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Blue Mists

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  05:28:56  5 April 2011
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008

Message edited by:
04/06/2011 16:10:48
Messages: 197
Blue Mists

This is a new story arch that continues my previous fanfic, Echoes. Lots of continuity nods here... oh well, enough of my rambling. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


After twenty minutes of near-impenetrable darkness, the tunnel turned right, and a tiny speck of light was visible. After ten minutes of walking the the four stalkers reached the exit. They were all armed, armored and masked.

The single youth on point walked with a tranquil gait, his weapon loose in his hands. He strolled almost lazily past the piles of long-since ruined concrete sheeting, his companions following with uneasiness, and strode on under the storm, walking around the rumbling springboards and whirligigs with uncanny, eerie easiness, only reinforced by the lightning bolts that flashed in the darkness.

The man was fat, old, and unkempt. A girl wailed a beautiful lullaby from an ancient radio, filling the decrepit halls of his bomb shelter with the purity of her voice. Small light bulbs hanged from the roof, their dim light glinting off the barrels of guns, bullets and gear stacked on boxes, racks and shelves.

Sidorovich epitomized the spirit of the Zone. He was cold, unforgiving, ruthless, and ran his trade with the cruel efficiency of a predator.

The door opened with a clang of metal against metal. He left his steak with a groan of complaint and turned to the small desk where he plied most of his trade. Nikolay, the youth he had hired less than a week ago to care for -or scrap- his vast repository of weapons, appraised the newcomer with tired eyes: a bald, unmasked man, with crystal-blue eyes and an almost palpable aura of silence around him. He put down his backpack next to a wall, took off his gloves, and started ruffling through his belongings.

“Hello there, stranger”, Sidorovich said, having perused through the gallery of faces in his mind and not recognizing this one. His shoulders were so broad that he did not to fit through the doorway, and he wore cheap military fatigues under a muddy ghillie suit. Other than the hafts of a knife sheathed on the jacket and what looked like a long machete, no weapons were visible. “What will it be?”

A warm, mildly stale stench flooded the shelter. The man put a furry tail, a big, distorted eye, a boar’s hoof and what seemed to be an intact brain on the table.

“I want to sell this.” The voice was raw, as if the hunter was not used to talking.

Sidorovich put a hand to his chin, trying not to seem overly interested. “Strange wares, hunter. I normally don’t buy these. But these appear to be in perfect condition...” He reached into his pocket. “I’ll take the tail for five hundred, the eye and the hoof for one thousand each, and the brain for two thousand. Deal?”

The hunter stood still. He stared at Sidorovich without making a gesture. Then: “How much for a brand-new AK?”

“Hm. That'll be... Sixty thousand. I have one in working condition for thirty-six.”

The left corner of the hunter’s lips curved in a glacially crooked smile. He put his wares back on his backpack and turned around towards the exit. The trader shrugged and turned back to his steak.

It was late in the evening when Nikolay left the damp and shadowy bomb shelter to barter for a little food and find a place to sleep. The youth was tired; his hands were black with gun grease and hurt out of exhaustion. He stumbled past the ruined house towards the fire, where, as every day since he had got there, a few rookies had bunched up together.

A burly newcomer stepped forward towards him. “What have you got?” he asked bluntly.

“Eh?” Nikolay was too tired to understand. He caught the glimpse of a knife before the stranger stomped forward and grabbed him by the collar. A single drop of blood trickled down when the cold steel bit his throat.

“Gimme what you got. Now.”

The youth’s eyes flashed in desperation. The strange hunter clad in a ghillie suit was by the fire, oblivious to the scene and apparently unconcerned by it. Wolf, the veteran stalker that acted as de facto leader, was not around as usual.

A low voice spoke from the darkness. “Don’t. Let the boy go.”

The thug turned his head around, looking for the talker. “What?” he laughed evilly. “You gonna stop me?”

A masked silhouette clad in black stalker armor strode forward from inside one of the houses, the muzzle of a rifle pointed straight at the thug’s head. “Yes.”

The thug reacted quickly. He put himself behind the youth, the knife poised to cut the tender white skin. “You'd better drop that piece if you don't want this on your record, punk.”

The black-armored stalker took two steps forward, his aim unwavering, his whole posture menacing. They squared off without a word over three or four seconds, eyes boring on each other. Then a deep, guttural voice hissed behind the thug: “Drop it.”

The hunter had stood up in absolute silence, taking advantage of the thug's focusing his attention on the black-armored stalker. His own blade was poised to strike the man's kidney. The man dropped the knife, and put his hands up. “Okay, men. I didn’t hurt your kid. Peace.”

“Stay where you are.” The rifle in the stalker’s hands did not move. “Come over here, boy.” Nikolay did as he was told, still in shock, having not expected to be roughed up. “You”, the stalker said to the thug, “throw your backpack over here. And your weapons.”

The thug’s eyes rolled up and he threw his hands up. Reluctantly he did as he was told. Then a long blade flashed in the darkness and struck with a vile sound, and the thug's head rolled in the grass.

Surprised, the stalker with the rifle put his weapon down. Nikolay fell on all fours to the ground, retching, then vomited explosively. The rifle-toter was beside him a few seconds later. Weakly the youth looked both at him and at the hunter. “Why... did you do that?”

The hunter did not even acknowledge the question; he just vanished –in absolute silence– into the trees next to Sidorovich's bomb shelter. The remaining stalker took off his mask. His eyes were unnervingly milky-white, and dozens of small cut scars were etched in his face. “There’s just too many thugs and bandits elsewhere in the Zone to let them ply their trade right in rookie village.”

“Whatever your reasons, you have just earned a lifelong friend. Name’s Nikolay”.

“Maxim.” The stalker shook his hand vigorously. “How long have you been here? And how did you get in?”

“A week. We were... dumped here.”

“Dumped? How?”

“There’s just not room enough at the correctional I was, so there’s this... lottery of sorts. You anger the bosses, and you get to draw straws. Then you get drugged up and you awake at a military checkpoint, with nothing but your clothes. No food, no guns, no ammo, no armor, no backpack, no nothing!”

“Bastards... And you got into that situation how?”

“You know that those places are like jails, right? Then there’s... you know... some put themselves in charge bullying or beating everyone who stand up to them. Those who give orders don’t have it as bad... they even get to work as insiders for the guards and orderlies and so they get the best food and bunks, sometimes even some cigars or beer. The rest are in for a world of shit.” Nikolay was speaking angrily now. “Figure this... somebody who doesn’t do what they say is put into the worst cells you can think of, with lice and fleas crawling all over you and roaches fighting over what they give you for food! Some got fed up with that and rioted.”

Maxim covered his eyes with his hand. “And they sent those who started it here.”

Nikolay sighed. “No. Almost as bad, they put them all into the lottery. And those who worked for the bosses and didn’t see it coming. I should know... I was one of those.”

The black-armored stalker mulled his words. Then the hunter emerged from the shadows, a freshly cut stake in his hands. He planted it on the ground a few steps away from the fireplace and stuck the thug's head on it. Then he sat again, his face impassible, his ice-cold eyes gleaming as the fire pranced wildly on them.

“Th... thank you”, Nikolay stammered, intimidated by the hunter's impassivity. The tall man's eyes just wavered off the fire for a second to meet his. The youth mildly took a step back, as if he had been warned off.

Maxim seemed not to notice the warning –if a warning it was– and sat next to the hunter. Weakly Nikolay followed suit. His interlocutor asked, “How did you get into that prison in the first place?”

The youth shook his head. “Wrong thing to do, wrong place, wrong time.” He sighed. “I picked the lock of a cop's wife and they were just arriving on his car.”

In spite of himself Maxim laughed dryly. “Tough luck, huh.”

“Jinxed... That's going to be my stalker alias, if I last long enough to earn one.”

Maxim snorted. “That's not an alias I'd choose.”

“So far, it suits me. How do you earn an alias anyway?”

A shrug. “Beats me. I think it has something to do with the chat channels available here in the Zone. I took Blackjack for myself when I first made it here and it stuck.”

“Blackjack? You're that lucky?”

The stalker shook his head. “NATO designation for the biggest and most beautiful aircraft you'll ever see dropping bombs on top of something. Pilots dub it the 'White Swan'.”

“Oh.” Nikolay shrugged back a bit awkwardly. His newly found friend probably wouldn't be much of a wingman in a card game. “Don't know much about airplanes, myself.” His belly growled noticeably. He ruffled through his pockets. “You have any food up for trade?”

“Better.” Blackjack passed the thug's backpack on to Jinx. He perused it anxiously: on top of a highwayman, the thug had been messy and dirty. A 9mm pistol of western make, roughly sixty bullets –mostly Parabellum and AK ammo–, two fully loaded clips for the pistol, a partly loaded magazine for a Kalashnikov assault rifle, half a pack of cheap cigarettes and a huge collection of butts, two unlabeled cans, half a dozen... what, cereal bars?

“You keeping the gun?” Jinx asked, and instantly regretted it. Blackjack had saved his skin with no real motive to do that, and it was only fair that he kept whatever share of the loot he wished. “Sorry.”

Maxim, much older than the youth, recognized his expression. He handed him the thug's weapon, a weathered AK-47. “I like my own better. You can use it for the moment.”

“Thanks. Again.” A shaky, hesitant smile. He looked at the rugged assault rifle. The stock was tied up together with some sort of duct tape. The wooden fore end was in no better shape. Pockmarks of poorly cleaned-up rust stains were everywhere to be seen, but the AK was incredibly reliable and resistant; his hard-earned experience told him that even without any servicing it would serve him well. “I've been cleaning weapons all day long, I figure I can do it once more.” That said, he opened his own rucksack and produced a hard plastic box containing a basic toolkit and a few plastic bottles; given its condition, the whole set appeared to be Nikolay's most prized possession in the whole world. Blackjack looked on approvingly, but suggested:

“I think that can wait until the morning. You have to eat first, don't you think? You just emptied your belly.”

The youth yawned until his jaw uttered a dry snap. Without thinking he turned towards the gruesome display of the staked head and his stomach churned. His hunger had been viciously suppressed by the adrenaline shock of the episode, but he had to eat. He shook his head and nodded. “I think I'll listen to your advice.” That said, he took a cereal bar pack, opened it and bit a mouthful uneasily. Even though it was delicious, his mouth felt dry.

