Chapter 10

Once again Nadovev found himself standing in dark limbo. This time he was in a room that had no features. The walls and ceiling were beyond his view. Everything was covered in a dark shadow that prevented him from viewing his surroundings. Looking down, he saw that his hands were together holding something. He felt a warm touch in his hands and saw a bright orange light. The light radiated magnificence. He could not see what it was that he held, only the light it gave off. Without knowing what it was, he knew it was important. He knew the object in his hands was more important than his own life. But, he did not know what to do with it.

            A door made of white light appeared to his left. Then a door made of white light appeared to his right. Two doors were before him. Something made him feel as though he had to choose between these two doors. These two doors represented a choice, a monumentally important choice. He didn’t know where each door lead too, but he knew he had to choose one. If he didn’t know, then how was he supposed to make a choice? His mind stood still stuck on this question, his mind hazy like a dream.

            He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know which path to take. Somehow he knew that time was running out and that he had to make a choice. He looked down at the glowing orange light in his hands. He became angry at it for not knowing what to do. Frustration and anger clouded his mind to the decision before him. He fought the urge to smash the still unseen object upon the ground. He knew he couldn’t do that. Yet he also didn’t know what else he could do.

            This decision somehow felt like it was going to be the death of him. He got the feeling that time was running out to make the decision. He looked up at the doors knowing that he had to make the decision now. If he didn’t, all was lost to him, and he couldn’t let that happen. For some reason everything depended on him. If he failed in this decision, then everything he knew would be lost. Lost in a darkness forever. Now was the moment he had to make a choice. Now or unending catastrophe…

Nadovev woke with a start as Iosif was shaking him. He was lying on the dirt ground facing up. He suddenly remembered where he was. He was at the Prism Spring Anomaly field. He suddenly remembered being caught in an anomaly and thrown up into the air expecting death. But here he was on the ground fully alive, albeit with a headache and bruises. What the hell happened? he thought, am I still alive? he asked himself, or am I dead? He certainly felt gravity holding him down on the ground. His hands were at his sides and he was looking up at Iosif and Camera standing over him. Suddenly his sense of hearing returned.

            “Nadovev, get up! Wake up!” Iosif was practically yelling in his ear.

            “Yes, yes, I’m here,” Nadovev assured him. The sun was in his eyes. He sat up to find his head was swimming with pain. His back wasn’t feeling much better. He held his head in his right hand. The last thing he remembered was being thrown up in the air by the anomaly, “what happened to me?” he asked.

            “You got caught in an anomaly,” Camera told him, “we saw you get sucked into it and thrown up into the air. We expected you to be torn apart at any moment. Instead, there was a ‘burst’ within the anomaly and you were thrown clear of it. You were slammed into the ground pretty hard from what we saw. Are you alright?”

            His head was still pounding, “I’ve got a hell of a headache, but I think I’ll make it,” Nadovev said. He struggled to his feet feeling dizzy, “how long was I out?” he asked. Iosif pulled him up with one hand.

            “Less than a minute,” Iosif said, “I managed to save the water.”

            “Good,” Nadovev said, “Let’s get going. We don’t have time to waste.”

            “Sure you don’t want a few moments to rest?” Arkady asked.

            Iosif handed Nadovev his canteen, then he took a drink. The water from the Prismatic Spring felt cool and refreshing going down his throat. He had forgotten how wonderfully clean the water was here. The water itself almost cleared his head entirely. He wondered for a moment of it might have medicinal qualities to it. He looked up into the unusually visible sunlight. It was beautiful, so rare to find in the Zone. A part of him wanted to stay here a while and rest. He also got the feeling that he could get stuck here, unwilling to leave. We have to go on, he thought.

            “No, I’m good, let’s go,” Nadovev answered.

            With that Iosif handed everyone back their canteens. They gathered up their gear and made their way out. Nadovev was still in a bit of shock about the fact that he’d almost died. It still didn’t make any sense to him. He should have been torn apart in that anomaly, but instead it threw him clear. It didn’t make any sense. He was accustomed to strange things happening in the Zone, but this felt different. Something he couldn’t explain, something that had him worried. He admonished himself, he should be thankful that he was alive.

