Chapter 4

With Ricky leading the way they entered the Black Forest. Tall trees soaking up the sunlight. The leaves were thick and green, such a stark contrast from where they just came. The trees blocked out almost all of the sunlight, like walking under a gigantic canopy. As the light faded away the hopes of peaceful walk did as well. Beams of light managed to poke through the odd space in the leaves. Slight beacons of hope. Ones that were fleeting, like a flickering candle at dusk.

            The ground was fairly free of vegetation. The grass whispered hidden dangers as they walked between the trees. Visibility was low, they couldn’t see very far. Off in the distance they could hear muffled animal noises. Animals that were mutated animals. These woods were filled with them. There was an endless supply of places to hide. Each tree held the possibility of a mutant in waiting. As they passed by the trees they kept their weapons aimed at them. It was a roll of the dice which one harboured a mutant.          It was a game, a devil’s game… That they knew they couldn’t win.

            The animal noises were setting off Arkady’s nerves. The tremors in his hands were growing. The noises in the distance, combined with the knowledge that they were mutants – was driving his imagination onward. His mind swirled with vague images of horned beasts with multiple arms reaching for his throat. The images came like a maelstrom. A torrent of sounds manifested in his mind and magnified. His senses drowned in it. The images and sounds in his mind drowned out the real life ones. His surroundings became something distant; lost in the storm that was his overwhelmed mind.

            Arkady closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. He focused on each function of inhaling and exhaling trying to control his respiratory rate. It felt like gale force winds were rushing their way into his lungs. Once there they refused to leave. A pressure would build up in his lungs as though he wasn’t exhaling at all. Images of a horrible death hung in his mind as he tried to banish them. Like a wailing banshee they keep coming back, increasing their screams every time. His mental focus was a bubbling brew. A boiling cocktail of nightmares and anxiety, an elixir of mortal fear.

            The day was getting late now. The little rays of hope that poked through into their world were fading away. The last rays of hope that they hadn’t wandered their way into a deep dark doom. Their visibility was cut even shorter. Shadows took the place of the rays creating ghastly images of mutants in Arkday’s addled mind. Slivers of moonlight that slipped past the trees reflected off of wet leaves. Glints of pale light that distracted the eyes. Ever few moments or so Arkady’s eyes would dart from left to right in a mad panic to identify the source of the winking of light.

            Suddenly Arkady detected movement out of the corner of his eye. His mind froze as he seized up. He kept walking as if on instinct. His legs felt numb and beyond his control. He just kept walking with the group as though nothing was wrong. The maelstrom of his mind kept pushing him onward despite the lack of conscious control. Suddenly, he was aware of how badly his hands were shaking. They were slick with sweat and his weapon threatened to slip from his hands. His head was locked forward, unable to move. He saw the movement out of the corner of his eye again. He told himself that it wasn’t real. His panicked mind was playing tricks on him. The shadows were floating around him like ghosts stalking the one they haunt.

            Again he saw the moment. This time it kind of looked like a man’s head. Kind of, because he couldn’t move his head to look at it directly. He closed his eyes and retreated back to the primal fear he felt as a small boy. The unknown supernatural horrors that dwelled in the dark corners of his bedroom as a child had suddenly come to life in the dark corners of this hellish forest. It wasn’t there he told himself. He slowly reached back and pulled his hood over his head with a violently shaking hand. Hoping against hope that if he didn’t see the apparition of his mind, it wasn’t there. It was like a child hiding under their blanket thinking it would make the boogeyman go away – he hid his eyes from the truth:  It was not his imagination. There really was something following them.

            His mind was on the verge of snapping.  His head began to shake, he lost control of his limbs and began to shake all over.

            “SNORK!”, screamed Camera pointing to their right.

            The team whipped around to their right and trained their weapons on the forest. Through the thicket of darkness and shrubbery they couldn’t see anything. Camera had the best eyes in the squad. He often had the ability to see things others didn’t. Concentrating, he pulled the trigger of his VSS Vintorez and let loose two rounds into a bush. The others had their headlamps on but still couldn’t see what Camera was shooting at.

            The rounds must have struck the snork because it howled in anger. The snork’s bark was loud and guttural, but also hollow sounding. The outburst by the mutant blew out the last of Arkady’s nerves and he fainted on the spot, dropping his SMG on a small pile of leaves. The soft ruffle of the dropping weapon was followed by the thud of his body.

