Chapter 8

“Alright, let’s hear it,” Nadovev said. Camera got everyone into a huddle and began to tell the story of how he went over to the Freedom Stalkers and began chatting them up. After having fixed his rifle he began digging into their organization, asking them what they’re about, and what they do. After talking long enough, he got their mission out of them.

            “After chatting them up I started asking them about what they were doing here. After getting their trust, they told me. But it was in a roundabout way that didn’t give all the details. Like three weeks ago, they intercepted a communication between a Duty squad and their headquarters out in Agroprom. The report mentions a piece of intelligence they picked up about a possible artifact out in a small town East of Limansk.”

            “Which is exactly where we’re going,” Nadovev said. He took a deep drag off the cigarette and closed his eyes, “Just what we need.”

            “Well, we expected this… Their intelligence doesn’t mention what the artifact is, just that’s ‘extremely valuable’. There’s no description of what it looks like. They don’t know exactly where it is either. What they do have is an order to find it before Duty does. They believe that if Duty finds it they will… I don’t know, hand it over to the wrong people or something. Whatever it is, Freedom wants to make sure that everyone has access to it. Duty seems to be under the impression that whatever it is, it’s dangerous. So therefore they have to keep it out of ‘the wrong hands’, as they say… Freedom is expecting Duty forces to be there roughly about the same time they are. Their higher ups are expecting mercenaries to be in on this artifact as well.”

            “So basically,” Nadovev said finally opening his eyes, “all the major players in the Zone are looking for this thing, but everyone is keeping it a secret. One big massive top secret mission that everyone is on. All the lone Stalkers have no clue as to what is going on. For all we know, Monolith may be guarding the damn thing. They’re always guarding the good stuff.” He threw the finished cigarette on the ground and continued, “so we have to outrun and outwit every faction, then get in the place, find the thing with no description, and then escape before anyone shows up.”

            “Well, we knew this was going to be difficult,” Iosif said.

            Nadovev suddenly had a headache and lamented having to make command decisions. What had they gotten themselves into? He thought. He knew it was going to be bad, but he had no idea it was going to be this bad. He’d suggest taking off for the place right now if they weren’t so exhausted from the day they’ve already had. They’d just burn out before they got there. So they have to stay the night at least. They could get up really early and beat them out there. Or they could find a faster alternate route… This job was becoming crazier with each passing day. That two million rubles offer was beginning to look too small for him.

            “There’s also another problem,” Camera continued, “the only way out of this town in the direction we need to go is right past a bandit cordon where you have to pay a toll. That guy I killed today in the house? He was the lookout that judges how much money people coming in have. Which means the guys holding the gate we need open, already want us dead for killing their lookout.”

            The three members of the squad just learning this fact, let out long groans of disappointment. Everything was getting worse as time went on.

            “Okay,” Nadovev said, “all we can do is get the rest we need right now and set off early tomorrow.” The squad seemed to agree with him on this point at least. “Where’s Ricky? He needs to be briefed too.”

            “I’m right here,” Ricky called out, walking up behind them, “don’t worry about me.” His voice sounded off, like he wasn’t all there or something… or high on something. He sat down with the group and closed his eyes so they wouldn’t see them buzzing. Most of the high had already worn off, the stuff was cut pretty poorly. What exactly was one supposed to do in the Zone when they needed a fix?

            “Did you find any food?” Nadovev asked.

            “What do you mean?” Ricky replied.

            “You said you were going to look for food. That’s why you left, remember?”

            Ricky’s head was clouded with drugs and fatigue, he couldn’t think straight at all. But he realized that he’d just messed up. “No, I didn’t find any food, but I found some drink.” That might be believable, he thought. He hoped they didn’t notice he was on heroin. That would definitely be the line when they ditched him in the middle of the Zone. The stigma was still very strong with them. It was pretty much an unforgiveable act. He really hadn’t thought this drug thing through very well. If he got caught here it was over. He’d had a knee jerk reaction to his emotional and mental state that he wanted to get away from as quickly as possible. His best hope now was to go to sleep and hope no one noticed.

            He began to lie down using his pack as a pillow, “I’m beat man, I’m gunna get some sleep.”

            “All right,” Nadovev said, “I was going to order the squad to go to sleep early anyway.”

            The four of them just looked at each other. They knew something was up. Nadovev assumed that he was drunk and was trying to cover it up. He’d have to have a talk with him about that. Getting drunk is fine, but you don’t do it while you’re on the job. Other Stalkers were more lenient about that kind of thing, but Nadovev wasn’t. In either case, they’d have to deal with it in the morning.

