Stalker southern comfort, p.1
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       STALKER Southern Comfort, p.1

           Balazs Pataki
STALKER Southern Comfort
STALKER Southern Comfort

  Copyright Balazs Pataki 2012

  All content from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of video games has been used by courtesy of GSC Game World. All trademarks appearing in this book have been used as denominative use only and are the property of their respective owners.

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be sold. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


  Southern Comfort

  Balazs Pataki

  “People are mistaken in their belief that they understand the essence of what the Zone truly is. Some consider it a universal evil, others - a wonder sent down to humanity, and others still consider it no more than a source of riches....They are all wrong. The Zone is impossible to understand when viewed through the prism of human perception; moreover it is far too early for humans to even try.”

  Professor E.F. Kalancha

  (referred to by Stalkers as Beanpolev)


  The Independent, 3 March 2001: Taliban destroy ancient Buddhist relics in Bamyan, Afghanistan. International pleas ignored by fundamentalist leaders.

  Kiev Post, Top Stories, 17 August 2001: Ukrainian authorities seal off the Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant after a bus carrying foreign tourists disappears close to Pripyat.

  CNN Breaking News, 4 March 2006: Blinding light illuminates the sky above the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, according to witnesses.

  BBC Top News Story, 10 June 2006: The skies above Ukraine’s ill-fated nuclear power plant are once again lit by bright light. Aided by the military, local law enforcement desperately tries evacuating the few villagers who remained in the Exclusion Zone after the deadly and still unexplained emission a month ago.

  Fox News, 25 September 2006: In a press conference, General Dan K. McNeill, the newly appointed ISAF commander refuses to comment on questions about the Taliban’s alleged efforts to obtain nuclear warheads from Pakistan.

  Kiev Post, Top Stories, 28 December 2009: A group of Ukrainian scientists led by Professor Sakharov have succeeded in penetrating into the Zone to a depth of one kilometer and returning without incident or injury. Professor Sakharov would not comment on questions regarding the special equipment that had made this possible, but did say that “this major breakthrough would not have been possible without the continuous research in Ukraine to design devices and protective gear suitable for exploring the Zone.” However, he confirmed “the existence of scientifically unexplained, anomalous activities in the physics of the Zone, as well as mutations in its flora and fauna”.

  The Guardian, May 5, 2011: A leader of al Qaeda’s branch in southern Yemen on Wednesday vowed revenge for the US killing of the worldwide network’s founder Osama bin Laden. “We will take revenge for the death of our Sheikh Osama bin Laden and we will prove this to the enemies of God,” he told AFP, contacted by telephone from Yemen’s southern province of Abyan, an al Qaeda stronghold. “They will see what they haven’t expected… We are preparing a plan to continue jihad in the coming period,” said the al Qaeda leader, requesting anonymity for “security reasons.”

  Fox News ticker, 6 June 2011, 03:42:58 PM ET: President to address nation following nuclear detonation in Kabul., 7 June 2011, 01.35:46 PM ET: The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has described the nuclear attack in Afghanistan as “the last resort of an inhuman and despicable enemy to martyr themselves en masse and deny us the claim of victory”. The ACLU has strongly condemned his choice of words, describing them as “culturally insensitive”, while in Germany, France and the UK thousands have protested, blaming the United States and Israel for the atrocity.

  The Guardian, 20 August 2011: It has now been verified by several independent sources that the nuclear explosions that devastated the capital and a vast surrounding area in Central Afghanistan were caused by three low-yield warheads of approximately 20 kilotons each, and were the work of insurgents or Al-Qaida extremists. The detonation was six times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and three times more powerful than the explosion at Reactor Four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986. A US Army spokesman has denied comments regarding the origin of the warheads after reports claimed that they were acquired from Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Latest News, 25 October 2011: Federal government warns Russians citizens against travelling to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone following a skirmish between the Ukrainian military and a group of paramilitary individuals calling themselves “Stalkers” – an acronym for “Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber”. Despite protests by human right watchdogs and the European Union, the Ukrainian forces guarding the area have been authorized to shoot such trespassers on sight.

  General Headquarters, Armed Forces of the Ukraine, 15 August 2012

  During Operation Fairway, aimed at re-establishing control over the center of the Exclusion Zone (including Pripyat and the Chernobyl NPP), our forces sustained heavy losses. The mission has been labeled a failure by general staff. For extraordinary bravery in face of the enemy, strike force commander Cpt. Tarasov is hereby recommended for receiving the Order of Courage and promotion to major.

  - Col. Kovalskiy, commanding officer, Operation Fairway (resigned)

  Remark: SBU supports recommendation. Pending promotion, it is further suggested that Cpt. Tarasov be designated as command element of our forces in the Exclusion Zone.

  - Maj. Degtyarev, SBU/Special Operations Directorate

  Kiev Post, Top Stories, 8 June 2014: The Ukrainian Ministry of Education is to send a scientific team into the nuclear wasteland that was once Central Afghanistan, now also referred to as “the New Zone”, under the oversight of Professor Sakharov, the veteran ecologist who led some of the first expeditions into the Chernobyl Zone between 2007 and 2009. The goal of the expedition is to end the speculation and internet rumors regarding environmental developments in the area that are allegedly similar to those in the Exclusion Zone, despite the evidence that shows that the mutations and other phenomena observed in the Chernobyl area were not caused by radioactivity alone.

  Condor One

  Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - Ukraine, 18 September 2014, 08:50:34 East European Standard Time/EEST

  “I love being in the army, komandir. Where else could I get a chopper flight over the Zone?”

  Major Mikhailo Tarasov doesn’t return the young lieutenant’s cheery grin, instead choosing to spend the last minutes looking out over the Swamp, lost in his thoughts. Seen from above, through the tiny windows of the Mi-24 gunship flying them to their mission, the Swamp looks peaceful like a national park: golden brown fields of reed bowing in the wind, the low September sun reflected in the waterways, the wooden dome of an abandoned church peering out of a shred of mist, anomaly fields on the Zone’s edge glowing with eerie green and blue. Tarasov is glad that the distance spares him the details: the Geiger counter’s constant clicking, the rotten stench, the sight of decomposing corpses fallen to mutants, radioactivity and anomalies.

