Tiger's Spring

"But that's just it," Hunter was saying. "Sure, lots of crazy things happen in the Zone, but there's got to be a limit to what's possible out here, you know?"

"Of course there are limits," Baldy retorted. "What's your point?"

It was chess night in the 100 Rads, and Sparrow and Baldy were playing at the end table. Despite their insistence that checkers was getting boring, neither remembered the rules of this other board game very well: their constant arguing over the legitimacy of moves and demands for arbitration by Snitch had turned the match into a spectator sport. At this late hour, however, the only other patrons left to watch were Lieutenant Ivantsov, on leave from Duty headquarters, and young Hunter.

"What I think Hunter means," Snitch cut in smoothly, "is that the stories our fellow stalkers tell are, ahem... far-fetched even for this strange land."

Hunter nodded. "That's it."

"Anyone with half a bottle of sense knows that," Sparrow opined, scooting a pawn forwards. "Your move, Baldy."

"I don't mean the bragging," Hunter insisted. "We've all seen stalkers come back from a day in the Wild Territory and say they found some artifact nobody's seen since Limansk blew up. I'm talking about the... the weird stories. The stuff that's even scarier than the Scorcher or the bloodsuckers."

"Oh," said Baldy. "You mean like what that guy claimed he saw over at the Agroprom during the winter, how some poor sap got sliced up with a knife held by nobody?"

Hunter nodded. "Exactly... Or how about the one about stalker ghosts in the old labs, how someone met one and it told him to stop disturbing their work. That couldn't be real, right?"

"I doubt it," said Sparrow. "I remember back when Freedom was still set up in the Dark Valley, they had a guy in their bar who'd tell that one to everybody."

"Yeah..." Hunter glanced at Snitch. "What do you think?"

"I have no special insight on the matter," Snitch replied stiffly. "Unlike some people, I have no time to waste pursuing every rumor, myth and legend which passes through this place."

"Never through I'd hear that from you," Sparrow sniggered through his gas mask. "The one and only dealer of choice information passing up such hot stuff?"

"Ahem," the man in the long coat harrumphed. "I'll thank you to remember that I deal in facts, not fantasies." He cast a brief look at Ivantsov before taking a swig of his high-caffeine soda. "Speaking of which, I've recently received an interesting report about the cargo of a derelict Mi-Eight outside that little village south of the Dark Valley..."

"Not interested," Ivantsov said curtly, keeping his eyes on the television set behind the bar. "We already know what's in it."

Baldy moved a pawn of his own, sliding it diagonally and removing one of Sparrow's pawns from the board. "Your turn."

"Oy, you can't do that!"

"It's called an 'in passing' capture."

Sparrow looked to Snitch. "Can he do that?"

The one in the bandit coat nodded wearily. "He can do that."


"Hey Barkeep," Hunter called. "What do you think about the stories?"

"Me?" The burly proprietor rested a tattooed arm on the bartop. "You know I don't go out much. I hear the same stories you do, that's all."

"But you've been here a while," the rookie pressed. "You must have some idea of what's true and what's not."

Barkeep shook his head. "I just run the place. Otter would be the one to ask."

"Otter, huh?" Sparrow wiggled a finger under the lip of his mask and scratched his jaw. "Man's either a genius phantom or the world's luckiest absent-minded professor... Come to think of it, Barkeep, didn't you originally work the other side of the Zone perimeter? You must have heard some juicy tales back then."

"Juicy isn't a good word for it," Barkeep said gruffly. "Anyway, I did handle some transactions for the early stalkers, no secrets about that. Back in those days nobody was quite sure what to think of the Zone. Anyone could make a claim and someone else would believe it... I remember when word of the Monolith first started going around, that was quite something. Mind you, I was nobody important then - it was Sidorovich who ran that show."

"Wow," Hunter sighed wistfully. "I wish I could have been a stalker in those days. Fortunes from a single artifact, boldly blazing new paths into the unknown..."

"Hah." Ivantsov's tone was scornful. "You have no idea, novice."

Hunter ignored the jab. "Any true stories you could share, Barkeep?"

"You really want to hear an old guy reminisce?" The pillar of 100 Rads rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "True stories, you say. Well, there's the tale of how I first encountered the Zone... But I'm a bartender, you know, not a storyteller."

It was Baldy who took the hint and leaped to the occasion. "Another round of drinks for everyone," he announced, stepping away from the chessboard long enough to place a fistful of rubles on the bartop. "I want to hear this."

"If you insist." Barkeep pocketed the money and set a row of fresh cans and bottles on the bar. "Help yourselves, men." Once the others had taken their poisons of choice, he cleared his throat. "It was the middle of April, not quite six years ago now... I remember it very well because I was staying with my brother-in-law at this little clinic where he worked, a ways up the river from Kiev. The second disaster at the station was on the twelfth and the first Zone expansion was on the sixteenth, so it would have been the day after that. We were trying to figure out what we should do when we got a visit from some military types, of all people, who requisitioned the place for their own use, treating soldiers who'd been caught when the perimeter jumped outward."

"And they let you remain there?" Hunter asked.

