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Blue Mists

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  05:28:56  5 April 2011
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
04/06/2011 16:10:48
Messages: 197
Blue Mists

This is a new story arch that continues my previous fanfic, Echoes. Lots of continuity nods here... oh well, enough of my rambling. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

--------


After twenty minutes of near-impenetrable darkness, the tunnel turned right, and a tiny speck of light was visible. After ten minutes of walking the the four stalkers reached the exit. They were all armed, armored and masked.

The single youth on point walked with a tranquil gait, his weapon loose in his hands. He strolled almost lazily past the piles of long-since ruined concrete sheeting, his companions following with uneasiness, and strode on under the storm, walking around the rumbling springboards and whirligigs with uncanny, eerie easiness, only reinforced by the lightning bolts that flashed in the darkness.



The man was fat, old, and unkempt. A girl wailed a beautiful lullaby from an ancient radio, filling the decrepit halls of his bomb shelter with the purity of her voice. Small light bulbs hanged from the roof, their dim light glinting off the barrels of guns, bullets and gear stacked on boxes, racks and shelves.

Sidorovich epitomized the spirit of the Zone. He was cold, unforgiving, ruthless, and ran his trade with the cruel efficiency of a predator.

The door opened with a clang of metal against metal. He left his steak with a groan of complaint and turned to the small desk where he plied most of his trade. Nikolay, the youth he had hired less than a week ago to care for -or scrap- his vast repository of weapons, appraised the newcomer with tired eyes: a bald, unmasked man, with crystal-blue eyes and an almost palpable aura of silence around him. He put down his backpack next to a wall, took off his gloves, and started ruffling through his belongings.

“Hello there, stranger”, Sidorovich said, having perused through the gallery of faces in his mind and not recognizing this one. His shoulders were so broad that he did not to fit through the doorway, and he wore cheap military fatigues under a muddy ghillie suit. Other than the hafts of a knife sheathed on the jacket and what looked like a long machete, no weapons were visible. “What will it be?”

A warm, mildly stale stench flooded the shelter. The man put a furry tail, a big, distorted eye, a boar’s hoof and what seemed to be an intact brain on the table.

“I want to sell this.” The voice was raw, as if the hunter was not used to talking.

Sidorovich put a hand to his chin, trying not to seem overly interested. “Strange wares, hunter. I normally don’t buy these. But these appear to be in perfect condition...” He reached into his pocket. “I’ll take the tail for five hundred, the eye and the hoof for one thousand each, and the brain for two thousand. Deal?”

The hunter stood still. He stared at Sidorovich without making a gesture. Then: “How much for a brand-new AK?”

“Hm. That'll be... Sixty thousand. I have one in working condition for thirty-six.”

The left corner of the hunter’s lips curved in a glacially crooked smile. He put his wares back on his backpack and turned around towards the exit. The trader shrugged and turned back to his steak.



It was late in the evening when Nikolay left the damp and shadowy bomb shelter to barter for a little food and find a place to sleep. The youth was tired; his hands were black with gun grease and hurt out of exhaustion. He stumbled past the ruined house towards the fire, where, as every day since he had got there, a few rookies had bunched up together.

A burly newcomer stepped forward towards him. “What have you got?” he asked bluntly.

“Eh?” Nikolay was too tired to understand. He caught the glimpse of a knife before the stranger stomped forward and grabbed him by the collar. A single drop of blood trickled down when the cold steel bit his throat.

“Gimme what you got. Now.”

The youth’s eyes flashed in desperation. The strange hunter clad in a ghillie suit was by the fire, oblivious to the scene and apparently unconcerned by it. Wolf, the veteran stalker that acted as de facto leader, was not around as usual.

A low voice spoke from the darkness. “Don’t. Let the boy go.”

The thug turned his head around, looking for the talker. “What?” he laughed evilly. “You gonna stop me?”

A masked silhouette clad in black stalker armor strode forward from inside one of the houses, the muzzle of a rifle pointed straight at the thug’s head. “Yes.”

The thug reacted quickly. He put himself behind the youth, the knife poised to cut the tender white skin. “You'd better drop that piece if you don't want this on your record, punk.”

The black-armored stalker took two steps forward, his aim unwavering, his whole posture menacing. They squared off without a word over three or four seconds, eyes boring on each other. Then a deep, guttural voice hissed behind the thug: “Drop it.”

The hunter had stood up in absolute silence, taking advantage of the thug's focusing his attention on the black-armored stalker. His own blade was poised to strike the man's kidney. The man dropped the knife, and put his hands up. “Okay, men. I didn’t hurt your kid. Peace.”

“Stay where you are.” The rifle in the stalker’s hands did not move. “Come over here, boy.” Nikolay did as he was told, still in shock, having not expected to be roughed up. “You”, the stalker said to the thug, “throw your backpack over here. And your weapons.”

The thug’s eyes rolled up and he threw his hands up. Reluctantly he did as he was told. Then a long blade flashed in the darkness and struck with a vile sound, and the thug's head rolled in the grass.

Surprised, the stalker with the rifle put his weapon down. Nikolay fell on all fours to the ground, retching, then vomited explosively. The rifle-toter was beside him a few seconds later. Weakly the youth looked both at him and at the hunter. “Why... did you do that?”

The hunter did not even acknowledge the question; he just vanished –in absolute silence– into the trees next to Sidorovich's bomb shelter. The remaining stalker took off his mask. His eyes were unnervingly milky-white, and dozens of small cut scars were etched in his face. “There’s just too many thugs and bandits elsewhere in the Zone to let them ply their trade right in rookie village.”

“Whatever your reasons, you have just earned a lifelong friend. Name’s Nikolay”.

“Maxim.” The stalker shook his hand vigorously. “How long have you been here? And how did you get in?”

“A week. We were... dumped here.”

“Dumped? How?”

“There’s just not room enough at the correctional I was, so there’s this... lottery of sorts. You anger the bosses, and you get to draw straws. Then you get drugged up and you awake at a military checkpoint, with nothing but your clothes. No food, no guns, no ammo, no armor, no backpack, no nothing!”

“Bastards... And you got into that situation how?”

“You know that those places are like jails, right? Then there’s... you know... some put themselves in charge bullying or beating everyone who stand up to them. Those who give orders don’t have it as bad... they even get to work as insiders for the guards and orderlies and so they get the best food and bunks, sometimes even some cigars or beer. The rest are in for a world of shit.” Nikolay was speaking angrily now. “Figure this... somebody who doesn’t do what they say is put into the worst cells you can think of, with lice and fleas crawling all over you and roaches fighting over what they give you for food! Some got fed up with that and rioted.”

Maxim covered his eyes with his hand. “And they sent those who started it here.”

Nikolay sighed. “No. Almost as bad, they put them all into the lottery. And those who worked for the bosses and didn’t see it coming. I should know... I was one of those.”

The black-armored stalker mulled his words. Then the hunter emerged from the shadows, a freshly cut stake in his hands. He planted it on the ground a few steps away from the fireplace and stuck the thug's head on it. Then he sat again, his face impassible, his ice-cold eyes gleaming as the fire pranced wildly on them.

“Th... thank you”, Nikolay stammered, intimidated by the hunter's impassivity. The tall man's eyes just wavered off the fire for a second to meet his. The youth mildly took a step back, as if he had been warned off.

Maxim seemed not to notice the warning –if a warning it was– and sat next to the hunter. Weakly Nikolay followed suit. His interlocutor asked, “How did you get into that prison in the first place?”

The youth shook his head. “Wrong thing to do, wrong place, wrong time.” He sighed. “I picked the lock of a cop's wife and they were just arriving on his car.”

In spite of himself Maxim laughed dryly. “Tough luck, huh.”

“Jinxed... That's going to be my stalker alias, if I last long enough to earn one.”

Maxim snorted. “That's not an alias I'd choose.”

“So far, it suits me. How do you earn an alias anyway?”

A shrug. “Beats me. I think it has something to do with the chat channels available here in the Zone. I took Blackjack for myself when I first made it here and it stuck.”

“Blackjack? You're that lucky?”

The stalker shook his head. “NATO designation for the biggest and most beautiful aircraft you'll ever see dropping bombs on top of something. Pilots dub it the 'White Swan'.”

“Oh.” Nikolay shrugged back a bit awkwardly. His newly found friend probably wouldn't be much of a wingman in a card game. “Don't know much about airplanes, myself.” His belly growled noticeably. He ruffled through his pockets. “You have any food up for trade?”

“Better.” Blackjack passed the thug's backpack on to Jinx. He perused it anxiously: on top of a highwayman, the thug had been messy and dirty. A 9mm pistol of western make, roughly sixty bullets –mostly Parabellum and AK ammo–, two fully loaded clips for the pistol, a partly loaded magazine for a Kalashnikov assault rifle, half a pack of cheap cigarettes and a huge collection of butts, two unlabeled cans, half a dozen... what, cereal bars?

“You keeping the gun?” Jinx asked, and instantly regretted it. Blackjack had saved his skin with no real motive to do that, and it was only fair that he kept whatever share of the loot he wished. “Sorry.”

Maxim, much older than the youth, recognized his expression. He handed him the thug's weapon, a weathered AK-47. “I like my own better. You can use it for the moment.”

“Thanks. Again.” A shaky, hesitant smile. He looked at the rugged assault rifle. The stock was tied up together with some sort of duct tape. The wooden fore end was in no better shape. Pockmarks of poorly cleaned-up rust stains were everywhere to be seen, but the AK was incredibly reliable and resistant; his hard-earned experience told him that even without any servicing it would serve him well. “I've been cleaning weapons all day long, I figure I can do it once more.” That said, he opened his own rucksack and produced a hard plastic box containing a basic toolkit and a few plastic bottles; given its condition, the whole set appeared to be Nikolay's most prized possession in the whole world. Blackjack looked on approvingly, but suggested:

“I think that can wait until the morning. You have to eat first, don't you think? You just emptied your belly.”

The youth yawned until his jaw uttered a dry snap. Without thinking he turned towards the gruesome display of the staked head and his stomach churned. His hunger had been viciously suppressed by the adrenaline shock of the episode, but he had to eat. He shook his head and nodded. “I think I'll listen to your advice.” That said, he took a cereal bar pack, opened it and bit a mouthful uneasily. Even though it was delicious, his mouth felt dry.

“That's not going to fill you up much.” Maxim tossed him one of the cans on the thug's pack.

