| 03:51:19 2 February 2011
On forum: 06/22/2010
New story by the guy who wrote THE ZONE!
(pasted straight from the Zone site)
RITUAL by Wish
A Zone Story
The Zone changes. You don’t even have to wait around for an emission to rearrange the place, sometimes you can just turn away, and when you look back something will be different. But the Bar at Rostok doesn’t change, and there’s something comforting about that. It was raining cats and dogs, or bloodsuckers and snarks, if you want to be literal – I’d had to come through the train yard, and my ribs were still aching from where a snark had mistaken me for the other team’s quarterback.
He’d probably been a linebacker before he became a snark. In hindsight, it was kind of comical. I’d been more or less minding my own business, and suddenly bam, snark. Flying at me like a pie from a catapult – okay, that probably sounds strange, but I was tired. He tackled me, I stabbed him before he could do any real damage, and life in the Zone went on. Business as usual.
But back to the present. It felt like coming home when I went down the stairs and into the warmth and glow of the Bar. Of course, home isn’t all comfort – it’s also got its annoyances. I glared at the guy inside, and he wisely decided not to tell me to come in and not stand there.
The Bar room itself was full and noisy. It was about an hour after dark, so most of the stalkers in the area had come in for the night. They’d enjoy themselves in the bar until the bartender kicked them out, then they’d loiter around or sleep within the perimeter until it was daylight. Then they’d go out, and most of them would come back and do the same thing tomorrow evening.
There was nothing I’d have liked more than doing exactly what they were doing, but it wasn’t an option. I was just passing through. In and out. That’s right – I was going to travel at night. Alone. Just save it – if you knew me, you’d know not to waste your time trying to lecture me on matters of personal security.
I went to the bar and sat down, wiping rainwater off my face. The bartender put a plate of awfully tasty looking food in front of the gentleman to my right. I waved him over, and he gave me that little incline of his head that bartenders like so much.
I put a pair of empty magazines on the counter, and my canteen. He took them without a word.
“I need batteries, and a couple of calorie bars.” I needed the batteries for my flashlight and my Geiger counter. I needed the calorie bars because I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime yesterday.
The bartender grunted. “Heading out?”
I nodded. “Can’t let the trail get cold.”
“Where to?” He didn’t ask who I was chasing, because he couldn’t. People at the Bar maintain a strict policy of neutrality, and that works for me.
“Looking like out toward Meinchar.”
“They say there’s a bad patch after that last emission.”
I hadn’t heard that. “Where?” He shook his head. I groaned. “Anti-rads?”
He named a price, and I blanched. I considered the sum of my personal funds and sighed. “Better make it vodka,” I said. The bartender nodded and shuffled away. He worked fast. In a minute he had my ration bars and batteries, and he gave me a sandwich on the house. Then my canteen and magazines were back, filled. Hand-loads in the mags, not good, but I was broke, and it wasn’t like I could go back out in the Zone without any cartridges at all. My American piece of junk pistol would be jamming like The Who, but I’d just have to live with it. Literally. I had until now.
A disturbance ran through the bar as someone entered, attracting everyone’s attention. It was one of those nomadic loner-type traders. They’re brave guys; it’s a dangerous line of work. People gathered around him as he put down his pack on a table and started to pull out his wares for us to see. Chewing my sandwich, I turned around on my stool to see what he had. I didn’t have any money, but I could still trade if he had something I couldn’t live without.
A couple of rusted Makarovs. A variety of magazines in varying degrees of decay. A box of what looked like factory +P 9x18s, and a few loose 00 buckshot shells. A pretty poor haul. A pale and sickly looking artifact I couldn’t identify. It didn’t look like it’d be worth much. One of those sawed-off side by side shotguns that people continue to use, don’t ask me why. I’d rather defend myself with a coat hanger. Assorted Kalashnikov components, probably scavenged from long abandoned weapons that were only usable now for parts.