  “Save your high spirits for the underground, Ivanchuk,” he glumly replies. But his second in command seems to be in a talkative mood.

  “How come it’s in this mess today? That hellhole under Agroprom was supposed to be sealed off ages ago.”

  “Some Stalkers made it into Strelok’s chamber. We’re going in to seal it again, this time for good.”

  “Piece of cake!”

  Tarasov can’t see the lieutenant’s eyes under the helmet’s dark visor but he’s sure his second in command is not just swaggering. Today you will be tested, lieutenant. He looks at the two other troopers huddled up in the cramped compartment, flan
king a technician who carries welding equipment. Kolesnik and Shumenko had been veteran Stalkers until they signed up to the army, motivated more by their need to escape debt collectors than fulfilling patriotic duty. They were made sergeants to let them know their place in the military’s food chain. Although not cast from the mold of legendary Stalkers, they were at least good team-players. For Tarasov, commander of the Ukrainian army’s own squad of

  Zone Stalkers, this was more important than individual abilities. He looks at the lieutenant’s fingers nervously drumming on his AKSU assault rifle.

  “By the way, lieutenant… what’s that duct tape on your magazine?”

  “That? I taped two mags together, so that I can change them with a flip of my hand!”

  “Do you see that on my rifle? No? And can you think why?”

  “Because I’m stupid and you are smart, komandir!”

  Tarasov laughs out loud. His grumpy mood vanishes in an instant. From the corner of his eye, he can even see two hard-boiled sergeants grin.

  “What to do? That’s a fact,” he shrugs and gives a pat on the lieutenant’s helmet. “Hand me that duct tape if you still have it on you.”

  The lieutenant pats down his pockets and hands him a roll of blue duct tape. Tarasov takes out a spare magazine from the pockets on Ivanchuk’s body armor.

  “If you keep the mags like that,” he explains, “your weapon will feel much heavier than it is.”

  He whips the tape around the magazine, leaving free an inch-long flap. “Look. If you grab it by this flap, you can draw it much quicker from the pocket and win a second if you’re in a firefight. Then there’s that carabineer on your assault vest. When you remove the empty magazine, just fasten it there with the duct flap. See? Like this… It will win you another second. Once the party is over, you can put the magazine back into to the vest pocket.”

  “Two minutes to touchdown,” the pilot reports, “I have a visual on Fortress One.”

  “All right people, here we go,” says Tarasov fastening the strap of his helmet, “check your gear.”

  He detaches the magazine from his silenced SA Val rifle and pushes the first cartridge down to make sure no cartridge is stuck inside. The steely clack of the weapon cocking is like music to his ears.

  “One minute to touchdown,” sounds the intercom. “Landing zone is clear.”

  Tarasov has landed more times in a helicopter than he can count but he still can’t shake off the slight sickness he feels during the sudden descent. He grabs his weapon and opens the hatch. Giving each man an encouraging pat on the shoulder while they exit, he waits until everyone is out. He signals to the pilots with his thumb up and follows his soldiers. The gunship immediately takes to the air and sets out on a circling path over the abandoned buildings to watch over the environment. Its turbine engines are still too loud for Tarasov to address the squad leader without shouting.

  “Any developments, Lieutenant Nabokov?”

  “We saw a pack of mutants not far from here but the helicopter’s noise scared them away.”

  “Keep your eyes peeled, just in case something nasty comes out of this hole. Are the Stalkers still inside?”

  “I’ve been standing by with Fortress One since zero-six-hundred. No one has left through here, sir, and Fortress Two didn’t report any earlier contacts either.”

  “Good. Chumak, come over here!”

  The technician – a haggard civilian who usually tends to the vehicles at the base and now looks helpless in the bulletproof vest he’s wearing for the first time – has fear written all over his face. Tarasov gives him his pistol.

  “You know how to handle a Fort-15?”

  “Yes, komandir, but…” Chumak points at Tarasov’s rifle. “Could I have a machine gun like that?”

  “If you ever find you need a bigger weapon, pick up any of our rifles because that would mean we’re dead.”

  With his squad following behind, Tarasov walks to the tunnel entrance, a round opening in the ground like a manhole.

  “Chumak, on me. Kolesnik, Shumenko, move forward. Ivanchuk, you look out for our six. Our mission is simple: we go in, seal the shaft to Strelok’s hideout and get out.”

  “Rules of engagement?”

  “This is a high priority area, Lieutenant. Shoot at everything that moves. Watch out for ricochets – the tunnels are narrow. Keep a little distance from the walls.”

  “If we find any artifacts, can we retrieve and sell them?”

  “Not if I find them first, sergeant. Anything else?”

  “Major, sir!”

  “Spill the beans, Shumenko.”

  “Permission to take a leak before we go in.”

  “Do it quickly and make sure you don’t put your yalda into an anomaly.”

  “Shumenko’s dick needs not fear any anomalies on the ground” says Kolesnik with a grin.

  The lieutenant is quick to reply. “He’s only pissing to let the mutants know his territory!”

  Tarasov sighs with impatience, but he has given up cutting such casual manners long ago. Even if this squad was improvised just an hour ago, at least he could count on these men should things go wrong. He knows this could happen. His men know it too. And Kolesnik’s joke wasn’t that bad for a man who is about to descend into a mutant-infested tunnel system where anything that can move will move in for the kill.

  “Feeling much better.”

  “All right… now that Sergeant Shumenko has gracefully marked his territory, let’s get moving. Switch to your breathing system. Check night vision and intercom.”

  “Ivanchuk here. Always ready.”

  “Kolesnik ready.”

  “Shumenko here. Locked and loaded.”

  “Err… I mean, do I also have to say something?”

  “Can you see and breathe in that gas mask, Chumak?”

  “Yes, komandir.”