“I know.” He coerced himself into finishing the bar and opened the can. He heard voices coming down the slope and recognized some of them: some of the rookies returning to camp. Soon the camp was lively with chatter.

“What happened here?” It was Wolf. He was staring intently at the head set atop the spike.

“Someone tried to jump the youth over here”, Blackjack replied. The brutality of the episode had touched him too. The sausage felt stale for an instant in his mouth and he swallowed his morsel with difficulty. “The hunter took care of him.”

“What hunter?”

Blackjack turned around, looking for the man in the ghillie suit, only to notice he was gone. The man had slithered away in complete silence. “A big man, over 190 cm. high, dressed in a ghillie suit. He cut the thug's head off.”

Wolf's eyes grew wider at the comment. He inspected the head on the stake, which was still dripping blood. “He surely is a strong fellow, to decapitate a head with a single stroke!”

Maxim suddenly wished he had taken a look at the weapon the hunter had used. He remembered a large silvery flash, larger than a long combat knife.

“Anyway”, Wolf said, as he turned away, without expecting an answer, “looks like he did us a service.”

Maxim watched Nikolay eat the canned meat without relish. Now his appetite had vanished too. Unlike the youth, he had seen combat and taken lives before, and had become hardened to the grisly spectacle that followed the last echoes of gunfire... but being hardened did not mean immunity. Over the chatter, the moaning and the sounds of the rookies as they bartered for miserable meals, places to sleep, gear and even guard posts, his ears were acutely tuned to the droplets of blood, falling from the staked head, as they impacted upon the soil. He shook his head slowly.

A thunderbolt rumbled in the distance. Immediately Jinx stood up, carrying his food and his backpack, and turned to beckon Blackjack to follow him into one of the underground shelters. They sat as comfortably as they could over one of the decrepit mattresses. Maxim took off his headlamp, hanged it from a loose wire next to a wall and turned it on. The utter darkness of the place receded into a half-lit gloom.

“Ahhh, it's great to relax”, he said.

Nikolay nodded. “Better even to be away from that head. That stake would be better off planted near the entrance, or at the slope.”

“I don't think so. Every crook knows they're not welcome if they make themselves known overtly. That's a warning for moles, I guess.”

“Put it that way...” He shook his head and sighed. “What a fuck-up... I don't recall one happy moment where I could be totally at ease in my whole life. First, being a street rat, then getting caught and thrown into that institute, and now this...”

Blackjack took another slice of sausage. “I'd see this as the chance of your life, kid. Collect a few artifacts and you're set for life.” Jinx snorted at the comment.

“Hmph. Only now I got a half-decent gun with barely one clip and a half. And I have to learn how to hit something with this thing first. Don't even make me think about what I gotta do to get started on artifact hunting.”

“That's not the spirit that will get you out of here alive.” Maxim's deep voice was tinged with a reprimand. “You had that gun yesterday? No. Were you killed today? No. Could you have just died? Yes. Were you outrageously lucky today? Yes, you were, and don't count on being lucky like that again, but you got to live another day. Oh, and finally, you had any friends here before now? If you did you wouldn't have been stuck with Sidorovich, nor would you have been alone and vulnerable to that thug, so I'll suppose you didn't. Especially considering how you got here.” He put aside his food and stared at the youth. “Think about your successes first, and be glad of them, and don't get obsessed with what you did wrong. Be both positive and realistic. This place will suck your soul out of you if you don't.”

Nikolay looked back in silence, dazed. He stammered: “That's... well... that sounds like a pretty tough thing to do... being both positive and realistic.”

“It's almost impossible, but your mind will get stronger trying to achieve that state. It takes that to survive and prosper here. And for God's sake, change that alias! The last thing you need is to think of yourself as someone cursed with bad luck.”

The youth smiled hesitatingly. “Er... What would you choose, considering what you know of me so far?”

“Something mechanical, I guess. You must be good at fixing things, or else that fat bastard wouldn't have employed you, even if it was for a pittance. That's a skill everyone should have here. There, you got something to be proud of.”

His partner fell silent, lost in thought, his mind going through what he had just been told. “I'm used to getting yelled at, but... I was never talked like that.”

“I was in Chechnya. I had to keep kids barely older than you alive and sane through that hell.” Maxim did not seem particularly reluctant, but something gave Nikolay the idea that he would not better press on that. Yet. He thought a few seconds, took a deep breath, and said:

“I think Screws would suit, don't you think?”

Blackjack whistled the word silently, and the barest hint of a smile appeared on his lips. “It has charm.”

Nikolay – now Screws – smiled in turn. Then he realized he was hungry again. A light flashed from outside, and then a thunderbolt rumbled. Rains begun to fall.

“I can take a look at your gun later, if you wish.” Actually, he would love to do that. Maxim's weapon was an Abakan assault rifle. It was immediately obvious that the gun was not new, but it was lovingly maintained and had been fitted with several accessories, including both a laser sight and a PSO scope; the stock pistol handle had been replaced by a larger one, more oblique to the rifle, probably based on the M1911 pistol –the gold standard of weapon ergonomics–, and the magazine was in an odd position too, again not as perpendicular towards the weapon frame as the original.

“Not necessary, I field-strip it every day. But...” he said, as he stood up and carefully laid it upon the mattress, “you can watch me clean it. You ever took apart one of those?”

A nod. “Twice, at Sidorovich's bunker. Whomever owned these were total idiots, the guns hadn't been cleaned in weeks. I had to scrap them both. They look like ill-humored bitches to maintain.”

Maxim smirked and nodded slowly. “This is not an AK. Even the Russians don't love it that much... it takes a lot of maintenance to keep it usable as it was designed. And here you have a weapon designed for a 5.45 bullet but chambered for a 7.62, which only makes things worse. Here... look.”

Nikolay watched his newly made friend as he dismounted his weapon with loving care. There was something mechanistic about Maxim's procedures, as if he were doing them out of rote: pieces were scrupulously set apart in a pattern that probably would match a schematic to the letter. Many had the markings of repeated use. “And why keep it?”

“It's never jammed on me, it fires true, it packs a punch... It's never let me down. I take care of it, it takes care of me. It's like that with almost everything with me.” There was an obvious lesson in Blackjack’s words: to those that stuck by him, he would be unflinchingly loyal.

Another thunderbolt rumbled in the distance. Maxim raised his head, then froze.

“What?”

“That was not a thunder.” Blackjack cursed. “What a moment to be caught with my gun disassembled...”
  01:01:52  6 April 2011
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th3l4st0ne
(Novice)
 
On forum: 05/21/2010
Messages: 40
sweet stuff there, the character got a good backstory, it's clean and got some variated vocabulary. I'd say in the same ranks as Wingnut's story but more accentuated on the characters, which I like. Keep it up buddy !
  20:03:32  9 April 2011
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
04/10/2011 15:23:28
Messages: 197
@th3l4st0ne: glad to see you enjoyed it. I took me over two months to write the first episode, and less than two days to produce the second. Hope you like it too. Enjoy

--------

Episode II

The man was short but heavy-set, almost rotund in his complexion. The features on his face were almost razor-sharp and Saxon, not Slavic. He did not like rains, electrical storms least of them all. “So... we made it here. Now what?”

The oldest of the four pulled back to the tunnel entrance, produced an expensive cellphone from his hip satchel and typed something. “According to the log... we are one hour early, give or take.”

The rearguard man, clad in a huge black exoskeleton, leaned on the wall. “We wait, then.”

“Wouldn't it be better to stake out the place and wait there?” The first one proposed.

“...No. Our very presence here makes everything different. We cannot foresee what effect could we produce by just being nearby.”

The youth acting as point man climbed atop the tunnel entrance, produced a waterproof blanket out of his backpack and put it over him, and and put his eye to the scope of his long sniper rifle, which was wrapped into a protective blanket to shield it from the rain.



The echoes of short barks and staccatos reached Blackjack and Screws now. Maxim had regrettably shoved the pieces of his precious Abakan into a satchel, putting the most delicate parts into a plastic box for safety, and drawn his sidearm, a silenced APB auto-pistol. -74s and... He strained his memory, trying to identify the sounds he had just heard. Sounds like Heckler & Koch rifles, but not quite identical.... How many of them?

“Want your AK back?” Screws asked.

“I'm used to this little fellow.”

Warily they exited the safety of their shelter into the rain. Outside they met Wolf and his bald lieutenant, Fanatic; the latter was crouched behind the wall, weapon at the ready, while his leader was shouting warnings to the rookies that were scrambling for cover inside the houses.

“What's going on?” Blackjack asked.

Fanatic did not even turn his head. “Hell if I know. I don't really feel like going out there to take a look.”

“The checkpoint is barely a couple hundred meters off... maybe the military stumbled upon newcomers?”

“It could be... Oh well, if they make it here we'll see.”

“But why the grenade?” Screws pondered.

“Beats me, not only rookies make mistakes.” The exchange was growing closer now. Lightning streaked vividly across the sky.

“There are people coming!” A voice warned. “Gray uniforms!”

“Shit!” Wolf cursed. “Everyone stay covered!”

“Gray uniforms?” Blackjack asked.

“Monolith scumbags...”

“What? Monolith?” Screws blinked. Blackjack did not know either, but Wolf's reaction was all he needed to see. He made doubly sure he was carrying both spare magazines for the pistol.

“Later, kid,” the gruff stalker replied with an edge. He bore down on Screws: “Stay down and don't play heroics, you hear me?” The youth weakly nodded his agreement. Wolf turned to Blackjack, looking with disapproval at his pistol. “You two, take position by the first house. Until they're deep enough we don't break cover. Let me say that again: we. Don't. Break. Cover. Clear?”

Blackjack's mind was racing. An ambush was what Wolf was hastily trying to arrange. And it was so obvious that even a rookie on his second boot camp day would not set foot in the village. On top of that, judging from the deadly chatter of many assault rifles, those intervening on the skirmish surpassed them in firepower so many times over that to stage an ambuscade would be tantamount to suicide. But the possible alternatives... Again he cursed having been caught with his Abakan disassembled.

However, all these considerations soon proved unnecessary: the rhythmic –and familiar– tap-tap-tap of a helicopter reached his ears. Someone screamed a warning. He hastily grabbed both Wolf and Screws by the hand and dragged them down into the basement where he had been cleaning his rifle. Fanatic and two rookies followed them.

