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  02:12:48  17 September 2009
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
Messages: 4290

---QUOTATION---

‘Stalker!’ a strained voice called from the top of the escarpment, and I stopped, turning. ‘Good work with the woman, but we could have killed you both just now. The favour is returned. Next time we meet, one of us will die!’
---END QUOTATION---



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  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.’
  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.
  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.
  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.
  14:38:04  23 September 2009
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
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.’
  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.
  02:08:38  1 October 2009
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
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.’
  03:14:02  2 October 2009
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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.’
  19:53:03  2 October 2009
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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)
  01:58:05  7 October 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

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

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

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

He turned away from the rookie Stalker.

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

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

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

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

Wolf watched me, his expression unreadable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Two more,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

XIII

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

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

‘Yeah. The camp just seemed strange.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head. ‘Sorry.’

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

‘What’s that mean?’

‘Well, you know. Petya and all.’

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

‘Nice. Thanks for that,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shot status, Runner Three. Over.’

Shot is green. Repeat, green. Over.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hammer to Runners. Sit-reps, over.’

Runner One, double green.

Runner Two, green.’

Runner Three, green.

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

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

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

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

Acknowledged, Runner Three. All call-signs standby.

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

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

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

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

Hammer to Runner Four, status? Over.’

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

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

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

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

Runner Four, report. Over.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

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

Edit:
And...

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



http://img40.imageshack.us/img40/3439/wolfraid004.jpg
  17:00:42  14 October 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

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

All: Thanks for the patience, guys.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

Running footsteps from behind me announced Vasya’s arrival.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Do it, Olga. Help him.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You sure?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How do you mean?’ I frowned.

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

‘I hit the target. He dropped.’

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

‘Andriy P’s not dead,’ I put in.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

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


---QUOTATION---

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

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

---END QUOTATION---



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

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

 

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

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

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

‘Not tempted to kick his ass, then?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

We struggled back through the bushes, into the courtyard.

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m not welcome at Sidorovich’s.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brief laughter from the others, albeit grudgingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Clear,’ Vasya replied, briskly.

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

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

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

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



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

 

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

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

*****

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

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

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Got ammo?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t know, man…’

‘Up to you. I’m willing to trade.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
On forum: 06/28/2008
Messages: 271

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



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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Hey, man. Any news?’ he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I guess, man,’ he said, unhappily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Olga’s staying up there, you say?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’ll cover. Want to get sorted now?’

‘Might as well.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ready,’ he said, cradling his weapon.

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

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

‘Thanks for the tablets,’ she said.

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

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

Bouncing to get the packs into a more comfortable position once more, we moved out of rookie camp and headed north.
  14:24:19  26 November 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

Hey guys. Sorry this is way later than intended. RL stuff and illness held me up.

*****

‘Wait up. I want to check something,’ Vasiliy called as we approached the old road bridge, and I had a terrible idea that I knew exactly what it was he wanted to see – or more precisely, what he wanted to do to what he saw.

‘Do you have to? I’d rather not be buggering about out here once it starts getting properly dark, know what I mean? Let’s just get on,’ I said, knowing he was never going to fall for the “time’s getting on” argument. He knew as well as I did that, although the shadows were getting pretty long already and the sun was a copper-red colour rather than warm orange or yellowish-white, there was still more than enough light in the day for what he had in mind.

‘It won’t take long,’ he said, his tone making it clear he was going whether I liked it or not. ‘I just want to know where Petya was when you found him.’

‘Come on. We haven’t got time for this.’

No reply. A rustle from behind me and to my right told me he’d gone trundling off.

‘If you piss any of the local wildlife off, you’re on your own,’ I warned.

Vasiliy laughed, but not with amusement. ‘I thought as much, you fucking tree-hugger. You’re interested in the wrong type of pussy. Just wait there.’

Like I’ve got a choice, I thought, moving off the road and crouching beside a tree. The L.85 was already in at my shoulder, muzzle down, as I had been taught so many years ago. I could get rounds away in less than half a second from this position. It was all stuff born of years of practice and training, especially for Northern Ireland. Over there, you used whatever cover you could: garden walls, hedges, gateways, always covering your oppo, always making sure they were safe, because if your mate was okay, you were okay. Then there was the larger ‘brick’: in Ulster, you didn’t patrol as an individual, or even as a two-man team; you patrolled as a platoon, you thought as a platoon. You and your oppo were just a small cog in the larger machine. For the most part, the system had worked. There were casualties, as there is in any war, but if you looked only at the numbers, the ratio of men-in-theatre to those killed in action showed that you had to be seriously unlucky to get taken out. Not that the numbers were ever any comfort to grieving families, on either side of the conflict.

I reached up and pinched my cheek, as I always did when I was reminded of what I’d seen in Belfast, Londonderry, and the surrounding towns and villages. It was mental terrain that was too easy to get lost in – easier, in many ways, than my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’d gone over when The Troubles were winding down and the peace process was taking hold. What it had been like for the guys in the 70s…

I pinched myself again, harder. It didn’t matter. Cut away. Leave it.
It was easier said than done, especially when watching Vasiliy’s back as he headed towards the bushes reminded me so strongly of things I’d seen and done almost twenty years before.

‘Forget it, for fuck’s sake,’ I muttered, and tried to focus on my surroundings. I needed to be switched on, watching all around as well as keeping my eye on Vasiliy. I scanned the area to my left and moved my eyes slowly back to where Vasiliy was headed, checking for any hint of movement. From his posture, I could tell that Vasiliy’s eyes were intent on the ground ahead of him. His movements were slow and methodical, and he was lifting his feet well clear of the ground before placing them gently down again, using the outside of his foot to move longer grass aside before tramping it down, exactly as I had done earlier. It looked like something from a Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, but when you’re approaching a potential danger or trying to move covertly, looking a pillock is the last thing on your mind.

He got closer to the bushes, shotgun at the ready. A subtle movement of the arm told me he’d moved the hammers back, ready to rock ‘n’ roll, and without thinking I also thumbed my safety to the off position, watching intently as he began to sweep branches aside with the barrel of his weapon, his body shape betraying the tension in his muscles. The slightest quiver from in there, and the kittens would be getting the good news off some 12x72 shot. I wasn’t going to let that happen, regardless of what they’d grow into.

I removed Vasya’s pack and put it in front of me, using it as a knee-brace to counter the uneven ground around the base of the tree, and raised the L.85 into a proper aim. It was barely needed at this range, but if I had to kill Vasiliy I had to make the first shot was the only shot – the report would easily reach the village, and I didn’t need to be around when the follow-up arrived. They’d know what had happened, they weren’t stupid, and that meant I’d need to be gone, out of PDA range, in a decent hiding place if not in dead ground and legging it. As for Vasya’s pack…well he’d have to find some other donkey to carry his kit to the Autopark. I sure as hell wouldn’t be taking it with me if I had to leg it, despite the useful stuff he might have in there.

I wonder what shooting Vasiliy would mean for my reputation and classification. I’d be pegged as someone for Loners to watch out for, that much was obvious. But what else? Would I be classed as a Bandit? If so, it’d make life considerably more difficult, not least because I had absolutely no sympathy with the Bandits. So what would I be, if not a Loner or a Bandit? A Merc? Would I even get a choice?

It seemed unlikely. Whoever or whatever controlled these things would make their own decision. I guess I might find out on a PDA; someone else’s, if not mine. The only certainties were that Loners would want me dead, Duty would also be out to get me, and I was already an enemy of the Bandits – even if they didn’t realize it yet. My only chance would be to run north and take my chances with whoever and whatever awaited me nearer the centre of The Zone.

I gave a mental shrug. Fuck it. I’d cross those bridges if or when I came to them. As someone or other once said “A plan is just a list of things that can go wrong”.

Vasiliy was continuing to move branches aside. Then he stopped, straightened, and walked around to the other side of the bush, his gait more relaxed now. All I could see was his head and shoulders, the rest of him was a blur through the foliage, discernible only when he moved.

I didn’t understand. The kittens had been right there. From what I’d gathered, they were too young to be up and about themselves. What did this mean? Were they already dead? And if so, how? The mother?

My mind went back to the arrival of the relief mob, the way they had seemed to approach in a straggled out, random manner rather than in a more or less evenly spaced column, as they should have been if they were patrolling in. Had they stopped heard the story of Petya, stopping off to take revenge? Surely not – I’d have heard the shots. But…

I knew I shouldn’t, but I felt bad for those kittens. It was hard to explain. The best I could think of was that the kittens hadn’t killed anything or anyone just yet – indeed, there was no proof that the mother had killed Petya; she only ate him. At the same time, it couldn’t be it, because I knew the chances were good that, if they lived to maturity, some Stalker would meet their end by becoming kitty chow. It therefore made sense to kill them whenever and wherever you could. I just couldn’t imagine doing it myself, or being around and letting it happen. Maybe Vasiliy was right: I was a “fucking tree-hugger”, after all.

Vasiliy’s head disappeared suddenly, causing me to jump. I half-rose, ready to run over, but there were no cries of alarm or screams of agony. If he had been attacked, he was already dead, and all I’d achieve by charging over there would be to become dessert for whatever had got him. At the same time, arriving at the Autopark without him and having to explain what had happened didn’t fill me with delight, either.

I waited, concerned. The seconds stretched out. I’d have to go over there and find out what had gone on. Maybe he’d trapped his foot, fallen, banging his head on a rock…anything. He’d been out of sight too long. I had to do something…

Stay, the interior voice/feeling/presence from earlier insisted. Stay where you are.

My knees buckled. My spine seemed to turn to water, and I sank back into my previous kneeling position, whereupon the strength and solidity of my bones returned. I tried to stand again, but couldn’t. My body simply refused to rise. What the fuck was happening to me?

Nothing *laughter*.

I was shaking my head, trying to clear the mental fog, when Vasiliy straightened again, evidently having checked something out. Maybe he’d been examining tracks or seeing how fresh a lump of crap was, something like that. Whatever it had been, it seemed to be enough to satisfy him as he started heading back to the road.

The mental fog lifted again and I almost pitched forward, unaware until then that I’d still been trying to stand. A sick headache was starting to get going in the back of my head and my eyeballs throbbed as if something had tried to force them out from the inside.

‘Hey, stop your daydreaming over there. What’s up, you lost in tree-hugger heaven or something?’ he said, drawing close enough to speak without having to shout. He looked at me intently and frowned. ‘Hey, man…you okay? You want to go back to the village?’

I shook my head. ‘No, I’ll be fine. Probably just hungry or getting dehydrated or something. It’s been a tough couple of days.’

He grunted. ‘Up to you. You look like shit, though – I mean, not that you didn’t before, but…’

‘I’ll be fine. I’ll get Olga to check me out when we get to the Autopark. Or somebody. Come on, let’s get moving again.’

I slipped Vasya’s pack back over my shoulder once more and moved back onto the road, feeling so nauseous I only just remembered to safety the L.85 again.

‘Anything salvageable back there?’ I asked, once Vasiliy had caught up.

‘What d’you think? Clothes were ripped to shit, even his boots.’ He spat. ‘Fuck, they were damn nice boots too, man. I just wish I could get a clear shot at that cat. Just one. Her man-eating days would soon be over, the fucking whoring bitch.’

I rubbed my eyes, pressing against them. ‘Maybe you’ll get your chance, one day,’ I said. ‘You never know.’

Vasiliy mumbled something I didn’t get and fell in beside me, eyes on the ground to the left of the bridge while I watched the right. A furry head appeared around a half-rotten tree stump away in the vale, and I watched the cat watching me.

And what did you do with your babies, eh? I thought. Did you move them? I bet you did. Moved them to where we wouldn’t find them.

I smiled, strangely relieved and grateful to see she was okay, but more relieved that she had recognized the potential danger from other humans and, by moving, had spared me from having to shoot Vasiliy.

We walked over the bridge and along the road to the bus stop in silence. We were never going to be best mates, or any kind of mates at all – we were using each other, him because he was scared to head up here alone, me because I hadn’t relished carrying two or three full packs. I certainly didn’t need him for the protection, even if it was a confidence boost to have company.

He slowed drastically just as we hit the turn off to the Autopark, allowing a pretty large gap to form between us.

‘Keep up!’ I called over my shoulder. ‘We’re nearly there.’

‘Got a message from Olga. I’ll catch up,’ he said, dropping even further behind. I turned, walking backwards. He’d stopped in the middle of the track and was scowling at his PDA.

I turned back, skirting the anomaly that droned and hummed near the centre-point. I wasn’t too worried about him. Someone had been watching us from the flat roof where my target had been since just before we’d reached the turn off, and even at this distance I could hear laughter and singing. We were safe enough. Besides, Vasiliy had his shotgun handy in case of a surprise critter attack.

Feeling knackered but relieved at the prospect of finally being able to rest, I smiled and waved up at the sentry, who lowered his field glasses and leaned over, evidently telling someone we’d arrived. Easing the strap of Vasya’s pack from my shoulder, I stopped to wait for Vasiliy and turned to urge him on again. I needn’t have bothered. Vasiliy was no more than five yards away, and I closed my mouth again without uttering a sound.

Both barrels of Vasiliy’s shotgun were level with my head. The hammers, I saw, were back. Another ounce or two of pressure on those triggers and my face – my entire head – would be nothing but pulp.

‘What the fuck –’ I stuttered.

‘Turn around. Get in. Raise that fucking piece of NATO shit high, one hand…and keep it away from anything important,’ Vasiliy spat, being careful to keep his distance – not that he needed to; if I tried anything here, I’d have a dozen other Stalkers climbing aboard in no time.

I did as he ordered, wondering what sort of shit I was in now. Was this about Petya, or was this punishment for what had happened earlier, now the whole job was done? Was that how it went here, fuck up and the punishment is death…assuming you survive the initial fuck up? If so, how did people learn? The dead tend not to learn their lessons.

‘What’s this about, Vasiliy?’ I asked.

‘As if you don’t know. Just shut up and get in.’

So it was about earlier, then. I should have known. All that bullshit about “heavier than expected losses”, and I had fallen for it. What a dickhead.

I walked through into the courtyard. The music and laughter I’d heard earlier had come to an abrupt halt now, stopping as suddenly as the piano cuts out in an old Western when the quiet, dangerous stranger enters the saloon. I tried a smile when I saw Vasya waiting for me. It felt awkward, false. I let it drop completely when he didn’t smile back. Footsteps came out of the room to my left and Olga snatched the L.85 from my grasp.

‘Vasya, what’s going on, mate?’

Now he smiled. It was a smile I didn’t care for at all. It didn’t get anywhere near his eyes and looked edgy, dangerous. If things had looked bleak before, they now seemed absolutely cataclysmic.
‘There’s just a couple of things we need to know, mate,’ he said, swinging the butt of his Mosin-Nagant into my stomach on the last word.

I sank to my knees, winded. What had I thought on my way to the village earlier? No more being the victim, no more getting filled in? Well, here I was again, on the deck, and this time a dozen or more pissed off Stalkers – and Vasiliy’s shotgun – were going to make damn sure I was a victim again, even if I still didn’t fully understand what I was being punished for.

‘What –’ I wheezed, looking up at Vasya.

Vasya looked over me and nodded to Vasiliy. This wasn’t good at all. I lowered my head and closed my eyes. So this was it. Goodbye cruel world, and all that shit. I supposed this was when I was meant to have last thoughts about my mother, or wife, or – if I’d ever had any – kids, but there was nothing. No ‘life flashing before the eyes’, nothing. I felt vaguely let down.

I was still waiting for the full re-run of events from my life when Vasiliy’s boot-toe caught me flush in the bollocks. It was an aim to be proud of, and delivered with just the right amount of force and precision to be fully effective. It’s not always about a massively hard whack. Where kicks in the happy sacs are concerned, less is often more. In this case, Vasiliy’s expert effort caused me to pant, gasp, try to scream and scrabble around in an effort to crawl away. At the same time, bile spewed from my mouth. Then the secondary, throbbing ache got to me and I strained in a silent, breathless scream until Olga stepped round in front of me. She waited, feet planted shoulder-width apart, until I had craned my neck so I could look up at her. I must have been a picture: face crimson, eyes bloodshot, teary and bulging, begging for mercy, veins sticking out everywhere… It never even gave her pause. She looked down at me, eyes cold, and kicked me in the mouth. Her heavy, mud-encrusted boot smashed against my lips, splitting them, and I felt a tooth tear loose from the gum. Blood start to flow. I tried to spit it out but lacked the energy and wind, instead having to let everything dribble out onto my chin. The tooth, caught in thick, bloody drool, rolled out and landed about an inch from my nose.

‘Check your kit, Olga,’ Vasya said, pinning my head to the floor with his boot while Vasiliy dragged my pack off my shoulders and used the straps to control my hands. Vasya’s pack was torn free of my upper arm, yanking it back almost to breaking point. ‘If there’s anything missing, Snorkbait – if you’ve stolen from me as well…’

‘I haven’t…I didn’t,’ I began, but Vasya was in no mood to listen. His foot pressed harder on the back of my head, the pressure forcing my nose into the concrete. Cracking noises sounded in my head and my sinuses suddenly felt clearer, roomier, but horribly painful. My nose was breaking and still the pressure came. I began to writhe, my body automatically trying to get clear of potential harm. A thin scream rose as the pressure grew even more intense. I could feel the hard cartilage beginning to buckle. My nose was actually breaking in slow motion. I could feel blood back there, filling the cavities. I coughed, gasped for air, coughed again, still screaming that reedy, nasal scream.

The foot lifted, the pressure was relieved, and I raised my head, desperate for air. The pain in my nose and sinuses was monstrous and breathing through either nose or mouth sent rivers of agony screaming through my head. Tears blurred my vision and it took a moment for me to realize I was actually crying. Not big ‘boo-hoo’ tears, but the ones caused by prolonged pain.

‘It’s true. He’s a thief,’ Olga said, meeting Vasya’s gaze. ‘He’s been clever, though. He’s not taken all of anything, but some of everything. If you didn’t look close, you wouldn’t know straight away. I mean, I had three spare clips and another two hundred rounds in here earlier. Now I’ve got the clips, empty save for one round in the top, and a hundred rounds besides. Half of my food is gone. I had two Stone Flowers and a Wrenched for trade with Sidorovich. One of the Stone Flowers has been taken.’

‘Same here, from what I can tell,’ Vasya said, quickly rummaging through his own kit. ‘Roughly half of everything. Check his pack.’

‘He’d have to be pretty stupid to carry the loot with him,’ a nearby Dutyer said.

‘He never left camp, man. If it’s not in his pack, then…’ Vasiliy replied.

‘You sure he didn’t slip out? Was he in your sight at all times?’

Vasiliy considered. ‘No, hardly ever. And he spoke to Dmitriy Monkey a lot.’

Vasya groaned. Olga only chuckled.

‘That fucking dope-head? Says it all: our stuff could be anywhere. Dmitriy wouldn’t notice if the Pope walked in,’ she said.

She was out of line. Sure, Dmitriy had seemed a little off it on the second occasion I’d gone to speak with him, but he’d seemed switched on enough apart from that. If anything, he’d been over-vigilant, almost paranoid about being attacked. Unless that had been his habit kicking in, telling him it was time for another hit.

‘Okay. If it’s not in his pack, he’s obviously stashed it somewhere – perhaps he even bribed this Dmitriy Monkey character. I’ll see what the Boss says about having him questioned. For now, let…Snorkbait, is it? Let him up. We’ll get the truth out of him. If he’s guilty…well, we’ll leave the punishment up to the victims.’

‘Throw the useless, thieving bastard into an anomaly,’ Olga muttered, standing back. ‘A fruit punch, ideally.’

‘Hm,’ the Dutyer said, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me off the floor. ‘Been making yourself popular, haven’t you, Stalker? Come on, with me.’
  00:19:10  27 November 2009
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

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

http://img512.imageshack.us/img512/701/cat01002.jpg

(ed: a left-right detail fixed in the pic)
  03:55:01  30 November 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Snorkbait,’ he began again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I wasn’t left with a lot of choice.’

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

‘I…I didn’t steal anything,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What? Who?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Vasya, you mean?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cut Snorkbait loose, Savko,’ Petrenko ordered.

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

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

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

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

‘Only very little,’ I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Vasya? Their names?’

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

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

‘Why text?’ Vasya frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was heading out, tonight, and woe betide anyone who tried stopping me.
  22:23:35  30 November 2009
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

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  16:49:23  11 December 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
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On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XXI

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

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

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

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

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

‘I need to make sure,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That close to Cordon and the perimeter?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What do you want me to do?’

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

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

‘Excellent,’ Danylo murmured.

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I won’t.’

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

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

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

The older man left, limping slightly.

‘Is he okay?’ I said.

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

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

‘What was that?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Balls,’ came a reply.

‘You’ve never felt a good pair.’

‘Unlike you, you fucking arse-jockey.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Colonel –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But this is The Zone.’

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

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

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

Petrenko raised a finger. ‘But he is an experienced soldier and a man who knows his own mind, Savko. All people have the right to decide how they live and how and when they die – or at least risk death’ He considered for a moment longer. ‘Right. Take him to Mykola. Give him whatever he need and that we can spare. Snorkbait, you are now a Mercenary soldier commissioned by me to serve the interests of the Duty faction for an unspecified amount of time. Status changes to this effect will be logged immediately and amended on your PDA within the hour. On my authority, you are to receive food and shelter from any Duty outpost or member should you require it.’ He tapped a message into his PDA and hit a key. Less than a second later, my PDA beeped a notification. ‘Show that message to the officer of the watch. Any problems, report the name and rank to me. I will deal with it. In the meantime,’ he said, crossing the room to retrieve his rifle before kneeling to drag a SPAS-12 out from a metal crate beneath his cot. ‘I believe you’ll be needing an escort.’
  14:03:28  16 December 2009
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Snorkbait?’

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

‘Right. Let’s go.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah,’ I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Unknown.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s so funny?’ Savko demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Gotta shoot it, guys!’ Petrenko warned.

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

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

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

‘How’s that?’

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, sir,’ Savko replied dutifully.

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

‘Yes, sir,’ Savko repeated.

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

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

I frowned. ‘How do you mean?’

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

‘An op?’ I ventured.

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

‘Search and rescue being…’ I prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

‘What did you do?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Savko!’

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

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

‘He was saying “I’m dying. Please help me”. They were probably his last thoughts. Or his strongest ones. Stick in The Zone long enough and you’ll hear all sorts of theories. At least his troubles are over now,’ Savko said, and turned to jog out of the tunnel.
  01:31:54  15 January 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

More on the way.

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Stalker.’

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

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

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

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

‘It’s okay, mate. I can see you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s blocked by anomalies.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah. Coupla days.’

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

‘How? Why?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell was wrong with me?
  05:37:35  16 January 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ she gasped.

‘You like being fucked.’

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

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

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

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

‘You’re going to kill me anyway.’

‘No, I’m not,’ I said, truthfully.

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

What she’d have made of Svetlana, I had no idea. It wasn’t that she was covered in them, but the ones she had seemed to make no sense. The patterns obviously meant something – the designs on her upper arms and on her lower back were to intricate to mean nothing – but they looked like some sort of obscure religious or tribal marking. Strangest of all, though, was the tattoo on the inside of her left forearm: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
  05:18:40  4 February 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

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

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

*****

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

‘What happens now, then?’ she asked.

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

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

‘That tattoo mean anything?’ I asked.

‘Which one?’ she replied.

‘The one on your inner forearm. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R one.’

‘Yes.’

I waited for more. It soon became obvious it wouldn’t be forthcoming.

‘So, what does it mean, then?’ I prompted.

She shrugged. ‘Depends on which story you believe.’

‘Where did you get it?’

‘Can’t remember. It must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time, though.’

‘What do you mean, you can’t remember? Were you drunk? High? What?’

‘Dunno. I didn’t have it, then I went north, artefact-hunting. Then I came back here, undressed, and there it was. That’s all I know.’

‘Who did you go north with? Have you seen any of them since? Did they get tattoos as well? Does it mean you’re part of some group or other, and that’s the way you’ll know others? Tell me, Svetlana. Am I going to get a load of mad screaming bastards after my head if you end up dead?’

‘I don’t know. It depends. Maybe,’ she said, then tilted her head quizzically. ‘Why would I end up dead, though? I thought you weren’t going to kill me.’

‘I’m not, unless you force me to. What I was going to do is hand you over to someone else. What happens to you then…’ I trailed off. What would happen if I handed her over to Rusty? Did it automatically mean she’d die, or would she be turned into a bloodsucker as well, become the Bride of Rusty instead of Dracula? And if so, did I really want that to happen?

‘You might as well kill me after all, then,’ she said. ‘Vasya and the others won’t be very forgiving.’ She looked me in the eye. ‘I think you already know what their idea of justice is. By the time you’ve sorted all this gear and are ready to move out, I’ll be part of one of those Fruit Punches in the tunnel.’

I stiffened. ‘You mean those blobs of glowing shit? They’re Fruit Punches?’

She nodded. ‘I forgot how new you are. Yeah, you get thrown into one of them – especially one of the big, mature ones, and…’ She shrugged. ‘It’s not quick, and it’s not nice. It’s like being in glue. You get stuck and you can’t get out. You can’t touch it to pull a part free and save yourself, and in the end you’re basically –’

‘Dissolved,’ I finished. ‘Jesus. Olga wanted to throw me into one of those things.’

She nodded again. ‘And clearly it’s what would happen to me, if they got hold of me. I’d rather go out with a bullet in my brain. So if you were going to hand me over to that lot…please, don’t. Finish me here. I’m not afraid of dying if I have to, as long as it’s quick.’

I met her gaze and saw the lack of guile in her eyes…as well as her lack of fear. My choices were clear: hand her over to the Stalkers, and let her die a slow, agonizing death; hand her over to Rusty for whatever that entailed; or kill her myself, now. It’d be easy enough; one round into the back of the head and it’d all be over. Justice, of a sort, would have been served and I’d have my revenge on her. The trouble was, living with myself after just topping her would be hard – perhaps too hard. All of which left secret option number four: Let her go, and allow The Zone to determine her fate. She’d have to be unarmed, of course, and with just enough provisions to get her to the nearest place of safety…but wouldn’t that just be condemning her to another sort of slow death? If I let her go like that, with her registered as a Bandit by now for sure, however that system worked, she’d be lucky to last the rest of the morning, let alone the day. True, she could go into Dark Valley, hook up with the Bandits there…but what would they do to her? What did they get up to? If she’d just end up as a slave of some sort, killing her now would be an act of mercy.

But then there was still the feeling that sodding tattoo gave me. I felt, instinctively, that killing her out of hand would be…what? Wrong? All killing was wrong, morally, legally and technically, but I’d done it before and would again. A mistake, then? But what sort of mistake? Was some funny kind of sixth sense trying to tell me I was going to need her later on? Or was she protected in some way? Is that what the tattoo was?

‘So,’ she said, looking at me as if she had read my thoughts as I’d had them. ‘Like I said, what happens now?’

I took a deep breath. What I should do – what I wanted to do when I remembered how close I’d come to being dissolved in a pool of gloopy, corrosive, radioactive crap – was kill her, either by shooting her myself or by letting Rusty have his way. But then, why shouldn’t Rusty have to search for his own food? He was a mutant now. Giving him food would be like running through wolf- and bear-infested woods with a load of lamb chops strapped to your legs; it’d make an easy target and you don’t invite predators to attack so they can develop a taste for human flesh and blood. If I let her go and he got her anyway…c’est la vie. Or la mort, depending. Either way, it’d be natural, the way of The Zone – as it had been with Petya Runner. As it might end up being with me.

‘I don’t know what to do with you, Svetlana. Honestly,’ I said. ‘My idea was to catch up to you, kill you, and give the others back what you’d taken.’ I sighed. ‘The thing is, I don’t think I can kill you. Not unless…’

‘You want to know how guilty I am,’ she said.

‘Yes. Before I make a decision, I want to know what you deserve. I need to.’

She tilted her head slightly to the right again. ‘Here’s the deal, then. You let me get dressed, and I tell you my side. As nice as this might be for you, I’m getting cold.’

‘Fair enough. But keep away from those weapons. You’ll dress over here, where I am now, and will move only when I give you the instructions. Clear?’

She gave a half-smile. ‘Clear.’

I edged around to my right so I was at right angles to her line of travel, keeping the pistol trained on her.

‘Right. Do not stand. Stand, and I shoot you. Crawl across the room to where I was just standing. Do not stop until your head touches the wall., then turn ninety degrees right and crawl until you’re in the corner. Do you understand what I want you to do?’

‘Yes,’ she nodded.

‘Good. Crawl now, Svetlana.’

Slowly easing herself onto all fours, she did as instructed.

‘Good. Now, I want you to turn around to face the centre of the room and lie flat on your stomach. You will bend your knees until your feet are as close to your arse as you can get then, and your kneecaps must be against the walls. Once that’s done and you’re lying down you must keep your forehead pressed to the floor. Yours arms must be outstretched with the palms clear of the floor, and your fingers must be spread as far apart as you can get them and outstretched, not curled. Is all that understood?’

‘Yes.’

‘Fine. Do that now, Svetlana.’

Again, I watched as she carried out my instructions. She flinched slightly as something bit into her exposed flesh, but made no sound or movement that I might deem threatening.

I moved over to the makeshift bed. ‘Well done, Svetlana. Remember, I am watching you all the time. It is now impossible for you to get up and attack me before I kill you. I do not want to kill you, Svetlana. Do you believe me?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

Keeping my eyes on my captive, I applied the safety on the pistol and slid the weapon into the waistband of my trousers before grabbing the first of the 74s and hitting the magazine release catch.

Svetlana didn’t move so much as an inch.

With the mag in my hand, I pressed down on the top round with my thumb. The clip was fully charged. I checked chamber. Empty. I slid the magazine back into the housing and pressed until it clicked. After cocking the 74 and slinging it over my shoulder, I repeated the clearing process with the second rifle, this time shoving the magazine up my sleeve and placing the weapon on top of their other kit. In an ideal world I would go through it all now, checking for sidearms and knives, but it wasn’t an ideal world and I couldn’t check the gear and keep an eye on Sveta at the same time. What I did was grab all the clothes I could see. It stood to reason that half of them had to be a decent fit for her, and maybe I’d find a decent belt or something to secure her hands with.

‘Right, let’s get you dressed, then,’ I said, sorting through the garments. ‘Move slowly. Sit up, then stand. Keep your movements slow and controlled. Move quickly or towards me, and you die. Do you understand?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay. Do it.’

I watched as she raised herself from the floor. Her breasts hung down, swinging as she moved. She looked so vulnerable, and I felt pissed off with myself for making her do all this. I could only imagine how I’d have felt in her position; naked, scared, stripped of all dignity, not knowing what was going to happen next... Christ, what the hell was I doing? This was the sort of shit I’d been sent to kill the Taliban for doing, once upon a time. Of course, back then it had been some dickhead freelancer who had managed to get herself lifted while out chasing a story, perhaps even the story: the location of old Osama himself, and we’d been tasked to go in and rescue her, taking out the enemy in the process. It had been too late, of course, and even though we’d taken ten enemy fighters out, the fuckers had had the last laugh: you only had to see the state of her body to know what they’d been up to.

I closed that line of thought down. This was different because I was different. Those arseholes had done what they did because it was what their fucked-up belief system was partly about. All I was doing was keeping control of a potentially dangerous situation. The fact was, I couldn’t trust Svetlana. I had to assume she’d kill me as soon as she got the chance.

When she was ready, I started throwing over those items that were clearly hers, and in another few minutes she was dressed again. I threw her boots over only after checking the lining, soles, and uppers for hidden delights like razor blades or small knives. I even frayed the middle of the laces with my teeth in case she’d threaded wire through them. She hadn’t.

‘Right. Sit down where you are, hands under your arse, legs crossed,’ I commanded. I didn’t want to sit down myself. If I did, among the nice, relatively comfy bedrolls and sleeping bags, I might end up nodding off. My eyes, already sore, now felt heavy, gritty and hot. Whatever else happened here, I was going to have to catch some serious zeds pretty soon. I was almost out on my feet.

‘That Moonlight might help,’ Svetlana said.

‘What?’

She smiled. ‘I can tell how tired you are. I know how tired you must be. I mean, you looked ready to sleep for a week the other night, but left to look for Petya yesterday before I was even awake. Then there was the raid, everything else that followed, then you chased us all the way here last night… I might not have got much sleep myself, but at least I caught some yesterday afternoon.’

‘So how will that thing help?’ I asked, trying not to yawn.

The smile became a little crooked and she averted her eyes. ‘It helps with stamina and endurance,’ she said.

‘I see,’ I said, then smiled as the full implication hit me. ‘Oh, I see. Your idea, or his?’

Her cheeks had gone bright red and she refused to meet my eyes.

‘Sorry,’ I said, unclipping the belt and wrestling it from under Aleks’s corpse. ‘Anyway, it’s not like he needs it anymore, eh?’

I drew the pistol from the waistband of my jeans and checked the safety was still on before clipping the belt around my waist. Almost immediately, the artefact began to glow a little brighter and I felt a brief surge of energy course through me. I still felt knackered and like I could sleep for about a month, but Svetlana had been right; the whatever-it-was-called had helped, at least a little. I licked the tips of my thumb and forefinger and pressed them into the corners of my eyes, rubbing gently. It made them feel better, or at least less sore, but not by much.

‘Come on then, let’s hear it,’ I said.

Her shoulders slumped. ‘It was my idea,’ she said, at length. ‘While you were out of camp looking for Petya, Wolf told the rest of us who’d be on the mission and who’d be left behind to guard the camp. We were all to take turns at the entry points, rotating every couple of hours so the others could get some food, sleep, or do whatever they wanted to do. Aleks and I had already planned on leaving – his sympathies lie…lay…more with the Bandits than with the Free Stalkers and he wanted no part of this new faction war, or whatever it will become. He wasn’t a Bandit himself, obviously, but he had friends up there, contacts who would be able to help us. We’d be better off, he said, and if it looked like the place really was going to get hit, we could always take off, perhaps even go back to the Big Land, if things looked really bad.
‘First, though, we had to play the game at the Village. We could hear the battle for the Autopark – it’s really not that far, and if you can hear firing in the Garbage from Fox’s…’ She paused, licking her lips. ‘Aleks was getting agitated. He kept asking why the Bandits up at the Gatehouse didn’t send people down and see what the noise was about, but it’s like Vasiliy Dynamo said; they’d probably just assume it was us against a Military patrol or something. After all, hearing gunfire isn’t uncommon anywhere in The Zone. There always seems to be someone shooting at something. Unless they received a message, they wouldn’t have known – and might not have cared either way. It’s not like yours was the first ever assault to take Autopark. There’ve been three or four raids in the last month alone. Stalkers would take the place, scatter, perhaps even leave the place entirely undefended, and the Bandits would return.’

I shook my head. ‘Why bother raiding, then?’

She shrugged. ‘Deterrent, I suppose. Or boredom. There’s not a lot to do around here, really. Not if you’re one of the Cordon-dwellers, anyway. They like to call themselves Stalkers, and some have been deeper in, but mostly…’ She grimaced.

‘So, given that Aleks wondered why the Bandits didn’t counter, why did neither of you use your PDAs and alert them, perhaps even tell them the whole plan?’

She sighed. ‘Too much risk. Aleks wanted to, but… Listen, maybe you don’t know this yet, but we think the messages are recorded somehow, or at least monitored. I couldn’t let Aleks take the chance. Once we got to the base, maybe we’d have told them then.’

‘Maybe?’

She smiled. It didn’t reach her eyes, which remained cold and watchful. ‘If the price was right, we’d have given them everything: names, numbers, weaknesses, everything we knew. We’d have emptied out the whole can of worms. Maybe the Bandits would have retreated north, maybe not. Most likely, they would have attacked en masse, maybe even hired some Mercs to help out or got even more bodies in from Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg. Who knows? But the battles would have been something else.’

I looked away, not liking the look of almost manic glee that had come into her eyes. Anyway, something she had said before seemed more interesting to me.

‘You mentioned messages being recorded or monitored. Who does that? D’you think it’s the Military listening in?’

‘Maybe, but it’s probably not just them,’ she said. ‘I think – only think, mind – that Sidorovich listens in. Him, or one of his spies. He likes to have something to hold over you, and once you’re in his hands…well, you’ll probably die paying off your “debt” – which is basically a nice way of saying your blackmail ransom. You want to be careful who you trust here, Snorkbait. Even among Stalkers with good reputations, no one is ever just what they seem.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ I said. ‘For example, I was hearing just yesterday how Aleks here was a complete dickhead, while you were such a nice, sweet, innocent girl.’

‘Dmitriy,’ she smiled, shaking her head gently. ‘I kept telling him I wasn’t what he thought. He’d built up this image in his mind. Even if he’d been right about me, his ideal would have been impossible to live up to. For anyone.’

‘Anyway, back to what matters. Pinching this stuff was your idea. Why?’

‘Money, why else?’ she shrugged. ‘Listen, you’re new, so you don’t know how it is here. There’s no fortune to be made from artefacts, and even if there is, the best ones are so hard to get it makes it a waste of time to try. There are just too many anomalies and mutants in the way, and that’s before you get tangled up with other Stalkers and all the power games.

‘No, we’d had enough. Our idea was to get as much money together as soon as possible and get out. We had some, but some’s not enough –’

‘It never is,’ I muttered.

She nodded. ‘We already had a deal going with some artefact smugglers – not that there’s a lot to smuggle, like I say – and we were doing okay. That little bauble you’ve got around your waist could fetch anything from five hundred to a thousand roubles, depending on who needs it most. Take off the smuggler or trader’s fee and you’re still left with a decent amount. And the scarcer certain things get, the more valuable they become.’

I sighed. ‘Sveta…I can’t just let you go after what you’ve just said. You know that, right? Your idea, you helped carry it out, your motive. Were you coerced at all by Aleks? Why were you even with him?’

She smiled at the corpse almost fondly. ‘He wasn’t like that with me. He never forced me to do anything,’ she said. ‘As for why I was with him, that’s simple.’

I waited. ‘And?’ I finally said. ‘It’s simple, how?’

She scratched her head and looked up at the ceiling. ‘Remember I said I went north, artefact-hunting?’

‘Are you saying that was a lie?’

She shook her head. ‘It wasn’t a lie. When I went up there – and I only vaguely remember it, and even then I’m not sure if it really happened. You know how sometimes you dream, and when you wake up you’re not entirely sure if you dreamt this thing or not, because it’s like memory but it’s not complete like a normal memory is, but it also feels too real to just be a dream?’

I nodded. ‘I think I know what you mean,’ I said. Over the past few months, I’d had a few episodes like that: dreams that I knew were dreams, or thought I knew, but the more I thought about them, the more real they seemed to become until in the end I had no longer known if these things were memory fragments or just ultra-vivid dream
shards.

‘Well, this trip north is like that. I think I remember walking, being on the road. I’m with someone, maybe more than one, I don’t know. We’re laughing. Happy. I get a feeling that I hadn’t been that happy for a long time before then, and a stronger feeling that I was happy because the person I was with was finally happy. But I don’t actually remember any of these things. I’ve tried, but I can’t.’ She grimaced in frustration. ‘It’s hard to explain. It’s like…you know déjà vu? It’s a little like that. I remember, but I don’t remember. It’s all hazy and weird, patchy. It’s like, I remember having a dog when I was a little girl, but I can’t remember the name and I don’t know where I came from before I entered The Zone. Even my name is just an impression. It was like this voice that wasn’t quite a voice was in my head going “Svetlana Motyka. Your name is Svetlana Motyka”. It was weird because it was all I knew…and I didn’t seem to really know that.’

I frowned. ‘How can you not even know who you are?’

She sighed again. ‘Story time. This might be true, it might not. Probably isn’t. But there’s a story that people like me – the Marked Ones, you might call us – are people that went north and…something happened. We’re us, but not us. If you see what I mean.’

‘I’m not sure I do,’ I said.

She pursed her lips, trying to frame her thoughts. ‘My name is Svetlana Motyka,’ she said.

‘Right,’ I nodded.

‘But it might not be. According to this story, theory, whatever you like, I might be – oh, I don’t know, Anastasia Something, or Nadia Whatever-else. I am who I am because of a feeling that my name is my name. I am not certain of it.’

‘How could you –’

‘The Brain Scorcher,’ she said. A tear tracked down her cheek. ‘There are stories about a device that wipes your mind. Sidorovich’s version for the newbies is that it makes your brain boil.’

‘But that’d kill you, so whatever it does, boiling your brain is bollocks.’

‘Right. But we know there are zombies –’

‘Yeah. Had a close encounter with a couple of them on the way here, near the tunnel entrance in Cordon.’

She shook her head. ‘Not them. I’m talking about zombiefied Stalkers, some of them are still armed, still with enough about them to pose a serious threat.’

‘I don’t think you’re one of them, Svetlana. You’re too…here to be one of them.’

She nodded impatiently. ‘Yes, yes. But then other stories say there’s a thing called the Wish Granter. Then there’s the Monolith, the thing that the Monolith soldiers revere. They might be the same thing. I don’t know. These things are just stories, you know? No one knows what’s up there for sure. No one even knows if you can get up there. I vaguely remember “North”, but then…’ She raised her hands in a nothing gesture.

‘And where does Aleks come into this?’ I asked.

‘He helped me. He was the only one who did,’ she replied. ‘I had no idea who I really was or where I had been. I had these half-dream, half-memory things in my head somehow and nothing else. Others kept clear of me. He didn’t. He said he wanted to be my friend and help me if he could.’

I smirked. Of course he did. She was a very attractive woman, even if I was biased because of her striking resemblance to Nikki. It was the biggest wonder in the world that she hadn’t been inundated with offers of ‘help’ and ‘friendship’ once she’d found herself back in a world she barely remembered, and only had impressions about.

‘Do you think it was Aleks who went north with you in the first place? Is it likely that he could remember what had happened?’

She shook her head. ‘I thought of that, but look at him. He’s not got the same marks.’

‘Maybe they just didn’t do it to him?’

Again, she shook her head. ‘No. The first time…anyway, when he saw the marks on my back for the first time, he said something under his breath. It sounded like “Monolith bastards”. And he was scared. Scared right to his bones. I don’t know if it was the scars, the tattoo, or both, but he seemed to understand it better than I did. He said I had to keep it from the others. It would be our secret and he would protect me. I don’t know why he felt he had to do any of that.’

‘Did you love him?’ I asked. If she replied in the affirmative, I was going to have to kill her regardless of anything else. I couldn’t afford to have someone who was, from the sound of things, mentally unstable running around out there bearing a sudden grudge because I’d killed someone she loved. I couldn’t even take the chance on her being killed by Rusty or the other Stalkers. I’d have to be sure, lest she take it into her foggy little head to come after me.

A sad smile crossed her face. ‘I don’t think so, no,’ she said. ‘He was kind to me and we were going to stay together, whatever happened, but…no, I didn’t love him. Not really.’ Another tear rolled. She slapped it away. ‘I think it’s part of what happened to me. I don’t think I can love anymore. It’s like knowing how has been scooped out of me along with everything else. I’m shallow, Snorkbait, hollow. I don’t know why or how, and I’m almost sure I was different before, but now…’ She lowered her head, apparently finding her thighs fascinating all of a sudden.

‘Christ. What am I supposed to do with you?’ I muttered, shaking my head. I should kill her. It might lead to trouble down the line, but what was new there? I’d spent most of my adult life hopping from one problem to another. Having people want me dead was hardly a new experience. ‘What will you do if I let you go?’

No reply. She only sat there in silence with her head down. Which was just as well, because if she had said anything, I might have missed the tell-tale skree of glass being ground against stone from the kitchen.
  03:01:56  25 February 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XXVI

Zug: Ah, but it's not all bad, mate. Just a case of a little rain falling in each life. It happens.

Anyway...the story.

*****

‘Svetlana, get up. We have to leave,’ I said, wishing I’d kept my PDA with me. A quick check and I’d have known if I was in the shit or not…and if so, how badly. It would have been just one more thing to worry about, one more item that could have been dropped, adding to the risk of compromise, but right now…

I looked over at the assorted bags and other kit in the corner, but it would take too long to rummage through it all for one of the others’ PDAs, and there was the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to access the things even if I found one in time; if it was possible to lock mobiles and other devices in the outside world, perhaps that function been retained when they were modified for use here. I should have asked when Wolf handed over my device. A quick ‘Oi, Wolf, can you lock these using a password or something?’ and I’d have known. I just hadn’t thought. A stupid oversight. Exactly the kind that get you killed.

I cursed and glanced over at Svetlana.

She hadn’t moved. She hadn’t even raised her head. What was she playing at? Did she know who it was out there? Had she been playing for time, patiently waiting for rescue, and was now remaining still so a gang of lads could burst in and drop me without harming her? Her attitude certainly made it likely. It was how I’d trained in the Killing House for years: a ‘hostage’ would be in the room, usually sitting or kneeling in a more or less random location. The ‘enemy’ targets were also randomly positioned. This meant every exercise was a new situation, you had to stay switched on for every entry. Had we just done the same old thing, with little or no variation, we’d just be habitualizing – not good for when it came to doing the job for real. With everything in place and the brief out of the way, we’d get in and get it done, always using live rounds. All the person playing the hostage had to do was remain perfectly still and let us get on with it. We’d had all sorts in there: business leaders, diplomats, politicians, members of the Royal Family…it was all part of their training, too; if they’d ever been lifted, they’d know how to react when we came to retrieve them. It was impossible to believe that any faction in The Zone trained in the same way, if they trained at all, but there was a lot of familiarity in her stillness and non-threatening posture.

‘Svetlana?’ I stage-whispered, but still she didn’t budge. All my other instructions had been obeyed, so why ignore the one to stand up unless something was going on? It was all the proof I needed.

Pulling the pistol from my pocket and keeping the doorway covered, I crabbed over to Svetlana and knelt behind her, using my left arm to get her in a Half-Nelson and jamming the pistol under her right ear as best I could. The suppressor worked against me, forcing me to lean around more than I really wanted to. It threw me slightly off-balance; all Svetlana had to do was give me a quick nudge and she could roll away, leaving me as an open target. To counteract this, I wound a handful of hair around my left fist and pulled back on it even as I forced her head forward with my forearm.

‘Move and you’re fucking dead. Got it?’

She nodded as best she could. ‘Yes,’ she grunted.

Cold sweat dribbled between my shoulder blades.

‘Were you expecting anyone?’ I mumbled into her ear, giving her a quick shake by the hair when she refused to answer. ‘Talk to me, slag! Was there a meet arranged? Svetlana!’ I tugged her hair harder, causing a squeak of pain.

‘No!’ she whimpered. ‘No one!’

‘The truth!’

‘It is the truth!’ she cried.

My jaw tightened. ‘I know someone’s out there. Put your weapons down and step into the doorway with your hands in the air!’ I yelled.

No response. No counter-demand, not even a snicker of laughter.

‘Do you think I’m joking? Move where I can see you!’

‘How can you be sure it’s anyone?’ Svetlana muttered. ‘It’s probably your imagination. You’re seeing threats that aren’t there.’

Sweat ran into my left eye, making it sting even more. I had no choice but to let it smart. I couldn’t even afford to blink it away.

‘Hm. I’m imagining it, am I? And did this fucking imagined threat also step on the broken glass in the kitchen?’ I murmured into her ear. ‘There’s someone out there. Trust me.’

‘I didn’t hear anything. What if –’

A floorboard creaked in the other room.

‘Oh, shit!’ she gasped.

‘Hate to say I told you so,’ I said, then called again. ‘I heard you make the floorboard creak, you fat bastard! I know someone is there. Step into the doorway, now!’

The board creaked again, but the doorway remained empty.

Dragging Svetlana along with me so I could continue using her as a shield, I edged sideways until I could see the wardrobe in the other room.

‘What are you doing?’ she hissed.

‘Something. We’ll be here all week otherwise,’ I muttered, and aimed at the sink that was weighing the wardrobe down. With a final comment in English that was also half-prayer – ‘That fucking thing had better be ceramic’ – I squeezed the trigger.

Part of the sink shattered under the impact and a huge chunk clattered to the floor. The noise evidently startled whoever was out there, judging from the sudden rattle of boots. They were also gulping air as if they’d been holding their breath for the last five minutes. I was almost relieved; at least it sounded like there was only one person out there.

‘I’ll kill her!’ I roared. ‘Now stop the fucking dance routine, drop your weapons and get where I can see you!’

Nothing but the sound of panicked, laboured breathing.

‘Whoever it is, they’re not here for me,’ Svetlana whispered. ‘Threatening to kill me won’t mean anything to them.’

‘Maybe not, but threaten to kill a woman and most blokes won’t risk it. Fuck knows why, but they won’t.’

‘So you’re bluffing?’

‘No. I’ll kill you if I have to.’

‘No, you won’t,’ Svetlana mumbled, and I could hear a smile in her voice. ‘I heard you put the safety back on.’

‘Is that right?’ I said, extending my arm so she could see the pistol – and more importantly, so she could see that the safety was still off. I put the muzzle back under her ear. ‘Happy? Now he has five seconds. After that…’

She whimpered again. ‘Don’t. Please, I don’t want to die.’

‘You won’t have to,’ I muttered, then raised my voice; ‘as long as Disco Dan out there does as he’s told.’

‘Please!’ she cried. ‘Just do as he asks. He’ll kill me. He’s not bluffing.’

A sigh, then one empty, ungloved hand reached around the frame. Slowly, a lower arm appeared. Then an elbow. Whoever it was, they appeared to have got their hands on some military gear; the pattern was the same as I’d seen the perimeter guards wearing.
The arm finally emerged as far as the shoulder.

‘I…I’m not armed, Stalker. Don’t shoot. I’m not who you think I am,’ a voice quavered.

‘How do you know who I think you are?’

‘I’m not here for the woman. I came in because I thought there might be food. See my uniform? I’m a soldier. Ex-soldier. I deserted. I’m just looking for food and shelter. I don’t mean you any harm. I –’

‘Just stop fucking about and show yourself,’ I said, but he kept on inching into view. ‘For fuck’s sake… Halt!’

He froze.

‘Now, one pace to the right, march!’

The soldier stepped into view, and I released Svetlana’s hair, gaping at him at the same time as he got busy gaping at the naked body on the
floor.

‘You!’ I said.

