Elated to be out of the underground passage Hell hole, the men of Radiochemical Company were almost skipped towards the Stalker camp. They’d spent most of the day running from bandit encounters or running through underground death trap. Some time off their feet was something they all looked forward to. At the moment the sun was starting to go down. They were glad to be getting somewhere safe before the night fell… Well, as safe as any place in the Zone is.
The place looked welcoming enough. It was larger than what Nadovev had originally seen. There were several campfires with dozens of Stalkers hanging around. Smartly, they’d set up the camp in a fenced off parking lot. The meter and a half tall chain link fence was repaired in several places, but it was enough to hold off any wild dogs, or pretty much anything else that dwelled in the city. Parts of it were sheet metal that looked like they had been welded into place. In others, old playground equipment had been shoved into place and welded to. Nadovev felt that it wouldn’t hold up against a Bloodsucker. But for what it was, it provided a decent level of security against animals sneaking up in the middle of the night.
Two men stood at the gate to – what was referred to as a camp. As they approached, the two guards looked them over briefly and waved them in. It was highly unlikely anyone would start much trouble with this many Stalkers around. The squad stood still looking around as the small metal gate closed behind them. Relishing the moment they took in the sight of it all. Dozens of Stalkers milling about left and right around oil can fires. Many voices could be heard chatting and laughing with each other. It was satisfying to see such a welcoming environment this deep into the Zone. Stalkers were eating, chatting, some playing cards, others dozing off, and a few playing instruments. Lean-tos were scattered around made from salvaged metal and some trees.
They all varied in appearance. There were many wearing Stalker suits. Some were wearing military grade body armour, others wore mismatched fatigues, some had SEVA suits, there were even two exoskeletons. All these Stalkers on their own missions were meeting up for the night to take advantage of the collective protection. Hanging around here would probably yield some pretty fantastic stories. Some even doozies spun by Ricky. Walking in the crowd of Stalkers they felt quite at home. It lacked the comforts of Skadovsk, but it would make for a was nice rest.
The squad found a small spot open where they could all sit down together. Their minds were heavy with thoughts of the day. All of them glad, at least, to be sitting down and resting. Camera sat with his newly obtained Dragonov across his lap looking it over. He fiddled with a few parts then just looked at it. Arkady was to his left drinking water out of his canteen trying to replace the fluids he’d lost from all the running. Iosif was kneeling over his PKM checking over the firing mechanism for any dirt or damage. Ricky sat with his back to everyone sipping the vodka that he’d stolen from the bandit earlier in the day. He told himself that he’d wait, but didn’t feel like it anymore after the day he’d had. At the rate he was going, the bottle would be gone by the end of the night.
Nadovev was doing some general people watching while eating a ‘diet sausage’, a Zone staple food. Off in another section of the camp, he saw a large squad from Freedom faction. They were just milling about relaxing, chatting, eating. It seemed odd to Nadovev that they were this far in the Zone. They must be on a particularly important mission if that was the case. They were only amongst themselves, no loner Stalkers were with them. The collection of them in their four colour camouflage pattern uniforms stuck out quite a bit. It reminded Nadovev of the old U.S. woodland pattern, but more ‘wavy’. He continued to watch them while he ate his dinner, taking sips from his canteen.
One of them popped out as an officer in charge. He was tall, had a medium build, and wore a plain black bandanna around his head. A few of the Freedom members were sitting around him while he talked. His hands were quite animated as though he was describing some heroic battle. Nadovev watched the man as he acted out the scene. Of course he couldn’t hear him from this distance, but it made for a great game of charades. He longed to be a part of a group like that. But he’d spent too many years working on his own, or with only a few other people.
Nadovev often wondered how differently his life would have been if he had joined a faction years ago. Maybe he wouldn’t have the deep sense of loneliness he had now. For more than a decade, he’d been his own boss operating in the Zone. He knew he couldn’t leave, he couldn’t function in the outside world. Something about it made him feel trapped and threatened. A great irony it was that he felt at home in the Zone, a place which was filled with dangers everywhere. What did that say about him? He felt more at home in the chaos and violence that was the Zone then he did in the arms of his own family. He guessed that he had some sort of psychological desire for isolation. Who knows? He wasn’t educated enough to start analyzing his own psyche.
“That’s Freedom there, hua?” Camera asked, sitting down next to him.
