Give me a sign

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Give me a sign

What can turn into an ordinary reality show for classmates? Ten students are sent to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where they are forced to survive. Abandoned houses, the absence of people and unknown experiments on people — all this will have to be dealt with along the way, in search of civilization. Strange experiments give a small bonus, which, alas, not everyone is destined to take advantage of. In the fight for the most valuable prize of life and monetary reward, teenagers will have to face many dangers and find their way home. Let the game begin.

For help in working on the book, many thanks to the streamer ruLegenda (subscribe to his Twitch channel).

Disclaimer or a few words from the author

Dear, adored and beloved reader!

I would like to remind you of some quite natural things, which, of course, each of us understands and realizes, but at the same time it will not be superfluous to repeat and speak.

Firstly, the book — a work of art is purely entertaining, the characters are fictitious and any coincidence with real people is pure coincidence.

Secondly, illegal visits to the Chernobyl exclusion zone are punishable by law.

Thirdly, do not forget that such a trip is extreme (and it’s not just about radiation). Therefore, if you want to visit this place, use a legal tour.

And, perhaps most importantly, do not forget the heroes. On April 26, 1986, a terrible tragedy occurred, the consequences of which are being eliminated to this day by specialists from all over the world.

Well, we can move on and…

…enjoy reading.

— Chapter 1-


There are moments when you are carried away and you suddenly realize that there was nothing else in your life and there will never be, and your life is a wonderful dream, and it’s not worth fighting for this dream, because it’s just a summer minute in a clear sky, and so that you would be sad at recess in the morning, he will again turn this minute into a summer day with blue clouds, a blue-eyed teacher and the rustle of foliage. Such is nonsense. But it retains the freshness of impressions and meets the deep desire of the body and spirit — after all, at least one memory, but it has not gone anywhere. Such thoughts visit after a particularly successful registration.

Opening her eyes, Lily slowly looked around the spacious room. The greenish unpleasant light hurt the eyes, and the musty air pressed on the lungs, but apart from that, nothing dangerous was felt.

Lilia calmly looked at the casting director. Loneliness haunted her all her life and now the opportunity to change her life radically moved the teenager worse than a locomotive pulling a heavy train along the rails.

— Introduce yourself.

— Finist Lilia, age sixteen.

— Why did you decide to participate in the show?

— Need money. I want to rent an apartment and move out of the hostel.

— Are you aiming to win?

— Yes.

— What are you ready for to win?

— I will do everything possible.

Gently raising her head, the girl looked with surprise at the table at which she was sitting… and several other people. They just came to their senses, looking at each other in surprise. Everyone was here in this room. But she saw them as if through a cloudy veil, not recognizing or understanding anything. Then, in a cloud of fog, a familiar silhouette flashed — Maria. How she changed, haggard and seemed to have lost weight… Another friend: tears flowed from Alena’s eyes and the girl tried to brush them away, but they continued to gather in the corners.

— Where are we? — Masha was the first to ask a question, straightening her short skirt.

The first beauty of the school, who was born into a wealthy family, adjusted her neat styling and put her hands on an expensive branded bag, demonstrating the perfect manicure.

— Introduce youreself.

— Barkina Maria, sixteen years old.

— The one? — puzzled woman tossed her head, looking at the schoolgirl in surprise.

— Yes, my father Barkin Mikhail Igorevich, the governor of the city.

— Why did you decide to participate in the project?

“I want to prove, first of all, to myself that I am capable of winning without daddy,” she twisted her lips contemptuously.

— What are you ready for to win?

“Absolutely everything,” Maria answered confidently.

— In the bunker, — Nikita answered languidly, pointing to a huge iron door with a burning neon sign “Exit”. “We’ve been locked up here.

— How did you lock it up? — Masha did not understand, flapping her painted eyes and pouting her already enlarged lips. — I had some plans.

— I think everyone had plans, — Romka answered caustically, holding a smartphone in his hands.

— Volkov Roman, seventeen. I want to participate because … — he hesitated for a while.

— Not so long ago you were attracted for robbery, right?

— The car was opened, the radio tape recorder was pulled out drunk, — he frowned. — Mother thumps, father always beats. I want to help my brother, he will not grow up as a normal person in such a family. I don’t want him to repeat my fate.

Gradually, everyone regained consciousness and gathered at the table, began to discuss.

— Who remembers what? Romka asked, scratching his short buzz cut hair.

— Well, we were all on the list, right? Maria looked around nervously. We were all invited to participate in the project, weren’t we?

“I wasn’t there,” Nikita replied. — I … — he thought. — I remember that a passer-by asked for directions and… that’s it, I don’t remember anything else.

— Likhomanov Nikita, seventeen years old.

— Why did you send an application for participation in the project?

— I want to invest in a startup. I have the developments of the program, but to bring it to mind, a lot of money is needed. I stream, I want to break into eSports.

Nikita turned to the silent Lily, who was looking ahead of her, as if delving into her own consciousness. And with renewed vigor, I felt inside the prickling of a tiny lightning, which seemed to be an electrical discharge that appeared before my mind’s eye. Nikita with gloomy determination repeated her words to himself: “A strange time is coming…”.

“I don’t remember anything at all,” Dimka remarked ironically. — I was so drunk, like the last time in my life. Also, Masha rebuffed.

“But I didn’t get involved with rogues,” Maria spat contemptuously, smoothing out the wrinkles on her blouse in the décolleté area. A small chest was emphasized by an impressive push-up and a deep neckline on the blouse. The girl looked well-groomed, obviously did not save. An expensive skirt, a high-quality blouse and high-heeled shoes are the peak of fashion. The father-governor never cheated his daughter, satisfying all her wishes. The blond hair was styled in careless waves and filled with tons of varnish, so that the styling held like in the advertisement “even in a hurricane”, and a hairpin completed the look. The pronounced cheekbones only added emphasis to the already plump unnatural lips, and the faded blue eyes under the huge extended eyelashes created the look of a typical goofy blonde. Looking at her, one could feel that behind this mask hides more than one outstanding and extremely thoughtful soul. It resembled the process of building a computer based on computer programs. At first, a computer was shown as a set of programs, each of which was a separate program that implemented some algorithm of actions.

— Well, yes, well, yes, remind you of the draining of photos? Dimka chuckled, remembering how the indecent content of the photographs that the girl sent to her boyfriend, who turned out to be a dishonorable person, were discussed throughout the school.

Nikita just rolled his eyes.

— Semushin Dmitry, eighteen years old.

— Did you stay for the second year? The casting director raised an eyebrow questioningly.

“I don’t like to study,” the guy replied calmly.

— Why did you decide to participate?

— I live one day, and this is an opportunity to try something new.

— Do you have something that will prevent you from achieving victory?

— No. I’m ready for anything.

— And I did not drink, — Vlad shrugged his shoulders.

— Then what did you do at the check-in? — Maria asked sarcastically, as if the guy was guilty of all mortal sins. Everyone in the class knew that Vlad was an athlete, leading a correct lifestyle and, in general, tried to remain “correct” in the eyes of those around him.

— I was called in honor of the opening of the project, — without reacting to the first beauty of the school, the guy answered, turning more to the others. Tall, strong build with pronounced, but not pumped muscles, only emphasizing excellent physical shape. Gray eyes, well-defined facial features added severity for the growing guy, giving the impression of a serious man. But sometimes those eyes reflected uncertainty and confusion when he noticed someone else’s gaze on him. Another sign that the boy has not yet fully become an adult. He knew from experience how painful it can be if that look suddenly catches on you.

— What did you forget about the project? Dimitri chuckled. Too right for games.

“I forgot to ask you,” a classmate answered, hiding his inner irritation.

— Antonov Vladislav, eighteen years old. We moved to this city with my family last year, because of missing two weeks, my parents decided to leave me “for the second year”, having agreed with the teachers.

— Why were you absent for two weeks?

— Competition.

— What sport?

— Chess.

— You can’t tell by your complexion, — the woman smiled.

— We adhere to the right way of life. Exercise, proper nutrition, sports, — his gray eyes seemed empty, as if the guy was not on fire.

— Why did you apply?

— I’m used to winning.

The flickering lights were getting annoying. The stale air made the heart beat faster, causing anxiety. The head was spinning. The dream pressed on the brain with such force that it seemed that someone invisible with malicious pleasure beats the gong and laughs mockingly at each blow. And then it started. What should I do now, how long can this last? There will come a moment when he loses his temper and turns his back on the danger.

I wasn’t at the party either. I was returning from the library.

— Oh-oh-oh, our nerd spoke, — Dmitry crossed his arms over his chest. — So what? Was it crushed by a book?

“Actually, in case you forgot, we were given an essay on history,” Evgeny adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, arrogantly looking at the repeater. “Unlike you, I don’t give a damn about studying.

— Let’s see where your red diploma is useful, — Maria laughed. “Money rules the world, boy.

— Good knowledge is expensive, — proudly answered a classmate, trying not to succumb to provocation.

— Evgeny Teplukhin, eighteen years old.