Wolf cursed. “Shit... and these fuckers are within earshot of this place... they'll be coming right at us now...”

Blackjack took position by the corner next to the stairs, holding his pistol with both hands, grimly wishing he had something heavier to fire. He cursed his luck for the third time and waited. Over him, Fanatic and Wolf both were crouching and standing respectively, poised to shot at anything that appeared. Screws somehow managed to look at them through his terror with enough presence of mind to understand their readiness, and was sorely tempted to ask what would happen if more rookies tried to get inside. The obvious –and cruel– answer was disheartening, but if those fighting had no qualms about taking potshots at them...

Dread stalked them all now. The echoes of the rotor built up in volume as the helicopter drew nearer. A horrible buzzsaw-like sound filled the air over the cracks of the assault rifles and the droning of the rains, immediately followed by distant cries of men. Then, footsteps running outside. Blackjack felt Fanatic and Wolf coil up like springs.

A masked silhouette dressed in barely distinguishable camouflaged livery appeared. Blackjack pulled the trigger before the two other stalkers did. His shot took the man in the left eye. He could now hear pistol shots and blasts of shotguns coming from outside, punctuated by assault rifle fire. Screams were heard. The attackers were now inside the village, and the rookies were fighting back in desperation. And dying. His knuckles turned white with rage and he felt the temptation to go outside and fight the strangers, but before he could even think of scolding himself out of that impulse another gray-clad man appeared and ran for their hideout. This time Fanatic got off the first shot, which hit the man squarely in the neck and fell him, a hideous gurgling sound hissing out of his throat.

Then, a round metallic object bounced on the stairs, once, twice, and stopped next to Blackjack's foot.

Maxim would forever find it hard recalling that eternal second when he dropped the pistol, picked up the grenade and hurled it with all the strength of his left arm outside the basement. “DOOOOWN!”

The explosive went off outside with a deafening bang. He propelled himself backwards with his legs, with the obvious intent of pulling Fanatic and Wolf out of harm's way. A millisecond later shrapnel scythed the walls they had just leaned against. Someone screamed:

“Who's hit? Who's hit?” Wolf asked. He quickly checked everyone out: no blood he could see, just five white faces and several trembling lips. Nobody was hit. Just a scare. Yeah, the scare of your life, he managed to laugh grimly within himself.

The echoes of the battle raged outside. Again the buzz-saw sound of the helicopter's 23mm gun. Bullets smashed through crumbling walls and rotting wood panels alike, many times finding a target. Then, no further gunfire. Just the thunder of the rotor, now an almost overwhelmingly powerful roar, as the helicopter hovered in stationary flight over the village. This is it, Screws repeated himself over and over, too panicked to speak, sob, or scream, now they're going to come for us and kill us all too and burn this place up for good...

After a horrible, endless, nightmarish minute, the helicopter started hovering away. The thunder of the rotor faded back into the ominous tap-tap-tap. Nobody dared to move. They heard the sound circling around them... Then again, the sound grew closer and closer, the rotor whining in an ever higher pitch, until it seemed the helicopter was going to again pound the village.

And then a crashing sound that made the ground vibrate under their feet. The rotor screeched sickeningly for a few instants, then died.

The drone of the rains was now acutely audible. For over two whole minutes everyone stood frozen still. The same thing was on everyone's minds, but nobody wished to take their chances outside.

Then, footsteps approached their hideout. A single voice called, a deep, almost guttural voice Screws recognized:

“The helicopter is down. Nobody is in sight.” It was the hunter.

Blackjack watched Wolf and Fanatic. Both were still listening intently for telltale sounds, trying to detect the ambush... Then an idea sprung in Screws' mind: “Hey... if they wanted us dead... why not just pop another grenade inside?”

Wolf and his lieutenant looked at each other. “True,” the leader of the rookies conceded.

Maxim nodded. Pistol in his hand, he cautiously walked the stairs up. The hunter was, as he had said, alone, clad in the muddy ghillie suit he had seen a while ago and now carrying a heavy backpack. He was staring at him with blue impassivity. Blackjack quickly appraised him: he caught sight of fresh bloodstains on the fatigues underneath the suit, and a few cuts on his hands and face which had already been tended to. He nodded, and turned his head over his shoulder. “Clear.”

Wolf, Fanatic, Screws and the other two rookies came up and, stunned, looked around them. The village had been reduced to shambles. Corpses riddled the ground, most of them clad in the gray armor the rookie leader had said that was typical of Monolith stalkers; those few who were not were either dressed in makeshift stalker suits, plain cheap clothing, or –to Wolf's dismay– military uniforms.

“Shit!” He swore. “They're going to blow this place to hell now!”

“So long for a refuge near the cordon...” Fanatic sighed and shook his head. He then headed for the house across the path, hoping to find survivors.

“Best to salvage what we can and get the hell out of here.” Blackjack put his weapon back on its holster. The hunter nodded at the comment.

“What took the Croc down?” One of the rookies asked.

“A well-placed rifle shot,” was the hunter's raw reply. He disappeared inside the house next to the basement entrance.

Screws followed Blackjack as he went through the village, quickly stripping the dead of their ammo, food, and sometimes weapons and armor. “This one will fit you well”, Blackjack said as he passed on a black suit of armor to Screws. He took it fighting against the nausea, feeling it still warm to the touch. He was horrified by the spectacle of the dead being looted for spoils and could barely fight it. Maxim noticed it but said nothing.

“Strange badges on this...” Nikolay said. “Best to take them out, just in case...”

“Yeah.” Blackjack unsheathed his combat knife and with quick, precise motions, he tore the badges off. “This one has them, too,” he said as he did that with another black suit. He checked it out for size, trying to see if it was a match for him, but bluntly he concluded that he could take care of that later. “You use this gun.” He hurled Nikolay an assault rifle of western make the youth did not recognize and a bag containing several clips. Then, another, similar rifle. “Take this one for spares.”

“Thanks.” Screws noticed his friend was very anxious, and probably with good reason. The military would probably take next to no time in sending someone over to investigate the crashed helicopter, and they would better be miles away from the village by the time that happened. Which left them a very thin margin of time.

“There's military and Monolith dead all over the place...” They heard Fanatic report back to Wolf. Blackjack just looked at them long enough to see Wolf bunch his fists white. “...the fighting came here all the way up from the bridge. I couldn't see it clearly but I think the explosion we heard first happened there.”

The words bridge and explosion resounded in his mind. “Hurry up with that!” He urged Screws. “Just take the two guns I gave you! We're gonna need ammo and food more than extra rifles.”

“But we could sell--”

“To whom?! The Army's going to pound this place flat and swarm over the whole cordon after this! Normally we'd be lucky to reach the junkyards before then, but the bridge pass is open.”

“What?”

Blackjack took a deep breath and explained quickly. “Some four hundred-odd meters ahead there's a railway. It runs over very steep hills and is secured by a fence. There are only three ways past it: through a shitload of rads, through a shitload of volts, or through a military checkpoint on an underpass. Fanatic just said the explosion we first heard took place there. Then they went in guns blazing.”

“Okay! Just let me finish... searching this one.” This time he managed to repress his nausea, admonishing himself that he would probably have to loot more corpses in the future, and many would look a lot worse than this one, which had taken a clear shot to the head. He had been one of the Monolith, given the strange badges and the gray camouflage pattern on his armor. Like most others of his faction he had a strange belt with many pouches made of a waterproof fabric, each one with both buttons and a zip to keep it from spilling its contents. He loosened the belt, tore it free from the leaking corpse, and felt the pouches as he had seen Blackjack do it. There was something large inside one of them. He opened it... “Oh, shit...”

There was an artifact in there.

“Hide that! Quick!” Blackjack said, tearing the belt off Screws' hands and stuffing it into his backpack. “You can drool later! Go and change your clothes while I talk to Wolf. And hurry! We have to get out of here as fast as we can.”

Nikolay walked into one of the –now ruinous– wooden houses to put on the black suit of armor. He watched Blackjack as walked up to the village 'leader' and his lieutenant.

He was taken aback to find the hunter in that same house. The man was on his way out. “You... leaving too?” he asked haltingly. The huge man nodded coldly but politely.

“This place will get too much attention soon.”

Screws managed an amused snort, then immediately lapsed back into the shyness this stalker imposed on him. “It's just... you? Alone?”

The hunter seemed to lose a fraction of its coldness for an instant. “Yes.”

In spite of his urgency Nikolay could not help but find the hunter's comment odd. “You... well, you may want to come with us. You'd be safer.” Then he wondered why had he made both the offer and that last –stupidly out of place– comment. The towering bald giant had an extremely unsettling presence, despite its statuesque physique and chiseled features, much more unnerving than Blackjack's milky-white eyes and scarred skin, and he had learned enough about physical language on the correctional to be certain that this man's hand-to-hand skills would be supreme. He found himself wishing the hunter would refuse his offer...

Again the crooked smile he had seen at Sidorovich's shelter. Laced with irony this time.

“Well, why not.”

Blackjack returned to Nikolay, oblivious of the hunter at first. He looked both upset and depressed. “What happened?” The youth asked.

“I can't talk Wolf and Fanatic out of staying here. Fanatic says Sidorovich will pull some strings to prevent the Army from ruining his business, and I almost believe him. Besides...” He exhaled strongly. “...Someone has to care for all the rookies, they said. Some survived.” Then he seemed to notice the hunter was staying close to Nikolay. He glared at the youth, arching his eyebrows. Screws swore to himself, bracing against the imminent chewing out:

“I told him... I told him he could come with us.” Blackjack's immediate reaction would have been to roll his eyes, but restrained himself and looked at the hunter closely. His first true impression closely matched Screws'. He found himself thinking whether this hunter actually cared a whit about the whole situation and was as bored as he let on, despite the ice-cold behavior, or if it was all an act.

“You have weapons...?” He ventured. The hunter opened his ghillie suit to show the hafts of two bladed weapons. “And firearms?” He asked with the barest hint of impatience in his voice.

“In my backpack. A rifle.”

What kind of stalker would keep his gun gathering dust inside a backpack? Then he remembered neither noticing him vanish in the darkness when Wolf arrived, nor hearing him stand up to poise his dagger against the thug's kidney. Oh well, not the time to be picky.

“You'd better pull that piece out then. We're leaving right now. How do we call you?” The man shrugged. “You got an alias?” Again a shrug.

“Hunter will do, if you wish.”

