“Why the does it have to be so fucking cold?” said Stepan to himself, under his breath.
His suit’s kevlar plating was good protection against bullets, and the garment’s lead lining did a great job of shielding him from radioactive materials. But neither did a damn thing to impede the chill of the night.
He scooted closer to the tree stump that he was propping his back against before sitting up straight, setting down his rifle — a freshly-repaired and cleaned AK-74 — and opening his backpack for a drink and something to eat. He wanted more than anything to start a fire, but he didn’t particularly feel like painting a target on his back for any bandit assholes who might have been out and about.
He wished that some extra troops could be spared to simply march through the Garbage and put them all into the ground for good, but Duty didn’t have the resources for that. The Garbage, with its many building-sized mounds of irradiated trash, was one of the Zone’s more hazardous areas, and it would require an extensive amount of men and equipment to clear out safely. Plus, considering the bandits had been infesting it for years, they knew the terrain here better than any stalker.
Because of this, he knew, Duty only maintained a light outpost here to guard the path that connected the Garbage to their headquarters at the Rostok factory.
He sighed. And I drew the straw for mutant watch duty…
He shivered as the wind blasted his body with an icy impact. Goddammit.
He grabbed the meal he brought with him — a large hunk of stale bread, two sausages, and a bottle of vodka — and laid it out on a piece of cloth. He ripped off a piece of the bread, popping it into his mouth and chewing. It was tough and dry, but you could hardly complain about the food in the Zone. Especially when many stalkers ended up starving due to getting jumped by bandits and being left to rot, their equipment, rations, and rubles now in the pockets of another.
He set the bread down and grabbed a sausage. He bit into the meat slowly, savoring its flavor. According to a stalker Stepan met at the 100 Rads Bar in Rostok, the contents of the “diet sausage” consisted of chicken scraps, pork, and soy. More likely than not, there were bits and pieces of mutants in them, too, but if there was ever a time that he would have cared about that, it had long since passed. He took a swig of the vodka, sighing as the alcohol ran down his throat and spread a feeling of warmth throughout his body. He knew it wasn’t real warmth — just his blood vessels dilating — but it still felt good, regardless. He took another drink and closed his eyes, enjoying the respite from the presence of the evening’s icy embrace.
Once the vodka’s effects ebbed completely, be opened his eyes again and checked the time on his PDA, which read 10:57. Time to have another look around.
He picked up his night vision goggles from where he’d set them after checking the surrounding area the last time. Pulling the gear over his eyes, he stood up and activated the night vision. The half-dead trees and bushes that were all around him suddenly became illuminated in a green glow, and with his rifle in hand, he began to walk around his makeshift camp, scanning the nearby landscape for any signs of mutant activity.
Suddenly he heard a high-pitched yelp in the distance, followed by a slew of barks. Blind dogs. Stepan followed the sound’s direction with his eyes and spotted the creatures about 200 meters away — a pack of five, now wildly running in random directions, darting between bushes and patches of tall grass.
They’re afraid, Stepan thought to himself. Blind dogs weren’t exactly the Zone’s toughest mutants — they were little more than simple canines with a lack of eyesight and an incredibly potent sense of smell — but in large packs, they could be deadly, and could even take down some of the Zone’s larger and more powerful mutants.
The fact that something had frightened a pack of them made Stepan uneasy. He tightened his grip on his rifle and began trying to see if he could spot whatever had spooked the creatures.
I fucking hate this place, he thought. Like most Duty members, Stepan used to be a member of the Ukrainian military that was sent to occupy the Zone’s perimeter, prevent people from entering, and deal with the threats found within. Once he and others realized that the military was corrupt and engaging in extortion, though, they abandoned their posts and formed the Duty faction. If the Ukrainian government wouldn’t take steps to try and eradicate the Zone, they rationalized, then they would.
The Zone was nothing but a cancer. And the dangerous beasts and supernatural anomalies that it contained posed a serious threat to the entire world, if they somehow found a way to spread. Duty couldn’t let that happen. Duty wouldn’t let that happen.
After several minutes of watching, Stepan gave up on trying to spot the source of the blind dogs’ fear. He walked back to where he had left his rations and his PDA, settling back down against the tree stump, taking off the night vision goggles, and putting his rifle on the ground. As he finished off the sausage that he had begun to eat, he picked up his PDA and marked the location where the blind dogs were startled on its map. We’ll have to send a patrol to check it out in the morning.
He checked the time again. 11:09. Just another hour or so until I can go back to camp and crawl into a sleeping bag.
He ate the rest of the food quickly, keeping one hand on his weapon as he did so. Now that he knew something was amiss nearby, he couldn’t afford to completely relax.