"Yeah. I was no doctor, but they needed every hand they could get." Barkeep frowned. "Some of those guys were real pushy. That hasn't changed... One of the patients was a sergeant named Nakhimov, like the admiral. He'd fallen into one of the first documented Burner anomalies and gotten pretty well roasted. His superiors didn't figure he'd survive, so they told me to just ease his pain until he let go of life."

"And did you?"

"As best I could. He was a tough sort, though - stayed awake almost to the very end... And he shared something interesting with me." Barkeep thought for a moment. "Maybe this would make more sense if I told it chronologically... Yeah. Back then, you know, there was interest in reclaiming the Chernobyl Zone for economic activity. The station had been shut down for a few years by then and the guys working on it knew their jobs wouldn't last forever... There was a survey team out working that day, three men from Slavutych. They were checking up on one of the equipment dumps just south of the station when the blast came. One was caught in the open and instantly charred to almost nothing. The second disappeared without a trace. The third, though... He was a young guy, right out of university. Son of a station veteran or some such. He was down in a ditch with a Liebson counter, checking the soil, and that must have saved him."

"I'm impressed," said Baldy. "I didn't know anyone that close to the plant survived. How'd he make it out?"

"Nakhimov didn't say," Barkeep replied. "But two days later he and his squad were patrolling along the south edge of the Zone when they spotted this guy crawling through a field of gravitational anomalies on his hands and knees. The officers wouldn't risk a BTR or a Krokodil to save one guy, so Nakhimov handed his rifle and magazines to the grunt next to him and started filling his pockets with stones."

"Stones?" Hunter echoed.

"Didn't have a bag of bolts handy, did he?" Barkeep opened a can of soda and took a sip. "It took the sergeant three quarters of an hour to work his way out there, and another ten minutes to follow his footprints back with the survivor over his shoulder. Carried him all the way to the APC, in fact. The higher-ups assumed the lucky man might know something, so they whisked him off right away and sent the soldiers back to the fringe. Then the fringe moved and Nakhimov got fried for his efforts."

"A good man, no doubt," the one Duty stalker present weighed in. "The survivor died as well, I assume?"

"That's the funny thing," the tattooed man mused. "I gather everyone expected him to..."

The narrative trailed off as a newcomer walked into the room. He wore a long coat with a hood, which at first glance seemed to suggest that he was either a friend of Snitch or a bandit with no sense of direction. His face was that of a man not yet thirty years old, with bleak gray eyes. He had a Mosin-Nagant rifle slung across his back, just like the one on the old Soviet poster above the chessboard. As he quietly approached the bar, the others glimpsed the butt of a Browning Hi-Power tucked into the vest he wore under his coat and a black multipurpose detector clipped to his belt, a model which had been a hot item in the days when artifact collection was real work.

Barkeep nodded politely. "Good to see you, Tiger."

"Sorry I'm late." Tiger's voice was as soft and unobtrusive as his physical presence. "I have what you asked for," he went on, indicating the metal strongbox under his left arm.

The owner of the establishment motioned to Garik, head bouncer of said establishment, who stepped aside long enough to give Tiger passage into the back of the bar. "As I was saying," Barkeep said when he had gone, "everyone thought he would be irradiated or burned or who-knew-what, but he was actually okay apart from the cuts, bruises and dehydration."

"Interesting," Snitch commented. "How do you know this?"

"I met him," Barkeep replied. "He came to me a few years later, when I was knee-deep in this business. Wanted to know the best way to get past the army patrols and into the Zone."

"Into the Zone?" Hunter repeated. "After what happened to him out here?"

"Seemed he couldn't fit into society in the big land after his experience. When the stalkers started making inroads, he decided to become one of them."

"And now?" If Hunter had been sitting down, he would be on the edge of his chair. "Is he still alive?"

"Yeah." Barkeep paused to finish his drink. "Don't know what he gets up to most of the time, but he's around. Kind of a solitary fellow, though he supposedly did scouting work for the Clear Sky faction at one time. Anyhow, that's all I know for sure."

"For sure?" Snitch perked up a little. "There's more?"

Barkeep shrugged. "Only a rumor which I heard once... It was said that the blast changed this guy, that afterward he developed a sort of sixth sense like the mutant crows have. Because of this sense, he can find his way through anomaly fields with his eyes closed and no living thing can sneak up on him... But that's hearsay. Make what you like of it."

"Wow..." Hunter shook his head. "Either way, thanks for telling us all that."

"My pleasure," Barkeep grunted. He turned as Tiger reappeared. "Good man. You want the usual?"

"Yes." Tiger wandered over to the bulletin board and scanned it placidly.

"Sixth sense that picks up anomalies, eh? Sounds like somebody who'd fit in with that druid bunch." Sparrow made his move. "Check."

"All set." Barkeep placed a bundle wrapped in waxed paper on the bartop. "Anything else?"

"No, thank you." Tiger picked up the bundle and walked out, quietly humming Your Excellency Lady Luck. Had the patrons been watching the chess game and not Barkeep, they might not have noticed his coming and going at all.

"Oh, one thing I didn't mention," the barman said suddenly, maybe a minute later. "That survivor - when I saw him, his hair had changed color. Originally it was a reddish brown, but after he came out of the Zone it developed streaks of black and white."

"Black and white on red," Snitch pondered. "What, like a tiger's stripes?"

"Yeah," said Barkeep. "Like a tiger's stripes."