            Wounded the snork leaped into their view. Its contorted formerly human body sat there on all fours screaming at them. It’s exposed skin was pale, white, and ghostly. It raise its snarling head up and looked at them through its tattered gas mask. One of the lenses was shattered and a glowing red eye pierced through it. It seemed to stare right into Camera’s soul. Taken aback by the sight, Camera hesitated to fire again with fear on his face. As it squatted down getting ready to pounce, the remaining members of the squad opened fire. Muzzle flashes pierced the nearby darkness as hot lead flew towards the raging beast, which had launched itself into the air at them.

            In the air it let out a howling whine as numerous bullets found their way into its body. The creature fell dead before their feet. Blood poured like red syrup from the multitude of holes in its body. They took a closer look to ensure it was dead. Nadovev could see the meat red spine of the creature which naturally protruded from its back. It was served in two places, ensuring the mutant was not going to be rising again. Ricky stepped forward and put another bullet into its head with his side arm just to be sure. A small pop of blood came up from the impact as the plastic from the gas mask tore.

            “Piece of shit,” Ricky blurt out holstering the side arm.

            Nadovev and Iosif looked down at the unconscious form of Arkady. They both had a look on their faces expressing how difficult this was going to make things. They knew they were going to have to carry him until he woke up. Nadovev blamed himself for the trouble. He knew Arkady wasn’t up to being a Stalker. Even if he had only intended to do it temporarily. He’d only accepted him as part of the group because he was compelled to. Iosif looked Nadovev in the face and handed him his PKM machine gun. He knew it was going to be him to carry the unconscious man.  Big ol’ Iosif always had to carry the heavy stuff. He took the man by the arm and hoisted him up onto his back in a fireman’s carry.

            Ricky stepped towards the group and tapped on Arkady’s face three times, “Screw it, just leave him here if he can’t handle being in the zone.”

            Iosif spun around to face Ricky almost hitting Camera with Arkady’s foot, “Are you really that callous you bastard?”

            Ricky shoved his face as close to Iosfi’s face as he could. He filled the rest of the distance with his finger, “This guy is dead weight, literally. He’s a drag on our squad and he’s holding us down. I say we ditch his useless ass and get this job done right. If he can’t handle being out in the Zone, then he doesn’t belong here. You take your own life in your own hands when come out here. I’m not responsible for his safety and more than you are! He’s going to get us killed you big oaf.”

            Iosif lost his temper and grabbed Ricky by his tactical harness and put his face in his, “You really are a God damned piece of shit! I outta smash your face in right NOW!”

            Ricky, out of Iosif’s line of sight, slowly reached for his side arm. As the two men kept arguing and threatening each other, Ricky’s hand came closer and closer to the pistol. Seeing the situation was about to explode, Nadovev marched in between the two and said, “Stop it right now, both o-“.

            His words were cut off by the hellish bark of another snork… and then another… and then another. Whipping around they could hear a lot of snorks rushing towards them. Their gunfire and subsequent argument had put out a beacon to all the snorks in the area just as surely as if they had lit a signal fire. The thumping of their booted feet and load bearing hands thundered across the ground towards them. All around an unknown number of snorks had detected them; and were on their way to tear their flesh from their bones.

            The group was startled by the sudden external noise, like two people locked in a private conversation suddenly interrupted by a firework. Nadovev yelled for them to follow him and he took off in the general direction of their destination. The squad ran terrified, in full knowledge that they didn’t have anywhere near the firepower capable of dealing with a group of snorks. No matter how many there were.

            They weren’t even sure where they were going – but away was good enough. The squad’s feet thumped across the ground as they struggled to escape the raging mutants. Their hunger-filled howling in the not-so-distance was like a wailing cry of death. A few barks and snorts could be heard by the beasts in the darkness. Their hunger for fresh meat drove them on like homicidal maniacs reaching out for coup de grâce against a terrified and vulnerable victim. They ran on and on while the mutants began to close the distance between them. A magnetic savagery drew the pursuers to the souls of the squad.

            A minute passed by of running. It had felt like an eternity. Iosif was slowing down due to the weight of Arkady and both of their fully loaded gear. Iosif knew that he wasn’t going to be able to run like this much longer. There was only so much he could carry for such a distance. Running with that weight made it all that much more difficult. The idea of dropping Arkady flashed across his mind, but he banished it quickly. He couldn’t do that to an unconscious man, could he? No, there was a thick line between humanity and cowardice; and Iosif was no coward.

