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Blue Mists

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  06:58:12  7 June 2013
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

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ZeroDead
06/07/2013 7:08:49
Messages: 197
Episode XVIII

They climbed up the slope in utter silence, Farsight trailing the soft steps of the mutant pig, Chasme and Bondarenko slightly behind him, then Volkov, Kamarov and Hunter followed by Nikolay and Svetlana, and finally Polyakov, Arkhimov and Altunin closing the march. Behind them, the road, and the hill crowned by the wooden cabins.

"Are we going to follow a mutant?" The SBU commander had asked Chasme in disbelief before setting on.

The armored stalker had shrugged. "Sergeant, trust me on this one: if there's someone here who knows what he's doing, that's Farsight. I haven't told you much about him yet because I don't think you'd believe it."

"Try me."

At that point the flesh squealed and stopped briefly, then started walking again. Chasme hesitated.

"I assure you, it would be for the best if you asked him later."

And he had left it at that, much to the soldier's discomfort. His men were equally uneasy, but they had little choice on the matter. The stalkers trusted the young sniper, even if the youngsters, the sergeant noticed, also had their misgivings. As usual, what Pugachev thought was an enigma, but he also followed without a word.

They reached the crest of the slope. The commandos felt suicidally exposed, but no one fired their way. Everything was red on the village below, mutant corpses by the dozens visible everywhere. A few forms scuttled by, picking either on the fallen beasts or on the dead Monolithians that also littered the place.

If someone or something saw them, they did not react to their presence.

Chasme felt the familiar pulse on his head and was instantly on guard, but Farsight said nothing. He looked around and noticed the limping form between two houses, two hundred-odd meters away, its back turned to them. He pointed it to Bondarenko. "That's a controller for you."

The soldier looked at the creature through his binoculars. "It doesn't look like much..."

The armored stalker sensed his restlessness. "Yes?"

Bondarenko frowned. "This all feels so... wrong. If we were doing this the way I've been trained for, we wouldn't just go walking out in the open, in view of everything down on that village..." He shook his head. "Don't pay attention to me, corporal. We were warned that the Zone follows laws and logic utterly alien to norm."

A snort. "Whomever told you that, he got at least that part right."

They looked over to the other side of the hill. The slope gently descended into a soft depression, filled with dense overgrowth and small clusters of trees. A thick haze enveloped it all, making it hard to guess much else about the valley, but the rippling of many anomalies was clearly visible in the fog. Nikolay's mouth twitched and his heart sank when, by the corner of the eye, he noticed their mutant guide had started walking again.

Right towards the heart of the small valley.

He felt Svetlana's hand squeeze his own. He looked at her: the huge green pools of her eyes stared back at him. Steadily. Somehow that reassured him... it reminded him that, whatever awaited them there, they were committed together.

For all the ill and pain in my life, I have found at least one good thing.

They walked on, wading into the thick fogs. The land around them seemed virgin: no trails of any kind, no trace of human activity at all. Where tall grasses did not grow, mossy growths and lichens lined the soil, and even in places patches of tan-colored bare mud were visible. Possibly the anomalies cause these holes, Bondarenko thought. And there were anomalies all around them, given the ominous rumbling and humming clearly audible. Things popped, bubbled and hissed out of sight. At moments it seemed like they were on an entirely different world.

And they felt watched. On each step, that ominous feeling of eyes they could not see fixated on their necks and foreheads grew ever stronger. The commandos were not visibly nervous, but had shifted into battle-ready stances, holding their weapons at the ready with trained calm as they scanned the land and the roiling fog banks around them. The teen couple was not as cool but they were equally alert, their backs partially turned to each other as they looked in opposing directions.

For Chasme in particular, the tension was almost unbearable, heightened by the deeply uncomfortable sensations of feeling his muscles and bones itch and the horribly familiar tingling akin to millions of small needles piercing his skin. Whatever the blue mist was, it... was at work here too? To him, it was not just something that made him feel ill at ease, it was an absolute certainty - there was something out there, and it was studying them. At times he... thought... he could see a thing on the corner of his eye, a vaguely humanoid misshapen form obscured by the fogs, with monstrously long arms... and with an equally huge head...

"Wait." Everyone froze. Altunin had stopped dead in his tracks and turned around, his rifle raised. He scanned the thick mists behind him, Polyakov and Arkhimov flanking him, equally prepared to shoot at anything that appeared.

They waited.

"Anything...?" Chasme whispered.

The silence was broken only by the soft yelps of the flesh. The creature looked at Farsight, who was also staring expectantly at the three soldiers on their rear.

Nothing was coming.

"Sir, I'm positive we are being followed," Arkhimov warned quietly.

Bondarenko glared at Alexei. "Wherever we're going, we'd better hurry."

Chasme asked quietly: "Farsight... do you notice anybody?"

The youth shook his head. He was apparently unconcerned with whoever was stalking them, if there was someone stalking them at all. In this, he was an exact mirror of Hunter's. Still, Bondarenko ordered his men to search the foggy landscape around them for their invisible stalker, but found no sign of it.

"Not a trace, sir," Polyakov reported at last. "What I did find was some animal carcasses and droppings. There are mutants around."

We're being hunted, Chasme thought bitterly. We're being stalked by predators, not assassins. We're at their mercy here. He wondered if they would have made it this far into that unchartered territory without their flesh guide. No-wait! Is... is this stuff they poured into my wounds affecting my judgment?

He heard Bondarenko order the squad to carry on. He looked thoughtfully around him another time, then he produced the map they had found at the Freedom HQ from one of his satchels and studied it again. He was not really surprised to notice they were following approximately the same path. He let out a long sigh, squeezed his eyes tight, blinked a few times, and kept walking.

Shortly afterwards they stopped again. Someone had crudely spray-painted the visage of a wolf on the trunk of a tree. "Lukash," Alexei said flatly. Everyone else was gladdened by the sight, except for Hunter who nodded as coolly as always.

Then, a few steps further on, the flesh abruptly froze into place and sniffed the air. Farsight watched it intensely, then studied the terrain before them, and noticed what had caused his mutant companion to stop. They were on a small clearing where the moss and the grasses had receded to leave only bare mud in their wake, surrounded by a few mossy trees; two of them formed a crude archway where their branches met, and right underneath the arch the landscape seemed to... pulse... and then it appeared as if they were watching it through the eyes of someone seeing double as if drunken...

"What is this...?" Svetlana whispered.

Hunter picked up a small lump of mud from the ground and tossed it forward. Once it hit the anomaly it remained suspended in midair for an instant, then it started moving as if nothing had stopped it, only to brusquely stop again as the anomaly beat. This sequence repeated itself a few times, jarringly and randomly, before it landed harmlessly on the other side.

"Some kind of time anomaly..." Screws ventured.

"It could be," Chasme admitted. He pictured again the rent carpet image the controller had projected into their minds to help them understand how frayed reality was in the Zone. "Considering what happened to us..."

"Can we go around it?" Bondarenko asked.

Then the flesh surprised them all by starting to walk again-heading straight into the anomaly. Farsight raised a hand half-heartedly: "Don't-!"

The creature crossed the improptu archway. Immediately its movements became jarred and irregular, as if someone was haphazardly fiddling with the speed setting of a movie being played. They watched it dig in the mud, crouch to bite on something, and then return to them - apparently unharmed.

"So, it seems harmless..." Screws ventured hesitatingly.

Bondarenko looked uneasily over his shoulder, then forward again, still feeling -and unnerved by- the invisible eyes on him. "I still prefer to go around it in any case... what's it carrying?"

The flesh dropped something before Alexei. The young sniper picked it up. It was a spherical object the size of an orange, apparently crystalline at least in part. He rubbed it with some rags he produced from one of his satchels, then he held it out for everyone to see. It was only noticeable because of the few traces of dirt still on it and of the way it warped light around it, but otherwise the artifact was invisible to the naked eye.

"How... how beautiful," Sataida exclaimed.

Hunter was perplexed by the sight too. "I've never seen anything that transparent, ever." Farsight looked at him wide-eyed for an instant.

"I wonder what effects would it have?" Kamarov wondered.

"Look at the anomaly!" Altunin warned. Everyone raised their eyes to notice the 'beating' and 'stuttering' had become much faster, and the angle of the double-vision effect changed much more rapidly.

Hunter looked intensely at the artifact, then at the anomaly, then back at the artifact again. Then he imperiously held out a hand towards Farsight, who gave him the artifact, and without explanation he walked calmly ahead, wading straight into the anomaly. His fellows were struck speechless and stared wide-eyed as the tall, silent stalker stood absolutely still while the landscape appeared to jerk, pulse and snap around him, his back turned towards them.

Then he turned on his heel, walked back slowly, and rejoined them.

Sataida... thought... that Hunter looked disappointed.

"It's safe, but uncomfortable. Go around it." That said, he handed the nigh-invisible artifact back to Alexei, then withdrew again into his icy persona, ignoring the bewildered looks of both stalkers and soldiers.

Bondarenko and Chasme exchanged confused glances, then set about doing what Hunter suggested. It took quite a bit of a detour, because the anomalous field was about thirty meters wide or more, and some of it overlapped with other anomalies. The resulting effects were strange, even in a Zone where strange was just another word for normal: the invisible bubbles typical of a Springboard would 'pop' jerkily and randomly, and the hissing and fuming of a Fruit Punch would be equally erratic. They negotiated the strange phenomenon as fast as caution allowed, but their stalking party still seemed to content itself with studying them from afar.

They left the small valley behind and their oppressive atmosphere about an hour later, but Chasme was still nagged by the feeling and would consistently look over his shoulder and scan his flanks. They had not come upon any further signs left behind by the Freedom squad, and upon no signs of fighting either. One last slope climbed, and they found themselves on one of the sides of a small gorge, an ancient vehicle trail running over it with a couple of derelict vehicles partially covered in overgrowth. To one side, the trail snaked slowly upwards as it went back to Rostok and the ruins of the 100 Rads bar-and to the other side, the gorge opened into a small mesa overlooking a huge depression. "Yantar," Farsight announced.

"We move over these hills towards the lake. I want to have a good look around," Bondarenko commanded. Everyone nodded and continued walking.

"I thought the place would be more dangerous, honestly," Screws confessed.

"We followed the path sketched on the map left behind by Freedom pretty closely," Chasme replied. "I suppose they wouldn't have marked it on that map if it wasn't safe... but..." Again he looked over his shoulder. Again the trio of commandos on the rearguard signaled an 'all clear', but he was not reassured by their gesture.

"You were saying?" Sataida encouraged him.

Boris sighed heavily, having recalled something and being stung by the memory. "When we were trapped in the Dark Valley, Guide came within ten feet of a controller. Granted, he was carrying a load of the most powerful artifacts Strelok had ever collected and they shielded him a bit from the mutant's effects, but they were face to face, nothing between him and the creature, so it should at least have given him a headache to remember... but it merely groaned at him and went on its way. Guide would say the creature spared him. And... did you notice the needles?"

"The what?" Nikolay asked on the spot.

"Needles?" The SBU commander echoed him.

"No, I didn't," Svetlana answered.

A nod. "Possibly I can sense stuff you don't because of this powder you stuffed on my wounds..." I hope that doesn't mean I'm also more vulnerable to Zone phenomena too. "I felt as if I was being affected by the blue mist all over again, though not as strongly. When that happens, sergeant, you'll feel as if your skin is being pierced by millions of tiny needles at once, you'll feel colder than anything you can imagine, and your strength will go away as if you were a marionette and someone cut the strings."

Bondarenko frowned. "I thought the mist was lethal."

"It is, unless you got protection, and we had some." Chasme patted his satchels and belt. "Probably Lukash and his squad survived because of the same thing."

"But you had us all outfitted with similar protection, so if there was some of the mist around we didn't feel it because of that..."

"I suppose so. But that's not what I wanted to say. I don't know about you, but I still feel watched... There really is something lurking there, and it did not want us."

Sataida shivered but kept her composure. "I believe our flesh guide had something to do about it." She then briefly related a story she had once read about how a man who had raised a clutch of goslings from eggs to adulthood had been treated by other animals in the woods where he lived as just another one of them-simply because of the company he kept. Both Bondarenko and Screws were surprised by her story:

"It's possible... though given what we're seeing here-" Nikolay briefly glanced at Farsight and its mutant companion "-I suppose there's something else on top of that at work."

A few minutes later they were at their intended destination, the edge of the cliffs overlooking the gorge and the mesa. Beyond the mesa, the heavily overgrown depression, and in the midst of it, surrounded by an opaque fence, the gray bulk of the scientists' bunker; to its east, the land rose again, and behind decrepit brick walls, a series of large structures typical of a factory compound. "We don't want to go near the factory yet," Chasme advised. "There's something there that zombifies people."

"The Brain Scorcher?" Volkov asked.

"No, but it's similar. Weaker, I believe."

"Can I have a minute of your attention?" It was Sataida. She was holding a salvaged tablet computer on her hands.

"Strelok's journal?" Chasme smirked. "What do we have on the place?"

"Skip the details for now, girl," Bondarenko added. "Just go to what we may need to know right now: who or what's in there, to begin with."

She held up the tablet for them to see. "This is in there."

The commandos were stunned. "Just... what the hell is that?" Polyakov blurted out. "A... BRAIN in a jar?"

"A giant brain in a jar... or more likely, a lot of brains lumped up together in a very large jar."

Chasme looked at the five soldiers one by one. They all were shocked, even the grizzled SBU commander. The rugged soldier shook his head. "Never suspected I'd find this kind of horrors here..." With an effort he put his mind back to work with their current situation. "I assume this... monstrosity is responsible for the brain-melting radiation?"

Sataida scrolled down the encyclopedic log. "Yes," she confirmed. "Strelok had a special helmet the scientists gave him that helped him resist it..."

"I have it." Chasme was pointing with his index finger at his helmet. "It's tricky but you can wear it along with an exo helmet." He was about to take it off, but the SBU commander stopped him:

"Keep it. It surely wasn't easy to fit one helmet inside another. We need more than one, though." He surveyed the basin with his binoculars. No activity that he could see, but the vicinity of the fence enclosing the bunker, thick with bushes and tall grass as it was, could conceal anything. "Arkhimov and Pugachev," he turned to the scouts, "take point. Fifty paces. We make it for the fence. Whatever happens, you avoid contact. And hug the southern edge of the basin. We want to stay as far away from the factory as we can."

"Yes sir," Arkhimov acknowledged. Hunter merely nodded coolly. Screws felt tempted to ask if it was a good idea to send him forward after so many injuries, but the silent stalker gave no hints of being in pain or ill in any way. How much of it was due to the artifacts he was wearing was impossible to tell. One thing was certain: the man was tough. Why would he walk straight into a never-before-seen anomaly? And how did he know it was harmless? The questions nagged him, like thorns.

Chasme turned around just in time to notice Farsight crouched next to the flesh, as if he were whispering something into the creature's ears. The mutant pig stood shakily on its short legs, and then started walking away-back into the small valley they had just traversed. Alexei noticed his glance, looked back at him and shrugged with a small smile on his lips. That was, at a time, reassuring and intriguing-but whatever new questions Boris had, they would have to be answered later on. His persistent sensation of being stalked in the old sense of the word was harder to suppress, but he could not find fault with the soldiers-without being ordered to, they had consistently scanned their flanks, watched their rear, and had their path go near terrain features they could use as cover on the spot. He was still worried by the perspective of the powder compound affecting his intuition or his best judgment somehow, but there was no one he could ask about it, not even Farsight. He's not omniscient, he said... Best I can do is to just roll with it and see what happens...

The point men had barely covered ten meters into the basin when Arkhimov whispered through the radio: "Command, we've found a fresh corpse."

"A scientist?" Bondarenko inquired.

"Negative. An old Skorpio machine pistol, cheap clothes... her eyes are all white. A single shot to the head."

"A zombie," Chasme said immediately. "You'll surely find more of them around."

"I'm searching her..." The man's voice seemed to trail off, then they heard something heavy thudding on the ground.

Bondarenko pressed his headset closer to his ears. "Point?"

A few dreadful silent instants passed before Hunter spoke with his characteristically deep voice: "Arkhimov just passed out."

"What? Why? What got him?" Kamarov asked urgently.

"Can't tell."

"Perhaps they're affected by the Yantar scorcher... Hunter, do you feel anything strange or out of place?" Screws asked on his own.

Hunter's reply was dry. "No."

Some hesitation, then: "Stay where you are. I'm coming." Chasme turned to Screws. "Give me your spare rifle and two clips."

"Uh, sure..." The youth put his backpack on the ground.

"My fault," Boris muttered, teeth clenched. "I'm the only one protected against this. I should have been the one on point."

"We don't know if it was that," Bondarenko cautioned. "But I see what you mean. You want to leave the Kord here?"

Chasme shook his head. "It doesn't slow me down with this armor."

That comment warranted an odd look from Kamarov. Boris noticed it, but judged he would have time to worry about that later.

Screws watched Chasme dart forward alone from behind the scope and sights of Blackjack's rifle. He turned his head to the left to see his girlfriend doing the same, expectantly. To his right, Farsight was simply sitting cross-legged, reading something off a tablet computer, not at all affected -apparently- by the tension that seemed to grip the squad.

That's Sveta's computer, he realized. He's studying Strelok's log?

Some thirty-odd meters ahead, Boris crouched next to Hunter. "Are you alright?" he asked-unnecessarily. The man nodded without looking. Hunter was already expecting him, even if his back was turned at him. "What is it?"

"Listen."

Chasme did as he was told. He thought something was grunting in the distance, but the sound was odd, as if the sound came from behind a-"Snorks... behind the bunker?"

"Possibly. Nothing around us."

He then looked at Arkhimov. The man seemed fast asleep. "Any idea about what got him?"

"Not one." Again the dry reply.

A curt nod. He turned around to face his companion. "We should get him to safety-ngh!" With an effort he stopped himself from screaming. Hunter questioned him with his eyes, then gazed around for threats: "...no, no, nothing shot me or bit me..." he panted. It felt as if a red-hot spike had drilled through his left thigh, but now the pain was quickly fading away, only leaving behind a vibrant tingling all over his leg.

To his left lay the corpse of the zombified stalker woman.

"Stay away from the zombie corpses."

The silent stalker bowed his head in acknowledgement. Without comment he shouldered the unconscious soldier and started walking back to rejoin the rest of the squad, Chasme covering their retreat.

"What got him?" Bondarenko asked once they were back behind the hill.

"Whatever it was, we stay away from dead zombies," Chasme answered. "I felt like I had been shot when I got close to one. Now, we should get back down there. I don't want night to catch us in the open."

They were extra careful around the half-dozen cleanly sniped zombies they found. Now that he was aware of the hazard, his body still tingled slightly whenever they got close to one. He held out his Geiger counter next to three of the dead. Two of them only read between 80 and 170 microsieverts, and the last one tallied for 2742. He ran some figures in his head... 5000 mSv is the instantaneous median lethal dose... I think. If he had recalled that number correctly, then no, radiation was not what had caused him the pain on his leg. Yet another enigma.

Hunter approached the fence with his usual liquid motions, then signaled him to come closer. He covered the thirty paces on a quick sprint, then they looked inside the fence. More dead corpses, four within sight, all equally sniped and equally rotting. None bore labcoats, hazmat suits, nor any item that Boris would expect a scientist to wear. Then, some ten steps within the fence, the bulk of the bunker. Something hummed inside the structure-probably it still had electrical power.

