a waste of resources. We need to do the big job, and for that we need help, hence the deals.
‘Our task for this mission, then, is to attack and take the Autopark. We know there are six to ten Bandits there. Our intention is to take out as many as we can – especially the lookouts – with sniper fire whilst the main body makes a fast assault. Once the Autopark is secure, the force will be split for the assault on the gatehouse. The Stalkers currently guarding the farm north of the rail bridge will join us once we’re past the outpost. Success on this second part of the mission will then allow a combined relief force to move south and help defend these key areas. It goes without saying that some of you will be expected to leave rookie camp to permanently operate at another location, and you’ll only be permitted to go elsewhere once a replacement has been arranged. I know it’s not the way you’re used to doing things, but until we can push the Bandits out of their compound, it’s what we’re all stuck with. Assignments for the first stage and the comms frequency to be used will now be given.
‘The attack will begin at 08:30 hours. You know the Bandits; they’ll still be tucked up in their sleeping bags, most likely.’ There was a chuckle, and Wolf smiled as he pointed to the masked Veteran on his left and the sole woman in the room. ‘Olga and Syova, you will take positions on the hill overlooking the eastern end of the park. Your targets are the men sitting by the fire.’

Both Stalkers nodded.

‘Vasya, Snorkbait. You are the other snipers. Vasya, take a position roughly south-east of the bus stop. Your target will be the lookout, or lookouts, at the arch. Snorkbait, you are to take a position north of the bus stop. Your primary target will be on the first-floor roof, guarding the gatehouse and entrance to the western structure. Your secondary objective is to cover Vasya’s targets and make sure they get taken out. Clear?’

Vasya nodded, but I had some misgivings.

‘Wolf, are you sure I’m the right one for the job?’

Heads turned in my direction.

‘You can shoot, can’t you? Aren’t you British Special Forces types all highly trained? Or do you have something you need to tell us?’

‘No. I can shoot. But you saw the state of my L.85 and I’ve not had chance to sight it in yet. Someone else ought to be the sniper. I’ll go in as part of the assault team.’

‘With no armour? Not even a leather jacket?’ Wolf shook his head. ‘You need to be a sniper. Besides, you’re one of the few with a scoped weapon. Vasya, I know, won’t need one anyway. It’s likely others wouldn’t either, but if you’ve got a scope, you’re a sniper for the purposes of this mission.’ He turned away, and the other Stalkers’ attention followed. ‘Vasya aside – who will maintain overwatch – once your targets are down, you snipers are to come in as secondary assault. It should be all over by then, but…’

‘I still think –’ I started.

‘Enough,’ Wolf said, firmly. ‘You’re a sniper and you’ve been given your assignment. Clear?’ He glared across at me.

‘Clear,’ I sighed, knowing the factor for a potential fuck-up had just multiplied dramatically. But knowing something and being able to do anything about it are always two different things, and this was one I’d have to let play out.

‘Right,’ Wolf said. ‘Assault teams. Assault Team One is callsign Hammer and consists of myself, Andriy Pickpocket – who replaces Petya Runner – Oleg, Sergiy, and Maks. Assault Team Two is callsign Anvil, and consists of Snapper, Andriy Shortarse, Alexey, Roman, and Vadik. Codename for sniper team,’ Wolf looked directly at me, ‘is Runner. Syova is One; Olga, Two; Vasya, Three; Snorkbait, Four.
‘All teams will enter dead ground this side of the road bridge except for Snorkbait and Vasya.’ He turned to us. ‘You two will continue over the bridge and head towards the granary. Once out of sight, you will run back across the road using the bus stop as cover and proceed to positions. Clear?’ We nodded, and he faced the group once again. ‘When they signal their arrival, the main groups will then proceed under the bridge and into the defile near the hill. Olga and Syova will break to their positions from there, radioing when they are in position.
‘Assault teams will proceed along the defile before splitting and crawling to within sixty metres of the Autopark. On my command, the snipers will take out their targets and the rest of us will charge. Team Hammer will enter the courtyard via the gateway and take out resistance in the western range and garages. Team Anvil will enter the eastern range via the broken fencing. The timing of the raid isn’t ideal, I know, but according to Sidorovich’s intel, we can’t delay any longer.
‘Remember: Once we have secured the Autopark, I will split the force in half. One group will defend the Autopark from any counter-attack while I will lead the attack against the Garbage gatehouse. Our people on the Dark Valley farm have been told to be on maximum alert and engage any Bandits attempting to pass. This means the defenders in this part of Cordon should have a quiet enough time until relieved. Questions?’

No one raised a hand or spoke out.

‘Right. The frequency we’ll be using for the comms net is being downloaded…now,’ he said, tapping his own PDA a couple of times. Several electronic cheeps and chirrups sounded almost simultaneously, causing a few chuckles. Even Wolf grinned, and I had to admire the man again. He had gauged the reaction to perfection. The heavy tension that had built almost to a crescendo was broken. Now his job was to not give people time to start thinking again.

‘Okay. Synchronize watches. The time is now…zero seven four five on my mark.’ We waited for several seconds, intent on our PDA timers and watches. The moment was tense, expectant, but also eager, without the heavy beat of fear and self-doubt.

‘Mark,’ Wolf said, and there was an audible sigh as the time index was logged. ‘Okay people. Let’s move.’
  02:08:38  1 October 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XI (i)

Shorter than originally intended. I just wanted to get the thread back on track again. Part XI (ii) will appear in a day or so, depending on what I can get done.

*****

‘Hey!’ the guard said in greeting as we cut from the road and emerged from the trees. His warm smile faded as he realized we were alone. ‘Where’s Petya?’

I walked by. From behind me, Andriy muttered something in Ukrainian. The guard spat something in response. I could feel the weight of their stares on my back and it was all I could do to stop myself from hunching over and skulking away.

It was just after seven, and the camp was filled with a melange of smells as the Stalkers began another day in The Zone. There seemed to be more people in camp than previously. Yesterday, there had seemed to be about a dozen. Today the number looked to be nearer twenty. I neither knew where they had come from nor cared, but it was obvious why they were here. The mission.

I drew the PDA from my pocket and called up the contacts list. Eighteen contacts: seventeen Stalkers and Sidorovich down in his bunker. Of those that I knew to be newcomers, three were classified as Experienced and two were Veterans. Serious power behind the rookies’ relatively lightweight punch.

Curious glances were being cast my way as I got closer to the centre of camp. By the fireside, someone was playing an acoustic version of Bohemian Rhapsody while others ate their breakfasts, prepared weapons and equipment, or sat staring into the fire’s glowing embers. They all held a tension that was immediately familiar. This was a group anticipating battle, wondering what was ahead, steeling themselves for the moment when Death would hover close and ask them to choose: Him, or you?

‘Where’s Wolf?’ I asked the patrolling sentry.

‘Down there,’ he said, pointing to the larger of the shelters, the one where I’d slept the night before. ‘Planning the operation. He’s not alone.’

‘That’s okay. What I have to say isn’t a secret.’

The sentry grunted and went on his way. From behind me, I heard another quick exchange in Ukrainian, another grunt from the sentry, felt the weight of another unfriendly stare between my shoulder-blades.

I descended the concrete steps into the shelter.

‘I said no one is to –’ Wolf began, turning, then saw who it was. ‘Snorkbait! You’re back earlier than I expected. That’s great, man! Is Petya with you?’

I stared back at him, watching as realization dawned. Andriy stumbled down the steps behind me, and I moved aside to let him enter.

‘Okay. What happened?’ Wolf said. The two Stalkers, clad in expensive-looking armour, faces hidden behind masks and good-quality weapons slung over their shoulders, looked on, silent but interested.

‘We found him,’ Andriy said. ‘He’s dead.’

Wolf’s eyes flicked between us, settling on me.

‘Military?’ he asked.

‘No. At least, not from what I saw,’ I replied. ‘The Zone took him.’

The masked Stalkers mumbled between themselves.

‘Anomaly? Animal attack? What? Tell me!’ Wolf snapped.

‘Well –’

‘A fucking cat had him, Wolf,’ Andriy spat. ‘It dragged him out of some bushes and ripped his fucking arm off –’

‘We don’t know for sure that it was him,’ I said, weakly. ‘It’s just –’

‘Where?’ Wolf cut in.

‘This side of the road bridge, other side of the road. Snorkbait was looking there while I checked the other side. He called me over.’

‘You killed the cat?’

I shook my head.

‘I wanted to, Wolf. Snorkbait said not to. According to him, the cats belong here. We don’t.’

There was more muttering between the masked men, angrier now, and they suddenly showed more interest in me than they had previously.

Wolf glared at me. ‘Explain,’ he said, holding out a hand to quiet Andriy. ‘Let Snorkbait speak for himself.’

I glanced around the room. Not a trace of friendliness remained. Caution, anger, even hatred…yes. But nothing else. Whatever else happened between now and the end of the mission I had to be part of, I would not be staying with these people. That much was clear.

‘The cat was a mother,’ I said. ‘She had kittens. It was their movement that attracted my attention.’

‘So?’ Wolf said, glancing at Andriy, who shrugged as if to say I know.

‘So the kittens needed their mother. They deserve a chance at life.’

‘So they can kill more of us? Eat us?’

I met his stare evenly. ‘That’s what I meant when I told Andriy that they belonged here and we didn’t. Wolf, we entered here of our own accord. Whatever else these cats are and what they might do, they belong here. They wouldn’t exist anywhere except in this place.’

‘Neither would I,’ one of the masked men said. ‘But that doesn’t mean I’ll be spared, by human, animal or anomaly alike.’

‘You misunderstand me,’ I said. ‘I have no problem killing a man. I’d have had no problem in killing that cat. But the kittens are innocent. It’d be like shooting human kids because the father’s a violent alcoholic. It’s not their fault. They can’t be blamed.’

‘Even though these animals will grow up – and quickly – to do the same as their mother?’

‘Do we kill kids in case they also become violent alcoholics or drug-takers, if their parents are?’

‘It’s not the same.’

‘To me, it is,’ I shrugged. ‘I’ll kill when necessary, but I won’t kill for no reason.’

‘That thing had killed Petya!’ Andriy bellowed.

‘Maybe,’ I said, quietly. ‘Or maybe the soldiers did shoot him, or maybe he stumbled through an anomaly and the cat scavenged his body. In any case, killing the cat won’t bring Petya back, and killing the kittens means you’ve taken several lives in exchange for one.’

‘They’re animals,’ Andriy growled.

‘So are we,’ I replied. ‘Or have you forgotten we’re getting ready to prey on fellow men?’

Wolf sighed and leaned on the table. ‘Enough. It’s most likely that the body was Petya’s. He’d have come back if he could. So he’s dead, and Snorkbait is partially right – even if we killed every cat in The Zone, it wouldn’t bring Petya back.’ He straightened. ‘Andriy, share the info on Petya’s PDA with everyone except Snorkbait and wipe it, then take his jacket and gear down to Sidorovich. On the way back here, tell the others we’re ready to start.’

‘Right,’ Andriy said, and rushed out of the room.

‘Snorkbait,’ Wolf said. ‘I can’t say I agree with your choices, but at least you kept your word. You said you’d find Petya, and you did. Thank you for that.’

I nodded.

‘But you should know that Petya was a popular man around here. Reliable. Feelings are likely to run high. Be prepared. And when we’re done here, it might be wise if you didn’t come back, at least for a while. I can’t be responsible for your safety if you do. If I didn’t need you for this mission, especially now that Petya's gone…’

‘I get it, Wolf,’ I murmured.

‘I’m glad you do,’ he said. ‘I’m very glad you do.’
  03:18:29  27 September 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part X - Petya

Although we were later setting out than I had intended to be, the dawn was still pushing back the bruise-purple night with pinkish fingers when we left the camp, exiting at the eastern end and making our way south, around the perimeter of the village, to climb the ridge overlooking the valley between the rookies and the military checkpoint. I glanced back, trying to see where Vasya might have been when he radioed back about yesterday’s patrol. The only points in the village that allowed a clear view were either up trees or in amongst the broken brickwork of the burned-down house’s chimney stack.

Andriy drew a pair of field glasses from his pocket and began scanning the area, while I raised the L.85’s SUSAT scope to my eye. It was only four-times magnification, and therefore no match for Andriy’s binos, but it was better than nothing. Without it, I might as well have stayed back in camp; searching with the naked eye would have taken all day – if not longer. This search, as the cliché had it, would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, in a field full of haystacks.

‘Not down there,’ Andriy said, too quickly.

I swept the SUSAT back and forth in long, even sweeps, drawing closer to our position each time. If anything had been out there, I would have seen it. If anything had moved, I would have noticed. It’s why you make methodical sweeps, and I had hoped Andriy knew enough to use his glasses in the same way, rather than just pop everywhere at random. Going ‘tree, bush, wall, tree, boulder’ was all well and good, but it was all the obvious places. I was treating Petya like an enemy sniper: the little bastard was trying to get close in to optimize his shot. I had to spot him. And you do that by looking everywhere, not just in the ‘obvious’ places that half-decent people would know to avoid simply because they are obvious places to be. Petya knew The Zone, particularly this area. Petya knew the soldiers would shoot him on sight. He would avoid the places Andriy was most likely to look.

I finished my sweep once I got to within about twenty metres of where we knelt. The naked eye would be perfectly able to spot a hand or foot in the grass at that range.

‘No, he’s not,’ I said. ‘But don’t rush your sweep next time.’

‘Wolf wants us back by seven-thirty,’ Andriy replied, sounding affronted.

‘Yeah, but he also wants us to find Petya, preferably alive. We won’t do that if you only have a quick look. You need to scan, like I was.’

‘That way takes too long!’

‘No, it takes longer to do, but it might mean we find him quicker.’

Andriy looked at me, sceptically. ‘Might.’

‘Yes. Might. It’s not certain. But then, it’s not certain we’ll find him at all, is it? Using your logic, why would Wolf even let us come out here?’

He looked at me unhappily, still not convinced.

‘Anyway, come on, enough pissing about,’ I said. ‘Where next?’

He led me back past the camp, taking care to avoid the metalled road until it plateaued at the top of the rise to the north-east of the camp.

‘Look,’ he said, turning around. ‘See how we’re screened here from the lookout posts? And patrols can’t see us.’

I looked back. He was right. Trees and bushes cut out the view of the military checkpoint, and while I could see three guys patrolling down in the valley, silhouetted against the road and buildings, from their perspective we would be practically invisible, given the way the light shifted as the trees swayed and the disadvantage they would have of looking uphill. All they’d see is our heads – provided they could make them out against the backdrop.

We turned north, heading along the road.