            Suddenly Iosif’s foot caught on an exposed tree root and he fell with Arkady on top of him. With a loud grunt Iosif hit the ground, tossing Arkady about half a meter away. He cursed to himself and looked back and saw the root. It was crooked, almost like a sinister finger out to play malicious tricks on people. Nadovev and Camera halted, almost falling themselves. They reached down to grab the two men and hauled them up. Struggling, they managed to get Iosif back to his feet with a loud groan and a strain in his back. The snorks were closing in on them. Meter by meter their gnashing jaws drew close. Dropping Arkady had been a fatal error. Now they were going to die for it.

            Ricky called out in excitement, “Over here! I found a cave!”

            Ricky pointed off to their left to a grove of trees with what looked like a hole in a steep incline. Having nothing to lose the squad scrambled towards the hole. A dark cubby hole in the group appeared to be their only salvation. Nadovev ran in first and grabbed Arkady’s hands. As Iosfi pushed, they got his unconscious form inside the cave. Camera and Ricky soon followed in behind. They took off their rucksacks and shoved them into the entranceway to block the snorks from seeing them. Nadovev wasn’t sure if it would work, but he certainly wished so.

            Iosif Kept his KPD trained on the entrance. Nadovev checked over Arkady while Ricky and Camera searched the cave to see if there were any mutants in it. Nadovev lightly slapped Arkady’s face trying to wake him up. He looked over the man and looked to see if he had any medical supplies. His search ended in frustration as he realized he had none. He didn’t even have basic bandages and anti-radiation drugs. Nadovoev sighed at the total ineptness of the man. He was like the little brother who showed up to the gang fight of his older brother completely unprepared. The older one was now responsible for the younger.

            Camera and Ricky stood side by side with their weapons held at the ready searching the cave. It didn’t appear to be too large. The ground was dry at least, and it was dusty enough to make for good sleeping. They strolled down the cave together with their headlamps on looking for anything that might be suspicious. Both of them were still a little bit on edge from the harrowing death, they just escaped, glad to just be alive. They all came very close to death. Ricky especially since he nearly drew a weapon on a fellow squad mate.

            “He’s going to get us killed you know,” said Ricky breaking the silence, “we need to ditch him.”

            Camera turned his face toward him with a big frown, “Don’t even try that with me. You have a problem with Arkady being here you take it up with Nadovev. I know what you’re trying to do. you’re trying to build some kind of mutiny against him. It’s not going to work, he’s got my respect. And you don’t.”

            Ricky’s face flushed red. He didn’t like being told off like that, his ego was too fragile. He was Richard Mercado, the first and best Stalker in his family! He was a legend! He was the one who blazed the way forward into danger for profit. No one could match him in bravery or skill… At least in his own image of himself. An image that was prone to chipping and peeling when someone called him out on his B.S., or questioned his sincerity.

            “Yeah, whatever man,” Ricky answered, “you don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t mean anything like that. I’m just worried about getting killed.”

            “Sure,” he replied.

            Ricky had to make a quick retreat. That’s exactly what he had in mind. Camera shook his head at Ricky’s dismissal of his accusation. One way or another Ricky was going to have to get rid of Arkady. First, as a liability. Second, as a way to get a bigger cut of the pay day. It was clear that he was going to have to use less subtle means to get rid of him. His mind began thinking of ways for Arkady to have an “accident”. That usually worked.

            No matter what, he knew they were on to him now.

            The two turned a corner and stopped abruptly. Looking down they saw a meter wide hole in the ground. Inside the hole was a strange white glowing liquid. It gave off a good deal of light, enough to fill the entire area of the cave as though it were high noon. As they looked closer they could see that there was a slight bluish tinge to the radiance. It reminded Camera of a fluorescent light. It beamed all around that little section of the cave. The light made the dirt brown of the cave look almost cozy. It was strange, it was as if the light itself was making them feel warm and comfortable inside. A warmness that made you feel unusually calm and at peace.

            Together they went back to the entrance of the cave and got the three men waiting behind. Arkady was on his feet now, but he seemed to be having trouble keeping his balance. His eyes seemed blurred and he didn’t really seem to be all there. His stunned state was most likely caused by his blood pressure after collapsing. Arkady was still leaning on Nadovev quite heavily. His head lamp was switched on, but it was pointing straight at the ground along with his head.

            “We found a nice cozy little spot a few minutes into the cave. It even has its own light and everything,” Camera said as he pointed the way.

            “Alright, let’s get to it,” Nadovev said, “grab the packs we’re taking them with us. Those snorks are probably gone by now.”

