| 11:07:39 27 September 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
The Social Life of Zombies|
(Hard drive failure sucks.)
Tiger leaned around the derelict truck's fender, watching a zombie stare fixedly at the outer wall of the scientists' compound. If he headed for the bunker now, the lost soul would spot him – and this zombie had more friends in a three hundred meter radius than Tiger had in the entire Zone. The loner couldn't even put the unfortunate one out of his misery without drawing the marginally sentient wrath of the horde towards his position.
So he watched and waited instead. After a few minutes the zombie got bored and wandered back towards the psi-contaminated factory, whereupon Tiger hustled through the open perimeter gate and into the compound. Ignoring the crates, heavy lifting containers and equipment pallets which littered the place, he went straight to the front door of the low, angular concrete bunker in the middle and purposefully stabbed the buzzer with his fingertip.
The voice which answered was understandably suspicious. “Who's there?”
“It's Tiger, Semenov,” the stalker replied, recognizing the voice of the bunker's resident research assistant. “I'm here to see Sakharov.”
“Just a minute.” Semenov presumably went away to confer, then came back. “Okay, come inside.”
The massive steel door opened with a creak and a hiss, revealing the primary airlock. This was the secret of the scientists' successful life in Yantar: nobody and nothing got through the inner door without their approval, and a popular stalker joke had it that most malignancies stayed away for fear of being caught and published. Stepping into the chamber, Tiger waited as the outer door shut and the pressure equalized, then moved into the bunker's core. Navigating past a teetering stack of cardboard supply boxes, he came to the visitors' end of Sakharov's office.
“Hello, hello,” said Sakharov warmly. A distant cousin of the renowned nuclear physicist, he looked as always like someone's misplaced sprightly grandfather, pottering about in his faded blue lab coat. “What brings you to our humble lab today, Anton Konstantinovich?”
Tiger wondered which bothered him more – the formality, or the use of a name he was determined to put behind him – but said nothing about the matter. “I found a few things you might be able to use,” he said, handing over the Crystal and the Crunch fragments. “And I heard a stalker called Worm is here.”
“Hmm.” Sakharov inspected the artifacts critically. “Not bad, not bad... About Worm, I fear – ” The professor was distracted by a beep from the battered personal computer on his workbench. “Damn, not again...”
He wandered off to deal with it, leaving Tiger to contemplate the mouse running on its exercise wheel. After a few moments of that, the loner closed his eyes and shifted his focus inwards. There was one point of energy in the bunker besides Sakharov, which logically would be Semenov, and now two more approaching the door outside. Admission was granted to them rather faster than it had been for Tiger.
“...Else we can do about it. Retrieving the prototype by force is probably the best solution.”
“Best? If you want to end up like a Romero extra, sure.”
“Unless you have a better... Ah.” The figure in the enveloping orange suit reached up and removed his bubble helmet, revealing the weary face of another bunker-dweller, Vasiliev. “Haven't seen you here in a while.”
Ghost appeared at the scientist's elbow. The look of cold suspicion on his face was exactly as Tiger anticipated it. He couldn't honestly blame the veteran stalker for disliking him – Ghost had built his career in the Zone on his elite sneaking and tracking skills. “Staying long?” he asked curtly.
“Just visiting,” Tiger assured him. “Is Worm around?”
“Too late.” Ghost sat down on a dented footlocker and took out a dogeared map. “You missed him.”
“Unfortunately your colleague is correct,” Sakharov added, returning to the near side of his office. “Worm is no longer with us. Did you have important business with him?”
“No,” Tiger admitted. “I heard from Barkeep that he claimed he was investigating the Brain Scorcher, and that before he came here he was trying to break into the sealed vaults in the Dark Valley. I wanted to ask him some questions, that's all.”
“I see,” said the professor gravely. “Then perhaps I should start at the beginning... Worm came to us yesterday. As you say, he alleged that he had information regarding the phenomenon of psi-energy. He seemed very interested in accessing the factory ruins, though I can only guess at what he sought there.”
“I assume you still haven't found a way to get through the psi-field,” said Tiger.
“Indeed,” Sakharov confirmed. “As you may recall, we have determined that in this case the field is generated by some sort of machine under the factory. We even have documentation for some of its peripheral components, but regrettably documents alone cannot solve our present problem.” The old man shook his head. “If only Lefty and his group had not taken off to fight in the faction wars so soon after the mechanism's power output dropped – as usual we were too short of staff to conduct the work ourselves.”
“Now the emissions are stronger again,” Tiger concluded. “But the power level is still stable, isn't it?”
“For the most part, yes. We suspect the field's generator has some capability for self-repair... In any case, the center of the psi-field cannot be reached. However, our experimentation with shielding devices has advanced enough for us to assemble a prototype able to cancel out fields of great strength... Worm volunteered to test it.” The scientist's expression implied regret about the matter. “I had some misgivings, but we needed to get performance readings from as many subjects as possible. Psi-emissions do not affect everyone the same way, you know.”
Tiger looked to Ghost. “You've tried this?”
“More than anyone else,” the other stalker replied grudgingly. “It's not great, but it helps.”
“Perfecting the prototype is only a matter of time,” Sakharov asserted primly. “If we can get it back, that is.”
Tiger connected the last dots immediately. “It didn't protect Worm.”
“We aren't yet sure what happened,” the professor replied. “I very carefully instructed him as to the limitations of the prototype and the boundaries of the area in which he was to collect data, but we lost all contact with him as he approached the factory. There were no unusual fluctuations in the emission levels. At this time we don't know if the prototype malfunctioned, or if Worm simply wandered too deep into the field. Ghost and Vasiliev were out looking for traces of him when you arrived... Vasiliev, any luck?”
The other scientist nodded. “We spotted him about forty meters from the factory entrance. The zombies have already welcomed him.”
