Chapter 6

It took them the better part of ten minutes to pull themselves together and calm their nerves from the harrowing experience. The truth about how close they came to death was eventually realized, and then quickly shoved aside. None of them particularly enjoyed thinking about how close death’s skeletal hand came to their throats. Fate hoped that it would serve as a powerful reminder to keep a better eye on the functioning of their anomaly detectors. Nadovev at least was particularly angry with himself over such a rookie mistake. It was clear that his mind was distracted. Distracted by the welfare of Arkady – something Ricky would have been quick to remind him of.

            Pulling themselves, together they continued the desolate march through the Black Forest. The after effects of the incident keep them on their toes still. This place would no longer be the same in their minds. You never forgot an incident like that. It would remain scared into their memories for decades to come… If they lived that long. Nadovev remarked to himself how close they had come to being overwhelmed by fear. Such a thing had never happened to him before in his entire career as a Stalker. It was the distraction that caused it.

            However, there are a great many things in the Zone that defied scientific explanation. He’d seen a few things in his time that outright violated the laws of the universe. In the Zone anything was possible. Ghosts formed of psychic energy tormented fools to death when they weren’t careful.  Beasts that seemed to be the product of a mad genetic engineer stalked the woods and caves. Left over malfunctioning experiments from the Soviet era lay unattended too, vulnerable to lethal accidents and manipulations. Nowhere were you safe, you had to have your wits about you to survive; let alone succeed.

            Don’t let it happen again, he told himself.

            Before not too long – several hours in fact – they had made their way to the edge of the forest. Assuming they hadn’t gotten lost due to the anomaly field and their panic, they should be coming up on the town of Polomyia. It was one of countless towns which had been abandoned after the Chernobyl accident. Tens of thousands of people were moved out in a mad rush to save lives. But right now it was a waypoint between them and their goal. More importantly, it was a place to rest their feet. Everyone’s mind was still stretched from the day’s events. Before they could rest they would have to make sure the town was a secure location for it. They’d been told that there was a lone Stalker camp there, but Bandits also ruled the area. Caution was certainly warranted.

            The town like everywhere else in the Zone was run down and desiccated. The houses and apartment buildings were blocky. Their exteriors were torn slabs of concrete with paint that had flaked off as if a skin disease was eating away at the structure. Bluish paint had faded all around giving the place a depressing aura that made you reconsider your surroundings. The top of many of the apartment buildings had collapsed. They remained as decapitated concrete and brick giants. Red rusted Cyrillic letters were anchored to the tops and fronts of former businesses and government institutions. Several of them had already fallen from their places. The rest remained as weary soldiers waiting for their tour to end. An end that was never coming.

            The empty streets made the whole place feel like the remains of a formerly happy loving place. Rusted out playgrounds, dead grass, bare trees, and collapse buildings remained as empty soda cans, and abandoned party hats. A shell of a past happiness that had drained away. Roads stretched on through the city like cracked, dry skin begging for rainfall. Peppered throughout were abandoned cars like pock marks, falling apart from rust. Each of them gave off rich dose of radiation. The metal having soaked it up like sponge was spitting it back out as if squeezed. Urban areas in the Zone felt that way. You got a sense of trepidation from everything around you. You never knew when some structure was about to collapse.

            The whole squad knelt at the edge of the woods remaining in cover as they scanned the city with binoculars. It was of the utmost importance that they identified any bandit groups before they went out into the open. Camera looked into the sky, hoping to find some bit of warmth and happiness. It possessed a streak of red that let them know they weren’t too far from dusk. This close to an open area they began to feel the chill wind of the evening. Scanning to the left, he suddenly stopped at an attic window of a two story house. A ski masked bandit was sitting there with a sniper rifle, scanning the edge of the woods. He was probably a scout looking to get an advanced warning of any large force moving in.

            “I’ve got contact at three o’clock. Appears to be a scout,” Camera told Nadovev.

            Nadovev came up next to Camera and held up his binoculars. He spotted the scout mid way through a yawn. The scout reached back and grabbed a canteen to take a drink. As best as Nadovev could tell, the scout was probably alone. He weighted the possibility of having Camera take him out with a precision shot. It seemed very unlikely that they could sneak past him. The scout had a tremendous angle on them. He’d chosen his position well. Weighing his options carefully, he saw little choice but remove him.