His face was filthy and he’d picked up a few cuts and scrapes, but there was no mistaking my friend from a few nights before. As he’d promised, he was unarmed. In fact, apart from his standard issue BDUs and boots, his worldly possessions seemed to consist of a single lamp.

He looked up as I spoke and his eyes widened. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then seemed to realize he had no idea what to call me. ‘You!’ he exclaimed.

‘I thought you were dead!’

He frowned. ‘Why would you think that?’

‘You don’t know? All the patrols that were sent out to track down a murderer they said crossed in the same sector I came through? I thought I’d killed you by mistake. I didn’t believe it, seeing as you were able to shout down, but…I thought I might have caused some other damage that fucked you up later.’

He was shaking his head. ‘You did “fuck me up”, but not physically. And I did see some of the helicopter patrols after I jumped the fence. Spetsnaz too. Some of the arseholes got in a firefight with a bunch of Mercs…’

‘What? Where? Near where I entered?’

He nodded. ‘Not too far. I was hiding, of course, and was too far away to see –’

‘Was she with them? The blonde I jumped the perimeter with?’

He shrugged. ‘Like I say, I don’t know. I didn’t see who the soldiers were firing at very clearly. Besides, they were all wearing masks and lots of protective gear.’ He eyed me curiously. ‘Why aren’t you still with her, anyway? She was injured –’

‘Long story. Short version is we got separated. No choice.’

‘Ah,’ he grunted, then nodded towards Svetlana. ‘Who’s the woman?’

‘Svetlana Motyka…as far as she knows. This,’ I said, indicating the corpse, ‘was Aleks, her…whatever. They’re thieves. Caused me some trouble.’

‘Yeah. Looks like it,’ he smiled, looking at my face. ‘That hurt?’

‘What do you think? I’ll live. How’s the throat, by the way?’

His smirk vanished. ‘Still sore,’ he admitted. ‘I still owe you for that. But we made a deal, didn’t we? Next time we saw one another, one of us was going to die.’

‘I remember, but you’re unarmed. Seems harsh to slot you, so I’ll let you off and we owe each other nothing.’

‘Very gracious, I’m sure,’ he mumbled, eyeing the pistol in my hand.

‘What the hell are you doing this side of the fence anyway? Why d’you desert?’

He grimaced. ‘Because of you.’

‘A birthday card and some chocolates would have been enough. You didn’t have to come all this way.’

Svetlana giggled.

‘Oh, fun-ny,’ the former soldier replied. ‘Remember my relief turning up?’

I nodded.

‘Bastard said he was going to turn me in, even tell them I’d arranged everything so I could let a known smuggler through.’

‘You knew about her?’

‘You telling me she really is a smuggler?’

‘She was. Someone had rumbled her and she had no choice but to come in here permanently. We ran into her people – presumably the Mercs you saw – and they took her in. I was left to get on with it.’

‘How come? Wouldn’t she speak up for you?’

‘Couldn’t. She was out of it because of all the lost blood. To be honest, it was a good thing we did bump into them. She’d have died, otherwise.’

He nodded. ‘I watched you trying to save her. We both did, Mikhail and I. He said she’d die and you’d become so weak from carrying her that you wouldn’t survive the night, let alone reach a Stalker camp. He reckoned shooting you would have been a waste of bullets. So we watched you walk away, and that’s when he told me he was going to report me. He even had me at gunpoint, though I was unarmed.’ He looked over at the AK on top of the stuff in the corner. ‘Remember how the blonde couldn’t find my weapon?’

I nodded again.

‘It was because I didn’t have one. Mechanism problem. It was with the
armourer, being repaired.’

‘Yet they still sent you out?’

He gave a sardonic smile. ‘No other choice. I was rostered for duty, there was no one to cover and no one would trade shifts or let me borrow their rifle.’

‘Sidearm? Knife?’

He shook his head. ‘Only my rifle. My sidearm and knife…’ He sighed. ‘I sold them. My sister in Odessa needed money. Some street punk in Kiev gave me a hundred for both, final offer. I took it.’

I frowned. ‘How did you pass inspections, then?’

He shrugged. ‘There are ways.’

‘But aren’t sidearms –’

‘How did you get away?’ Svetlana cut in, casting me a look.

The soldier turned to face her and smiled broadly. ‘I pretended to accept what Mikhail wanted to do. At first I said he couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t let it happen, but he said all the evidence would support him – after all, the weapon malfunction was why I was put where I was; anywhere else would have been too dangerous, but there…easy. Nothing from The Zone can get up that way, and you’d have to be a lunatic to take that way in.’ He cast an uneasy glance in my direction. ‘Anyway, it would be easy enough for the commander to believe I’d sabotaged my weapon to pull that duty and allow my smuggler friends to cross unopposed. Once Mikhail made the report, the Hinds would have flown anyway. Stalkers might be tolerated, but organised smugglers? Never.’

‘And once the Mercs were found and engaged, it would have been more proof against you,’ Svetlana said.

He nodded.

‘But what about the cuts and bruises?’ I said.

He shrugged. ‘You’d have to make it look good, wouldn’t you?’ He came further into the room and sat down, resting his back against the wall. ‘It would have gone badly for me, even though what Mikhail intended to say was untrue. By pretending to go along with him, I got him to trust me. I even said he was actually right, that I had been a smuggler, that I had arranged it all. He would be a hero and I would go to prison, but I was relieved that it was all over; living two lives had been tiring for the nerves. Anything, really, to make him believe his lies were truths he had accidentally stumbled upon. He took me over to the wagon so he could radio back and ask for someone to come and pick me up, and…’

‘And what?’ Svetlana said. Something in her voice made me look over at her. Her eyes met mine and the message in them was clear: Here’s the real murderer. Petya died because of him.

‘I picked up a rock and hit him with it,’ the deserter said. ‘He gave a sort of groan and slumped to the ground. I checked to see if he was alive, took his weapon, then got in the wagon and drove it down to flatter ground. I crossed the wire and ran as far as I could before daybreak. Then I hid.’

Svetlana and I exchanged another look.

‘You took his weapon?’ I said. ‘Where is it, then? Why are you unarmed?’

He looked away from us, studying the floor between his feet. ‘Lost it,’ he said. ‘I was heading north, following the group of Mercs that had the firefight with the Spetsnaz guys – I thought maybe I’d be able to search any bodies, find food and ammo, a map to tell me where everything was, anything – when these things attacked me. Like pigs, only…not very much like pigs at all.’

‘Fleshes,’ Svetlana said. ‘They’re called Fleshes. Flesh, singular.’

He nodded an acknowledgement, and I filed the information away for future use too.

‘Anyway, I was running from these things and tripped. I fell flat on my face, and the weapon ended up in the anomaly I’d been about to run into. I couldn’t get it back, no matter what I tried.’

‘Probably for the best,’ she said. ‘Even if you’d retrieved it, it would probably have been so irradiated holding it would have eventually killed you.’

He nodded again and passed a hand over his face. ‘It’s a nightmare in here.’

‘It can be. It can also be…well, pretty good. Even amazing,’ she replied.

Something was puzzling me, however.

‘You said before that you checked Mikhail was still alive,’ I said, and waited until he raised his head to look me. ‘Was he?’

He closed his eyes, slowly. ‘I’m not sure.’

He might not have been, but I was. Mikhail had been dead – either that, or very unlikely to survive.

‘What’s your name, soldier?’

‘Don’t call me that. I’m not a soldier. I’m just Anatoly again now. Anatoly Zaleski.’ He glanced up at me. ‘Apparently, I never really was.’

‘Fair enough…Anatoly.’

‘And do I get to know who you are?’ he said.

‘Don’t laugh, but they call me Snorkbait in here.’

He didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smile. He only nodded his acceptance.

‘Right, out with it, lad.’ I snapped. ‘Why did you really jump the fence? If Mikhail was spouting bullshit, that’s one thing. If he had survived your attack, that’s another. I can see why your commander might take Mikhail’s report seriously. I can see why you attacked him – though you could have put in a counter-claim saying you were both there when we arrived, and that’s why you were both in shit state. Seeing as you had a way out, why come over here?’

He shrugged. ‘I don’t know. I’d thought about it a few times – what it would be like to get away from the Army, what it was to live as a Stalker, how I would be able to look after my sister if I could only get rich…’ He paused. ‘And no one would miss me. I didn’t have many friends in the outside world and no one liked me much in the Army. If there was a bad job going, I got it.’

I nodded. I’d known a few guys like him, especially during my time in the infantry. The squad loser, singled out because he’s different in some way; perhaps he can’t run as fast as everyone else and gets the platoon a bollocking for being so slow, or perhaps he has strength issues that mean he’s crap at obstacles, or maybe he’s the dimbulb that just doesn’t get field-craft, fucks up when he strips his weapon, can never get the folds right in his sheets or the creases sharp enough in his clothes. I’d seen guys get beaten up because they were ‘Tick-Tock Men’ – recruits who couldn’t manage to march using left foot, right arm, right foot, left arm, and went along swinging left arm with left leg. Being naturally quiet and reflective wasn’t accepted, or more to the point, rejecting anything that wasn’t quite and reflective wasn’t accepted; the squad expected you to join in, be rowdy now and then, basically just engage in the ‘fun’. Anything that marked you out as different was seized upon and your life could quickly become nothing but a long round of misery. Some guys would try to help the weaker ones, some would rally round and even get into fights to protect those who would not or could not fight back – but every intake, every unit, had an Anatoly; a guy who just wasn’t cut out for it, who was unprepared, and who would have been better off doing something else entirely. In the British Army, such people tended to get weeded out pretty quickly; you were free to quit if you found it really wasn’t your cup of tea. In other parts of the world, though, you had national service, conscription…whatever you chose to call it, you weren’t free to leave. Compulsory service might not be a bad thing in itself, but I’d always thought that there should be more options. Perhaps Anatoly would have been better off if he’d been sent to hug Africans or count trees for a year or two rather than being sent here – or, in fact, being sent anywhere as part of the Ukrainian Army.

‘Mikhail was one of the better ones, actually. He’d stood up for me in the past, until it started affecting his status among the others. He was ambitious, though. It was my bad luck to be there. He’d have lied about anyone.’

‘And of course, you already had a reputation. If the commander was already prejudiced against you,’ I said. ‘Tea and medals for Mikhail, while –’

‘I’d go to prison for a lie.’ He snorted laughter and nodded. ‘Yes. Then I get to serve ten years for smuggling artefacts when I hadn’t seen a single one until just now, when I saw that one on your belt, plus another one for hitting Mikhail. After that time, I’d be released to go home.’ He shook his head. ‘Eleven years in prison rather than two years in service, and with a dishonourable discharge from the Army. My life would have been over. No one would have hired me. And my parents, their friends – it would have been too shameful.’

I sighed, struck again by how young and helpless he looked, wondering what I would have done in his situation. Fighting the allegations might have worked…if he’d been a better, more popular soldier and if he hadn’t already sold Army equipment – something which would have come out in the course of any investigation. Given the same set of conditions, I might have done much the same as he had, though there was a big difference: had I ended up doing time in a military prison before getting kicked out, I wouldn’t have given a shit about what my parents or their friends thought.

All the same, there was Mikhail’s murder to consider. Without that, Petya Runner might still be alive. That said, even without this boy pretending to be a man, the patrols would still have been dispatched, Spetsnaz would still have got into a contact with a group that could only have been Blondie’s mob as they ran north…and Petya might still have had to cover for me, risking – and ultimately losing – all. Anatoly had taken an action which had seemed the only one open to him and Mikhail had died. The question was, just how big a factor was that death in everything that had followed? Would Borisov have come up to the village if Mikhail had survived?

The answer seemed to be yes, he would have. Leaving the murder out of it, Mikhail’s allegations would still have caused the patrols, I would still have been seen. Surely the two would have been put together? Contact with Mercs, then I got scooting to the Rookie Village. Even the world’s thickest Private would have thought that suspicious. What was more, if the finger of suspicion of smuggling had pointed towards the village, perhaps Borisov’s orders would have been significantly different: a sweep-and-destroy mission rather than a patrol looking for an individual that could have no connection to the rookies. That would also have caused the whole deal with the Military to be cancelled. The Autopark raid would not have happened, and the Bandits would surely have swept down into Cordon to take control of the area. Petya Runner, Andriy P, and the others would have been just as dead. The difference was, Olga, Vasya, Dmitriy Monkey, Vasiliy Dynamo, me…all would have been killed by the Spetsnaz sweep. As Anatoly had said, Stalkers might be tolerated; organised smugglers, never – though I doubted things really were as clear and starkly black and white as all that. In situations where smuggling was involved, things could get very murky indeed.

‘Okay, mate,’ I said. ‘I don’t need to hear any more. Someone died. It wasn’t you, so we can assume you slotted Mikhail and jumped the fence. There was follow-up, shit happens. End of.’

‘That’s it?’ Svetlana cried. ‘You were ready to do whatever to me because you were wrongly blamed for stealing a few things, but you’re happy to let him go?’

I smiled at her. ‘Fucked up, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘Petya died because of this murdering asshole!’

‘No. Petya died because a cat decided he looked like breakfast.’

‘He wouldn’t have been out there at all if it wasn’t for you. Both of you!’

‘I didn’t ask him to go, he volunteered. Look, I’m sorry he’s dead. I’m sorry Anatoly killed another soldier, but the fact is, you deliberately set me up. Anatoly didn’t.’

Svetlana glared at me. ‘I don’t believe you!’

‘Svetlana, for fuck’s sake, don’t you get it? If Anatoly hadn’t killed Mikhail, we’d all be dead by now. You, me, Petya, all the others, because they would have assumed I was one of the smuggling gang. They would have assumed you lot gave me shelter. The mission would have been to wipe everyone out. Maybe even old Sidorovich would have been dragged out and shot, who knows?’

‘I doubt it,’ she said. ‘He’s involved, no doubt, but he’s just one of the spiders controlling the web. What he said before about smuggling not being tolerated…sorry, but that’s bullshit. There are senior officers, perhaps even Government figures, with a vested interest in things getting out. Why turn the dogs on them, with that being the case? No, the choppers flew because of him, a murderer.’

I shook my head. ‘Not everyone would be on the take. A report suggesting smugglers were definitely in the area, definitely organised, with moles in the perimeter guards…they’d have to do something.’

‘Don’t bet on it. And even if they did, it would only be cosmetic.’ She turned to Anatoly. ‘When you looked for bodies, did you find any?’

‘Not many. One or two,’ he said. ‘It looked like the Mercs got away. Of course, Spetsnaz would have recovered their casualties if they could.’
She looked back to me, smiling triumphantly.

‘It proves nothing,’ I sighed, turning to the former soldier. ‘Anatoly, did you see anyone else lurking around outside? Your old mates, perhaps? Or a bunch of tossers in long coats or black leather jackets?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Like I said, I came in here looking for food. I heard voices from outside and wondered if I might be able to scrounge a meal, perhaps fall in with a group. Safety in numbers, and all that.’

‘So why sneak in?’

He shrugged. ‘It pays to be cautious.’

‘Caution’s fine, but you’re lucky you didn’t get shot,’ I said. ‘It’s not a good idea to surprise armed people.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ll remember that. But I was unarmed and, to be honest, I’ve been shitting myself since I got in. I haven’t eaten in days. I thought there would be food, proper shelter, warmth. I saw these two late yesterday, as it was getting dark. I meant to follow them then, but there were anomalies in the way. In the end, I had to shelter in some bushes last night, deep in where nothing could get at me.’

‘Huh. Shows what you know,’ Svetlana mumbled, but he ignored her.

‘If you camped out on the other side of the anomaly field, I think I saw your light last night,’ I said. ‘You want to watch that light discipline. And, sorry if this seems like more of the same shit you came over the wire to escape, but here’s your horoscope: fuck up and give our position away like that while you’re with me, and you won’t have to worry about the enemy. I’ll kill you myself.’

He looked stunned. ‘But I only used it for a couple of seconds –’

Unshielded. I ended up radioing back to ask if there were any friendlies meant to be around here. They said no. Poor light discipline is a quick way to get killed. The problem is, it’s never just you; it’s whoever you’re with that cops it as well. Anyhow, that’s one you owe me.’

‘How?’

‘I didn’t kill you last night when I could have, did I?’

‘You didn’t know it was me!’

‘Doesn’t matter. I didn’t fire, you got to live,’ I said. ‘Besides, I’m going to give you a meal and a share of this kit. I’ve also got an idea of how to get you out of the shit with other Stalkers, give you a fresh start. A favour in exchange won’t be too much to ask, will it? First, though, we need to get out of here. This place is a tactical fucking nightmare, as you’ve already shown. We need to get Svetlana outside. For that, you will need a weapon. Can I trust you?’

He looked me in the eye and nodded. I held the stare a moment longer, wanting to be sure. His eyes never wavered, never so much as flickered. If he was going to fuck me over, he showed no sign. I safetied the pistol and stowed it again.

‘Right. I’m going to trust you. Betray me, kill me, and I’ll come back and fucking haunt you. Fair enough?’

He smiled and nodded.

‘Right, grab that other 74. Here’s a full clip,’ I said, fishing the curved magazine from up my sleeve, where it had been wedged. ‘Remember: cross me –’

‘And you’ll come back and haunt me. Got it.’ He laughed and slapped the mag home far too roughly for my liking. ‘But what happens after we get her out of here? What’re we going to do with her?’

I looked over at Svetlana, who was still glowering at me, and sighed.

‘To be honest, mate, I have no fucking idea.’
  03:15:04  25 February 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XXVII

We took Svetlana from the house in stages. First, Anatoly would enter a room and take up a position where he could cover our prisoner without involving me in his field of fire. She would then move into the next room and drop to her knees in the centre. I would enter and cover her while Anatoly set about the next stage. We treated the exit from the building as if entering another room. Anatoly climbed out and secured the area, eventually moving back into position, ready for Svetlana.

‘All clear.’

‘Right, Svetlana. Out you go,’ I said, giving her a not-so-friendly shove through the window. I’d bound her hands with Aleks’s belt, and had also strapped her upper arms against her body using some old webbing they’d had in the bundle. Unable to use her hands in any capacity, getting her outside was basically a case of bending her over and pushing her through. With her top half outside, Anatoly stepped forward and grabbed her collar, dragging her all the way out. He let go as soon as her feet started to touch the ground, causing her to fall heavily to her knees and slump over on her right side.

‘Bastards!’ she hissed between clenched teeth.

‘Sorry. There was no other way,’ Anatoly said, moving back again and keeping his weapon trained on her.

‘Face down, Svetlana,’ I said. ‘It’s only dirt. It won’t kill you.’

She gave a mirthless chuckle and rolled over, looking up at me with pure hatred lancing from her wide eyes.

I climbed out of the window and got my boots back on after tucking my jeans legs into my socks.

‘Now what?’ Anatoly asked.

I shrugged. ‘Nothing’s changed from five minutes ago, mate,’ I said. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Well we need to decide to do something,’ he said.

I ignored him. Stating the obvious wasn’t going to help.

‘Well, gentlemen,’ Svetlana said, still breathing hard against whatever pain she was in, ‘you have three choices: Kill me now, hand me over, or let me go. Though really, handing me over would be the same as killing me, so it’s better to say you have two choices and the third is an illusion.’

‘That right?’ Anatoly said.

I nodded. ‘Yeah. We hand her over to the people she stole from, she ends up being shoved into an anomaly.’

‘Maybe she deserves it. She is a thief.’

‘And you’re a murderer,’ she said. ‘What do you deserve? Either of you, come to that?’

‘That’s different. I didn’t mean for Mikhail to die. He just did.’

‘I’m sure that makes it all better for his family.’

Anatoly fidgeted, clearly disturbed.

‘Ignore her, mate. You did what you felt you had to at the time. I understand,’ I said, though Svetlana had a point: we were murderers; Anatoly had killed Mikhail, regardless of whether or not that act was directly responsible for much of what had come after, and I had killed Aleks…and what was more, I had always intended to. Meanwhile, the only crime Svetlana had committed was a bit of petty larceny, and I could hardly blame her for that. For a brief time, I’d mulled over whether or not to take the chance to help myself. I could hardly blame others for doing the same.

I felt torn between my sense of justice and my acknowledged guilt. What did Svetlana deserve? Part of me just wanted to shove her into the nearest anomaly and have done. Another part wanted to give Rusty his ‘foo’. Then there was the part, initially tiny but growing larger all the time, that wanted to let her go: Aleks was dead and I’d got my revenge for being framed. Wasn’t that enough? And if not, what might I deserve for killing Aleks, not to mention the guys who had died because of me at the Autopark?

‘I still say kill her,’ Anatoly said. ‘If the other Stalkers will anyway, why not?’

‘I can’t just kill her,’ I sighed. ‘I wish I could. It just wouldn’t be right.’

‘So what do we do instead, then? Ask her if she wants to play nice and be in our little gang? Maybe we could give her a gun.’

‘Weapon,’ I said, absently. ‘Or firearm. Not gun.’

He grunted. ‘Like you’ve never said it.’

I ignored him again. ‘Killing her in cold blood is out. If you don’t like it, tough.’

‘So what? You’re just going to let her go? All she’ll do then is find her friends and hunt us down.’

‘I know,’ I said, scratching my chin, the stubble rasping against my nails. ‘Fuck it. I guess we take her back to Cordon after all. Hand her over to the Duty guys down there. Maybe put in a good word.’

Svetlana grunted. ‘Might as well kill me now, like I said before.’

‘You could let Aleks take the blame,’ I suggested. ‘Say it was his idea. You went along with it because you loved him, even though you knew it was wrong and begged him not to do it. Most of them seemed to think you’re okay. They’ll buy that.’

She turned her head to look at me. ‘No. He’s dead and can’t defend himself. I’ll admit to what I did, whatever happens.’

‘You know what happens,’ I said. ‘A quick dip in a Fruit Punch, remember?’

She smiled. ‘Better than living a lie, pretending I am what I’m not.’

‘Sure about that?’

‘No. But at least I’d know I stayed…’ she paused, searching for another word. Her lips twitched into a smile when she couldn’t find one. ‘Honest.’

‘You’re sure it’s what you want?’

The smile broadened. ‘No, but seeing as you won’t give me a quick death…’

‘I’ll kill you if that’s what you want.’

‘Then you’re a double-murderer. And what might that sort of person deserve?’

Anatoly was getting agitated. ‘How about a medal? If he killed you, he’s no more a murderer than…than an exterminator is when he kills cockroaches. You are a thief – you admit it yourself. That arsehole in there was also a thief. Now he’s dead. That’s justice.’

I grimaced and Svetlana laughed.

‘And if a thief deserves to die, what of the murderer? Is it still death, but slower?’

He swallowed. ‘The law works differently in The Zone.’

She laughed some more.

‘Right, enough of this,’ I cut in. ‘I’ve made my mind up. You’re going back. If you won’t cover your own arse, it’s not my fault how you end up.’

‘I’ll tell them,’ she said. ‘I’ll make sure everyone knows who this little soldier-boy really is.’

Anatoly gave me a worried glance.

‘You do whatever you think is right, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘In the meantime, Anatoly, why don’t you take her up onto the higher ground near the swamp? You’ll have a good view and be far enough away from here if there’s a drama. If I’m not on my way to you in fifteen minutes, take her down the path through the swamp to the road, and then through the tunnel. Watch out for dogs at the other end. Keep going down the track and you’ll come to the Autopark. It probably looks more like a fort by now. Tell the Duty guard I sent you – remember, the Duty guard – and you’re to report to Colonel Petrenko in person. You are not to allow anyone else to claim Svetlana. Only Petrenko is to decide what to do. Clear?’

I could see him making the effort to memorize it all, then he nodded.
‘Give fifteen. Leave for Cordon. Watch for dogs. Report to Duty. Hand over only to Colonel Petrenko. Got it.’ He paused, frowning. ‘What about Bandits?’

‘There are none, mate,’ I said. ‘None have come past here, have they? So unless they went the long way, using the road –’

He was shaking his head. ‘They couldn’t. I tried, but every time I threw a stone, it went into an anomaly of some sort. Fire ones, the ones that whoosh, the crushing sort, electric ones like lightning on the floor…too many, no matter how good a Stalker you are.’

‘Right, so anywhere south is clear, then. But only of Bandits. There might be other nasties lurking, so stay switched on and don’t assume anything, right?’

‘Right,’ he said.

‘Good.’ I clambered back through the window. ‘Remember, give me fifteen, then if I’m not in sight, go.’

‘Wait. Is that fifteen from now, or fifteen from when we reach the ridge?’

‘Tell you what, let’s be generous. Make it fifteen from when you get to the ridge. I’m sure Svetlana will be grateful of a rest by then. She’s had a long night and might not be able to walk too well.’

‘Eh?’ Anatoly frowned.

‘He’s trying to be funny,’ Svetlana said. ‘Fucking pervert ambushed us as we were…occupied.’

‘Oh.’

I nodded to Anatoly. ‘Fifteen. Go.’

I watched as he took Svetlana out through the same gap in the fence I’d entered by and began to head towards the marsh. Again I thought of Rusty. Svetlana was right; the Stalkers were just going to kill her and Petrenko would let it happen. Meanwhile, Rusty was out there, weak and unable to chase down his own food. And I had made a
promise, hadn’t I? Wouldn’t it just be better if…

I shook my head. Taking her back was the best option, and a promise made to someone who was probably no longer human in any way could hardly be counted as a promise at all, could it?

I remained rooted to the spot for a minute or two, mulling it all over yet again. Or at least, imagining I was. Most likely I was only standing there and surrendering to the fuzzy kind of thoughts that precede sleep in the over-tired. I gave myself a quick shake and headed back to the other room.

*

Not quite twenty minutes later, I stuck my head through the window to make sure the coast was clear before gently lowering one very heavy backpack to the ground. Inside was all the kit the pair of thieves had taken, plus clothing and spare weapons by way of compensation. I’d also shoved a change of clothes and some armour in there for Anatoly, so he could ditch the tell-tale Ukrainian Army BDUs he was running around in. It’d mean him getting changed in the open, and in full view of Svetlana, but he was a big boy; I’m sure he’d survive whatever ridicule she might have in store.

I’d also made sure I had both Svetlana’s and Alek’s PDAs – though Aleks’s was now in a very sorry state…as was some of the armour I was going to give to Anatoly.

I’d realized that the former soldier was going to be severely in the shit without a PDA. Svetlana would start running her mouth and, without this one item of normal gear, anything he said wouldn’t be believed. He’d be the one put to death and Svetlana might – might – live to steal another day as part of the deal. I didn’t intend to let either of them die. I thought I had an idea of how to get Svetlana off the hook, whether she agreed with the effort or not, but Anatoly would need evidence to back up his claim to be just another Stalker, a guy I’d happened to come across asleep in a bush. In fact, he was the guy I’d been forced to radio back about, just ask the guard if I hadn’t.

It was a gamble, and it relied on Petrenko and the Stalkers believing me instead of Svetlana, but if it worked, Anatoly was home free.

Of course, Aleks’s PDA would claim Anatoly was Aleks…and the game would be up. However, if the PDA had been very badly damaged…say, by a bullet…

I’d set the armour-plated jacket against one of the walls and put the PDA inside the left-hand pocket at about chest height. I’d then drawn the pistol once more and fired two rounds, one into the armour covering the ribs on the left side, the other through the pocket containing the PDA. The device was smashed, the screen cracked and broken microcircuitry on clear display, with nice authentic-looking holes roughly in the places I might have hit had I really opened up on Anatoly if he’d taken me by surprise.

All the rest of the thieves’ gear had been shoved into the other variously-sized packs they’d been lugging and stashed in the attic. I’d noticed the access hatch in the ceiling as I’d checked and cleared the house of any and all goodies. It wasn’t exactly like putting your valuable in the safe, but hopefully it’d keep the stuff safe for the short time we’d be away. It wasn’t as if the area was about to become a major thoroughfare.

Clambering out myself, I unslung the AK and dragged the pack through
the gap in the fence before setting about getting it on my back. The weight of it was outrageous. I hadn’t carried anything remotely this heavy since leaving the Regiment. The closest had probably been during one of Nikki’s annual shopping raids during the January sales, though even Nikki’s unmatched ability to buy stuff she didn’t need, more shoes, and sundry pointless crap was nothing compared to the weights I was used to carting backwards and forwards to battle.

Smiling at the memory of that last trip (she’d gone over on some snow in the car park; I’d laughed so hard I ended up sliding on my arse as well), I cradled the AK and set off in pursuit of my ex’s double and my new best mate. The L.85 could stay where it was for now. It might have been the more familiar weapon – though I was still at a loss to explain how my hands seemed so used to the AK-74 when I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing – but it was also in shit state compared to the Russian rifle, and crucially I now had more mags and ammo for the latter, not least because I’d dumped the 5.56 in the attic with the rest of the unneeded stuff.

Rather than head directly to the marsh through the dead ground, I decided to get as high as I could now, while I was still at the peak of my energy. The artefact was still doing the business, but even so, tiredness would eventually tell. When that time came, Anatoly was going to end up doing his share of lugging.

The ground around my stash had been kicked up, presumably by Anatoly, but he’d apparently unable to locate it – there boot marks everywhere and a few branches had been snapped off the bushes, but everything was as I had left it.

Retrieving my PDA and detectors, I stowed the pack back in its hiding place and replaced the markers, just in case. I then took a few seconds to sort the area out: some boot marks were okay – they were to be expected, and a completely scoured, flat area would look suspicious – but the activity around this area was getting a bit too noticeable. Usually, it wouldn’t have been an issue, but this place was a natural enough area for an OP, as you could easily take not only the smallholding, but also the path north to the road and the trackway southwest-ish to the marsh.

After reattaching my Geiger counter and anomaly detector, I headed out again, making sure I kept just in the dead ground but not right down in the basin, and powered up the PDA. The pack on my back weighed a ton.

‘Balls to this,’ I muttered. ‘They want their kit back, they can come and bloody fetch it!’ I raised the PDA to my mouth. It was past time for a sit-rep anyway. ‘Colonel Petrenko. It’s Snorkbait. I have Svetlana in custody. Aleks is dead. Repeat, Svetlana in custody, Aleks dead. Request RV for handover, preferably somewhere in the tunnel. Over.’

I exited the dead ground and caught sight of the others ahead of me and slightly to my right. Svetlana was on her knees, apparently still resting, but I’d have to have a word with Anatoly about his tactical sense; the silly little bastard was standing just the other side of the crest. Svetlana’s head was about level with his waist, but was below the horizon. By contrast, most of his body above the waist was clearly outlined. It would’ve been be an easy take, if I were a hostile. Avoiding such situations should have been second nature to him by now, as it should be for any infantryman – or any soldier, come to that.

Snorkbait. Petrenko. Received and acknowledged. Free Stalker party will be sent to meet you. Well done. Over.

I moved the PDA to my mouth again to ask for a Duty party instead, but paused before speaking. Anatoly must really have been in a world of his own; not ten yards away from where he stood, an anomaly stood shimmering and distorting the air. He even had his back to it!

I frowned. I’d come that way no more than a couple of hours before. There had been nothing there then. I remembered reading that these things could form quickly and were supposed to have a cycle, so perhaps this one was just starting up again. Could they form this quickly, though? The answer seemed to be yes, but at least that should mean it’d be weak. Perhaps that was why he hadn’t noticed it – it was just too small and quiet. And, of course, Anatoly didn’t have a detector yet. I glanced over my shoulder, checking that the area behind me was still clear.

‘Colonel Petrenko. Negative to Stalker party. Duty only. Repeat, request Duty only. Svetlana fears reprisals without representation. I’ve also encountered another Stalker. He surprised me and I shot him. He’s okay but his PDA is destroyed. Can you sort him out? Over.’

The area was clear, the smallholding as still and silent as it had appeared earlier. The track beyond snaked away to the metalled road, desolate and abandoned, and a gentle wind stirred the longer grass and teased some old, twisted thicket across the yard like a tumbleweed in an old Western. I smiled and turned my attention back to Anatoly and Sveta, now less than thirty metres away and still slightly uphill from me. From my left came the distant, almost rhythmic thrum from the anomaly field that I’d chosen to skirt around, but which Anatoly had presumably managed to traverse despite having no anomaly detector.

I could see Anatoly’s head bobbing. He turned his head and I could see his lips were moving. He was probably trying to give Svetlana some old chat. ‘What’s a nice place like this doing round a girl like you’, all that bollocks. Either that or he was explaining why she had to die. I smiled again as I saw Svetlana turn her head away, a clear ‘fuck off’ gesture if I’d ever seen one. Then I noticed something odd and the smile turned to a frown. I narrowed my eyes, squinting ahead, looking away then looking quickly back again. The anomaly, whatever sort it was, was…the fucking thing was moving. It was about the size of a man, slightly taller than Anatoly, and it seemed to be edging towards them, almost stalking them.

Snorkbait –’ Petrenko’s voice began, and at that moment the ‘anomaly’ that had been closing on Anatoly let out a deafening roar. The shimmering column of air disappeared, leaving behind a dark, rough-skinned thing that suddenly rushed forward.

‘What the fuck –?’ I whispered, and the thing, somehow hearing me across that distance, turned to face me. Its eyes seemed to glow fiercely with eyeshine, something that seemed so familiar, yet far stronger than it had been just a short time before. The thing roared again, the tentacles that were its mouth flaying outward.

‘Rusty?’ I gasped.

The bloodsucker turned away, its attention now drawn by the screaming coming from the other two. Anatoly was rooted to the spot, muzzle down and drooping towards the ground as if his arms had turned to lead. Svetlana, meanwhile, was on her feet and shuffling backwards, her face dead white, her eyes large and terrified. She was, quite literally, unarmed and facing one of The Zone’s most fearsome predators.

Petrenko was still gobbing off over the PDA, but I couldn’t hear a word: all my attention was fixed on the mutant that was about to get all the ‘foo’ he could handle. I’d thought he needed to feed before doing all this shit – it was certainly the impression he’d left me with earlier. Yet now… Perhaps he had managed to get his hands on something. Maybe one of the local dogs had wandered too close, or maybe he’d been wrong about his needs. It was a scary thought; I’d been well within striking range for quite a long time, certainly more than he’d have needed to drain me of every last drop of Type O Pos I had.

‘Rusty!’ I yelled, hoping to distract it again, but it was no use; the mutant charged forward as I slipped the straps from my shoulders and started charging up the hill. It was hard going – the ground dipped lower before forming quite a steep slope immediately before the crest – especially for someone as knackered as I was. Even the artefact and burst of adrenalin I’d got didn’t help much. All I could do was keep my legs pumping and try to get to where I’d have a clear shot.

Anatoly cried out as Rusty – assuming this critter really had once been the Canadian scientist – slammed into him, sending him sailing through the air, before closing in on Svetlana.

‘Kill it! Killithelp meee!’ Svetlana screamed, half-turning and starting to run, though apparently unable to bring herself to turn her back fully to the advancing sucker.

I finally crested the rise. Svetlana was stagger-running away, zig-zagging as she went. Her biggest problem was, she was heading for the anomaly field. I glanced over at Anatoly. He’d landed hard and was still lying on his side, one arm folded protectively about his ribs. He groaned and started coughing. I saw blood on his lips.

‘Help me!’ Svetlana shrieked, forcing me to focus. Anatoly would have to get on with it for now, regardless of any injuries he’d sustained.
The AK went into my shoulder as I dropped to one knee, automatically checking the shot selector to make sure the safety was off and I was going to get some good, satisfying bangs when I squeezed the trigger. I fired three rounds, the percussion and displacement from the weapon making my ears ring and the skin on my whole face feel like it was wobbling like jelly. Perhaps there was a reason why you always saw people on TV firing these things from the hip. The burst had been intended to miss; Svetlana was zig-zagging, the bloodsucker directly between me and her. I didn’t dare aim too close to the mutant; this weapon was an example of Old Soviet thinking: plenty of men spraying plenty of rounds whilst piling forward equals war won, and balls to accuracy. Truth be told, they were okay…but I’d really want a nice, well-maintained NATO weapon for this. If the L.85 had been in any fit state, I’d have it in my hands and old Rusty would have a few holes in his head by now.

The mutant completely ignored the warning burst and continued pursing his intended victim, who promptly stumbled and fell.

Roaring victory, the creature loomed over her. Clear shots. I fired.

I watched at least three rounds impact the leathery-looking skin. It could have been more. I hoped it was. But all the sucker did was roar again. The head whipped towards me and he turned, spreading his arms wide. Svetlana was struggling to her feet. She’d have been better off where she was.

The sucker turned back to her, either hearing or sensing the movement and remembering he’d had her cold. I stopped firing, unwilling to risk hitting Svetlana. Those long, knotted-wood arms reached around and pulled her close. The tentacles wrapped around her head and neck in an obscene death kiss, and suddenly the last thing I ever wanted was for her to die like that. I didn’t care what she’d done or why she’d done it, nor could I believe I’d seriously considered this as an option. No one deserved to die this way.

Svetlana was still gamely trying to fight the thing off, though her strength was failing. Her eyes were darting frantically from side to side, though a clear glaze of death was falling over them by the second.

‘Get off her, you fucking ugly twat!’ I screamed, pushing the selector to single and double-tapping like a man possessed. Some of the rounds were striking home: three hit Rusty in the back; two more struck buttocks and thighs; another two hit the arms and chest as he began to turn towards the source of the threat. In other words, towards me.

The tentacles unwound from Svetlana’s head and he released her. She staggered away, falling to her knees, still bleeding profusely and with barely the strength to crawl. It was a testament to her strength of will that she was moving at all.

Rusty began lumbering towards me, limping heavily from the wounds sustained. My attention was fixed forward as I kept firing, but I was also peripherally aware of Anatoly finally trying to recover and sit up, and Svetlana vomiting up blood as she somehow made it to her feet. She was dying, there was no way to stop it now, yet she plodded away, reeling in and out of my peripheral vision. She paused, the staggered on, out of my line of sight. A low thrumming reached me, getting louder, then louder still. Svetlana began to scream again, the sound weak and not helped by the wads of blood in her throat.

‘Ah, shit!’ Anatoly wailed. ‘It’s pulling her in!’

I shut it all out, letting the bloodsucker loom large in my mind. This was the primary task. I had to drop it. If I didn’t, I was dead and that meant neither Svetlana nor Anatoly would be getting any help.

Another roar, and Rusty began a final charge. I kept my aim on his head now and just kept on squeezing shots away. All too soon, the AK clicked empty and I fished the suppressed pistol out of my pocket.

‘Fuck you. Fuck you. Bollocks Rusty, you fucking Canuck tosspot,’ I muttered, squeezing the rounds off until that, too, clicked empty. Still Rusty came. Still Svetlana tried to scream, though her efforts were becoming increasingly weak, not to mention increasingly liquid. It was over. There was nothing more to do. We were dead.

Rusty paused at ten metres, watching as I dropped the pistol to the ground. I had another mag in my pocket, but what was the point? Ten metres was nothing. Even my granddad might have stood a chance of closing that distance before I got the pistol reloaded, and he only had one leg.

I opened my arms. ‘Come on, then, you twat-faced old bastard. Dinner is fucking well served.’

Rusty’s tentacles flared and his eyeshine went into overdrive as he also opened his arms, a low hissing coming from what now served as his mouth. He stepped closer, then closer still, seeming to savour the moment, perhaps regretting that he hadn’t taken the opportunity I’d presented earlier. I was really going to die. The funny thing was, I didn’t care. Instead, my head filled itself full of defiant, slightly manic witticisms: ‘I’d say no tongues, but you haven’t got one’; things of that sort.

Anatoly’s AK rattled away to my left, and rounds slammed into Rusty from point-blank range. How he stayed on his feet, I had no idea. Maybe it was disbelief, maybe it was all to do with his changed physiology, or maybe it was a bit of both, but it was only when Anatoly put three or four rounds through the mutant’s skull that the light in its eyes began to dim and instead of moving forward, it began to finally crumple to the ground.

Anatoly coolly hobbled over, placed the muzzle behind what had been an ear but now looked like a small hole surrounded by wizened, puckered flesh, and emptied the rest of the magazine into Rusty’s head. Nothing could have survived that.

I looked down at the dead bloodsucker, then over to where Svetlana’s body – or rather, what remained of it – was being devoured by the anomaly. It seemed to be taking a hell of a time. Finally, I glanced at Anatoly, who seemed unable to decide whether to watch the anomaly take finally take Svetlana or marvel at his handiwork with Rusty. He broke the cycle by raising his eyes and looking into mine.

‘Evens,’ I said, and stooped to pick the pistol up again, reloading and shoving it into my pocket as I watched the anomaly got to work on Svetlana’s head. ‘Come on. Let’s get out of here. You can get that fucking pack.’

We turned towards the smallholding. Neither of us looked back.
  03:16:03  27 February 2010
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Zugbarrh
Veteran
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/01/2009
 

Message edited by:
Zugbarrh
02/27/2010 4:49:08
Messages: 883

---QUOTATION---
Zug,where did you find this shit?

Man,we are all going to hell. What sick mind would make bloodsuckers doing each other?


---END QUOTATION---

what do you mean, blood sucker, http://img705.imageshack.us/img705/2966/zonerecognitionchart3.jpg heres part of it.

nvm.

Zug
  15:55:15  16 March 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XXVIII

A heavy silence hung between us once we’d made ourselves comfortable in the attic. While there had been something to do – be it getting the heavy pack up into the attic so we could weigh the hatch cover down, getting the bedding and gear stowed in our chosen areas, or improvising a toilet out of the bucket and pair of sacks that Anatoly had discovered in the derelict barn-cum-garage-cum-workshop – conversation had flowed freely enough even if it had been limited to the task at hand. Now we were finished, silence reigned.

Anatoly lay by the hole near his bed area that we had discovered and widened slightly, staring out at the empty courtyard and track, alone with his thoughts, while I preferred to sit on my looted bedding, sort through the rest of my newly-acquired kit, and generally get myself organised.

‘I need a shit,’ Anatoly muttered.

‘Nice way to open a conversation, mate,’ I said. ‘Carry on. I’m not stopping you.’

He shifted in place. ‘I don’t understand why we couldn’t have the bucket downstairs,’ he said. ‘It would have saved all that business with the sacks. I mean, I bought them to help spread the weight in the packs, you know?’

‘I know, but it’s like I told you before, we can’t take the risk of being compromised. Even up here, the smell might give us away. If someone, or some thing, happens along and gets a noseful, they’ll know someone’s close by…and it wouldn’t take Einstein to figure out where.’ I pointed at the hole in the roof on the other side of the hatch, as far away from our bedding area and spy-hole as it was possible to get. ‘There’s our toilet, mate, like it or not.’

‘I’ve never been comfortable with all this shitting in front of other people,’ he moaned, turning round to face me.

‘Which is why we used the crates from up here and those sacks as a screen. As for other things, if you’re worried about offending me, you won’t. I’ve heard and smelled it all before.’

‘It’s not that. It’s just…’ he trailed off, making me glance up. He looked stricken, like a kid told to take a leak against a tree in the park rather than wait to use the toilet.

‘For fuck’s sake, you’re a soldier – or you used to be. It’s not your first time. Yes, it’s unpleasant; yes, it goes against everything Mother raised you to do, but I’m not going anyplace and the bucket stays up here. As will you, if you’ve got any sense, or would you rather go outside to find a quiet place behind a bush only to have one of Rusty’s mates turn up?’

Looking miserable and embarrassed, Anatoly got up and trudged over to the bucket, unbuckling his new trousers even as he disappeared behind the low stack of slatted crates and draped sackcloth.

I moved over to the spy-hole by Anatoly’s bedding to keep watch, peering through the mesh of the scrim I’d cut from a looted raincoat and angled away from the hole to keep it in darkness. No one would see us watching from the track. I’d already made sure of this by getting Anatoly to lie in place and watch as I headed up the track and patrolled in, doing one or two things so I could make sure he’d had eyes-on and the field of view was as good as we could make it without risking compromise. Even though I’d known just where to look, I’d seen fuck all and best of all, Anatoly had been able to tell me exactly what I’d been doing and where. No way should anyone be sneaking up on us for the duration of our stay.

‘How long do we have to do this for, anyway?’ Anatoly called.

‘Only for a day or so,’ I replied.

A day or so? Why the hell would we want to stay here for that long?’

‘Two reasons, mate. First, part of the deal was that I’d carry on and do a CTR of the Bandits’ HQ and gather some intel, which means this is a halfway-house for me. Second – and most important: I’m fucked. I’ve not stopped since I landed, unless a disturbed night in the hotel and kipping in the back of a car with no suspension counts. I’ve been up for over twenty-four hours, and in that time I’ve been on a raid, taken a couple of beatings, and faced an all-night trip through the tunnel to here, as well as all this morning’s excitement. Right now, I just want to get some sleep. After that, I’ll see how I feel. If I feel up to it, we can stow the Stalkers’ stuff near the tunnel, tell them where it is, and head out. If I still feel knackered, we stay put. Which reminds me...’ I pulled my PDA from my pocket. ‘Colonel Petrenko. It’s Snorkbait. Cancel the RV in the tunnel. Svetlana is dead. Repeat, cancel RV in tunnel, Svetlana is dead. Over.’

‘Who are you talking to now? What are you doing?’ Anatoly said.

‘Getting round to something I should have done already,’ I replied.

Snorkbait. Acknowledged. What happened? Over.

Petrenko sounded pissed off. I wasn’t surprised. He’d probably had Stalkers pestering him ever since he got back from the tunnel, wanting to know what he was going to do if I never came back and advising on what he should have done in the first place.

From behind the screen, Anatoly groaned as if he was giving birth to a cow and gave off a series of blatting farts, the sound of which were amplified by the metal bucket.

‘Fuck me, name that tune,’ I mumbled. ‘Colonel Petrenko. We ran into a little mutant problem. A bloodsucker attacked. We engaged but Svetlana was badly injured. She walked into an anomaly before we had chance to start treating her.’ I paused. It was still so fresh: I could still see her, covered in blood and losing more as she staggered away; Anatoly’s cry that it had got her; the sight of her lifeless body being slowly drawn in and crunched down as if she’d been shoved into an invisible trash compacter. ‘The unknown Stalker I reported saved my life, Colonel. It was just tough luck that we couldn’t save her, too. Over.’

There was a long pause. I hoped it meant Petrenko was passing the news to Vasya and the others. Maybe they’d be happy now. I only wished they could have seen Svetlana’s demise for themselves and spared me the experience, let those bastards have the nightmares I was bound to get instead.

Snorkbait. The Stalkers want to know when they can expect their items back. Actually, they’ve wanted to know since last night. As for unknown Stalker…if you’re sure he’s safe, bring him here asap. We might be able to help with the PDA situation you mentioned before. If not, he’ll have to be escorted to Duty HQ. We can’t afford to have unknowns wandering around, given the situation. Over.

‘Colonel Petrenko. Acknowledged, however, be advised I am resting up today. We will leave for Autopark tomorrow a.m. Over.’

Snorkbait. Understood. Vasya and the other idiots won’t be happy about the delay, but they’ll have to live with it. It’s not like they were going anywhere, anyway. Petrenko out.

I shoved the PDA back into my pocket and went back to my area.

‘Good news, mate,’ I called, grabbing a random can from my now-sorted main pack. ‘We’re off to Autopark first thing.’

‘Good,’ Anatoly muttered, re-emerging from the makeshift toilet and rinsing his hands with some water. The stench that accompanied him was horrendous, but would soon dissipate. ‘This place is fucking bad news.’

I shrugged, though in truth I found it hard to disagree. It certainly hadn’t worked out well for most recent visitors, and God only knew what the original inhabitants had been forced to barricade themselves in against. Whoever or whatever it had been, it clearly hadn’t worked as there was no sign of them anywhere now. Maybe they’d ended up in those anomalies, just like Svetlana had. I didn’t suppose I’d ever know.

‘You feeling okay?’ I asked, watching him shuffle to his sleeping bag and lower himself gingerly to a sitting position.

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Fucking gas, mostly. It was worse yesterday, though.’

I scratched my head. ‘What food you got over there?’

‘Half a loaf of bread, something that looks like sausage wrapped in paper, and some cans of…’ He fished around in his sacks, not having bothered with sorting his gear yet. ‘Fruit in syrup, rice pudding, and…soup. Chicken.’

‘I’d go with the soup, mate. Chicken soup cures all ills,’ I said, cracking a yawn so wide it almost locked my jaws. ‘Leave the bread, and especially leave off the fruit; you’ll be shitting through the eye of a needle if you have fibre and rich stuff. Your arse’d end up like a blood orange, and we’ve got a walk ahead of us tomorrow whether you end up mincing the whole way or not. Oh, and for fuck’s sake, sort your kit. Do you really think you can carry three half-full sacks instead of lumping it into one main pack?’

‘Okay, I’ll get it sorted, don’t worry,’ he said, getting to work with his knife. Judging from his technique, this boy wasn’t used to field meals.

I opened my can and dug in, despite the fact I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry. It wasn’t just the stench from the other end of the loft that was killing my appetite; tiredness also played a part, and every time I closed my eyes I could see Svetlana’s bloodied face and slickly matted hair.

All the same, hungry or not, I knew eating was the right thing to do; I’d expended a lot of energy since my last meal and it needed to be replaced, and I didn’t need to miss so many meals that I ended up like Anatoly, full of wind and blowing holes in my underpants.

The thing was, canned meats had never been a favourite of mine even when I was a kid and my mom had served them up on sandwiches as part of our Sunday tea, and my least favourite of all had been spam. Now, just the sight of the soft, salty meat and surrounding jelly almost caused me to gag. To make matters worse, on the second or third bite I thought maybe this was how Sveta had seemed to Rusty: mostly meaty, but also soft and over-salty with bits that were a bit gelid. I closed my eyes and waited for the nausea to pass, shoving the can to one side with the meat only half-eaten. My brain started to shut down, relieved at finally being allowed to rest.

‘She was pretty,’ Anatoly said.

I opened my eyes again. ‘Do what, mate?’

He cleared his throat. ‘I said, she was pretty.’

I swallowed the temptation to tell him I hadn’t thought he was talking about the Tooth Fairy and watched as he continued to work on getting at his food.