— Why did you decide to participate in the project?

— I want to prove that the intellect can open any door.

— Commendable. You indicated that you won the All-Russian Olympiad.

“It’s only this year,” the boy said smugly. — I constantly participate, and only twice took third place. Well, it’s always the first.

Alena wrinkled her nose. She had a bewildered smile. The girl diligently tried to pull herself together, but nothing worked. Once again she sniffed loudly and piercingly. And suddenly she looked like a child again. Even stronger than when she was five years old.

— I want to go home.

— Go, nobody keeps you here, — Dimka mockingly nodded at the locked door. — How did they even take such a project. Does everyone understand that we are already participating?!

— The rules were not announced, — Vlad drawled doubtfully.

— It was necessary to look at what you were signing, — Irina smoothed her already slicked hair, gathered in a tight bun. — In black and white it is indicated that we can be collected at any moment.

— I’m scared, I want to go home, — Alena cried. Fragile, close to anorexia

— Crybaby, — Masha turned away from the girl, who irritated her very much with her behavior.

— Alena Grishko, seventeen years old.

— Why did you send an application for participation in the project?

So my mother decided. He says I will grow up, I will gain experience, I will learn something.

— And what did our rat forget here? Fives are no longer so happy? Or are you thinking of setting someone up here? Dima turned to Irina. Thin, in a strict suit, she always gave the impression of a “good girl”, currying favor with teachers. Often an excellent student urged others on not very good deeds, and later “merged”, as if she was not in business. And even if someone tried to accuse her, the teachers would never have suspected such a right girl of a bad deed.

— So the girls have the right, there is nothing to infringe on us.

— Wow, you are our hurt, — repeater clicked his tongue. — Who hurt you so much?

— Irina Sibirtseva, sixteen years old, straight A student. I want to prove that women are no worse than men and have the right to participate wherever they want.

“Interesting targets,” the casting director nodded, making some notes in her notebook.

Denis looked around in surprise.

— And what, only our class participates? It can’t be that no one else has been chosen, can it?

— Fat man, you don’t think. Better look for grub, — Dimka spat contemptuously.

— Well, what? Isn’t it strange? Why closed? Why only … — Denis hesitated. He has long been accustomed to bullying. Due to his excess weight, he was often not taken seriously, bullying, not even suspecting how painfully every word resonated in his soul. And when he came home, he unconsciously ate stress and got fatter and fatter, hating himself. Clothes were always taken several sizes larger, trying to hide figure flaws, but this did not save in any way, only emphasizing overweight. And all around. Harassment, food, tears, food… Once a short haircut has now grown a lot, hiding plump reddish cheeks with many small pimples, and blue eyes continued to look at the world with hope for the best.

— You will be clever in another place, fat, — Maria supported the attacks.

— Yakovlev Denis, sixteen years old.

— Why did you decide to participate?

— I… just… I like a classmate, and she decided to participate. And I… here… with her.

— Do you understand that the tests will be difficult?

— Understand. I want to try.

After sitting a little longer at the table and languidly quarreling with each other, the teenagers still calmed down, each thinking about his own. There were no answers, but young blood seethed, looking for a way out. Without coming to any conclusion, they decided to explore the strange room, but did not have time.

Something quietly hissed in the wall and soon the room was filled with fetid smoke, so thick that it was difficult to see the person sitting next to him. The students coughed as they lay down on the floor, hoping that this would save them. Only Denis rushed to the door, hoping that it would open. But the steel didn’t budge. Smoke filled the entire room, and the smell made his eyes water. Lilia put her hand to her mouth and pinched her nose before taking a breath. The whole world focused on the right hand, which held the bent index finger. Lily concentrated all her will on that finger, repeating to herself “It’s all over now, it’s all over!” until she felt dizzy. Classmates coughed, losing their will, until they finally lost consciousness. In their remnants, a new idea was born. In the dream, they ran in circles and fought each other, losing, but not losing hope. And so, gradually squeezing the heart, the thought left them and finally merged with the evaporating mind. And when a few heavy white feathers flew up over the river, I must admit that I had a little hope… It would be better if all this never ended.

— Chapter 2-

The first day

Consciousness returned slowly, reluctantly and painfully. Lilia closed her eyes even more, feeling a drop of sweat trickle down between her shoulder blades, and tried to imagine everything that happened yesterday, and feeling as if her hands, body and thoughts were being pulled into something wet and sticky. It was like some kind of power had spilled out of her and scattered in different directions, and now she is surrounded by a cloud of fog, which slowly moves in space.

“The indicators are normal,” a muffled male voice was heard from somewhere on the side.

Lily reluctantly opened her eyes and almost immediately closed her eyes against the bright white light, as if she were in an operating room. Insolent hands clung to some kind of sensors on her body, treating her as if with a piece of meat, insensitive and completely cynical.

She was ashamed not from the humiliation she had endured, but from grief, which at that moment was much stronger than the humiliation itself. Her soul was torn from the cage, and now the cage was in front of her eyes, and Lily could no longer believe that she could regain freedom. She tried to ask, but her lips would not obey, and her throat burned with fire. My head was buzzing with pain. Hearing a terrible wheezing, the girl turned her head to the side and noticed Vlad lying on the hospital couch, followed by Zhenya and Maria on the beds. They were conscious, but their eyes froze with animal horror. She tried to wave her hand — and could not, something firmly held her shoulders, and only after looking closely did she dismantle the leather belts. With the last of her strength, Lilia turned her face to the other side and saw the guard, whom she had not even seen a minute ago, and screamed hoarsely. And then the light fell on her. The guard got up too.

— Hush girl, hush. Almost finished. There was one last injection left,” the man assured. His face is covered with a medical mask. He was dressed in a green robe and had gloves on his hands. A second man in the same suit approached, carrying a syringe with a huge needle, fifteen centimeters long. The girl was roughly turned over on her side, without freeing her hands, which made her back uncomfortable, and the next second, Lily felt the needle penetrate her neck, along her spine, giving off terrifying pain. A wild cry of despair filled the small room. Classmates who could be seen looked up at the ceiling. Against its background, a reflection was clearly visible. It was smeared, and it was impossible to determine what it was. For a few seconds they stared at him without stopping, then again turned their gaze to Lilia, who now fell silent, looking ahead with glassy eyes.

— What are you doing to us? Leave us alone! — Feeling how his voice cut through, Nikita yelled with horror, looking at his classmate in the hands of sadistic doctors. — Let us go!

As if nothing had happened, the masked man removed the syringe, placing it on the operating table, and the guard turned Lilia roughly enough on her back while she was in shock from the pain.

— Let go! Nikita pulled the straps with force. They creaked, but did not give in, firmly holding the young man in place. Continuing to break free, the guy screamed, not particularly hoping that they would be released. Awareness of what was happening was not felt in him at all, but, being spat upon and torn, it suddenly dawned on him that the worst thing could really happen. Shouting and ringing rose from below. The guard silently approached Nikita and roughly put on a gag, plugging the guy’s mouth.

The doctors stepped aside talking quietly, and soon announced louder:

— The immunization procedure is completed. To their landfill.

The three employees left, closing the door behind them. Steel locks clicked and the hissing sound of gas being let in through hidden ventilation was heard again. Acrid smoke filled and clogged the airways, the air barely went into the lungs, but it was in this form that this smoke looked — what it was. He was stinky and poisonous.

— Hilsha! Hilsia!! Stop, don’t panic. Give me a label. Tag!!! Yes all. He took it off, — Nikita deftly pressed the buttons on the keyboard, using various combinations. Having changed the sniper rifle to an assault one, he went to help with his teammates. They played well, prepared for the tournament, wanting to take first place. This is their chance. There is not much. Another team they’ve already tracked down.

— Get out, get out of there! Ah-ah-ah! I’m healing, — the guy said, retreating, inserting armor plates and reloading the weapon.

— They want to give us a nuclear strike! yelled the teammate.

— I’m not a rat, I’m a tactical mouse! — the guy shouted at the camera, playing to the audience, knowing that people love “bread and circuses.”

— It’s a cheater! — the voice of a teammate was heard, who was firing with the enemy. The boys were tensely silent. Nikita was also silent. He also knew what he was getting into. Nothing special. But each time, fear crept into the soul when the hand entered the numbers into the settings window. Nikita no longer noticed how he did it.

— Eat up! Finish it!! Finish it!!!

By joining forces, they diligently destroyed the enemy team and soon the coveted sign “Victory!” appeared.

— A Hachiko simulator, not a game, — a friend in headphones rejoiced. — Sweaty skating rink, tired of sitting out at home. Go find them.

Exhaling tiredly, Nikita chuckled.

— So guys, I’ll have a smoke and coffee, — and by pressing the button, I changed the splash screen on the stream with the news that the streamer will be back soon.