“Most unfortunate,” Sakharov sighed. “And the prototype?”
“He's still wearing it,” said Ghost. “We picked up a weak signal from the tracking beacon.”
“Then perhaps all is not lost... We have enough materials at hand to construct two or three more of the shielding devices,” the professor explained to Tiger, “but without the exposure data from the missing example we shall be back where we started. It is highly important that we recover the prototype as soon as possible.”
Tiger knew that tone of voice very well: Sakharov wanted his help, and he would scientifically apply every guilt trip in the book to get it. “What's the plan?” he asked preemptively.
“I don't think we've gotten that far,” said Ghost. “I guess we could just lure our man away from the factory, finish him off and grab the gadget, but then we might spend three or four days trapped in here while his friends thump the walls. I'm sure none of us are anxious to call in the military, either.”
“That's true,” said Tiger. “But isn't it possible to sneak around the zombies?”
“That's easy enough for me,” the other loner affirmed. “It's the snorks' noses that are still a problem.”
When the zombies congregated, the snorks were rarely far behind. Tiger had seen enough incautious stalkers learn that the hard way. “So there's no simple solution?”
“Of course there's a simple solution!” Vasiliev snapped sarcastically. “Why don't you just shamble out there and persuade that wretched shell to trade the prototype for a bottle of booze?”
Tiger looked at Ghost. Ghost looked at Tiger. Both of them looked at Sakharov.
“Either Sakharov is getting desperate or this makes more sense to him than it does to me.” Standing atop the bunker's roof, Ghost raised his binoculars and scanned the distant factory buildings to the north. “I'll bet Vasiliev is kicking himself right now.”
“Why?” Tiger asked, peering westwards at the thick marsh beyond the complex wall. “He's not the one going out there.”
“You ought to be glad,” the other neutral opined. “Semenov is a crap shot, but he won't freak out.”
“I can't rely on him, and you shouldn't either... This would be easier if Kruglov were around.” Setting the binoculars down, Ghost picked up his Groza and checked the scope and suppressor. “I don't know if I can cover you all the way,” he warned, turning the compact rifle over and removing the magazine. “This ammo is cheap shit.”
“You could use mine,” Tiger offered. “It shoots a little high inside three hundred meters, but it groups all right.”
“That's very kind of you.”
“I'm being practical.” Tiger eased the Mosin's leather sling off his shoulder and handed the rifle to Ghost. “Just make sure you don't have any accidents.”
“Don't worry,” the veteran muttered, opening the bolt halfway and then closing it. “It's in my interest to see this through.”
There was a click and a soft hiss as the high impact plastic-glass composite helmet sealed in place around Semenov's head. He waited a few moments as the series of tiny green lights below the transparent bowl's bottom lip winked on, then gave Vasiliev a thumbs-up: good to go.
The other scientist nodded and donned his own helmet, returning the gesture. “We're ready,” he said to Sakharov. “Are you still picking up the beacon?”
“Intermittently,” the professor answered. “It seems to be moving westwards.”
“Towards the swamp,” Semenov commented. “We haven't much time.” He reluctantly took one of the two Walthers which Sakharov had laid out and inserted a magazine, thick gloves impeding his fingers. Where else in the world, he wondered, would carrying this thing be part of a scientist's normal work?
Leaving the chamber empty, he shoved the German pistol into the holster that was more or less permanently affixed to his suit's hip and passed the second P99 to Vasiliev. “Thanks,” the latter grunted, doing the same. “Let's get this over with.”
The stalker called Tiger was waiting outside the door when Semenov and Vasiliev exited the airlock: stumbling in circles, his movements were sluggish and uncoordinated. As if you weren't weird enough already, Semenov didn't say aloud. “...We're ready to begin the retrieval attempt.”
Tiger stared at him intently. “...Braaaiiins...”
“Don't overdo it,” Ghost admonished from his rooftop vantage point. “Vasiliev, up here.”
“Get in character,” Tiger muttered, his voice but not his posture briefly returning to normal as Vasiliev began to ascend the steel rungs embedded in the bunker's flank. Once Semenov's attempt to mimic Tiger's gait had attained passable form, the stalker in the long coat turned and shambled through the perimeter gate. “Follow me...”
It didn't take as long to find zombies as Semenov expected, let alone wished. The first one he and Tiger encountered was an ex-bandit, unmistakable in his anorak and black leather jacket. His face was blistered and thick with stubble – he probably stank like an open sewer, too. The scientist's pulse jumped as the cerebrally impaired one approached, settled when he appeared to accept the intruders as two of his own kind, and then climbed again when the zombie began to follow them. It was Tiger's coat that attracted him, Semenov thought darkly.
“Head left,” Ghost's voice murmured in his ear. Semenov opened his mouth to advise his sapient companion of the guidance, but Tiger's path was already curving to the west as if he needed no radio to hear the instruction. Doing his best to look like he had lost his own marbles, the research assistant pulled out a detector and attuned it to the psi-field's presence with exaggerated stabs of his finger. They were too far away for it to harm them at this power level, but he would take no chances.
A zombified loner joined the group as Tiger climbed over the concrete housing of a water intake, left high and dry by the draining of Lake Yantar. His green suit – a product of the cottage industry which thrived on the Zone's fringes – was stained with mud, and possibly other substances.
Ghost had been sincere in his promise not to betray the other neutral. He had no real choice about it: if he tried anything here, Sakharov would see to it that he was forever blacklisted from doing work for the ecologists or for Duty, and Barkeep or Sidorovich could easily put a price on his head to boot. Regardless of his obligations, the veteran felt ill at ease watching the back of his could-be rival. His dislike for Tiger straddled the division between professional and personal, though he well knew Tiger's jobs for the extinct Clear Sky faction had been purely contract work.
