Good Morning Chernobyl Chapter 3
"Alright, pop quiz, Miss Palinchak. What's a safety, and what should you do with it?"
"It stops the bang. And you should keep it on until you're ready to shoot someone."
"Half credit. You should always be ready to shoot someone. Now, aim at the target I've set up at the end of the barn. You have eight shots to impress me."
"Plus one in the chamber?"
"No, fresh magazine."
She nodded and thumbed the safety off, then looked for the target. She saw only piles of hay, rusted tools, broken stalls, and the bones of farm animals long past. And Grisha's body, leaned up against the barn door, strapped to the bar-hold with some moldy rope.
"I don't understand. The door?"
"No. Our friend. Center of mass, less than 30 feet, unaware. Easiest shot you'll get."
"Unaware? He's bloody dead."
"What's the difference? Shoot him."
"No— no! He- have you no respect for the dead?!"
"Nor the living. Shoot him."
"Cut the shit. He's your friend!- Look, just— I'm not totally incompetent. Just let me shoot at a shovel, or hit a horseshoe or something."
"-He's also dead. And you will be too, if you can't shoot a man-shaped target. Do I have to explain the psychology behind it?"
He saw the blank look on her face, and sighed heavily.
"So, in the old days of the Army, in the days when soldiers were just amoebous muck and not even dignified with being called frogfoots, they learned to shoot with bullseyes. Easy stuff, for volley fire. But as small-arms got more advanced, and aiming became actually important, military eggheads realized that soldiers which did perfect on bullseyes were actually terrible marksmen in combat, on the frontline or snipers. Can you guess why?"
"Stress of combat?"
"No, though that's not a bad guess. It is because they were trained to shoot at colored circles, not people. They could easily hit the center at 300 yards, 4 out of 5 rounds. But they could not bring themselves to willingly shoot a human being center of mass, a much easier target.
"So, if you could shoot Grisha in the chest a few times, I'd be much more confident in your chances of survival."
Natasha looked at the gun, then at Grisha, then at Washer, then back at the dead man.
Washer shook his head and walked away. "Well, I won't make you. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make her drink. I'm still not giving up on my payout, so thank your God that I'm a greedy bastard. We should probably get moving to stay—"
A gunshot rang out from Natasha, followed by a whimper from ringing ear drums and a thump as a body hit the ground. Washer turned and saw a dead tracksuit lying in the doorway of the barn, a spatter of bone and cranial matter on the door where his head had been.
Promptly, Natasha threw up. Not having anything in her gut but radioactive water, her vomit was mostly pond scum and frog eggs she'd accidentally swallowed.
For a brief moment, he was sickly amused by the irony of the situation. Immediately after, he heard guns being cocked, and a volley of Ukrainian profanity, shortly followed by—
He tackled Natasha into her vomit as the bandits outside lit the barn up with a hail of gunfire, 5.45mm rounds punching through the wood and sending wood shrapnel and lead fragments flying.
"Suka blyat, idi na khuy! Miss Palinchak, I would advise you to start crawling!"
"I am-I am you tit!" she yelled back in English.
"Hey, hold your fire, kurwa, stop shooting! Zdec turistka! Myi budem bogatymi! Obxodim patsany!"
"Now is time to run!" Washer scrambled to his feet, dragging Natasha by her collar through the haze of wood dust; he shoved her through the door and spun around as another Bandit tripped over his friend running in, AK in hand. Both fired wildly, stumbling back into cover as they emptied their magazines at each other.
Another bandit rounded the corner with his shotgun out, raising it to fire as Natasha stumbled into him, and accidentally put her knee into his nuts. Normally, she would have bounced off a man that big, but the critical knee in the scrotum knocked him flat; her being on top, she was the first up and scrambling towards the farmhouse, clutching her Makarov like a magic charm and Mosin rifle on her back. The bandit cursed and lurched after her, firing two blasts into the house as she threw herself through the door.
"Dimwit, hold your goddamn fire, that's the tourist!"
"My balls disagree, Yipchak!"