The smartphone vibrated quietly, reminding us of the time that had come — seven in the evening. Smiling, he grabbed the phone and went to the kitchen, dialed a message on the go: “Hello! How was your day?” and sent, along the way clicking the kettle button. After washing with cool water, the guy patiently looked at the screen of the smartphone, but at the same time nervously tapping his fingers on the tabletop. A painful half-minute passed, which seemed like an eternity, and soon a quiet sound of a message was heard. Breaking into a stupid smile, Nikita read:

— Tired a bit. Are you still playing?

He quickly typed: “Yes, we are getting ready for the tour. Will you cheer for my team? and sent. The answer came almost immediately: “Of course. I’ll be on the stream. By the way, I did my homework in physics, give me a copy? Smiling at all thirty-two norm, Nikita replied that he would be grateful for such an opportunity. She seemed wonderful to him, the most-most. Kind, beautiful, interesting. Hormones seethed, I wanted to spend all the time with her. But the intended goals did not allow them to behave imprudently, because only by reaching a certain height it was possible to secure a decent future for themselves and support a beloved girl who would sooner or later become a wife.

Sharply opening his eyes, Dimka looked around. An old abandoned house and suspiciously lively silence. That feeling when nature whispers something in your ear, frightening, more and more inflaming your imagination. Looking around, the guy jumped up from the cold floor. The boards creaked plaintively and buckled. Looking around the room, the student was convinced that he was alone. At first it seemed to him that the room turned over and he was hanging in the void. Ignoring the strange dizziness, the guy threw his former rookery on the floor, climbed onto the table and pulled the broken lamp towards him. A wave of trembling went through the wall. Puffs of dust rose to the ceiling. Laughing gloomily, Dmitry waited for his vision to recover, the dizziness to recede and the room to find its true face, after which he quickly jumped off the table and took a few steps, sat down behind the heavy door and looked through the keyhole. Behind the door was a strange room, a wall with long incomprehensible wires rippled anxiously and crawled to the side. Closing the door behind him, he instantly cleaned himself up and ran downstairs. Now he looked back very rarely, only when necessary. The obsession vanished, and the latch turned easily in the slots. The old photographs on the walls shook. Someone chuckled nearby. Dimitri cautiously walked down the dark corridor, cautiously peeking around the corners. The corridor led him to a large room, in the center of which stood a circle of television screens and bedside tables with spare parts for them. Nearby lay a dirty and rather large cockroach, and another one, fleeing away from the place where an unknown drama had just unfolded. And who gave the beast freedom? Out of the corner of his eye, Dimka noticed a suspicious object on the floor and looked up. There was a small duffel bag against the wall, obviously new, with a small emblem of a snake devouring its own tail — Ouroboros. He knew this logo — it was the one he saw on the website of the strange online project.

Blinking once more, he was completely rid of the hallucinations. He was in an abandoned house, dirty and uncomfortable. Not the worst place Dimka has been to. Having contacted a bad company for a couple of years, the guy often visited unfinished and abandoned buildings, tasting alcohol. But once again returning home and finding his parents drunk, he quit once and for all, not wanting to repeat the fate of the family. He had no friends, since Dmitry preferred that people listen to him and accept only his a priori correct point of view. Seeing an attractive advertisement, he applied without hesitation, wanting to get out of the house in the first place. Everything got him. Eternal quarrels, tears and fights. Relatives were coded several times, but again and again returned to their usual way of life, not wanting to change their lives. There was no money to study at the institute, and Dmitry did not even count on entering the budget. For a while, despair flooded him so much that he began to skip classes and, as a result, stayed for the second year. The company in which he hung out was sometimes engaged in petty theft, and Dimka quickly became addicted to easy money and things. Why work when you can take what lies badly? He understood that this path would sooner or later lead him to a tragic ending, but he could not stop. He delayed the moment of the inevitable denouement, hoping sooner, later or sooner… He was sure that he would never be caught, he would still be in one of his invincible holes, and no one would find him there. The lack of goals and motivation made him vulnerable to society, so Dmitry tried to look self-confident and arrogant in the eyes of others — he really was like that. But after all, this kind of his “impudence” gave him a chance that society lacked so much. Dima was not a slave to any idea. He had no illusions about the social order and the purpose of human existence. This was his half, and it was a pity that he did not have the other.

Now examining an ordinary non-residential house, Dimka wondered where he was and what he was doing here, but there was no one to give answers, as always. Opening the bag, he found a small flask of water, a dry ration, and a vial of dark purple, almost black, crystallized powder, slightly gleaming in the dark light. Opening the bottle, Dima gently sniffed, remembering chemistry lessons for the first time, as if directing the aroma with his palm in his direction, but did not detect any smell. Assuming that it was potassium permanganate, he put everything back into his pockets and, zipping it, threw the bag over his shoulder and left the house. Walking along a country road, Dmitry realized that he was in a small abandoned village. On the house in which he was found a small painted sign of the same Ouroboros. The neck hurt suspiciously. Touching it with his fingers, Dmitry discovered a strange contraption — round, more than a centimeter in diameter and smooth to the touch. But now there is no time for this, there are more serious problems. Going forward, the guy found another house with exactly the same sign.

“Whoever didn’t hide, it’s not my fault,” he concluded, and knocking out the flimsy door from his foot, he stepped forward.

— Chapter 3-

Thorns without roses

Opening her eyes with difficulty, in the first second the girl was frightened of pitch darkness. And only when I got used to the dim lighting did I realize that I was at the bottom of the well.

“I thought you wouldn’t wake up,” a voice said dryly in the darkness.

— Who is there? — the girl jumped in surprise and a second later noticed Vlad sitting on the ground.

— We are in the well, — the guy ignored the attack and looked up sadly. — Five or six meters.

Lilia looked around and only now realized why she did not immediately see her classmate — at the bottom of the well there were two recesses to the side, in one of which she herself lay, and in the second Vlad freely settled down. Under her head, the girl found a half-empty backpack. Rising from the ground, Lily stretched, feeling all her bones ache. A fire shot through her neck and gasping, the girl touched the skin where it hurt. But suddenly she discovered a strange chip, as if implanted in the body. Small, the size of a two-ruble coin, it was in close contact with the skin, giving off unpleasant sensations. The girl winced and cursed softly. It remained to enjoy their own fairly comfortable clothes: jeans, a T-shirt and a light autumn jacket. Vlad was also in jeans and a thick dark-colored sweatshirt, comfortable sneakers on his feet.

— Look what you have in your backpack. Maybe there is our chance for salvation, “Vlad calmly asked, who seemed not to be bothered by the situation at all.

Nodding, Lily obediently peered inside. The content did not please with the variety: two translucent modern respirators, a flask of water and a pack of bandages. Looking at the guy, the girl noticed that exactly the same backpack was next to him.

— What do you have? she asked, looking at the rough concrete walls.

“Water, rope, camping matches and a flare,” he shrugged. — The rope is short, in any case, you have to climb.

— Climb?! Lily looked up doubtfully. The gray gloomy sky did not add optimism.

— Yes.

— Forward, — she waved her hand, giving way to the championship.

— Why?

— Are you laughing? I can not.

— Have to. I figured out the options, so and so it’s better for you to crawl first, if you suddenly break loose, I can catch you. I once watched a video from a blogger, you need to rest your hands and feet on the walls like this and move forward, — he easily rested his back against the wall and the opposite with his feet at different heights, and seemed to maintain the correct position with his hands. — The more we delay, the less chance of survival. I’ll take out my backpacks. Come on, — the boy jumped to the ground and clapped his hands, shaking them from dust and crumbs.

Deciding not to argue, Lilia stepped into the center of the well, which now seemed too small in diameter. Lifting a classmate by the waist, Vlad helped her to stand up, correctly resting against the walls. The girl seemed to weigh nothing, but Vlad noticed how her pupils dilated when her consciousness turned on.

“When you get to the top, give me a sign if there’s something wrong,” he added softly, as if it was of the utmost importance. Lily nodded and exhaled slowly as she began to rise. Each movement was difficult, the legs slid on the concrete, and small irregularities always came across under the palms, painfully digging into the skin. With each new step, freedom seemed closer. Her heart was beating wildly, drowning out all other sounds.

She’s used to it. I got used to being inconspicuous and unnecessary. There was no justice in life. At the age of seven, Lilia was returning with her parents by car from the village, where they stayed with her grandmother for a whole summer. A terrible accident divided life into before and after. The car jumped into the oncoming lane, crushing the “Ten”. The girl came to her senses only in the hospital, where she almost immediately found out that it was only by a miracle that she survived… only she. Relatives fought for the inheritance with pleasure, not remembering the child, in whom, before that incident, they did not have a soul. But as soon as the question of guardianship arose, no one wanted to take responsibility. Only the class teacher helped to solve some problems. Having moved to a hostel, the girl rented an apartment, not wanting to return to where she was once happy. With the money from the state, which was paid after the loss of a breadwinner, she paid for art school and her existence, and put aside for renting an apartment, hoping one day to get to Moscow and conquer it. Living in a small town was unbearable, happy memories of the past were constantly returning, which were not destined to come true, and the future was even worse than the present, and there was nothing to cling to. Sitting in it is like living on old, filthy, arsenic-laden toilet paper. In addition, there were no people around with whom one could spend the evening. Each new day brought pain. But one day everything changed, as if something inside burned out, leaving only ashes. Inner emptiness filled consciousness. Mandatory trips to the school psychologist were a little annoying, and advice to see a psychiatrist was amused. Can he get his parents back? Will it fix the inevitable?