I started resigning myself to heading out into the rain. I wasn’t going to trade with this guy; I was just using him as an excuse to stay where it was warm. Now he was taking out photographs of that attractive blonde lady-commander from the southern Freedom outpost. I’d heard somewhere that Freedom recruiting had slowed down, then word about her got around, and it picked up again. The photos certainly sold faster than any of the guy’s other junk, which was impressive, because she was fully clothed in all of them. In fact, they were pretty bad pictures, all taken from a distance. I don’t think the lady even knew she was being photographed.
I didn’t wait around for the rest. Ten minutes later I was outside the perimeter, moving west through the grassland over the wall. The rain had slackened off, and the moon was out. I didn’t turn on my flashlight, instead waiting for my vision to adjust to the dark. The light would draw attention, and so would the noise of crashing through the grass too quickly – so I stayed dark and moved slowly. There’s no safe way to travel at night, but there are ways to cover ground just a little less dangerously.
The grasslands aren’t so bad, though the bogs north of Yantar would be probably be trouble. I’d been walking for a couple of hours before the ground started feeling soft beneath my feet, and I knelt to consult my PDA, shielding the glow of the screen with one gloved hand. There’s no point in announcing your position with a light in the dark. I adjusted my course and kept going. The ground got wetter, and the reeds and vegetation got taller. I crossed a bridge consisting of little more than a couple rotting planks nailed together – but the next rut of water didn’t even have that much, and I had to wade across.
This was prime country for a whole menagerie of creatures I could go the rest of my life without meeting. At the moment, I was worried about bloodsuckers. They like the dark, and they also tend to come out after the rain. So I kept my ears open and didn’t hurry, though I was starting to worry I might not make Meinchar before dark the next day. Traveling at night in the relative vicinity of Yantar and the Bar is one thing, but getting out there in the western frontier at night by yourself is different. If possible, I wanted to avoid it. The time I was losing now would have to be made up during the daylight hours.
Something moved to my left, and I turned to look, otherwise keeping still. A muddy blotch of darkness suggested a copse of trees a little ways off. That was where I’d glimpsed the light. Someone in there had their light on, and they’d briefly panned it in my direction, letting the beam sneak out between the tree limbs. Now it was dark again. I slowly turned a full circle. Nothing else was sending up red flags for me – but I wasn’t alone. I unsnapped the leather restraint across the handle of my gun. When I started forward, I never let my left hand get too far from my drop-leg holster.
Out of nowhere came a car. Relax – it wasn’t moving, I just hadn’t expected to find it there. It was almost completely sunk in the mire, scarcely more than some rusted roof and fender showing above the surface of the murky water. I waded gingerly past, ears perked for the sounds of my Geiger counter.
There were no roads here, and no way for anything less than a serious four-wheel jeep to get across this terrain – and even that would be out in this weather. Even the most rugged vehicle would get bogged down in this marsh. The area had to have been rearranged, probably recently. That last emission had probably deposited this car. I started wondering where it might have come from – and I was about to start looking it over for clues – then I realized I’d gotten totally sidetracked. I was investigating the light in the trees, not playing detective with an old junker.
I got moving again, and the trees got closer, gaining definition in the darkness. They weren’t as far off as I’d thought. I heard something that might have been someone else moving in the brush, but I couldn’t be sure. The wind was picking up, and this close to the trees, its eerie whistling was loud enough to make your ears play tricks on you. I kept low and moved up. Other stalkers might give the place a wide berth – after all, looking for conflict isn’t a good survival trait – but I don’t hold with that. Survival is overrated, and conflict is underrated. Deep down, most stalkers must think that, because they wouldn’t come to the Zone if they didn’t.
Now I could see a faint glow ahead, probably a couple of lanterns. Leaves rustled as I emerged from the knee-deep water onto mushy soil covered with a deep loam of rotting leaves. If it had been dry, it would have been impossible to move quietly. Someone was moving nearby. I reached down to quietly switch off my Geiger counter – more than one stalker has been given away and killed because of those subtle little clicks. Simultaneously, my left hand eased my pistol out of its holster. I put both hands on the gun, but kept it low, creeping forward with all senses primed.
