Chapter 11

The men of Radiochemical Company sat among some bushes at the edge of the tree line between the Baltoc Forest and Limansk. Staying in cover, they waited for Camera to appear after carrying out his diversion on the Duty squad. They were nervous, it was a hell of a risk he was taking in order to throw them off their trail. Nadovev had some doubt that Camera could pull it off. They knelt down in silence, listening for the smallest sign that he was coming. All they could hear were gunshots that sounded like they were coming from AK variants. As long as they could hear shots, then they knew Camera was still alive and running.

            After several minutes the shooting died down, “this isn’t good,” Arakdy being the first to speak out, “how do we know if he got away?” he was tearing up a leaf from the bushes in his hand out of nervousness. “How do we know if he made it?”

            “Camera will make it,” Nadovev said, “he’s been though tough spots before.” Nadovev was putting on a false bravado, he knew how bad this was, what a risk Camera was taking. He’d be extremely lucky to make it out of that alive.

            More time passed in silence. Nadovev was really starting to worry. The combination of anticipation and idleness was a dangerous mix that ruined men’s minds. After a few more minutes they began to hear someone running through the brush. They trained their weapons on the source of the noise and waited. It sounded like it was only a single person. A couple of meters away Camera ran out of the woods and skidded to a halt outside the tree line.

            Ricky spotted him right away, “Camera! Get over here!” Seeing his comrades, he ran over and joined the group. His face and body was drenched in sweat from the run. His breathing was harder than an asthmatic. Camera rubbed his legs trying to make the lactic acid in his overstrained muscles dissipate. They were hurting quite a bit, rarely had he ever pushed himself that hard running. He felt like he was going to collapse.

            “Did you get it done?” Nadovev asked visibly relieved.

            Camera was too out of breath to answer. He simply nodded his head. He quickly reached over to Iosif and tore his canteen from his pack. He almost broke the screw top off trying to get it open. Gulping down the fresh clean water was the best sensation he’d had in a long time. He’d trade that for sex any day. His overworked body was begging for water desperately. His head ached with the effects of dehydration. The relief he felt was overwhelming. He was still in a bit of shock that he’d come through that encounter alive, even unscathed.

            The squad allowed him to collapse on the ground for fifteen minutes while he recovered. They all looked at him in admiration for what he managed to accomplish. Even Ricky was willing to pay respect. Nadovev made a mental note to never doubt the sniper again.

            “Astounding,” Iosif said, “simply astounding.”

            As time passed while Camera rested, the squad noticed the sky was becoming dark. Increasingly, very quickly the sky turned into a midnight black. As the darkness crept across the sky the whole atmosphere had changed. Where once relief marked everyone’s hearts, everything had become laden with foreboding.  Arkady felt as though death itself was creeping up on them. Nadovev couldn’t recall anything like this happening before. The sun had set in only fifteen minutes. This development caused the hairs on their necks to stand up. Nadovev looked down at his PDA and saw that it was only 18:34. The night didn’t just show up whenever it wanted. Something frighteningly supernatural was going on.

            The more the job dragged on, the more things became disturbing. The closer they approached the objective, the more intense events became. Everything seemed like it was condensing. All of the turmoil, violence, and fear which permeated everything – was condensing into this one small town where it was all going to come to a head. This feeling alone lets them know they were entering the endgame. The very worst that events had to offer were going to occur here. The anticipation and intensity in the air was thick enough to clog your lungs. Apprehension among the men was growing. The thought of death occurring, became an increasing possibility.

            Nadovev was the first to stand up and shake out his legs. He rolled his head a few times working any tight muscles in his neck. He checked his AK 74 looking over it for any defects or damage. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. With his free hand, he waved the rest of the squad up. They rose at their leader’s command ready as they’d ever be; to take on whatever the Zone, fate, or whatever was going to throw at them. They steeled their nerves in preparation for the worst. Camera stood up flipping his Dragonov  to the ready. Now was the time…

            Beginning at a jog the squad made their way into the town. Camera had researched it beforehand, giving the data to Nadovev. They were well aware that this town served as housing for people who had worked on top-secret projects in the Zone. With that in mind, they should expect to find the hidden place they were looking for there. It was only a matter of actually finding it. Both Nadovev and Camera had agreed that there were probably more dangers lurking around many corners. God only knew what they might find here. There were likely some laboratories, or bunkers that contained really awful stuff that they didn’t want to deal with. They also knew that they weren’t very far from at least one “brain scorcher.” Those things have a nasty ability to create psychic creatures.