Perhaps he simply couldn't help it – because of Clear Sky, because of that dog Lebedev and his followers, Ghost and his friends had been hunted and scattered. Fang was dead, cut down near the site of Freedom's present base by a mercenary sniper. Doc was in hiding somewhere, his whereabouts a secret even to Ghost himself. And Strelok... Strelok had made the third pilgrimage north on his own, going back to the ghostly shell of the VI Lenin Nuclear Power Station to uncover the ultimate truth about the Monolith hidden within. He should have returned long ago.
Was Strelok also dead? Ghost had no evidence to the contrary, and despite his own wishes he had come to accept that it was now up to him to take over the task of returning to the center of the Zone. After he'd finished this mission and helped the scientists deal with the Yantar psi-generator, he'd head for the Cordon and find Guide. Guide should know where Doc had secreted himself, and Doc might know what had become of Strelok.
It was a forlorn hope, but it was all he had left.
The retrievers found Worm standing by a dislodged section of pipe on the rise above the lakebed swamp. He was escorted by two more zombies, one a mercenary and the other a second loner in the fawn leather jacket of a novice. Tiger ambled towards him without hesitating, Semenov following with trepidation. Soon the seven were standing in a loose cluster, as if this were nothing out of the ordinary... Then the zombies began to talk, and the smell of Semenov's cold sweat threatened to overwhelm his suit's respirator.
“Loot... grab the loot... ahhhhhh... gonna be a big man...”
“Crows, always... crows...”
“Don't... gaaah... too dangerous...”
“Frog blast... vent core...”
“Don't worry, my soul... come back soon...”
“Head... hurts so bad... stop...”
Semenov froze. How could he have forgotten to turn off the detector's audio output!? Now all the zombies were gathering around him, bleary eyes watching intently. “Uh...” Thinking fast, he began to push buttons semi-randomly with the same stabbing motion as before. “Hurr, durr...”
By some miracle, it worked. “Science,” the zombie merc proclaimed astutely.
“Science,” the ex-bandit agreed. Within a few seconds, Semenov's audience had reached the amicable conclusion that their new friend was a scientific zombie and all was well. Now if only they weren't observing him so damned closely! And anyway, what was Tiger doing?
Tiger, he realized when he pulled his eyes away from the detector, was moving to intercept a Worm who, despite an acute case of neuron destruction, looked very much as if he were trying to slip away. “Worm,” Tiger slurred, “prototype...”
“I... need prototype...” Not only did Worm manage to display a very guilty expression despite his zombified state, his speech was more articulate than the other zombies' ramblings. “Have to get... into secret lab... Have to find truth...”
A terrible realization formed in Semenov's mind. Dear God, he thought incredulously, he can still remember!
“Sakharov... wants prototype back,” Tiger insisted. “Needs data – ” He abruptly broke off, body tensing. For one agonizing moment the scientist wondered if he was being affected by a spike in the psi-field, before the neutral stalker raised his arm and pointed into the swamp below. “Uwaaaaah,” he groaned. “Soldier, soldier, soldier... Eh, ahaaaaah...”
Semenov's eyes darted to the thick masses of reeds, instantly spotting the disturbance caused by some large mass plowing through them. It could only be a snork, and that meant their time had just run out. The fear was justified when the beast itself emerged from the reeds: a once human form turned even more savage and feral than the zombies, it loped along on all fours with a mutated nose unerringly guiding it towards its next meal. Like many snorks, this one still wore the army boots and gas mask it had carried into the Zone as a hapless soldier years ago.
“Kiiiiiiill..!” Tiger suddenly emptied his Kalashnikov from the hip, wounding the snork and 'accidentally' letting the cone of fire drift across Worm's back. “Soldier! Kill!”
Semenov reached for the Walther, but the remaining zombies were already heeding his fellow impersonator's cries. Two blasts from a sawed-off twelve-gauge knocked the crouching monster silly, and a burst from a Bizon submachine gun finished it. The snork hadn't been alone, however: two more came out of the thicket further away, one rearing back on its legs as it issued a bloodthirsty howl.
“Soldier!” Tiger kept up his provocation as he began to reload the assault rifle, making a great show of clumsiness. “Kill, kill, kill!” As the remaining zombies stumbled past him, intent on defeating the common enemy, he swiftly bent, yanked the prototype psi-blocker off Worm's head and threw it to Semenov. “Run!”
Semenov did just that. The world melted into a blur of grays and browns as his breath fogged the inside of his helmet. It couldn't have been more than thirty seconds before he beheld the dear sight of the bunker. “I've got it,” he rasped frantically. “I've got the prototype! Let me in!”
“Excellent!” Sakharov replied. “But where is Tiger?”
“I... He said to run, so I ran...”
“It's okay,” Ghost cut in. “Here he comes now.”
No sooner had he spoken then Tiger came flying through the gate with his coat billowing behind him. “Mission complete,” he called. “Let's all get inside while they're distracted!”
“Works for me.” Ghost tossed the Mosin and its ammunition back to their rightful owner, then went to the ladder. “Business is good today,” he remarked on the way down. “Would you believe we had another visitor show up while you were out there?”
“Another stalker?” Tiger asked. “Who?”
“I didn't get the name, but he's inside with Vasiliev and the good professor right now.”
Tiger was last to exit the airlock and enter the bunker. He felt a sudden eagerness to leave, now that he could feel the weight of Worm's PDA in his pocket, and he intended to do so as soon as he'd collected whatever reward Sakharov had for him.
“I don't care what anyone says,” Semenov declared once he'd wrenched his helmet off, “I'm never doing that again!”
“Your loss,” Ghost retorted. “I thought it worked brilliantly.”
