Nadovev looked the younger man in the eye, “Why are you here? Why did you insist on coming along?”
“You know why I’m here,” answered Arkady, “I’ve got something to prove.”
“I don’t know why you feel that way. You practically begged me to take you along. And now you’re in a terrible mess. I don’t even know how to proceed from here.”
“You know why Flashlight, I have to prove it to my wife. She goes on about her brave and adventurous brother the Stalker. He’ so fearless and goes on the most amazing quests. ‘That’s how a real man acts’, she says. How is that supposed to make me, her husband feel? If she’s running around idolizing her brother that has the opposite life from me, what does that say? It means she really thinks I’m a weak coward.”
“Did I not warn you,” Nadovev replied, “before marrying my sister?”
“Yes, you did, but I didn’t really understand what you were saying. Now I do. Men in your family have been held up to a certain standard, a certain way to behave. The men in your family are expected to be adventures, soldiers, anything but pencil pushers like myself. So you can imagine that I really don’t fit in with the family. Your mother and father, always looking at me that certain way. As if I wasn’t really a man. I couldn’t take their whispering and gossiping behind my back any longer.”
“So you decided to do something about it,” said Nadovev.
“Yes,” Arkady replied, “I intended to prove myself to your family by coming out here and showing that I could at least keep up with their famous Stalker son. The one they always go on about as a role model.”
It was obvious what was happening here. Nadovev’s family was projecting their less-than-enlightened ideas about manhood onto Arkady, who came from a different world than they did. The Nadovev family had been peasants only a few generations ago. Only in the last few had they moved up to industrial workers, miners , and soldiers. Which was a nice way of saying that they still held some backwards ideas about masculinity. In fact, the Nadovev in front of him was the first one to ever really leave his home town.
Arkady by contrast came from a well to do upper middle class family. All of them had an education and worked salary jobs for large companies. The only exceptions were those who owned their own businesses. They had a different interpretation of what a man was. Their idea was not particularly enlightened either. For them a measure of a man lay in how much money he could pull from the world. The best measuring stick they had was a man’s bank account. Arkady did just fine by that measure. He was average among his family members. He was not worthy of great glory, nor could he be considered a failure. He was average, painfully average. Perhaps this is what bothered him the most. By his own family, he was plain and uninteresting. By his wife’s he was substandard.
“What is a man then?” Arkady asked, holding the wet cloth to his forehead.
“I’m not a particularly well educated man, I have to go by my life’s experience… What it tells me is that you’ve worked incredibly hard to earn my family’s respect even though you probably shouldn’t have. Well, at least you shouldn’t have done it this way… But if life has taught me anything, it’s that a man really has to be the one to measure himself. You can’t really go by what other people think, because they all have different ideas.”
Nadovev was right. Both he and Arkady were very different men, from two different worlds, with two different measures of manhood. Is it fair to create one universal standard when everyone wasn’t the same? They mutually excluded each other from their particular worlds. Does this mean that either one of them is useless, or therefore not a man? No. It takes different kinds of men to fill different kinds of roles in society.
Nadovev said, “I think you need to discover what it is that makes you a man. A far as I’m concerned, you’re doing a good job. You treat my sister well, and you have a good stable job. When the day comes you guys have kids, I know you’ll take care of them. I think you’re a good man, if that means anything.”
“Thank you, that means a lot coming from you,” Arkady replied.
The words really did have a deep meaning to him. It was Nadovev’s image that he was trying to compare himself to. If his respect was good, then maybe it was good enough for his in-laws. He began to think this whole coming to the Zone to prove himself thing was a mistake after all. A man has to figure out who he is and what he’s about. In some lives, it’s as simple as reading a description of a family tree. In others, it’s a struggle to reach the centre of a maze of ideas – and once you’re there, you come face-to-face with the Minotaur of introspection.
Nadovev continued to sit by Arkady’s side to keep him company. It suddenly occurred to Arkady that they were in a cave full of light. Arkady sighed and turned his head to the right looking for the source of it. He looked over at the pool of Witch’s Jelly and squinted his eyes staring at it. The white-bluish light shone on his face. His eyes were watery. Arkady reached toward the anomaly and pointed to it.
“What is that?” He asked.
“It’s Witches Jelly,” Nadovev replied, “It’s an anomaly. We were lucky to find it here in this cave. Pretty convenient actually.”
“No, that,” said Arkady.
