More Zone fiction. Part 3

3.  THE NEW TRINITY

True to their word, the boys from Vladivostok had brought their own guns.

The sky was brightening uncomfortably fast, but Kaspar and Gleb knelt on the grass and began dividing the rucksacks’ contents into two large backpacks as if they had all day. Yuri was stung by the notion they had, in fact, paid the garrison commander that much, and that he should have held out for more money himself. 

The first bag had a party’s worth of gourmet snacks, various camping supplies, and at least a hundred tiny bottles of liquor, the kind they served on jet airliners. The second contained a French press coffee maker, what looked like a kilo of Turkish dark roast, and one of those compact video cameras preferred by extreme sports athletes – or amateur porn makers. The latter, in Yuri’s opinion, seemed more in line with young Sokolov’s demeanor than crunching numbers in a ledger. But he was no expert in either really, so he held his tongue.

The third bag held the weapons.    

Gleb had no sooner unzipped it when Nikolai elbowed his way in and dug out a fancy Heckler and Koch VP9 pistol, brandishing it sideways like a street thug on American TV.  Yuri bit the inside of his cheek to keep the scorn off his face.

Kaspar and Gleb had brought ugly little futuristic sub-machineguns that they clipped to bungee slings under their jackets, secret agent style. Everything smelled of lubricant and new plastic. There was enough ammunition to chop down several trees.

The former soldier in Yuri sized up their weapons: small caliber, high rate of fire, sloppy past twenty meters…

Bullet hoses, he concluded. Look sexy, but they lock up tighter than a duck’s ass at the first hint of dirt. Video game shooters. Useless for the Zone.

The taste of ashes grew stronger. Zakhar’s warning was unfolding before Yuri’s eyes like a horrid prophesy.   

The urge to walk away swept through him like a stiff wind. He could slip into the trees and disappear…

The next perimeter patrol would catch them. Technically, no one was allowed to come this close to the Cordon, but so long as they were still outside the wire and young Sokolov had told the truth, the three of them to get off easy. Vladivostok had laid out enough cabbage. A baton upside the head, a couple hours in a cell maybe, but they’d walk. No harm, no foul.   

Of course Yuri’s days as a guide would be finished. To abandon a tour was the ultimate black mark. He would have start all over, move far away, to a city probably, with its herds of people and traffic, noise and garbage and sooty air. At his age, no degree, he’d have to drive a truck or take scut work in a factory to pay the bills. He and his wife crammed in a tiny concrete apartment in a drab complex with a thousand others just like it… No more forest at dawn. No more slipping through the Cordon at midnight. No more drinks at Yakov’s bar after a run. No more haggling with Zakhar. No more terror, no more wonder, no more Zone, ever again.

Yuri spit on the ground. That would not do.

Call Yuri Bonyev a smuggler, a thief, a moon curser – call him a man of his word. His wife would say he had chained himself to a fool’s dream, to misguided integrity, but really, there was no nine to five for him. He already had a job – Zone guide – and Yuri Bonyev was no quitter.   

Besides, Vladivostok had his name. They knew where he lived, what he looked like. It might take a while, but trouble would catch up. Like it always does.    

Yuri spit again and watched the three men as the deep blue of night melted into dawn. Leaving wasn’t an option, not really.   

He jostled his own back pack to settle it on his shoulders. Sokolov may be footing the bill but they were in Yuri’s world now. He was the boss here, and bribes or no, it was time to move.

Yuri straightened Sasha’s sling across his chest and was about to speak when Nikolai interrupted.  

 “Look at this muzhik, will you? Fucking AK, he thinks we’re in Donbas.” He gestured at Sasha with his pistol. “Where’d you get that? Off the back of an army truck?”

“No,” Yuri replied. “I got it in Syria. Fighting Kurds.” 

“Oooooh, the old goat shot up some rug merchants in Damascus. Well, the streets are a different game. Best keep up with the times.”

“These are not your streets, Mr. Sokolov,” Yuri started.  “And the Zone is not a game. You should have more respect – – ”

“I should, I should, I should…” Like a little boy in big shoes, Sokolov tried on a world-weary laugh. It didn’t fit and he didn’t notice.

