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  22:52:57  14 December 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008

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Episode XVI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why the glum face?”

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

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

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

The younger Boris was puzzled. “Who?”

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

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

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

“Uh, okay...”

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

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

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

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

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

“...I wanted to know about Chasme.”

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

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

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

“True. You're right. Sorry.”

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right now?”

“Right now.”

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

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

“Yeah?” Came the tired reply.

“We wanted to talk with you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stalker shook his head. “ Not really. It's... I don't know what's happening to me. I'm not tired, and I don't... I don't feel like I need to sleep either... but at the same time my body's almost screaming for it. I feel as if I was freshly awake but my body did not know it... It's driving me nuts. And this tingling and itching... I feel it on my whole spine, and it's slowly spreading all over my body. And scratching at it doesn't make it go away!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He's been going out on his own.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Controller scalps...”

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

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

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

“Good day,” Bondarenko greeted him.

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

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

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

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

“Freedom,” Chasme stated.

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

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

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

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

“Is there anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No less incredible that you can still walk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“” He refused his younger self's hand politely. “We don't know what could happen if we... you know. And thank yourself. If you weren't like this I'd have killed you and taken your place.”

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

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

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

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

“What are we going to tell him?”

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

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

“...Um... almost six months, sir.”

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

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

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

Chasme nodded. “It is enough.”

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

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

The older Boris shrugged and walked away. “There's time,” he said gruffly.
  01:00:26  23 April 2013
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Senior Resident

On forum: 12/07/2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that--?” he heard Oracle gasp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The story repeats itself,” Chasme muttered darkly.

“Say that again?” The man asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Wish Granter’?”

“Zone hogwash.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir.” The soldiers went outside.

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

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

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

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

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


“None that we could see,” Arkhimov admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We move out?”

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

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

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

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

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

“HUNTER!” Screws screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The artifacts,” Screws said at once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were saying?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Towards the Brain Scorcher?”

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

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

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

“You’re still intrigued about it.”

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

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

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

“Probably they were trying to hide a door.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where was it?” Chasme asked.

“Stowed behind a cupboard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Some local phenomenon...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But for each one that returned...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chasme was dumbstruck. “What the...”

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

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

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

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

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

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


This hearkens back all the way to a specific part of Echoes, the prequel to this fic. Apologies for the hassle. It's still around here if you want to look for it.
  06:58:12  7 June 2013
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Episode XVIII

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

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

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

"Try me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The armored stalker sensed his restlessness. "Yes?"

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

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

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

Right towards the heart of the small valley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They waited.

"Anything...?" Chasme whispered.

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

Nothing was coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Can we go around it?" Bondarenko asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You were saying?" Sataida encouraged him.

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

"The what?" Nikolay asked on the spot.

"Needles?" The SBU commander echoed him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Brain Scorcher?" Volkov asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A scientist?" Bondarenko inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Can't tell."

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

Hunter's reply was dry. "No."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

"Possibly. Nothing around us."

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

"Not one." Again the dry reply.

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

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

"Stay away from the zombie corpses."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is that a day old?"

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

"The same people?"

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

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

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

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

Then the heavy blast door yanked open.

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

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

He stepped inside.

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

Then, nothing.

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

But it did not.

Seconds passed.

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

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

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

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

"Hello?" He called.

Nobody answered.

He sighed. "Hello, someone there?"

Still nothing.

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

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

...and peeked around the corner.

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

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

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

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