Chapter 9

About twenty minutes of jogging had seemed to put enough distance between the men of Radiochemical Company – and the incident of Freedom fighting the bandits. Nadovev still couldn’t believe how lucky they were. Despite all the effort they’d put into getting a head start on their competition, they’d shown up at the right moment to pull them out of the fire. Freedom hadn’t actually intended to save them. Their goal was to get rid of the bandits extorting money for passage. Regardless, he still felt some thanks was in order. It kind of made him sad to think that he wasn’t going to be able to do it.

            Seems a shame that they were going to be going at it in the near future over the artifact. This was still a competition to see who could get there first and then get out with the artifact. An important fact they shouldn’t forget, no matter how much Freedom had helped them out.  This was a battle for a prize that no one knew anything about. Every faction in the Zone was after this thing. He wondered how much of a chance they really stood with that. Both Freedom and Duty were well armed, well supplied, and had tremendous financial backing. He expected mercenaries to show up as well, even though they hadn’t seen any yet. It was unlikely that they weren’t going to be involved. Them – by contrast – were a small Stalker squad that was just barely getting by financially at the moment. Only time will tell how things will turn out.

            Right now they were nearing the second last stretch of their journey. Out in the wilderness again, their objective was to make it to Limansk. From there they only had to make it out of the city and find the entrance to the unknown location. That was the part they weren’t looking forward to. Just look around and see if you can find the hidden doorway to something that may or may not exist. No problem Mr. Client! We’re good at looking for things whose existence is in doubt. Just call up good ‘ol Radiochemical Company, we’re dumb and desperate enough to take the job. It infuriated Nadovev to know that they’d only taken this job because they were so hard up for money.

            One step at a time, Nadovev told himself.

            Despite it being near high noon, it was kind of dark, the sky was overcast. It was the Zone, the sun never shined in any pleasant way. Still their surroundings had that all pervasive depressing feeling that was everywhere. Right now it was quiet at least. The men were walking through a peaceful, but dark grassy plain. The ground was steady, mostly flat, which made for easy walking. The grass was relatively short. It made a soft whispering sound against their boots. It was a wide open space that allowed them to see at least two kilometers. It made them feel exposed, like anyone anywhere could see what they were doing. It was a bit of an unnerving feeling given that they were trying to avoid contact with other Stalkers. Every once in a while Camera took out his binoculars and scanned the horizon looking for any possible contact.

            The group was following old power line towers that stretched across the countryside. The way to Limansk was clearly marked by them. All they had to do was follow the old rusting metal framework jutting into the sky. Every now and then a taunting rusty creaking noise would emerge from the towers. Each time it felt as if the towers wanted to give way and fall to the ground. They’d been standing a long time with no purpose since the Chernobyl NPP had stopped functioning. The steel frames had lost their purpose and looked old. Dead wires that no longer carried the power of modern life in them – hung limply, dragging upon the ground. They seemed like old arms that were arthritic and had lost their purpose.

            Given the ease of the walk, Ricky kept his anomaly detector open for better range. In a place like this it was easy to get lulled into a careless state. One wrong move and they’d end up killed in an anomaly. They’d almost had that happen once already, back around when they’d left Skadovsk. Ricky looked up into the blue-grey sky to clear his eyes from the detector. He’d been staring at the screen for some time now and his eyes needed a rest. He was grateful for the inactivity of this phase of travel, the heroin was starting to wear off and he wasn’t feeling too good. He’d been lucky to make his way through the shoot out with the bandits. He had the adrenaline rush to thank for that. To his luck he had the peacefulness of this walk to ride out the withdrawal.