Instead, he shook his head as if Yuri were the world’s stupidest man. “You Ukry are soft from the hat down.”

He waved his pistol at the trees, toward the fence. “This place, this Zone of yours is not magic. It’s nothing. Like Church, maybe something powerful happened back in the day, but all that’s left now is stories and fences. And old goats like you cashing in on them.”   

Nikolai picked up his video camera in his other hand, held it and his pistol up like Show-and-Tell, and Yuri was a retarded toddler. “These right here, technology and firepower. Add money, and you’ve got the new Trinity.”

He turned to his two big shadows. “Am I right?” he demanded.  

Kaspar and Gleb nodded. They had mastered the art of looking interested.  

A thousand replies buzzed in Yuri’s head like bees, but he managed to keep them from slipping out. “We need to leave now,” he said instead. “The morning patrol will be here soon and we shouldn’t.”

Nikolai Sokolov mock bowed. “Whatever you say, Mr. Best in the Area. Believe, me, I’m dying to get this over with even more than you.”

***

The best investment Yuri had ever made was Sasha. Cliché as it sounded, the AK74 had saved his ass a dozen times over, more so in the Zone than Syria. And Syria had been war. Cleaned and oiled after every run, Yuri had spent hundreds on custom parts and upgrades. His wife complained the gunsmith saw more of his money than she did – which might have been true, if Yuri was being honest.

His second best investment was a subscription to Zakhar’s Monthly. Six pages of flimsy newsprint, it had recipes for fried, vodka-infused SPAM, reports of mutant sightings and artifact finds, and was perfect for toilet paper. Plus, coded into the sunrise/sunset table on the back page was that month’s schedule for the Zone Enforcement patrols and drone flyovers. 

Rumor was the Turk received copies straight from the garrison commander’s desk. God only knew how he managed that, but the information was never wrong. It was expensive, the subscription, but worth every kopek, seeing as the alternative was cell in Vladimir Central or ‘an unfortunate incident while resisting arrest.’  

So Yuri spent the rest of the day leading his charges through the countryside in a game of ‘Dash and Duck’: short, fast spurts from cover to cover.

It had rained the night before and the bugs were out in full force. The sun was hot. Steam rose from the damp soil. There was no wind or clouds.

Like all good foot soldiers, Kaspar and Gleb endured silently. Like every bad officer Yuri had ever encountered, their boss never missed an opportunity to complain.    

Sokolov sprayed bug repellent around his head and shoulders. He was on his second can. “Hey old man, this place has roads, no?”

It was early afternoon. The four of them were resting in a stand of pines, rust-red foliage murmuring overhead. “Yes, it does,” Yuri replied, eyeing the sky.   

“So why are we not taking the fucking car?” Sokolov snapped. “You trying to prove a point? Show me I’m getting my money’s worth following your wrinkly old ass?”

Yuri checked his tone before he answered. “No. I’m trying to stay out of prison. There’s a drone overhead right now.”

“Bullshit.”

Yuri pointed up. “Hear that?”

The three men cocked their heads to listen and out of the rinsed blue sky came the faraway sound of a lawnmower engine.

“That’s a Pchela 1T,” Yuri lectured. “That bee may not have a sting but it has very sharp eyes. It would spot us in a heartbeat.”

Sokolov frowned but his ego was too brittle to give up easily. “So? We paid the Major to look the other way.”

Yuri took a moment to check his Vostok before answering and wondered if he still had aspirin in his kit bag. This one was giving him a real headache.

“So all surveillance footage is monitored at the big Pervomajsk base north of Kiev,” he explained. “Not locally. Any unauthorized incursion is logged in an official incident report and tagged by GLONASS coordinates before being handed off to the nearby garrison. To the Major. It wouldn’t matter how much money you threw at him; he would have no choice but to respond. Troops would be on us in less than thirty minutes.” 

Gleb spoke up. “I told you, Boss. Best in the area.”

Nikolai Sokolov scowled but his defiance drained away. He fished his phone out of his jacket pocket instead and sagged against a tree trunk. “Maybe I’ll get my money’s worth after all,” he groused, and fell silent, swiping at the screen.