Looking closer, Nadovev didn’t see anything but the anomaly. He lowered his head to the same angle as Arkady and finally saw what he was actually pointing at. A loop of silver was hovering over the Witch’s Jelly. It looked like a shining silver bangle, just hovering in the air about ten centimetres above the pool. The bluish tinge to the light made the loop appear ghostly. As though a spirit from a time of antiquity had dropped a piece of jewelry. It wasn’t made out of metal, but it didn’t look like it was made out of anything else. Truth be told Nadovev didn’t know what it was made of. Looking closer he noticed it was spinning. The perfectly smooth surface of the loop made it hard to see. But it definitely was spinning on the spot.
“Yeah, I see it,” said Nadovev.
Reaching into his pack, Nadovev pulled out a small metal rod. Carefully, he pushed it towards the Witch’s Jelly. With a careful delicate hand, he reached out and attempted to touch the loop. After three tries he managed to hook and pull it towards them. Carefully, he put the rod in the loop and lifted it away from the pool of Witch’s Jelly. He brought it closer to his face to get a better look at it. It was beautiful. It looked like it was made of silver that had been polished by a patient experienced hand. It was too light to be metal though. Even on the rod it continued spinning despite no discernible means of propulsion. He held it close to his ear and heard the very faint hum he remembered. It had its own ‘voice’, a whisper like a spirit that had grown weary.
Arkady’s eyes followed it with wonder. He had never seen an artifact with his own eyes before. He’d seen them on television, the internet, magazines, even a few photos that Nadovev had brought back when visiting family. But he had never seen one in person, it was hauntingly beautiful. The loop’s bluish light reflected off his eyes.
Nadovev smiled, because he knew what it was. He’d seen them before. He took the loop in his hand pulling it off the metal rod. Then reached over and put it around Arkady’s right wrist. It stopped spinning. Arkady’s face seemed to relax and become peaceful. He laid his head back down and breathed deeply at rest. His eyes went warm as a child looking upon a pile of presents on Christmas morning. He felt as if everything was alright… At least for now.
“It’s an artifact,” Nadovev said, “a ‘Star Loop’ they call it. They only form in Witch’s Jelly anomalies. Wearing one has a calming effect when it comes in contact with the body. Whatever makes you feel calm from the anomaly also comes from the artifact. I know a few Stalkers who keep one around in case things get too hairy. I’ve seen articles in magazines of scientists using them for research into anti-anxiety medications. I think you should keep this on you.”
“Thank you,” Arkady said.
“I think it’s a good omen. Something popping up to help us in two ways,” Nadovev said, “Now let’s get some sleep. The day has been stressful enough as it has.”
He stood alone, there was no one else in sight. There was nothing where he was. No tables, no furniture, no grass, no trees. He stood completely in a void. The area around him was hazy – devoid of substance or meaning. He felt no cold, no heat… only nothingness. He struggled for a moment to remember who he was… That’s right, he was Nadovev the Stalker. He couldn’t understand where he was or what was happening. His mind felt heavy and thick like a cloud before a storm. But then there was a spark, a flash of something in his mind. Lightening struck his brain, waking his cognitive thought.
In front of him appeared a metal table. It was old and rusted, with support beams connecting all the legs half way down. The top was a flat metal with splotches of flaking rust. It was sharp to the touch. Naodvev looked towards the center of the table and saw something. He couldn’t quite make it out. It was as if a fog was hanging around the object obscuring his view. He tried to look closely at it, but found his legs were immobile.
The unknown object began to glow. An orange hue began to form in the fog. A spark of life reaching out from the primordial atmosphere that contained it. The light grew brighter and began to penetrate the fog more. The life began to grow and challenge its container. The orange light began to violently push its way through the fog. It was growing, evolving right before his very eyes. A moment later it tore through the fog with a blinding light. Orange luminescence burst through entering its own, overtaking the fog. Life had taken on its true form, one developed far beyond what it began as. Quantitative changes broke out into qualitative change. Its sum had become greater than the whole of its parts.
Nadovev reached out for the object. His hand moved slowly closer to the increasingly blinding orange light. His hand drew closer, and closer. It began to turn warm as the distance between the two shrank. Nadovev’s was merely ten centimetres away from it. One more stretch and he would reach it. As he tried to stretch, the orange light pulsed so brightly he had to close his eyes…
When he opened them, he was staring at the ceiling of the cave. Grit was irritating them. Iosif was standing over him snapping his fingers.
“Hey, Nadovev, we have to get going,” Iosif said.
Nadovev could still see the after image of the orange light in his eyes. His head was heavy and clouded with thoughts. His mind was still slow from waking up. He was going to need a few minutes to shake out the cobwebs. The image of the glowing object remained in his mind. It began to slowly fade away as memories of dreams always do. Laboriously sitting up he took out his canteen of water and took a sip.