Arkady stood facing Nadovev. Each man had a blank expression on his face. Their surroundings were shrouded in darkness. It wasn’t even possible to see the ground. Yet at the same time Nadovev knew they were inside of a building. An industrial setting of some kind. They were surrounded by metal and concrete, even though he couldn’t see any of it. He could feel that they were in danger, though he could see no threat.             Arkady’s face began to look sad, as if he knew something bad was about to happen. Nadovev suddenly felt threatened.

            He looked down at Arkady’s chest and saw a bullet hole in it. How did he not see it before? The wound was bleeding a fair amount. Nadovev tried to come to his aid, but found himself unable to move. Arkady just continued to look at him with those sad eyes. Nadovev began to panic. The blood from the wound began to dwindle and then cease altogether. Arkady’s eyes began to grow dim. The sad expression left his face. His eyes became empty as he fell to the floor. Arkady was dead, Nadovev knew it. Still, he was unable to move no matter how much he wanted to.

            He brought his eyes up and looked over to his right. A lone figure stood in the darkness holding up a pistol that was aimed at Arkady. The figure was just out of his sight, only making out its vague shape. He tried squinting to see the shooter’s face. It was no use, the face was invisible. He couldn’t make out the attacker. Frozen in place, all he could do was stare in Arkady’s dead eyes and feel sorrow.

            The world around him suddenly began to move, as if some kind of earthquake-

            “Nadovev, wake up,” Iosif whispered in his ear shaking his arm, “we gotta get going before Freedom does,” he reminded him. Nadovev opened his eyes slowly taking in the concerned expression on Iosif’s face. It took a moment for Nadvev to remember where he was. Another moment still to remember what he should be doing. They’re supposed to leave earlier than their competition was.

            He waved off Iosif telling him that he was awake. His mind was clouded with the fog of waking up. His heart was heavy with the remaining feelings of watching his brother-in-law die. Strange how that happened. You woke up from an emotional dream, knowing it never happened. Yet, you still felt it every bit as though it were real. He was still divided on whether or not the Zone was trying to speak to him. It wasn’t that farfetched an idea. If the Zone could reverse gravity and create wormholes, then manipulating dreams wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

            Nadovev sat up, looking around at the Stalker camp. Its inhabitants were still asleep. All around men in various gear were passed out on the ground. Some of them even sleeping with gas masks on. The place was so quiet and serene. The smallest slivers of sun had started to peek through the horizon. Sun up would be taking place pretty soon. It seemed almost a shame to be leaving something this peaceful. He looked over and saw Arkady yawning as he scratched his head. Seeing him brought back those feelings of sadness he had just lost in the serenity of their surroundings.

            Struggling to his feet, he was stretching out his legs in preparation for the day’s hike. Ricky stood up next to him with a rumpled face and bloodshot eyes. He must’ve really drank too much last night, he thought. That talk was going to be coming later when they were alone. Until then he hoped the man had his head on straight. Before too long they would be facing off against a group of bandits wanting some cash. He still wasn’t sure if he wanted to fight them off. It might be a good idea just to pay them to get moving as quickly as possible.

            Turning around, he could see that everyone was on their feet and ready to go. Iosif had a fist full of bread in his hand that he was munching away on. They looked ready enough, so he gave them the signal to move out. Falling in line behind him, the men of Radiochemical Company began their trek for the day. As they passed the two lone guards watching the gate, they began to hear the first rumblings of the Freedom squad they were trying to outrun.

            “Alright, men, double time,” Nadovev said, spurring the squad into action. It looked like it was going to be one of those days. Haven’t even been up for fifteen minutes and they were already going at a fast pace. The seriousness of the situation had become clear. Everyone was after this damned artifact and no one even knew what it was. He wondered if everyone wanted it, because everyone else wanted it. If one faction looks like it’s going to get an edge on the others, then the rest have to either cut them down, or steal it for themselves. That’s if money wasn’t even involved; and they were caught up in it. God only knew what they’ve had to endure before this was over.