His eyes fell upon the bottle of vodka. It was poor form to drink in a situation like this, but Stepan could handle his alcohol, and he knew that it would help calm his nerves. Fuck it. He reached for the vodka, lifted the bottle to his lips and began taking one final swig —
A loud rustling sound broke him out of his thoughts, and he dropped the bottle out of his hands, letting it shatter to pieces as he scrambled to get on his feet, weapon at the ready. Fuck. Fuck! The sound had come from the same direction that he had spotted the blind dogs. He quickly thumbed on his rifle’s flashlight attachment and checked the place where the disturbance originated.
What he saw caused his insides to turn cold. Colder than the night itself.
The flashlight’s glow refracted around what he was looking at — a large translucent humanoid figure. It was just 50 meters away, and closing fast. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck — he opened fire on full auto, praying that the rifle rounds would be enough to stop the creature, but it seemed to merely shrug them off. As bullets entered flesh, the beast’s translucence melted away, revealing dark, mottled skin. The monster’s eyes were a ghastly bioluminescent white, and each of the digits on its gore-covered, razor-sharp claws were over a foot in length. Several muscular tentacles hung from the front of its face, twitching with the anticipation of a fresh meal. The bright red blood that covered its chest revealed what had scared the blind dogs.
It was a bloodsucker.
As the beast sprinted at him, Stepan kept firing directly into the beast’s center-of-mass. It grunted, but did not slow down, and his magazine was soon dry of ammunition. Knowing he didn’t have time to reload, he tried to draw his sidearm — but the bloodsucker was already upon him, tackling him to the ground with inhuman strength and causing his handgun to be flung off to the side. It roared triumphantly as it pinned him down, lifting one of its blade-filled hands for the killing blow.
Stepan could not move much, but he was able to twist to the side just enough to avoid the worst of the slash that the monster had aimed at his torso. The parts of the claw that did find their mark tore through his kevlar and suit, cutting deep into his side. He grunted in pain loudly as he felt blood seeping through the wounds, but he knew he had to stay focused. A second swipe was coming now, this one aimed at his head. As the claw fell upon him, he jerked his head to the side at the last second, narrowly avoiding the deadly attack. The force behind the swipe was so strong that the claw penetrated — and got stuck in — the firm, earthy ground. Angrily, and with a terrifying growl, the bloodsucker tried to pull its claw free. This led to the pressure on Stepan’s arms and torso relaxing ever so slightly, and he knew his chance had come.
As the bloodsucker struggled with its claw, he quickly pulled out his combat knife from a pouch on his vest. By the time the creature realized what was happening, he reached up and jammed the blade into the side of its neck as hard as he possibly could. In surprise, the bloodsucker let out a deep cry of pain and leaned back, allowing Stepan to push himself backwards and get on his feet. The bloodsucker, too, was on its feet, stumbling in the wake of the sudden, deadly strike.
He quickly turned to reach where his sidearm had fallen, but before he could get to it the beast had managed to slash at his left calf, causing him to fall face-first into the ground. The attack brought white-hot pain, but the bloodsucker had once again lost balance, its animalistic, erratic breathing becoming less and less steady with each passing second. It was only a matter of time before it succumbed to death from the wound in its neck — but it was determined to bring Stepan with it.
As the creature started forward once more, he crawled towards his handgun and managed to wrap his fingers around the handgrip. Just as the bloodsucker was about to impale him through his back, he quickly rolled over, took aim, and shot the monster in the forehead. He was relieved to see that the bloodsucker, now in a weakened state, was more susceptible to bullet impact; following the headshot, it fell onto its back, angrily writhing about in an attempt to get back up. Stepan managed to find his footing and limped to the side of the bloodsucker. The beast glared at him as it continued to writhe. Perhaps understanding that it was about to be killed, the bloodsucker gave one last roar of fury, its face tentacles flailing outwards. He aimed his handgun at the thing’s open mouth.
He pulled the trigger, and then pulled it again. And again. And again, and again, and again, until there were no bullets left in the sidearm’s magazine and until the bloodsucker had stopped moving completely. He retrieved his combat knife from its neck and slotted it back into the pouch. By now, he had lost a lot of blood, and he could feel himself weakening as the adrenaline wore off and the bitter evening cold assaulted every inch of his body. Why did it have to be so fucking cold?
He managed to make his way to his gear and collapsed on the ground, desperately reaching into his bag to find his bandages. He cursed himself for dropping the vodka — it would have come in handy to clean the wounds.
Once he had patched himself up as best as he could, Stepan propped himself up against the tree trunk and grabbed for his PDA to call for help. “This is Stepan,” he said. “I need help. I was attacked by a bloodsucker and am critically wounded. I’m unable to make my way back.”
Once the Duty outpost’s commander acknowledged and confirmed that help was on the way, Stepan leaned into the side of the tree trunk, making an effort to stay conscious for as long as he could.
Just another cold evening in the Zone, he thought.