‘It’s how we normally manage to come and go,’ Andriy said. ‘The mils won’t chase us, this far out, but they could radio ahead to the bridge outpost and get them to set up a surprise.’

‘What if they do go zero-tolerance?’

‘Then we’re fucked anyway,’ he shrugged. ‘But they won’t. Borisov was talking shit.’

‘How do you know?’

He sniffed loudly, hawked, and spat phlegm into the grass. ‘Did you see their kit on the way in?’

I nodded. ‘I saw the APC down there.’

‘Yeah. They used to use it to ferry guys to and from the bridge outpost. Before that, they’d run them to the autopark, where they were based once upon a time.’

‘They don’t do that now?’

He shook his head. ‘Not enough fuel. And did you see how old it was? One of the old BTR-70s. They could have the new BTR-94s and all the fuel they need, but…’

‘You make it sound like policing The Zone is low priority,’ I said.

‘Well…it’s not top of their agenda, even if it should be,’ he replied. ‘My opinion is, Ukraine’s government is holding back the best men and equipment in case someone decides to take advantage. The Russians would love to claim the country back.’

‘The rest of world wouldn’t stand for that. Look what could have happened over that Georgian incident a few years back. Could have turned very nasty, but didn’t in the end.’ I thought for a while. ‘Most likely, they’re keeping the best in reserve in case it’s really needed here.’

‘Here? Nah.’

‘Well, think about it. There was a lot of men and materiel lost here when The Zone expanded, right? Why would you risk your best soldiers and kit when you can hold them back, just in case? If you have to lose stuff, lose the old crap and low-value soldiers – the conscripts, the punishment battalions, people like that. They’re cannon fodder. You hold the elite troops and best equipment back so you can send them in if or when you have to. This lot soften us up, maybe aided by surgical Special Forces strikes on key points, and then in come the elite regular troops to finish us all off and join the dots.’

We came to a bridge. Whatever had once been beneath it – and I guessed it had been another road, since there was a van listing to one side down there, its springs slowly sinking into the mud – there was now only grass. Large bushes had grown up around the tunnel entrances. On the south side, what looked like a portakabin stood next to large concrete slabs and pipes. Evidently, these materials had been there for a while, as small tufts of grass had begun to grow from the cracks where they had been stacked and the steel bindings had become pitted with rust. One had corroded all the way through and the two ends lay sprung, pinned in place by the weight of the slabs and bobbing gently in the breeze.

‘I’ll check this side of the road,’ he said. ‘You check the other. You may need to go farther out, so be careful of dogs. Oh, and boar. They’re both pretty common around here.’

I nodded and headed towards my area, stopping to watch as he scrambled on top of the portakabin.

Away to the east, the terrain was relatively gentle. The ground rolled away for a few hundred metres before climbing steeply to what was almost a cliff. Looking through the scope, I saw a barbed wire fence and, halfway up the face, something that looked rather like water that a stone had been dropped into. Ripples radiated out from the centre – or was it rippling inward? I blinked several times and looked again. I still couldn’t tell. My eye insisted it was first one, then the other, then both at the same time. I lowered the scope and shook my head. Whatever it was – though there was no doubt that it was an anomaly of some sort – the effect had been hypnotic. I wondered how many of the early Stalkers had stared at such a thing for a little too long, allowing their sense of wonder to tempt them closer, closer.

Snorkbait. Nothing here. Anything your way? Over,’ Andriy’s voice said via my PDA. I raised the device to my mouth.

‘Andriy Pickpocket. Not yet. Out.’

The road I was standing on was the most elevated point in this area, yet it wasn’t high enough to defeat all of the terrain: there were dips and hollows that might be deep enough to hide a man. I needed to get higher.

I looked around for a decent tree and, finding the likeliest candidate for a quick, easy climb some thirty metres away, began to make my way towards it. That it also stood on some high ground made it doubly ideal.

I moved carefully, searching the area, checking the ground just ahead, looking for sign – any sign – and had almost reached the tree when, somewhere off to my right, the branches of a large, dense bush suddenly rattled and became still again. I froze, watching and listening, turning from the waist to describe a slow half-circle with the L.85 into the shoulder, almost willing a target to appear. I could hear no breathing, no padding footfalls…but something had disturbed that bush.

‘Petya?’ I said, softly. ‘Petya Runner, is that you?’

Another soft rustle, but no actual reply. I checked the weapon was in semi-automatic mode and thumbed the safety to the ‘off’ position.

‘If it’s you, speak. If you can understand but can’t speak, come out where I can see you.’

Nothing at all.

Keeping the weapon trained on the suspect bush, I raised the PDA again.

‘Andriy Pickpocket. I might have a problem here. Come now. Over.’

Snorkbait. Understood. On my way. Out.’

As Andriy’s voice crackled over the radio link, another noise – soft, somehow familiar – reached my ears. I cocked my head, trying to listen, but the sound was not repeated. The bush rustled briefly again. I tried to call that sound back from my memory, trying to filter everything else out so I could identify what I had heard. It had sounded…I thought it had sounded like a kittenish mew. I already knew there were cats here; wild, presumably mutated by now, but basically descended from domestic pets. Not so bad – if it was a cat.

I glanced over my shoulder as running footfalls sounded behind me, slowing when Andriy saw I wasn’t in imminent danger.

‘What’s up?’ he said, keeping his voice low. The bushes quivered again.

‘That,’ I said.

‘Petya?’

‘Don’t think so. I thought I heard something mew.’

Andriy stiffened. ‘Thought, or did?’

‘I couldn’t be sure,’ I said, not understanding why he had become so tense. ‘Stay here, cover me. I’ll go and check it out.’

‘Let me go. If it’s critters…’ He broke off, raising hit shotgun.

‘If it’s anything, come to that,’ I said, and he grinned, heading for the bushes while I turned and watched our rear. I turned back just as Andriy reached the bushes, taking a step to my right.

My foot skidded on something, almost causing me to lose balance. The ripe, rank stink of ammoniac shit rose up.

‘Cat shit,’ I said.

‘Oh fuck. It is kittens,’ Andriy said in the same moment. I was about to ask what his problem was when, as if on cue, a feline face appeared through some nearby shrubs, greenish eyes alert and curious. The large head was followed by an outsized body. The cat glared directly at me, then turned its eyes to Andriy and the kittens. The head lowered.

‘Andriy, back off,’ I said, shocked, but he’d seen the mother cat. She turned, starting to crouch. A growl issued from her throat and I realised that I had heard one of these creatures the other night. What I had thought sounded like a ‘proper’ big cat with its throat half kicked in really had been a cat like this one; mutated, almost as large as a Labrador dog, and covered with patchy, matted fur.

Andriy raised his shotgun, ready to fire.

‘Don’t,’ I said. ‘Not unless you have to. Just keep backing away. Slowly.’

We both backed away and the mother crawled forward, almost on her belly, stalking the Stalkers and growling far back in her throat.

‘Let me shoot it,’ Andriy said, eyes and twin-bores fixed on the big animal’s head.

‘Kill her and you have to kill the kittens,’ I said.

‘We should, anyway. They’ll only grow to be a danger and feel the need to spread.’

‘There’s room in The Zone for them, if nature wants them to survive. They belong here. We don’t.’

Andriy muttered something I couldn’t understand. I didn’t need to speak Ukrainian to know it wasn’t complimentary.

We backed off, allowing the mother to inspect her offspring, and continued backing towards the road, weapons ready. She halted near them, sniffing, then approaching for a closer look, her eyes never leaving us. It was clear that she was torn between her duty as a mother, and her nature as a predator.

‘Why is she not attacking?’ Andriy said.

‘I think it’s mostly because she doesn’t need to,’ I replied. ‘And that probably means she’s not hungry.’

‘Aah, shit. You don’t think –’

‘I don’t know what to think, and neither do you. We’ll watch her from the road. Right?’

‘Okay.’

We walked a little way along the road, turning back to watch what the cat did once she’d decided it really was safe to leave her litter. Through the SUSAT, I watched as she went back through the bushes and began dragging something closer to her nursing site.

‘I knew it. I fucking knew it!’ Andriy blurted, watching through his glasses.

‘Can you see? Is it him?’

‘Don’t know,’ he said. ‘It’s got to be about his size, though.’

I watched as the cat patiently worked her way back to the kittens, dragging breakfast along as best she could. She stopped and began twisting her head powerfully back and forth, growling, digging down with her paws.

‘Aw, Christ…’ Andriy groaned.

We heard the flesh rip and the joint pop out of its socket. Andriy turned away, one hand to his mouth as he fought the urge to puke. The cat’s head came up, the prize firmly held in its mouth. Blood dripped from the stump of a human arm.

‘Oh, shit,’ I whispered. ‘I think she’s…’

He looked up at me, knowledge in his eyes. I didn’t need to say any more.

‘He must have been on his way back to camp,’ he said. ‘He must have…’ He broke off, his voice wavering.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

Andriy gave a wavery sigh. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘It’s not like I knew him that well, really. It’s just…’ He glared over at the feeding cat. ‘That’s no way to die, man. No way at all.’

‘Did he like The Zone?’ I asked.

He looked at me, surprised. ‘Petya? Yeah, he fucking loved the place. We used to rib him about it, say he’d be running off to join the tree-huggers first chance he got. But he wasn’t into the whole ecology thing, you know? He didn’t give a toss about what was happening and why. He just liked it here. Said it gave him peace.’

I nodded. ‘And now one of The Zone’s creatures has taken him. I agree; he deserved a less painful death – assuming it was the cat that did it – but…’

‘You’re trying to say it’s what he would have wanted,’ Andriy said, smiling sardonically. ‘Maybe. What I want is to blow that cat’s fucking head off.’

I glanced over. The cat was lying near her prize, not feeding herself but allowing her growing kittens the chance to taste meat.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Let’s get back and report to Wolf. This is something I don’t want to tell him over the PDA.’

‘We’re not sure it’s him,’ Andriy argued, but his tone showed it was a token gesture. ‘We don’t know he was killed near here.’

I raised my eyebrows and cradled my weapon, showing I was ready to move out in whichever direction he chose.

He turned south, and we walked back to the rookie village.
  14:38:04  23 September 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

I was in one of the shelters, sitting on an old mattress with my L.85 before me and stripped down for cleaning, when Wolf came down the concrete stairs.

‘Hey, Snorkbait,’ he said. He was carrying a bundle of stuff in his arms and seemed preoccupied. ‘How’s it going?’

‘Slowly. I don’t think this rifle’s seen maintenance since it left the factory. It’s in even worse state than I thought.’

‘That’s Sidorovich for you,’ he said, but seemed to be hovering there, waiting for something, wondering if he should speak or not.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

He sighed. ‘It’s Petya. He’s not back yet.’

I stopped clearing the rust from the barrel of the weapon and blew in one end. A cloud of oxidized dust appeared from the muzzle, but I could still see tell-tale stains when I held it up to the light. I began to wonder if the rifle would ever be serviceable again.

‘And you want me to go and look?’ I said.

He looked at me for a long moment. ‘Not now,’ he said. ‘It’s getting dark. If he’s alive out there, he knows what to do.’

I checked my watch, alarmed at having lost so much time. After the exertion of the previous night and the excitement of this morning, I’d finally got some water back into my system, eaten (thanks to Wolf giving me a can of what turned out to be minestrone soup), and had then taken what I had thought was a quick nap. I’d started cleaning the L.85 upon waking. That had been at four in the afternoon. It was now almost nine.

‘Tomorrow, then,’ I said. ‘As soon as it’s light enough to see.’

‘You think you can manage alone?’ Wolf said, surprised.

‘No. I’ll take Andriy. He’ll know the best places for Petya to hole up.’ I hesitated. ‘Tell me something though: why’s Andriy called Pickpocket.’

‘That’s something you’ll have to ask him,’ he said, and turned away to drop the kit onto a nearby cot. When he turned back to me, he was holding a PDA. ‘This is for you,’ he said, tossing the device to me. ‘I keyed it for Russian. Andriy told me you looked a bit lost earlier. Said you hadn’t understood a word from the speakers down at the base, so he guessed you don’t know Ukrainian.’

‘Good guess.’

‘Well, as I said, that’s keyed for Russian. Any reports or info you download in Ukrainian can be translated easily enough. By the way, as far as the system is concerned, you are now officially Snorkbait, rookie Loner. I hope you’re happy with that.’

‘It’ll do.’

‘How did you come to be called Snorkbait, anyway?’

‘It was given to me by…someone pretty special,’ I said, smiling.

Wolf nodded, thinking he understood. ‘I miss my wife, too.’

‘Oh…it wasn’t my wife. Actually, I’m not married. Used to be, though.’

‘Divorced?’

‘Happens when they fuck off with someone else.’

‘Right,’ Wolf said. ‘Sorry to hear that. Oh, before I forget: I’m also trying to get you a Geiger counter and anomaly detector.’

‘Thanks.’ I looked the PDA over. ‘How does this thing work?’

‘How exactly? I have no idea. It’s all things to all men. Why it works like it does…ask me another.’

‘How can you not know how it works?’

He puffed out his cheeks. ‘You know how to drive, right?’

I nodded.

‘Do you know how to fix everything that might go wrong with every system of the car? Can you explain exactly how everything works and why?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Well this is the same. For example, I know that the PDA detects other PDAs within a certain radius – about fifty metres or so. I also know that, for some reason, you have to establish line-of sight before those PDAs will give you the location of the other. However, as you’ll probably find out, when someone is dead, the PDA can tell exactly where they are all the time.’

‘How the hell does that work?’

He shrugged. ‘As I said, I have no idea. Perhaps a stiff’s PDA gives off a signal of some sort. I don’t know, though, as the PDA can’t tell whether you’re alive or dead – at least, it can’t as far as I know. Most of them are retrofitted, other devices that have arrived here and found a new purpose.’

‘Line of sight is needed when you’re alive, but not when you’re dead. I don’t get it,’ I said.

‘Me, either. But it is what it is. Maybe there is a gadget in there that detects heartbeats, or something.’ He shrugged. ‘As for the other functions…you’re already familiar with cellular phones, I take it?’

I nodded. Was there anyone left on Earth who wasn’t? Even telephobics seemed to have one, these days, because they weren’t just telephones anymore – and hadn’t been for a long time. For the past five years even the basic models had been able to access the internet, video newsfeeds, and permit text and voice messaging to one or more recipients…and that was without the navigation aids and all the other whistles and bells that could be added.

‘Right,’ Wolf was saying. ‘You still have a contacts list, and it operates in the same way. For example, that Lieutenant was unknown to me before today –’

‘Really? I had the impression he knew you.’