"Shut up and go around the back, I got the front. Shashlik, how's it going in the barn?"
"Pretty good then?"
Washer ducked back out of the barn to reload and found himself in the sights of the bandit standing on the farmhouse porch, who was not in need of a reload.
"A nu, cheeki breeki iv dam—"
Gunshots and a panicked Ukrainian echoed from inside the farmhouse. The bandit swore and ran in, sparing Washer another few seconds to live. Washer, like a good stalker, took this time to find a bigger gun. Unfortunately for him, his Kalash was not on his person, but leaning against the center beam of the barn, singing a siren song with its luxurious, alluring, sexy gun-ness.
"Ah, ya shyol na khuy."
At the worst possible time, Natasha dropped her handgun, and with the best timing, shot the man in the foot. As the bandit at the backdoor hopped around and cursed, she ran into the main hallway, readying her rifle — and nearly ran herself onto the bayonet of the other bandit. He grinned as she backed away, clutching the rifle to her chest, and racked his rifle for emphasis.
"Aww, so cute." he cooed, licking his lips. "You into cosplay?"
She leveled the rifle at him and tried to cycle the bolt, her face white and eyes wide. He laughed, and batted it aside, almost playfully. "You've got no bullets. I ain't scared, princess."
She glanced behind her, saw the toeless man approaching for a bearhug, and her doom not far behind. "Ah, blyat."
"Don't worry, we won't hurt you," he growled, grinning. "We promise!"
One grabbed her from behind, while the other grabbed the barrel of her rifle to yank it out of her hands; they closed in, the one behind her heaving her off her feet and squeezing his arms around her chest, trying to crush the air out of her as she held onto her rifle with a death grip. She didn't have time to be terrified, all she could do was absorb the fact that she was completely screwed right now.
Several pistol shots rang out from the front of the house. The one bearhugging her must have taken a round, because he suddenly stiffened and fell back with a volley of curses; as he fell, he dragged her with him, and suddenly the one in front of her had the muzzle of her gun pointed directly into his face.
Natasha didn't even mean to pull the trigger. She just instinctively squeezed it as she fell, and blew a gaping hole through his jaw, while the one she was lying on top of ate a firing bolt directly to the forehead as it shot out the back of the receiver. He immediately stopped swearing, a neat ciruclar dent in his forehead as he sprawled out on the floor.
She was still lying there, clutching the rifle like a life ring and panting when Washer grabbed her by the arm and pulled her to her feet.
"You're welcome," was all he said, stripping the Kalash wielder of his weapon and free mags. "Take the shotgun, I think your rifle's done."
Natasha looked down at her rifle.
All that was left was the stock. Firing had sent the rifle into an existential crisis, solvable only by exploding into the face of whomever was directly in front of and behind it, as testified by the two bandits who had attempted to make a Natasha sandwich.
"I killed him..."
"No, you tripped. I shot him three times, you shot him once—"
"And blew off his face."
Washer shrugged. "Kill-steal. Hurry up, the one in the barn is not going to wait long."
Gun. How do I gun?
Shotgun. Red things. Shells, grab those. How many? I don't know, I can't count, uh, zebra. That's how many. Should I take his water bottle? Yes. Vodka I think? Ohnoohnoohnoohno—
"Miss Palinchak, if you could move, that'd be great."
Washer body-checked her through the back door and threw himself after her as the third bandit lit up the hallway with a hail of rounds, then drew his pistol and continued firing out the door as he ran up and covered the unconscious one from the cover of the backdoor. Washer blindly returned fire with his Fort-12 as he half-led, half-shoved Natasha in the general direction of Not-Bandits.
At about fifty meters, both sides decided it was futile to continue shooting at one another, the primary victims of their indiscriminate gunfire having been primarily wood and clumps of grass. At this point, Washer stopped dragging Natasha like a sack of turnips and let her get to her feet, while he topped off his Fort-12 magazines and fastened his new rifle to his three point strap.
"Miss Palinchak, your gun skills, are, rather, terrible. You know this, yes?"
"U.K. forevuh," Natasha gasped, giving him a thumbs up as she leaned against a birch.
