Chapter 3

Bullets were flying all around, coming closer and closer to his face. If he didn’t know it was impossible, he would swear he could smell the gunpowder from each bullet as they passed by him. They were coming fast, like clouds of darkness surrounding him, slowly cutting off all sunlight. Terror raged through his body, powerless against the overwhelming tide of lead. His breath became short, as if the bullets themselves were cutting off his air. Slowly his vision dimmed as more and more bullets found their way towards him.

            Around him his squad mates lay dead. Each of them filled with dozens of bullet holes. Their eyes were wide and white as if screaming for mercy. Their mouths fully open to the sky, as if screaming for help. The horror of seeing his friends dead was driving him mad. Nothing made sense anymore, his thoughts were as clouded and heavy as the hail of bullets.

            Nadovev looked behind him and saw a steep drop off the sidewalk to a river thirty meters below. He didn’t have to take out his Geiger counter to know that that water had a lethal level of radiation. The fall alone would have been enough to kill him. As the bullets poured on he kept taking steps backwards towards the river.

            A strange, calm grandfatherly voice filled his mind and said, “There’s only one way out of this, and you know what that it is.”

            The bullets kept coming in large black clouds blocking what remained of his vision. It felt as if the slipstream of the ammunition was pushing him further and further back towards the water. Nadovev pushed against the tide of bullets, but it was no use. Suddenly the earth slipped out from under him and he began the long descent to his death.

            Nadovev woke suddenly with a cooling sweat on his face. He felt threatened, feeling as though he was about to die. As he took in his surroundings the feeling began to subside. Above him, he could see Arkady’s arm hanging off the edge of the bunk bed still asleep. Seeing his arm reminded Nadovev of the fact that this will be his first job. The details of the dream were already beginning to fade. But the sensation of falling, and the sound of the voice was still clear in his mind. Nadovev never knew what to make of his dreams. Old Stalker lore claims that the Zone sometimes talks to people through them. Nadovev had known a person or two who had claimed it, but they were on the very edge of sanity as it was. He wasn’t sure if the lore was true, if it was, the thought scared him.

            It suddenly occurred to Nadovev that he was supposed to be preparing for the trek out today to find their mysterious artifact. Sitting up, he grabbed Arkady’s arm and shook it. Looking around, he saw that Camera, Ricky, and Iosif were already awake and off somewhere. Struggling to his feet and stretching out his legs, he saw Arkady slowly coming too and rubbing his eyes. The resting room was filled with Stalkers half dressed, waking up and walking around. The place almost looked serene, with an odd sense of strength. Nadovev saw the calm, quiet morning activities combined with the brutal, violent life of a Stalker. Seeing these two polar opposites juxtaposed sparked a feeling of melancholy in him.

            Stepping out of the room and looking down the stairs at the bar, he could see the other three members of his squad off doing different things. He scratched his chest, watching Camera sitting at a table cleaning his VSS Vintorez. Every moment or so he took a spoonful of army ration from an open can next to the rifle. He was glad to have him in the squad, he was the best shot he’d ever seen. He was a hard worker, but unafraid to cut loose when the time came. He respected the meticulous care he took in maintaining his weapon. He knew few men who were more obsessive about it.

            Iosif was over at the bar talking to the man he called ‘Beard’ again. He was munching on another BBQ pork sandwich. Next to his elbow was a glass of water and a hunk of fresh bread. Nadovev hoped he enjoyed it while it lasted, there wasn’t going to be any good food where they were going. No doubt he was talking beard’s ear off trying to get the latest news on the civil war. He couldn’t blame him, after all his brother was fighting in it. He’d seen Iosif checking his PDA often to see if his brother had left him a message. He hoped his head was still in the game.

            He looked left to see Ricky sitting at a table with some Stalkers he didn’t recognise pounding a shot of vodka. He looked at his PDA, it was 09:48; awfully early to be drinking. Ricky was laughing with these Stalkers, he was probably bragging about exaggerated exploits. Nadovev wondered if his mouth was going to get him into trouble one of these days.

