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Blue Mists

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  18:06:44  14 January 2012
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
Messages: 306
another great chapter, the whole powdered artefact was more a real life way of extending useful items, mostley in medicine, greater surface area in contact with skin/damaged areas = greater efficiency. but i'm interested to see where you go with it.
  03:08:50  14 January 2012
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Do0mzday-Jesus
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On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
Nice story you've got going here. Keep it coming!
  19:43:14  9 January 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Episode XII

It seemed that the Zone had been wiped out clean of any life other than plants and a few insects and birds, because on their short journey from the empty stash to the train yard behind Seriy’s hangar, and into the hangar proper, they heard not a noise nor saw not a hint indicating that they were not the only ones on the junkyards. The eeriness of it all grew ever more oppressive as they found the cooling remains of the fire that had permanently burned before near the main entrance to the hangar… and the corpses of those who had basked on its warmth. Seriy had died on his sleeping bag, like the veteran with whom Mystery/Strelok had talked about Duty and Freedom just a few dawns before.

Nobody dared to speak a word. Only the gentle winds blowing through the many cracks and holes on the building and the echoes of their footsteps rang on their ears.

Boris felt a shiver as every hair on his body bristled… and, unknown to him, the same happened to Chasme behind him. The tomb-like stillness that pervaded everything was unnerving, and seeped into them. Their senses were fully primed and alert, every detail, every sound being strident calls for their eyes and ears.

As usual, Hunter seemed immune to the fears that haunted everyone else; caring not at all about anything other than their practical needs, he went through the rucksacks and satchels of the dead quickly and efficiently, sorting out useful from useless, but while he was at that Farsight beckoned Blackjack to follow him and they climbed up the stairs next to the rear entrance, only to come upon a makeshift storeroom of sorts where supplies had been neatly stacked by the late denizens of the hangar. Maxim quickly scanned the pile: a lot of canned food, a large stock of first-aid drugs and equipment, a partially open bag containing surgical instruments and anesthetics, a generous supply of 5.45mm ammo and 12-gauge shells, a few suits of DIY armor…

His milky-white eyes were drawn to a metal footlocker, still with a padlock attached to it. A snap inspection revealed no wires, no plates, no springs that could trigger a trap. Then he tried to lift it: it was heavy, but not heavy enough that it could not be carried. He heard something clattering inside as he moved it and carefully he put it back on the floor, fearful of breaking anything fragile within.

Sataida and Screws appeared on the doorway behind them. She curiously glared at Maxim as he was fiddling with the footlocker and felt tempted to ask what had they found, but she dared not to speak. She did not want to be the first one to, in a way, violate the rest of the dead.

Blackjack looked questioningly at Screws and gestured at the padlock. Nikolay nodded slowly and sat on the floor near it, producing his old and trusty toolkit from one of his satchels, and got to work; while no true locksmith, he had some experience at it, and his mechanical skills may be enough to unlock it.

The scarred Russian started to feel a growing pressure on his head, as if he was about to pass out. He had to lean against a wall, suddenly and unexplainably exhausted.

“Maxim?” Screws said attentively, breaking the spell that muted them, worried about his friend. “Are you alright?”

“…Yeah. Just a fit…” But he was not okay. Then both Sataida and Screws started to feel it in turn.

Alexei noticed their fits, but, instead of rushing to help, he stood and left the storeroom. And, after he did so, their illness slowly ebbed away.

“What was that…?” Sataida slowly exhaled, fearful of her fit developing into a headache.

“It means that this Alexei kid is becoming something else.” Maxim stood up in turn. “You get back to me if you can open that chest, okay?” He said to Nikolay, who nodded. He left just as Sataida was sitting next to Screws.

“You felt it too, right?” She asked him. Her ghastly big green eyes scrutinized him.

Screws nodded reluctantly. He grabbed a screwdriver and tugged at the bolts fastening the latch to the metal frame of the chest. “There’s something about him that Mystery’s, er, Strelok’s group knows that hasn’t been told to us.” The bolts weren’t giving away. He tried from another angle. “Probably it’s for the best.”

She pulled a lock of silver-blond hair away from her face with a troubled look. It was dirty, but cleansing it was not on her mind now. “I felt my head was going to burst… do controllers do that kind of thing?”

The screwdriver snapped loose with a metallic sound. The latch would not budge. He shook his head. “Controllers are mutants, Sat—” He turned around to face her, and again found the challenge of her eyes formidable. Almost immediately he looked aside.

“Yes?” She asked curiously.

“I wanted to call you by your name.” To avoid her gaze he searched for another tool, this time a jeweler’s screwdriver.

“Oh, that… You can call me Svetlana.” She did not miss his reluctance, but said nothing. Somehow the mood was wrong. “You were saying…?”

“He’s no mutant.” He grimaced. “Well, he doesn’t look like one.” His hands froze for a moment. “You know, I just thought: why did it only become obvious now? Why didn’t his, er, bad vibes affect us before?”

Sataida/Svetlana shrugged. “Maybe it kind of builds up if he stays on a single place for too long. We were on the move.”

“Right. But we had been holed up for days…” Abruptly he stopped. He did not want her to recall Ogre’s demise. He failed, but she recognized his intent and hid the twinge of pain that wracked her as best as she could.

“Maybe the artifacts he had before Strelok gave him another set were blocking it somehow.”

He grunted an agreement as he worked. “Maybe.” He was using the screwdriver as a lockpick, feeling for tumblers inside the padlock. It was a crude tool at that, and he would need to fashion something better—

The padlock snapped open. Screws smirked in triumph: “I didn't see that coming.”

She smiled warmly, celebrating his success. “You going to open it?”

Nikolay’s attentive eyes carefully searched for wires, springs and other trap triggers, and found none. Still, he was not satisfied. He was not an expert on the subject like Blackjack or Hunter, and the episode at Strelok’s stash made him uneasy about it.

“I’d rather have Maxim have a look at it… I’ll go get him.”

“No, I will,” she said, standing up.

Outside, Ghost, Guide and Strelok had performed a first sweep of the compound that yielded nothing of interest, then a second, more thorough one; this time around they found a concealed tunnel behind a tree that went under the wall; its exit looked to the south, towards the Cordon. Guide studied it with expert eyes: the digging seemed fresh, and no one had piled dirt this side of the wall, which led him to think that it had been dug from outside, rather than the other way around.

Inspecting the other end of the tunnel revealed nothing. “Well,” Ghost uttered, somehow less fearful of talking outside the walled perimeter, “looks like we won’t know.”