            It only took them a half an hour to cross the rest of the town. By then the sun was up. The group stopped at what looked like an adobe villa just a quick jaunt from the construction site. It was two story dwelling. There were multiple units connected to each other, side by side with their backs facing a hill. The construction site was on top of that hill. Camera was down on one knee with binoculars in his hand, scanning the site while everyone else remained in cover. There was a walk way leading up to the construction site made of individually laid concrete slabs. It looked like a western of a side walk, but with a series of steps in regular intervals turning to the left. A half standing rusted metal hand rail leaned uselessly next to it.

            Nadovev scanned around. The place was filled with either physical obstacles, or extremely high levels of radiation they wouldn’t survive passing through. They had no choice but to go right through the bandit cordon. If they went left, they’d end up in a series of above ground garages that didn’t go anywhere. If they went right, it was a dead end of villas. There was no getting around it, they had to go straight through it, taking their chances that the bandits didn’t ask for much.

            Camera inspected the construction site through his binoculars. It was surrounded by a three meter concrete wall on the sides that he could see. It was almost around the entirety a building, he couldn’t see past the immediate area. The building wasn’t anywhere close to being finished. It was a massive thick-skeletal structure. Like a big boned giant who would have been very slow. There were only floors and pillars, no walls of any kind had been constructed yet. It was six stories tall. The whole edifice was made of concrete and steel rods as reinforcement. It was a bland grey like most things in the town had been.

            From their low angle he couldn’t see inside it. Only the first few meters of each level. A depth that shrank with each successive floor. The top and second from the top were completely hidden from view. What he could see were about ten bandits near the front acting as guards. Three men were standing right at the entrance waiting for anyone who strolled along looking for passage. Two of them were smoking. They looked like typical bandits, track pants, leather jackets, and balaclavas. In Camera’s estimate there had to be at least several bandits farther back in the building that could not be seen. Hopefully they were in a good and generous mood.

            Camera relayed this information to Nadovev confirming his belief that they would have to purchase their way across it. He ordered them to lower their weapons before they approached. No need setting the bandits off, if it wasn’t necessary. He told everyone to be cool and follow him. Slowly and deliberately they walked out one by one in a line and proceeded up the steps to the construction site. The bandits had an ever watchful gaze upon them, with their fingers on their triggers. As long as things were kept calm this could be done quickly and easily.

            As they approached, they saw a sign that the bandits had made asking for a toll to cross. Laughably they had misspelled the word “paement”. This, however, was no indication that they weren’t serious about collecting that payment. These men had itchy trigger fingers and a bloody thirst for unearned cash.

            Nadovev walked up to the closest bandit and greeted him. The bandit mockingly waved at him as he threw the finished cigarette on the ground. A smile showed through the mouth hole of his balaclava as he began to speak in a mocking tone, “Well boys, it looks like we’ve some early customers today!” The rest of the bandits began laughing. His voice was smooth, almost like a professional speaker. It had a clear tone to it that almost made it pleasant – if you weren’t about to be ripped off.

            Nadovev fought to hold back his tongue, “What’s it going to cost us to cross through here?” He asked bluntly. He could feel trouble starting already. The bandits were all smiles. It was a long running joke for them. Everyday people asked them that question, and each time they gave them a mocking answer. Nadovev felt that it wasn’t going to be any different now.

            “Let’s see,” the bandit said, laughing, “what shall we charge these good folks today, eh? We’ve had a bunch of people come through in the last few days or so. Of course, not all of them paid if you know what I mean.” The bandits resumed their laughing. “I guess we’d better get a good look at you so that we can decide how much to charge you for crossing.” The arrogant bandit looked each one of them up and down. Arkady looked away from him. Ricky bit back his caustic tongue fully aware no good could come from it. There were at least twenty bandits from what he could see. Fairly decently armed too.

            The speaking bandit returned to his position at the entrance of the unfinished building – still smiling like a confident predator over its prey. “Lets’ see… You gentile men look rich enough to me. What say we charge you, oh I don’t know, five thousand rubles?”

            The squad turned to each other in discussion. They seemed to agree that it could have been a lot more than five thousand. Besides, after this job was completed they could afford it easily. If they didn’t finish the job, they’d be dead.  So they were good either way. Nadovev turned back to the bandit and said, “Five thousand seems doable.” He began to reach into one of his pouches for some money.

            “Each,” the bandit said.

            Nadovev and the rest of the squad stared at him dumbfounded. Even if they pooled all their money together they wouldn’t have enough. This situation was going bad quickly.

            “We don’t even have the much money,” Nadovev told him, throwing up his hands.

            “That’s a problem, then,” the bandit answered him, “because without it you won’t be getting through here,” he said with a big smile.