“That's not going to fill you up much.” Maxim tossed him one of the cans on the thug's pack.

“I know.” He coerced himself into finishing the bar and opened the can. He heard voices coming down the slope and recognized some of them: some of the rookies returning to camp. Soon the camp was lively with chatter.

“What happened here?” It was Wolf. He was staring intently at the head set atop the spike.

“Someone tried to jump the youth over here”, Blackjack replied. The brutality of the episode had touched him too. The sausage felt stale for an instant in his mouth and he swallowed his morsel with difficulty. “The hunter took care of him.”

“What hunter?”

Blackjack turned around, looking for the man in the ghillie suit, only to notice he was gone. The man had slithered away in complete silence. “A big man, over 190 cm. high, dressed in a ghillie suit. He cut the thug's head off.”

Wolf's eyes grew wider at the comment. He inspected the head on the stake, which was still dripping blood. “He surely is a strong fellow, to decapitate a head with a single stroke!”

Maxim suddenly wished he had taken a look at the weapon the hunter had used. He remembered a large silvery flash, larger than a long combat knife.

“Anyway”, Wolf said, as he turned away, without expecting an answer, “looks like he did us a service.”

Maxim watched Nikolay eat the canned meat without relish. Now his appetite had vanished too. Unlike the youth, he had seen combat and taken lives before, and had become hardened to the grisly spectacle that followed the last echoes of gunfire... but being hardened did not mean immunity. Over the chatter, the moaning and the sounds of the rookies as they bartered for miserable meals, places to sleep, gear and even guard posts, his ears were acutely tuned to the droplets of blood, falling from the staked head, as they impacted upon the soil. He shook his head slowly.

A thunderbolt rumbled in the distance. Immediately Jinx stood up, carrying his food and his backpack, and turned to beckon Blackjack to follow him into one of the underground shelters. They sat as comfortably as they could over one of the decrepit mattresses. Maxim took off his headlamp, hanged it from a loose wire next to a wall and turned it on. The utter darkness of the place receded into a half-lit gloom.

“Ahhh, it's great to relax”, he said.

Nikolay nodded. “Better even to be away from that head. That stake would be better off planted near the entrance, or at the slope.”

“I don't think so. Every crook knows they're not welcome if they make themselves known overtly. That's a warning for moles, I guess.”

“Put it that way...” He shook his head and sighed. “What a fuck-up... I don't recall one happy moment where I could be totally at ease in my whole life. First, being a street rat, then getting caught and thrown into that institute, and now this...”

Blackjack took another slice of sausage. “I'd see this as the chance of your life, kid. Collect a few artifacts and you're set for life.” Jinx snorted at the comment.

“Hmph. Only now I got a half-decent gun with barely one clip and a half. And I have to learn how to hit something with this thing first. Don't even make me think about what I gotta do to get started on artifact hunting.”

“That's not the spirit that will get you out of here alive.” Maxim's deep voice was tinged with a reprimand. “You had that gun yesterday? No. Were you killed today? No. Could you have just died? Yes. Were you outrageously lucky today? Yes, you were, and don't count on being lucky like that again, but you got to live another day. Oh, and finally, you had any friends here before now? If you did you wouldn't have been stuck with Sidorovich, nor would you have been alone and vulnerable to that thug, so I'll suppose you didn't. Especially considering how you got here.” He put aside his food and stared at the youth. “Think about your successes first, and be glad of them, and don't get obsessed with what you did wrong. Be both positive and realistic. This place will suck your soul out of you if you don't.”

Nikolay looked back in silence, dazed. He stammered: “That's... well... that sounds like a pretty tough thing to do... being both positive and realistic.”

“It's almost impossible, but your mind will get stronger trying to achieve that state. It takes that to survive and prosper here. And for God's sake, change that alias! The last thing you need is to think of yourself as someone cursed with bad luck.”

The youth smiled hesitatingly. “Er... What would you choose, considering what you know of me so far?”

“Something mechanical, I guess. You must be good at fixing things, or else that fat bastard wouldn't have employed you, even if it was for a pittance. That's a skill everyone should have here. There, you got something to be proud of.”

His partner fell silent, lost in thought, his mind going through what he had just been told. “I'm used to getting yelled at, but... I was never talked like that.”

“I was in Chechnya. I had to keep kids barely older than you alive and sane through that hell.” Maxim did not seem particularly reluctant, but something gave Nikolay the idea that he would not better press on that. Yet. He thought a few seconds, took a deep breath, and said:

“I think Screws would suit, don't you think?”

Blackjack whistled the word silently, and the barest hint of a smile appeared on his lips. “It has charm.”

Nikolay – now Screws – smiled in turn. Then he realized he was hungry again. A light flashed from outside, and then a thunderbolt rumbled. Rains begun to fall.

“I can take a look at your gun later, if you wish.” Actually, he would love to do that. Maxim's weapon was an Abakan assault rifle. It was immediately obvious that the gun was not new, but it was lovingly maintained and had been fitted with several accessories, including both a laser sight and a PSO scope; the stock pistol handle had been replaced by a larger one, more oblique to the rifle, probably based on the M1911 pistol –the gold standard of weapon ergonomics–, and the magazine was in an odd position too, again not as perpendicular towards the weapon frame as the original.

“Not necessary, I field-strip it every day. But...” he said, as he stood up and carefully laid it upon the mattress, “you can watch me clean it. You ever took apart one of those?”

A nod. “Twice, at Sidorovich's bunker. Whomever owned these were total idiots, the guns hadn't been cleaned in weeks. I had to scrap them both. They look like ill-humored bitches to maintain.”

Maxim smirked and nodded slowly. “This is not an AK. Even the Russians don't love it that much... it takes a lot of maintenance to keep it usable as it was designed. And here you have a weapon designed for a 5.45 bullet but chambered for a 7.62, which only makes things worse. Here... look.”

Nikolay watched his newly made friend as he dismounted his weapon with loving care. There was something mechanistic about Maxim's procedures, as if he were doing them out of rote: pieces were scrupulously set apart in a pattern that probably would match a schematic to the letter. Many had the markings of repeated use. “And why keep it?”

“It's never jammed on me, it fires true, it packs a punch... It's never let me down. I take care of it, it takes care of me. It's like that with almost everything with me.” There was an obvious lesson in Blackjack’s words: to those that stuck by him, he would be unflinchingly loyal.

Another thunderbolt rumbled in the distance. Maxim raised his head, then froze.


“That was not a thunder.” Blackjack cursed. “What a moment to be caught with my gun disassembled...”
  01:01:52  6 April 2011
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
On forum: 05/21/2010
Messages: 40
sweet stuff there, the character got a good backstory, it's clean and got some variated vocabulary. I'd say in the same ranks as Wingnut's story but more accentuated on the characters, which I like. Keep it up buddy !
  20:03:32  9 April 2011
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008

Message edited by:
04/10/2011 15:23:28
Messages: 197
@th3l4st0ne: glad to see you enjoyed it. I took me over two months to write the first episode, and less than two days to produce the second. Hope you like it too. Enjoy


Episode II

The man was short but heavy-set, almost rotund in his complexion. The features on his face were almost razor-sharp and Saxon, not Slavic. He did not like rains, electrical storms least of them all. “So... we made it here. Now what?”

The oldest of the four pulled back to the tunnel entrance, produced an expensive cellphone from his hip satchel and typed something. “According to the log... we are one hour early, give or take.”

The rearguard man, clad in a huge black exoskeleton, leaned on the wall. “We wait, then.”

“Wouldn't it be better to stake out the place and wait there?” The first one proposed.

“...No. Our very presence here makes everything different. We cannot foresee what effect could we produce by just being nearby.”

The youth acting as point man climbed atop the tunnel entrance, produced a waterproof blanket out of his backpack and put it over him, and and put his eye to the scope of his long sniper rifle, which was wrapped into a protective blanket to shield it from the rain.

The echoes of short barks and staccatos reached Blackjack and Screws now. Maxim had regrettably shoved the pieces of his precious Abakan into a satchel, putting the most delicate parts into a plastic box for safety, and drawn his sidearm, a silenced APB auto-pistol. -74s and... He strained his memory, trying to identify the sounds he had just heard. Sounds like Heckler & Koch rifles, but not quite identical.... How many of them?

“Want your AK back?” Screws asked.

“I'm used to this little fellow.”

Warily they exited the safety of their shelter into the rain. Outside they met Wolf and his bald lieutenant, Fanatic; the latter was crouched behind the wall, weapon at the ready, while his leader was shouting warnings to the rookies that were scrambling for cover inside the houses.

“What's going on?” Blackjack asked.

Fanatic did not even turn his head. “Hell if I know. I don't really feel like going out there to take a look.”

“The checkpoint is barely a couple hundred meters off... maybe the military stumbled upon newcomers?”

“It could be... Oh well, if they make it here we'll see.”

“But why the grenade?” Screws pondered.

“Beats me, not only rookies make mistakes.” The exchange was growing closer now. Lightning streaked vividly across the sky.

“There are people coming!” A voice warned. “Gray uniforms!”

“Shit!” Wolf cursed. “Everyone stay covered!”

“Gray uniforms?” Blackjack asked.

“Monolith scumbags...”

“What? Monolith?” Screws blinked. Blackjack did not know either, but Wolf's reaction was all he needed to see. He made doubly sure he was carrying both spare magazines for the pistol.

“Later, kid,” the gruff stalker replied with an edge. He bore down on Screws: “Stay down and don't play heroics, you hear me?” The youth weakly nodded his agreement. Wolf turned to Blackjack, looking with disapproval at his pistol. “You two, take position by the first house. Until they're deep enough we don't break cover. Let me say that again: we. Don't. Break. Cover. Clear?”

Blackjack's mind was racing. An ambush was what Wolf was hastily trying to arrange. And it was so obvious that even a rookie on his second boot camp day would not set foot in the village. On top of that, judging from the deadly chatter of many assault rifles, those intervening on the skirmish surpassed them in firepower so many times over that to stage an ambuscade would be tantamount to suicide. But the possible alternatives... Again he cursed having been caught with his Abakan disassembled.