Only drawing distracted me for some time, allowing me to plunge into the world of illusions and magic. In such situations, despair in the soul was replaced by real delight. Not much, but still. But, alas, this was only the outer side of the coin — the objects themselves did not answer questions. More precisely, there was no practical need for this. Yes, nice fun. Sometimes it was interesting to look at the fabric or carpet, if they were even remotely similar to reality. All these petty questions did not make sense — before us was only one facet of many realities, and it meant nothing.

The sole of the sneakers treacherously slipped. Clenching her teeth, Lilia leaned her back against the wall even more, helping herself with her hands and again took a step, approaching the exit. When her hand finally touched the edge of the concrete structure, the girl caught her breath for a brief moment and pushed herself up. Gently rolling to the side, Lily fell to the ground and tiredly regained her breath. After a couple of moments, the girl looked around. Clear field, no buildings, no hint of civilization. Convinced that her life was no longer in danger, she looked into the well, where Vlad was waiting for her sign.

— Can you try to throw me backpacks? I’ll let you down the rope — she offered.

The classmate nodded and tossed her things one by one. Finding a small pin of protruding reinforcement, the girl deftly tied the rope and, making sure of its reliability, threw the other end into the well. As Vlad said, the rope turned out to be short and did not reach the bottom of two meters. But even from a height, now the distance felt differently, much more than it was originally supposed. Six meters clearly did not correspond to reality, here it was about fifteen, maybe more. I got dizzy.

Vlad crawled deftly, as if doing a similar trick, if not every day, then every other day for sure. Having reached the rope, the guy accelerated and after a minute he got out, standing next to the girl.

— Six meters, smart guy? she quipped, fighting the fear that had only now formed in her, chilling her soul.

“If I had given a different number, you wouldn’t have climbed,” he assured, not denying his own deceit. Winding the rope, Vlad looked around.

— Well, where are we? — she only now noticed exactly the same chip on Vlad’s neck. The black matte surface of the round “coin” looked intimidating.

It was rapidly getting dark, and occasionally the crows flying across the sky were frightening to the point of horror.

— Let’s go there, — Vlad nodded at the road leading into the distance. — Most likely, if there is a road, there are some settlements.

— Doesn’t that sign bother you? The girl pointed her fingers at the sign of radiation danger.

— They’re everywhere. Or do you have other suggestions? He turned to his classmate in annoyance.

“There are no options,” she admitted.

Throwing backpacks on their shoulders, they walked forward towards the unknown with a friendly step. Vlad looked confident, boldly looking ahead. But was it really so?

— Another approach.

“I can’t,” the guy breathed out tiredly, not feeling his hands.

— There is no word “I can’t”, there is “I don’t want” and “I won’t”. Another approach.

— Don’t want.

“What are you doing like a girl,” my father shouted sternly. If you want to be a leader, you have to work. Another approach.

Push-ups were hard, the muscles were clogged up for a long time and did not hold the weight of the body, which is why the body tried to bend, but the loud commands of the father were forced to follow the execution technique. Sweat dripped down his face, settling in large drops on the rubberized mat, and his mouth, on the contrary, was dry. I wanted to drink, I wanted to fall and lie motionless. But you can’t! There is a goal — there are no obstacles!

After the gym, they, as always, went to the shower and briskly returned home, where they were waiting for a healthy protein dinner and a glass of kefir before bed. It remains to solve two problems in algebra and learn a paragraph in history.

Relatives had long been sleeping, and Vlad was cramming the hateful lessons that did not want to be stored in memory, flying out of his head immediately after reading. Gotta be strong! He was always told and convinced that he could bend the world for himself, create his own destiny, history. No weakness!

He went to bed at about one in the morning, exhausted. But early in the morning, like a bayonet, you need to get up. Make the bed, a few push-ups, press, then water procedures and the main charge. After breakfast and walking to school, listening to an audiobook about motivation on the way. The whole day is scheduled by the minute, clearly and inexorably. Vlad is used to living according to a schedule and for some time he thought that everyone lived like that. Rigid discipline prevented from thinking sensibly and making independent decisions, and eternal control destroyed personal boundaries. It is useless to argue, and only going to the competition, the boy could breathe a breath of freedom. He was forbidden to take places below the first, because his parents claimed that he must be a winner and nothing else.

Friends admired his achievements, but Vlad himself did not experience the joy of numerous awards. Once he became interested in playing chess and for the first time asked his parents to send him to a special club to learn this “art”. Deep down, the guy hoped that there would be less training, but no. Chess has also been added to the regular schedule. Over time, he noticed that he wanted nothing more in life, and made decisions only when he was in the chess club. Everything else is on schedule — strictly and inexorably.

Lily tossed her head. She sniffed and quietly asked:

— Don’t you think it smells like burning?!

“There’s smoke rising over there,” Vlad waved his hand.

Do you think there are people there?

He shrugged.

— I do not know.

They were silent for a while. The road is overgrown. Passing the field, they entered the forest belt. A gloomy impression was created around and a suspiciously dead silence pressed, making the heart skip a beat with every step that was surprisingly light and confident — it was like teenagers trying to disguise their fear of something and could not get rid of obsession. From time to time, slender thujas and needle pines floated by. Sparse hay grass and small oak bushes flashed along the sides of the road. There was nothing alive to be seen. Everything around him breathed death, something obscene was felt in the air.

“It’s all strange,” Vlad spoke first. — Do you remember what was written in the contract that we signed for participation?

“Mmmm,” Lily thought, rolling her eyes. “Something about us being responsible for dangerous situations, the winner gets a cash prize, some tests and medical intervention at the discretion of the doctors.” She unconsciously touched the chip on her neck.

— I tried to pull it out, but it was implanted, — Vlad intercepted the glance of a classmate. — I don’t understand anything. And what is the purpose? Do we have to go somewhere?

— It seems like we ourselves have to find out the collection point, — the girl recalled. “Nothing was actually written. Nothing has been written about the venue or dates. Where do you think we are?

— Maybe some area. These confuse me, — he pointed at another sign of radiation danger. Maybe they are fake?

— How to check? she shrugged. — If at least there was a dosimeter or clarification of the location.

— Didn’t you pay attention? In some places the inscription is in Ukrainian.

“But it could be a fake,” Lilia remarked reasonably. — Styling type. More interested in what kind of chips and why those injections were made. Did they all make them? Where are the others then?

“Everyone,” Vlad confirmed. We will address issues as they come up. Nothing else remains.

Conversations distracted, forced fear to recede. It started to rain. The clouds crept across the sky quickly, it became difficult to walk along the muddy road, the sneakers got wet, squelching with every step. Now the road is already dark, and the rain is still pouring. Water on the face turns into a real mirror. You see your deathly pale skin, you see the shadow that someone talked about before. The world trembles around you, like the floor under your feet: nothing happens in it, but your world has changed now. He is not the same — not the same as he was in your memory.

“Uh-huh,” she nodded sadly and asked softly. — Why did you apply?

— There were reasons.

Suddenly, barely noticeable reddish lights flashed among the trees, the smoke grew closer, and the smell of burning intensified. The black trees seemed to move closer to a small clearing beside the road. Through the noise of the wind, the clang of iron crowbar was heard, coming from the opposite side. Near the lights was a long log wall, built of thick logs. It blew rotten, the walls smelled disgustingly like a swamp. A minute later, the fire stopped, a tremor went through the wall, and deep and winding cracks appeared on it.

In the distance, wolves suddenly howled. Lily cringed. Her eyes met Vlad’s eyes for a moment, and he read in them… It’s hard to say what exactly. Carefully moving forward, they finally saw the source of light — a minibus with the Ouroboros emblem was on fire. The huge emblem was written on a black enamel background in purple spirals and white lettering, stretched almost invisible in a flickering electric light. Several people stood in front of the burning minibus, two more lay in dark uniforms, showing no signs of life.

— Chapter 4-

Without hope

The second hour Denis spent in the company of an excellent student Irina and beauty Maria. They woke up while still in the car, when they were being driven somewhere along the road by two armed officers with the Ouroboros emblem.

— Where are you taking us? — Masha was indignant, hysterically hitting the partition separating the driver and employee from schoolchildren with an expensive bag.

— Open! Release us! Irina demanded, but languidly, more pretending to support the “noble” impulse, sitting on the seat and rubbing her neck, in the area of \u200b\u200bthe strange round chip.

Denis sat up, feeling his whole body numb from the uncomfortable lying. My head ached, and my stomach rumbled hoarsely, demanding food. Nearby lay three small bags with the emblem.

— Where are we going? Will we be fed? — the guy clarified, which attracted the attention of the girls.