            Nadovev patted Camera on the back, “Take him out,” he told him.

            “Aye, sir,” he replied. Camera snuggled his face to the scope of his Vintorez and pointed it toward the bandit. He swept his sight slowly across the man’s face. He could see the wrinkles in the man’s mask. Picking a spot on his forehead, he squeezed the trigger. A shot rang out.  A bloody hole appeared on the bandit’s head as he fell to the floor.

            “Enemy relieved of life,” he said.

            Nadovev slapped him on the back again and got up. He ordered the squad forward cautiously to enter the town. Moving in a circle covering each other’s backs, they made their way out of the trees and onto the road.  They carefully stepped over the curb and into the street. Ricky kicked a bottle away from the circle sending it skittering across the asphalt. Carefully they made their way to the house that held the now dead bandit.

            Ricky lead the way in – rifle first – darting it left and right trying to cover all the doorways and shadows that could contain another bandit. The floor was made up of water damaged and moldy pine wood boards. There was very little furniture from what he could see. Only the odd chair or broken table. A shattered lamp lay on that table. The main floor appeared to be clear.

            Having scanned the main entrance, Arkady stepped forward to check the stairs leading up to the second floor. It was much of the same. Collapsed beds with no mattresses were in each room. Old Slavic carpets were hung on the walls. They were full of holes from rot and smelled of mold. The rest of the team followed him up the stairs and they swept the rooms. Iosif reached up and pulled the rope that would bring down the stairs to the attic. Nadovev kept his gun aimed at the opening as Camera moved his way up. This was his kill and he wanted to be the one to check it.

            Camera brought up his Vintorez horizontal as soon as he could and scanned the attic. The scout had been alone. He climbed up the rest of the way and waved for the others to follow him. As they climbed up, he checked over the area. The scout had been there a while. It looked like people came and took turns watching for any approaching Stalkers. Next to his corpse was what looked like a log book. Ricky rolled the dead scout’s body over revealing the Dragonov SVD that was underneath. Camera’s eye went wide with delight.

            He reached down and quickly snatched up the sniper rifle, “I have always wanted one of these. This mine now,” he calmly declared.

            He held the rifle in his hands and looked it over. It was in fairly good condition, only needed a bit of repair. To Camera’s delight it was nothing he couldn’t fix himself. Nadovev looked over his shoulder at the rifle and looked impressed. He’d seen a few nice pieces like that before.

            “Looks like you’ve got yourself a hell of a trophy,” Nadovev told him.

            “Yes, I do,” Camera replied slinging the rifle over his shoulder and across his back. It had been a long time since he’d seen anything thing this nice… and had the ability to take it. You didn’t come across stuff this good often. So when it did, you scooped it up and enjoyed it.

            Camera had always wanted a better rifle. He didn’t much care for his Vintorez. It was an okay rifle, it did the job. But it was nowhere near the elegant sophistication of this master race of the sniper world. The Vintorez had a subsonic bullet velocity that caused it to have a lot of drop. Not this glorious Slavic masterpiece! It was the top of the line old Soviet construction. 7.62 calibre rounds, semi-automatic, gas-operated rifle with a short-stroke gas-piston system, and an effective range of 800 meters! All he needed was the 1PN58 night vision scope and he’d be the scourge of bloodsuckers all over the Zone!

            “Looks like I got me somethin’ too,” Ricky said as he bent down and picked up the bandit’s bottle of Cossack vodka. He’d save it for later. A celebratory drink after he’d gotten rid of the ‘dead weight’. He smile to himself and looked over at Arkady with a predatory glance. Arkady missed it though, he was too busy picking something up on his own.

            “He had a radio,” Arkady called out. He handed it over to Nadovev, who looked at it with Camera. It was a regular sized, black, handheld walkie-talkie. It seemed to be a bit of a sophisticated model. It probably had a range of about ten to twenty kilometers. The battery was at half charge. The two of them inspected the device for a moment and came to a conclusion.