"The snipers are inside, aren't they?" Chasme whispered.

"And they know we're out here." Boris could almost feel his companion's concentration as he intensely scanned the ground around them. He pointed at a spot behind them. A clear footprint and hints of several more.

"Is that a day old?"

"Possibly less." Hunter stepped away from the fence as he tried to follow the trail. Chasme could not notice any other signs of people coming and going, but his companion could. He had taken about six steps towards the looming bulk of the factory complex when he stopped. "They went that way."

"The same people?"

Hunter picked up something in the mud, then tossed it to Chasme. He caught it in midair: a spent casing. All the zombies he had seen had been armed, but their assailants had not taken away the weapons; probably they had learned the lesson Boris had just learned himself. None of the guns he had seen matched this casing, for it was very long. Boris read the stamp on the base of the casing: .338 Norma mag. He tried to recall what he knew about that round...that was Lapua Magnum ammunition, bullets used on sniper rifles. A zombie could have one of those, but then there would be many casings around. And using that kind of stuff on stiffs seems such a waste... unless you're down to your last... Suddenly he felt very, very, very uncomfortable out there in the open. He weighed the cartridge in his hand... but if they fired at one of these zombies, how did that cartridge end up there? A very close range shot?

"No way we can actually know if they see us."

"They're thinking whether to shoot us." Hunter turned towards Chasme. "Knock."

Boris was aghast for an instant. Then he slowly stood up from his crouched position, his legs protesting. He took a step from behind the fence and was in full view of the bunker.

Then the heavy blast door yanked open.

The armored stalker looked at his companion. He positioned itself by the edge of the fence and gestured him to go.

Chasme unknotted his aching fingers from the handle of the F2000 Screws had loaned him, then brought it to bear, barrel staring at the open door. Slowly he walked up to the threshold, and listened. The murmur of working electrical equipment was stronger now, but he could hear little else. On the other side of the small decontamination chamber -for that's what it was, with built-in sprinklers and all-, there was another solid metal door, and it was closed.

He stepped inside.

The outer door closed behind him. A dim yellow lamp turned on, then a red LED indicating the offline status of the decontamination system.

Then, nothing.

Chasme did not dare to move. His whole being was poised to shoot at whatever thing appeared on the other side of that chamber when the door opened.

But it did not.

Seconds passed.

And then, finally, the inner door opened softly inwards. His trigger finger itched with anticipation.

The inside of the bunker was only dimly lit. His eyes took a while to adjust. The door opened into a small corridor that turned left. Some other noises were heard now: the soft whirring of computer cooling equipment. No human-made noises. The air smelled of rubber, mud and burnt gunpowder.

But his quickly developing sixth sense -or his paranoia- told him that there was someone else in there. And he was waiting for Chasme to step through the door, weapon at the ready. Much like he himself was.

But that standoff could last forever and he could not wait. Night was approaching fast and the rest of the squad was woefully exposed. If that place was empty he needed to know.

"Hello?" He called.

Nobody answered.

He sighed. "Hello, someone there?"

Still nothing.

Silently he checked that the safe of his rifle was off, then took a soft but purposefully noticeable step forward. Still no reaction.

He closed his eyes and committed himself. He knew he was going to be ambushed but not how. As noiselessly as he could he crouched, he advanced... still nothing...

...and peeked around the corner.

Someone put a silencer to his head. "You would better explain how you came upon that suit of armor."

It took him a whole second to recognize the hoarse, throaty voice.

Slowly he turned to face his assailant. The man was bald and elderly, his eyes uniquely old.

"...Guide?!"
  01:00:26  23 April 2013
profilee-mailreply Message URLTo the Top
ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
04/23/2013 1:01:04
Messages: 197
Episode XVII


“The sage bathed me in green fire that did not burn, and then returned to the stars aboard his great bronze chariot. I thought he had mocked me, until, on a battle, an opponent stabbed my heart clean with a spear. I simply laughed, tore out the sharpened stone and kept on fighting.”


They were all restless, the hypnotic tapping of the helicopters' propellers growing stronger by the instant, as they kept nervous guard on the exit leading to the wild territory and the military warehouses where Freedom was headquartered.

Chasme and Oracle stood next to each other, each one lost in their own thoughts. The news that the scarred youth was a surviving comrade had spread quickly among the SBU members; the soldiers had congratulated him for his “will to survive” and had all backed his superior's decision to have him sent out of the Zone. No such thing had happened to Chasme, who had kept his own background and past a secret from everyone.

“Here they come,” Farsight said quietly as the three aircraft appeared from behind the cliffs to their east, and suddenly the echoes of their engines turned into powerful mechanical roars.

One of the Hind helicopters hovered in stationary flight over the cliffs, while the other two maneuvered to touch down on the large clearing left of the road. Hunter nodded to himself, noting the skill of whoever was in command of that mission, but said nothing.

The aircraft touched down softly, but before then the doors of their cargo bays had already opened and squads of soldiers were scrambling around hastily to secure the landing zone. Chasme watched Bondarenko with stinging eyes as the SBU commander strode forward towards one of the helicopters and saluted the officers as they set foot on the ground--

“Is that--?” he heard Oracle gasp.

“Yes.” Their father-in-law had come himself, no doubt looking out for the youth he had had sent to the Zone. They saw the man –old, slightly overweight, his face pimply and red– glance across the stalkers, then over the two of them. His eyes glittered with recognition for an instant, then he stopped looking to deal with Bondarenko and his report.

“I never thought he would come himself...” Alya must be mad with grief and worry...

“Alya must have driven him crazy with guilt,” Chasme said, voicing Oracle's thoughts.

“Morozov, come over!” They heard Bondarenko shout their way. They looked at each other one last time, then embraced each other.

“Try not to get killed,” Oracle whispered as soberly as he could. Then he exchanged goodbyes with the rest of the stalkers, one by one, and finally walked ahead towards the helicopter.

Farsight was the one closest to Chasme. He glanced at the armored stalker, but Boris –the only Boris among them now– seemed frozen into place, arms crossed over his chest. They watched in expectant silence as supplies were unloaded, the wounded were carefully helped aboard, and the officers conferred – and, at last, as the pimply elder clapped the youth in the shoulder –apparently surprising him– and gestured him to get on the helicopter. He looked at his erstwhile comrades one last time, then he disappeared in the passenger bay. His helicopter took off immediately, gained altitude, then turned south-eastwards and sped towards the horizon.

“Goodbye, Oracle,” Nikolay said aloud. Svetlana squeezed his hand, joining him on his unspoken prayer.

“Yeah... Godspeed.” Boris turned on his heel dispiritedly and picked up his backpack and the late Blackjack's customized Abakan. He blinked several times to clear his eyes, then focused on their current task: “Is everyone ready?” A series of nods answered his query. Then, he turned to the SBU commandos, who were clustered in a tight knot a few paces away. “Everything's prepared here,” he reported, unwittingly assuming command over the stalker squad.

One of the soldiers nodded his agreement. The woven patch over the breast pocket of his flak jacket read 'Polyakov'. “Surely the boss'll ask you to lug around our RPGs, given that armor you've got,” the rugged man said, pointing at the small stack of weapons and supplies the helicopter crews had unloaded on the pavement.

“The story repeats itself,” Chasme muttered darkly.

“Say that again?” The man asked.

“That -29 you found on the wreckage, it was one of my guns.” The weapon there was lighter, probably a RPG-32 by the looks of it.

Polyakov was about to ask if Chasme had ever gotten to fire it, but even if the weapon had been crushed and crumpled into an useless piece of twisted metal, it had been immediately evident that it had been used more than once. “What's around that needs to be shot at with it?”

“Pseudogiants.” Boris was in no mood for boasting or explaining. If I have to use it again, better not to miss this time around.

The second helicopter, having unloaded its cargo and recovered its crew, finally took off; the Hind holding station over the cliffs quickly fell by its side, and they both sped south-eastwards. The echoes of their rotors took a few minutes to completely fade off. In the meantime, Bondarenko ordered his men and his stalker guides forward. He looked at Chasme and gestured at the weapons he had requisitioned: “I had one of these brought in specifically for you. None of my men could carry it around for long, let alone fire it without deploying it first, but that exoskeleton you have will make it easy for you.”

The armored stalker spent no time picking up and steadying the huge machine gun. “It's heavy alright, sir. I didn't know we had Kords.”

“Seized from a gunrunner supplying some of the rogue factions here. Given the strength of the... opposition, and since you are the closest we are going to have to a tank, I thought I should as well have you outfitted for the role. That's why I would like to know if you could take the RPG too.”

Chasme hoisted the weapon, then the canisters containing the grenades themselves. “It should be no problem at all,” he stated reassuringly. “Nikolay, you would perhaps like to have Blackjack's weapon.”

“Absolutely.” Screws took the rifle expecting a pang of sadness, but he felt nothing. It would be a fine replacement for the SCAR-H he had lost on the destruction of the arena.

Bondarenko glanced at the rest of the stalkers. “Here are extra loadouts for each one of you. Whatever you don't use, carry it as spares. Don't take supply flights like this one as something ordinary.” Apparently the weapons had also been seized from the same gunrunner, because they were unusual ones at that: FN F2000 rifles in assault configuration, with grenade launchers slung under the barrels.

“This is very expensive stuff,” Farsight appreciated, noting the fire control module installed instead of the usual telescopic sights. “Whoever bought this must be funded better than some third-world countries.”

“I was coming to that. We have additional orders. Visiting the abandoned military base is now compulsory.” Bondarenko added no further details. “Now, a few clarifications are in order. Arkhimov, you're on point as usual, but you're having company this time. Pugachev, you're going with him.” He glanced at Hunter, already clad in his repaired ghillie suit, who returned the look with his usual blank face. The man had been described by every other stalker in grandiose terms regarding his stealth and close combat skills, which made him an ideal point man, and even if he did neither like nor trust him he could not let those assets go to waste. “Where is your weapon?”

Hunter opened the folds of his suit just enough to reveal it: a compact sniper rifle of bullpup layout, carefully wrapped in camo netting and cloaks to shield it from the dust, but still recognizable. One of the SBU members caught his breath in surprise: the Walther WA-2000 was a weapon rare enough to be worth a small fortune, and this one was in pristine condition. The officer nodded without comment. “Good.” Then, he turned to the teenager couple. “You two are on fire support. Kamarov will direct you as needed.” Both Sataida and Screws nodded. To Chasme, he said: “I don't need to say that you're our heavy weapons specialist. Volkov usually fills up that role, so you'll work with him.” He turned around and was about to change subjects--and saw Farsight, and noticed he had not picked a role for him. The other stalkers had mentioned he was a very good marksman, and the AWM rifle he carried with casual confidence seemed to back up that story. “What is your name?”

“Alexei.”

“You'll work with Altunin as his backup and spotter. He will fill you in on that if you need it.”

Farsight shook his head. “I've worked on that role before. You don't need to worry.” Nikolay watched the exchange with distant interest. Alexei probably would not need to fire a gun ever again, but it was pointless to tell that to the soldiers. They would not believe it, Zone or no Zone.

Bondarenko nodded. “The rest of you, on me. Now, stalkers, please tell me what to expect in our journey.”

Chasme took that as a cue for him to speak. “Mutated animals and people that have degenerated into beastlike forms have been swarming around in incredible numbers, as you surely have... inferred from the corpses. That's not a threat we can beat off with firepower...” his voice trailed off as he looked at the SBU commander, but Bondarenko did not interfere, so he continued. “The Duty men had a dozen machine guns at their disposal, and they were overran. We have two, and we must deploy one of them to fire it. The best I could do for you in the worst case scenario, armor or not, would be to buy time for you to escape.”

“Specific threats we should know about?” Altunin asked. His question made sense – as the squad marksman, he would prioritize high value targets.

“Two stand out. Both are humanoid mutants, one of them with an abnormally large head that usually walks with a limp, and the other a large fat mutant usually cloaked in a coat. Both can strike from afar with...” He struggled for credible words, and failed. “Call them psychic powers if you want, for they may as well be just that.

“The first one will give you the worst headache you can think of within minutes of being next to him, and it will only get worse from there if it focuses on you.” He glanced at Farsight as he spoke. “The other ones... well, you all have seen Star Wars here, right? Those are worse than Yoda on steroids. They can hurl stuff at you, pull your guns out of your hands, strike at you with directed shockwaves, and if all else fails they can choke the breath out of you or shield themselves from all gunfire for a short time.”

Arkhimov, the scout, shook his head. “That sounds very hard to believe.”

“Be grateful you have someone who can tell you about them,” Bondarenko replied. “I recruited them because of what they know. It's been said but it bears repeating: these stalkers have survived what you may be up against. Heed their words.” All SBU members nodded. Bless you, sergeant, Chasme said to himself, knowing that their advice would not be questioned after that. “Anything else you have to add?” the commander asked.

“I'm curious, if I may...” Bondarenko nodded, so Chasme inquired, “What have you been told, exactly? How have you been briefed about the dangers of the Zone?” He found himself wishing they had had time to discuss that earlier, but preparing the wounded and digging out the dead for burial and intel had consumed most of their time since the SBU squad had arrived, so he had to settle for this. And he did not like the looks he was getting.

“We were told about some of the mutants... those like dogs, boars and pigs,” Volkov answered. “Also about the rat-like ones. And about several anomalies, like the shockwave ones.” He went on to explain the extent of their intel on the Zone for a few minutes, some of his comrades adding something here and there. Chasme tried not to sigh. The SBU squad had as much knowledge on the Zone as a rookie who had made it to the junkyards would have. They were elite soldiers by the looks of it, but whomever had picked them out had considered them over veteran stalkers that signed up with the military. He shook his head.

“Not good.” Flustered, he turned to Bondarenko. “Sergeant, seriously, who the fuck was in charge of briefing you?”

“I can give you his name, rank and posting once we get out of here,” the man replied grimly. “Is it that bad?”

“No, it's worse. I haven't even mentioned bloodsuckers and pseudogiants yet. And you know barely of a third of all the anomalies I've had to deal with first-hand.”

The SBU sergeant slowly turned his back on him, deeply worried by his words. He mulled them for a few seconds, then turned to his men. “Listen up. This stalker is now in charge. You still respond to me, but treat him as my superior while this mission lasts.”

A chorus of agreements answered him. “Yes, sir.”

Boris was surprised. “I didn't see that coming.”

“It's only right. If you've made it this far in the Zone, you're better than I for the position.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, sir.” He then gazed at the sky. “We should go, sergeant. The way to the warehouses is to the north. It's not long, but there's little in the way of cover or defensive positions if we're again hit by mutants.”

“You heard the man, squad,” the soldier ordered. “Point men, move it!”

The noon sun saw them leave the ruins of Rostok and brave the open, ruined road that snaked towards the north, towards Freedom territory, the Brain Scorcher, and the epicenter. The day was hot, the weather humid, the mood dreary as the stalkers scanned the hills before them for the hordes of mutants. But even if the mutants proved elusive to find, they were very present in their minds. Not in those of the soldiers, apparently; they conducted themselves with mechanistic precision, their routines only interrupted by a few comments on the outlandish anomalies and how they warped -in the case of Whirligigs and Vortexes- or directly burned -as Burners, Electroes and Fruit Punches usually did- the terrain around them. Nikolay pondered for a while if that steel-cold behavior would remain while under assault; they looked very capable... but here, in the Zone...

Farsight's behavior was to him another source of disquiet. Even if the youth appeared to second the SBU marksman on his task of scouting for threats, he was withdrawn, as if focused on his own thoughts. Occasionally he would see him grimace briefly as if in pain, then carry on as if nothing happened. Maybe it's his wounds, artifacts or not, he thought.

Chasme was anxiously gauging their progress, thinking that perhaps they had another hour to go and wanting to get somewhere more defensible as soon as they could, when the radio chirped. “Command, this is point,” the scout reported flatly. “We found something you may want to see.”

“Roger.”

What Arkhimov and Hunter had found was a single mutant corpse. The creature had been human once, but its shape had been monstrously bloated into a body almost as wide as it was tall. It was robust and heavy with muscle, however, and appeared to have little in the way of fat. It was covered in ulcers and bites all over. The hands in particular had been brutally torn apart.

“Study it well,” Chasme said, “for this is a burer. The Yoda-like mutant I told you about.” He was intrigued by the find. Especially by the eyes. They still seemed to glitter with an intelligence of their own, as opposed to almost every other mutant he had seen before...

...with the exception of the controller that had hurled Farsight and he himself, along with the late Guide and the late Foxhound, back in time.

Farsight stared at the dead creature long and hard. Both Nikolay and Svetlana noticed it. “What is it?” she whispered.

“The next time we find a single lone burer I'll deal with it.”

Chasme and Bondarenko looked attentively at the youth but he just moved on back to his place next to Altunin. The SBU sergeant then looked at Boris. “Between the tall fellow and this kid I'm hard pressed to say which one I find queerest.”

Boris snorted. “This one, by a long shot.”

“Why?”

“He's a walking Zone prodigy. It's in your best interest to just know that for the moment.”

Bondarenko seemed less than content with that answer but let it slide. “Best to learn one thing at a time? I agree. Let's start with... the Morozov kid that just left and yourself for the moment.”

The armored stalker agreed reluctantly. “What do you want to know?”

“Anything you haven't told me about it yet.”

Another snort. “There's not much, other than I envy him big fucking time.” He sighed. “A part of me keeps asking why I didn't just kill him and go instead of him... and another part of me answers that I couldn't live with myself if I had done that.” The pain had yet to go away. Hoping that there could be a way back for him on the epicenter was little comfort.

The soldier bowed his head thoughtfully. “That was a very noble decision.”

The words stung Chasme, even if they were kind. For a moment he felt tempted to return the compliment with some bitter maxim about how the Zone punished selflessness, but gave up on the idea. “...yeah.”

Bondarenko was reading him. “That's not something to regret. What goes around comes around.”

That was too much to bear. “Except that the Zone hits you really hard for anything you do for free.”

“You talk like this place was the whole world for you.”

“Because it is. I'm not getting out, ever. Even if there was a way to get 'legit' ID and papers, I'm another Zone freak now. God knows what that powder is doing to my body now.” The venom poured out of him, burning his tongue as he spoke.

“Then... you are going to the epicenter just because we hired you.”

“Don't worry, sergeant, I'm not going to get us all killed because of a death wish.” Then he relented with a sigh. “Honestly, I'm hoping there's something over there that can help me. Even if the whole 'Wish Granter' thing is a hoax.”

“‘Wish Granter’?”

“Zone hogwash.”

Nikolay saw fit to take over then, in light of Chasme's increasingly foul and miserable mood. “Before the blue mist, there was a legend that spoke about a mystical artifact buried at Chernobyl itself, a thing that could grant a stalker's wish. Like a radioactive genie bottle. Then... Strelok managed to go past the Brain Scorcher, and found out the thing does exist, but grants no wishes. It brainwashes stalkers. That's how the Monolith gets more fanatics to serve it.”

Boris cut in abruptly, “And knowing that got him killed.”

Bondarenko was lost. “Strelok? The bald man we buried at the Duty headquarters? Kamarov said he bled to death...”