— Are you thinking about the zhrachka again? You need to lose weight! — Maria threw angrily and again continued to drum on the partition.

— Exactly, fat, — Irina supported, throwing a contemptuous glance at her classmate. — It would be better if you studied like that, otherwise your brains are already swollen. Do you not mind yourself?

A small window in the partition parted, and the menacing voice of the driver said:

— Shut up.

— But the fact that? Do you even know who you’re dealing with, who is my father? Maria did not calm down. Grabbing a lying bottle, the girl unscrewed the cap and splashed water in the face of the driver by force.

— What are you doing? The officer turned around angrily, looking away from the road for a few moments. This became the deciding factor. The moose appeared out of nowhere, a second and he had already flown into the windshield. The steering wheel jerked to the side, and the car crashed into a tree on the side of the road.

The silence was deafening. As if nothing had happened, the moose slid off the hood and limped into the woods. Denis watched the car smoke and slowly turned his head to the side, feeling something sticky on his temple. Touching the skin, he realized that he had cut the skin on his forehead, near the hair, hitting during the accident.

— We’re on fire! — Ira screamed in a panic, the first on wobbly legs rushed to the door. Unsuccessfully pulling the handle, the girl tried to get out, feeling how terrible the smell of burning fills the minibus.

— Fat, why are you sitting! Maria roughly pushed the guy. — Help!

Denis slowly approached the door and, leaning with his whole body, tried to open it. The shutter reluctantly moved aside, letting the schoolchildren out into the street. Leaving the girls ahead, the guy looked back at the backpacks and, thinking, threw them out of the car. Leaving the salon, Denis pulled two employees out of the already burning minibus, but the men showed no signs of life. Black uniforms, face masks, body armor…

And now they were sitting on a log and could not decide what to do next. For cursing, they did not notice how dark it was and the sense to go somewhere was completely gone. Masha froze in her short skirt and increasingly approached the burning car. Ira, leaning her shoulder against a tree, dozed quietly, feeling weak.

Denis studied the contents of the backpacks and there was not a lot. Three canteens of water, a knife, a tactical flashlight, two dry rations and hydrogen peroxide.

— Can we eat? — the guy suggested, but under the contemptuous glances of the girls he stopped short.

— Fat! Fat! You need to lose weight! You’re eating again!

These taunts were constant. Every day, several times. He was embarrassed to eat in the school canteen, but the feeling of hunger rose, forcing him to go and get his portion. In addition, I always took a few buns. At the common table there were always those who mocked, talked about a diet or a hunger strike. School has become torture. Nobody wanted to communicate with Denis — he is fat. He’s dumb because he’s fat. He’s boring because he’s fat. Adolescents can be cruel, putting up labels and not realizing that they hurt the feelings of others.

Returning home to his mother and grandmother, the boy was immediately fed. Grandmother loved to cook a lot and made it delicious, but she didn’t let go of the table until the plate was empty. It started from childhood, when Denis was forcibly forced to eat, not letting go for a walk, because adults know better what a growing body needs. Yes, and at home they never talked about being overweight, everything was prepared useful, from which, supposedly, it was impossible to get fat. So imperceptibly, Denis gained and gained until he approached a hundred kilograms, but his relatives did not see any problems, because the transitional age, and indeed, the boy was of normal build.

Food has become the only thing that gives pleasure. She saved from sadness and depression, cheered up and became indispensable. If the score is good, you need to reward yourself with an extra piece of fragrant pie. If something didn’t work out, you need to cheer up with chips and chocolate. Denis began to experience a constant feeling of hunger, not knowing how to deal with it. Classmates laughed, said that he had no willpower, and the boy simply became addicted to food.

— How are things at school? Grandma asked.

— Fine.

Have you found a bride yet?

— Nu-u ba, — the teenager blushed.

— Oh, okay. What kind of girl? Good? — she sat opposite, taking an interest in amorous affairs.

— Ira, our excellent student, — the guy surrendered, knowing that his grandmother would not back down and it would be easier to answer right away. She is beautiful and very smart.

— Take care of her, sit at the same desk, share chocolates.

She doesn’t even look at me.

It was painful for Denis to admit that Irina not only was not interested in him, but joined the persecution, considering him the lowest grade. The girl perceived any tackles with mockery, exposing her classmate’s love for all to see and mocking him in every possible way. Why did Denis again eat his anguish and pain, feeling that no one in this world understands him.

Masha returned to the fallen tree and indignantly clarified:

— Are we going to sit here? — it was uncomfortable to walk in heels, but beauty, as you know, requires sacrifice and never focuses on brains.

— Well, they are probably looking for us, — Denis muttered quietly, looking at the dry rations and feeling his mouth fill with saliva. I wanted to eat incredibly.

— Will they find it and what will happen to us next? — the excellent student was reasonably indignant. We are in the forest! Where will we go? The darker it gets. And here wild animals walk. We’ve got strange chips on us, they’re probably tracking wherever we go.

— Smart such!? Maria said with a sneer. “So we’re going to vegetate here?”

The branch cracked. The teenagers fell silent, staring fearfully into the darkness. The pale moon provided poor illumination, and angry shadows flickered among the dark silhouettes of the trees. Or is it wild imagination? Denis looked around and, noticing that one of the Ouroboros employees accompanying them had a machine gun, picked it up from the ground and pointed it into the darkness.

— Wait! We will shoot! — the guy said in a trembling voice, realizing that he did not even know how to pull the shutter.

The footsteps stopped.

Ira put down her textbook, rested for five minutes and moved on to the next subject. She had an excellent memory, perseverance and the ability to memorize everything, even if there was no understanding of the subject. Red diploma has become the meaning of life. After all, grades matter. Excellent students are always forgiven a lot, they will have the opportunity to enter any university in the world, and then work, career…

She could do nothing but study, study and study again. But sometimes I wanted to do something, so when urging the Losers on any boil, the girl was not worried. The teachers won’t believe she’s capable of doing nasty things or supporting something like that. Irina considered herself better than other people. Despised those who are unable to learn. She hated beauties like Masha, who achieved everything thanks to money, connections and a pretty appearance. Only study, only hardcore!

Therefore, Irina chose strict suits for herself, actively participated in school life, and joined the club of human rights activists. Everything where study was needed interested the girl. She did not have any feelings for people below her in “internal” rank, and curry favor with those who could influence her “promotion”. She denied the “excellent student syndrome”, considering this nothing more than an excuse, and continued to cram, doing her homework in full and thrilled only with praise, again looking down on her classmates.

— Chapter 5-

Defeated, but not surrendered

The door taken out frightened Alena, who was already hysterical. Eugene did not pay any attention to the crybaby, examining the abandoned house. In the next room, two sports bags with a poor content were found: two flasks of water, matches, a flashlight and two packs of bandages. When Eugene came to himself, he found a crying classmate who, smearing tears on her cheeks, was wheezing, not intending to calm down. A light dress and jacket are stained with mud. Zhenya just rolled his eyes and patted his pockets to find that the phone had disappeared from his jeans pocket. The T-shirt is cool, so he zipped up the jacket and touched his neck. The skin hurt and almost immediately the fingers found a small button on the neck. Turning his gaze to Alena, Evgeny noticed exactly the same chip, which, apparently, was implanted in all the project participants.

The rumble of the fallen door made the guy flinch and jump up from his seat, ready to fight back against the unknown troublemaker. Alena screamed in fright, starting to cry even more. “And where does she have so many tears?” — the guy thought aloofly.

The floorboards creaked and Dimka entered the room. The classmate looked collected and as if ready for anything. On his shoulder hung the same bag that lay against the wall. Dimka is dressed simply: jeans, T-shirt and jacket. “Well, at least the uniform at school was canceled, otherwise it would be inconvenient,” Zhenya thought dejectedly.

“Oh, you’re here,” a classmate remarked without surprise. — And tearful here. Che, long since woke up?

“Recently, I suffered from hallucinations,” Zhenya admitted, pinching the bridge of his nose. — Where are we? Where are the others?

I don’t know, I just found you. This is an abandoned village.

“Yeah, you never know such places around the country,” drawled a classmate.

— Hey, — Dmitry turned to Alena. — Hare whine, your head already hurts.

The girl nervously fell silent, trying to suppress her tears.

— And what to do? Jenny folded his arms across his chest.

— Play. We are in the project, we are being tracked, — he nodded at the chip on Alena’s neck. “So we need to get out of here, find clues and get to the rally point.

Alena made a strange sound, as if she was about to burst into tears again. Tiredly rolling his eyes, Dmitry looked out the window and clarified:

Are you going or are you staying here?

— Let’s go, — Zhenya quickly decided and, picking up the backpacks, pulled the girl by the hand.

Awkwardly shifting her feet, Alena walked, stumbling all the time in her shoes, which she received not so long ago as a birthday present.

— Why are you crying again? Stupid! the mother yelled, which made the girl even more hysterical and annoyed her parents.

— No, look at her! — the father was indignant. — There would be no mother to help, but she is crying!