However, all these considerations soon proved unnecessary: the rhythmic –and familiar– tap-tap-tap of a helicopter reached his ears. Someone screamed a warning. He hastily grabbed both Wolf and Screws by the hand and dragged them down into the basement where he had been cleaning his rifle. Fanatic and two rookies followed them.

Wolf cursed. “Shit... and these fuckers are within earshot of this place... they'll be coming right at us now...”

Blackjack took position by the corner next to the stairs, holding his pistol with both hands, grimly wishing he had something heavier to fire. He cursed his luck for the third time and waited. Over him, Fanatic and Wolf both were crouching and standing respectively, poised to shot at anything that appeared. Screws somehow managed to look at them through his terror with enough presence of mind to understand their readiness, and was sorely tempted to ask what would happen if more rookies tried to get inside. The obvious –and cruel– answer was disheartening, but if those fighting had no qualms about taking potshots at them...

Dread stalked them all now. The echoes of the rotor built up in volume as the helicopter drew nearer. A horrible buzzsaw-like sound filled the air over the cracks of the assault rifles and the droning of the rains, immediately followed by distant cries of men. Then, footsteps running outside. Blackjack felt Fanatic and Wolf coil up like springs.

A masked silhouette dressed in barely distinguishable camouflaged livery appeared. Blackjack pulled the trigger before the two other stalkers did. His shot took the man in the left eye. He could now hear pistol shots and blasts of shotguns coming from outside, punctuated by assault rifle fire. Screams were heard. The attackers were now inside the village, and the rookies were fighting back in desperation. And dying. His knuckles turned white with rage and he felt the temptation to go outside and fight the strangers, but before he could even think of scolding himself out of that impulse another gray-clad man appeared and ran for their hideout. This time Fanatic got off the first shot, which hit the man squarely in the neck and fell him, a hideous gurgling sound hissing out of his throat.

Then, a round metallic object bounced on the stairs, once, twice, and stopped next to Blackjack's foot.

Maxim would forever find it hard recalling that eternal second when he dropped the pistol, picked up the grenade and hurled it with all the strength of his left arm outside the basement. “DOOOOWN!”

The explosive went off outside with a deafening bang. He propelled himself backwards with his legs, with the obvious intent of pulling Fanatic and Wolf out of harm's way. A millisecond later shrapnel scythed the walls they had just leaned against. Someone screamed:

“Who's hit? Who's hit?” Wolf asked. He quickly checked everyone out: no blood he could see, just five white faces and several trembling lips. Nobody was hit. Just a scare. Yeah, the scare of your life, he managed to laugh grimly within himself.

The echoes of the battle raged outside. Again the buzz-saw sound of the helicopter's 23mm gun. Bullets smashed through crumbling walls and rotting wood panels alike, many times finding a target. Then, no further gunfire. Just the thunder of the rotor, now an almost overwhelmingly powerful roar, as the helicopter hovered in stationary flight over the village. This is it, Screws repeated himself over and over, too panicked to speak, sob, or scream, now they're going to come for us and kill us all too and burn this place up for good...

After a horrible, endless, nightmarish minute, the helicopter started hovering away. The thunder of the rotor faded back into the ominous tap-tap-tap. Nobody dared to move. They heard the sound circling around them... Then again, the sound grew closer and closer, the rotor whining in an ever higher pitch, until it seemed the helicopter was going to again pound the village.

And then a crashing sound that made the ground vibrate under their feet. The rotor screeched sickeningly for a few instants, then died.

The drone of the rains was now acutely audible. For over two whole minutes everyone stood frozen still. The same thing was on everyone's minds, but nobody wished to take their chances outside.

Then, footsteps approached their hideout. A single voice called, a deep, almost guttural voice Screws recognized:

“The helicopter is down. Nobody is in sight.” It was the hunter.

Blackjack watched Wolf and Fanatic. Both were still listening intently for telltale sounds, trying to detect the ambush... Then an idea sprung in Screws' mind: “Hey... if they wanted us dead... why not just pop another grenade inside?”

Wolf and his lieutenant looked at each other. “True,” the leader of the rookies conceded.

Maxim nodded. Pistol in his hand, he cautiously walked the stairs up. The hunter was, as he had said, alone, clad in the muddy ghillie suit he had seen a while ago and now carrying a heavy backpack. He was staring at him with blue impassivity. Blackjack quickly appraised him: he caught sight of fresh bloodstains on the fatigues underneath the suit, and a few cuts on his hands and face which had already been tended to. He nodded, and turned his head over his shoulder. “Clear.”

Wolf, Fanatic, Screws and the other two rookies came up and, stunned, looked around them. The village had been reduced to shambles. Corpses riddled the ground, most of them clad in the gray armor the rookie leader had said that was typical of Monolith stalkers; those few who were not were either dressed in makeshift stalker suits, plain cheap clothing, or –to Wolf's dismay– military uniforms.

“Shit!” He swore. “They're going to blow this place to hell now!”

“So long for a refuge near the cordon...” Fanatic sighed and shook his head. He then headed for the house across the path, hoping to find survivors.

“Best to salvage what we can and get the hell out of here.” Blackjack put his weapon back on its holster. The hunter nodded at the comment.

“What took the Croc down?” One of the rookies asked.

“A well-placed rifle shot,” was the hunter's raw reply. He disappeared inside the house next to the basement entrance.

Screws followed Blackjack as he went through the village, quickly stripping the dead of their ammo, food, and sometimes weapons and armor. “This one will fit you well”, Blackjack said as he passed on a black suit of armor to Screws. He took it fighting against the nausea, feeling it still warm to the touch. He was horrified by the spectacle of the dead being looted for spoils and could barely fight it. Maxim noticed it but said nothing.

“Strange badges on this...” Nikolay said. “Best to take them out, just in case...”

“Yeah.” Blackjack unsheathed his combat knife and with quick, precise motions, he tore the badges off. “This one has them, too,” he said as he did that with another black suit. He checked it out for size, trying to see if it was a match for him, but bluntly he concluded that he could take care of that later. “You use this gun.” He hurled Nikolay an assault rifle of western make the youth did not recognize and a bag containing several clips. Then, another, similar rifle. “Take this one for spares.”

“Thanks.” Screws noticed his friend was very anxious, and probably with good reason. The military would probably take next to no time in sending someone over to investigate the crashed helicopter, and they would better be miles away from the village by the time that happened. Which left them a very thin margin of time.

“There's military and Monolith dead all over the place...” They heard Fanatic report back to Wolf. Blackjack just looked at them long enough to see Wolf bunch his fists white. “...the fighting came here all the way up from the bridge. I couldn't see it clearly but I think the explosion we heard first happened there.”

The words bridge and explosion resounded in his mind. “Hurry up with that!” He urged Screws. “Just take the two guns I gave you! We're gonna need ammo and food more than extra rifles.”

“But we could sell--”

“To whom?! The Army's going to pound this place flat and swarm over the whole cordon after this! Normally we'd be lucky to reach the junkyards before then, but the bridge pass is open.”


Blackjack took a deep breath and explained quickly. “Some four hundred-odd meters ahead there's a railway. It runs over very steep hills and is secured by a fence. There are only three ways past it: through a shitload of rads, through a shitload of volts, or through a military checkpoint on an underpass. Fanatic just said the explosion we first heard took place there. Then they went in guns blazing.”

“Okay! Just let me finish... searching this one.” This time he managed to repress his nausea, admonishing himself that he would probably have to loot more corpses in the future, and many would look a lot worse than this one, which had taken a clear shot to the head. He had been one of the Monolith, given the strange badges and the gray camouflage pattern on his armor. Like most others of his faction he had a strange belt with many pouches made of a waterproof fabric, each one with both buttons and a zip to keep it from spilling its contents. He loosened the belt, tore it free from the leaking corpse, and felt the pouches as he had seen Blackjack do it. There was something large inside one of them. He opened it... “Oh, shit...”

There was an artifact in there.

“Hide that! Quick!” Blackjack said, tearing the belt off Screws' hands and stuffing it into his backpack. “You can drool later! Go and change your clothes while I talk to Wolf. And hurry! We have to get out of here as fast as we can.”

Nikolay walked into one of the –now ruinous– wooden houses to put on the black suit of armor. He watched Blackjack as walked up to the village 'leader' and his lieutenant.

He was taken aback to find the hunter in that same house. The man was on his way out. “You... leaving too?” he asked haltingly. The huge man nodded coldly but politely.

“This place will get too much attention soon.”

Screws managed an amused snort, then immediately lapsed back into the shyness this stalker imposed on him. “It's just... you? Alone?”

The hunter seemed to lose a fraction of its coldness for an instant. “Yes.”

In spite of his urgency Nikolay could not help but find the hunter's comment odd. “You... well, you may want to come with us. You'd be safer.” Then he wondered why had he made both the offer and that last –stupidly out of place– comment. The towering bald giant had an extremely unsettling presence, despite its statuesque physique and chiseled features, much more unnerving than Blackjack's milky-white eyes and scarred skin, and he had learned enough about physical language on the correctional to be certain that this man's hand-to-hand skills would be supreme. He found himself wishing the hunter would refuse his offer...

Again the crooked smile he had seen at Sidorovich's shelter. Laced with irony this time.

“Well, why not.”

Blackjack returned to Nikolay, oblivious of the hunter at first. He looked both upset and depressed. “What happened?” The youth asked.

“I can't talk Wolf and Fanatic out of staying here. Fanatic says Sidorovich will pull some strings to prevent the Army from ruining his business, and I almost believe him. Besides...” He exhaled strongly. “...Someone has to care for all the rookies, they said. Some survived.” Then he seemed to notice the hunter was staying close to Nikolay. He glared at the youth, arching his eyebrows. Screws swore to himself, bracing against the imminent chewing out:

“I told him... I told him he could come with us.” Blackjack's immediate reaction would have been to roll his eyes, but restrained himself and looked at the hunter closely. His first true impression closely matched Screws'. He found himself thinking whether this hunter actually cared a whit about the whole situation and was as bored as he let on, despite the ice-cold behavior, or if it was all an act.

“You have weapons...?” He ventured. The hunter opened his ghillie suit to show the hafts of two bladed weapons. “And firearms?” He asked with the barest hint of impatience in his voice.