“Yep, they seem to be out doing something important if they’re this deep in the Zone,” Nadovev replied. He took another bite of his diet sausage and a sip from his canteen.
“Let’s find out what’s going on. Freedom’s big on sniper weapons. I’ll go over there with this one here and start asking questions about it. Start chatting them up. See if I can get them to spill the beans,” Camera suggested, “I could use some help with this rifle anyway.”
Nadovev smiled and nodded, “I wouldn’t mind knowing myself.”
With that Camera was up on his feet slowly making his way towards the Freedom members. They were generally agreeable people. They were pretty laid back and informal. It all stemmed from their distaste for authority. The group considered themselves anarchists, but it was questionable if they really were. Camera had never heard of any Freedom member talking about politics. But then again, was there really much point in discussing it in the Zone where there wasn’t any? In either case, what he really wanted was to find out what they were doing here, and to help him work on his newly obtained rifle.
Ricky stood up and announced that he was going to see if he could find food and drink. He told them that he’d gotten fed up with military canned food rations and diet sausage. They were all well and good, but you really got sick of them pretty quick. He wondered if perhaps there was better food around. Someone might be selling. If necessary, he’d even barter for it.
Arkady got up and said he was going to look for a place to go to the bathroom.
This was Iosif’s chance to talk to Nadovev about Ricky. He shuffled over close to his squad commander and leaned in talking softly, “Look, I gotta talk to you about Ricky,” he licked his lips in a nervous manner, “the guy is a danger to this group. The guy is a straight up sociopath.”
Nadovev put his hand up, “I already know he has some pretty terrible-“.
“No, you don’t all of it,” Isoif interrupted him, “when we were in the underground I saw him aiming his rifle directly at the back of Arkady’s head. He really looked like he was going to pull the trigger. I already had my gun up ready to pop him one if he hadn’t back down.”
“You’re sure about that? You really think he was going to shoot him?” Nadovev asked.
Iosif sighed, “Of course I can’t be one hundred percent sure, but I’d stake my reputation on it that he really looked like he was going to. The guy is dangerous, he’s a threat to this group, and particularly to Arkady. For some reason he’s singled him out for bullying. I assume it’s because of… forgive me… his weakness. Ricky is sick in the head. And not the kind of sick you get from being out here too long. There’s something deeply wrong with him. He totally lacks any sense of compassion.”
“Well,” Nadovev took a deep breath, “it’s not like I haven’t noticed what you’re saying. Yes, he’s probably got some serious psychological problems. But he is very capable, which is why I picked him.” Iosif moved to interrupt him again, but Nadovev put his hand him stopping him, “yes I’m well aware of the stupid move he pulled with the grenade. But he learned his lesson with my face in his.”
“He is a sociopath,” Iosfi continued, “I studied this a little bit. He has all the traits: heavy drinking, narcissism, he’s a bully, lack of empathy. He’s a danger here, to all of us. God knows if he’s going to stab us all in the back at the end. He probably would. He’s not doing it right now because he needs us, particularly you for your experience.”
Nadovev scratched his chin and thought, “Look, I’ll think about what you’ve said. I personally don’t like the guy or his behaviour. I am considering kicking him out of the squad when this job is over already… I’ll let you know what I decide, okay?”
Iosif put his hands up in a surrendering-out-of-frustration manner, “Fine, all I ask is that you consider it, and watch him.”
The two men went back to sit next to each other in silence. Nadovev decided that he needed to talk to Camera about him. He’d always been a totally impartial observer during events. He’d come to respect the sniper’s insight and objectiveness. When he had a chance he’d talk to him about this whole situation with Ricky and Arkady. Something had to be done, very clearly there was a problem. If what Iosif said about the incident in the underground was true, it was a terrible problem. One that had the potential to threaten the entire squad and their mission.
Camera slowly strolled up to the Freedom squad with his new rifle slung over his shoulder. The first one to notice him was the man Nadovev suspected to be the leader. He halted his theatrics and waved to the newcomer. A smile appeared across his face stretching out his goatee. It seemed that Camera was going to get a warm welcome.
“Hey there brother,” he called out, “what brings you into Freedom’s midst?” He asked. The rest of the group turned to look at him.
