S.T.A.L.K.E.R – A Fatal Rookie Mistake
With the last reach of daylight, a cold wind blew over the valley of Wild Territory and through the dark of the forest. Trees swayed as their branches clicked with knotted fingers. In the gloom beneath, a tangle of vines and weeds lay still as a thorn bush rustled. Hidden within, Andros sniffed and pulled his collar tight against the chill. When the leaves settled before him, he peered through his binoculars.
Beyond the forest’s shroud he spied the valley below; a field of grass that rolled towards a creek shouldered by rocks and reeds. Passed the banks, the valley climbed towards the black gape of a train tunnel nestled at the foot a mountain. Here, furtive but visible, was a rookie stalker who crouched to sift through a rucksack.
Andros smiled when the rookie retrieved a large stone. The rock scintillated silver and when released, buoyed in the air like a boat on water. An artefact, birthed from the womb of an anomaly – unworldly and priceless.
A gust bellowed and rustled the leaves around Andros. He put down the binoculars and fumbled to button his collar. A thorn snagged his sleeve and bit his wrist with a tare. Andros winced and yanked his arm away. The branch snapped with a clack. Above, a crow squawked and took flight.
Andros grabbed the binoculars and pressed them back to his face to see the rookie stare his way. The crow squawked again and the rookie jumped to feet with the artefact.
“Damn it,” Andros said. He clawed up his rifle and ammo but the rookie was gone.
Andros pushed himself to his feet and yanked the bush aside. The valley was wide and flat and carried no sign of movement. Andros narrowed his eyes at the train tunnel. The stalker must have hidden inside. The tunnel was dark, its depths dangerous. Andros smiled. The rookie wouldn’t remain there long.
He tapped the butt of a shotgun hung at his hip and considered. If he hid at the entrance – shotgun in hand – he could set an ambush. An easy kill.
Andros shouldered his rifle, clambered from the bush and descended into the valley. The field dipped and rose, thick with vegetation. Wet grass clung to his boots, reeds clawed at his coat and each step through the creek came with a slurp. He clambered up the bank and made his way towards the tunnel.
Andros paused at its stone edge, caught his breath, and etched up to the dark entrance to listen. Inside he heard the swirl of air. He frowned. There was no echo. Andros pressed himself to the tall arch and peered inside. The tunnel was choked by rock and earth, twisted rods jutted from concrete slabs and a capsized carriage lay half crushed by a fallen column. The tunnel had collapsed.
Andros checked over his shoulder and peered back inside. Passed the train tracks on the far side was a door fashioned in the tunnel’s wall. Above the frame a sign read – Pedestrian Walkway. The door, Andros noted, had been left ajar. He grinned as he looked over the rubble again. Idiot stalker. The passage would be a dead-end and he’d hidden inside it – a rookie mistake.
Andros unclipped his shotgun from his belt and crept up to the threshold. He glanced inside. The passage was dark, festered by mould and sour air. Andros eased the door open with a boot, aimed the shotgun inside, and pulled the trigger.
The shot thundered. Ricochet bounced off the walls. Andros winced as his ears rang. He pulled the trigger again.
When the whine of the second shot receded Andros flicked on a torch, kicked open the door and illuminated the passage. Ghosts of powdered cement swirled before the impassable teeth of rubble. Yet there was no rookie, dead or alive; only an air duct with an unfastened cover.
Andros eyed the opening as he tapped his shotgun. The duct was high, near the ceiling, though wide enough for a man to crawl through.
“Sneaky sod,” Andros said as he entered the passage. He trod without noise until he stood beneath the duct. He turned his ear and listened.
The passage door slammed shut.
Andros’s heart leapt and he flung up each hand. He dropped the torch and the bulb smashed. Darkness engulfed him.
“No,” he whimpered. Andros reached for a wall and groped the soft mould until he found the door. He grabbed the handle and pushed. His effort was countered by another. It was the rookie.
Andros banged a fist to the door – and froze. A noise whispered out of the air duct. He heard a shuffle and a wheeze. Andros spun around and fumbled for his shotgun. It was gone, dropped with the torch. He grabbed his rifle and cocked the bolt. It clicked empty.
“Christ,” Andros whispered as he padded his empty pockets. He’d left his ammo in the bush. Idiot. Stupid idiot.
His breath seized. A pale shape emerged from the duct to crawl down the wall. Bony joints clicked as it rose to fill the passage, thin and crooked.
Andros closed his eyes. He had entered the passage with no ammo and no escape. He’d made a fatal rookie mistake.