“In my backpack. A rifle.”

What kind of stalker would keep his gun gathering dust inside a backpack? Then he remembered neither noticing him vanish in the darkness when Wolf arrived, nor hearing him stand up to poise his dagger against the thug's kidney. Oh well, not the time to be picky.

“You'd better pull that piece out then. We're leaving right now. How do we call you?” The man shrugged. “You got an alias?” Again a shrug.

“Hunter will do, if you wish.”

That comment evinced extreme disinterest, something that did not escape either to Blackjack or Screws. Maxim decided that no, this man was not acting in the least and probably was as bored as he had guessed. There were too many strange things about the hunter and he did not like it at all. Is he mad? And no, he did not have any of the telltale signs of someone who was either about to snap or beyond sanity. He had witnessed such signs on Chechnya too many times not to recognize them now.

Then the urgency of the situation caught up with him again. Three was a much better number than two to survive on the Zone. “Okay. Let's move out, fast,” Blackjack said as he set off.

He led them away from the village, directly across the hilly slopes west to the road, carefully skirting the anomalies that plagued the place. Every few steps he looked southwards over his shoulder, expecting at any time to see the lights of armored vehicles that surely would not take long. Now the bulk of a ruinous warehouse loomed before them, a column of greasy smoke curling upwards behind it. A chaotic dance of lights and shadows to its left indicated that fires were still burning, rains or no rains. Fanatic had been right, apparently, but still, he would not take any chances.

They reached the walls of the warehouse. Hunter froze, then gestured Blackjack and Screws to listen: over the sound of the rain, the echo of a man's wail. Someone was there.

The huge stalker bade Blackjack and Screws to stay put and moved on ahead, alone, with liquid motions. He turned around the corner, bracing the wall. Another building, ghastly lit in shades of blue and white by an anomaly. He went around it, then the fire came into view: an old truck turned sideways was ablaze.

And, illuminated by the fire, a squirming silhouette in the grass.

Quickly he scanned the underpass. No soldiers in sight, though he spotted a few corpses –dressed both in Monolith and military livery– near the road and around the burning truck. No mutants either. He listened: only the crackle of the fire over the droning rain. No danger there that he could detect.

Hunter ran silently up to the man. He was completely soiled in dirt, and the assault rifle he had dragged as he painstakingly crawled away from the underpass had left a muddy trail on the grass. He turned him on his back: his nose and mouth were bleeding profusely. The man babbled incoherences and weakly tried to disengage the stranger's grip on him. Hunter whistled. Blackjack and Screws came over running.

“Nobody else?” Maxim asked.

“Not that I could see.”

“What is he? A soldier or one of the Monolith?”

Screws looked over him. The flak jacket and pants he wore were patterned in brown, not in gray, and had no identifying badges at all. “I haven't seen this stuff in the army,” he said. “But none of the Monolith goons were dressed like this. Maybe he's just a poor dude in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“So...” Maxim exhaled. “We know that we don't know.”

“What do you want to do with him?” Hunter asked neutrally. Maxim knew next to nothing about them, but Wolf's reaction had told him that, dangerous as they were, they were rare in the extreme here. Are there more of them around? And they could not waste a lot of time here, with the threat of the military about to swarm the place in retaliation for the destruction of the helicopter and –he saw them now– the underpass platoon.

“I'm not really cozy with the idea of more of these sods roaming the area. I need some information.” That said, he started ruffling through the pockets of the man--

--But the man screamed and held onto something in his hip satchel. Something flashed inside it. While Blackjack and Hunter restrained him, he noticed something was scribbled on the man's forearm... something like a tattoo... he turned on his headlamp:

“Hey guys... I know the word, but any of you guys know what the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. acronym means?”

Hunter shrugged. Blackjack produced an expensive smartphone from the satchel with a message flashing on its screen:


Without warning, the youth climbed down the tunnel entrance and started walking, rifle in hand. His companions, startled, hurriedly set off after him; the weathered old veteran looked questioningly at the young stalker. He merely uttered, “Something different is happening.”
  04:14:24  6 June 2011
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On forum: 12/07/2008

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Episode III

Heads turned and hands sought triggers as the four stalkers entered the devastated village. The rains continued unabated, powerful lightning bolts streaking the sky every now and then.

Wolf raised a hand in greeting and walked to meet the youth on point. “Hello, stalkers,” he saluted warily. “Do as you wish, but I suggest you turn back and leave. It isn't safe here anymore.”

The point man did not seem to hear him. His unblinking eyes surveyed the place. Some of the decrepit houses still stood, but even their walls –splattered with blood stains in several places– and ceilings had been ripped apart by dozens of cannon shells. The wreck of a Hind attack helicopter, which somehow had not caught fire, lay over the hill between the village and the anomaly-infested junkyard. Behind the farthest house he caught sight of the legs of over two dozen corpses, piled on the makeshift graveyard near the entrance to Sidorovich's bunker. Without word, he started walking towards them.

“You will have to excuse my comrade,” a weathered veteran said in apology. “We have just had a very long and hard journey and we are looking for a friend.” That said, he produced a cellphone from a satchel on his belt and showed him a picture. “Maybe you can help us?”

Wolf glanced at the picture. He shook his head. “Doesn't ring a bell. He may be one of the corpses... A lot of disfigured heads. I'm sorry.” Dispiritedly he walked back to the entrance of one of the underground shelters. The old stalker and his companions moved on to join their point man at the graveyard.

“So?” The short, burly foreigner asked. The youth was crouched next to the grim pile of corpses. He stood up slowly and turned his unnervingly unblinking eyes northwards.

“He's not here.”

Hunter stopped. “There's people in there.”

Blackjack squinted in the darkness. They were a hundred-odd meters away from the abandoned checkpoint that marked the frontier between the outer cordon area and the junkyards. He was very much on guard, still too edgy to feel tired, but also wet to the bone.

And yes, even if there were no lights turned on at all there, the intermittent flashes of lightning bolts outlined the shape of someone perched atop the single sentry tower behind the concrete wall.

“We can't help it”, he declared at last. “To go through we'll have to get past that place.”

Hunter grunted his agreement. He was carrying the wounded stranger with the tattooed arm over his back. The man had lapsed in and out of consciousness intermittently for the past hour, and they had gagged him to prevent anyone that could be after their trail from hearing him babble. “Let us go, then.”

They walked on in a straight line towards the barrier, Blackjack on point and Screws on the rearguard. Another lightning bolt, another glimpse at the tower: the sentinel had spotted them.

“Stop right there!” He demanded from a distance of fifty meters, aiming his weapon at them. “What's your business here?”

Without lowering his own rifle, Blackjack replied tersely: “Taking care of the wounded and moving on to the junkyards.” Behind him, partly concealed by his companions, Screws readied one of the grenades they had looted from the Monolith dead. Voices conversed behind the sturdy concrete wall of the checkpoint.

“You have a medic or someone that knows about first aid that can help?”

Hunter said laconically, “Not with a gun pointing at us.”

The man ahead put his own weapon down. “Sorry. We're kind of edgy, here. Come over.”

“Yeah, tell us about edgy”, Blackjack retorted dryly, moving on.

They were quickly ushered inside the guardhouse by the lone sentry on the tower. A bloody trail snaked over the pavement, through the grass and into the place, where it ended next to a slumped silhouette that breathed heavily. Three stalkers were crouched next to the injured man. One of them stood up: he was huge, easily larger than Hunter by nearly half a head. Overwhelming exhaustion tinged his voice: “Who's the medic?”

Carefully Hunter laid the tattooed man against a wall opposite that of the wounded stalker and crossed the room. “Move over.”

The stalkers obeyed. The man was unconscious, and his thick sweater was soaked red in blood and had been cut apart to allow for a bandage, which was also now deep crimson. Pink froth had built around the corners of his mouth. Hunter drew his knife and cut the bandage apart: his abdomen and chest had been punctured by three bullet holes. Blood, so deep in color that it was almost brown-black, was seeping out. He shook his head.

“What?” One of the stalkers next to him asked. Blackjack, who was carefully feeling the stranger they had hauled there for injuries, raised his eyes: a girl's voice was coming from behind the gas mask.

“Liver and lung wounds.”

The girl froze. She uttered a noise not unlike a hiccup and collapsed over one of her companions. Her whole body trembled and shook. Weakly she punched her comrade's shoulder.

Hunter stood up slowly in the silence and turned back to Blackjack, Screws, and the stalker they had rescued. The man next to the crying girl grabbed his arm:

“There's nothing you can do? Nothing at all?”

The reply was flat. “Put him out of his misery.”

The men gawked for an instant, flabbergasted, at his incredible detachment and absolute disregard for their plight. Anger rippled through them and one of them stood up: “You sonuvabitch!” He brought his rifle to bear--

--Then the giant was over him. “Don't!” he shouted, struggling with the enraged stalker. He slid his own finger behind the trigger, smashed the rifle into the man's face, and out of sheer brute force he wrestled him to the ground. “Pull yourself together! He's right! Even if these wounds weren't that bad the blood loss alone would kill him.” As if confirming his words, the wounded man coughed blood explosively. “Shit...” the giant uttered, shaking his head. He let go of his comrade, who by now had got past the rage only to be consumed in his grief.

Even the giant found it hard to thank Hunter. “S... sorry. Thanks for trying.”

The icy-cold stalker looked into the giant's jet-black eyes and read his agony. He seemed to lose some of his distant behavior for an instant. He shook the hand the giant offered him. “Nothing to apologize for.”

The giant shook his head, fatigue overpowering him. “Ogre,” he said, introducing himself. His hair was short, blue-black, and curly, only a tiny mustache over his lips. He was impressively built, but not in the way of a weightlifter; given the dexterity of his manners, probably he had grown into that shape naturally. His hands, the only exposed part of his body other than his face, were huge, callous, and rough – they reminded Hunter of a woodsman's hands, used to chopping wood and hauling lumber for a living. He seemed to be in his late twenties.

“They call me Hunter,” he replied with a nod. “I regret meeting you in such circumstances.”