Camera unslung his rifle and held it out cross ways, “I’ve come into possession of a Dragonov and I need some help with it. I hear Freedom has a reputation for skill with sniper weapons.”
The head man opened his arms wide, “Of course, our skill with such weapons is unmatched in the Zone!” The Freedom members around him let loose some laughter and cheers. “Let’s see what you have going on there stranger. My name’s Commander Ubunto. I’m the commanding officer of this outfit. And you are?” He said gesturing to Camera.
“My name’s Grigori Camera,” he said with a friendly smile, “I’m part of a small squad, and just got this here Dragonov second hand from a bandit who doesn’t need it anymore,” they all laughed at his joke.
“Well, give it here Camera and we’ll take a look,” Ubunto held out his hands, “we’re always glad to help.”
Camera tossed Ubunto the rifle. He turned it over a few times, surveying any damage that might have accumulated. He pulled back the bolt and peered inside. “Yeah, it looks like the bandit that had this didn’t take very good care of it. A shame too, it’s a wonderful rifle. If you want we can help you fix it,” Ubunto offered with his hand out.
“I would be grateful for any assistance,” Camera answered.
“Good, have a seat with us,” Ubunto offered, “we’ll have our local wizard take a look at it. Hey, Toolkit, come here!” He blurted out to a man removed from the circle of squad members. A lanky, thin Freedom member, his lower face covered, came over with a set of tools in hand. The resident mechanic Camera assumed. He looked capable enough. Both he and Toolkit sat down with the group.
Toolkit took a quick look over the rifle, ‘yeah, I can help you here, nothing too big,” he said with a gruff drinker’s voice. He immediately took out his tool kit and went to work on the rifle. Camera was impressed with how smooth his hand movements were. This guy was a real professional. He might be so good he won’t have time to get the information out of Ubunto he needed. Time to give it a shot anyway.
Ubunto spoke to Camera, “So what brings into the Zone this far?”
“Not much,” Camera responded, “we got this job to find some hard-to-find artifact for some client. I’m not even sure what it is. I’m just a hired gun to go along and save everyone’s asses when the bandits hit. We took some shots from some bandits earlier today. I popped one of their scouts, which is where I got this rifle from. We got word this town was full of bandits, but there seems to be none here in this area at all. It’s weird.”
Ubunto laughed along with the rest of his of his group, “You killed Noob? He was just a look out. His job wasn’t even to shoot anyone unless he was fired at first. All he was supposed to do was radio in information about anyone coming in or out of the town from that area.”
Camera was surprised, “you know him?” He asked.
Ubunto threw his hands up, “yes, we all knew him. He was the new guy among the bandits who got stuck with that boring job. We used to make fun of him. We’d walk by, wave to him and say ‘hello’. It’d make him right angry because no one was supposed to know where he was.” The group broke out into more laughter.
“So where are the rest of these bandits?”
“They’re all camped out on the other side of the town in this construction site. It’s a pretty good deal for them. With the huge amount of radiation on the outskirts of the town you have pass through it if you wanna get anywhere. Of course the bandits will be asking you for a toll. That’s how these guys get their money. Noob sends them info on the people coming in, what kind of gear, maybe how much money they look like they have, and hand it off to the gatekeepers. When you get there, they have an idea of how much to charge you. Nice little scam they got going actually… Well, until you eliminated their lookout. Ha! That’s probably what all the shooting was about earlier. We heard a bandit patrol shooting at someone hours ago. Guess that was you!”
Camera laughed, “yeah, that was us,” his tone came down a bit, “so why don’t the bandits just come in here and rob everyone?”
“Well, they were only out shooting because you killed one of their guys. But these bandits know when and when not to attack. If they came here,” he said, gesturing to the entire camp, “they’d have a Hell of a force to take on. I imagine it’s far more profitable to stay put and hold that passage out of Polomyia. More money, less risk for them. Makes sense anyway. Better to be a nuisance than an outright threat. They’ll live longer that way.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Camera agreed.
Ricky was stalking his way through the camp with his hands in his fatigue pants pockets. He was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. He didn’t want to be noticed… because he lied. He wasn’t looking for food and drink. Ricky had already had his fill. What he looked for now was something stronger. Vodka was all well and good, but right now he needed something a little stronger. Ricky was looking for a drug dealer. Unbeknownst to the rest of the squad, he had a drug problem. Normally it wasn’t so bad that he needed to go out in public and get a fix; but this situation with Arkady and Nadovev – combined with the stress of the job – was making it harder for him to go without. He insisted that he was still a recreational user, but it was only a delusion. He needed it now to get through this job.