That comment evinced extreme disinterest, something that did not escape either to Blackjack or Screws. Maxim decided that no, this man was not acting in the least and probably was as bored as he had guessed. There were too many strange things about the hunter and he did not like it at all. Is he mad? And no, he did not have any of the telltale signs of someone who was either about to snap or beyond sanity. He had witnessed such signs on Chechnya too many times not to recognize them now.

Then the urgency of the situation caught up with him again. Three was a much better number than two to survive on the Zone. “Okay. Let's move out, fast,” Blackjack said as he set off.

He led them away from the village, directly across the hilly slopes west to the road, carefully skirting the anomalies that plagued the place. Every few steps he looked southwards over his shoulder, expecting at any time to see the lights of armored vehicles that surely would not take long. Now the bulk of a ruinous warehouse loomed before them, a column of greasy smoke curling upwards behind it. A chaotic dance of lights and shadows to its left indicated that fires were still burning, rains or no rains. Fanatic had been right, apparently, but still, he would not take any chances.

They reached the walls of the warehouse. Hunter froze, then gestured Blackjack and Screws to listen: over the sound of the rain, the echo of a man's wail. Someone was there.

The huge stalker bade Blackjack and Screws to stay put and moved on ahead, alone, with liquid motions. He turned around the corner, bracing the wall. Another building, ghastly lit in shades of blue and white by an anomaly. He went around it, then the fire came into view: an old truck turned sideways was ablaze.

And, illuminated by the fire, a squirming silhouette in the grass.

Quickly he scanned the underpass. No soldiers in sight, though he spotted a few corpses –dressed both in Monolith and military livery– near the road and around the burning truck. No mutants either. He listened: only the crackle of the fire over the droning rain. No danger there that he could detect.

Hunter ran silently up to the man. He was completely soiled in dirt, and the assault rifle he had dragged as he painstakingly crawled away from the underpass had left a muddy trail on the grass. He turned him on his back: his nose and mouth were bleeding profusely. The man babbled incoherences and weakly tried to disengage the stranger's grip on him. Hunter whistled. Blackjack and Screws came over running.

“Nobody else?” Maxim asked.

“Not that I could see.”

“What is he? A soldier or one of the Monolith?”

Screws looked over him. The flak jacket and pants he wore were patterned in brown, not in gray, and had no identifying badges at all. “I haven't seen this stuff in the army,” he said. “But none of the Monolith goons were dressed like this. Maybe he's just a poor dude in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“So...” Maxim exhaled. “We know that we don't know.”

“What do you want to do with him?” Hunter asked neutrally. Maxim knew next to nothing about them, but Wolf's reaction had told him that, dangerous as they were, they were rare in the extreme here. Are there more of them around? And they could not waste a lot of time here, with the threat of the military about to swarm the place in retaliation for the destruction of the helicopter and –he saw them now– the underpass platoon.

“I'm not really cozy with the idea of more of these sods roaming the area. I need some information.” That said, he started ruffling through the pockets of the man--

--But the man screamed and held onto something in his hip satchel. Something flashed inside it. While Blackjack and Hunter restrained him, he noticed something was scribbled on the man's forearm... something like a tattoo... he turned on his headlamp:

“Hey guys... I know the word, but any of you guys know what the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. acronym means?”

Hunter shrugged. Blackjack produced an expensive smartphone from the satchel with a message flashing on its screen:

KILL THE STRELOK.


Without warning, the youth climbed down the tunnel entrance and started walking, rifle in hand. His companions, startled, hurriedly set off after him; the weathered old veteran looked questioningly at the young stalker. He merely uttered, “Something different is happening.”
  04:14:24  6 June 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
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Episode III

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He's not here.”



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Liver and lung wounds.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What... why'd you gag me?”

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

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

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

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

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

Screws stared with incredulity. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blackjack leaned in. “Open your mouth.”

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

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

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

“Anything else that hurts?”

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

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

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

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

“Not a problem there.”

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

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

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

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

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

Screws sighed in the night. “What now?”

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

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

Hunter pointed at him. “You'll be Mystery to us until you recover your memory.” Even if the raw voice had not a shred of irony in it, Blackjack smirked.
  02:24:59  8 June 2011
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Do0mzday-Jesus
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On forum: 09/01/2009
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I just noticed this.



Awesome thus far... keep it up!
  13:59:31  9 June 2011
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
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Brilliant, please keep going
  04:18:02  16 June 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Glad to see it's being enjoyed . I realized I forgot to put a link somewhere to Echoes for consistency purposes... oh well, too late now. Besides that link will be explored in the future.

I'm on forced hiatus due to test season at college... also because I lack a proper rig to play AMK right now so I'm a little short on inspiration ATM I really, really can't wait for SMRTER 0.45 to come out.
  17:53:31  13 September 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
09/14/2011 17:45:23
Messages: 197
Episode IV

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

--------

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

The exoskeleton-clad stalker cursed. “Run!”

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

“Where we goin'?” Mystery asked.

“Somewhere dry where we can take turns sleeping.”

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

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

“What is it?” Maxim asked.

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

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

The Geiger counter ticked only once all along it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do we go in?” Screws asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Freedom buys artifacts?” The rookie asked.

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

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


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

“And?” The foreigner cautiously whispered.

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

“We need to get out of here.”

“No. We don't.” The youth with the dry eyes that never blinked spoke with unearthly confidence. Again he said: “We don't.”
  00:46:46  26 September 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
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Episode V

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

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

“Not just yet,” he said.

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



A hand shook Nikolay gently. “Wake up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are the others?”

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

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

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

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

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

He shuffled uncomfortably. “Ummm...”

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

“What? Why?”

“You don't need a rifle to learn.”

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

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

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

He did as he was told.

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

“But I'm right-handed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better. Try again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good. Try again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, we have, thank you.”

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

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

“But why let him go?” Screws asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It?” Ogre was confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“GLONASS?” Mystery asked, puzzled.

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

“And you know that how?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

“To Agroprom,” he said. “That's where he'll be going next.”
  18:36:41  27 September 2011
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ColonelSkull
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On forum: 09/27/2011
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Hmmm.. Quite the interesting stuff you got there.

Just wondering, could I, by any chance have a part in this story as Colonel Skull ( From Duty, you know. )
  19:36:02  27 September 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

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

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

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



I'm glad you like it It's going to be some time before the squads reach that territory, but I can think of something. Send me an email telling me what you got in mind!
  07:09:56  8 October 2011
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ZeroDead
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Message edited by:
ZeroDead
10/08/2011 18:50:56
Messages: 197
Episode VI

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

----

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody answered his call.

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

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

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

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

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

“Put it down! NOW!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just told you. I am Alexei.”

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

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

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

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

“Will Ghost recover?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


----

Footnote: if you feel like you missed something, I suggest you search this forum for my previous fic, Echoes, which deals with everything that's hinted about here.
  00:53:40  9 October 2011
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Colonel Skull
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On forum: 11/07/2010
Messages: 95
I am more confused than ever, but that was amazing! Moar!
  04:04:51  10 October 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
Either I have done something wrong then, or I'm on the right track, I have yet to make up my mind.

Probably starting a thread separate from my previous fic was a bad idea, but it's done now.
  15:18:47  10 October 2011
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
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---QUOTATION---
Either I have done something wrong then, or I'm on the right track, I have yet to make up my mind.

Probably starting a thread separate from my previous fic was a bad idea, but it's done now.
---END QUOTATION---



Fantastic, i had managed to work everything out, plain and simple, and in this chapter you completely changed it all... (apart from the time travel bit.) every assumption i'd made on how the story was going to unfold was wrong. Brilliant

Keep them coming.
  19:01:53  10 October 2011
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ZeroDead
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ZeroDead
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Now that's some encouragament... thanks a lot!

Next episode is shaping up nicely. I guess I could say it's actually good for my inspiration that my rig just can't handle Stalkersoup.
  17:59:44  25 October 2011
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ZeroDead
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ZeroDead
10/27/2011 17:39:47
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Episode VII

The buildings within view were equally as ruinous as those of the main Agroprom Research Institute compound they had passed by less than two hours ago. The base was nested in a depression surrounded by hills and high ground almost all around it — a horrible place to set up an outpost in Blackjack's opinion, since it allowed them to keep covert watch over it with little difficulty. Hunter had scouted a path through the anomalies and the irradiated areas and had led them to a small plateau north-east of the military base; then, once he had led them to the vantage point they were currently at, Maxim had taken the silent stalker along to reconnoiter the base, to return almost an hour later. The day was dying, and night was approaching fast.

“Not good,” had been his assessment. “Watchtowers manned by men with sniper rifles, more men over the roof of the main structure, and patrols down the road. The two entrances are guarded by half a dozen men each. The western wall has been breached by an anomaly, and the breach is concealed by some structures, but even if we could get close enough without being spotted I wouldn't take that path. I would protect that breach with mines myself, so I suppose they must have thought of that as well.” His milky-white eyes went to Ogre. “Honestly I don't understand why Sidorovich gave you this task. It's a nightmare for even the most seasoned of stalkers.”

The giant seemed hopeless. “Well, we can just forget about this and stick to artifact hunting, I suppose.” He glared at Sataida, and the large green eyes glared back at him through her gas mask. “But having accepted to do this job... I don't think that greasy weasel would see her to safety for any amount of money if I don't do this for him.”

Sataida scoffed haughtily at the comment. “I say to hell with him, then. I'll learn to make a living for myself here and leave on my own.”

Upon hearing her, Screws reflected briefly about how hard that would be. The day before, Hunter had had them spar with each other after teaching them some very basic hand-to-hand moves, and had demanded them to be rough on each other—and when they failed to do that, he had showed them exactly how he wanted them to fight. The hard way.

“I get it, about training with her... but hitting her?” he had objected just once.

Then the tall man had shoved her aside and attacked. It had been like fighting a tidal wave. As he had warned him, he stopped just short of choking him. Then he pitilessly admonished him: “Those meaning her harm won't be as chivalrous. So stand up and fight her.”

And he had tried, but most of the time she had had an edge over him. Sataida had no such compunctions: if something was to be said about the girl was that she had determination in spades. She had grimly nodded at Hunter's command and hurled herself at him, her assaults sloppy, but vicious. But neither could fight for more than fifteen minutes.

“You are both out of shape. You will carry extra loads from now on. And I want you to be able to fight for another five minutes within a week. Now go and eat.”