“Yeah, me too.” The girl was crying out loud now. “Excuse me... I must...” He sighed and turned towards his group. Hunter turned back towards Blackjack, Screws and the unknown tattooed stalker in turn, apparently pretending not to notice Ogre's grief. Nikolay had been staring at him in amazed horror; Hunter stared back at him openly for an instant, causing Screws to immediately redden with embarrassment and look downwards, and sat next to Maxim and the stranger.

Blackjack regarded him with new respect. “I understand you being honest like that... but why be so blunt?”

Hunter shrugged unconcernedly as ever. “The cleaner the cut, the quicker it heals.” He focused his attention on the unconscious man. His mouth and nose bled no more, and his respiration was steady, if a bit shaky. He put his hand to the exposed forehead: no fever. He felt the neck vertebrae. “Nothing broken here.”

“Do we wake him up?” Screws asked timidly. Blackjack thought about it: that they had stumbled across no more of the Monolith on their way up the road did not mean they would not come upon any more on the junkyards. But what if he has a concussion, or something?

The scarred veteran hesitated, unable to decide, and he turned for a second towards Hunter for counsel, but the man was blankly staring towards the ceiling, having retreated back into his usual detached self, and he knew there would be no help coming from him. His mind recalled the sheer terror of the bloodbath at the village, and pondered: Where are the choppers? And the BTRs? Why aren't they coming?

Urgency again possessed him. A third time he felt the man's neck for broken vertebrae, and again found nothing. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and committed himself. He slapped the man softly. “Hey. Wake up.”

No response. A stronger slap, a louder demand: “Wake up!”

This time his actions elicited a groan of undefined meaning. A third slap: “Wake up!”

The man's eyes flutter. Then open a little.

Then they grow wide, almost bulbous with panic as they clearly see Blackjack's gray-white eyes and many scars. A scream, stifled by the gag.

“Relax. You're safe here.” Well, sort of. Blackjack removes the gag. The man pants heavily.

“What... why'd you gag me?”

“We had to get you to safety and you were rambling on. We didn't want anyone who could be after us to hear you.”

A hesitant nod. The stalker nervously glances briefly at her, then back at Maxim. “To... safety? What's happening?”

“We thought you may know.” Blackjack's eyes bore blankly into the man's. Screws looks at them both in expectation.

The stalker's expression slowly turns from fearful to puzzled. And then, to an alarmed one:

“I – I – I don't – I don't know... I don't know anything... Oh, God, I can't remember anything!

Screws stared with incredulity. “What?”

“I can't remember anything!” The man struggled to sit. His hands sought his backpack, and then stopped: “How do I even know I had a backpack?”

Hunter stared piercingly at the man, who quailed under the azure pitilessness of his glare. At last he seemed convinced. “He does not lie.”

“Of course I'm not lying!” The stranger yelled, and broke down into a cry. “I don't remember shit, I can't remember shit...” He sobbed, tears spilling.

Blackjack clapped him on his shoulder. “It's okay. I understand. I've seen it happen before.” He handed him his rucksack, his phone and the mud-caked AKM rifle. “You had this on you when we found you.”

The man dug into the backpack as a dog would when thrown a bone at. Carefully he emptied it on the floor, fearful of breaking any delicate contents: miscellaneous food items worth roughly a week, a very sturdy canteen, a compass, a notepad and a pen, a complete – if basic – toolkit, a standard-issue army first aid kit, four rifle magazines – some of them partly loaded –, three boxes of 12-gauge shells, and a shotgun. He opened the notepad: the writing was garbled incomprehensibly. With a vulgarity he tossed it against a wall.

Screws picked it up and checked it out in turn. Whoever had written that was paranoid, to say the least: the handwriting was clear Cyrillic, but the letters themselves were not arranged in any language he knew or was familiar with. “I guess it's in code. If it's not, the guy who wrote this is batshit insane.” He passed it on to Blackjack, who picked up the pen.

“Is this your handwriting?” He asked. In response, the man took the pen off his hand and wrote on the notepad: I suppose it is. His writing was a clear match. He nodded, in part to conceal his thoughts: What if he's lying to us?

He saw the man take the phone into his hands and turn it on. “At least I remember how to write and how to use a phone. Great.” His voice distilled bitterness.

“Anything there?” Screws asked sympathetically. The man shook his head.

“Nothing. But no more weird text in code.” That said, he started typing slowly. He swore. “So that's why I kept notes... I suck at this!”

Hunter curved the side of his mouth in a cold smirk. “You'll learn.”

Blackjack leaned in. “Open your mouth.”

“Why?” The man pulled the phone closer to his chest defensively, a detail that did not escape Hunter's covert scrutiny.

“You don't smell your own blood on your face? Maybe your nose is broken, too, let me have a look at you.”

The man complied. “Oh... okay. Ahhhh--” He had a nasty cut on the inside of his left cheek, but his nose seemed to be alright. Maybe he wasn't on the truck at all, Maxim thought. He couldn't have been there with just these wounds. Or could he? Maybe someone blew it up after hitting the checkpoint... He probed:

“Anything else that hurts?”

A snort. “Yeah, my whole body hurts like I was pounded flat.”

“Try standing up.” That said, he stood up in turn, ready to catch him if he was unsteady on his feet. The man did as he was asked, somewhat groggily at first. He groaned:

“Crap... Just what the hell got me? It feels like a cargo train ran me over.” He wiped the dry blood off his face with the sleeve of his cheap flak jacket.

“But you can walk.” That was not a question. The man nodded.

“Not a problem there.”

Maxim hurled him his rifle. He barely managed to catch it before it smashed on his face. “Then time to get moving. We don't want the military to catch up with us.”

Ogre overheard that. He approached Blackjack: “You're leaving?” He glanced at the man they had brought unconscious, who was trying to clean the worst of the mud off his AKM. “Glad to see your friend was unhurt...” he uttered with a low voice, each of the girl's sobs wracking his heart.

Blackjack was not really sure about the 'friend' thing, but at least he had one more gun in his group, and that improved their chances, which was enough at the moment. “We're leaving, yes. And you should get out of here as soon as you can.”

The giant nodded as soberly as he could manage. “We will... deal with this... and move on.”

“No point in stalling the inevitable,” Hunter told him in a low voice. That said, he walked out into the rain, his companions following him.

Screws sighed in the night. “What now?”

Gunfire echoed briefly in the distance before Blackjack could reply. “BTR guns... What now, you say? We leg it good and proper.” Again he glanced covertly at the man they had rescued. His eyes were dreamily looking all around him and he was fidgeting uncomfortably, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. Was the place familiar to him? Was he trying to recall when had he been there for the first time? Or was it all an act? He wanted to know, but either this stalker really had lost his memory, as Hunter had vouched, or, if he was lying and he had some ulterior motive to do so, he was not sharing it. “There's one thing to do before we set on, though. How do we call you?” He asked him.

The stranger shuffled, disquieted by the question. He muttered, “I... sorry. I can't remember.” He stomped the ground in frustration. “Gods, how embarrassing.”

Hunter pointed at him. “You'll be Mystery to us until you recover your memory.” Even if the raw voice had not a shred of irony in it, Blackjack smirked.
  02:24:59  8 June 2011
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Senior Resident

On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
I just noticed this.

Awesome thus far... keep it up!
  13:59:31  9 June 2011
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On forum: 10/21/2010
Messages: 306
Brilliant, please keep going
  04:18:02  16 June 2011
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On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
Glad to see it's being enjoyed . I realized I forgot to put a link somewhere to Echoes for consistency purposes... oh well, too late now. Besides that link will be explored in the future.

I'm on forced hiatus due to test season at college... also because I lack a proper rig to play AMK right now so I'm a little short on inspiration ATM I really, really can't wait for SMRTER 0.45 to come out.
  17:53:31  13 September 2011
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On forum: 12/07/2008

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Episode IV

How did I manage to squeeze this out of my brain in the thickest of college season baffles me. Enjoy!


Someone on the other side of the tunnel shouted a warning. “Freeze!”

The exoskeleton-clad stalker cursed. “Run!”

The four stalkers darted forward in the darkness. A single warning shot rang behind them—and a bright lightning and a powerful thunderbolt a split-second later.

The stocky foreigner turned his head over his shoulder, without stopping. “Poor bastard...”

“Count not on him dying,” the scout retorted.

In the distance, powerful engines started up. The leader scowled. “We need to vanish, really fast.”

Behind them, brakes whined. A turret-mounted cannon aimed blindly at them and fired.

“There's that gun again”, Screws noted. “Damn if they're pissed off.”

“And well they should be, it's not every day you lose a multimillion euro combat helicopter. And that is a big, red warning signal for us to hurry.” Maxim had set a brisk pace, willing himself to keep exhaustion at bay. Behind him, Mystery and Screws marched side to side, and the huge silhouette of Hunter guarded their rear. Still the silent giant wielded not any guns, to Blackjack's chagrin, discomfort and curiosity, but Maxim kept all those to himself.

“Where we goin'?” Mystery asked.

“Somewhere dry where we can take turns sleeping.”

They were keeping the road to their right, some forty-odd meters off. Tall, verdant trees occasionally shielded them from the rain, which was rapidly waning in intensity. Once in a while, both Maxim's and Hunter's Geiger counters chirped an ominous click almost in unison; every such click made Screws' stomach queasy.

On one such occasion he stopped and started searching his backpack.

“What is it?” Maxim asked.

“Let me have that counter of yours,” Nikolay asked in return. He pulled out the belt he had taken from the dead Monolith soldier. Blackjack understood.

“Here.” Maxim handed him the device. Carefully Screws held the belt in midair, as if it were some kind of poisonous snake, while he scanned it.

The Geiger counter ticked only once all along it.

“What's it with that belt?” Mystery asked. In response, Screws opened the pouch where the artifact had remained, and showed it to his companions: it resembled a long sliver of smooth, blackened glass with tiny beads arrayed all over it on a helix pattern; it was dull and shadowy, but somehow it cast a dim red-brownish aura around it.

“Well, I'll be damned if you're lucky!” Maxim laughed. “You bagged yourself some Mama's Beads!”

“Mama's Beads?” Screws echoed in confusion.

“A treasure that fits into your pocket, literally. I've heard one of these can stop a rifle bullet from even touching your skin.” Mystery almost jumped at Blackjack's outrageously exaggerated comment, but then he asked himself how he knew that not to be true.