            Looking ahead Nadovev could see the long line of lonely hydro towers. It reminded him of old men, their bones creaking in line at the soup kitchen back home. People with nothing, only shuffling along as if by instinct, with no real meaning or purpose. Poverty was all over the place back there. Escaping to the Zone had been a good choice. That or he’d end up in organized crime. But he had too much respect for himself to allow that. Besides, what would mom think of me, he thought. It made him wonder what he was going to do once he got too old to be a Stalker. He hadn’t heard of many people retiring from being one. They were almost universally killed in their profession sooner or later. Sidorovich had retired from being a Stalker to become a trader. Yeah, and he’s a cheap bastard that doesn’t pay shit for artifacts, Nadovev reminded himself.

            The air temperature dropped a few degrees as a light wind picked up. Each man began to feel a bit of a chill. Sudden changes of the temperature in the Zone were common enough. Nadovev hoped that this wasn’t the beginning of some radical and sudden change in weather. A crackling noise came from his hip. The new wind was radioactive. The hell is causing that? he asked himself. He suddenly got a bad feeling that things weren’t going to stay peaceful for very long.

            Arkady stared up at the blue-grey sky wishing he could be anywhere but here. It was official in his mind now: coming to the Zone was a mistake. He realized now that he had reacted out of anger. He came to the Zone to spite his in-laws. There might have been some kind of desire to prove himself, but at this stage he felt as though he had just done it out of anger. It was a mistake, his bruised ego got the better of him. No one liked being put down and he wanted it to stop. Wait, did I do it out of anger or did I do it out of pride, he thought. Now he was really confused, he wasn’t sure what he felt anymore. He wasn’t sure what motivated him anymore. The only thing he knew for sure was that he wanted to be away from here… as far as possible.

            He remembered that afternoon when he had told his wife, Nadovev’s sister Polina, that he was going to the Zone. A day I certainly won’t forget, he thought.

It was around one o’clock in the p.m. and Arkady was nervous as all Hell waiting for his wife to come home on this Saturday afternoon. Today was the big day when he was going to tell her that he was going to the Zone with Nadovev. She would be angry he assumed, but she’d get over it when she saw how much respect her family would have for him.

            He looked around and double checked that the living room was clean. He didn’t want her to be distracted by anything when he spoke to her. The modest living room was fully furnished. A china cabinet on the back wall housed the good dinnerware. On the other side sat a nice home theater with a 52″ television. They were held within a teak shelving unit customized to the chosen electronics. The carpet was a thick white shag that made you feel like you were walking on air. It had been fully vacuumed and steam cleaned. The walls were a soft eggshell paint, illuminated by floor lamps with exquisitely chosen floral patterns. All in all, a rather nice upper middle class home.

            Arkady heard a jingling of keys as his wife was unlocking the front door. She stepped in putting a bag of groceries on the floor and closed the door. He looked at her. He was still taken in by her beauty after three years of marriage. She was wearing a frilly low cut white blouse. She wore a royal blue business casual skirt that came down past her knees. Her feet were covered in flat dress shoes in a blue that came close to matching her skirt. He noted her simple, elegant sophistication. Her Slavic features warmed his heart with the comfort of familiarity. She was just as beautiful as the day he married her. Polina, his loving, beautiful wife.

            He sat on the edge of the couch waiting for her to approach. He smoothed the front of his tan khaki pants and adjusted the collar of his white golf shirt. He wanted to make sure everything was perfect before he broke the news to her. She wasn’t going to take it well he knew. Now or never, he thought.

            He got up and made his way towards her. “Hello my love,” he said as he reached down to pick up the grocery bag. She kissed him and returned the greeting. She followed him to the kitchen where he put the groceries on the counter. She hugged him from behind and played with the bottom button on his golf shirt. He dearly wished he didn’t have to ruin this wonderful moment with serious discussion. Now or never, he thought.

            He turned around in her arms so that they were face-to-face and hugged her back. He looked into Polina’s loving eyes. It caused his words to fail him. He tried to speak, to begin telling her what he was going to do, but the words just wouldn’t come out. His eyes must have betrayed him because she recognised the look quickly, he had something unpleasant to tell her. Her face changed, it turned serious and she said, “what is it?” Now or never, he thought.