            As they headed out, they stepped into the tree line once again on the opposite side from where they emerged. The sky once again took on the familiar permanent overcast that they were accustomed to. The light level dropped as they left the anomaly field. Nadovev looked back at it for a moment, then he turned and walked away towards their next destination. During this portion of their journey they’d be walking through the woods once again.

On the move once more they were. The men of Radiochemical Company were making their way through the Baltoc Forest towards their goal of Limansk. The forest had a mix of red and green leaves hanging from the tall thick trees. The image didn’t seem odd to them, but they still wondered if it was. They couldn’t say they knew anything about nature and what trees grew where. They also didn’t think such knowledge would matter here in the Zone, where things made little sense often enough. The trees looked healthy anyway. They had strong root systems that sometimes poked out of the ground, creating a trip hazard. There wasn’t much in lower vegetation due to the lack of sunlight. The trees seemed to act like plant umbrellas blocking out what little sun there was. It made the forest all that much darker. There were, however, areas where the ground was covered in dried fallen leaves.

            The whole place felt as uncomfortable as the forest outside Skadovsk. Nadovev didn’t much care for the forest in the Zone. They provided too much potential cover for approaching animals and bandits… and other much worse things. A brisk wind was making its way through causing a rustling sound from all the greenery. In brief moments, his sense of hearing was temporarily seized by the surrounding plant life. The sound of the forest was broken only by irregular beeps coming from their anomaly detectors. Nadovev knew that he was going to really have to have his wits about him, all of them were really; as they approached closer to their goal. Again, in this forest as the last, he felt as if they were not alone. The truth is, you never were.

            Nadovev reminded himself that they were nearly there. Once they had entered the town they’d only have to find the entrance to the… whatever it was. Thankfully Limansk was only a town and not a city. If that had been the case, they wouldn’t have the manpower to find it. Worry began to creep into his mind. They’d already run into Freedom during their travel. He also knew that Duty was set upon reaching the same goal. In his mind, he played great visions of multiple factions all meeting up in one place to have one big shoot out. While the idea might make for a good scene, (maybe even some fun,) it was a very serious deadly problem. Every faction outnumbered and outgunned them. He was beginning to think that the client had been absolutely mad to only hire the five of them.

            Regardless, they had accepted the job and intended to carry it through. Nadovev had a deep feeling that something much more was at play here than they were unaware of. This whole job began to reek of conspiracy. He figured someone somewhere knows what this artifact is, and more importantly, how valuable it is. This whole job was getting worse by the day. They were encountering greater obstacles as time when on. The introduction of factions was complicating things further. At best they could hope for some luck to out maneuver them. They stood no chance in a battle against them.

            With Nadovev leading the way, Camera sped up and approached him. The two men walked side by side as Camera began a conversation in private.

            “How long have you been having the dreams?” Camera asked him in a whisper.

            “What are talking about?” Nadovev answered him, “I haven’t been having any dreams.”

            Camera gave him an annoyed look, “oh please we can see you every night tossing and turning muttering in your sleep. It’s obvious that that you’re having vivid dreams that are disturbing you. What’s going on?”

            “Fine,” Nadovev answered, “but we keep this between us alright?” Camera nodded in agreement. “Ever since we took this job I’ve been having dreams that appear to be flashes into the future. I see things that maybe are going to happen, and then I wake up. At first I just assumed that I was worried about stuff. Particularly, Arkady. But then they started being more cryptic. It’s like the dreams are trying to tell me something, or warn me about things to come. The images don’t make any sense to me, though. I wish I knew what they meant, if they mean anything.”

            “Do you ever see how anything ends?” Camera asked.

            “No,” Nadovev took a frustrated breath, “I never see how it turns out.”

            “I suppose there’s nothing I can do to help you,” Camera told him, “but let me know if they get worse okay?”