He had slept as if he were dead, his body aching all over. He had felt tempted to strike conversation with the girl, intensely desiring to somehow get close to her, but while she was not particularly hostile towards him, she had been totally self-absorbed in her own thoughts. Furthermore, regardless of how lovely he found them to be, he feared the stare of those huge green eyes—he felt like they could read him like a book. And Hunter had had them spar again that morning, and had paired them together that afternoon before setting off to Agroprom. He did not know whether to thank him or curse him.

Mystery was studying the base through Maxim's binoculars, hoping to see something that would make him remember a way in. Because, he was certain, he had been here before, but as usual his amnesia was in the way. He continuously felt as if the life previous to the episode that had obscured his memory had been a vivid dream, the details of which he could not recall after waking up. Only will kept him from swearing.

“Not another way in?” He asked Maxim and Hunter. They shook their heads.

“Not that we could see.”

Ogre swore. “We'll have to give up.”

They all looked at each other. Blackjack decided: “We'll call up a vote on it. But not here. I'd hate to be spotted by those snipers.”

And they marched away from the base, led again by Hunter, towards the compound that once had housed the staff of the institute. Barks and squeals were heard distantly, reminding everyone to keep their weapons ready.

Except for their point man. Nikolay could not contain his curiosity any longer:

“I never got to see what you're packing.”

Hunter produced a long bladed weapon from under his ghillie suit. It was... a sword, not a dagger, not a machete, but a proper sword well over one meter long, hilt included. It apparently had been machined from a single piece of metal; it was straight, single-edged, had a very simple cross-guard that was part of the weapon, and the hilt had a checkered layer of rubber for an improved grip, not unlike a pistol. The whole weapon was blacker than night, even the edge, which looked sharp beyond words.

“Whoa...” was everything the youth could say.

“Impressive,” admired Blackjack. “It must swing very fast. It reminds me of some ancient ninja swords...” He found himself wondering how had he seen a silver-metal sheen when the man had cut the bandit's head off, if this was the weapon he had seen. “I still don't get why you don't use that rifle you got in your backpack.”

Hunter shrugged. “It's a very rare day when I need to shoot something.”

That elicited some incredulous looks. Mystery ventured, “What about snipers? You can't just stab everyone...”

“Quiet.” Hunter raised an open hand. Everyone stopped in their tracks.

They all got on their bellies behind a small hill, and waited. Their point man crawled on alone, his motions sinewy and silent as those of a snake, until he came upon a small cliff where the land abruptly fell to the road. The bulk of the Institute loomed very close; here, a few concrete panels of the perimeter wall had fallen off, and the courtyard was partly visible.

On the other side of the road, amidst trees some forty-odd meters away, men were climbing out of a manhole. He counted in the encroaching shadow: six silhouettes, most dressed in cheap clothing, though one of them was wearing a long leather coat. Five of them quickly took positions behind trees and bushes and, cautiously, started advancing towards the breach in the wall. The man in the leather coat stood crouching behind a tree; in the dark he could make the outline of an assault rifle in his hands.

Like some wraith, Hunter silently climbed down the two-meter cliff and stalked his way across the road with liquid motions, taking cover behind a small bush. Almost simultaneously, a furious firefight exploded within the Institute walls. He spied through the leaves, moving the branches apart almost delicately: the rear man was anxiously peeking around the bulk of the tree, listening intently to the deadly chatter of firearms and the yells and screams of men fighting and dying. Absolutely oblivious to his presence.

The silent stalker unsheathed his combat knife and sneaked towards the man, jumping from one tree to the other, between bushes, in complete silence, and pounced on his prey from a distance scarcely short of three meters. The man was caught completely off guard: he barely had begun to turn his weapon around when Hunter smashed him on the back of his head with the knife's butt, sending him sprawling on the ground. With surgical motions the stalker slid the knife under the man's throat, drawing a single drop of blood, while his right hand muffled the man's mouth. It was unnecessary: the man was unconscious.

Hunter grabbed the rifle and silently hauled the man back across the road. He was met there by Maxim.

“Fine work, there,” Blackjack whispered grudgingly. “Who is he?”

The stalker shrugged in his careless way. “They came from somewhere underground.”

“Let me haul him. I imagine you'll want to scout that.”

Hunter nodded icily and left the scarred veteran to deal with their unconscious captive. Silently he snaked his way back to the small clearing under the trees and found the manhole. Something was lit down there, outside his view, but allowing him to make the details of some utility tunnel of sorts. Within the decrepit concrete walls of the compound the firefight still raged on, albeit not as intensely.

He made his way back to the rest of his squad and relayed what he saw. “What about our prisoner?” he asked then. The bandit was still fast asleep and, by the look of it, was not likely to wake up for a while.

“He hasn't been very forthcoming, as you may imagine.” Ogre chuckled at his own sally.

“Probably they got a hideout of sorts down there?” Sataida ventured.

“Mystery?” Maxim asked. “Do you remember anything?”

“Not quite...” He squeezed his eyes shut, straining himself against his spotty memory. Flashes of churning greenish clouds melting down ancient machinery and the horrific panting of mutants somewhere in the tunnels crossed his mind. “It's dangerous down there. If we're going down, we should all grab our gas masks at least. And keep our shotguns at hand.”

Blackjack took that information to heart and donned his mask, a rugged helmet with removable filters, not too different from an exoskeleton's headgear. Everyone did likewise with their own, save Hunter, who was wearing an odd leathery hood that concealed his mouth and nose and protected his eyes with a pair of goggles. “Never saw one of those”, Maxim said in comment. The man merely shrugged as usual.

Hunter led them, cautiously, over the road and to the manhole, keeping an attentive ear on the occasional shot that rang inside the Agroprom compound. “I'm going down first. Cover the exit. I'll signal you if it's clear.”

Mystery nodded and dragged the heavy steel lid over the manhole. Hunter's eyes saw nothing for an instant, then accustomed themselves to the lack of illumination. He went down the ladder slowly, looking for tripwires or other similar devices, while his left hand reached for his hip satchel and retrieved a common stone. Carefully he let it fall. The rock hit the concrete, the echoes reverberating loudly...

...and nothing else.

If there was someone there, he had already heard them coming and would not be distracted by a simple stone.

Or maybe there was no one there at all.

Again his left hand went to his hip satchel, to produce a wickedly sharp-looking throwing knife this time. Then, like a cat, he let himself fall down, landed on all fours, and rolled over to a side, taking cover between some of the debris that blocked the tunnel.

And still, no one fired upon him.

Throwing knife in hand, he advanced in utmost silence, the grating of a worn emergency rotating light filling the tunnel, his senses sharpened and primed, his whole body coiled in tension like a snake poised to strike. He made it to the end of the tunnel, where an opening in the wall led to a small staircase; he caught the bubbling, sparkling and hissing of many anomalies...

Again he probed for sentinels. He picked up a piece of debris from the floor and hurled it through the opening in the wall, over the stairs. It landed on one of the steps with a loud metallic noise.

And, this time, there was a response. The echo of a low, grumbling, distant gurgling noise.

He judged he had seen enough by now and returned to the ladder; he climbed up and tapped the lid four times with the butt of the throwing knife. Immediately it was shoved aside by Ogre. Hunter gestured them to come down and be silent.

The silent stalker waited not for them all to come down. He retraced his steps and went again to the stairs; he strained himself to hear, but his efforts were spoiled by the shuffling of his fellows as they entered the tunnel one by one. With an open hand he gestured for them to wait; he undid a knot under his ghillie suit, cast it aside, and drew his sword. Blackjack noticed that, besides the ninja-like sword tied to his back, another blade was sheathed, handle-down, over his chest; the man's clothes were a haphazard mixture of tactical vests, standard-issue flak jackets and bulletproof armors, but all of them had been spray-painted to create a surprisingly effective forestry camouflage pattern. And despite their different nature, they seemed not just to fit, but to belong in that arrangement.

Full of guile and completely in tune with his surroundings, Hunter went down the stairs so skillfully that the old iron steps not once groaned at his weight. The room was rectangular, housing some kind of machine that had been long rendered useless by several chemical anomalies; there were three exits, one of them almost directly opposite to him, the other on the same wall where the stairs were, a similar set of iron steps leading to another corridor. Acidic fumes stung his eyes lightly, but his nostrils felt nothing, plugged via breathing tubes to a self-made purifier on his backpack.



He felt its hunger, its bloodlust rising as it recognized the familiar smells of leather, cloth, sweat, and flesh, its powerful muscles tensing in anticipation. Prey.

Do not, he whispered into its mind. They are not the enemy. They are not your prey.

It let out a surprised groan, startled at the strangely familiar noises in its head. A part of its mind long asleep slowly put the words together and flashed in understanding.

But then an overpowering command overrode both his voice and its nascent awareness.
HUNT! KILL! DEVOUR!



A mighty roar echoed somewhere below him. Then, heavy feet stomping on iron. Something climbing some stairs he could not see.

Swiftly, Hunter went over to the adjacent room, and saw a doorway poorly lit by a single dusty lamp, and the stairs.

Some formless shape, barely distinguishable, slowly climbed up the last few paces. Then it froze. He felt it looking at him, searching him, measuring him. The stench of stale blood was so powerful that he could perceive it even behind his mask and rebreather.

But the tall, silent stalker waited. A small spark blossomed within him. Excitement at the encounter.

Then the presence bellowed a snarl and charged. A ghastly clawed hand lunged for his throat, but Hunter parried the blow with his sword, edge-first. The blade bit through the leathery skin and blood spilled; the bloodsucker screeched and withdrew, its cloak now ruined by the dripping wound on its left hand. The monster again measured him, full of caution. This prey had teeth. Its death would be quite satisfactory.

Again, with motions so fast they looked like a blur, the bloodsucker lunged ahead, to seize the prey and slam it to the ground and squeeze the life out of it. But the prey suddenly was no longer there. And then a burning pain seared over its leg, melting through the skin and into the wiry meat; with another acute screech it retreated, limping over the wounded leg, and again regarded its prey; it was still, its eyes fixated upon its own, its whole body poised for defense, its long, black claw dripping with blood, its stench filling the beast's nostrils. But it was not an intoxicating smell. It was a frightening one.