            He released his hug and took her by the hands. He guided her to the living room and sat them both on the couch. He continued to hold her hands as he began to speak. Her eyes began to light up with concern. Now or never, he thought.

            “Ever since we announced that we were getting married, your family has treated me a particular way,” he said as her face turned to concern, she knew what he was talking about. “Your family has always thought that I wasn’t good enough for you because I’m not ‘masculine’ enough. I’ve looked the other way on that, I’ve tried to ignore it and brush it off. But they keep making it an issue. Your parents always give me that certain ‘look’ that lets me know I’m lesser than them. They always make certain assumptions that I’m a coward, someone who is afraid of everything.”

            “I know that’s not true,” she interrupted him, “I thought we were past this? I thought we’d decided that their opinion on this matter wasn’t relevant to us anymore.”

            “Yes,” he continued, “we had. But I can no longer stand their superior manner. I can’t take their accusing, insulting cloaked slights. I deserve respect as your husband. I have provided well for you. I’ve given you a comfortable life where you don’t need to fear poverty as many in your family do. I have always been loyal to you. But for some reason that’s just not enough for them. Their idea of what I should be, I find totally nonsensical. They would rather you live in poverty with some oaf who was a fist swinging ruffian than live in comfort. This makes no sense to me,” he scoffed, “it makes no sense at all.”

            “I would not…,” she began in response, “deny that my family has some backwards ideas. But I love you, isn’t that what really matters? Isn’t my love enough?” she asked.

            “Well,” Arkady squeezed her hands a bit tighter, “no it isn’t. I deserve respect, I have earned it. They refuse to give it to me.”

            “I know that’s not true,” she interrupted him, “I thought we were past this? I thought we’d decided that their opinion on this matter wasn’t relevant to us anymore.”

            “Yes,” he continued, “we had. But I can no longer stand their superior manner. I can’t take their accusing, insulting cloaked slights. I deserve respect as your husband. I have provided well for you. I’ve given you a comfortable life where you don’t need to fear poverty as many in your family do. I have always been loyal to you. But for some reason that’s just not enough for them. Their idea of what I should be, I find totally nonsensical. They would rather you live in poverty with some oaf who was a fist swinging ruffian than live in comfort. This makes no sense to me,” he scoffed, “it makes no sense at all.”

            “I would not…,” she began in response, “deny that my family has some backwards ideas. But I love you, isn’t that what really matters? Isn’t my love enough?” she asked.

            “Well,” Arkady squeezed her hands a bit tighter, “no it isn’t. I deserve respect, I have earned it. They refuse to give it to me.”

            “At every family gathering they go out of their way to make me feel like less of a man. They talk about how everyone is doing so well at their ‘masculine’ jobs. Your cousin Misha, the glorious spetsnaz soldier who killed those ‘Islamic lunatics’ in Afghanistan for five years. Or Vasily, who worked his way up to master miner in the Urals mining cooperative. Getting that award for the highest level of productivity… Then there’s your brother Nadovev. The crown jewel of the family. The Stalker, the boldest, the most fearless one of the family who went where few dare to tread. They’re always going on about him. You go on about him and how brave he is. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here in the dusty bin of disrespect.”

            “Arakdy,” she said in a sympathetic voice, “this is not a competition. Of course they’re going to go on about him. Yes, I am proud of my brother for being a Stalker… But I am also proud of you and your accomplishments. You’ve provided better for me than anyone else in my family. No one lives as well as we do.”

            “I know,” Arkady replied, “but it’s their superior manner, how they look down upon me for my career… Which is why I have made a decision…”

            “What have you done?” she demanded to know. Her face took on a serious tone, aggressive, but also concerned.

            “I’ve talked it over with Nadovev,” he said choosing his words carefully, “and during his next incursion into the Zone – I’ll be going with him.”

            His wife’s eyes lit up with concern and fear, “What!?! How can you do this? This is crazy, Arkady! You’re not prepared for that kind of life! You’ll be killed!”

