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  00:53:40  9 October 2011
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Colonel Skull
(Senior)
 
On forum: 11/07/2010
Messages: 95
I am more confused than ever, but that was amazing! Moar!
  07:09:56  8 October 2011
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
10/08/2011 18:50:56
Messages: 197
Episode VI

This episode deals exclusively with the mysterious four dogging the squad: the veteran, the foreigner, the youth, and the exo-clad stalker.

----

The veteran stood atop a hilly outcropping, the foreigner and the exoskeleton-clad stalkers flanking him, surveying the desolation that was Agroprom with his binoculars. Then he produced the smartphone from his hip satchel and consulted it.

The youth needed not consult with anything to say it first. “We are much too early.”

The foreigner was not surprised. The elderly stalker had taken them effortlessly through a labyrinth of anomalies and along an old, overgrown vehicle trail that probably had not seen a hundred people since 1986. It was a very short path, though a deadly one. And the veteran's skill was all the more evident because he had made it look easy. “So what are we going to do?” he asked.

The veteran was reading. “There is a large stalker group camped inside the abandoned institute facilities, but I would prefer to avoid being spotted. So we will head to a hideout our group had underneath the institute, and rest. And wait.”

The armored stalker shuffled within his hulking suit. “I fail to see why would you want not to be seen. Besides the obvious.”

“And that obvious thing you mention is...?”

“Why, eluding questions or leaving impressions others may recall if questioned in turn about us, of course.”

The veteran pocketed the smartphone. “I know little about paradoxes, but I am certainly not keen on creating one. Least of all here in the Zone.”

“But isn't it too late for that now? You said that merely being here has changed everything.”

“He's right,” the Briton said uncomfortably. “I heard nothing about an attack on the rookie village, and of course even less about one that brutal. Everyone would be talking about it for weeks, all over the Zone.”

“All of you are right.” The youth spoke with his calm and vastly unnerving voice, sending shivers down everyone else's spines. “This already is an alternate reality. The world you knew is not the world you walk over now. But Guide's caution is not excessive. The Zone is already too frayed up to further add to its chaos.” The youth felt the veteran's stare and his utter puzzlement. He turned towards him. “You still wonder what happened to me?”

The elder stalker's eyes did not waver from him. “Nothing escapes you.”

“I understand your anxiety. And your mistrust. But know this: you will not come to harm if you stick with me. And there is no one who can confirm or deny what I tell you. You can still walk away anytime, but that is your choice.”

A stifling silence followed. They all stared at the youth, afraid of his utterly alien demeanor, composure and certainty.

In the end, the veteran shouldered his backpack and readied his rifle. “Far from being this the strangest thing I have seen or done here.” He started walking away. The others followed.

The elderly stalker guided them towards the abandoned institute, taking pains to avoid the road and concealing their presence behind trees and thickets as much as possible. Now and then the distant echoes of voices reached them, but no one spotted them.

Their goal was a manhole concealed between bushes, some three hundred-odd meters north of the institute. The hatch looked rusted shut, but the veteran opened it without a noise and without effort. The Briton noted that the hinges were well oiled; he supposed that would be a secret entrance to the hideout that had been mentioned before.

“You go first,” the veteran said. “I will go down the last to secure the hatch.”

In turn, each of them secured his rifle and climbed down the ladder. The veteran closed the hatch above them, and for a few instants everything was pitch black, until headlamps were turned on. The ladder went down perhaps five or six meters, and led to a small, dank room that housed abandoned industrial equipment and a single panel with instruments and readers. The armored stalker felt tempted to ask what all that was for, but for some reason he did not like the idea of shattering the tomb-like silence.

A slightly ajar heavy steel door led out of the room. They opened it cautiously, trying not to make the hinges screech, went through that door into a corridor, the veteran leading, until they came upon another metal, hatch-like door. This one was closed.

The elderly put his ear to the door, listened intently, grabbed an wrench lying on the floor –and apparently left there on purpose–, and tapped the door four times in code, one first, three later. Amidst the deep silence it sounded like a huge bell had just rung.

Nobody answered his call.

Then, after a long minute, a mechanism clicked from the other side. The door opened. A tall, taut, wiry man dressed in a stalker suit patterned with camouflage was on the other side. The veteran turned to his companions. “Meet Ghost.”

The armored stalker glared at the man. “I've heard about you.”

A smug smirk that quickly faded away. Ghost stared back intensely, as if disbelieving what he saw. “How... where...” Suddenly he was pointing his sidearm at the armored stalker's left eye. “If I didn't want that suit back intact I'd kill you here and now.”

“Holster your weapon!” The veteran commanded. “You do not know everything that has transpired.”

Ghost obeyed not. He kept his right hand steady, the barrel of his pistol looking blindly into his target's eye, who made no overt motion to defend himself.

“Put it down! NOW!”

The veteran's voice stung everyone's eardrums, and startled the gaunt, tall man. Only then did the command seem to reach him. He withdrew his weapon, all the time keeping his eyes on the armored stalker.

“You have some explaining to do, old man. I buried Fang myself two days ago. And he was wearing that same exo.”