Tiger squeezed past the bickering pair and went over to Sakharov's office. The new arrival was there, wearing an ordinary stalker suit and a heavy gas mask. Before he could say anything, the stranger turned. “Anton?”
“Anton, it's me!” The hood was drawn back and the mask removed. “You remember me, don't you?”
Tiger did remember. “Olga Ivanovna Cherenkova,” he recited icily. “Why are you here?”
| 10:40:52 7 October 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
The Documents of the Dealings|
“How odd,” Sakharov remarked. “I've never seen Tiger so anxious to leave before – he didn't even wait to collect his payment!”
“It was that woman,” Ghost opined between mouthfuls of cold canned meat. “He wanted to get away from her.”
The professor stroked his beard absently. “Is there some superstition among your colleagues pertaining to women?”
“We're stalkers, not sailors.” Ghost prodded a lump of gristle with his fork. “There was something unpleasant between those two.”
Sakharov blinked owlishly. “What makes you say that?”
“It was all over their faces.” The veteran stood, discarding his can. “Are we doing another night reconnaissance?”
“If the weather is favorable, yes.”
“Then I'll take a nap.” So saying, Ghost went into the cramped room beside the office and stretched out on the cot there. “See you at twenty-three-hundred.”
Left to his own devices, Sakharov initiated the process of data analysis for the recovered psi-blocker, made himself a cup of tea and settled himself in front of his workstation. It would be some time before the bunker's computers could chew through all of the new information, and in the meantime there was a matter of his own curiosity which demanded attention...
Ministry of Emergencies and Affairs of Population Protection from the Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe – Commission of Inquiry's Report on the Crisis of 2006 – Appendix B: Survivor Testimony
Case #12: A. K. Petanko
Date of Birth: 11.11.1983
Place of Birth: Pripyat, Kiev Oblast
Place of Residence: Slavutych, Chernihiv Oblast
Parents: K. B. Petanko (deceased) and V. A. Volkova (deceased)
The file hadn't been updated since Sakharov last accessed it more than two years ago. That was probably for the better, he decided. What he was looking for didn't appear in the summary, so, acting on a hunch and a dim recollection, he skipped ahead to the ending pages. The last years of Anton Petanko's life on the outside were clinically summarized there, his trials and tribulations committed to record with an apparatchik's unfeeling efficiency: inability to readjust to life in Slavutych, the breakdown of a relationship with a young woman at one of Kiev's technical institutes, self-imposed exile to a small town in the north, contact with those who penetrated into the Zone illegally, and finally a sudden disappearance.
The last update to the profile was no warmer: Addendum 24.01.2009 – Y. G. Sakharov reported contact with subject Petanko at the Yantar Mobile Scientific Laboratory. Professor Sakharov described him as being in good physical and mental health, but added that subject Petanko is now one of the so called 'free stalkers' and has no interest in further assisting the Commission of Inquiry or the Ministry's investigative efforts.
Sakharov couldn't blame him for that last part, not after watching those dunderheaded Commission tinplates treat their key witnesses like diseased cattle and hoard their knowledge as if in some twisted contest. The amount of time wasted by their failure to establish a prompt working relationship with their counterparts in Belarus alone... No, it was far too late to be getting angry about that debacle. Suffice it to say that there were good reasons for the fact that the professor had never again mentioned the stalker called Tiger in his official dispatches.
Closing the file, the aging scientist sat back in his chair and contemplated the merits of a second cup.
“Anton! Dammit, Anton, wait for me!”
There were moments when Tiger wished he'd been granted a bloodsucker's invisibility rather than a biological radar. Still, Olga must have run nearly all the way from Yantar to have caught up with him so fast. If she was going to be persistent, he might as well stop long enough to humor her just this once. “Over here,” he said curtly, climbing inside one of the derelict boxcars which sat about the Wild Territory.
“Whew,” the female stalker wheezed, hauling herself up after him. “That's not an easy run even with a Moonlight...” Sitting with her back against the inner side of the boxcar's wall, she removed said artifact from a pouch on her hip. After a few seconds of briskly rubbing the peach-sized crystal sphere between her hands, it began to emit a piercing blue-white glow. “That's better.”
“Well?” Tiger demanded. “What do you want?”
His impatience earned him a hurt look. “Anton, I haven't seen you in five years... You could have been dead for all I knew. Don't you think I want to know where you've been, what's happened to you?”
“There's no reason for you to care,” Tiger said flatly. “You said it was over, so it's over.”
“Anton, please – ”
“Stop calling me that.”
Olga gritted her teeth. “Okay,” she replied, her frustration swelling. “Tiger, are you doing all right out here?”
“I hope so.” Olga set her Winchester aside, along with an M16 she must have taken from the zombie Tiger had shot earlier, and stretched her arms. “You do look better than... than you used to.”
Tiger scowled, his face half-shadowed by the hood of his coat. “Why are you in the Zone, Olga Ivanovna?”
Olga winced. “Guess I can forget ever being called 'Olya' again.” There was an exasperated sigh. “I'm here because the economy has turned to shit, same as every stalker I talked to between the perimeter and Rostok. I got fed up with the way the institute kept whittling down my pay, so I got out while I could.”
“Why not go back to Russia?”
“There's nothing for me in Bryansk now.” She rubbed the Moonlight some more. “My parents divorced last year. They've both been insufferable since.”
Tiger cocked his head. “What about Stanislav?”
“My twerp brother?” Olga laughed sardonically. “Oh, he finally achieved his dream of entering Moscow State. Then he dropped out to join a skinhead gang after one term... Anyway,” she added in a dignified tone, “I like Ukraine.”
“Even the Zone?”
“Especially the Zone. It's sad that there aren't any great artists here, painting its beauty.” Raising the luminous artifact before her, Olga let its cold light wash over her soft features. “All the people in this place think about is how they can exploit it, or how they must destroy it, or how none of their enemies can follow them into it... None of them know how to stop and just appreciate it.”