‘Yes, well. Everybody knows me, or so it sometimes seems. In any case, I hadn’t met him before. Let the bastard think he is my friend, just because he knows my name. Anyway, Nimble detected Borisov’s PDA and forwarded his code – not number, you understand. It’s not exactly like the telephone system. You don’t dial. If you have a contact code, say the name and the system does the rest. It’s how I was able to send him a message.’

I nodded. It was all as clear as mud, but if I followed principles rather than logic…

‘So, say the name into the receiver, and it connects almost instantaneously – or at least it buffers what comes next until the connection is made. I’m not sure on that, exactly.’

‘Okay,’ I said.

‘You can also send text messages,’ he explained. ‘We normally set the device to vibrate, because the last thing you need is sudden noise when you’re out there. So, if I was to get wind of something – a raid, say, or an invasion of bloodsuckers – I could warn you via text, rather than voice message. But there’s also a radio net, so if you’re in a group, you can use the same frequency and have open comms, rather than keep opening links to all. Then there’s the emergency bandwidths. The PDAs will always cut in with emergency messages. Most of us wear an earpiece, just in case.’

‘Right.’ This was getting a bit confusing. I hoped it’d become clearer as I went along. ‘But what about the electronic noises I heard earlier?’

‘Ah, that was the PDA detecting new ones in the area. Again, you can turn the sound down, off, or wear an earpiece. The anomaly detector will also beep when you’re in the area of an anomaly, and the Geiger counter…well, I’m sure you know what they do.’

‘Yeah, I’ve used them before,’ I said.

‘PDAs can also be used to download information from other PDAs, but the information has to be sent to you. What that means is, you can download data from a corpse’s PDA because you have physical access to that PDA and can tell it to upload to you, but you can’t walk into a bar and pinch information from everyone else’s PDA. They have to agree to share their information.’

‘So, everybody has these?’

Wolf nodded. ‘Even soldiers and bandits, despite the military having their own secure radio net. Carrying a PDA is as good as law in The Zone. An unwritten one, perhaps, but if you are spotted and you don’t have one, you’ll be shot out of hand. I mean, with a PDA, as a Loner, all you have to worry about is Military, Bandits, sometimes Mercs and zombiefied Stalkers, as well as mutants and anomalies. Oh, and Monolith, of course.’

‘Of course,’ I echoed, thinking that the list sounded long enough.

‘However, if I were to let you go out into The Zone without a PDA, as Sidorovich wanted, you’d have Loners, Bandits, Mercs, Duty, Freedom, Monolith, Military, Ecologists, and anyone else that is still human after your blood. If there were any gunship patrols and they came low enough to check you out – as they sometimes do, just for jollies and to see you break and run – without a PDA they’d turn the chain guns on you. Basically, you’d be dead before you left here. You’d just be waiting for the catch-up.’

‘Which is why you’re so worried about Petya.’ I said.

Wolf nodded, slowly. ‘Petya’s fast. He was a bit of a track star, back in the day. It’s why we call him Runner. He also knows this part of The
Zone; where to lie up, where to hide, places to avoid. If anyone could have gotten away from those trigger-happy assholes, it’s him. However…’

He broke off. The rest of the message stayed in his eyes. The odds were against Petya, they said. It’s your fault he’s out there at all, they said.

‘Okay. Tomorrow, first light, we go and look for him.’

Wolf nodded and headed for the stairs. ‘If you can’t sort that L.85 out in time, I’ll let you take my AK – it’s a 74 – and get someone to clean that for you. There’s still that job we need you to do, after all, and it won’t wait forever. I’ve stalled Sidorovich all I can as it is.’

‘But, Wolf, I’ve never used a 74,’ I said, but Wolf was already up the stairs and gone. ‘I wouldn’t even know how to load the fucking thing.’

I closed my eyes, thinking of the risks of combat multiplied by the factor of being under-equipped and using an unfamiliar weapon. I exhaled, loudly, eyeing the L.85. Even if I could get it into some sort of shape, I wouldn’t have time to get it zeroed. I’d be firing blind, if I fired at all. I could aim for a head fifty metres away and end up shooting a rabbit at five times that distance. Even centre of body mass shots wouldn’t be certainties.

‘I might well be fucked,’ I muttered, and redoubled my efforts to get the L.85 something approaching clean enough for use.

*

My watch alarm woke me just before first light. I’d managed about three hours’ sleep and I was stiff and sore from sleeping on the bare concrete floor. All the cots and mattresses were filled with snoring, farting, grumbling Stalkers, the weapons and kit lying around on the floor beside them.

Stretching, I tried to work some of the aching stiffness from my legs and shoulders before sitting up and pulling my jumper back over my head, its stint as a makeshift blanket done – at least for tonight. The lamps had been turned all the way down to allow people to sleep, which made it difficult to creep out of the shelter and up the stairs without disturbing anyone. One guy turned in his sleep and groaned, grabbing at my leg as I passed.

‘Um ba’ bed, Elena,’ he mumbled, but his hand dropped away and he began snoring again.

Up top, the fire had been allowed to burn down. I guessed that, in another couple of hours, most of the camp would be up and ready for a breakfast of barbecued sausage or toast. The only thing I really wanted was a shave and a cup of coffee, but I didn’t really have time for one and the other was sure to be in short supply here. In the end, I made do with filling my plastic bottle and holding my hands over the fire, repeatedly warming them so I could warm the bottle. One of the nightwatchmen gave me an odd look as he passed, but he’d have been in fits of laughter had I held the thin plastic container over the fire and caused it to melt.

I took a sip. It was warm enough.

‘Hey,’ I called softly as the sentry passed again. ‘Where does Andriy Pickpocket sleep?’

The sentry stopped. ‘Why? You after a piece of his ass or something?’

I smiled. ‘No, I’ll leave him for you. I’m just meant to be looking for Petya with him this morning.’

The sentry glared at me. His fingers flexed around the twin barrels of his sawn-off 12-gauge shotgun. I stared directly into his eyes, showing no fear, and took another sip of water.

‘I’ll tell him you’re waiting,’ he muttered, moving off.

‘Thanks, Stalker,’ I said.

Andriy was a slow riser, and killed time by familiarising myself with the PDA, having been unable to do so the night before. The L.85 was now, finally – hopefully – clean enough to use, and I had sighed with relief when the springs in the magazine proved to be in good order. It wasn’t a perfect job, but at least I wouldn’t have it exploding in my face now.

My PDA was very much like one of the very old Blackberrys; relatively chunky, compared to what came later, they were about five years old by now and quite out of date. I’d never owned one before, but the device proved surprisingly easy to use…and at least I was going to get some practice at thinking in Russian. In a sense, it was going to become my first language and I needed to be as comfortable with it as I was with English, rather than have to pay attention constantly to be sure I understood.

I opened the diary section and began typing in items I was going to need in a hurry: mess tins; food; Geiger counter and anomaly detector (unless supplied by Wolf); jacket; backpack/Bergen; sleeping bag; bedroll; new trousers; more spare socks; spare T-shirts and jumper; belt kit; webbing (if available); gas mask; blanket; clingfilm (or plastic bags); needle (small and large) and thread; combat knife; sidearm; boot knife; tertiary (ankle) firearm… Anything that came to mind, I keyed in. It was inevitable that I’d forget something only to realise it was obvious later on, but if I could make a start on that lot, I’d be okay. I even put them in priority order. Despite the warm water, I still felt cold and I was sore from my uncomfortable night on the hard concrete floor: bedding and a jacket went at the top of the list.

‘Morning,’ Andriy said, yawning between brushing his teeth with water and one finger.

‘Afternoon,’ I replied. ‘First light, I said.’ I looked around. ‘Much later and we’d have had the three amigos doing their morning rounds.’

‘Who?’ he frowned.

‘The army patrol that bounced me yesterday. We’ll need to make sure Petya didn’t wander off down towards the base, first.’

‘Why would he?’

‘Don’t ask me. It’s possible though, right?’

He thought about it for a while as he finished brushing. I looked with envy at his tin mug and added one to my list of Must Have items.

‘No,’ he finally said. ‘I guess we can go out onto the ridge and have a look with my binos, but he won’t be down there.’

Wolf came up the stairs and out of the other shelter, zipping up his jacket and nodding a greeting as he drew close to the fire.

‘What’re you two chatting about?’ he said. ‘I thought you were moving out at first light?’

‘We were,’ I replied. ‘Andriy had problems getting the mattress off his back.’

‘Hm. Well, I can give you until 07.30. If you’ve not found Petya by then, head back.’

‘Why? What’s going on, Wolf? Is it that big job?’

Wolf shook his head. ‘Not yet. And don’t worry: you’ll go when the time comes. This is just to…pave the way. You’ll both find out more later.’ He fished in his pocket. ‘By the way, Snorkbait, these are for you. One anomaly detector, one Geiger counter. That’s fifty roubles you owe me. Or a few bottles of vodka. I’m not choosy.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘How’s this detector work?’

Andriy spoke up. ‘Scientists came up with it. It measures the air density around you, the magnetic field, scans for certain emissions and isotopes…if you really wanted to know, you’d have to go to Yantar and ask the eggheads.’

‘Be careful if you go there, though,’ Wolf warned. ‘The scientists don’t mind sending you out on suicide missions. Not that they tell you how tricky it might be, or what your chances are: it’d prejudice the experiment. Some are milk runs. Others…well, you have no chance. Working for them is always high-risk.’

‘And there are things up there,’ Andriy added. ‘You die quick if you’re lucky.’

I looked between the two men, trying to see if they were pulling my leg. Their expressions were steady, their eyes earnest.

‘You’re not shitting me,’ I said.

‘We’re not shitting you,’ Wolf nodded. ‘Round here, you have dogs, cats, very occasional bloodsuckers –’

‘Bloodsuckers? You mean like vampires?’

‘Well…yes, and no. Yes, because they drink blood. No, because they aren’t human. Not anymore, anyway. Nor do they seem to need it to live; they seem to get by regardless. They just…take it.’

I glanced across at Andriy. He was staring into the fire, his face drawn and white. His fingers twisted and grasped at each other.

‘You’ve seen one?’ I asked.

He nodded. ‘Before I came here, I was…shit, you might as well know. I was a bandit. I got wounded when we tried to take the farm on the other side of the bridge. My own guys, those that were left, ran away and left me for dead. Fox found me, patched me up, sent me back here under guard for questioning. What were Borov’s plans, all that shit. I didn’t know – I was still new. No one told me anything.’ He shrugged. ‘These guys helped me heal. Wolf gave me food, water.’

‘We left him unguarded for a couple of nights. I expected him to run, maybe try to get a weapon on the way out,’ Wolf cut in.

‘But I didn’t,’ Andriy said. ‘I wanted to stay. Those bastards had left me to die. They didn’t care. Fox and Wolf saved me, showed me kindness. Yes, they had something to gain, or thought they did. But if I’d been worthless to Borov, he would have killed me. I expected the same here. Instead, they let me live and settle here. This became my home. They became my friends. Family, almost.’

I nodded, understanding now why he was so eager to be involved in the ‘big job’. I also understood what that job was going to be: a large-scale raid against a bandit stronghold, an effort to drive them out, or at least put the squeeze on. No doubt I’d learn more of the reasons for it later, though if Sidorovich was involved, it was bound to involve either trade routes, access to rare artefacts, or profit. Probably, it would involve all three.

‘Anyway, the bloodsucker,’ Andriy continued. ‘I’d been in The Zone about a week, at the compound in Dark Valley. I hadn’t been out on a mission yet and felt full of myself. There was nothing this place could throw at me that I couldn’t handle. You know the sort of thing. Perhaps
you’ve felt it yourself.’

I nodded, but as far as I could remember, all I’d felt so far was desperation to save DevChick and a sense of having fallen through the looking glass. The world of airports and hotel rooms, cars and cities and shops, all seemed like the dreams of a madman. And I’d only been in The Zone for just over a day. No wonder a lot of people entered with the intention of going back, but never did. No wonder that the ex-Stalkers on the internet had seemed almost like a brotherhood, a group who could never stop talking about The Zone and what they had seen in it, even though they swore they’d never go back. And even then, while I had been on the outside looking in, one or two would disappear, others would make emotional posts saying how they felt lost and useless and in despair, and even those who advised against entering (or re-entering) The Zone seemed to do so half-heartedly, as though they, too, missed life on this side of the fence. They reminded me of guys I had known in the army, guys who had wanted to get out, had got out…and had then realized that life on the outside just couldn’t compare. They loved the army, they hated the army. The loved the life, but despised it, too. Some turned to drink. Others became mercenaries, loving it for what it was, hating it – and themselves – for what it meant.

And was I any different? Civilian life had been confusing, hard, unstructured. People could say what they wanted to you, treat you like shit, but without knowing what they were talking about. Men in bars who thought they could fight…and you weren’t allowed to break their arms, or do the world a real favour and snap their necks. Of course, none of this was allowed in the army, either, but it was hard to think that there would never again be an enemy – a proper, physical enemy – that you could treat as an enemy. In the civilian world, your enemies still had to be treated as if they had a right to speak to you that way, threaten you, hit you. The law would deal with it; it was no longer your place. For someone trained to be self-reliant, to kill enemies, to deal with problems yourself, the constraints soon began to weight heavy.

But the difference I had felt was all of that, and none of it. It wasn’t that I felt an urge to kill or injure. It wasn’t that I had ever thought ‘Ah well, that bloke in the bar might piss me off, but I’ll soon be off somewhere where I can kill enemies’. That’s not what being a soldier is about. There was just no camaraderie in civilian life, no ‘them’, no ‘us’, no structure or form or discipline. No regimentation. It was all chaos. Life was too soft. You were meant to care about anything and everything, from the price of groceries to what the local Women’s Institute was planning for Christmas. And I found that I couldn’t give a shit about any of it.

My marriage had suffered, deteriorated, and finally broken down. I wanted to hate her for going with someone else, but in fairness I couldn’t. He was more the type of man she really wanted. I could never be.

And so, here I was, away from all the shit, away from hypocrisy and conflicting rules and the love of money and the control freak bastards that wanted to know exactly what I was doing, when I was doing it, and all without any of the trust that I had been used to. Orders were one thing, but I was used to thinking for myself and the civilian world was populated by thugs and fucking morons. Government didn’t want people thinking, so people didn’t think, and thought that they were cool for not thinking about anything beyond whatever brain-rotting shite was on TV, believing all the crap that was passed off as news…

I’d needed to get away, but sitting here, by the campfire that was getting on for little more than embers, I had that old familiar feeling of there being things about that crazy mixed-up world that I missed.

‘Wolf,’ I said. ‘One thing has been bothering me about yesterday.’

Andriy, who had still been bumping his gums about the bloodsucker, clammed up, realising that I hadn’t been listening after all.