  “Keep it that way. Let’s move!”

  Tunnel system - Agroprom Research Institute, 09:28:00 EEST

  Before Tarasov descends into the narrow shaft leading to the tunnels, he switches the channel on his radio. “Cordon Base, this is Condor One. Condor Squad moving in. Over and out.”

  The sergeants climb down through the narrow shaft. As soon as they arrive at the bottom of the ladder, they kneel and assume a firing position.

  “Clear,” Shumenko reports.

  Tarasov notices a disapproving look on the technician’s face. He ignores it, but Ivanchuk jumps at the opportunity to lecture him.

  “What are you looking at, Chumak? Command elements take point only in war movies. If there’s an ambush down there and the major gets shot, we’re screwed.”

  His comrades descend one by one. Tarasov can hear their panting. With his left hand, he signals them to proceed. The tunnel reeks of rot, dampness and corrosion. Above, a lonely red light flashes and casts its eerie light across the walls, like the reminder of a long-forgotten alarm when these catacombs were still part of a secret laboratory. All is quiet but for the shrieking noise of the rotating flashlight and moisture dripping from the ceiling.

  Suddenly, something moves on the ground with a noise that sounds like a thunder.

  “Sorry, Major” whispers Chumak, “I stumbled on something.”

  “Shit! Why don’t you just shout ‘hey we have just arrived!’?”

  “I’m sorry, komandir!”

  “Shut up, Chumak” comes Ivanchuk’s voice.

  Tarasov hears something like footsteps approaching. He raises his left fist, ordering the others to stop. He aims his weapon and a shadow moves into the red dot sight of his rifle. As the emergency light’s red beam flashes for a second in its direction, a human silhouette emerges from the darkness. Without hesitation, he fires two short, noise-suppressed bursts. Tarasov hears the man gasping and pulls the trigger again. The man emits a shout, intended as swearing but ending in a gasp of pain. His rifle fires a burst into the ground as death spasms his fingers. At last he falls. Two seconds have passed since he
appeared, maybe three. Strange, Tarasov thinks. That fellow was pretty heavily armored for a Stalker.

  Staying in cover, Tarasov peeks around the corner. The room is dimly lit by another faint emergency light. A thick concrete column blocks his view, but he senses no movement. He gives a signal to Kolesnik.

  “It’s too quiet there... suspiciously quiet. See that red fuel drum? Make some noise.”

  The sergeant removes a frag grenade from his belt, pulls the safety, waits for a few seconds, and then throws it in the shown direction. In the moment the grenade lands, someone inside shouts cover! but is silenced by the detonation. After a split second a much louder detonation follows as the fuel drum explodes into a blinding ball of fire. The major hears the noise of metal shreds whizzing through the air, mixed with desperate screams. He shouts, Go, go, go! and jumps down the stairs into the room. His Geiger counter starts ticking frantically. Two bodies lie on the ground but Tarasov ignores them as he scans the next room, once an elevator station, for further targets. His night vision is too weak to light up the corners and he doesn’t want to switch on his headlight – it would turn him into an illuminated target for hostiles wanting to practice headshots.

  “All clear,” he says, “let’s move on.”

  But Chumak, who is in the catacombs for the first time, stands in front of two huge tanks, which might contain poison or worse, staring at the glowing green substance beneath them. The substance is moving, looking like boiling green water in slow-motion. He is about to touch it when Ivanchuk pulls him back.

  “That’s a Fruit Punch, rookie. An anomaly. One step closer and the acid will consume your dick in a second.”

  “There’s more of that shit here in the underground than mushrooms in a forest,” Kolesnik remarks. Tarasov is about to tell them to keep quiet when the other sergeant shouts out.

  “Enemies detected!”

  Shumenko doesn’t wait for the major’s order and releases a long burst into the elevator chamber. Now it’s the major’s turn to throw a grenade. Another deafening explosion sounds but the enemy keeps firing. The lieutenant leaps forward, firing his AKSU assault rifle. Silence falls. Tarasov points to the round chamber in front of them, with a massive pillar in the middle.

  “Ivanchuk, you and Kolesnik to the left. Shumenko, on me. Chumak, you stay behind me.”

  Slowly and with weapons ready, they enter the chamber. Below their feet, rusty iron grates cover corroded pipes, disappearing into the ground. A lever stands in the middle, the turning wheel having fallen off. Above them, the metal tubes of a ventilation system follow the curve of the walls, here and there lacking a few cover pieces.

  “Keep your eye on those open tubes,” Tarasov warns his squad with a whisper, “I don’t want any stray snorks jumping on our heads.”

  “All clear. Coming through.”

  Tarasov lowers his Val when he sees the lieutenant appearing from the other side. In front of them, a staircase leads to the level below.

  “Shall we?” Ivanchuk asks. Tarasov shakes his head.

  “Watch the stairs. Keep your eyes peeled, Lieutenant. I want to check out those bodies before we go below.”

  Now that the area is cleared of enemies and with the only exit under watch, Tarasov switches off his night vision and turns on the headlight. He approaches the Stalker shot by the lieutenant.

  “Good shot, Ivanchuk,” he says, loud enough for the sergeants to hear it as well. The corpse lying in the light circle before him is wearing a tactical helmet with an integrated gas mask, its tube attached to his dark blue body armor’s breathing system. His bulletproof vest has been penetrated by five armor-piercing rounds from Ivanchuk’s AKSU. Even in his death, he holds his outdated, but still deadly G36 assault rifle.

  “Shumenko, take over the guard. Lieutenant, come over here.” Tarasov points at the corpse. “This was no Stalker but a mercenary. Our intel was bad, like usually.” The lieutenant nods and kneels down to remove the gas mask from the corpse. “Don’t. I’d rather not see his face.”

  “And if it was a pretty woman, sir?”

  “You’re one sick son of a bitch, Lieutenant. You better find something that the intel guys could use… maybe they’ll do a better job next time.”

  “But if it’s a woman and I find a lipstick, can I keep it? My girlfriend…”

  “Cut your stupid jokes, for God’s sake. You’re not even remotely funny.”