            They each picked up their packs except for Iosif which took Arkady’s as well as his own. They walked together to the area of the cave that was giving off light. Nadovev laid the younger man down and stepped toward the mysterious substance. Looking at it for a moment he picked up a small rock and threw it in. It hissed when it hit the substance and gave off what appeared to be steam. The rock seemed to be melting right before their very eyes and evaporating.

            “The hell is that stuff?” Ricky asked with his face cringing.

            “It’s called Witch’s Jelly,” answered Nadovev, “it’s one of the oldest known, but rarely seen anomalies. You might not have noticed that your detectors didn’t pick it up.”

            “No they didn’t, now that you mention it,” Camera said.

            Nadovev took out his anomaly detector and placed it on the ground a few centimetres away from the Witch’s Jelly. A few small beeps came out of the device now that it was so close to it. The white-bluish glow of the anomaly radiated up filling the entire area of the cave. The light bounced off the green light of the detector producing a hauntingly beautiful colour.

            “Witch’s Jelly isn’t easily detectable,” Nadovev continued, “the upside is that it’s easy to spot… Really watch yourselves around it, you don’t want to fall in. This stuff melts body parts. I’ve heard of a Stalker that lost his legs when he just slipped into it knee deep. Took him, I think two days, to crawl to help… Just be really careful around it.”

            Iosif stepped a bit closer to anomaly, “Jesus, I’ve heard of this stuff, but never seen it.”

            “Have you guys noticed the calming feeling yet?”, Nadovev asked, looking Iosif in the eyes.

            “Yea, I have,” Ricky replied.

            “Every Stalker that comes across it has reported the same thing. There’s some kind of property to it that causes you to relax and let your guard down. I wouldn’t recommend staring into it for too long. Legend says it has a hypnotizing effect intended to trap people in it… But for now it’s giving us a nice and much needed source of light.”

            Nadovev looked around the cave and then looked at his PDA. He noted that it was around 20:00. They should probably get some sleep.

            “Alright,” he continued, “Let’s all rest here and get some sleep and continue in the morning. The snorks are out looking for us so it’s a good idea to wait until tomorrow when they’re all gone. Get some rest while you can.”

            Taking his advice seriously, they got their stuff together to lay down. Nadovev went back to tending on Arkady. He took out a rag and poured some water on it. He wiped the younger man’s face and left it on his forehead.

            What had he gotten himself into? The Zone was no place for a green rookie. Even the most experienced Stalkers tended to end up dead. It was a life and death struggle everyday to make sure you weren’t killed by anomalies, mutants, and bandits. It was not the life for the faint of heart. Nadovev truly believed deep down in his heart that only a few men were truly meant to be Stalkers. There was no doubt in his mind that he was one of them. Arkady on the other hand wasn’t even close, he didn’t belong here. Some men were meant to take on the challenges posed by the Zone, almost as if the Zone itself chose who was going to have a chance. It was full of strange and eerie events that sometimes boggled the mind. Mind bending coincides had saved the lives of a few people knew. Just as many of those coincides had taken lives.

            The Zone was its own world, with its own laws of physics. The natural laws as discovered by man held no sway here. It was like the Zone had its own arrogance that mocked the natural world. The strange energies that radiated from it were like a crooked sinister smile to the rest of the world. A self satisfied smirk that told everyone that it knew the rules didn’t apply to it. Emissions tore through the Zone from its center as if flexing its muscles. To anyone who remained in it, the Zone had the power, it wielded all strength – a reminder that they all lived at its mercy. It was the all powerful here. Maybe arrogant enough to challenge God itself. People often described feeling as if the eyes of the Creator could not penetrate this wondrous mockery of  the natural world. No one would believe you if you claimed that God’s kingdom penetrated here. Not even the Devil himself would dare to tread upon the Zone.

            No one conquered the Zone, the Zone conquered everyone. Some men were allowed to live within its walls. Others were merely intruders upon its domain. Arkady was one of them. He didn’t belong there. His home was far away from the land of anomalies and bandits. His was a cozy world of a heated office on the seventh floor of an office building. There could be no greater contrast in worlds. His was a world that was closed to Nadovev. Arkady was as foreign here, as he was there. Both men existing as the antithesis of the other. Yet here they were in the Zone at this very moment helping each other get a job done. Ricky was right, this was no place for Arkady. He had also proven to be a liability, as Ricky said.

            As if sensing Nadovev’s thoughts of him, Arkady opened his eyes.

            “You okay now?” Naovev asked.

            “I think so,” Arkady replied, blinking a few times, “I’ve got a headache and feel dizzy. I guess I fainted.”

            The other members of the squad were asleep. Now would be a good time to talk to him.