With a powerful roar the mutant again lurched on, the smell of blood driving it into a berserker frenzy, the pain of its wounds panicking it. Again the long black claw met its own, but this time the beast ignored the blaze that ignited on its palms and grasped it with both hands, trying to shatter the claw, its prey's defense – but the claw was much too sharp, the blaze a blaring warning that its bite was too deep. A third time it withdrew screeching, but now the prey followed, and struck. The beast only could raise an arm in defense to block the claw. But the arm was sent flying, and blood spurted out of the stump as through a hose. The pain was blinding. The creature gurgled horribly for a brief instant, frozen still into place, and then the black claw tore a deep gash on its neck.

Then there was nothing more.

Hunter took a single, deep breath and, with another slash, cut the bloodsucker's head off. The bestial eyes regarded him for a second, sparkled with another instant with human-like agony, then darkened over.

Only then did he notice that he had his back to the archway leading to the room with the bubbling anomalies, and that eyes had been watching him all along. Blackjack, Mystery, and Ogre. They all were speechless, utterly flabbergasted at what just had transpired before them.



“Al... Alexei...? Alexei...?” The voice was hesitant, as if its owner could not fully yet trust whom he talked to, but neither could stand by and watch unconcernedly. “What happened?”

The headache was overpowering and sapped him of all his strength. The youth let himself be dragged and laid over the mattress by the elderly stalker. “We... I cannot override its influence. Not yet. I tried, but it's very powerful.”




“He did *WHAT*?!” Screws stared at Hunter, his mouth open wide in astonishment.

“He killed a bloodsucker in hand-to-hand combat.” Blackjack's voice was tinged with admiration. “And he doesn't even have a scratch. I have never seen such skill. Where did you learn?”

The silent stalker shrugged as usual as he cleansed the beast's feelers and prepared them for storage, but noticed Maxim's eyes would not divert off him as usual. “Many places. I've studied many forms of combat. Sambo, ninjutsu, aikido, kung-fu, brazilian capoeira, several wrestling arts... and these are the latest I've studied. I've learned about it more than I care to remember.” He shook his head.

“So that sword is a ninja sword?” Sataida asked. “Also, that mask... it kind of fits, somehow. Makes you look like a camouflaged ninja.”

Hunter smirked at her naiveté. “It's not a true ninja sword. It handles differently. And the cross-guard is not like that of a ninja-to, either.”

Nikolay's eyes glittered. “I suppose it takes a long time to get such a skill.”

Another shrug. “Not only training, but usage as well. Skill is useless without experience to test it.”

Ogre nodded in agreement. “What else have you found around?”

Hunter shoved a rucksack over the floor towards him. “The bandits stashed this away.” He looked every which way, looking for his prisoner, and found him handcuffed to the ladder, still unconscious.

The giant ruffled through the sack. Cigarette packs, food, some ammo... and a large package weighing roughly a kilo, tightly wrapped and secured with heavy-duty adhesive tape. Ogre held it in his hand and showed it to everyone.

Nikolay recognized that. He had seen that occasionally within the walls of the correctional at Kiev. “Drugs...”
  22:16:05  26 October 2011
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sgt.davis44
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sgt.davis44
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WOW!! I haven't read a S.T.A.L.K.E.R story as good as this since... since. Snorkbait! That and your story are my favourite! Great work
  03:32:54  29 October 2011
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ZeroDead
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Personally I think snorkbait is on a league of his own. But thanks

Got some nice ideas for the next few episodes. Things are starting to pick up speed now. Feel free to toss your thoughts into the mix!
  19:22:04  30 October 2011
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naury
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Cheers mate... This is really good. Im looking forward to read all episodes. I'm now at 4th. Keep 'em up!!
  19:07:34  2 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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Episode VIII

“Why would they have this?” Blackjack was asking, half to himself.

“To use it?” Ogre ventured.

“They'd have broken it down in smaller packs if they planned on using it,” Nikolay answered. “I think they had it wrapped up like that for a trade.”

“And who would they be dealing with...” Mystery was thinking. He knew that there were passages and corridors underneath them, crammed with rusting machinery, anomalies and other dangers, but still, he felt as if there was something else down here that was important to him in particular. And his spotty memory still did not stretch that far.

“Let's take it anyway. We can trade it ourselves,” Sataida proposed.

“But what if we're caught with it?” Screws objected.

“Hellooo? There's no cops here, it's the Zone, remember?” She retorted mockingly.

“Yeah, let's see how you pitch that argument to a Duty patrol,” he shot back with an edge. He had gotten ahold of himself and decided that he had been weak for too long. Plus, if he indeed wanted to get her –and the pangs on his chest whenever he turned towards her were strong signals in that regard–, acting meek was not going to help.

“We're not on Duty territory,” Blackjack interceded. “Yet. But still, it may be useful as a bargaining chip of sorts. Maybe one we can use to bribe our way out of trouble sometime.”

“I concur.” Hunter's agreement was flat and dry. Ogre nodded and stowed it on his own backpack carefully.

“What would it be worth here?” The giant pondered.

“Not much, probably... Even if they're quite widespread here, Jellyfishes can't be grown anywhere. Drugs can,” Maxim reasoned.

“Got a point, there.”

Hunter searched the unconscious bandit thoroughly. He found the usual assortment of ammo, food, cheap cigarettes, a smartphone with a set of headphones, and a Flash artifact. “Here,” he said to Ogre, “have it for the moment. You have the heaviest load.”

The giant shrugged and smirked. “Not going to argue, there.”

The mobile phone he handed over to Sataida, who skillfully navigated it. “There's a voice log of sorts here... no, wait. There are several. It's going to take some time...”

“Then get on with it, girl.” Ogre gave her an affectionate smack with one of his massive hands. “What about him? We leave him there?”

“We're not going to drag him across the whole place, are we?” Mystery asked rhetorically.

This time, Blackjack and Mystery took point, Hunter closely behind them; Sataida and Screws were in the middle, while Ogre closed the march. They all wore their masks and protective gear, and it was a good thing they did that because the fumes only got worse as they slowly climbed down the creaking spiral staircase.

And still, when the walls around the staircase opened into a wide corridor crammed everywhere with churning greenish clouds, the distant echoes of high-pitched shrieks could be heard.

“Rodents,” Blackjack whispered. “Stay sharp.”

No one replied. There was no need. They all clutched their weapons with tense hands, with the usual exception of Hunter, who held a throwing knife on each hand almost carelessly.

It was obvious that the anomaly-plagued corridor was too narrow for people to walk side by side, so Mystery took point, followed by Hunter and Blackjack. The amnesiac stalker found it was easier for him to navigate these places not by thinking, but merely by reacting instead; habits he did not know he had made him look around some corners but not around some others, ignoring some places and taking extra precautions near others, as if he already knew where to expect danger. Behind him, Hunter noticed his increasing confidence and followed closely.

Upon reaching a doorway leading to another room, Mystery stopped and raised a bunched fist. Everyone stopped in turn. He listened and watched, again out of long-dormant habit, but nothing perturbed their tense wait other than the muffled screeches of the rodents somewhere deep inside the catacombs and the bubbling of the anomalies. When he was satisfied, he set on again; this room was also chock-full with fuming greenish clouds, and whatever machinery that once had been there was now reduced to formless piles of liquid metallic slag. Only the anomalies lit the hall, and the place was a chaotic dance of shadows and greenish lights as bubbles popped and hissed.

Then again, he rose a hand, and everyone stopped to hear the staccato of automatic fire, followed by high-pitched squeals. There was people down there, and it was not unexpected. Rats everywhere scuttled around for refuge.

Blackjack signaled Mystery to move on, that he kept him covered. Hunter was now wielding the decrepit assault rifle they had taken from the bandit, a battered AK-74, and was also looking down the hall through its sights.

Something roared somewhere down the tunnels, and they all readied themselves for another bloodsucker, but what darted into the room via a doorway on the other end, running in desperation, was a masked soldier, who paled upon seeing the stalkers ready to shoot. Then the roar repeated itself, louder than before. Mystery spotted the blur behind him and raised his AKM: “GET DOWN!”

The soldier immediately got to the ground. Hunter got off the first shot, but it was irrelevant: the mutant was literally chewed down to mincemeat by the barrage of five assault rifles.

“Come, get closer, we aren't going to shoot you,” Maxim invited. The serviceman did not need to be asked twice; quickly he stood up and approached. “You're hurt?”

“God, no! Thank you a lot, you've just saved my sorry ass... but hey, you know you're not going to get a warm welcome down these halls, do you?” The voice was soft, still unbroken by age; probably the soldier was very young.

Mystery quickly warmed up to him. “Well, we're kind of experts in, say, shotgun diplomacy,” he stated with a smirk.

“That won't save you. The things around here aren't about listening, if you get my meaning.”

“Thanks for the heads-up,” Ogre said. “But...” They all looked at each other. Telling the soldier what they were looking for was out of the question.

“You may find some, er, artifacts down here, maybe, but it's dangerous as hell,” the soldier warned. “I, for one, don't want to spend another minute down here. I'm outta here.”

“You're deserting?” Sataida asked in disbelief.

The soldier sought the female voice and stared at her apoplectically. “What? A girl, here? Are you insane? You know what they do to girls here?” Sataida said nothing, but her eyes flashed fiercely behind her gas mask in defiance.

“We've been trying to convince her of that... but well, she's headstrong.” Ogre shook his head.

“I wouldn't bring her into the base. The bunch up there are all criminals in disguise.”

“We weren't thinking of parading her around,” Screws joked, glancing at her. His heart swelled when he saw her grin beneath her mask. “But why are you deserting?”

The soldier drooped his shoulders. “I've been posted down here every day since I arrived. Everyone who gets stuck with guard duty here kicks the bucket sooner or later, there are a lot of uncharted rooms and passages and there's dangerous things all around. And I've outlasted everyone else so far, twice over at that. I guess I've pushed my luck long enough. ” He snorted hatefully. “I've overheard there's bets being placed on who lasts longer, or something. Someone in command would cash in big time if some mutant got me.” He glanced quickly over them all. “Or if some stalker did... So, you see...”

Mystery expressed his sympathy. “Some fellows you got, huh.”

Blackjack put their minds back into their task: “How many soldiers are up there?”

“Up in the base? Say, around forty or fifty men around.” The soldier watched them all carefully. “What, you planning to storm the base?”

“Is there a way?”

“Well, there's a hatch on the other side of these tunnels that leads straight into a backyard, but it's kept guarded; that's how we get down here. But they'll hear you coming; there are sentries posted everywhere. And if push comes to shove they can always radio in for helicopters.”