            That smile on his face was really starting to piss Nadovev off. He began sizing up the possibilities of fighting the group of bandits; and they were not good. They outnumbered them by a lot. They had a commanding field of fire with most of them so high up. Nadovev calculated that they wouldn’t survive a gun fight with them here and now. He raised a finger and told the bandit he needed a moment to talk to his squad.

            They all huddled around for a private discussion, “suggestions?” Nadovev asked, “because I have absolutely none. We don’t have enough money to pay them, and we don’t have the firepower to get past them.” Each man stood speechless, none of them had any idea what to do. Iosif opened his mouth a few times, but no words came out. It was getting really bad, really fast, Nadovev thought.

            “Hey,” called one of the other bandits guarding the entrance, “where did you get that sniper rifle?” He pointed to the freshly repaired Dragonov that Camera had taken off the dead bandit scout. Camera’s eyes went wide when he realized he’d forgotten to hide it. “That’s Noob’s rifle!” He started shaking his finger at Camera.

            “What are you talking about?” The first bandit said. He turned to face the other bandit.

            “That’s the same rifle Noob was using when he was killed!” The second bandit had a deeper voice than the first, and it was bursting with anger. “See the marks in the stock? That’s his. These guys killed Noob!”

            The first bandit’s eyes turned wide with recognition, “KILL THEM!” He screamed.

            The squad immediately dived for cover behind the big wall that surrounded the building. As they drove, Ricky put a 5.56 round in the chest of the bandit who’d recognised the rifle. He fell back with an audible thud. The bandits occupying the building rained shots down on them. Thankfully, they’d already made it to solid cover. A hail of bullets and buckshot fell upon their position like a swarm of hornets in a frenzied assault. Pieces of concrete flew over their heads that had been knocked loose from the wall. Their heads were forced down, none of them could raise up to shoot.

            They were outmanned and outgunned. There was no hope of surviving this encounter. They couldn’t back away from the construction site because the bandits had a good angle from their position. They were straight up trapped. Several times Camera tried to find an angle from which to take one out, but the fire from the bandits was too great. Twice, one of the door guard bandits tried to sneak a shot around the wall into their side; but on the second attempt Nadovev put him down.

            “I got an idea,” Ricky said, “we all throw one grenade into the building at once! It might be enough to keep their heads down for a moment, so we can get a shot in!”

            Seeing no other option – Nadovev order the squad to do it. On a count of three the five men threw a grenade each into the building over the wall. Each one threw at a different elevation hoping to get as many of them ducking as possible. Once the explosions hit they reached up and laid down as much fire as they could. Unfortunately the grenades weren’t enough. Many of the bandits remained where they were and returned fire. It only took a few seconds for the rest of the bandits to resume firing again.

            Iosif was the unlucky one of the group. He took a grazing shot across the left bicep. He stumbled when he was hit, clutching at his arm. It was a enough to dig in a bit, but not enough to do any serious damage or be life threatening. Sitting down, he reached into his medical pouch and pulled out a pre packaged bandage and wrapped it around his arm. It hurt like hell, but it was manageable. It only took a moment for him to get himself back together.

            A grenade landed Arkady’s feet. In a knee jerk reaction of fear, he kicked it and sent it sailing down the hill away from them. The blast from its explosion was barely audible over all the gunfire. Nadovev realized that it would only take a single – better – grenade throw to finish them off. They were pinned down completely unable to move, and now they had the grenades starting up. He knew this was it, they were going to die here. Not even their best shot was capable of making any progress.

            “We’re totally screwed here,” Ricky said, “there’s just no way out of this! We can’t even make a run for it!” Ricky let out a string of creative curses at their situation.

            “Alright,” Nadovev said, “there’s only one thing left we can do…”

            “Go out in a blaze of glory,” Iosif said finishing Nadovev’s thought.

            “Yes,” Nadovev answered.

            The men of the squad closed their eyes and concentrated on the task ahead as Arkady went into full panic mode. Even the power of the Star Loop wasn’t enough to keep him going this time. He was huddled into as small a shape as possible with his hands over his head. All that bluster about proving himself to his in-laws had brought him to his death. At this moment he felt that the jibes they took at him weren’t so bad after all. At least he’d be alive.

            “Get ready,” Nadovev said, “on the count of three, give them everything you’ve got!”

            Everyone steel themselves ready to face death. This was it. Arkady was shaking like palsy victim.