  Tarasov searches the other bodies. They all wear the same gear, meaning they indeed belonged to the group of mercenaries who occasionally appear in the Zone. Unlike Stalkers, they not only hunt for artifacts but for the occasional human target as well, be it a Stalker carrying a special artifact or one who didn’t deliver what he was supposed to on time. And, being far better equipped and trained than ordinary Stalkers, they also cause headaches for the army when they appeared close to the strictly no-go areas around the secret laboratories. Tarasov’s search proves futile – one body was blown to pieces by the exploding fuel drum, and on the other he only found two first-aid kits.

  “Nothing useful here, sir,” Ivanchuk reports.

  “No surprise… After all, no merc would be stupid enough to carry his mission orders with him. Dammit… A band of mercenaries in our territory is the last thing we need.”

  “I suggest we report this to the base, komandir.”

  Tarasov checks his radio. “No signal. Anyway, we still have something else to do… Let’s go down.”

  It gets darker with each step as they carefully descend the winding metal staircase. The ground below is dotted with bubbling green anomalies, illuminating the tunnel with green glow. Now Tarasov can even hear their noise: a sizzle echoing like a chorus of monsters in the darkness, as if communicating with each other in a deep, foreboding whisper. His Geiger counter ticks faster.

  “Turn off the headlights,” he orders. The anomalies glow strong enough to illuminate their surroundings. On the far end of the tunnel, an emergency light shows the direction. Tarasov can only hope that if there are any enemies here, they will make a clear silhouette against the dim beam of light.

  “Stick to the wall. Skirt the anomalies,” he whispers to Chumak.

  He looks down for a second as the technician stumbles over a fallen pipe. Immediately, he feels a steel fist hitting his chest. Then he hears the rifle shot. He wobbles to the wall, his hand instinctively touching the spot where he was hit. Shumenko fires a long burst with Kolesnik’s rifle joining in.

  “Shit,” somebody shouts, “he came out of nowhere!”

  “Major, are you hit?”

  “I’m… fine, Lieutenant,” Tarasov replies as he stands up with a groan. He is glad that the visor of his tactical helmet hides the pain on his face. His heavy armor caught the bullet, but the impact was strong like the hit of a hammer. His chest is left bruised and sore. Thank God for my SKAT suit.

  “Let’s keep moving!”

  They pass by a lonely petroleum lamp. Their shooter must have been guarding the exit of the tunnel, which leads into the big research hall. As they enter it, they see huge metal containers behind a dilapidated iron fence and more pipelines disappearing into nowhere through holes in the concrete walls. Another red emergency lamp casts its maddening light. Through cracks and holes, air moves with a deep howl.

  They have to cross the wide shadow of a concrete pillar. Tarasov reaches to his helmet to switch on his headlight. The shrieking noise of the revolving red light hurts his ears like a dentist’s drill but what makes his blood curl is a howling roar from the darkness.

  “Headlamps on,” he commands, “fire forward, fire all you have!”

  He tosses the technician to the ground and throws himself down too, biting his tongue, ignoring the sharp pain and frantically firing towards the pair of glowing eyes that are reflecting the light of their headlamps and getting closer at inhuman speed. The howl turns into a beastly rattle, regardless of the fire directed at its source from the three assault rifles. The major runs out of ammo but as
he desperately reaches for a spare magazine the rattle ceases and, with a loud hump, something heavy falls to the ground just a meter away from him.

  “That was a close shave,” he hears the lieutenant’s voice.

  Tarasov gets back to his feet. A humanoid figure lies in the light circle ahead of him. It has longer arms and legs than humans, but the biggest visible difference is the bunch of tentacles, still squirming like snakes, that end at the blood-smeared hole on its head where the mouth should be. Shumenko steps closer and empties the rest of his ammunition into the dead mutant’s head before replacing the magazine.

  “Wh-what was that?” Chumak’s whole body is shaking.

  “A bloodsucker,” Tarasov replies reloading his rifle, “and a male one, judged by what’s left of it… the female is probably waiting for him to come home with fresh meat. Usually they stick together, so let’s keep our eyes open…”

  “I… I refuse to go on… I just can’t,” the technician stammers. He is close to crying. “I want to get out of here!”

  “Pull yourself together, Chumak,” Tarasov says and offers him his hand. “Get up or become bloodsucker food!”


  The major glances at the two sergeants. They cross to the whining technician and pull him up to his feet. Without any emotions on his face, Tarasov points his rifle at Chumak’s head.

  “Let’s go,” he says, but the technician only shakes his head in fear.

  “All right, we’ll take your gear and leave you.” Tarasov lowers his weapon and aims now at Chumak’s legs. “But first I’ll shoot you in the knee. Mama bloodsucker will be pissed off when papa doesn’t return and they can smell blood from far away.”

  Chumak looks at Ivanchuk, who nods in approval, and reluctantly gets his backpack.

  Without saying any more, Tarasov moves on with the squad falling in. He is nervous about every dark corner but no other mutants come into sight. Or maybe it is us not being in the mutants’ sight.

  Soon, a corridor branches off to the left. Tarasov has been there before: it is one of the long tunnels running between the two Agroprom facilities. They have to turn right, but would be exposed on their left flank. If they threw a grenade to clear the way, anyone waiting for them in ambush would know of their approach. He signals the men to stop, peeks out to the left, and gives a sign to Ivanchuk to proceed. As he turns to the right, he sees the stationary beam of a headlight. The mercenary hasn’t seen them yet. Tarasov aims carefully. His shots hit his target’s body armor but have no killing effect. By the time he can fire another shot, the mercenary disappears.

  “Dammit,” he swears as he hears barking commands ahead. “Kolesnik, drop a frag! Twenty meters ahead!”

  The grenade falls a little short but hits the mercenary just at the moment when he is reckless enough to peer out from his cover.

