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  19:43:14  9 January 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
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.
  03:08:50  14 January 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
Nice story you've got going here. Keep it coming!
  18:06:44  14 January 2012
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Senior Resident

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.
  00:16:35  16 January 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
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?
  18:45:17  29 January 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
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!


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.”
  05:23:30  25 June 2012
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Episode XIV

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


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.”
  05:13:00  12 September 2012
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On forum: 01/11/2011
Messages: 27
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.
  20:48:52  8 October 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
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
  21:04:38  30 October 2012
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On forum: 12/07/2008

Message edited by:
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Messages: 197
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.


“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.
  16:44:20  15 November 2012
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On forum: 10/21/2010
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bow chica bow wow!

going good my friend, i'm liking what you doing, keep it up
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