            Naodvev spoke in a serious tone, “He was in regular contact with his group. Which means they’re going to be sending someone to take his place eventually. Or they’re going to be sending someone if he doesn’t answer a radio check. I suggest we get out of here quickly. These bandits seem like they might be better organized than the others we’ve come across.”

            As if to confirm his suspicions, the radio came to life with the voice of another bandit, “Astar, radio check.” The group just stared at the radio in Nadovev’s hand. “Astar, radio check. Do you read me?”

            Nadovev dropped the radio and lead the squad out of the attic. They needed to leave before any other bandits showed up. If they had radio technology like that, then they were a well supplied and organized bandit team. Most likely very successful and large as well. If they were going to come, they were probably going to come in force. The squad didn’t have the fire power necessary to take out a large group of them. They double timed it down the stairs and out of the house.

            Ricky lead the way into the streets hoping outrun any bandits which might be on their way. There was no telling how far away they may be. Best just to get the hell out of dodge before the cavalry showed up. The squad quickly turned down a side street breaking line-of-sight with the bandit’s lookout post. It was one of those old European streets that didn’t look like it could hold two lanes of traffic. They quickly darted down the middle of the street, keeping their guns trained in as many directions as possible. All was good so far, there hadn’t been any indications of bandit activity.

            The squad came up to a dead end that was enclosed by a handful of two-story houses that appeared to be made of wood on top of concrete. They were nicer than most of the homes they had seen so far. It must have been a  bureaucrat’s neighbourhood. Other than the depressing shade of grey everything around it, the dead lawns, creepy damaged lawn ornaments, and ruined fronts – it was pretty cozy. It would almost have been a nice place to settle down. That is, if you didn’t mind the background radiation being a good deal more than was healthy. As well as having murderous bandits for neighbours.

            Looking for a way out of the dead end, they ran into the backyard of one of the homes and jumped the fence into another yard on the opposite side. The squad had to stop for a moment as it took Arkady three tries to get over the simple wood fence. Ricky shook his head grunting. Nadovev pointed ahead of Ricky telling him to get moving again. Arkady took off once back to his feet to catch up with the rest of the squad. He was getting tired of falling behind every once in a while. But, that was the price you paid for going out into the Zone after having been a desk jockey most of your life.

            Looking ahead at the cracked roadway, Nadovev told them to cut between two apartment buildings on their right. They took off in that direction crossing the street quickly, hoping to be out in the open as little as possible. Dodging around the building and filing into its rear area, they came up to a dead end in a the form of a steel fence with a locked gate. The squad skidded to a halt in an almost cartoonish manner bumping into each other.

            “Ass,” Ricky said, grabbing a hold of the rusted padlock. None of them had any kind of tools on them that would be useful in picking locks. Ricky kicked the door in anger, letting out a frustrated grunt. He banged on the gate with the butt of his M16 rifle hoping to break the lock. Unfortunately for them it didn’t work.

            Nadovev signalled Iosif over with a wave of his fist. The big man stepped forward and looked at the gate. He handed his PKM to Ricky and got his balance fixed. In one swift move he thrust out his foot kicking the gate with enormous strength. At first the gate didn’t budge, but then the whole fence collapsed, taking the gate with it. Iosif just shrugged his shoulders with a smile and took his machine gun back from Ricky. Nadovev had to stifle a laugh as Ricky looked on dumbfounded. Arkady was taken aback by the display of strength.

            “Forward shall we?” Nadovev said with a smile on his face. Ricky broke out into a jog and lead the way once again.

            Cutting through the back area of the apartment buildings, they ran past old dumpsters the smelled like they contained hundred year old wild dog carcasses. After that, they jogged through a parking lot full of rusted out old cars. As they made their way, they could have sworn they could feel the increased radiation leaking off the empty metal bodies. Nadovev thought it would take a dose or two of anti-rad meds for them to get over this afterward.

            Against the building to their right a bunch of shots ricocheted off the wall. They’d been spotted. Ricky dived down behind a short red brick wall that served to separate the back lawn from the street. The rest of the squad followed diving into the same cover. Ricky sneaked a quick look over the wall to see if he could determine where the shots were coming from. Shots rang out towards his head and he resumed ducking behind the wall instantly. Fortunately, he had seen where the shots were coming from.