The water, despite being room temperate was still refreshing. Looking at his PDA he could see it was nearing 07:00. They did have to get going soon.
Climbing to his feet, he looked at all the men of the squad. They all looked ready to go, even Arkady, who looked far more confident now that he had his ‘help’. He lifted up the sleeve of his combat fatigues and showed that he was still wearing the Star Loop. He then quickly pulled it back down so that the others didn’t see it. Nadovev nodded his approval to him.
“Alright, let’s get going,” Nadovev ordered.
The men of Radiochemical Company fell in line and began their march for the day.
As they continued to make their way through the Black Forest it didn’t take long for Nadovev’s mind to become distracted once again. The bark of the trees was black, as if they were dead, or some reminder of death. Again, here, very little light managed to pour through the thick dark green leaves. The rays of hope were getting through once more. He was reminded of the Star Loop that was now sitting around Arkday’s wrist. Despite the gloom of their surroundings, he felt positive. Regardless of the suffocating thickness of the trees he still had those rays of hope.
It seemed as though the Zone was helping them. While Nadovev didn’t really believe in a God, or was religious, he did know that the Zone acted in mysterious ways. The thought of the Zone itself as alive was still a strange concept, there was however, no denying the very powerful coincidence of the appearance of a cave, a healthy light source within it, and the very thing they would need to help Arkady deal with his inexperience and his nerves. It felt like the Zone was giving him these things, like it wanted him and his group to be the ones to find the anomaly at the end of their quest. He didn’t know for sure, but it was a coincidence that was too strong to ignore.
And what of the dreams? This was the second time now he had had a vision which he assumed was about their mission. Was the glowing orange light the artifact that they sought? Was the vision of him falling off the cliff into the highly irradiated water a foretelling of his doom? “Who know such things?” He asked himself. His pondering turned to food – so he took out a hunk of bread from his pack. Biting into it, he found it hard and slightly stale. Fresh food was a luxury you found at Skadovsk and 100 Rads Bar. He then wondered if they were ever going to see any of those places again. The optimism he just had just felt was replaced with a sense longing to be away from where they were.
Looking back, he saw Ricky’s fidgeting with his gun. He seemed distracted by something with it. Nadovev decided to shake him out of it by putting him on point.
“Ricky, get up here, you’re on point now,” said Nadovev.
Ricky jogged up to the front of the line and stopped fidgeting with his gun. He held it out in preparation for anything. Looking back, he met eyes with Nadovev, neither one of their eyes held any friendliness.
Ricky thought “soon enough” to himself as he brought his head back around from looking at Nadovev. He’d heard the conversation last night, about Arkady being Nadovev’s brother-in-law. He just couldn’t believe it. But it would explain so much. It would explain how he got so much leeway when screwing things up. There’s no way that would have been tolerated from anyone else. Certainly not from the great Ricky himself! This meant one thing: It was going to be much more difficult than he originally assumed to get rid of Arkady. Long gone is the notion that he could just talk Nadovev out of taking him along. So too was the idea of performing a coup against him. Camera made sure of that. If there was anyone who was neutral in the situation it would have been Camera. God knows Iosif would never oppose anything Naodvev said, he had far too much respect for the man. A foolish respect if you asked Ricky. He was like a private fresh out of the academy on first day afraid to do anything that his superior wouldn’t do. It was sickening really, in his opinion Iosif had no mind of his own.
Speaking of sickening, it was Arkady, who made him sick most of all. The man oozed weakness out of every pore. He was practically begging to get taken advantage of. His naiveté about life as a Stalker was just way too juicy to pass up. It would be like taking candy from a baby, or money from a fool. Ricky preferred the latter. Ricky thought of Arkady as a piece of meat that was wandering around blinded in a field of wild animals. At any moment his scent was going to be picked up by a beast and be taken to be eaten alive. Ricky wanted to be that animal. Arkady disgusted him, he abhorred weakness in all forms. Such a thing was meant to be used and discarded. People like that were disposable. A cheap disposable commodity to be used up and thrown away. Quickly replaced by another one. Yeah, that’s how he saw Arkady. A disposable commodity.