‘What might that be?’ Wolf said, glancing at Andriy from the corner of his eye.

‘Borisov was after a fugitive from justice, right?’

Wolf nodded.

‘But we’re all fugitives from justice. You heard him, there are people in jail right now for handing themselves in.’

Wolf stared into the flames. ‘There are no prisoners,’ he muttered.

‘But –’

‘If you heard him say that, you also heard that he didn’t say where they were. The gunfire was convenient for him, but he wouldn’t have answered anyway. Because there are no prisoners. You go down there and hand yourself in, you’re not going back to the world.’

‘They shoot you?’

He shook his head. ‘I don’t know what they do, but I do know you don’t go back, you don’t go to prison, you just…cease to exist.’ He got up. ‘As for us…yes, we are fugitives, but you already know why we’re tolerated here. Remember what they said about Communism? “Everyone is equal…but some are more equal than others”? That’s how it is here: Everyone is wanted, but some are more wanted than others. It’s about time, money and effort. We’re a waste of all three. A murderer, now, especially the murderer of a soldier…well, they have something to gain by that. And now, gentlemen, I suggest you get on your way. Any problems, you both have my PDA code. Let me know what you find.’
  13:43:46  22 September 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Pt. VIII - In the village

Guys 'n' gals: I'm now into 'write-quick edit-post'. I'm doing my best, but if it seems rough in places, etc, it'll be speed that's causing it.
Thanks for reading, hope you're still enjoying it, and there's more to come - quite a bit more, actually.

*****

I could hear the klaxon before I reached the top of the stairs. Overlaying this, a voice bellowed over the tannoy. It was all in Ukrainian, so I couldn’t make anything out, given my struggles with the language and distortion caused by the loudspeaker.

‘Who the hell are you?’ Andriy asked as I approached the camp. There was a new note of respect in the young man’s voice. ‘The army goons are shitting bricks over there.’

‘This isn’t normal for when people are spotted?’

He looked at me as if I were mental. ‘Christ, no. Not nowadays, anyway. Most times, they get a few shots off and that’s that. Oh, they patrol along the road as far as the bridge outpost and take on anyone they see, sometimes they’ll make a show of force, but this is different. There’s some serious shit brewing. Anyway, come on. Wolf wants a word. ’

I drew level, and Andriy turned on his heel, leading me into the village.

Predictably enough, it was a dump. Crushed cans, cigarette ends and empty packets littered the sides of the dirt road and floated on puddles that had formed in the wheel ruts. Tufts of grass sprung up here and there along the central ridge, struggling to survive. I spotted an old, rusting Lada of the sort I had travelled up in decaying slowly outside a house that had been gutted by fire – one of two structures in the village that had been all but destroyed, though all the buildings displayed damage and disrepair to a greater or lesser degree. Even the place just outside the western fence, near the graveyard, had had a chunk blown out of one corner.

About fifteen or twenty metres in, an old oil drum sat in a shallow pit that had been dug into the small clearing and, just beyond, two entrances led down to underground shelters. The guy with the AK I had spotted earlier stood nearby, hurriedly briefing a couple of men who had evidently just arrived. Both gave me a quizzical, if oddly vacant look as they headed for their assigned positions. It was a look I recognized. It said both ‘Who are you?’ and ‘We don’t give a shit’. They were men who had seen and done much more than they ever thought they would, and had ever wanted to.

‘We use those shelters for blowouts,’ Andriy said, having apparently decided that I was no longer ‘this asshole’.

‘What’re blowouts?’ I asked.

Andriy chuckled. ‘You’ll find out soon enough, I guess,’ he said. ‘Anyway, if you’re here and the alarm siren goes off, down there is where you’ll want to be.’

‘And what if I’m not here?’

He shrugged. ‘Do what everyone else does: take cover and hope for the best. The blowouts come from the centre. That’s north of here. So get in a solid building and keep a good, thick wall between you and it. Oh, and make sure there’re no holes in the roof. You’re better off getting underground if you can, though.’

‘Cars? Vans?’

He shook his head. ‘No good. Sheet metal, glass... Radiation just goes right through and irradiates what you’re hiding in. It’ll do that with everything, of course, but…’

I nodded. ‘Thanks.’

‘No problem,’ he said, guiding me over to AK-man. ‘Wolf, this is the new –’

Wolf held out a hand, signalling for quiet.

‘Nimble,’ he said into something that looked like an early-model iPhone or Blackberry. ‘Tell Petya to take off his jacket and PDA and be ready to run on my order, then take up your position. I want you in the attic of the first house, this side, covering the approach. Tell Fedka to go low, in the doorway and watching the slope from the main drag. Pavel should already be in the place opposite. Watch your arcs. Let’s not have any fuck-ups.’

‘Wolf. Understood. Out,’ a voice crackled, and Wolf turned to face us.

‘Wolf, this is the new guy…’ Andriy began again, then stopped as he realized he didn’t know my name.

‘Snorkbait,’ I said, watching as they exchanged an alarmed glance.

‘So, what did you get out of comrade Sidorovich?’ Wolf asked.

‘You still call each other that? I thought that’d have died out years ago.’

‘We only use it when being sarcastic,’ Andriy said. ‘Well…mostly, we do.’

‘Ah.’

‘Well?’ Wolf prompted.

‘I can tell you what he didn’t get,’ Andriy said. ‘The fat bastard didn’t give him a PDA.’

Wolf swore. ‘Son of a whore must want you dead in a hurry, and that makes me wonder why. But never mind, no time for all that bullshit now, we’ll have to see what we can sort out later. For now, though, you having no PDA might be a good thing. Is that usable?’ he said, indicating my L.85.

‘No, it’s rusty as fuck inside and Sidorovich didn’t give me any spare mags. I’ve got this one and that’s it.’

Wolf swore again. ‘And we have no spare weapons. No matter. Hopefully there’ll be no shooting anyway.’

‘Hopefully? I thought rookie camp was safe. This is rookie camp, right?’

Wolf smiled, grimly. ‘It is rookie camp, and it is usually safe, but we’re still Stalkers. Outlaws, as far as the military are concerned.’

‘But Andriy said –’

‘They normally pass this place by,’ Andriy cut in. ‘Normally…but not always.’ His shrug told me all I needed to know.

‘This will be the first raid on this place in quite a long time, though,’ Wolf said. ‘Lucky for us they only use the gunships for big jobs now. Just a few weeks ago, they launched a raid against Mole and his group over in the Agroprom. Carnage. Who knows what might have happened had it not been for Marked One turning up.’

‘Wonder whatever happened to him?’ Andriy mused.

Wolf. Four man patrol heading this way. Splitting east and west…now. Over,’ a calm voice said through Wolf’s PDA.

‘Andriy…’ Wolf said, but Andriy was already going, weapon cocked and ready. Wolf held the PDA close to his mouth. ‘Vasya. Acknowledged. Out.’ He turned to me. ‘Bastards. I hope that’s just a feint. Usually a split means they’re coming to have a proper go.’

‘What’s “a proper go”?’

‘Two or three killed, some wounded,’ he said. ‘It depends. They like to turn the screw once in a while.’

‘So Andriy said. But why don’t you give this lot some proper weapons? I mean, sawn-off shotguns, Makarovs…what use are they if your guys get taken out from more than –’

‘I know, I know! But these guys are responsible for their own kit. I can’t give them weapons. I trade some small stuff, but not firearms and ammo. Sidorovich would have my balls for breakfast, stepping in on his trade. And you’ve seen his prices; these guys come here with nothing. How much did that piece of scrap cost you, anyway? Thirty k? Who can afford that here?’

‘I managed to knock him down. Three grand – all I had – and the next five of these that I find.’ I paused. ‘I’m also to see you about a job he wants doing.’

Wolf gave me a steady look. ‘No way. You’re nowhere near ready. Even if your weapon wasn’t a piece of crap, you need rest.’

‘I’ve got to do it. It’s the deal I made.’

‘Yeah, he always make the deals. Prices no one can afford for things they need. So he says “Do some jobs for me, and we’re even”. Always hits you with leverage, that man. But look at you. Useless weapon, no PDA, no other kit, and now no money for trade. Even without all that, you look like a bag of shit.’

‘Thanks, Wolf,’ I said, wondering what sort of a hold Sidorovich had on him. There was clearly little love lost between the two, judging from Wolf’s tone.

‘Don’t mention it.’

Wolf. Nimble. I think the fuckers’re going to engage. Got a name on the PDA: Lieutenant Petro Borisov. Over.’

‘Shit,’ Wolf spat, glaring at me, his eyes full of blame. ‘Nimble. Acknowledged. Tell Petya to run like the fucking wind. I’ll try to contact this Borisov character. Out.’ His fingers flew over the PDA’s keypad, and I assumed he was selecting multiple recipients. I was soon proved right.

‘Everyone, this is Wolf. It’s on. If those bastards open fire, let them have it. Good luck, guys. Out.’ He turned to me. ‘You, Stalker, get your arse up this ladder and into the attic. Hide among the crates, and keep quiet.’

‘Thanks, Wolf,’ I said. ‘I owe you.’

‘You owe Petya. You might thank him, if he survives. And by the way, there’s a few empty bottles up there. Help yourself to one. You can fill it from the butts later.’

I nodded and clambered up the ladder, leaving Wolf to take up his position and prepare for combat.

*

The attic was dusty and reeked of old, rotting wood. The boards creaked and groaned with every step, and I fully expected my foot to plunge through at any moment. I was surprised not to hear furtive scurrying. This place would have been paradise for rodents, yet it seemed that there were no mice or rats in The Zone.

The packing crates Wolf had mentioned seemed to be for everything from ammo to clothing to vodka. God only knew how he had managed to get his hands on so much stuff. Or maybe it wasn’t him. Perhaps this had been one of Sidorovich’s storage areas. If so, it said a lot for how short supplies had become; most of the crates and cases were empty. The very few full ones that were left were marked with a stylized wolf’s head. There were no prizes for guessing who they belonged to.

I worked my way into the maze of boxes and wooden crates, being careful not to disturb too much, and crouched down out of sight.

From outside, and close by, came the sound of movement.

‘Lieutenant Petro Borisov. This is Wolf, leader of the rookie camp. No one needs to get killed today. Tell us why you are here and we’ll co-operate as best we can. Over.’

He received no reply. An electronic chirping sounded. More hurried movement.

‘Lieutenant Borisov, Sergeant Petrov. I know you can hear me. I repeat, no one needs to get killed. We are willing to co-operate if you state your purpose. If this is not acceptable, we will be forced to open fire in self-defence. Do you understand? Over.’

Wolf. This is Borisov. You are hiding a fugitive from justice, a murderer. Armed response on the part of your group will not be tolerated. Send the fugitive out, alone, or your camp will be eliminated. Over.’

Wolf took a deep breath and muttered something under his breath.

I was shocked. A fugitive? A murderer? Surely there’d been a mistake? I hadn’t killed anyone…had I? And how could anyone be a 'fugitive from justice' here? Weren't we all fugitives just for being in The Zone?

My mind went back to the soldier, the landing he had taken. It was possible that I had fractured a couple of his ribs when I landed on top of him, and it might have punctured a lung, and it was possible that it had gone undetected for long enough to be fatal…but, surely he’d been checked over? He would have been taken back to base, if for no other reason that it had been the end of his shift. Had there been something else wrong with him, something like a brain aneurysm that had gone undetected until I knocked him in just the wrong way?

But how did that constitute murder?

‘Shit. Shit, I fucking knew that guy was trouble!’ Wolf was saying to himself, and I scrambled to the attic opening, staying far enough inside to remain concealed from view.

‘Wolf! Wolf!’ I hissed.

‘Shut it. I’m not interested.’

‘I didn’t murder anyone! It’s bullshit, Wolf. I had to rough a soldier up on the way in, but he was still alive. I swear to you.’

Down below, Wolf sighed and muttered to himself again.

Wolf. This is Borisov. Are you there? I repeat our command. Send the fugitive out now or we will eliminate your camp. I remind you that armed response will not be tolerated. Spetsnaz forces are on standby if you do not comply. Over.

‘Fucking Spetsnaz! What the hell have you gotten us into? Why should I believe you, Snorkbait?’ Wolf snapped. ‘Tell me why I shouldn’t hand you over and let them have their “justice”?’

‘Because I didn’t do anything! Listen, I used to be a soldier. If it means anything at all, I swear on my honour as a professional soldier – as a warrior – that I did not murder anyone to get into The Zone. I could have, easily, but I didn’t.’

Wolf looked into my eyes and made his decision.

‘Lieutenant Borisov. I apologize for the delay. I was checking with my people. The Stalker you seek is not in our camp, repeat not in our camp. Someone passed by the western end of the camp a short time ago, but made no attempt to enter. Do you copy? The fugitive did not enter our camp and ran on. Contact Andriy Pickpocket to confirm, though you are welcome to enter the camp and check for yourself if you wish. Over.’

There was a long, tense silence.

‘I think he’s going for it. You’d better get back into cover, Stalker,’ Wolf murmured. ‘And start praying they don’t search too thoroughly.’

I crawled back into the attic, trying to wriggle my way deeper in this time, where only the most dedicated, fastidious soldier would find me. I doubted they’d search that hard, even if they were after a murderer.

Wolf. I will enter your camp with one man. If any of your men tries anything, the remainder of my patrol will open fire. Is that understood? Over.’

I smiled. The rest of his patrol? What, both of them? I imagined Wolf wouldn’t be quaking in his boots about that, although he was obviously keen to avoid bloodshed if at all possible. I had to wonder, though, how far he would actually go to maintain the illusion of the peaceful rookie camp.

‘Lieutenant Borisov. Received and understood. Out.’ He breathed a sigh of relief, and I could imagine his fingers flying over the PDA once again. ‘Wolf to all. Stand down and prepare for inspection. Repeat: Stand down and prepare for inspection. Hide your best weapons. Let them take the shit. Out.’

*

I lay in the attic, not daring to move. Voices drifted up to me from outside as some of the Stalkers’ belongings were confiscated. Cigarettes, vodka, food, ammunition, clothing…it didn’t seem to matter: each and every Stalker was deprived of something by the soldier Borisov had dragged in to do all the donkey work, while all weapons were handed over to Borisov himself. Borisov, for his part, was speaking with Wolf in perfect conversational tones, while Wolf tried to keep his answers as short as possible, his tone sounding strained.

‘I hate to do this to your men, Wolf,’ Borisov said, ignoring the fact that, even from what I’d seen on the way in, at least two of the rookies here were women. Whether they were Stalkers, wives, or something else entirely, I neither knew nor cared. ‘I understand that you need some weaponry to defend yourselves with, especially from the dogs. But my superiors will expect you to be disarmed.’