            “Across the street! They’re behind a bus, but I think they’re inside it now!” He blared out to the rest of the squad.

            Nadovev nodded to Iosif and then counted down from three with his fingers. Iosif quickly stood up and let loose with the machine gun laying a commanding spread of fire into the rusted out old public bus across the street. The gunmen in the bus hit the deck immediately to avoid Iosif’s wild shots. As they did Nadovev stuck his head up to get a better view of the situation. They had good cover being in the bus, but it restrained their mobility. Ducking back down, he crawled over to Camera.

            “I want you to go far that way,” Nadovev said, pointing to his left, “and get a better angle on them.” He shifted his weight to his other leg. “We’ll keep them busy here while you do that.” Camera nodded his head and broke off into a running crouch. Nadovev turned back towards the squad and said, “Okay men, we’ll keep them busy while Camera gets into position. Maybe take a few out before he gets there.”

            The remaining four members of Radiochemical Company got up to the wall and fired back at their attackers. To their surprise Arkady hit one in the upper section of his chest and he went down. A small burst of glee broke from Arkady’s normally nervous look. Nadovev smiled despite the situation. Ricky frowned in disappointment. Strange that he should want Arkady to be a bad shot in a situation like this.

            Both sides exchanged shots back and forth. During the exchange, they could make out that their attackers were indeed bandits. There were only three of them. Which probably meant that they were just a patrol. No matter, Nadovev thought, they all die in the end. A bandit stood up and reach back with one hand preparing to throw a grenade. With one man down already the bandits were probably starting to panic. As he began to swing his arm forward a bullet struck the side of his head. Collapsing dead, he dropped the grenade right in front of his comrade. The unlucky bandit didn’t have time to react and was shredded by its explosion. Camera had exercised his uncanny precise timing.

            “Alright, let’s move before all that noise brings more of them in,” Nadovev said as he got to his feet. The squad got up and made their way over to the bus to check out their handy work. To their surprise Arkady’s shot had gone through the bandit’s trigger hand and into his chest near the heart. The rest of the squad was genuinely impressed. Even Ricky reluctantly was. It seemed this Star Loop was working wonders for his anxiety and concentration.

            Leaning over the dead bandits, the squad scooped up as much useful gear as possible and made their way off through the town.

            Without wasting time, they were back on their feet and making their way through the town again. After that little shoot out they knew that bandits were more active in the area than they previously thought. It also kept them on their toes and focused their spotting efforts. If they were going to get to a location to rest before sundown, they’d really have to move. The town was said to hold a neutral Stalker camp, but it seemed like the place was under bandit control. Right now they needed a safer way to cross the city. That gun fight probably attracted the attention of another bandit squad.

            This time Naodvev was leading the way through the town. He scanned the immediate area looking for some method of movement that would provide them with cover. Looking quickly from left to right, he finally spotted an underground garage. It seemed as though it was shared between two apartment buildings next to each other. Nadovev turned towards the garage indicating for the others to follow. Reaching the ramp he could see that it had chevrons carved into it for traction in the winter. Thankfully the roll up door was already open.

            As the men went down into the garage they turned their head lamps on. Once in the underground Nadovev brought them to a halt. He looked around quickly and turned to Iosif, “These old Soviet buildings… weren’t they connected by hidden passages?”

Iosif reached back into his mind to pull up some information that may or may not have been there, “Yea, some buildings did. I think mainly government buildings and multi-unit dwellings.”

            “Okay, spread out and look for one,” Nadovev ordered.

            Quickly they all broke off and began checking the walls for any kind of hidden passage… If there was one. Fast anxious hands patted down walls looking for any sign of hope. The quick panicky movements of head lamps in the dark flashed back and forth in schizophrenic patterns. Nadovev kept looking over his shoulder to the garage entrance to see if anyone was approaching. Hope began to fade as the search went on. Nadovev was starting to feel as though he’d made a mistake. The garage suddenly started to feel a lot smaller. In the back of Nadovev’s mind the garage began to feel like a tomb. Hopelessness began to creep into his heart.