The veteran's companions remained silent. The armored stalker knew that the suit he was wearing had belonged to a comrade of Ghost's, but he did not hope anyone would believe how he had come upon it. The foreigner did not know about what was going on, but he trusted he would learn soon enough. The youth merely sat on the bed, seemingly caring not about anything.

The elderly stalker sat over a crate. “How strange do you think the Zone is?”

Ghost laughed humorlessly. “Is that a trick question?”

A sigh. The veteran squared his jaw and a torrent of words, acid and grief poured out of him: “Over the last month I have heard about Strelok shutting down the Brain Scorcher, have welcomed him back from the NPP as Pripyat melted down into a five-way battleground between Duty, Freedom, the Monolith, the Army and loners, learned from him that the Wish Granter is nothing but a conspiracy designed to keep the center of the Zone closed to everyone, escorted him to meet Seriy, squared off against mercenaries intent on killing him, buried Strelok – and it was he who took Fang's exo –, found a secret amidst his belongings I could not decipher, journeyed to the Dark Valley in search of someone who could help cracking an encrypted SD card, battled a horde of mutants, survived a close encounter with a controller, seen Bullet the Dutyer and a few other men turned into zombies, rescued a group of stalkers from a chimaera and two pseudogiants, dug in within a bandit base whose residents were thoroughly gutted in creative and horrendous ways, ventured into a creamy mist of sorts where we met another controller that not only did not attack us but shared with us some of the most unbelievable things you are likely to hear in your life, even here in the Zone, and made it all the way here following Strelok's trail after having been sent two weeks back in time... so tell me, do you still think I was asking you a trick question?”

The gaunt stalker stared at him for a long second. Then let himself fall upon another crate.

“I guess you have been busy. And if you were anyone else I'd say you've OD'd yourself on cocaine, but I'll have to believe you, even if it sounds batshit crazy stuff.” Another mirthless laugh. “It was no trick question, I'll give you that.”

“You would better believe that. The SD card contained Strelok's log. And he says he found you dead in the bowels of a lab in Lake Yantar, killed by a controller.”

He snorted. “I'd better not go there, then.” He turned towards the three men his comrade had brought with him. “Aren't you going to introduce me to your new friends?”

The exoskeleton-clad stalker waited not for the veteran to speak. “I am Chasme.” He took a step forward, and hesitatingly offered his right hand. Slowly, Ghost shook it. “If you want, you can have the exo back... I didn't want it, but Guide insisted...”

The gaunt stalker shrugged. Then shook the hand Chasme offered him. “He can be stubborn like a mule. And no, keep it. I have no use for it.” He turned towards the foreigner: “And you are...?”

“Foxhound.” Ghost shook hands with the stout Briton, then looked at Farsight, who still sat motionless on the bed, apparently oblivious to the sudden turn of events.

The veteran stalker said, “He is Farsight. Or he used to be. I think he is blind now.”

“Are you?” The gaunt man asked bluntly. The youth still did not move.

“In a way. My eyes no longer see, but I don't need them anymore.”

Ghost laughed an insolent laugh. “And just how do you manage? And how do you fire that sniper rifle you're lugging around? Or is it just for show?”

Guide found himself afraid for his old comrade. The youth was an unknown quantity since their episode at the Dark Valley, and what he could do or could not do was an entire enigma.

An enigma that was about to be deciphered, at least in part:

“We will have to take the tunnels leading to the military compound later. When that moment comes, let me go ahead alone. You may come upon some opposition that we can turn to our side.”

Ghost snorted. “Forgive me if I don't think you'll convince the jarheads to help you.”

Farsight's head turned abruptly towards him, his unseeing eyes open wide, the pupils dilated to their absolute extreme. Everyone put their hands to their ears as an ultrasonic shrill pounded their heads and the gaunt stalker was hurled backwards as if he had been punched by an invisible fist. “What the--! Woo—oo—oo...” His voice became a barely intelligible slur. “Juss wha' di' y'do t'me...? Li'k s'm contr'll'r...” He reached for his sidearm but failed miserably and slumped to the floor, where he lay mouthing like a fish out of water, striving to form words and failing to produce anything other than drooling nonsense.

Foxhound was quaking with fear. So was Chasme. Neither dared to raise a hand. “Just what
are you?!” uttered the armored stalker. “And what did you do to Alexei?!”

“I
am Alexei. I happen to know some things you do not.”

Guide was staring at the youth. “That is no knowledge you have just displayed. No learned talent or skill would enable anyone what you just have done.”

Alexei/Farsight/whoever turned towards him. “Are you so certain, Guide? You, the first human being to ever set foot in the Zone after the second explosion, are so certain about it? You, that have seen so much, and even then not only cannot answer all the questions he has, but has more questions about the Zone than anyone else could have? How many things have you seen that you thought impossible to be?”

Guide grabbed Chasme's artifact belt by the inside, then he slowly reached for his sidearm, cocked it, and pointed it at the youth's head. “I may not survive your onslaught, but I will certainly kill you before you are done with me. It is time for some answers. What are you?”

“I just told you. I am Alexei.”

“No, you are not. Or at least, not just Alexei.”