— Shut up! Shut up!!! — Mom brought a belt over her head. In the next second, the blow fell on the girl’s head.

“Why do everyone have children like children, only you are stupid with me,” my mother continued to swear furiously.

— No need! It hurts me, — the girl tried to stop another spanking, but she only made it worse.

— She looks at the boys. It would be better if you were so interested in studying! Maybe you also sleep with anyone you get? Things to check!

Mom grabbed her school backpack, emptying all her pockets. Later, she checked the desk lockers and her daughter’s personal belongings, as if she wanted to find compromising evidence.

— Mommy, don’t! Alena roared, but another slap on the head silenced her.

Alena shuddered, driving away the surging memories and sniffing for the last time, she wiped away her tears. Dmitry confidently walked along the road and soon led a small company out of the village. There was a fork ahead. Choosing a wider road, Dima straightened his bag and looked at the darkening sky.

— Or maybe we should have stayed in the village? Elena asked softly.

“You can come back,” the boy waved.

Zhenya just sighed. It was a bad idea to split up, it was not for nothing that all the cringe in horror films began precisely when the characters began to walk one by one. Wandering along the dark road, Eugene quickly felt tired. He was completely unsuited to long physical exertion, preferring books to walking. There was nothing left in his parents’ apartment that could entertain Zhenya, except for three telescopes and a fake Indian elephant donated by friends. It slowly turned along with the globe and smiled enigmatically as the glowing numbers on the map of Asia turned green. And now, together with a warm apartment, he was walking along a wet road, somewhere far from civilization.

The dark forest frightened each of them, but Dmitry tried not to succumb to the collective panic, not to lose the face of a lively guy who doesn’t care about anything. Here one could see terrible charred stumps, harsh overgrown shrubs, broken trees with bare roots, swaying in the wind. But above all this, the dark blue sky froze, and a bottomless bowl of the night luminary reigned overhead. In such places it is difficult to maintain peace of mind. Alena sniffled. There would be at least someone who just at that moment painfully wanted to cry. For a moment she was filled with such self-hatred that she screamed, and her hands clutched at her shoulders of their own accord, and her face contorted as if with a terrible premonition. But that only lasted a moment. And then everything returned to normal. The guys shuddered in surprise, but said nothing and continued to walk forward, choosing a more beaten path.

Dimitri was the first to notice the bright shadow ahead. Something whitish translucent strangely trembled in the light wind, vaguely resembling a child’s figure in a light dress. The figure sat on the road with its head bowed. There were brown spots on the light fabric.

Zhenya stopped right behind his classmate’s shoulder and waved his hand to Alena, asking her to be quiet. The girl stopped, cautiously peeking out of the guys’ backs.

— What is it? Yevgeny asked quietly, noticing that a forest could be seen through the figure. Ghost?

— Some kind of crap, — Dmitry noted in surprise. — Hey! Are you all right?

The girl got up from the ground, shook off the sand and blood from her dress and slowly walked along the road, looking around in surprise, approaching the company of her classmates. Her movements were unnatural, suspiciously sharp, alarming. Catching her gaze, Eugene saw a genuine feeling behind the mask, a mixture of grief and fear. Something happened in the life of this child, an event occurred due to which her former strength disappeared into a fog, that was the impression that was created. Yet there was something subtly unsettling about her. With an unexpected jerk and with unnatural speed, the girl ran towards her classmates, making a terrifying sound, like a loud whistle, crossed with a wheeze. And then, just like in the cartoons, she had her own language, complex, creepy and incomprehensible.

— Let’s run! — Dmitry was the first to turn around, rushing headlong into the village, along the way, dragging Alena. — Let’s! Move the rolls!

The frightened girl, not paying attention to her heels, tried to keep up with her comrades in misfortune. Adrenaline rushed into his blood, seething, igniting from the inside. The company fled without looking at the road, pursued by the ghost of a little girl. Having freed her hand, Alena felt her lungs burning, and almost immediately it hurt in her side, but fear drove her forward, forbidding her to think about pain.

Zhenya lagged behind a little, turning around every now and then. When he looked up again, he didn’t notice his classmates. Fear paralyzed him and in the next second he stumbled, falling to the ground, ripping off his palms to the blood. Turning to the impending threat, the guy did not have time to understand anything, as his face burned with pain, and his consciousness faded.

Next courses. He felt like a role model and this has always been confirmed. Remember your mom’s friend’s son? So this person has always been Eugene. He knew how to cook, knew a bunch of clever terms, studied well and always agreed with his mother. Studying was a pleasure, I liked to learn new things, to learn languages. The future was already planned: the first and second education, work in a large company, and then career growth. Everything was decided by the knowledge that Eugene stuffed himself to the fullest. Unlike Irka, he did not strive to get only good grades, but tried to understand the material, realizing that knowledge is power. But the future lies in the use of knowledge. Everywhere work experience is required and they say: “Forget everything you were taught before”, so Evgeny always found the use of all the information that he drew from any open sources. But classmates saw him as a botanist and a nerd, and valued him only for the opportunity to write off, because Irka never “stooped to such a thing.” Trying to get universal love, Eugene often took additional essays from classmates, so to speak, bribed them. Him additional knowledge, exciting pastime and gratitude, and classmates finished work.

Sometimes he wondered what would happen if he refused to do homework for others? Would you continue to appreciate it? Or, on the contrary, they would have been rotten, like Denis, because there is always a reason for persecution. Therefore, more and more communication with people, Zhenya preferred books and the Internet. He followed the social networks of acquaintances, lamenting that people were wasting too much time instead of studying the material and preparing for the school day. But everyone’s life seemed richer. The guy wanted to be called to a school disco or a party, but, as Dmitry put it: “Bespectacled people have nothing to do there!”. It’s a shame and unfair, but Eugene was convinced that later the world would fall at his feet. You just need to wait, gain experience and knowledge, and soon everyone will talk about him, because it is he, the very son of his mother’s friend. They will take an example from him, and the girls will bite their elbows with envy, realizing that they have lost such a groom.

— Chapter 6-

Fantastically bad story

The affair with Nikita came to life almost simultaneously. The dark tunnels of the cave evoked melancholy and cold.

— And where are we? Romka asked an obvious question.

“I have no idea,” Nikita answered no less obviously. — Some caves, maybe Syan?

— No, I watched the video and it’s not them, — a classmate shook his head negatively. — Oh, we have some belongings here! — nodding at the folded bags, which he gutted almost immediately.

— Two flasks of water, a rope and dry rations, a stalker, pancake, — Nikita squatted down in front of a few belongings. — Okay, let’s get out of here. My ass can feel that it’s dangerous here.

— Maybe a heart? corrected comrade Romka.

“Maybe,” the streamer answered evasively and, throwing his backpack in first, went into the dark tunnel. Surprisingly, it was as if there was an internal illumination that allowed them to move freely in the darkness without bumping into obstacles. Or was it just normal, and those flashes of light that flickered ahead — just their own memories of the hustle and bustle of the day? Nothing like this has ever happened to students before. And it was at least curious — at least from a technical point of view. The tunnels narrowed and widened, sometimes becoming quite narrow, allowing only crawling to overcome the distance, and sometimes you can go to full height. The guys moved forward confidently. The road in the cave gradually rose, and it became noticeable that not just stones, but multi-ton blocks of basalt were fixed behind the distant pillars on the walls. Far away in the depths, they glowed with a cold green fire. It seems that there was a natural cave in which these huge lanterns burned. Soon the travelers came to the exit — a small recess with a rusty staircase upstairs. Once on the surface, classmates staged a brief halt. It seemed that they spent six hours in a closed space, but it is impossible to say for sure — there are no hours.

Taking a sip of water, Nikita looked around.

— It seems to me that it was a comedy, — he drawled a phrase from the once popular film.

— The road leads there, — Romka waved his hand to the side. It was hard to call it a road, it looked more like a wide overgrown path leading into the forest.

“There is a sign of radiation,” the streamer noted looking closer. — So there are not so many places where we are.

— For example? Roman raised his eyebrows curiously.

— Ozersk in the Chelyabinsk region, Seversk in the Tomsk region, Aikhal or Udachny in Yakutia, or Totsk district in the Orenburg region. Are there many places?

“I didn’t think that the cyber-nerd knew such details,” the comrade clicked his tongue admiringly.

— So I learned a lot from the games, — Nikita chuckled. — But this is the only road, so we were either brought along it, or lowered into the catacombs through another entrance. Lucky they got out at all.

— Well let’s go. The sun has just risen, the whole day ahead.

They walked forward in unison, listening to extraneous sounds, but nothing but the sounds of wildlife sounded with the preservation of copyright. In a minute they reached the first trees and entered the forest.

— Come on!? — Nikita did not believe his eyes, looking around.

— What’s happened? Roma asked tensely, feeling a vague anxiety.

— We are in the exclusion zone, — and after a pause he added. — Maybe.

— Maybe? How did you understand it?