Hunter was watching him intently. “What is it, Mystery?”

The amnesiac stalker flushed. “Well, er, I... Screws, is it? Well... damn, hell if I know why I know about it, but I suggest you don't take his comment all that seriously.”


“Errr...” Mystery was straining himself to squeeze whatever he could from his spotty memory. “These things have different, er, potency. One may not even stop a pistol bullet, while if you wore another nothing short of a Dragunov round to the head would kill you.” A very brief snippet crossed his mind when he uttered the Dragunov word: a desolate courtyard somewhere in a dead city, him being surrounded by long-time friends, and the deadly chatter of sniper rifles being fired around –and at– them.

Blackjack stared at Mystery. “And you know this because...”

The man shook his head. “Damn if I know. I just said 'Dragunov' and recalled something about a city... a courtyard near some kind of hotel, some friends there... snipers firing on us...”

“The only city within the Zone is Pripyat,” Hunter stated. “You were there, perhaps?”

“I suggest you start taking down notes on things like that,” Screws advised. “It may help you get your memory back.”

“Good idea. I'll get on it once we find a place to crash.”

“We won't find one if we stay here.” Blackjack's voice spoke volumes about how much he liked chatting idly in one place. Again they set on forward, Hunter on point, keeping the road to their left this time. The land seemed devoid of life. Only the buzzing and humming and the distortions produced by anomalies disrupted the stillness.

They perhaps had traveled half a kilometer when they came upon a large hangar of sorts surrounded by a brick wall which, to the credit of their builders, stood solid still. Hunter spotted two men standing guard on either side of a rust-stained metal gate, a mild yellowish light seeping out underneath it and through openings on the hangar's structure. Someone was playing a guitar skillfully inside. He slithered back to the rest of the squad and relayed what he saw.

“Do we go in?” Screws asked.

“We won't know if it's safe or not until we try.” His best judgment cautioned against it and advised to sneak around and eavesdrop on whatever chatter there might be, but Maxim was weary beyond words.

Mystery was staring at the hangar, finding it stridently familiar, but unable to recall why. Hunter noticed it: “What do you recall?”

“It rings of something, but I can't remember it.” He spat in frustration.

Hunter decided for them all. “I'll go and ask if it's okay.” And he walked away before Blackjack could say a word. The scarred stalker sighed and sat on the road, his exhaustion finally overwhelming him. And he wanted to take a shower so much. Oh well, that's not going to happen for a long while.

Mystery looked at him kindly. “Man, you look totally wasted.”

Blackjack snorted. “I suppose you can say that. I have barely slept three hours over the past two days.”

“I'll take the first watch if you wish, then. You catch some Zs.” They watched in silence as Hunter approached one of the watchmen and talked to the man. The guarding stalker nodded and went inside, only to return shortly afterwards. Their companion waved towards them.

The hangar concealed a train yard and a loading bay. A few rusty wagons sat there, their doors open and their innards converted into makeshift dormitories. Near the entrance door, a fire had been lit, and a few stalkers were dozing, eating, or chatting there.

“Welcome, stalkers,” a man said from behind a skimask. “I'm Seriy. You can stay here as long as you keep your arms safe and you bring kindling to feed the fire. And if you can spare any food or med supplies, I'd be much grateful. There's never shortage of people who need some of either.”

“Thank you. We'll see to the kindling before we leave, if you please. I am Blackjack... these are Hunter, Mystery and Screws.” He stretched tiredly. “I hope you'll excuse me but I need to rest badly.”

“Suit yourself. Be careful not to lay your sleeping bag too close to the fire.”

Blackjack tucked himself inside his sleeping bag and was asleep almost instantly. Screws watched him in amusement as he prepared his own bedding. His whole body ached from exhaustion, but he was not tired enough to go to sleep without eating. And he was hungry.

Hunter and Mystery sat next to him. The bald, amnesiac stalker saw to his AKM. Screws watched him as he hesitantly used his toolset to disassemble the rifle. Wonder and trouble were equally written in his face.

“You don't understand how you know how to do that,” Nikolay commented. “Right?”

Mystery nodded just once. He was fearful of breaking or ruining something, but his hands seemed to work on a volition of their own. His confidence grew as he worked.

The other stalkers by the fire paid them no heed, other than to curiously eye Mystery from time to time as he cleansed the pieces of his weapon. Screws ate his canned meat slowly, somehow remembering having been told once that he would eat no more than needed that way, and recalled Blackjack's disassembled Abakan.

“Where did you get one of these?” Seriy had approached the fireplace and was looking curiously at the assault rifles they had seized from the dead Monolith. Screws did not look at him.

“Monolith attacked the village at the cordon. They had these.”

The stalker's eyes grew wide behind his skimask. “Monolith, you say? Are you positive?”

Screws ruffled into his pocket and produced a strange badge bearing the sigil of a monolith enveloped by orbiting electrons. “Their vests had these all over.”

Seriy studied it. “There's no mistaking this, I suppose... but one can't help but wonder what the hell were they doing this far...”

“Don't ask me, I'm as green as they come.”

Seriy snorted in amusement at Screws' grim remark. His eyes went over the rifles they had seized from the dead: “You know what that is?”

Nikolay shook his head. He was carefully unpacking the pieces of the Abakan, trying to remember how they fitted. “Some NATO gun. That's all I can tell.”

“They don't look ordinary.” Underneath the spray-paint brown-and-green camouflage, the metal had a strange sheen to it; it was a dull metallic yellow, almost white-golden in color.

Mystery overheard them. “May I?” he asked Screws. The youth half-nodded, nearly oblivious to anything but his work. He took the rifle and looked for manufacturer seals. “Fabriqué Nationale... this thing is...”

“--Belgian,” Seriy completed for him. “This one is a SCAR rifle. Some nasty piece. The stuff you only see on the internet.” Mystery silently thanked him; his memory only stretched so far, but he had seen that particular piece before. It was a relatively light, very accurate, almost Soviet-like reliable, and ridiculously expensive weapon firing the 5.56mm NATO cartridge.

“A rare weapon indeed,” Hunter agreed with his raw voice. “If the Monolith can equip its soldiers with this kind of hardware, they must be very well funded.”

“And then some! It was tested by the amerikantsi not long ago. Last thing I heard was that it was one of the prime candidates to replace the M-16...”

Mystery found himself unconsciously scratching at his tattoo over his sleeve. He turned on his phone and again read the words... Kill the Strelok. “Hey Seriy,” he asked, “what do you know about Strelok?”

The man frowned. “Hmm... if memory serves right... there was a stalker by that name who plied his trade beyond the Barrier.”

“Beyond the Barrier? You mean, beyond the Brain Scorcher?” A man by the fire asked.

Seriy nodded. “He and his group. I heard he knew a way to the center of the Zone.”

“Hang on a second. Barrier? Brain Scorcher?” Again, stridently familiar words barely beyond his knowledge.

“You mean you don't know what they are? The Barrier is a defensive line maintained by Freedom, north of their main base, against assaults by Monolith forces. Beyond the Barrier there's a place where your brain oozes out of your ears just because you're there. Nobody who goes there ever returns. That's the Brain Scorcher.”

“A place with--” --huge antennae, protected by defensive towers, sniper nests and trenches, once part of the Soviet ABM early warning systems, only reachable via a snaking road turned into a gauntlet by Monolith forces or through an anomaly-and-mutant-infested woods of dead trees. Mystery just managed to stop himself from blurting out everything he had just recalled. There was something else: the vivid image of a head exploding in a red haze on the scope of his rifle, and a voice, a familiar voice, cheering on him—only to be cut short by a screeching warning, and the thunder of an explosion blurring everything again. He felt Hunter's gaze on him and dared not to look at him in the eye. “But the Monolith assaults come from that dead zone, right?”

Seriy nodded. “Every seasoned stalker wonders the same. Why the fanatics are immune?” He sat down, troubled. “Every now and then veterans come by on their way out of the Zone and share some news. A Freedomer told me about a friend of his finding crude copper meshes inside the helmets of elite Monolith soldiers... his friend grabbed one of these helmets and went beyond the Barrier. He never returned. So...,” he sighed, “nobody knows.”

“But this Strelok knows a way around the Brain Scorcher...” ventured Screws.

“So I heard. But that's not the only one such place. There are at least five or six different Brain Scorchers, all arrayed around Pripyat and the Chernobyl NPP.”

“And what's this Brain Scorcher in itself?” A rookie by the fire asked. “Some mutant, some anomaly...?”

“Again, nobody knows. And I hear the same happens near the Lake Yantar factory.”

“Now that you mention it, a bunker was deployed there by the military,” another man, a grizzled veteran with gray beard, cut in.

Seriy snorted. “Another fine artifact hunting area gone to waste.” He glared at Screws and Mystery, who were, if in differing degrees, tending to their equipment and listening to the exchange. “Mind if I ask why are you here in the Zone?”

The bald, amnesiac stalker remained silent, waiting for Screws to answer first. It seemed he was too self-absorbed on his task at first, but then: “I was dumped here. Probably this was the last place I would have chosen to be at... if not for the artifacts, I'd be looking for a safe way out, right now.”

A nod. “I've heard that story a lot recently. Mostly out of youths like you.”

Screws shrugged. “Probably I even know them.” There was a disquieting possibility: that he would be recognized by someone from the correctional he had grieved or wronged... and that someone was in the position of evening the scores. Which is, actually, quite likely. He refrained himself from sighing, remembering Blackjack's words. By now his friend was deeply asleep. He amusingly noted Maxim did not snore.

“Mind if I ask you about this Freedom you mentioned?” Mystery asked.

Seriy glanced at him and laughed. “If you hadn't asked that, I'd say I have seen you before. Freedom is a group of stalkers who believe that the Zone is not a danger, but an opportunity. There's a trove of knowledge to be learned here, they say, and all of mankind can benefit from it. Which is morbidly true, if you ask me... and of course, that won't stop any Freedomer from keeping what he knows about good artifact hunting areas with you, however much they say to want the Zone to be open to everyone. They claim that it's being kept closed so that the Army can cash in on discoveries and the artifact trade before anyone else does. Scientists like their thinking, but you can imagine how well that sits with the jarheads.”

“Or they claim that while they deal with them in secret,” the rookie by the fire cut in.