            “Sure,” Nadovev told him.

            They marched on, Camera falling back to his original place in line. He’d certainly given Nadovev something to think about. He’d hadn’t given the dreams much thought. He’d simply assumed that they were, as he told Camera, the products of a worried mind. After all, he was worried, tremendously worried. He’d never put much stock in dreams meaning anything at all. Not even notions of the subconscious expressing itself when unhindered. Now, however, he was questioning a lot of what he didn’t know about dreams and what they meant. Truth was, he didn’t have the time to think about such things. His leadership skills and guidance were much too important right now.

            Arakady looked at his brother-in-law as he spoke to Camera. He was worried about him. The near fatal incident with the anomaly back in the Prismatic Spring gave him quite a fright. By his reputation, mostly fueled by their family, he had seemed invincible. An unstoppable brave explorer who could go anywhere, do anything, and survive any danger. He was held up as a fearless individual. A real world Superman if you will. Now he’d seen him as a living, breathing mortal person. Some-one that could die, someone that was afraid – someone that was human. Arkday placed a lot of faith in Nadovev in being able to get them through this. But now that image was cracked like a portrait that had fallen to the ground.

            “Wait,” Camera called, “I hear something.” He put his fist up indicating that everyone stop and get down. The squad obeyed while Camera looked around and listened carefully. He looked down the scope of his Dragonov and scanned the woods. Left and right, he aimed his rifle. In the middle of taking another sweep he stopped dead, “a squad of Duty,” he explained.

            They were all walking in a group seeming to head their way. They were hard to see with their black uniforms, but the red stripes on their fronts stuck out in a way that an experienced spotter would recognise. Their gear looked heavy and they had a good amount of firepower with them. They mostly had AKS-74s, but a few of them had the much more advanced AN-94 “Abakan”. They also had at least one sniper with a weapon Camera couldn’t make out. They came fully armed expecting a fight.

            Nadovev hurried over to him, keeping low, “how many?” he asked. Nadovev watched Camera’s mouth move as he counted up the number of Duty soldiers he could see. As far as he could tell there were about twenty five of them, maybe more of them in the back that he couldn’t see.

            “Twenty five or more, heavily armed,” he told Nadovev.

            He wiped his face, “okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Nadovev told the group, “we’re going to avoid them since we’re not a match for them.” The squad seemed to be enthusiastic in that decision. It would be near suicidal to go up against a squad that big, that well armed, without some serious cover.

            “Problem is they’re kind of headed this way,” Camera continued, “at this rate we’re going to be meeting up at the same point in about twenty minutes or so. They’re coming in from another angle, but they’re still going to find us eventually.”

            Nadovev spit on the ground, “alright, what can we do about it? A deviation really isn’t a good idea when we’re this close to Limansk. One wrong move and we’re going to end up in the river. Or we may end up on the shore having to walk along it until we find a way across. Doing that, we’re sitting ducks for our competition to kill.”

            “I have an idea,” Camera said to the group, “but it’s pretty risky.”

            Nadovev waved his hand in mock surrender, “let’s hear it,” he said in a defeated tone.

            “I can take off by myself, and try and flank them. Sneak around to the other side from where we are now and snipe one of them. Doing that they’re going to stop to look for who fired the shot. I’ll immediately backtrack around where I came from, take a slight detour to avoid the Duty soldiers searching, and meet you at the coordinates that we were going to exit the woods at,” Camera checked his PDA, “check point seventeen.”

            “That’s one hell of a risk there Camera,” Nadovev said.

            “Yeah, that’s actually pretty crazy, man,” Ricky piped in.

            Camera looked Nadovev straight in the eyes and said, “I can do this. I’ve done something similar before and it worked out fine. I’ll be careful, I’ll watch my back, I’ll keep focus, take it one step at a time, and I’ll give it a hundred and ten percent. Alright?”

            Nadovev breathed a sigh of frustration, “fine, but leave some of your gear with us so that you can move more lightly.”