Washer sighed. "Miss Palinchak, I do not speak English. As it is, you are lucky I grew up in Yugoslavia or I would not even speak Russian. Please. Stop. Being. British."
"Sorry guv'nor. I'm tired."
"WOMAN. I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE SAYING."
"YOU'RE HIGHLY ATTRACTIVE IN A RUGGED SLAVIC WAY."
"YOU'RE WORTH A MILLION DOLLARS."
"Thank you! I appreciate the compliment."
"I'm just going to go now."
She was still high off the adrenaline, so even as Washer gave her his derisive snort, she trotted after him with a dopey smile, very much grateful to be alive.
Five minutes too late for Yipchak, who bled out in the hallway of that farmhouse, and Vanka, who didn't really get to do anything before getting shot in the face, Leech and a dozen other merry men arrived on the scene, weapons hot with nothing to shoot at. All that was left was nearly a hundred rounds of spent brass, a freshly cleaned AK-74M, two dead bodies, and two swearing loudmouths in Dimwit and Shashlik. They buried their dead with a Bandit's honors — that is to say, they stripped them to their boxers of anything of value and dragged their bodies into the woods for the birds and the dogs.
Once their goods had been divvied up, Leech turned his attention on Dimwit, who alternated between mourning Yipchak and punching the hell out of the drywall. With the help of a gun pointed at his head and half a liter of vodka, he calmed down the Dimwit into a reasonably coherent state, then led him into the barn with an arm around his shoulders, talking as Dimwit helped himself to some drain cleaner fluid.
"Now, Dimwit, my dear Dimwit, how, exactly, did three of you lose one broad and one washed up Serb?"
Dimwit's many responses all came slurred and blended together, several minutes worth of aimless monologuing, some of which had more to do with the sad state of his childhood than anything resembling current events. Something about a stubbed toe and a bad migraine was mentioned, and Vanka peeing in his water that morning. The only coherent response was the following:
"She had a gun. There were bullets in it."
"Dimwit, that's just sad. Honestly — I should shoot you. You are so incredibly useless I could cut you up for deli meat and sell you as a sandwich, and still make more off your cold cuts than you make me right now. You get me?"
Dimwit mumbled something about Kalashnikovs in a partridge tree, and nodded vaguely.
"Good. Then you won't mind taking point through the Checkpoint, right my friend?"
"I am the best salami."
"After the day is through, you certainly will be. You shall take us to the Garbage, my dearest Dimwit."
He left Dimwit there to sober up for a few minutes, and went out to his men that weren't totally sloshed / doomed to being anomaly fodder. He licked his gold crowns and scratched his stubble, giving a couple moments' thought to his speech.
"How many of you like it here in the Zone? Raise your hands."
No takers on that one.
"How many of you like bitches?"
Twelve hands were raised.
"How many of you like being made bitches?"
All twelve hands dropped.
"Well, let me be per-fectly clear—" he accentuated the point with a Hitlerian jab at the skys, "— If we let that Yugoslavian washout and that skinny British slut slip away, we'll be laughed out of Dark Valley — after Sultan has used our foreskins for handwipes. You wanna be choir boys?"
They shook their heads. Leech sighed, scratching his head.
"Enthusiasm would be appreciated. There is something to the order of a million rubles on the line here.
"And a woman with minimal STDs."
Now they were interested.
They made good time as evening approached. The threat of Leech behind them kept Natasha's requests for rest stops to a minimum, though Washer still was learning to bear with her hourly complaints about her unsuitable boots. The anomalies were thinner as well, even as they took the forest paths over the exposed road. There was a silver lining in every emission; sometimes, the Zone smiled, and cleared the way for desperate (and grateful) stalkers.
Yet that meant the mutants were out in force as well. He saw scant signs of their activity, but he just knew that there were dogs about. There always were.
And unfortunately, blind dogs were not scared of fire.
If they could just make it to the Checkpoint by nightfall, they'd be fine...
"So, how much are you worth?" said Washer, his breath growing raspy from the hours of jogging with a double pack.
