Part 2 of the latest tale from the Exclusion Zone
(READ PART 1 HERE)
- 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.
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.
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.”
to be continued…
Short two regulars last night, we ran a quick ZONA ALFA test game with three crews vying to claim the data recorder from a downed surveillance drone. Each of the three Crew Bosses had nine K to spend when forming their squad and each intentionally selected different quality troops. In ZA, there are Green, Hardened, and Veteran levels, with 1, 2, and 3 actions per activation respectively. So Matt went with the Zergling Rush strategy of nine Greens, Derek chose the middle of the road with four Hardened troops and a Green tag-along, and Max tried out an all elite force of three Veterans. We set aside any additional Hot Spots and Zone Hostiles in order to concentrate on squad composition.
It was a straightforward battle with Max and Derek more concerned about Matt’s superior numbers than each other. Multiple firefights broke out across the base. Initially, Matt’s numbers were telling, but once he’d taken a few casualties, the limitation of one action/turn began to show.
On the other hand, Max used his multiple action troops to advance and retrieve the objective quickly, but once the shooting started, he lacked the numbers to follow through. His squad was wiped out before he could get the black box all the way back to his deployment zone.
Derek played the long game, leapfrogging forward cover to cover, trading shots with Matt (mostly) and picking off or pinning enemies when he could. His five-man crew ended up being a good balance between quantity and quality; his men could accomplish things when activated and he could afford to take hits as he advanced and engaged Matt’s swarm o’ Greenies. It was a close contest but Derek won in the end.
Now it was only one game and we intentionally focused on the squad composition extremes to see if a Swarm or Spec-Ops type force would have inherent advantages. They didn’t seem too. The weaknesses were apparent right away: Max’s three elites were first to the objective but first to die. Matt’s guys, although there were a lot of them and out-activated the other two forces each turn, were extremely limited. Even allowing for fickle dice, the game confirmed my suspicion that the best strategy is to mix and match different quality troops. Your Zone Crew needs bodies to soak damage AND you have to have at least a couple troopers who can get stuff done when it’s their turn. Introduce Turn Limits and that need becomes even more apparent.
That’s it for this Zone Report. More soon. Have an excellent day.
Another tale from the Zone. Expert Guide Yuri Bonyev is back, this time handling a completely different kind of creature.
- ACCOUNTANTS FROM VLADIVOSTOK
It’s an old photo, faded and water stained. Yuri has seen it on the wall behind Zakhar’s counter for years. It was taken with a cheap Polaroid early on, maybe a month after the first Incident: three men in the amusement park right outside the city, wearing faded military jackets, carrying backpacks and weapons. The sky is clear and morning is so bright, the ferris wheel’s yellow buckets swoop down behind them filled with sun.
A boyish Zakhar stands flushed with excitement, a big grin on his face instead of a moustache. Toma is smiling too, but his eyes are open a little too wide as if he sees something startling beyond the camera man. Pavel kneels, eyes half closed, grinning. His mouth is open in mid-sentence. Probably making a joke. Yuri doesn’t know who is taking the picture. Zakhar has never mentioned him.
The three are by the ride’s sign, the one that reads ‘You must be this tall…’ Someone, probably Pavel, has propped his AK-47 against the post, crossed out the rest of the words and written ‘to enter the Exclusion Zone’ above them. There’s a new line scratched where the muzzle touches the wood. They are all friends, three rascals on an adventure.
Joking Pavel was torn apart in an Anomaly the next day. A tornado of pieces and blood. Toma soured over what had happened on that first trip. He spent the next two years obsessed with artifacts, penetrating deeper and deeper into the Zone to hunt for them. It was all so new back then and such souvenirs fetched huge money. Toma made enough to retire several times over but kept at it, disappearing for days, weeks at a time – until one trip he didn’t come back. A month passed and everyone was sure he was dead.
Six weeks later a Zone Enforcement patrol found Toma stumbling down the middle of Highway 3. He was emaciated, dehydrated, all his gear gone. The soldiers brought him to Zakhar instead of prison and now Toma sits in the corner of Yakov’s bar and drools in his soup, shitting himself when he forgets to get up. No one knows what happened; he doesn’t talk. Of the three, only Zakhar is still around in one piece, although he is ‘The Turk’ now and doesn’t smile much anymore.