I’d been waiting for him to open up about what had happened earlier, and it seemed like he’d now hit that point. It was odd that he wanted to do it just before eating, but otherwise it was a good sign – it saved him from mulling everything over and getting depressed. It was just one of those things that what I wanted most just now was to close down for a while. I closed my eyes again, hoping he’d get the hint and be quiet, at least long enough for me to slip away to Dreamland.

‘Don’t you think so?’ he prompted. So much for being allowed to drift off.

I coughed and sat up again, trying not to think of Svetlana as Rusty’s version of canned meat again. It didn’t work. The taste of the meat and sight of Svetlana covered in blood came back to me and I had to gulp down the plug of bile that tried to rise.

‘Yeah, she was pretty, if that’s the word you want to use. I can think of others.’ I managed a smile. ‘She looked like my ex.’

‘Ah,’ he said, nodding. ‘You were a lucky man, in that case.’

I felt my smile turn bitter. ‘Not as lucky as the man she binned me for.’

Anatoly looked away. ‘Sorry about that,’ he said.

‘Don’t be. You didn’t do anything.’

We lapsed into a long silence and I gave myself a mental dressing down. He clearly needed to talk about this stuff – so did I, for that matter, and the sooner the better; once we’d had our say, I’d be able to finally, finally get my head down – but just as progress was being made, I’d made him uncomfortable.

‘Look, mate, ignore me. Whatever went on with me and Nikki has nothing to do with all this. Well, apart from losing her being one of the reasons I came here.’ I smiled. ‘So, come on. What else did you want to say?’

He shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’ He paused, leaning back against a support post. ‘She seemed nice, too. Apart from being a thief, I mean. I think she was basically a good person. Sweet. Perhaps life had just treated her badly once too often. It happens that way, sometimes; a kind nature can change if it is abused. It’s like a callus on the soul.’

I rolled my eyes, making sure he didn’t notice. Perhaps he had her right, but I didn’t think so. Dmitriy Monkey had also fallen under some kind of spell as far as she was concerned, but, try as I might, I just couldn’t see the charm despite her good looks. Maybe it was an age and experience thing, or maybe her resemblance to Nikki had made me biased against her. Either way, Anatoly had obviously seen something he’d liked – or thought he had.

‘It should have been me,’ he said suddenly, choking up. ‘I was closest, so why didn’t it kill me first? Maybe she’d have got away, or perhaps you’d have been able to kill it in time.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘I’m a murderer. I’m nothing. I deserve to die here! Why did it have to take her first?’

‘No threat,’ I said.

He glared at me. ‘What?’

‘She was no threat – the weakling – and was therefore the easier target. She was bound; she wouldn’t be able to fight as hard to get away.’ I pointed a finger at him. ‘You, on the other hand, were still dressed like a soldier, and you were armed.’

‘All the more reason to take me first,’ he said.

I shook my head. ‘Think about it. He did take you out first; he knocked you flying. You could have ended up in an anomaly, dead from a broken neck…anything. As it was, you were fucked up for a while; long enough for him to take the easy meal, at any rate. You saw how quickly Svetlana was drained. Even if she hadn’t walked into that anomaly –’

‘She didn’t walk into it,’ he muttered. ‘She was barely managing to crawl. She was dying, covered in blood, and –’

Even if she hadn’t walked into the anomaly,’ I repeated, silencing him, ‘there’s no chance she could have survived. I know wounds always looks worse than they are, but she was dead from the time that thing grabbed her. If I hadn’t opened fire, it would have finished her and had you before you had chance to recover.’

He gave a sardonic smile. ‘And here I was thinking I’d saved your life.’

‘You did, mate,’ I said. ‘Fact is we saved each other, in a way. Without me slowing him down making myself the next prime target, you’d have been Rusty-chow, and without you…well, I was out of ammo and I’d already gone through harsh language. I was in about as deep as it gets.’

‘It should still have been me,’ he insisted. ‘I just don’t get why it’d leave me, the bigger danger, alive while it killed her.’

I sighed. ‘Ever watch a nature programme on TV? Look at lions, tigers…any predator come to that. Do they go after the strongest of the herd, the ones that could give them a royal kicking and damage them, making them unable to hunt, or do they prefer to take the weakest and slowest?’

‘The weakest and slowest, obviously,’ he replied. ‘But do they run past stronger prospects to get to them?’

‘Look, that thing knew what it was doing, Anatoly. Like I said just now, it did take you out of the game; you just weren’t the easiest dish on the menu. Plus I was closer to you; that also made you the tougher option. By taking you on properly, it would also have had to deal with me…and the easy meat could have got away. Too much risk for little or possibly no return. It made no sense. By fucking you up and taking Svetlana, Rusty guaranteed himself a meal. His reaction to me wasn’t hunger-driven; he charged me as a form of defence. He’d have killed me out of self-preservation. You…you were just in his larder – or so he thought.’

Anatoly puffed out his cheeks and blew. ‘I’m still not sure,’ he said.

‘Neither am I. Who knows how those fucking things think? It’s the only thing that makes sense, though.’

‘If you’re right, could we ever have saved her? That’s the one question I keep coming back to; what more could I have done?’

‘Me too,’ I admitted. ‘The fact is, I think we were just unlucky today.’

‘Unlucky? Do you think Svetlana would agree that she was just unlucky, so oh well, never mind?’

‘No, and that’s not really what I mean,’ I said. ‘It’s all ifs and maybes, isn’t it? If we’d stuck together and I hadn’t sent you there to wait, maybe she’d have survived. If she hadn’t been bound, maybe she could have fought back long enough for us to engage. If that anomaly hadn’t been there, if she’d still had her detector, if she hadn’t been so drained and weak, if she’d been able to think properly, maybe…just maybe…she’d have got away with it and we’d have been able to treat her. Though I doubt it.’

I swallowed, feeling my gorge rise again as something I’d said came back to me: If I hadn’t sent you there to wait. I had sent them, hadn’t I? And why would I have done that exactly, knowing Rusty was up there? Granted, I had just assumed he’d still be lying there calling for help and food if he was still able, but…I’d heard that cracking as his jaw underwent some sort of change; I’d known there was a potential danger had sent them anyway. Different scenarios began running in my head, what might have been if this and if that clashing with what had been and what was done.

‘What kind of anomaly was that, anyway?’ Anatoly asked, breaking into my chain of thought.

‘What?’ I snapped, though I was actually grateful to him for dragging me back to the here and now. ‘I…Your guess is as good as mine, mate.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘Of course I don’t know. I’ve only been in The Zone about ten minutes longer than you, from the story you told before. How the fuck am I supposed to be the expert?’

‘Okay, okay. Sorry. I keep forgetting you’re still new. You just seem more at home here than I do. I don’t know why.’

‘Yeah, sorry, mate. I didn’t mean to snap. But this place is hard on me, too, you know. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way to you because I’m older, more experienced generally,’ I suggested, shrugging.

‘Maybe,’ he mused. ‘But I’m not sure that’s it.’ He shrugged and sighed. ‘So what sort of anomaly do you think could do that to a person? I mean, property-wise. It was like it was sucking her in and crunching her down.’

‘Yeah. If I was pushed, I’d say it was some sort of gravity thing. It would explain the crushing part. I don’t know about the slow drawing in, though. I suppose it’d depend on what caused the local gravity increase. If it’s a vortex, spinning and contracting so it draws things in, like a tornado, that’s one thing. Otherwise you’re looking at a density increase, localised and limited in some way. A singularity. But that’d surely suck everything in, growing as it increased the mass in the centre.’ I shook my head. ‘Either way, there are clearly different causes when it comes to anomalies: the Fruit Punches would seem to be chemical, judging from their corrosive properties and appearance. If we say there are chemical and gravimetric anomalies, then maybe there are spatial ones as well.’

‘There are the electrical and fire ones for sure,’ Anatoly said. ‘There’s a field of electrical anomalies covering the road not far from here.’

‘So that’s four we know of, maybe even five, assuming there are spatial as well. There’s another thing,’ I said; ‘why do they appear where they do? Is it a susceptible spot, a weak area, like they reckon the Bermuda Triangle might be; nothing weird in and of itself, but under just the right conditions…’

‘I thought you were a soldier, but you sound like a scientist. Almost.’

I laughed. ‘Come off it, mate. Being a soldier doesn’t mean you have no other knowledge or interests, and it’s not like I know any of this for certain. I was always pretty interested in science stuff at school, though, especially physics. And I hate a mystery; I like to know.’

‘So why did you become a soldier, then? Why not something else?’

I shifted position. ‘Truth? There was fuck all else to do. I was out of work, my girlfriend at the time went to university without bothering to tell me I was dumped, and I’d had enough of it at home, so…that was me. “Gone for a soldier”, as they say.’

‘Why didn’t you become an officer rather than an enlisted man?’

I shrugged. ‘It’s not how it worked in the UK back then. Still isn’t now, as far as I know. If I’d been allowed to stay on at school and get the higher qualifications, then I could have applied for officer entry. As it was…enlistment was the only option. But to be honest, I don’t think I’d have liked being an officer. I wouldn’t have wanted the operation for one thing.’

‘What operation?’ Anatoly said, frowning.

‘The one to have my brain removed,’ I smiled, and he laughed. It was good of him, seeing as the Ukrainian Army surely had similar jokes. Most armies did, and the ‘brainless officer’ one was as much a cliché as the one NCOs traditionally gave in response to erroneously being called ‘Sir’: ‘Don’t “sir” me! I work for a living!’

‘Tell you what,’ I said, ‘on the way down to Autopark tomorrow, we’ll try to find where that anomaly was and chuck some stuff in, see what happens. That way we might be able to find out what type it was. Someone’s bound to know.’

We lapsed into silence once more, the conversation seemingly at an end.

‘I keep seeing her, Snorkbait,’ he eventually murmured. ‘All that blood…I can’t get over it.’

‘I know, mate,’ I said. ‘I don’t think you ever get over seeing things like that, not properly. I don’t think you’re meant to, if you’re sane.’

‘I can’t believe this place. It’s…cruel. Evil.’

‘Seems to me like you and Colonel Petrenko might have that belief in common,’ I said. ‘Now, I really need to get some sleep. We can talk more when I wake up, if you want. Fair enough?’

‘Fair enough,’ he agreed, and I removed my boots and slid into the sleeping bag, closing my eyes once more. Images of Svetlana, battered and bloody, reeling away from the attack, were there and always would be, as would the sight of her being fully drawn into the anomaly. What had been worse than the sight of her, though - what was bound to find me in every nightmare from now until the day I died - was the sound: the cracking, ripping, pulping noise her skull had made as the anomaly finally crushed her head.
  15:56:57  6 April 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Part XXIX

Note: The climate/political stuff isn't an expression of fact or my own personal opinions. It's 'future/alternate world' stuff and expressions of opinion belong to the character(s), right or wrong. So don't go haranguing my ass with stuff, OK?

*****

I opened the curtains to find it had snowed during the night. I’d known it had been cold – there had been a nip in the bedroom despite the efforts of the central heating – but not that cold. So much for the ‘experts’ telling us we wouldn’t get winters like this anymore: sorry, kids, but snowballs are a thing of the past and Santa’s going to need to fork out for some tyres. What a load of old bollocks that had been. Several theories and explanations that had been taken for truth had since been shown to be wrong. Now some talking head was saying the climate in the late Nineties and early Noughties could have been affected by a ‘perfect storm’ of solar activity – Earth going through the tail of a coronal mass ejection (that would have flash-fried us with no bother had we been hit full-on) coupled with the height of the usual eleven-year cycle and a period of intense sun-spot activity, which was linked to but not the same as the regular cycle. New theories abounded, usually about how science – as led by former hippies now retired – could have been so misguided, if not actually derailed by vested interests and pet theories. In-fighting continued, politicians stuck to their social engineering and control agendas, and markets fluctuated wildly as the environment industry flirted with collapse.

In the midst of it all, the energy companies were busily making another killing. Back in the days of global warming and man-made climate change, they’d ramped the prices to ‘help reduce consumption’, ‘help save the planet’ and, of course, to ‘satisfy market forces’. Now that we’d apparently be settling back into something like the old pattern – whatever that had been and whenever it had occurred – they were claiming shortage of stocks, surprise at the cooler climate, and, again, market forces. The bottom line was that prices went up by many times the rate of inflation, sometimes as often as three or four times a year. They couldn’t lose.

Nor could the oil giants, it seemed. The price of fuel had soared – with the Government creaming about seventy per cent in duty and other taxes – and sent the cost of living through the roof.

None of which took the financial circumstances of the majority into account. As bills got higher, people increasingly found that the pips weren’t just squeaking, but screaming in agony. Jobs continued to ebb and flow – but mostly ebb – and the more people there were out of work, the lower wage offers became. People fell into grinding poverty despite appearing relatively affluent. Before they’d been silenced by new legislation, some newspapers had even run stories about people starving to death. Meanwhile, Governmental concern lay with the European, not the national, economy. Unemployment of up to fifteen per cent was deemed acceptable in many West European countries, because the Euro economy as a whole was still okay with those figures and maybe things would get better in the long run. Even so, an estimated ten per cent were doomed to be permanently out of work. Things were no bed of roses in Eastern Europe, either. In order to remain competitive, employers there were keeping wages low and engaged in efforts to drive them lower. Faced with this, many continued to flee to Britain in search of a better future – only to go back again when they found that the natives didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms, that work was scarce, and that the cost of living was eye-wateringly high.

On top of all this, crime had increased due to hardship, with muggings, stabbings and burglaries occurring on a far greater scale than the official figures were allowed to show. The average person in the street could see that law and order was crumbling, that society was breaking down, but they weren’t listened to and nothing was done. For now. One day, action would be taken, and it would take the form of curfews, changes to law, and the destruction of real democracy and freedom…and the majority of people, given a semblance of sanity in the world again, would rejoice at their new serfdom and welcome the tools of their oppression. It was depressing to contemplate and I hated what I had once fought to protect. Indeed, I hardly recognised it. The world had changed, moved on, and I found it despicable and vile.

But the scene outside was almost from a different world; a place that was peaceful and soothing. It reminded me of times past, in my childhood, when I’d woken in the depths of winter to find ice on the inside of the windows and deep, untrodden snow covering the world beyond. Not often, true – and certainly not as often as was often said – but…sometimes. And those occasions had always been special.
I gazed out, rapt, transported back through all the years, past all the things I had seen. A robin darted from a nearby tree and landed on the bird table Nikki had insisted we get. I laughed out loud, a boy once more, just for an instant.

‘Breakfast,’ Nikki called from downstairs, and I wondered why she’d let me lie in while she was up and already busy. It wasn’t like her to do that. She must be after something. Or perhaps she’d been planning something. Secret plans seemed most likely; I could have sworn I’d heard her talking to someone on the phone before, despite the early hour.

‘Coming!’ I called back, wondering where I’d put my jumper…and then there I was at the table, jumper not only found but already on. Magic. I wished every day could be like this.

‘What’s the plan for today then?’ I asked. Somehow, I knew this was Saturday – had been Saturday, anyway, because all this had already happened, bar the magic teleportation to the table, and this particular Saturday had been around six months ago – but it could have been any day, or every day.

I’m dreaming, I thought.

Are you? a voice that wasn’t really a voice answered.

‘How about we go into town later?’ Nikki said. ‘Carvell’s has got a sale on, and Sandra says Dorothy Perkins have reduced their prices again. Twenty per cent off trousers, she said.’

‘More clothes? How many more do you need, Nix? The wardrobes are heaving with your stuff as it is.’

‘What? Don’t you want me to look smart at work? Just because you’ve done nothing since leaving the Army…’

‘Don’t start,’ I said, buttering a slice of toast. ‘And that’s part of what I mean: Sandra’s got a good job and her ex forks out no end in maintenance for her and Suzy. Amy’s single and lives with her folks since she split from whatever his name was. Laura’s fucking loaded as well, her and that bloke she’s shacked up with. We can’t compete with that.’

‘And no wonder. Ever see the thing in common, Stephen darling? They all work.’

I slammed the knife down. ‘Jesus Christ, anyone would think I’ve never done anything in my life, the way you carry on,’ I said. ‘If I’d been out of the Army and out of work for years, without even looking for anything I could do, I’d give way. Jobs don’t grow on fucking trees, you know, and there are skilled, experienced people who got laid off a couple of years ago that are still out of work!’

‘That’s them. I’m talking about you,’ she snapped.

‘Why are you so keen on competing with your friends anyway?’ I demanded. ‘If you’re so unhappy with your choice of husband, you shouldn’t have dropped your fucking knickers at the first sight of a uniform, should you? Tell you what, I’ll fuck off over to The Fixer’s place and see what he’s got. It’ll mean me going off to fight again, but hey, it’s money, and more of it than your precious fucking friends will see in many a year if I get the right job. Or maybe I ought to start flogging drugs to the kids outside the local schools. How’d that be? It’s all money, right?’

‘You’re being stupid. I’m going to feed the birds,’ she said, shrugging into her coat.

‘Don’t call me fucking stupid!’ I bellowed.

She slammed the door. My coffee cup hammered through the glass section barely a second later.

That’s not right, I said in my waking conscious mind. I never threw anything at her. I’d never have done anything that might hurt her, no matter how much she pissed me off. I loved her too much.

Really? that maddening voice/feeling said. Why did you bring her here, then?

I looked through the kitchen window, then back to the door. The glass was whole again. A look at the table. The cup sat there, steam rising in thin wisps as the brew cooled.

Nikki busied herself feeding the birds, but her image was distorted. Even so, I could see that her jacket was wrong in both style and colour. Nikki had put on her blue puffa jacket, the one that I thought made her look like she was about fourteen years old even though she wouldn’t see thirty again. Now, her coat was almost black, but her image was so fogged I couldn’t make out any detail.

I didn’t bring her, I told the voice. She would never have come. This was when she was having her affair. She left me not long after this, because…because later today we’re throwing snowballs and gaming about, having a laugh for once, but some kids take the piss and I lose my temper. The kid pulls a knife and I break his arm. We end up arguing again and in the end I tell her if she’s not happy, she should fuck off out of it and leave me alone.

Is that right? the voice whispers. Hmm.

Of course it’s right.

A sound of splintering comes from outside. I look and everything is clear again. But Nikki’s coat is all wrong. Worse than that, her face is covered in blood.

‘Help meee!’ Nikki screams in Ukrainian. I don’t know Ukrainian…but nevertheless, I understand. I understand it as well as I understand English. I even respond using this language I don’t know, telling her to hang on, that I’ll get help, that she just needs to fight this thing, whatever it is.

Something has her. The bird table is gone and Svetlana’s…Nikki’s…eyes are dulling. Widening, but…dulling, becoming empty, as if her soul, her real self, is being drained away or crushed down. She’s dying, and there’s nothing I can do from in here. I’m trapped. Stuck. Useless as my wife dies before me.

Screaming her name, I rush to the door and throw it open. A bloodsucker is waiting. It throws its arms wide. The tentacles splay.

‘Snorkbait!’ it hisses. ‘Snorkbait!’ it screams.


*

‘Snorkbait!’ Anatoly cried, and I opened my eyes to find him looming over me, one hand gripping the front of my jacket, the other raised as if about the strike. ‘Christ, man, you scared the shit out of me.’

Weeping, making a thin whining noise as I breathed, I stumbled to my feet and reeled towards the bucket. Anatoly shuffled along behind, alternately trying to whack me on the back and get his arms around me so he could initiate the Heimlich Manoeuvre, but he was only getting in the way and making me stagger all the more

‘Will you fuck off?’ I wheezed, and he backed off as I shuffled around the crates, slumped to my knees, and threw up. The stench of bile, stale piss and shit began to hit me and I retched again, though there was nothing left to bring up. I tried to push myself away from the sight and smell of the bucket’s contents, but found my arms and legs wouldn’t support the effort.

‘Give me a hand, Anatoly,’ I mumbled. My head still reeled with nausea and my mind was a jumble. I didn’t know what was real and what was only the nightmare; my sole link to reality was the solid, real-world, no-bullshit grip of Anatoly’s hands under my shoulders as he dragged me back towards my bedding.

It was darker in the attic now. The wind had risen, and the air felt heavy and oppressive.

‘Time is it?’ I mumbled as he lowered me onto my bed.

‘Five-thirty. P.M.’ Anatoly said. ‘There’s a storm coming. Big one, that’s why it’s so dark. I think you might have had all the sleep you’re going to get, at least for a while.’ He gave me a hard look. ‘You going to throw up again?’

I started to shake my head, but quickly stopped as dizziness swirled and my stomach gave a worrying lurch-flop. ‘No. I think I’m okay.’

‘You sure? If you need help to get back to the bucket –’

‘No, no,’ I said, not wanting to think about the bucket and what it contained. It was bad enough I could still smell it. ‘I’ll be fine. Honest.’

Anatoly relaxed, but maintained his stare. ‘Okay. Let me know if you change your mind.’

‘I will.’

He looked through the spy-hole, leaned forward as though he had spotted something, then shifted to turn his attention to me again.

‘All clear out there?’ I asked.

‘Yeah. Thought I saw something, but I think it was just a dog. Big one, but still… There’s not a soul in sight – not that I expect there to be, with the weather closing in. If this is one of the big ones, it’s nothing you want to get caught in, I’ll tell you that much.’

I grunted an acceptance, but couldn’t help but think that, if I were in the Bandits’ position and needed to get past a (presumably well) defended encampment like the Valley Farm, I’d move up using the peak of the storm as cover. If Anatoly’s reaction was anything to go by and the Stalkers up there also assumed there’d be nothing to see and lowered their guard, things might get interesting down here come first light.

I wondered briefly if I should send a message to Colonel Petrenko and get him to contact whoever was in charge up there, but decided against. The Colonel struck me as a solid leader; he’d know how the Stalkers were likely to react to the storm and what steps to take. He’d make sure they were switched on. And if he didn’t, not only he but all of Spetsnaz would fall in my regard for them as soldiers.

‘So, what gives with you, anyway?’ Anatoly said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Just now. One minute you were fast asleep, the next you’re yelling your head off and choking, or whatever it was you were doing.’

‘It was just a nightmare,’ I said, wiping my mouth with a sleeve. ‘Daft, really. Just something about my ex and a bloodsucker.’

He grinned. ‘She didn’t turn into one, did she? There are a lot of jokes from The Zone about women being bloodsuckers in disguise, stuff like that. We even heard some of them in the camps.’

‘No. It was…’ I broke off, unsure of how much I should or wanted to say. ‘It was just a bit of everything from earlier, I think. The sickness must have been because I was so tired. Or maybe that meat I had earlier was off or something.’

‘Hm,’ he mused. ‘Either way, it was like you didn’t want to wake up. Or couldn’t. And you’re welcome for the help, by the way.’

I smiled. ‘Sorry. Thanks for the help, Anatoly. I’m glad you were around in case it had been more serious.’

He waved the expression of gratitude away, but smiled. ‘It’s nothing. What else could I do? Besides, like I said, you were scaring the shit out of me.’ He took a moment to look outside again, then looked down between his feet. ‘Trymay̆tesya! Ya budu otrymuvaty dopomohu!’ He cast a sidelong glance at me, hoping to catch a reaction.

‘Easy for you to say, mate,’ I said. ‘Should I say “bless you” or something?’

‘Stop being funny. Do you know what it means?’

I shook my head. ‘Not a clue. Chicken and chips twice? Make mine a pint?’

‘You’re taking the piss again,’ he sighed. ‘It’s something you said just before you started the choking thing.’

‘I told you, it was a nightmare. You say all sorts of mental shit that makes no sense. To be honest, I’m surprised I don’t get them more often, given some of the shit I’ve seen. Sveta copping it was just the latest in a long line, believe me.’

‘Yeah, yeah, the nightmare. But that’s not really the point. You said this quite clearly, and it does make sense. You’re sure you don’t know what it means?’

I shrugged. ‘Ya budu sticks out. Apart from that…’ I shrugged again.

‘It means “Hold on! I’ll get help!”’

‘But that’s –’

‘Not the same as Russian. No, it isn’t. Because you didn’t say it in Russian. You used Ukrainian.’

I shifted uncomfortably. ‘I don’t know Ukrainian. Not that well, anyway. I might just about make some connections and fumble around some basic things, but…’ I stopped, stunned. Because I had been understanding, hadn’t I? For some reason, somehow, since jumping the wire I’d experienced few if any real problems with language. Granted, most exchanges had been in Russian – but that was a problem in itself. I’d learned Russian in the Regiment, for much the same reasons that I’d learned Spanish and a smattering of Irish Gaelic: it made me a better operator in theatres I technically shouldn’t have been in and officially hadn’t been. I’d found Russian quite easy, but had been far from fluent. And yet, in here, I had been waffling away like a native. How could that happen?

‘I don’t understand,’ I finished.

‘Me either,’ he said. ‘Maybe it’d be something to mention when we get to the Autopark.’

‘Yeah, maybe. I can’t imagine anyone knowing much, though.’

‘Maybe not. Can’t hurt to ask, though, can it?’ Anatoly said, and stared down between his feet again for a long moment, fidgeting. ‘Snorkbait, are you sure there wasn’t more? I mean, it might all amount to nothing, but then again it might be important. I’ve heard stories, you see, not just rumours from in here but among the soldiers. Not that we used to talk much about peoples’ strange dreams or the voice-that-isn’t talking when you sleep.’

I stiffened. ‘Why not?’

He shrugged. ‘Our guys that talk about having had these dreams are always packed and gone by the end of the day. Where they go and what it all means, I don’t know. I’ve never had any odd dreams myself, or heard voices, but…’ He looked over at me again. ‘What I’m saying is, are you sure the nightmare was really just a nightmare? It wasn’t more than you’ve said?’

I passed a hand over my eyes. ‘No, mate, don’t worry. It really was just a nightmare. Nothing weird about it.’

‘If you say so.’ He stood and took a couple of steps forward. ‘Here, pass me that toy rifle of yours and whatever cleaning kit you have. It’ll give me something to do while I keep watch, at least until the storm wakes you again.’

‘You know how to clean it?’ I asked, surprised.

He smiled and nodded, though he didn’t elaborate. I handed over the L.85 and cleaning kit, as well as the NVGs.

‘For when it gets dark, mate,’ I said. ‘You’ll probably have to take the scrim down, but by then it won’t matter. Wake me at 2200. I’ll stand for four hours, then you go for two. I’ll then do another two, and then we head out. Sound okay to you?’

He nodded absently, still looking thoughtful and more than a little worried.

‘See you later,’ I smiled, and rolled over so my back was to him.
He wasn’t the only one who was worried. I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to those soldiers who’d reported the mystery voice-that-wasn’t or talked about their strange dreams. Why would the military isolate and remove soldiers it learned were so afflicted? Where did they end up? Were they taken away from The Zone, or were these ‘touched’ people taken inside the perimeter and abandoned? Did they end up in some secret facility to be probed and studied? Were there men and women locked away somewhere right now with scientists trying to unlock the secrets of their minds? Was it the first step towards mutation, or was it possible that The Zone simply called to some – and if so, for what purpose? How?

Anatoly began to whistle gently as he got to work on my L.85. In the distance, thunder rolled, heralding the imminent arrival of the gathering storm, and I closed my eyes, pushing thoughts and memories away. There were too many questions and not enough answers. I couldn’t allow myself to become distracted by odd questions: I’d only become worried, then fearful, then obsessed…and ultimately dead. Bandits and mutants wouldn’t give a fart in a high wind whether I was lost in some deeper musing or not; they’d attack, and I’d be killed without ever finding answers to the questions I had.

Sleep. Rest, I instructed my tired, overwrought mind, and actually felt more relaxed. Thunder rumbled again, Anatoly continued to whistle, and I fell asleep to the melody of these sounds and those of the rifle being cleaned.

This time, I didn’t dream.

*

It was raining heavily when I woke. Lightning flashed and thunder cracked immediately, so loud I wondered how I could have slept as long as I had. More lightning, and in the blue-white strobe I saw that the L.85 had been replaced by my side and the cleaning kit sat atop my main pack.

I rolled over and hauled myself to a sitting position.

‘Welcome back to the land of the living,’ Anatoly said, and yawned loudly. ‘No more bad dreams, I take it?’

‘No. What time is it?’

‘Just before twelve.’

‘What? I told you to wake me at ten!’

‘Yeah, well…you seemed to need the sleep, so I left you. I’m surprised the storms didn’t wake you before now, though.’

‘There’s been more than one?’

‘Of course! It sometimes happens like this. It goes one way, it comes back. It passes over, and comes back again. Something to do with The Zone, I think. The more religious folks say it’s God trying to wash the Earth clean again. Others – also religious – say it’s God weeping at the harm Man has done to his jewel, and that the storms are so violent and long because of His grief and anger.’

‘And what do you think?’

‘It’s rain. Maybe there’s a force controlling The Zone and maybe there isn’t. If there is, it may be able to draw the storms back over somehow. I don’t know and don’t really care, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Anything seems possible with this place.’

I yawned and stretched. ‘Any sign of life out there?’

‘Some weird creature crossed the track up near the road about an hour ago. It looked like it had two heads or something, but that was probably just my eyes and the rain playing tricks,’ he said. ‘That’s been all, though. Like I said before, anyone who knows The Zone won’t risk getting caught in one of these storms. You can’t see, for one thing, and you’d never hear if a creature was stalking you. It’s bad enough when you’re on guard – no end of guys have reported seeing more mutant activity even in the supposedly quieter perimeter areas during a storm. In here…no way. You’d have to be desperate or a lunatic to take the chance.’

‘Hm. Better safe than sorry, though, eh? Go on, give me the NVGs and get your head down. I’ll keep watch until six, then we sort our shit out and head for Autopark, okay?’

‘Okay,’ he said, turning the NVGs on and guiding my hand with his so I could grab them. I then guided him to his bed area so I could sit by the hole.

‘You sure you’re awake enough to go until six?’ he asked. ‘I don’t mind resting for a couple of hours and spelling you again. It’s not like it’s the first time I’ll have done it, and…’

‘And what?’

‘Well, sorry, but I was going to say I’m a lot younger than you are.’

‘Ah. Let the old man have his rest, you mean, because he’s already got one foot in the grave, the poor old git.’

‘No, it’s not meant to be insulting,’ he said. ‘It’s just…I’m younger and more used to it than you are now, for all your experience. It was just an idea.’

I stifled a yawn. The fact was, the idea of another couple of hours did appeal. But we had a long and arduous trek ahead of us already, and as young and fit as he might be, that was only going to be the start: who knew what lay beyond that?

I smiled in the dark, the thought of the future being completely unknown exciting me in a way that life in the Big Land hadn’t for a long time. There, the future was more of a known unknown: every day had the chance to be different, but usually they ended up just the same. Each night when you went to bed, you knew the shape of the day to follow, and the day after that, and the week after that, and the month…and so on. In The Zone, you could never be certain, you could never know…and it was exhilarating, if also a little scary – it meant you always had to be on your toes.

‘So, what do you think?’ he asked. ‘D’you want me to spell you again, or what?’

I turned my head to look outside. Something fairly large was lumbering towards the metalled road, occasionally pausing as if sniffing the air as it cut diagonally across the dirt track. I peered at it more intently. Sure enough, it looked for all the world as if it had two heads, a large and a small, with both sniffing away while facing opposite directions. I had the feeling that, if that thing had been around last night, Anatoly and I might not have been around come daybreak.
The larger of the heads, if it did indeed have two, turned in our direction…and stopped the characteristic twitching.

‘Snorkbait –’ Anatoly began.

‘Shut up!’ I hissed.

‘What is it?’ he whispered, already sounding frightened.

I didn’t answer until the questing head had turned away and the beast, whatever it was, continued on its way once more.

‘Fucked if I know, mate,’ I murmured. ‘Nothing I want to run into on a dark night like this, that’s for sure.’ I watched the mutant reach the ribbon of road, stop, and move off again, actually going out of its way to move around a cluster of scrubby bushes as if aware of the need to move tactically. ‘Get some sleep. If I need you to take over for a while, I’ll give you a kick.’

‘Right, but…are you sure it’s safe?’

I laughed softly. ‘Nowhere’s safe in The Zone, is it? Rest. If there’s a drama, you’ll know. And for Christ’s sake don’t snore.’
  17:24:41  20 July 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

Message edited by:
snorkbait
07/20/2010 17:25:17
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXX

Quite a bit later than first mentioned, but better late than never. I hope.

*****

‘Wakey, wakey,’ I called, giving Anatoly’s feet a kick.

‘Eh? What’s going on?’ he muttered, trying to sit up and only making it onto an elbow. ‘What time is it?’

‘Nearly six. Bucket’s outside, and if you want a hot breakfast you’d better shift your arse. Fire goes out in ten minutes.’

‘There’s a fire?’ he said, sitting up properly. ‘How?’

‘Magic,’ I said, winking. ‘Or, there was a fuel can in the back of one of those cars, with just enough petrol in it. Without it, I have ended up rubbing sticks together – and all the sticks are still wet.’ I went to the hatch.

‘Is it safe? To have a fire, I mean?’

‘Safe enough, mate. After all, we’re going to be gone soon. The path’s clear to the north, and I’ve already radioed Petrenko to see if there were any problems at DV reported in the night. According to him, they didn’t see or hear a thing, so we’re pretty much home and hosed. Give me a shout if you need a hand getting your gear downstairs.’

I dropped back through the hatch and went outside. The sun was up and was already quite strong. It looked as if it was going to be one of those hot, sticky days, which meant that, assuming the weather held, we’d want to be at Autopark by mid-morning – something that was by no means certain, given the weight we’d be carrying. If we were any later, the heat and humidity would be murderous, and I didn’t fancy waiting around in the tunnel for the day to start winding down.

I took the PDA from my pocket, wondering if I should contact Petrenko again and make another request for help. It wouldn’t speed us up by much, but... I shook my head. By the time help and cover for Autopark was finally organised, we’d be lucky if we were met this side of half way. And that was assuming Petrenko didn’t simply dismiss the request. Yesterday had been different. Yesterday, we’d had Svetlana to escort and protect, if she was to face something like justice. With her gone...well, Anatoly and I were Stalkers; we had to stand or fall on our own. If we made it back, fine. If we didn’t...that was The Zone.

A clump from inside the house told me that Anatoly already had such thoughts. Even after I’d made the offer of help, he preferred to deal with his own stuff in his own way. I shrugged, thumbing over to the Contacts page. Nothing. Not that that meant anything, of course; if I could switch my PDA off and on at will, others could do the same with theirs. Even so, I felt a little more relaxed. It was nothing more than a feeling, but I thought we were entirely alone out here. We didn’t even have anything to fear from the dogs.

This was The Zone as I’d wanted it to be: quiet and peaceful, free from everyday hurly-burly, a place where I could make my own way and just live. It wouldn’t always be so idyllic – in fact, I had the idea that silence and solitude might be the exception rather than the rule I had once assumed here – but for now at least the critters were behaving themselves, the weather was fine, and I was as organised as I needed to be. It was as it should be. All was right with the world.

Well, almost all. There was the smell, after all. I’d noticed it as soon as the sun got warm enough to start drying everything out and the odours of wet earth, rotting or rotten vegetation, old, damp wood and rusting metal mixed enough to create the sort of melange I’d not experienced since I was a kid playing in the woods near my home. There, the surrounding industry – electro-plating works, an aluminium plant, a timber merchant’s, a breaker’s yard – had generated a combined sappy, metallic, oily smell that drifted over the canal to permeate the old woodland. The mingled stench of industry, mostly stagnant water, and ageing was something I’d come to associate with childhood and ‘Home’. Yet here was that same smell, where whatever factories still existed stood far-off and disused and my youth was nothing but a distant – and increasingly hazy – set of memories.

‘At least I’m home, though,’ I muttered. ‘If that’s what this place actually is.’

I shook my head, feeling my previously pleasant mood slipping from me. I knew better than to chase after it and try to bring it back. Best to let it go and hope it would wander back of its own accord, like a nervous cat in a new house. In the meantime, I could run through weapons checks and rehearse mag changes, sidearm draws and the like. In the end, it would not be time wasted. I’d then do one last short patrol while I waited for Anatoly to finish his meal and make himself ready.

‘Morning,’ Anatoly said from the kitchen window, leaning out and watching me run through stoppage drills. ‘Expecting trouble?’

‘You know what they say, mate: “Be prepared”, “Train hard, fight easy”. All that sort of motivational bollocks.’

He grunted and inclined his head.

‘Got your stuff ready?’ I asked, more or less rhetorically.

‘Yeah.’

‘Let’s have it, then. I’ll drop it with mine.’

‘Where is yours?’ he said, looking around.

I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. ‘Other side of the fence. It’s safe enough while you eat. After that we grab Aleks and get the packs sorted. Then we head out.’

‘Right,’ he said, and ducked back inside.

Five minutes later, he was crouching by the fire cooking a lump of spam on the end of his knife, his packs were safely stowed next to mine, and Aleks’s body lay in the kitchen, waiting for his fairly short final trip to the anomaly field.

‘Shame we couldn’t do anything about his final ejections,’ Anatoly muttered, chewing on a piece of almost-black cooked meat.

I frowned. ‘I suppose whatever flies are about will take care of that.’

‘Hm,’ he grunted. ‘Still, it’s not going to be a nice place to visit for a while.’

‘Maybe, maybe not. If you feel that bad about it, go and clean it up.’

He smiled. ‘I’m not that concerned,’ he said. ‘I was just...making conversation, I suppose.’

‘And what a lovely topic you chose,’ I said, grabbing my AK. ‘Don’t tell me; you never had a girl, did you?’

‘Actually, I did, once. Back in school. I thought she was pretty cool. She was into entymology.’

‘What?’

‘Bugs. She was into bugs.’

‘I know what it is, mate. It’s just...it’s a bit of a strange hobby for a kid to have, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a bit...crap.’

‘Why? What were you and your “friends” interested in when you were “kids”?’

I shrugged. ‘Football. Cars. Music. Shagging, once we got to fifteen or so – though some of the girls had been keen on shagging for a while by then, as it turned out. We were playing catch-up. It was just more of the same from then on, really, at least for most of them.’

‘I see. Sounds...crap.’

‘It was. Why do you think I got out of it and joined the Army?’ I began to walk away.

‘Where’re you going?’ Anatoly asked.

‘Just having a look round. I won’t be long.’

‘You sure there’s no one around out here?’

‘Yeah, according to the PDA, we’re on our own. I’m not going far in any case. To be on the safe side, though, don’t expose your back and obviously, if there’s any sign of trouble, give me a shout.’

Anatoly nodded and shifted so that his back faced the side of the house.

‘See you in a bit, mate,’ I said, and left the yard, keeping a steady, even pace. All my senses were alert now. I could smell the fire, the cooking meat, the heavy odour, so similar to the one from my youth, that had killed my good mood earlier...I could even detect a hint of wet dog and shit on the breeze. My ears were fine-tuned, endlessly sifting for odd sounds – a rustle that shouldn’t be, footfalls both human and animal – and my eyes constantly scanned for ‘anomalies’: an odd print, a strange shadow, branches that waved too much or too little relative to the wind...I relied on them all. Even tiny changes that prickled against exposed skin were processed and analysed for meaning. What might that sudden tingle mean? What about the gentle but insistent pull away to my right? Anomalies? Imagination? Of course, I had detectors to monitor my surroundings, but in a sense the gadgets were only there as back-up; a truly successful Stalker would use them, sure enough, but not at the expense of honing the senses and trusting to instinct. A bit of kit might break or fail in some other way; observation and developing a keen ‘ear’ for what intuition had to say would then prove invaluable.

My thoughts turned to the creature I had seen ambling along the path during the storm. What had it been? Where had it gone to? It hadn’t come back towards the house, that was for sure. The whatever-it-was had been one of the things I’d kept a very watchful eye out for. From the way it had sniffed the air, it must have known where we were – or had at least figured it out.

I stopped. Could it have worked it out? I remembered being struck by a feeling of intelligence in the creature that went beyond the usual low cunning of most animals. Had it wandered into our part of The Zone, attracted by the smell of death and blood, only to pick up another set of scents – ours – leading away from the dead bloodsucker? And what then? Had it followed the trail until it realized where we’d been headed? Had it then skirted the perimeter, thinking it knew the direction we’d taken, only to find there was no sign of our tracks farther on? And was it possible for the thing to realize what this must mean?

I shivered despite the warm sun. Was it out there even now, watching me draw ever closer? Had it reckoned on our passing by its ambush site on the way north, having deduced that we’d head that way once the storm had passed?

‘How fucking clever are you?’ I muttered.

‘Snorkbait! Hey, Snorkbait! I’m done here!’ Anatoly yelled.

I turned to give him a thumbs-up. That was when the shooting began.
  17:33:11  20 July 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXXI

Heedless of the risk from anomalies, I rolled to my left rather than dropping straight to the ground. I’d be too exposed out on the track, and although the initial burst hadn’t been directed at me, it didn’t mean the next one wouldn’t be.

Twisting my body as I continued to roll into the longer grass, I finally came to rest a few feet from the track and facing the empty road.

Gunfire rattled again: a couple of AKs were blatting away on automatic fire to the accompaniment of an MP5. The heavy bass of a shotgun boomed once, then again. Someone screamed. The firing stopped. Something made a low, om-nom sort of growl and more gunfire erupted. Someone else screamed and the sound of the AKs suddenly became less. The firing petered out again. Small arms fire crackled. Stopped.

I rose to one knee, still with the AK into my shoulder even though the contact sounded too distant to pose any immediate threat. The road remained empty. The trees beyond waved summer foliage. It was once more as peaceful as it had been mere moments ago, before The Zone decided to show its teeth, but I wasn’t buying the deception. Not this time.

I turned and looked back towards the courtyard. Anatoly was at the fence, AK in the aim, muzzle swinging left and right as he scanned for targets.

‘Anatoly!’ I called, and his AK lowered slightly as he looked at me. ‘Moving!’

Anatoly made a ‘Come on’ gesture with an arm, and I sprinted the thirty metres or so back to the fence, taking a position on the opposite side of the entrance. We watched and waited in silence, covering our arcs, and I kept an eye on the tree-line on the other side of the road. Off to our left, a couple of dogs scampered towards the track, agitated and excited by the sudden commotion. We ignored them. They weren’t a problem as long as they didn’t start wandering in our direction.

‘What was all that about?’ Anatoly finally asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.

‘No idea, mate. Nothing good, that’s for sure.’

‘Bandits?’

I shrugged. ‘Might be. Petrenko said there’d been no reported problems in the night, but...’

‘But what if those Stalkers at the farm have dropped the ball?’

‘Or been paid to.’

‘I can’t believe any group of Stalkers would take a bribe. One or two, maybe, but all of them?’

‘Anything’s possible,’ I said.

Another low on-nom growl rolled down.

‘That’s why the firing stopped, then,’ I muttered.

‘What?’

I pointed north. ‘That growling sort of noise. I heard it before. Whoever it was must have been attacked by a critter of some kind, probably that thing we saw last night. That growling must mean they’re all dead and the creature’s warning everything else to stay away.’

‘Still doesn’t explain what they were doing there – if they were Bandits, I mean. How did they get past the Stalkers, if not by giving them a bribe? Do you think the Stalkers have been killed? It’d leave the farm wide open. Bandits would control the road south.’

I thought for a moment and shook my head. ‘No. There are other groups of Stalkers and Duty guys over there. Any firefight involving the farm would have been reported to Petrenko.’

‘Unless they were taken out with silenced weapons. Or knives.’

I scratched my chin as I ran that scenario through my head. My fingers found a raised, tender lump that could only be a bite, blister or zit. I left it alone for now, not wanting to risk an infection, and made a mental note to get it checked once we were at the Autopark. If it was some sort of blister, the cause might pose a problem. I was all too aware that The Zone had increased levels of radiation even in the quietest spots. I was also aware that I’d been without any sort of protection for a chunk of my first day here, and God only knew how contaminated that swampy pool had been...

‘Snorkbait?’ Anatoly prompted. ‘What d’you think?’

‘A covert op against the farm? I don’t think that’s the Bandits’ style,’ I said. ‘From what I could gather before the Autopark gig, they’re more organised now but are still a long way from having that sort of finesse – or firepower.’

‘Maybe, but don’t forget in the Big Land they’re from underworld gangs. Some of them are ex-military, soldiers gone bad when they returned from their service and couldn’t get a job. Or perhaps they were already in those circles in the first place and just returned to what they’d known before. Life hasn’t been easy for a lot of people since Communism fell and the Soviet state broke up. Most have put up with it and aspired to more, but...’

‘But you’ve always got people willing to do anything to get ahead as well as those who’re just desperate to survive,’ I nodded. ‘I know. It’s pretty much the same all over.’

Anatoly nodded now. ‘Yes, but life is even cheaper in the East than in the West,’ he said. ‘The people these gangs attract...they have nothing at all left to lose. There’s no other way for them to make it. Some even think being killed would be doing them a favour. It makes them ruthless, Snorkbait. Generally, they are not people to be crossed...or underestimated.’

I smiled. ‘I know. A desperate man with a weapon should never be taken lightly. In any case, Russian gangs have been considered a potential threat to UK national security for quite a while now. That means people like me have been made aware of them. We’ve studied their methods, their tactics...we’re aware; they know it, and we know they know it. We’ve got a healthy respect for each other, don’t worry. What I’m saying now is, getting your hands on a certain type of weapon is a long way from being able to carry out a covert op, especially as there are bound to be former gang members and ex-military types among the Stalkers, too. Neither side has the edge over the other, if it comes to that. It’d be about numbers and organisation, which is probably one reason why Duty have weighed in. If there’s one thing the Free Stalkers would lack, it’s organisation.’

Anatoly sighed. ‘All I’m saying is, don’t rule anything out.’

‘I won’t.’

Anatoly bobbed his eyebrows, but let the subject drop. ‘You going to make a report?’

‘I should, but knowing Petrenko he’ll want us to check it out if he finds out we’re still here. It might not make any difference, but if I tell him we’re already at the tunnel, be sure to back me up if the time comes, right?’

Anatoly nodded. ‘Sure. I don’t want to have to go up there any more than you do.’

I shook my head. ‘That’s not it, mate,’ I said. ‘I’d go up there if I had to. The thing is, I’ve just got the feeling that old Two-Heads got the drop on some unexpected prey. In any case, whoever it was had more bayonets than two, but they still got taken out.’

Anatoly frowned. ‘What do you mean by “unexpected prey”?’

I filled him in on the theory that had occurred to me on the track. His face fell, became ashen.

‘So you think it picked up our scent, found it wasn’t on or near the track, and reasoned that we must be taking shelter in the house? You think it then deduced our overall direction of march, decided that we’d continue north this morning, and got out of sight so it could lie in wait for us?’

I nodded. ‘That’s pretty much what I just said, isn’t it?’

‘And you really think it could be that cunning? Like it’s got some sort of proper intelligence?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know, mate. It’s just a feeling, like the feeling I get that whatever it is, it’s not what you might call a “natural” mutation. I think that thing was probably made in a lab somewhere.’

‘But...why?’

I smiled, grimly. ‘If one of those things really did take out an armed group of people – and I counted four or five weapons being discharged – imagine what a dozen could do in time of war, or fifty. Or a hundred. Release them near the lines or drop them in enemy territory and...’

He shook his head. ‘Carnage.’

‘Hell of an effective terror weapon, eh? If they could be controlled somehow, by something only your side had, no nation would dare stand against you. Or if they did – well who’d know where these creatures came from? They’re the ultimate deniable asset.’ I nodded to indicate the road. ‘No sign of anything up there for now, though. We’d better move. I’ll keep watch and report to Petrenko while you get the fire put out and make ready to move Aleks, okay?’

Anatoly nodded and scuttled over to the already dying fire while I drew the PDA from my pocket.

‘Colonel Petrenko. Snorkbait. Gunfire heard south of DV. Sounds distant from our location. No sign of pursuit involving us. Any reports of a contact near DV Farm? Any pursuit of hostiles south of DV barrier? Over.’

A scrabbling sound behind me caused me to whirl around, but it was only Anatoly clambering into the kitchen. A patch of kicked-up earth and a mound of mud was all that remained of the fire, and his AK was propped against the wall. I shook my head and turned to face north again. I then backed up to the corner of the house, still keeping my eyes on the road. A few more dogs wandered over to join in the fun near the track and were busily sniffing the ground before raising their muzzles to the wind. A head swivelled in our direction and a thin whine escaped the animal. It took two cautious steps towards our position and the whining became more intense. Other dogs began to pay attention to their excited comrade. Three more steps and the high whine abruptly cut out. Slowly, I levelled the AK and took aim at the dog’s head. It yapped once and snarled, breaking into a gentle run as it headed for the yard. I waited until it reached the entrance, then squeezed the trigger. The round hit it squarely in the forehead, just above the eyes – or at least above the empty, puckered sockets where the eyes would have been, had the fucking things been able to see. The dog crumpled with barely a grumble of protest, and the rest of the pack scattered. Less than a second later, Anatoly’s head appeared through the window.

‘What the –’

‘Relax. Just warning the wildlife not to get too curious.’

He craned round to look at the dead dog. ‘Right. In that case, when you’ve finished picking on the mutants, can you maybe give me a hand?’ he said, stooping to get a better grip on Aleks’s body and boosting the corpse halfway out of the window.

I slung my rifle, got hold of the corpse’s arms and pulled. Splinters of mostly-rotten window frame tore away and pierced Aleks’s skin as we pushed and heaved the body outside, but I didn’t care; it wasn’t like he could feel anything.

You hope, an interior voice said, and my mind flashed an image of the zombies from the tunnel at me. The idea that Aleks could be such a thing and might come back to that half-life at any moment almost caused me to shudder in revulsion. A couple of minutes later and Aleks had been dumped unceremoniously over the fence.

‘Had any response from Duty yet?’ Anatoly asked, squeezing through the gap and watching as I wrestled to get the loot pack onto Aleks. With all our other kit needing to go on our backs, the loot, and the bucket to dispose of, there was no way we could manage everything ourselves. As it was, Anatoly would have one of Aleks’s feet in one hand and the waste bucket in the other; one of us needed to have a weapon ready to hand, just in case. It was just Anatoly’s bad luck that he’d drawn the short straw and ended up hauling the shit. Of course, being a fair-minded sort, I hadn’t rigged it that way at all.

I finished finished attaching the pack to the corpse and straightened. shaking my head. ‘The Colonel’s probably trying to find out what’s going on. Most likely, the people up at DV don’t know anything about it.’