“Before I was sent back in time mercenaries shot him at the junkyards. And then we went to the valley looking blindly for some bandit slicer to crack his journal, and all hell broke loose there. Mutants in droves, just like what happened in Rostok.” Then he spoke no further. The soldier, reluctantly, let him be for a while. His mind resented the whole time travel thing, and arranging for Oracle’s exit had not eased his concerns.

They came upon no mutants on their journey, but Chasme made use of the authority granted to him by Bondarenko and ordered everyone to remain vigilant, to only reiterate his command as the road snaked down a hill and the walls of the derelict warehouses came into view. He did not believe for even half a split-second that they were alone.

Cautiously they climbed the hill crowned by the abandoned cabins, searched them thoroughly, and temporarily made a stop there. Again the silence was eerie, only perturbed by the wind blowing. Boris looked uneasily at the sky, then wondered what he had expected to find there. The tension that they had experienced while besieged at Rostok was returning, only worsened by the fact that the enemy was not in sight.

Hunter and Arkhimov walked into the large cabin the last, burdened by several backpacks not their own. The soldier saluted Bondarenko, who returned the greeting and inquired: “What have you found?”

“The village on the other side of this road and the hill behind it is deserted. We found human bones picked clean, but no signs of life. What you see here is what we could salvage from their gear; given the condition of all this I'd say they've been dead for a week now. The stalker went on to scout some of the houses on his own but came back empty-handed.”

Boris glanced at Hunter, wishing he had Guide and his experience with them now. He had heard at the 100 Rads bar about the bloodsucker village and knew why the silent stalker had bid Arkhimov to stay back: if someone could fight and defeat one of the terrible mutants in close combat, it was him. “And the Barrier?”

The man spoke with the raw voice that was characteristic of his. “I saw twelve men split in squads of four. Three of the soldiers wore black armor like that.” He gestured at Nikolay’s looted suit. “One squad was on guard, while the other two were kneeling around fires and spun their heads around almost frantically.”
Chasme swore. “The Monolith...”

“Altunin and Polyakov, you’re on sentry duty,” Bondarenko ordered on the spot.

“Yes sir.” The soldiers went outside.

The SBU commander turned back to Arkhimov and Hunter. “You spotted no one on the village.”

The soldier shook his head. “Neither there, nor at the old guardpost to the northwest.”

“Only at the Barrier... Perhaps they’re just guarding against intruders?”

“If I may...” Nikolay rose a hand. Chasme nodded. “What about the base itself?”

“The gates were obstructed by a barricade. We noticed no one inside. No lights on either.”

“Corpses?”

“None that we could see,” Arkhimov admitted.

“Not that it means that there’s no one around.” Boris turned to the SBU commander. “Freedom was very large and its members well equipped. If there are no bodies around it can only mean that someone buried them.”

“Not that there weren't any bodies?” Sataida ventured.

“Possible but unlikely... What was the final body count at Rostok? Over two hundred bodies, right? Of those, thirty-odd survived the blue mists and the earthquakes. I don't see why I should think otherwise of Freedom. Besides, that barricade did not get there on its own.”

Bondarenko did not like the teenagers taking part into the discussion, but that was not the time to bring up the issue. “I would agree,” he nodded as he considered their choices. Their position was awful. The path to the Brain Scorcher was blocked by hostiles. The derelict military base was likely occupied by Freedom, and they had no love for the Army either. Their actual position had the advantage of high ground, but what little cover was there would not stop a rifle bullet, much less a sniper round. “Arkhimov and Pugachev,” he ordered at last, “I want you back on the hills. Hunker down somewhere and keep an eye on the Barrier. Altunin and Alexei, you go with them...”

The echoes of distant gunfire interrupted him. Immediately he spoke to his headset: “Report.”

“Nothing we can see, sir,” Polyakov replied. “Seems to come from the other side of these hills. From the village.”

Hunter stood up. “We’ll spot targets for the snipers.” That said, he walked out. Arkhimov hesitated, then followed him. Chasme watched them go, then turned to Bondarenko:

“We move out?”

“Now. We’ll take our chances. I don’t like it but if they pin us down here...”

“That would be inconvenient. Everyone, you hug the walls all the way to the entrance, and keep an eye on those hills. Move!”

They ran up the hills, reached the walls, and kept running next to them, feeling horribly naked as they did. To their left, the echoes of more shots came erupted from the hidden village, followed by the painful yelps of wounded beasts and several growls and roars. No one needed to be told what that meant.

Then an armored, masked silhouette popped up from behind the hills and demanded with a muffled voice: “Stoi!”

Hunter turned on the spot to bring his rifle to bear and loosed a single shot on the Monolith trooper. The man was flung backwards as the back of his head exploded in a red mist. He let the others run ahead as he kept trotting at a slower pace, looking out for more of them--
He saw the muzzle flash over the Barrier right before a fierce thump near his left temple sent him flying. He rolled unceremoniously on the ground, the barks of assault rifles and the blast of Farsight’s AWM rifle seemingly coming from miles away, the alarmed voices of his companions even more distant still...

“HUNTER!” Screws screamed.

“Keep running!” Chasme bellowed, his blood chilling. The stalker’s head was raw with blood. He crouched next to him, oblivious of the deadly chatter of rifles before him, and was about to slump the stalker’s body over his shoulder--

--and Hunter blinked several times to clear his sight, rolled in the grass, and fired a second shot. Someone cried out in the distance.

“Can you stand?” Boris asked, astounded at Hunter’s resilience. “Come on, lean on me!” He helped the man on his feet, passed his left arm behind his shoulders and ran on, shielding him with his armor, and ran as fast as they could while bullets whistled all around them. Something hit Chasme on the flank, and another round smashed his shoulder, but the armor protected him: “I NEED SOME COVER HERE!” he shouted, more out of sheer fury than anything else, since his teammates were already hammering at the assailing Monolithians, as Nikolay and Svetlana dashed ahead like madmen, rushing for the barricade...
Just before the end of the wall Screws stopped, fearing to find someone hostile on the other side of the wrecked drums and vehicle wrecks, but a bullet whistling past just inches away from his ear reminded him of more pressing dangers, so he jumped straight over them. No one around. No one visible this side of the walls either. “IT’S SAFE!” His teammates needed not to be told that twice: first, half the soldiers came on through, then the other half, Bondarenko among them, and then Chasme with Hunter -who somehow could still stand despite the horrid gash on his head- and last of them all Farsight.

“You take Pugachev inside and take care of him!” Bondarenko ordered. “We’ll set up a defense here! Go!”

Again Sataida and Screws raced ahead, knowing that if there was anyone else in there probably they knew they had guests, but no one showed up, nobody challenged them. They raced across an empty street and hauled Hunter inside a two-story building, where they helped him sit on a decrepit chair. “How does that look?” Nikolay asked.

Hunter tried to shoo the help away: “I’m fine...”

“No, you’re not, Hunter.” Chasme removed the man’s gas mask, now soaked with blood, and grimaced behind his own. The bullet apparently had ricocheted off the bone, if the barely visible white spot amidst the bleeding was proof. He had heard about that but never had he witnessed it himself. He casually glanced at Hunter’s mask: “...but you’re one lucky fucker.” He showed the mask to Nikolay and Svetlana: there was a perfectly round hole near the left temple.

“The artifacts,” Screws said at once.

“We can gape at that later, we should stitch and bandage that now, don’t you think?” Sataida was looking inside her backpack for her first aid kit.

“...Just a bandage,” Hunter groaned. “The stitching is unnecessary...”

Chasme was about to override him, but then the scars all over his body jumped to his mind. “You know what you’re doing,” he replied gruffly and reached for the machine gun he had left leaning on a wall. “I’d better get over there and help Bondarenko. You keep an eye on him.” He raced outside with heavy footsteps. Barrages echoed over to them from the village, but nobody was shooting at them now apparently. Still, all the SBU men had taken positions behind the barricade, well protected and on cover, their lanes of fire overlapping with each other; anyone trying to storm the base now would be treated to a very nasty hail of lead.

Bondarenko was scanning intensely for targets, looking down the road from behind the crosshairs of his assault rifle. He did not seem to notice Chasme arriving, but he said: “They’ve got the beasts to deal with apparently.”

“I never thought I would be glad of having a mutant swarm around,” Boris replied, concealing his unease. It was uncannily convenient for the beasts to act up only then, after days making themselves scarce. And they were in a way more defensible position now. “Still, doesn’t make any sense.”

The SBU sergeant did not cease his vigil. “I’ll leave those ponderings to you stalkers.” In fact, the soldier seemed confident, almost glad for the change of pace. The Zone was not his area of expertise. A shootout was. “The casualty?”

“He’ll make it. Bullet ricocheted off his skull...” Then he remembered the perfectly round hole on the mask. It did not add up. That shot would have killed him outright...

“You were saying?”

“Kamarov should take a look at him in any case.”

Bondarenko merely gestured backwards with his head, and the medic reached for his gear and raced inside the base. “Seems we got this covered,” he said quietly. “You stalkers should make doubly sure this place is secure. If there’s any secret entrances or exits we don’t know of we’ll be dead by the night.”

Boris glanced at Farsight. The youth was not in the least concerned by the soldier’s words. However... his first idea was that appearances should be kept, but even if he could simply chalk up their certainty to just being the Zone, a conscious sweep would help them rest a bit easier. Especially now that they apparently were trapped inside the base. “Yeah. Farsight, come with me.”

Alexei said nothing as he slung his sniper rifle to his shoulder by its strap and followed him. Chasme put his ever-present concerns about him aside: “How does everything look?”

Farsight took a few seconds to word a reply. “Better than it seems.”

Boris exhaled. “Good news for a change.” Then: “Where’s everyone? I don’t buy Freedom just packing up and leaving, where would they go?”

The youth answered with another question: “Aren’t you intrigued by Hunter’s luck and toughness?”

It caught Chasme off-guard. “Er... if anyone would know if there’s something... odd... about him, I would think that someone could be you.”

Alexei shook his head. Is he... smiling? “I’m not omniscient, Boris, even if sometimes I seem to be.”

They found a partial answer to Chasme’s question some ten-odd minutes later, as they opened a rusty hangar door and were treated to the acrid smell of burned flesh: oil drums filled to the brim with blackened bones were stored there. “They’re recent,” the armored stalker mumbled half to himself. He felt tempted to turn over one of the drums and see what had killed them, but chances were that would not add anything new to his conclusion. “Whatever’s left of Freedom burned those that died to the blue mist and the quakes and then fled.”

Farsight was disquieted by those words. “...I... I would have seen them... unless they went...”

“Towards the Brain Scorcher?”

A nod. “That, or... they left this place much sooner than what I think.”

Chasme thought he had spotted the Alexei he had once known in Farsight’s hesitant words. “Come, let’s continue.”

They reverently closed the door behind them and continued their sweep. Boris found it unnerving to perform such explorations while a veritable battle seemed to rage at the village, but Bondarenko had not summoned them, so it appeared that their enemies were tearing at each other for the moment and that was indeed a relief. The walls had been kept in condition by Freedom, and wherever cracks appeared repaired and reinforced; it was a testament to the skill of the engineers that had first erected them that they had survived the earthquakes with only a few more cracks.. The razor wire atop them apparently had been replaced not a long time ago, given how it was not encrusted with rust yet. The towers had been well maintained too. “I’d want these manned... if only we had more people and the enemy was not at the gates...”
Alexei nodded vaguely in agreement. “They’d pick them off clean while they climbed the stairs now...” His voice trailed away.

“You’re still intrigued about it.”

“Am I that transparent?” Farsight smiled. “I just don’t know...”

They approached the blocked train tunnel cautiously, their detectors screaming caution and warnings, the air completely distorted by the haze of several anomalies... Burners, given the twin puddles of molten metal of the railway.

Boris sniffed the air. “I’d say... something went off recently here.” It reminded him of the smell remaining where a grenade exploded. “TNT.” He carefully negotiated the pools of deadly heat and studied the wreckage. It looked like the tunnel had collapsed once, and then something had exploded there to cause a second cave-in. “Yeah... apparently the ceiling came down right over the spot where they planted the bomb, but why would they go and do that?”

“Probably they were trying to hide a door.”

“An utility tunnel...?” Chasme pondered that. “If I were trying to make sure no one followed I’d do that, but then I couldn’t turn back either... and if there’s a place in the world where I’d rather not be trapped underground...” And that’s without considering earthquakes. He turned to Alexei. “You know where this railway goes?”

Farsight nodded, having foreseen that question. “Deep into Brain Scorcher territory.”

I’d only want to go underground, down a tunnel leading into the heart of Monolith turf, if I had no other choice... And being trapped by mutants and fanatics in a base where the buildings were falling apart sounded probably like a case where having a horrible choice was better than having no choice at all. He studied the debris before him, wishing he could dig through that.

“There’s another possibility,” Alexei stated. “What if they simply did not want to get infiltrated by Monolith goons coming out of this tunnel?”

Chasme wanted to slap himself. “You’re so right,” he said with an embarrassed smile. “I was too focused looking for an explanation...”

The answer to that dilemma was already waiting for them at the two-story building where they had taken Hunter. “Check out what we found,” Screws said in welcome. Kamarov was busying himself with an old map a and a note written on a dirty piece of paper.

“Where was it?” Chasme asked.

“Stowed behind a cupboard.”

Alexei and Boris looked over Kamarov’s shoulder. The ‘message’ was a bunch of letters jumbled together with no meaning or structure. The medic was apparently making progress on his own: “It’s a simple cipher, really. Not meant to keep anyone busy for long.”

“Clearly meant for other Freedom members at large,” Farsight nodded.

A few minutes later, Kamarov read out loud the ciphered message:


If you are reading this, then we have evacuated the base and moved away from the Barrier while we still could. We cannot hold this place anymore, me plus other ten alive, everyone else killed by the fog or the Monolith. Cannot raise anyone else inside or outside the Zone. Try to make it to Yantar, if there is a place that could resist this it would be the scientist bunker. Good luck, God knows you’ll need it. Lukash.


The medic held up the map: a route to Yantar was outlined in red, through the hills surrounding Rostok. He handed them over to Chasme. “The commander has to see that.”

Boris summoned Bondarenko over the radio. They conferred over the map and the message. “This communications blackout he mentions... would he refer only to friendlies?”

“Hard to say... Skull could raise people from outside the Zone. But he didn’t hear even a whisper from Freedom, whether they were talking to him or not.”

“Some local phenomenon...”

“This close to the Brain Scorcher? It could be... never heard of it happening before, but nothing ever stays the same for long here. And it also happened to us back at the Dark Valley.” A shiver ran down his spine. If we consider how that turned out...

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come back to bite us in the ass later.” He looked at the map. “This route they said to take goes through the wilderness...”

Chasme shrugged. “Some secret path of theirs.” He hesitated to continue speaking.

The SBU commander read him: “What’s it?”

“Well... we don’t know anything about that general area. I didn’t even hear rumours or stories taking place there.”

Bondarenko eyed him oddly, then shook his head. “What I had heard about stalkers is that they usually go where no one else dares... but then, I imagine the greater the risk, the fewer that come back.”

“You imagine right. Back when... this place still had a semblance of an everyday life... people would gather at Rostok, and discuss ‘safe’ artifact hunting grounds. Safe meaning, the only things you usually had to worry about were bandits trying to rob you, other stalkers staking out the place, the anomalies themselves, invisible radiation pockets, and blowouts.”

“That’s not what I would have taken for ‘safe.’”

“Then try going to a place where you don’t know where the anomalies are, how abundant mutants are, how likely you’re to get your head blown off by someone else...” Chasme shook his head. “True, I heard of guys that were desperate enough to go in deaf, dumb and blind, and left the Zone set for life.”

“But for each one that returned...”

“You get the idea.” Another look at the maps. “Another way to reach Yantar would be to retrace our steps and go straight through the Rostok train yard. But I would avoid it if I could. The place was already called the Wild Territory when Duty was still around to keep heavy guns pointed that way.”

Bondarenko frowned. “So, it’s either the deadly danger we know about or the deadly danger we don’t know about, right?”

“That pretty much sums it up. Unless you were to decide to stay and look for that way through the Brain Scorcher...”

“Something tells me you’re less than keen with that idea.”

A snort. “With mutants and maniacs duking it out less than a click away? You don’t say.”

“We still have to... but how to do it...” Another frown, then he sighed. “I’m starting to understand what you meant when you tried to warn me about how difficult that is.” He straightened up. “To Yantar it will be then. Once we search this place through and through. Then there’ll be no point for us to stay.”

“No time. If we’re to leave we have to do it now.” That Farsight had spoken those words on a low voice had the effect of making them almost overwhelmingly compelling. The SBU commander wanted to object, but Chasme was already moving out:

“Then we’re going out. You two, help Hunter,” he said to Nikolay and Svetlana. Kamarov hesitated, seeing Bondarenko in doubt, but ultimately they followed.

The rest of the SBU commandoes were dumbfounded when they saw them cross the bridge towards them. Altunin, the sniper, was visibly irked. “We just went through that shootout and found ourselves a good position to dig in for a while, and we have to leave? Just so?”

“Digging in won’t help us get through the Brain Scorcher, if that’s your mission,” Chasme replied, using his most reasonable voice tone, just as he had seen Blackjack do not long ago. “We can’t break through the Monolith goons here, not with the firepower we’ve got. Guide could have found us a way, but he’s dead.”

The lean marksman wanted to press the point, but remembered what his superior had said. He glanced at Bondarenko, but the man was silent, so he sighed and clenched his teeth: “So, what’s the plan?” he muttered with as much unfriendliness as he could. Chasme ignored his hostility, understanding it.

“Lukash, the Freedom leader, is alive and went to Yantar a few days ago, with whatever was left of his men. He may know of a way, but we have to get to him. And unless Farsight here is wrong, if we don’t seize the moment now and move out while the mutants are keeping them busy, the damn maniacs will box us in.”

That analysis earned him a couple of reluctant nods from the soldiers. “He has a point,” Polyakov conceded.

“Then let’s move out, people. Delaying will only make things harder.”

“What about him?” Arkhimov, the scout, pointed at Hunter; Kamarov had sewn his wound and bandaged his head despite his protests.

“He’s made of sterner stuff than most.” That said, Chasme set off. Farsight caught up with him, and after a word and a nod, he took point. Screws noted that the skirmish at the village had winding down, the gunshots growning a bit more distant. Have the mutants driven them off? It seemed a horrible time to leave the safety of these walls. He squeezed his girlfriend’s hand as he went, eyes darting all around, fearing for her safety... the tension growing more on each step, as they raced as fast as they could next to the walls, feeling horrifyingly vulnerable...

Then they abruptly stopped. Farsight held an open hand towards them, but his attention was focused ahead of him, staring at something the rest of them could not see. “What is it?” Bondarenko whispered.
Something squealed ahead of them.

Then, from behind one of the trees near the cabins, a lone flesh emerged. One of its hind legs had been crudely bandaged and splinted.

Chasme was dumbstruck. “What the...”

Farsight smiled and crouched. The beast scrutinized him thoroughly, stepped closer slowly, and rubbed itself against the youth, grunting with delight.

Bondarenko took a single step forward and the flesh immediately squealed with fear. “Keep your distance,” Alexei warned. “She doesn’t trust you yet.”

The SBU sergeant turned to Boris. “What’s all this about?”

The armored stalker took a long, deep breath. “Sergeant, if you still don’t believe me when I say that we were hurled back in time, then you’re not going to get proof as solid as this one. When we were back at the Dark Valley, along with Guide, we found a wounded flesh blocking one of the secret entrances into the bandit base. Farsight tended to its leg. That exact same leg. What are the chances of someone else having done just that?”