            Turing back to Arkady, Nadovev looked at the man brushing his teeth in a small portable travel-like container.  He walked up to him and put his hand on his shoulder. Arkady turned around and look at him expectantly.

            “Alright, listen up” Nadovev said, “you’re going out on your first job. Bad news is that this is going to be a really bad one. We can all feel it. You saw everyone talking last night. We know this is going to be serious danger, perhaps even worse than anything I’ve ever seen before. There’s a good chance that all of us could die from this one. We’re not just going up against the Zone, we’re going up against factions and mercenaries. Our only hope is to be faster and stealthier than everyone else looking for this artifact, whatever it is. All we can do is stick together and stay on our toes the best we can… I just want you to know how bad this is going to get, and be ready for it as much as possible.”

            Arkady had stopped brushing his teeth, the brush frozen in his mouth. The colour had seemed to drain from his face, he was turning pale quickly. Nadovev’s talk was intended to steel the younger man against the dangers that were coming. But, it seemed to have the oppose effect. He looked downright spooked now. He wished he hadn’t said anything at all.

            “Just keep it together. And hurry up, we have to leave.” Nadovev turned around and begin to gather his gear up.  There was nothing he could do to boost the confidence of the man now.

            Several minutes later Nadovev walked up to Camera who was assembling the last few pieces of his rifle. He waved over to Ricky and motioned for him to come over. Iosif and Arkady were jogging down the metal stairs, catching up to the rest of the group. Now assembled, they each had a look of trepidation on their faces. But they seemed ready to take on whatever came their way. He reached into one of his chest rig pocket and took out the GPS locator the client had given him. He turned it over in his hand a few times and looked up at the squad.

            Nadovev slung his AK74 over his shoulder and said, “Alright, let’s move out.”

            The squad had been walking for several hours now. They had crossed the length of Zanton, and many fields. Their journey had been quiet thus far. No signs of any hostiles. Nadovev knew that was going to come to an end soon enough. So long as it lasted, he was going to try to enjoy the silence. Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing very much of that. Breaking from his thoughts he looked down at his PDA to check their position.

            “Watch yourselves now, we’re entering bandit territory. I’ll be taking point.” Nadovev moved up the line to the front and signalled for Iosif to take a step back.

            Looking ahead Camera spotted men walking opposite their direction and pointed them out to Nadovev. The three men were Stalkers making a return trip from wherever they had come from. They each wore green Stalker suits with emergency oxygen tanks on their backs connected to masks. In their hands loosely hung were SMGs. They looked tired and walked in a sloppy triangular formation. Nadovev waved to them to get their attention.

            The Stalkers took note of them and began walking in their direction. Meeting up with each other Nadovev shook the hand of the one he presumed to be the leader of the group.

            “Anything up ahead we should be warned about,” Nadovev asked.

            “Yea,” the Stalker nodded, “There’s a good deal of Bandits in the area. During the last emission a few days ago some new anomalies popped up. Because of it, a ton of Stalkers have charged into the place looking for artifacts. New anomalies means new artifacts… And the Bandits know this. They’re outta rob anyone looking for new stuff that’s going to be worth more money… So watch your ass, they’re in a real mood to kill and steal.”

            “Thanks for the tip. We’ll keep out eyes peeled,” Nadovev said.

            He looked back at the squad with serious eyes, “We’ve got a double threat here. Bandits are going to be up to more activity than usual, and anomalies are going to be more dangerous than usual. Keep your eyes open.”

            Each member looked at each other as reassurance that they had each other’s backs. Nadovev turned back towards their path and lead the way.

            They walked on, the countryside looking gloomy as ever around them.  It wasn’t as cloudy as it was the day before, but it carried a certain air of despair. The chill winds were laden with foreboding. The feel of them across exposed skin felt as though the hand of hidden dangers was reaching to embrace you. None of the men could shake the feeling they were getting from their surroundings. As they pressed on, trees became increasingly common. The trees were twisted as if some unseen force were perverting their growth. Their bark was dry, and very little vegetation if any grew on them.