Both Kaspar and Gleb caught Yuri’s attention. Each gave a small, satisfied nod.

Yuri nodded back and looked up into the sky, listening as the engine sounds faded. Perhaps this run won’t be so bad after all, he thought.    

Even as that notion jelled in his head, Yuri pictured the Turk behind his counter. He had a roll of 1,000-ruble notes in his hand and they were crumbling even as he counted them and the dust from his thick fingers fell like tiny snow onto a new set of BN-4 Night Hawk binoculars, more and more and more until it covered it like the hump of a shallow grave in winter.   

“Well shit,” Yuri muttered.


ZONA ALFA: The Factory at Dobryanka

ZONA ALFA Test Game Jan. 19, 2019

Four members of the Cape Cod Wargame Commission spent Saturday afternoon playing Zona Alfa. We decided on a Factory Raid in a Threat Level Two area – four Hot Spots plus the Mission Objective.

A 2 v 2 game, Other Pat and I faced off against Matt and John. Each player was allowed 12K to form their crews. In typical authoritarian fashion, Matt’s Evil Landlord and a Property Manager Henchman rousted the Serfs, kitted them with AKs and E-Juice (Amphetamines and Vodka) gave them a rousing speech and sent them into battle. The rest of us opted for more balanced forces with a mix of Veterans and Hardened Zone dogs.

The Mission Objective was a cache of supplies in the old factory. There was a Six Turn Limit and no Visible Hostiles in sight.

Turns One and Two saw both sides jockeying for position trading shots on either side of the factory. Matt advanced to the car wrecks adn the Army truck. Eager for Salvage, John triggered the Hot Spot to his front by the barracks and spawned three Zombies. Fortunately for him, they popped up out of LOS of his squad and began shuffling toward the nearest visible target, in this case, a gaggle of Matt’s Green Recruits.

Part of my squad angled toward the factory while the Sniper and RPK looked for good angles near the fuel tanks. Other Pat’s Veterans leap-frogged between the Conex containers and the Office.

There were some casualties, two Serfs who got caught in the open by my sniper. Evil Landlord Matt was unfazed. “Plenty more where they came from.”

Turn Three and Four saw both sides scrupulously avoiding any more secondary Hot Spots, moving wide around them to avoid the triggering radius, and trading fire, trying to Kill or at least Pin their opponents. The race to the Factory was on.


A nasty little firefight erupted around the old brick building; people chucking grenades through windows, spraying full auto through doors, firing down onto the factory floor. Then to add to the chaos, someone – can’t recall who – triggered the Zone Hostiles lurking around the cache. More Zombies.

Despite all the flying lead and shambling undead, lucky dice rolls by Other Pat and me carried the day. Our opponents were beaten back and conceded the game.

My man Ivan, providing covering fire from the gantry like a hearty comrade

Our Take Aways:

  1. This was a one shot game. We all agreed we would be much more cautious with our crew if we were in a campaign.
  2. Big areas need more cover. AKs have decent range and even though support weapons like the RPK and the Sniper rifle slow a STALKER down, they can definitely reach out and touch someone. My Sniper suffered some bad luck but even then, his position on those Fuel Tanks dominated that section of the table. (Matt also could have used Smoke Grenades, had he thought to bring them.)
  3. Might be good to introduce a Chess Clock or sand timer to ratchet up the tension, force decisions, and speed up the game.

That’s all for now. Settling down for a holiday tomorrow and going to watch “Counterpart” on Amazon.

Thanks and have an excellent day.

Hardwired: Asset Retrieval

Cyberpunk Covert Ops

Work obligations caused the Cape Cod Wargame Commission to set our current SYMBAROUM campaign aside for the time being. Unfortunate, but bills gotta be paid, deadlines met, contracts honored, and all that other adult stuff.

That meant we broke out our Cooperative Cyberpunk Rules, HARDWIRED, for Tuesday night’s game session. With the Modular Interior Boards set up, a VIP Asset in the facility, everyone picked an Agent and kitted up for the run.