I didn’t see any webbing in the trees, so that was one predator I wouldn’t have to worry about. But I knew for a fact there were frequent reports of pseudodogs in the area, and it was still bloodsucker country. You couldn’t be too careful. I was close now, and I could hear something going on, even over the wind. I flicked off the safety and raised the pistol, squinting down the night sights. There was a flurry of movement just ahead, and I instinctively rushed forward, bursting into the clearing, where I was greeted with so many things to look at that I couldn’t take them all in at once. So I focused on the two stalkers.
One had fallen on his back, and another stood over him. I was coming in at the tail-end of what had probably been a pretty brutal struggle. The guy on his feet clearly had the advantage, and he was trying to draw a pistol, but it had snagged on his belt. At the same time, the fellow on the ground had pulled an enormous handgun.
“Freeze,” I said. The guy standing did; the guy on the ground didn’t, and I had to skip forward and kick the gun out of his hand before he could blow the other guy away. The pistol flew off into the underbrush, and I backed off, keeping the muzzle of my gun somewhere between the two, so it was clear I could gun down anybody at a moment’s notice. Disarmed, the man on the ground gave me a fierce look, clutching his gun hand. The other man had raised his hands and was eying me warily. Only then could I actually see what I’d stumbled into. I don’t know where to start.
The clearing was roughly circular. I’ll tell you about the bodies, first. There were eight of them. Eight. All hanging by their feet from strong tree limbs around the edge of the clearing. They were shirtless, and perhaps more relevantly, headless. There were symbols and crude drawings I didn’t recognize apparently carved into their arms and torsos. The headless bodies were spaced evenly, forming a rather neat circle around the perimeter. They were all around two meters from the ground. Looking at the trousers – the only way to identify them – I saw cuts favored by rookies and seasoned loaners alike. I saw the black and gray of bandits, and what looked like Duty fatigues and boots.
But the bodies weren’t the only novel sight the clearing had on display. There was also the altar. Naturally, that was where the heads had got to. They were arranged in a circle, facing out, washed of blood, but the eyes and mouths had been crudely stitched shut with coarse black thread. They hadn’t been shrunken or anything, but the stitching unavoidably brought that to mind. The alter itself was really just a pile of rocks, and in the middle was a little statuette. Next to the bodies and heads, it didn’t interest me much, and I turned my attention back to the stalkers. Barely a second had passed since I came into the clearing.
I cleared my throat. “What’s going on here?”
“Shoot him,” the man on the ground said from between clenched teeth, not taking his eyes off the man standing over him. That guy turned to me.
“Don’t shoot, man – this guy was going to cut off my head.”
I was looking at the perpetrator and would-be victim number nine – I hadn’t even been there ten seconds, and I knew that much. But I didn’t know which was which.
“Damn right I’ll cut off your head,” the man on the ground growled. I raised an eyebrow.
“Is that a confession?” I asked. The man blinked and looked at me.
“You think I did this? Do you know who I am?” That was an odd thing to say. He looked vaguely unfocused.
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
The other guy was talking. “He lured me here, tried to get the jump on me – I just got lucky.”
“I see,” I lied.
“Damn right you got lucky, you sick son of a bitch,” the guy on the ground said. “Lucky this guy showed up.” He was covered in blood. Combined with the things he was saying, it didn’t really look good for him. The guy on his feet was spotless. They were both talking now, accusing each other, using language that would have made their mothers very upset. I couldn’t hear myself think.
“Gentlemen,” I said, and that got their attention, because I was pointing a gun at them. They quieted down. I had two extremely unreliable witnesses. Witnesses are the key to solving homicides, but in this case they weren’t going to do me any good – that meant I had only one choice. An examination of the physical evidence.
It was probably rather ridiculous to them that I wanted them to be quiet – but I was the only one with a gun in my hand, so I was calling the shots.
Without moving from the spot, I began my investigation. First I considered the man on the ground, and the blood that covered him. I looked down at my own feet, and at the ground surrounding the clearing. The corpses hanging from the trees had been drained alive – only that could explain this level of saturation. The dirt I was standing in was a bloody soup of decomposition. If I fell down in it, I’d come up looking much like the guy in front of me. No, the blood on him didn’t mean that he had been the one who butchered these men.