“And what of your old sponsors at the Ministry of Internal Affairs?” Tiger asked rhetorically. “They must send the Spetsnaz out here to kill us because we trample the pretty flowers.”
“Don't lump me in with those philistines,” Olga grumbled. “Oh, did you know there's an outfit down in Kiev that's making a video game about the stalkers? They're saying it'll be a big hit next year.”
“Good for them.” Tiger walked over to the open door and climbed out of the boxcar. “I want to get back to Duty ground before it's completely dark out.”
“Ah.” His onetime companion didn't hide her disappointment. “Hey, before you go – I can see you still feel pretty hurt about what happened, but... do you think it really would have turned out better if I'd stayed?”
“It doesn't matter.” The stalker in the long coat turned his back and began to walk away. “I don't need you any more.”
“Free stalkers! Veterans and brothers! Join Duty! Protecting the world from the Zone's evil is our common goal!”
There was a thunderstorm coming. The sky had clouded over, the air becoming dense with moisture. Soon those stalkers still afield would be running for shelter. The loudspeaker would keep playing its mix of Duty propaganda, advertisements for the Hundred Rads and worn-out recordings of Soviet radio dramas all night long, lightning or no lightning.
In the end, Olga had followed Tiger at a distance all the way back from the Wild Territory, a solitary pulse on the edge of his perception. Despite his harsh words, he couldn't bring himself to leave her completely behind. Instead he waited until she cleared the Duty checkpoint at the edge of Rostok's pacified half, then quickly shook her off by ducking into the maze of ladders, pipes and catwalks adjacent to Arnie's Arena. She'd given up looking for him after a couple of minutes and gone off to the bar, leaving Tiger to work undisturbed.
The late Worm's method of data security, it transpired, was to simply erase files as soon as he was finished with them: all that remained in his pocket computer's memory were a set of stash coordinates and three sound files. Fitting an audio bud into one ear, Tiger selected the first one and launched the onboard playback application.
“Worm, it's Drifter. You better not skip the pickup this time, man... Anyway, I got another marked stalker sighting for your collection. Razorback turned up dead at the Agroprom last week – seems he signed on with a band of neutrals who went to dig something up for the nerds, then gunned down all the other guys and blew his own cap off. A couple of our kind found the bodies and buried 'em out there. I managed to catch up with one of them in the Garbage, and he swore Razorback had the mystery tattoo. I asked around at the bar, but all I got was the usual story: Razorback took a hike north and vanished for a while. Next thing anybody knows, he's kaput... That probably doesn't help you much, but I thought I should pass it along. Mind bringing me up to date on how much we actually know about the mark?”
According to the date stamp on the file, this message had been recorded while Tiger and Leshiy were away dodging bullets in the Red Forest. Evidently Drifter had gotten the lowdown from Southpaw.
“Drifter, I screwed up. I took only one key to the Dark Valley, and it looks like the door won't open without both of them. The bandits caught me coming out: I got away, but I lost the key. We'll have to get it back from Borov somehow... Regarding your question, I still don't know what the stalker mark actually means. The mark itself is an ordinary tattoo – it's not magic ink or anything. There are a few definite facts in the data I've collected, however... First, there aren't any attested cases of living stalkers being found with the mark. Since it's only found on corpses, it must be applied shortly before each stalker's death or else the live ones deliberately hide it... Second, all the marked stalkers whose movements are known either went missing in the Red Forest or tried to get past the Scorcher. Most of them reappear as casualties in wrecked death trucks. The lucky ones quietly rejoin the community until they die in accidents... Third, the majority are free stalkers, specifically loners who don't belong to any band or gang and don't have friends who'd become suspicious... It looks like the marked ones may be infiltration agents, recruited somewhere north of the explored lands. Obviously that would mean the Monolith is involved. In any case, we still need more evidence. Keep following your leads: I'll check the drop point again in another day or two.”
Tiger found the idea simultaneously intriguing and disturbing. But how, he wondered, had Worm gathered the material he'd based his conclusions on? For how long had he been pursuing this? There being no immediate answers, the listener advanced to the final recording.
“Worm, I got your message. Sorry to hear things went bad in the Valley... I have some good news, for a change: that tip about a Clear Sky stash in the Cordon was right on the money. Unfortunately there are some bandits camped nearby, so I had to grab some documents and run away. From the stuff I did get, it looks like Lebedev and his buddies were chasing some guys who supposedly got past the Scorcher. There was also a note from Suslov, addressed to somebody called Nimble. Isn't there a guy by that name who works for Sidorovich? It might be worth pursuing... I'm leaving this in the usual place and going back to the perimeter for another try at the cache. The coordinates are attached.”
Going back to the text data, Tiger ascertained that the directions indicated a point on the eastern edge of the Cordon, among the scattered trees and boulders a little way north of the railroad embankment. His next move was obvious, but – as he was helpfully reminded by a rumble in the distance – it would have to wait until morning. Switching the PDA off, he packed up his things and went looking for a dry place to spend the night.
“Deadly anomalies! Dangerous mutants! Anarchists and bandits! None of them will stop Duty on its triumphant march towards saving the planet!”
Out of place scents greeted Tiger's nose when the southbound loner cleared the gated checkpoint at the perimeter area's farthest extremity. One was the stench of charred flesh, the other that of gasoline: somebody had either wrecked a vehicle or committed arson. Neither boded well, and the stalker's footfalls rang louder as he hustled down the road.
He found the explanation quickly: the mangled, smoldering remains of a four-wheel truck lay well off the pavement, not quite halfway from the checkpoint to the rail line. It didn't look like a military vehicle, and the long rips in the topsoil indicated that it had been traveling towards the bridge at the time of the crash. Drawing closer, Tiger made out the forms of bodies lying close to the wreck. They didn't look military either.