Ogre swore under his breath. “This just keeps getting better and better.” He turned hopelessly to Blackjack.

“Oh, stop worrying on my account!” Sataida hissed.

“If they're the gangsters in disguise you say they are, you think there'd be someone interested in this?” Maxim signaled to the giant, who produced the package from his backpack.

The soldier shook his head. “No, not that I know of. I mean, maybe, it wouldn't come as a surprise. I know there's someone smuggling in liquor, but how do they do it, hell, I don't know.” He again stared at them each, one by one. “Are you really, really sure you want to go in there? I mean, there's nothing of value there, other than a poorly stocked armory... but maybe you know something I don't,” he added.

“If we told you, we'd have to kill you.” Everyone smirked at Screws' remark; it seemed straight out of an espionage novel.

“Yeah, figured as much.” Then the soldier's face lit up. “Hey, maybe I can help you after all. I mean, you are going to sneak in, right?” Nobody replied openly. “I guessed as much. Listen up, after nightfall the patrols pull back and everyone goes to the barracks to sleep or play dice or get drunk, save a token few who get posted as tower guard or gate sentries. At least one of the command staff, though, remains on the second floor of the main building, every night.”

Ogre allowed himself a cautious smile. “What kind of army discipline is that?”

“None, why do you think I'm leaving?” The soldier asked rhetorically. “Someone wants to turn me into a pile of cash, and because they can't they keep bullying me. They hate to lose their bets against me every night. That's some exemplary... er... esprit de corps, was it?” His French was blatantly mispronounced and heavily accented, but it was clear enough. And it distilled bitterness.

Blackjack nodded, in part to conceal both the relief and the indignation that had surged within him. “It's the best you can do, to get out of here, then. When does the next watch start?”

“Around 0300 hours, give or take. As of late my reliefs have been arriving well past 4 AM.” The youth did not need to clarify why.

Hunter, who for the most part had kept a watchful eye out for mutants and other soldiers, spoke up dryly. “We are most grateful for your help. Now, if you will only join us until we are done, we will set you up properly to make a living as a stalker. It's either that, or being tied up to some pipe. Your choice.”

Most of the group, Mystery and Ogre in particular, were surprised and somewhat disappointed at the icy stalker's treatment of their informer, but it made sense. As easily as he had told about his fellows, the soldier could have a pang of guilt and report their presence, which would of course ruin everything. The serviceman was surprised and angry for a moment, and was about to rudely tell Hunter where he could stick it, but a quick glance at the stalker's readiness changed his mind. He wet his lips, both anger and understanding written in his eyes. “Well, I see your point. I'm coming with you. It beats being tied up to a pipe, I guess.”

Hunter smirked coolly. “Good choice. Here, come with me. We have your payment right here. Blackjack, if you will please...?”

“Of course.” Maxim unslung his backpack and produced the spare black armor suit he had taken from the Monolith dead, back at the rookie village. “Here, put this on.” Silently he complimented the quick thinking of his comrade; if he was dressed like him, it would make it much harder for the soldier to switch sides if their plan – if they had a plan at all – soured up. “You can have my spare rifle until you get one yourself.” That said, he handed him his own SCAR and a few clips, which the now former soldier took unconvincingly. Blackjack was about to ask why he did not have a rifle, but he guessed the bloodsucker he had escaped from had something to do with it. “What is your name, if I may ask?”

“Er... it's Boris.” The transition from soldier to deserter to stalker was going much faster than he had anticipated or was comfortable with, and it showed.

“You will need an alias. Everyone has one here. That one is Hunter; I'm Blackjack. They are Ogre, Mystery, Sataida and Screws.” He pointed at each of them, who saluted him in turn.

“Alright, that's settled then,” Hunter said with finality. “Boris, you stay with Ogre. And keep your eyes sharp.”

They all set on again, Mystery on point, Blackjack and Hunter slightly behind him. Sataida and Screws followed them, then Boris and Ogre. The giant gave him a friendly nudge. “Don't you worry,” he whispered. “He may seem mean, but if you get on his good side he's never letting you down.”

“Yeah, well...” Boris sighed. “It's that...”

“Quiet,” was Mystery's reprimand. “You can cuddle later. I don't want any of his dear mates to hear us.”

They passed by the dead bloodsucker, whose bleeding carcass had attracted over a dozen rats and gigantic cockroaches that were fighting over the remains. They turned left, and found themselves in another barely lit corridor that ran to their left and right. The ghastly green light given by the many chemical anomalies was distorted by the shimmer of very hot air, whichever way they looked.

Mystery gulped. “Burners.”

“Fantastic.” Blackjack turned to Boris. “I take that you know a way?” He was about to say that he had just ran across that gauntlet to escape the bloodsucker, but the gleam in his eye was enough.

The young soldier nodded. Whether he noticed Maxim's unspoken mind or not, he did not say. “Yeah. Which way?” Maxim signaled left with his rifle. “Follow me, then... Step exactly where I step and you will be fine. Don't turn on your lamps.”

It seemed that his story was true, because with complete confidence he worked their way through the stifling hot maze, his steps never faltering; there he stepped slightly to his left, and there again he turned right, and here he walked straight on, almost brushing the deadly green fumes in doing so.

“You must have had quite some time on your hands, to have mapped them so thoroughly,” Mystery whispered, in part to compliment him, in part to conceal his growing uneasiness. He remembered vividly these corridors now, and was certain that he had walked them well over a hundred times, but the burner anomalies were new. And he knew that there was a parallel corridor a few meters to their right, connected to this one via passageways and a room.

Boris swelled with pride. “You bet. I've killed more mutants by using anomalies than by shooting at them. You know, bloodsuckers are almost insensitive to these acid greenish things, but fire kills them just the same.”

“Good to know,” Blackjack noted, as discreetly.

“Do these anomalies shift their positions?” Mystery inquired in a whisper.

“All the time.”

The corridor reached its end; there, a narrower passage led to a barely visible stairway, and a doorway to their right led into a darkened room with another doorway directly opposite. The amnesiac stalker turned right, leading them with ever more confidence as the veils on his memory crumbled away, and found himself in the mirror corridor he expected. His steps grew faster, now certain that he was near somewhere important, and stopped by an open duct on the wall to their left, waist-high; it was wide enough for a man to crawl in it. A ladder was dimly visible on the other end.

“What is it, Mystery?”

He did not answer. Instead, he got rid of his backpack and was about to climb into the hole, but Hunter overrode him. The silent stalker crawled along the duct, reached the ladder, and started to climb cautiously, his senses primed...

Halfway he stopped, smelling fresh air coming from above. That brief stop saved him: his hand hovered in midair almost over a tripwire. Very carefully, almost delicately, his left index finger followed the copper wire to an almost invisible concussion charge, expertly placed behind one of the ladder's arms. For an instant, Hunter considered disarming it, but he needed to turn on his headlamp and that would inevitably warn whomever was on the other side of the ladder, waiting in ambush. Slowly he climbed down.

“We can't go that way,” he whispered. “The ladder is booby-trapped. And someone is there.” He turned to Mystery. His eyes bore into him. “Why did you want to go up there?”

The amnesiac stalker cursed. Now everyone was looking at him. “Well... I... see...” he stumbled. He closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes to stare back at Hunter: “I know that place. It's a hideout. Some friends use it.”

“Those 'friends' are the Monolith?” Blackjack asked, his face blank, but his voice a warning.

“Hell, no! The damn maniacs hunted us. They...” his words trailed off. “...They killed a friend of mine. Fang, he was called. A sniper shot... him... through the collar of his exo...” He seemed to recall something: “Remember when Screws... showed ...?” He tried not to tip off Ogre, Sataida and Boris about the artifact.

Maxim nodded. “What's it?” He said brusquely.

“I had said something about a Dragunov and a friend, yes? It was him who got killed...” More faces flashed through his mind. “There were others too... Guide, Ghost, Doc--”

Ogre interrupted him: “Guide? THE Guide?

“Who's Guide?” Boris asked in puzzlement.

Mystery did not reply. He was paralyzed, struggling with his thoughts and emotions and his haltingly recovering memory. Blackjack stared at him thoughtfully. He had known him briefly, and while he had always had his misgivings about the man's memory loss, it seemed real. But if everything had been just an elaborate act to draw them into an ambush, it had been an impeccable one. Everything it takes to get us now is armed men appearing on both sides of this corridor, and we're toast.

“And some of these friends of yours are up there now.”



You got that one right, thought Guide, overhearing everything. Finally, Strelok was down there. And not alone, it seemed.

“...and what do you want to do?” He heard that unknown voice ask. He looked into Ghost's eyes. Then, into Farsight's.

A choice had to be made. Kill Strelok, or talk to him. Strelok had to be stopped, the youth and the controller had said back at the Valley, but stopped from doing what? Destroying C-Consciousness? And how?




A stone clanged loudly over the metallic duct. Everyone was startled.

Hunter reached for the stone, which was wrapped in some kind of paper with something scribbled over it. He removed the paper and read what was written in it...

“Keep your eyes open. Someone will be coming down to disarm the trap.”

The next few minutes were insufferably uncomfortable. Hunter had his senses primed on the scuffling and shuffling that was taking place somewhere in the duct before him, while the rest of them watched out for more mutants or soldiers. Blackjack consulted his own smartphone for time: 23:17. He found himself sweating beneath his mask, and hating himself for being led into such a dangerous situation, for everything about this unexpected rendezvous screamed: ambush.

Then someone spoke, the voice a muffled echo distorted by the duct walls: “...your amnesiac friend can come up on his own, if he wants.”

All eyes were fixated upon Mystery. The man slowly picked up his backpack and AKM, and crawled into the duct. With quivering hands, he climbed up the ladder. A gloved hand helped him out of the duct.

There were five people in the room. Two of them he did not recognize; one of them was a stocky man built like a rock who looked like a foreigner, given the non-Slavic features of his face, and a young boy, who hardly looked older than sixteen, that was staring at him as if he was reading him. He recognized the sharp, gaunt face of Ghost, who had helped him into the small utility room, and that of Guide, balding, weathered, the first stalker to ever breach into the Zone, and... someone wearing Fang's exoskeleton...

Slowly, the man on the exoskeleton took off his helmet. Mystery blanched and stared in disbelief. That was the young soldier he had met not an hour ago. That could not be. Shakily he raised a finger and pointed at him: “You... you...”