“Someone was staging a raid on Seriy’s compound,” Guide reasoned. “But you are right. It is probably pointless now. Come, let us see what the others have found.”

Hunter had collected a small pile of ammunition, food, first aid supplies and weapons from the bodies, which he had scrupulously piled away from the fireplace. He had also found a Soviet-era but fully operational broadcasting set, paired with a small generator and a half-full gas tank; he had turned everything on and was combing the frequencies for transmissions, headset on his ears. To the question poised in Strelok’s eyes he shook his head.

Half-heartedly the formerly amnesiac stalker went outside, followed by Ghost. “You know, for a moment I wish I hadn’t recovered my memory. Not even while under fire have I hated this place so much.”

The wiry man nodded, understanding him. “Can’t say I don’t know the feeling. Knowing that there were other people stuck with you this side of the barbed wire was… well, comforting, in a way.”

“There may still be someone.” Guide had joined them.

“Would you bet on that?” Strelok asked with a sad smile.

“Definitely so. You were not the only one to find rare and powerful artifacts. And, considering this… ‘jackpot’ of sorts, they must be at least as well provided as we are.”

“We’d better be very careful then. They must be nervous and disoriented too, then. Not to mention scared shitless.”

Blackjack walked out of the hangar with long strides. “There’s something you should know about Farsight.” He went on to describe what had just taken place at the storeroom.

“Controller miasma,” Guide said immediately.

“Are you suggesting he’s becoming one?” Strelok asked in doubt.

“You weren’t present when he mind-blasted me,” Ghost replied. He worriedly exchanged glances with Guide.

“It would be for the best to equip artifacts shielding us from psionic radiation,” the veteran suggested.

“That won’t cut it. I say the kid is trouble.”

“And what do you suggest? Killing him?” Strelok asked rhetorically.
“He’s weird, alright, but if he really is a controller, don’t you think he’s got plenty of chances to kill us all by now? Hell, he could have offed you.”

But he has an agenda, Guide thought, watching his friends argue, not wanting to voice his mind, remembering what Alexei had said once about being able to sense everything in a large radius. He needs us for something. Once I thought that he needed us to kill Strelok, but now… What does he need us for? Fixing the mistake C-Consciousness made? But how would he do that… He mentally scolded himself, knowing that dwelling on the ‘how’ was pointless since he could tap into information sources totally beyond his reach.

“What do you think about it?” Blackjack noticed Guide’s silence.

Very carefully the elderly stalker picked his words. “I think Farsight is an asset to us. He protected us from the blue mist, and can warn us about events happening miles away. I know you have no reason to harbor any sympathy for him,” he said to Ghost, “but Strelok is right. If he is a controller, he could have killed us before. The best we can do for the moment is protect ourselves from his emissions… or have him block them somehow.” His mind had just reached the same conclusion Screws had come upon.

In that very moment Alexei walked out of the hangar. He pointed lazily behind him with a thumb. “Blackjack, Screws was looking for you.” That said, he turned around and went back inside, not giving away a clue about whether he heard or not a whisper of their conversation. The four stalkers exchanged puzzled glances and followed him.

Maxim checked the chest for traps and found none, then cautiously opened it: there were several numbered metal flasks and a small notebook. He took the notebook in his hands and started leafing through it… The writing was neat, every entry dated and full with detail.

“Now this is interesting.”

“What is it?” Screws asked.

“Looks like someone has been grinding artifacts to dust…” He reached for one of the flasks, but it dawned on him that it would be better if he tested it for radiation first. He produced his Geiger counter from one of his satchels, opened the flask, and measured the content. The dust inside was dirty gray-yellowish in color.

The counter started screeching like a broken radio. “Not good,” Strelok said, behind him.

Blackjack closed the flask and weighed it on his hand: it was quite heavy. “I’d wager they’re made of lead, at least in part.” He left the other flasks alone and focused on the log. There was something methodical about the writing that hinted of an educated author… he went to the first page and there it was: “Doctor Piotr I. Ulyanov, field researcher’s log,” he read out aloud.

“How did they come upon this?” Ghost wondered.

“Probably scavenged from a crashed helicopter. You can’t get these flasks at a convenience store.” He searched the log for references. “The one I opened contains powdered Stone Flowers. These others are Sparklers, Drops… Hell, this little flask here was filled with Shells! Someone was engaged in some very, very expensive research.”

“Where was this Ulyanov dude based?”

“Hang on… Every entry is dated, and most detail the kind of artifact found, and a series of GLONASS coordinates.” This finding would have been priceless to any stalker a few days ago… “The artifacts were processed at an installation… close to Pripyat.”

“That can’t be. It’s deep into Brain Scorcher territory,” Strelok said.

“Only one explanation for that,” Guide replied. “This Ulyanov was working for the Monolith. Are there any exact details about the precise location of the facility?”

“I haven’t seen any references thus far. I’d have to read this entire journal to know for sure, but I don’t think we’ll find them here. If everything about this operation, whatever it was about, is as organized as the man who kept this log, then probably that information was compartmentalized and only available to those in charge of moving people around.”

“What would be the use of grinding artifacts to dust?” Screws wondered.

“Using them as raw materials for alloys, perhaps?” Guide was as lost as Nikolay was. “I have never heard of this.”

“I think that’s the wrong question,” Sataida argued. “What we should be asking ourselves is if this stuff is of any use to us.”

Strelok chuckled. “Good point, girl, you’re learning the trade fast. So?” He eyed Blackjack.

“I’ve never heard of this either. They’re not really that heavy, but they’re kind of bulky.”

“I’ll carry them.” Nobody had heard Hunter walk in. Farsight was standing slightly behind him, outside the storeroom.

“Alexei?” Guide asked cautiously, again harboring doubts on whose side the youth was.

Farsight shook his head. “Apologies, but I don’t know either.” Unexpectedly he smiled, and that eased some of the tension everyone had felt upon noticing him. “I may have some strange talents, but I’m not all-knowing.”

“We’ll keep that in mind,” Strelok said dryly.

Nikolay noticed that while everyone was wary of Farsight, no one dared to speak openly about the suspicions and misgivings they harbored. He decided he would not do that. “Alexei... I think I speak for all of us when I say that we would like to know what's going on. With you.”

The youth shook his head and sighed. “Since you ask me...” He walked into the storeroom and sat against a rusted wall. The aura of preternatural confidence that always seemed to envelop him vanished. Everyone noticed he was struggling with his own thoughts and words. “I... think... I have a role to play in the fate of the Zone. And I have to get to the NPP to know what it is. C-Consciousness, the antennae, everything is there.”