I scanned the bodies themselves. The wounds had been inflicted with something fairly sharp, but that didn’t help either. Every stalker worth his salt keeps his knife sharp. My knife could easily have been the one used, and I had no doubt it would be the same with the one belonging to either man. If I’d had what I needed to test the knives for blood, all three of ours would come up positive. This was the Zone, not kindergarten.
Next I looked the men over for anything that might tie them to the macabre scene around us. Both were dressed pretty par for the course; armor, sturdy fatigues. They were both loners, but that was about all I could see in the light of the two lanterns. The man on the ground had a slightly improvised look about him, but then again, so did I. It wasn’t unusual, and certainly not enough for a conviction. I kept the gun steady.
Eight dead stalkers. Sure, stalkers know the risks of coming to the Zone. Presumably, at least. And I don’t hold things like faction differences against people – but this was predatory murder, plain and simple. One of these men was a monster. I couldn’t mess this up.
I supposed I could kill them both – that would stop the bad one from getting away, but it wasn’t fair to the would-be victim, whichever he was, so that was out.
My eyes found their way to the makeshift altar again. I didn’t expect the heads to tell me anything, but there was that little statue. Now that I looked, it was two statues. They were made of wood, and very crudely carved, amateurish, really. Probably done with the same combat knife that had been used on these men. The little statues were both of something I didn’t know what to call – a monster, I guess. Hideous, despite the terrible workmanship, with lots of tentacles. My gaze flicked back to the men, and I thought about asking if either was Japanese, but it was obvious neither was, so I dropped that idea.
I spotted a slight discoloration in a gouge on one of the statues, and that gave me an idea. “Sirs,” I addressed the two stalkers, “would you both be so good as to take off your gloves?” Both looking puzzled, they grudgingly complied. My heart sank. The guy on his feet had a strip of cloth wrapped around his thumb, and the guy on his ground had both hands thoroughly bandaged. Come to think of it, I had a cut on my right hand, too. It was the Zone, not a playpen. People got cut. Neither man had identified himself as the one who’d cut himself while carving the little statue; it could have been either one.
It occurred to me that whoever had set up this clearing had done a lot of work. Enough work for even two guys? These kinds of people sometimes worked together; was that was what going on here? There’s friction in all relationships, and I can imagine there’d be even more in the kind where you killed people and drained their blood into the dirt. I looked at the two stalkers with new eyes. After all, there were two statues. Coincidence?
Circumstantial evidence. You don’t convict on that. I kept my finger off the trigger.
The guy on the ground was getting restless, and the one on his feet had been very subtly moving his hand toward the snagged gun in his belt. I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him in self-defense, but that would be a real shame if he was the victim here.
“Don’t,” I said. “Right now there’s a chance you’ll get out of here alive, but if you try it you’re a dead man.”
But I got the message. I didn’t have all night. I had to figure out who was who, and I had to do it fast. This wasn’t like me. I was rusty. I took a deep breath and thought.
Arranged bodies. Heads. Blood. Altar. There was a definite religious/cult vibe going on. On the other hand, we had eight bodies, and to me that says serial killer. The bodies were still there, but it was the heads that counted. I looked at them again. They’d had the blood washed off, and been sewn up. The sewing was lousy, but the Zone is full of stalkers, not maids. It had probably taken some time. Time and care. Serial killer.
Trophies. Criminology 101. Arrangement, process, habit. Ritual. There was significance in what I was seeing here, the arrangement, the attention to detail. And I didn’t have to know what that significance was to use it against the killer – I just had to recognize that it was significant, and who it must be significant to. I was running out of time, and that meant it was time to gamble. Keeping the pistol raised, I took a couple of careful steps to get close to the altar. Both men eyed me with suspicion as I did so.
I pulled the vodka I’d bought out of my belt pouch and pulled off the cap with my teeth. The standing man looked stony. The one on the ground looked troubled.