            As they plodded through the thick, but short grass, Nadovev laid his eyes on the great hill before them. When they reached the base of the hill, Ricky took out his anomaly detector and took a quick scan of the area. Faint bleeps were coming from the device, but it couldn’t pinpoint anything specific. It was like before when they were on their way to Zanton. He looked up and met eyes with Nadovev. He already knew what Ricky was going to tell them.

            Nadovev reached into the thigh pocket of his fatigue pants and pulled out a handful of bolts. He jingled them in his hand a few times and selected one from the group. Deftly he tossed it a meter in front of him. Just as it was about to touch the ground, it suddenly changed direction and flew rightward and up. The bolt landed a few meters to the right glowing red hot steaming in the damp grass.

            “Well, shit,” Ricky blurted out.

            Nadovev glanced at him and then returned to work. Immediately proceeding to his left, he threw a bolt every meter. It took until the fifth bolt for a space to move could be found. The squad lined up behind the open space as Nadovev threw another bolt in that direction. After a long hour of throwing bolts and measuring a pathway, he finally made it to the top of the hill. He waved back at the rest of the squad to follow the trail of bolts he had left. After about two or three minutes the rest of the squad was on top of the hill.

            “Maybe we should take a rest here, we’ve got a good vantage point,” Camera said.

            Nadovev thought about it for a moment. They were going to reach the woods soon, and it’d be safer to rest here. Ricky took out his canteen and took a sip of water and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He froze. Looking around, he began to pick up what had caused him to pause. It was the sound of wild dogs, a pack of wild dogs. The whole group finally caught on to the sound of the vicious animals and turned towards the opposite side of the hill from where they came.

            The barking sound grew louder, and the men drew their guns. As the sound approached closer, the wild dogs came into view. Raving and barking in madness they charged towards the hill ready to pounce on their waiting meal. The squad brought their guns up ready to fire upon the approaching pack.

            “Wait until they get to the bottom of the hill where we can use the terrain to our advantage,” Nadovev yelled out.

            The men took a firm stance and raised their weapons. They looked down the sight of their guns ready to pull the trigger on his command. The men began to tense up in anticipation of the approaching dogs. Nadovev looked over to his right and saw that Arkady beginning to shake like a palsy victim. The younger man was beginning to turn pale with fear.

            The dogs drew closer and close. Their snapping jaws flung saliva in all directions as the dogs prepared to pounce upon their meal…

            The closer they came, the clearer their diseased scabby flesh was…

            Their barking grew even more intense, they were now but a meter away from the bottom of the hill…

            The men steeled themselves for the onrush of dogs. Arkady’s hands now shook so badly he was unable to aim.

            “Get ready,” Nadovev called out.

            They drew closer and closer…

            There were so many of them, maybe twenty in all.

            The dogs got ready to pounce when they reached the bottom of the hill…

            Suddenly there was a whooshing sound and a shimmer of distorted space as one of the dogs was lifted up into the air turning in circles as if caught in a tornado. The other dogs stopped dead in their tracks and their viciousness drain from them in the moment of surprise. The trapped dog was lifted higher into the air as the vortex anomaly became increasingly agitated. The dog whined in a pained fear. When the dog reached about 4 meters up it began to rotate on the spot and then burst apart as the anomaly tore the creature into pieces. Chunks of dog flesh and gore sprayed in all directions as the vortex anomaly reached the apex of its reaction to solid matter.

            The rest of the pack of wild dogs stood at the bottom of the hill unable to approach any closer. It appeared that there were anomalies on both sides of it. They flashed their teeth and growled in frustration, but none of them dared approach any closer. They may have been animals, but they had certainly reacted to the death of one of their pack.

            Arkady gave a huge sigh of relief as he lowered his weapon. The group kept on alert, but they relaxed a little. Ricky reached into his load bearing harness and pulled out a hand grenade. He pulled the pin and began to throw it down the hill towards the dogs.