The flesh again rubbed itself against Farsight, then walked away a few steps. Then it turned its head around, looked at him, yelped softly, and continued walking. Three more steps and the creature again stopped to look back at him.

Farsight hesitated, then walked after the mutant in silence. The rest of the stalkers and soldiers followed without a word, the former amazed, and the latter utterly flabbergasted.

--------

This hearkens back all the way to a specific part of Echoes, the prequel to this fic. Apologies for the hassle. It's still around here if you want to look for it.
  22:52:57  14 December 2012
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ZeroDead
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Episode XVI

“I listened to charlatans and philosophers, sought strange plants on inaccessible places and drank philters and potions from many healers. In the end I had to resign myself to lowly mortality.

“But as I journeyed back to my kingdom, one night I saw a light in the desert and, curious that I was, approached it. I found a man, wounded and broken, who I helped. He was a wise man who came from the stars in a great chariot of white bronze. He offered immortality to me as a reward and I accepted. It was my dream come true.”



The next two days saw Chasme recovering at an astonishing pace, to Kamarov's disbelief and amazement. He had put on the armor again as soon as he could, saying that the powered exoskeleton helped him walk, but Screws knew Boris was wearing it to conceal his identity as well; Oracle had woken up, too, and he wanted no questions. His younger self had a lot of new scars to bear, but he was alive. They both had got to work as soon as they could with Hunter and Bondarenko's men. The SBU commander did not really expect to find any more survivors; other than the five stalkers he had recruited as their guides, only two other people had been pulled out from under the wreckage. Their task now was to search for corpses. Not only on the remains of the arena and the entrance checkpoint, but on the buildings that had housed the Duty headquarters and the 100 Rads bar.

Chasme had his headlamp turned on as he slowly labored his way to the bar, with his younger self in tow. “I know I asked this already, but are you sure you're alright?” Oracle asked.

The older Boris stopped and breathed slowly. “I also know you have asked this already. It's been the sixth time now. And no, I'm not okay, but I just can't stand still either.”

“There's no need, you were wounded pretty bad--”

“You're not listening to me. I want to sleep. But I can't.” He was filled at the same time with utter exhaustion and a strange energy, compounded with a constant and unnerving tingling that made his whole spine itch. Beneath his skin. It was disturbing enough to stop the sleep Kamarov had advised him to get from overtaking him, having spent hours on end lying over his sleeping bag in his tent with his eyes wide open, or sifting through all the memory cards and diaries they had salvaged for information on Souls. Pretty much all that he had found were hints about enhanced metabolism and tissue regeneration, usually at the cost of being less resilient against trauma.

But at that time those concerns were locked inside another compartment in his head. Right now, he only wished the lack of sleep would have at least desensitized him a bit to blunt the impact of seeing what was left of the Bar. He could close his eyes and relive it all. The choppy sounds of that ancient radio that somehow still received broadcasts from AM and FM radios outside the Zone; the banter of Barkeep as he greeted both regular customers and first-timers and went about his usual business of pouring watered down drinks and selling weapons and supplies, all for outrageously high prices; the chatter of many stalkers as they traded stories, shared jokes, discussed events, bartered, or ranted deliriously while drunk or stoned... Guide smiling by the table with a bottle of that cheap vodka... All that was gone now. Now the cellar was a festering tomb, reeking of putrefaction and waste.

He could not bring himself to walk any further and stood by the door threshold between the corridor and the pitch-black-dark cellar proper. The ghosts of everyone he had met had come to haunt him. Guide, Strelok, Foxhound, the giant that had been Sataida's best friend, Blackjack, Skull... He felt his heart cracking and wailing under the crushing weight of the misery that flooded him. It would have been for the best if everyone had just listened to the megaphones by the checkpoints and never set foot in this accursed place to begin with.

“I'll go in first,” he heard Oracle whisper behind him. He envied his younger self. To him, this place was just creepy and stinking of dead bodies, not a torture chamber made of his own memories. “Keep me covered.”

“Roger.”

It was a miracle that the ceiling had not caved in during the earthquakes. The bar had apparently been thoroughly looted by Skull's men in the aftermath of the first wave of blue mists; the TV set remained where Barkeep had put him, over the shelf by the wall, but the brazier had been removed. Empty bottles and cans were still on the tables and lying on the floor.

“No bodies here,” Oracle mumbled quietly, “but the stench...down that corridor...”

The older Boris finally managed to will himself out of his spell and lumbered down the passageway, to the small workshop where once the drunkards that repaired gear for Barkeep had plied their trade. The smell was almost overpowering and worse on each step.

“Thank God for the filters on this mask,” Chasme whispered almost imperceptibly. His headlamp pierced the darkness to reveal many corpses stacked, some of them still with their armor or clothes on. “Count them up.”

The younger Boris walked on ahead. “You were here before.” It was not a question, but an inferred conclusion.

Chasme sighed. “Yes, but... please... you'll understand if I don't want to discuss it. You have your own things you'd rather not talk about.”

It was not something too strange to hear, but the tone, the inflection, the cadence between words, the whole way the armored stalker had spoken, everything pierced into Oracle so profoundly that left him paralyzed for a very brief instant, giving him the absolute certainty that Chasme knew exactly what those issues were, as he himself knew them. “...That's true.”

They concluded their search, having counted thirty-one bodies, and left the fetid cellars in silence. Oracle had begun to realize just how little he knew about the armored stalker, but prodding him with questions now was not going to yield anything, he intuited. Instead, after their report to Bondarenko, he sought Nikolay:

“Um, Screws?” He called. The youth was sitting next to Sataida against the huge wooden crate crammed with artifacts, and they both were caught up with cellphones and notebooks. “What are you two doing?”

Screws looked at the younger Boris. “Oh, this... we're going through all the logs and diaries we collected.” His face was stark. “We're looking for clues to the Brain Scorcher, but I doubt we'll find anything. What we've found are locations for stashes, by the dozen. For all the good that will do now.”

“But why the glum face?”

The youngsters looked aged. “Almost all of these diaries belonged to people who had relatives outside,” Sataida described, “all of them desperate to hear from them. I'm not going to put you through the horror of reading the diary of a rookie distressed by the urge to put bread into the table of his family.”

Oracle bowed his head. “Poor kid. If we could do something for them...”

“Even if we knew how to reach them, the intermediaries are all dead or gone now.” Almost certainly Sidorovich is dead now, Screws reasoned, unless he had psi-shielding artifacts. He could have some to smuggle out, right? But one thing is having them and quite another is to wear them. “Wait... Let me ask you something, was the barkeeper dead?”

The younger Boris was puzzled. “Who?”

“He's never been here,” Sataida observed. “We should ask Chasme.”

“Not a good idea right now. I guess he took seeing the place like that pretty badly.”

“Strange that he accepted doing it to begin with... Oh wait, now that I remember, I have something of yours.” Screws stood up and led him to one of the tents Bondarenko's men had planted near the devastated arena. “Come in. But keep your feet outside.”

“Uh, okay...”

Inside, Screws reached for his backpack, opened it, and handed him his dog tags. “I thought you might want them from seeing these.”

“You did right,” Oracle replied. “Thank you.”

Nikolay read his hesitation. “Are you thinking about coming clean?” He whispered.

“...The idea has crossed my mind. But what would it achieve, I don't know.”

Screws commented nothing on it as he reorganized his backpack. “You had a question for me out there. What is it?”

“...I wanted to know about Chasme.”

Nikolay kept working on his gear. “The only thing I'm allowed to tell you is that he was a soldier, just like you. If you want to know more you'll have to ask him yourself.”

Oracle eyed him oddly. 'Allowed' to tell me? “You make it sound like there's something I should worry about.”

“It's not that,” Nikolay lied, or at least he thought he was lying. “Would you go and ask things of a dude you just met to another of his friends? It wouldn't look good, right?”

“True. You're right. Sorry.”

Am I doing right by keeping this from him? Screws had to admit he did not know.

Alexei had also recovered, but he seemed to have taken after Hunter in a way. While not as withdrawn and taciturn as the tall veteran, he did not get himself involved in the grisly task of searching for bodies –only three other survivors had been found, nobody they knew– , or in the preparations for their expedition into the deeper reaches of the Zone. He had taken into the habit of going on scouting runs alone, and nobody found it odd in the least, other than Screws.

“Don't you find it strange?” he asked Sataida that night, right before going to sleep.

“What is it?”

“Farsight going out of the camp on his own?” Nikolay was starting to get scared. Why am I the only one noticing this? “I mean, I wouldn't, not for all the money in the world. And nobody seems to care...”

Svetlana, already on her sleeping bag, sat up in surprise. “You're right, I hadn't noticed it,” she admitted. But it can be expected of him, right? He's... odd. She realized where her train of thought was going and fought to redirect it. “Weird... My first impulse was to think of it as... what, normal, coming from him?”

“Nothing he does is normal anymore... I suppose he doesn't want Bondarenko to know about him.”

Sataida dwelt on that for a minute. She tried to put herself in Farsight's shoes, and failed. “We know so little of him...”

“Chasme said he's got two sisters in Kiev.”

“Not that! We don't know all that he can do.”

Where to begin... Remote view, mind rape, controller miasma... And brainwashing a la Star Wars, probably, too... Can he also pry into our minds? He recalled how exhausted he had been after Hunter's titanic battle at the gates. Chasme said he had overexerted himself, but how? Can he also boost people somehow? Normally, Screws would have thought that he did not want to know. But not now. “He's very much a controller in human form, with a few extra talents tossed in...” He shook his head. “We should ask Chasme about it.” He got out of his sleeping bag.

“Right now?”

“Right now.”

“Wait. I'm coming with you.” She started dressing inside her bag. He was about to say that it was not necessary for them both to go, but thought better of it. She would want to know too now.

They went outside. Nikolay looked around and found what he expected: a headlamp turned on inside one of the tents. He approached it, his girlfriend in tow. “Chasme?” he called softly.

“Yeah?” Came the tired reply.

“We wanted to talk with you.”

The door to the tent was unzipped from within. The headlamp searched them and behind them, an eye gleaming in the dark under it. “Come in.”

They entered the tent. Most of the space was taken up by his backpack, weapons, and the bulky suit of armor. It looked almost intact, down to the black matte finish that was only dotted by a few scratches here and there. Nikolay noticed it. “You've been doing some work on it...”

The older Boris shook his head. “I've done nothing. The thing self-repairs itself.”

Sataida was astonished. “Awesome!” she exclaimed in whispers. “How's that possible?”

Chasme slowly laid down as long as he was over his sleeping bag, winced in pain, then talked softly. “This exo has a long history. It belonged to one of Strelok's friends, a stalker by the name of Fang. I never met him. Strelok himself took it from his grave when he was marooned in Pripyat... he had said that he had to weather a blowout and wait for the lots of anomalies all over and around the place to shift to get it. Somehow the things have done something to it.” The memory of his friend and savior stung him through the conflicting fatigue and liveliness. He wished he could talk to him.

“Amazing... that's the Zone for you, I suppose...” Svetlana noted the older Boris had closed his eyes while speaking. “You're very tired, are you?”

The stalker shook his head. “...no. Not really. It's... I don't know what's happening to me. I'm not tired, and I don't... I don't feel like I need to sleep either... but at the same time my body's almost screaming for it. I feel as if I was freshly awake but my body did not know it... It's driving me nuts. And this tingling and itching... I feel it on my whole spine, and it's slowly spreading all over my body. And scratching at it doesn't make it go away!”

Nikolay looked on understandingly. “I suppose we can chalk it up to the powdered artifacts reacting with your flesh.”

Chasme scowled. “At least I can walk. I guess I shouldn't complain.” He lay face down. “How does it look?”

His lower back was tinted of an ugly yellowish color around the mess of scars and stitches; Svetlana figured that was due to the disinfectant Kamarov had applied to the wounds before doing his work. “It's healing well,” she said.

Boris laughed dryly. “Your concern is touching, girl.” He turned around to face them. “But I suppose this is no social visit, right?”

Nikolay smiled briefly, then his face turned serious. “No. It's about Farsight.”

“Again?” He snorted. “What's wrong with him this time?”

“He's been going out on his own.”

Chasme blinked twice, then shrugged. “I don't think that's none of my business. If anyone's equipped to survive on his own on the Zone, that would be him.”

“That's exactly the point. Notice how you don't think it's out of the ordinary. See?”

It took Boris an effort to notice what Svetlana meant, and another to force his brain to use logic and concatenate facts. “...You're right.” He stared alternatively at both youngsters. “Do you believe he's been brainwashing us?”

“More like brainwashing everyone, I think,” Screws replied seriously. “Time to start packing psi artifacts, I think.”

“I already do.” The older Boris reached for his belt and produced a shiny black lump that seemed to cling viscously to touch, then another similar lump.

“Controller scalps...”

Svetlana swore. “So we can't shield ourselves from him. Fantastic.”

The three shared worried looks. “It appears the only defense we have against it is to look out for it,” Chasme mulled.

After a night of troubled sleep, the next day greeted them with a heavily overcast sky, inky clouds all over their heads. The soldiers had already dismounted and packed their tents by the time the older Boris awoke and left his own.

“Good day,” Bondarenko greeted him.

Chasme took a few ungainly steps forward and returned the greeting. “Good morning.”

The SBU commander regarded him warily. “You should go to Kamarov if you are feeling unwell.”

The armored stalker shook his head. “He's done all that he could, which has been well enough. I suppose we are to leave today?”

The SBU commander bowed his head in agreement. “That's something we have to discuss.” He had his tablet out already and was studying the map. “The epicenter is to the north. There's a road that goes north-eastwards, from here to an old village next to an abandoned military warehouse. We have reports that the warehouse served as a base to a faction of stalkers hostile to Duty.”

“Freedom,” Chasme stated.

“We had heard the name. Still, there may be some survivors there. We do not have orders to check the place, but that's where we are going next.”

“If you do... you could let us do the talking, perhaps. Freedom has no love for the Army either.”

“That has been reported. Okay, we will leave that to you. Pick someone in your group to be our speaker by the time we make it there.”

“Copy that.” Still, Chasme could not help but feeling afraid. The desperate battle that had been fought only a few days before was very vivid in his mind. Nothing stopped a similar horde from catching them in the open.

“Is there anything else?”

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I don't think we can beat off a mutant horde like the one that besieged us here if it finds us on the move.”

Bondarenko nodded gravely, showing that he shared his concern. “We have to get on the move anyway. This place is falling apart. Judging from what I have seen, if there is another attack, making a stand here is not going to help.”

The older Boris had to recognize the soldier was right. Had he not been wearing his helmet he would have spat. “When are we moving on then?”

The soldier quickly glanced at the clock on his tablet, then added up the numbers in his head. “In a bit less than two hours a helicopter will come to evacuate the corpses and what we have managed to recover from the records of the Duty leadership, as well as the two stalkers that aren't with your group. After that, we're leaving.”

A helicopter... out of the Zone... The face of his girlfriend flashed for an excruciatingly painful instant in his mind. If I could... oh, God, why did you have to be so cruel? “...okay. I'll get everyone ready.”

He left Bondarenko to his maps and walked up to one of their tents. Alexei's tent. “Farsight?” He called. “Are you awake yet?”

Something stirred inside the tent. “Actually, I was not,” a voice answered tiredly, “but I guess it's time.” The zip keeping the tent closed was unfastened from inside and the youth's clear eyes appeared. Alexei at once noticed what was happening inside Chasme's head. “I wish something could be done...” he whispered, compassion in his voice.

Boris had to fight hard the urge to smash Farsight in the face for violating the privacy of his thoughts. “None of your--...”

Alexei regretted having pried. “I'm sorry. I... was just--”

“--trying to be kind. Sure. Leave my mind alone or I'll blow your head off clean next time.” Brusquely he turned on his heel. “We leave in two hours. Get ready, for fuck's sake.”

He felt Alexei's eyes on him as he walked away, towards the next tent. This one was Hunter's. He was about to call out for him but the tent opened from inside and the tall man walked out, boots in hand; he raised a hand in greeting, sat on the ground, and started putting on the large footwear. “I take we're leaving soon.”

“Two hours.” Chasme was momentarily distracted from his anger and pains by the grisly spectacle of the grotesque mass of scars on Hunter's chest. There were just so many of them. The quiet stalker glared at him with eyes just barely colored by the unspoken question; Boris just shook his head. “It's incredible that you survived that.”

“No less incredible that you can still walk.”

The retort was flat and noncommittal. He smiled. “You're absolutely right. Excuse me.”

“There's nothing to excuse. Go. Wake up the others.”

Next he stopped by Oracle's tent. He took several deep breaths, unable to speak, locked in conflict between whether to tell him what was right or what was convenient to him. Then the permanent tingling and itching and the pains on his lower back reminded him. “Boris,” he called. “Wake up. We're leaving.”

“Now?” his younger self answered. He was already awake. And dressing, by the sounds of it.

“No, in two hours. Open up. I need to talk to you.”

Inside the tent, again the voice pierced deep into the younger Boris. He unfastened the zip. “Come in.”

With as much caution and dignity as his healing body allowed, Chasme crouched and stepped in. The massive bulk of his armored silhouette took almost half the space of the 4-man tent, but Oracle had packed most of his noncombat gear already so that was not an issue.

“What is it?” the younger Boris asked. He felt something important was coming when he noticed Chasme's struggling with the zip to close the tent again. Finally he succeeded, then he turned to face him. At first, the eyes stared at him hesitantly from behind the goggles in the helmet, but then the hands rose slowly to unclasp the seals keeping it fastened to his head, and finally to pull it off.

Oracle was struck speechless. He was looking at himself, sans scars.

“A chopper will be coming,” the older Boris said lowly and slowly to his livid young self. “They will evacuate the corpses, the other two survivors. We will talk to Bondarenko and ask clearance for you too. Get out of this place. Go to her.” Tears were streaming down Chasme's eyes, but his face was frozen into an emotionless mask. “One of us must, and I can't ever leave the Zone now.”

The younger Boris tried to speak for a long minute, but words failed him. Then, at last, he managed to stammer: “How... it can't be... you... er, I... and I...”

“I won't torture us any further. I came from the future, with Farsight, Guide and Foxhound, to look out for Strelok. Now Strelok and Guide are dead. Also Foxhound.” Chasme's mask finally cracked. “I... so... so much want to see her again... but this is your time... not mine.”

Oracle finally found the will to articulate something coherent. “...there is no way back for you?”

“I must go to the epicenter to know. You have a life out there. Go and live it.”

They both were silent for a while, staring at each other in the eye, one still trying very hard not to disbelieve it all, the other striving equally hard to stick to his chosen course.

“Th... thank you,” Oracle uttered at last. He offered his hand.

“...no.” He refused his younger self's hand politely. “We don't know what could happen if we... you know. And thank yourself. If you weren't like this I'd have killed you and taken your place.”

Tears streamed down Oracle's face too now. He nodded in understanding, filled with a gigantic glow. “I... it will be like leaving myself behind.”

“Get that idea out of your head. There can be only one Boris Aleksandrovich Morozov. That's you. I'm Chasme here.”

Oracle nodded slowly, unable to stop looking into his older self's eyes. “You, um, I--we... I didn't think we could be so brave.”