Some of them stared at him, expecting him to continue, but Alexei would say no more. In the silence, one by one, they picked up their gear and went back downstairs.

All but Hunter. “There is more to this.”

Farsight would not look at him. “Neither the time nor the place.”


--------

Credits to Bladewraith for the whole powdered artifact idea.
  00:58:10  20 December 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
12/20/2011 2:13:50
Messages: 197
Episode XI

It was not easy for them to leave their dusty hideout. Even if blowouts were an everyday occurrence in the Zone, it was one thing to deal with 'normal' ones, and quite another to seek shelter that would not collapse in the event of another earthquake. Which normally were few and far between, especially in a non-seismic area such as that, Boris had reasoned. “Tell that to Foxhound and Ogre,” had been Guide's bitter remark.

With Farsight wounded, it was plain obvious that they could not set out yet to the NPP. “Where do we go then?” Boris asked.

“To the Cordon,” Guide replied. “We have to get him to a place where we can wait until he recovers. And we should try to seek out other survivors. There must be some.”

“We must get Alexei out of here first. He's in no shape to move on his own just yet...” Chasme's words trailed off as he saw Hunter diagnosing the youth. Alexei groaned in pain when the man's rough hands felt his ribs. The stalker nodded.

“Better, but not good enough,” he said laconically.

“We should get a stretcher, or something.” Strelok stood up and grabbed his Val rifle. “We'll go to the outpost and find something we can use as a stretcher. Who's coming?”

“I'll go,” Ghost volunteered.

“Good. Get ready to go when we return.”

They did return when noon had passed and shadows were becoming longer under the sun. Again, four taps in code, then Guide opened the hatch. He glared at Strelok and Ghost: their faces gave away how baffled they were. “What is it?”

Ghost shoved a sack towards the manhole. Lights of many colors seeped through the fabric. “Guess what’s inside.”

The weathered stalker stared at the sack, his eyes mirroring his friends’ bewilderment. “Where did you find these?”

“All over the place. Nearly every anomaly all over Agroprom has spawned them.”

Besides two wooden poles, a few blankets and some ropes, Ghost and Strelok had hauled three sacks full of artifacts to their hideout. “We took some time sorting out the best. There’s lots of them to be found.”

Blackjack let out a hoarse laugh. “If we could find someone who would take these off our hands now, we’d be set for life.”

“We didn’t spend that much time out there just to haul in some loot,” Ghost retorted. “We’d better give ourselves every edge we can get, given where we’re going.”

The group crowded around Strelok. Most of them he outfitted with artifacts that shielded from gunfire and radiation, enhanced wound recovery and helped stave off hunger, but to Farsight he handed a bundle wrapped in a dirty blanket. “These will do you good.”

Weakly Alexei unwrapped the package and felt its contents with his bare hands. Most of these items were round and felt leathery and fleshy to the touch, and yet oddly hard. Warmth seeped off them and into him. “Souls,” he said.

“Indeed,” the stalker agreed. “With these you’ll be like new in a few days.”

“You have my thanks, Strelok… but… let me see what else you have found... please?”

Puzzled, the experienced stalker did as he was told. They all watched, as in a spell, as Alexei went over the hundred-odd items they had collected, thoroughly feeling every artifact with his hands, then moving on to the next one. Eventually he settled for half of the blue-greenish artifacts Strelok had given him, and an equal number of transparent, red-tinted polyhedral objects.

“Batteries?” Ghost asked.

“You’ll see… please, help me out of here…” Feebly he tried to stand up. Screws rushed to assist him. Ghost and Guide looked at each other in puzzlement, then the veteran shrugged.

“He knows things we do not,” he reasoned in a low voice. “Best we assist him.”

Strelok helped Farsight out of their hideout, and Hunter and Blackjack carried him on a stretcher they fashioned out of the poles, blanket and ropes he had brought earlier. “I’ll help the kid,” he said to Guide. “Make sure everyone gets ready to go in the meantime. I’m going to need someone else for backup.”

“I’m going,” Nikolay volunteered. Sataida hesitated briefly, then joined him, her AK ready. Strelok hesitated, judging them too green, but Hunter had reported that there were no mutants around a few hours earlier… and, if Farsight was right, there were no bandits to worry about. And they were outfitted with a country’s worth in artifacts.

“Then get moving.”

Blackjack could not help but feel intrigued. “What exactly are we looking for?”

Farsight replied, “An Electro anomaly...” His voice was a bit steadier now, no doubt helped by the Souls on his belt.

Strelok smirked. “Easy enough. Tons of them around. We’d better make haste, though; I don’t want to be caught outside after sunset this light on guns.”

The first thing Blackjack, Sataida and Screws noticed was that their pointman had indeed been busy: the landscape was dotted everywhere with the bouncing lights of hundreds of artifacts, which were even more visible now under the quickly darkening sky. The scarred veteran thought to himself, Every stalker’s wet dream… how ironic, is it, that artifacts spawn like this only when everyone is dead. It’s as if these things were the trapped souls of people who die here… which would be horribly right, considering the C-Consciousness mess and the whole damn deal, right? The idea was, indeed, so horribly nasty, but at the same time so implausible, that he was relieved for not knowing whether that was the case or not. Ignorance is bliss.

They found what they were looking for almost immediately, upon coming within view of the railroad, which was chock full of the electrical anomalies. “Here, this is it.” He turned towards Alexei: “Now, it’s up to you.”

“What do you want us to do?” Hunter asked.

“Just put me down here, then… then help me stand.”

Once they had done so, he made sure the belt was fastened to his waist, then weakly walked on towards the anomaly, slowly, his legs feeling like jelly. Behind him, Screws wanted to ask if he was sure of what he was doing, but he seemed determined enough… after all, he had had them carry him all the way here, just for whatever he was doing. His companions looked on expectantly, waiting, similarly enthralled. Even Hunter himself, Screws noticed.

The anomaly exploded with a thunderbolt, blue-purplish tendrils arcing towards him and wrapping him like incandescent ropes. Alexei stood amidst the raging miniature electrical storm, frozen still…

“Look at his hair!” Sataida exclaimed, pointing.

“What is it…? Oh…” Nikolay noticed that Alexei’s hairs were not standing.

The youth turned to face them, his gait much steadier and more secure now. He was smiling broadly, oblivious to the crackling, swirling energies all over and around him.

Strelok smiled. “So that’s why you wanted us to drag your ass here…”

Blackjack closed his eyes. “What wouldn’t I have given for knowing this trick before.”