Every time Yuri sees the photo he tried to recall if there is such a picture of him somewhere and wonders if one day people will look at it and ask what happened to the young man he was.
Will he still be here in the Zone, a survivor like Zakhar? Will he die like Pavel? End up lost like Toma? Or worse, Yuri muses. Will he be the picture taker? A name no one wants to say, his fate unmarked even by shame.
The world is not fair. Yuri accepts this. When he is honest with himself he knows this is part of the reason he stays in the Zone; the Zone seems to run by different rules, its own ones. Is the photo a sign that it makes its own justice as well? If so, how would its scales weigh him?
Zakhar coughs and breaks Yuri’s reverie. The Turk, as Zakhar now prefers, stands behind his counter with one bushy eyebrow arched. “Leading another tour?” he asks. “So soon?”
Yuri’s mouth crinkles into a bitter line. “No more scientists. Never again.”
“Never again,” Zakhar the Turk echoes, nodding in sympathy. “No good comes from those bastards. They almost got you killed.”
“They did. But to lie like that, bullshit me into bringing them to that cursed bunker…” Yuri lets the rest of the thought hang in the air unfinished.
The Zone is dangerous as it is. This is a daily truth. But to lure someone into a death trap with lies is beyond criminal. There are no words for such depravity.
“So never again,” the Turk repeats. “Until you need the money.”
Yuri reddens with anger but he catches the curse in his mouth before it escapes, tightening his lips in a frown because he knows in his heart what Zakhar says is also true. And because swallowed words are bitter.
Zakhar watches silently until the little skirmish in Yuri’s head is over, then. “So, what do you need for this trip?”
The shelves in the rear of the shop hold expensive gear, the kind Yuri usually does not consider: German military sleeping bags, Russian Army IRP food rations, cases of French bottled water. The Turk has a policy of buying back any item returned undamaged for half-price, which will put even more money in Yuri’s pocket when this is over.
He slides a paper list across the worn counter with a sly grin. “This should do it.”
Zakhar surveys the items, arches the other eyebrow. “Big spender. These tourists must be important.”
Yuri digs a wad of crisp 1,000-ruble notes from his jacket and pretends to be nonchalant. “They have money – which makes them important to me. They pay for comfort so how can I refuse them?”
He hands Zakhar the wad. Zakhar in turn flutters one edge with a thick finger, peels off half the bills and sets the remainder down on the counter. The list is passed to one of Zakhar’s ‘nephews’ who heads back to gather the order. “And now, what about weapons?”
“They’re bringing their own shooters.”
A pause. “Really?”
The Turk’s voice is quiet but his eyes are hard with concern. Yuri would like to think it is for his welfare but likely it’s because most of the weapons flowing into the Zone these days pass through the Turk’s hands.
“That’s a different kind of tourist you have,” Zakhar the Turk notes.
“They are businessmen,” Yuri counters.
“Businessmen with their own shooters?”
“And accountant and his associates on holiday,” Yuri explains. “From Vladivostok.”
Zakhar is definitely not smiling. “This is a long way from Vladivostok and the Zone is a strange vacation, no?”
Yuri tries to joke. “Perhaps the Black Sea is boring this time of year?”
He’d been hoping to avoid this part of the conversation – partly because he knew Zakhar wouldn’t appreciate men who think nothing of bringing their own guns into the most quarantined place on the planet. And partly because Yuri himself doesn’t want to dwell on the idea of heavily armed Vladivostok accountants.
“Bratva.” Zakhar says the word and Yuri winces.
“Just because they’re from Vladivostok doesn’t make them gangsters,” he protests. “They’re playing at tough guys, paying for a tour of the northern edge.”
The northern district was the most populated before the Incident. Many people, families. Now it’s a haunt of abandoned villages, vacant workshops, and empty buildings. The cement factory is there, a shopping center, and the old gas pipeline with its maintenance stations. Lots of unoccupied places.