            Arkady held her hands even tighter, and looked sternly into her eyes, “I’ve already had that discussion with Nadovev. He said he’d teach me the basics and that he’d take me along with him on the next job. It’s all been worked out. It was a struggle to get him to agree to take me, but he conceded that the family did treat me unfairly. He agreed that it might do some good to get them off my back, and show me some long overdue respect.”

            She growled that cute feminine growl, he loved so much, “I can’t believe you would choose to do this without talking to me first! What if you get killed?! What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to deal with things? Have you thought about how much that would break my heart?! Or were you only concerned about yourself, and getting my parent’s questionable respect?!”

            “I can’t take their accusing eyes and insulting words anymore, Polina,” he answered, “I have to do something to shut them up. I can’t take it anymore.”

            “Even if it means dying? And leaving me here all alone?” she asked.

            “Yes,” he said simply.

            “I’m so furious with you right now,” she turned her eyes away from him in anger. Tears began to well up in them, “I don’t want you to die!”

            “I have to do this,” he said, “I’ll only be gone about a week, Polina.”

            “Unless you die,” she reminded him.

            The memory of all of it was still painful for him. The decision to come to the Zone seemed so correct at the time…

            “We’ve got a problem,” Camera called out, looking through his binoculars, “a serious problem.” He pointed off to the North.

            “What is it now?” Nadovev asked. Taking the binoculars offered by Camera he looked for himself. Zombies, lots and lots of zombies. A whole horde of zombified Stalkers was heading in their direction. The zombie’s path indicated that they were going to intersect with their path. God damn that’s a lot of zombies, he thought.

            “Well,” Nadovev said, continuing to look through the binoculars, “We’ve got a wave of zombies coming our direction.”  The members of the squad stop and turned to him in utter disbelief. Nobody wanted to deal with zombies. Arkady looked particularly spooked.

            Zombified Stalkers were the result of people not making it to adequate cover before an emission took place. The energies, or psychic power, or whatever it was that made up an emission – had a terrible effect on the human mind. If caught in one, a person’s mind was completely overloaded and shorted out. Left in its place was a series of base instincts. Mindless commands a fried brain gave to its own body; that itself didn’t understand. All they knew how to do was walk and shoot. It was a strange phenomenon of the Zone. One that many people thought it was doing deliberately.

            “What do you mean ‘a wave’?” Iosif asked.

            “As in maybe forty to fifty of them headed this way,” Nadovev answered him.

            A terrifying horde they were too. They moved with a mindless shuffling that made them look like an actual wave. Rotting flesh peeled from their faces totally ignored by their owners. Their clothes were stained with blood. Their own or their victims’, it was uncertain – probably both. Their legs were stiff as they shuffled. Their arms hung limply at their sides. But make no mistake, they could still aim the weapons in their hands. Blank eyes that held nothing were looking in their general direction. They hadn’t seen them yet, they were still four kilometers off. If they’d been close enough, then the squad would have heard the awful moaning.

            He continued to stare at the zombie horde in disbelief. He’d never seen zombies moving in numbers that large. Usually they move in twos or threes, a squad that had been caught outside during an emission. But this was a totally different thing altogether. He looked over their clothes, they all had mismatched gear and weapons. They weren’t from one large group of Stalkers. They were from several groups all pushed together. That was extremely odd indeed. Regardless, they were still a good distance away.

            “They’re about four kilometers away,” Nadovev said, ” so we should be able to outrun them easily. We just have to change our direction by a few degrees and we shouldn’t have a problem. I know they’re slow, but they have this habit of sneaking up on you.”

            Nadovev handed the binoculars back to Camera and took out his PDA. He was correct, only a few degrees deviation would spare them from having to deal with the zombies. There was a lot of them. They might be able to handle them with a good distance between them, but why waste the ammo on it. Plus, it would slow them down.