His ego was wounded. He’d never been faced with such disrespect in his life. His feelings couldn’t take it. It was bad enough when Nadovev dressed him down in front of everyone for the grenade incident. But this protecting Arkady from him was downright insulting! How dare he side with that miserable creature over him! He was chosen for his skills. Arkady was chosen for… Actually, he couldn’t figure out why he’d been chosen at all! The man was good for nothing. All he knew how to do was panic, and get a lucky shot once in, once in a blue moon. It was infuriating that Nadovev never yelled at Arkady like that for his mistakes. What’s he got on Nadovev anyway? This was practically a free ride for him. Swallowing his ego has a terribly bitter taste. One he hoped to alleviate soon.
Ricky walked on a bit more discreetly scanning the camp for something. It wasn’t long before he noticed a man leaning on a car scanning the area in a similar manner. Good money bet that this guy was selling. A lot of people didn’t think that there were drugs in the Zone. They were wrong. The Zone was a great place to sell them. Plenty of misery and death with no police around to ruin sales. The real trick was getting it past the military cordons. For experienced Stalkers this was no obstacle. It was one of those lesser known facts about the Zone. Heavy drinking was as openly rampant as it was in the rest of Eastern Europe. In the Zone, drugs had a particular shame to them. While drunkenness was a cultural thing, drugs were not. If you had drugs, or you were on drugs, you kept them hidden. It was something that was there, but it came with a great stigma. This of course was no reason to stop turning a profit.
Ricky walked up to the man in what he thought was a nonchalant manner. In truth, they both looked like they were up to no good, doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing. The dealer right away knew the guy was looking for drugs. All dealers knew that look that customers had when they needed it. This guy had it. He tried to cover it up, but you could see it.
“What do you need?” The dealer asked.
Ricky was trying to hold still his twitching fingers in his fatigue pants pockets, “I need something that’ll call me down. Just take the edge off for a while.” After he said it, he breathed in heavily through his nose. The dealer reached into his pocket and produced a folded up piece of paper. He opened his palm showing it to him. Ricky pulled out a large wad of rubles and handed it to the man for the paper.
“Pleasure doing business with you,” the man said.
Ricky walked away with the fold of paper in his pocket. Walking more quickly he searched for a quiet spot alone where he could use it. Eventually he spotted a lean-to that was unoccupied. He went around to the other side so the he was facing away from everyone with the lean-to blocking sight of him. He took the folded of paper out of his pocket and opened it up. Inside the fold of the paper there was a small amount of brown powder. He looked at it for a moment before he brought it up to his nose. After taking one last glance around to see if anyone was watching, he snorted the powder up into his nose in one go.
He shoved the now empty paper into his pocket. Ricky’s mind began to calm as the heroin made its way through his system. Everything was going to be alright, he told himself. As the euphoria came on, things seemed to make more sense to him. Or did they no longer matter to him? Whatever the case, he felt much more relaxed and at peace with himself and his surroundings. Let Nadovev have his favourite little pet, he thought. Let Arkady beg for scraps at Nadovev’s feet. It wouldn’t matter anymore soon enough. Either he was going to get that dammed artifact, or Arkady was going to have an ‘accident’, the thought made him giggle out loud. Until then, he’d just lay back and let the heroin work its magic.
Nadovev and Iosif had been sitting in silence for several minutes after their conversation about Ricky. There was some tension between them. Iosif was adamant about removing Ricky while Nadovev was insisting upon keeping him at least until the job was done. Nadovev knew he was a problem and that he did pose a serious threat to the group. But then again, he’d let Arkady get off passing out on the job. Fortunately Iosif was good enough of a man that he wouldn’t ever complain about carrying him. He’d put up with a lot from Arkady. If he was going to do that, he’d have to be lenient with Ricky as well.
“Come on Nadovev, you owe this guy something,” Iosif said breaking the ice.
Naodvev sighed. He might as well come clean, “I owe the man family loyalty.”
Iosif looked at him with a bit of shock on his face, “You’ve got to be kidding me, he’s family?”