“Accountants from Vladivostok sightseeing in ghost towns,” Zakhar says. A flat statement. Plain. Short. Zakar utters it and Yuri hears how implausible it is.
Yuri glances at the wad of bills on the counter, at the Turk’s face. “Better than scientists,” he offers sheepishly.
The Turk considers this. “Perhaps.” He nods after a long pause. “We all do what we have to, no?”
Yuri lets out a small sigh of relief. The accountants will have their tour.
The nephew has arrived with two bundles. Zakhar motions with his chin and the boy sets them on the counter. The rest of the rubles lay on the faded linoleum, bright as new autumn leaves.
Behind the counter and below the old photograph is a locked glass case. Inside is a set of shiny black BN-4 Night Hawk binoculars: military-issue night vision. Hi tech. Very nice. Very expensive.
Yuri nods at the bills then at the case. “Add that too. And four boxes of 5.45mm for Sasha. One can never be too careful in the Zone.”
“One can never be too careful in the Zone,” Zakhar agrees, and reaches for his keys.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Yuri Bonyev’s previous Zone Run – A Prayer to Saint Strelok
Also available as an audiobook, here: At Audible
Thanks and have a good weekend.
Led by their Barbarian guide Tior Huldrasson, the party walked the Gloaming Roads and found themselves at the crumbling ruins of an ancient fortress deep in Dark Davokar. Tior called it ‘the bastion of Kal’Nohr’ and claimed it was here that the party would find the artifacts they were searching for.
The group advanced cautiously down the stone stairs and walked the path between the collapsed buildings. Dark as it was, one of their number noticed a pattern of strange, intricate symbols drawn in the dirt off to one side. A careful check revealed these drawings were made with black salt and they surrounded each of the buildings. The symbols seemed to change through the course of the pattern; arcane glyphs twisted into letters that morphed into numbers that formed beasts and astrological signs. It was difficult to determine where one ended and the other began.
It was Tior who finally gleaned some meaning from them. “They’re warding symbols. The oldest, most powerful kind. What I can’t tell is if they’re meant to keep something in, or something out. ”
“We didn’t come all they way here to sight see,” the Cleric of Prios said. “We need to search these buildings.”
Which was true, but the question was how to get past the wards without disturbing them?
One idea then and another was batted back and forth, finally the Ogre decided he would get a running start and jump over the salt barrier. He would check out the nearest building, a small one, and report back.
A Quickness test. At +1 no less. (He’s a big guy. Not like the warding pattern is tall or anything. And it’s maybe three feet wide.)
The Ogre backs up, jogs toward the ruins and just as he’s about to leap, catches his boot on a root and tumbles face first onto the ground, flailing and sliding through the dirt smearing a wide, messy path through the carefully laid, complex drawings.
The Ogre gets to his feet sheepishly, brushes dirt, salt, moss and twigs from his jerkin.”Sorry.”
The rest of the group stares, mouths gaping. Silence reigns for the space of maybe ten heat beats. And then a loud groan erupts from the forest around them.
There’s a rustle in the dense undergrowth and six, massive, Blighted dryads emerge. They are the guardians of Kal’Nohr’s Bastion.
A vulgar brawl ensued. Several party members were hit hard and came close to death. But the Ogre redeemed himself and took down a number of the Dryads on his own and got an assist on one more. The rest of the party accounted for the others, the Wizard’s ‘Brimstone Cascade’ spell coming in very handy here. Finally, the last of the creatures was felled.
At last, the party limped into the largest building at the end of the path and started searching.
Symbaroum is a great game; rich lore, evocative art, a dark and dangerous setting. Focused on storytelling, the combat scenes are easily shifted to the table top. It’s simple to pick up, deep enough to make mastery worthwhile and satisfying, and loaded with potential. If you play RPGs, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Large ZONA ALFA mission next week. Have a great weekend. (Get some painting done, will ya?)
They say you can’t measure an intangible like courage, only see it in action. Well Khrabrost’ (translated from Russian as ‘mettle or ‘courage’) is how ZONA ALFA measures a Zone Crew’s potential effectiveness in battle. A Zone Crew’s khrabrost’ is linked to the total available Actions among its members. It’s the main value used to build a squad.