There was no room for mercy and compassion in Ricky’s world. People were something that you used for your benefit and then got rid of. That was the way he was raised. That is how the world works. You gotta get yours and then get the hell out. You didn’t owe anybody nothin’. You just took what you wanted and lived the best you could. Anyone who thought differently was fool looking to get stolen from. “These Europeans”, he thought, “were such marks for their sense of community.” A real man made it on his own. He didn’t help the community, he ruled the community for his own benefit. None of these troglodytes understood any of that. Not even Nadovev himself, who should know better. Caring was no better than someone stealing your hard work. The thought twisted his stomach. None of them would make in the real world, none of them at all. He was the wolf walking among the sheep undetected. Soon enough it would be his moment to pounce… Then, profit!
Just the sight of his face, sickened him. It was intolerable that such a useless wretch that couldn’t pull his weight was on this team. As much as he despised Iosif, and was ambivalent towards Camera, they each had beneficial skills. Camera’s marksmanship was better than anything he’d ever seen before. Iosif was good with a machine gun, and suitable as a big dumb pack mule. Nadovev was different, he legitimately needed him. No one else had the experience that he had, and it was absolutely invaluable. Experience was the hardest thing to come by. The connections he’d made were quite lucrative as well, he’d never have found this job on his own.
But this Arkady guy… Sheesh! He was a useless bag of dead weight! He had no business being here. Ricky took it as an insult that he was here. To be in the same squad as Ricky just turned his stomach. He didn’t even deserve to sit at the same dinner table as him. As far as he was concerned, Arkady was nothing more than a lowly peasant to be used, sacrificed, when it was to his advantage. Yes, that’s what he’ll do. Keep him around until they needed a dummy to expend. Then he’d show Arkady what he was really worth on the open market, without Nadovev propping up his value. Maybe that piece of garbage had a use after all. He’d relish the opportunity to take him to the landfill himself and bury him with the rest of the garbage. Yes, that would make him happy. “Just wait”, he told himself. It will come soon enough.
Ricky assumed they knew he was a ‘scoundrel’ in their opinion. He saw himself as smart enough to know when to recognise a profitable opportunity! But really, how much did they know about him? Did they know how willing he was to knife them all in the back, if the time came? A long time ago, he learned that you had to keep hidden how ruthless you really were. How willing you were to take advantage of a situation. The less they knew, the less they suspected you. The average person couldn’t handle the reality of the world. A man needed to be ruthless to make it. Everyone knew it, but no one wanted to acknowledge it. It was an unspoken knowledge that this was how the world worked. Society, however, saw it as impolite to mention it. Society wanted its false sheen of civility. The true barbaric nature of man lived on in a new form. But the people of society wanted to believe things had changed, they wanted to believe they were civilized now. It was all a facade to cover up the truth about the world. We hadn’t changed at all. This was a truth people weren’t ready to accept yet. So he kept his true feelings and nature hidden. It made it easier for him to function that way. After all, their denial was his opportunity.
Snap! A decent sized sound broke Ricky from his thoughts. He immediately dropped to one knee and gave a signal back to the rest of the squad to stop. He looked around trying to find the source of the noise. Nadovev was in crouching walk coming to his location. Ricky suddenly spotted what he had heard as Nadovev reached him.
‘Bandits,” he whispered to Nadovev.
They were moving crossways to their path. By his count there were about seven of them. Each one was wearing the trademark trench coat and a ski mask. They held their weapons at the ready as if they expected something to jump on them. Or they were close to jumping on something themselves. These guys were clearly paying attention, getting ready to attack someone. This was no stroll through the woods. These were men on a mission looking to do some damage. Their voices were low and deliberate. Straining to hear, neither Nadovev or Ricky could make out their words.
“Don’t engage them. Let’s not waste time or ammo on them. Just let them pass,” Nadovev ordered in a whisper.
Ricky agreed with his assessment, these were petty crooks on the bottom of the ladder. They were lazy brutes who knew nothing of what it took to truly succeed at Stalking. They didn’t want to work for anything, they just wanted to ambush and take. There was no skill in that, no achievement, no challenge. You had to have cunning, the ability to manipulate people, the ability to make sacrifices of people when it came time. Besides, Ricky knew there was no honour among thieves. Not like him anyway.
The squad remained in cover for five minutes to ensure that the bandits had left completely before they moved on. During that time he held his weapon at the ready. Camera kept a lock on a Bandit at all times ready to pull the trigger if necessary. Arkady obsessive checked his shoelaces, untying and tying them again.
“Right, now let’s move,” Nadovev quietly called out.
The squad got up and began to move a little quicker to make up for time lost hiding from the Bandits. As they ploughed their way through the forest Nadovev heard odd sounds coming from the near distance. Bushes and small trees were rustling. Odd hollow noises were coming from different places. They sounded as if ghosts were calling to them. Just beyond their vision; a multitude of death’s representatives stood by waiting to pounce on them. The thoughts unnerved him and he assumed it had a similar effect on the others.