            No one noticed that one of the lights had stopped moving. Ricky ceased his searching and glared at Arkady. Some terrible vile mood had just overtaken the American, and now he wanted to kill him. Ricky raised his M16 to his face and peered at Arkady through the sight. He wanted so badly to pop a round in his head. Every moment of weakness Ricky ever felt in his life was made manifest in Arkady. Every self-doubt, every fear, every failure. They all became embodied in his squadmate. He longed to pull the trigger and be rid of him. If he died, then all the past mistakes Ricky had ever made in his life would somehow disappear.

            What the hell am I doing? He thought. This was not the place for revenge. That had to come later when he could tactically sacrifice Arkady for some goal instead of risking himself. Yeah, I need to be patient about this and strike when it’s most beneficial, he thought. He lowered the weapon just as Arkady was turning around. The two met eyes with their headlamps. Ricky gave him a carnivorous smile. Arkady turned away quickly, disturbed by what he had seen in the man’s face. Still, it didn’t make sense, Ricky thought. Why had I wanted to kill him so badly right now? It didn’t make any sense to him. He began to wonder if perhaps the stress of this whole endeavour was causing his mind to slip. Shunting aside the thought he returned to searching.

Over across the garage Iosif had seen what had taken place. Another moment and he’d have opened fire on Ricky. He made a mental note: It might very well become necessary to kill Ricky. He didn’t much care for the idea, but he’d already seen what a danger the man was to the squad. Sure Arkady was a liability, but by no means did that require him to die. Iosif concluded that Ricky was a sociopath through and through. He’d have a talk to Nadovev about it as soon as they were alone.

            “I think I found it,” Camera called out. Pushing aside some rubble he pointed to a large door-shaped indentation in the wall. He tried to blow the dirt and dust out of the seams hoping it would make it easier to see. All he managed to accomplish was sending dirt into the air, causing him to cough.

            Iosif jogged over to check out what Camera had found. “Yeah, I think this might be it,” he said. Iosif shoved some more debris out the way and put his hand on the wall. He gave it a push and it felt like it was starting to give way. He shouldered his PKM and pushed harder with both arms. A moment or so later the hidden door gave way and started to swing open. It made a God awful screeching noise. Rusted hinges shrieked in pain as the big man forced them to move in a way they hadn’t in decades.

            The squad gathered around the opening and peered inside with their headlamps. “Well, let’s get going,” Nadovev said leading the way down the tunnel. “By the way, any idea where this goes?” He asked Iosif who was right behind him. “It probably connects to a larger tunnel system somewhere,” he answered.

            The passage was certainly one that had not been used in a long time. Particulates flooded the air, making them choke. The walls of the passage were prefabricated concrete slabs which were only wide enough to allow two men to walk side by side. The ceiling was no more than two meters above them. With their headlamps juddering about as they ran, large dry cracks in the walls could be seen. Cracks so large they made the squad feel nervous. As they jogged down the passage, it felt as though it was getting smaller and smaller. None of them had claustrophobia. But too many hours down here might cause it.

            Laboured breathing and boots ringing out against the concrete floor were the only sounds to be heard. The passage had a long echo that magnified even the smallest of sounds. Five men making their way through the passage sound like an entire regiment was on its way. With the darkness and noise combined they all wished to be out of there as quickly as possible.

            Nadovev had no idea where they were going. Nor did he know which direction they were travelling in. For several minutes they made several turns. Each one was a completely random guess by him. All the walls looked the same – even the cracks. For all he knew they were running around in circles. His sincerest wish was not to be entombed in these catacombs for all eternity like some lost spirit. The thought of them spending any more time than necessary down here made him shudder.

            Quickly he turned another corner and stopped dead in his tracks, causing a pile up of bodies behind him. Vocalizing their frustration with him, Nadovev told them to quiet down. He pointed ahead to the end of the passage where a ladder with some faint light above it could be seen. This was it, this was their ticket back to the surface never to descend down again. As Nadovev began to walk towards the ladder, he noticed a light coming from the floor in from of him. Walking closer he was able to get a better view of it. When he got close enough, it revealed itself to be Witch’s Jelly.