Farsight walked back to them, all his ills, pains and weaknesses forgotten. “Let’s go. The rest are waiting.” They followed him as in a dream, leaving the makeshift stretcher behind.

When they came upon the manhole, they found everyone had already left their refuge and were finishing preparations. No one was realistically surprised about Alexei’s recovery, other than Boris, who was as green a stalker as they came. “Ghost,” Farsight called, “I’d like my rifle back.” The wiry stalker complied without a word, and took one of the spare Val rifles they had collected earlier.

“How can he shoot if he’s…,” Boris’s voice trailed off.

“Do I tell you that you should have seen what we’ve just seen, or do I just leave the obvious unspoken?” Strelok asked rhetorically. “This is not the strangest thing you’ll see in the Zone, not by a fair margin.”

Guide replied flatly: “Please explain the obvious to me, Strelok.”

The stalker laughed. “Simply put? Alexei taught us something that solves our meds problem. Just jump into an Electro with a load of Batteries on your belt.”

This time there were several perplexed stares, but even these did not last long. Ghost laughed out loud. “That’s cheating, pal!”

“Consider it a boon to know this,” the first stalker ever stated grimly. “In all my years here I have only learned that for every advantage you get here there are challenges to overcome several times harder.”

“‘For every treasure the Zone spits out, it kills a hundred of us…’” The faces of Foxhound and Ogre were vivid in Chasme’s mind as he quoted Strelok’s words, pronounced almost a month before… or was it two weeks? Damn time travel thing…

Hunter was once again back into his bored self and oblivious to the foreboding effect of their words. “Where to?” he requested dryly. Farsight stared at him, and this time the distant stalker noticed his gaze and stared back.

“It’s pointless to go to the Cordon now, right? I mean, with Farsight back on his feet…”

“We still need food, and extra medical supplies,” Chasme stated in reply to Strelok’s question. “And our ammo count is not that huge, really.”

“The latter, we can solve,” Ghost retorted in turn.

“True,” Strelok conceded. “But the kid here’s right. Artifacts or not, we gotta eat. And we gotta have meds.”

“But if everyone’s dead I don’t see how are we going to get that… other than from the military,” Ghost reasoned.

“Or from stashes. I say we go to the Bar area. I don’t know of any other place where there were as many stalkers around in a semi-permanent fashion.”

“Team?” Chasme asked to the rest. “What do you say?”

Blackjack was the first to speak. “I’d go to the Cordon first. It’s a lot more likely we’ll find what we need there, other than risking the lottery of finding someone else’s stash or not.”

Screws agreed. “Maxim’s right.”

Sataida shrugged. “You’re the pros,” the girl said. “I wouldn’t know shit.”

Boris shrugged in turn. “The girl here has a point.”

All the while Hunter had been locked in a stare-wrestling match with Farsight. The youth seemed fascinated with him, and his eyes, while blinking occasionally, just would not let him go.

“What is it?” he asked Alexei, in a cold but still cordial voice.

Farsight closed his eyes and nodded very slowly, in apology. “I find you intriguing.”

The quiet stalker let out a dry laugh. “I am positive you know better than that.”

“Um… guys?” Strelok asked, noticing the exchange. “I don’t know what the two of you are up to but we’re trying to make up our minds, here. Care to contribute? You in particular, kid.”

Alexei glanced at Hunter one last time, and then he turned to Strelok. “I find your suggestion more likable… if we go to the Cordon we’ll have the military to deal with… I guess. I don’t know how far the mist has gone.” For a brief, sick instant, Screws thought, What if the mist has affected the whole world over? “Going there would be a way to know about that, though… no, wait. Forget what I said. Helicopters will be landing near the destroyed outpost soon.”

“I don’t hear anything--” Boris’s words were cut short as he realized how everyone else was reacting to the youth’s warning.

“Then we’d better get moving, now. Off to the Bar we are, but first we need ammo.” That said, Strelok set off towards the junkyards, and the rest of the squad followed him.

They had barely come within view of the bulk of Seriy's hangar when Strelok stopped. “Ghost, please come with me,” he said, and walked up a hill to their left.

“A stash?” Boris asked.

“One of them,” was Guide's laconic reply.

Minutes passed by and they were not returning. “Just how much stuff do you have over there?” Chasme asked.

“Not that much,” the veteran stalker said, now worried. Something was not right.

Then, at last, they saw Ghost show up atop the hill. “Anyone over there is a real pro disarming traps?”

Maxim was going to volunteer, but Hunter beat him to it. “I may know a bit,” he offered.

“Good. Then get over here. Someone booby-trapped our stash. And probably looted it, too.” It was plain obvious that Ghost was very angry, and only slightly less worried.

The quiet stalker climbed up the hill and disappeared in turn. Behind him, Guide and Blackjack organized the rest of them into setting up a defensive position, in case something unexpected cropped up. Time dragged on slowly, and the waiting was tense.

Over twenty minutes later they returned. Dismay was etched on their faces.

“What?” Blackjack asked.

“Not only our stash is empty,” Strelok said, “but they left this as a present.”

“A MON-100 mine,” Maxim said, recognizing the round, bowl-shaped device almost instantly. “This is very, very deadly stuff…” He eyed Ghost, Hunter and Strelok worriedly. “How was it placed?”

“Expertly,” Hunter replied. “It was primed to explode upon opening the hatch.”

“The stash was on a control room for a pipeline buried under the hill that runs right over the railroad tunnel,” Strelok explained. “You can enter it through an airtight hatch.”

“That someone went through the hassle of setting up such a complex trap on a place as obscure as that only means one thing,” Guide said, voicing the thoughts on Ghost’s and Strelok’s minds. “Someone knew not only about the stash, but also about who was using it. And he wants us dead.”
  17:46:10  5 December 2011
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
Messages: 306

---QUOTATION---
Apologies for the hiatus. I've hit a creative brick wall of sorts and I don't like the ideas I'm coming up with... no, scratch that, I don't know how to put them together. That I've been up to my neck in exams and assignments hasn't helped.

I hope to produce something postable within a tenday or less.
---END QUOTATION---



no worries buddy, i know what it's like. been there done that. good luck with the exams and what not. if you need i've a plenty. shame i've got none for my own story... irritating how brains work eh?
  06:48:18  5 December 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
Apologies for the hiatus. I've hit a creative brick wall of sorts and I don't like the ideas I'm coming up with... no, scratch that, I don't know how to put them together. That I've been up to my neck in exams and assignments hasn't helped.