Anatoly grunted. ‘Are they really that bad?’

‘Must be, if it was Bandits that got attacked.’

He shook his head and shrugged into his main pack. ‘Not good, is it? First Bandit raid, not even a real test, and the whole defensive scheme falls apart. They should leave the Military to run the show.’

‘Most of Duty are military. Ex, anyway.’

‘That’s what I mean. I might have my problems with the army, but Military plus Duty equals no Bandit problem. Why ordinary Stalkers need to be involved at all is beyond me. They’re a liability and shouldn’t even be there in the first place.’

‘Nor should the Bandits, mate. Or Duty, come to that. Thing is, people are always going to want to get in, especially if there’s the chance of making money. Criminal gangs were bound to make a bee-line for this place once the story about the original lone Stalkers got out. If nothing else, they’d have wanted to bully the Stalkers and get a cut for doing nothing. Without all the Stalkers and other factions, the gangs would have ended up running this place, more or less, and I suppose in the end the Military thought they might as well use the Stalkers to their advantage, since they were going to be here anyway. It’s not in anyone’s interest to let gangs from the Big Land run the show in here.’

‘Proper sweeps would erase the Bandits. The Zone would be open to proper research again.’

‘But wasn’t that part of the original problem? Didn’t the first Stalkers find a niche that the scientists and soldiers weren’t prepared to fill, by going into the deep Zone to look for rare artefacts? If they filled a role, you can’t blame others for coming in search of their own fortune.’

‘Money,’ Anatoly spat. ‘It’s all anyone cares about now. We could learn so much from The Zone. Instead, we set about fighting over who controls access to the artefacts when the answer is clear: the Government of the People does. It’s not for private researchers, collectors, or foreign powers. It’s ours. It belongs to Ukraine.’

‘What about the Belarusian side?’ I asked.

He waved agitatedly. ‘Yes, yes. That’s theirs, too. It’s not the Bandits’, it’s not Duty’s. It’s certainly not yours –’

‘What do you mean, “it’s certainly not” mine?’

‘Because you’re a foreigner, a Westerner. You of all people don’t belong here. The Zone is not yours.’

‘That’s a bit like saying Eastern Europeans shouldn’t go to live in London because it’s not theirs,’ I said. ‘My reason for coming here wasn’t financial. I just wanted –’

‘Whatever,’ Anatoly said. ‘Even when I was the other side of the wire, we heard stories of Westerners in The Zone. Some were just Stalkers, others became smugglers. This much we knew. But rumours reached us, even humble guards like myself, that The Zone had also been infiltrated by foreign agents, Westerners, soldiers and mercenaries sent to explore The Zone for Western interests.’

‘Well,’ I began, but was interrupted by the PDA bursting into life.
Snorkbait,’ Petrenko’s voice crackled. ‘No contact, no pursuit concerning Dark Valley Stalkers. Are you sure of the location? Over.

I glanced at Anatoly, who rolled his eyes in disbelief. ‘Are we fucking sure. Jesus Christ,’ he mumbled. ‘What does he think we are, old ladies scared of a few loud bangs?’

I smiled. ‘Colonel Petrenko. Affirmative. Gunfire definitely this side of DV border. Over.’

Petrenko’s response was a lot quicker this time. ‘Snorkbait. Say your current location. Over.

I glanced at Anatoly again. ‘Here it comes, just you watch.’ I raised the PDA. ‘Colonel Petrenko. We are at the tunnel entrance. Repeat, we are at the tunnel entrance. Over.’

Snorkbait. Hold position until Duty patrol reaches you. Acknowledge. Over.

Anatoly looked at me, wide eyed. ‘We can’t hang around near the tunnel, Snork,’ he muttered. ‘It’s too dangerous.’

I knew. From what I could remember, there’d be little or no cover and the danger from mutants would be far greater. More, there was nowhere for us to safely leave our packs in the event of a drama. We’d be weighed down, unable to move far or fast in case of attack...

‘Colonel Petrenko. Negative, repeat, negative. Area insecure. Be advised we are carrying heavy loads and our mobility is compromised. No safe place to offload. Apologies, but request denied. Over.’

Anatoly spat. ‘Shouldn’t have bothered radioing,’ he said. ‘You already knew what he was going to say, so why bother?’

‘And if it had been reported by someone else? All it’d need is the Valley lot to report gunfire to the south and –’

Snorkbait. Acknowledged, but I say again, hold position until relieved by Duty patrol. Acknowledge. Over.

I glanced at Anatoly, who arched his eyebrows at me. ‘I’m going, either way,’ he said.

‘Fuck’s sake,’ I muttered. ‘Colonel Petrenko. Again, sorry, but negative to your request. We are already en route to Autopark and cannot afford to deviate. We’re coming in. Snorkbait out.’ I powered down and shoved the PDA into my pocket.

‘Is that wise?’ Anatoly asked. ‘I mean, how are we going to know if anyone’s around?’

‘We’ll just have to do it the old-fashioned way, I guess. Besides, we’re already meant to be at the tunnel. He’ll just assume we’re already in there and the PDA can’t get a signal. Now, let’s make sure these packs are secure and get a wriggle on, shall we? We’re already meant to be at the tunnel, after all.’
  17:47:50  20 July 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch XXXII

‘We really should have left this bastard behind,’ Anatoly panted as we laboured up the slope to the anomaly field. ‘The dogs would have taken care of him, bones and all.’

I grimaced. ‘And if you’d got dropped yesterday, would you have wanted to be left for the dogs?’

We lapsed into silence again, the only sound being the slow, steady tramp of our boots and our efforts to suck down enough air to keep us going. There was nothing else to be done. The storm had turned the topsoil into a heavy, brownish mud that clung to anything it touched. Aleks’s body was covered with a thin layer of slick, shit-coloured muck, but at least it made him easier to move, even if we did have to keep a firm grip on his ankles by looping our arms around the leg so that the feet were anchored in our armpits.

‘You know what I don’t get,’ Anatoly said.

‘Go on.’

He skidded, paused, readjusted his feet. ‘Petrenko,’ he said, clambering back level with me. ‘Your report was all he knew about it.’

I removed a glove and wiped sweat from my eye. ‘And?’

‘Well, don’t you think that’s odd? I mean, why wouldn’t the Stalkers at the Farm report gunfire? They must have heard it.’

I slipped the glove back on and glanced up the bank. ‘I suppose they just assumed it was nothing to worry about. If there was no contact or pursuit, the Bandits must have got past during the storm after all. They wouldn't have known at the Farm. As far as they were concerned, we'd have been the ones to blame - assuming they heard anything at all. Now save your breath for a bit, yes?’

‘You pissed off at me?’ he asked.

I shrugged. Was I? A little, perhaps. Anatoly’s previously hidden attitude to foreigners in The Zone had made me uncomfortable, but I accepted that he had a point – to a point. It was, in fact, an attitude I’d expected to encounter more often. I’d been prepared for it and it didn’t bother me: I hadn’t come here to join the local appreciation society and knitting circle, after all. What did bother me, though, was the nationalist zeal that had shone through. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with the image of the misfit he’d already established. His actions had also gone some way towards blowing his ‘crap soldier’ story: he’d survived one, maybe two nights in The Zone, alone and unarmed; he’d taken his turn on stag without nodding off – something that I’d considered a distinct possibility – and had known enough about the L85 to give it a good clean. Okay, he’d also asked a few bone questions, but we all did from time to time...and again, they troubled me. Looking back, they almost seemed deliberate. Then there’d been his actions this morning. One minute he’d been having his breakfast, the next, he’d been at the fence, ready for action. It wasn’t an unexpected reaction in itself. The speed of it, however, was. It was closer to what I’d expect from a bloke in the Regiment, not some conscripted man who was, on his own admission, a crap soldier.

So was I pissed off at him? Yes, but not for the reasons he thought. I’d been put on my guard, but would keep my own counsel for now. Let him think I’d been offended by his anti-Western/foreigner rant; I’d been called far worse in my time, and if a British Sergeant-Major couldn’t shatter my self-respect, piss me off to the point of wanting to kill him, and reduce me to a shivering, snivelling wreck, I was pretty sure Anatoly expressing his personal opinion wasn’t going to upset me too much. If he thought I was stupid, though...well, he’d be in for a bit of a shock.

‘Ready?’ I said, and set off up the hill again, trying to keep to the slightly firmer, rockier areas when we found one.

‘Seen that?’ Anatoly said as we finally neared the crest of the rise.

‘Seen what?’

‘Over there,’ he said, nodding in the direction he wanted me to look. ‘Not much left, is there?’

Indeed there wasn’t. Half a shattered rib-cage, a mutated, deformed skull and what looked like a thigh bone was all that remained of the thing that had once been Rusty. The scavengers of The Zone were clearly done with the carcass now, and I grimaced at the meagre remains, wondering how long Aleks would last if we were to leave the body up here. A day? Would it really last that long? Or would he be gone before the sun dipped back below the horizon, with no trace of him left but a few scattered bones lying in the mud?

And how much is left of Petya? I thought in that strange voice-that-wasn’t. You remember him, don’t you? Petya, the man who ran. Can’t outrun a cat though, can you? No. No even an Olympic sprinter with the stamina of a marathon runner could outrun a cat – or a dog, come to that. Petya. Aleks. Is there really any difference? Why not leave the body here, go on? You’ll be quicker if you do. Just leave him to the dogs. He deserves it. It’s no different –

‘It is different, though,’ I said aloud.

‘What?’

I frowned. ‘Nothing. Forget it.’

‘Come on. Tell me.’

‘It’s nothing,’ I said, smiling and shaking my head. ‘Forget it. Just thinking out loud.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I do. Now crack on. We’ll be here all day at this rate.’

We trudged on, and Anatoly gave a brief, breathless little cheer as we reached the small plateau between the relatively shallow farmstead valley and the lower ground of the swamps.

‘Right. Five minutes,’ I said, reaching for my water bottle and taking a sip. ‘Then we dump Aleks and crack on.’

Anatoly nodded, dropping Aleks’s foot and wandering towards the anomalies, chucking bits of debris ahead of him as he searched for a place to throw the contents of the bucket.

I sipped my water and fought the urge to sit down. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to get up again, and if I removed the packs, I knew I wouldn’t want to put them back on. The best solution – the only solution – was to stay on my feet with the load on my back. I didn’t even dare crouch.

A brief whoompf erupted from the anomaly field as one of the bolts, stones or whatever triggered a reaction, and Anatoly came to an immediate halt. I watched as he hurled our waste – bucket, crate-cover and all – into the waiting field, half-expecting a sudden spray of urine and semi-liquified excrement to be thrown back in our direction, but the anomaly swallowed it all – much to Anatoly’s relief, if the look on his face was anything to go by as he scraped a line in the mud with the butt of his AK and ambled back to where I waited. Soon enough, Aleks would get the old leg-and-a-wing treatment from that mark, an action that would finally close a long chapter of my time in The Zone.

But why am I dumping him in an anomaly? I asked myself. Why, when I’d taken no action against the cat or tried to rescue Petya’s body from being eaten? Why had leaving him there felt like the right thing to do, when doing the same to Aleks now felt entirely wrong? Where was the difference? Was there any?

‘I killed him,’ I muttered. ‘It’s different because I killed Aleks. I didn’t kill Petya.’

I knew a lot of people who’d probably disagree with that, but Petya had been killed by the cat; in a strange manner of thinking that I didn’t fully understand myself, that meant that Petya was the cat’s to dispose of as it wanted. Rusty had been killed by Anatoly, and so Anatoly had earned the final say on what happened there. Which meant, of course, that as I’d been the one to take Aleks’s life, the right of disposal was mine.

And don’t forget, he won’t be able to become a zombie, I thought, and nodded. There was that. I didn’t know exactly how it worked or what forces you’d have to be exposed to in order to be ‘preserved’ in such a way, but I’d want to spare anyone that fate – if it was my right to spare them.

Anatoly came to a halt and started gulping water. He’d sneak glances at me every now and then from the corner of his eye, while I pretended not to notice.

‘I’m sorry,’ he eventually said.

‘What for?’

‘What I said back there. I didn’t mean it.’

I sniffed and spat, sipped some more water. ‘Yes you did. And it’s okay, actually.’

He frowned. ‘What?’

I nodded. ‘I understand. I mean, I’m not exactly happy with what you said, but if this was, say, part of Cumbria and stretched into Scotland, I’d probably be a bit pissed off if all and sundry came wandering over instead of leaving it to the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh – though I include the last two only because they’re linked rather than in direct possession, a bit like Russia and the Baltic states are here.’

‘So?’

I sipped water again. ‘So I can accept your point of view, to a degree. The thing is though, Anatoly, with something like this there’s always going to be international interest. Misfits and desperadoes like me are always going to be drawn in. It wouldn’t matter if it’s here, in England, or in the middle of the African savannah – people would still come from all over. Obviously, the people of that country would get upset, but the locals would be even more so.’

He frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, let’s say The Zone had come into being in America. It could have happened; they had a problem with Three-Mile Island, after all. Or let’s say instead of the Chernobyl NPP going up, a reactor at the Sellafield plant in Cumbria had gone into meltdown during one of their closer calls. In those cases, the British and American governments would go mental if Ukrainians and Russians started coming over just to enter “The Zone”, let alone the ordinary people. But it’s easy to imagine how the real locals would feel. Northerners in England would get pissed off if English southerners turned up, while Cumbrians would get pissed off if people came up from Lancashire and Yorkshire, even though they’re fellow “northerners”. Or, to put it another way, if aliens turned up tomorrow to have a nose around, all the people of Earth would start complaining. Why? Because it’s always ours, and that attitude works across all levels. Shit, come down to it, you’d probably get arguments go on about which town or village owned the “honour”. You say I don’t belong, and I can understand that. I bet if you were to find whoever used to run that place, though –’ I jerked my thumb back in the direction of the smallholding. ‘They’d be just as pissed off with you for being here, even if you are a fellow Ukrainian. Because, to them, you wouldn’t belong. This place wouldn’t be yours.’

Anatoly nodded. ‘Well, sorry again anyway,’ he said.

I put my water away. ‘Forget it. I might understand where you were coming from, but that doesn’t mean I accept it. The fact is, the geographical location doesn’t matter. Chernobyl and all the rest of it happened worst to Ukraine and Belarus – fine. Of course it did. But it also happened to the rest of the world, to greater or lesser degrees. You want The Zone to be just yours? Great. Tell you what: I’ll go back home right now. I’ll walk out of here, jump back over the wire tonight. I know where we left the car, more or less. I’ll drive back into Kiev, play the dickhead who’s lost his passport, and get them to send me home. And then I’ll get all the UK farmers who’ve lost livestock and ended up with mutated lambs and the like to send pictures and any fresh mutations to the Ukraine. After all, if you want to own The Zone, you can own all of the aftermath of the events that created it.’

Anatoly glared at me. ‘It wasn’t our fault! We didn’t ask for this to happen, any of it!’

‘I know. I’m trying to show you that, however much I understand your point about foreigners, there’s a counter-argument that you should try to understand. There is no right and wrong. There is no them and us. What happened, happened, but it happened to us all, as a species. Some – the local populations – got it worse than others, and that’s no different whether you talk about Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, the incidents will the Sellafield/Windscale nuclear piles, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or the nuclear testings sites in the Pacific. Some got it worse, but these things happened to us all.’ I reached over and slapped his arm. ‘Come on. Let’s forget it now and get on. We've got a way to go and daylight's wasting.’
  11:37:36  24 July 2010
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
Messages: 4290
Elementary.

Also:
---QUOTATION---

Anatoly came to a halt and started gulping water. He’d sneak glances at me every now and then from the corner of his eye, while I pretended not to notice.

---END QUOTATION---



http://img819.imageshack.us/img819/3663/anatoly24.jpg
  03:13:48  31 July 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXXIII

‘I don’t like it,’ Anatoly said. ‘It looks like a God-damned Hell-mouth.’

I nodded in agreement. The tunnel entrance looked terrifying in full daylight, gaping maw-like from a face of sheer stone. A long, cracked and faded concrete tongue led down into the depths and the high ground walled us in on either side, looming over us. I felt sorry for the folks who’d once had to pass this way en route to work every morning – though of course, The Zone as it was now hadn’t existed then; the threat of danger would have been far less. Still, it must have given a few people the odd shiver up the spine. It just seemed like one of the places where you knew you’d go in, but there was always the question of whether you’d make it back out.

‘What do you think?’ Anatoly asked, and became aware that I hadn’t replied yet, having only stood and gaped.

‘It easier to look at in the dark, that’s for sure,’ I said. ‘The way the road slopes down doesn’t help, does it? It makes you think you’re going to get –’

‘Swallowed,’ he finished. ‘It’s weird, too. It’s like more than just darkness in there. It’s not just a lack of light. It is...Black. Like an abyss.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘If it is one, though, I wouldn’t look into it for long if I were you.’

He looked at me askance. ‘Eh?’

‘Forget it,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘It’d take too long to explain. If you don’t know what I’m on about, you don’t know.’

‘Have it your way.’

Anatoly took a swig from his water bottle. Even though our pace could only be described as modest, the effort required and the rising humidity of the day had us both bathed in sweat. The clothes under my armour had become damp and clingy, feeling clammy against my overheated skin, and sweat rolled down my face to drip from nose and chin. Flies and midges buzzed around us, hesitant, hovering just out of reach before making an occasional run close to an ear. One landed on Anatoly’s neck, a fat, monstrous thing that he immediately tried to swat, but by the time his hand slapped down the insect was long gone.

‘Now I know why Stalkers try to travel light,’ he muttered, recapping his bottle and shoving it back into a side pouch. ‘It’s not just the bugs, though. Between dragging the stiff up the hill, chucking him into the anomaly, and then pulling all that shit along the path, I’m about done in. I’d kill to get these packs off, even for five minutes.’

‘Yeah, but then you wouldn’t want to put them back on, or you wouldn’t be able to carry them when you did. It’s better this way.’

‘So you say.’ He sighed. ‘What the fuck are we doing, Snorkbait? I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t given ourselves all the other shit to do. Instead we waste time pissing about with dead bodies that we could have left behind, and then there’s this pack of who knows what to lug around.’ He spat. ‘I don’t know why I should help carry it, anyway. None of it’s anything to do with me.’

‘It is now, whether you like it or not. Of course, if you want me to drag the loot on my own for a while, I can. I mean, now there’s no mud to slide it along on, the sack’ll just get worn through and things might fall out or get damaged. But hey, I’m sure the Stalkers this shit belongs to won’t mind. I’ll explain you got a bit tired and couldn’t be bothered to help anymore. They’ll understand. I mean, they’re reasonable people. They only wanted to throw me into an anomaly because they thought I’d stolen from them, so who knows what they might want to do to someone who stood by and let their belongings get smashed? I wouldn’t count on handshakes and gifts of gratitude, though.’

Anatoly afforded me a sour sidelong look. ‘Yes, yes. “We’ll do this Anatoly”, “We’re a team, Anatoly”. Seems like I’ve done nothing but work my way deeper into trouble since I ran into you. God only knows what you’d have done if I hadn’t come along.’

I smiled. ‘Easy. I’d have let the dogs have Aleks, then found a place to stash the spare gear, then humped the loot back to Autopark, and then come back up here for everything else later on.’

Anatoly glared at me. ‘What? So why didn’t we just leave Aleks to the dogs anyway? Why did we have to throw him in an anomaly?’

‘You know why. I explained...didn’t I?’

Anatoly waved me away. ‘Yeah, yeah. Whatever, man. Come on. Let’s go, if we’re going.’

Lifting the heavy loot pack between us, we waddled down the road, halting at the threshold of the entrance. Bright sunlight penetrated about ten metres into the tunnel, before seeming to be swallowed up by that looming, impenetrable black.

‘Why do I expect it to feel like walking into glue?’ Anatoly said. ‘Step forward and...goop! so long, Anatoly.’

I frowned, trying not to let my imagination linger on the image. ‘Don’t be daft. We’ll be fine. It’s bound to be dark in there, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a tunnel, when all’s said and done. It’s just that primal fear of the dark coming to bite us on the arse again.’

‘Yeah, I know that, but how do you know there’s not an anomaly that can mimic ordinary darkness? “Look, nothing to see, not a beep on the detector”, but step forward and you’re gone. Dissolved. Eaten. Something. Just like that.’ He snapped his fingers for emphasis – or tried to; his gloves made barely a sound, but I got the message.

‘Don’t let your imagination run away with you,’ I said, struggling to keep my own in check even more, now. ‘If anything like that existed here, we’d have heard about it. Something like that, Christ, it’d keep the campfire story-tellers going for years. They’re bad enough with their tales of bloodsuckers and controllers, from what I can tell. If you’re that worried, though, chuck a bolt or two, if you have any. See what happens.’

He grimaced so that he bared his teeth. ‘Fuck it. Let’s go. If we end up getting dissolved in a wall of black goo, though –’

‘I won’t be able to hear you say “I told you so”,’ I replied. ‘Hang on a sec, though. Let’s do what we can.’

‘What’re you going to do?’ he asked, but I’d already started giving it my best zombie impression.

Help me. Please, some...one. Help me. Help...me! Please! GAAAHH!

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Anatoly hissed. ‘You gone mad or something? What if there’s something in there?’

‘Hush,’ I snapped, turning my head so my left ear was pointing toward the tunnel before trying again. ‘Someone help...me! Help me. I’m sick. Please...help...me. Help me!

I thought I heard the echo of a distant shuffle, a stone kicked carelessly across the road, but I remembered the cracked and pitted surface, the damage that seepage had caused to the roof and walls. Rather than a boot kicking a loose stone, it could have been a chunk of concrete falling to the floor. Could have been. I moved to one side of the entrance and crouched, signalling for Anatoly to do the same.

Stal-ker. Helpme! Helpme! Heeelp!

I turned my head so my ear was pointing up the tunnel again, straining to hear the slightest noise. Apart from a distant dripping, there was no sound. More importantly, no one had decided to ‘help the zombie’ by letting a few rounds fly.

‘I think it’s safe,’ I whispered, rising and walking back to the centre of the road.

‘Good,’ Anatoly said. ‘Now do you mind telling me what the performance was all about?’

‘According to what I was told the other night, bloodsuckers like places like this, but apparently zombies scare the living shit out of them,’ I explained. ‘If there’s anything in there, pretending to be a zombie should tell you about it.’

‘And the bit with the crouching?’

‘I thought I heard something up there. I was just seeing if it was just normal decay I was hearing, or if there were Stalkers up there. I think it was just normal decay. Stalkers would have opened fire. I didn’t want us getting hit if that happened.’

‘Right. But they might have held fire because they couldn’t see anything to fire at, ever think of that?’

I nodded. ‘There’d have been movement, just in case the target presented itself suddenly. They’d have had to prepare. I heard nothing, so...’ I turned my head-lamp on. ‘Ready?’

He fished his lamp out of a jacket pocket and slipped the band around his head, flicking the on switch as he did so. ‘Let’s get on with it.’

We stepped forward into the tunnel proper, and quickly reached the end of the sunlit stretch of road. We’d taken half a dozen steps into the gloom before Anatoly exhaled and started breathing again.

‘Told you,’ I said, smiling. ‘Nothing to worry about.’

‘Yeah, well...’ he mumbled. ‘You never know what new anomalies The Zone might come up with.’

‘I don’t think it works like that, mate, but listen; there are anomalies later on. Fruit Punches. The thing is, you get this snuffly sound that’s like breathing. You’ll think there are things about to jump out at you, but there’s not. Or at least, there wasn’t anything the other day. In any case, don’t panic. If there’s anything, anything at all – movement, a different sort of sound – shout out. Do that and we should be okay. Mostly, though, just listen, right? Anything weird, speak.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘But how are you meant to know what’s weird from what’s not in this God-forsaken dump?’

The combination of the weight of the packs and our increasingly ungainly shuffle slowed us down immensely. Despite my advice to listen, all there was to hear was the sound of our laboured breathing as we made slow, sporadic progress. Our rest breaks became longer and more frequent, the distances we managed to cover between them less and less. I’d expected it to be cool in here, even cold. Instead it felt close, not warm, just oppressive and damp. Sweat ran from every pore but cooled too quickly. It felt horrible.

‘This is going to take all fucking day,’ Anatoly grumbled, after I called yet another rest stop. We hadn’t even reached the Fruit Punches yet; their first faint glow still lay hundreds of metres away, though we could already hear the beginnings of heavy breathing. It was disheartening to say the least, and as I checked my watch my worst suspicions were confirmed; we’d fallen way behind even my most conservative schedule. At our current pace, there was no way we’d make Autopark before noon – and the going was only going to get slower still as exertion began to take an ever-increasing toll. If we weren’t careful, we were going to knacker ourselves out.

‘I can’t believe those two carried all this stuff,’ Anatoly muttered. ‘Either they were on something, or we’re about ready for the retirement home.’

‘Well, being fair, they were rested and hadn’t been battered to fuck,’ I said. ‘Nor did they have to deal with that mud. That’s where we lost a lot of energy.’

‘Dragging old Laughing Boy didn’t help there.’

‘Bollocks. We’d have been slipping and sliding all over the shop in any case, and at least we got to use him as a sled.’

‘Yeah, but –’

‘Anatoly, for fuck’s sake, right or wrong it’s done now,’ I snapped, sliding the strap of the loot pack deeper into the crook of my left arm. ‘Now let’s get on. Slow and steady wins the race, or so they say. After that, we can piss off north and get your PDA sorted out. Hopefully.’

‘Yeah, about that,’ Anatoly said, slipping his arm back through the other strap and falling in beside me. ‘What’s the story again?’

‘Simple. I was at the house, you surprised me, and I shot you. Luckily, the round hit your PDA, destroying it.’

‘Why didn’t you detect my PDA?’

‘I had mine switched off. I’d forgotten to turn it back on after the drama of killing Aleks and taking Svetlana alive.’

‘And what if they can get it restarted? What if they can access it somehow? It won’t be my name. What then?’

I chewed my lip, thinking. ‘No idea, mate. I’ll think of somethi –’

‘Sh!’ Anatoly hissed, halting and dropping to one knee. He pulled his arm free of the pack and levelled his AK so it was pointed up the tunnel. ‘Did you see that?’

I slipped the strap from my arm and flicked the safety on my AK to off. ‘What am I looking for?’ I whispered.

‘I thought I saw something up ahead, a light. Just a flicker.’

‘How big?’ I asked, thinking of the way I’d seen mutants’ eyes shining from the trees during my night-time trek. I also couldn’t help but think of Rusty and the change his eyes had undergone as the waves of mutation had swept through him. Would they just reflect light as other animals’ eyes did, or was there some quality to Zone mutants that meant their eyes actually glowed regardless of light levels? I hoped it wasn’t the latter. If it was, pinpricks of light might not be at all good.

‘I don’t know. It was just a flicker,’ Anatoly said in answer to my question.

‘How many? One? Two? Was it like eyes, or a lamp?’

He swallowed. ‘I couldn’t tell. It was there and gone, and it was almost in the corner of my eye anyway. I think it was more like an eye, though. Just one.’

‘Lamps out,’ I said. ‘Keep facing forward. Tell me if you see anything again.’

‘Right.’

I stood and turned to face the way we’d come, sidling to what was now my left to create distance between us. It was disconcerting to think that anything could be creeping up on us in the dark, but leaving our lamps on would have reduced our chances of spotting faint gleams and glimmers, as well as acting as homing beacons for whoever or whatever was out there. After several minutes spent peering back through the unrelenting dark, I shuffled across to where Anatoly still crouched.

‘Anything?’ I murmured.

‘No,’ he mumbled back. ‘You?’

‘Nothing behind.’

‘Do we go back?’

‘Why? If it’s a creature up there, it won’t be coming out anytime soon even if we do go back and wait it out. If it isn’t – if it was just a random blob from one of the anomalies or if you only thought you saw something – we’d have ended up losing even more time for nothing.’

‘We carry on?’

‘We carry on,’ I said, flicking my headlamp back on and sliding my arm back into the strap. We’d walked for another five minutes when the voice boomed out of the darkness.

‘Snorkbait, you lying bastard! You were nowhere near the fucking entrance after all!’
  15:59:23  4 October 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter XXXIV

Five powerful lights snapped on about a hundred yards ahead, quickly followed by a sixth, weaker, lamp flickering to life in the rear.

‘Snorkbait –’ Anatoly hissed, dropping his side of the pack. The sudden extra weight caused me to stumble forward, our movement combining to draw several sharp clicks as safeties were flicked off.

‘Lower that weapon!’ the voice snapped. ‘Neither of you move!’

‘Relax, Anatoly,’ I muttered, releasing the pack completely. ‘I think I recognize that voice.’

Heavy boots tramped toward us. Four of the Dutyers wore their protective masks and had their weapons up, two on Anatoly, two on me. Savko alone had removed his mask and slung his weapon. He scowled at us, his expression made fierce by the harsh white light that made his already pale face hard and angular. Following behind, like a beaten puppy trailing its master, came Vasiliy Dynamo, looking less than pleased at having been dragged along and even less pleased at having to see me. I ignored him, keeping my attention on Savko.

‘Hello, mate. What are you doing here?’

‘Don’t bother with any of that matey-Brit bollocks,’ Savko said, creating a couple of snickers of mirth among the others. Even Anatoly couldn’t suppress a grin. ‘The better question right now is, what the fuck are you doing here? I expected to make contact with you well before we reached the Fruit Punches.’

‘Well, this kit’s heavy, and –’

‘Don’t treat me like I’m an idiot,’ he scowled. ‘If you’d been at the tunnel entrance as you claimed, you’d have got farther than this even if you’d got on all fours and crawled. You lied. Worse, you lied to the Colonel, a man who had trusted you.’

‘Listen, Savko, you know I needed to get this kit back –’

‘Be quiet. All you needed to do was wait and assist the patrol, as requested. The kit could have been stashed until we were done and then we could have helped with getting it back where it belongs. Arguing that you needed to get all this shit back urgently won’t cut it, Snorkbait. After all, only yesterday you “advised” the Colonel that you were spending the rest of the day lying up.’

‘Because I was knackered and we’d just nearly had our fucking heads ripped off!’

‘I couldn’t give a shit,’ he said. ‘The fact is, you weren’t in any great hurry then, so why are you today? Why couldn’t you agree to a simple request and hang around for a little longer?’

I shrugged.

‘That’s it?’ he demanded. ‘Just a shrug? Aren’t you even going to tell me where you really were when you told the Colonel you were already at the tunnel? Can’t you even do that much?’ He turned to Anatoly. ‘You?’

From the corner of my eye, I saw Anatoly turn his head to glance at me. Funny how he’d acted like we were equals before, but now the shit had hit the fan I was the point-man.

I sighed. ‘We were still at the smallholding,’ I admitted, drawing angry-sounding mutters from a couple of the Duty soldiers. ‘I told the Colonel we were at the tunnel because I didn’t want him sending us up there to investigate alone. In fact, I didn’t want him sending us up there full stop.’

Savko stared at me, his expression unreadable. ‘I see. Well, unfortunately for you, you will be part of the recon party. Anatoly will obviously have to be escorted back with Vasiliy and the Stalkers’ gear, so he’s off the hook. As for your cowardice –’

‘Cowardice? Don’t you think you’re over-reacting a bit, mate?’ I said.

‘So we lied and weren’t where I said we were. So what if we didn’t want to get sent up the road to see what had gone on? My reasons were valid. I counted at least four or five weapons signatures during the contact. Assuming they all got dropped, what chance would Anatoly and I have had if we had been sent to investigate alone?’

Savko was shaking his head. ‘That would never have been the case. The Colonel would never have risked sending just you two. All you’d have been expected to do was secure the area and keep watch. Then, when we got there, we’d have gone forward in a group, prepared. Whoever it was that got attacked most likely got taken by surprise at first. That would have made all the difference.’ He sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Snorkbait, but I’m going to have to report this to the Colonel as soon as we’re clear of the tunnel. You’ll just have to accept whatever punishment he deems fit.’

‘Do what? Punishment for what? Lying? Not knowing how things would work out?’ I demanded.

‘Why don’t you decide his punishment anyway?’ VD piped up. ‘You’re the senior man in the field. If he was on a job and broke discipline, it’s up to you to decide the penalty.’

‘Shut it, you,’ Savko snapped. ‘I’d heard enough of your bullshit before we’d even reached our end of the tunnel. I don’t need to hear more now.’

‘He’s got a point though, boss,’ one of the Duty soldiers said. ‘As he was working for us and failed to obey an order, he has to be disciplined.’

Savko’s eyes met mine and locked. We both knew he had to do something now. If he didn’t – if instead of acting he made a point of waiting until he could leave the responsibility to Colonel Petrenko – he’d risk losing face in front of his men. What was more, he’d risk losing face in front of ordinary Stalkers. If that happened, no Stalker would ever listen to Savko again. It might even affect his standing within Duty. He had to punish me...and we both knew that his punishment had to be harsher than anything the Colonel might dish out; if not acting would cause a loss of face, inappropriate leniency would be seized upon as a sign of weakness or even indecision. VD had baited the trap and the Duty soldier had closed the door. Savko’s eyes bored into mine, his expression letting me know this wasn’t the way he’d wanted it to go, despite his earlier anger.

Resigned, he took in a deep breath. ‘Snorkbait, as officer in the field, I have no choice but to find you guilty of a dereliction of duty, of failing to obey a direct and legitimate order, and of failing to maintain the levels of discipline which Duty and its affiliates and allies are subject to and rightly proud of,’ he said, doing his best to sound like a Voice of Authority. ‘Given your relative lack of experience of life in The Zone and allowing for the fact that, as a Mercenary, you were only temporarily under the jurisdiction of the local Duty commander, your punishment shall be thus: first, you are to forfeit any and all forms of loot gained since you entered The Zone. This forfeiture will not include basic protective clothing and any weapons you may have purchased for cash. Nor will it include one sidearm, which I shall allow you to choose, and one day’s worth of food supplies, including water. Any other items of clothing, armour, weaponry, food, artefacts, bedding and medical supplies will be confiscated and either used for the benefit of others under Duty’s care or influence, or sold and the money put towards financing such things that the leaders of the Duty faction see fit. Furthermore, upon conclusion of this patrol, you will be released from your affiliation to the Duty faction and left to fend entirely for yourself. You are barred from entering all Duty outposts for a period of three days and the nearest safe non-Duty area will be notified of your presence. In this way you will be deprived of ready shelter and The Zone will do with you as it will. Additionally, details of this judgement will be communicated to Colonel Petrenko, local area commander, at the earliest opportunity for his approval. He may choose to over-rule some aspects, but he may not.’ He frowned and turned his attention to his feet. ‘Do you have anything to say?’

‘Only that it’s a load of bollocks,’ I said.

He nodded. ‘Noted. Confiscation of surplus goods and weapons is to be carried out immediately,’ he said, inclining his head toward me. Two of the Dutyers slung their weapons and advanced, spinning me round and slamming me into the wall hard enough to drive the breath from my lungs. The packs were pulled roughly from my shoulders and the AK was ripped from my hand. Hands went into every pocket and pouch. Everything was removed until only the L85, two unmarked tins of whatever, a wrapped sausage and my bottle of water remained.


‘What about my spare ammo for this?’ I asked, gesturing with the L85.

‘Did you pay for it?’ Savko said.

‘Yes.’

Savko nodded and gestured that the ammo be returned. ‘Decision time, Snorkbait,’ he said. ‘Which sidearm do you want to keep? I’ll be generous and allow you two full magazines plus thirty spare rounds.’
I ground my teeth and pointed at the PB 6P9, which was duly handed over. It wasn’t the best pistol on offer, but it had one big advantage going for it: the suppressor. You never knew when a bit of hush would come in handy.

‘Medical supplies?’ I asked.

Savko shook his head. ‘We need them back at camp, just in case,’ he said.

‘Let me at least keep the tub of potassium permanganate,’ I said. ‘If I’m going to end up marooned somewhere, I’m going to need clean water to drink.’

‘You won’t need it,’ a Duty soldier said. ‘Water’s not fit to drink up there even if you do clean it somehow. Radiation.’

‘Most water’s not fit to drink here, actually,’ Savko added. ‘In Cordon, it’s mostly okay. Elsewhere...even if it’s collected dew or rainwater, you’re better off checking it out. If the water itself isn’t irradiated, the container it falls into might be.’

I scratched my head, looking at the Duty leader askance. ‘You’re condemning me to death, Savko. You know that, don’t you?’

Savko looked into my eyes, not replying. VD chuckled. ‘Shame, eh?’ he said. Four pairs of reddish lenses reflected torchlight as they gazed in my direction while Anatoly frowned and stared pointedly at his feet.

‘Right, let’s move out,’ Savko muttered, prompting two of the Dutyers to sling my packs over their shoulders and help VD get the loot pack sorted.

‘Wait. Let me go to the Autopark at least. Let me speak to Colonel Petrenko in person. Allow me to explain what’s gone on. Come on. At the very least I need to explain about Anatoly.’

Savko rubbed his face. ‘For God’s sake...’ He took a step closer, invading my personal space. ‘Anatoly can explain for himself. Even if you saw the Colonel and explained, he wouldn’t do anything I already haven’t. My orders were to make sure you, especially, went north with us while Anatoly and any kit you were carrying was taken south.’ He smiled without humour. ‘Look on the bright side: at least now you have no other kit, the going will be easier. Plus you won’t have the walk back to Cordon to contend with, will you?’

‘We going, boss?’ one of the escorts asked.

Savko nodded. ‘Yeah, head out. Take Anatoly straight to the Colonel when you arrive.’

The escort Dutyers nodded at Anatoly and VD to move out, falling out to flanking positions as they moved back along the tunnel.

‘See you, Snorky,’ Vasiliy sneered as he turned and started lumbering away.

‘Yeah, see you, rotten cock,’ I replied. ‘Hopefully it’ll be through a fucking gun-sight.’

VD made as if to stop and turn, but was encouraged to keep moving as the Dutyer to his right grabbed his arm and propelled him forward.

‘Right then,’ Savko said, watching as the lights from the other group grew increasingly distant before replacing his helmet and mask. ‘Timo, you lead, fifteen metres, okay? Snorkbait, you’ll be between Boris and me. Let’s go.’

We moved along the tunnel in silence until, under Savko’s direction, the four of us cleared the tunnel exit and headed up the road. The heat and humidity had risen to horrendous proportions since Anatoly and I had first entered, and – after having a fairly lengthy mumble inside his helmet, which I assumed meant the Duty mob had some sort of covert comms get-up in there and that they spoke louder only for my benefit – Savko ordered a halt so we could take on food and fluids, as well as cool down by getting into shade. At least, I told myself that was why he did it. He could have just been rubbing my nose in how much food I didn’t have now, and there was certainly a mocking element to the smile he gave me as I broke my sausage in half before carefully re-wrapping the remainder.

‘Why don’t you just kill me once this is done, Savko?’ I asked, noticing the way the other Dutyers take a subtle but definite step or two further away.

‘And why would I do that?’

‘Irradiated water, lack of kit and ammo, a rifle that’s maybe seventy per cent of what it should be at the very best and in reality is probably only fit for scrap, just enough food to last a day even though I’m barred from safe havens for three... Shooting me would be quicker and kinder.’

He shook his head. ‘You’re underestimating yourself and overestimating The Zone,’ he said. ‘Obviously you won’t be able to come south again with us – and if you follow, I will shoot you – but Dark Valley’s not so bad.’

‘You didn’t say that the other day. Just the opposite, in fact.’

He shrugged. ‘It’s all relative. You’ll be okay.’

‘How do you work that out?’ I snapped. ‘On top of everything else, I’m barred from any Duty area, the Farm won’t touch me with a pole, and the place is Bandit Central.’

He held up a finger. ‘But you’re a Merc, remember? I did. Being a Merc means Bandits are neutral to you.’ He paused, thinking it over for a while. ‘Should be, at any rate, since no one will know about your part in the Autopark attack. But who knows if the old ways still hold? New boss might do things differently up there. Of course, if you’re sensible, you won’t get involved with the Bandits too much – it won’t be safe, once our operations really start bearing fruit – but nothing will happen within the next few days. I’ve given you a fighting chance. I’m not saying that staying with the Bandits for a couple of days will be pleasant, but at least it can be done.’

‘And if I tell them everything?’

He shrugged again. ‘Then you tell them. At this point there’s nothing they can do to regain the territories they once held, or anywhere else for that matter. Bottom line is, combined, we were able to push them this far last year – might even have wiped them out, had those Freedom assholes not moved to the Army Warehouses. Either way, I’m sure we’ll be able to push them again when the time comes.’

‘No matter how many there are?’

‘No matter how many there are,’ he nodded.

I shook my head. Autopark and the Gatehouse had been hard-won victories despite any appearances to the contrary...and they had only been manned by small numbers not expecting an attack. Other victories had obviously been won through Garbage as the wave of reinforcements swept south, but resources were finite; the Stalker/Duty Coalition might spread themselves too thinly, the local commanders might be too competitive when it came to manpower. What if the Bandits launched a counter-attack? What if some other faction decided to take advantage of the situation and grab territory while defences were relatively weak?

‘You’re too confident,’ I said.

‘And with good reason. The Military are on our side, don’t forget.’
I nodded. ‘So it seems,’ I said. ‘For now. But who knows about tomorrow?’
Savko bristled and replaced his mask once more. ‘Move out!’ he barked.

*

Twenty minutes later, we were half way across the marsh.

‘Nice to see you remembered what I told you, by the way,’ Savko said, carefully stepping over a rock. The ground was still sodden underfoot here; one slip and he’d be in the water – with all that might mean. ‘Of course, if we’d been closer you might have been in a bit of trouble, but as it was...’

‘What are you on about?’ I asked.

‘Earlier. You remembered to impersonate a zombie.’

‘Oh, that. Anatoly thought I’d cracked.’

Savko laughed. ‘Thing is, I knew it was you. Something in the voice, even though we only got a sort of distant echo.’

Not that distant, I thought, remembering the sound of concrete either falling or being kicked along the road. I’d never know for certain, but I was willing to bet it had been one of Savko’s bunch that had been responsible for that. I also had a hunch the flash that Anatoly had spotted had come from Vasiliy Dynamo and a lack of light discipline on his part; none of the Dutyers would have been so sloppy if they were waiting there for us. In fact, I was starting to wonder if they hadn’t retreated further along the tunnel as we’d entered, making us carry our loads for longer and fall into a false sense of security. Surely they wouldn’t have bothered...but anything was possible. Not that I’d get a proper answer now, even if I asked.

We crossed the rest of the marsh in silence before pausing at the ridge to scan the area around the smallholding. As before, dogs could be seen to the northwest, the pack showing no signs of agitation, hunger or curiosity. To our right, the anomaly fields thrummed away, only the sound and slight air distortion giving them away; a deadly trap for the unwary. Savko mumbled something and the Duty soldiers split left and right, roaming around the area, apparently checking for sign and reporting on what they found.

‘Tell me what happened to Svetlana again?’ Savko finally said, turning to me.

‘I don’t remember telling you in the first place,’ I replied.

He made a Get on with it gesture. ‘Tell me anyway.’

I sighed. ‘I was coming around the slope,’ I explained, indicating my line of approach. ‘Anatoly and Svetlana were already here, as I’d sent them ahead.’

‘Why?’

‘I was sorting stuff out down there,’ I said. ‘Anyway, they’d gone on ahead.’ I hesitated, swallowed. The other Dutyers had finished their recce and had moved closer so they could hear every word even as they kept watch. ‘There was a bloodsucker. I think...I’m pretty sure it was a guy I came across on the way here. He was mutating, obviously in the latter stages. Said he was a scientist. Canadian.’

Muttering on the comms. Savko spat something and one of the Dutyers nodded, pointing away towards where I’d found Rusty in mid-change. ‘Go on,’ Savko said.

‘At first, I thought it was an anomaly; the air behind Anatoly seemed to...shimmer. Next thing, the bloodsucker attacked. It knocked Anatoly out of the way, then went for Svetlana. It –’ I broke off, closing my eyes. Everything was there, right in front of me again. I squeezed my eyes more tightly shut and tried to force the images away, to no avail. ‘It caught her. Fed on her. I opened fire –’ I opened my eyes in time to see a Dutyer nod and indicate odd used casings. ‘I emptied the AK and a pistol – I think it was the PB but I can’t really remember; I just grabbed it and fired.’

‘Understandable,’ Savko nodded. ‘Continue.’

‘Anatoly recovered and also started firing. The bloodsucker had broken off the attack on Sveta by then and...look, do I have to do this?’

‘Yes.’

I lowered my head, managing a brief nod regardless. ‘She was attacked over there,’ I said, pointing in the general direction of the anomaly field. ‘When the ‘sucker broke off his attack, she tried to get away. She...I mean, the anomaly...’ I took a deep breath and blew it out again. ‘Listen, I was still firing at the ‘sucker. I heard her scream. By the time I had chance to look where she was...it was too late. She was –’

‘Okay,’ Savko murmured. ‘It fits. Obviously the guys can’t get the full story – the storm would have seen to that – but there’s enough evidence left to prove you’re not lying.’

I frowned. ‘Why would I lie about something like that?’

‘You’ve been caught in one lie, Snorkbait. Who’s to say you’ve not lied about everything?’

‘So...what? I’m back in the frame for the thefts now?’

‘Best to say you were never really out of it. The idea of you being an accomplice had already crossed the Colonel’s mind before we led you to the tunnel. He just wanted to play out the rope and see what happened from there. Patrols were dispatched to search around Cordon for the loot, just in case, and were ongoing until I reported that the pack was in your possession when we met you in the tunnel. And since you weren’t carrying anything like that when we saw you off the other night and you’d had no chance to go near the tunnel before then...’ He shrugged.

‘So I am finally off the hook?’

Savko removed his mask to reveal a humourless grin. ‘Put it this way – it’s lucky for you that the remaining evidence supports your version of events. Scraps of skin and clothing, and the remains of a dog by the swamp support the story about a mutating Stalker. Spent casings prove there was a relatively recent firefight up here. Blood traces show where Svetlana was attacked. Spatter and a remaining partial bloodsucker footprint bears your story out, then there are the remains of a bloodsucker lying here and there – well chewed though they are by now. And of course –’ He pulled a couple of bolts from a pocket and hurled them towards the anomaly, grinning when it reacted. ‘The anomaly itself, with accompanying stains on the ground. We’ll never be able to be sure whether you were part of the gang or not –’

‘I wasn’t.’

‘But there’s nothing we can do about that now, either way. You say you weren’t in with Svetlana and Aleks...so. On the other hand, you’re a proven liar. What are we to believe?’

‘The truth?’

Savko chuckled and raised his eyebrows. ‘And round we go again,’ he said, replacing his mask. ‘It’s moot now. Oh, and you’ll be pleased to know that the Colonel’s accepted my recommended punishments. Said they were just, so he’s allowing them to stand.’

‘Very kind, I’m sure,’ I muttered.

Savko clapped me on the arm. ‘Let’s get on.’

We trudged down the slope towards the smallholding, the two Dutyers beginning to peel away again to move around the perimeter while Savko and I entered via the hole in the fence.

Thinking everything over, I didn’t know what pissed me off more: the fact that I was being dragged back north and abandoned, or that Petrenko hadn’t really believed in my innocence after all. A bitter taste rose in my throat and I spat. What made it worse was the knowledge that, in Petrenko’s position, I would probably have done much the same thing. I was still a stranger here, an unknown. And unknowns had to be watched, suspected, their motives scrutinized and all options anticipated. Petrenko, as an officer, would be better trained and more used to such quick, broad tactical thinking. In my case, he’d gone along with me, seeming to accept my story...but laying contingencies nonetheless. He’d allowed me to follow Aleks and Svetlana only because he knew exactly where I’d be, and knew he controlled all the surrounding areas. If I had been lying, if I’d simply refused to respond, he only had to notify Dark Valley, the rest of Cordon, the area known as the Garbage and I’d have been found and killed, probably sooner rather than later. He’d played the percentages, and would still be playing them – I was shortly to be left alone up here with no hope of assistance before I reached Bandit territory...and maybe not much hope of anything but a quick death even then. The good Colonel had stacked the odds against me, just in case...but because there was room for doubt, he’d arranged things so no one could point the finger at him if I was ultimately proven innocent. Oh yes, he’d played the percentages all right, and I could understand the reasons why. Understanding didn’t mean I had to like it, though.

At the smallholding, Savko clambered through the gap in the fence and beckoned me to follow. The Dutyers waited until we moved towards the house and then moved up, weapons ready, their upper bodies still visible to us over the fence for most of the time.

‘Wait here,’ Savko ordered, and climbed through the kitchen window into the house, re-emerging just as his men arrived at the entrance to the courtyard.

‘Anything?’ he asked as we approached.

One of the pair shook his head, the other turned and pointed.

‘Dead dog ten metres from the entrance. It was dragged there and has been partially eaten, but someone shot it in the head first.’

Savko glanced at me – or at least, his head half-turned in my direction.

I nodded. ‘Lassie was getting a bit too curious.’

No one laughed. Maybe they had no idea what I was talking about. Either that or I was losing my touch.

Savko nodded up the trail and his men trotted off, splitting to either side while we followed about ten metres behind and patrolled towards the road. A few minutes later, our boots hit tarmac and I turned my head to see where the road proper actually led as it ran south. About two hundred metres away – the actual distance was hard to judge due to the air distortion – something like a concrete bus shelter stood surrounded by another large field of fizzing, popping anomalies. Brief noises, sort of like a thump-whoosh, sounded as heavier bits of wind-blown debris hit the anomalies’ edges. Frowning with concentration, I looked for signs of the electrical and fire anomalies Anatoly had mentioned. There was no trace.

‘Vortex field,’ Savko said. He paused and leaned forward, clearly peering at the distortion patterns. ‘Hm. Still impenetrable, by the look of things.’

‘That unusual?’

‘Not really. When you get places like that...well. Sometimes single anomalies form, that’s especially true on the fringes of The Zone. Other times, usually nearer the centre or in what the eggheads like to call “highly susceptible areas”, you get a field like that. God know why the fields here are lasting so long, though. We’re not all that far from the perimeter, after all.’

‘Will your lot check it out?’ I asked as Savko turned away and began heading towards the Valley.

‘Doubt it,’ he said.

