New Zone Fiction, Part 2

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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.

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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.”

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***

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.

New Zone Fiction

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Another tale from the Zone.  Expert Guide Yuri Bonyev is back, this time handling a completely different kind of creature.

 

***

  1. 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?”

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

HARDWIRED

A little side project I’m working on. A cooperative game where players are jacked up Agents sent on corporate black ops.

Guess who played way too much Syndicate back in the day…

***

 

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An All-Nighter

 

Someone tipped off Han Chou Telemetrics.

 

04:17 in the Shunyi District, HCT Corporate Zone, you and your crew slipped out the back door of their secure server facility ninety seconds ahead of schedule. That minute and a half saved your life; you caught their Rapid Response Team by surprise. They came at you fast and heavy. You came back faster and heavier. When it was over, they were down but your driver was dead and the get-away was totaled. So the four of you took off running.

 

Han Chou management won’t call the police – which is good. They’d have to admit to the breach and that would translate into a huge hit to their reputation, as well as their stock values. So they’re handling this in-house – which is bad. That means every HCT Security Specialist and Rent-a-Cop in New Kowloon is gunning for you.

 

You pulled an all-nighter on this one and there’s a trail of bodies, blood, and bullet casings in the dark alleys of Shunyi to prove it.  Less than an hour of night left, you’re still on foot and low on ammo, but you’re nearly home. Asian-Pacific holo-ads glow in the sky over the buildings just ahead.

 

Your uplink squirted ‘Package Retrieved’ the second you stepped outside the HCT building, so you know your company will back you when you reach the Neutral Zone. With the UN-enforced ceasefire, Han Chou won’t risk an open confrontation. They’ll have to eat the loss. The nearest checkpoint is just seven blocks away, next to the Yintai Shopping Center.

 

All you have to do is get there.

Book Release: Zombie Six – Enemy of my Enemy

BOOK RELEASE

 

Zombie6-Book-Cover2

 

Thanks to those of you who followed along at the HSSJ blog. My latest Mil SF book, “Enemy of my Enemy” is now available at Amazon.

Print version HERE. eBook available 17 March. Pre-order HERE.

Thanks and Enjoy.

ZONA: The Chistoysk run.

Playing ZONA last night, our STALKER-flavored skirmish rules. Four STALKERs visited the town of Chistoysk near the Black Woods. The Fat Man wanted a cell tower in town repaired and was offering a wad of rubles to get it done.

“Plus,” he said. “I hear one of the RMUs stashed a bit of gear in the area. It goes missing, who’s to say how that happened, eh?”

The team agreed it was worth their time and took the job.

“One last thing,” the Fat Man added as they headed toward the door. “You might want to keep an eye out for Rotters. The fast kind, not shufflers. Zoombies,” he cackled.

Derek spit on the pavement. “Derr`mo. I thought this sounded too easy.”

“If it was easy,” John said. “Anyone could do it.”

Pat cracked his shotgun open and loaded two shells. “Off we go, then.”

***

The game began with four players entering from the south edge. Chistoysk is considered a Threat Level Two zone and has three Hot Spots in addition to the mission objective. Three groups of hostiles are present at the start go the game: two small packs of Ragers and one Rager brute.

 

The first couple turns saw the players advancing. Pat and Matt entered the nearest building. John pressed through to the Hot Spot on their left, while Derek went on an end run, angling through the ruins for the Hot Spot on the right.

 

Matt climbed to the top floor and immediately began shooting zombies. He dropped one straightway, which might not have been the wisest move. He may have thinned the herd but he also got their attention. Following the simple AI rules, the hostiles all began to converge on the sound.

 

This left Pat downstairs fending off a mob of rabid undead. After fumbling his (only) Molotov cocktail and scorching the building’s already devastated exterior, he spent a number of activations frantically blasting away with his double barrel shotgun (great in CQB but needs reloading every two shots) or hacking away with his machete.

Meanwhile John headed toward the Hot Spot on the second floor of the nearby building.

“Oh quit whining. You’ll be fine,” he yelled to Pat. “There’s only 8 of them.”

John triggered the Hot Spot, spawning feral dogs, who immediately clambered up to attack him. Derek suffered an empathy spasm and turned aside to help Pat by picking off  Zekes from a distance with his AK74.