As they moved on the surrounding trees began to take on unnatural shapes. They looked like twisted figures. Their branches were mutilated off in directions that trees just didn’t grow. Eerie creaking noises came from them as the wind blew against them. Wait, a sudden wind had just picked up. But it didn’t feel strong enough to make the trees sway. Deep down inside they couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow the trees were moving of their own volition. The creaks and groans from them grew in intensity. Visions of dried old bones long forgotten filled their minds. Stark white twisted skeletons perverting their form to rise to their feet.
The anxiety among the group was increasing. The trees began to sway more violently. Their groans and moans became louder, terrifying to the ears. As their branches shook with more ferocity, the rays of hope pouring down between the leaves shrank. In other moments they appeared somewhere else as another space opened up. The faster the trees moved the rays of hope began to have a strobing effect. It seemed like hope itself was going into a wild minded panic lashing out in all directions.
The members suddenly found themselves running in fear. Bandits were one thing, they could deal with those easily. But paranormal activity out here in the desolation of the Zone was quite another. They all knew down in their hearts that this was something unnatural. As the trees began to sway even harder still, the air felt as though it was getting thick. As they struggled to run faster, each breath became thick as thieves. It felt as though the very environment was trying to kill them. A deep panic was setting into all of them; even Nadovev who was renowned for his ability to be solid in a crisis. But this was no ordinary situation – it was a highly supernatural event… Even if they couldn’t actually see what was going on.
A gigantic whooshing sound snapped to their right causing all of them to jump while running at top speed! The fear was starting to overtake their rational minds. Nadovev looked back and saw that Arkady was gripping the Star Loop, like a Catholic priest would a crucifix during an exorcism. Never before had he been so happy to see a Star Loop in the right hands. If it wasn’t for that artifact… Who knows what would be happening now. Terror was still plastered across Arkady’s face just like the rest of them.
Another whooshing sound snapped to their left making them jump again. The wind turned into a mad howl tearing at their gear… and their sanity. It felt as if there were different winds, from different directions all competing with each other to take the squad off their feet. The sensory overload was mind boggling. All of them were straining to keep their minds straight.
This time it was Ricky in front who lost his nerve as he started screaming, “FORGET THIS SHIT!”
Lashing out wildly he fired round after round from his M16 in the direction of the last whooshing noise. Hearing the shots, Iosif opened up with his PKM throwing rounds in the opposite direction. Despite the quantity of bullets spent, they hit nothing; nothing but air. It was as if the whole environment was trying to suffocate them. There was nothing they could do, they were powerless against its onslaught.
Nadovev knew he was going to have to get a hold of his squad or they were going to lose their minds completely. Looking down at his load belt, he noticed that his anomaly detector was going crazy. It was flashing like a strobe light at a rave. But why wasn’t it making any noise?… Because they had muted their devices while they were sleeping. With the Witch’s Jelly so close they wouldn’t stop. This knowledge brought him back to his senses. He realized they were in the middle of a very large anomaly field.
With his mind liberated from the panic he began to calculate which way they should go based on the beeping. Working it out he determined that they should head in a strange zigzagging pattern. He hoped this would be the correct path out of the anomaly field.
Nadovev had to yell at the top of his lungs to be heard, “WE’RE IN AN ANOMALY FIELD! EVERYONE FOLLOW ME!”
The squad heard him and quickly followed suit. Using the detector as a guide, they made their way around the anomalies and out of the field. After another minute of running and they were clear of danger. A great sigh of relief overtook them as they dropped to the ground in exhaustion. Each man was panting like they hadn’t drawn a breath in a hundred years. Water canteens were wiped out in record time to calm the growing dehydration. They laid on the ground, or sitting, leaning against a tree in silence for at least a minute. The silence was eventually broken by Iosif.
“What in the Hell was that!?” he asked.
Nadovev sat up taking another mouthful of water.
“That, my friends, was us barely escaping death. That anomaly field was a loop. No matter how fast or long we ran, there was going to be no escaping it. We just kept going around in circles. If we hadn’t gotten out, we’d have exhausted ourselves to death. We didn’t realize it was an anomaly field because our detectors were still on mute from last night. It was only when I noticed mine flashing that I figured it out. It took me a few moments to plot our way out of the field, but we made it.”
“Let’s not do that again,” Iosif answered, dropping to the ground.