— Well, I’m a nerd, — a classmate smiled. “I played many games and I can say with confidence that I remember this location,” he stopped and checked his internal compass. If I’m right, then we should go there. Let’s go to Yanov, and from there I’ll take us out.

— Great plan, but what to do with it? Romka pointed to the chip on his neck.

— Let’s get up with an overnight stay on Yanov and try to pick it off there. It annoys me more that we have no matches, no knife.

— Well, at least they put it to eat, at least something.

— Yes, you are an optimist.

— I have to, — Romka smiled sadly and added encouragingly. — Lead, stalker.

He ran away from home again. Increasingly, my mother went from problems to alcohol and broke down, blaming everyone around her for her failures. Each new day did not inspire confidence, and hope for a better future faded away. There was a catastrophic lack of money, and it was annoying to walk around in tatters. Classmates always laughed at the appearance of Roman, considering him a rogue. He got a part-time job, but how many places do teenagers take?! Handing out flyers, mopping the supermarket floors, sometimes filling in for someone at the market stall...it all brought grains. Often they were driven out to all sorts of “subbotniks”, for which you can get mere pennies.

The last straw was that very evening — the mother who had drunk found the deferred money of her son and put it on alcohol, again accusing him of all mortal sins, they say, and stealing her son. Perhaps all due to the fact that the woman herself gave birth at sixteen, when she herself did not get on her feet, and dad, as usual, left for bread and did not return. Maybe said general immaturity. Children should not have children, and Romka was convinced of this. Out of resentment, he went outside and met with a friend who at that very moment was robbing a car for one radio. Someone called the police. The comrade managed to escape, but Roma did not. Friendship is a strange thing, and the student took the blame, not sparing being a “rat” and handing over the culprit with giblets. Sitting in the investigator’s office, he thought...could life even once give him a chance? He would not have missed him, would have clung to him with all his hands and feet, would have striven for his dream. And such a chance turned up. The Ouroboros project was discussed at every turn, and the student decided to fill out a questionnaire. And not just once. Every day he sent many messages, hoping to be noticed. The long wait for an answer was annoying and exhausting, but one fine day they called.

They turned off the road and went deeper into the woods. Walking became more difficult. Wet ground, as if it had rained not so long ago, which made the legs bogged down and slipped on the moss, and tall trees with half-naked crowns did not give a sufficient view. Nevertheless, they passed the forest and came to the bend of the stream. Schoolchildren entered the water and began to hastily step over the rapids. The murmuring water led them to a hollow, which they covered with bushes and stopped briefly to rest. But delay is death, and soon they were on their way again. Each step was given with difficulty, fatigue made itself felt.

— Listen, what happened between you and Lizka? The tale goes around a lot, I would like the original source, — Romka suddenly asked, feeling how the silence was starting to get on his nerves.

“She cheated on me,” Nikita replied dryly.

— As? — the classmate was taken aback.

— She wrote, asked to meet her from some party. I come, and she sucks with some guy. After she apologized, said that it was an accident, she was insane. Ugh, alcohol is evil.

“Alcohol is evil,” Roma confirmed, knowing firsthand about the consequences. — Did you love her?

“Yes,” he replied after a long pause. But now I don’t feel anything. Betrayal always hurts. I didn’t think we’d be like this.

— Sorry. Why did you join the project? You seem to have everything in ointment with streaming, and you are a top player.

— I have a startup, I want to create several websites, and then develop my own game. Everything needs money.

— Oh, cool! I would also like to participate in this, — the guy smiled. — I have mastered the graphics and design programs well. A computer scientist taught me after school, showed me new technologies. I even studied C++ and C# a little, as well as Java and Assembler.

— Listen, well, as we get out, I would work with you. It’s easier to break through together, — Nikita suggested. — We can stream jointly.

— I’m for, — Romka nodded, feeling a joyful anticipation. Finally, his life was getting better.

They walked in silence for some time, but soon Nikita asked:

— You are… sorry if I somehow offended you at school. Honestly, not out of malice

— So you didn’t hurt, — Romka grinned. — I was not spread rot only you, Lilia and Deniska-taffy. I wonder how they are doing there.

— I think if this is a project, then we were thrown to different points, after which they will somehow bring us together somewhere. I saw this in the movies.

Communication switched to lighter topics, memories of school, teachers and lessons. So quietly they went to the mysterious, drowning in dense forests and high levels of radiation, a closed railway station. A small brick building that all fans of Chernobyl-themed games would definitely recognize. The rusty plaque was poorly preserved, but even so, one could make out a short “Yanov” on it.

— You’re a fucking genius! Roman exclaimed softly.

Small shrubs seeped through the broken platform. The old wagons, with their paint tarnished, were still on the rails and would never run again. Who would have thought that one day this place would gain freedom from human oppression. Before the accident, the Yanov station belonged to the South-Western Railway. Passenger and cargo work was carried out at the station, access roads of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, ORS warehouses, oil depots and other enterprises of the city of Pripyat adjoined. The radiation background at the Yanov station today exceeds the norm by several times. Although immediately after the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the background at this place was very high. In this regard, the village of Yanov was demolished and buried in the year 1987, exactly a year after the accident, in which about a hundred people lived. The station, by the way, was put into operation in 1925, marking the beginning of the city of Pripyat. The radiation background here is much higher than the norm, which is why the village of Yanov was demolished and buried after the Chernobyl disaster.

Nikita shook his head. It’s all bad. Children must walk, wagons must run, and power plants must work. But what happened, happened, it is impossible to turn back time. The villages where people once lived were now abandoned. In the year 2000, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant finally stopped working. So much effort and all to no avail. Some of the cars were turned over, some of them were dismantled, and God only knows where the radioactive metal went.

— Look, — Romka pointed his finger at one of the wagons with a spray-painted ouroboros. The drawing was fresh, clearly recently stencilled.

— We need to search him. Maybe there is a hint or a type of transition to the next level, — Nikita suggested. — The main thing is not to linger, here the background is high, and the save function is not provided.

They carefully approached the rusty train. Climbing the stairs inside the car, the guys entered the compartment. There, on a pile of old newspapers, lay a half-decomposed corpse. He seemed dried up, as if from under plaster, and his eyes turned from glassy to yellow and looked tenaciously at uninvited guests. There was no one else in the car. The body was not even covered. Next to it, the round sign of the project was again revealed. After examining the compartment on the top shelf, there was a map with strange marks, two more dry rations, a flask of water, a pistol with two clips and two cans of stew.

— Khabar, — Nikita chuckled, still cautiously looking sideways at the corpse.

— Grab this and let’s go. We need somewhere to stay for the night. It’s already getting dark, — Romka said tensely.

— I support.

Quickly leaving their prey in backpacks, the guys briefly examined the rest of the compartments and hurriedly went to the station. Strongly strained the inscriptions “It’s infected here.” Having entered the station building, the guys thought for a while, and after choosing one of the service rooms, they barricaded themselves there, stopping for the night.

Having opened a can of stew and biscuits, the guys examined the map with curiosity. Roman tried to remember the general arrangement, trusting more to a friend who understood the situation better — the game experience affected, which turned out to be most welcome.

— Do you know the places marked with a cross? Roma asked, seeing the marks with a red felt-tip pen.

“Uh-huh,” he picked up the stringy meat from the can with his finger and chewed it. — I think, right here, — Nikita pointed to the blue circles with his finger. — There are some caches. And red, maybe tests or clues. It only annoys me … — he fell silent, chewing on the stew.

— Why did they leave us like that without explaining anything? Romka guessed, and after waiting for an affirmative nod, he added. — They put their lives in danger. It doesn’t really look like a game.

— Maybe I’m wrong, but… apparently the project is just a cover. Remember, we were given painful injections? It doesn’t really look like the game we signed up for. Paranoid, — Nikita chuckled.

— Could you take us out?

— From the Chernobyl exclusion zone? Easy. But I’m afraid we won’t be allowed to leave the area so easily. We also need to find out what kind of chips they implanted in us and try to take them out of action.

— Maybe then we should find ours and try to get out?

— It will be the most reasonable. It is unlikely that anyone else knows the way, and it will be easier for a company to cover each other.

Having finished the stew and washed it all down with water, the guys once again checked the locked door and, having made a kind of bed for themselves, fell asleep, insanely tired from a busy day.

— Chapter 7-

Compassion is with you forever

Denis peered tensely, trying to find the source of the noise. Ira and Masha stood immediately behind the shoulder of a classmate, trembling with fear. Their faces were frozen in the expression that people have when they are waiting for the verdict of a doctor or the verdict of fate. But there was no verdict. To the left of Denis, a slight creaking and a quiet rustle were heard. The classmates turned around. Not noticing anything dangerous, Denis shifted his gaze further and was suddenly dumbfounded: a meter away from them in a deep green ravine filled with water, a huge fat centipede was sitting. In the background, in fact, something crunched — like a stone in a children’s sandbox, only in a multi-ton metal bag. The sound was like giant footsteps. It got louder, then quieter — and from time to time it subsided.

— I’ll shoot! — Denis repeated a little more confidently, feeling how the weapon was being hardened.