  Weapon fixed on the door in case more enemies emerge, Tarasov rushes forward. A silhouette appears in the visor, the head right behind the scope’s red dot. He fires

  “Left! Watch your left!” he shouts taking a grenade and throwing it through the door. It was too quick. One second after the detonation, another enemy pops out from around the corner. Tarasov’s rifle falls silent after one shot. He ducks for cover to reload. An AKSU rings out over his head.

  “He’s down,” Kolesnik says.

  They wait for a minute. Only the wind howls in the tunnels, with the occasional rummaging noise from the long-forgotten levels far below. Maybe a room collapsed. Maybe a bloodsucker is fighting for his life with a pack of snorks, partial invisibility versus ten meter long jumps and knife-sharp teeth. Maybe it’s the soldiers’ fear echoing in their mind.

  Stepping over a dead enemy whose head and chest was dreadfully blasted by the grenade, Tarasov moves his squad into the room. From there, another corridor opens to the left. A few meters further down, a round ventilation shaft opens into the wall. Wooden crates stand below, as if used as stairs to gain access to it. Once it housed a ventilator and the remains of the iron grater that once covered it are still lying on the ground. Now a man could comfortably crawl into the opening. There’s even a metal ladder leading up the shaft.

  “Welcome to Strelok’s hideout, Chumak,” Tarasov says and pats the technician on the shoulder, “you made it. Now it’s time for your big performance.”

  “Thank God,” the technician sighs with relief, “so, what am I supposed to do?”

  “Remove a few pieces of that ladder. Weld its parts as a grid to prevent anyone from climbing in.”

  “Are you sure there’s nothing inside, komandir?”

  “I don’t mind giving you a little tour… We all deserve a rest anyway.” Tarasov turns to the soldiers. “Keep your guard up while I show this greenhorn around. That corridor will be our exit route. It’s full of garbage for cover, so keep your eyes peeled. Chumak, follow me.”

  Strelok once told him that the chamber was booby-trapped and he cannot shake off an uneasy feeling as they climb up the ladder. Cautiously, he peeks inside, and seeing no danger waiting for them, he jumps into a small chamber.

  Strelok’s hideout, 09:59:07 EEST

  “What is this place?” the technician asks. Tarasov scans the walls with his headlamp. They are covered with Stalker graffiti, short messages with call signs and nicknames.

  Voronin, I’ll get you yet. Lukas.

  Come and donate blood at the Skadovsk. Tremor.

  Want yourself a tailor-made chemical suit? Visit me at Rostok! Beacon.

  Maps of the Oasis for sale. Ask Flint at Yanov.

  Lost my rifle again. Please bring it back for a reward. Brome at the 100 Rads.

  Don’t bring pseudodog tails to Sidorovich. Keep them. They taste good. Blaberry.

  Save for a few crates and other junk, the chamber is empty. Someone had even removed the improvised map table that had been there for ages, even when Tarasov first entered the underground three years ago.

  “You ever heard about the Marked One, Chumak? The Noosphere, C-Con, things like that?”

  “No, sir.”

  “You didn’t miss much, except for the Marked One. About the rest – I’m more into shooting than all that scientific mumbo-jumbo, but since you’re here with us, I suppose you have the right to know what we’re up against.”

  Fear casts a shadow on the technician’s face, very much to Tarasov’s liking.

  “It’s complicated but anyway, this is how an old friend once explained it to me in Pripyat. You know, we had a lot of time on our hands while waiting for the evacuation team.” The major makes himself comfortable on an empty ammunition crate. “So… according to some scientists, our planet is surrounded by a special field called Noosphere. It’s said, it influences how we humans behave. After Chernobyl, a group of scientists set up secret laboratories in the Exclusion Zone where they weren’t bothered by anyone. The eggheads wanted to adjust the Noosphere, removing bad things from the planet… including the word ‘no’ from the female vocabulary.”

  Chumak chuckles. Tarasov doesn’t mention the development of secret weapons and the psychic tests that used humans as guinea-pigs. The technician is not supposed to know everything.

  “They soon realized that something more powerful was needed, so they put together seven volunteers to create a common consciousness. In short, the C-Consciousness.”

  “Sounds like science fiction to me.”

  “It was more like horror, because in 2006 the experiments damaged the Noosphere. No one knows for sure what had exactly happened, but we all see the results here in the Zone. If you ask me – the Zone is the bad day of the universe.”

  “So we are here to kill mutants? Preventing them to get out?”

  “No, that’s Duty’s job… Killing all the snorks, controllers, burers… as if that were possible. But the Stalkers keep sneaking in to hunt for things called artifacts. Some of them work wonders with a human body and can be sold for fat sums in the Big Land outside. Preventing this is our job, at least on paper – t
he state wants to have the monopoly on such trade. Anyway, to recap the story, the C-Consciousness eventually backfired. It used the scientists to create a trap, to brainwash people to protect itself. Stalkers called this trap the Brain Scorcher. It brainwashed enough people to create its own army. They called themselves the Monolith, believing they serve some sort of alien crystal capable of fulfilling any wish. Bloody fanatics.”

  “Was it true, komandir?”

  “Don’t start asking me about the Wish Granter. Anyway, two years ago a Stalker called Strelok found a path to the center of the Zone where the Monolith was protecting the C-Consciousness. His call sign was Marked One. He never talked about what exactly happened there... and frankly, I sleep easier without knowing about it. Whatever he did, the Zone is still here and all we can do is try to contain it. Maybe it doesn’t need the C-Consciousness to exist anymore. I don’t know.” Tarasov takes a sip of water from his canteen. “This chamber was the Marked One’s hideout. By now you probably understand that Strelok is the hero of all Stalkers. They come here to prove they’ve got what it takes to be a Stalker and leave a message behind. ”

  “That’s why the mercenaries we ran into were here?”

  “I doubt it. They prefer spraying the walls with our blood, not paint. What concerns us now is that the son of some big fish in Kiev died during an attempt to get here. We were ordered to make the place inaccessible.”

  “I understand.”