This was a straightforward mission: assist the new employee with his sudden transition to a new position in your corporation. Helpful, like a moving company. But for people, not furniture. Oh and you might wish to neutralize his bodyguards and disable the tracking nano-tech in his blood before you hustle him out the back door.

Turn One goes as expected with the team spread out as they advanced. Bodyguards call for backup and the first wave of H-SEC responds.

Matt’s cyber ninja Razor quickly dispatched the guards. Max’s Splicer moves into deal with the bio-tech. The rest of the Agents moved up and prepared to deal with the reinforcements.

Tracking Nanites disabled, Turns Two and Three saw nasty firefights breakout as new waves of Hostile Security spawned. Max and Derek escorted Mr Van Dorn down the hall toward the Exfil.

H-SEC moved behind cover, trying to block the Exit as new, more dangerous reinforcements arrived on the flank.

Once again, Matt’s CyberNinja slinks into action while Other Pat and I cut down the Response Team on the left before moving up to trade shots with the blocking squad.

This allows Derek and Max to get Mr. Van Dorn out the door to the waiting stealth VTOL.

#PackageRetrieved

A couple Agents took some hits but everyone got out. A long corridor and some convenient spawning rolls (for the Agents) made this a pretty easy mission. No complaints there; it’s Winter – cold, dark, busy, No real effort or concentration necessary – just move miniatures, roll dice, have a good time.

Four of us are playing a large ZONA ALFA game this Saturday, but work and writing obligations will be commanding most of my attention for a while, so it looks like John and Other Pat will be GMing some DnD 5e and Savage Worlds Shadowrun until further notice. Which is nice, as it means I can kick back and play.

Have an excellent day. I’ll leave you with two of my all-time favorite Sci-Fi figs.


Dungeon Party and New Characters

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DUNGEON PARTY

I have this hobby tic, this obsession with skirmish squads, adventuring parties, salvage crews, cyberpunk gangs, shadow-ops teams… I get a kick out of hunting down miniatures, matching aesthetics, regardless of manufacturer, to come up with a cool troop for whatever scenario had fired my imagination.

Few months ago – around the time I made my modular dungeon – I decided to create a generic Dungeon Crawl Party: Wizard, Knight, Rogue, Cleric, Ranger, Barbarian… you know the ones. My starting point would be Hasslefree Miniatures. Now the lion’s share of my fantasy figs are from Reaper and they’re outstanding. But this time I wanted a different look, as well as the opportunity to work on my painting skills.

To be honest, I chose HF because I’ve always found Kev White’s figs, along with Corvus Belli’s Infinity range, pretty intimidating. What with the incredible detail, dynamic, and character, not to mention the ridiculously superb examples floating around various sites and forums, I simply wasn’t confident I’d do them justice.

But the inspiration kept gnawing at me, so I made up my mind to try. Not to compete but work on technique. I stuck with a limited palette, but I made a conscious effort to paint each figure separately, as an individual character. I slowed down my ‘table top standard, assembly line’ approach and spent more time trying to pick out extra details, dry brush, maybe highlight. I spent a little more time on the bases. We’re not talking Golden Demon here, just a notch or two above my usual.

The results are below

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Half-Ogre Fighter

dscf3482
Celtos Elf Character. (Still Kev White tho)

dscf3485
Barbarian and his Rogue Babe

dscf3491
A Cleric and a Dwarf walk into a bar…

Here’s an Alternate Rogue

dscf3497
One of Tre Manor’s Barbarians, I believe.

 

There’s a vague ‘Northman/Barbarian’ look to them (must be all those fur pelts) and they’re certainly not Competition standard, but I’m pleased with the results.

Now you may have noticed there’s no Wizard. I tried several, really, but none of them ticked all my boxes for this bunch. But I think I’ve finally found one: Meksant Farseer from Lucid Eye’s Red Book of the Elf King range. (and I want all of those miniatures now, thank you.)  He’s in the mail. I’ll post photos and a group shot when he’s done.

SYMBAROUM CHARACTERS

So there are seven of us who meet weekly to game now. I consider myself exceptionally fortunate to be able to game with so many great guys. Even more remarkable, word of Game Night has spread and there might be a new player coming next week.