‘Strange thing, though. Anatoly told me that road was blocked by electrical and other anomalies as well.’

‘Did he?’

‘You sound surprised.’

He nodded. ‘I am. Vortex, Electro and...what?’

‘Fire, he said.’

‘Burners,’ Savko corrected, then shook his head. ‘Vortex, Electro, and Burner, all in one location?’ He turned his head to look at me. I nodded. ‘I’m no scientist, Snorkbait, but I’d say that’s impossible. Vortex there and Burners or Electros round the corner...maybe. Unlikely, given the density of that Vortex field, but...’

‘He was pretty new to The Zone. I guess he could have made some sort of mistake.’

‘He could, but to make that sort of mistake he’d have to also be pretty new to using his eyes,’ Savko replied. ‘There’s no mistaking those three types. Vortex, Springboard and Whirligig...maybe. I know guys who can’t tell the difference between a Vortex and a Springboard even now, and others who think Vortex and Whirligig are the same thing. But no way can you mistake Electros and Burners. No way. Makes me wonder what sort of Stalker he is – assuming he’s a Stalker at all.’

I chewed my lip, wondering how much more I could say without revealing Anatoly’s real identity. In the end, I opted to say nothing.
‘You going to report this to the Colonel?’

He was silent for a few seconds as he thought it over. ‘To be honest, I’m not sure. It might not mean anything. Then again, it might.’

‘Probably nothing,’ I said. ‘For all I know, he saw something and mistook it for an anomaly. Either that, or he was so shaken up that he got the location wrong.’

Savko lapsed into silence again, unconvinced. ‘You’re most likely right, but...I suppose we’ll see,’ he eventually muttered.

After a few more minutes, we neared a rusting, but still intact, railway bridge. The Duty soldiers looked up and raised their weapons, causing me to immediately follow suit.

‘No, Snorkbait. Eyes front,’ Savko ordered. ‘We’re their cover. They’re ours.’

I frowned. ‘Had problems here before?’

Savko made a sound that might have been a sigh. ‘You know the railway line in Cordon? You know it enters its own tunnel a little way north of the road tunnel?’

I nodded, though I hadn’t really got a clue. I’d obviously seen the ruined bridge and railway embankment. I also knew the line headed towards higher ground. But with one thing and another I hadn’t had a lot of time for sightseeing. I hadn’t even got to check out the stash locations I’d downloaded yet, and from the look of things might never get to do so.

‘Well,’ Savko was saying, ‘the other end of the tunnel is around there somewhere.’ He pointed up. ‘You can’t see it because of the bridge, but it is there. And as you might have gathered by now, where there’s a tunnel, there’re nasties. Potentially, anyway. No one’s ever been up there to have a look around, not even the hard bastards of The Zone – and there’s one bunch that seem to have been most everywhere, including the places most Stalkers have no idea how to even start getting to. “The Liquidators”, they call themselves. It’s a sort of homage to the people who had to clear things up back in eighty-six.’
I frowned. ‘No one ever mentioned that faction to me.’
‘That’s because they’re not an independent faction,’ he said. ‘They’re ordinary Stalkers. Well, using the term loosely. They’re not just Free Stalkers, you see; they’re from all factions. Chances are you’ll never know who they are, though.’

‘Secretive lot, are they?’

He shook his head. ‘Not really. Not in the way of being a secret society or anything like that. No, what they are is what they are: just Stalkers...only very, very good ones. We use some of the ones we know, sometimes. Mostly, they don’t like to get involved too much. Those that do contract out only do so because they love the challenge – especially if we have a covert surveillance job for them or it involves finding routes to the tricky places. They seem to love testing their skills, pushing all the way to the limit. But it all depends on the job and how they feel. Your little hike probably wouldn’t have fazed the least of them, in all honesty. They get things done that no one else can. It’s why we keep close tabs on those Liquidators we know about.’

I shook my head. ‘Is there anyone you lot won’t use if it suits you?’

‘No. And that’s a word we don’t like hearing in response to our...requests.’

‘Really? You do surprise me,’ I muttered, drawing a prolonged – and because of the mask, completely unreadable – stare.

Moving up in complete silence, we passed under the bridge and took up station after about twenty metres. Savko did his mumbling thing again and the pair of Dutyers immediately lowered their weapons and ran up the road, passing us to take position up front again.

‘Savko,’ I said, as we pepper-potted past the others once more. ‘How come you’ve not asked what we’re up against? If it was me, I’d want to know everything.’

‘Do you know what happened for sure?’ he replied. ‘Did you see the attack?’

‘No.’

‘Then what’d be the point of asking? Any answer would only be a form of speculation, and speculation clouds issues, not clarifies them. Besides, in Duty we’re expected to be ready for anything.’

‘But info helps, surely.’

‘Not if it’s wrong,’ he said, drawing to a halt once more and allowing the soldiers to catch up, leaving the bridge behind us. Up ahead, the road dog-legged to the left at almost ninety degrees before threading through a narrow man-made passage in the rock.

‘Right. Box up,’ Savko ordered. ‘You two take the right. Snorkbait, behind me on the left. See anything, hear anything – Snorkbait, if you smell anything – sing up. We know there is or was something up here, so stay alert, yes?’ The three of us nodded in unison, drawing a nod of acknowledgement from him. ‘Let’s move. Quiet and slow, safeties off.’

*

The first body was spotted almost fifteen minutes later. Progress had been slow, almost like one of those meticulous searches you sometimes see coppers performing on the news, only in our case we couldn’t afford to keep our gaze rigidly on the bit of ground before us. Our eyes – and as a result our weapon muzzles – went everywhere as we emerged from the man-made gully to a wider, more natural-looking area. Every bush and boulder was treated as harbouring a potential threat. The long grass was scanned. Every now and then, we’d stop and stand still, listening. On the final occasion before the first discovery, Savko caught me frowning with concentration.

‘What?’

I shook my head. ‘Don’t know.’

‘Don’t give me that. What is it?’

‘Sort of...it’s a low buzz. It’s not like the anomalies I’ve heard before, and I can’t see one either.’

‘Does it sound electrical?’

‘I can’t tell.’

Savko, I knew, would be scowling at me behind his mask. ‘Smell anything?’

I shook my head. ‘Damp ground. Drying wood. Sap. Shit – all stuff I’d expect to smell.’

Savko grunted. ‘Right. Let’s move on.’

Our snail’s pace resumed. After twenty metres, I turned to check behind. It was clear, but as I turned to face front again I spotted a strange shimmer in the sunlight over by the wall to my left.

‘Boot,’ the Duty soldier at the rear of the other pair announced, having also turned to check the rear. As we looked to him, he pointed to something lying in the grass near a couple of large rocks just a few metres from where he stood.

‘Right, everyone stay still. Have a good look around.’

Four pairs of eyes scanned the surroundings. I checked behind again, peering even more intently into the areas dappled with light and shadow. The sun dimmed, then disappeared behind a passing cloud. And there, in an area of shadow that had been almost impenetrably dark until the sun disappeared and took the sharp contrast with it, was a familiar-looking shape. Even so, it took me a while to realize that I was looking at a gloved hand with the fingers exposed at the second knuckle. It took me a second or two longer to realize that wasn’t all there was.

‘Oh, fuck. Arm over there,’ I said, pointing, then noticed that the shimmer I’d seen was actually a small cloud of flies that had gathered in the shadow of the rock, and not the anomaly I’d mistaken it for. I swung my arm to point to the swarm. ‘And possible body there.’

‘Right. We appear to have found what we’re looking for, gentlemen,’ Savko said. ‘Let’s see what we can see...but have an eye out.’

Savko and I broke left, heading for the clawed hand and severed arm. Savko kept his attention at ground level, constantly on the lookout in case the critter was still around, which left me free to take a look around. The Bandits had been ambushed; the predator lying in wait until the last second before...what? Jumping down? Sprinting from a bush? I thought back to the creature I’d seen the other night, the way it had moved. While I had no doubt it could sprint when it had to, I thought it more likely that the thing would get above the prey and pounce down.

With that in mind, I scanned the rock face for ledges, outcroppings, anything that might offer the right advantage without requiring much effort to get up to – and that made the lying-up point easily discernible.

A narrow shelf protruded from the rock about five metres from the ground, half-hidden by natural angles and a screen of scrub that seemed desperate to take root among the crags. The climb itself looked to be a piece of piss for anything with strong muscles and tough claws.

I pointed to the ledge. ‘That’s the likeliest hiding place for whatever did it,’ I said, to which Savko had a quick look and nodded. ‘Want me to see if I can climb up and have a look?’

‘Think you can?’ he asked.

‘I can try, at least.’

Savko nodded, then turned his attention to the arm. ‘Completely torn off. Probably one swipe. Poor bastard was wearing a toughened jacket, too. See these?’ He indicated a couple of areas near the shoulder and under the arm. ‘They’re the edges of inserts and overlays. They should make jackets more durable. Chances are he’d also had extra materials added on the chest and back. Not Kevlar, but leather, at least. Maybe plastics too.’ He shook his head. ‘Ripped apart as if it was fucking paper. Go on. Get up that wall if you think you can. See what you can see.’

Handing him the L85, I attempted to climb the rock-face – no easy task, considering all the aches and pains I was still suffering – but was forced to give up with a just under couple of metres to go and clambered back down.

‘Something definitely got up there, Savko,’ I said, dusting my hands against my jacket. ‘There are clear marks in the rock that show that much, but whatever it was must have been fucking strong.’

‘Could mean nothing,’ he said, handing back my rifle. ‘Old marks, maybe?’

I nodded. ‘Maybe. But there was a right stink of shit the closer I got, maybe to mark territory or something, so something must have been up there fairly recently.’

‘Okay,’ Savko said, releasing a long-held breath. ‘Let’s have a look at Fly-blow over there.’

The cloud of flies dissipated as we approached, but quickly reformed as though reluctant to leave the body and eager to welcome some fresh meat to the feast. It was all right for Savko with his helmet; he just ignored any of the insects that decided to check him out. I, on the other hand, had to keep batting the things away as they tried to land and crawl into my eyes, nostrils, ears and mouth.

‘Shiiit,’ he said, fishing in the pockets and eventually recovering a PDA. He then mumbled something to the others before addressing me again. ‘We’ve got a chimera on our hands, Snorkbait. See the way the jacket’s torn down the front just so? Chimera’s claws make that pattern. Given the ripping off of that arm over there – you’ll notice this guy still has both of his attached, so the rest of whoever that was is still left for us to find – nothing else would fit anyway. Dogs lack the raw power needed for something like this and cats – a really big one – might be able to get close but...no. The only thing with the strength and the claws to do this...’ He tailed off to do a bit more mumbling that I couldn’t quite make out, then rose and led me away from the body towards where the soldiers had made other grim discoveries.

‘There are three over here altogether,’ one of the soldiers explained, I thought largely for my benefit; Savko must have already been notified over the helmet comms. ‘Two have just been ripped open. No armour, just plain unmodified leather jackets and trench coats. The third’s missing his head but is otherwise intact. There are spent cases everywhere. Weapons. Bags that have been torn open. There are items of small kit all over the place.’

I looked around at their side of the road. Unravelled bandages and the odd dented can seemed to be everywhere. Light reflected from cartridge cases and picked out other clusters of flies. I couldn’t remember seeing too many in The Zone before now, so Christ only knew where they’d all emerged from now.

Savko was nodding. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I think we’ve done enough here.’

‘Eh?’ I said. ‘You mean we’re not going to do anything now we’re here? You dragged me all this way, confiscating all my stuff, and you’re going to do fuck all in the end?’

‘Snorkbait...calm down. What you need –’

‘Oh, balls!’ I yelled. ‘All of this shit just to see a few ripped up bodies?
For fuck’s sake, Savko! You already knew they were Bandits! You already knew that, if we didn’t take them out and no one from the Farm had followed them south, they must have been whacked by the wildlife. And now –’

And now...I’m going to report it to the Colonel. And the Colonel will report it to HQ as well as contacting all our outposts, because chimeras, Snorkbait, are extremely dangerous. They’re also rare in this part of The Zone. You reported seeing something, true. But you still don’t know what you’re looking at for sure, and then –’

‘And then there’s the fact you all thought I was full of shit,’ I spat.

Savko nodded. ‘Basically, yes. We had to come and check things out anyway, but then...well...’

‘Wonderful,’ I muttered.

‘For God’s sake, Snorkbait, grow up,’ he snapped. ‘You’re behaving like a fucking teenager. Tell me you’d have done anything different. Go on, tell me. Tell me another lie.’

‘I’ve only lied once, for Christ’s sake, and I’ve explained why.’

'So. You. Say,’ Savko said. ‘How am I supposed to know? Are you really new to The Zone? Are you really a former Special Forces soldier? Christ, for that matter we’ve only got your word that you’re even British!’

‘What? Oh, fuck off, the lot of you,’ I said, turning to leave. Turning east, to head back south.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’

‘Mind your own fucking business, big nose.’

‘Halt.’

‘Bollocks.’

‘Snorkbait, halt, or we fire.’

‘Do what you bloody like! You seem to anyway.’

‘Snorkbait!’ Savko roared, evidently having removed his mask. I walked on, undeterred. ‘Right, don’t say you weren’t warned.’

Three rounds bounced off the road around me. I stopped. Turned around. All three men had their weapons trained on my chest.

‘You missed,’ I said.

‘We weren’t trying to hit you. That time,’ Savko replied. ‘Now get your ass back here. You’re going north, and only north. Either that or...’

‘Or what?’

‘Or you don’t leave here. And Snorkbait, bear in mind we can wound you and leave you here, rather than kill you outright. We’re standing in that chimera’s larder. We’re probably being watched right now.’

I looked around and shook my head, smiling. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said.
‘I don’t get that feeling.’

‘Forgive me if I don’t trust you on that. But either way, look at what we’ve found. Four bodies and a severed arm. Where’s the head from over here, Snorkbait? Where’s the rest of the body to go with the arm from over there?’

‘No idea. Maybe you think I nicked them.’

Savko shook his head. ‘More flippancy. Snorkbait, it’ll be back, even if it’s not around right now. It’s hunted. It has enough food here to last for days, and believe me, you won’t want to be near here when it comes back.’

‘And what if it went north? What if, by saying I can’t head south even ahead of you, you’re just sending me into harm’s way?’

He shrugged. ‘As I said earlier, The Zone will have done with you as it wished. Nothing to do with us.’

‘That’s bullshit and you know it.’

He shrugged again. ‘Maybe, maybe not. Either way, you’re not going south. North, and maybe run into the chimera, or stay here, and definitely have an encounter you’d rather avoid. Your choice.’

‘You’re a bunch of bastards,’ I said.

‘Perhaps, but we’re not alone. We’re just what you find in The Zone, Snorkbait. Don’t like it...well, you can always come back south in a few days’ time to jump the fence, go back to whatever life you had in the Big Land before.’

I shook my head. ‘There’s nothing for me out there.’

‘Then go north. Go now and you should be at Bandit Central well before dark. With luck, the chimera will still be sleeping off his meal. You have no other choice here.’

‘And just the other night I thought we were friends, at least of a sort,’ I said.

Savko looked at his feet. ‘Snorkbait, as a friend – of sorts – I’ll tell you this: no one in The Zone has friends, not really. We’re probably the sole exception, but we’re only loyal to each other and even then the true loyalty tends to be to specific individuals. Me, among others, to Colonel Petrenko and some of my men. These two, for example, who are also loyal to me. But outside...it’s dog eat dog. That's just the way it is.’ He rubbed a hand over his face, looking suddenly haggard and miserable. ‘North, Snorkbait. Go now.’

This time, I obeyed.
  02:24:00  22 October 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
 

Message edited by:
snorkbait
10/22/2010 2:24:51
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXXV

‘Piss off,’ the lead Stalker said through his mask. ‘You’re not wanted here.’

‘Yeah. Turn around and piss off, like Vampire said,’ one of his companions added. The third member of the group patted the barrel of his Winchester with his left hand, the trigger finger on his right flexing and twitching, his body language trying for casual but only coming across as forced.

The triumvirate were standing in front of a pair of large gates made out of what appeared to be steel plate. Rivets thicker than one of my fingers held the individual segments together. No doubt it looked the same on the other side, the rivets going through to secure the lot to a heavy interior framework. The brackets attaching the things to their support posts were huge, the pins must have been easily six to eight inches long, and the whole set-up screamed Military Control Point; once these gates were properly secured, you’d probably need a tank to get through – all of which made the four or five strands of barbed wire strung out on each side look like someone’s idea of an ironic joke. Even so, I had to wonder how the Bandits had crept past without being seen the night before – assuming they had got past then and hadn’t been roughing it between encampments all along.

‘Look, lads, just let me through. I don’t want any trouble. I’ve got enough of that as it is,’ I said.

‘You hard of hearing or something?’ Shotgun Ned chipped in. ‘Vampire and Zhenka have told you to piss off. Why aren’t you?’

‘Listen, stop buggering about. My feet are killing me and I’m tired. I’m not going back down there because there’s nowhere for me to go back to. Besides, Duty would shoot me if I tried.’

‘Well, you’re not coming through here,’ Vampire said, cradling and caressing his weapon to show he meant business.

‘Not unless you can make it worth our while,’ Zhenka added.

‘And perhaps not even then,’ Vampire finished.

I looked down at my feet and scratched my head with my free hand. Paying wasn’t an option, but it was three onto one with who knew how many others at the Farm itself, which was probably only seventy-five metres away from the gate, a hundred or so at the very most. Even if I was somehow able to kill these three without taking damage myself, I’d need to get to cover and clear the area inside about fifteen seconds – and that was assuming the rest of the Farm were unaware. Most likely, they’d all be keyed up, listening for the first hint of trouble. Realistically, I had no chance even against the three of them. If I opened up, I’d be dead.

Smiling, I raised my head and slung the rifle on my shoulder. Zhenka scowled, but my friend with the Winchester visibly relaxed.

‘Problem is, Vampire, Zhenka...I’m carrying everything I own. I have no money, no artefacts, nothing. But I need to get through this gate. I am going to the Bandit base. I’m doing that because I have no other choice, understand?’

‘We want a thousand roubles,’ Zhenka said.

‘I want a villa in Spain, a sports car and a private jet,’ I replied. ‘Tough shit all round, eh?’

‘Two thousand,’ Vampire muttered. ‘And your kit.’

I shook my head. ‘You’re not getting me. I’m giving you nothing. Now look: it’s getting on for five in the afternoon. I’ve been up since God knows when and I’ve been through enough for today. I need to get to shelter before nightfall, so I’m going through that gate.’

‘No, you’re not,’ Vampire said, slowly. ‘Now fuck off. Enjoy playing with whatever finds you in the dark.’

‘Or dodging anomalies,’ Shotgun Ned said.

‘Come on, boys. We’re done here,’ Vampire ordered, watching me as his companions opened the gate just enough so they could squeeze through. ‘I’ll be telling the boys to watch out for you, just in case you decide to try getting over the fence. They could do with some target practice.’

‘Vampire –’

‘I’ve told you. We want two thousand roubles. Three, since you don’t want to give your kit up. Come back when you have it and maybe we’ll let you through. Until then, piss off.’ He slid back through the gate, which then clanged shut.

I’d have to wait until dark. Move along on my side of the fence and hop over when I found a likely spot – and then make my way through unknown territory in the dark, alone, through an area that made Cordon look like kindergarten.

Frustration built. ‘Fuck!’ I yelled.

Something hit the other side of the gate in response. Something heavy, but also soft – or at least yielding – that caused a dull thonng to ring through the metal. The alarmed cries of Zhenka and his mate coincided with the sharp, but distance-muted crack of a heavy-calibre rifle. A second or so later more calls of alarm issued from the direction of the Farm as the unexpected sound was identified. One side of the gate pushed toward me as something slumped against it, allowing me to slip through.

Zhenka was already waffling into his PDA, informing someone or other that Vampire was down, but ‘down’ was an understatement. Vampire was not only down, he was so down he’d never be getting up again. The heavy mask he’d wearing was smashed to pieces. These had torn into the skin and tissue beneath, leaving behind an utterly ruined visage. Most of the back of his head, plus contents, was splashed against the grey-painted metal of the gate. A reddish smear indicated his slump to the ground and chunks of smashed pale matter dribbled back towards their former home. In the splash near the very top of the smear, the steel plate now sported an unmistakable dent where the round had finally been stopped.

‘Fuck me,’ I breathed.

‘Get into cover! We’re under attack!’ Zhenka practically screamed, but I wasn’t so sure. ‘Viktor, see anything?’

Shotgun Ned a.k.a Viktor lowered his field glasses and shook his head. ‘Nothing. We need to get back to the Farm, Zhenka. Now!’

‘Yes but...Fucking hell, Merc! What do you think you’re doing?’

I’d gone to stand exactly where Vampire had been when the round hit him, my feet planted between his outstretched legs as I waved my arms to draw any attention. ‘I’m proving you’re not under attack,’ I said.

‘What?’

‘It’s okay. I think it’s safe for you two to get up again now.’ I waved some more, then unslung the L85 and squinted through the scope. Four times magnification wasn’t going to tell me too much over the sort of distances I was thinking of, but it was better than nothing and I doubted if Viktor would offer the use of his binos. In any case, I wasn’t looking for the shooter: I was looking for where the shooter might have been.

‘See? If it was the start of an attack, I’ve have taken a round by now. Just as either or both of you would have while you were waiting for Vampire,’ I said, lowering the rifle again. ‘At the very least, there’d have been some sort of fire to keep you pinned down while the main players got away.’

‘You’re saying –’

‘Sniper. One shot. Which means Vampire was singled out. Which means the shooter was getting paid by someone to take him out.’

The two Stalkers exchanged a glance. ‘Barkeep,’ they said in unison.

Another group of Stalkers were running toward us from the Farm, three of them forming a rough triangle around a fourth: the garrison commander, presumably, though I had the feeling his promotion had only just occurred.

‘What the fuck is going on here?’ he demanded.

‘Sniper,’ I explained again. ‘One shot, one kill, and no interest besides. Which means your man here had pissed someone off big-time. Besides me.’

‘It’s got to be Barkeep, Fyodor. Got to be,’ Zhenka gabbled.

‘Yeah,’ Viktor agreed. ‘Some lowlife would have pulled the trigger, but Barkeep’s the one behind it, you can bet.’

‘Even though he knows we need every hand we can get right now?’ Fyodor said, grimacing. ‘Come on, guys, not even Barkeep’s going to do that. He has as much to lose as anyone, if not more.’

‘Which might make it more likely to be him, not less,’ I said, earning some sceptical looks. ‘Look, think about it. There’d be no better time. This Barkeep character contracts out on Vampire here. He tells the killer to get it done now because he knows you’ll first consider, then dismiss the idea that he’s behind it for the reasons you’ve just mentioned. In the meantime, the Bandits get the blame.’ Silence fell among the Stalkers, their expressions – where I could see them – now lost in thought. ‘The thing is, the killer’s fucked up: he or she really needed to ping a few more shots off, certainly at Zhenka and Viktor here if not at me, and maybe loose a couple of rounds off towards the Farm. As it is, it looks like an assassination rather than a quick opportunist attack by a few dickheads spoiling for a fight.’

‘Yeah. Yeah,’ Fyodor nodded, then gave a little start. ‘But, what the fuck are you doing this side of the gates? I thought –’

‘I’d been told to piss off? I was. Then I was told there was an alternative way in.’

‘How much?’ Fyodor said, eyeing Vampire’s cronies.

‘Two grand,’ Zhenka mumbled, and I pretended to yawn to hide my smile. He’d clearly not heard Vampire up the price at the last minute.

‘You got it?’ Fyodor asked.

I shook my head. ‘Nowhere near, thanks to my...punishment.’

‘Hm,’ Fyodor grunted, eyeing me speculatively. ‘But I take it you want in, correct?’

‘Yeah.’

He nodded. ‘Then a solution has presented itself. I can’t allow you into camp, you understand. But you can –’

‘Let’s cut the crap, eh? You want me to look for Vampire’s killer, yes? You want me to track him, her or them down, and kill them after getting them to admit who hired them. Doing all that covers my entrance fee. Right?’

Fyodor smiled. ‘That’s about the size of it,’ he said, smugly.

‘No,’ I said, watching the smile drop from his face. ‘Fuck...off. I’m not paying to get in, not when it’s partly your lot’s fault that I’m stuck up here in the first place. If you pussies hadn’t been hiding from the storm last night, you might have noticed Bandits creeping south.’

‘No one went through the gate,’ Viktor said. ‘I know. I was on watch.’ He glared at me. ‘I definitely wasn’t hiding from the storm.’

‘And did you only watch the gates?’ I snapped. ‘Or did you look further out, like to those slopes onto the high ground over there?’

He shook his head. ‘No need. There’s heavy radiation all over that area now. No way through – not even with full SEVA suits.’

‘You sure about that?’

He twitched. Fyodor replied for him. ‘He’s sure. His brother’s lying out there somewhere. In a SEVA suit.’

‘Fucking eggheads and their “need to know the changes to The Zone”,’ Viktor spat. ‘They were probably testing something on the suit all along, knowing it probably wouldn’t work. I told him not to trust those bastards.’

‘Anyway, Snorkbait, no Bandits passed through the gate if Viktor says they didn’t,’ Fyodor finished.

‘Unless Viktor was paid to look the other way,’ I suggested. ‘After all, robbing people at the gate shows he’ll do anything for an easy quid.’

‘What?’ Viktor hissed. ‘You fucker! I’m going to rip your head off!’

Zhenka and one of the other Stalkers caught Viktor by the shoulders and held him back, though I could tell what they really wanted was to give him a hand. It made me wonder what fresh orders they had received concerning getting into unnecessary fights, as well as who enforced the rule and how vigorously.

‘You misunderstand,’ Fyodor said. ‘The...administration fee...is only payable by out of work Mercs. Duty, other Stalkers...hell, even Freedom can walk through as freely as they like. Bandits and Mercs on jobs that conflict with our interests pay with their lives, and the Military – well, they usually pay with their lives if they pass this way on foot, though right now I guess they’ll come and go as they please.’

‘That still doesn’t mean he won’t take Bandit money to look the other way,’ I persisted.

Fyodor sighed. ‘None of us would take their money even if they offered millions,’ he said. ‘We’ve all lost too many friends or been held up too many times to consider deals. The only thing a Bandit would get out of anyone in this outpost is a bullet in the head. They know it, so they stay away.’

‘Which brings me back to how those Bandits got to where they were.’

‘Did it occur to you that they were already there?’ Viktor yelled, shaking the restraining hands away.

I nodded. ‘It did. It still does. But the problem there is location. Why would they stay out in the open, where they knew they’d be vulnerable to mutant attack? Why would they not hole up at the smallholding instead?’

‘Perhaps they didn’t like the decor,’ one of Fyodor’s minders said, earning a few grudging chuckles.

‘Funny,’ I said, ‘but seriously, it makes no sense. If they passed here before the Autopark raid, being down at the smallholding is only sense. If, on the other hand, they did get through during the storm, I noticed a few decent spots to lie up in for a few hours as I made my way here. Nowhere I’d want to spend a night on my own, I have to say, but, if there were four or five? No sweat. Lie up, head out at dawn or just after...’ I shrugged. ‘Easy.’

‘But it still means someone dropped the ball during the storm,’ Fyodor said, patiently, ‘and Viktor says it wasn’t him.’

I glanced in Viktor’s direction.

‘I swear no one went through that gate, Fyodor,’ he said. ‘And there’s no way other way they could have made it, not without copping a lethal dose of radiation.’

‘Then it must have been some other time,’ I said. ‘A change of watch. Meal time.’ Both suggestions were met with shaking heads. I frowned, then realized there might have been other times of confusion over the past couple of days. ‘A firefight. Did you have to defend the camp at all yesterday, say towards late afternoon into evening?’

‘No. We saw a Bandit scouting party out towards the bridge, but that was all.’

‘And what about before then? Did you get reinforced at all? Were some of you detailed elsewhere?’

‘N –’ Fyodor began to say, but froze mid-word. ‘Yes! Not detailed, exactly, but we did get a request to send a few bodies up to help the Duty outpost guarding the way to the Garbage. The message came on their radio frequency, saying they were being attacked by a pack of dogs and need help. But –’

‘Don’t tell me: when your guys got there, the Duty lot knew nothing about it.’

Fyodor nodded. ‘Right. But Vampire’s group still kept a full watch while I led mine to the outpost.’

‘And who watched the gate while all this was going on?’ I asked.

Fyodor shrugged, though the gesture was redundant; he hadn’t even been at the Farm, so there was no way he could have known. But Zhenka, it seemed, did, as he sucked in a breath through clenched teeth.

‘Vampire,’ he said, exhaling.

*

Fyodor was silent for a long moment as he absorbed the information. Then he exploded. ‘What?’ he yelled, his face inches from Zhenka’s.

‘He was the boss,’ Zhenka offered feebly.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Fyodor groaned. ‘Okay, fair enough. It’s wrong to blame you. We all trusted him. Let’s have it.’

Zhenka nodded and swallowed. ‘We got the call from Duty and you guys headed out. The rest of us stood to. Viktor, Clumsy and Vampire guarded the buildings, acting as a reserve. Ivan Horse was on watch over by the gate, but after a while Vampire went up and told him to take a break. Ivan said he didn’t want to, but...’

‘Okay, enough. I get the idea,’ Fyodor cut in. ‘Right, that’s it. We don’t bury him. He doesn’t deserve it. Zhenka, Viktor, drag this fucker outside the gates and far enough away to make sure we don’t get bothered by critters, then leave the bastard to rot. After that you can help the Merc track the sniper. The rest of you, back to camp.’

The Stalkers nodded and set about their tasks. No one spoke. Fyodor inspected the dent in the gate and shook his head.

‘I can’t fucking believe it,’ he finally said. ‘Vampire, our own boss, a traitor.’ He shook his head again. ‘Unbelievable. His reputation wasn’t the best, and he’d been in The Zone long enough to make his share of enemies, but...I just don’t get it. He knew what was at stake.’

‘Doesn’t look like he cared. He was feathering his own nest either way. That’s real mercenary behaviour, if you ask me.’

Fyodor grunted.

‘Anyway, it certainly makes things a bit more interesting, doesn’t it?’ I said. ‘Now we have a motive for the Bandits taking him out, too. If they hadn’t screwed up by making it an obvious hit...’

‘It’d make more sense for it to be them, too,’ Fyodor agreed, reluctantly. ‘Barkeep probably considered it, but I really think he’d have decided against it in the end.’

‘Or maybe not, if he knew Vampire had no loyalty except to his own pocket,’ I said. ‘Whatever, until I can find that sniper for you, there’s no way of knowing for sure.’

The Stalker nodded. ‘Better to say we’ll never know unless you find the sniper, not until. I’ve got my doubts that you’ll ever track him down.’

‘It’s not a dead loss,’ I shrugged. ‘Looking at it, the line of the shot is pretty clear. Heavy calibre, from the sound and the way it smashed his mask, made a mess of his head and still had the energy to dent the gate from a range of what? Two hundred, two hundred and fifty metres, minimum? There’s no cover and too much dead ground closer in, and then there’s the trees to consider. Okay, they didn’t really need anything too special – even this piece of shit’s effective at almost twice that range – but –’

‘It was a hit. A one-shot deal,’ Fyodor cut in. ‘No margin for error.’

I nodded. ‘So definitely a precision weapon, well maintained, operated by someone who knows what they’re doing and takes pride in their work.’

‘Doesn’t sound like any Bandit I’ve ever run into,’ he said. ‘Then again, you never know. Most likely a hireling. Maybe not an actual Merc, but...’

‘Know anyone like that?’ I asked, nodding an acknowledgement to Zhenka and Viktor as they came back through the gate. Zhenka nodded and turned to secure the gates again while Viktor looked away and dusted his hands.

Fyodor shrugged. ‘Could be a few guys. A lot depends on the round. There’s one fellow, Andriy Sharpshooter – crap name, but that’s The Zone for you – who uses an old Mosin Nagant. He’s one of the best shots this side of the fence and usually does odd jobs for Barkeep and the other traders. Pyotr Garlic uses a Dragunov he claims to have looted from a military Stalker shortly after the Faction Wars. There’s a Duty sniper uses an old Vintorez. Rumour is that it’s a woman and she found this rifle just lying around someplace in the Red Forest.’ He shrugged. ‘There are too many, really. This is The Zone; people who can’t shoot don’t normally last long. It’s why I don’t hold much hope for you finding who did this.’

I thought of Vasya, Snapper and Olga. Three clean kills – four, if you counted the double-up – without a round wasted, and that had been on one mission...in Cordon. If The Zone’s nursery had people like that hanging around, how good were the guys plying their trade further in?

‘Point taken. I’ll do my best,’ I said.

Fyodor nodded. ‘I’m sure. The thing is, Snorkbait, I wouldn’t care, given the treachery. But there’s a principle at stake. If we do nothing –’

‘Yeah, I get the idea, mate. Listen, time’s getting on and there’s no way you can risk Duty sending a man down to see who’s who down here just in case – which I think they might do at some point. That means I need to get gone, yes?’

‘Of course. Zhenka, Viktor, I’ll need you back by 20.30. Viktor, I’ll arrange cover for your shift later, let you get some sleep.’

‘Thanks...boss,’ the Stalker nodded.

Fyodor stiffened, clearly discomfited. ‘How about we just stick with Fyodor?’

‘Fine with me.’ ‘Yeah, okay.’

‘Right. Best of luck, then,’ the Farm’s new commander mumbled, then turned on his heel and walked slowly back towards the camp.

‘Okay then, gents: let’s get a move on, shall we?’ I snapped, unslinging the L85 and pointing with my arm. ‘That’s the line the shot came in on, so that’s our direction of travel unless we have to divert. I’ll take point, but I’m relying on your local knowledge to keep us out of trouble, okay? Right. Let’s go.’
  04:29:01  25 November 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter XXXVI

We moved roughly north by north-east, toward an area of high ground and the industrial-looking buildings beyond. A pool lay between us and the rock-strewn hill, the stagnant, probably radioactive water filling a concrete bowl that was bisected by the span of the road bridge. The smell of standing water and rotting vegetation increased as the breeze changed direction and strengthened, starting to blow out of the north, and the air was suddenly full of whines, screams and snarls from fleshes, boar and dogs as something on the wind created a mix of excitement and alarm. A far distant cry echoed, though whether it was a yell of warning or a protest at impending death, it was impossible to say. I supposed it could have been either, if the critters were getting as riled up there as they were here.

Behind me, Zhenka and Viktor started whispering urgently to one another and lagging further and further behind, forcing me to halt so they could catch up.

‘It’s nothing, I tell you,’ Viktor was saying. ‘We’ll be fine.’

‘But Viktor –’

‘We’ll be fine, I said. Be quiet.’

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Snorkbait, we really shouldn’t –’

‘Zhenka!’ Viktor snapped, leaving Zhenka staring at me, silent and fearful – but not of his friend.

I sighed. ‘All right, let’s have it,’ I said.

Viktor shook his head and started muttering under his breath.

‘We need to get out of here, Snorkbait,’ Zhenka said. ‘Really. It’s too late for any of this. We should just get to cover. Go back to camp. Do this tomorrow.’

‘I can’t go back to the Farm with you. You know that,’ I said. ‘What’s the problem, anyway?’

‘The wind!’ Zhenka said, almost cowering as he turned fretful eyes to the north.

‘What about the wind?’ I demanded, frowning. He made no attempt to reply. ‘Zhenka, what about the fucking wind?’

‘He thinks there’s going to be a blowout,’ Viktor said, wearily. ‘Every time the wind shifts to the north, he gets like this and insists there’s one coming.’

‘And is there?’

Viktor sniffed. ‘Of course not. He only thinks there is because he got caught out in one once – a big one, back at the end of the Faction Wars. Bunch of silly bastards ignored all the warning signs and that was that. They had to shelter as best they could. Unfortunately, it proved to be an...unwise...choice. He’s not really been right since, and now the silly bastard thinks every gnat fart is a blowout.’ He turned to Zhenka, getting right in his scared friend’s face. ‘Look, Zhenka! Look for the signs! Do you see any?’

‘The animals...’ Zhenka murmured.

‘The critters are crazy around here anyway, and it’s getting on for dark,’ Viktor said. ‘You know they get weird about now, it’s nearly time to hunt. Come on, man, there’s no blowout coming.’

‘Blowout,’ Zhenka nodded, all his previous confidence gone.

I turned north and could see nothing, save for the usual thin ribbon of strange light that I’d noticed on my first night. It did seem brighter than before, but I put that down to me being so much closer to the centre than I had been before. I sniffed the air, as if my nose might be sensitive enough to detect an increase in radioactive particles – and as if it’d be in my interests to discover them that way even if they were there – but all I got was a stronger whiff of rotting vegetation, stagnant water, damp earth and mutant shit.

‘Viktor?’ I said.

‘It’s nothing. The only thing I will say is, it’ll be best if we don’t try to skirt the pool and use the road bridge instead. The radiation level’s higher there, but we should be okay if we make it quick. I have some antirads just in case, and Zhenka always has vodka in his flask.’
‘Vodka combats radiation,’ Zhenka added.

‘Bollocks,’ I said.

‘No, it does!’ Zhenka insisted. ‘That’s why I carry it. It’s cheaper, too.’

‘Fuck off. The only thing it’ll do is get you pissed enough to not feel so much pain while you’re dying.’

‘No! It works!’

‘I still say it’s cobblers. Be a pisshead if you like, but for fuck’s sake be an honest one. Now come on. We’ll take the road – I don’t fancy getting trapped between the pool and those anomalies, and I think the shot probably came from the roof of that building anyway. Even if it didn’t, I can always stay there overnight and you two can come back to check the high ground with me tomorrow.’

The Stalkers exchanged an alarmed look.

‘Stay there?’ Viktor said.

‘Alone?’

I nodded. ‘Why not?’

Viktor barked laughter. ‘Because all we’d find in the morning is your corpse!’

‘You mean there are Bandits?’

‘I mean there are things. Ghosts. Poltergeists. And if they don’t get you, the bloodsuckers will. Or the snorks. The place swarms with mutants, especially at night. Shit, back when Marked One offed Borov, the Military choppered a squad in there. Six of them. Special Ops guys, these were; veterans, real hardasses. They took pot-shots at anything that moved, those bastards. They even had a sniper on the roof who took out one of the Bandits in a watchtower at their base. No reason, just...pop, get out of here, Stalker. It’s the only time I’ve known the “shoot on sight” policy to be enforced, and even then it was one shot. The guy probably just got bored. Anyway, that night we heard a shitload of gunfire coming from over there. Explosions too, you name it. Come the morning, Vampire sent a couple of guys to have a sneaky look around. No one shot at them and laughed when they ran, there were no sounds, no fire, nothing. Our guys finally crept into the compound and found the soldiers – all dead. The marks on the bodies said mutant attack, but by more than one type. Way I heard it, some of the soldiers had literally been ripped apart.’

‘It’s a bad place,’ Zhenka whispered. ‘Evil.’

Viktor and I chuckled. ‘You’ve just summed up the whole of The Zone,’ Viktor said. ‘But seriously, whatever else that compound is, it’s serious bad news.’

I looked over at the building again. It seemed so quiet and peaceful, bathed in the golden glow of late-afternoon sun.

‘Okay, look, we’ll get in there now and have a look on the roof. If I think the shot was possible from there or we find any evidence, you take it back with you to show Fyodor and I’ll head for Bandit Central. If we don’t find anything, we clear out until tomorrow morning and I’ll ask around among the Bandits in the meantime.’

‘No, we should just –’ Zhenka began again.

‘Zhenka, stop,’ Viktor said. ‘There’s not going to be a blowout. Not tonight.’

The wind gusted, causing grass and dust to fly up into our eyes. A peal of thunder rumbled in the distance.

‘Come on, let’s make sure we at least check that fucking roof before the weather closes in,’ I said, moving toward the road. Viktor nodded and followed, having to practically drag a reluctant, clearly shit-scared Zhenka along by the arm.

*

‘We’d better be careful from here,’ Viktor said close to my ear, his voice low. ‘The Bandits could be anywhere on this side of the bridge. The bastards like to stage ambushes now and then.’

I nodded slowly. ‘Fine. You two take the flanks. Stay off the road and keep your heads down. Move only when you’re sure it’s safe, and keep quiet. I’ll make it look like I’m wandering along on my own, maybe looking for somewhere to bed down. If there are any Bandits around, they’ll take the bait. I should be okay anyway. If nothing happens, I’ll check the gateway out and signal if it’s clear.’

Viktor nodded and slunk away to tell Zhenka what to do. I was worried about the guy, not so much for his sake but for Viktor’s and my own. I wished Zhenka had never come along; the man was a liability in his current state. It seemed that the Stalkers had closed ranks a little, taking their ‘wounded’ comrade under their collective wing after his experiences during the blowout. There was nothing else they could do, apart from shoot him or tell him to fuck off, he was on his own...and if they did that, they might as well have shot him in any case and had done. At the same time, they couldn’t carry him forever; he had to do at least something, otherwise he was utterly useless. No doubt he was a reliable operator when he knew it was safe. Put him under the slightest pressure, though, and it was pretty clear he started to crack straight away. Whatever tough-guy routines he played were exactly that: routines. It was hard not to feel sorry for him a little, though. He hadn’t asked for his nerves to be shot to pieces. Or had he, just by being here? The Zone was never going to be a peaceful, safe environment. Nowhere was, these days. Even gated communities in the Big Land had experienced their share of problems. An old mate of mine who was into a bit of the old Mystic East shit told me it was because we were living in the ‘Age of Kali’ and it was all to be expected; in fact, he said, it would get worse as the goddess’s grip strengthened. Another mate summed it all up more succinctly: he reckoned the whole world had ‘just gone fucking nuts’.

Whatever the case, Zhenka was obviously gone at least one round short of a full mag these days. Which probably made him the sanest one of us all – his first instinct was to take cover at the least sign of danger, while most of the rest of us blundered around the ‘man-made Hell’ thinking it was a Boys’ Own fucking Adventure.

I walked on, turning at random intervals to check behind. Everything was clear. The radiation of the bridge, the electro anomalies that bracketed the furthest extremities of the pool, the wandering herds of boar and dogs were behind us here. The road ahead seemed clear of anomalies. There were no dogs or other ‘natural’ mutants here, though Viktor had pointed out a snork as we crossed the bridge.

Another rumble of thunder rolled down from the north, accompanied by a stronger gust of wind, and I prayed that Zhenka wouldn’t wig out while Viktor wasn’t close enough to grip him.

The gates to the compound managed to be ornate and solidly functional at the same time, the difference between a strong, sturdy ‘Welcome, Comrade’ to the ordinary worker and a warmer, friendlier ‘Welcome, Comrade’ to the office staff that had presumably worked on the floors above. From down here, it was hard to tell if the upper floors had been used as office space, but it seemed most likely. The UK wasn’t exactly without its 1950s and 60s concrete buildings; if such a construction was usually an office block in the UK, chances were it had been the same here. I’d find out if I was right soon enough.
A crane of some type was parked in the yard, looming overheard with a large metal hook swinging gently from the supporting arms. Some type of fuzz or growth hung like a beard from the metal frame and this too swung idly in the wind, hissing and fizzing occasionally as it came into contact with other materials.

I moved closer, crossing a small bridge over what might have been a slurry brook but was now largely dried up, and peered in at the rest of the yard. Concrete pilings clustered around a set of wide-open hangar-type doors while more had been moved to form, in conjunction with a metal skip, a makeshift defensive position between the doors and the crane. To the south of the complex, a single-storey workshop or warehouse stood empty and doorless, every window broken and the weathered brickwork scored by dozens of strike-marks. A length of broken cable tapped against one of the walls in a random tattoo while elsewhere a tanker truck sat rusting to the south of the gates, and other half-destroyed vehicles were dotted here and there as they endured the long process of rotting away.

As I surveyed the scene, the wind picked up and howled around the abandoned buildings, screaming in and out of broken windows, whispering as it blew through the trees around the perimeter. The shadows were getting longer now, the sun rushing to its daily doom aided and abetted by the oncoming storm front. But something wasn’t quite right; the day had been fine and there wasn’t the pre-storm feeling that had been in the air the day before. I scowled, wondering what Zhenka was making of it all, hating the twin facts that I couldn’t entirely trust him and that I was yet to experience everything The Zone had to offer. Until I’d witnessed one of these ‘blowouts’, I could only go by what others told me...and right now, the only one of my companions that I felt I could trust was Viktor. The wind blew and ruffled the hair at the back of my head. My scalp prickled immediately. Again, I had a strong feeling that there was something wrong, something I was missing. But what?

‘Fuck it. Get on with the job,’ I muttered, and turned to face the road, flashing a quick ‘To me’ gesture that I covered by scratching my head and rubbing my face just in case we did have spectators, then ducked inside the gate. My companions broke cover and scuttled to where I waited.

‘Snorkbait, please!’ Zhenka whined as soon as he was inside the perimeter and close enough to be heard without raising his voice. Another dull boom rolled out of the north, and this time Zhenka did actually cower, casting a quick glance over his left shoulder before looking back at me. He looked like a kid about to burst into tears of pure fright. Even Viktor seemed more agitated now, though he said nothing.

‘Zhenka, we’ll be five minutes, ten, tops,’ I promised, unable to stop myself reaching out to touch his arm reassuringly. ‘Then you two can get back to camp, fast as you like.’

‘It might already be too late,’ Zhenka whimpered. ‘It’s coming. I can feel it.’

I cast a questioning look at Viktor, who shrugged. ‘I’m not seeing any of the normal signs, except for the mutants,’ he said. ‘Something’s weird, though.’

‘Maybe we should find good cover. Animals are usually a good indicator that something’s coming,’ I said.

‘Maybe. Not always around here, though. Who knows what the fuck’s up with them? Could be a thousand and one reasons why they’re acting up.’

‘And that noise, like thunder?’

‘Probably is thunder. Sounds a bit weird, but it’s probably atmospherics or something. We only had a big storm last night, after all. Maybe it’s pressure fronts and all that shit making it sound strange.’

‘Or maybe it’s not,’ I said.

‘Oh, Christ. Don’t you start,’ Viktor groaned.

‘Yeah, yeah. But you said it yourself, there’s something not right here. Let me ask another question: how often has he been wrong when he’s got as wound up as this?’

Viktor was quiet for a long moment. ‘Never,’ he finally admitted.

‘Fuck,’ I sighed.

‘First time for everything, though.’

‘Yeah, thing is, sometimes it’s the first and last. Come on, let’s get up there and see what’s what. If there is going to be a blowout and it really is already too late, there’s fuck all we can do about it now. We’ll just have to weather it out as best we can.’

‘Not here!’ Zhenka moaned.

‘Well you two can’t very well go and ask the Bandits to take you in, can you? Where else is there but here, if you’re right?’

Zhenka looked agonized. ‘Oh, God,’ he groaned, then started mumbling prayers or entreaties to The Zone under his breath.

‘Fuck this,’ I sighed. ‘Zhenka, stay down here on watch if you want. Viktor, let’s get up top.’

‘No! I’m coming too!’ Zhenka cried.

‘Well come on, then. We haven’t got all sodding day,’ I spat. ‘Just make sure nothing comes creeping up behind us, okay?’

We picked our way across the courtyard, moving tactically in case of a sudden appearance by Bandits or mutants alike, pausing and listening before moving to our next point of cover before finally entering the factory’s ground floor.

A wide concourse – concrete, of course – formed the L-shaped ground level, with the other half of the floor space given over to a fairly deep pit that was filled with what looked like pumping machinery of some sort.

‘What’s all that in aid of?’ I mumbled, jerking my head in the direction of the green-and-rust machines and pipes while keeping my eyes on the far end of the workshop.

‘No idea,’ Viktor murmured close to my back. ‘No critters down there, though. That’s something.’

‘Zhenka?’

‘I don’t know either,’ he replied, his voice not quite firm. ‘We’re still clear behind.’

‘Right. Zhenka, stay here and keep watch.’

‘Don’t leave me –’ he began, too loudly. I turned and clamped a hand over his mouth.

‘Let me finish, dickhead,’ I hissed. ‘Viktor and I will clear the corner, then signal for you to join us. Okay?’

He nodded, his eyes wide and full of fear, though not of me. I couldn’t blame him for being scared; the place was giving me the creeps, too, and I didn’t like the way the weather seemed to be worsening by the second. The wind had intensified in the last few minutes and the sky was darkening. Darkening, but also turning a very funny colour.

I put Viktor on point, since he had a shotgun and needed a clearer field of fire, and followed with the L85 half in the aim. Clearing the corner of the L, I nodded for Viktor to head past the piles of old bedding, the half-rotten sofa and old metal lockers while I provided cover. Once he was in position, having taken great care with a door about halfway down, I signalled for Zhenka to join me. Nothing followed as he moved away from the wide-open doors, nor were there any semi-furtive scrapes or scuffles from outside that might indicate that he had been being watched. There were no Bandits about according to my PDA, but that meant nothing: they were hardly likely to leave their devices switched on if they were moving in for an ambush.

Zhenka arrived, smiling nervously and fingering the trigger guard on his rifle in a way I didn’t care for at all.

‘You okay, mate?’ I whispered, earning a nod. I didn’t believe him for a second. His breathing was harsh and erratic; he was sweating up big-style. He was only a youngish guy, but the fucker looked like he was about to have a heart attack. ‘Right. You’ve done the hard bit,’ I said, pointing at Viktor. ‘I want you to go to Viktor, but keep a bit of distance, okay? I’ll be following and watching our arses. Okay?’

More nodding. But he didn’t move.

‘Zhenka, come on, mate. Calm down a bit. We’re fine. There’s three of us and we’re pretty well armed. No one knows we’re here and nothing’s going to get us. Right? Now move your arse.’

‘The soldiers were all dead,’ he said, his voice echoing in the cavernous room. ‘They were well armed. Better than we are, even.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, but they were shit. They made too much noise. Everything and everybody knew where they were. It’s not like that with us, is it? We’re going to be very quiet, sneaky-beaky. We’ll be fine as paint, you watch.’

‘I don’t want to die here, Snorkbait,’ he said. ‘Don’t let me die in here.’
I forced a smile and swallowed my frustration. There was no time for any of this, but telling him that would only make him worse – wasting even more time. I put a hand on his shoulder.