 

After a lot of blood, bullets, swearing, and a near-death experience, all the Zekes and Dogs were down. John not only salvaged a Med-Kit from the cache, but found an Anomaly containing an Artifact. (Granted +1″ to his Movement)

Pat staggered to his feet, blinked at the freshly re-killed undead piled around him, and went down the road after John, who was heading toward the Cell Tower. Derek followed at a distance, picking a path through the debris on the first floor of the central apartment building. Oddly, Matt remained in his third-floor perch.

“I gotta bad feeling,” Derek muttered.

As John and Pat approached the cell tower, Matt’s homicidal tendencies surfaced. “If I can’t have the mission objective,” he thought in profanity-laced Russian. “No one can.” And with that, he began shooting.

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Treachery: the wounds of a friend. John and Pat are shot in the back. No objective for them.

Derek quickly scrambled to cover. Peering out a broken window, he stared at the building at the southern edge of town.

“How am I gonna kill this guy?” he thought.

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***

We called it after that perfidious display of mercenary ambition and callousness.

It was a good game. Tense as the Zekes and Dogs piled on. The other two Hot Spots went un-searched, and of course no one got the Mission Objective. I’m going to tweak the On-Table Hostiles and maybe add spawning points in order to pressure players into cooperating more than killing one another. Not that you can’t do it. The Zone is a dangerous place.  I just want that to be a difficult, momentous decision.

Thanks as always to the members of the Cape Cod Wargame Commission.

Have a great day.

 

Oh and if you’re in a STALKER state of mind, A Prayer to Saint Strelok is available at Amazon. Thanks.

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Missing Persons – Part 1

New Kowloon. 2069

Shenghua Street, District 5. LNK

The members of Blue Rose Import/Export were enjoying a meal in the back room of The Osaka Shuffle when a smartly dressed woman approached them. She apologized for interrupting, sat down and explained with great hesitation she needed their help to locate her missing daughter.

“It’s been a week, no one’s heard from her. None of her friends. Not her Boss or her apartment manager. The police let me file a Missing Persons report but they won’t do anything because she’s an adult. They say she probably ran off with some new boyfriend and will turn up later. But that’s not like her. She wasn’t dating anyone and she doesn’t just leave like that. I just know something’s wrong. Will you help me? I can pay you.”

A 1,500 Yuan advance is a great incentive. Add expenses plus another 1,500 when they find her.

So yeah, you took the job.

***

The evening unfolded as the team split up – one half to her place of employment, the other to the club she frequented. (Gentleman Loser) Leads in both locations point to her apartment building in District 6. It seemed like straightforward easy money job, a “Where’s Waldo” or in this case “Where’s Sun Dai Yu?”

Until they picked up a tail.

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C33r magnifies a frame grab from local street cam footage. Some guy and his pet drone are shadowing them.

 

I won’t bore you with details, but the evening’s session ended in a messy, back alley brawl as the tail turned out to be a private investigator contracted by the Asian-Pacific military to track down AWOL combat simulacra. He flashed his credentials and a general purpose warrant that would allow him to run ID tests on Derek’s character, C33r. (that’s ‘Seer” to you)

The members of Blue Rose were disinclined to acquiesce to his request.

Part 1 ended with C33r shooting one very nosy drone out of the air and Other Pat’s character, Marlow, using his shot-fist on the investigator’s head. Shot-Fist: 1 Head: 0

The team left District 6 in a hurry with Dai Yu’s laptop. (stolen from her apartment, btw)

More next week.

 

Why STALKER?

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As the setting for a skirmish wargame setting?

Are you kidding? If you have ever played any of the STALKER PC games, you shouldn’t be asking that question. And if you haven’t played STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, Call of Pripyat, or Clear Sky, you need to get on that. Right now.

Dark, brooding, creeping dread punctuated by moments of pulse-spiking terror as you scavenge the irradiated countryside around Chernobyl searching for valuable, other-worldly artifacts.

Face down bandits, blind, feral dogs, mutant boars, and shuffling waves of mind-wiped zombified soldiers. Hunt invisible, swamp-dwelling Cthulhu-esque bloodsuckers, collect the bounty on deformed psychic horrors, and always watch out for Snorks.

Zona Perestrelki (Russian for ‘Zone Firefights’) will combine the solid game engine of our “Cleared To Engage” rules with the distinct STALKER-themed hostile environment and a simple campaign system that will allow you to transform a bumbling group of Molodovs into Zone-hardened veterans – if they live long enough.

My Chechen Wars Kickstarter miniatures are slated to arrive first of the year, so look for them in AARs of our ZP playtest games Q1 2018.

Until then,

GET OUT OF HERE, STALKER!

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