“I don't think so,” the veteran objected. “I hear they mostly use NATO guns. They'd run Russian stuff like Duty if they were in league with the Army.”

“And Duty is in league with the army, indeed.” Seriy noticed Mystery's confused look. “Before you ask: if Freedom says A, Duty says Z. They are opposed to everything Freedom says with a passion, and claim that the Zone is a grave danger for mankind as a whole, as is everything in it. You can say they're the cops: while they won't seize your artifacts from you, they want to shut down the trade, or at least keep it to a minimum. The Army is behind them, and Duty members can operate here without their interference; hell, they even have military ranks and all. They will buy every artifact you bring them, but of course the dealers will give you more, so that means artifact prices keep rising. As does everything else here.”

The veteran shook his head. “That's a very simple way to put it, mind you. Both Duty and dealers will pay the least they can for anything you bring them, while at the same time they try to bring more stalkers to sell them what they get.”

“And Freedom buys artifacts?” The rookie asked.

“Of course they do, but they won't pay you much unless you're on their good graces. They aren't really interested in keeping up that pace. Probably they have their own connections set up.”

Hunter kept his thoughts to himself, listened, and learned. Screws regarded him time and time again as Mystery, Seriy and the stalkers discussed artifacts and trade and prices and money and guns and factions and anomalies and mutants and Pripyat and the NPP and the Brain Scorcher all over again, and noted, unsurprisingly, that the man never spoke. He merely huddled himself against a wall, covered with a thick camouflaged blanket that probably had seen better days, and registered everything he heard, his eyes twin crystal-clear ice wheels. Blackjack was oblivious to anything, his scarred face now relaxed and much less wrinkled than what he had seen before – unlike what few stalkers he had seen in sleep, who mused and shuffled as they slept. Maxim's relatively positive outlook was no act, he observed, but a very true quality of his, if his quiet and almost contented demeanor in sleep was taken as proof. Certainly the sleep of a man with no regrets. He found himself envying the veteran Russian.

The bald, weathered veteran cautiously climbed the ladder to the surface and carefully peeked from under the tree branches he had laid over their hideout—a manhole behind a ruined house, which sat next to the slope that led to the bridge. The BTR was nowhere to be seen, but he heard its engine rumbling to and fro behind the railway-crowned hill. Silhouettes bearing arms were combing the countryside. The bulk of the house obstructed his view, but he heard the voices of men quietly talking behind it.

“And?” The foreigner cautiously whispered.

“They are all around. Never did I see as many.”

“We need to get out of here.”

“No. We don't.” The youth with the dry eyes that never blinked spoke with unearthly confidence. Again he said: “We don't.”
  00:46:46  26 September 2011
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008

Message edited by:
09/26/2011 0:50:51
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Episode V

Gunfire thundered above their underground hideout, muted by the bulk of the ruined house. A warning cry was cut short by a deep, rumbling roar, and the violent crash of something huge against brick and mortar out of his view. The floor quivered. More rifle bursts, and a piercing, painful shriek. Heavy footsteps thumped around, and another bestial roar followed. A pseudogiant? It was one big happy coincidence he was not comfortable with at all.

Beneath him, down in the cistern, the foreigner and the exoskeleton-clad stalker both looked at the youth.

“Not just yet,” he said.

The veteran felt a shiver run down his spine. How could his young comrade know the pseudogiant was coming was no longer in his mind. Instead, his mind stubbornly revolved around a different question, one that filled him with foreboding... just what had the youth become?

A hand shook Nikolay gently. “Wake up.”

The youth blinked sleepily and stretched. The bag was warm and cozy, almost overpoweringly so. He forced himself out of it, stood up ungainly braving the cold, and looked around him: Blackjack was behind him preparing his gear. Dim gray light seeped through the windows and holes in the hangar, a lone crow cawing outside. “How long did I sleep?”

“Some seven hours or so.” Maxim smiled. “How do you feel?”

Another stretch. “Rested.” He watched at Blackjack as he loaded his Abakan. “Oh, er... I didn't zero it. I didn't really like the idea of firing your gun, much less so in the middle of the night.”

“Never mind. You did an excellent work. Besides, I know her so thoroughly I can zero it without firing it. Thanks a lot, by the way.” That said, he loaded the SCAR, put its safety on, and slung it over his shoulder. “I like my gun much better.” And it showed. He somehow looked more confident.

“'Her'?” Screws couldn't keep himself from asking. “It has a name?”

Maxim laughed. “Well, no, I hadn't thought of it. Maybe I should, considering how long I've kept her with me.”

“Where are the others?”

“Others...? Oh, you mean Hunter and Mystery. Your silent friend left earlier. He didn't say where he was going, only that he'd be back soon. Mystery should be back any time now... he had a nature call.”

He put on the black Monolith armor they had taken from the fallen fanatics. The fabric smelled of blood around the collar and in the chest, and was warm to the touch, which struck him as outright odd. It should not be like that, especially on such a cold and wintery day.

Then he saw to his own gear. He had not fired either of his SCARs yet. They had both seen a lot of abuse, judging by the many scratches and smudges on the metal, but the mechanisms proper were in perfect condition. He had thirteen magazines, all of them fully loaded by the guns' previous owners, each one worth 30 rounds; a load of ammo, but he had to make it last. Besides, restocking would cost him a fortune in cash, artifacts, or blood. Or probably in cash, and artifacts, and blood. He pictured himself shooting that rifle—then he awkwardly realized he had never fired a gun at all.

“Hey, Maxim,” he called, “if you can spare the time, I could really use your help. You know, teaching me to shoot properly and stuff.”

“Hmmm... what experience do you have with guns? Practical experience?”

He shuffled uncomfortably. “Ummm...”

That was enough for Maxim. The veteran frowned. “We have a while before Hunter returns. Here, follow me. And leave that gun here.”

“What? Why?”

“You don't need a rifle to learn.”

Puzzled, he followed the scarred veteran outside to a courtyard littered with derelict construction gear. A ruinous crane and a crumbling vehicle shed took up most of the remaining space. Blackjack went all the way to the opposite wall, almost a hundred meters across, and placed a wooden branch leaning against it. He walked back to Screws, drew his sidearm, and handed it to him. “If you can learn to shoot properly with a handgun, you'll know enough to shoot with any weapon you want.”

“O-okay...” He aimed at the branch clumsily. Maxim stopped him:

“Wrong. First order of business: check the chamber is empty.” He showed him how to do it: he pulled back the barrel and looked in at the chamber. It was loaded with a round. He removed it, unloaded the clip, and handed the gun back to Screws. “Here, load it.”

He did as he was told.

“Now, take the gun in your left hand.”

“But I'm right-handed.”

“What if a mutant bites off your gun hand?” He asked rhetorically.

“Point... taken.” He did his best not to shudder at the chance such a thing could happen. He held the gun with his left hand, arm outstretched, to get used to the weight. The Stenchkin APS was quite heavy, especially when silenced.

“Good. That's better. This gun can fire full auto, but I've set it for single shots only. If you aim with it, you'll see that the two small glowing green dots on the rear sight align with the glowing green dot on the front sight. Get all three in line while aiming at the branch, then squeeze the trigger softly."

The pistol bark startled Screws. His shot went wide over the wall.

“Good. Now you know how the gun reacts. Keep that in mind for your next shot.”

His second shot was better. The bullet tore off chunks of brick and mortar above the branch.

“Better. Try again.”

His third shot was lower, but tilted to the left. Another puff of red and gray dust. Now some more stalkers had come to watch, and were sitting at the crane.

“You weren't aiming now. Take your time. You want to hit your target after all.”

Screws took a deep breath, aimed carefully, placing the green dot of the front sight between the two green dots of the rear sight, and squeezed the trigger. A fourth bark. A dry spak, and wooden splinters flew.

“Good shot!” Blackjack smiled. “There, now you know the basics.”

“Basics?” Screws was disheartened. “And I'm supposed to survive in the Zone like this? I hit a stationary target on my fourth try.”

“But you hit it. True, even the dumbest bandit won't give you that much of a chance, but you'll improve. It's all about what you've just seen, nothing more—get the target in your sights, take a deep breath, and squeeze the trigger. Now go get your rifle.”

“Here.” Mystery was already there, watching. He handed him his own AKM. “Try out mine.”

The AKM was huge, bulky, and heavy in comparison. He put his right hand in the foregrip and his left hand in the pistol handle. He steadied it against his shoulder, as he had seen others do. This one had no paint marks on the iron sights, but the mechanism was broadly similar—get the front sight between the rear sights, take a deep breath, and pull the trigger. He did exactly that.

It felt like a mule had kicked him in the shoulder. The blast left his ears ringing. The shot went wide over the wall again.

“Good. Try again.”

This time he managed to hit the branch squarely in the third shot. “Great!” Maxim congratulated him. The spectating stalkers cheered on him. “There, down to three rounds. In time you'll be able to hit your target on the first shot.”

“Thanks.” He blushed and handed the gun back to Mystery with a thankful nod. “What about bursts?”

“In time. For the moment, use that SCAR on single-shot mode only. You have to learn to make every shot count. And it's a lot easier to manage than Mystery's gun.”

“And more accurate, too,” Seriy added. “Have you seen the barrel of that thing? It's really long.”

“You sure seem to know the hang of teaching,” one of the rookies said. He did not look much older than Nikolay.

“That's being a gunnery sergeant for you.” He led Screws and Mystery back inside. It seemed to Mystery that the man was trying to evade any questions about his rank and where had he gotten it, but he kept that to himself, believing that everyone was entitled to their own secrets.

There, Hunter was waiting for them, along with a familiar face and a girl.

“Hello, stalkers,” the newcomer saluted. Blackjack recognized the enormous man at once: Ogre. “We were just coming in when Hunter found us.” He turned towards the girl: she was very young, maybe around Screws' own age. “Meet Sataida.”

Maxim shook hands with the giant and glanced at Sataida. “Is she...?” The girl had silver-blond hair and had huge, almost ghastly green eyes, bleary from crying. She regarded him warily.


“What happened to the rest of your group?” Mystery asked with a low voice.

Ogre's voice lowered. “Her brother died there. Well...” He blushed. “I... had to help him.”