‘I won’t let you die, Zhenka. I’ve got myself and other people out of worse places than this.’

He looked at me searchingly, wanting to believe even as his eyes said Lying bastard, then he nodded and all but ran down to where Viktor waited, leaving me to trail behind, facing our rear. Unlike Zhenka, I took things slowly, trying to eliminate noise, alert for sudden sounds or shifts in light and shadow, no matter how minute. At the doorway, I took a few moments to check everything for myself. It looked like there had been a smaller work area or maybe a foreman’s office in there, though it could just as easily have been a small locker-room or canteen for the workers to store their stuff and grab a bite to eat. It was hard to tell because the whole place had been stripped bare, probably way back when everything had suddenly become glow-in-the-dark – though everywhere seemed too clean for it to have lain empty for twenty-five years or so. It made me curious. Had this place served a more recent purpose? If so, what had gone on here?

Good questions, I thought as I shrugged and scuttled over to join the others, but not for now.

The workshop was connected to the low tower block at the far end, a dividing wall separating the work area from a staircase and more odd machinery. Cracked and broken dials were forever locked at whatever reading they’d happened to be showing at an unknown point in time, and the casing in a couple of places was dented and scratched. Hazards of an industrial site, I supposed, though the damage had probably been caused after the place fell into general disuse. And there had been at least one battle here, probably more. It was a wonder the place was still as intact as it was. Weirdly, I noticed that a couple of pipes seemed to go down through the floor. I frowned, even more curious now, but didn’t have time to get sidetracked. Nodding towards the stairs, encouraging Viktor to do his point-man thing again, I made a mental note to come back here and check the place out. I wanted to know where those pipes led to though, if asked, I couldn’t have said why.

The first floor was littered with leftover crap that spanned the decades. Machinery, what looked like old-fashioned computer banks, workbenches...most of it heavily damaged. At the other end of the room from the stairs, a mezzanine-type area offered a view over the work space below, while a normal-sized doorway led into another office or workshop area – again strewn with remnants from the past – where a metal ladder led up to the second floor.

‘What the fuck?’

‘There used to be stairs,’ Viktor explained. ‘The military ripped them out after the Faction Wars, along with most of the fortifications that had been put in place,’ Viktor said, and chuckled mirthlessly. ‘And now they’re shitting themselves because the Bandits are a threat. I’ve got to say, Snorkbait, if you’d been around back then, we had Cordon locked down pretty tight. Autopark was ours after Scar helped clear out the Military, the Bridge checkpoint was ours, the Farm...all of it. Even Garbage fell to us, in the end. Well, sort of. Duty took over first, then moved north to Rostok. They made sure they left a detachment behind, though. Oh yes. They had a new, improved base and they were going to keep it. But here, Freedom ran things, back in the day.’

‘So why don’t they now?’

He shrugged. ‘Army Warehouses came available. The Bandits were being pushed over here by Duty and our boys...then the Military started butting in.’ He shook his head. ‘They just had to go and play tough guys. The military did what the military always does: come in, fuck things up, then cry because they’ve made everything worse and want things as they were before. All because the politicians tell them what to do, and the politicians are stupid assholes and the military are even more stupid for listening to them.’

I grunted. ‘Modern democracy in action, Viktor,’ I said, pointing to what I thought of as the mezzanine, even though it wasn’t actually one. ‘Right, Zhenka, I want you to stay here, mate. Find a place to see without being seen, if you can, and then keep an eye on things down there. Any hostiles, don’t yell or anything like that; just come to us, quickly and quietly. Okay?’

He nodded. His face was still pale and drawn and he was still breathing hard, such was the depth of his fear, but he seemed less agitated. Maybe it was because he felt safer now he was properly indoors, or maybe it was because he had a commanding viewpoint, I didn’t know. Nor did I care, as long as he did his job if the shit hit the fan.

‘Right, Viktor, lead on,’ I said, and followed him up the ladder.

The second floor was similar to the first, except it had more obviously been used primarily as office space. Old bits of paper lay around the floor and, in some cases, had actually become part of the floor, they’d been there that long. A cork noticeboard hung lop-sidedly on the wall opposite a bank of windows, ancient memos and other bits of once-important office minutiae dotted here and there, skewered into place by rusty pins. The dust up here was thicker, though surprisingly no more radioactive than elsewhere, and it was pretty easy to see where people had come through even if there was no way of telling when or in what numbers. Chunks of wall, bits of broken glass and grit lay all over the floor, crunching underfoot as we stalked around, clearing the area.

Eventually, Viktor led me out onto a wide rooftop area. A tall brick chimney towered above us, an ideal vantage point – if you could get to the top and if you could find a way to stay there in a stable enough position. As it was, the ladder leading to the top had been partially torn away, while the rest lay behind a padlocked metal cage. It wasn’t impossible to get to the top, but it had been made difficult enough as to be not worth the effort.

‘There’s a ladder to the top roof over there,’ Viktor said, indicating the bolted-in-place metal ladder with his head while he stared north. ‘And I’m sorry.’

I whirled, bringing the L85 up, expecting treachery, but he was only looking at me and dusting his hands together.

‘I fucked up,’ he said. ‘It is a blowout after all. But the usual signs...’

‘Forget it,’ I said. ‘Done now. How long do we have?’

He shrugged. ‘Five minutes? Maybe a couple more or less? I can’t tell. It’s not like normal.’

‘How?’

He shrugged again. Thunder that wasn’t quite thunder rumbled. The sky flickered and flashed as sheet lightning ran through it, the clouds taking on a reddish aspect as the ribbon of light to the north became broader, brighter, much more intense.

‘Viktor?’

‘We’d better be quick,’ he said.

We ran for the ladder and I scrambled to the top with Viktor close behind.

‘You check that side. I’ll take this,’ I yelled, running to where I thought the shooter would have been – assuming they’d taken the shot from up here at all. Now I could look down upon it, the area of high ground by the pool seemed just as likely, if not more so – the rocky outcroppings there would have provided ideal cover for a sniper and the available cover, plus the extended areas of dead ground between here and there, would have made withdrawing a cinch.

I sighed, resigned to the fact that I was never going to find out who the sniper had been – and that made me wonder how I was supposed to clear the ‘debt’ for my entrance to this part of The Zone. I scanned the area regardless, looking for any sign on the ground – a fading sweatmark, a cigarette end, a drinks can, any sign of food or waste – but there was nothing. We were in the shit, and it meant fuck all.

‘Nothing over that way, Snorkbait,’ Viktor announced, running back to the ladder. ‘You?’

I shook my head. ‘Not a fucking thing. Let’s get back down and find some cover, if we can.’

‘Big if,’ Viktor said, getting ready to descend. ‘Have a quick look at the road. I’ll wait for you at the ladder indoors.’ He disappeared from view and I looked toward the road. It would have been an exaggeration to say it was awash with mutants, but it wasn’t far off. Some of the shaggy pseudodogs I’d seen before were sprinting hither and thither, leaping at fleshes and ripping chunks of meat away even as the mutated pig-things ran and screamed their alarm. A large boar bellowed and charged headlong at something I couldn’t see...and then suddenly could as the dark form of a bloodsucker flew into the air and crashed against a tree. The ‘sucker, stunned, never had time to recover as something like a man wearing a gasmask leaped upon it and tore it apart. Nor was it alone. Others of its kind were lolloping along in an awkward quadrupedal gait...and they were heading straight towards us. They were coming to the factory.

‘Fuck!’ I cried, racing to the ladder and practically vaulting over the safety platform. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck! Fuck me!’

Lightning flashed in the angry, reddening sky as though God Himself had grown tired of my profanity...and that was when I saw light wink from a single brass case that had been placed amid the flaking white paint and rust of the railings.

Quickly, I climbed back up the ladder and ran across the roof. The sniper, whoever it had been, had been here after all and, from the size of the casing, I could tell the calibre of the weapon used. If nothing else, I now knew it had been a Russian-made rifle.

Snatching the casing from where it had been placed, stood on end on the middle railing, I quickly levelled the L85 and squinted through the scope toward the metal gates near the Farm in the hope that I’d be able to take an educated guess at the precise weapon that had been used. I guessed the distance to target would have been a shade over three-hundred and twenty metres. There were no trees to block the line of fire, nor were there any other obstructions to draw the attention from the gates. All the same, unless the shooter had eyes like binoculars there was no way they could have used a Mosin Nagant – even scoped, the magnification just wouldn’t have been high enough to produce such an accurate headshot. From here, my 4x scope wouldn’t have cut it, and I doubted if a Mosin’s optics could match a SUSAT – though I couldn’t be sure. Of anything. I hadn’t gone down the sniper route with the Regiment, and I had no doubt that some of the guys who had, and for whom this shit was science and pornography rolled into one, would have laughed their bollocks off at my line of reasoning, but the one thing I did know was that sniping’s all about making life as easy as possible for yourself in order to make sure of the kill. Using a Mosin Nagant, even scoped, would have made life that much harder, whereas an 8x scope and a long-barrelled rifle would have made the shot a virtual cert for a practised hand. All of which meant one thing: they’d used a Dragunov SVD – rare, military kit, not the sort of rifle great uncle Vasiliy would have kept on the wall as a souvenir of Stalingrad until you nicked it to wander The Zone with.

I chewed my lip, thinking. The choice of weapon would make things easier in that it might narrow things down, but it also meant I’d have to tread carefully. A Dragunov would carry a high price here, nor would it be the weapon of a novice...and experienced men had friends. They’d close ranks, denying knowledge to strangers before running outside to send a warning.

What the fuck have I got into this time?

‘Snorkbait!’ Viktor yelled.

‘Yeah, coming!’ I called back, pocketing the casing as I ran for the ladder.

Sprinting across the roof, I could see something like a wave rolling towards us from The Zone’s centre amid the flashes of sheet lightning and clashing thunder. Somewhat belatedly, an alarm like an old air-raid siren began wailing. Clearly, this blowout hadn’t just caught Viktor by surprise; others must have looked for the usual signs and decided there was no threat. Only Zhenka had been right all along. I’d have to buy him a vodka or two...if we survived long enough for him to collect.

‘Thank Christ! Where the fuck have you been?’ Viktor said as I slid down the ladder to the first floor. I could hear Zhenka doing his nut in the other room as he told us that this was no good, being on this floor was no good because of the glass, not that being in this building or this part of the Valley generally was a good thing because of all the mutants and weirdness. I could hear him calling us both fucking idiots, saying we should have listened, we should have at least found somewhere safer, somewhere we could easily defend, but now we were all going to die.

I couldn’t disagree. In all honesty, with the screeching and squealing from the mutants and the fact we seemed to be trapped in the place they wanted to call Home – or at least Shelter – I was shitting myself. I cursed Vampire for getting killed and, more than that, for stopping me at the gates in the first place. Without all that shit, I could have been up at the Bandit HQ now, secure enough from the vagaries of The Zone to have my feet up in front of a fire, probably with a beer or shot of vodka in my hand.

It never hurt to dream.

‘Come on! It’s about fucking time!’ Zhenka snapped as we ran around the corner. The change in him was amazing. He might have been crapping himself at the thought of getting caught out in the blowout, but now the time had come he appeared to be fearless. His eyes blazed as he spoke and his entire demeanour was confident, even aggressive. ‘Our only chance is to get down the stairs and hide underneath. Remember: no noise, and tuck in as tight as you can. If we’re lucky, the critters won’t bother us when they get here.’

‘What if we’re in their favourite hiding place?’

‘We won’t be. There are...other places...here that they will prefer. Come on.’

Quickly but quietly, we followed him down the stairs, weapons up and ready in case they were needed – though I thought that any stand we might be forced to make would be futile: as soon as the first shot was fired, the other mutants would come swarming all over us. It’d be like ringing the dinner bell. It’d just be a question of seeing how many we could take with us, thus ending their horrible, hellish existences.

Mere seconds after we’d huddled under the stairs, weapons poking out so that we looked like the world’s fiercest worried maiden aunts, we heard the panicked clomping and scuttering sounds of mutants entering the building. Their cries and wails echoed off the walls and floor, and I kept expecting to see a horde appear around the corner at any minute, but they never ventured to our end of the factory. A series of bangs and metallic clangs sounded from around the corner, causing me to frown.

‘What the fuck’s going on?’

‘They’re going into that other room,’ Viktor whispered in my ear as we tried to settle into some sort of defensive position.

‘Why?’

Zhenka leaned close on my other side. ‘They’re trying to get back into the underground lab. Now shut. The fuck. Up.’

Something screamed, the sound both pain-filled and lunatic.

For once, I did as I was told.
  02:42:08  4 December 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
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On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
XXXVII

Everything went dark. One moment it was merely gloomy, as if the day had been plunged into early twilight, the next it was pitch black. A sound of screeching and clashing rose outside, drawing closer along with a low rumbling that set everything shaking. Elsewhere, the air seemed to come alive with the alarmed cries of panicking animals, and underlying it all was the ragged breathing of three frightened Stalkers.

The rumbling, clashing and screeching got closer, louder, more threatening...and then a sort of brightness returned to the world. I could see the wall and double set of wooden doors where, I assumed, delivery trucks would be loaded and unloaded. They were dim and ghostly at first, but the strange light quickly strengthened until it was almost as good as daylight, if somewhat strange and artificial. The rumbling and clashing passed, faded. Ceased.

‘Is that it?’ I mumbled. ‘Jesus. You were scared of that? For fuck’s sake –’

I stopped, only becoming aware of the continued tension in the air at the last second. Neither Viktor nor Zhenka had moved. Even the critters were silent. It was what old-time authors used to call ‘a pregnant pause’ – but I hadn’t recognized it in my inexperience and haste.

I was halfway to standing when the building was rocked by what sounded like the world’s biggest explosion. Beside me, Zhenka broke into a low moan. Booms and pops sounded from outside, these interspersed with shrieks and screeches, the same low rumbling as before, only ramped up to an unbelievable level, and, shortly, a howling, screaming wind. Dust fell from the walls and ceiling, and I could hear the concrete steps cracking above my head. How the old factory didn’t collapse around our ears was anyone’s guess. And of course the mutants started up again. Their calls and cries seemed exultant, hungry, and welcoming all at once, the din echoing and re-echoing in the high-ceilinged, mostly empty space to work on our already frayed nerves. Zhenka was moaning away big-time now, and even Viktor seemed to have lost a lot of his calm, unflappable edge.

More hollow booms were followed by a series of almost electrical-sounding clashes and the return of the same low rolling sound as before. The wind gusted, the howling rage of it as loud here as if we’d been crouched near the doors, and my Geiger counter gave a few alarmingly rapid clicks before mercifully falling silent again.

‘It’s okay. We’re sheltered here,’ Zhenka mumbled, able to speak in a relatively normal tone due to the other noise.

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I was afraid I’d puke if I opened my mouth. Besides, the air had taken on an oddly metallic taste. It made me think of a documentary I’d seen years ago, before The Zone as it was now had even formed. According to programme, the firefighters that first attended the scene of the NPP in 1986 had complained of a metallic taste. It turned out to be a sign that they’d copped a lethal dose of radiation. It was a recollection that turned Zhenka’s words to ash. We might be okay here...or the level of radiation might have climbed so high that my Geiger counter couldn’t read it and had broken under the strain. I wrestled with the fear that rose within me, but at the end of the day, what could I do about it? If it had been a momentary spike, there and gone, or a misreading, then there wasn’t a problem. If, on the other hand, the radiation level had flown off the scale and knackered the device, meaning we were sitting in a very hot spot, I’d be finding out about it soon. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but sit tight and ride it out.

The howling wind was fading; the rumbling receded again. It grew darker. Darker, but what light there was became redder. It started pulsing. Stronger and brighter, dimmer and darker. At the peak of the cycle, it was something like being in a photographer’s dark room back in the days when they needed them to develop their pictures. The red shifts became progressively longer.

‘Stand ready,’ Viktor hissed.

We didn’t stand, but remained crouched and huddled together under the stairs, grateful that the earthquake-type rumbling and rocking had diminished to nothing more than a series of irregular tremors. The grip on our weapons tightened as we waited for whatever came next.

Viktor began reciting a prayer under his breath. Zhenka remained stock still and alert, his face bathed in a sweat that looked like blood in the lurid light. His eyes were large in his face, watchful and frightened now that he could no longer mask his anxiety and fear with aggression and blind fury.

The light faded, faded, then pulsed back stronger, whatever phenomenon this was apparently coming to its peak...and there were figures standing by the wooden doors. I blinked in disbelief while, beside me, Viktor and Zhenka both gasped. Elsewhere in the building, mutants screamed. The light dimmed, but not all the way to black this time. The figures faded, finally vanished.

‘Not good. Oh, Jesus, God. Not good,’ Zhenka was whispering, the sound only audible when I leaned in close.

‘What is it?’ I asked. He shook his head. I turned to Viktor, who only stared straight ahead. ‘Viktor? What the fuck?’

His eyes never wavered from where the figures had been. ‘We’re in serious shit here,’ he whispered.

I frowned. I thought we’d established that much a while back. How could this be worse?

The light strengthened again and...yes, there they were again: three figures, two men and a woman. The woman and one of the men – a thin-faced guy aged anywhere between 35 and 45 with a mostly bald head and glasses – wore long coats, like lab coats. The second man was younger, stockier, and wore worker’s overalls. He was pointing at something on a clipboard the bald guy was holding, the woman leaning over Baldy’s shoulder. She pointed and looked between the two. Baldy seemed unhappy and the stocky guy got pissed off. He turned away, gesticulating angrily, but there was no sound so there was no way of knowing what had got him so riled. The light faded almost all the way to black again, and the figures went with it once more.

‘What are they, guys? What’s going on?’ I hissed.

‘Ghosts,’ Zhenka whispered back. ‘Ghosts.’

‘Come again?’

Viktor spoke into my ear. ‘Things that have happened. Things past.’

‘But still here. Still real,’ Zhenka added.

I didn’t pretend to understand. ‘What?’

A low, questioning growl came from the other side of the dividing wall, causing us all to remain absolutely silent and motionless once more.

Another pulse. This time the figures numbered about a dozen. Some of them were soldiers; young men with AKs and Special Ops uniforms who hung around near the now-open doors, standing guard while a knot of guys jumped to the ground and shuffled into the building in single file, their wrists bound by manacles connected to chains, US prison style. Baldy and the woman were there again, him checking something against his clipboard while she was getting busy with hypodermic syringes, jabbing and storing with all the enthusiasm of a worker on a food processing line, her movements practised, precise, and methodical, but bored. My eyes went to the last guy in line. He seemed to be crying and looking for some means of escape. The final guard nudged him in the back with his AK, keeping the prisoner shuffling forward. But then something else caught my attention. The doors. The open doors.

‘Shit, the doors are open! We need to get them closed!’ I hissed, and tried to stand. Viktor pulled me back.

‘They are closed,’ he said. ‘This isn’t real. Not now, anyway. But it can become real.’

‘What –’

‘I can’t explain. Now, ssh. We don’t want to draw attention.’

One of the guards had turned just enough so he could peer over at where we huddled, his expression intent as he squinted – yet we were in plain sight, the light was okay; he should have been able to see us.

After a long stare into what I could only assume was empty space as far as he was concerned, the guard turned back to the line of prisoners with a troubled expression on his face. He glanced back over his shoulder once more, seemed to shrug, and turned his attention back to the straggling procession.

The woman raised the last syringe as the final guy approached and two of the soldiers exited through the doors, pulling them closed behind them. Two other soldiers stepped forward and locked them before saluting Baldy, ignoring the woman, and marching away. The light faded just as the female scientist rammed her needle into the crying guy’s arm, causing him to open his mouth wide in what must have been a piercing scream. The light faded again, the darkness becoming more complete this time before briefly hitting full black.

‘Snorkbait, be really quiet this time. It’s the most dangerous time there is. We don’t want these things to find us here. They’ll be able to come all the way through.’

‘Eh?’

‘No time,’ Viktor said as the light began to improve. ‘Oh, God. Here we go. Just stay very still.’

The dying red light pulsed again. Zhenka pushed so hard against the wall that I was only mildly surprised that he didn’t pop straight through. As for me...I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Baldy and the woman were back...but she wasn’t much of a woman anymore. She was mutating, but I didn’t want to guess into what or know exactly how she’d gone from being one of the experimenters to being the experimented upon. Maybe she’d accidentally been given the good news with something nasty, or perhaps they’d lost control over whatever it was they’d been doing and mutation had become random and rampant. Whatever had happened she was...different. She was also still in her white coat. How that worked, I had no idea. It seemed a bit like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

‘Zhenka, you seen this?’ I whispered, glancing over when I got no response. Zhenka had turned his face away from the whole thing, preferring a close-up view of the wall instead. His shoulders heaved and shook convulsively. I decided to let him cry it out. He’d probably seen something very like this before anyway.

I turned to Viktor, hoping he could shed some light on what I was looking at...and almost screamed. There, less than three feet away, stood a couple of zombies wearing tattered uniforms of some kind. They were peering at us intently, just as the ghost soldier had before...but these bastards were actually seeing us. You could see the struggle for comprehension, a certain dull questioning, in their eyes and general posture. I didn’t dare speak. There was no need to in any case; Viktor clearly knew they were there. All his muscles were locked rigid and he had his shotgun in a death-grip. One of the zombies reached for him, the exploring hand inches from clamping on his shoulder.

‘Snorkbait!’ he mewled.

The zombie jumped. ‘Huh?’ it grunted, then started mumbling zombie bollocks to itself.

The second zombie shuffled closer. ‘What...is...it?’ it asked...in English.

‘What the fuck –’ I began, shock and fear lending my voice more volume than I’d intended. Which was a mistake.

The zombies wailed in unison and plunged forward, reaching for Viktor. Grasping fingers sank into his jacket and they began to pull him out, using a strength it seemed impossible for them to possess. I could hear the fabric of his jacket stretching and beginning to tear as he pulled away with everything he had. I looked on in shock, surprised by the use of English but frankly amazed at the way they were able to grab hold of him at all. There were meant to be ghosts, remnants of things that had once been. How could they possibly come through or interact normally with our world, now?

The world went black again. Utterly. I could hear Viktor struggling and panicking next to me, could still hear the zombies setting about him even though they should have vanished, according to what had happened before.

‘Help me!’ he screamed, but I could do nothing because I couldn’t see.
A shotgun blast rang out, deafening me. I felt Zhenka jump, then he slid away from me. I let him go. I’d get him out of whatever corner he crammed himself into once it was light enough to see again and I’d dealt with the zombies. Viktor was still screaming. Not even the ringing in my ears could block that out. Moving slowly, I lay the L85 on the ground by my feet and drew my sidearm.

The screams cut out.

‘Viktor?’ I called. ‘Viktor?’

The light began to improve, not enough to be like true daylight, but enough to see by. The zombies were in the shallow pit, presumably having fallen in there during the struggle with Viktor. I knew immediately that it was too late to help him; they were already tucking in, eating him, their attention fully occupied by the new-found meal.

I shot the zombie nearest to me in the back of the head and levelled the weapon at the second. With a hiss, it started to come at me, hand outstretched. One eye had gone missing at some point. I hadn’t noticed it before, so maybe it had dropped out during the struggle with Viktor. I squeezed the trigger twice more, and the zombie fell dead.

Dull sounds, something like roars, seemed to be coming from somewhere nearby, but I was still mostly deaf from the shotgun blast. I shook my head and plugged my forefingers into my ears, waggling them around in an attempt to clear the ringing. It did next to nothing. I could just make out the sound of falling rain outside, but that was all. I had no way of knowing if a horde of mutants was closing in, but thought it likely, given the scent of fresh blood and all the noise. The best I could do now was grab Zhenka and get out any way we could. Going back through the work area was out of the question – if nothing else, the courtyard would be teeming with mutants. Which left sneaking out across the roof as the only option. First, though, I had to find Zhenka and calm him down.

I turned, expecting to find him a little distance away, huddled into another corner. Instead, I found he was lying on the floor not too far from where he’d first crouched. Reaching over, I gave his shoulder a firm shake. No response.

‘Zhenka,’ I murmured close to his ear, but again, nothing. After giving his shoulder another, firmer shake, I gently rolled him over. It was immediately clear why he hadn’t responded before. Zhenka was dead.

I took in the wide, glassy eyes and blue lips. His face had gone the colour of old putty and I knew he wouldn’t be breathing even before I put my ear close to his nose and mouth. To be sure, I checked his pulse and got the expected result. A quick check revealed no external wounds, no nicks, scratches or holes in his armour that might indicate an unlucky ricochet from Viktor’s shotgun blast. Instead, it looked more like Zhenka had died of heart failure. From what he’d said, he’d been fond of a nip or two of vodka, which wouldn’t have helped. The rest of it, I supposed, would have come from the strain of what he’d seen and experienced before, had lived with every day since, and been confronted with again here. And those convulsions, the ones where I’d thought he was crying? Bollocks. That, most likely, would have been him dying; the shock of the blast would only have made things quicker. I felt that I should have realized what was happening at the time, though what could I have done to stop it?

I straightened slowly and turned. The loud ringing in my ears had been replaced by a high-pitched whistle, but at least I could hear pretty well again. And what my ears told me now was that, not too far away, something was stalking toward the scent of food. Whatever it was, its breathing was snuffly and over-loud, reminding me of someone who had over-exerted himself while wearing a respirator. Whatever it was, it’d be better for me if I wasn’t around.

I crept towards the foot of the stairs, trying to split my attention between what I was doing and whatever was approaching on the other side of the wall. I made sure to raise my feet high when I finally reached the stairs. I couldn’t afford any scuffling noises or squeaks of rubber against concrete. Better to let whatever it was think it had already hit the motherlode, not leave it wondering whether that shuffling and squeaking might be dessert getting away.

My mind was racing, hoping to escape more than expecting to now. With the other two, I’d have felt much more confident: Zhenka and I could have climbed the stairs, leaving Viktor with his shotgun to cover the rear. Once out of sight up there, we could have hustled to the roof and the critters would have been none the wiser. As it was...

We should have bugged out. We should never have pushed our luck as hard and as far as we had. Hadn’t I thought that Zhenka looked about ready to burst a valve just before I went up to the roof? Yes. But it had been too late even by then. I hadn’t listened when there was still time. I hadn’t understood. Now both Viktor and Zhenka were dead, and for what? A cartridge case that may or may not have been fired from a Dragunov that may or may not be owned by the sniper that killed Vampire? I doubted Fyodor was going to think that info was worth the price.

I was two-thirds of the way up the stairs and thinking of how I should break the news to the Stalkers at the Farm when the mutant came round the corner, heading for the zombies and Viktor’s fresh corpse. The thing’s face was mostly covered by an old gasmask...or it had an old gasmask for a face...and the skin along its spine was split open, revealing the mutated bowed column of bones and livid reddish skin. Here, then, was a snork up close. Close enough for me, at any rate.
What happened next was pure farce. The snork was clearly intent on the feast of corpses laid out before it. It seemed not to have even noticed Zhenka lying there like an unwanted platter at a buffet, let alone got round to casting an eye in my direction. Yet for some reason my top half backed up a step while my feet remained rooted to the spot. I toppled backwards and landed on my arse hard enough for me to grunt in surprise at the sudden jolt of pain.

The snork leapt in the air and turned to face me. A low, rasping growl rose in its throat and it reared up on its legs (back legs, now?) to let rip a combined roar of aggression and cry of alarm. The response to this call was immediate and frightening – the factory’s ground floor was chock-full of snorks, if the cacophony was anything to go by. I didn’t hang about to find out for sure.

Springing to my feet and trying to ignore the numbing ache that was trying to radiate out from my buttocks, I raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time where I could. I could hear the snork giving chase, unwilling to pass up the escaping meal in favour of the one already served below. It seemed to gain with every step, but, insanely, I was grinning. I couldn’t help it. After everything that had gone wrong, the thought that kept hammering in my brain was that this time something had worked in my favour: thanks to Duty, I was travelling light.

Once at the top of the stairs, I whirled and fired three times, hoping to put off the bounding creature, and sprinted through to the other room, practically throwing myself at the ladder. It wobbled, forcing me to pause. Thumbing the L85’s selector to automatic fire, I sent half a dozen rounds through the doorway to discourage any hasty pursuit, then slung the rifle and got my arse up to the second floor. The snork hadn’t bought the attempt at deception, though, either that or it was too stupid to wonder whether I was waiting to fill it with holes or not. Either way, the fucking thing came barrelling through the doorway and leapt up at me as I reached down for the ladder, having intended to drag it up after me. The thing’s clawed fingers missed my face by less than an inch, which was more than close enough for me. Instead of pissing about dragging the ladder up, I knocked it sideways so it fell. I didn’t know if snorks had wit enough to simply stand it back up again, or whether they might be able to jump high enough to do without ladders to clamber up in any case, but for now I had the advantage...and the thing knew it, too. It crouched beneath the hole, glaring up at me through its gasmask-lens eyes and baring its – frankly minging – teeth, hissing insanely.

I unslung the rifle and selected single shot mode again. ‘Fuck off,’ I said, and fired twice. Both rounds took it full in the face and it crumpled...but it didn’t die. At least, not just then. ‘Tough little bastard, eh?’ I fired again, hitting it just above the ear. No way was it surviving that.

His mates were a different matter, though. Others were already in the room next door, presumably having either ripped the zombies apart along the way or skirting around them. Given the levels of aggression I’d seen in their newly-dead friend, I thought it was odds-on that the zombies were no more. I also thought it likely that they’d soon find a way through the hatch. Even if some of them got sidetracked by their newly-dead former comrade, it wouldn’t be for long.

Slinging the L85 once more, I ran through to the ladder up to the next level. I doubted that I’d be perfectly safe up there, but no way could I risk the snorks discovering a way to the second level and finding me standing around like a spare prick at a prostitute’s wedding. I had eighteen rounds in the mag. Twelve had gone on just one critter. The higher rooftop would allow me to hide; it’d buy me some thinking time, and – if it came to it – it’d be an easier place to have a last stand. One other advantage: being higher up made it the best vantage point for picking a route out. Sitting around waiting for the mutants to get bored and disperse wasn’t an option, especially since, from what Zhenka and Viktor had told me before, the local creatures of The Zone tended to come back here at dusk. Thanks to the blowout and ensuing rain, dark would come early tonight. I had perhaps two hours to figure something out and make my escape, probably a chunk less.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter whether I had two hours or two days. It had to be enough.
  18:10:10  4 December 2010
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
12/05/2010 13:15:21
Messages: 4290
Larkhill meets Swan lake?

Now... see what you've done
(Again.)
http://img340.imageshack.us/img340/4660/sb10.jpg

(ed: better image)
  18:18:36  31 December 2010
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXXVIII

...And a Happy New Year.
Sorry about the Christmas fail - plans changed at the very last minute and I wasn't able to work on anything.
Comments to comments after.

*******

Twenty minutes later, I was still on the roof listening to the snorks snarling and roaring below. I wondered if any of them had the faintest idea what they were doing it for, or whether it had now become a case of Bob and Sam are doing it so Dave is too. It was clear that little, if anything, human remained in them in terms of emotion and higher thought, but what of memory and motivation? Was it possible for them to be highly goal-oriented and unable to formulate a plan to achieve the goals they set? What would be the point? Or was that why they were like they were; had they been an experiment that had either gone wrong or been left incomplete, perhaps a first step along the path to some sort of super-weapon that had somehow run amok?

I gave a mental shrug. I didn’t know and wouldn’t find out lurking around up here. If there were answers, they lay elsewhere and wouldn’t change anything in any case.

The rain continued to pour down, drenching everything. As I’d expected, night was beginning to draw early and the heavy cloud showed no sign of breaking up. The weather just wasn’t going to ease in time for me to get some properly useful light, so whatever I was going to do, I had to do it now. No way did I want to end up spending the night here, not on my own. If Viktor and Zhenka had survived, or even just one of them, it might have been a different story, but as it was…

I slicked back my hair and wiped my face, the gesture doubling as an attempt to rub away the guilt. I thought about their bodies lying down there, a couple of slabs of prime meat surrounded by a horde of hungry mutants. It was all too easy to imagine discoloured and broken teeth being forced through their flesh, the relish with which their innards were being consumed...

‘Fuck it!,’ I cried softly, kicking the wall rather than screaming and shouting. ‘Fuck it, fuck it, fuck the whole bastard place!’ I hunkered down, trying to cut it all loose, shove it to the back of my mind with all the other crap until I had the luxury of dealing with it. If I got away from here, if I made the Bandit HQ, I’d have three whole days to sit and stew and work through everything that had happened. Right now, I had a job to do. I had to regain control, and I did that by picturing myself breaking the news of V and Z’s deaths to Fyodor. It wasn’t really a thing that could be done over the radio; I had to do it in person. I supposed some people would have left it, but he deserved to know the fate that had befallen his men. Besides, he’d need to pass word along the chain so the farm could be reinforced. No way could The Zone’s own ‘Coalition of the Willing’ afford to leave the farm undermanned, even with a squad of Dutyers not too far away. If the farm was over-run and the Bandits could consolidate there, the whole of Dark Valley would be theirs. They’d be able to strike south more easily and far more effectively. At the same time, the Duty squad couldn’t be pulled from their position. According to the maps I’d seen, they were guarding the main – perhaps the only – decent route between Dark Valley and the Garbage. It was another key point. Abandon that, and the Bandits could decamp en masse and head almost anywhere. My message was therefore crucial; the defensive chain had to be preserved. That alone was enough to give me a goal, a purpose strong enough to knock everything else away. It also made me consider another problem: could I afford the delay? A radio message might not be the best way to go, but it would be quickest. I pulled the PDA from my pocket, but only looked at it.

‘What if the Bandits are monitoring transmissions? Just how secure are these fucking things?’ I wondered aloud. I chewed my lower lip, indecision pulling me first one way then the other. Speed was vital, but it meant nothing if opsec was blown. How had messages been passed along? Verbally, coded radio, or what? Some, I knew, had been transmitted – I’d seen it done. But tactical information?

At the same time, it was only two men we were talking about. The Bandits were hardly likely to scramble south to attack the farm because they were shorthanded by two.

‘It’s three though, isn’t it? Three, because Vampire’s dead.’

What percentage of the initial force was that? Ten guys, three gone meant a thirty per cent drop in manpower. Six guys, fifty per cent. I knew there were four guys left, including Fyodor. If he’d left two in camp and, perhaps, another two to four asleep, it meant a starting force of up to fifteen men. Three down meant they’d lost twenty per cent at least and the Duty squad was likely to be about half a dozen strong. Depending on the forces the Bandits could muster at their HQ, they could mount attacks at both points. Their weapons and armour might not be up to the same standard as I’d seen elsewhere, but they had numbers and a pack of rats will eventually overwhelm even the strongest dog. I couldn’t transmit the message. The risk of interception was too great. I had to get back to the farm and deliver the news in person. I could also help man the garrison until the replacements arrived. Given the circumstances, I felt sure Colonel Petrenko would approve, if and when he found out that my ban had been broken. And if he didn’t...tough.

With all of that, and more, in mind, I set about breaking the job down into smaller tasks. Part one: Get off this fucking roof quietly and safely. Part two involved finding a way back to the farm, but I’d worry about the details of how to do that once I’d seen how part one went. It would be pointless to plot a route only to find it impassable when I got there.

Making sure I kept out of sight of critters on the ground, I peered out to gauge the lie of the land. A pack of dogs had reclaimed the high ground to the south and were running among the rocks, chasing one another further and further away from the factory towards the pool, growling and yapping as they went. A pair of large boar ambled across the cracked road and headed down the bank on the far side, and I could hear a bloodsucker wandering somewhere nearby. Cautiously, I raised my head just enough for me to see into the yard below. The ‘sucker was standing near the gates, its tentacles swinging slightly as it turned its head from side to side. A couple of dead pseudodogs lay in the courtyard close to the open doors and, next to the abandoned tanker, the carcass of a boar twitched and rolled as something ate its way deeper into the cooling body. Moments later a snork emerged, covered in blood, guts and God above knew what else. It gave its chops an audible smack and almost strutted back towards the factory.

I allowed everything to pour in rather than trying to concentrate of it all. A couple of seconds, if that, was more than enough and, satisfied, I slid back behind the cover of the wall. I closed my eyes and allowed everything I’d seen to come back to me. Concentrating on a few things, thinking as you looked, wasn’t any good. It took far too long, for one thing, and prolonged the risk of compromise. Some things you couldn’t help noticing immediately – the critter activity I’d seen, for example – but the key stuff had to be searched for. Better to see it in the mind’s eye and have another quick peek if necessary than spend minutes at a time exposed.

I grimaced as I ran through my options. None of them were ideal, and only one seemed to offer a decent chance of success: picking my way across the rooftops to a point where I could get beyond the factory perimeter, even though a lot of the panels and exposed beams were rust-pitted and looked about ready to fall in.

‘I’m getting too fucking old for this shit,’ I grumbled, calling up the barely adequate satellite image of the area on the PDA.

Over the next few minutes, I studied the map, looking for the best option – and hopefully some kind of Plan B. I couldn’t see one that I could make work. Plan A was bad enough: jumping down to the base of the chimney and trying to get out that way left too great a risk of being discovered by wandering mutants, as well as involving a relatively prodigious leap onto and off of a workshop/garage roof, not to mention that the second leap – the one that would take me over the perimeter wall – would result in a hard landing at the very least and could, likely would, end with me leaping straight into an anomaly; another way – via the crane – involved climbing down to first floor level on the outside of the building, exposing me to the view of creatures both inside and outside the buildings. That meant putting a certain amount of faith in the toughness of the windows and, again, placed an inordinate amount of trust in my leaping abilities. I didn’t want to put either to the test, meaning the crane was out of the running except as a place of final refuge if all else suffered an epic fail: there were ladders and platforms on the thing, after all...if I could get to them. Chances were that I wouldn’t. My final option for Plan A meant going over the hangar-type workshop’s roof, risking a long drop if the thing collapsed to an agonising death below – if the fall onto concrete and metal machinery didn’t kill me, the gaggle of mutants certainly would. There was, however, a handily-placed tree not far from the northern wall. If it was close enough and I could get to it, getting to ground level would be a cinch – relatively speaking. Plan B, meanwhile, seemed limited to one thing and one thing only: go back the way I came and fight my way out – which made it more of a suicide plan than a means of escape.

I closed my eyes and visualized myself running over the workshop roof. It’d be just like old times. As a kid, I’d certainly done my share of running across the roof of the local GPO/BT (General Post Office/British Telecom) depot while the other lads gave the vans a graffiti makeover. I ended up as the lookout not because I was too chicken to climb down and spray the vans, but because I was crap at anything remotely arty. Even a simple tag had proved to be beyond me. The others had laughed so hard and taken the piss for so long after my one and only attempt that I’d told them a) to fuck off and b) that I’d keep an eye out for the security guards and coppers from then on instead. I was pretty good as a lookout, too. For one thing, I’d wait in the shadows, not moving unless I had to – and doing my best to stick to cover and shadow when I did shift position – and in all my time with that group we never once came close to being caught. That time ended when I turned fourteen and started sort-of seeing a girl from school – which I took stick about again, not that I cared. I’d cycle past on my way home, knowing they were back there. You could hear them, laughing away like a pack of hyenas, and the lookout was always visible, standing there in plain sight like a prize dickhead while he watched the fun and games below rather than the road and security office by the main entrance.

My relationship hadn’t lasted longer than a couple of months, but I’d never gone back to my old ways. There’d never been what you might call loyalty on either side anyway, we weren’t actually friends. I’d simply clung to them because I had no one else, and they’d accepted me because I was local, always available, and because they accepted pretty much anybody. I hadn’t been missed, and I hadn’t missed them. Besides, I’d never had much interest in daubing slogans and shit on Government property in the first place. I couldn’t see the point while the rest of them considered it the height of amusement. Most of them were still fucking around with it even after they’d turned sixteen and left school. Or at least, they were until they finally got caught. A bunch of gypsies had turned up wanting to break in to nick some copper wire to sell on only to find they couldn’t because of a bunch of hoodlums. Switching to Good Citizen mode, they alerted the guard – ‘We were passing and noticed someone on the roof, mate, calling down to others inside’, that sort of thing – and he in turn called the police. The officers duly turned up and caught the vandals red-handed. Job done.

Except, unfortunately for both the police and the security guy, it wasn’t. While the law were congratulating themselves and the guard was dreaming of bouquets and bonuses, the gypos had taken advantage of the confusion and subsequent complacency to enter the compound. The management hadn’t been amused at the good news, bad news scenario that met them the following morning: good news, they finally had the gang who’d been vandalising their vans for years; bad news, they’d also lost several large spools of expensive copper cabling to thieves. Unsurprisingly, the security guard was sacked (with dark suggestions at his possible complicity in the crime) and my former acquaintances were prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. BT saw to that: they might not have been able to get the thieves, but they certainly had the vandals. A couple of them went to prison, the others paid fines. One lad tried implicating me. I was questioned but there was no proof that I’d ever been there, let alone vandalized anything. The others got criminal records while I joined the Army. I’d gotten away with it.

Except I hadn’t, had I? I’d joined the Army, but most of my adult life had been spent getting in to and out of places I had no right to be. Sometimes I’d been ‘the lookout’, other times I’d been in the thick of it. I might have been crap at arty stuff, even tagging, but I’d found I was quite good at getting things to go boom! Getting out of the Regiment was supposed to have been an end to it once and for all, yet here I was about to go roof-running just as I had a quarter of a century or so before. Okay, I was doing it in a completely different part of the world, but it was pretty depressing to see how far I hadn’t come.

‘It’s worse than that, Tayls,’ I muttered, peering around the wall again so I could examine the hangar-like building’s roof more closely. Some areas looked sound enough, but these were relatively few and far between. I shook my head. ‘This roof’s likely to fall in if you fart near it.’

I sighed. Whether it did or not, I had no choice. It was this way or no way, and there was a job to be done as soon as I could do it. I got moving.

The first part – back to the ladder – was the easy bit. I crept across the roof and peered over the platform, looking for movement on the next roof down or in the yard below. There was none. Over on the higher ground, a couple of pseudodogs had decided it was time for a showdown and got stuck into each other. It sounded like a vicious fight, the sort that one of the critters would be lucky to walk away from, but that suited me: with luck, the kerfuffle and possibility of an easy meal might draw some of the more exotic creatures away from the factory, making my life easier. But I wasn’t going to bank on it.

Cautiously, always looking and listening for the slightest change, I worked my way through the office space – if that’s really what it had been – to the hatch. I then skirted the opening, keeping my eyes and weapon trained on it just in case one of the snorks found it could leap up and climb out after all, and clambered onto the workshop roof. It was slick and slippery with rain and lichen, making the going difficult. However, I found that, by edging along side-on and forcing myself to take time when securing my footing, I was able to make steady, if slow, progress as I shuffled and tested, tested and shuffled on a very indirect route to the roof’s apex. I wiped sweat from my brow and readjusted the L85, reminding myself that this was the easy part. The fun would really begin when I came to control my rate of descent on the other side, especially since my knees were already half-past wobbly and my thighs and calves burned thanks to the raw physical effort. It almost made me wish I’d tried running at it after all, but I knew that if I had, I’d have made the most God-awful racket and would most likely have gone plunging through the aging roof by now. It’d happened to any number of kids during the school holidays back home and they were not only considerably lighter, but were also not faced with negotiating roofs that had been largely neglected for twenty-six years.

‘No. Slow and steady wins the race, this time,’ I mumbled to myself, saying it aloud as a way of reinforcing my dwindling self-discipline. I felt exposed and vulnerable as I edged along and I half-expected to hear a series of rapid pops and groans as the roof suddenly betrayed me – either that or feel a heavy impact just before my ears registered a dry crack. The urge to hurry was immense and I had to fight it every inch of the way.

Finally, I reached the central peak of the roof and straddled it, clamping down with my knees and ankles so I could take a rest. Only then did I realize that the rain had stopped…and how dark it had become. I checked my watch and PDA: they agreed that it was 19:39.

The sky was still cloudy and threatening. Away to the west and south, camp fires were already well ablaze, and when the wind gusted – it still hadn’t quite shifted out of the north yet or calmed to its pre-Blowout level – I thought I heard the odd snatch of laughter or poorly-played harmonica. The Bandits, no doubt feeling safe and secure in their complex despite the chaos and danger that surrounded them and probably heedless of the forces that intended to sweep in and crush them if they could, were making the best of another night in The Zone. Silence fell when gunfire rattled in the distance – a heavy blat-blat-blat that sounded quite a bit like a .50 cal – but before long there was laughter again. Someone – or a group – burst into bawdy song and I listened, feeling a mix of longing and surprise. Contrary to what I’d expected, the Bandit camp sounded like a pretty relaxed, peaceful place.

Moving slowly and carefully, checking the solidity of the structure ahead before shifting onto it, I shuffled along until I was well aligned with the main body of the tree. It wasn’t quite as close to the wall as it appeared on the map – the satellite image had made it look almost like it was growing right against the factory wall – but the gap wasn’t prohibitively wide and I could see a crook between two thick, sturdy branches that had the rest of the trunk more or less behind. I couldn’t have asked for better.

The one drawback that remained had to do with the roof. It looked like I wouldn’t have a beam directly under my feet for the short run, which I would have preferred. Still, I had to risk it; there was nothing else to do. I supposed I could go one way or the other to find a beam, but then I’d have to slide down the roof and accept whatever landing awaited me. Knowing my luck, I’d go hurtling off straight into an anomaly that wouldn’t trigger until the pain from my broken legs had hit me. Worse, I might end up riding piggy-back on a passing bloodsucker. The tree at least offered a chance of reaching the ground in one piece and, more importantly, largely undetected.

After a moment’s hesitation – a moment when a shrill voice in my head that sounded a lot like my mother wailed ‘Stephen! What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ – I crouched, swung my other foot around so I was perched like a ski-jumper about to launch, took a deep breath, and ran. I had to run. There was no other way to do it. My arms pinwheeled as I leaned back to try to keep my balance and control my speed, but it was no use. My heels clattered on the roof and at least one segment fell in – I heard it hit the concrete floor and metal machinery below, eliciting a brief roar of alarm from the skulking muties. This was followed by another, then another to my immediate right. The rusted panel under my foot on the next step felt springy and...wrong.

The fucking roof’s caving in! I thought and, when I was still five or six feet from the edge, I jumped.

The impact against the trunk drove the air from my lungs, my left knee banged against the trunk hard enough to send a note of agony singing in my brain, and the makeshift sling for my rifle snapped, allowing the L85 to fall. There was nothing I could do to stop it; all my energy was going into hanging onto the tree while I gasped for breath and listened to two or three more bits of roof fall to the factory’s concrete floor. Something – God knows what – shattered in there and there was an immediate squeal of outrage and agony, followed by the sound of roaring snorks tearing into another easy dinner.

Snorkis snorkem edit. It’s a snork eat snork world, I thought, and probably would have laughed if I’d had the breath.

The rifle, meanwhile, clunked against the tree and toppled away, leaving me to hope the impact with the ground wouldn’t cause it to fire. It shouldn’t, but if it did, it’d be typical of the way these things went. It’d also likely cause a few curious mutants to come sniffing around. They’d have to be the dumbest things ever to ignore the tap-dance on the roof and an ND.

My luck was in for once. The L85 landed butt-first and clattered against the brickwork. It didn’t go off, and I muttered a word of thanks as, wheezing, I sat down in the crook of the tree and leaned against the trunk, trying to listen for any renewal in the alarmed calls and shrieks. From what I could tell, the only disturbances they were bothered about was the falling roof and wounded, now probably dead, former comrade. Nothing seemed curious enough to wander outside for a look round, which was a relief. Even so, I still checked to make sure I had my pistol, just in case.

After a few minutes, my breathing was returning to normal and there was no pain when I tried a couple of deep inhalations, a good sign that I’d not taken any damage to the ribs, which had been my main concern. Not so good was the way my knees – especially my left one – and calves still felt jelly-like, almost alien, as though they didn’t really belong to me, and the general feeling of weakness and fatigue. I needed something to help restore a bit of energy. Chocolate would have been ideal, a nice big sugar bomb – provided I wasn’t so weak and hungry that it made me feel sick instead of energised – but I had nothing like that and I needed to avoid the noise of opening a tin. I rummaged in my pockets for the remains of the sausage I’d had earlier. I was going to be here for a while until my legs felt something like. It only made sense to get some food down me while I waited. I’d been told long ago, as a baby soldier, that you ate, slept and generally sorted yourself out whenever you could because you never knew when you’d next get the chance. I wasn’t going to go taking forty winks now, nor was I about to break out the cleaning kit (not that I had any), but a bit of sausage would go down a treat.

Bracing myself against the trunk as best I could, I tucked in.
  03:23:08  15 January 2011
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Ch. XXXIX

CS, DJ, shivam: Cheers!

*****

It was no good. My knee had swollen badly and, now that the initial numbness had worn off, any movement hurt. I was pretty sure it wasn’t broken or dislocated, but I’d clearly managed to give it a good old knock and I had no idea how I was going to climb down from the tree without making it worse. More to the point, I had no idea of how I was meant to get to the farm. It was getting darker by the minute and, thanks to Savko, I no longer had the NVGs. I still had my lamp, either because it was considered standard kit or simply because they’d forgotten to confiscate it, but the last thing I wanted to do was hobble around The Zone with white light pinpointing where I was for anything with eyes.

I tried flexing the joint again and squeezed my eyes shut against the pain, sucking hard on my lower lip to stop myself crying out. My back was damp with a cold sweat and waves of nausea pounded through me, becoming less and less as I breathed deeply. After several agonizing throbs, the pain receded, becoming tolerable again.

I tried to visualize a route back to the farm. It’d be full dark before I got even halfway. No moon. Not even any stars, thanks to the heavy, scudding cloud. I’d be forced to stick close to the road. The surface would stand out better; the sound of my boots serving as a guide. Wandering off over rough terrain, especially terrain that was unfamiliar in the extreme, would be ill-advised, given the likely limit on my mobility. The problem with the road, of course, was the critters. I’d have no option but to walk past the factory entrance, and that wasn’t something I relished the idea of even if it had quietened down in there by now. If I’d still had the NVGs, I might have risked the terrain so I could box round and hit the road near the bridge; but for my knee, I’d have taken a chance on trying to creep past on the grass verge before making a sprint for it if discovered. As it was, I’d just be inviting death either way – and I’d already worked hard enough to avoid that. There was only one thing for it: I’d have to risk a radio message after all.