            “One.. two… th-“

            A loud cracking sound broke over their heads. Looking up Nadovev saw a bandit fall from a fourth story window. He had been taken out with a precise aim. What the hell? He thought, who fired that shot? He looked around desperately trying to find the source. A moment later he saw the first members of the Freedom squad turning the corner from where they were hiding before confronting the bandits. During their haggling and standoff, the Freedom faction had time to close the gap between them. The cavalry had arrived as completely unplanned.

            The sight of more Freedom fighters coming around the corner opening up on the bandits raised their spirits. Right from the jaws of death, they’d been saved. Had they been one second later, they would have been dead with a thousand bandit bullets in them. It was one of the most glorious sights they’d ever seen. About twenty Freedom fighters blasting away at the bandits, forcing them to go prone in order to avoid their shots. Now they had a force worthy of ensuring their survival.

            In the midst of all of this, Arkady was still curled up in a ball shaking. Iosif grabbed his arm and forced him to see the approaching saviours. Arkady saw them blasting away at the bandits. The image of relief on his face was worthy of a photograph for Webster’s Dictionary. His shaking started to subside.

            Freedom Stalkers ran out in pairs following a tactical formation. Their skills were as admirable as they were deadly. Their LR-300s were firing in a magnificent display. Bandits either began hiding behind pillars or they dropped to the ground dead.  Camera counted at least two snipers in their group hidden away somewhere taking accurate shots. Each pair took up a position covering both ends of a piece of cover for maximum effect. Their training was superb to witness.

            The bandits were backing away deeper into their building now. The onslaught by Freedom was overwhelming them. Seeing this opportunity, Nadovev ordered his squad to follow him into the building itself. They charged into the first floor and found no resistance. These bandits had already been killed. Looking past the building, they could see that there was an open yard behind it. That open yard was the passage out of the city that the bandits had been coveting. In order to get to it though, it seemed like it was necessary to go up a floor and drop down on the other side of some concrete blockage.

            Nadovev called for them to follow and they made their way to the stairs. They were all concrete and no railings, totally unfinished. They moved in single file keeping their weapons up ready to shoot. He took one step at a time going up the stairs preparing to blast anything that moved with his Kalashnikov. Peeking his head up to the second floor, he made eye contact with a bandit holding a pump action shotgun. Caught unaware of forces inside the building – Nadovev was able to take him down with two single shots. Two other bandits made off up the stairs above them escaping line of sight.

            Shots continued to be exchanged between Freedom and the bandits. Both sides were occupied, leaving the bandits unaware of the approaching Radiochemical Company. The noise from their gunfight was almost deafening. Nadovev ordered Iosif to watch the stairs the bandits had just run up; so that the rest of the squad could find a way down over the blockage. The rest of the company raced towards the back of the building looking for an exit.

            Reaching the edge, Ricky saw a small network of scaffolding that lead to the ground. It was a metal frame with dark wooden planks that were probably rotting away. It was either this treacherous step, or just jumping off the building itself. He waved over Nadovev to check it out. Stepping out on, it he could feel it was relatively sturdy. Nadovev ordered the rest of them to the exit they’d found.

            Iosif let out a powerful roar as he opened fire with his machine gun at two bandits who had been trying to sneak back down the stairs. The two bandits fell at Iosif’s feet. It felt good to get revenge on the bastards that had shot his arm.

            “Get over here!” Nadovev yelled at Iosif. Iosif turned and made his way towards his squad commander.

            Going one at a time they descended the scaffold carefully as not to upset the rotting wood. It took only a few moments for them to make their way down. They were now on the other side of the building on the ground. It was an open dirt yard with a few construction vehicles scattered around. They decided to make a break for it and head into the streets behind.

            As they ran, one of the bandits on the fifth floor spotted them and fired a few shots from his SMG. His shots were inaccurate and missed them completely. Ricky let lose a hand full of shots from his M16 right back at the bandit – killing him. The bandit’s body tell from the ledge and crashed through the rotted wooden boards rendering them to oversized toothpicks. The way down for everyone behind them had just been destroyed. It wouldn’t stop them, but it would slow them down a bit.

            Having escaped the construction yard and headed into the streets, they made their way out of the town as quickly as possible. The events that had just transpired were not lost on any of them. They’d come within a hairs length of death. By nothing but dumb luck they’d survived. Their quest to find that damned artifact was going to continue… continue, until it probably got them all killed.