I hope to produce something postable within a tenday or less.
  01:44:05  1 December 2011
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
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ahem...
*looks at watch...
  18:56:51  8 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
11/08/2011 23:46:48
Messages: 197
Episode X

Sorry to disappoint you, Blade. I don't do lemons.

I hope you like this instead. Here you'll see, for the first time, the thing that gave this fic its name.

--------

For hours little was said. Sataida was huddled against a corner, wrapped in the blanket Screws had given her, neither saying nor listening to any words, and refusing to eat or drink anything. She had coldly sent Strelok away when he had wanted to check her out for wounds, but otherwise had remained literally frozen still. Even Nikolay had stayed away from her.

Guide found himself hardly touched for Foxhound's demise, and that led to some harrowing soul-searching. If that was a sign that he was detaching himself further still from others around him, that was troubling. But he was so very weary... the Briton had been just another entry on a long list of comrades and friends claimed by the Zone.

But even if death was an everyday occurrence there, he still did not like himself taking it so lightly.

That had not been the case with Chasme. The former soldier, however experienced he had grown during the course of their adventures, was not as inured to a loss as he was, and the death of his comrade had been devastating. But instead of sitting despondently against a wall, as Sataida had done, he had done his best to keep himself occupied. He had taken it upon himself to see what had been salvaged from the hideout and to check if they had enough stocks of ammunition and consumables. The results were not good: Ghost, Strelok and Sataida had lost their rifles. Most of them had no ammo besides the magazines loaded on their weapons, other than Blackjack, Hunter, and Screws; Nikolay had six clips for his SCAR, and half of them he passed on to Boris. They were down to very basic medical supplies. They did, however, have food and water to spare, and most of their survival gear was undamaged. He relayed his findings to Guide, who breathed deeply and sighed.

“Bad news. The weapons we can replace... we have stashed away several spares and equipment near the railway tunnel at the Garbage. But we are critically short of first aid elements.” He looked at him covertly, gauging his mental strength, and noticed his restlessness. But he did not see it fit to intrude into his pain. It was a shock, but one that he had to work through on his own unless he reached out for help.

Given their shortages, it was a fortune that most of them had only suffered just a few scratches and concussions. Other than Farsight, that was. His right shoulder was bruised and swollen, and he could barely move it without wincing. He had also dislocated one of his ankles, and Hunter had said that two of his ribs were cracked. Thus, Chasme had passed on his artifact belt to him:

“Strelok... if you want... you can take it back. The belt, I mean. It's yours. And the exo.”

“Mine...? Oh, surely I collected them before I...” Strelok's voice trailed off as he considered it. “How good a sneak are you?”

“Average. I'm no ninja, I just was a regular Ukrainian army corporal.” Boris had raised his head upon hearing that, but he did not feel he had a bond strong enough with the stalkers to interfere, so he had said nothing and remained on the floor, lying there over his sleeping sack as long as he was, thinking about whether he would have lived or died had he chosen not to desert. Ultimately he had to admit that he would never know and that it was pointless to dwell on that.

“Then keep them for the moment. Ghost and myself are better off with light armor.” He had clapped him on the shoulder and left it at that.

“Ghost should take my rifle...” The voice, hoarse and raw, had been Farsight's. He seemed to be in very great pain, even with Chasme's/Strelok's artifact belt clasped around his waist, and they had little in the way of painkillers.

The wiry stalker had wasted little time. He expressed his admiration at the weapon; it was a powerful Arctic Warfare Magnum, and had been carefully kept sparkling clean by its user, protected from the elements by means of wrapping a camo cloak over it. “You know, I've seen this one around...” He turned to Guide. “Don't we have one of these stashed?” The veteran stalker nodded slowly in silence, too weary to explain him how the weapon had got into Alexei's hands.

Ghost shrugged and thanked him. “Never mind. If you can't use it, then I'll take it until I get a new gun. And there's something I can do for you before we set on...” That said, he took off his armor, and was stripped down to a shirt and a loincloth. “This thing helped me a lot when a bloodsucker almost got me. Here, let me help you put it on...” The youth clenched his teeth when Ghost eased him off his battered stalker suit, but did not complain. When he finally was fully suited up, he noticed the indefinable warmth flowing from the belt and into him was amplified somehow by the vest. He felt the pain fading away, replaced by a deep sensation of relief. Soon his features relaxed and he drifted thankfully into a tired sleep.

Hunter, whose equipment had somehow escaped the catastrophe, had gone up the ladder and left to scout their surroundings, taking a rugged, old portable radio handset at Guide's behest, but he had made no reports. Then, some ninety-odd minutes after departing, a sharp metallic object tapped the hatch four times, in code. Shortly afterwards he was descending the ladder.

“And?” Chasme asked, eager for news.

“The place is a wasteland. Apparently most of the underground facilities have caved in: the landscape has sunken at several places, and the buildings at the institute and the military outpost have all collapsed. I haven't seen a single person alive other than us.” He unslung his backpack and opened it. He had taken all the ammo, food and medical supplies he had found, no doubt from the corpses of their late owners, and over two dozen memory cards and flash drives. He had also brought some weapons for those who had lost them, namely AS Val and Abakan rifles. The supplies and guns were immediately distributed, somewhat mitigating their most immediate problem. “I haven't found a single mutant or living animal around either.”

Guide blinked a few times upon hearing that. “Several hours have passed since the blowout already.”

Hunter shrugged as usual, then continued. “There was something else, a thick mist, blue-grayish in color, almost creamy on its consistence. I saw it rolling down the hills near the ruins of the military base before heading back here.”

Chasme immediately jumped forward. “Say that again.”

The tall stalker eyed him with a blank expression etched on his face. “Just as I said. A blue-grayish mist, almost solid-thick.”

“It's the mist again!” Chasme exclaimed. “We could go back in time again!”

“What?!” Sataida was on her feet so fast that she took everyone by surprise.

“There is no way we can know that,” Guide retorted. “Last time around the gestalt intervened to send us back.”

Boris and Screws were beyond confused. Sataida was possessed of a desperate, sudden hope, caring not about why that was possible at all. Blackjack, Ghost and Strelok, knowing a little better, looked on expectantly.

Farsight opened a tired eye, awoken by the sudden exaltation, then another. Then closed them again, getting in touch with his gift, apparently unaffected by his injuries. “It is not the same...” he managed to whisper at last. “It won't do... There is something else at work here...”

“Do we want to know?” Guide asked, looking into Alexei's blind eyes, that even then stared at him as if they could see. The youth could not answer. “Then we will stay here until it passes over us. We are unable to leave for the moment anyway.”