“No, I’m not kidding,” Nadovev took a cigarette out of his fatigue jacket pocket, “he’s my brother in law,” he said lighting it. It was unusual for Nadovev to smoke. This fact was not lost on Iosif. “About three years ago he married my sister. He’s been a good husband. He loves her, takes care of her, has a good stable job that pays him well. I couldn’t ask for a better man for my sister. The problem is our family. They hold me up as some kind of hero of the family for being out here doing the Stalker thing. In our family masculine professions are practically worshipped. Soldiers, miners, farmers… Stalkers. Now along comes Arkady, who marries in as ‘senior representative of the accountings division’. Well, you can imagine how the family saw that. According to him, they always subtly put him down for now having a ‘man’s’ job… Which is nonsense because he takes better care of a wife than I ever could.” He took another puff of the cigarette.
“I see,” said Iosif, “he’s here to prove himself to the family even if it gets him killed. And you feel a responsibility to keep him alive and protect him. If not, then you have to go back and tell your sister that her husband is dead.”
Iosif brought up his head and looked Nadovev in the eyes, “I don’t envy you…”, he breathed heavily, “but I’ve got your back as always. And I’ll watch his back too.”
“Thanks,” Nadovev replied, looking back at the ground, “I promise you that after this job he’ll be going back home. I’ll make sure of it. He will have proven himself by surviving the job. I’ll vouch for him as much as possible. Hopefully that will be enough.”
“Well, that explains things then. I’ll watch his back for anything Ricky may try. Let’s just focus on getting through this job. It’s been a sketchy deal since day one. I’d like it over as soon as possible. I’d prefer us hunting artifacts on our own, for ourselves.”
“I hear that,” Nadovev said.
Arkady wasn’t just looking for a place to go to the bathroom. He was also going for a walk to clear his head and think about things. A lot had happened today. Not only had he come under fire from the enemy again, but he’d taken one out! It was a lucky shot he knew, but it was an awesome one. He felt proud of himself. He’d done far better in this gun battle than he had the last one. They didn’t even have the advantage of surprise this time. This Star Loop was worth more than its weight in gold. He understood now why some artifacts were so valuable. I think I’ll be taking this home with me, he thought.
Arkady marvelled at how much his life had changed in only a week. He went from having an office job where he was nice and safe, to being shot at in the Zone. The Zone of Alienation. The Zone that everyone talked about. The only place in the world where the wonders of science and reality were commonplace all the time. Nothing could possibly be more contrasting with his life. A life he’d be leaving behind for an unknown amount of time. Part of him felt exhilarated to be out here on the edge. To be on the very fringes of the world, even reality itself. This was the place where only a few dared to tread. Now he was one of those people, he was a Stalker.
Now they’d have to respect me, he thought. His wife’s family couldn’t have respect for Nadovev for being a Stalker and not him. Maybe now they’d stop making those jabs at him all the time. Maybe now his in-laws would respect him. He walked with his back a little straighter and his head held high. His feet and back hurt from rough living, but he was doing it. He was living the dream. Well, I’m living their dream, he thought. This wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted the corner office with double the salary and double the vacation days. He knew this wasn’t where he belonged. But it was well and good as he had no intention of staying. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here, he thought. All he wanted was to get in and prove his worth. On top of that he was going to get a nice fat payday. It was a nice unexpected bonus. So that’s how he’s going to come back to the family: Having proven his manhood and with a gigantic wad of cash. That should please his side of the family as well.
All I gotta do is just hold out for a few more days, he reminded himself. Just gotta keep it together for a little longer and we’ll be outta here. That thought alone was enough to keep his spirits up. All he really had to focus on was staying away from Ricky. The guy really seemed to have it out for him. What was his problem anyway? It was like the guy was jealous or something. Whatever his problem was he was going to have to watch his back. Just keep it together, it’ll be over soon, he reminded himself.
During his walk he’d made it back to the group. Only Nadovev and Iosif remained sitting there. He sat down next to Nadovev and stretched his legs grunting.
“Feel better?” Nadovev asked, taking a drag off of a cigarette.
“Yeah,” he replied.
Boots rang out across the pavement. It was Camera marching quickly towards the squad with a serious look on his face and a freshly repaired sniper rifle. Nadovev knew this was not going to be good news.
“I know why they’re here,” Camera said, “and it’s not good.”