            That and he had a particular revulsion for zombies. Something about them just creeped him the hell out. He knew what they were scientifically, brain-dead Stalkers who’d been wiped out by an emission. There was nothing supernatural about them. There has been just some indiscernible quality about them that made him feel sick to his stomach.

            With those facts in mind Nadovev led the squad a few degrees different in the same direction. God damn zombies, he thought.

Despite Nadovev’s assurances that they would be avoiding the zombies, he was still walking a little bit faster than he normally did. Akrady had noted that perhaps Nadovev was afraid of something after all. The idea made him chuckle a bit. Not that Arkady cared to encounter the zombies himself. No one wanted to deal with those things. A good portion of their walk passed uneventfully. The sky was still the same blue-grey, the ground was still flat and soft. Ricky was interested as to where this detour was going to take them. A few degrees alteration in their course, after a while added up. They wouldn’t have to wait long for an answer though.

            Soon enough a tree line began to appear in the distance. Nadovev said this was where they were heading as a detour. He also said that it would serve as a resting spot for them since they’d been waking all day. All day they certainly had. Once the zombies were out of even Camera’s sight the day began to drag on. It was a very monotonous walk; one that could lead the mind to wander and get sloppy. It could also cause a worrying mind to begin magnifying fears that it already had.

            As the tree line approached, they got a better look at it. It was made up of deciduous trees. A few maples were thrown into the mix. How they got there was unknown. A bunch of tall shrubs filled out the rest of their view. It was lush and green and all that. Well, as lush and green as anything in the zone got. It really didn’t seem any different than any other greenery they had seen before. Behind those trees was the real prize, something much more than the simple rest they were looking forward to. Nadovev had planned this detour well, taking them somewhere that they’d appreciate… Even if it was a surprise.

            Without a moment’s hesitation the group entered the tree line. Using their hands, they pushed the thick greenery out of their way as they passed through. To their surprise – but not Nadovev’s – the woods were only a few meters deep. In only a moment or two they were on the other side of the trees. What was before them made their eyes wide with wonder. It caused them to stop dead in their tracks.

            They had stepped onto a dirt covered field. All of a sudden the greenery just stopped and gave way to a barren dirt ground. Peculiarly, the sun was shining clearly on the ground like bright day at the beach. Looking forward about four hundred meters they witnessed the most beautiful spring any of them had ever seen. It was a deep wonderful shade of blue, it astounded the eyes. It was a near perfect circle, it had to of been several hundred meters in diameter. As their eyes moved closer to the shore of the spring, they saw that the water changed colour. It turned green as it got shallower. Once it reached the sandy dirt the water was a bright yellow. The water, which was upon the ground was orange. Yet even more strangely, veins of water stretched away from the spring into the dirt. These veins were remarkably like those of the human eye. Their waters were varying shades of red. It was the most wondrous thing any of them had seen.

            Arkady, Ricky, and Iosif stood with their mouths open in shock. Nadovev and Camera looked on smiling. Nadovev had been here before, but Camera had only seen pictures of it. The sight overwhelmed his eyes, yet he hid it behind a warm smile. The spring was truly a beautiful  sight to behold.

            “What is it?” Ricky asked, his voice full of wonder.

            Nadovev stepped forward, wiping his mouth with his hand, “this, is the Prismatic Spring Anomaly,” he said proudly, “this is where we’ll be refilling our canteens with clean water, radiation free.”

            “I don’t understand,” Iosif said.

            Camera stepped forward with an explanation, “The anomaly field before us produces artifacts called ‘Prisms’,” he said, “these have, obviously, a prismatic effect where light is broken down into the different colours that make it up. These artifacts also repulse radiation. So this water is clean because the artifacts are forcing that radiation out of it and onto the land here. Which is why it’s all dead and dry.”

            “You’re absolutely right,” Nadovev said, genuinely impress-ed, “I wasn’t aware that you knew about this place.”