‘It’s fine,’ Wolf said.

‘I told the Colonel a simple search would be in order. “Trust me”, I said, “if there’s a fugitive, Wolf will hand him over. He knows how to play the game”. But still I had to make the threat against the camp. Orders. You know how it is.’

‘As you say, Lieutenant,’ Wolf said. ‘If I may…who did this murderer kill?’

‘A soldier. A perimeter guard. I can’t tell you more than that,’ Borisov said, and I suddenly felt weak. I’d obviously done more damage than I thought. The soldier was dead. I had killed to get into The Zone, after all.

But then I considered Blondie – DevChick, as she actually was, according to Earlywine – and what had almost happened. I’d saved her. She’d got lucky; the soldier hadn’t. It balanced. It didn’t make it right, but I had saved one life to pay for the other. Or maybe The Zone had claimed another for the one it had been denied.

I closed my eyes. Moralizing like that was never going to make it right. There was a life missing from the world today that had been there yesterday, and it was my fault. What made it worse was the knowledge that, right now, there was a Stalker out there pretending to be me, waiting, waiting.

‘Check up there,’ Borisov snapped, and the old wooden steps on the ladder began to creak as the soldier began to climb. Footsteps entered the attic and began to shuffle around hesitantly. There was a long pause filled by ragged breathing with each loud groan and subtle crack.

‘Between you and me, Wolf,’ Borisov continued, ‘it was a bad business all round. We had incursions in seventeen different areas around the perimeter last night. Seventeen! Usually there’s a few, but… It’s going to go badly for you, my friend.’

‘How?’ Wolf asked.

‘Think about it. More Stalkers getting in means the politicos won’t be able to sit with their thumbs up their asses anymore. Something will have to be done. Maybe they’ll order another purge, go zero-tolerance. Who knows?’

‘You already have the right to shoot on sight,’ Wolf reminded him.

‘Yes, but…we don’t always. And we’re not exactly zealous about running people down. It doesn’t suit us to be, does it? By right, we should shoot anyone trying to enter or leave The Zone, mount raids... Both sides would take casualties. Imagine how it would look on the news reports: soldiers coming home from The Zone - an easy assignment - in body bags, killed by ordinary Stalkers. It'd be a disaster for everyone. And look at how many of you come walking down that road, hands raised, ready to be taken out.’

‘And are they? Taken out, I mean. Or are they “taken out”?’

Borisov laughed. At least I presumed that was what the noise was meant to be.

‘We arrest them, they go to prison, and when they get out…well, so far we don’t know what they do. The minimum term for entering The Zone is five years. Those that have handed themselves in are still in jail.’

‘Where?’

Borisov paused, chose not to answer the question. ‘What are you doing up there, soldier? Jerking off?’ he yelled.

The soldier muttered. From the sound of it, he was less than a couple of metres away.

‘Stalker! Halt! Stalker, halt or I fire!’

The call came from a short distance away. Evidently Petya had been spotted. It was proof-positive for Borisov that his quarry was not in the village.

That, and the harsh clatter of AKs on automatic that quickly rattled and rolled through the village.

‘Petrov, Rukov! Cease fire and wait for me. Dobrovolsky! Down here, now!’ Borisov snapped, his voice rapidly moving away as he thanked Wolf for his co-operation, but Dobrovolsky’s footsteps were already scurrying away.

I listened as the wooden floorboards and then the steps suffered under his pounding boots, finally allowing myself to breathe a sigh of relief when it was clear they were gone.
  02:14:07  21 September 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part VII - Sidorovich

Just a quick addition. All I could get done over the weekend.

*****

Sidorovich had set the first inner chamber of the bunker up as a sort of shop. A row of battered, rusting lockers stood along the wall to my left. Ahead, Sidorovich sat behind a rough-and-ready counter, protected by welded-in-place steel bars and wire mesh. A door, locked and double-bolted from the inside, stood to the right of the frontment. Sidorovich himself sat on an old office chair and was leaning forward, elbows resting upon the counter top. A laptop sat slightly to one side, the screen carefully turned away from any prying eyes. A half-empty can of something or other stood close at hand, and too near the laptop for my liking; it was a disaster waiting to happen.

A song – something about dancing in the ashes of the world and kicking up the dust – rose tinny and mournful from the speaker of a battered radio that looked like it had been salvaged from a rubbish tip sometime in the late 1970s.

I listened for a few moments but couldn’t decide whether I liked the singer’s voice or whether she couldn’t sing a fucking note. It was as if a generation of former Soviet kids had discovered Goth and were pursuing it with more enthusiasm than ability, trying desperately to catch up with their Western contemporaries.

Behind the fat trader was an array of weaponry, food containers, clothing, equipment and ammo boxes. There were even crates of vodka. This extended into a back room accessed by another steel door, currently open. Presumably, Sidorovich’s quarters were somewhere back there and he could sleep with two steel blast doors and the welded storefront between him and everyone else in The Zone. It seemed paranoid, but given the earlier lack of affection or even basic respect in Andriy’s voice, perhaps paranoia wasn’t a bad thing.

Interestingly, though Sidorovich had electricity, I couldn’t hear any rumbling from a generator. Maybe it was tucked away further inside the bunker. I doubted I’d ever find out.

‘So, Stalker,’ Sidorovich said in a voice scored by cheap vodka and too many cigarettes. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘I need kit. Weapons. Work, if there is any.’

Sidorovich looked at me and slowly shifted position.

‘Your accent…you are English, right?’

I nodded.

‘I thought so. Only the English mangle the sound of Russian so.’ He sighed. ‘Anyway, to business. What makes you think you have anything of interest? I don’t know you. I don’t know your skills. Why should I give you work?’

‘I used to be a soldier. I might be useful,’ I said. ‘But if that doesn’t interest you, I also have this…’ I took out my small wad of money. His greedy eyes lit up in his jowly, piggish face. Not even the light gleaming off his glasses could hide that covetous look.

‘I see,’ he said. ‘And what is it that you think you need?’

I looked past him to the items in the back room. A weapon, one I knew how to handle rather than have to learn, was the first priority, and Sidorovich certainly had weapons. I could see a variety of Kalashnikovs, MP5s, a rifle I’d never seen before with an underslung grenade launcher that looked something like the pulse rifles from Aliens, an SA80…

‘I’ll need a jacket, preferably with Kevlar or whatever you have that’s like it,’ I said. ‘I’ll also need a Geiger counter, an anomaly detector, a rucksack and sleeping bag, food.’ I hesitated, having listed all my other requirements before the only one I really cared about. People like Sidorovich had a sixth sense when it came to what you really wanted. Whatever was mentioned first, whatever was focused on, immediately doubled in price. ‘I’ll take an MP5, as well.’

‘I have no ammo for the MP5,’ he said, smiling.

‘Okay…I’ll take the SA80 and whatever ammo you have for that, then.’

‘The what?’

I frowned, then realisation dawned. ‘The Enfield L.85,’ I said, though I was surprised that Sidorovich didn’t know the generic name for the weapon. That said, SA80 was an increasingly daft referent, seeing as it meant Small Arms for the 1980s.

He looked at me sceptically. ‘You can pay for all this?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘This wad is all I have. I was hoping I might get the rest on account, if it’s not enough.’

Sidorovich laughed. ‘I don’t do credit,’ he said.

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Not even if I tell you that, if you let me walk out of here with that SA80 there, I’ll give you the first five I come across in exchange?’

Sidorovich sat back in his chair, considering. ‘The L.85 is thirty thousand roubles. Ammo is two hundred per box – and I do not guarantee how many rounds are in the box, you understand. I have three hundred rounds of five-five-six in total. Food…it all depends. Sausage, twenty; Tourist Delight, forty; noodles, seventy-five. Bread, of course, is cheapest of all at eight roubles per half loaf. Bottled water, five. Basic leather jackets start at twenty-five hundred and I have trench coats, black leather jackets, coats with gas masks attached…prices vary. A Merc suit, for example, will run you thirty grand. A full Stalker suit, twice that. All of these are in prime condition, not the shot-and-patched shit you might find on a corpse. My suits will last you for months, perhaps years. Ones you find…well. But if you don’t like my price, you are free to go elsewhere. Although…’ He smiled. It was not pleasant. ‘How will you get there in one piece?’

I considered for a moment. Ideally, I wanted something military, something armoured that would at least stop rounds penetrating skin. Of course, the best way to avoid that was to not get shot in the first place, but I wanted some protection, just in case. It looked like I’d have to compromise, though.

If only Sidorovich wasn’t such a damn crook. Even from where I stood, I could see the rust and lack of Parkerization on the barrel of the SA80 and I knew there was no way the rifle was worth what he was asking, especially as it also had the disadvantage of being a Mk. I.

I was very familiar with this version of the weapon, having been issued with one upon entering service. The L.85A1 had replaced the SLR – basically an FN FAL built under licence to a British Army specification – in 1987, and had been seen as ideal for the future modern battlefield. However, the rifle had quickly gained a reputation for being prone to jamming, rusting, breaking down when used in full automatic mode, and melting even in quite modest temperatures. There was also an issue with the magazine ejection mechanism; on occasion, the button would catch on clothing, causing the magazine to fall out whilst the weapon was being fired. And all that was without the biggest drawback of all: the fact that they could only be fired from the right shoulder, thanks to the cartridge ejection port being on the left side and in such a position as to send the spent casing flying into the side of your head. All in all, the L.85 was a series of good ideas, poorly executed. Not for nothing had it been described as a ‘Rolls-Royce…but a prototype Rolls-Royce’.

Later on, the British government had decided to adopt a Heckler and Koch revised version of the L.85, the A2 – known to us generically as SA80 Mk. II – which was to be phased in from about 2000. It was a significant improvement in many ways, but in others, it still suffered from the same basic design flaws as the Mk. I and by the time I’d left the army after a tour of Afghanistan, a lot of ‘green army’ guys were reported to be taking AK-47s from dead insurgents and using them in the field instead of the standard issue, which still had a tendency to break down in hot, dry conditions.

It was rumoured that the British government had finally given up on the L.85 and was set to order a permanent replacement – perhaps G3s or even G36 – though, to be honest, I doubted if the reports were true. Defence spending had never been that high on the agenda since the end of the Cold War and with the economy still in turmoil, the pressure was on to decrease even this meagre amount where possible.

‘Right,’ I finally said. ‘I’ll take a leather jacket, half a loaf of bread, two Tourist Delights, a bottle of water, the L.85 and all three hundred rounds.’

‘As well as the Geiger and anomaly detector?’

I nodded.

‘Right, well…that will cost you thirty-four thousand six hundred and five roubles.’

I worked it out while he set about assembling the order. He was overcharging even without the ridiculous price for the rifle, but as he fetched the boxes of ammo, it was easy to see how he came to his inflated figure. The boxes were meant to hold fifty rounds each, equalling six boxes. Sidorovich was selling me ten boxes instead.

‘Okay, Sidorovich, here’s the deal,’ I said, hefting the SA80 and checking the SUSAT for damage. It really was in a state, and had probably been looted or sold by corrupt quartermasters in the Balkans while UK forces were there under the UN banner back in the 1990s. We’d certainly come under fire several times from people using our own weapons against us, though we’d never really discovered how they were getting their hands on our ordnance.

‘I’ll pay two hundred per box for six boxes of ammo. That’s fifty rounds per box, multiplied by six, making three hundred rounds. The food and jacket I take at your price. For this, though…’ I paused, looking carefully over the rifle once more. ‘I’ll offer ten thousand. Throw in a cleaning kit and I’ll pay eleven. Plus my offer of the first five replacements I find still stands. For your understanding and generosity.’

Sidorovich’s face had gone the colour of putty. ‘You come here and insult me? I do not bargain, Englishman! I say a price, you pay, that is all.’

‘Sidorovich, no one wants this piece of shit,’ I said. ‘You know why? Because if anyone fires this weapon in this condition they might end up with no fucking head, let alone no face. Besides, that lot out there don’t know NATO weapons that well, so they’ll prefer Eastern Bloc ones. I do know NATO weapons, otherwise I wouldn’t touch this because it’s a piece of crap that really should be decommissioned. I’ll take it because I don’t know Russian kit yet, but I’ll only take it at my price and only if you give me the means to fix it. The ones I give you in return will be in better nick. That’s a promise. And maybe then you’ll find some buyers.’

He eyed me shrewdly, weighing up the deal.

‘Tell you what,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you this lot for…let’s say fifteen thousand. You have…how much cash?’

I counted it out. It came to three thousand and seventy four roubles. Sidorovich pocketed the three grand and shoved the remainder back to me.

‘So, Stalker, you owe me twelve thousand roubles. Hmm. How should I get that back?’ He stroked his double chin thoughtfully, his eyes speculative, measuring, behind his glasses. ‘What do I let you do? Like I said, I don’t know you –’

‘Earlywine does,’ I said, taking a chance. ‘I rescued one of his people on the way in. Twice.’

Sidorovich jerked as though he’d sat on a cattle prod. ‘Who? Who did you save? Give me a name,’ he snarled.

‘DevChick.’

She told you this?’

‘No, Earlywine did. She told me that to know or use her name was death.’

‘It sounds like her.’ Sidorovich’s eyes narrowed. ‘But what did she look like?’

‘Tallish, slim. Twenty-seven – she told me that herself. She was born in Pripyat. And she has weird hair. It’s blonde, but blonder than any I’ve ever seen. I assumed it was bleached.’

‘It’s not bleached,’ Sidorovich murmured, as though to himself. ‘I’m amazed you’re still alive.’

‘Well, she came to me, in my hotel room in Kiev. I thought she was some kind of trap – she was the immigration official that stamped my passport. She said I was smart, the sort she was looking for –’

‘Enough! I don’t give a shit why you’re here or who you came with. And I especially don’t want you hanging around here. The old deal is gone. The new deal is the L.85 and cleaning kit in exchange for the three grand, the first five good L.85s you find, and a mission. That is all I will give and you’re right, the weapon is a piece of shit. It’s the only reason why I’m letting you have it. Saves me the trouble of having to fix and clean the fucking thing. But once you leave here, we are even and you get lost. Take it or leave it.’

Sidorovich sounded flustered, though I had no idea why. It seemed all the bluster and confidence had drained out of the man at the mention of Earlywine’s name, and I began to wonder just who he and his little group were. Sidorovich was a bully, used to dealing only with scared newbies. He took advantage of them as he had tried to take advantage of me. But now he seemed to be badly scared. And not just of the people I had met. Of me. When he looked at me, little stars of fear shone out from behind his eyes.

‘Fair enough,’ I said, disappointed to miss out on the other gear, but remembering DevChick’s warning to press, but not push. ‘If that’s how you want it, it’ll suit me fine, too. Now, what’s the job?’