Chasme finally smiled through his tears. “Act on it. Now come. We must talk to Bondarenko.”

“What are we going to tell him?”

“The truth.” Chasme produced his dog tags from beneath the breastplate of his armor. “We both have those, right?”

The SBU officer was understandably shocked and adamant in his refusal to believe the insane story the two stalkers tried to tell him, until he saw, touched, weighed and compared both sets of dog tags. He considered to ask Kamarov to run tests on them, but that would only further complicate an issue the two Boris had already offered a way out from. “I... think that can be arranged.” He looked at them both, still fighting the urge to call the whole thing the load of nonsense it seemed to be. “How much further did you have to serve out?”

“...Um... almost six months, sir.”

The man held his chin, thinking. Then his face lit up. “Would you say you are an expert on Zone phenomena? Be honest here, or I won't be able to help.”

Oracle shifted uncomfortably. “The only stalker that could be called an expert was Guide, sir, and he died here. I can say I have a lot of experience on detecting and evading anomalies on my own, without instruments or aids. And I know about mutants, too. I have to admit I don't know that much about artifacts. I haven't had time to get, er, acquainted with them.”

“That will do. I'll pass on a request with my personal recommendation for you to become an assistant instructor on the Zone at the SBU barracks in Kiev. In the meantime you'll probably be held at our headquarters for debriefing. That's the absolute best I can do for you two.”

Chasme nodded. “It is enough.”

Oracle did the same. “...Thank you, sir.”

Bondarenko glared at the armored stalker. “You and I are going to have long talks.”

The older Boris shrugged and walked away. “There's time,” he said gruffly.
  16:44:20  15 November 2012
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Bladewraith
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bow chica bow wow!

going good my friend, i'm liking what you doing, keep it up
  21:04:38  30 October 2012
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ZeroDead
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Episode XV

“We are two loners,” the warrior across the table said, his heavy bronze broadsword resting sheathed over his lap. “Tell me, if you wish, of your secret.”

“You dare to hear it?” The bald man with the young-old eyes was speaking in a low voice, only audible to them both, even if there was no one else on the common room of that inn. Sounds and noises came from the kitchen as the innkeeper was preparing their meal of meat, bread and wine. “In the time when swords were still made of stone, I was king, young, strong and feared—but it was not enough for me. Back then the gods were closer and your voice still reached them. I wanted to be like them and cursed them for being a human."



Before noticing anything else, Hunter felt the dull pain all over him, the first inkling he had of being still alive. The sensation made him open his eyes tiredly for yet another time, his head swimming. A few rays of dim gray light seeped through the rubble all around and over him.

He tried to remember. He had been in and out of sleep so erratically that his sense of time had been skewed, but not enough for him to forget that he was in that gods-forsaken man-made wasteland around Chernobyl that people dubbed the Zone. Nor to forget anything before that. The weariness that was his constant company returned again. What had happened to turn... the makeshift infirmary where he had been taken to into this ruin? He closed his eyes again. He managed to bring back only a few snippets through the haze in his mind. More mutants... a blowout, another of those catastrophic events that usually caused no earthquakes... The paradox implied by that last statement would have elicited a grim smile on someone else. Usually. Since when there is something usual in the Zone?

Rains were falling intensely, he heard. Water poured through a few cracks in timid little rivulets. He looked all over himself. He was dressed up in a strange black suit of body armor that was not his own. It felt warm, despite being soaked wet in water and reeking of blood. He tried moving his arms. At once a painful jolt raced from his hands all the way to his brain, but he could move them. His left one was restrained by straps tying him to the examination table, and his right one felt soaked in mud. His legs were pinned by rubble. He moved his toes: again the pain, and again he could move them. An almost imperceptible sadness washed over him briefly, then went away.

He wriggled his right hand free from the mud and unfastened the straps on his left arm, then he tried to work his way through the rubble to free his legs. It seemed to take ages. His whole body was one great hurt, and the collapsed roof had left him trapped with little room for movement. Someone else would have been crushed to death, he knew, but the realization that would make another person cry tears of joy had no effect on him. He had survived things like that and several orders of magnitude worse, too many times to remember them all.

Light had begun to grow dimmer when he finally was able to put an arm out from under the rubble and over him, and some more digging had to be done still before he could extricate himself out of the wreckage. He looked around him. The walls of the erstwhile arena still stood, mostly. The roof had given away with the first shocks and, apparently, everyone was now buried under the rubble as he had been. Some large sections of concrete that had once been part of the ceiling rested over the remains of columns drunkenly tilted aside, their iron sinews snapped and twisted in parts. Someone could still live underneath those sections, he thought, but if they did, they made no noise. He briefly considered to let them drift peacefully and mercifully into death. Briefly.

With slow motions he started digging through the rubble with his bare hands. He had no hurry. And even then, he was in no shape to exert himself more strenuously. Given that he had been nearly torn to pieces a few days earlier -just how many days earlier, he could not tell-, it was an artifact-fueled miracle that he could still walk, let alone dig.

His first notable find was the group's baggage, which was stacked near the examination table where he had been tended to. He felt slightly relieved to see that some of it had escaped the disaster: one of their spare rifles was firmly stuck, in standing position, between a large slab of concrete and the cement floor of the building. His sword and his personal backpack were intact, but his blood-soaked armor was ruined beyond hope. Some other rucksacks were there, probably Guide's and Strelok's; he was not surprised to find the hard white plastic case he had salvaged from the Agroprom military outpost among the elderly stalker's belongings.

Next to that, he found the doctor that had tended to him. The man's head had been crushed by a part of the same pile of rubble that had pinned him, and everything over and around him was red-tinted horror. He stripped the man of his satchel and buried him again without sorrow.

Then he found a bulky, huge silhouette he thought, at first glance, to be more familiar with, but it was not Chasme; he had dug free the corpse of one of Skull's squadmates. The exoskeleton that had protected him from mutant claws and bullets had been pierced through, side to side, by the rusty iron bars protruding from a broken column. Some of the armor was salvageable, but as a whole the suit was worthless. Again he relieved the dead man from whatever he could use, and buried him anew.

He did indeed find Chasme pinned down under the beam of another column and a pile of rubble. His suit was still in working condition, and he was alive, perhaps miraculously so given the weight of the wreckage over him. Next to him was Oracle, who was also alive. It seemed that Chasme had protected the deserter from the falling rubble with his own body. He could not see wounds on either, so he proceeded to remove Chasme's suit, taking off the helmet first--

--and, this time, he was indeed taken aback. Chasme and Oracle were one and the same. Without thinking he went back through his memories, trying to recall whether he had seen Chasme with his helmet before. He did not remember that event happening. The armor-clad stalker had been careful not to let anyone see his face, and had done so without raising questions...

He put an end to such speculation, berating himself; those people needed his help now. He considered pulling them out, but that would kill them if their backs were broken--but then again, surviving that earthquake with a broken back would mean being sentenced to a very cruel death in the Zone, so he went ahead and pulled them out anyway. He heard Oracle groan as he did it. “Just hang on,” he grunted, his voice raspy, “you'll be resting comfortably very soon...” A final pull and he was free.

The deserter's face was ravaged by many cuts and abrasions, both large and small. The abrasions he could explain, but what had slashed him so? Some more things had happened after his near-suicidal stand before the frenzied onslaught of the rampaging mutant horde--

Where are they? The thought exploded in his head, suppressing his every other concern. That the mutants had nearly slaughtered them all was a fact. That he heard not a single animal growl or howl or screech was a concern. The blowout could kill them just as easily as it could kill people, but not for a second did he think the emission had exterminated them. Where did they go?


Nikolay finally dared to open his eyes and looked underneath him. Svetlana's huge green pools stared back at him, nearly invisible in the penumbra. Her lips moved but produced not a sound. Is it over?

He listened intently. The rains fell heavily, the deluge very thick over and around them. A huge section of the collapsing roof had nearly crushed them. Screws did not remember pulling Sataida behind that column.

I think yes, he said in return. He turned his head around--or tried to: he promptly hit the back of his head against something cold and stony. Suddenly gripped by horror, he tried to wriggle his legs, and he exhaled in relief when he felt he could move them freely.

“Are you alright?” He whispered. She nodded beneath him. “Your arms?”

“I'm fine,” she replied, and raised a hand to show him. He nodded, then heard a noise over the rain--concrete grating against concrete, as if something or someone was digging the wreckage. Then, the heavy thud of something bulky and heavy hitting the ground. A few instants, then the same sequence repeated itself. Then, a muted groan.

“Hello?” He voiced out as loud as he could, trying not to shout, as Sataida's ears were very close. “Is anyone out there?”


Hunter's head snapped sideways, like a cat's, to face the voice. It was the kid that had first asked him to join his group. Screws.

“I hear you,” he said in as high a voice as he dared, his disquiet about the whereabouts of the mutants not yet eased. “Are you hurt?”

“We're good, but we're trapped here,” the voice said. Another one would have smirked, but Hunter did not, even if he understood what Screws meant.

“Hold on. I will help you out of there.” That said, he set himself to the task, as quickly as his protesting muscles allowed, but he kept his ears sharp.

Dusk had come and gone before he helped Nikolay and Svetlana from under the rubble. They had been very lucky: they had taken shelter behind a column that, upon the first shocks, had drunkenly tilted to rest against one of the hangar's sturdy walls. The collapsing ceiling had fallen all over and around the column, imprisoning them, but not causing them a scratch.

“...only you?” Sataida asked quietly. Hunter shook his head and gestured at the prone forms of Chasme and Oracle. Svetlana looked in confusion. “Wait... why's Oracle--hey!” She was dumbstruck. Screws uttered a surprised exclamation too when he noticed what had surprised her.

“But... they're--”

“The same, I know.” Hunter was, as always, pragmatic. “If you're done gawking at them you should help me dig. Someone else could be alive. And if not, we are going to need all the gear we can get.” That was true. Other than their armor and the -many- artifacts on their belts and satchels, they had nothing. “Once we uncover a crate or a backpack, you two will take turns to sort their contents while the other digs with me. Screws, get started with that.” He pointed at a pile of satchels and boxes he had set aside as he found them.

Night was over them and rains had ceased when they found the remains of Blackjack. The Russian had been crushed by a slab of concrete too large to remove. Hunter was inclined to let Blackjack lie where he was, but Sataida adamantly refused and tried to get to him, without much success; the only thing they could recover from him were a few small satchels, and what Svetlana expected to find: a small locket containing the picture of a girl.

“When we first met... he had said something about how it had been years since he had last seen his daughter,” she explained. She was too tired to cry out loud for her friends. She knew that would come when she had rested some, but now she wanted to honor the man's memory by at least promising herself she would someday find the girl in the locket.

The bald, silent man next to her bowed his head in respect. Nikolay tapped her gently on her shoulder and handed her some dog tags. “These were in his satchels,” he said.

“Chulanov, Maxim,” she read out loud.

Screws nodded. “His name was Maxim alright.” He looked at the wreckage and shook his head. The man had always been steadfast, confident, even optimist at times, however desperate the odds. “He taught me not to let go, never to give up to despair and depression...”

“Then don't,” Hunter said laconically. “Dig.”

A short while later, they found Strelok. He, too, was dead. The mutants had bled him dry. He probably had died before the earthquake was over. As with the doctor and the Skull squad, they pulled the corpse of the legendary stalker from under the rubble and carefully went over him, looking for anything still useful--exactly as he himself would have done. Sataida felt ashamed for looting a friend's corpse, but Nikolay did not. He would have wanted them to take whatever they could, he had reasoned. And even if not, he did not care anymore. The dead did not need those things, whereas the living did. He stopped cold for a second when he realized where his train of thought had finally arrived. After so much death and suffering, I am finally a stalker. The realization left him embittered.

Svetlana searched Strelok fruitlessly for tags or papers or anything that would give him a name other than his moniker. She sighed in defeat. “We don't know his name.”

“And, probably, never will.” Screws reached for his artifact belt and unclasped it.

“I need some help over here,” Hunter called out quietly.

Sataida stood. “I'm coming.” From underneath a large pile of rubble, a single black boot stuck out. She helped him lift another large section of concrete that had once been a ceiling, and beneath it they found Alexei, lying over a pile of stacked rucksacks and backpacks. The artifacts on his belt glowed noticeably, even more so in the night. Hunter reached for his neck and searched for a pulse. “He is alive,” he uttered hoarsely. “Help me move him--”

A struggling voice interrupted his thinking: “Hunter... is that you?” He turned around: Chasme had woken up. “What... you took it off... well, the secret's out now, I suppose...”

“How do you feel?” Hunter regarded him attentively. His motions seemed...

“Dizzy... I just have to...” Then he blanched. “I... I can't feel my legs...”

Immediately the tall stalker rushed to him. “We must remove your armor...”

“Oh, God, no,” Chasme whimpered. “Anything, but this, please, no...” Tears spilled down his dirty cheeks. “Yeah, take it off, take it off!” He said frantically. It took Hunter some ten minutes to remove the armor; then, with extreme caution, he turned Chasme over his belly and carefully examined his back. When he reached his waist he stopped and felt his spine even more cautiously: “What? What is it? What is it?”

“You've broken your spine.” Hunter's voice was callous. “You won't walk ever again.”

“Not if we were outside the Zone!” Chasme growled. The other man shook his head.

“If that damage could be repaired by the artifacts you are wearing--”

“YOU DON'T KNOW!” The response was an enraged yell.

“Neither do you.” Hunter's face was stark, more dispassionate than ever.

Chasme was crying silently. Sataida and Screws witnessed helplessly the exchange, both with tears in their eyes and fists clenched white with powerlessness. “What if... where's Alexei? Where is he?

“We just pulled him out too. He's unconscious, but alive.”

“Help me into the armor again...” he pleaded. “Boris... Oracle... he can't know this. Please.”

“But why?” Sataida stammered.

“I'm an interloper here, understand that! I came from... from another time, this is his reality, not mine!” He struggled not to burst into tears again. “Even if... I recover... he can never know. I would be usurping his life...” He had put off dwelling on what that meant for long, very much aware of the consequences. They both had the same relatives, the same lives, the same friends... the same fiance... But there was room for only one on that life, not for them both. “Even if I recover... I'll have to stay here in the Zone forever...” Again he collapsed in tears.

“But... but there are no artifacts we can use?” Svetlana ventured, even while knowing it was probably a futile question. “None at all?”

“What about the powdered artifacts?” Nikolay said in a flash of inspiration.

“What about them?”

“It... it occurred to me... there was this old action flick called 'Shooter', remember? The dude got shot, and powdered his wound with some thing that stopped him from bleeding out, then drove half across the U.S. to get that hot nurse to fix him up, remember?” Without waiting for a reply he turned on his heel and ran to the pile of backpacks to search for the heavy flasks.

Hunter knew not of the film Nikolay had mentioned, but he understood what he meant. “It's a gamble.” He stared at Boris/Chasme. “I would have to perform a deep cut on your lower back, deep enough to expose your spine, then spread artifact powder there.”

“You... you know how to do it?”

The man nodded. “I have the required expertise, yes, but little in the way of instruments--” Brusquely he stopped and looked at the sky. Sataida needed not asking to know what had attracted his attention.

“How long?”

“Ten minutes, maybe less.” Quickly he searched the pile of backpacks they had unearthed until he found what he sought: a few standard-issue army flares, still capped and ready to use. He lit one, then another, and then a last one, and tossed them around the wreckage of the hangar.

Nikolay ventured, “Shouldn't we hide--?”

“We need help here,” Hunter interrupted him quietly.

“Please, help me onto the armor again,” Chasme pleaded, but Hunter shook his head.

“No one needs to know the truth now. If Oracle awakens I'll deal with him. Someone else will just think you're twins.”

It did not take long. They felt the rhythmic tapping of several helicopters approaching. The noises grew steadily louder all around them, yet there were no navigation lights to be seen. For several minutes they heard the rotors circling around them. “Why aren't they closing in?” Sataida asked.

“They're reconnoitering the area,” Hunter responded, still digging.

Nikolay nodded. “Makes sense... after all, there's no Skull talking to them on the radio.” He looked at the tall man as he dug and realized how different he was now that he had been forced to take the lead. No more a taciturn fellow, now a driven man who always seemed to know what he was doing.

The noises now converged towards them, until they became a deafening roar as one of the helicopters hovered over them in stationary flight. Hunter kept on working as unconcernedly as ever. “Boris and the other wounded can't move. Tend to them”, he merely said to Nikolay and Svetlana in as loud a voice as needed to overcome the roar of the engine and continued to dig. Two ropes were dropped from the helicopter, and four soldiers rappelled down, then four more. Sataida half-expected the commandos to seize them the moment they were on the ground, but she witnessed them as they expertly set up a perimeter around the devastated arena building, evidently not considering them a threat. Why should they? We're harmless...

One of the paratroopers gestured at the helicopter. Cargo was slowly lowered down on a large basket-like contraption; once it was unloaded, the basket was lifted back, and the helicopter slowly started to pick up speed and height. Soon it was speeding again southwards, along with its nigh-invisible escorts.

Only then did the signaling paratrooper approached Hunter. “Are you in charge?”

The man did not stop removing the rubble. “Of what little remains to be in charge of here.”

“How many were here?”

Hunter shook his head. “I was unconscious when the building collapsed, but there were between thirty and forty people in the whole compound. Many of them were killed fighting beasts in the southern checkpoint, however.”

A second nod, then several orders barked out, and two other paratroopers put down their weapons and gear and joined the tall stalker in his task, while a third one sat next to Chasme, Farsight and Oracle. “What is going on here?” The man demanded.

“Do you have surgical instruments?” Nikolay asked in return.

“Why?”

“This man here has...” Screws could not think of the medical term for Chasme's condition, but then he berated himself: Why do I need to tell him that in medispeak? “He can't feel his legs. Hunter, there, said he's broken his spine. We hoped artifacts could fix that, but probably it's too bad of an injury...”

“Wait a second. You are saying some magical thing is going to repair a lesion that can most assuredly kill a person, or put him into a wheelchair for life at the very least?”

“That is, exactly, what artifacts can do,” was Nikolay's matter-of-fact voiced reply.

“Some may,” Svetlana quipped quietly. “We're not so sure now... so...”

“We had this... idea, you see...” Screws pulled one of the flasks containing powdered Souls from the backpack where he had found them. “Cutting him open and spreading this on his wound.” As far as I know, these things aren't radioactive... He cautiously opened the heavy flask: the powder inside was greenish-brown in color and glowed noticeably.

The paramedic snorted. “What this man needs is to be evacuated to a hospital, not some farfetched amateurish butchery! You know that what you propose will probably kill him?”

“You will do what he suggests. Please.” Chasme's voice was low, determined, and steady enough to leave no room for doubt.

“What you want is not important,” the paramedic snarled. “Your stay here depends on the goodwill of the Army, and since I am the officer in charge of deciding whether to treat or evacuate wounded people here--”

“Doctor, would you override his decision?” Nikolay asked rhetorically, looking at him in the eye. “If so, based on what? On the legality of his being within the Zone of Exclusion? Since when does that take precedence over a man's right to decide over a treatment?”

“Calling what you propose doing a 'treatment' is so outrageous that I would have to invent a new word to describe it... but...” The paramedic did not like being wrong, and that irked him.

“What do you know about artifacts, doctor?” Svetlana asked.