His stomach did a backflip. A death truck? Here? Now? The timing was most certainly a coincidence, but the loner couldn't help but throw a wary look behind himself. The gate at the checkpoint was closed with a padlock: someone else must have come through ahead of Tiger, unless the truck's driver had stopped to shut the gate behind him. Satisfied that he really was alone, the stalker carefully entered the crash site.
One of the truck's passengers had definitely been a stiff for some time. Though all of the bodies wore stalker suits, Tiger recognized none of the faces. There were no weapons or personal effects that he could see, and he didn't have the courage to physically touch the dead. He moved on, determined to find the stash and then make tracks for the neutral camp and Sidorovich as fast as he could.
“Nnngh!” Tiger reeled backwards, stumbled over a stone and fell on his ass. He barely registered the collision of his body with the ground, a trivial impact after those of the punches, the kicks and the threaded end of a pipe. His ribs, arms and cheek were throbbing, and now he could taste blood oozing around his teeth as well.
“Shrimp, that's enough.” Vasya Boar stepped forwards, hefting Tiger's AK. “On your feet.”
Tiger hadn't been so keenly aware of his own mortality in a long, long time. He picked himself up sluggishly, wiping impotently at the trickle of red on his chin. It used to be that the bandits would just take his money, maybe his artifacts – but today they'd taken everything: his guns, his detector, even his flashlight and binoculars! They didn't care that he'd never provoked them, that he always paid up front or that Friar owed him. Peace for our time, he thought bitterly. First Olga, then a death truck and now Borov's new regime.
“Good boy.” Vasya smirked under his balaclava. “Listen good, stalker. We already caught your shifty friend: he's lying facedown in the middle of an anomaly field.” The smirk widened to a leer. “So you're gonna go in there and get back what he took from the stash.” Turning, he tossed the assault rifle to one of his cronies. “Got some real classy shooters here... You two bring the goods to the boss. We'll catch up once this ass-face is taken care of.”
The encumbered bandits departed posthaste, leaving Vasya and Shrimp with the prisoner. “Okay, asshole,” Shrimp drawled. “Move it.”
It wasn't clear if the bandits knew about Tiger's ability, or if they were exploiting him simply because he was an expendable body. He decided to feign normality as they prodded him south and east, up the long slope to the train tracks. A sizable cluster of gravitational traps littered the hill, and among them a lone body could be seen. “That's him,” Vasya grunted. “Go on.”
Tiger didn't need any encouragement. He could feel the anomalies' deadly energy, as well as a couple of blips produced by artifacts drifting between them. Walking slowly, he zigzagged into the field – stooping here, edging sideways there. Impatient rookies would throw bolts to trip the anomalies, then clumsily dash past in the scant moments before they reset. It was their own fault they had to spend so much time trying to catch artifacts as the precious oddities ricocheted madly about.
One of the blips collided with Tiger's shin, manifesting itself as a Jellyfish. He quickly tucked the grayish lump into his thickest coat pocket and covered the last stretch without looking back, Southpaw's skeptical question echoing in his head: “What if you ran into somebody totally implacable, some kind of psycho who wanted to mess you up no matter what?”
Drifter had apparently been shot in the back and crawled several meters prior to expiring, and now he was cold and stiff. Gripping the fallen stalker's arm with care, Tiger turned him so that his gas mask faced the clouds and began to search his pockets. The papers from the stash were safe and dry, though creased by hasty folding. Flipping through the first few, the loner confirmed their identity before pocketing the lot. Having also claimed Drifter's PDA, he turned his attention to the problem of escape. The dead stalker's bandoleer was filled with stripper clips for an SKS, but the carbine itself wasn't with him. He must have dropped it before he wandered into the anomalies. His pistol was in its place, however, as were its magazines.
“Come on, shithead!” Vasya yelled. “Get back here!”
Bending swiftly, Tiger reached and pulled. The gun came out smoothly: a SIG-Sauer with worn edges and grimy masking tape around the grip. Ignoring the startled yell from Shrimp, the abused stalker turned, pointed and opened fire. A lucky bullet struck Shrimp in the arm, forcing him to drop his shotgun. He danced about, howling while his attacker turned the pistol on Vasya. The bandit veteran threw himself to the ground, evading the hasty shots and bringing up his own Skorpion. The entire magazine's contents whizzed overhead as Tiger tore the bandoleer from Drifter's body, slung it over his shoulder and ran.
| 06:10:06 22 October 2009
On forum: 07/30/2007
Message edited by:
The Man From S.M.L.E.|
Up the embankment Tiger ran, crossing the tracks, hopping the wire fence and tumbling down the much steeper south side in mere seconds. He'd forgotten what it was like to run without the weight of all one's essentials on board. Scrambling back onto his feet, he ducked past another gravity trap and took shelter in the shadow of the locomotive which sat there. Here was one of those wonders of the Zone: a boxy green diesel sitting perfectly upright as if some great force had carefully lifted it from the tracks, though its frame was warped and dented by years of exposure to violent anomalous energies.
The battered loner quickly assessed his ersatz hardware. The P220 was an old model, a nine millimeter with the magazine catch at the heel of the butt. He had two full magazines and one empty, giving him a total ammunition supply of eighteen cartridges. They were plain full metal jacket rounds, so he'd have to make each one count. Tiger reloaded, wincing when he inadvertently pinched a finger, and resumed his flight.
The stalker kept bearing south-southeast, passing over low hills sparsely dotted with trees, bushes and weak anomalies. Coming onto the dirt road from the tunnel which led to the Darkscape and Dark Valley, he followed it down the last slope and into the abandoned garage through which it ran. The garage was a dismal place: a few derelict cars and trucks left to rust among buildings with brick walls partially demolished by the ravages of time. It belonged to no faction, though loners and bandits alike were known to take shelter here.