“You did good,” Blackjack approved, “however tough it was on you. I would much have preferred a quick death to the agony of those wounds.” He turned to the girl. “I... I've had to endure the same. I'm sorry.” Even though his voice distilled sympathy, words did not come easily.

“...Thank you.” Sataida's voice was thin, high and almost imperceptible.

She's been crying a lot,Nikolay thought, taking pity on her. Poor girl. “Have you eaten?” He asked the newcomers.

“Yes, we have, thank you.”

“And the other guy who was with you?” Mystery pressed on.

“He stayed there. Sidorovich has set up shop there, along with a contact from the army, a dude called Akim or something, and recruited him as bodyguard. He was very angry because the military kicked him out of his bomb shelter. So angry... you should have seen him.”

“But why let him go?” Screws asked.

“Why else? The bastard keeps their palms greased, you really think they were going to lose that? They shut him down, someone else would have taken his place. And eventually they would have broken him to their fist too, but that would take time. And of course, getting out of there with all his wares surely cost him a lot.”

“Everyone wants a piece of this place.” Hunter's comment was cold, flat, and pitiless, almost tinged with hatred if Screws' ears heard right.

“I'm surprised that he stayed behind and she did not.” That was a mistake. The girl flared:

“What? What do you think I am?” She shrieked, her thin voice screeching out. “An useless girl, waiting to be rescued by some stupid-ass heroic guy? Just because I'm not big and tough-looking like you? Or because I can't shoot like you?”

“Hey, hey, take it easy,” Blackjack said placatingly. “I'm sorry. Yes, that was totally chauvinist of me. Excuse me.”

Sataida fumed indignantly. “I'm tired of that attitude. What would have happened to me if I had stayed there? That Sidorovich is a pig, he was ogling at me like he had never seen a girl before, and all the stupid greenies that made it from the village were no better, Wolf and Fanatic included. And I don't want to get pregnant at fourteen, thank you very fucking much. You see a lot of hospitals or pharmacies around?”

In spite of himself and the situation, Nikolay watched, finding himself amused, as the girl ranted on furiously. Clearly that was her first opportunity to vent off some steam since her brother had died, but even then, she had a point. I like this girl!

Blackjack said, understanding her, “Sataida—damn, I'd prefer to call you by your name, but you're right. I'm very sorry. It was a mistake, and you're absolutely right. It's just that I'm not used to seeing girls here, much less girls of your age.”

“I surmise you don't see girls here at all.

“True,” he conceded with a contrite smile. “It's been years since I last saw my daughter.”

That comment instantly dispelled her rage. “I'm... sorry.”

“Don't be. I'd be as every bit as sad and angry as you if I were you.” He sighed. He had obviously reopened a sore he preferred not to. “Oh, probably she is better off wherever she is now. I would have dragged her with me and she did not deserve that.”

Sataida mumbled an apology and sat by the fire, red with embarrassment. A few of the local stalkers were streaming back in, curious. Some stared openly at her, but glares colder than a polar wind saw to that.

Ogre conferred privately with Blackjack. “Yeah, she can be a real handful, but I don't blame her. She's right, and she's right to be touchy. That's why I brought her along. I don't have enough on me to arrange for her to be safely shipped back to Kiev or out of the country altogether.”

“You should know better than making deals with Sidorovich. He's a treacherous asshole who's never dealt fairly with anyone in his life.” Maxim briefly thought about Nikolay's Beads, but reconsidered it. Besides, no one in the Zone did anything for free. “And what are you going to do? Make a stalker out of her?”

“She certainly has the drive to survive... that's probably the most important thing a stalker's got to have.” Blackjack could not argue with that. “I made a deal with Sidorovich. He needs someone to fetch him some docs from some abandoned institute, stuff about the Brain Scorcher and all. I get that to the gunrunner they call the Barkeep at the Duty base, and in exchange he'll make the necessary arrangements. That if she still wants to leave.”

The scarred veteran glanced briefly at Sataida; to his chagrin, Hunter, Mystery and Nikolay had taken her with them. Looking at her tugged painfully at his heart; the girl looked so much like Galya, his elder daughter. “There's another reason you're not telling me here.”

Ogre shuffled, unsettled by Maxim's piercing judgement. “Well, I... she should be with someone who would keep her safe if something happened to me. You fellows strike me as trustworthy.” He, too, glanced at her, and noted that Nikolay was clumsily trying not to look interested in her. He smiled. “Definitely.”

Blackjack stared blankly at him. “And exactly what is she good at? Does she know how to shoot at all?”

The giant man flushed. “Well... she's no soldier, but she can fire a rifle. And she knows about first aid. And cooking.”

Maxim kept his unrelenting glare on Ogre. “A girl in the Zone is a trouble magnet.” And the place is dangerous enough already.

Ogre was trapped, and he knew it. Some of his desperation showed. “Please, help me. Help us. I know no one does shit for free here, the place's just too deadly to allow for that, but I can't leave her alone. You know what will they do to her. Not bandits, just your average stalker. Most are too desperate to give a damn, tomorrow they may die in an anomaly or be some mutant's lunch or be shot by soldiers or other stalkers. She won't stand a chance.”

Hunter overheard some of Ogre's plea. He stood up and closed in. “Do you think she will be up to it?”

“It?” Ogre was confused.

“I can train her, but she will have to stand up to it. Either she hardens enough to survive here or dies in the attempt.” His words were blunt, cold, and razor-sharp, as always. “Like everyone else here.”

Even while Ogre was larger and more muscled than Hunter, somehow he knew that he was no match for him. And, probably, neither were any of the stalkers here, Blackjack included. If someone could guard Sataida and train her, it was him, but he could take advantage of her with the same ease.

It all came down to trust in the end, and he did not think Hunter would betray that trust. He nodded forcefully. “Okay.”

Hunter nodded back. “If she is tough, she will survive. That I can guarantee you.” That said, he turned around and walked back to the fireplace. Ogre noticed that other men looked away from her whenever the tall, silent man was around. He heard him bluntly warn Sataida and Screws that they would better rest well from that day on, because he would stop just short of hurting them. The girl gasped, but Nikolay said nothing, merely nodding.

“Just where did this guy come from?” he pondered.

“Does it matter?” Blackjack replied rhetorically. “He took a bandit's head off with a single blade stroke, and can sneak through places like a ghost. You don't hear him coming, you don't see him coming. He's like some goddamn ninja.” Then he asked: “Why Sataida?”

“She says Sataida was known as the Lady of Disgrace by the celts.”

A snort. “Some mindset. It won't get her far.”

“You're wrong. She doesn't think of herself as cursed or something. She says she will become that to anyone that hurts her.”

“The Zone's got enough of that thinking.”

--like a ghost, Blackjack had said. A face flashed through Mystery's head, a very familiar one at that, but he could not say who he was. He hid his discomfiture as best he could and stood up to approach Ogre and Maxim, just in time to hear the scarred veteran ask:

“Okay, you got what you wanted. What now? What are you going to do?”

The giant shuffled again. “I'll rest some more, then head west. Sidorovich said the info he wants is on a military outpost near what's left of the Agroprom research institute. It's a damn commando mission... sneak in, steal the info, and sneak out.”

Mystery gawked at him. “And you accepted? Man, you got a death wish. Or you are one hell of a sneak.”

Ogre shook his head. “No, I'm not. And I don't want to die either. Why do you think I wanted to see her to safety before going out?”

Blackjack assessed the man. He was outfitted with typical ragtag DIY stalker armor, partly made of Kevlar and rubberized fabric, not good at all against rifle bullets. His weapon of choice was an AK-47 in decent shape, with a grenade launcher slung under the barrel and a bayonet attached to the muzzle. No sidearm that he could see. “And you want to storm a military compound armed like that.”

A bitter laugh. “I'd as well kill myself and spare them the effort, I know.” He produced a carefully folded map from his hip satchel. “Sidorovich gave me this.”

The map consisted of satellite recon imagery of the Agroprom area. There were two large installations there: one, the abandoned institute proper, and the other, a military compound. The latter was manned with a full garrison around thirty men strong, and the map showed patrol routes and watch towers with snipers. Watch changes were crudely etched down in the lower left corner of the map.

Blackjack studied the map. “He must want this stuff pretty badly. Check out these numbers on the bottom... these are GLONASS feeds.”

“GLONASS?” Mystery asked, puzzled.

“The Russian equivalent of the U.S.' GPS network. Probably they themselves 'sold' these to Sidorovich.”

“And you know that how?”

Maxim laughed. “Payback time, is it? Well, I was employed by people who got these feeds quite often.” And it's a sure bet Russians want what's in those docs, else they wouldn't have given that bastard such a juicy bit of info. He was already thinking how they could best use those documents, once they had got them, but quickly restrained himself. First, they had to get them. And unless they had a lucky break or something like that, it would not be easy. “Here's the deal,” he said with finality. “We don't really know where to go now, so we'd as much go with you. If Sidorovich really wants that info, he'll pay for it. For you, he'll arrange a way out for Sataida. And for the rest of us, we'll see. We stand a much better chance if we go all together.”

Ogre shrugged. “Well, it's not like I can refuse that, right?”

The youth only uttered a single word: “Now.”

The veteran climbed the ladder. The ground vibrated beneath his feet. He looked around the corner of the house: the military was withdrawing behind the wrecked bridge, the soldiers firing futilely at the enraged pseudogiant as they went. The mutant was monstrously huge, easily taller than a passenger bus, and perhaps twice as heavy. A dozen dead bodies littered the hill. “Clear,” he whispered.

The youth, the foreigner and the exoskeleton-clad stalker climbed after him. The latter shivered as he saw the corpses, then quickly turned around. He considered arming the RPG, but the soldiers had the pseudogiant's undivided attention and were drawing it away from them.

They set on at a brisk pace, the firefight blazing urgently behind their backs, punctuated by screams and the roars of the gigantic mutant. “What now?” The Briton asked. The elder veteran was consulting the PDA.

“To Agroprom,” he said. “That's where he'll be going next.”
  18:36:41  27 September 2011
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On forum: 09/27/2011
Messages: 2
Hmmm.. Quite the interesting stuff you got there.

Just wondering, could I, by any chance have a part in this story as Colonel Skull ( From Duty, you know. )
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