“Not as much as I would like,” the paramedic admitted. He understood what she meant instantly. “You... have me at a disadvantage here. We are trained to deal with them as deadly hazards, as we do with anomalies.” He returned the question: “What do you know?”

She pointed at Hunter, who was trying, along with the two paratroopers, to lift a heavy section of a collapsed column. “That man dug us out himself, after... after mutants wounded him so badly he nearly bled to death,” she related. “If you check him up you'll see what I mean. And he has lots of artifacts in that heavy belt you see he's wearing.”

The man looked at Hunter, thought for a few seconds, then nodded. “I see what you imply. Topic application... It's a long shot...” The doctor was half-mumbling to himself, and that somehow struck Nikolay as odd. He turned his head around and was startled: Alexei had woken up, and was intensely staring at the doctor; the man, having his back turned to him, did not notice it. “If this thing... has had as potent an effect on your friend as you say... If you still want to go ahead on it, I'll do it,” he told Chasme, “though I can't guarantee anything. I fear all I'll be able to do for you is make sure your condition doesn't get any worse.”

Through the corner of his eye Boris/Chasme noticed Screws had paled, but his features did not give anything away. “Let's do it.”

“Your funeral, then.” He glanced at Screws. “Keep him comfy until we can set up a place where I can perform this... nonsense more carefully.” That said, he turned his head around to check up on Farsight and Oracle. “Oh, so we're awake. Good sign. How do you feel?”

“...It hurts,” was all that Farsight could articulate. The paramedic ran a quick check on him, immediately noticing the glow that seeped through the pouches on his belt. He was about to unzip one of them, but noticed the attentive gaze of both Sataida and Screws. “Is there anything else I should know?” the man asked gruffly.

Nikolay answered, “The artifacts on that belt are what's keeping him alive. Take my word for it. If you're interested in the exact artifact, there were whole crates of the things stacked around here. You'll surely find them as Hunter and your, eh, squadmates clear out the rubble.”

The soldier nodded curtly. “I'll do as you say and take your word for it.” The paramedic concluded his check and reported to his commander. “Probably these two will make it, sir, though I'd wish to have them looked at in a hospital. Head concussion, light slashing wounds and lacerations on this one, crushed chest with multiple rib fractures on the other. The third needs surgery on his lower back badly, and he needs it right now. I need to set up a place.”

“Polyakov! Altunin!” The commander hollered. Two of the sentries immediately ran over and stood at attention. “Help Kamarov set up a field surgery unit.” Then he looked at the teens. “What happened here, exactly? Where is the Duty commander?”

“We're all that's left.” It took Nikolay some fifteen-odd minutes to relate everything that had transpired since their arrival at Rostok. Very carefully he omitted mentioning Hunter's last stand and Alexei's strange talents, talents that somehow had not caused them any bother yet, even if they had been digging in the rubble next to him for a whole day now. That should have intrigued Screws, but he accepted it with a shrug of his inner self that he hid from the soldier. Somehow he felt that the less he knew, the saner he would be.

The commander regarded the youth, evaluating him, gauging his sanity, trying to discern just how shell-shocked the poor teenager would have to be to tell so brutal a story without so much as flinching. The girl, he noticed, was a lot more fidgety and uneasy, clearly intimidated by his presence. They had, somehow, escaped that ordeal unhurt. “You should not be here.”

Screws smiled evilly. “I don't mean whether you mean we should not have survived that, or whether we are trespassing here. In case you think the latter, let me inform you that I was dumped here by the authorities of the Lukyanivska Prison, at the Dytyakty checkpoint, with the agreement of warden Yuriy Shipunov. If I should not be here then I politely suggest you contact your superiors and inquire about him. Probably he's using the Zone to get rid of inmates he disapproves of.”

The soldier stared at him for two whole seconds through his gasmask and night-vision goggles. For an instant he recalled a few comments he had heard about how that godforsaken place changed people, not just by exposure to weird radiations, but also in mindset. “Whatever. Want to get out?”

Nikolay spat. For some stupid reason he was possessed of an arrogant glow. He knew he was treading on quicksand but did not care. “Out there, with no job, no prospect of getting one, and no family to speak of? You mean, back to jail? No, I'd rather take my chances with the mutants and the Zone, thank you very much.”

“I will rephrase what I said then, and you'd better listen up good, kid: want to stay here and ply your trade legally?”

Screws blinked twice. “It would be nice. Though no cards or signed papers will be much good when trying to convince a greenshirt holding me at gunpoint. Hey, Hunter!” he hollered. “Come over here, we need to talk.” Once the tall, quiet stalker had joined them, Nikolay said, feeling a bit light-headed: “Now, sir, if you would be so kind, could you please outline your proposal to us?”

The soldier paused for a moment to take off his goggles and gasmask. The man was blond, his eyes ice-blue, his mouth wide and thin-lipped, his features stern. “I think some introductions are in order first. I am Mikhail Il'ych Bondarenko, SBU, master sergeant and commander of this recon mission. Your names, please? Not your aliases.”

Sataida answered first. “Svet... Svetlana Pavlichenko.”

“Nikolay,” Screws followed suit. “No surname, sorry. I was orphaned very young.”

“Ivan Pugachev,” Hunter said quietly. Screws listened with well concealed surprise and wondered if the name was true. Somehow it ringed hollow to him.

Bondarenko perceived it in the same way, given his looks, but made no comment on it. “You should do something about that, kid, but it's not like you can fix it here. Now, on to the matter at hand... we have been assigned two duties: one, to search for and rescue survivors here, in response to the request issued by the acting Duty commander, but I see we may be too late for that.” The SBU officer shook his head. “Even then, our orders are to set up a safe zone here, evacuate any survivors, and then proceed with our second assignment: make it to the limits of the 'Brain Scorcher' anomaly zone and, once there, search for a way through, if at all possible.” At once Screws snorted a chuckle. “What's so funny?”

“You know that's suicide, right? I was never there myself, and no one else for that matter--nobody who goes there ever returns--” Except Strelok, and he's dead, he realized with dismay he failed to conceal.

“But what?” Bondarenko knew he was on to something. Screws struggled with himself, thinking of suitable excuses, then gave up.

“The one person I heard about, and repeatedly so, that had managed to go there and return was killed in the last earthquake. If he knew of a way, it's lost now.”

“Who was he?” The soldier asked. Nikolay answered reluctantly, knowing what was coming:

“The... bald man we have set apart.”

“But I take you have searched him already.” Bondarenko's blue eyes bored into Screws' relentlessly.

But it was Hunter who answered. Hoarsely. “That we have done. If you ask, we can share with you what we learn from what he left behind. But you have to trust us.”

The soldier measured him and realized that, even while diminished by the ordeal, this man that now stood up to him would be a formidable match in a fight, the outcome uncertain. He could simply order them to surrender what they had salvaged and back up the order with his weapons and his men, but that would erode the confidence he needed from people whom they would have to trust with their lives. “Don't make me regret it.”

Hunter did not reply. He merely glared at Bondarenko, then at Screws; Nikolay nodded. The silent man returned to work on the wreckage, where the two soldiers had apparently found another survivor.

The commander watched him go. “That fellow of yours is queer.”

Nikolay snorted again. “Like you wouldn't know. But it's okay, you won't have to deal with him, only with me. What exactly do you offer us?”

“Freedom to pursue your business here as you see fit. Gear, if you need it--we need you alive if you're to guide us. Once we complete our mission we can make it all official, the Kiev University is always whining for more samples and field observations and I can recommend you to them at our debriefing.” And the quakes have driven them nuts.

Screws was taken aback at how difficult it was for him to picture life going on outside the Zone. He put that aside for later consideration. “And how are we supposed to work with you? I take you would be in charge, alright?”

Bondarenko frowned. “Ideally that would be the case, but let's be honest, you know the hazards of this place much better than we do, despite all of our training and what we've been able to learn from reports. If combat breaks out, you would be expected to stay as far away from it as possible and let us deal with it.”

Svetlana saw fit to take part in the conversation. “So, we would be your eyes, and you would be our fists.”

The soldier smiled. “In a way. I'll be in the lead, but I expect of you to speak out whenever you consider it necessary.”

Nikolay found it hard to refuse the proposal. The officer seemed reasonable, competent and level-headed. He reminded him so much of Blackjack. The thought wracked his heart. “One of my dead friends was a man very much like yourself, sergeant. And he would have said again what I just told you. Going to the Brain Scorcher is suicide.”

“But this fellow of yours found a way.”

“Whatever he found, it cost him dearly. When we first met him he was amnesiac, and most likely was in one of those 'death trucks' that from time to time used to come out of the epicenter. If there is a way, it will be hard to find, and even harder to traverse. He... he kept a log before losing his memory, and had kept it on his smartphone, but he had secured it with a password and had forgotten it. Maybe Chasme knows something else, but he's very badly mauled.”

“Chasme being...?”

“Oh, the dude on the exo. Er, who wore the exo.” The armor was still neatly stacked next to Boris/Chasme. Why the soldiers had not seized it at once was unexplainable, but Nikolay saw fit not to raise the issue. Somehow he felt Alexei's talents were at work, a subtle influence warping events in their favor.

Bondarenko looked at him, then noticed how similar he was to Oracle, despite the wounds on the latter. “How odd, to see twins here...”

Sataida felt tempted to explain how incredibly alike they actually were, but did not as she saw Screws shaking his head slowly. Not only it was hard to prove, it could erode their credibility and that was the last thing they needed now.

“We will have to wait, then... or evacuate him,” Bondarenko mused.

“We should wait to see how he responds to the surgery, and even if that goes sour I strongly suggest we wait until we see if the artifacts can help,” Nikolay advised. “As I said, there were crates stacked with hundreds of the things, and one of our late leaders made a point of equipping ourselves with those known to have regenerative and radiation-shielding properties. Hunter, there, had almost bled to death before we crammed him with Fervent Crystals, and I dare say that's what keeps him going now.” If 'Ivan' heard that, he gave no hints of it.

“'Fervent Crystals'?” The soldier echoed in puzzlement. Screws, in response, opened a pouch in his belt and produced one of the things. It seemed to be a weird formation of lustrous crystal and rock vaguely resembling a heart. The artifact felt light, comfortingly warm, and pulsed with soothing green light. The soldiers looked on in awe. “So... this is what an artifact looks like.”

“There's many more of them.” He then produced a fuzzy ball of thorny spikes that radiated an ominously-looking reddish glow, the Mama's Beads he had found at the Cordon on the belt of the dead Monolith soldier, and something resembling crystallized black leather that felt oddly viscous to the touch. “These are variants of Porcupines, Mama's Beads and Scales,” he said, recalling everything Guide had taught him, blessing his memory. “The Scales are radioactive, but the Crystals and the Porcupines more than offset their effect. You would do well in equipping yourselves with some of the artifacts stashed here, sergeant,” he recommended. “It's not like they'll be going anywhere.”

Bondarenko took the recommendation to heart. “You're the experts.” He was looking at the remains of the arena. It would take days to dig that place out. Time was not an issue; setting up a safe perimeter was. The hundreds of rotting carcasses piled up around the southern entrance were as crystal-clear a warning as they were going to get regarding just how dangerous mutants could become if they swarmed around. He again turned to face Nikolay, but the youth talked to him first:

“If you need anything else--”

“I do, actually,” the soldier interrupted, but cordially. “I want to ask what you know about these radiation storms.”

“The blowouts, you mean?” Nikolay grimaced. “What do you know?”

“Well, we have a standing operational protocol in case of one: seek immediate shelter, something with thick walls, concrete-reinforced being best. But with these quakes and all...”

Screws frowned. “Yeah, not very appealing either. And, something else... when did you last receive Skull's request for aid?”

“October 26th. Three days ago.”

Nikolay was aghast. “THREE days?! We were out three days?” He eyed Sataida, who was equally perturbed.

“The mist again, maybe?” She wondered. Bondarenko seemed to recall something:

“I was going to ask about that, too.” He opened his hip satchel and pulled out a tablet computer protected by a tough-looking case. A few commands, then he started displaying a series of pictures: “These are feeds taken during the last tenday from the ISS.”

Nikolay beckoned Hunter to return and they looked at the pictures together. What they saw on the feeds for October 19th and 20th matched what they remembered from those days: thick cloud rains over most of the Zone. However, the picture taken on October 21st was beyond strange: unnaturally white, thick clouds covered the NPP, like a giant cottonlike blister about to burst. He went on to the next one: it had been taken a scant two hours later. It was as if a shockwave had erupted from the plant and slowly cleared the skies for miles around it, pushing the thick and heavy cloud covers aside. Two more pictures taken in quick succession that same day showed the cleared area growing wider and the clouds being pushed further towards the outer reaches of the Zone. The same pattern had taken place three days ago, with a slight difference: the clouds had been pushed a bit farther beyond the borders of the Zone than the time before. There were more pictures, more measurements had been taken, but they were incomprehensible to Nikolay and Sataida. Not to Hunter:

“The blue mist again.”

Bondarenko looked at him, then at his two young companions. He did not like their worried looks. And he liked how the tall man had dubbed the phenomenon even less. “Shortly after the blowout on October 21st, almost all signs of human activity on the Zone ceased. Contact was lost with military outposts and teams, Duty bases... even many rogue groups went silent.”

Nikolay was about to say that he had seen what had happened at the Agroprom outpost but though better of it. “You say 'many' rogue groups, but not all. So there's people still alive out there?”

“We have to suppose that... I mean, given the info we have we should, but that doesn't make any sense. We've picked up signs of activity within the Brain Scorcher influence zone, especially on Pripyat and the NPP itself.”

“They must be... what did you call them, Kolya? The Monolith?”

“Ehhh--yes, Sveta, them, the Monolith.” Screws was caught off guard by Sataida calling him with a nickname, and had to think for a second to respond in kind.

Bondarenko nodded. “Duty informed of the fanatics. They had managed to capture some of their members on the very fringes of the Brain Scorcher, but never got anything meaningful from any of them: they raved on and on like lunatics about the 'holy Monolith' and how it was 'their sacred duty' to preserve the 'holy land' from 'infidels'...” He shook his head, then straightened up. “In any case, we'll have to deal with them later. We have people to rescue here first.” He looked thoughtfully around him. “With these earthquakes going on I don't exactly look forward to setting up camp on a building.”

“But there's blowouts to account for,” Nikolay argued. The soldier seemed to remember something then.

“We have something that can help there. Go to Kamarov and ask him for anabiotics. Then grab some rest. You've been through enough.”

“Um... okay. And thank you.”

The medic provided them with shiny black tablets on blisters, and instructions to take one right at the onset of a blowout; he went on to explain briefly about how it was thought that a blowout was not only a storm of ionizing radiation, but, on top of that, something else poorly understood that affected nervous systems. The drug would cause them to pass out temporarily and wake up after the worst had passed.

“What happens when there are mutants around?” Sataida asked.

“You hope the blowout kills them then.” Kamarov was blunt. “It's that, or being crushed by concrete or rocks or whatever in case of another quake. Your call. Now leave, I have to tend to your friends. But don't stray far. I'll need you to administer the... that 'miracle powder' you say to have.”

They gave their thanks, and checked on Chasme and Farsight. Boris had been anesthetized in preparation for his surgery and was deep asleep. Alexei had also passed out again, to Nikolay's chagrin; he wanted to ask him how had he influenced the soldiers to be so helpful, for of course he had. There was no other explanation for Kamarov not demanding they surrendered the flasks containing powdered artifacts, or for Bondarenko being so favorably predisposed towards them.

It seemed their help would not be needed for a while. Sataida and Screws watched the soldiers work around them. Hunter, in tandem with the two soldiers Bondarenko had ordered into the task, was still removing the wreckage and searching for survivors -two more had been dug out alive, along with four corpses-, even more vigorously so than when he had first rescued them. Someone else would have wondered at his inexhaustible stamina, but they knew the artifacts kept him going. “How are you?” he asked without looking at her.

She glared at him, unsure of the emotions behind his words. He still did not look at her. “I'm... I'm alive. I don't understand how. So many people were with us... All more experienced than us... They are all dead now.”

He sat heavily over a large wooden crate. It was unnaturally warm. It took him an entire second to remember that he himself had said there were crates filled to the brim with artifacts. And another moment to reflect on how easily and how coolly the replies had come to him. Once he would had been intimidated by the imposing figures wearing black composite armor and night-vision goggles, but now they did not affect him in any way other than instilling a healthy wariness on him. Was that Alexei's doing again? Or had he finally lost his last fragment of self-doubt to become a stalker for good? Did that also imply becoming insensitive to the loss of those closest to him? Why there was no grief? “I don't feel anything. I know I should, but I just... don't.”

She sat over the crate and leaned against him. That her closeness made his heart beat faster was a surprise. She read his features and managed a small smile through her exhaustion and sadness. “Yes, you do.”

Acting on impulse he held her and kissed her softly on her lips. They tasted of dust and tears. With an effort he pulled himself away and stared on those almost unnaturally large green eyes. I am afraid, she was saying through the windows of her soul. Then she spoke her mind out. “Today we live, however impossible... but tomorrow...”

He hugged her again with as much tenderness as he could muster. “I... I love you, Sveta,” he said in an outburst of honesty, the dam collapsing at last. “I don't want the Zone to take me without having told you that.”

A single tear welled. She kissed him back, her heart all the more evident for her clumsiness. Then said it herself. “...I love you too.”

They hugged each other and watched as the soldiers worked about, enjoying the warmth of their embrace, knowing the lull would not last -- and savoring it, with the same thoroughness and intensity a man sentenced to death would savor his last meal.

--------

I should say I feel this is some of the best stuff I have ever written. It makes me smile to re-read it. I hope it makes you feel as it made me feel.
  20:48:52  8 October 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Hey there Dino... to be honest, for a month or so I entertained the idea of writing a funeral of sorts, given the fact that STALKER 2 is dead. But I haven't been able to put together anything I even half-liked when going that way. Guess it may just be that I refuse to let STALKER go.

Thanks a lot for your comment. It may well be one of the things that keeps the squad going on to crack the mystery behind the Blue Mists. I'm writing a new chapter now. I hope to have it penned in full before October ends.

All the best, Emiliano, AKA ZeroDead
  05:13:00  12 September 2012
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DisabledDino
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On forum: 01/11/2011
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Awesome story!
I read Blue Mists before Echoes, which I just finished and I'm really loving it.
Keep up the good work and I'm lOoking forward to more content.
  05:23:30  25 June 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
06/25/2012 6:36:43
Messages: 197
Episode XIV

This one took ages... I just can't write action sequences to my liking.

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It was the silence that really got to everyone in the Rostok complex. The area had once been bustling with over two hundred stalkers... almost an enjoyable place, with drinks, food, and other luxuries being sold there (even if for outrageous prices), and men relaxing, gambling on cards or dice, playing guitars or balalaikas and even singing tunes in choir before a nightly fire. Even the infamously bloody arena, where the most desperate of stalkers went to fix their fortunes or die trying, was a reason for enjoyment. Now there was nothing of that. Only, once again, the echoes of wind, dead as the whole place was before the first blowout that had given rise to the Zone as they knew it. Men only dared to break the silence in whispers or hushed voices.

And the mutants, the horde that swarmed against them, would not attack. Instead they waited, stalking them all, eyeing them, spying on them. At least two scores of beasts would always let themselves be seen on the other side of the ditch, staring, watching, hungering. Pseudodogs next to fleshes next to rodents next to bloodsuckers. Real beasts and illusionary figments alike, there was no telling them apart. They all waited.