            Nadovev called out, “Wait, don’t!”

            The grenade flew from Ricky’s hand and sailed down the hill towards the dogs. The grenade got sucked into the same vortex anomaly that killed the dog. It was thrown high into the air and torn apart triggering the explosive material contained in it. The blast knocked down Nadovev and Ricky, but they remain unharmed.

            Nadovev crawled over to Ricky and grabbed him by the collar in a threatening manner, “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?! DON’T YOU THINK AT ALL?! IF IT SUCKED IN A DOG, IT CAN SUCK IN A GRENADE TOO! YOU ALMOST GOT US KILLED!” Nadovev released him and got up.

            Ricky climbed to his feet with his squad mates looking at him like they wanted to bury him in the dirt right then and there. Ricky’s ego was clearly wounded. He squeezed the grips of his weapon out of anger.

            Nadovev took out his anomaly detector and a few bolts, “Camera,” he said, “I’m going to plot a way through the anomalies. I want you to take the dogs out when you have a clear shot.”

            Camera nodded and followed him.

            Nadovev took a sip from his canteen and set to work plotting out the path through the anomalies while going downhill. The incline of the land made it all that much more difficult as the bolts tended to roll the wrong way. As they crept through the anomaly field, Camera kept the scope of his VSS Vintorez trained on the pack of dogs. When a space large enough appeared he put a bullet through the head of one of the dogs. As he aimed at them he could see the white cloud of their cataracts. In about thirty minutes Nadovev managed to make out the exit route. By that time Camera had eliminated enough of the wild dogs to cause the rest to flee.

            The group assembled at the bottom of the hill free of the anomaly field. All of them were relieved to be out of it and free from the gnashing of wild dog jaws. The question remained, why didn’t the Stalkers coming the other way mention that anomaly field? Was it a malicious omission? Or was it a great mistake?  One can never really tell in the Zone. The two opposite ends of human behaviour are made manifest in this wild world. People are quick to stab each other in the back in order to steal artifacts, or go to war in order to control a particular area. On the inverse it takes a fair amount of cooperation to survive the harsh conditions of the Zone. Rarely does one see a single Stalker out on his own. Many travel in pairs, or in threes. Human kind has shaped its relationship to the zone the same way it has shaped its relationship with society. One that requires mass cooperation of people across all borders to produce the needs of society. Yet it locks itself into a terrible, violent and inhumane competition with each other. Is the Zone a manifestation of ourselves? Or are we projecting ourselves on the Zone? Can we say that we carry our poisonous social relations with us into the Zone?

            Such thoughts caused Nadovev to think about himself and why he was in the Zone. Was not his squad a representation of that? They too were here for money, for simple minded wealth, yet they carried out such elegant cooperation in order to achieve that goal. Was this irony, Nadovev asked himself? Or was this a natural relationship of opposites? In the Zone one requires the other in order to get the job done. They must both speak from their altruistic hearts in order to cooperate, and from their minds that produce greed. One hand steals while the other reaches out for support, a support that can’t be refused. Everyone needs to take – and they need to cooperate.

            But they all have an economic need. Where does need fit into all of this? They are forced to sustain themselves on the back of a beast that is constantly trying to buck them off. Is greed the siphoning off of milk from the beast when there is nowhere else to obtain it? Are they really greedy if they require money in order to survive? Did not Iosif leave his family and come to the Zone because there was no work where he lived? Necessity certainly played a part in his decision, and he didn’t consider Iosif to be a greedy man.

            Ricky was certainly a greedy man, he was open about it, he embraced it as though it was his very essence… which it might very well be. He came from the American school of thought where it was seen as an inherent right to simply take. There was no idea of giving or helping. Such people rode the beast as well, and were dependent upon it. Yet they have deluded themselves into thinking that they’re making demands of it. They shout commands to the beast. Then when the beast decides to do something which coincidentally follows that demand – they act as though they are in control. Their lives are also entirely at the mercy of it. The only difference is that they have a more comfortable and stable seat upon its back.