            The squad halted staring at the anomaly in the floor. It was impossible to miss. It was a bright radiating mini-river in the darkness. There was no chance of missing it. The problem was that it was fairly wide. It was about two meters, which wouldn’t normally be too much; but they each carried a decent amount of gear. Jumping across this was going to be a Hell of a problem. They each looked at the anomaly river with serious disdain and annoyance. It was going to be one hell of a pain in the ass to cross. The biggest difficulty was going to be for Iosif, who was heavily weighed down with gear and his own natural bulk, and Arkady whom had probably never jumped a distance like that before.

            “Nothing to it but to do it,” Ricky said as he took a few steps back preparing to jump the anomaly. He took a  deep breath and charge forward. In a swift cat-like move he leaped over the Witch’s Jelly; and then some. It was little effort for him. He stood there on the other side with a self-satisfied look on his face. Iosif gave him mock applause. He wasn’t offended, he ate it up regardless.

            Nadovev closed his eyes tight and let out a sigh. He hated jumping over things like this. He really appreciated being able to miss a jump only having to suffer the embarrassment. Getting caught in an anomaly that would eat you alive like acid was not a fate he wanted to risk if he could help it. For a moment he considered looking for a way around, but decided against it. Taking another deep breath he took a run at it and leaped over it. He landed on the other side with little room to spare and a huge sigh of relief that he kept inside.

            Iosif shook his head in frustration, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut about the underground passages.

            “Come on, big man, let’s see what you can do,” Ricky mocked from the other side of the anomaly. Naodvev gave him a look that said ‘shut up’. Ricky backed away smiling.

            Iosif met eyes with Nadovev and threw his beloved PKM over the Witch’s Jelly to him. He caught it deftly and held on to it. Iosif closed his eyes and took a handful of steps backwards in order to get a running start. I wish I was lifting something heavy, he thought to himself. With that thought he took a deep breath and charged forwards. As he got to top speed he leaped over the Witch’s Jelly. In the air, his eye caught anomaly’s light reflecting off the steel bootlace holes in his boots. He landed with a thud falling to his side forgetting to roll with it. Relieved, he’d made it with only a few inches to spare. He climbed to his feet, breathing a sigh of satisfaction.

            Arkady stared at the river knowing that he was the only one left. “Come on you can do it, just focus,” Nadovev encouraged him. He closed his eyes, wishing that he could be anywhere but here. There was no getting around it. He had to do this. His mind flashed back to high school where he’d had a given one terrible display as an athlete. It’s not going to be like that here, he comforted himself. With the rest of the squad watching from the other, side he jogged on the spot to psyche himself up. Nothing to it but to do it, he said to himself remembering Ricky’s words. God damn it, he finished.

            Arkady broke out into a run going full steam. At the last moment before the anomaly he leapt with all of his might. Time slowed down for him as he sailed through the air. He swore that he could see the light from the Witch’s Jelly reflecting off the exposed metal on his gear. As he took this in he suddenly realized he didn’t have enough forward momentum to make it across. In the air, he began to panic. The other members of the squad noticed his predicament as well. Arkady landed with only the front half of both his feet on the ledge. His body was beginning to lean back towards the anomaly. His arms flailed about as he tried to keep his balance. It was a futile effort as he felt himself begin to fall backwards.

            He braced himself for the burning sensation of the Witch’s Jelly… but it never came. Opening his eyes, he saw Iosif’s meaty hand holding onto his load bearing harness pulling him towards safety. Once fully on his feet, Arkady wrapped his arms around the big man in a thank you hug. Iosif patted him on the back and laughed. “Any time, man,” he said. Nadovev was far more relieved than he let on. He was sure Arkady was going to plunge to his death. Thank God for big solid Iosif, he thought.

            Relieved that it was over, Nadovev turned back towards the ladder and threw his foot on the first rung. He climbed up about three meters where he met with the panel to the outside. The light was clearly peeking through it. He listened to see if he could hear any noise coming from the other side. He detected nothing and pushed the panel up and free, letting in the sunlight. Carefully he brought himself up to eye level and scanned he area. He saw no one around. Wait, off in the distance, about two kilometers he saw what looked like a camp fire. He took out his binoculars and had a closer look.

            Indeed, it was a campfire. There were Stalkers all around it. There must have been several dozen there. They’d found it, the fabled neutral Stalker camp where they’d be able to rest for the night. He gave the thumbs up to the men waiting behind him and climbed the rest of the way up.