  “No, you don’t. What we do here makes no difference… it’s an uphill battle all the time. Sometimes I wish I’d be a free Stalker, with nothing in my mind but artifacts and how to spend money once I get rich by selling them. Then an order comes like today and makes me forget about such thoughts.”

  Tarasov climbs to his feet but the technician persists in questioning him.

  “I know about the Stalkers. But the guys in the base told me something about factions called Freedom and Duty, too.”

  The major sits back, emitting an impatient sigh.

  “It’s two sides of the same coin, Chumak. Some hardliners set up a militia to destroy the Zone. That is Duty. Then there are bleeding hearts believing that the whole world has a right to study the Zone. Bullshit, I’d say – Freedom is sponsored by Western powers who want to have their share of artifacts, but the Zone is ours. Am I not right?”

  “I agree, komandir.”

  Tarasov hesitates for a moment before continuing. Then he decides that speaking his mind would mean no harm. Back at their base, no soldier takes Chumak seriously enough to believe what the technician says, should he ever tell them about his doubts.

  “You know, Chumak… years ago, when I arrived here as a lieutenant, I believed that the Zone’s resources should be exploited for the benefit of our country. After all, it is us Ukrainians who suffer from it most. It would be just fair for use to take whatever benefits the Zone has, scientific or else. Later on, when I saw that our generals have nothing else in mind than getting rich from selling artifacts on the black market and weapons to Stalkers and Duty, I was more and more wishing the Zone would disappear, either by force or a miracle. It corrupts people as much as it corrupts nature. Now I do not care any longer about all of this… Whatever we do just peels off the Zone. Duty’s trigger-happy Rambos and Freedom’s dope-smoking anarchists will never be able to deal with it.”

  Tarasov looks around in the chamber, taken over by a feeling of hopelessness. He envies Strelok who was once hiding here during his long raid deep into the center of the Zone, trying to solve its ultimate secrets.

  “It was different then…,” he silently continues. “There was still reason to be here. Now we know everything about the Zone except what it is, and this we will never find out. We’re stuck with it, like a child who takes a bite too big and can neither swallow nor spit it out. I wish I could move on with it, but I’m trapped here. There’s no way for me to live outside of the Zone, even if there’s nothing but corruption inside. You’ll understand if you stay here long enough… but that’s enough Zone lore for today. Come, let’s get this job done.”

  “Yes, komandir, but tell me… I mean, I’m sorry for snapping after that thing attacked us… but you were kidding when you pointed your shooter at me, weren’t you?”

  “That’s not a shooter,” Tarasov replies standing up and patting off the dust from his leggings, “it’s called an assault rifle.”

  Before climbing back to the tunnel, Tarasov takes a fragmentation grenade, removes the safety pin, and carefully places the device under a piece of wood ripped from a crate. It will probably not prevent any Stalkers from entering the chamber except the first and unluckiest, but at least he has an excuse to report back that the place is booby-trapped.

  Chumak starts working with quick, accurate movements. In a few minutes, the ladder lies in pieces. He takes the longer parts and welds them to the iron trunks. When he switches off the blue light of his welding torch, the shaft is barred by a strong new grid.

  “Molodets,” Tarasov says, giving Chumak a look of approval, “and now let’s get the hell out of here. Squad, on me! Shumenko, take point.”

  Tunnel system - Agroprom Research Institute, 10:15:03 EEST

  After twenty meters, another chamber opens to their left. On Tarasov’s sign, Ivanchuk moves over and keeps his weapon aimed into the room until the others pass by. Then he assumes his place on the rear, keeping a cautious eye on the far end of the tunnel.

  They barely proceed a few meters when the sergeant raises his fist. Two Fruit Punch anomalies lie ahead. Judged by the distance between them, they could pass through safely.

  “Form a line. Watch your step,” he orders his men.

  “There’s something in that anomaly, sir.”

  Tarasov takes his detector device and turns towards the anomaly. Shumenko’s eyes might have been misled by wishful thinking but the detector proves him right. The display lights up and indicates a small green dot, just a meter away. Cautiously stepping closer, he investigates the substance. A tiny object levitates an inch above the anomaly, as if in the state of weightlessness.

  He cautiously picks it up, avoiding any contact with the acidic substance beneath. It would burn through his protective gloves in a moment. “Look at this little fellow,” he says as if talking about a puppy, “Privet, Kolobok!”

  Holding it, the major feels his skin become tougher and less sensitive. The artifact looks like a small, round hedgehog with crystals protruding from its dark green core. It weighs as much as a half dozen medikits but a person keeping it close to his body would never have to worry about running out of bandages. The artifact’s coagulating effects would heal any open wound in a minute. Luckily, judged by the Geiger counter’s consistent ticking it’s not of the radioactive variety.

  “Komandir…,” says the sergeant, “With all due respect, I saw it first.”

  “Duly noted,” Tarasov replies, as he carefully lets the artifact slide into a container on his armored suit. “Ever heard about chain of command?”

  The sergeant seems disgruntled but Tarasov ignores him. It would be fair to divide the price with his men if he decides to sell the artifact. Sidorovich, the best-known trader in the Zone, pays generous amounts but the scientists in Yantar pay even better. That would however mean a long trek to their field laboratory, while Sidorovich’s den is close to their base. He will worry about it later. First they need to get out of the underground facility. The squad slowly proceeds between the anomalies towards the tunnel end, where an opening in the wall leads into a staircase.

  “Up we go,” Tarasov says but as soon as he climbs up the first stairs, he sees even more anomalies ahead. He signals a stop and takes a pistol magazine from his vest. Back in Pripyat, he learned from Strelok how to use bolts and screw-nuts to determine the size of an anomaly. His own device is more elegant. The spring inside the magazine pushes the shells upwards and he only has to direct them into the anomaly with his thumb. Landing in the sizzling substance, they immediately dissolve with a sharp
, hissing sound.

  “No way through this one,” he says with frustration. “Damn, I had a feeling that we wouldn’t get out so easily.”

  “Maybe we can neutralize the anomaly if we ask Shumenko to piss into it.”

