On forum: 06/22/2010
Plan V (Zone Story)|
Pasta'd straight from The Zone site
PLAN V by Wish
A Zone Story
Note: this story takes place after the events of The Mechanic.
The sun always shines in the south. It’s true. Opinions differ on the expansion of the Zone. Some people say that it grows more dangerous the bigger it gets. Others say the danger becomes less concentrated. All I know is as the cordon keeps changing, the amount of land near it grows – and that means there’s a lot more space that could be regarded by reasonable people as safe. The farther from the center you get, the less you die.
Fewer, less fearsome mutants. You almost never see an anomaly. If you go far enough, you don’t even have to worry about emissions. And if you’re looking for a break from the horrors of the Zone’s real hotspots, there’s nowhere better to go than Freedom South.
It isn’t any classier than the other outpost in the Zone. You still see the old bricks, the vine-covered walls, the corrugated roofs and tumbledown fences. The barbed wire, the scavenged furniture. But there’s more sunshine. Less imminent threat of horrible toothy death.
Yeah, you can’t beat the South. I hadn’t been in the Zone all that long, but even I knew this was a good place to be a rookie. Signing on with Freedom had been a smart move. Not smart enough to make up for the stupidity of coming to the Zone in the first place, but we’re not getting into that.
I liked Freedom South the moment I laid eyes on it. My first day there, I was high on the wall, leaning on the concrete battlement and staring north. There was only a darkness on the horizon where Chernobyl NPP was. That dark smudge never went away. They said the sky was never clear anywhere near the center. Someone was playing the guitar below, and the wind was blowing softly. It wasn’t quite warm, but it wasn’t cold, either. A couple of crows wheeled above, and someone down in the canteen laughed. Yes, sir. Freedom. In a minute I was going to head around and meet some of the guys – but something caught my eye.
There was a figure coming up the road. Running, actually. I glanced down at the gate guards, who had come to attention. Curious, I picked up my rifle and went down to join them.
The stalker was one of ours, a scout. I could see the patches on his shoulders. The guards stood aside, and the scout waved to one of them, who turned and jogged off. I watched him go, and the other guard gave the scout a canteen.
I turned back to see a short figure in black making its way toward us across the courtyard. I had to take an extra second to process it, because you don’t see women every day in the Zone. Especially not cute blonde ones. Especially not cute, stacked, blonde ones.
Of course I’d heard of her, I just hadn’t seen her. The female Freedom commander everybody was always talking about.
“Well?” she called. No one had mentioned her accent. I couldn’t place it. I wondered where she was from. Blonde hair, blue eyes, generous proportions – that narrowed it down. I tried to focus.
“They’ve got him,” the scout panted, sinking to a crouch and taking deep breaths.
The Commander paused a few paces away and nodded. “Did you make the arrangements?”
“He took the payment?”
I noticed the gate guard hovering beside me. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “She’s built. But don’t let her see you looking, or you’ll be on gate duty.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re on gate duty.”
“Yes. Yes I am.”
“You,” said the Commander. I jumped.
“You speak English?”
The guard clapped me on the shoulder. “Uh – right.” I grabbed my rifle and hurried after her. She was barely as tall as my shoulder, but she walked fast. I followed her into the command post, and she jogged up to the second level, leading me to a metal door. Officer’s quarters. I confess, my imagination ran away from me for a moment. But they weren’t her quarters.
The Commander banged on the door. No response. She banged again. Nothing. She scowled over her shoulder at me, then tried the handle. It was locked. She swore, stepped back, and kicked it open with a crunch.
Inside was… a mess. Bottles. Bottles, everywhere. You can guess what kind. And an overwhelming stench of marijuana. I mean, like you could get stoned just standing in the hall. Okay, maybe not, but it was hard to think clearly with the Commander right there. She went right in. There was a man sprawled on a bed held together largely with duct tape. There were some clothes, and some armor. Some guns. A PDA that appeared to have mold growing on it.
“Captain,” said the Commander.
The man on the mattress snored.