            Camera began to take off his rucksack and drop some of his gear off his harness. He stripped down to the bare essentials and handed the rest off to the squad. He checked his Dragonov, then his side arm.

            “You’re really going to try this?” Ricky asked. The whole plan seemed crazy to him. If they got a bead on his location, they could swarm and surround him in no time flat. Then he’d most certainly be dead.

            “Watch me,” he winked at Ricky and took off on the path leading around the distant Duty squad.

            Nadovev climbed back to his feet, “alright, now we double-time it to the edge of the woods, follow me.” he broke off into a run and heard the others do the same. Camera had better watch his ass, he thought. This is such a stupid risky move, the boy might be trying to get himself killed. Truth was, Camera had no such intention. His only desire was to make sure they got into Limansk first.

Camera was off at full speed trying to get around the Duty squad before they noticed him. He plowed his way through the trees, dodging them left and right. With each step he flattened grass that sprang back up as he made his way. Once in a while he stomped through an area of leaves, making that distinctive crunching sound. He’d always loved that sound as a child. It was one of his favourite things to do, jumping in a pile of leaves in the fall. Good times, he thought to himself as he leaped over a few rocks.

            This was no playtime, he was out on a serious task here. It’d been quite a while since he’d been on his own. He’d stuck with Nadovev the first time he asked him to come along for his sniping skills two years ago. Back then he’d been a freelance sniper for whoever had the rubles. Mainly he’d gotten paid to carry out vendettas for one small group of Stalkers on another. The big factions always had their own people. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable job, and it paid barely enough to keep himself in diet sausages, but he’d been his own boss. Then he’d met up with Nadovev and decided to say with him. Since then, he’d never steered him wrong.

            Except maybe I’ve steered myself wrong now, he thought. This is a hell of a risk I’m taking, he thought as he ran past a cluster of trees. Keeping at top speed, Camera ducked under a low hanging branch. He kept checking the ground looking for exposed tree roots, he knew there were plenty around here. But, I’m the right man for the job, and this is the only way, he reminded himself. Nadovev had always been there for him, and now he was going to be there for him. This is Radiochemical Company god damn it, it’s my home. He pushed on trying to keep ahead of Duty.

            Captain Mikalish was proud of himself for commanding his first serious mission. He looked over the Duty squad he had with pride. Each of these men were personally chosen by him. He’d assembled the best squad that he’d ever seen during his career in Duty. He knew each of these men and their abilities. He was determined to make a name for himself in the organization. The generals pretty much said that it was his time to prove himself when they assigned him this mission. For the Captain, failure certainly was not an option.

            The men marched in formation with precision. Men marched with their weapons held in the appropriation position, so they could be fired in a sudden engagement. Each one was a highly trained and disciplined individual. They were the best that Duty had to offer. The Captain knew he needed it. This mission from the outset had weird written all over it. His objective was to secure an unknown facility, and obtain an unknown artifact. Both of which may or may not exist. At first he thought it was a test, to see what he’d do in a no-win situation. However, they had made it clear that he was not to fail. Supposedly-according to his mission briefing-some intelligence had been gathered about the location and the supposed artifact. With nothing to go on, they assigned him the task of investigating the intelligence about a place and a thing they may not even exist.

            The higher-ups told him to expect Freedom to be actively seeking the same. Standing orders were to shoot to kill if they attempt to interfere with the operation. They’re also under orders to kill anyone else who attempts to interfere. Intelligence suggested that mercenaries will also be in operation in the area, possibly Ukrainian military as well. He was ready for them, he’d taken the men on extra drills to prepare for the worst the enemy could throw at them.

            The artifact was said to be of grave importance to the balance of power in the Zone. If the enemy was to obtain it, they could be looking at the destruction of their faction. How they know this without knowing what the artifact is, the Captain had no idea.

            Regardless, he intended to carry out the mission with all seriousness, even if just to put a shine on his emerging service record. He thought back to his training days. All the marches in the mud, all the close calls he survived, all the advice he got from various commanding officers. All of it was leading up to this point in his career where he was going to make his mark, cement his spot in the Duty officer corps. If this artifact was as valuable as they say, it could definitely earn him a promotion. Major Mikalish, he liked the sound of that.