There are three types potential crew members in ZONA ALFA, experience levels if you will: Green, Hardened, and Veteran. When activated, each can perform a certain number of Actions according to their level: 1, 2, and 3 respectively.
That in mind, Other Pat and I ran a quick game Sat. afternoon. Two crews in a Threat Level 1 Area. (2 Hot Spots) We each built a squad of 7 K. (Seven Actions/Activation between all squad members)
The larger 6 x 4 mission area allowed us to start some distance from each other and focus on the particular Hot Spot nearest to our deployment. With a 6 turn limit, we each pretty much decided to live and let live, and go for the salvage. Although we traded shots near the end, (a mistake which cost Other Pat one of his new recruits) both of us cleared out the Zone Hostiles and snagged some loot before it was time to evacuate the area. Other Pat got a good roll on the Salvage Table, finding not only valuable stuff but an Anomaly – which yielded an Artifact worth a considerable amount of Zone Script. (It’s a shame he’s going to have to spend a chunk of it to fill the newly vacant spot on his crew roster)
Very straightforward game with plenty of room to avoid your opponent and maneuver behind cover – which we did. Both of us used Bolt Toss to trigger the Hot Spot and spawn the Zone Hostiles. (Dogs at the first, Zombies at the second) The tone of the game would have been much different in a smaller area, say 4′ x 4′ or even 3′ x 3′, far more aggressive and dangerous. (I think a 4′ x 3′ is optimal; 48″ is wide enough to vary deployment spots and allow for flanking, and 36″ is not so deep as you need to use the first turn just getting stuck in.) All in all, it was a good game and there being only two of us, we could stop and discuss options/finer points without worrying about dragging things out for the others.
One we finish up our current Symbaroum adventure, we’ll all be making Zone Crews for a lengthy session of ZONA ALFA play tests. I’m very curious to see how a mini-campaign plays with six players. We’ll probably split into two teams of 3 each, with one fig from each of the team’s squads able to activate each turn. You’ll find out with us how well that works.
Speaking of reinforcements tho… Here’s some new Lead Adventure and SASM figs. I’m a fan of Igor Karpov’s sculpting and wanted to keep the same aesthetic. Below are some pictures. As you can see, the SASM miniatures have the same look but are not as chunky as the original Lead Adventure Last Project line. Still, I think they serve the purpose quite well.
And just because I had the camera…
That’s it for now. Thanks and have an excellent weekend.
The Adventure Continues in Davokar
More Symbaroum last night as the party made its way deeper into the forest, heading toward a Lone Gate. These ancient structures are portals that lead to the Gloaming Roads; the mystical pathways that allow one to travel swiftly across the trackless leagues of Deep Davokar.
Three incidents worth noting: the first was the appearance of a wizened trapper. Hunched, wrinkled and worn, with intricate blue tattoos in precisely half his body, he was accompanied by a blind and mute boy who carried his bags. While one member pondered attacking the seemingly defenseless duo (bad idea) common sense and common courtesy prevailed. The party left the scene with less gold but a number of useful provisions.
Next was a campsite. The bodies of five novice treasure hunters were discovered, all with terrible wounds and signs of corruption. Unfortunately, the ogre tripped while searching one of the tents, knocked over a cooking set and smashed one of the camp stools. The racket alerted a blighted toad, demon… thing. Some minor wounds but the ogre redeemed himself and killed the vile creature.
Last was the Gate itself. Barbarian raiders had been tracking the party, having recognized one of the characters as a wanted fugitive. Their ambush wasn’t as successful as they’d hoped, but the ensuing brawl was quite ugly. Here again, Max’s ogre was in fine form, absolutely destroying barbarians with his hammer and sword. (twin attacks, each 1D8, +1D4 damage. It is a beautiful thing when it works.)
The last of the raiders was dispatched just as the sun set and the full moon rose. Ritual performed, the Gate opens and our heroes step onto the Gloaming Roads. To be continued next week.