  “Ha, ha, ha, Lieutenant,” replies the sergeant with a fake laugh. “If you want to know, ever since I visited that bitch you talked about my piss is burning so much that I could blast a hole in the wall with it.”

  “Did you at least manage to blast her hole?”

  “Both of you, shut the fuck up,” Tarasov orders. “No time to relax yet. We’ve got to backtrack and find another way out.”

  “Shit,” Ivanchuk swears. Tarasov responds with a grin.

  “You still like this job, Lieutenant?”

  “I do, komandir… I was just mentioning that I dislike visiting places I’ve already been to.”

  “That’s the spirit. Now, if we are lucky, our mercenary friends tried to retreat and ran directly into Fortress One. If not… we kick more ass. Let’s move.”

  Either because they killed everyone on their way in or because the mercenaries were indeed ambushed upon trying to leave the catacombs, the squad makes its way back into the laboratory undisturbed. Chumak carefully skirts around the dead bloodsucker, its lifeless eyes still glowing as if it could jump up any second. As he passes it by, Kolesnik shoots it again.

  “Just to make sure, komandir.”

  “Don’t waste your ammunition. Move!” Tarasov says, getting nervous, knowing this is the worst time. All missions become most dangerous when they are almost over. Men tend to lose patience and caution with disastrous results.

  In a minute, they are back to the first tunnel they traversed, with the ladder leading up to the shaft and out of the catacombs. He notices that the lieutenant has his headlamp switched on. Damn, does he want to get a headshot?

  “Switch off your headlamp, Lieutenant!”

  “Yes, Major… It’s just that the night vision makes my eyes pop from their sockets… and now this headache…”

  Tarasov suddenly also feels pain creeping into his skull.

  “What is that?” Chumak asks and steps forward, emboldened by the proximity of the exit shaft. Before Tarasov can order him back he hears a faint, sharp noise, rapidly strengthening into a deep howl rolling through the darkness.

  “Controller!” Shumenko screams in horror.

  A loud bang hits Tarasov’s brain. It’s not transmitted through his ears – the sound is already echoing inside his head, as if his brain was exploding. But it’s Ivanchuk who falls to his knees as Chumak strikes his pistol and shoots the lieutenant in the face.

  “Get into cover!” screams Tarasov desperately. Bullets whizz towards the dark end of the tunnel. He curses himself for not having a shotgun or at least an AKSU – the small magazine of his rifle will not be enough for this kill. Realizing the controller didn’t see him yet because he still has some willpower of his own, he charges forward. It’s not fair, flashes through his painful mind, so close to the end, it’s just not fair! He sees the silhouette of the monster against the red flashes of the last emergency light. Having finished off the soldiers, it now tries to take hold of his mind. But desperation and rage seize his muscles and in two seconds, he reaches the mutant. It towers above him with its mass of brawny flesh. Tarasov empties the whole magazine into its torso. The controller tries to step back. He senses its aggression vanish, as if he himself had absorbed it while he smashes the mutant’s head again and again with the butt of his rifle until the weapon breaks.

  Suddenly the tight, fiery ring that gripped his skull recedes then disappears. The bang-bang is gone. His panting sounds deafening in the sudden silence.

  Blood flows from his ears. He switches on his headlamp and sees Kolesnik getting up from the ground, groaning. Then Shumenko rises, holding his head as if still in pain. Chumak kneels above Ivanchuk’s body. He has torn the gas mask off his face. From his eyes, still maddened by horror, tears are flowing.

  “I didn’t… I didn’t want…”

  “No.” Tarasov’s voice is hoarse and trembling. He takes the Fort from the technician. “You’ve been… controlled.”

  He looks at the lieutenant’s body. Goddammit. Of all the wounds a bullet can inflict, he most hates the sight of a headshot. It’s bad enough to realize how thin the layers of muscle, body tissues and skin are that make the difference between a pile of organs and a human form. But a face, distorted into a dreadful yawn by a last traction of the muscles and the scattered brain protruding from a cracked skull, still emanating body warmth into the chilly air, is something else.

  Tarasov feels the urge to vomit but pulls himself together. Kolesnik is weaker. He leans against the wall and throws up. Only Shumenko remains on his feet, expecting Tarasov to say something. The major clears his throat.

  “Sergeant, take this,” he says, reaching to his waist and handing the artifact to the soldier.

  “I’m fine, sir.”

  “Take it. Tomorrow, you and Kolesnik will go on a patrol to Yantar.”

  “I understand,” the sergeant quietly replies. “I’ll send the lieutenant’s share to his family.”

  Tarasov nods. Together they help Chumak to his feet. Kolesnik joins their effort. His armor is darkened by stains of vomit. Tarasov steps to the ladder and reaches for his radio transmitter.

  “Fortress One, this is Condor One.”

  “This is Fortress One, over.”

  “Mission accomplished. We are at the shaft. We got a KIA. Send down a harness. Over.”

  “Wilco, Condor One. Over and out.”

  By the time the lifting harness is lowered from above, Tarasov has already attached a gas mask to Ivanchuk’s face – no need for the other soldiers to see a comrade like that. Carefully, they fasten the harness around the body. Shumenko, already out of the shaft, waves to the pilot and Lieutenant Vasiliy Ivanchuk’s body sets out on its journey to a cemetery somewhere in the far Lugansk region. He waves to his remaining men.

  “Let’s get to the chopper!”

  When Tarasov finally emerges from the shaft, his knees tremble to such an extent that he has to sit down in the grass. He is the kind of soldier who doesn’t worry too much before a mission and keeps a cool head throughout, but once the danger is over, all the fear and excitement his mind kept at bay under duress unloads in a heavy, almost nauseating wave. Lieutenant Nabokov offers him a cigarette. Tarasov cannot refuse it.

  “Was it bad?”

  The major doesn’t reply immediately. He removes his blood-smeared gloves and watches his fingers tremble.

  “We met a controller," he says. "I’ll need a new rifle. He’ll need a new head.”