‘Go to the village and ask Wolf. He’ll give you the details. And when you have the weapons, give them to one of the others to bring down. You wait on the surface. I don’t want you stinking the place up with your Englishness. Clear?’

‘Couldn’t stink worse than it already does down here,’ I said, picking up my new rifle, ammo and cleaning tackle. ‘But I understand you fine.’

‘Let’s be clear on one thing,’ Sidorovich said, once I was on the other side of the threshold. ‘If you fuck with me, try to cheat me, anything like that, you will die and I don’t care who your fucking friends are.’

I stepped over the threshold and the steel door swung shut. The locks cycled.

‘You better hope you’re never in my sights, too, Sidorovich,’ I muttered, and went up the stairs.
  22:51:57  18 September 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Pt. VI - Alone in The Zone

Four-forty a.m.

In the east, a very faint ribbon of light began to thread the horizon. It matched the ever-present one to the north. All around me were the sounds of The Zone: gurgles and grunts; popping, plopping sounds that sounded like wet, hungry mouths opening and closing; a vibrant hum that came and went at irregular intervals. Anomalies, no doubt; a field of them, waiting for the unwary.

This, then, was The Zone proper. Not the creeping edge, where DevChick had shown me how one tree could remain untouched while its neighbour became scarred and blemished, nor was it the quiet ‘rim’ area, where mutants rarely wandered and anomalies were scarce. This, I thought, was what it was all about, and even though my vision had adapted well to the dark night after the relative brightness of Earlywine’s cabin, even though the rain had stopped and the moon had come out strong and bright, aiding that vision, I felt as though I was a blind man stumbling around an unfamiliar room in a strange, lunatic house. I’d have killed my granny for a pair of night-vision glasses, if she hadn’t already been dead.

A thrumming from somewhere ahead caused me to back up a couple of steps and take some of the bolts from my pocket. I tossed one ahead of me. Almost immediately, there was a flat double whoompf! and a cloud of dust, dead leaves and shredded grass shot up and out.

‘Nasty,’ I murmured, and tossed another bolt about half a meter to the right. No response. Edging in that direction, avoiding the limit of the anomaly before me, I threw another bolt another metre or so to the right of the clear path, again with no response. Keeping my head still and my senses alert, I skirted the anomaly, listening as the thrumming sound moved to my left, then began to slide to my rear, and was finally completely behind me.

I had no idea where I was in relation to anything. Wherever I looked it was more of the same: rolling, undulating terrain; clumps of bushes; stands of trees; the odd isolated deadfall or withered shrub surrounded by long grass. The best I could do was to keep heading roughly north-east, using the ghost glow to the north as my guide, and hope I made enough distance to reach cover before the air patrols started.

A shiver in the air up ahead caught my attention. I paused, crouching, scanning for other anomalies, and threw a bolt. Nothing there, though I could still see a ghostly shimmering. I shook my head and rubbed my eyes, looked again. Still the faint, ghostly shimmer. I plucked three more bolts from my pocket and tossed them in an arc, each going a couple of metres to the right of the one before. There was no reaction; no sound, nothing to see…it was just normal, safe ground. Yet I knew, deep down, that it wasn’t.

I hunkered down, contemplating. In its own way, this was no different to negotiating a minefield…something I knew how to do. I knew, thanks to DevChick a.k.a. Blondie, that there were actual minefields in The Zone, thousands of devices planted here by the Ukrainians despite the international accords to limit or ban their use. Of course, these mines were not specifically anti-personnel; they were more anti-mutant, an added layer of protection for areas where the perimeter might be weak or lightly patrolled. Once, there had been talk of a reinforced-concrete barrier, gates made of thick steel, watchtowers every hundred metres, a constant armed guard and snipers ordered to kill anything non-military that moved within fifty metres of either side of the wall. But policing the perimeter wasn’t easy. Building the proposed defences was costly and ultimately, while the world agreed that something should be done, they could not agree over who should pay. Ukraine alone could not. Russia, stripped of her Soviet empire, with her political ambitions rebuffed and with economic problems of her own, would not. Why should they? It was not their problem. Meanwhile, the UN sanctioned help with regards to guarding the quarantined area, but had no real power to force member nations to bear some of the cost – and it flatly refused to do so itself.

So it was that control, administration, and policing of The Zone was left largely to the Ukrainian government. Ukrainian soldiers formed the greater part of the contingent surrounding The Zone, with Russian, Estonian, Belorussian, Latvian and Lithuanian troops deployed nominally as a locally-sourced UN task force. Occasionally, Western troops might find themselves sent to show willing, but were usually kept in quiet areas – or at least areas where people weren’t the problem. It was the same old story: concensus that something had to be done, agreement that measures should be thorough, but when push came to shove short arms couldn’t dip too far into deep pockets. That meant the easiest solution was mines, and never mind the mandates. The paperwork could always be made to say they were to keep mutants in, not people out – and in any case, anyone getting killed or maimed by a mine in The Zone shouldn’t have been there in the first place and there were clear warnings regarding the consequences of jumping the fence. With that being so, the victim could hardly sue.

‘It’s a minefield, but one where the mines are called anomalies,’ I muttered to myself. ‘How do you cross a minefield, if you have no other choice? Slowly, and with care. Slowly,’ I said, edging forward and slightly to my right, not trusting the lack of response from the thrown bolts, ‘and with care.’

*

After another hour of painstaking progress, with the light now strong enough and the weather clear enough for helicopter patrols to begin, I was finally able to make out a building to my half right. By straining my eyes, I thought I could just see rooftops beyond the rise that ran west-east as I looked. Was this the rookie camp I had been told about?

A five-string barbed wire fence stood between me and what I was quickly coming to think of as the village, though a section lay in tatters about twenty metres to my left. I headed for the gap, grateful for the chance to avoid the more painful method of defeating the wire and the apparent lack of anomalies in the area, picking up the pace a little as I headed across the mostly open ground. I’d made it. Even if this village wasn’t the fabled rookie camp after all, it would be a place where I could lie up, get some sleep, and maybe even use as a temporary base so I could find a water source. I hadn’t had a single drink for the best part of a day, and I was dry a mile down. I made a mental note to check the colour of my urine next time I stopped for a slash. Chances were I’d be suffering from mild dehydration by now. In fact, now I thought of it, I hadn’t felt the urge to relieve myself in quite a while…

Something snagged my foot. I almost didn’t notice the slight drag and was about to raise my leg to clear the obstruction when I saw the post and triangular sign. I couldn’t see what the sign said, but I knew it would be red and yellow, with a skull and crossbones and a warning written in four languages. I was walking through a minefield...and according to DevChick, on this side of the fence, the minefields were all for real.

I closed my eyes and swallowed. A wrong move here could be my last. Would be, unless I was extremely lucky. I opened my eyes and looked down.

My foot was creating tension on a trip wire, though fortunately the wire had either grown slack or the device had been improperly planted and primed, as there was too much play. By rights, the device should already have initiated, and I should either be dead or lying on the ground, screaming in agony.

Following the wire, I saw that one end was clipped around the branches of a dead bush; another factor that might just have saved my life. I traced the wire back the other way and there, sticking out of the ground just two metres away, was the tell-tale pylon of an OZM-72 bounding mine.

The OZM-72 was a powerful, and terrifying, weapon. Derived originally from the German ‘Bouncing Betty’ mines from World War II, the design had been overhauled and simplified somewhat by Soviet engineers. Where the original German mines had sprayed ball-bearings at roughly groin-height, the OZMs had a single-piece solid core that fragmented on detonation, killing or maiming anything within a relatively large radius. Indeed, of all the OZMs, the Type-72 had the large fragmentation radius in the family and, like most other anti-personnel devices, they had been banned, though several countries had retained their stockpiles. Belarus alone had kept thousands rather than have them destroyed. It followed that Ukraine had done the same.

I gently eased my foot to the ground, sliding it slowly back away from the wire, taking great care to avoid causing the wire to vibrate. I’d been lucky with this one; it had been imperfectly laid but I was surprised that it hadn’t gone off, all the same. Perhaps it was defective. I wasn’t curious enough to try again to find out.

Looking around, I could see more small pylons jutting out of the ground. The little bastards had been planted everywhere, and the minefield didn’t just consist of those. Prongs stood proud of the soil in any number of places, awaiting the pressure of a falling foot so they could detonate…and blow whatever was unfortunate enough to be nearby to Kingdom Come. Rocks sat at slightly odd angles, waiting for the unwary or careless to give it an accidental nudge…

Suddenly, I understood what the ragged hole in the wire had been about. I checked back over the way I had come, and my eyes widened.

I giggled involuntarily, almost hysterically. There were mines everywhere, and my footprints lay within inches of death or mutilation in half a dozen places. It had been a blind miracle that I had avoided the deadly trap, and I gave myself a mental kick up the arse for being drawn into such a false sense of security. Had I thought I’d made it? Had I really? Well here was a reminder of what life was here. The sun might have been out, the birds might have been singing, in any other part of the world, it would have been a beautiful start to a pleasant day. But this was The Zone, and it seemed that all the warnings, all the internet tales, were not for naught. The Zone was a lesson in irony: walk along, dreaming your happy dreams, thinking that everything is just perfect and the place is quite beautiful, in its way, and…BOOM! There’s goes your ballgame, as Earlywine might put it, and ending up with bits of hot, sharp metal shredding my bollocks and disembowelling me wasn’t high on my list of Ways To Die. I’d fucked up by switching off and taking this part of The Zone lightly. Hadn’t I thought that I was now in The Zone proper just an hour or so before? Hadn’t I counselled myself to be cautious, to treat anomaly fields as minefields and proceed slowly and with care? Had it really been so easy to ignore the fact that there were still actual minefields here, that not all the hazards were born of The Zone? Had I really forgotten everything that my years of experience and all my military training had taught me in just a few short years of relatively easy civilian life?

I picked a spot to move to and stepped there, pausing and going through the same look-and-step ritual. I needed to get my head back in the game. I needed to get back to that level of relaxed alertness that had once been a second nature. If I didn’t, then DevChick had named me right, and Earlywine had been correct in turning me away, because I really would be ‘snork bait’. I needed to start thinking like a soldier again. Or if not a soldier, at least a survivor. I had been Special Forces – emphasis on the past tense now. I’d traded on that, rested on that, for long enough. And in spite of it all, Earlywine had been right to say that, here, I was a ‘noob’. The Zone was far beyond anything I’d ever experienced – anything I could have experienced – before. Even the best military training in the world provided little more than an edge…and look how easily that edge had become dulled.

Whatever else I had done, in the past, on the outside, and even since entering The Zone, meant nothing. Sparing one life and saving another didn’t buy me special privileges; The Zone would take me in a heartbeat, regardless of noble acts committed mere hours or even minutes before. This place was pure, elemental. Honest. You lived by your wits and died through stupidity – though being quick and clever was still no security. You might just be unlucky one time.

I had been lucky. The Zone had given her first and final warning, and I nodded to myself in recognition of the fact. Some wouldn’t have been so lucky; their first mistake would also have been their last. I had to make sure I didn’t give Fate, The Zone, or anything else another chance to wipe me out.
I moved on.

*

I reached the edge of the minefield and slumped down at the base of a large tree, bathed in sweat and panting again due to the exertion, both physical and mental, that crossing the relatively short distance had demanded. The muscles in my calves and thighs spasmed, wanting to cramp, and my heart rate was through the roof. I took long, deep breaths, holding them slightly before release. At least the ground between here and the rise, with the village beyond, was mostly open. It also seemed to be free of anomalies and critters.

I gave my tired legs a quick rub. Not far to go, now – provided the way really was as clear as it seemed – then I could shelter, rest, find food and water. Recover.

I moved off, keeping to a sensible pace. My calves twinged and complained again, but I kept walking, trying to stretch out the knots as best I could between steps, watching the ground ahead of me more closely now, just in case.

I emerged from the dead ground and noticed more buildings away to my right. They were permanent structures, not new but not derelict, most of them squat behind a wooden fence capped with wire though there was a larger, two-story building and what looked like a control tower. Pale sunlight gleamed through the low-lying morning mist, reflected by the dirty glass, and the walkway railings glinted dull and uneven, presumably due to being heavily marked with rust.

I looked back toward what may or may not have been a village, then returned to the tower and buildings of the…whatever it was. Prison? Gatehouse to a factory that I could not, as yet, see?

I remained indecisive until a figure appeared on one of the gantries. The fact that this place was inhabited surely meant that the village was empty after all. Why would anyone settle over there if they could commandeer and settle in this place, where the tower and proximity to the minefield made for better defence?

The thought occurred to me that the guy on the gantry might just be a passing Stalker, someone who was making ready to move out having spent a night in safety and perhaps, hopefully, warmth. All the same, where there were people, there was the chance to find out a bit more about what went on in here and possibly trade for a bit of food or drink.

Smiling, beginning to feel like this might work out after all, I came out of the dead ground created by a low mound, skirted another large tree…and stopped.

Before me, about a hundred metres away, three men in uniform were walking back toward the buildings. Beyond them, with more uniforms milling around it, sat a large, six-wheeled armoured personnel carrier. A large, yellow-and-blue-halved flag had been painted on the side. The flag of Ukraine.

‘Bollocks!’ I hissed, lowering myself to the ground. ‘Bollocks, bollocks, fucking shit!’

I began to crawl away, back behind the tree, back into the dead ground. It seemed I’d have to head for the cluster of houses after all, rookie camp or not. But I couldn’t understand. That level of deployment, this early? Surely not a patrol, unless by ‘dawn’ Earlywine’s man had meant ‘first light’. They weren’t actually the same thing. First light had come over an hour before, the first faint glow in the distance. Dawn – what most people understood it to be – was now; actual daybreak. Full, if still rather weak, light.

But what if it wasn’t a patrol. Certainly, it seemed a bit excessive to roll out a full squad and an APC to track down one man and an injured woman. True, the same could be said of the helis, but…

Something else struck me as odd. I closed my eyes, recalling exactly what I had seen. Three men, heading back, but without rushing. Which implied boredom, which implied routine. And the guys around the APC…they weren’t kitted out, they hadn’t got that look of ‘Here we go, let’s do this’ about them. Despite the fact that they were largely conscripted men, despite the differences in training and culture, any soldier who thinks he might see a bit of action is naturally more keyed-up. These boys may have been milling around, but there wasn’t that sense of urgency I’d expect from them if they were on an op. Again, this implied routine, something that they did this morning and had done yesterday morning and would do again tomorrow. Any hustle and bustle was there for show, not necessity. But, if everything here was just routine, if this wasn’t one of the threatened patrols but guys just going about their everyday business, it meant I had to be near a perimeter checkpoint – and that made no sense. I’d scaled the wire hours ago. I had been in The Zone for four hours, working my way towards the rookie camp. Could it be that I still a long way from it? Logically, the answer was no, unless I had lost any sense of direction. But what other explanation was there? Having the rookie camp this close to perimeter, especially this close to a checkpoint, would surely be suicide.