            “I’ve only read about it,” Camera said, “I read a good deal about it because it has such an effect on light. You know me, being into photography and whatnot. In fact, I’d love to get a picture of this.” Camera took off his pack and reach inside it. He pulled out a travel case. Inside was an expensive looking camera. He spent a few moments assembling it. Once it was done, he had a field day taking pictures from all sorts of angles and positions.

            “Strange how there’s no clouds over this specific spot,” said Ricky.

            “While Camera goes off into his own world,” Nadovev said, “Iosif, come here and help me get through this anomaly field. We can’t just walk up to the water and take it. The anomalies in this place are what creates the artifacts that make it this way. In fact, I’ve always wanted one of the artifacts here, several research groups would pay a hell of a lot of money to get a hold of one. Unfortunately, these anomalies are packed too close together to get a hold of one. There is enough room, however, to get some water.”

            Nadovev took out his anomaly detector as Iosif approached him. The detector began to beep as he approached the field. Iosif went around collecting up all their empty canteens in a bag. He fell in line behind Nadovev as he lead the way. Nadovev reached into his thigh pouch and pulled out a handful of bolts.

            The going was agonizingly slow. Nadovev repeated the same actions over and over again. He scanned around the immediate area and threw a bolt in the direction he thought it was clear. Iosif stayed half a meter behind him and laid out a rope that marked their passage. It would be quite useful for finding their way back. It wasn’t going to be easy carrying a bag with canteens full of water. It was a delicate operation they had going. Centimetre by centimetre they slowly crawled their way towards the spring water. The going was so difficult because the anomalies were so densely packed together. A few times they had to backtrack and find another route. Two or three times there was a rush of air and a sucking sound as an anomaly was activated by their proximity. Thankfully neither one of them had fallen in, or had been sucked into it.

            After what had seemed like an eternity, they reached water deep enough to put the canteens in. One by one Nadovev filled them, capped them off, and handed them to Iosif. The water they were scooping up was green turning to yellow. Once inside the container it turned transparent. Evidently the water had to remain in the lake in order for the Prism to have its effect.

            Nadovev handed the last one to Iosif, and then got things together to turn around. Taking out his detector for the trip back, Nadovev noticed something out of the corner of his eye. A few meters into the water, he could see a Prism artifact. It was right there, just a few steps away. Iosif turned around and saw what he was looking at. Nadovev locked eyes with the Prism, it was almost like it was calling to him. These were some of the rarest artifacts in the Zone. It was worth a hell of a lot of money… and it was right there in front of him.

            “Forget it,” Iosif said, “you’d have to get in the water in order to reach it. Then there’d be no way to avoid any anomalies.”

            “Yea,” Nadovev said, “you’re right.” Despite his effort he was unable to break the lock his eyes had on the object. Struggling, he finally managed it. With that, they began their slow journey back to the group.

            Iosif lead the way with his back laden with full canteens. The going was tough, the weight wasn’t too much, it was just awkward to balance. Both men struggled to get back to a safe distance carrying the sack of canteens. It took some time, and it was excruciating. Unfortunately, they hadn’t discovered all the anomalies on their way in.

            Nadovev snagged his boot on it and set it off. The anomaly sucked him in with such a force there was nothing he could do to stop it. He yelled as he felt his body become weightless. The other members of the squad scrambled to the edge of the anomaly field powerless to do anything to save their leader. Iosif had just gotten free with the water. Nadovev was whirling around as if in a tornado. It overwhelmed his sense of touch and hearing. At incredible speed he was being whipped around and raised up into the air. This was the same kind of anomaly that killed the dog yesterday on the hill. Nadovev closed his eyes and prepared to be torn into tiny chunks. He was hurled around faster and faster to the point where he’d lost all sense of equilibrium. He couldn’t even see anymore, things were moving so fast. His squad mates were screaming as he was reaching the apex of the anomaly.

            This was it, he was going to die here, now, in an anomaly like countless Stalkers before him. He could feel the power of the anomaly tearing at his form. As his body began to stretch…. he was thrown clear of the anomaly and slammed into the ground away from the water – knocking him out.