“Captain.” Nothing. She prodded him gently with the toe of one boot. Where had they found boots that small? She tried again, harder. No luck. Irked, the Commander put the tread of the boot on his side and shook him roughly.
“Piss off,” he mumbled. The Commander jerked a handgun out of her belt and fired it into the ceiling. I thought my eardrums had burst. The man on the bed jerked awake and toppled clumsily over the other side, thudding to the stone floor with a muffled “Oof!”
My ears rang. The Commander put the gun back in its holster. Several long seconds passed.
“Captain,” she said.
“Yes, boss?” came a soft voice from the floor on the other side of the bed.
“You’re in charge.”
The Commander turned on her heel and left the room. Outside the building, another stalker handed her a rifle bag, which she slung over one shoulder, then struck out for the cement pad, where two very battered jeeps were waiting. The mechanic in the pit pointed a wrench at the jeep on the left, and the Commander angled toward it. She threw the rifle bag into the back.
“It’s Russian. I can barely see over the dash.”
I climbed in and started the engine. In a moment we were rolling past the gate guards, people were waving, the Commander was waving back. There was some friendly shouting, and we were on the road. The Commander gave me directions, and only micromanaged where it was necessary. Don’t run into that anomaly. Slow down. Those are dogs. Are you feeling edible today? No? Then speed up. Go left. Your other left.
Driving in the Zone is serious business, and I didn’t begrudge her backseat driving in the slightest. Anyway, it was a pretty easy cruise in the south country. I couldn’t even imagine trying to get anywhere in a vehicle, or even on the roads, up near the garbage, in the thick of things.
“You’re new?” the Commander asked me, once we’d navigated a patch of road littered with debris.
“They sent you from HQ?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll have you ready for the big time in no time.”
“So it’s true?”
“What? That my command is for recuperating stalkers and training rookies? Yes.”
I didn’t say anything to that. The Commander was largely admired for… obvious reasons, but at the same time, even during my brief stay in the Zone, I’d frequently heard her ridiculed. People made her Freedom South command sound like a joke. She didn’t seem to be denying it.
The sky turned gray, and a light drizzle began to fall. Not uncommon; the jeep had no top, but I didn’t mind. Neither did the Commander, but it seemed like she was looking at her watch and PDA a lot. Sometimes she’d warn me of an anomaly without even looking up.
“I got stalkers at about ten o’clock,” I reported, glancing over at them. To the west lay wet grasslands, flat and misty in the light rain. I could see wavering anomalies making the reeds tremble, and some shadowy figures walking vaguely parallel to the road about fifty meters out. The Commander frowned and squinted over past me, then took out her binoculars.
“Clear Sky,” she reported, and stood up in her seat to give a sweeping wave. One of the men waved back, and she sat down, then we were past. We crested a steep hill, and the Commander reached over and tapped my arm. “Stop.” I eased to a halt. The Commander slipped down and crept to the guardrail in a crouch. Keeping low, I hurried around the front of the jeep to join her. She rose to a crouch and looked over the rail, peering into the rain.
“What is it?”
The Commander straightened. “We’re good,’” she said, brushing damp bangs from her eyes. I shifted uncomfortably, turning to be sure we were clear. I had a good view despite the rain, but it’s always uncomfortable to be in the open in such small numbers. I turned back to the Commander, and saw a figure emerge from the mist at the bottom of the hill. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me – then I realized the stalker making his way up really was that big. He was the biggest stalker I’d ever seen, probably pushing seven feet. He was lean, but that didn’t make him any less huge, and he carried a massive amount of gear.
He reached the top of the hill and stepped over the rail, coming face to face with the Commander. Or rather, her face to his torso. He towered over her, but the Commander didn’t seem intimidated. She stuck out a hand, and the giant merc engulfed it with one about five times its size.
They’d obviously met before, but the Commander was looking up at the merc with something like awe. I guess she couldn’t help herself. I understood; I’m two meters tall, and I felt almost the same way. But she seemed to get control of herself.