“What are you doing?”
“These guys look like they could use a drink.” I upended the bottle and poured vodka all over the arrangement – the heads, the statue, all of it. The bottle went empty and I tossed it away.
Everything was quiet and still. The wind had stopped blowing, and the clearing stood in silence. The Zone moaned in the distance, the sound carried by a breeze I couldn’t feel.
Subtlety can only take you so far.
In one movement I pulled my lighter, flicked it on, and tossed it onto the altar.
“No!” The man on his feet went for his gun. I snapped my pistol over and blew a hole straight through his chest. I’d intended a double tap, but the gun stovepiped on the first shot. The killer reeled backward, freeing his own pistol and raising it even as he began to fall. The man on the ground jerked his right arm, which had been clutching the strap of a sawed-down pump shotgun on the ground, concealed by the loam. The shotgun flew out in a flurry of leaves, and he caught it by the handle, swinging it around one-handed and pulling the trigger.
The blast was thunderous, and the man in front of me joined the ranks of headless men in the clearing in a shower of skull fragments and brain matter. The body stumbled, its gun falling from its hand, and collapsed into the burning altar. It scattered the heads and statues, smashing through the carefully-placed arrangement and throwing up a shower of sparks.
I pulled back the slide of my Colt and tipped out the spent casing. American piece of junk. Hand loads. They were going to get me killed one of these days. I went over to the stalker on the ground, offering him my hand. He took it, and I pulled him to his feet. He shook his head.
“He drugged me,” he said.
He groaned and slung the shotgun over his shoulder, then looked down at my gun, which was pressed gently into his abdomen, where there was a gap in his cobbled-together armor. He met my eyes. “How’d you hurt your hands?” I asked quietly.
His eyes flicked to the right, and I followed his gaze. In the leaves outside the clearing, a dirt bike lay on its side.
“I do all my own work,” he said carefully.
“Oh – I’ve heard of you. The Biker.”
I shrugged. “Okay.” I holstered the Colt. The Biker bent to pick up his Pernach from the ground, then started toward the bike. He paused and looked back.
“You got a name?”
“Lots of them. But my friends call me Ever.”
The Biker didn’t say anything, he just turned away, pulled his bike upright, and walked it out of the clearing. The storm had probably made the ground too bad to ride on, and he’d gotten mired. That was probably how this whole thing had gotten started. In a moment he had disappeared into the dark.
I cut down the bodies, but I didn’t have time to bury them. Gunshots, fire – they’d be like a signal beacon to every monster in the area. I could either stick around and try not to look edible, or get on my way. I stopped long enough to appropriate a pretty nice over-under shotgun from the killer, who was still smoldering. I swung the shotgun over my shoulder and looked back at the clearing. It wasn’t going to become a vacation spot any time soon. I shook my head. One of the little statues was at my feet, and I kicked it into the fire, then turned and walked away.
Seems like this happens before THE ZONE - (Ever and the Biker meet), anyway, obligatory links to The Zone, which is awesome (100 chapters!)
and to ATROPHY, the sequel, which is weirdly even more awesome
the ending of this story is so damn manly! DD
| 01:00:37 3 February 2011
On forum: 11/01/2009
nice i like it, got any more?|
| 05:18:55 3 February 2011
On forum: 06/22/2010
I don't know about any more self contained short storeis from the Zone, but the Zone is 100 chapters long, and atrophy is like 30 so far so theres definitely more. |
the two guys in this story are big characters in the zone
| 01:53:25 4 February 2011
On forum: 11/01/2009
I don't know about any more self contained short storeis from the Zone, but the Zone is 100 chapters long, and atrophy is like 30 so far so theres definitely more.
the two guys in this story are big characters in the zone
could you give me a link of the story starting at chapter 1
| 19:59:31 4 February 2011
On forum: 06/22/2010
Wish does all the writing, I just spread it around (he's too lazy to put it anywhere but the two blogs)
he's offering more short stories like this one on the atrophy blog as 'bribes' right now XD