At this point, an RPG is the only way to keep everyone involved and I have to say SYMBAROUM does a fine job; easy system, darkly beautiful setting, evocative artwork, loads of GM material… really can’t say enough about how robust and deep the game is. You should get it. Seriously.

On that point, I got some color on three new figs: Sister Althea, representative of the controversial priest Father Sarvola; an alternate fig for Tom’s character, Tior Huldrasson; and an ‘as-yet-unnamed’ Rogue for our potential new adventurer.

 

Enough for now. Have an excellent weekend. More to come, including a major ZONA ALFA Bat Rep.

Thanks.

Symbaroum: Halls of Power

Quick post and pictures from last week’s Symbaroum session. (Hectic Holidays, sorry)

Our heroes were escorting a NPC accused of heresy from Thistlehold to the capital when they were ambushed by a contingent of zealous Black Cloaks who charged them with consorting with apostates and spreading arcane corruption. (They happened to be transporting two powerful artifacts as well, ancient weapons recovered during their passage on the Gloaming Roads.)

DSCF3464DSCF3465DSCF3466

Once again, Max’s Ogre fighter was worth his weight in gold thaler. He’s not much for Sneaking or Social situations but he’s an absolute beast in combat. The combat ended with three dead templars and two prisoners.

We have a couple weeks off but there’s more coming as the intrepid adventurers find themselves drawn into a web of deceit, intrigue, and royal ambition.

Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy New Year. All the best to you.

New Zone Fiction, Part 2

stalker7

 

Part 2 of the latest tale from the Exclusion Zone

(READ PART 1 HERE)

 

  1. LOOSE BOOTLACES

 

Nikolai Sokolov, the accountant from Vladivostok, was an idiot.

To be honest, Yuri hadn’t actually met Nikolai yet – another thing he had neglected to tell Zakhar –  only two thick necked byki named Kaspar and Gleb who wore silk suits and said they were acting ‘ex parte’ for their boss. Their fancy clothes hadn’t covered all the temhota ink but Latin in their mouths was like a diamond earring on a pig. Yuri had been five seconds from making an excuse to turn them away but then Kaspar had tossed over that wad of bills as a ‘retainer’, and Yuri had decided he could overlook such inconsistencies.

But now Mr. Sokolov and his two shaved head associates were late, which made Yuri angry.  Being disrespectful to the Zone was not a quirky incongruity; it was the kind of mistake that landed you in a shallow grave.

Of the half-a-dozen unofficial routes into the Zone, Yuri had decided to bring them in through the ‘Gazprom Gate’: the service track for the old gas pipeline that ran through the Northern cordon fences. It was one of the known weak points in the perimeter, so the area was under regular surveillance, but it was a straight shot to exactly where Sokolov and his bulked-up assistants wanted to go. A brisk hike, they could be there before sunset with low risk.

Besides, the local Zone Security garrison commander was notoriously strict about patrol times and routes – punctuality he was no doubt well compensated for – which was precisely why Yuri had specified a 04:30 start; it was dead center of a twenty-five minute window between drone flyovers. Several other stalkers who had been waiting nearby were already gone.

Yuri glanced at his watch and peered down the logging road for the twentieth time. His old Vostok read 04:41 but he didn’t need it to tell him morning was near. He could feel the sun creeping toward the horizon, bringing exposure with it. The heavy, pre-dawn darkness would only last a few more minutes.

Normally he would have breathed in these moments as ballast for the journey. Pungent soil and pine sap, the last of the night’s wind in the trees… these things centered Yuri against the strangeness on the other side of the fence. But this morning there was only bitterness in his mouth like cigarette ashes he couldn’t spit out, and that made him doubly angry. No ballast and a delay. Two problems and he hadn’t even begun.

Yuri wondered if this was an omen – a bad start to a bad idea that could only end badly. Delays, he’d learned, were like loose bootlaces: comfortable at first, but guaranteed to trip you later, always at the worst possible moment. Backing out was not an option, the retainer was spent. But if the accountant didn’t arrive soon, Yuri would have no choice but to reschedule.