            They began pouring down the street beginning their search. Their surroundings were mostly two story condo-like dwellings. There were several blocks of these condos all arranged in an odd diagonal pattern with an open park in the center. Even in the darkness, they could make out the vague shapes of playground equipment and park benches. All of them lonely shadows.

            The condos were nicer than most of the homes they’d already seen. From what they could see in the dark, they were a soft offish red, pleasing to the eyes. Rounded archways made of tan stucco marked the entrance to the different condo clusters. Most of them were five side by side, connected together by wrought iron balconies. Grey concrete steps were in front of each unit leading the way to their front doors. Rotted brass numbers were bolted next to each door.

            Heavy booted feet rang out on the pavement as the squad made their way down the line of condos. Each of their steps echoing in the darkness. Visibility was low, cut like a nasty piece of black lace laid over their eyes and hearts. All around they could barely feel the presence of the buildings. Most of it felt empty, like the homes themselves were illusions; fading as they moved. The whole experience was unnerving. This was some awful territory they did not want to be in.

            Ricky became nervous. He felt as if eyes were watching them from the surrounding darkness. Hidden things ready to jump out and attack them, should the mood simply strike them. The dark was a terrible fear for him. The unknown, not having the knowledge of his surroundings made him feel hollow and lost. Like a child who had suddenly lost their parents in a big crowd. Everyone was everywhere; but they were no one. Ricky stayed unusually close to the squad out of this fear. Its root was dug deep within his subconscious, over some incident that took place decades ago. The solid memory of it – far out of reach of a quick recall. Maybe something primal, a remnant from our more primal times. Whatever it was, Ricky hated it. He hated any sense of weakness or fear that crept its way into his mind.

            Arkady was having a difficult time too. He hoped and hoped the power of the Star Loop would keep him going through this, one of the most frightening of times. All around him, he had poor vision. Sometimes he thought that he couldn’t even see his own feet. It was a trick of his mind, he knew. Nevertheless, it still had a very real uncomfortable effect. The dark was one place Ricky didn’t like too much. He was fond of his home in the city where there was bright lights twenty-four hours of the day. No matter when he stepped out of his home, there was nothing less than row of strong street lights. This place was different, not even his head lamp seemed to be of any use. The darkness seemed to devour their lamp’s light as if they were hors d’oeuvres served to an all encompassing evil. The shadow-like playground structures passed them as they jogged. They made Arkady think of children, dead children from any number of horror movies.

            Quickly Arkady looked to his right. Had he just seen something? He thought he did. A flicker of movement among the playground equipment. Like a shadow that had moved suddenly. Arkady turned his head lamp towards the spot he thought he saw it. Nothing there. He waited for it to appear again, it didn’t. No, it was just my imagination, he told himself, I’m just freaked out from all the darkness. He was confident that he wouldn’t see it again.

            Flick!

            God damn it, he thought. This time he was sure he had seen movement. It was more than a flick, it was a vague form moving about the playground equipment, seemingly moving parallel to them. He began to wish it would go away. He squinted his eyes, looking forward so as not to see it again. If I don’t see it, it’s not there, he told himself. His hands began to shake, his heart began to race. His mind flashed back to the woods where he’d seen the wild dog following them. It’s not there, it’s not there, he told himself. No! He couldn’t do that again! He had to say something. He forced his mouth open to make a sound. It took an incredible effort to do it. What came out of his mouth was a nonverbal noise, a frightened-sounding grunt of sorts.

            Everyone looked at him, wondering what had just happened. The confused looks on their faces were wiped away by an ear shattering scream-like roar that came from the playground equipment. Everyone turned towards the playground in shock from the noise. Two glowing red eyes from Hell appeared in the darkness. Two glowing red orbs were floating along, watching them. From the eyes came a very heavy bestial breathing. A demonic version of how an animal communicates an appetite.

            This time Ricky screamed in terror. A huge form ran out from the playground toward them! The squad took off into an incredible run. Looking back Nadovev managed to get his headlamp on the mysterious thing. It was humanoid shape, it was well over two meters tall. It had tentacles jutting out of its mouth! It was a Bloodsucker! One of the worst scourges of the Zone. A gigantic claw-handed monstrosity that sucked the blood out of victims – alive.