The girl's arms fell slowly to her sides. A single tear ran down her cheek, but otherwise her face did not change. Despondently she turned around and went back to her spot against the wall, where she sat and again wrapped herself in Screws' cloak.

Nikolay could barely withstand seeing her pain, but he could not get any closer than she allowed her to. He was little more than a stranger, just a sparring companion, and very much afraid of her refusing him. But even then he wanted to ease her somehow.

In the end that intent won. He closed in and, without word, took her backpack and unfurled her sleeping sack. She raised an annoyed hand but he silenced her with a stare.

“This will keep you warmer than just that blanket.” That said, he laid it over the dusty floor, using her backpack as a pillow of sorts.

“Th... thanks.” She slowly stood up and again hugged him, not as intensely as before, but much more tenderly. “Thank you for looking after me,” she whispered before letting go.

He stared into her eyes, and found himself shackled fast by those twin pools of unfathomable green mystery. Again he felt that whatever he was thinking or feeling, she could read with absolute ease. But, if that was the case, she did not shun him.

Unexpectedly tears spilled again. “Please... don't leave me too,” she begged, her voice a breaking whisper.

“I won't,” he promised.

Sataida did not tuck herself into the sleeping sack Screws had laid out for her. Instead she huddled herself against him and fell asleep instantly. Nikolay covered them both with his blanket and her sack and passed an arm behind her shoulders, cradling her, entranced by her fragility.

But that trance was cut short by a jolt that shook him. Sataida, startled, awoke with alarm written in her eyes, then she felt it too. It was a cold, tingling, deeply uncomfortable feeling, as if numberless tiny frost needles pierced the skin of their legs. Then he noticed some volutes of mist seeping through the wreckage that blocked the corridor.

“It's the mist...” was all that he managed to whisper. Breathing suddenly had become a feat of willpower. He could barely move his fingers.

Sataida clutched at him weakly, desperation written in her eyes, trying her best to pant, the imminent suffocation an excruciating agony. Her eyes went wildly towards the others: their movements had become slowed and difficult as well. Hunter was unable to remain on his kneeling position anymore and ended up sprawled in the floor. Strelok and Ghost were staring in disbelief and horror at the corridor, trying to crawl away. Guide was frozen still, his remaining energies sapped away by the mist that now seeped from the walls as if they were not there. Chasme was hunkered down against an instrument panel, the weight of his exoskeleton suddenly a brutally heavy burden, Blackjack next to him and equally powerless.

But Farsight was not affected. He felt the heat radiating from the artifact belt intensifying. A mild glow started to seep out through the fabric, and even if he could not see it he quickly understood what it meant. “Quick! Get close to me!” he commanded with a surprisingly strong voice. The others did their best to do it, but they could barely lift their fingers.

It dawned on Alexei that it was up to him. Gritting his teeth, he straightened up, ignoring the sharp pain he felt on his chest, and stood up ungainly over his weak legs, his movements purely powered by Strelok's artifacts. He reached for Guide first, who was the closest to him, and the old stalker noted that the weakness ebbed away the closer he got to the belt. He managed to get on his feet and had Alexei go with him for Chasme first, since he would be able to gather them all around them much faster once he shook off the enervating effects of the mist. Soon they were all huddled up around Farsight, shivering with an unexplainable cold that neither blanket nor cloth could block, but very much alive, even if breathing was still hard and their arms and legs felt very heavy. The mist was roiling all over and around them now.

“Just... what... what is this...?” Boris managed to utter through his rattling teeth.

“I do... not know... I never... never felt this before...” was all that Guide could reply.

Alexei grit his teeth as the needles now tingled over his loins and belly, the feeling horribly awful and violating. He closed his eyes, drawing himself inward, to his gift, and to his amazement found himself able to think vastly more clearly than usual, far beyond from what was usual for him even. Whatever that mist was, and however horrible it felt, it somehow boosted his extraordinary senses. And what these senses found out was blood-curling, but he only could whisper weakly:

“It'll pass... It will take a while...”

“It'd... better... be over already!” Blackjack stuttered with urgency. Never in his entire life had he felt so weak and defenseless. They all remained tightly huddled, the rattling of their teeth the only sound they heard amidst the absolute silence and the ghastly dancing of the mist over them, wildly hoping for Farsight to be right, their headlamps occasionally –and sickeningly– blinking on and off...

...And, slowly, almost reluctantly, the mists seeped around them and into the walls, passing over them, washing over them. And it was over.

“Just what the FUCK was that?!” Ghost exploded.

“I don't know, but it's related to the blowout... just like the earthquake was,” Farsight murmured. “I could think so clearly while in its grip. I could see... sense so much further around me than usual.”

Boris took several deep breaths, immensely glad of being able to breathe again. He stood up and shook his limbs vigorously to get his blood flowing. His face broke into a relieved grin. “I never thought I'd be so happy of... well, you get me.”

“I concur,” Hunter agreed. Even he was smiling, similarly relieved. Farsight eyed him oddly.

“How likely is it that other blowouts will be as powerful as this one?” Guide questioned Alexei. The blind youth shook his head.

“Can't tell.”

Blackjack noted that there was something about Farsight that had not yet been explained to him, but chose not to say anything about it. He felt that would be clarified pretty soon:

“What did you see?” Chasme asked as he aped Boris. He smirked to himself when he realized it. But then he thought: I'll have to take off my helmet sometime... how will he take it?

Farsight swallowed and closed his eyes. “Everyone not protected against psionic emanations is now dead. The mist literally froze their brains over.”

They all stared at him in shock.

“Everyone?” Strelok repeated. “Everyone where?”

“As far as I can sense... at least, all over Agroprom. I don't know how badly the mist has affected the rest of the Zone, but I know that it spread out like a shockwave, all the way from the epicenter at the NPP.”

They were left speechless by the enormity of the repercussions implied by his terrible words. At last, Guide spoke. “If it killed everyone other than us here at Agroprom, being as we are so far away from the epicenter, it would be safe to assume that most people, other than the elite Duty, Freedom, mercenary and lone stalkers, are all dead. Other than the Monolith...”

“Strelok's log says that Monolith are mind-controlled by C-Consciousness, could that have protected them?” Ghost wondered. Farsight did not reply.

“No way to know that, I guess. Until we find one of them.”

Screws chuckled mirthlessly at Blackjack's words. “Not looking forward to that, myself.”

“Would C-Consciousness itself be behind this?” Chasme pondered.