Chasme had seen that happen back at the Dark Valley, before they had been time shifted two weeks backwards. Back then he had arrayed the survivors of a SBU squad and an helicopter crash to break the siege and escape the swarm, only to see their last in the thick of a mist much like that which had almost killed him. And to meet a transformed Guide, gone missing a few days before that, who had interceded between them and a controller... a controller that, instead of killing them, had revealed to them the incredible laws that governed the Zone. C-Consciousness. The mutant gestalt. How subjective and fragile reality was... And back then the explanation for such an organized behavior was C-Consciousness' final command after Strelok had destroyed its life support systems at the NPP: wipe the Zone clean of human presence.

If all that was true indeed and not just an elaborate fabrication on the mutant's part.

Cracks were starting to appear in their resolve. Skull enforced watches with severity, and also enforced sleep and rest hours with equal rigor. But it was not enough. Discipline kept them prepared for another assault, tense like coiled springs, ready to repel an attack that was not happening. And the strain of the vigil was corroding their spirits.

The dreary atmosphere had only added to the mild dislike Strelok's men and Skull had professed for each other, a dislike that had almost exploded into open fighting when the acting Duty commander had interrogated them about their plans.

“Why would you want to know?” Chasme had asked.

Skull uncrossed his massive arms and fidgeted uncomfortably. “I admit... maybe it's hypocritical on my part. But I would like someone to... to contact Freedom.” He pronounced these words as if someone had torn them off his mouth. “Some of them may have weathered the mist.”

“And you would want them on your side.” Screws thought he had stated something innocuous, but the gasp that his comment elicited from some of his squad mates proved his assumption wrong. Then he remembered what had been said of the enmity between Duty and Freedom. And blanched.

The acting Duty leader stared at him. “Well, since you put it that way, yes. Even if they're a bunch of anarchists, murderers and scavengers, they might be a bunch of living and armed anarchists, murderers and scavengers. And we're running short of both people and firepower here, in case you haven't noticed.”

Strelok did not like the edge on Skull's words. “God-awful time to realize that. Perhaps we wouldn't be so deep in shit if you had stuck to shooting thugs and mutants, instead of going after dudes whose only crime was to think of an open Zone.”

“Even worse a time to bring it up. Whining about it won't fix anything now.”

The Marked One would not let go. “There's always something worse to worry about, so everybody goes on with their business while good people gets killed.”

“Look, are you going to keep picking at that or are you going to help?” The Dutyer was outright angered by the remark. “If not, stay out of the damn way. I got people to protect here.”

Even if his companion was right, Blackjack decided he had to take matters into his own hands before tempers flared any further. He stepped between Strelok and the exo-clad stalker. “Of course we'll help if we can, Skull. If we manage to make it to Freedom territory we'll send word on your behalf. However...”

“However what?”

“You may want to sweeten your truce proposal a bit. You've been killing each other for years, a Duty member's word alone will be worthless to them. Yours especially, no offense intended.” Maxim's tone was steady, calm and almost insufferably reasonable.

Skull bunched his fists together and exhaled. “What do you have in mind?”

Blackjack shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Well... suppose that they're having the same problems you--we are having here.” He returned Skull's gaze and held it firmly.

The Duty commander buffed and started to say something, but hesitated. Then he angrily shook his head. “Damn you! That's the thing with reasonable people, they can't be argued with. Anyway... you're not leaving soon.”

“Depends on what's happening to Hunter.”

Strelok hated to swallow his pride but he could not afford to have Skull as an enemy. And, he had to grudgingly admit to himself, he was jealous of Maxim for unwittingly usurping his role as de facto leader. “Where do you need us?”

Skull recognized the hard look in the Marked One's eyes. “Rest first, if you need to,” he offered, not wanting any enmities either. “Then, well, be alert. Rostok is huge and we can barely protect our barracks... we've closed off all the streets around the arena, you've seen the barricades, so we don't really have a lot of ground to protect.” Then Nikolay rose a timid hand. “Speak.”

“Uh, sir... Shilka here said that you know something about other people here in the Zone.”

“Oh, that.” He lowered his voice. “It's no secret that we of Duty operate here with the approval of the Army. I was told to hold on, that a supply drop is being discussed. Nobody outside my men knows because I haven't been told when will it happen, if it happens at all...”

Ghost mused, “Surely that aid offer will come with strings attached.”

“You got a point.” Skull sighed. “But make no mistake, we're waist-deep in shit here. We got plenty of guns and spares, we got both Barkeep's stocks and our own to draw upon, but we've chewed through over half of our ammo and used up almost all our meds. But if we get direct aid from the Army, surely they'll want to set up shop here... I have nothing against being their go-betweens here, but being turned into their cannon fodder is a whole other can of worms. We need another solution. Hence my... idea.” It was plain obvious that he found that idea absolutely loathsome. “Make no mistake, I hate that scum, and I hate considering this even more... but as you said,” he pointed at Blackjack, “they've matched us shot for shot for years.”

“If the mutants can join forces, why shouldn't we...” Maxim commented.

“You've just hit a sore spot there... Just why have they, er, joined forces? And what's directing them?”

Chasme spoke: “The same who are behind the Monolith.”

Skull stared at the exo-clad stalker. “What do you know?”

“Talk to Guide and Farsight.” The Duty leader wanted to know more, but Chasme turned his back on him and walked back towards the arena.

“You should do as he says,” Ghost said quietly. “They've been through strange stuff. That guy, too.”

They all watched Skull walk away after Chasme. Then Maxim said, “Really bad time to pick a fight, Strelok.”

The Marked One wanted to tell him to shove his comments, but the scarred veteran had again spoken with that almost unbearably judicious tone of his. He bit his lower lip and rolled his eyes. “The worst thing that could happen to them right now is a truce going sour because of huge egos. And that one's as big as a tank.”

“He said something about being proxies for the Army...” Oracle said hesitatingly.

“You afraid?” Nikolay said in a low voice.

“...well... a bit, maybe. It's pointless, I know, I mean, everything happened so fast... one minute I was running from that monster, the next I was meeting Guide and his crew.” Out of respect he did not say what had taken place afterwards, but everyone knew.

Night was approaching fast when Guide joined the rest of the group on the northern checkpoint, which they had manned in replacement of the usual Duty sentries. Most of them were keeping an attentive eye on Maxim as he, alone, was checking the landmines that had been lain on the passageway leading to Rostok and placing additional explosive charges. “What were you up to?” The Marked One asked dryly.

Guide noticed his bloodshot eyes. He was strained. They all were. “Helping the doctor sort out through Duty's vast stockpile of artifacts. It is a good thing I did it, too, or else the dormitory would have been rendered uninhabitable within days.” Then, he announced: “Hunter awoke.”

The news warmed everyone up. Blackjack quickly strode to rejoin them as he overheard it. “He's going to make it?” he asked.

Guide nodded. “It seems that is the case. The suit and the artifacts worked after all. He is very weak as of yet but I consider we could can leave tomorrow with first light if need be. Though I would advise against it. I think it is perfectly obvious how dangerous would it be right now to wander on with a disabled teammate.”

“Yet somehow I get the idea you don't like staying here for long.” Ghost was sensing that something was amiss.

In response, Guide produced a hard white plastic case from his backpack. He opened it: several files bearing the seals of the Ukrainian Army and the University of Kiev, neatly tagged and scrupulously prepared, were contained inside. “Hunter had this on himself.”

“Holy--” The wiry man was speechless. That was the information Ogre had been hired to steal from the Agroprom outpost. “What's in there?”

“The only file I have read so far details the fates of no less than four scientific expeditions deep into Brain Scorcher territory. The last one has yet to return. There are half a dozen files here so I do not know what else will I find.”

Strelok whispered, “Why didn't he say he had found this...?”

“That I would like to know himself, bud I dared not pushing him.” Guide shook his head. “He is not fully conscious yet. He lapses in an out of sleep at random and I dare not disturb him.”

“And this ties into your unease about this place how?” Blackjack asked.

“The Army is going forward with the supply drop. Skull also told me that at least one helicopter will be sent in to evacuate the grievously wounded. With that being said,” Guide patted the case for emphasis, “these are extremely dangerous to have around.”

Nikolay's mind was too exhausted to dwell on the conundrum for any amount of time longer than a couple of instants. Burning them was out of the question. Sharing them with Skull was a risky proposition, even if he was not an Army lapdog as he claimed not to be. And leaving Rostok with an incapacitated comrade was tantamount to suicide, surrounded as they were by all manner of horrors. He watched his friends argue back and forth in whispers for a while, considering those same options and finding none to be appealing. But his mind was not on it, shackled by ever-increasing gloom and despondency, hating the fate that had orphaned him, zoned him, and marooned him in a derelict factory with nothing but death around for miles on end.

And the abrupt, furious rattle of machinegun fire that suddenly erupted from the front entrance drove a pitiless icy dart through his marrow: the Zone was not through with them yet.

“Stay where you are!” Strelok bellowed as he removed the safe on his RPK. “We're needed exactly where we are!”

Nobody dared to argue with him and they all took positions by the sandbags and containers, tension thick and bitter in their mouths as they painstakingly waited for the swarm to fall over them. Behind them the clash had escalated to an all-out battle.

Ghost saw them first: “CONTACT!” he yelled as he fired. Something barely visible behind the torn-up metal gates leading to the wild territory whined in pain, but the wail was quickly drowned by a noise seemingly made of pure terror: tens, dozens, innumerable acute screeches being uttered at once.

“Landmines aren't going to keep rodents away,” Blackjack uttered, hesitated for a second, then made a choice. “GET DOWN!” He flipped a switch on a makeshift control rack. Four explosions and several smaller blasts rocked the decrepit structure before them and the walls and ground were splattered with animal blood and entrails. Two concrete pillars, torn loose by the exploding charges expertly placed by the former commando, slowly and drunkenly fell to the ground. A cloud of smoke and dust rose from the rubble.

“They're still coming!” Sataida warned, somehow seeing through the haze.

Strelok lit a Molotov cocktail and tossed it at the rubble. Fire exploded at once. Guide and Ghost followed suit, adding to the blaze. The rodents –for there were just rodents, if only dozens of them– still came on, and their hungering screeches turned into even more high-pitched screams of pain that stung the eardrums as they caught on fire.

“That won't deter them for long,” Blackjack/Maxim stated in an eerily detached voice.

“We need a fucking flamethrower here!” Strelok cursed. But we don't fucking have one!, Nikolay wanted to say, but it was pointless. Not to Guide:

“That we have not.” His ears were on the battle that was raging by the checkpoint leading to the junkyards, while his mind was torn between the choice of guarding this flank against the swarm of land piranhas and hoping the Silence squad would beat off the assault, or rushing to assist Skull and his men and deal with this problem later on. He quickly surveyed their available resources: one leftover demolition charge, the MON-100 mine they had salvaged from the trapped stash, the hand grenades everyone had on them... Not enough! He turned to Blackjack: “You, take the rookies and Chasme and hold this gate! Strelok and Ghost, on me!”

Maxim watched them disappear behind the metal gates, thinking about what to do with the means at his disposal... Then he had an idea. “Chasme,” he said, “help me drag these concrete rafters behind the doors! The rest of you, don't you let your eyes off that fire for a second!” He was almost cut short by the cruel bark of Oracle's rifle as he fired a single shot at a barely visible rodent within the blazing structure.

“They're looking for ways through...” the former soldier warned.

“Whatever you're planning, Blackjack, hurry up!” Screws growled through clenched teeth.

“Stay with them,” Chasme said to Maxim. “I can manage.” And, that said, he grabbed one of the heavy concrete girders with both hands himself and dragged it inside. Blackjack allowed himself a single perplexed blink.

This time it was Sataida's turn to pull the trigger. A doglike whine rose from behind the structure. “Oh, shit, no... they're coming this fucking way!”

Screws somehow willed his ears to focus beyond the cacophony of the many guns being fired and the cries and roars of mutants coming from the main entrance checkpoint... and cold sweat beaded on his forehead as he perceived the grunting of many things moving out of sight. He was tempted to shout at Chasme to hurry up, turned his head—and saw that the exo-clad stalker had already moved three out of the six girders.

“Ready!” Maxim commanded firmly. Oracle, next to him, steadied his RPK and waited. Sataida and Screws watched expectantly as the last flames of the cocktails died away, leaving only blackened debris and charred corpses in their wake. “Don't waste your ammo, people,” Blackjack added, again with that uncannily steady voice. Ahead of them, many, many, many bestial screeches and growls came from behind the wreckage of the passage to Rostok. And the battle behind them still raged furiously.

Then movement over the charred building drew his eye and now it was his turn to taste fear: a single snork came within view and hugged the roof, almost about to pounce--

“FIRE!” --before its head was blown off into a gory mess, but others were taking its place now. And Blackjack knew these aberrations were well within pouncing range. “Retreat to the gate! Now!”

Neither Sataida nor Screws needed to be told that twice, Oracle covering them with a burst that killed three more of the masked horrors. “Go!” He told to Maxim. The Russian veteran took five steps backwards and waited, ready to give his comrade covering fire.

“Done!” Chasme said from the gate. “Now what?”

“We hold the gate shut with these!”

“Here they come!” Screws warned, and Blackjack looked over his shoulder just in time to see rodents emerging from behind the wreckage and snorks about to pounce from over the roof.

“MOVE!” Oracle shoved the teens behind him and emptied his magazine in a long barrage, heedless of the strident screams of his best judgment to hurry up and get behind the –dubious safety of the– gate. His RPK clicked empty; he tossed it aside and drew his--

A snork crashed into him. Then another. “THEY GOT ORACLE!” Screws shouted.

“The hell they got him...” Chasme growled and flung him behind the gate. He unsheathed his knife, dashed headlong towards the mutants that were quickly swarming around the thrashing soldier, and, augmented as he was by exoskeleton and artifacts, he seized one of the masked aberrations by the head and ripped it off Oracle, planted his blade squarely in the chest of another, and kicked a third one in the stomach so viciously that he sent it flying some three meters away. The horde of beasts briefly hesitated, as if taken aback by Chasme's mindless ferocity, and the stalker made the best out of it; he slung his bleeding younger self over his shoulder and ran like a madman back towards the gates, as Svetlana and Nikolay fired past his sides.

Maxim slammed the gates shut. Almost immediately something hit it from the other side and the gate quivered. “I need a hand over here!”

Chasme left Oracle in the floor with all the care he could muster and jumped to help Blackjack. They barely had time enough to set the concrete rafters leaning against the gate.

“This won't hold back the snorks,” Boris/Chasme said.

“We must get to high ground,” Maxim replied. At that moment, a loud detonation erupted from the entrance leading to the junkyards, dust rising on a huge cloud in its wake. “What the...”

“How is he?” Screws asked. Then he winced as he got a clear view at Oracle's injuries: his face and chest were a mess of slashes and bruises where the snorks and the rodents had ravaged him.

“Heh... still alive, but not any prettier...” Boris/Oracle tried to smile, but the best he could manage was a painful grimace.

“Come on, let's get you somewhere safe...” Chasme lifted him and hauled him towards the makeshift infirmary/dormitory. “You keep an eye on that gate!”

“You don't do that!” a strained voice said from behind them. Strelok was limping towards them, clutching his RPK with his left hand, a trail of bloody drops behind him. “Skull... he blew up the buildings next to the checkpoint... go get Farsight and Hunter and get the hell out of here!”

Screws stammered, “But what about you--”

“You can't drag three wounded around with you with this many beasts around!” he snarled.

“Not even two,” Chasme whispered half to himself.

“Out where?!” Sataida asked rhetorically and waved behind her. “Even if we could break through, there's a whole swarm of these things out here!” As if to prove her point, again something hit the metal gates behind her powerfully and dented them.

“Best we can do now is seek high ground,” Maxim thought, somehow keeping his cool amidst the disaster. “To the water tower!”

On that very moment, the sky briefly flashed red and darkened. Strelok coughed explosively, blood spattering the pavement, and grunted through his pain. “As if it couldn't get any fucking worse...” A chorus of panicked shrieks came from the other side of the gate and many legs were heard scuttling away.

Chasme saw a glimmer of hope. “This can help us,” he said. If it doesn't cause another earthquake, that is. “We take shelter in the dormitory... and make our last stand there if the blowout does not deter them for long.”

Screws and Sataida helped Strelok and Oracle to the dormitory, guarded carefully by Chasme and Blackjack. Over twenty people were there, most of them Duty members belonging to the Silence squad. But Skull was not among them. Neither were Guide nor Ghost. No one dared to ask what had happened to them.

“Put them over here, quickly!” The doctor pointed to the wall behind him, next to the first aid station, where other injured stalkers lay. Only as they helped the Marked One sit did Blackjack realize how badly mauled Strelok was. A quick glance at the other wounded was enough to know that his comrade would not go past triage.

The veteran stalker read the expression on Maxim's face and managed a defiant smile. “No artifact magic this time... at least I didn't... go down without a fight.”

Blackjack knew better than to waste the man's precious time with futile upbeat comments. “No one will ever say that you had no balls.” A deep thunder rumbled outside. Strong gusts of wind started to blow.

Another cough. “Get over there, you puss...! You'll have time to loot me later.”
  18:45:17  29 January 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Episode XIII

Particularly lengthy update. It was even longer but I was not satisfied with how it turned out.

I've teamed up with Bladewraith to proofread and enrich our mutual fics. A huge kudos to him for his help!

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They came upon the Duty outpost that marked the northern border of the junkyards when the sun was first peeking over the horizon. Once more, they found everyone was dead: Bullet, the warrant officers and the sentries that had guarded the place. But the radio was still playing music, it's broadcasts emanating from somewhere outside the Zone. It was a bloodcurling moment for most of them. Some weapons were taken –most of the Dutyers had brandished RPK machine guns to fend off the increasingly violent mutant assaults from the Dark Valley– as well as every diary, journal and memory card they could find; Guide wanted clues about those who had looted their stash, and had set himself to the task of reading that all. They spent no more time there than what was strictly necessary. “I don't want to stay in this goddamn place for another second,” Strelok had growled.

Traversing the treacherous anomaly field behind the checkpoint was a painstakingly slow ordeal, given how many rookies comprised their squad now. Boris proved once again to be almost uncannily attuned to them, which caused Ghost to dub him 'Oracle'. The former soldier had accepted the alias somewhat reluctantly, stating that it probably fit Alexei better, but the youth had a moniker already.

Farsight himself had remained unusually withdrawn, and Hunter walked closely by his side. Chasme/Boris, who marched on the rearguard with Blackjack, guessed that the quiet stalker was shadowing Alexei on purpose, as if expecting something from him, but it was hard to tell. He had shown a skill not unlike his younger self's at tracking and evading anomalies, but no one said anything about it, probably because of him being perceived as a much more seasoned stalker than Oracle/Boris. That problem still worried him, but he had decided it was better to just let it rest for the moment.

The road snaked into a wide gorge of sorts, with tall bluffs on both sides and sparse, lonely trees here and there. They came upon several mutant corpses; blind dogs, cats, and even a chimera and a controller. They were all intact, even if they had started to bloat and reek.