            “SHIT!” Iosif screamed!

            Trying desperately to aim backwards, he fired multiple rounds at the creature. He caused it to stumble, but it kept right on chasing them! In a mad panic everyone found a way to run much faster. Iosif’s panicked mind came up with an idea.  He moved to the right side of the group, trying to stay in line with the Bloodsucker. Carefully, he put the PKM machine gun under his right arm and squeezed it tight to his body. With his left hand he pulled the trigger and let loose round after round with no ability to aim at all. Looking back Nadovev saw the Bloodsucker stumble and fall to the ground howling in pain.

            “FOLLOW ME!” he yelled to the group.

            Quickly he whipped around a corner taking them between two sets of condos breaking line of sight with the creature. They ran up the length of another set of condos. Reaching the end Nadovev stopped and looked around. His head thrashed back and forth looking for something. A hideous roar broke out behind them in the near distance making them jump. Nadovev spotted a staircase and ran up it with the others following. It came to a thick, heavy wooden door. He kicked at it twice to open it and got everyone inside. Iosif slammed the door behind them and leaned his considerable bulk on it. If it was up to him, the door would never open again.

            “Help me here,” Ricky called out. He was standing in front of what looked like an old metal stove. The squad ran over and helped him push the stove up against the door. Camera doubted that it would be enough to stop the bloodsucker. He’d seen one before, but only through a scope at a nice safe distance during the day. They were gargantuan muscular creatures, four times as strong as any man. More monstrous cries blared through the darkness. The sounds made them all jump in fear. Iosif threw his weight against the stove, adding to the barricade.

            “Everyone quiet,” Nadovev called out. Everyone stopped moving and tried to get a hold of their breathing. Keeping low and keeping their guns aimed at the door, they all waited in bloodcurdling fear. Arkady’s hands were shaking so bad he was sure he was going to drop the rifle. He was as sure of this, as he was that they were all about to die. A Bloodsucker could easily take on a squad of Stalkers and kill them all.

            “Be cool everyone,” Nadovev whispered to the group.

            Roaring continued outside. Heavy footfalls were heard slamming into the pavement, a floor below them. The Bloodsucker was still there, but it was in the street. Camera peered out of the shattered window down into the street. A gigantic figure with clammy grey skin ran around in a nonsensical pattern. Heavy stinking breath rose up from the creature. Giant footsteps pounded on the pavement as it tried to catch their scent. Those terrible red eyes continued to glow in the dark zigzagging around trying to find its elusive prey.

            Arkady squeezed his eyes shut. He began muttering the Lord’s prayer under his breath in desperation to avoid the marauding evil just outside. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” He said it over and over again, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He never was a church going man, but in times like these, many people suddenly turned to God. It was a natural reaction to – not just fear – but supernatural fear. Just about anyone in the Zone could face down bandits; but a Bloodsucker was a totally different story. Many a Stalker had left the Zone after encountering one… and surviving.

            Frustrated at the loss of prey, the Bloodsucker howled out one more time shaking the hearts of the squad in hiding. Having lost its patience, it ran off into the darkness seeking others to serve as its meal. They remained frozen as they heard its heavy breathing and steps fade into the distance.

            The whole squad sat in silence for an entire minute once they could no longer hear the Bloodsucker. Everyone was shaken by the experience. They came really close to being the lunch of one of the worst creatures in the Zone. Some of them were visibly shaking, Arkady most of all. This wasn’t the same as being chased down by a bunch of bandits. The supernatural nature of the threat posed in the incident was on an entirely different level. Deep frightened breaths echoed in the room. Slowly they got to their feet turning their headlamps back on.

            “I just, I…,” Iosif was completely at a loss for words.  They all just looked at each other with their faces communicating it all.

            With the immediate threat gone, Ricky took a look around the room. The floor was made of old wooden boards. The walls were mostly empty, except for a few family pictures. The images were faded to the point where you couldn’t make them out. Some scraps of furniture lay on the floor; the shatters remains of family possessions strewn about. Nadovev helped Iosif move the stove out of the way of the door.