“No time to lose,” she said brusquely, and in a minute we were back on the road. “We’re running late,” she said. “Go.” I did, though I didn’t like the amount of noise the jeep made. I felt like we were asking for trouble. We were no longer in the deep south, so to speak. We’d traded sunny meadows for muddy roads and scrubby grassland. Trees and hills, mountains in the distance. I wasn’t actually quite sure where we were; I hadn’t had a chance to check my PDA lately – but we’d been moving steadily northward. We were probably somewhere in the vicinity of Abramova, north and west of the rookie camp near the old cordon. Stalkers didn’t travel these roads often – slim picking for artifacts, and not worth the risk, especially so close to the bogs.
“Take a right.”
I braked to a stop at the dirt intersection, staring at the plate-metal signage, leaning precariously, riddled with bullet holes.
“But that’s the road to Agroprom,” I said, rather stupidly.
The Commander smiled. “Your powers of observation serve you well.”
“But that’s Duty HQ.”
The smile grew, showing remarkably white teeth. “That detail had not escaped my attention.”
“We’re going to Duty HQ?”
“It’s a long way to Agroprom, we’ve got half a tank of gas, a full mag of hollow points, it’ll be dark soon, and I’m blonde.”
“Hit it,” said the big merc in the back. It was the first thing I’d hear him say. I stared at him, then at her, then at the sign. Then I started to drive.
Everyone had told me I was crazy for wanting to come to the Zone. You’re expecting me to say they were right, but no. There had been a time when I thought that, but not anymore. The Commander was giving me new perspective. She made me look pretty sane. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I didn’t mind.
She was leaning into the back, showing her PDA to the merc. They consulted briefly, and she tapped my shoulder. “Okay, pull over.” I did, and we got out. The Commander pointed to the hill at the turn in the road. “There?”
“Yeah.” The big merc lifted the rifle bag out of the jeep and started forward at a jog. The rain was light, but the slope was slippery enough to make climbing difficult.
“Keep an eye out for dogs,” the Commander said over her shoulder. She was climbing ahead of me, and I guiltily glanced back. It looked clear. “Down,” she said quietly, and sank to her belly. I did likewise and wormed my way up on her right, the merc on the other side. We were at the hill’s crest, looking down the slope at the Agroprom compound. The Commander had her binoculars out. She looked at her watch. “Night patrols won’t come out for another hour. We cut it close.” The merc was looking through his binoculars too, scanning the face of the research building. The Commander turned to me. “You see those two towers?”
“Don’t worry about that one, he has no line of sight – but you have to suppress the eastern one.”
I shifted my rifle off my back and pulled out my binoculars. There was a sniper in the tower, sure enough, armed with what looked like an SKS. I shifted my field of view. A couple of gate guards with AN94s. There wasn’t much movement in the compound, probably due to the rain. I needed a rifle with some kind of optics, but all my FN FAL had were plain old iron sights. Not to mention I’d never shot anybody before. That was probably why she’d only asked me to suppress – but I was fairly confident I could hit the guy, even at this distance, if I had time to line up the shot. I carefully checked the rifle’s chamber, then wiggled it into position and looked down the sights. I could do it. And the sooner the better. It was not fun, lying there in the mud, getting rained on.
Time passed slowly because of the discomfort. Presently, The Commander shifted, and brought up her binoculars again. “Here we go,” she said. I took a look as well. Figures were emerging from the research building. It looked like a couple of officers, and some stalkers, leading someone out. A prisoner with his hands tied behind his back.
The big merc unzipped the rifle bag the Commander had brought, and drew out what looked like a heavily customized AS Val, complete with bipod and PSO-1. He settled it in front of him. The little envoy was leading the prisoner toward the gate. The Commander was following them with her binoculars. The merc took the lens cap from his eyepiece and got into position. I felt like I was going to throw up.
The prisoner was led some thirty yards outside the gate, and someone kicked his legs out from under him. He fell to his knees.
“Ah, Colonel Vikenti. It’s a shame you won’t live long enough to see the irony. Be less predictable in your next life.” The Commander smiled as the officer drew out a handgun, obviously planning to execute the prisoner. “Now.” I barely heard the shot. Actually, I didn’t – it was silent. All I heard was the action of the rifle. The officer’s head vanished. All hell broke loose. Several Duty men broke and ran; others dropped to a crouch, searching for the shooter. I checked my tower, but he didn’t know what was going on, either. He hadn’t even seen the shot, all he could hear was people shouting down near the gate. I kept my finger off the trigger.