Dragging the PDA out once more, I drew my right knee up and hunched over, shielding the screen as best I could – I didn’t need to stop a bullet because of a tell-tale glow – and called up the map.

In some ways, the best option was for me to stay put. If I was quiet, nothing would find me…and even if it did, getting at me would prove problematic, especially as I had my pistol and enough rounds to make a mutant’s life ‘interesting’ – and shorter than expected. On the other hand, I needed help. If nothing else, I needed a truly safe place where I could sort myself out, pass the message and rest up. That wasn’t going to be a tree near a regularly mutant-infested factory. I couldn’t guarantee being quiet enough so as not to draw unwanted attention. I had to assume that any human sound, such as even hushed speech, would draw critters like shit draws flies. I had to put some distance between me and the factory, find someplace where I wouldn’t be overheard.

The PDA threw up a few interesting possibilities. The first, and nearest, looked like it might once have been a construction site, perhaps an extension or new facility for the factory. For all I knew it had been visualized as a workers’ hostel or admin block. Maybe Oleg and Natasha had got pissed off with the noise from the machines and hadn’t wanted to be disturbed by working oiks when they had it off against the filing cabinet. Whatever the idea, work hadn’t got very far; the map showed something like an abandoned Portakabin-cum-railcar, a load of concrete pilings, and what looked like a half-arsed wall made from the same prefabbed panels that formed part of the factory’s perimeter. It seemed quite promising, until you heard the familiar humming-thrumming tone of a Vortex and accompanying buzz-crackle of a nearby Electro anomaly. It didn’t take Einstein to work out that option number one came with some heavy-duty problems.

The second option stood near the bus shelter on the other side of the road. These might have been the site foreman’s office, canteen and portable bog for the construction project, once upon a time. I’d noticed the place on the way into the factory: building materials had been heaped here and there and the grass verge had been churned to mud and tufts by trucks making deliveries.

I closed my eyes, trying to recall everything I’d seen. A long cabin, green; a fire-pit, the half-barrel inside blackened but not recently used. Had I seen water in there? I thought so, but couldn’t be sure. I’d been more concerned with any Bandits that might have been lying up near there. The place itself had left only vague impressions. What I was certain of, however, was that I had spotted a couple of distortion fields and patches of confused air near the smaller structures. What was more, these structures had lacked doors; anything could walk in. So option two was really no option at all.

Which left options three and four – respectively, an abandoned bus parked side-on in the middle of the road between here and the Bandit base, and some buildings near what looked like a petrol station. Option four, however, was directly opposite the Bandit camp, increasing the risk of compromise before I could get my message through. Again, I had to assume that the Bandits patrolled this area if they didn’t have a permanent presence there, and I thought it more likely that they did indeed have a few guys stationed nearby; why think you dominate an area when you can make sure? In any case, a closer look at the map told me I’d have to pass close to a watchtower, and the Bandits were bound to have guys in them. They’d be asking for trouble if they didn’t, and deserved everything they got.

The bus it is, then, I thought. It wasn’t that far, but the light was running out of the day faster and faster; I needed to get my arse in gear.

With the least difficult route memorized, I powered down the PDA and shoved it in my pocket. Zhenka and Viktor would soon be overdue at the farm. The last thing I needed was Fyodor gobbing off, asking me where the fuck his guys had got to.

Shoving my face into my jacket, I got some good gulps of air down me. Whatever else happened, however I went about the task, getting out of the tree was going to hurt. Even moving my leg caused the area around the knee to give a low throb of warning – Move me, and I’m going to make you scream, you fucker, it seemed to say. Part of my mind rebelled against the plan, begging to be spared, but a deeper part – the bloody-minded, victory-or-death part – refused. Pain is temporary, it said, it’ll pass. Death won’t.

The relatively gentle wash of low pain began to build towards waves of agony again as I moved despite all my efforts to keep the knee as immobile as possible, then flared as I rolled onto my stomach in readiness for the descent, freezing me in place while I fought the nausea and cold sweat all over again. I looked down. The drop was maybe fifteen or twenty feet and there didn’t seem to be any protruding roots down there, though it was hard to be sure in the gloom. Of course, I had to be careful not to land on top of my rifle, but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. I thought if I could just clamber down a little, control the rate of descent with my arms and good leg for just a few seconds, the remaining distance wouldn’t be too bad. Six feet, ten feet…I should be able to handle that. There’d be pain, sure, but nothing I hadn’t handled before. I’d just get the pistol out, lie there and take it. If anything came along, it’d find it had picked the wrong day for an outing. Easy.

Wriggling backwards, trying to hold my left leg as stiff and as still as I could, I began to edge out of the natural cradle, hugging the tree as tightly as the trunk’s girth would allow and using the toes and knee of my right leg as a brake. The muscles in my arms and shoulders immediately complained as I forced them to grip the rough wood. A painful cramp threatened to form in my right foot, but never fully materialized as I slid and bumped out of the tree. Every jar and knock sent pulses of pain from my injured knee up and down my entire leg.

It’s too much! The pain’s too much! What’re you trying to do? my mind wailed. Darkness closed in at the edges of my vision and I tried to shake my head to clear it. I couldn’t pass out. I daren’t. I wouldn’t wake up again. Whatever the pain, however badly it hurt, I had to take it. Too many parts of me didn’t want to, though; the darkness partially won. A final wave of pain crashed up from my knee. I lost my grip and, with any sort of control gone, I crashed to the ground.

*

We move forward through the trees. Nine of us, all in dark blue outfits and body armour. We’d look like a gaggle of lost journalists if it wasn’t for the Bergens and pistols – all we were allowed to bring with us in case of compromise; our primary weapons were waiting for us, having already been sourced from within The Zone. As for the amount of ammo we might get...that was anyone’s guess, as was the likely quality.

It’s almost dawn. Faint tendrils of light are visible to the east, wispy clouds lit from beneath as the sun prepares to make an appearance once more.

‘Where the fuck are we?’ Pete, my 2-i-c, hisses, his broad Glaswegian accent making the words almost unintelligible. ‘We should have been at the fucking wire ages ago.’

‘Hush! Keep quiet!’ the ninth, and only non-Regiment, member of our patrol murmurs.

‘Who’s going to detect us out here, the fucking squirrels?’ Pete replies.

Nicola turns on him. ‘There might be microphones, cameras or heat sensors in the trees. Ever think of that? It’s the twenty-first century. Technology is actually the cheaper option. You don’t have to have bodies on the ground. Some of us actually use our brains.’

‘There’s no need for that,’ I say, stepping between them before Pete does or says something he might regret. ‘And you’re right. He
knows you’re right. You just piss him off too much. Now let’s all shut the fuck up and get on with the job, yes? Pete?’

Pete nods and moves to the rear, ostensibly to give Scouse Mark a break from Tail-End Charlie duty. I smile at the MI6 operative and make a ‘Moving on?’ gesture, ignoring the heated look that flashes from her grey eyes.

She shakes her head. ‘No, we really should have hit the fence already and we were only meant to skirt the forest, not go right through it. We need to stop, figure out where we went wrong.’

‘Here?’

She looks around and nods decisively. ‘Here.’

I signal for the team to form a defensive perimeter and call Pete back over. The three of us crouch over a laminated map that Nicola produces from her jacket pocket and unrolls on the ground.

‘We know we left the vehicles in the right place,’ I say, pointing to the narrow local road, really little more than a trackway, where we abandoned the ancient Mercedes van - the second of the two vehicles we’d driven into Ukraine. The first had been an even older VW camper van, and that had been dumped thirty kilometres or so to the south-west. Both had been sourced by Nicola’s mates in Moldova, and both now had a nasty little surprise waiting for anyone who tried to use them. ‘So, we’ve either gone wrong since then or –’

‘Or the terrain has changed dramatically, which I doubt is possible in the real world.’

Pete and I share a moment’s eye-contact. The Firm might have sent one of their best and brightest, but every time she opened her mouth, she pissed someone – or everyone – off. I could only hope she showed more tact and diplomacy once we were on-target and she was doing whatever it was she was expected to do.

‘Something else, then?’ I suggest. ‘Maybe something fucked the GPS up?’

‘Please tell me you didn’t just rely on GPS,’ she says, her tone witheringly scornful. ‘You’re meant to be the best in the fucking business.’

‘We didn’t, and we are,’ I say, managing to keep my voice down only with great effort. ‘But anything that screws with magnetic fields will give us a false compass bearing, nudge it out by a degree here or there, maybe more.’

‘And you said yourself in the briefing that weird shit happens here,’ Pete adds. ‘For all we know, navigating by the fucking stars doesn’t work right around here anymore.’

I sigh. ‘Fuck it. The sun’s coming up, so we know that’s east –’

‘Not necessarily. Time of year affects –’

‘It’s
more or less east, then. It’ll do. It means that is more or less north, so we head that way,’ I say, swinging a finger to and fro to indicate the directions as I give them before standing and signalling to the others. ‘Pete, you lead. Andy watches behind. Let’s move before any Ukrainian heli pilots start playing Top Gun.’

‘Wasn’t
Top Gun US Navy jets?’ Nicola says when Pete chuckles.

‘Yes, but –’

‘Then I don’t understand. Any patrols will be by –’

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, forget it,’ I groan. ‘It wasn’t that funny in the first place.’

We walk through the forest for another half-hour, the rising sun showing us just how far from the familiar world we’ve come. There are fewer trees now: several of them have been cut down but other mature trees show definite signs of...something. The few saplings that have clung to life are poor, stunted, mis-shapen things, still trees, still recognisable as specific species, but...wrong.

‘Look at the fucking grass!’ Nick whispers, and I motion him to silence. We’ve all seen it, and we all heard it long before that. It, like the trees, is just wrong. It’s nothing any of us can put our fingers on, but...it’s wrong enough to set your teeth on edge. The way it moves, the texture, the sound it makes as you walk...none of it is as nature intended. Yet, in other areas that become increasingly rare the closer we get to the perimeter of The Zone, it can appear largely untouched, almost normal. But never quite.

All of a sudden, I’m not so sure entering The Zone is such a good idea. It should be left alone and monitored – assuming it can’t be destroyed. I don’t care who wants to know what about it. Let them come and see for themselves, if they want, as long as they leave me out. I don’t want to go in – but of course I will. I have to. Orders are orders. I don’t have to like them.

Andy raises a closed fist and drops to one knee. The rest of the patrol fans out, taking their defensive positions, eyes everywhere, other senses alert. I move forward, irritated to find Miss MI6 2012 closing in on Andy too.

‘What gives?’ I say, even though I can smell the woodsmoke for myself as well as see the faint plume coming from north-north-west.

‘Smoke, boss,’ Andy says. ‘And, if you stand and look down the slope, you can just see the perimeter fence. Fuck all beyond but open grassland, from what I saw.’

‘I’ll take your word for it for now, mate,’ I reply. ‘But why aren’t there any guards? Why no watchtowers?’

Both Andy and Nicola shrug. ‘Probably mined on the other side,’ Andy says.

‘Is that smoke going to be our contact?’ I ask.

She shakes her head. ‘I don’t see how. That’s inside The Zone. We were meant to make contact outside.’

‘But it could be? We’re late, so maybe the contact got bored?’

‘Probably had a place sorted where we could lie up and sort our shit out, grab forty winks,’ Andy says. ‘Maybe they stayed there to keep an eye out for us, rather than –’

‘Guessing gets us nowhere,’ Nicola snaps. ‘But it is possible. Stephen, you and I will work our way around. The others can wait here until we’ve established what the source of that smoke is and who caused it, then come to us.’

‘How’re we meant to call them in?’ I say. ‘You ordered –’

‘I know. Work something out with Sergeant Gregson. I’m sure you two can be subtle if you try.’

Andy flashes me a glance. I smile, not trusting myself to speak, and move off to speak with Pete.

#

‘Listen, Nicola, you need to go easy on the lads,’ I say as we head towards the area she insists was the original RV point.

She shrugs. ‘I don’t see why. They have their orders, as do you. It doesn’t matter if you like me or not,’ she says in Ukrainian.

I smile and shake my head. ‘It does.’

‘Tsch! In Ukrainian!’ she snaps.

‘It does,’ I repeat, using my heavily-accented Ukrainian. Every member of the patrol received the crash course in both Russian and Ukrainian, delivered courtesy of Nicola in order to maintain as much opsec as possible. Having the usual outside tutor come in, as we’d done when learning Arabic and Spanish for other overseas ops, was a no-no for this job. Russian sleepers had been uncovered everywhere, in all walks of life. It was worse than during the Cold War, and one visiting politician had likened it to thinking you’d got rid of all the woodworm in an antique chair only to find they’d been quietly munching on the timbers of your house all along. Between Osama’s mates, Russian and American sleeper agents, and others, it was a wonder there were any Brits left in the UK government and security services, let alone that they still managed to somehow actually run the country – however badly – while they were pissing around playing James Bond.

‘Well, I disagree,’ Nicola says. ‘What you think of me is irrelevant. You’re here to do as you’re told, get the jobs done that I tell you to do, and assist me in my role.’

‘Which is?’

‘Secret.’

‘It is hoped that you’re better at keeping those secrets than you are at hiding your presence,’ another voice says from our right, in English.

I whirl round to face the threat, pistol raised, safety off, finger on the trigger.

A striking blonde woman with piercing blue eyes smirks back at me. ‘Easy, tiger.’ She looks at Nicola and jerks her head in my direction. ‘Is he always like that?’

I keep the pistol on the strange blonde, moving so I maintain a clear shot but can also pick up any signals from Nicola. A twitch here, a grimace there, and it’d be all over for Blondie.

Nicola smiles. ‘I hope so.’ The smile vanishes as quickly as it appeared. ‘Tenevaya-Devochka Apokolipsisa.’ I tense, not because I recognize the codewords, but because it’s pretty clear that that’s what they are. A wrong answer, even a hesitation, and I’d get the signal to fire.

‘To speak that name means death, Svetlana Motyka’ the mystery blonde replies, equally serious. ‘And it’s good that your men are so...jumpy?’

‘Alert,’ Nicola says. ‘Though I expect better in future. He should have realized you were here long before you spoke.’

Blondie shrugs. ‘I was very still and very quiet, and he doesn’t know The Zone yet, but he will. All of them will.’

I narrow my eyes. ‘How do you know –’

She waves me away. ‘Please. I’ve been watching for a long time. I saw your lead man come through the trees, then watched them pull back and you come all the way around the perimeter rather than cross the open ground.’

‘We figured it was mined,’ I say.

She nods. ‘And it should have been, but the money ran out and...’ She shrugs, as if to say it is to be expected. She turns back to Nicola. ‘Why are you so late? I almost gave up on you for today.’

‘We got...confused.’

‘Ah. Lost. Yes. The Zone plays tricks. Even the stars sometimes seem to lead one astray. This is why I lit a small fire. Too big, and the wrong people might see it, but I thought you wouldn’t have wandered far from the right path, so...’

‘Well, thanks. We might not have made the RV without it,’ I say.

Blondie smiles and nods. ‘Okay, now I have to get back to the Big Land. Some of us have regular lives over there, you know? For us The Zone is like a hobby or handy sideline for money only. Near the fire there is a hunting cabin, not much more than a shack, where I have hidden some basic provisions: food, PDAs – the main means of communication in The Zone; not everyone carries one, but it’s better to have one than not. There’s ammunition and weapons, also; some Western issue, some not. Is that a problem?’

I shake my head and Nicola smiles. ‘That’s fine,’ she says.

‘How much ammo per weapon?’ I ask.

‘Three hundred rounds per rifle; fifty cartridges – shot – for each of the shotguns, a Mosberg Maverick Eighty-eight and a Saiga 12. Four grenade launchers, plus three grenades each, again, some NATO, some not. Semtex and C4 as ordered. Claymore mines, and a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle with thirty rounds. The only thing we couldn’t get for you was a heavy machine-gun.’

I nod. ‘Probably just as well. Sounds like we’ll have enough to carry as it is. We can always source something later if we have to.’

‘It’s okay?’ Blondie says, frowning.

‘You’ve done marvellously,’ Nicola says. ‘Pass our thanks on to your associates when you get the chance and tell them...my associates may well be in touch regarding further business.’

I look away, frowning. Even Blondie looks a little perplexed when I glance at her from the corner of my eye. She nods nevertheless and flashes a quick smile.

‘Now, my new friends, I must go,’ she says. ‘I really do have to get back to Kiev before noon. Eyebrows will be raised if I’m late for work again.’ She nods and begins to move off.

‘What’s your name?’ I say, drawing alarmed glances from both women.

‘Forbidden to you, for now,’ she smiles. ‘What’s yours?’
  00:40:38  18 January 2011
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hhiker
off to new worlds
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 10/31/2008
 

Message edited by:
hhiker
01/18/2011 11:45:22
Messages: 4290
Say Hi, Nikki.
http://img254.imageshack.us/img254/9444/nikki00802.jpg

(ed: better image)
  03:04:42  27 August 2011
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter XL

Better very late than never, eh guys?

***

‘Snorkbait, according to his PDA,’ the deep, hoarse voice was saying as I came fully awake.

Unmoving, not even daring to allow my eyeballs to roll in their sockets, I lay and absorbed everything.

I’d been stretched out on what must have been an old mattress or knackered sofa – in either case, the springs were shot and my arse sagged well below the level of my head and feet – that stank of mould and general mustiness. The room itself appeared well-lit – my eyelids showed a pinkish-red rather than black-with-starbursts-and-swirls – but by artificial light; there was a window, but the quality of the light seemed wrong and, in any case, I could hear the sound of crickets fiddling away, forming a backdrop to the laughter, the singing of three distinct songs of various quality and volume, and the general sounds of a camp containing a fairly large body of people. So, it was still dark outside and was presumably the same night, since the voice had been talking about me, providing information. That had to mean I’d been out for just a few hours instead of a day or more. The questions now became, by whom had I been found, and where the hell was I? Had Fyodor sent people out to look for us? If so, had he then radioed for, and received, permission to take me in, given the circumstances?

Something wooden creaked nearby and someone cleared their throat. Paper rustled as a page was turned, the sound thin and brittle – a magazine, maybe a newspaper...though, this being The Zone, a magazine seemed infinitely more likely. Another page was turned, too quickly for there to be much in the way of text: a wank-mag, then. Well-thumbed too, from the sound.

Boots clomped past an open doorway, the sound of thick rubber soles on old concrete, and someone shouted an accusation of cheating from below. My hopes sank: the Farm had been made up of single-storey structures according to the map on the PDA, which meant I was either back inside the factory – doubtful, given the number of mutants that would have needed clearing out – or I’d been found and taken to the Bandit base. No Fyodor, no early redemption.

I checked my feelings of gloom and doom right there. Okay, I hadn’t got the best of all possible outcomes...but I had at least got to where I’d been headed in the first place and was safe.

Well, safe-ish, I thought.

‘Where did you find him, in the end?’ a second voice now asked, this one older, more thoughtful, yet still carrying an undertone of menace.

‘Near the base of the tree. Must’ve hit his head or something when he fell.’

‘Mutants?’

‘None that we had to deal with. They were going crazy, but were still inside the compound. He must’ve made so much noise and then been so quiet that they never realized he was outside the perimeter.’

‘Or the noise had scared them so much they didn’t dare come out,’ a third voice said.

‘I doubt that,’ the older-sounding man said. ‘I’ve never known a snork to be scared off by anything. He’s a lucky bastard, this Snorkbait, whoever he really is.’ He chuckled. ‘If nothing else, he was almost very aptly named.’

I flinched before anything else could be said. I’d become aware of a slight, but uncomfortable itching in my knee as soon as I’d awakened, the sensation not on the skin itself but actually in my knee, among the bones, ligaments, muscles and cartilage, and it had built and built until it became impossible to fight. My leg gave a twitch and I groaned as the itching stopped, but was instantly replaced by a grinding ache that was both better and worse than the torment of the itch.

A rustle of paper told me my movement had been noted.

‘Boss, he’s awake,’ a bored voice said to my right, and I opened my eyes and turned my head to look in the direction of the speaker. A young, dark-haired man was sitting on a rickety stool next to an even more rickety-looking table, girlie-mag in one hand while the index finger of the other was engaged in a quest for whatever intelligent life might be living up his nose. Intense grey eyes met mine in a cold stare. ‘What?’

‘How long?’ I croaked, only then noticing how thirsty I was.

‘How long’s what? My prick? The queue to fuck Maria Sharapova? What?’

‘To answer your question properly, Snorkbait, you’ve been here for almost three hours. Knuckles, Evgeny and the charming Mikhail found you a couple of hours before that. As for the other things...I believe Sharapova’s married now and maybe, Mikhail, you’d like to go and take over from Nikita at the main gate. Measure your prick there.’

‘Be careful of Milo, though,’ the owner of the first voice I’d heard said, a big, lean man who had to be Knuckles. ‘Word is, he bites.’

‘What? Fucking guard duty? For what? That shit’s for noobs!’

‘That shit is for whoever I decide to send,’ the boss, a fairly short, bald, going to fat man snapped.

Mikhail glowered at the leaders, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet in agitated indecision.

‘Don’t be so stupid as to say anything more,’ Knuckles growled, ‘just fuck off.’

‘Maybe I will,’ Mikhail said, sulkily.

‘Your choice. Don’t expect us to come when you start screaming about bloodsuckers.’

Mikhail scowled and threw the titty-mag onto the other sofa on the other side of the room before storming out, muttering to himself.

‘Evgeny, water for Snorkbait,’ the bald man said, lowering himself onto the protesting stool while his underling allowed me a few sips from his water bottle.

‘Thanks,’ I said, nodding. ‘Looks like you might have a bit of trouble with Mikhail, though.’

‘That?’ the boss laughed. ‘No. He’ll get over it. And if he doesn’t...’ He shrugged. He really didn’t give a shit. ‘Now, an introduction is in order, I think. They call me Sultan. You’ve already been able to figure out which of my associates is which. Although...Evgeny, they call you Toecutter. Right?’

‘Right, boss,’ the Bandit said as he started fussing at my bandaged knee. ‘Here. Let me re-dress this. You’ve managed to shake the artefact loose.’

I sat up slightly to watch what he was doing. My trousers had been split to the knee and a wad of bandages and sticking plaster clung equally to my skin and a dull, coppery-brown sort of rock-that-wasn’t. Evgeny laid the artefact back against a large patch of exposed skin and set about strapping it into place again, and a strange, soothing heat radiated into my knee and along my leg, numbing the pain once more only to replace it with that infuriating itch.

Evgeny finally moved away, and I noticed with relief that I still had my boots on.

‘Thanks, Evgeny,’ I said. ‘And thanks to all of you for getting me out of there.’

Knuckles made an ‘it’s nothing’ face. ‘Just be grateful that our lookout saw you on the roof,’ he said. ‘If he hadn’t been so amused by your comedy escape, we might never have known about you.’

I nodded, getting the true picture. No doubt the lookout had seen me escaping from the factory, had watched as I fell from the tree...and had given Knuckles the tip-off when I failed to emerge. The Bandits’ mission had been less one of rescue than one of scavenging loot before my body could be found by mutants and other Stalkers alike.

‘Thanks anyway,’ I said. ‘I guess I owe you one.’

‘We’ll get to what you owe and how we’ll collect it later on, after you’ve rested,’ Sultan promised. ‘For now, let’s have a little chat about you, shall we?’

‘Me? I’m really not very interesting,’ I said. ‘Just trying to make it, you know.’

Sultan and Knuckles shared a look. Sultan grinned. ‘Don’t be so modest. And remember, you’re among friends here –’

‘I’d heard the Bandits were no one’s friends.’

Sultan put on a look of mock hurt. ‘Surely not.’ He laughed. ‘Whatever you’ve heard, things are different now.’

‘That was part of what I’ve heard, actually,’ I said, and instantly realized I’d said too much.

‘Do tell, friend Snorkbait,’ he said, leaning forward. Evgeny passed between us to the door and told the guards there to take a hike, closing the door as he came back into the room.

I forced myself to give a casual shrug. ‘I passed some time on the road with some Stalkers,’ I lied. ‘They told me things had changed with you lot since Borov died.’

Sultan held up a finger. ‘Since Borov was killed,’ he corrected. ‘What were these changes they mentioned, if I may ask? You see, things were okay, then recently we lost rather a lot of men. Our outposts appear to have come under what looks suspiciously like an orchestrated attack, and when we sent guys out to have a look round, they either failed to report back or told of Stalkers and Duty manning locations that had been, loosely, ours. That makes me wonder, what’s the word...friend?’

‘I don’t really know,’ I replied, and Knuckles stepped forward to give the sole of my left boot a casual kick. A sensation like a low electric shock sent a tingling sizzling through my leg. It felt as if the entire limb had been seized by pins and needles, with that effect being amplified to the strength of a cramp. I didn’t know whether to cry out in pain or burst out laughing. Instead, I went for something between the two, a drawn-out ‘Aah’ing sound.

‘Again, Snorkbait,’ Sultan murmured once the tingling had subsided. ‘I already know that the men I sent south last night didn’t make it. The fact that you came up that way proved that, even if we hadn’t assumed the worst after they failed to report in.’

‘How do you know which way I came, unless...’ I said, breaking off as the proverbial penny dropped.

‘Yes,’ Sultan nodded, ‘I have people watching the gate. I know my group passed through as planned. I also know none of them even attempted to come back. So tell me, Snorkbait, who must have seen something of them on the road...where did they die?’

I swallowed. ‘There were...remains...just this side of the railway bridge. You know, the one that emerges from the tunnel?’

Sultan nodded grimly. ‘I know it. Carry on.’

‘It looked like a mutant had attacked them. I think it was a chimera. I was at the old homestead the night before and saw a creature. When I described it to some others, they said it had to be a chimera.’

‘So close to the perimeter? What did it do, get lost?’ Evgeny cried.

Knuckles frowned at me. ‘Let me get this straight: you saw a chimera, knew which way it had headed...and still came that way alone? Bullshit. Even without seeing a chimera, no one would approach that bridge alone anyway. And if anyone did, they’d be attacked. There are things in that tunnel.’

‘I didn’t come alone,’ I said. ‘Not all the way, at least. I was escorted by a Duty squad until we found your men. We never saw anything near the bridge.’

But the Duty soldiers did seem much more vigilant there, I thought. And they weren’t looking forward to going back that way, either.

‘You not seeing anything doesn’t mean there wasn’t something in there,’ Knuckles mumbled.

‘Even so, the Duty members did not come all the way with you,’ Sultan said. ‘Was there any sign of this supposed chimera when you were alone on the road? You see, my people never reported seeing a chimera enter the area, and I have a hard time believing that it would kill all my men yet not bother attacking you, a lone Stalker, as you passed by.’

‘I didn’t see anything,’ I said. ‘It could have been watching me the whole time, resting up. It must have...’ I swallowed again. ‘It must have fed pretty well. Maybe if we’d touched the remains it would have attacked. It’s even possible that it has come into into this part of The Zone unnoticed. You can’t have eyes everywhere.’

Sultan smiled indulgently. ‘Is that a fact?’ he said. ‘Tell me, Snorkbait...why were Duty escorting you anywhere in the first place?’

I looked at him warily. Something in his tone told me that he already knew exactly the circumstances under which I’d come north. But how? And why had he hidden this knowledge? Had he been hoping to trap me in an obvious lie? How much about me did he already know?

‘I’m...er, not exactly welcome at Stalker or Duty camps.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s why I was heading here. I need a place to stay for a few days.’

‘And you were bringing Stalkers with you...why?’

‘I wasn’t bringing them. Not here.’

‘Is that so? You weren’t coming to lie up somewhere and spy on us, then?

‘No.’

He shifted, causing the stool to groan again. ‘So why were they with you, exactly?’

I frowned. ‘I think you know why,’ I said. ‘Someone killed a Stalker just as I arrived at the gate. One of your men must have seen that, if they saw me come up the road alone. Shit, I bet it was one of your guys that pulled the trigger and splashed Vampire’s brains across the gate.’

‘What? Vampire’s dead?’ Evgeny said. ‘Who...’

Sultan waved him to silence. ‘Whoever had Vampire killed, it was not me. Why would I kill the man, after he was so kind as to allow my men to pass?’

‘Maybe you thought he’d sold them out, took your money and then told the Stalkers or Duty where to find them? Maybe that’s what all the bullshit questions about the chimera were about?’

A corner of his mouth twitched. ‘Maybe,’ he said.

‘As for why the Stalkers were with me, I had no choice. The Stalkers at the Farm seem to like charging a toll for using the gate. I needed to get in but had no money or artefacts. The only way was to do them a favour.’

‘And Vampire getting killed provided just the opportunity you needed at precisely the right moment,’ Knuckles smirked.

‘So maybe your being here isn’t an accident,’ Sultan said. ‘Maybe there’s a complex deal at work here, allowing you to come here and spy on us.’

‘Why would I stop off at the factory, in that case?’

‘Why? To kill your companions, of course! Either we or the mutants could take the blame as far as the Stalkers were concerned, and you could come up here claiming to have information that would help us. Perhaps it was thought that the fact that you had killed to get here would only make us more inclined to believe you. Perhaps you’d already decided the best approach was to give me a little piece of info, just enough to whet the appetite. Maybe you’re actually working for Duty and your banishment is part of the cover story. Vampire getting killed and the Stalkers’ extortion racket were unplanned complications, but the hitches give the cover story credibility. And the way the obstacles were removed is certainly...convenient.’

‘But the blowout –’

‘Yes! The blowout! The blowout you could have sheltered from in perfect safety very easily. The blowout that, no doubt, claimed the lives of your companions –’

‘It did,’ I said.

‘Very convenient for you again! Especially as they were associates of Vampire, were manning the gate with him when you arrived, and weren’t averse to turning the odd blind eye in exchange for hard cash or artefacts!’

I began to feel sick. The conversation was spinning down the rabbit hole. It had started out well enough, or so I’d thought. Now, nothing I said was believed. The more events that had unfolded as Sultan imagined they might have been, the more likely it would seem to him that I was a spy. The fact that he would have been right, had circumstances not conspired otherwise, was not lost on me. It made me wonder exactly how many pairs of eyes and ears Sultan had out there, and exactly how far they saw and heard.

‘Look, Sultan...I’m not a spy and I had no choice but to come here. It’s the only place that I might be safe for the next two or three days. Fyodor, down at the Farm, asked me to find out who had killed Vampire. I found the shooter’s location but nothing to indicate identity. You say he wasn’t one of yours; I have to believe that. Equally, you have to believe me when I say I don’t know anything about Vampire’s death either, and that I did not kill Viktor or Zhenka. Their brief was to go with me to wherever I led them then return to the Farm with news of what we’d found. The blowout trapped us – I didn’t know how to read the signs. I should have listened to the others, but didn’t. Now they’re dead and I could easily have been killed, too. I’m not working for anybody. Duty have no time for me. I refused an order so a squad was sent to see what the shooting was about. It turned out it had been your men making their stand against the chimera. Neither Stalkers nor Duty had anything to do with them getting ambushed on the way south.’

‘So you say,’ Sultan said. ‘Luckily for you, we already know some of this is true.’

My mouth fell open. ‘Wha–? How?’

‘Intercepted transmissions,’ Knuckles replied. ‘Easy, if you know how to break the encryption codes.’

‘And we just happen to know people who do,’ Sultan finished. ‘We tend to keep them back in the Big Land, though. They’re more easily...controlled...there.’

‘You mean drugs,’ I muttered, grimacing.

‘Or women, or booze, money...you name it.’

‘So...what was the deal with the twenty fucking questions just now? Why do that if you already knew the answers?’

Another kick on my boot from Knuckles. ‘Mind your tongue!’ he barked. ‘Show some respect!’

‘Snorkbait, Snorkbait... A Merc arrives. Is he a Merc, really? He’s not the usual type, certainly; you’re a throwback, you belong in a time before the faction wars, when the Bandit groups owned the Garbage. Since you are an anachronism, a man out of time, maybe it’s a mistake, maybe it’s a bluff. And then, even if we accept that all the things we’ve intercepted and seen are true, is this Snorkbait the same one who set out this morning? Is he even the man who was seen entering the factory with his Stalker companions yesterday afternoon? Or is the original Snorkbait lying dead somewhere, with some Duty member or Stalker or, God helps us, an SBU operative carrying a dead man’s PDA? You see, there are things that we heard that only the original Snorkbait would be able to corroborate. Had he been replaced, the stories would not match, and then...’

I glanced at Evgeny, who looked up from inspecting his fingernails and gave a grim wink.

‘Of course all that’s assuming I – or he, in this hypothetical situation – hadn’t told “Them” everything,’ I said. ‘Jesus, look, Sultan: I am Snorkbait. I’m English. I entered The Zone a few days ago with a woman. The military reported that a murder had taken place on the perimeter; it wasn’t me. I know it wasn’t me because the man I dealt with to enter The Zone is on this side of the wire himself now: he is the murderer. At least, I think he is. I’ve been through some bad shit and I did do a deal with Duty to come north at first. That deal ended when I refused their order to investigate an incident that, as it turned out, had been your men getting killed. I really am out on my ear with nowhere to go. Everything else has just...happened.’

Sultan looked at me for a long time. I forced myself to meet his gaze.

‘What’s going on, Snorkbait?’ he asked. ‘What am I supposed to believe. Are you a spy? Are you aware of secret plans? Have you come to warn us, or are you going to report back to that bastard Petrenko as soon as you can? Are you really the man you say you are? Can I believe you, and to what extent?’ He shuffled his feet and grimaced. ‘You see the state I am in? You understand why I think these things?’

I nodded. ‘I can. You’re just going to have to trust me.’

He smiled without mirth. ‘I want to. But you see, I have no reason to. I don’t want to add to your troubles and discomforts, Snorkbait...but I have to know certain things.’

‘I don’t know anything,’ I murmured, looking between the three men: Sultan with his attention apparently somewhere on his boots, the other two intent only on me. They reminded me of wolves eyeing up a particularly juicy, slightly wounded fowl. ‘I’ve only been in The Zone a few days.’

Sultan shook his head. ‘The problem is, I can’t believe that. The luck you’ve had in getting here is astounding. You see a chimera, it kills my men...but leaves you alone. Did the Duty escort lie up out of sight, making sure you were safe? You needed to enter the Valley; this you did once Vampire was dead. Was there a signal you made? Had Duty or the Stalkers sent someone to make sure your passage was...eased? And then there’s the mysterious goings-on at the factory; you could tell us anything you liked and we’d have to believe you. It’s not like we can send a team over to investigate, not with the number of mutants that are currently over there.’

‘You’ve got my PDA. No doubt you’ve been through my pockets. Everything I am or have, you know about. Any messages you might have intercepted concerning me weren’t lying if they said I’d been kicked out. I really am in disgrace.’

‘All the more reason to tell us what you know,’ Knuckles said. ‘You want our help; this is part of the price.’

‘Come on, Snorkbait. If your PDA really does tell us who you are, then you’re a Merc for hire. What do you care about the Stalkers’ or Duty’s plans? What’s going on? What’s changed? Why have Duty and the Stalkers united? Why have my men been wiped out? Why am I hearing the things I’m hearing?’

‘I think you said it yourself, earlier on. They’ve changed because things here are different. You practically admitted your more organized now than you were before Borov die...was killed.’

Sultan rubbed his head and slicked back non-existent hair. ‘Being more organized than Borov would not be hard, believe me. The man had no idea of strategy.’

‘And you do?’

Another kick. More sizzling pain.

‘Enough, Knuckles. He’s within his rights to ask.’ Sultan rocked back on the stool. ‘Maharbal said of Hannibal that he knew how to win a victory, but did not know how to use it. Or words very much to that effect. So it was with Borov. He took over at a time when strength and a certain low cunning were needed, but he did not use his victory as he might. Nuisance raids, occasional forays into Cordon... What use are they? Four or five men get killed at the Autopark, so he allows three or four more to go down. In turn, they are killed. More men arrive from the Big Land, some sent for, others trafficked, more just coming in because we can’t stop them. It’s the same for the Stalkers: newcomers arrive at the Village, they raid the Autopark or Gatehouse, take it, we take it back...and so it goes.’

‘Then you arrive...’ I prompted.

‘No. I was already here,’ he said. ‘But then it’s my time, let’s say that. I get things more organized in the Big Land. I start acquiring codes – you would find the means of doing this unsavoury, so I won’t offend you by telling you what we and my outside contacts have to do – in short, I start treating this enterprise as exactly that: an enterprise, a business. Where Borov allowed raiding parties to leave as they chose, I send them.’

Yet still you leave a handful of men to defend the places and have to retake them, time and again, I thought. Whatever the reason, it surely couldn’t be manpower, not judging from the racket the various groups were kicking up outside.

‘Word among the Stalkers said that there was a new, strong Bandit leader who was getting everything organized,’ I said.

‘Which is probably how it seems from their point of view,’ he said. ‘In reality, we’re actually less organized than under Yoga. He wasn’t a particularly strong leader, but his inner crew ran the show. He had a trader, a technician...I don’t have those things even now. For fuck’s sake, there was even a bar at the rail depot in the Garbage back then. Borov ran it...and Borov got greedy, thought that Yoga was weak. The problem with Borov was, he knew how to be ruthless; he just didn’t know how to be strong. He was also paranoid. He trusted no one, deep down. He even mistrusted the men he hand-picked to act as his bodyguard. He was all too aware that what he had done to Yoga could as easily be done to him. A good lieutenant, never a general.

‘Yoga’s apparent weakness was actually a strength; he let his people do more or less as they liked provided they also did the jobs he assigned them to. It’s in our nature to be self-serving; Yoga knew this and allowed patrols and checkpoint guards to loot as they liked – but that’s really all they did. Some Stalkers didn’t have the booty, so they got taken to the anomaly fields or garbage heaps to work off their debt. After the faction wars, Borov declared all Free Stalkers as the enemy – it was open season, and that created chaos within our ranks. Where before groups of three or four would share the loot, now it was every man for himself. Whatever structure we’d had broke down. I, personally, have come across groups of corpses or dying men who had become the victims of in-fighting. We needed to rid ourselves of that, become more disciplined again. The problem is it’s like trying to hold back the tide with a sieve; too many people want to be the head man, too many others won’t listen. They’ve become used to acting like...no, not even a pack of jackals; at least they have structure, hierarchy. What we have here is still closer to chaos. So instead of unity and strength we have individualism and desertion. I know we lost the Autopark again the other day. Someone not entirely unsympathetic to us sent me a message, personally – though I’ve not heard from her in a few days now, either. Our men were wiped out it said. “All eight?” I asked. “What do you mean, eight?” said the reply. Half had deserted, it seems. The team I sent had a single mission: see if retaking Autopark was viable, and if not, retreat to the old homestead and await further instructions.’

‘Forget Autopark,’ I said. ‘I saw some of the defences down there; it’d be a massacre. It would have been tough to take when I passed through and they said the defences were going to be made even stronger. It’ll be like a fortress now. You won’t even be able to sneak into Cordon – what they don’t see, the Military outpost will.’

Sultan blinked slowly. ‘Some of my people have managed to report the same from the Garbage. Security everywhere has been strengthened, positions able to give support, snipers at the old depot – our old base! – who can cover our old ambush points... But why? Why have they gone to such lengths? And why now?’

I closed my eyes and made a decision. ‘ I know some of what they’re thinking, Sultan. Borov’s gone, and now they’re saying the new leader has united everyone. According to what they’ve been told, you’re bussing people in every night –’

‘We are,’ Knuckles said, ‘but almost as many go out again as arrive.’
‘We bring people in who want to come in,’ Sultan explained. ‘We also bring some people who don’t want to come, if you understand my meaning.’

‘Debtors, people who you want to get rid of...’ I said, looking up. ‘I get the picture.’

Sultan nodded. ‘Among others, yes. Most of these people get left to fend for themselves at the wire. Others – people who came to us to help them enter The Zone but lacked sufficient funds, let’s say, and those who get to the wire and still need more – are...recruited. So we swell our ranks. The trucks and cars arrive, the newcomers or returnees get out, guys who need or want to get back to the Big Land get in, and so it goes.’

‘Military patrols?’

‘Can be paid to look the other way. And again, we have people in the Big Land for when money and greed fail to work their magic. I’m sure I don’t have to paint you a picture.’

I thought over what little I knew of the Russian Mafia and tied it into what I’d seen and heard about the Italian mob, Colombian druglords, PIRA’s nutting squads, the truly nasty bastards that could be found even in the UK underground, and shook my head. No pictures required. I already had plenty.

‘The problem you have, Sultan, stems from the fact that they think you’re only bringing numbers in. They also think you have links to the Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg gangs and can get them all to pull one way.’

‘That’s not good, boss,’ Knuckles hissed. ‘If they think we’re that united and growing –’

‘They’ll think they have no choice but to push us north, as they forced us out of the Garbage. Close off our eastern access points so we have to come from the north.’

‘And if they replace the units up there with people they know they can trust, officers and men who are selected because they can’t be bribed or threatened –’ Knuckles added.

‘Yes. It cuts our lines in or out. We’d be trapped.’ Sultan shook his head. ‘It makes no sense. Everyone in The Zone knows that not every gang member from the Big Land enters as a member of one of our groups. If they’re savvy enough, they can come in and hide their background, be accepted as a Free Stalker... There’s every chance even some of the people involved in taking the Autopark ran with us in the Big Land, once upon a time.’

‘They want Freedom on board as well,’ I said, without really knowing why. I had no loyalty to these people; why was I being so forthcoming with information?

‘And Freedom are to the north,’ Evgeny said. ‘If we were squeezed here and they joined the Stalkers, we’d have to fight our way past them, or...’

‘Or go east and be forced to leave The Zone altogether,’ Sultan finished, getting to his feet.

Silence fell between us as the three Bandits mulled things over while the rank-and-file men carried on as normal. Someone started torturing a harmonica and got told to shut the fuck up before he was made to eat the fucking thing; a couple of tins rattled as their contents were skewered and consumed; flames leapt with a whoosh to window-height as someone chucked either vodka or petrol into the fire, to the delight of some and the alarm of others...

‘Who benefits?’ Sultan asked. ‘That’s what it all comes down to: who benefits from all these lies and alliances?’

‘The Stalkers, for one –’ Evgeny said, but Sultan turned on him, almost snarling.

‘No. They only think they will benefit. In reality, they’ll lose far more than they gained.’

‘So who –?’

‘Duty. Perhaps Freedom. The Military,’ Knuckles muttered, becoming thoughtful for a few seconds more. ‘Especially the Military.’

Sultan considered. ‘In the short term, yes...but those bastards in Kiev will have an eye on the longer game. No stalkers would mean there was no need for strong military control, and that would mean –’

‘Budget cuts. Yes. But who benefits from that?’

The vans bump along Ukrainian back roads, the light from Nicola’s iPad illuminating her face as she stares intently at the map displayed upon it.

‘Next option right,’ she says, her voice soft but terse. ‘Lay-by two hundred metres further on, left-hand side as we approach.’ She closes the device down, plunging the interior into complete darkness. ‘Weapons free, gentlemen.’

In the back of the our van, pistols are drawn and made ready for when we exit the vehicle and I slide a pen-light from my pocket, giving the vehicle behind two flashes...

A lonely road. Sunset. It’s beautiful. The Zone can be such a peaceful place.

A stronger flash. Intense. A voice that isn’t. Singing that can’t be...isn’t... The stars. The stars are shifting, like a rainbow, brightening. Screaming from the woman next to me. Screaming. Me. Pain. Getting hard to think...can’t...think!


‘Snorkbait? Are you all right?’ Knuckles asks, leaning over me, actually appearing to be concerned.

‘Yeah. Yeah... What?’ I say, looking around the sudden wariness and irritation on the faces of the other men.

‘You...kind of zoned out there, man,’ Evgeny said. ‘It was like you just...went away.’

‘It’s been a long day,’ I said, trying a smile and letting it drop when it received nothing by way of response.

‘What were you thinking about?’ Sultan demanded.

I shook my head. ‘Nothing. Nothing that made any sense, anyway.’

‘Tell me.’

‘It was...it must have been something from years ago. A different place, even. And I think some of it was like a dream or something. Things were just a bit jumbled up.’

‘Snorkbait...’

‘Don’t worry, Sultan. It can’t have anything to do with why I’m here. It’s just my mind playing tricks on me. Like I said, it’s been a long day.’

He scowled but let the subject drop. ‘There’s no other kind around here,’ he said, then got back to his former preoccupations. ‘Who benefits, in the end? Who?’ He mumbled, almost to himself, then looked up. ‘Knuckles, Snorkbait sleeps in here tonight. You and Evgeny keep watch. In the morning, show him to the...guest quarters. For now, send someone to tell Jack what we’ve learned. Like it or not, we’ll have to work together on this one.’

‘I thought you were the boss?’ I said.

Sultan whipped round. ‘Hear that?’ he said, pointing to the window. Again, three or four different groups could be heard singing, laughing, just hanging out. ‘The workshops over there are home to two groups. They work alone now apart from the duties they decide to do when we pay them. Behind this dump is another garage and workshop. That group is loosely mine, but don’t always do as I say. Jack’s group have occupied the workspace adjoining this office block, which, happily, is entirely mine. I have the largest number of people here, followed by Jack. There might be thirty, forty or fifty here, depending on who arrives, who goes east, who leaves and never comes back... We defend our own parts of the perimeter. We enforce our own discipline. We have our own enterprises.’

‘So you’re not united at all!’ I exclaimed.

‘No. Didn’t you hear what I said earlier? I’ve tried to establish order. It seemed to be working for a while, and then it started shifting back towards how it was before. Disorder. Chaos. And that’s what makes me wonder why anyone would say or believe that we are completely united. Our alliances are fragile at best; we have too many cooks.’

‘But I thought –’

‘Take some advice, Snorkbait: only believe half of what you see and a quarter of what you hear,’ Sultan said, ambling towards the other room. ‘And even then assume it’s all lies.’

The door slammed behind him.
  04:08:03  2 January 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 41

‘Shit! Snorkbait, wake up! Come on, man!’

‘What? What’s happening?’ I groaned, sitting up a little and shielding my eyes from the glare of early-morning sunlight. Boot-heels and trainers clattered and squeaked on the concrete-and-tile flooring outside the door, while a tumult of voices showed how confused everything was down in the yards.

‘Are you deaf? Can’t you hear?’ Evgeny said, dropping the remains of a roll of gaffer tape in my lap before striding over to the window, though by then my ears had caught the heavy, but still quite distant thwap-thwap-thwap of rotors battering the air.

Helicopters. Hinds, I thought, and immediately ran through everything I knew about them – or more accurately, everything I could remember. There were black spots in my memory; information that I should have known – that I knew I’d known – was missing. In the end, I decided the gaps didn’t matter. Hinds meant one thing: the shit was about to hit the fan for someone.

‘What are we looking at?’ Sultan snapped, striding from his quarters with my L85 in one hand and my pack in the other as the first wave passed overhead, twin turbines screaming.

‘Looks like gunships and troop transports,’ Evgeny reported, taking care to stay in the shadows.

‘Got it,’ Knuckles said into his radio, then turned to his boss. ‘Lookout reports more heading our way. Two waves of three.’

‘Making nine in total,’ Sultan muttered, but Knuckles was shaking his head.

‘Nine heading this way, boss,’ he said. ‘There’s more heading north from over by the Institute.’

Sultan looked stunned. ‘So many? What the hell could have made them mobilize like that?’

‘More to the point,’ I said, unwrapping the last of the bandages from my knee and giving the joint an experimental flex; it was stiff, but nothing more; ‘have any circled or landed?’

Sultan looked at Knuckles, who could only shrug.

‘No report,’ he said. ‘You think it’s an attack?’

I didn’t answer, though all three Bandits were staring at me as I got busy taping my split trouser leg together.

‘Well?’ Sultan demanded.

I shook my head. ‘No. Don’t ask me why, but I think something else has happened. The army have got bigger fish to fry all of a sudden.’

‘How do you know?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t. It’s just a feeling.’

Sultan glared at me for a long moment and drew a deep breath, then released it. ‘It’s one I don’t share,’ he said, turning to Knuckles. ‘Get everyone prepared in case we’re attacked, then see what else we’ve been able to find out. Snorkbait, I know you were expecting a quiet few days but I need every man I can get. You and Evgeny go over to the fuel station and check the road, then, if you can, move down to the factory and make sure it’s clear.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said, nodding at Evgeny and tossing him his artefact as Knuckles started jabbering into his radio. ‘What do you want us to do if the place is occupied?’

‘Nothing,’ Sultan replied. ‘Even if there’s only one soldier gone in there to take a leak, don’t engage. I need you to get your asses back here with a report. Don’t use the radio; I don’t want the bastards to know that we know they’re there – if they are there at all, of course. Besides, we’ll need all the people we have here, if we’re to mount anything like a proper defence.’

‘You what? Even fifty rifles here wouldn’t last five seconds,’ I scoffed.

‘No, but what other choice do we have? If the military are here to flush us out, they’ll kill us no matter what we do. We have nothing to lose by fighting...if we have to. Now what are you waiting for, an invite from the lost heir of the Tsars? Get out of here!’

*

The third wave screamed overhead as Evgeny and I neared the gate, forcing us to take cover by hunkering down next to the legs of the watchtower in the hope that the scrubby bushes would help to conceal us.

Two gunships, one troop carrier. Hind transports could carry up to eight men. Eight men by three waves equalled twenty-four pairs of boots on the ground, and that was in one area alone. Most likely, they’d be special forces: well trained, disciplined and armed to the teeth. Someone was in a whole heap of shit. I could only hope it wasn’t us – and I did mean ‘us’. I might not have been a Bandit, but I knew the Military guys wouldn’t discriminate. Anything in or near the Bandit camp that wasn’t them would be treated as an enemy; it could be taken as read that they’d exercise their right to shoot on sight.

With the choppers gone, the Bandits broke from where they’d been hiding, whether it had been inside buildings, under vehicles, or in the maintenance pits.

‘Igor, get up the tower. Tell us what you see.’

‘Why me? What if those bastards have got snipers out there?’ a Bandit in a long brown raincoat whined.