Tiger sensed three others in the place, all gathered in the tall building on his left. He would have passed them by entirely, had he not stumbled across the seven dead bandits piled by the truck just inside the garage exit. Clearly he wasn't the only one having trouble with the Zone's criminal elements today. The neutral stalker listened for a few seconds, just in case those nearby were more individuals of the thieving persuasion, then moved in. “Hello..?”
“Hold it.” A hard-faced rookie with a sawed-off hunting shotgun appeared: Petruha, one of Wolf's scouts. “Oh, it's you,” he said curtly. “What do you want?”
“I was passing by,” Tiger replied innocently. “What's going on?”
“Bandits moved in last night,” Petruha explained. “At dawn they hit some of ours, killed two and took Nimble prisoner. We set up on the hill back there and watched for a while, then Wolf sent over some new guy to help get our man back. He told us he'd take out the bandits by himself – we figured he was crazy, but we let him go. Five minutes later, Nimble comes out. Five minutes after that, Rambo comes out with a sack of stuff he took off the bandits. Not a scratch on him... Now we're just keeping an eye on the place until some of the boys come back from the Garbage.”
“I see... Is Nimble back at the camp now?”
The scout shrugged. “Probably. If you want to know for sure, go ask Wolf and leave us be.”
“I will, thanks.” Tiger briefly looked around, evaluating the stalkers' defenses. “There are more bandits beyond the tracks. You should post a lookout.”
Petruha was already heading back to the campfire. “Yeah, we'll get to it.”
A brisk walk conveyed Tiger across the main road and down into the loner camp in the village. Ignoring the suspicious look cast by the novice standing guard at the entrance, he went straight to the communal fire pit. “You don't look so good,” Wolf declared when he arrived. “What happened?”
“Bandits,” Tiger answered shortly. “I need to see Nimble.”
“He's taking a nap,” said the camp leader. “Can it wait a bit?”
“Sure.” It wasn't as if he had much else to do. “By the way, who killed the bandits at the garage? Petruha wasn't feeling talkative.”
“Oh, you saw that? Pretty impressive, huh? Marked One cleaned 'em out fast.”
Tiger squinted. “Marked One?”
“You haven't heard about our grand mystery, have you? A corpse carrier had a smash-up coming down from the Garbage last night. Buzzard found a live guy in the wreckage and brought him in.”
Buzzard wore a long coat, carried a Vintorez and earned his name from the way he methodically searched the corpses of others for things of value. There were some who joked that he was a necrophiliac, but Tiger knew better. “I saw the death truck,” he replied, “and some bodies. Somebody actually survived that crash?”
Wolf nodded. “First time I've ever heard of it happening,” said he. “Damned creepy, if you ask me.”
“So who is the lucky man?”
“Nobody knows, not even himself – he's lost his memory.”
“Hm...” Obviously the stranger must bear the same tattoo which Worm had been so interested in, hence the nickname. This complicated things – how much, Tiger still couldn't say. “What does he look like? Maybe I know him.”
“Well, he's kind of scrawny and looks half-asleep most of the time. His hair is cut real short, with a receding hairline, but he doesn't seem that old...”
“I don't recognize that,” the loner admitted. “Where is he now?”
“Off running errands for Sidorovich. Try asking him.”
“All right.” Tiger resumed his walk. “When Nimble wakes up, tell him to wait for me.”
Sidorovich – it was the only name most of them knew him by – was something of a distasteful legend among the stalkers. Not because he'd found a cure for baldness and kept it to himself, or because he was never, ever seen leaving his bunker, but because he always managed to meet the terms of his agreements while leaving the other party feeling totally ripped off. He occupied a necessary niche in the Zone community, however, and he'd been occupying it for a long time. “So,” the trader rumbled, flicking stray crumbs off his vest as shrewd eyes appraised his visitor, “what's new, stalker?”
Tiger placed the SIG-Sauer, the SKS ammunition and the Jellyfish on the counter between the two. “I need a rifle.”
“You had a rifle,” Sidorovich pointed out. “What gives?”
“Vasya Boar and his friends took it.” A muscle in Tiger's face twitched at the memory. “And everything else. They also killed another stalker.”
Sidorovich didn't speak right away. “Well,” he said at last, “what do you want me to say? I hear the same from everyone nowadays – Borov's all but declared war on the free stalkers. Did you expect to be able to get by on your high-class manners forever?”
“It doesn't matter now,” said Tiger sharply. “Do you have one or not?”
“You think I get much demand for old stuff like that? The ones who buy shooters here all want fancy stuff – full auto, all the bells and whistles.” Sidorovich waved towards the customized Groza clamped to the workbench behind himself.
“I suppose I'll just have to look somewhere else,” the loner sighed. “See you la – ”
The trader raised a hand. “Not so fast,” said he. “As it so happens, I have one in stock... But it's a rare piece, and the value is, ahem, a little higher than what you brought in.”
“It's all I've got,” Tiger answered. “Any jobs you need done?”
“I'm not exactly short of help at the moment.” Sidorovich sat back in his chair. “Already got a gofer hard at work, you see.”
“I heard,” said Tiger bluntly. “You're taking advantage of the amnesiac from the death truck.”
“Now, now.” The fat man tried very hard to look more dignified and less greasy than he actually was. “It's an arrangement for mutual benefit: I want to open a path to the north and he wants to find Strelok, who's supposed to have already been there... You've heard the rumors about Strelok, I'm sure.”
“Yes.” Rumors were all anyone knew of the man, said to be an elusive veteran who worked the dangerous borderlands beyond the Zone's charted parts. “What does this Marked One want with him?”