            Nadovev looked at all of them, “saddle up, the mission’s not over yet.” He readjusted his rucksack and stuck his head out the door. He took a quick peek in each direction and decided it was time to move. The squad followed him stepping lightly and keeping their eyes and ears wide open.

            Nadovev lead the squad in the opposite direction the Bloodsucker went. There was no reason to tempt fate and risk running into it again. This time he had them move at a walk, keeping their guard up. With more care their feet plodded across the pavement.  The search for the unknown location had begun again. The danger was long from over. Nadovev didn’t even know where to start looking.

            He had talked it over with Iosif, the unofficial second in command. They’d decided to search government buildings first. They’d reasoned that it would most likely be found in one of them. The problem was that this location was hidden. So they had to find a hidden entrance to a place, in a place they had no knowledge of. The whole idea seemed ridiculous to them now. The depth of their empty pockets must have been greater than their ability to reason when they took the job.

            They walked down another street, turning away from the condos they were just hiding in. Stepping up onto a curb they crossed a mostly dead lawn into the rear of a few more homes. The back area was a concrete slab walkway. The walls were about up to their shoulders and made from deep red bricks. It took a minute or so for them to traverse the passage. For some reason the place felt empty. Before it felt like there was an all pervading evil watching them; but now it seems like that evil had moved on to stalk someone else. The darkness was still filled with an all encompassing threatening unknown.

            Nadovev looked down at his PDA and exchanged a few words with Camera. He had a good sense of direction that and was very valuable when trying to work out locations and paths. Quiet voices were exchanged between the two of them while they traced lines with their fingers on the PDA. Ricky wondered what they were talking about. A paranoid feeling had crept into his mind that they were talking about him. It was nonsense, they were clearly talking about what path to take. His mind was playing tricks on him. He looked over at Arkady, who had his rifle pointed up while he bit his nails. A measure of the old revulsion made its way back into him. Standing behind them, Iosif watched them both  intently. Nadovev turned back to the group.

            “Okay, we’ve decided on the first place to search,” he said, “about two blocks away there’s a department store. It seems to be in a weird location. It’s not in a commercial area, yet it’s also not in a residential area. Its placement just seems off.”

            Camera pointed his headlamp forward and led the way. Crossing into the street the squad looked both ways – mostly out of fear of running into another bloodsucker. Being out in the open like this they could hear their boots echoing off the buildings. It was slowly sinking into their heads how difficult this task was going to be. Nadovev was on the edge of admitting that taking the job was a mistake.

            The squad moved quickly down the two blocks until they stood before the grocery store. Nadovev brought everyone together in a huddle.

            “Before we hit this place we need to go over the plan,” Nadovev said, “Camera, you’ll cover from across the street and take out anyone who tries to come up behind us. Shout at us through the PDA if you see anyone approaching. Iosif, watch the windows until we’re in, then follow us. The rest of you follow me.”

            Nadovev held his AK 74 at the ready aimed forward. Stepping carefully, he went up the short staircase to the entrance of the store. Stepping cautiously, he trained his weapon back and forth looking for any possible hostiles.  He quickly darted through the front door and searched the corners of his immediate surroundings with his headlamp. He waved the rest of the squad to follow. First Arkady then Ricky followed him in with rifles pointed forward. They got together side by side and surveyed their surroundings.

            Old rotted out clothing hung on dilapidated racks. The sales floor was relatively devoid of any noise. Only the odd creaking of the building gave any hint as to movement. The air was stale and old, very old. It was oppressive in their lungs, as if the environment itself were trying to choke them. Dust particles floated through the air and newly disturbed stillness. They were distracting to the eye. Arkady found himself focusing on them a few times. The building was really dark given the absence of any ambient lighting. Their headlamps lit the they way poorly. Nadovev reached into his rucksack and pulled out a barrel mounted flashlight for his AK 74. He snapped it on and activated it. It made a difference, but not very much.

            Row upon rows of clothing stock hung still. The near dead silence was maddening even to trained soldiers. Raising his hand he used his fingers to indicate that they were going to split up and look. Cautiously Nadovev began moving along a side wall, intending to reach the back of the store to search for any hidden areas. Arkady began walking among the check-out area for any possible movement. Ricky made his way down the main aisle of the store quickly looking left and right for any signs of life. Iosif began moving among long display shelves of merchandise. Moving sideways Arkady kicked a glass bottle, sending it skittering away. The other three Stalkers froze, the noise almost thunderous in the silence. Echoing off the walls made the sound even louder.