I looked over at the rise and the cluster of houses beyond. Even from here, with my view obscured, I could see the skeleton of a roof; bare rafters and beams that seemed to show that at least one of the houses had virtually fallen down. It made no sense for anyone to live there. None at all. It was a poor location: too close to the military, too much dead ground surrounding it…the place would be a nightmare to defend against a concerted attack, even with the cover the houses and boundary fences would provide. A well-trained squad could wipe the place out in minutes, probably less. And of course, the proximity to such a large military presence wiped out any hope I’d had of lying up there alone, if it proved to be deserted. I’d have to move on.
A light breeze picked up, became a gust of wind and realized I could smell smoke. Wood smoke. And where there was smoke, there was fire. But…

I plucked a few blades of grass and tossed them into the air. They blew behind me. The source of the smell was definitely coming from the north. A drifting remnant left over from a larger fire deeper in The Zone, perhaps? Or was there something beyond the village, perhaps even the rookie camp I sought?

I’d find out.

For now, my biggest problem was going to be getting across the open ground without getting shot or running headfirst into an anomaly, with the second – and no less challenging – issue being a way of hiding from the soon-to-be-airborne heli patrols.

I scanned the terrain, gauging, judging. There was a hell of a lot of ground to cover. It looked to be about three hundred metres. I didn’t have my pack or any weapons to weigh me down, but I did have leg muscles that were already seizing up. I didn’t need to get halfway and tear a muscle or crumple to the ground with cramps.

I paused, not because there was a lot to think about – there’s really only one way to cross open ground, and that’s as quickly as possible, whatever condition you’re in – but because I needed to get an idea of the layout of the terrain in my head and try to make a mental map of what the guys at the checkpoint might see. Was there any more dead ground I could make use of? Where was the best place to aim for? If I needed them, where were my cover positions? And of course, were there any anomalies?

From my right came the sound of voices speaking Ukrainian. The cadences, as far as I could make out, were relaxed, the occasional burst of laughter further betraying the soldiers’ lack of alarm.
Crouching low, keeping as close to a sprinter’s starting position as I could, I began inhaling deeply, rhythmically, saturating my blood with precious oxygen while taking care not to risk hyperventilating.

The soldiers continued their steady approach, still talking and laughing. If I knew soldiers – and I did – they’d most likely be talking about football, drinking, and women, in no particular order.

I waited, wondering how close their patrol circuit would bring them, hoping that they’d turn back. They didn’t. They were close enough now for me to hear the soft whssk sound of their strides through the long grass.

I broke from cover, running hard across the open ground, zigzagging erratically, willing my legs to give me just this one extra push. I ignored the confused shouts behind me, some in Ukrainian, some in Russian.

‘Stalker! Halt!’, ‘It’s got to be him!’, ‘Stalker! Do not move! Halt or we fire!’

I carried on running. I’d been taught years before that SAS didn’t really mean Special Air Service; it meant Speed, Aggression, Surprise. The aggression part here came from me running like a mad bastard into God only knew what. I’d obviously got the surprise element. All I needed now was to keep my speed up. By the time the first rounds began to fly, I was already a good hundred metres across the open ground, zigzagging, leaping, hoping to Christ I didn’t end up with my foot disappearing down a rabbit hole or that one of my leg muscles wouldn’t suddenly decide not to play this game any more. A couple of rounds kicked dirt less than two feet in front of me and I felt my legs beginning to tire. My knees were being turned to jelly by the uneven ground and adrenaline was turning to lactic acid as my system tried to draw on fuel I hadn’t taken in. I began to taste metal in my mouth and got the old familiar burning sensation under my tongue. Before long, my body would make me stop. The muscles, already tired and over-used, would begin to cramp. The blood flow would cease to carry enough oxygen and I’d lapse into oxygen debt. I’d pushed and pushed without rest. This was one effort too far. It was too much. Sanctuary was too far away.

I knew all this, but still I pushed forward, trying to drive myself on yet I was still yards away from the safety of the area that I thought (though hoped would be more like it) was dead ground.

Klaxons blared from the checkpoint behind me. A voice began ordering me to stop and stand still, advising me that I was risking my life. At the same time, a heavy round droned past my head and hammered into the ground a couple of metres to my half-left. Evidently, I was still in sight of one of the boys manning the towers. The crack of the shot reached me milliseconds later. It seemed the lads back there got to play with Dragunov sniper rifles. Lucky for me they hadn’t been maintaining their skill.

I wondered how hard the patrol would give chase. At what point did they just throw their hands up, sigh, and go back to their routine? Would they chase me down? Would a second group come out of the garrison to track me? It seemed I was a wanted man, though I hadn’t killed anyone; the soldier had clearly survived. Would they report my presence? Surely they didn’t do this with everyone that happened to get spotted?

I burned with questions as my stride got shorter and shorter. My mind was so fixed on running to safety that it took a while for me to realize that I was no longer being fired at. I had apparently reached my safety point.

I staggered forward, almost falling down the slope that skirted the edge of a makeshift graveyard. The number of fresh or semi-fresh graves I saw there was disturbing, to say the least.

New smells reached my nostrils and I could hear voices – many voices, holding many conversations. Occasionally, someone would laugh, or groan, or cough. I caught a waft of bacon and smoke. No one seemed to be alarmed by the klaxons, the warnings or the gunfire.

‘Argh! Zombie!’ someone cried as I shambled around the corner of a building, and I looked up to find the business end of a sawn-off 12-gauge shotgun pointing at my head. Behind Shotgun Ned, about eight other guys were standing to, most armed with pistols and shotguns, though one guy had a Kalashnikov in the aim and another was squinting at me from the butt end of an old Mosin Nagant.

I raised my hands. ‘Don’t shoot! Friend! I am not a zombie!’

Now there’s a sentence you never thought you’d say, I mused, watching as the crowd visibly relaxed. Though to be fair, it had been an honest mistake on their part. Unshaven, unwashed, having crawled through The Zone for four hours only to find I was still within metres of the perimeter come daybreak…I don’t think anyone would be looking exactly pristine. Even so, there was a part of me that wanted to smack the kid – for that’s all the lookout seemed to be, to me – in the mouth for being such a cheeky little swine.

‘Sidorovich?’ I asked.

The kid grunted, looked back over his shoulder. ‘This asshole wants to see the Fat Man. Shall I take him down?’

The guy with the AK gave me the once over. ‘Yeah, take him. Vasya, stand to until Andriy gets back, then report to me. Everyone else, defensive positions. He’ll be why the base is so jumpy this morning.’

The guy with the old Mosin gave me an empty stare as he took up the guard position, relieving Andriy. Behind him, others began cramming food into their mouths and cocking weapons as they climbed into attics and crouched in doorways, the movements practiced and well-rehearsed. No one made a single mis-step.

‘Okay,’ Andriy said, clearly put out. ‘Follow me.’

He led me away from the village, heading west towards an open bunker entrance a short distance away. Sickly electric light glowed from the opening in the hillside, and I wondered how one person could enjoy such luxury while others were left to fight for survival so close at hand. In the distance, I could hear dogs barking. Andriy cursed.

‘They’re excited today. Probably all that gunfire just now got them riled up. They probably think it’s breakfast time over here. Could be interesting, later on.’

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Army guys spotted me. But you must have heard the gunfire. How come you were all so relaxed?’

Andriy spat on the ground. ‘Why shouldn’t we be? They weren’t shooting at us.’

‘But you don’t even stand to?’

‘Again, why should we?’

‘In case the army attacks.’

‘Why would they?’

I frowned. ‘Because you’re Stalkers. I thought the army didn’t tolerate Stalkers?’

He laughed. ‘Thought wrong. Patrols “have the right to shoot on sight”, and gunships might engage, if you’re a worthwhile target – like in a group or you’ve screwed the Colonel’s daughter or something – and sometimes they’ll have a crack at you if they’re bored, but there’s not many air patrols out here anymore. They save the Hinds for the centre. Mostly, the uniformed pussies sit tight, save ammo, and just try to make sure no one gets in or out easily. Anything else is too expensive.’ He shrugged. ‘Besides, it can be a cushy number. Even if you’re conscripted into the army, you get a posting here and you get higher pay. If you’re really lucky, you sit on the perimeter for your tour and nothing ever happens. Why spoil it? And if they didn’t have a few of us around, there really would be nothing to do here and the government would cut funding even more. The general staff aren’t stupid like the politicians. They know that’d mean more Stalkers – mostly bandits – and more money would have to be found to stop them. They tolerate some Stalkers, they keep their funding and funnel it off elsewhere…everybody’s happy.’

I was led down the set of concrete steps to a steel airlock-type door.

‘Sidorovich! More new blood wanting to see you,’ Andriy called. He turned to me. ‘Good luck.’

Andriy headed back up the stairs and the locks on the door cycled, permitting me to enter.
  16:19:45  17 September 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Pt. V - Parting ways

Twenty minutes later, I stopped at the side of a road – really little more than a dirt trackway – and lowered Blondie to the ground. I sat down beside her and pulled her back up into a sitting position, rubbing her arms, shoulders and back before checking the tourniquet, easing the pressure slightly. With luck and a fair wind, she’d keep her leg. For now, I’d have to keep stopping, keep checking, keep adjusting. It was a balancing act with her now, as walking, stopping and checking was a balancing act for me. With only a T-shirt between me and the elements, already over-exerted and now having to carry what was effectively a dead weight, I walked a fine line between survival and death myself. Getting too hot and sweaty was no good. At the same time, sitting and doing nothing was just as bad.

Despite the shared body heat, I started shivering and I knew I had to get moving again, find a place we could use as a shelter. Plan A – to get her to her people – was looking more and more foolish. It was time to use my head. Tomorrow might be another day, but we had to survive the night to make use of it.

I stood and looked around. A little way ahead, a copse stood silent and oppressive, darker trees against a backdrop of clouds and sky. A dim glow lay to the north; Star Wormwood fallen to Earth, calling all the dim and desperate people of the world like another star was once said to have led three kings to the infant Christ.

I grinned despite myself. Religion had never interested me that much. It was surprising, perhaps, that even that much had stuck. But why was it dredged up now? And by what?

When I had slept earlier, on the way in, I had dreamed of The Zone. It spoke to me in a woman’s voice, calling me, mocking, beckoning, promising much if I would only prove myself worthy and claim her gifts. You could be a prince, the voice said. You could belong here, belong to me. You’ve never really belonged, have you? Not even in the army. Even there you were the outsider, the one on the fringe looking in, always searching for something more. You’re a born loner. But I know how to take care of you. I can give you what you’ve always wanted. Come. Come to me, and be alone no more.

That voice was cool, seductive, promising an embrace more warming, more fulfilling than that any woman could provide. I looked down at Blondie, wondering if the voice spoke to her at this moment and what it promised her, what images it was showing her, if it did.

‘Well, this isn’t getting the baby a new frock,’ I muttered, and scooped her up again, trudging onwards, trying to ignore the shifting, grumbling weight on my back and shoulders. I remembered what she had looked like naked. I remembered every curve. And I was amazed to find I didn’t care.

‘Must be losing my mind,’ I muttered. ‘Jesus. Most blokes would kill to see what I saw.’

But how could you have erotic thoughts about a woman you’d had to save not once, but twice? How sexy was the sight of someone covered in filth, bleeding to death, in shock, and losing the fight to stay conscious?

I walked on, heading along the road that led vaguely toward the wooded area, musing at my new indifference. I was going to miss her when we finally parted, that much had not changed. But I wasn’t going to get that same heart-rending ache that had threatened to overwhelm me earlier, and in spite of everything I couldn’t fully understand why.

After another half an hour, I rounded a long bend in the road and stopped. Up ahead, a couple of old abandoned vehicles stood at the side of the road. From the damaged front ends, it seemed as though they’d been left as the result of a crash. Evidently no one had thought enough of them to return. Perhaps they had been considered unsalvageable. Or perhaps no one had survived long enough to try.
It was a disquieting thought and one I was happy to shove aside. Let the answer be a mystery for the ages.

Beyond the wrecked and rusting vehicles stood an old panel van that looked as if it had belonged to the Soviet equivalent of The A-Team. It seemed intact enough, despite resting on rusting springs and expired tyres. It would serve our purpose.

Crouching as low as I could without putting Blondie down again, I began turning my head slowly from side to side, my eyes remaining fixed on the vehicles, my mouth slightly open to eliminate noises from swallowing and thus aid hearing.

Nothing. No sounds of animals stalking through the undergrowth, no voices, no glow from a campfire… Nothing but the wind in the grass and the soft rustling of stirring leaves. A cold feeling prickled on my neck and scalp and I shivered. I hesitated, tense, feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

I turned my head to the left, scouring the treeline, looking for shape, shine, silhouette, movement. All was still, yet I felt watched, not by wild animals. By humans, the most ruthless predator the world had ever seen.

You’re getting paranoid, an inner voice whispered. You know you’re more susceptible to paranoia when you’re tired. You’re wrecked. Look at you. Physically, emotionally…you’re fucked. Get into shelter. Sleep.

It was true. Despite the sleep I’d had earlier, I’d still been dog-tired when we started out. It really hadn’t been that long since we’d left the car, but it had been a long couple of days and I’d pushed myself harder than I had in years. I’d known anyway that I was slightly out of shape – keeping fit in the army was easy and there was tangible purpose; as a civilian, that purpose had not existed and I wasn’t one of those gym-bunnies you saw, rocking up to piss about on a treadmill in their day-glo kit and paying a small fortune for the privilege – but I was still pissed off at how hard I was finding this.

From paranoia to self-pity. Yep, that’s how it goes. You need to rest.

I shivered again, this time from the cold; a big quiver that wracked my body and caused my stomach to scrunch up and quiver in odd, uncomfortable pulses. I knew that was it, I had to stop and get warm. I had to get my body temperature back up to something like normal, otherwise I’d be on the slippery slope. A hot drink would go down a treat, even warm water would do. And water could be used for other things, like making sure all our wounds were finally cleaned out. God only knew what had been in that swamp, what might have died or been dumped in there, and I had the feeling antibiotics were going to be in pretty short supply around here. Still, there were remedies, plants, herbs…

I refocused, got back to thinking just one step ahead rather than twenty. Never mind what might be; I needed to deal with what was.