“No idea,” Sidorovich admitted. “When he was brought in, all he had was a PDA. All that was on the PDA was a message: 'Kill Strelok.'”
“Huh.” Tiger opted to feign loss of interest. “So what do I have to do to get that rifle?”
“I suppose I can grant a one-time discount,” the trader grunted. “I mean, you've always been reliable in the past, and I like people who are reliable... But there's one condition.”
“Stop playing the knight-errant.” There was a loud scraping as Sidorovich pushed his chair back and stood up. “The next time you see a bandit, you blow his head off. Deal?”
Rarely had Tiger ever been so amenable to one of the old weasel's proposals. “Deal.”
“Good boy.” Sidorovich gathered the stalker's offerings and carried them into the back. He returned with a Lee-Enfield, the first Tiger had seen outside of a television screen or a museum display. “This came to me as a trade-in,” Sidorovich commented. “I don't know much about it, but I'm told the other side used 'em in Afghanistan. It's been reworked to fire our native ammo, so you won't be scrounging around for cartridges nobody's ever heard of.” He handed the old piece over the counter, followed by a small can of protective solution and a handful of loaded stripper clips. “There's a cleaning kit and an instruction sheet inside the butt. It should be enough to get you back on the road.”
“Thank you.” Tiger slung the rifle across his back, pocketed the small items and hustled out before the trader could retroactively modify the terms of their transaction. Time to find a cozy attic and hunker down for a while.
The instruction sheet turned out to be more like a booklet, rolled around a barrel brush and some other accessories and crammed into a narrow storage compartment. When Tiger finally wiggled it out of that recess, he additionally discovered that the illustrations were grainy and the text was a less than fluent translation. It was enough to get him acquainted with the features which his old Mosin didn't possess, including a detachable magazine, a flip-up aperture sight and an actual safety catch. Overall this seemed to be a solid – and heavy – piece of work, though the presence of a prominent U.S. PROPERTY stamp left the stalker scratching his head: wasn't it a British weapon?
He decided that wasn't important and turned his attention to the few items he'd snatched from Drifter's body. The PDA was no use – unlike Worm, Drifter had encrypted everything. Taking out the papers, he found that the first was a hastily written note: Nimble, it read, after you meet the courier, bring this material to the fallback point. Be quick, but be discrete. –Suslov
As the stalker unfolded the next document, two well-creased monochrome photograph prints fell out. The first image depicted part of the abandoned radar transmitter which lay to the north, in the unknown lands. Tiger recognized it easily, having driven past it many times in his former life, though he'd never been assigned to work on the actual site. Someone had circled a detail in the background with a blue felt-tip pen, labeling it with an arrow and a number, but the image quality was too poor to make out exactly what was significant there. The annotator had also scrawled a few words on the reverse. The letters were faded to the point of illegibility, but the three exclamation marks at the tail implied great importance.
The other photo was another matter. It showed a barren, parched landscape, thinly populated by dead bushes. A line of utility poles with power lines ran across the backdrop. Just to the left of center was a free-standing structure comprised of ribbed upper and lower hemispheres, held together by some kind of strut arrangement in a roughly spherical configuration, atop a cylindrical pedestal. The back of the picture bore another barely legible note: Same as at AES.
Tiger shivered, the pleasantly warm weather be damned. Though he had no idea what the object in the photograph was or where it was located, he knew one thing for certain: there were no such structures at the VI Lenin Atomic Electricity Station when he was on payroll, and there should be none there now. The implication that somebody had somehow constructed something at the nuclear plant in the six years since the second disaster deeply unsettled him.
Unsettled or not, he couldn't glean anything more from the pictures. He set them aside and went back to the papers from among which the images had appeared. The rest of Drifter's haul consisted of terse strings of text – neatly handwritten, unlike on the photos – which looked as if they had been jotted down as a record of numerous communications.
The story unfolded as Tiger read through them one by one: Marked One, whoever he really was, wasn't the first to chase the legendary Strelok. Clear Sky had been on his tail once, and they had come close to catching him. Their motive wasn't immediately clear, but Tiger gathered that they believed it was imperative that Strelok be prevented from reaching the center of the Zone. The record was frustratingly scant of specifics, with mercenary contracts, gigantic blowouts, the hunting of Strelok's friends and the existence of an alternate path to the north all being mentioned in the vaguest of terms.
Tiger read everything a second time, then put the documents away with care. Leaning back against the rough brick of the decaying house's chimney, he closed his eyes and gingerly felt his aching cheek. Every answer he uncovered seemed to spawn a dozen new questions to pursue. A part of him wished he could forget it all, leave this mystery behind and go back to his simple wanderer's life. Another part of him already understood that it was impossible to turn his back on the sacrifices of Worm and Drifter now, that greater things were at stake than he could have foreseen.
He was still pondering that question when a voice caught his ear several minutes later. “Hey Nimble,” one of the faceless rookies by the fireplace called, “whatcha got?”
“It's a reinforced jacket,” the man answered proudly. “A nice guy swiped it from a bandit stash for me. Sweet, huh?”
“Totally... It's bulletproof?”
“Sure is. Throw me a light, will you?”
“Nimble,” Wolf cut in, “I believe Tiger wanted to see you.”
“Oh? Where's he at?”
“Somewhere around camp. Wait a minute and he'll probably turn up.”
That was Tiger's cue. As he mounted the ladder which connected his perch to solid ground, the answer to his self-addressed question suddenly became crystal clear.
| 15:00:59 22 October 2009
On forum: 10/11/2008
Very good! Keep it up! |
Question though, are you going to follow the storyline in ShoC regarding the Marked One? You know he killing every one, and finding you know who to be a controllers bitch or is it going to be different?