            “No, that was me, sorry,” Arkady called out.

Ricky cursed himself for being so on edge. He hated this place, he wanted to be anywhere but here. In the back of his mind the stress was gnawing at his desire for heroin. It would certainly hit the spot and calm his nerves right about now. Being on an opiate high in this situation was a death sentence. All your senses had to be at a hundred percent in order to keep alive. But the hunger was biting at him, like a small dog would nip the heels of an intruder in its home. It kept following him no matter how hard he tried to put it out of his mind. He approached an intersection of aisles and quickly checked both directions… they seemed to be clear.

            Nadovev moved keeping an eye on the side wall looking for anything that could resemble a hidden passage. Regular angular shapes appeared along the wall, none of them passageways. He moved further on. In a few moments he was going to approach the half way point of the length of the store. To his right were half empty racks of children’s clothes. Boys clothes from the look of them. Nadovev took a closer look at them remarking how fashion had changed. He began working his way across the side wall of the store again, looking for any hidden secrets.

            Iosif carefully moved down the long display rack. To his left there was a refrigerated shelf that was no longer working. The smell of rancid milk rose up to his nostrils, making him a bit nauseous. His machine gun was held at the ready to be fired from the hip. He scanned his headlamp back and forth looking for any sign of movement among the small dairy section. His boots crunched some broken glass under foot. He looked up and saw that a lighting cover was missing. He looked into the opening for a moment to see if he could see anything significant… Nothing. Bringing his head lamp back down, he began searching the floor for any breaks in the linoleum, the telltale sign of a trap door.

            Arkady had finished searching the check-out area and had moved on to the customer service area. He pushed open the little swing door with his foot and stepped inside. Right in front of him was a dead rat lying on the floor. His face went into a grimace. The rat had been torn apart and eaten by its own kind. Dried out entrails lay across its feet, bite marks were visible in them. Arkady brought his head up wishing to look at something else. He looked at the back desk and saw all the returned merchandise slips all lined up ready for filing. A notebook and pencil lay discarded on the counter. The sheet it was open to a page that had the accounting of some damaged merchandise. Dust was in the air again as Arkady disturbed it with his presence. He found another cash register, it had already been broken open and looted.

            Ricky continued to move down the center looking for anything that might constitute a hidden passageway. He began to move faster looking for anything that might be useful. The heroin habit began eating away at his conscious mind making him sloppy. He was unknowingly moving faster. He shined his light around trying to survey his surroundings. Nothing was moving, nothing was making any noise. Off in the distance he heard glass being crushed under someone’s boot. He shook his head trying to clear it before he made any mistakes. This was going to be one little piece of Hell to deal with in his condition.

            Camera had climbed up to the second floor window of a dwelling across the road from the department store. He had put his rifle down and was using his binoculars to scan the area. He was on lookout, and it was up to him to identify any approaching threats. After a couple of sweeps he still hadn’t detected anything. Something for which he was grateful. They’d had enough surprises as it was. He’d be willing to give a lot to be anywhere but here.

Two blocks away behind Camera’s field of vision, the Duty squad from the woods was closing on their location. Captain Mikalish was looking down at a map his subordinate was holding open for him. The higher-ups had given him a number of locations that might contain the hidden entrance to, whatever it was they were looking for. One of the locations they had pointed out to him was a department store that was oddly placed in the city. It was neither in a commercial nor residential area. Its position was just odd. Since it was the closest suggestion to their current location, they headed there first.

            The Duty squad remained in formation, fully disciplined, seemingly unshaken by the loss of their comrade. They continued to move in two side-by-side columns down the street following the orders of their captain. They were itching for some payback on whoever had ambushed them.

            Captain Mikalish was still quite furious over the unknown shooter that had taken out their sniper. They’d lost his track so quickly. He suspected that he was part of a larger force that had been sent to distract them from their path. Mostly likely it had been Freedom, given their already standing state of war and their specialty with sniper weapons. God damn them, he thought. He hated Freedom so much. Losing that sniper had been a real wound, they’d been friends since basic Duty training. Someone was going to pay for his loss.

            He looked up, they beginning to close in on the department store.