It occurred to him to do it anyway, to teach these Vladivostok boys some manners. Problem there was Kaspar and Gleb had been very explicit about Mr. Sokolov’s ‘itinerary’, and they hadn’t come off as the flexible type.

The Vostok’s illuminated hands were passing 04:43. No accountant. Suddenly everything Yuri was carrying got slightly heavier.

Saint Strelok…

And then, as if the devil had heard instead, there was music – the throbbing, thumping, shouting, nightclub kind.

It grew louder, closer. Its beat shattered the cool morning stillness. White headlights flared between black tree trunks as a civilian car raced up the logging road toward the stand of pines where Yuri waited.

His jaw dropped.

Seconds later, a dark, sinuous sedan skidded to a stop in front of him. It crouched in the swirling dust, sleek and shiny, beaming incandescent white-blue light into the forest, pulsing noise like a giant alarm clock teleported from a robot future. The grill emblem was Mercedes. The windscreen sticker had a Vladivostok registration.

mercedes-benz-amg-gt-s-2016-silver-wood-night-front-view-mercedes-benz-40214591-1366-768

Хера се, Yuri groaned.

As he spoke, the music cut, the lights snapped off, and out stepped Kaspar and Gleb. They were swathed in brand new Halti foul weather gear. Fur ushankas covered their bullet smooth heads. Neck-tattooed Kaspar came around the hood and nodded at Yuri. Pointy nose Gleb stepped back and opened a rear door. A young man emerged with a sneer and a tan. He immediately held up a phone.

“No fucking bars out here. How am I supposed to log on VKontacte in this place?” he said.

The byki folded their arms and waited as the young man huffed and stomped beside the car, waving his phone.

Gleb tried. “Mr. Sokolov,” he began. “This is Yuri Bonyev. I want to — “

Nikolai Sokolov looked Yuri up and down, then scowled. “This? This is all I get for my five thousand? One wrinkly ostolop?

“Boss,” Gleb continued, “He was recommended. He’s made the trip dozens of times. Best in the area—“

But Nikolai Sokolov was back jabbing at his phone screen with one long, manicured finger. “This is a fucking joke. Take me home. Who cares about this irradiated cow-shit place, anyway?”

Little alarms were blaring in Yuri’s mind now. He opened his mouth to speak, but Kaspar motioned with one hand for him to hold back. The byki shrugged his bowling ball shoulders as if to say, This is how he is. Give it a moment.

Another minute of phone waving before Nikolai Sokolov heaved out a sigh. “Fine, fine. Let’s just get this fucking over with and get out of here, so I can tell my father I did it.”

He made a show of sliding his phone back in his pocket.

“Well?” he snapped. “What are you waiting for?”

Kaspar and Gleb moved to the Mercedes’ rear and pulled three digi-cam rucksacks from the trunk. Yuri couldn’t help but notice they were new issue, Russian military. Slouched against the fender, a sullen Nikolai radiated the indignant resignation of a man forced to pay a heavy speeding ticket or undergo a doctor ordered colonoscopy.

There was a slam, the chirp of a security system, and the three men stepped away from the car toward Yuri.

Yuri was incredulous “What are you doing? You can’t just leave that there.”

Nikolai looked at him like he was soft. “Of course I can.”

“No, you can’t. The security patrols go through here four times a day. It’ll get spotted.”

Nikolai Sokolov shook his head at Kaspar and Gleb. “This is the best guy in the area, hunh?”

He sneered at Yuri. “We paid that piece-of-shit Major enough money, he should wash and wax the fucking thing. Now can we go into your Ukrainian Dead Disneyland or whatever the fuck it’s called?”

Yuri’s blood went cold. “The Zone. It’s called the Zone.”

“Whatever,” the accountant said, and shrugged past him into the tree line. “First thing we’re going to do is put up some cell towers.”

STALKER4

 

***

to be continued…

 

For those who are interested in Yuri Bonyev’s first Zone run, “A Prayer to Saint Strelok” is available as an ebook at Amazon and in audio at Amazon/Audible.