"Well, I don't, have life, insurance," Natasha panted, tiring mostly from just trying to heave her own body weight around for more than a few minutes at a time. "But, I imagine, that, after not, hearing from us, for... for a few days, they'd be, rather anxious, to have me back."
"Is there a reward?"
His tone scared her. But her fear was masked by her labored panting. "Well, they put in, ten thousand pounds, in bribes. I, imagine, y'know, they'd pay, a bit more, than that."
"I don't know pounds. How many rubles?"
"Hey... I don't, don't wanna slow down, but— see that truck, the flipped one, could we, just, take, a, breathe, -er?"
"It's radioactive. You want your ovaries cooked like a pastry? How. Many. Rubles?"
He was not going to be deterred. Money was on his mind, and greed was in his eyes.
"Thirty million," she lied.
He stopped and regarded her with something that might have been a smile. "You really are hot property, aren't you?"
She grinned tiredly back at him, and having lost her momentum, collapsed forward, incidentally wrapping her arms around him. "Awww..."
"Don't get cuddly, we've got to move while there's still daylight." He put his arm around her torso and walked her forward, through the treeline, towards the Checkpoint's silhouette at the top of the hill. He could almost smell the shashliki on the fire, feel the texture of worn out playing cards on his fingers and hear the sound of hard rubles clinking on the floor...
Focus. Don't let this be another wipe.
They trudged in through the door, whereupon Natasha fell on the floor giggling from exhaustion, while Washer flicked on his headlamp and scanned the pitch-dark room. They were not shot, and from this he surmised it was reasonable to assume they were alone. He found a couple small oil lanterns with some kerosene still left in the candles, and spent a match to light one. There was neither fuel nor time to gather it for a barrel fire, but there were some fire blankets which were just as warm as any other. Natasha needed no instructions to wrap herself up in them and nest herself in the one chair in the room. He contented himself to sitting on a crate, cleaning his weapon as he watched the courtyard with weary eyes.
"Where are you from, Washer?" Natasha asked.
"I already told you. Yugoslavia, before Tito died."
"What did you do there?"
"You? A mathematician?"
"Sure. What does that mean?"
"I was in the mortar company."
"What, mixing cement?"
"No, firing bombs. Until we lost the mortar section. Then I became a machinegunner. Then grenadier. Then pointman. Finally, squad leader."
Natasha was quiet. "Which side were you on?"
"I don't have to answer that."
"No. But who will tell? There's no cameras here, no mics. I'm trusting you with my life, Washer. Surely you can trust me with your secrets?"
"You're a Westerner, a peacenik. Peace is all you've known, you can't see past that. You wouldn't understand. The choices I've made. Why I made them. What I fought for. What I fought against. Which Devil's bastards happened to be on my side. Just be content—"
"I grew up in Donetsk. My streets were owned by tracksuit wearing thugs and their pinstripe suit gang bosses. My parents died fighting that. I made it to Britain by hiding in a steamer trunk. Don't you call me a peacenik."
"Swayte Jaysus this is good footage."
Washer's headlamp was on and his pistol up and aimed into the wardrobe they hadn't checked. "Come out, or I make you into a wedge of human swiss cheese."
"Er... Natasha? What'd 'e say?"
"Come out of the closet. Before Washer shoots you full of holes."
Mike fell out of the closet with his camcorder clutched to his chest and Natasha's satchel over his shoulder. "I 'aven't got a gun! Unarmed!"
"Palinchak, what does he say?"
"He's unarmed. And he's a total patsy."
"Tell 'im I means no 'arm! I'm just an Irish cameraman, I've got no fucken potta gold at the end o' me rainbow!"
"Mike, how did you get here?" Even as he spoke, she suddenly noticed his condition, and forced her face to freeze. Oh God, his skin…
"I ran an' ran an' ran an' hid in the truck cabin, I survived can ye bloody believe it? Sure, I'm a little itchy, but I'm sure it'll be fine, aye? Workout of a lifetime, sure to be sure."