  Nabokov does not bother him with any more questions.

  Agroprom Research Institute, 10:35:26 EEST

  Before climbing into the helicopter, Tarasov and his remaining two military Stalkers form a circle, holding each other’s shoulder like they usually do after a successful mission. They emit a loud shout to release the adrenaline still circulating in their blood, but with the lieutenant’s body inside the helicopter their shout falls short of victorious. Then the gunship pulls up and passing over the ruins, flies off towards the south east. Tarasov glances at his watch. He can barely believe that only one hour has passed since they descended into the underground.

  Probably he will spend the rest of the day doing paperwork, including the drafting of a letter to Ivanchuk’s next of kin. The thought depresses him.

  Flying over along the tree-lined road where the wrecks of Zaporozhets cars and Kamaz trucks rust away since the times of the first Chernobyl incident, the helicopter slowly gains altitude. To distract his thoughts from the body travelling with them, Tarasov keeps looking out of the window, wishing he could clean the rotten smell of the underground and stinging gunpowder residue off his nostrils with the fresh air outside.

  He looks back to the forking road and the Garbage area where the highly radioactive debris from Chernobyl li
es buried. It would still be beautiful for a wilderness, if one disregarded the abandoned vehicles and tanks, the dilapidated farms and ruined industrial buildings. He wishes he could exchange the helicopter’s deafening noise for the Zone’s silence. In the Zone, no songbirds ever sing, only ravens croak. No critter moves in the bushes, only mutants roam. Whatever noise the wind is bringing from afar, it’s about a sound of death: a rifle burst; a mutant’s growl; a human scream. And occasionally the roaring thunder of an emission approaching from the center of the Zone, painting the sky in deep purple, flashing lightning engulfing everything with darkness before bursting out in a gigantic display of flame-like rifts in the sky that resemble the Northern Lights. It would be a spectacular, dreadful sight if it weren’t lethal to stay in the open and watch. During the years he had spent here, Tarasov not only learned how to survive in the Zone, he also learned how to love it – although he loved it more when there had still been secrets to explore. Sometimes he wished the Zone was even bigger, but wasn’t sure anymore if this was his own desire or that of the Zone. No protective suit, no armor could prevent the power of the Zone from creeping into his consciousness. The daily fear, the short moments of joy over a mission well done, the grief over fallen comrades, the mysteries he witnessed formed an ever-growing layer around his mind. With each beat of his heart, there was more and more of the Zone in his blood.

  Weather changes quickly in the Zone and when the helicopter reaches the train station with the abandoned engines on the rusting railway tracks, a slow rain has set in.

  “Condor One, this is Cordon Base,” comes through the radio. “Do you copy? Over.”

  “Loud and clear, Cordon Base. Over.”

  “Major Degtyarev is here. He wants to see you. Over.”

  “We’ll be there in ten. Over and out.”

  “Roger. Cordon Base out.”

  Tarasov suddenly feels as if a stone is weighing down his stomach. If he wanted to see me right away, he thinks, it must be official business. Otherwise he’d have told me to hook up with him at the 100 Rads or the Skadovsk.

  Ever since they met in Pripyat during the aftermath of a mission that went awfully wrong, he’d known Degtyarev as one of the few officers not tainted by corruption. They’d become friends, as far as an agent of the SBU and a Spetsnaz officer could be friends among the rivalry between the security service and the army. He often joined Tarasov on patrols deep into the Zone. Nothing ties men together than the memory of nights spent side by side in lonely look-out posts, fighting off mutants until daybreak.

  Tarasov also knew that the SBU considered Degtyarev more of a Stalker than an agent, just like his own fellow officers took him for an oddball because he didn’t partake of their pleasures: bullying the lower ranks and shooting Stalkers for sport. For a moment it occurs to him that Degtyarev might have arrived for another foray, but he doubts his own optimism. His friend appeared less and less frequently at the Cordon. There was not much left to explore in the Zone. They had been to every territory, explored every cave, bunker and catacomb, and Tarasov couldn’t blame Degtyarev for finding the Zone around the CNPP smaller and smaller after each raid.

  The abandoned dairy farm appears below, once a Stalker base before most of the Loners moved to Zaton or Yanov from where Pripyat could be more safely accessed. Major Khaletskiy comes to his mind. It was in these ramshackle buildings that the Stalkers had held him captive. He can’t shake off a certain feeling of regret. Tarasov often thought about how much better it would have been if the Stalkers had just finished Khaletskiy off instead of letting him escape. Probably Khaletskiy had bribed them too, just like he bribed his way out of the Zone and up the career ladder right to the rank of major-general. Once in a while, Tarasov also makes a little money from selling artifacts. Staying alive is a matter of skills and weapons in the Zone, but outside it’s about money and surviving on a major’s salary, equaling 350 dollars, is even more challenging. But he would never use army patrols to hunt down Stalkers for loot or hiring bandits to do such dirty work, like Khaletskiy did.

  Flying over the last hill before reaching the base, Tarasov tries to make out the entrance to Sidorovich’s bunker behind a ruined village. It’s the place here where most Stalkers arrive after sneaking past the army patrols into the Zone. Tarasov and his men have taken it a dozen times before, but being as stretched thin as they are they’ve had to abandon it every time, and in a few days the Stalkers were always back.

  Now, however, their orders to shoot Stalkers on sight no longer applied here. In exchange the army kept a much tighter grip around the once-secret laboratories in Yantar, the Dark Valley and beyond. Tarasov approved of this measure. It was one of the few things Degtyarev achieved to make life in the Zone just a little more peaceful, although Tarasov always suspected that Sidorovich had also put in a word with the generals. After all, he made a good living from the artifacts that Stalkers collected. For good money, he equipped them with weapons and protective suits so that they could return alive, selling them the artifacts and other loot collected, which Sidorovich turned into even better money outside in the Big Land.

  The base is close now. He hears the pilot reporting in.

  “Cordon Base, this is Osprey One. We are inbound.”

  “We have a visual on you, Osprey One. Welcome home.”

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