‘Then you get shot. You’re the lookout, get up there!’

‘Fuck you!’

A pistol was cocked. ‘Get up that fucking ladder, Igor.’

Grumbling, the Bandit pushed past Evgeny and started climbing while we headed to the gates, where I peered out at the fuel station through the stencilled hammer-and-wrench design that had been cut into the metal sheet. All very Soviet chic.

Concrete pilings and what looked like Russian-style portakabins blocked a lot of my view, having been set up so as to force any aggressors seeking entry away from the walls and into open ground before the final approach. I could, however, see a decent-sized two-storey building and a red truck parked up near some gates on the other side of the road. By edging round a little, I could just make out the first of the old pumps. It wasn’t much as cover from the air went and the building entrance would have to be cleared first, but it would have to do.

‘Right, Evgeny, we’ll go on three. Head for that building first. We’ll take cover inside –’

Evgeny shook his head. ‘Not a good idea,’ he said.

‘Why not?’

‘Bloodsuckers. Every time we clear the place, back they come.’

‘Bloodsuckers?’ I said. ‘That close to the camp? Don’t they ever just cross the road for a snack?’

He shook his head. ‘Too noisy. Too many people.’

I grimaced and could have said plenty more, but time was not on our side and there was a job to be done. I yanked the PDA from my pocket and called up the map.

‘Balls to it, then... We sprint across the road to the pumps. You take the one nearest that structure there. What is that, anyway? Some type of kiosk? Never mind. I’ll watch our rear. Then we’ll move into the kiosk for cover and –’

Again a shake of the head.

‘Now what?’

‘Burners,’ he said.

‘But that and the bloodsucker’s fucking social club are the only points of cover from above!’ I hissed.

He shrugged and looked apologetic.

‘Jesus Christ...’ I muttered. ‘Right, to the pumps, then. One, two, three – go!’

We bomb-burst from the gates – as far as two men can be said to bomb-burst – and sprinted flat out for the pumps, with me trying to ignore my pantomime trouser leg as it flapped and crackled. Something stirred in alarm as we raced towards and then past the building, and I kept a wary eye on the doorway in case one of Rusty’s mates popped out to say hello – or, more likely, ‘foo’ – but although I thought I saw movement of some sort in the gloom, nothing emerged to start chasing its breakfast down the road.

The day was already oppressively hot, the sun beating down and encouraging the grasshoppers to come out and play. Skrees and buzzes seemed to come from everywhere and I narrowly missed ending up with bugs for breakfast as a couple of midges or flies weaved out of my way as I ran for cover. By the time I crouched next to the pump and got the L85 up to cover behind, I was breathing hard and dripping with sweat, partly because of the heat but mostly from the sheer effort of keeping up any kind of pace. My knee had started screaming again after just a few yards and the pulses of hot pain were nauseating. Not that it was surprising; without the artefact, I might have been off my feet for days if not weeks, but had been healed inside a few hours instead. Even so such accelerated healing was only one thing, the physical therapy required to work residual stiffness out was another, and the couple of tentative knee bends and experiments with putting weight on the joint that I’d managed to fit in before just wouldn’t hack it.

I looked up at the watchtower. Igor was up there and had his binoculars out, but was crouching so low that he couldn’t have been able to see much over the parapet. At least no one had taken a pot-shot at him yet. That was something.

‘Clear?’ I asked, trying not to gasp.

‘Clear,’ Evgeny replied. ‘How’s the knee holding up?’

‘It’ll do,’ I said, looking down the road for the next point of decent cover. It seemed an awfully long way away. ‘Right. To the bus, then. I’ll go left, you go right. Ready?’ A nod. ‘Move.’

Evgeny streaked away across the tarmac, heading for whatever cover he could find on the right-hand side of the road, while I hobbled towards the kiosk, office, whatever the hell it had actually once been.

No way would I have gone in there, even without the warning, I thought as I approached. The place actually smelled hot, a stench like burnt wood and slow but over-cooked roasts, hot brick and melted tar. Waves of residual heat baked out into the already-warm air, so much so that I could feel it from several yards away. A tinder-dry ladder was propped against the wall facing me, but I didn’t want to risk climbing onto the roof. For one thing, I’d be exposed; for another, getting accidentally flambéd would not make for a good day out.

Evgeny was watching me from his chosen position near a massive wooden spool that had, presumably, once held a huge length of copper wire. I pointed to my eyes and then down the road. He nodded, but I had no idea if he’d understood or not. I knew a lot of the guys in The Zone would have some sort of military experience via national service if nothing else, but I had no idea how much had stuck or what form their service might have taken...or even how thorough their basic training might have been. I realized I may have ended up expecting some sort of tactical awareness from someone who’d only been taught how to march and peel spuds, assuming he’d turned up for his service at all. Still, a nod was encouraging. It was better than a blank stare and open mouth.

I got moving.

There was very little in the way of cover on my side of the road. There were trees, but they were obvious places of shelter – even an idiot would know to watch for movement around the trunk bases – while here and there the odd wintry-looking shrub clung to whatever life it had. Apart from that there was nothing but tufty grass and uneven, rising ground heading off towards the factory and construction site.

I hit the deck in the shade of a large tree after twenty or thirty yards and waved Evgeny forward, hoping he had the sense to move past me. I needed to watch the road and the surrounding area ahead, not go looking to see what he was up to. I was in luck: Evgeny entered my peripheral vision going like shit off a shovel and weaving to automatically take advantage of the cover available, though whether this was training or blind instinct I couldn’t tell. After another few yards, he also went to ground. I nodded. His choice of position was excellent, offering good coverage but providing plenty of sightlines.

I moved forward again, passing him before being forced to go to ground once more despite being relatively exposed.

‘Any sign?’ I asked Evgeny when we finally reached the bus. It felt like hours since we’d left Sultan, yet a check of the time revealed it had been something less than ten minutes.

He shook his head. ‘Road’s clear to the bridge at least,’ he said. ‘And there’s been no shooting. If anyone here or nearby, like in the Garbage, had been engaged, we’d have heard it.’

I nodded, registering his choice of words. ‘Let’s get close enough to the factory to do a PDA sweep, then we’ll head back,’ I suggested. ‘It’s already pretty clear that the Military have other things on their minds, but...’

‘I wonder what, though?’ Evgeny said, without sounding particularly interested.

‘Depends what’s up north,’ I said.

‘Army Warehouses, Red Forest. The NPP... Nothing new. Can’t see why they’d be interested in any of those all of a sudden. Not to that extent, at least. Eighteen helis, plus all those men…’ He shrugged. ‘It’s gotten pretty rare that they ever send one, even when heli patrols are announced. They basically like to shit us up every now and then. Anyway…’

I frowned. Something seemed to be tickling the back of my mind...something about a mission, and heading for the centre...

I shook my head and looked around to find Evgeny squinting at me curiously. ‘What?’

‘I asked when you wanted to move out, but you seemed to have...zoned out. Again,’ he said. ‘You sure you didn’t give your head a good whack when you fell out of that tree? I mean, I checked and there was no blood or lumps or anything, but...’

‘I’m fine,’ I said, scraping up a smile. ‘I was just thinking too hard about what the Military might be doing in the centre of The Zone, I guess.’

‘Could be anything. Probably gone artefact hunting for the generals again. Greedy bastards in Kiev like to pretend it’s Stalkers that’re the problem, but it’s not; it’s them. They just want all the artefacts for themselves so they can sell them and get rich instead of us. Never mind the cost of the operation; the tax-paying mugs can wear that.’

‘Yeah. Never mind, eh?’ I mumbled. ‘Come on.’

Still wary, but more relaxed than previously now the risk of danger seemed to be past, we walked in single-file down the road, sticking to the left verge as much as we could. The insects were still at it, buzzing and fiddling to their hearts’ content, and the dogs had come back out for some time in the sun now that the thunder of the helicopters had passed, though their yapping remained reassuringly distant.

‘You did well just now,’ I said over my shoulder.

‘What? When?’

‘As we moved down to the bus. You seemed to know just where to go for the best cover.’

He shrugged. ‘I’ve been here a long time. I guess I just know the terrain.’

I smiled. Again his choice of words betrayed him.

‘You used to be a soldier, didn’t you?’

His shoulders slumped. ‘Does it matter?’

‘Not really,’ I shrugged. ‘Conscript or career?’

He took a deep breath. ‘Career. But I’d rather not talk about it. Let’s just say I made a couple of mistakes and leave it at that, shall we?’

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘I just like to know something about the people I’m working with, that’s all.’

‘Jesus, you say it doesn’t matter and it’s okay if I don’t want to talk, but still you come with the attempts to open me up. Okay, if you must know...Snorkbait? What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing, mate,’ I murmured, pulling the PDA from my pocket. ‘I just...’ My voice trailed off as the PDA gave a soft beep. Then another. Agitated shouts rose from behind the wall.

‘Company after all,’ Evgeny spat.

‘Hold on,’ I said, trying to keep an eye on the PDA and the factory at the same time. ‘Let’s see who they are. There’s only –’ Beep. ‘Thr–’ Beep. Beep, beep. Beep.
  02:56:56  25 January 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 42

‘You need to go,’ I murmured.

‘You mean “we need to go”,’ Evgeny replied.

I shook my head quickly. ‘No mate, I mean you. Get back to Sultan, tell him to prepare.’

‘But –’

‘No “buts”, Evgeny. This lot are Stalkers and Duty, not Military. I should be fine but they’ll slot you without a second thought. Tell Sultan I’ll try to find out what’s going on, but that it’s not looking good. Now shift yourself, before they see you.’

‘Snorkbait –’

I levelled the L85 and looked towards the factory through the scope. I couldn’t see much, just the top of the wall and the higher parts of buildings, but it was enough. As I watched, the top of a head bobbed into view, a shadow among the grass. If I hadn’t been looking straight at it, or if I’d been without the scope, I’d have missed it completely.
‘They’re coming. For your own sake, fuck off!’

Boots scuffled on tarmac behind me and I knew he was gone. I looked through the scope again, watching as the head emerged above the grass, became eyepieces, a face. Shoulders. A second Stalker appeared from nearer the road, circling around the abandoned defences and debris. Both figures had their weapons up, so I lowered the rifle and raised my hands to show peaceful intent, knowing that I risked a bullet even from supposed friends, and breathed a sigh of relief when the approaching Stalkers also lowered their weapons to take up a watching brief. A signal, and three more bodies appeared over the ridge. One came to a halt on the downslope, leaving the other two to approach – a Stalker and a Duty man. Only five, when I knew from the PDA that there were at least seven. I wondered where the others had crept off to.

‘Hello again, Snorkbait,’ Fyodor said, removing his mask. ‘I had a feeling you’d have survived the party.’

‘My not being in there must have given you a clue,’ I murmured.

‘Poor Zhenka and Viktor, eh?’ he said, ignoring me, his tone falsely casual. ‘Don’t tell me: the Blowout.’

‘You don’t see any bullet holes in them, do you?’

‘We don’t see much of anything,’ the Dutyer piped up. ‘There’s not a lot left.’

‘We only know it’s them at all from what’s left of the suits and their weapons. That and the fact that it stands to reason. The three of you were headed here, after all.’

‘What can I tell you, Fyodor? We were trapped. Zhenka keeled over and died during the Blowout –’

‘Radiation? You left him to get exposed?’

‘No, we were in cover, but we... There was some weird shit going on in there.’

‘Like?’

I frowned, trying to find the right words. ‘I don’t really know…visions, I guess –’

‘Of what?’ the Dutyer snapped. ‘What exactly did you see?’

‘Oh...Christ knows. People in lab coats, a line of people coming through the doors, then something seemed to have happened to some of the people running the show...as I said, weird shit. Zhenka died when all that was going on. I think it was a heart attack or something. As for Viktor...well...’

‘Well what?’ Fyodor snapped when I didn’t immediately offer more by way of explanation.

‘Look, I don’t understand it myself, so...’

‘We might understand,’ the Duty soldier said, his tone smug even through his full face mask. ‘It is our Zone after all. We have insights and knowledge you foreigners will always lack.’

I smiled, though in my mind I was giving him the finger. ‘If you say so,’ I said. ‘Zombies got Viktor. English-speaking zombies that just...appeared. They were like the other visions, but then…there they were.’

‘Magical English zombies, eh?’ Fyodor said, glancing at the Dutyer and raising an eyebrow. ‘Did you see any zombies in there, Sergeant Makinfeyev?’

The Duty soldier shook his head. ‘Definitely no sign of zombies, dead or…undead.’

‘You sure?’ I snapped. ‘Your men have gone through that entire place, yes? You’ve examined every room, looked in the guts of every dead mutant?’

‘We have been very thorough,’ Makinfeyev replied, his tone calm and even. ‘The only remains were of Fyodor’s men, a pseudodog, and a snork. Nothing else.’

‘And outside? If the zombies’ remains are nowhere to be found inside, they’ve got to have been dragged outside, right?’

‘We looked in the yard. There is no sign. We know our jobs and how to use our eyes. If we say something is not there, it’s not there.’

I opened my mouth to say something further, but Fyodor stepped between us. ‘The snork’s remains looked well-gnawed. From the marks, I’d say it was by others of its kind. Thing is with snorks, they don’t give a shit what it is; if it’s a source of food, they attack and eat it.’ Fyodor looked at me from the corner of his eye. ‘Were there many snorks in there?’

I nodded. ‘Loads of them.’

‘There you go, then. Not much eating to be had off a zombie. Maybe the snorks ate the zombies, then moved on.’

‘But there’d be some remains, surely? You can’t have it both ways.’

‘I’m only trying to suggest –’

‘Whatever. Look, you either believe me about the zombies or you don’t. They were there, so there has to be some trace, right? And that means you’ve missed something.’

Makinfeyev shook his head vigorously. ‘We’ve missed nothing.’

I glanced at Fyodor for support, only to find him looking at me sceptically.

‘What?’

‘Here’s how I think it really happened,’ he finally said. ‘You get here and start poking around. The Blowout approaches, but maybe by then you’re too far in, maybe the mutants were already swarming – the pseudodog carcass proves that some animals came here for cover. In any case, you realize you’re cut off. During the emission, something happens. One of you makes too much noise. The Blowout ends...and that’s when the snorks start closing in. Which is when you ran.’

‘Leaving Viktor and Zhenka to their fate,’ the Dutyer grunted.

I shook my head. ‘I don’t believe this. I’ve already told you, Zhenka died during the Blowout. I don’t know what killed him but I do know he was scared shitless –’

‘Which I’m willing to accept, seeing as we’ll never know any different,’ Fyodor cut in. ‘Viktor, though...Viktor is another case altogether.’

‘I’m not lying, Fyodor,’ I said, though I knew by then that he’d already made his mind up on that score. I was just wasting my breath.

Fyodor gave a thin smile. ‘I suppose we’ll never know for sure, will we? Maybe these zombies were real and were completely devoured by the snorks, maybe they attacked and there is something we’ve overlooked –’

‘Nothing,’ Makinfeyev insisted.

‘Or maybe, in your haste to get away, you gave Viktor a little nudge, just enough to make sure the snorks caught him and not you. After all, it’s not the lion – or the snork – you have to out-run, just the person you’re with.’

‘You think I’d do that?’

‘I think anyone would,’ Fyodor snapped. ‘I think the instinct for self-preservation over-rides anything else. Viktor would have done the same to you, had you not been sharper. Survival of the fittest.’

‘That’s not what happened,’ I said.

Fyodor smiled again and wiped his hands together. ‘So you say. To be honest, it doesn’t interest me that much anymore. I wanted to know what happened to them, and now I do. I’ll have to send for a couple of replacements, but...’ He shrugged. ‘What I want to know now, Snorkbait, is why I had to come and look for them myself rather than hear it from you.’

‘You probably won’t believe this either, Fyodor, but I was on my way to tell you last night.’

‘Really?’ he drawled.

‘Really. Thing is, I fucked my knee up after I ran across the factory roof and jumped into a tree. When I tried climbing down, it wouldn’t take the weight and I fell. I was unconscious for a while – I don’t know exactly how long – and when I came to I was in the Bandit’s HQ. I couldn’t contact you because they had my PDA. Sultan only let me have it back about fifteen minutes ago so I could come out here.’

‘Why?’

I stared at him. ‘Why d’you think? Didn’t you see the helis? He thought there was a raid on.’

Fyodor and Makinfeyev shared a look and shuffled uncomfortably.

‘There is a raid on, isn’t there?’

‘Yes,’ Fyodor nodded. ‘But it’s not the raid. There’s been no word about that.’

‘Then what –?’

‘Put the pieces together, can’t you?’ Makinfeyev mumbled. ‘The Blowout – a pretty big one at that; the Military going nuts, sending helicopters north in such numbers...something’s changed. They’ve re-prioritized.’

‘And the mission against the Bandits?’

They shrugged in unison. ‘For now, we hold our positions and wait for orders,’ Makinfeyev said.

‘Which is why I needed to know about the loss of Zhenka and Viktor,’ Fyodor added. ‘And why I still need to know why we had to leave ours camps relatively undefended to come here. To tell the truth, I expected to find your body in there too. When I didn’t...well, then I had to wonder why you hadn’t contacted me.’

‘And I’ve just told you,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said, smiling that faint, cold smile once more. ‘You escaped by getting to and running across the roof, you said?’

‘That’s right.’

‘How very James Bond,’ Makinfeyev grumbled.

‘So you were up top, safe, for what? Five minutes? Ten? While you got your breath back.’

‘Sounds about right. I had to plan a way out, too, so...’ I stopped, looking at Fyodor. He smiled and nodded.

‘There you go,’ he said. ‘So...why did you not call me while you were on the roof? You had your PDA right there in your hand. Thirty seconds, and I’d have known. Thirty...seconds.’

‘I wanted to tell you in person. It didn’t seem right doing it over comms.’

Makinfeyev muttered something to himself and shook his head. Fyodor offered a sardonic smirk and looked down at his boots.

‘Do you really expect me to believe you were willing to walk all the way to the Farm, tell me what had happened, and then walk all the way up here to the Bandit HQ, alone and in the dark, all for a couple of men you didn’t know and had only just met?’ Fyodor murmured.

‘Well, I –’

‘Oh, be quiet,’ he groaned. ‘I was discussing all this with Sergeant Makinfeyev when your signal was detected, actually. Know what our conclusions were?’

I shook my head, unwilling to speak.

Again that infuriating smile. ‘Well, when I said “What reason would he have for not contacting me? He’d have to know that we’d investigate their disappearance”, Makifeyev said “He might be working for the Bandits. He might have been one of them all along”.’

‘That’s ridiculous.’

‘Is it?’ Fyodor replied. ‘You see, I contacted Wolf to find out what he knew about you. The answer was...practically nothing. Oh, he knew what you’d said, but what he actually knew about your true past?’ He shook his head. ‘According to Wolf, there was never time. You showed up and...’ He made a rolling gesture with his arm that said ‘everything went from there’.

‘So now I’m a Bandit all of a sudden?’

‘I never said that,’ Fyodor said. ‘It’s interesting though, isn’t it? You refuse to investigate what turned out to be a Bandit incursion –’

‘So much for the open Zone,’ I muttered.

‘Then you just happen to turn up as Vampire is killed, possibly on the orders of the Barkeep, possibly on those of the Bandit leader...and then Vampire’s companions die in strange, if not suspicious, circumstances.’

‘Fyodor, for fuck’s sake, how could I have had anything to do with Vampire’s shooting?’

‘A sign, a message...something like that,’ Makinfeyev suggested.

‘Guys...you’re way off. Your letting your paranoia get the better of you. I’m not part of any plot. I just came here because I wanted to get away from the world. Everything that’s happened...Christ, I’ve had no control over any of it. Shit’s just happened and kept on happening.’

‘Hm...but look at it from our point of view,’ Fyodor said.

‘I’m trying to, but you’re building castles in the sky. You’re making links where there are none.’

‘Really? So tell me, how do you come to be here? By which I mean, why did this Sultan – thanks for the name, by the way – send you?’

‘He asked me to keep watch on the road. When the helis went over, he thought the Military might be about to attack.’

‘And why would he think that?’

I sighed. ‘Come on, Fyodor. How stupid do you think these people are? They lose contact with areas they controlled and then notice Stalkers and Duty in larger numbers than normal in those locations when they send scouts to check it out. It wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out that something was going on. They were waiting for the other shoe to drop, then the helis go over. What would you have thought.’

Fyodor pursed his lips and jutted his chin out. Silence fell between us and I let it stretch.

‘So what happens now, Snorkbait?’ he finally said.

I shrugged. ‘You have your answers, whatever you want to make of them,’ I replied. ‘You also have your standing orders. I guess you go back to your positions and I go back to the Bandit base for a couple of days. After that...’ I shrugged.

Fyodor nodded slowly. ‘I guess you’re right.’

Makinfeyev gave a start. It was as if he’d just woken up. ‘You’re letting him go back to report?’

‘What’s to report?’ Fyodor asked. ‘He came to watch the road, saw no Military presence, and only came across us because we were in the area looking for missing men. We’ve had no reported sightings of Bandits sneaking up on our areas, we’ve heard no shots.’

‘All the Bandits were back at their place, preparing,’ I added. ‘There’s nothing going on.’

‘But then you would say that,’ Makinfeyev said.

I smiled. ‘Fair enough. But would a Bandit - spy or otherwise – tell you that your intel’s wrong?’

Fyodor narrowed his eyes. ‘Wrong how?’

‘You’ve been led to believe there’s a single Bandit leader, right? One with connections to various underworld organisations?’

Fyodor nodded. ‘He’d have to be one tough son of a bitch with a lot of pull, but...’

‘Yes, he would. If he existed.’

‘What?’ Makinfeyev snapped. ‘Our sources –’

‘Are wrong,’ I said. ‘Sultan’s the leader I met, but there’s at least one other with his power and then there are separate little gangs that might do as they’re told, or they might not. They only stayed and worked together today out of self-interest.’

‘More than one leader,’ Fyodor mused.

‘More than one leader, more than one group,’ I amended. ‘Tell Wolf and Petrenko, they can kick it higher up if they need to. If they can, in Wolf’s case.’

‘He’ll go to Sidorovich. In turn, he’ll get on to the other big Traders. Maybe.’

‘Right. Anything else I find out, I’ll let you know. They don’t trust me any more than you do, though, so it’s not like I’ll be able to give you chapter and verse on their entire plan – assuming they even have one beyond “control as much of The Zone and take as many artefacts as you can”.’

‘Thanks, Snorkbait,’ Fyodor said, then called me back as I turned to leave. ‘By the way...did you find anything in the factory? Any sign of the sniper?’

I shook my head. ‘Only this,’ I said, fishing the 7.62 cartridge casing from my pocket. ‘Whoever killed Vampire knew there’d be some sort of follow-up: they’d left this standing upright at their shooting spot.’

‘And you know they fired from there, how?’ Makinfeyev asked, his tone surly.

‘Because I checked the sightline,’ I said, looking at Fyodor. ‘Perfect. No doubt.’

‘Have your men seen anyone carrying that calibre, Sergeant? Anyone passed through with a Dragunov or Mosin Nagant?’

Makinfeyev shook his head. ‘No. Nor could they have crept by in the night. We have third-gen night vision built into our headgear.’

I was jealous.

‘And no one’s come past the Farm,’ Fyodor said. ‘We don’t have third-generation equipment – most of us don’t even have first – but I’ve got two of my most trusted men watching the gate and they didn’t report anything.’

‘Could they have been paid off?’ I asked.

He smiled. ‘Possibly. But the men I chose can’t stand each other. I also hid them in addition to stationing them far enough apart that they couldn’t be taken or even bribed together.’ He glanced at me from the corners of his eyes. ‘Paranoia pays.’

‘And a sniper couldn’t have got past any other way because of all the radiation.’

He nodded. ‘Spot on. Not to mention the bloodsuckers that sometimes like to lurk around on that side of the road.’

‘Which means the sniper’s either still in the area or hiding out at the Bandit base, like me,’ I said, sucking my lower lip.

‘Either that or the sniper is a Bandit,’ Makinfeyev put in. ‘And to be honest, if the sniper’s not at the base one way or the other, we’re probably looking for a corpse. There’s not much shelter from emissions around here. Whoever it was probably died yesterday.’

Unless he never left the factory, I thought, and knew I had to check it out.

‘I’ll poke around and tell you if I find anything,’ I said. ‘It’s what I set out to do in the first place, after all.’

Fyodor nodded. ‘Let me know either way,’ he said.

‘Fair enough.’

He nodded again, curtly. ‘I’ll hear from you in a few days, then,’ he said, turning on his heel and walking away.

‘Snorkbait,’ Makinfeyev said, also nodding a farewell.

‘Sergeant,’ I acknowledged. ‘Don’t forget to tell Petrenko what I said.’

He raised his hand, though whether it was an agreement or a signal to his men, I couldn’t tell.

As I watched them leave, two of the men who had been standing watch fell in and suddenly ran ahead, probably to make sure I hadn’t been playing for time while a Bandit force crept up to take the Farm in silence. I shook my head.

‘Paranoid fucker,’ I muttered, and glanced at the factory. A head was just visible above the grass, the black and green mask all but lost amid the backdrop of trees and shrubs. I’d only spotted the Stalker at all because of a hint of light reflection from the helmet’s lenses. ‘Crafty, too,’ I added, and turned away. Another second or two, and the straggling lookout would have seen my next move.
  02:27:50  28 March 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 43

I sat on the cracked, decaying seat and looked through the glassless window at the gate and watchtower, killing time. An insect crawled slowly up the support post between my window and the next. A bumblebee – or something of around the same size – buzzed by outside, the sound fat and lazy even though the creature itself was anything but. The gentle breeze puffed intermittently at the landscape, causing the scant leaves to rustle in the nearby trees and yellow-headed flowers among the grass, like dandelions but not quite, to gently bob their heads. A lovely summer’s day, and I was about to ruin it for myself.

I peeled a flake that was half-paint, half-rusted metal from the frame, twisting it in my fingers for a few seconds before throwing it out the window. There was nothing else for it: the sniper had to be somewhere in the factory, someplace that Fyodor, Makinfeyev and their men had missed. I’d simply have to go top to bottom and see who or what turned up. At least I’d be able to do it in relative safety: Fyodor and company would have dealt with any wandering mutants and, while my L.85 was not the best weapon to go wandering around the factory with, it was better than a sharp stick and a mouthful of cusswords. As for radiation penetrating my outfit, I’d have to worry about that if it became an issue. I had what I had. If it wasn’t good enough, tough.

I checked my weapons to make sure they were ready before going to the door, only stepping off the bus once I was satisfied that nothing was waiting to jump on me the moment my boots hit tarmac. Getting myself worked up for what I was about to do wasn’t a problem – my heart was already hammering away at the prospect of being in the factory, all alone. Instead, I had to breathe deeply and work on calming myself down so I could think clearly. By remaining calm, detaching yourself from the situation as much as you could, you could move properly, safely, with all your senses stretching out and your back-brain in analysis mode. Charging off like John Wayne after a Red Bull-and-steroids cocktail just got you killed.

Finally ready and in the right frame of mind, I moved to the nearest tree and started working my way toward the factory again, keeping a careful lookout for the green-masked Stalker in case he was still lurking around, watching me. If he was, he was a patient son-of-a-bitch; I’d been sitting on the bus for just over an hour, giving him plenty of time to get bored of watching me do nothing. It had been bad enough for me, but at least I’d been buying Evgeny enough time to get back and report, even if he’d had to go the long way round.

Again the sound of dogs doing whatever it was they found to do came from off to the left, the sound distant enough for it to be of no concern. The wind continued to tease the flora and cool the day enough for it to be pleasantly warm instead of stiflingly hot. An anomaly hummed in solitude from the other side of the road as I passed by. Through it all the factory waited, dominating the surrounding landscape, the darkened interior hiding secrets that, perhaps, would be best left uncovered.

Moving carefully but not particularly slowly, I moved around a pile of concrete slabs and took a couple of steps down into the ditch, muzzle trained on the culvert that ran under the access road. It seemed empty. Nothing moved. All the same, something felt wrong. Kneeling, I picked up a stone and threw it into the narrow concrete tunnel, the harsh clatter echoing out.

Not satisfied but unsure as to what else I could do, I moved back up to road level. The temptation to check again or drop down to check the other end was strong, and was getting stronger the longer I stood there. I gave myself a quick shake. I’d been able to see unbroken daylight at the other end and nothing had stirred when I threw the stone. If I allowed myself to get fixated with phantoms in the culvert, a battalion of bloodsuckers would be able to march past holding a tickertape parade without me noticing.

Ignoring the heebie-jeebies as best I could, I boxed the entrance to make sure the courtyard was clear. I stopped suddenly, squinting up at one of the second floor windows. Had I seen movement up there, or only imagined it? I checked the PDA’s contacts list. Empty. All the same, I was convinced I’d seen something move.

I wiped my eyes, one at a time, and peered at the window again. Who or what might be up there? Did I dare raise the rifle for a closer look through the scope, or would the action appear too aggressive? Even if there was someone up there, even if it was the sniper returning to the scene of the crime for whatever reason, I would be a neutral to them. Putting myself in their shoes, how would I react to an unknown Stalker if I saw them sneaking towards my position and raising their weapon? Chances were I’d shoot first and ask questions later if I didn’t have a PDA to fall back on. I checked my contacts list again: still nothing, nor had there been any other sign of movement up above.

‘Fucking lunacy,’ I muttered as I began to move forward again, weapon ready, all my senses alert. My heart was racing away and my mind was trying to conjure all kinds of things. I knew there was no real way to stop this; you can’t stop being human. You simply had to accept our basic nature and fight the whispering voices of instinct as best you could, find the edge and rely on experience and training to do the rest. I’d been to Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d survived the lot. The thing was, as scary as those places had frequently been – and still were, in some cases – The Zone was on another level entirely. At least I hadn’t had weird mutated creatures to worry about in ‘Stan – at least not unless I bumped into a bunch of Royal Marines – but here? This place was something else.

Nothing moved. There was no sound apart from the low droning of multiple anomalies somewhere nearby and the still-distant-enough yapping of dogs. I turned quickly, sure I’d find something crawling up from the culvert behind me. Again there was nothing. Still I had that deep sense of foreboding, like a tap on the shoulder to remind me I wasn’t alone...and that I didn’t really want my companion for company.

The factory yard was much as I remembered it from the previous afternoon, albeit with more bloody drag-marks and spatter patterns where less fortunate mutants had met their ends. The thing that struck me now, as I surveyed the trucks, buildings, and materials dotted around, was the sheer scale of the task I’d taken on. The sniper – or at least the sniper’s body – could be anywhere; the number of options only became limited if you assumed he or she had taken adequate shelter from the Blowout and was still alive...and I couldn’t afford to assume anything. The maw-like entrance to the workshop gaped to the left, the gloomy interior quickly fading to black beyond the first few sunlit metres. I suppressed a shudder, feeling again that something was waiting and wanted to me to know as much. I remembered that I’d had much the same reaction to this place the day before, and I hadn’t been alone then.

The breeze stiffened briefly to a gust and blew the shaggy growth on the crane against the corroding metal, where it hissed and sizzled before hanging limp once more. Another gust, another hiss of acid on metal, this time accompanied by a soft, mournful moan from the upper storeys and the sporadic tapping of broken cable on brick. A cloud drifted across, covering the sun, and the intervals between the gusts of wind grew shorter and shorter. The temperature dropped noticeably. So much for summer.

‘Just like home, only with funny accents,’ I muttered to myself. Then, after a few seconds’ contemplation: ‘Just like home.’

Moving quickly but methodically, I checked the buildings, vehicles and piles of building material in the yard. All were empty, and the vehicles were fairly highly irradiated, but it was impossible not to notice the sheer scale of the project that had been underway here. Pipes, ductwork and God knows what else lay all over the place. Business must have been booming – whatever that business had been. I remembered the vision, illusion, whatever it had been that had occurred during the Blowout. Had that been some kind of flashback, a distortion of normal physical laws that had somehow allowed past and present to...merge? Had I seen into the past, a witness to whatever nightmare had happened here? Was that sort of thing even possible? I didn’t think it was, but then this whole place was built on what conventional wisdom had insisted was impossible.

It had started to drizzle by the time I finished, the breeze strengthening to become a definite wind. Dust devils swirled in the corners of the yard and the previously-gentle moaning through the shattered windows above rose occasionally to a howl. I narrowed my eyes and looked up at the sky. Low clouds were drifting from west to east. I looked west...and groaned. Heavy black clouds rolled to the horizon, promising another downpour.

‘Great. Gonna get pissed on yet again,’ I muttered, re-checking my weapons and wishing again that I had more than the one mag for the L.85. Thirty rounds didn’t seem like enough given what I’d seen the day before and the nine mil rounds for the pistol meant I might as well be carrying a popgun, at least as far as snorks were concerned, but… I shrugged. It’d have to do.

The entrance gaped, the interior dark and gloomy. For a moment, the urge to turn and run was as strong as the force drawing me on – but only for a moment. One step, another, then another. Each taking me toward the opening between the tall doors, weapon raised, hoping I really was prepared and ready for anything.

The workshop was pretty much as I remembered it. Wetter, of course, from the previous night’s rain as well as what was currently falling in through damaged parts of the roof, and there were a few empty cans and cigarette ends that hadn’t been there on my previous visit, but apart from those things the Blowout and the events that followed might never have happened.

I took a moment to look around, allowing my eyes to adjust to the gloom while I compiled a list of possible hiding places and tried to get my ears used to the light spasmodic drumming of rain on the roof and occasional flat spatter of droplets plummeting to the puddle-strewn concrete. With the rain already growing more intense, though, this was easier said than done. I’d just have to make sure I used my eyes and other senses more than my ears, taking care to look around more often. The only positive to it was that it evened the field somewhat.

I moved left, down the few metal steps that gave access to the valves, gangways and ladders on and around the series of tanks in the pit. I still had no idea what these things were. The fact they had pressure gauges hinted at them maybe being part of a heating or cooling system, but for all I knew they could just have easily have been drawing water in from somewhere or pumping used, filthy water into the ditch outside so it would then run into the lake under the road bridge. Whatever they had once been, it was possible that the sniper had noticed our approach, or perhaps been warned, and had taken refuge in one via the maintenance hatches. It was unlikely, I knew…but they had to be checked.

The metal walkway rattled unavoidably beneath my feet as I worked my way from hatch to hatch, carefully checking each one for signs of recent activity as well as looking down the sides to the bottom of the pit, just in case the quarry had taken a fall. My Geiger counter began clicking furiously as I approached the third cylinder, the reading jumping from Safe to Critical within the space of a few steps. I backed away until the readout dropped back to safe levels and peered at the cylinder. No use; I was nowhere near close enough. An area of shiny metal, even a subtle change in colour where a fleck of paint had been scraped away...those were the sorts of clues I’d been looking for. Small things, subtle hints. The others had exhibited no signs of recent interference. Indeed, all I’d turned up for my troubles was an old rucksack, lying open in the pit between one of the tanks and the outside wall along with a discarded used bandage and a broken vodka bottle.

After a quick look round to make sure I was still alone and safe, I raised the rifle and looked through the scope, again doing what I could with the wrong equipment. Again, the hatch offered no sign of tampering and there was no way I could check the pit – not without catching a lethal dose of radiation, at any rate.

With nothing else to do in this area, I backtracked to the steps, taking care to box the entrance, and moved down to the corner.

The first thing I noticed was blood, a swirling dark thread that ran through the water as it trickled slowly towards a slight depression in the surface of the floor. Following the run back to the source, it quickly became apparent that something had met a violent end. A dark splash on the wall came up a rich crimson when I played my flashlight over it, that mark itself only serving to indicate the larger, stickier patch that lay on the floor. The water toyed with the blood at the extreme edge of the pool and it was clear that something, or several somethings, had been lapping at the semi-congealed mess from the other side – bloody hand-marks led away in several directions, though most of them, I noticed, faded away as they headed towards the room I’d essentially dismissed on my previous visit, the entrance to which was now barred by five grey or white-and-rust drums, two stacked on top of three. It wasn’t much as barricades went, and whoever had put them there had ignored the wealth of materials in this part of the workshop, let alone the yard outside, but the simple fact that they were there signified that I’d missed something important.

I swallowed, unaware of the bile in my throat until it slid back down. It wasn’t the blood that sickened me most; it was that I could have spared us all the worst part of the ordeal simply by not having been in such a rush. I’d afforded the room a cursory glance. Even now I couldn’t have said for certain what I’d seen in there. If pushed, I’d have said nothing, that it was complete empty. It now seemed as though that had not been the case. A proper check and...who knows? Maybe Viktor and Zhenka would still have died, but at least they wouldn’t have been eaten. Well, Zhenka wouldn’t, at least.

Moisture stung the corner of my left eye and I wiped it away savagely. It was only my professional pride that was hurt. I felt an intense shame and embarrassment, and anger, sweep through me. I forced it away. This time, it wasn’t my fault. Not entirely, anyway. Zhenka had been here before – Fyodor had confirmed it – as, presumably, had Viktor. Either way, they were stationed here. It was their patch; they had to have known it far better than I could. Yet they hadn’t said a word about that room or what it contained. Most likely, they’d been hoping we would be in and out again before anything came calling. Maybe they’d only considered it a danger at night. There was no way of asking them now, and all I could do was curse them for not making me aware as well as myself for not exercising more caution in an area that I knew nothing about.

I crossed the workshop, past the mouldering old sofa and rows of lockers with their doors either removed or hanging open, and came to a halt by the barrels, peering through the gaps into the room beyond. As before, it looked empty, devoid of anything of interest. This time, I knew that to be a lie, but that created a problem in itself: Did I check the room first, or did I clear the upper floors before coming back down here?

With the decision made, I fished one of the pistol magazines from their pocket and thumbed six of the rounds free, placing four of them on the barrels – one on top of the upper-right barrel, three more on each of the lower tier, making sure they couldn’t be spotted from the other side. I then positioned the other two between the bottoms of the outer drums and the wooden frame that had once, presumably, held a door. As tell-tales went, they weren’t great...but again, it was better than nothing and I had to make do with what I had. Besides, I was hoping that the drums themselves would provide some warning if any attempt was made to shift them.

With the entrance to the room as secure as I could make it, I headed down to the end of the workshop area and, with some trepidation about what I might find despite what Fyodor and Makinfeyev had said, cleared the corner.

My fears proved unfounded. The stairs were empty, and the surrounding areas betrayed no evidence of my former colleagues’ demise save for scattered patches of dried blood that had not been there the day before. Of their actual remains, there was no sign.

I checked around the machinery and pipework, looking for loose panels or access points that might prove large enough to hide in, trying to ignore the feeling that I was walking on Viktor’s grave. I didn’t doubt that plenty of people had died here – the streaks and stains on the stairs, walls and floor attested to that – but surely none had died in such unique circumstances as him. Once satisfied that the machinery was hiding nothing but its own workings, I cleared the stairs and began the leg-wearying work of ascent. Lift foot, lower foot onto next step, being careful to avoid any noise – no squeaks, no clumps, no rustle of fabric – then stop, wait, look and listen. Check the foot of the stairs. Repeat from step one. And again, always making sure that nothing was changing, that the shadows were falling in the same places and from the same sources as before, that there was no new sound that couldn’t be identified...

My thighs, calves and lower back were screaming from the effort by the time I reached the final few steps, which I gratefully took with as much speed as I could muster, tracking sideways as my eyes – and the muzzle of the rifle – swept the room.

Nothing stirred. The factory remained as quiet and still as the grave, the only sounds those of the wind and rain outside.

I waited between two machines, using them as cover from both windows and stairs to allow my legs to recover from their ordeal before resuming my search.

Something scraped on the floor above, a sound similar to that of a boot being dragged across concrete.

I froze, my mouth becoming very dry. I thought back to the movement I thought I’d seen, a silhouette in the window, a shadow shifting among shadows. At least I hadn’t been imagining it. I edged forward, checking that the parapet on the other side of the windows was still devoid of life, my mind in overdrive as it tried to figure out who – or what – might be up there. There only seemed to be two options, assuming the figure hadn’t been that of a mutant: the sniper, or Green Mask. But whoever it actually was, it was pretty clear that they didn’t wish me any harm. If they’d wanted to, they could have taken me out during my search of the yard and buildings. I had to have presented them with enough opportunities.

Another thought struck me as I moved through the workspace to the doorway that led to the ladder and open hatch to the top floor: what if the sniper and Green Mask were one and the same person? I paused beneath the open hatchway, squinting up as the rain fell upon my face, mulling over the possibilities. Could the sniper have hidden away somewhere, spending what must have been a nerve-shredding night in here, before emerging to blend in with the Stalkers, thus making their escape? I doubted it. Given the situation, with everyone being effectively garrisoned in one place or another, all the Stalkers would know who each other by sight. Interlopers would be spotted extremely quickly, and even Fyodor would manage to put two and two together. Similarly, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which the sniper and Green Mask were one and the same, and also managed to find sanctuary with the Stalkers at the Farm as the Blowout struck. Vampire had only just been killed, Zhenka, Viktor and I wouldn’t have been gone long enough, and again, there was the general situation to consider. Fyodor would have been suspicious of newcomers.

Which left...what?

The ladder – which I remembered knocking away during my escape from the snorks – was standing upright once more, having presumably been set right by one of Fyodor or Makinfeyev’s men as they’d poked around earlier.

‘Anyone up there?’ I said, trying to maintain a normal tone. No response. ‘If you can’t speak, make a noise.’ I waited, but again nothing responded. Another heavy clank/clang rang out from below.

I swallowed. ‘I’m coming up,’ I said to whoever might have been listening above. ‘I’m a friend. I have no faction loyalties. You have nothing to fear.’

A sound...a snicker? The sound of a safety being removed?

I sighed, bracing myself. A bullet in the head wouldn’t make for any better a day out than would ascending the ladder to find a snork grinning its welcome at me, but on the whole, I knew which I’d prefer, if it came down to it. Resigning myself to whatever happened, I started to climb.

The first thing I noticed upon emerging through the hole was how cold it had become. The hour or so I’d spent on the bus, lazily peeling paint from the decaying metalwork as the sensations of summer washed over me, seemed almost like a dream. Head down against the driving rain, I cleared the doorway before hurrying inside, grateful to be back under some sort of cover. I knew it was only psychological, but I immediately felt warmer.

The room, as with all the spaces I’d encountered here, was huge. Or at least, it had the appearance of being so thanks to the lack of equipment, furniture or décor. Even so, it was a piece of piss to search; I could see there were no decent places to hide and that no one was lurking around just by standing in one spot. Indeed, the only sign of life lay by the windows overlooking the yard, right next to where I’d seen the moving silhouette. After checking the room again, paying particular attention to the doorway leading out onto the roof that overlooked the rear of the complex, I crouched and shuffled over to the food can and took a close look. The odds were that it was nothing other than what it appeared to be...but I’d heard of guys who had rolled those dice in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who could have been sent home in a tin not much larger than this one as a result. I’d even known a couple of them; guys who had seemed switched on enough back when I’d still been with my parent unit.

Satisfied that the discarded can wasn’t about to blow up in my face as soon as I moved it, I sniffed the can and ran a finger around the inside rim. A rich, meaty aroma told me that the can had contained spam or corned beef, while the slimy jelly-fat-and-water residue still felt gummy and wet, confirming that someone had been here, very recently. Most likely, they’d been munching away as they’d watched me toiling away at my fruitless search of the yard.

‘Hello?’ I called. ‘I know there’s someone up here. What do you want? Why are you here? Show yourself. You have nothing to fear. I am neutral.’

No reply. The only sounds being the susurration of rain and the sighing, moaning wind.

‘I know you’re up here,’ I said, moving away from the window. ‘I’ve found your rubbish. You should have taken it with you. Show yourself, now. Stop pissing about.’

Nothing. The wind gusted. Another fizz-hiss came from the crane as the anomalous growth drifted against it. The end of the cable tapped away against the brickwork in its staccato rhythm.

‘Are you a Free Stalker? Duty? I’m a Merc, not a Bandit. It’s why Fyodor spoke to me instead of shooting me. Were you at the Farm yesterday? Who are you? Why are you not carrying an active PDA?’

I ran a hand through my hair in frustration as the silence continued.

‘Fuck this,’ I hissed, striding towards the door out onto the roof. I’d go up top and radio Fyodor after all, either that or contact Sultan and ask him to send Knuckles and a few of the others down to help me find and question my shy new friend. That should help sort things out.

I was about to step through the door when something roared and a resounding clang! echoed through the factory, the sound of the falling drums followed almost immediately by a double boom as a shotgun was discharged.
  02:35:08  28 March 2012
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snorkbait
Nexus 6
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 11/21/2008
Messages: 1081
Chapter 44

Turning, I sprinted back to the hatch and slid down the ladder. There was no doubt in my mind as to the identity of the shotgun-wielding Stalker, nor did I waste time and energy wondering about how they’d managed to slip behind me – there had to be many ways to escape from the roof, not just the one I’d found – or for what purpose. For now, all that mattered was that they were in trouble and I was there to help out.

Another roar sounded as I reached the top of the stairs and I slowed. Thanks to Rusty I knew a pissed-off bloodsucker when I heard one. I also knew the bastard could be anywhere, especially in this gloom.

The shotgun roared back; once, twice, three times, the reports deafening in the enclosed space yet still distinct enough for me to realize they were still around the corner, not yet having approached the turn.

I descended the stairs, trying to be quick and methodical at the same time as my eyes searched for the slightest hint of hidden or distorted movement, and had just jumped down the last couple of steps when the inevitable happened – a bloodsucker, bleeding from numerous wounds, ran around the corner.

It was hard to know which of us was more surprised as we tangled and hit the ground, but I swear I saw the mutant’s eyes widen and tentacles splay in an expression that could only be ‘What the fuck?’ There was no question about which of us recovered fastest, though: the look that may or may not have been surprise was immediately replaced by one of anger and dangerous intent as it rolled on top of me, pinning me to the ground. The tentacles parted fully as it roared and began to lower its head towards me.

‘Fuck off!’ I screamed, thrashing beneath it as it writhed to gain a position of dominance, flailing wild punches into its midriff and the side of its head, bringing my knees up sharply as I tried to connect with any part that might cause it pain.

One of the ‘sucker’s claw-like hands closed around my throat while the other bega to lash back at me, the fingers slapping and slashing at the arm I’d raised to protect myself as the thing tried to focus its attack on my face and eyes. My head had already taken a solid whack and my cheek felt funny. I could feel blood running and the smell of it was driving the ‘sucker crazy, its efforts doubling again as it entered a feeding frenzy. My mind was a seething red stream of horror. This was Death, right here, and more than that, it was absolute terror. It was Dracula and the Bogeyman and Ginny Greenteeth and the witch in the gingerbread house and the real reason why your parents locked the house up at night all rolled into one, and you could only react to the waking nightmare one way: instinctively. Everything else was closed down. The single thought – encapsulated by, but by no means adequately defined by the word – ‘No!’ shrieked through every fibre of my being. My training...that had fled with everything else.

The fingers were tightening further around my throat. I could feel the thing’s breath on my cheek and the side of my neck and I knew I was going to die. The lights were already dimming; pretty soon they’d wink out altogether, and it was okay, fine, whatever. I was on the way out and there was nothing I could do to stop it. At least it was going to be relatively quick if not entirely painless.

And then there came a detached voice, the part of you that remains forever separate and aloof, watching things as if from a great distance.

This is how she would have felt, it said. This is what happened to Svetlana.

I opened my eyes, not even realizing until I did so that they had shut. The bloodsucker loomed over me, the splaying tentacles now so close that my eyes couldn’t focus on them, the luminous white eyes enormous and mesmerizing in proximity. Cold rage poured through me, first quelling and then smothering the fires of panic.

Fight! a hard, insistent voice demanded. If you’re going, at least fuck this thing up on the way.

‘I said. Fuck. Off!’ I growled, my voice rising to a yell as I reached up and jabbed my left thumb deep into its right eye, continuing to push even when the mutant screeched and tried to back away as its eyeball burst under the pressure. The fingers of its left hand constricted around my throat again while the right thrashed even harder against my head and shoulders, and I grabbed the thing’s left wrist with my free hand. Too late, it realised what I was about to do, and it screamed as I pulled my thumb from its eye-socket, grasped the wrist with both hands, and applied the lock. Forcing it off me, controlling it so I could finally stand, I twisted hard and felt bones first bow and then snap. The ‘sucker, screeching in agony but still struggling gamely as anger gave it another surge of energy, slumped as I kicked it hard behind the knee. My heart was racing and I was covered in sweat and blood. The massive surge of adrenalin my body had given me to fight impending death had already been used up. I was knackered already; before long I wouldn’t be able to hold on, the bloodsucker’s frantic strength and greater stamina would win out. When that happened, I was dead.

‘Hold it! Hold it still!’ a muffled voice said from my right.

I turned my head enough to see the half-anticipated green mask and bloodstained outfit. Green Mask ratcheted the shotgun and I shifted to the side, nodding that I was ready even as the bloodsucker bellowed its defiance. Stepping forward, the Stalker rammed the barrel of the shotgun between the tentacles and into what passed for the mutant’s mouth. The Mossberg boomed, blood, brain and other matter plumed against the wall, and I released the dead mutant’s arm, the adrenalin-fuelled rage finally and suddenly draining away. I felt sick to my stomach and my knees folded under my own weight. I let them buckle and slumped down against the wall, running a hand through my hair and gaping at it in disbelief when it came away covered in a thick red glove of blood. I already knew that I had been hurt, but I’d clearly taken a heavier beating than I’d realized.

‘I’m bleeding,’ I mumbled in English, having to fight hard against the urge to sleep as Green Mask crouched beside me. ‘I’m bleeding.’

My companion kept trying to pull me upright. Strange, alien sounds poured out of the mask, but I couldn’t get any of them to make sense due to the high-pitched whistly -whiney noise in my ears. I could feel myself growing weaker and parts of my brain were trying to shut down. An arm kept trying to snake around me, and I shoved it away as best I could, finally moving my hand to the Stalker’s chest as I summoned all the resistance I could. Green Mask slapped my hand away, hitting me with more of the rapid-fire waffle at even higher speed.

My povynni vyyty tut. Tse ne bezpechno!

I shook my head.

Vstavay!’ the Stalker yelle