— You will miss, — a mocking voice was heard from the darkness, which belonged to Vlad. — Danchik, lower the barrel just in case.

Everyone exhaled. Joyfully racing each other classmates hurried to Vlad. Soon a silhouette became visible in the darkness, and soon the guy himself. Lily walked a little behind, holding a backpack by the strap.

— How are you here? Denis asked, not hiding his joy.

— Woke up in a well. And you? Vlad replied calmly.

— An accident because of one fool, — Irina responded angrily, looking contemptuously at Masha.

— And what’s next? Does anyone have a mobile? — I ignore the excellent student, asked Maria.

— No, everything was taken away. Someone was taking you. Have you checked if they had walkie-talkies or… well, at least something, — Vlad looked at the schoolchildren in turn.

“No,” Denis said guiltily. — Only took the machine gun when they heard footsteps.

— It is necessary to examine, maybe we will find, — suggested Lily, who had been silent until that moment.

— So smart? Here you go, — Masha snapped. — I don’t go there anymore.

Vlad and Lilia looked at each other and seemed to agree on something. Turning to Denis, Vladislav clarified:

— Can you show me the way?

— Yes, let’s go, — the plump man readily responded and led to the skeletons of a minibus, next to which lay two employees of Ouroboros.

Maria and Irina stood for some time, but as soon as the main group moved some distance away, they suddenly felt fear and rushed to catch up with their classmates with all their might. Vlad and Lilia were checking their pockets to the fullest, putting aside all the finds. Stepping aside to a fallen tree, the company settled comfortably.

— Map, — Lily unfolded the found sheet. — The bad news.

— Were they good before? — Ira sarcastically clarified.

— We are in Chernobyl, — ignoring her, the girl continued. — I don’t know where exactly, but… there are some marks.

— Let me see, — Vlad held out his hand and accepted the card, began to study with interest.

— Did you find anything else? — Masha pushed Lily, as if she wanted to vent her anger on her.

“Open your eyes,” she dismissed, continuing to examine the many marks.

Denis quietly sat next to him, holding his stomach, which constantly made rumbling sounds. I really wanted to eat. As soon as the fear receded, uncontrollable hunger returned. I wanted to eat something. Better than fried potatoes. Or dumplings? And chips. With cheese sauce. Nervously swallowing the saliva that had come up, Denis froze in anticipation. He did not like everything that was happening, and the only thing he considered right was to entrust more wise and experienced comrades. And were they his comrades? He looked at Masha. Selfish, arrogant and beautiful. If it wasn’t for the nasty feeling of superiority, she might not be such a bad person after all. Ira… Irochka… Irina… first love. Grandmother always said that the first love is almost never successful, ending almost tragically. As an example, for some reason she always cited the story of Romeo and Juliet — because of the love of young people, six people died. This has been talked about since kindergarten, so, probably, Denis immediately resigned himself to the fact that Ira would never pay attention to someone like him. It was unpleasant for him to admit that he had gathered for the project only in order to prove to an excellent student that he had a chance that he was not useless.

— So, we have two machine guns and four magazines of cartridges, a map and we are in the ass of the world, — Vlad summed up and looked at Denis, clarified. — Can you shoot?

“No,” he blushed.

— I can, — Lilia gave her voice and Denis obediently handed over the weapon to her. Vlad took the second machine gun.

— We got out of this well, if I understood the symbols on the map correctly, — said the athlete, turning to Lilia. “So there must be an abandoned village there. There are signs here, perhaps there is one of ours.

— So what? Are we going to be in the dark? Masha yelled indignantly. — I’m not going anywhere. Let them send a car and pick me up from here.

Vlad turned to Lilia, and she nodded in agreement, supporting the plan of action. After checking the weapon again and jerking the bolt, the couple, as if on command, rose from the log.

— We will try to find ours and if anything, we will return with help. Is someone coming with us? Vlad asked for the last time.

— I stay! Maria defiantly crossed her legs and tilted her head. “I’m not going to knead the dirt with my shoes. Do you even know how much they cost?

— I’m staying too. Walking through the forest at night is suicide, “an excellent student supported her.

— I … — Denis sighed. — I’ll stay.

— What, fatty, decided to play a hero, like you will protect us? — Masha threw venomously.

— Well, so be it. The three of us are not so scary, — the classmate agreed without embarrassment. — You… it… just come back for us.

— Can you leave one machine gun? Lily asked.

“Anyway, none of the three of us knows how to shoot,” Irina remarked reasonably.

Rummaging in his backpack, Vlad took out a flare and handed it to Denis.

“It will help scare away wild animals,” he explained. There are instructions, be sure to read.

“Thank you,” the student smiled.

— Let’s run, otherwise it’s already sick of you, — Masha grimaced.

Lilia winked at Denis, saying hold on, and together with Vlad disappeared into the darkness of the forest. They walked hand in hand, listening and peering into the darkness with all their eyes, in which demonic shadows danced every now and then. Moving a good distance away, the girl quietly asked:

— What kind of village?

— Lelev.

— I’ve never heard of such a thing.

“Me too,” the boy sighed. “Do you think we’ll find anyone there?”

She shrugged her shoulders, afraid to voice her worst thoughts. The fact that everything that was happening was conceived by unknown organizers was no longer even disputed. And it is so clear that if all this happened, then someone needs it. It remains only to decide whether to complete some obscure quests or look for a way home. Home… is a mockery for a person who does not have a home as such. Places where you are welcome, where you are expected. Lily frowned, trying to drive away her sad thoughts. Now is not the time for self-flagellation. Shivering in the cold, the girl shuddered at the sudden warmth from the chip.

Vlad jumped over the log and, exhaling tiredly, stopped. Rummaging in his backpack, he took out a flask and unscrewed the lid, took a small sip and handed it to the girl. Lily took a sip and returned the flask, only now noticing how tired she was.

“We should find Nikitos,” Vlad remarked, continuing the difficult path.

— Why?

— He knows exactly all the locations. This nerd played all the games, for sure, there was something about Chernobyl.

— Do you think he will find “Freedom” or “Monolith”? Lily smiled, trying to lighten the mood a bit.

— Well, suddenly, what the hell is not joking, — the guy chuckled. Did you know that he recently won the tournament?

— Yes? Cool, — she portrayed sincere surprise, not admitting that she knows. She often visited his streams, commenting on everything under a nickname that could not deanon her. She also knew about his personal tragedy, about breaking up with a girl and much more. She always wanted to support Nikita, but at school he never paid attention to her, like many others. It was as if Lily always wore an invisibility cloak.

Vlad noticed a slight thoughtfulness and a slight reddening of his cheeks, but ethically decided to remain silent, not to get into the soul. Each of them had their own problems. Someone hid the past, someone the future, and it was a personal choice. And, of course, no one was to blame for anything. It’s just that the level of discomfort that they had to endure in each other’s company, both sides felt more acutely than the others. Man could not get used to the wonders of the human world alone. Lilia has changed a lot since the death of her parents. Before that, a happy sociable girl turned into a kind of ghost who did not want to contact people, and this was understandable. Some in the class tried to tease her, but Lily seemed not to notice anyone, and then she was left alone.

Now looking at a classmate, Vlad was surprised to notice something that he had not seen before. She is very calm, confident, not bad physical training… they walked all day, and the girl never complained, steadfastly moving forward and not engaging in further skirmishes with Masha. Lily could not boast of good grades. Like everyone else, she had favorite subjects and favorite teachers. Until today, she seemed unremarkable.

— You are tired? If you’re tired, let’s make a halt,” Vlad said hoarsely, feeling awkward.

“It’s all right,” she smiled wryly.

— Okay, let’s get to the place, we’ll have a little rest, — the guy did not insist.

The girl nodded in agreement, lost in her own thoughts. The silence seemed deafening. Each step frightened crunchy branches and champing puddles. All the time it seemed that they were being watched. Vlad cringed. No weakness! To be strong! Everywhere and always.

— Chapter 8-

Second day

Dmitriy ran forward, not making out the road, not noticing how it was already dawn. Fear drove him back to the village. He did not pay attention to whether the crybaby Alena was keeping up with him, where the nerd and nerd Zhenya lagged behind. He turned around only when the first houses were literally a couple of meters away. A classmate awkwardly ran on heels, holding her hand to her side.

— Hide! — Dima shouted to her and, jumping over the fence, disappeared into a neighboring house, hoping that a mysterious something would not find him. Anyone but him.

Alena, breathing hoarsely, ran into the nearest house and huddled in the farthest corner, trying to suppress fear and tears, pulling out the remnants of self-control. She did not understand at what point Zhenya lagged behind. I didn’t know who was following them. She only felt a lump of tears stuck in her throat, giving pain inside. A terrible rattle made the teenager freeze, ceasing even to breathe. She was shaking with fear, and her eyes tried to find the source of the sound. Something ran with a wild howl along the road of the village and disappeared. Exhaling slightly, the girl wrapped her arms around her shoulders, trying to stop her trembling.


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