“We do not even know if it actually has anything to do with the blowouts themselves,” Guide answered. He then noted the dumbfounded looks of Boris, Sataida and Screws. “A very, very long story. We will tell you the details later.”

Strelok straightened up with a determined look on his face. “Well then,” he said genially, “we're going to find out. After all, C-Consciousness wanted me out of the picture, right?”

--------

The blue mist was originally conceived by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in one of their tales, "The Forgotten Experiment". While my version is not an exact copy, it was inspired by theirs.
  10:51:16  8 November 2011
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
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another great, would i be right to assume the next chapter might have to be on an erotic literature site?
  05:01:32  7 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
11/07/2011 23:42:05
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Episode IX

Guide looked at Alexei. The youth was still staring at the apoplectic Mystery.

Who was not Mystery anymore, but again Strelok. The veils that had shrouded his memory had been swept aside upon recognizing his friends.

Alexei was doing nothing, other than boring into Strelok's eyes with his own. Guide had vaguely expected him to attack the amnesiac stalker, or at least talk to him, but Farsight was frozen still. He sensed Foxhound's and Ghost's restlessness.

Then it dawned on him that probably Farsight, despite how utterly alien and inhuman he had become, was also locked in conflict about what to do.

Strelok was hardly able to speak. But he looked not at Farsight. His dumbfounded, entirely disbelieving self was totally focused upon Chasme.

“...It cannot be. Unless you're... his twin, or something...”

The former soldier shook his head. “No, I am not.” He sighed and stepped forward. “Listen, it's going to take a long talk for you to understand...”

Strelok let himself fall over a crate. He shook his head. “At least I got my memory back... Why are you wearing Fang's exo?”

Chasme swallowed. He was about to reply but Guide overrode him. “He took it after you died.”

His friend diverted his disbelieving eyes towards the old stalker. Then his expression changed and he burst into laughter. Cold, unhappy, almost hysterical laughter. A shiver ran down Guide's spine, afraid of Strelok losing his grip on his sanity. “You know, this is a deeply illuminating experience for me... I don't recall dying, and most definitely I don't recall resurrecting either. But if I did don't come around asking questions about the afterlife 'cause I don't remember shit. So,” he boomed, straightening up, “care to tell me just what the hell is going on?”

“He lies not.” Guide again had to suppress a shiver, but this time Alexei was the cause. “Mercenaries killed you at Seriy's hangar.”

“Oh, really? And how many bullets did they need to bring me down? I always thought I was a tough nut to crack.” Strelok was grinning almost maniacally. Then abruptly, his mood changed. “I don't know who the fuck do you think you are, kid, but if you would care to cut the crap already--”

He did not expect Ghost to move so fast, let alone to punch him so squarely in the head. He ended up sprawled in the floor. “Get a grip, you idiot! Will you just for once clean up your ears and listen up?”

It took a few seconds for Strelok to stagger back to his feet. “Whoa... I don't think you ever hit me like that...” He shook his head, only to instantly regret it. He winced with pain. “You'd better have some tylenol or ibuprofen around.” He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the temple where he had been hit by Ghost's bunched fist, trying to will the pain away, and failing. He muttered a curse under his breath, then turned again to face them. “Okay. Let's assume that somehow I believe you. I died, then I was somehow brought back... I mean, it's the damn Zone, what else could possibly happen that someone may call an impossibility? Time travel?”

The foreigner he had never seen before could not help but laugh. “Bingo. That's exactly what happened,” he offered. “I met Guide, Farsight and Chasme –the kid on the exo– at the Dark Valley, a few days after you were killed.”

“You were right, Strelok... everything you had said about the Monolith is true,” Guide cut in. Then he went on to explain everything that he had read off his friend's own memory card. It took him some ten minutes. Strelok tried hard not to disbelieve what he was being told. “This is your own log, here. Read it out.”

“No, no, it isn't necessary... No, fuck me, give me that. I'll read it all eventually, I think.” He took the proffered memory card and swapped it with the one installed in his own phone—noticing, with diminishing perplexity, that they were perfectly equal. He was extra careful not to allow them to come into contact with each other. “So, it's all a hoax? The Monolith is just a load of crap? And some evil mastermind of sorts concocted it all?”

“And spawned the Zone as we know it,” Chasme added, nodding.

Strelok looked at Ghost. His friend's brow was still knotted, but he nodded too. “Guide told me all you've just heard, and more. I didn't believe it all at first myself. I needed some... help.” He glanced coldly at Farsight for a second.

The amnesiac stalker nodded. “...Fine. You were always the realist, so I'll have to take your word. Still,” he said, raising his eyes again to meet Guide's, “that doesn't explain how come I died and resurrected or time-traveled or whatever.”

“That is the result of the intervention of the mutant gestalt spawned from the demise of C-Consciousness. One of their agents had us transported two weeks into the past to stop you.”

Strelok was startled for a brief instant, but relaxed when he saw that nobody was pointing a gun at him. “To stop me? From doing what?”

“Destroying C-Consciousness.” Alexei stared at him intensely. Strelok quailed under the strength of his gaze. “You will do that if you are allowed to continue on your current track, and not even all the combined military strength of the Monolith will be able to stop you. And it will make everything worse. You see... what created the Zone was a gigantic mistake, one that even C-Consciousness itself cannot understand, even if its insights and perception are unimaginably superior to those of any man. But only C-Consciousness may have an actual chance at fixing the problem it created.”

“You said 'may have.'” Guide's comment was a surprise, and Strelok listened attentively. Apparently they had argued about it before.

“Right. I don't know, but it's our best shot. I... well... the gestalt I was in contact with cannot properly exist as an independent entity, until those controlling it are disposed of.” Alexei hesitated, causing everyone else's attention to focus on him even further. “I can tap into that gestalt, in a way, but it's not self-aware. And even if it was, it's not... skillful or knowledgeable enough.”

“And neither are its members aware about them being part of it?” The foreigner asked.

“Wait a second, wait a second. Did I get it right?” Strelok was stretching his already dumbfounded understanding to its limits. “Are you, er, in touch or talking or whatever with some great disembodied mutant intellect or something? Did I get that one right?”

“Give or take. With one slight difference: it still doesn't know it exists.”

“C-Consciousness would have to disappear for it to happen,” Chasme nodded.

Strelok gaped at Alexei. “...Whoa. And... how does a body get to... tap... into it as you do?”

Farsight glared at him sadly with his dead eyes. “Being nearly mind-blasted to death by a controller while exposed to a blowout.”