A smile creeped on the youth's lips. “Not in vain you're the most
veteran stalker alive. Yes, you are right. I'm Alexei, and I'm in communion with the consciousness you learned about at the Valley.”

Guide's finger went to the trigger. “The mutant gestalt, or C-Consciousness?”

The smile grew wider. “The 'mutant gestalt', as you call it. C-Consciousness was destroyed by Strelok, thus creating the gestalt. You know this already.”

“Will Ghost recover?”

“Yes. The effect is temporary only.” The youth stood up slowly, and spoke: “I told you before, I am not your enemy. No harm will come to you if you stick with me.”

“You did not exactly bolster our trust by attacking Ghost.”

He sighed. “That is... true. I shouldn't have lost my restraint so easily. He just... pushed the wrong buttons. I'm... sorry.”

There was more of the self-doubting boy they had known as Alexei in that answer. Still, Guide did not take his finger off the trigger. “I do not believe you. It resembled the childish retaliation of an immature kid.”

The blind eyes stared into his. “I would ask you to put yourself into my place for an instant, except that there's just no way for you to do that.” He took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. “I needed to make another point. I need not seeing to shoot, nor to sense everything that scuttles or flies in miles around me. And I need not shooting to defend myself. But I did not ask for either talent. And no, you're right, probably no man could learn this on his own.”

“I still put that attitude a long way beneath those motives.” Then he tried another tack: “And if you are capable so, why would you want to stick with us? What do you need from us? Why would you want Strelok stopped?”

“For the exact same reasons you heard back in the Valley.” The face turned cold and hard. “Shooting me will not change my answers. They are true.”

Guide stared into the dead eyes, eyes that stared back at him as if they could see, for a long while that seemed to last forever. The boy made no overt movement, no attempt to deflect the barrel away, even when it was mere centimeters away from him. Then, exhaling heavily, the veteran put his pistol away and holstered it.

“Farsight... or whatever we should call you now... do not make me regret sparing you.”


----

Footnote: if you feel like you missed something, I suggest you search this forum for my previous fic, Echoes, which deals with everything that's hinted about here.
  19:36:02  27 September 2011
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
09/27/2011 19:38:06
Messages: 197

---QUOTATION---
Hmmm.. Quite the interesting stuff you got there.

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



I'm glad you like it It's going to be some time before the squads reach that territory, but I can think of something. Send me an email telling me what you got in mind!
  18:36:41  27 September 2011
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ColonelSkull
(Novice)
 
On forum: 09/27/2011
Messages: 2
Hmmm.. Quite the interesting stuff you got there.

Just wondering, could I, by any chance have a part in this story as Colonel Skull ( From Duty, you know. )
  00:46:46  26 September 2011
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
09/26/2011 0:50:51
Messages: 197
Episode V

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

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

“Not just yet,” he said.

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



A hand shook Nikolay gently. “Wake up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are the others?”

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

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

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

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

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

He shuffled uncomfortably. “Ummm...”

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

“What? Why?”

“You don't need a rifle to learn.”

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

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

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

He did as he was told.

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

“But I'm right-handed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better. Try again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Try again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we have, thank you.”

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

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

“But why let him go?” Screws asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It?” Ogre was confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GLONASS?” Mystery asked, puzzled.

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

“And you know that how?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

“To Agroprom,” he said. “That's where he'll be going next.”
  17:53:31  13 September 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
09/14/2011 17:45:23
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Episode IV

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

--------

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

The exoskeleton-clad stalker cursed. “Run!”

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

“Where we goin'?” Mystery asked.

“Somewhere dry where we can take turns sleeping.”

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

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

“What is it?” Maxim asked.

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

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

The Geiger counter ticked only once all along it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do we go in?” Screws asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Freedom buys artifacts?” The rookie asked.

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

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


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

“And?” The foreigner cautiously whispered.

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

“We need to get out of here.”

“No. We don't.” The youth with the dry eyes that never blinked spoke with unearthly confidence. Again he said: “We don't.”
  04:18:02  16 June 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Glad to see it's being enjoyed . I realized I forgot to put a link somewhere to Echoes for consistency purposes... oh well, too late now. Besides that link will be explored in the future.

I'm on forced hiatus due to test season at college... also because I lack a proper rig to play AMK right now so I'm a little short on inspiration ATM I really, really can't wait for SMRTER 0.45 to come out.
  13:59:31  9 June 2011
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
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Brilliant, please keep going
  02:24:59  8 June 2011
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Do0mzday-Jesus
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On forum: 09/01/2009
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I just noticed this.



Awesome thus far... keep it up!
  04:14:24  6 June 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
06/06/2011 4:17:00
Messages: 197
Episode III

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He's not here.”



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liver and lung wounds.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What... why'd you gag me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Screws stared with incredulity. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackjack leaned in. “Open your mouth.”

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

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

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

“Anything else that hurts?”

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

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

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

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

“Not a problem there.”

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

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

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

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

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

Screws sighed in the night. “What now?”

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

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

Hunter pointed at him. “You'll be Mystery to us until you recover your memory.” Even if the raw voice had not a shred of irony in it, Blackjack smirked.
 
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