‘Looks like we might be in luck,’ I muttered to the recumbent form over my shoulder. ‘We’ll kip in that van for the rest of tonight. It’ll be nice and warm in there after a bit. Then in the morning I’ll sort you out and try to find help. How’s that sound?’

‘Mnh-hm?’ she grumbled.

‘That’s right,’ I said, happily, moving up towards the van. ‘Shelter. We’re going to be all right, you’ll see.’

I was ten metres from the promised land of the van when the first of the armed men stepped out from behind it. Three more followed and a couple of others emerged from the trees. I was mildly gratified by the knowledge that the feeling I’d got hadn’t been paranoia, after all.

I stopped. Were these bandits? Mercs? They definitely weren’t regular soldiers – their clothing and weapons were too random, too eclectic, for that. I saw AKs, shotguns, assorted pistols, even an MP5. But there was no whooping and shouting, no elation at getting the drop on two helpless newbies, so I guessed these weren’t bandits.

I hoped the guess was right.

One of the Stalkers stepped forward, slowly inspecting and rubbing his hands as if removing dirt that had dared sully his gloves. His gaze appeared to remain fixed upon this task, yet his posture said he was all too aware of my presence and could react should the occasion demand. I had no doubt that reaction would be deadly.

‘We’ll take her from here, Stalker,’ he said. His tone was firm, no-nonsense, and even though he spoke in Russian, his accent was unmistakably American.

*

The cabin lay at the edge of the woods, far enough from the track to be secluded and about fifteen minutes’ walk from the abandoned cars. The road itself had arced around the woods until it crossed a thin brook, at which point it veered right and headed off to who knew where. The cabin made a good place to hole up, especially if you happened to be an artefact smuggler.

The squad had moved in silence, and it now broke apart fifty metres from the structure, spreading out, weapons ready, approaching the cabin as if for the first time. And all without a word of command being spoken. Whoever these guys were, they were definitely not bandits.
‘We wait here,’ the leader said, moving into the treeline. The man now carrying Blondie was already there, down on one knee, pistol drawn while he clutched the woman’s thighs with his other arm.

The group’s leader raised a set of NVGs, eventually grunting with satisfaction.

‘All clear,’ he murmured, having apparently received a signal. ‘We can move up.’

By the time we reached and entered the cabin, the squad had dispersed to their duty positions and the main room was illuminated by candles burning in makeshift lanterns. There were no windows, and the room was served by two doors – one leading to the porch and the door to the outside, with these entry points set at right angles to each other, and the other, interior door leading further into the structure. A short staircase led up to what must have been a fairly large attic space. Hushed voices drifted down from up there.

‘Clear.’

‘Clear.’

Quiet footsteps as a man in a balaclava came halfway down.

‘All clear, boss.’

The leader nodded and the guy hustled quietly back upstairs.

‘Magda?’ the leader now called.

‘Clear,’ a woman’s voice called back.

I looked around. The room was furnished as comfortably as I guess The Zone allowed. Two old, musty-smelling sofas were set against the two of the walls, a low table set between them. An armchair stood alone in the far corner, facing both doors, clearly the leader’s spot. Three army-style cots were lined nose-to-tail along the wall behind the main door.

The guy carrying Blondie walked straight through. Perhaps they had some sort of medical bay back there. It could have led to a cellar. Either way, there was clearly help to be had back there, and that was what she needed.

‘You’re safe here,’ the leader said, noticing my appraisal of the cabin. ‘Three of my guys are up there –’ He jerked a thumb at the ceiling. ‘Watching the surrounding terrain through night vis. We’re covering the sole way in or out. Then I’ve got another look out post at ground level. One up, but operating one of the .50 cals I…happened to acquire.’

‘One way in and out’s a bit risky, isn’t it?’ I said, in English. He looked surprised. ‘It’s okay. I know you’re American. You can take the boy out of Kansas, and all that.’

‘I’m not from Kansas,’ he said.

I shrugged. ‘Whatever. You get the point.’ I waved towards the door. ‘Aren’t you worried about getting pinned down?’

He smiled. ‘Not really. We could take anyone trying to approach the door way before they get close – even if they try to sneak round through the trees. We’re pretty well provisioned here. Food, ammo…it’s not a problem.’ He let the smile slide. ‘In any case, there are…things…out in the woods that’ll take care of this place for us.’

‘Mutants?’

He shook his head. ‘Not so many. I’m talking about anomalies. Then there’s the terrain. As you found out, it can be boggy around these parts. Usually, that’d mean bloodsuckers or snorks, but for some reason they don’t hang down here so much. We get the odd blind dog or cat – they’re nothing you want to mess with, I can tell you that – but…’

Something he’d just said snagged my attention.

‘“As you found out”? How do you know what we found out?’

He eyed my filthy, tattered clothing. ‘It’s pretty obvious,’ he said. ‘Even if we hadn’t been watching. It was a mistake to use the road, though. Made it pretty obvious where you were headed. All we had to do was head back to the abandoned cars and wait. We knew you’d get there eventually.’

He smiled and continued to watch me, his eyes calm, calculating, inquiring. There was a sharp mind behind those eyes; a complex individual that you might know for thirty years…and still have no idea what really made him tick.

Not that he had another thirty years left, by the look of him. It wasn’t that he looked old or frail, though it was obvious that he’d been stalking around the planet for years before the original accident at Chernobyl had occurred. His face didn’t betray his age as some did. But there was something, something hard to define. It was like looking at an old wolf and knowing he might not be as fast as he once was and his teeth may not be as sharp, but he was nevertheless a dangerous beast, perhaps more dangerous, in all sorts of ways.

He rested his hands on his belt. His right hand first caressed and then patted the butt of his holstered Sig Sauer P226 in a way that made me wonder if he was trying to figure what to do with me: recruit me, let me go, or slot me.

‘But see, there’s something I don’t get,’ he said. ‘I know the place you came in pretty well, and I don’t get why she came that way. It’s always guarded – fence is weak and the high ground makes a good vantage point – and it’s too damn close to this place. You wouldn’t know it, having carried her all that way, but the perimeter’s barely thirty minutes from here – probably not even that, I don’t know because we don’t go out that way. In any case, she knew that slope was there. Knew what it led into. Why the holy hell did she choose that exact spot?’

‘Well, we were late,’ I said. ‘The weather closed in on the drive up, and –’

‘That don’t matter worth a shit, son,’ he said. ‘If she hadn’t made our RV tonight, she knew enough to lie up outside the perimeter and try again tomorrow, same window. And by the way, feel free to park your ass.’

I sat down on one of the sofas, rubbing my arms and hugging myself to get warm again. Just being inside was bliss, but it wasn’t enough.

‘I think her coming in tonight might be my fault, then,’ I said. ‘If she had been alone, I’m sure she’d have done it the way you say. As it was, we were going to park up at Kovalivka –’

‘Kovalivka!’ he cried. ‘Jesus Christ fucking bananas! Why there?’

‘No idea. I didn’t even know the place existed until she mentioned it. Anyway, we carried on. I was asleep. When she woke me up, we were parked up somewhere. I don’t know where that was. We moved to the fence. There was a guard. You were watching, you must have seen some of what happened, the lights…’

I broke off as he shook his head

‘You’re not hearing me. None it makes any sense. She’s never come in that way before, never gone anywhere near Kovalivka, never even been within a couple of klicks of that swamp. It was an area she knew to avoid like the plague.’ He shook his head again, no doubt intending to have words with her about it when she woke up. If she woke up.

The guy who had carried her through to the other room came back in and tossed me my jumper, and he and the older man shared a quick, angry sounding exchange in Ukrainian while I gratefully pulled the garment back on. Some of the things they said, I found I could hazard a guess at the meaning of. None of it seemed to be putting me in the best light, despite the fact that I’d saved her life. Maybe the way they figured it, she wouldn’t have needed saving in the first place if it hadn’t been for me.

In the end, the leader grimaced and waved the guy away, saying something that was probably the Ukrainian for ‘Okay, okay, now fuck off.’ If it was, it worked, because the guy went back to the other room, presumably to keep an eye on his patient, though I didn’t care for the look he gave me on the way past.

‘Is she okay?’ I asked.

‘What?’ he said, grimacing as he thought. His face relaxed. ‘Yeah, yeah, she’s fine. Will be, at any rate. Marek is one of the best medics in The Zone. She couldn’t be in better hands if she’d been taken to a proper hospital. The Zone provides things that can help. She’ll recover, but it might take time, and time’s just what we don’t have.’

I frowned. ‘How come? If this place is your base –’

‘This place is a base, but only when we…have business near the perimeter. Even with the defences and the location, it’d be too risky to live this close permanently.’

‘But your kit…the weapons…’

‘The .50 cals get left, but we take the firing mechanisms.’ He smiled a crafty, wolfish smile. ‘And there are the “little surprises”, just in case.’

We lapsed into silence. He was comfortable with it. I, despite my anti-interrogation training, was not. Partly, it was because he was so still. The only part of him that moved was his fingers as they tap-tap-tapped away on the handle of the Sig.

‘What’s your name, son?’ he eventually asked.

‘Taylor. Ste –’

He drew breath harshly through his teeth, cutting me off.

‘No real names, boy,’ he warned, using a term I hadn’t had directed at me in almost twenty years. ‘No one wants to know who you were.’

‘I…I…don’t know then. I don’t have any other name.’

‘Come on. Think of one,’ he said. ‘I’m Earlywine. Some call me The Old Stalker. You can see why, you have eyes. Certain people call me “Old Man”.’ His voice remained low, quiet, but something in his tone told me that I was not, and probably never would be, part of this latter select group. ‘The blonde you almost got killed and were good enough to rescue calls herself Tenevaya-Devochka Apokalipsisa, means Shadow-Girl of the Apocalypse. We call her DevChick – though if you call her that –’

‘I die. Yeah, I’ve already had that. I thought it was just some weirdness on her part.’

Earlywine chuckled. ‘Your mistake.’ He looked at me speculatively. ‘She knew your name, your real one, right? Did she call you anything else? Refer to you in some way?’

I thought back. ‘She said I was snork bait.’

He laughed. ‘Snorkbait!’ he roared, though I didn’t see what was so funny. ‘There you go, then. That’s your Zone name.’ He chuckled again, shaking his head. ‘Snorkbait. That’s my girl. So, why are you here…Snorkbait?’

I shrugged. ‘Beats me. I know how me and De…her…hooked up, but I don’t know why. I guess she just figured I was heading for The Zone and thought she’d let me tag along, seeing as she was heading in herself.’

‘Yes. I suppose that might be it,’ he said, rubbing his chin. ‘But it’s not like her. Oh, she brings people in, I know, but the fee’s usually pretty high and she brings only the best people.’ His eyes flickered over me again, making it clear that he felt she had made an error of judgement this time. ‘Her usual ways in are well patrolled, but she knows the guards and pays them well to turn a blind eye. I wonder why she did it differently this time?’

‘No idea. I just assumed Kovalivka was one of her usual ways. She seemed to know how to get there well enough.’

‘Did she tell you why she was headed for The Zone?’

I nodded. ‘She said she traded artefacts on the outside for someone – which I’m guessing is you – but that she had been found out.’ I paused. ‘The bra I used on her leg was one I bought her this morning after she told me she couldn’t risk going home to pack.’

‘She’s paid you back?’

‘Yes.’

He nodded, as if to himself. ‘So you hired a car to get to Kovalivka?’ he said.

‘No. She left me in a CCTV dead-zone came back for me in an old Lada. I assumed it was hers.’

He frowned and shook his head. ‘So she can’t get her clothes, but she goes back for her car? Makes no goddamn sense that I can see,’ he mused. ‘Anyway, she’ll be up and about soon enough. I can ask her then.’

‘Boss,’ a voice called down from upstairs. ‘Radio traffic says foot and gunship patrols at dawn, starting in sector delta-five.’

‘Shit,’ he said, then saw how clueless I was. ‘Delta-five’s where you came in, kid. This’ll be one of the first places they check out. We’d better make ourselves scarce.’

He strode across the room to the interior door, calling for Marek and spouting Ukrainian. I rose, getting the feeling that I wasn’t part of the “we” he meant and was about to be dismissed, thrown to the wolves.

‘I’d like to be with you when she wakes up.’

‘Why?’ Earlywine demanded, looking at me.

‘Well…I’d like to –’

‘It won’t be possible,’ he said. He took a plastic bag – similar to the ones I used to take change to the bank in – from Marek and asked for something else. Marek seemed to be saying there were none, and whoever needed it was shit out of luck.

‘Why can’t I go with you?’ I asked. ‘Look, I’m new to The Zone. I’ve got no weapons, no kit – I lost everything I had when we came over the wire. I’m knackered without basic kit. I’m as good as dead alone, if The Zone’s half as bad as it’s meant to be. You’ve got to help me.’

‘I ain’t gotta do squat, my young friend,’ he snapped. ‘Bad enough she was having to come this side of the fence, let alone that she had to be delayed by you. Now she’s lying injured and unconscious, and we’ve got…’ He checked his watch, made a rough mental calculation. ‘We’ve got about three hours to get the hell out of here and as far into The Zone as we can to make sure we’re safe.’ He thrust the bag of assorted bits of metal at me. ‘I’d strongly suggest you do the same – preferably in the opposite direction to us.’

‘But –’

‘Snorkbait. She named you right. And you’re right: you ain’t gonna last five minutes out there, kid. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. You could always go back, hand yourself in. You might get lucky and get back over without being arrested or shot.’

‘I’ve got nothing to go back to,’ I said.

‘Not my problem. Jesus, if I helped every half-assed hopeful that jumped the wire –’

‘Hang on a sec. I’m not some fucking dreamer who came here because he thought The Zone was romantic, or any of that shit. I’m a ex-soldier. SAS. I –’

‘Friend – and I warn you it’s getting pretty hard to keep calling you that – I don’t care if you’re the bastard child of John Rambo and Bruce Lee begat through an Amazonian princess. As far as I’m concerned, you’re just another noob that doesn’t know what he’s into, and noobs are a liability. Right now, we’ve already got one person to carry. I can’t make that two. Now, I’ve done what I can. I would’ve given you a jacket and a pistol at least, but Marek tells me we’ve got none going spare for you.’

‘Listen to me. I want to stay with her to make sure she’s alright. I owe her that.’

‘We take care of our own. As for you…what can I say? Rookie camp’s pretty well north-east from here. There are some anomalies but they’re easy to spot and there aren’t so many mutants. As for kit…Sidorovich might be able to sort you out, but I got no other help for you. Sorry, kid,’ he said, his hand now resting firmly on the butt of the Sig. ‘See ya round, maybe,’ he continued, ushering me to the door and watching to make sure I left. ‘The Zone’s big…but not that big.’
 
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