The man's skin was bumpier than the rind of an avocado, and spotted in patches of purple, yellow and green. While he'd certainly not been anything like a male model before, Natasha was fairly certain his left eye had not been the size of a golf ball. His gums were beginning to pull back and bleed as well. Mike was not doing well.
"Don't tell him," said Washer. "He's going to die, anti-rads or not. Just let him die oblivious. And quiet-like too, I hear something."
"Wot? Wot's he saying? He saying I'm ill? I'm not fockin' ill!"
"Natasha, shut him up. His Irishness is going to give us away."
"Sshsssshsssh," Natasha knelt down and helped him to his feet. "No, he's just surprised you're alive. You're a very lucky man, Mike. Here, lemme take that camcorder — your hands are unsteady, you need some rest, have a sit down—"
"Quiet, something's moving around out there—"
"Don't touch that it stings!"
"Shut the fuck up!" Washer spun and clocked Mike in the head with the butt of his rifle, turning just as fast to run and slam the front door.
She dove for the floor, and took the initiative to smash the lit lantern against the floor, extinguishing the light.
"Goddamn it woman WE NEEDED THAT," he hissed, unslinging his rifle with shaking hands. "Blyat blyat blyat blyaaaaaaaat..."
"What do you mean? Is it stalkers? Bandits? Dogs? And what in God's name is that panting? It sounds like an elephant's pulled a hammy."
"Natasha- shut, your, mouth." His voice shook.
She was quiet. Mike whimpered softly, his mouth muffled by Natasha's hand, while his sores opened up and leaked on her. The only sound heard from Washer was the slightest creak of the floorboards under his feet as he slowly crept, lightlessly, through the checkpoint office towards the backdoor.
And something outside was breathing very heavily as it slunk around the perimeter of the building, no sound of footsteps, only its breath.
"Natasha," Washer whispered, tapping her on the shoulder. "Get in the closet and stay quiet. I will draw their attention, and you two will run for it, towards the Garbage. I will follow you when it's safe."
"What are they?"
She couldn't see him, but she could tell his face was inches from hers, could feel his shaking breath on her face.
"Pray you never know."
She did as he said, keeping mumbling Mike muffled as she tucked herself and him into the closet and shut the door. Now it was just their breathing, and the squeak of the floorboards, and that awful breathing, like some animal out of the deepest darkest cave of a natural preserve owned by Satan himself.
And now she would wait.
The seconds ticked by. Maybe they were minutes. There was only the mind-numbing terror to measure the moment, the creak of floorboards and the rise and fade of that accursed breathing to mark the passing of time. Mike would mumble about his aching head or his bleeding eyes and she would clamp her hand down harder over his mouth, clenching her eyes shut to keep from crying. The smell of Mike's living-decomposing body was almost unbearable, second only to the sound of that damnable breathing, circling them, teasing at the windows, one moment seemingly next to them only to be at the door the next. It went on, and it went on, and on and on and on, till she could have bitten through plywood so tense was her jaw, her heart was near to—
Washer opened the door slightly, and Natasha nearly screamed, but Mike clamped his slimy, rotting hand over her mouth, so instead she gagged.
"Sssssh. Quietlike. I think... I think, it is gone…"
And then it struck.
Natasha only saw a blur of motion, the scene lit only by muzzle flashes. She saw Washer dive and roll, shooting, ducking and shooting as some hunchbacked, apeish humanoid dashed through the room, blinking in and out of sight, swiping and grabbing after Washer. She never heard him shout, but her legs filled in for reason and she ran, dragging Mike after her only because she forgot to let go of him. If she had been able to think, she would have dropped him and her bag and legged it.
Blinded by the muzzle flashes, she ran up the road, the ground invisible under her feet, and her pack heavy on her back. Mike yelled and swore and cursed his fate and gibbered incessantly; Natasha could not spare the breath, could not even think but only see the image of that beast moving faster than any human being, shoving Washer against the wall and hurling him to the floor. Roars, breaking furniture, and gunfire faded behind them as they ran, punctuated by a final boom less than a minute later.
They did not stop running.