“Enjoy the opportunity,” Strelok had said to Oracle, Sataida and Screws. “If you can get this close a look on them it's because you're about to get killed. And in the case of leatherface here,” he stated, shoving the dead controller with the stock of his RPK, “not even then.” That said, he unsheathed his knife and proceeded to cut the mutants' nails and teeth out.

“Why would you do that?” Oracle asked, his curiosity piqued.

“You can use some parts of mutants as... er... 'reagents' of sorts to alter artifacts. Long process. You'll see soon enough if we ever have the time for it.”

Guide stared at the bulbous-headed mutant. The glazed dead eyes glittered at him. The creature had no wounds, other than the blood that had oozed out of its ears. He shook his head, wondering in secret what exactly had saved them from the blue mist. Strelok's artifacts? Alexei's talents? Or both of them put together?

He turned towards the youth, tempted to ask him if he perceived in his unusual way what was going on at the Bar, but he decided against it. We will know soon enough. And better not to rely too much on him. Farsight did not pay any attention to the dead controller at all, something that put Guide somewhat off. Then he asked himself why. Not that he would show it if he felt some kind of kinship with the creature.

They continued their way down the road, dodging the occasional anomaly and stumbling upon more and more mutant corpses, most of them blind dogs and feral cats. Soon they all had to don their gas masks to at least slightly mitigate the overpowering stench of rotting flesh.

“Ew!” Sataida complained. “What happened here?”

“I was asking myself that same thing,” Ghost said, his voice nasal.

They came upon an answer soon enough. Amidst the mutant corpses they found the body of a stalker that had bled to death through a nasty gash on his throat. The armor, torn in many places and covered with bite marks and claw slashes, bore the colors of Duty.

“The body is fresh,” Strelok said. Carefully he reached for the dead stalker's belt and satchels. The belt was chock-full with rare and expensive artifacts. “Judging from that loot, this one survived the blue mist.”

“And put up a fight, too,” Blackjack added, pointing at several pseudodogs with bullet wounds. He turned around to look down the road: they were almost within view of the ditch that marked the south-eastern entrance to the Rostock Plant. Unsurprisingly the megaphone that had used to blare all day long was silent.

“Here's another.” Ghost pointed at another armor-clad corpse beneath the monstrous bulk of a pseudogiant.

“Something's not right here... How come they weren't eaten? If they were being hunted...” Chasme let the rest continue his trail of thought.

“Good point.” Guide sat on his haunches. “Probably feeding was not a top priority for these mutants.”

A few dozen steps ahead they were treated to a grisly sight: hundreds of mutant corpses of all species –but mostly dogs and many, many, many rodents–, freshly mutilated, most of them crowded around large –and still smoking– craters. A crude barricade of oil drums and sharpened metal stakes had been hastily erected between two buildings flanking the single stretch of asphalt, closing the street that led deep into the derelict industrial compound where the enterprising arms dealer mostly known as Barkeep had set up his business, shadowed by the ever vigilant troopers commanded by general Voronin.

And, to their amazement, some of these troopers still lived on: someone standing guard behind the barricades fired a signal flare onto the sky, and then hastily vanished through a sideway street. “Everyone, hold still and keep your weapons at the ready.” Strelok's whispered command was obeyed with alacrity.

Some two –terse– minutes later, half a dozen men clad in exoskeletons and armed with machine guns marched down the street and up to the barricade. One of them raised a hand in greeting. “Ahoy there, stalkers!”

Ghost's mouth twitched. “Skull and the Silence squad.”

Guide nodded. “Do you think they may still be angry at you?”

The gaunt, wiry man shrugged. “I hope they're smart enough to put greater stock into things more important than a card game and a stroke of luck.”

Strelok stepped forward and returned the greeting. “Hello there! Can we close in?”

“I'd suggest you didn't, we had to set up a minefield, as you can see... hold on, one of our guys will get you across. Keep your eyes out for mutants!”

“Roger that. Thanks for the heads up,” the Marked One hollered back.

It was as if that exact warning had tempted fate. Something in the distance, beyond the cliffs behind them, bellowed out a long and powerful roar. Oracle blanched: “What the hell was that?”

“Pseudogiant... probably... and something else, too. At least one controller... I can't see much further that way.”

Strelok grit his teeth. “Keep your cool, people...”

Again, seconds dragged painstakingly on until a Duty squad member, also clad in a powerful exoskeleton, hopped over the barricade and carefully zigzagged his way over to them; at the same time, the rest of his group took positions in sandbagged nests and around the barricade, ready to provide support. Guide saw heavy machine guns and RPGs being deployed.

“Hello, stalkers, and welcome to the 100 Rads shelter,” the man greeted them with a smoker's deep voice. “Name's Shilka. Follow me closely and you'll be okay.”

“Thanks. Will do.” Blackjack steadied his looted RPK machine gun in his hands, gestured at the rookies to get moving and set after them. The rest of his group fell in behind as more roars and snarls reached their ears.

Hunter let them all go ahead of him, unsheathed his long black sword and drew a Steyr machine pistol from one of his many pouches. “Alexei,” he said quietly, “guide me. And take this.” He handed him his backpack.

“Get moving!” Shilka spurred them. Ahead, behind the barricade, a stern voice was barking out orders and men were scanning ahead of them for targets. Something unseen screeched somewhere over the cliffs.

Very few times before had Guide felt as naked as then. The Duty soldier known by the alias of Shilka led the march, guiding them through the minefield as quickly as caution allowed; Sataida, Screws and Oracle followed in tow, protected by Blackjack, Guide, Strelok and Ghost. Alexei, Chasme, and Hunter made up the rearguard, the silent stalker walking backwards, facing the cliff from whose top the mutants were expected to disgorge themselves at them, and Chasme covered him, weapon at the ready. Svetlana was red with anger and shame, sick of being guarded because of her gender/inexperience, but the impending danger made her bite her lip and restrain herself. Her trigger finger was itching with anticipation and she had to remove it from the trigger to avoid accidentally shooting Shilka in the back.

A chorus of shrieks heralded the swarm of rodents that rained down from the cliff edge like a waterfall, an almost solid mass of mutant death. Hunter's machine pistol answered the cries with a barrage, quickly followed by the thunder of machine guns fired from behind the barricades, but it soon proved not to be enough as there were hundreds of them and they were blocking much of the gunners' field of fire. The tall, quiet stalker emptied his magazine on the tide of fur, claws and teeth, hurled himself at the swarm sword first, and carved a bloody swath through it as his blade sliced rat-like mutants clean by the dozen. Despite the situation, Chasme, the only witness to the fight other than Alexei, dropped his mouth open at Hunter's supreme close combat skills: rodents and rats jumped at him by the hundred, but their talons and fangs would never find purchase on him, and he would dodge, jump, duck, parry and slash them to ribbons, over and over and over.

“IGNORE THE MUTANTS! MOVE! MOVE!” They were almost at the gangway over the ditch. The stalkers hurried across it, and ran to the barricade as Shilka looked over his shoulder and realized in turn how Hunter was almost single-handedly holding off the swarm. Suddenly there was an explosion and a cloud of smoke and debris shot upwards as one of the mines was triggered, then another, and then another. Soon Hunter was out of view, but the shrieking did not stop.

Something roared over the screeching storm and the floor quivered underneath their feet. Strelok, like the rest of his group, looked on at the clouds of smoke and dust that concealed the fighting from his view, and was gripped by a terrible sense of futility, wanting to do something much like Sataida wanted, but there were no targets in sight and no point in wasting precious ammo. So he waited with jaws clenched and muscles aching in tension, looking down the barrel of his machine gun, almost daring a mutant to break through the smoke curtain.

Then a huge bulk crashed through the smoke, followed in tow by dozens of snarling pseudodogs and the hopping, masked abominations known as snorks. “GIANT!” someone warned.

“WAIT!” The command had been Alexei's. Chasme had to fight hard to suppress the urge to shoot at the monstrous mutant, but obeyed. So did the rest of them. Not even for a second did he ponder why had Farsight ordered them to hold their fire.

Then, like wights from a nightmare, the pseudogiant and most of the pseudodogs and snorks grew translucent and faded away. The armored stalker blinked twice and felt as if he had indeed awakened from an evil dream. And he recognized the feeling. “CONTROLLER!” he shouted with all the power his lungs afforded him.

“WHERE?!” Skull, the leader of the Duty platoon, shouted back.

“I can't see it, but it's very close!” Chasme turned to check on Alexei and saw the youth had dropped to his knees, hiding behind a pile of sandbags, his eyes squeezed shut. Wisely he avoided disturbing him, grabbed the Arctic Warfare sniper rifle he had carefully laid against the sandbags, and searched for the psychic mutant, remembering how his previous encounter with one of the dreadful creatures had ended back at the Dark Valley.

“Infrared!” Skull barked, and at once two of his men put their guns aside for a second to switch something on behind their helmets, then two others. Behind the smoke many mutants could be heard wailing and screeching.

“And Hunter?!” Sataida asked almost hysterically. Strelok shook his head. No one can be THAT good at fighting.

Something howled with a human-like voice behind the dust and smoke cloud, only to be cut short by a horrible gurgle-like noise, and a round object was cast out of the dust cloud to bounce around twice and finally rest against a rock. A large, bulbous humanoid head with sharp teeth.

Then a large silhouette darted through the haze. It was Hunter, bleeding from a hundred wounds but still possessed of all his skill and stamina. Guns fired at once past his sides, covering his retreat, as he somersaulted his way through the minefield in a straight line. “Good god!” Chasme heard Shilka say and pictured him flinching like he was, expecting the quiet stalker to be blown to smithereens by a mine any instant now, but also somehow certain that he would reach the barricades.

And the second he had done so, he collapsed behind the sandbags where Alexei was like a sack of potatoes. And then Chasme stopped looking as the swarm renewed its assault, almost human in its fury at the man that had fought it to a grinding halt and escaped its clutches; but now there was no obstacle for the guns to unleash all their firepower. More mines exploded, triggered by either mutants and stray bullets alike. The intense fire of a dozen heavy machine guns and half as many assault rifles soon proved too much, and the mutants pulled back behind the curtain of smoke and dust, leaving piles of corpses in their wake.

There was a lull a few seconds long, punctured by the sizzling of overheated barrels cooling down, the mechanical clanks of clips being replaced and occasional bestial screeches. Everyone had to restrain themselves from firing because they could not spot any targets.

Then the smoke started to dissipate. And they saw that there were still living mutants there, of all shapes and kinds, that were staring back at them, not in fear, but not willing to brave another bullet storm either. The carcasses on the ground outnumbered the living at least three to one.

Skull instructed his men. “Hold your fire for the moment, but be on your guard. The moment they pounce forward give them all you've got. If they don't want to close in, fine, our ammo will last longer.” A chorus of yeses and acknowledgements responded him. Then he turned his attention to Strelok's group, which was crowded around the incredible swordsman that had held off the swarm on his own. “How is he?”

“Very badly.” Neither Skull nor Ghost cared now for their previous differences. The wiry man had removed Hunter's haphazard armor suit and was shaking his head. His chest and belly were a mess of ugly slashes, stabs and bruises. “How did he manage to fight like that with injuries like these... it's unbelievable. Unbelievable,” he repeated.

“Your armor would be useful right now, Ghost.” Guide had unpacked his first aid supplies and was trying to tend to Hunter as best as he could, even if his experience dictated that the best they could do for him was giving him an overdose of morphine to have him die peacefully.

“Yeah.” Again Ghost stripped down to his loincloth.

“I never saw anything even remotely like this,” Skull said to Strelok as they watched. The Marked One nodded, not having seen the fight proper but also having failed to picture how skilled a fighter would have to be to fight the biggest swarm of mutants he had ever witnessed, kill the controller directing them –for it was now obvious that the creature had been their leader–, and escape them.

“What do you mean?” Blackjack asked. “Hunter, or the swarm?”

“Both. We were attacked hours ago but managed to beat them off. Barely. We lost two dead and three were badly wounded.” He turned around and barked an order: “Acid! Go fetch the stretcher and the purple box off my personal supply stash!”

“On it.” The stalker by the alias of Acid put his gun on the ground and ran inside the compound with all the speed his exoskeleton allowed.

“Where did you find this madman?” Skull asked, his voice dripping admiration.

Maxim answered that question. “Screws here invited him to join us back at the Cordon.”

The Duty squad leader seemed to notice something then: “Where did you get that armor?” He pointed at Blackjack's own suit, and at those of Oracle and Screws.

“Oh, the Monolith stuff... a whole raid of them hit the rookie village at the Cordon a few days ago. You must know about that already.”

Skull nodded. “I've been told. You possibly don't know the worth of these suits.” He briefly told about his incursions on Freedom territory and on how sometimes they had to battle stragglers that made it past the Barrier defensive line guarded by Duty's enemy. “Some of those stragglers wore these suits. A few times my men had to take them to replace their own armor in a hurry. Whenever they got hit, they recovered much more quickly, even from deadly wounds. You may want to try dressing him with one of these.”

“I will.” Screws was about to start taking off his armor, but Ghost stopped him.

“If mine doesn't work, we'll try yours. In any case, if my suit and almost twenty of the best Souls I've ever found don't help him,” he said grimly, “nothing will.”

Acid arrived with the stretcher and the purple box Skull had requested. While everyone had their eyes on Ghost, Strelok and Guide helping the limp body of Hunter into the stretcher, Chasme was observing Alexei. The youth looked exhausted beyond words, much more so than any of them. He recalled what Hunter had asked of him... 'Guide me', he said... While he had never been explicitly told about the extent of Alexei's uncanny talents, he had guessed enough from what he had heard. And Hunter had expressly relied on him... Could Hunter have realized something they had not, or know something the rest did not?

He held out an open hand at Alexei. “Come. Let's follow the rest inside.”

The youth allowed Chasme to help him stand up. “Good idea.” He had to lean on the armored stalker to walk straight.

Oracle, Sataida and Screws were following the stretcher and the rest of their squad, and overheard Skull telling Strelok about what had happened there. Almost everyone was dead, the Duty veteran said, including Voronin and Petrenko themselves; only those who were wearing psionic-shielding artifacts had survived the blue mist, as neither hazmat suits nor scientific outfits had been of any use on their own. There were perhaps twenty of their faction all over this side of the Rostock plant, plus maybe ten or fifteen loners.

“I don't understand anything, other than a lot of people's dead,” Oracle had to admit in whispers. “Do you?”

Screws glanced at Svetlana before saying anything: he could not see her face, concealed as it was by her mask, but her knuckles were white on her rifle, and she was slightly panting—as one would do when trying hard not to cry. He judged it best neither to say nor do anything about it for the moment and replied, “Whatever the mist was, it literally killed everyone. But why the earthquake did not hit them here?”

“Probably the epicenter was near us,” Oracle suggested.

Shilka, walking behind the stretcher, overheard that. He slowed down to let the three rookies reach him. “It hit us here alright. A few roofs caved in, but nothing more than that. We lost no one to it, thankfully.”

“Oh.” Nikolay dared not looking at Sataida. “What about the rest of the Zone?”

“We've picked up a few stray radio transmission here and there. And couple of loners barely made it from the Rostok trainyard hours ago. Other than that...” The Duty stalker hesitated.

“Yes?” Boris/Oracle encouraged him.

Shilka shook his head. “Sorry, but I'm not cleared to share it with you. You'll have to ask Skull for details.” That said, he quickened his pace to close up with his commander. Nikolay and Oracle looked at each other.

“'Not cleared to share it'?” Screws was dumbfounded. “Almost everyone in the Zone drops dead and they're still worrying about clearances?”

“The Army I joined was like that,” Boris replied. “Then again, discipline was not something those at Agroprom cared to enforce, other than on those below their station.” He spat in disgust. “If there's a hell, I hope the fuckers are burning there.” Behind them, Chasme listened in silence.

Skull led the stretcher carried by Ghost and Guide to the large hangar structure that had once housed the arena, a makeshift gladiatorial stadium of sorts where matches had been fought with fists, knives, guns and grenades. Now the crates that had once provided cover were gone, and in their stead were bedrolls, bunk beds, a few lockers, a precarious triage station with three examination tables, and a series of racks and shelves for weapons, ammo and other gear. Some ten-odd people, many bandaged, lay there trying to recover from their wounds. No one dared to ask why they had not been led to the Bar or the Duty headquarters themselves.

At the count of three, Strelok, Ghost, Guide and Skull moved Hunter from the stretcher to the single free examination table at the triage station. A man dressed with a bloodstained doctor's apron unbuttoned and unzipped the flak vest, carefully removed the soaked bandages and grimaced at the carnage beneath. “Just what got him?”

“Another mutant attack,” Skull replied. “A whole horde of them.”

“Well...” The doctor unzipped the artifact belt. “Green Souls?” He looked up at the Duty squad leader.

“You should ask them, I didn't find those.”

“Actually, their adequate name are 'Fervent Crystals,'” Guide replied. “They are a hypermodificate variant of the Soul. They accelerate wound healing and regeneration, and enhance stamina and radiation resistance to a lesser extent.”

The doctor stared at the veteran stalker for an entire second, perplexed. Then he shrugged. “You seem to know your trade, so I'll believe you. The armor must have some odd effect too, or else you wouldn't have taken the pains of dressing him.” That said, he put on a pair of latex gloves and took a close-in look at Hunter's chest and belly, feeling his wounds and checking for damaged organs. He was at it for several minutes, frowning at times, then relaxing, then frowning again. He took a deep breath and straightened up. “I don't know. He's got 50/50. No vitals damage that I could see, but he's lost a lot of blood and there's nothing I can do about it.”

“Thanks a lot, doc, really,” Strelok said with utmost sincerity. Even then his words felt hollow to him, and he found himself wishing he could say something better.

“Don't thank me, I can't do shit. It's beyond my skill to heal that.” He chucked the gloves and cleansed them thoroughly with alcohol. “And I'm out of supplies on top of that. No, you'll have to trust your artifacts do the trick.” Then he looked at Guide. “And if you know so much about these things, maybe you could tell me a thing or two. There's just so much shit lying around, we've stacked entire crates of them and there might be some useful stuff there we haven't used yet.”

The old veteran exchanged looks with Strelok. The Marked One nodded, and Guide nodded in turn. “Very well, I will help you sort your wares. Make sure you bring a notepad, or a camera and a recorder if you have any that work.”

They said their thanks and went outside, leaving Guide behind with Hunter and the medic. And Farsight. The youth had excused himself, saying that he needed to rest. “You don't have to ask us anything, kid. But take care, okay?” The gleam in Strelok's eye and the tone of his voice hinted perfectly that he was not worried for his well-being, but for that of those inside the dormitory.

“Don't worry for that,” Alexei replied curtly, and proceeded to prepare his bedroll.

Outside, Skull asked: “What happened to that kid? He looked like he was about to collapse.”

Ghost laughed mirthlessly and was about to say something but Chasme anticipated him: “He overexerted himself.” That earned him some curious –but still covert– glares from the rest of his squad.

Skull paid that no heed. “You're welcome to stay here, but there's little in the way of amenities,” he warned. “What little food and water I got is for my men.”

“We have that covered for the moment, don't worry,” Blackjack assured him.

“Besides... I don't really think we're staying for long.” Ghost looked behind him at the bulk of the hangar. “One way or another.”
  00:16:35  16 January 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Glad it's being enjoyed... even if it's gotten kind of gloomy as of late.

@Blade: I tried sending you an email with the stuff I've got in stock for the future but it got bounced back. Care to send me a mail?
 
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