Ghost chuckled in spite of himself. “Not worth it.”

“Believe me, I agree with you.”

“I wonder why does it have to happen during a blowout...” The foreigner pondered.

“I just know that is when everything happened. The reasons are unknown to me.”

A brief silence gathered. They all looked at each other for a moment, digesting what had just been said.



“...So what do we do about this...?”

Blackjack straightened up. Everyone else was watching him intently.

“What's going on with Mystery, then?” Screws whispered.

The scarred russian was still tottering under the impact of what he had overheard. IF he had overheard correctly, that was. The twists of the duct distorted the voices.

But if he had heard right...

“I'm... not sure, really,” he whispered back. “Most of it is incredible. I just know for sure--”

He was interrupted by the metallic sound of feet descending down the ladder in the duct. Strelok's head appeared. “...You may come up if you want... they're friends, it's alright.” He glared at Boris for a second, then blinked and shook his head slowly. His eyes were distant, as if his mind was somewhere else.

Makes sense, Blackjack thought. Who wouldn't be like that? He looked at Hunter, who glared back at him and nodded. “Screws, you go on in first,” he said. “Sataida, you follow him. We'll cover the exit.”

Nikolay did not allow his discomfort to be seen; he crawled into the duct and disappeared inside. Sataida followed him, then Ogre.

“Why did he just look at me like that?” Boris pondered, haunted by Mystery's glum face.

Blackjack struggled with the answer, but lost. “You'll have to ask him,” he lied instead. “Now go.”

He was the last to climb up the ladder. And he was halfway up when he heard a deep, rumbling thunder, and the floor quivered beneath his feet. A blowout was coming. Even if he was some ten-odd meters underground, and theoretically safe, he shivered.

He got out of the duct and into the small room, now crammed with a dozen people, to see an unknown man in an exoskeleton securing a heavy hatch-like door on the adjacent wall. “Best to keep this one closed in a blowout,” a weathered man with leathery skin was saying.

When the door was properly shut, the two groups of stalkers were staring at each other. Hunter, Ogre, Screws, Sataida and Boris were leaning against the wall opposite to the door, while the old man and his companions –a thin, gaunt, wiry stalker with iron-gray eyes hard as steel; a youth with a dreamy expression written on his face who never seemed to blink; the exoskeleton-clad stalker, who regarded them behind his helmet; and a burly, squat man with non-Slavic features– flanked the secured door.

Only Mystery stood in the middle, bridging and separating both groups.

“Well...” he begun, speaking to the old man. “These here are... Boris, Blackjack, Hunter, Ogre, Sataida, and Screws...” Then he turned to his newly made comrades. “And these are Chasme, Farsight, Foxhound, Ghost, and Guide.” Each nodded in turn when he or she was named.

“Blackjack, there is something you all should know, before we move on to anything else... Remember when you found me? I was clutching my phone, and it was flashing with a message about someone called Strelok, right?” Maxim nodded. “You see, I... well, I'll never be able to kill this Strelok, because I'd have to kill myself.”

Screws gasped. Sataida and Ogre stared at their –erstwhile?– comrade in utter surprise. Boris looked as if he had no idea what was going on, which was more or less to be expected in his case. And Hunter was, as usual, looking completely bored or, failing that, not interested at all in the situation.

Strelok was about to continue, but he was cut short by the thunder of the starting blowout.

Then the floor beneath them started shaking. Dust spattered down through cracks on the ceiling. Soon they had to hold on to something not to fall.

“There's something... this is wrong!” Ghost had to shout to make himself heard over the rumbling, catastrophic roar. “This is no blowout, it's--!” A wild shock almost threw him to the ground.

“The ceiling!” Ogre yelled. Cracks were widening sickeningly fast. “We have to get out of here!”

“Quick, to the corridor!” Chasme smashed the latches and yanked the door open. Everyone hastily reached for their gear and whatever they could salvage from the ammo and supplies stockpiled there and raced for the passage--

With a crashing noise, more felt than heard over the thunder of the earthquake, the ceiling collapsed. Tons of concrete, rock and dirt avalanched in. The stalkers stumbled as they could, deafened, half-stunned, half-choked and half-blinded by the dust, and reached for the exit, Chasme's headlamp a beacon they all tried not to lose. The way out of the passageway and into the small utility room leading to the surface was sickeningly long. Another wild shock threw them to the ground, and another did the same as they were trying to get back up. Screws was too panicked to scream that it was pointless, that getting to the surface during a blowout was suicide, but they could not stay down there either--

Another shock. The corridor behind them disappeared as the ceiling gave in. Another cascade of dust and debris flooded the small chamber.

Then the quake ceased.

For a long while, nobody could speak. They just lay there, trying to catch their breath, coughing in the dust. Chasme pointed to his own helmet, then to its built-in air filters; everyone understood and donned their masks, which helped to ease their lungs.

“Is... everyone okay?” Guide asked when he managed to take two deep breaths without coughing. No response yet. He counted... Chasme, Strelok, Ghost, the soldier called Boris, Blackjack, Farsight, the girl, Screws, Hunter...

“Foxhound... and...”

“NO!” Sataida screamed, and raced for the corridor, now obstructed by debris, and frantically started digging with her bare hands.

“GIVE US A HAND OVER HERE!” Screws shouted, joining her. Blackjack and Strelok rushed in to help, but it was quickly obvious that it was pointless. Digging through that impassable amount of dirt just with their hands simply was not possible. Still, Sataida kept digging, sobbing, throwing pieces of debris aside, ignoring her screaming muscles. Screws assisted her despite knowing that her desperate quest was without hope.

Then, when her arms finally failed her, she let herself fall forward over her knees. And wailed aloud. “NO, NO, NO! NOT YOU! NOT YOU!” She punched on the floor in rage and grief, again and again. And again.

“Sataida...” Blackjack laid a hand over her shoulder, but she furiously shook off the proffered arm.

The soldier nodded. He had lost friends and soldiers before. Silently he turned around and walked back into the utility room. Strelok followed.

Only Screws remained next to her, achingly wishing he could comfort her somehow. But he was not closer to her than Maxim. He did what he thought best at that time: opening his backpack, he retrieved his sleeping blanket, and gently laid it over her shoulders. Then he stepped back, keeping his distance, but still nearby.

That she suddenly flung herself into his arms was completely unexpected. Sobs racked her as she held him tightly as tears streamed down her cheeks beneath her mask.

For a while he was paralyzed. Then, very softly, he pressed a hand to her head, and held her as she cried, for what it seemed to be hours.
 
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