            All I have to do is stay focused on the goal, maybe a little bit of luck, and I’ll be handed the promotion, he told himself. This was going to be his day.

Camera started slowing down, he was getting closer to the Duty squad and had to start using noise discipline. Creeping along through the woods, he kept a sharp eye on where he expected them to be. He’d lost sight of them sneaking around, but kept their location in his mind. It was important to break line of sight when he was this close. All they had to do was detect him and he was a dead man. He was up against some serious numerical superiority here. He only needed to sneak close enough to get a shot, then take off back to the arraigned meeting point.

            He crouched beside a tree just peeking around it. According to his calculation, the Duty squad should be coming through the small clearing a bit of a ways off any moment now. He listened carefully to the sounds of the woods. He was trying to detect any small change that might tip him off to something unexpected going on. He’d learned the skill from his father the hunter. When he was a child his father would take him hunting and teach him all the secrets that his father had taught him. Now Camera put those same skills to the test in the Zone. A far more unpredictable place. He often wondered if his father would have been proud of him. Unfortunately he had lost him to lung cancer many years ago. The memory was still a bit raw.

            His thoughts suddenly stopped. He’d heard a noise in the near distance. It sounded like feet walking through fallen leaves. The Duty squad was right on schedule. They were just about to enter the clearing he was anticipating. He checked over his Dragonov one last time to see if there was anything he neglected. He absolutely could not afford to miss this shot. Satisfied that everything was in order, he knelt down on one knee assuming the position. He brought the rifle up to his cheek and his eye. He shook out his shoulders and settled in using the tree to lean on. He began to control his breathing. Slow, deep breaths in and out to slow his heart rate. He peered down the scope and waited for the squad to walk in front of his sights.

            Slowly, the Duty squad made its appearance. One by one they came into view. His aim drifted from one man to another as he made his decision which one to shoot. He watched the gas masked faces pass him quietly. Which one? he asked himself, which one of these men’s day am I going to ruin? His aim shifted back and forth as he searched for someone who looked like they deserved it. Their machine gunner? Their sniper? That would be appropriate, eliminating their best chance to get him back. So it was settled, their sniper was going down.

            He settled in his aim and brought the crosshairs over the Duty sniper. Taking one deep breath and exhaling it – he pulled the trigger.

Captain Mikalish was moving back in his squad checking the men over making sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing. As he moved among his men he suddenly got a bad feeling. In the back of his mind, he had this weird itch that said they were being followed. Every teacher of tactics he’d ever had told him to trust his instincts. However, he didn’t want to seem paranoid his first time out. He couldn’t very well call the march to a halt based on nothing. Thus, he had no choice but to fall into self-doubt. He couldn’t decide what to do.

            A loud shot rang out from the distance. Two meters away the squad’s sniper’s head jerked back in a red puff of blood and fell to the ground. The squad hit the deck and some of them returned fire in the general direction of the shot. Two men crawled over to the fallen sniper trying to administer aid, not realizing he was already dead.

            “Four o’clock!” the Captain yelled out to the squad. Fire from the Duty squad increased, “does anyone see the shooter!?” he called out. Around him men answered in the negative, no one saw the shot.

            Camera broke out into a run completely dropping noise discipline. He pumped his legs harder than he ever remembered pumping them before. He cut a path around the squad at a distance where the planned it. If all went well he’d be avoiding Duty completely. Camera ran with an admirable swiftness. He glided light as air over exposed tree roots. He dodged trees and low hanging branches, like a fighter jet chasing an enemy through a canyon.

            Making his way between two trees, Camera could hear Duty’s men up and running after him in the distance. His heart thundered in his chest. He turned sharply to throw them off his trail. He ran for a bit more then looped around again to confuse his path even more. After a few minutes he changed direction again and headed off towards his own squad. Smiling to himself, he left Duty far behind.