The officer’s – Colonel Vikenti’s – body splashed into the mud, spewing blood from the neck.
The prisoner struggled to his feet, splashing and stumbling through a deep puddle. A Duty man put his rifle to his shoulder to shoot him in the back, but fell dead a second later. A casing from the merc’s VAL bounced off my goggles. Another Duty stalker, not making the connection, also tried to fire – but the merc took him out with a single shot, almost instantly.
There was activity in the compound now. The prisoner was running down the road as fast as he could, his hands still tied. The handful of living Duty stalkers still near the gate just stared after him, knowing that silent bullets would come out of the rain and cut them down if they tried anything. The guy in the tower was still bewildered. I didn’t fire; doing so would only give our position away, and that wouldn’t do – most of those guys were packing under barrel grenade launchers, and those’ll ruin even the best sniper’s day.
It was a strange sight. The bodies lying there, blood spreading in the rainwater, silent stalkers standing, staring after the prisoner fleeing. He reached the curve in the road.
“We’re good,” the Commander said, and abruptly rolled over and slid down the opposite side. I scrambled after her. The prisoner came into view, gasping for breath. “Nice work,” she said.
“You used me as bait! That was your plan?” he screamed.
“You’ll get over it.” She waved her ballistic knife vaguely east. “Go on, you’re done. We’re square. No, wait. That’s a loaner, after all.” She cut off his Freedom armband. He gave her a genuinely murderous look.
The big merc came sliding down the hillside. “Mobilizing,” he reported, slinging the Val over one shoulder. The Commander turned back to the prisoner.
“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”
“Aren’t you going to cut me loose?” he said through clenched teeth.
She appeared to think about it. “No.”
“You will regret this.”
“Only if I live long enough.”
With one last glance – I really can’t tell you just how much hostility this guy could put in a look – he turned and started to run.
“I hate bandits,” she said, to no one in particular. The merc cleared his throat. The Commander twitched, as though startled. “Oh, right.” She only just then seemed to notice the alarm coming from Agroprom on the other side of the hill. “Ahem. Now, we will make a strategic withdrawal.” She bolted for the jeep, the merc and I just behind her. In a moment we were out of there, driving irresponsibly fast, considering the road conditions, and the fact that we were in the Zone. That’s adrenaline for you.
When we were safely away, I pulled over and let the merc off. The Commander climbed down.
“Services rendered.” She produced an incredible wad of money, and held it out to the merc. “I’ll triple it if you join my unit.”
The merc shook his head. He jerked his chin at the rifle. “I’ll take this.”
The Commander looked disappointed. “Well,” she said, stuffing the money into a pocket. “Always a pleasure.”
They shook hands again, and it might have been my imagination, but it looked like the Commander was blushing a little. The big merc gave us both a curt nod, then turned and disappeared into the fog that was following the rain. The Commander stared after him until he was gone, then sighed.
“I hate bandits,” she repeated. Then she brightened. “Well, that went well, didn’t it?” She clapped me on the shoulder, and we started to walk back to the jeep. “I’d had about enough of Vikenti. He always executes people in the open. That scumbag’s gang ambushed one of my rookie patrols, but they managed to turn it around and capture him. I don’t execute prisoners, so I conned him into getting in there and sabotaging some weapons in exchange for his freedom. Get it? Freedom? No? No good? Anyway, I knew he’d get busted. It was the best way to get Vikenti to show his face.” She halted beside the jeep, and turned to look at me. “Which is to say,” The Commander produced a beret that matched her outfit and tugged it on, then planted her fists on her hips and grinned. “I love it when a plan comes together.” Oh, God. Adorable. She began to laugh uproariously. I just stared. Then she sobered instantly. “Come on.” She pounded my shoulder again. I was going to have a bruise. “I don’t like leaving the Captain in charge for this long.”
Sometimes I worry about Freedom.