Guide stepped forward. “Welcome, Strelok.”

WHAT?!? Did he just call me...?
  14:44:44  3 November 2011
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Bladewraith
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Yet another fantastic chapter, keep up the good work
  02:31:31  5 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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I'm kind of a bit uncomfortable myself with this episode. Too many things slipped by.

I don't know about you, Blade, but I tend to write a little every day, and it's a very rare occasion when I have a clear idea about what I'm going to write. And sometimes organizing my thoughts on a language that's not my mother tongue tends to get tricky.

Feel free to hijack this fic with ideas, everyone. I got a vague idea of where everything here is heading, but not a clue about how will I get there.
  05:01:32  7 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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Episode IX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Believe me, I agree with you.”

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

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

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



“...So what do we do about this...?”

Blackjack straightened up. Everyone else was watching him intently.

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

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

But if he had heard right...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the quake ceased.

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

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

“Foxhound... and...”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a while he was paralyzed. Then, very softly, he pressed a hand to her head, and held her as she cried, for what it seemed to be hours.
  10:51:16  8 November 2011
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Bladewraith
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another great, would i be right to assume the next chapter might have to be on an erotic literature site?
  18:56:51  8 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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ZeroDead
11/08/2011 23:46:48
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Episode X

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

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

--------

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And?” Chasme asked, eager for news.

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

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

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

Chasme immediately jumped forward. “Say that again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won't,” he promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can't tell.”

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

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

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

They all stared at him in shock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--------

The blue mist was originally conceived by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in one of their tales, "The Forgotten Experiment". While my version is not an exact copy, it was inspired by theirs.
  01:44:05  1 December 2011
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Bladewraith
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ahem...
*looks at watch...
  06:48:18  5 December 2011
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ZeroDead
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Apologies for the hiatus. I've hit a creative brick wall of sorts and I don't like the ideas I'm coming up with... no, scratch that, I don't know how to put them together. That I've been up to my neck in exams and assignments hasn't helped.

I hope to produce something postable within a tenday or less.
  17:46:10  5 December 2011
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Bladewraith
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---QUOTATION---
Apologies for the hiatus. I've hit a creative brick wall of sorts and I don't like the ideas I'm coming up with... no, scratch that, I don't know how to put them together. That I've been up to my neck in exams and assignments hasn't helped.

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



no worries buddy, i know what it's like. been there done that. good luck with the exams and what not. if you need i've a plenty. shame i've got none for my own story... irritating how brains work eh?
  00:58:10  20 December 2011
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ZeroDead
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Message edited by:
ZeroDead
12/20/2011 2:13:50
Messages: 197
Episode XI

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I'll go,” Ghost volunteered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Batteries?” Ghost asked.

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

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

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

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

“Then get moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screws agreed. “Maxim’s right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A stash?” Boris asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Blackjack asked.

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

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

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

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

“That someone went through the hassle of setting up such a complex trap on a place as obscure as that only means one thing,” Guide said, voicing the thoughts on Ghost’s and Strelok’s minds. “Someone knew not only about the stash, but also about who was using it. And he wants us dead.”
  19:43:14  9 January 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Episode XII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” She asked curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I will,” she said, standing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Controller miasma,” Guide said immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now this is interesting.”

“What is it?” Screws asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where was this Ulyanov dude based?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


--------

Credits to Bladewraith for the whole powdered artifact idea.
  03:08:50  14 January 2012
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Do0mzday-Jesus
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On forum: 09/01/2009
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Nice story you've got going here. Keep it coming!
  18:06:44  14 January 2012
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
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another great chapter, the whole powdered artefact was more a real life way of extending useful items, mostley in medicine, greater surface area in contact with skin/damaged areas = greater efficiency. but i'm interested to see where you go with it.
  00:16:35  16 January 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Glad it's being enjoyed... even if it's gotten kind of gloomy as of late.

@Blade: I tried sending you an email with the stuff I've got in stock for the future but it got bounced back. Care to send me a mail?
  18:45:17  29 January 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Episode XIII

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

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

--------

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” Boris/Oracle encouraged him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Besides... I don't really think we're staying for long.” Ghost looked behind him at the bulk of the hangar. “One way or another.”
  05:23:30  25 June 2012
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

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

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

--------

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“However what?”

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

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

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

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

“Depends on what's happening to Hunter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We hold the gate shut with these!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screws stammered, “But what about you--”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another cough. “Get over there, you puss...! You'll have time to loot me later.”
  05:13:00  12 September 2012
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DisabledDino
(Novice)
 
On forum: 01/11/2011
Messages: 27
Awesome story!
I read Blue Mists before Echoes, which I just finished and I'm really loving it.
Keep up the good work and I'm lOoking forward to more content.
  20:48:52  8 October 2012
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
Hey there Dino... to be honest, for a month or so I entertained the idea of writing a funeral of sorts, given the fact that STALKER 2 is dead. But I haven't been able to put together anything I even half-liked when going that way. Guess it may just be that I refuse to let STALKER go.

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

All the best, Emiliano, AKA ZeroDead
  21:04:38  30 October 2012
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
10/30/2012 21:31:19
Messages: 197
Episode XV

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

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



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

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

Rains were falling intensely, he heard. Water poured through a few cracks in timid little rivulets. He looked all over himself. He was dressed up in a strange black suit of body armor that was not his own. It felt warm, despite being soaked wet in water and reeking of blood. He tried moving his arms. At once a painful jolt raced from his hands all the way to his brain, but he could move them. His left one was restrained by straps tying him to the examination table, and his right one felt soaked in mud. His legs were pinned by rubble. He moved his toes: again the pain, and again he could move them. An almost imperceptible sadness washed over him briefly, then went away.

He wriggled his right hand free from the mud and unfastened the straps on his left arm, then he tried to work his way through the rubble to free his legs. It seemed to take ages. His whole body was one great hurt, and the collapsed roof had left him trapped with little room for movement. Someone else would have been crushed to death, he knew, but the realization that would make another person cry tears of joy had no effect on him. He had survived things like that and several orders of magnitude worse, too many times to remember them all.

Light had begun to grow dimmer when he finally was able to put an arm out from under the rubble and over him, and some more digging had to be done still before he could extricate himself out of the wreckage. He looked around him. The walls of the erstwhile arena still stood, mostly. The roof had given away with the first shocks and, apparently, everyone was now buried under the rubble as he had been. Some large sections of concrete that had once been part of the ceiling rested over the remains of columns drunkenly tilted aside, their iron sinews snapped and twisted in parts. Someone could still live underneath those sections, he thought, but if they did, they made no noise. He briefly considered to let them drift peacefully and mercifully into death. Briefly.

With slow motions he started digging through the rubble with his bare hands. He had no hurry. And even then, he was in no shape to exert himself more strenuously. Given that he had been nearly torn to pieces a few days earlier -just how many days earlier, he could not tell-, it was an artifact-fueled miracle that he could still walk, let alone dig.

His first notable find was the group's baggage, which was stacked near the examination table where he had been tended to. He felt slightly relieved to see that some of it had escaped the disaster: one of their spare rifles was firmly stuck, in standing position, between a large slab of concrete and the cement floor of the building. His sword and his personal backpack were intact, but his blood-soaked armor was ruined beyond hope. Some other rucksacks were there, probably Guide's and Strelok's; he was not surprised to find the hard white plastic case he had salvaged from the Agroprom military outpost among the elderly stalker's belongings.

Next to that, he found the doctor that had tended to him. The man's head had been crushed by a part of the same pile of rubble that had pinned him, and everything over and around him was red-tinted horror. He stripped the man of his satchel and buried him again without sorrow.

Then he found a bulky, huge silhouette he thought, at first glance, to be more familiar with, but it was not Chasme; he had dug free the corpse of one of Skull's squadmates. The exoskeleton that had protected him from mutant claws and bullets had been pierced through, side to side, by the rusty iron bars protruding from a broken column. Some of the armor was salvageable, but as a whole the suit was worthless. Again he relieved the dead man from whatever he could use, and buried him anew.

He did indeed find Chasme pinned down under the beam of another column and a pile of rubble. His suit was still in working condition, and he was alive, perhaps miraculously so given the weight of the wreckage over him. Next to him was Oracle, who was also alive. It seemed that Chasme had protected the deserter from the falling rubble with his own body. He could not see wounds on either, so he proceeded to remove Chasme's suit, taking off the helmet first--

--and, this time, he was indeed taken aback. Chasme and Oracle were one and the same. Without thinking he went back through his memories, trying to recall whether he had seen Chasme with his helmet before. He did not remember that event happening. The armor-clad stalker had been careful not to let anyone see his face, and had done so without raising questions...

He put an end to such speculation, berating himself; those people needed his help now. He considered pulling them out, but that would kill them if their backs were broken--but then again, surviving that earthquake with a broken back would mean being sentenced to a very cruel death in the Zone, so he went ahead and pulled them out anyway. He heard Oracle groan as he did it. “Just hang on,” he grunted, his voice raspy, “you'll be resting comfortably very soon...” A final pull and he was free.

The deserter's face was ravaged by many cuts and abrasions, both large and small. The abrasions he could explain, but what had slashed him so? Some more things had happened after his near-suicidal stand before the frenzied onslaught of the rampaging mutant horde--

Where are they? The thought exploded in his head, suppressing his every other concern. That the mutants had nearly slaughtered them all was a fact. That he heard not a single animal growl or howl or screech was a concern. The blowout could kill them just as easily as it could kill people, but not for a second did he think the emission had exterminated them. Where did they go?


Nikolay finally dared to open his eyes and looked underneath him. Svetlana's huge green pools stared back at him, nearly invisible in the penumbra. Her lips moved but produced not a sound. Is it over?

He listened intently. The rains fell heavily, the deluge very thick over and around them. A huge section of the collapsing roof had nearly crushed them. Screws did not remember pulling Sataida behind that column.

I think yes, he said in return. He turned his head around--or tried to: he promptly hit the back of his head against something cold and stony. Suddenly gripped by horror, he tried to wriggle his legs, and he exhaled in relief when he felt he could move them freely.

“Are you alright?” He whispered. She nodded beneath him. “Your arms?”

“I'm fine,” she replied, and raised a hand to show him. He nodded, then heard a noise over the rain--concrete grating against concrete, as if something or someone was digging the wreckage. Then, the heavy thud of something bulky and heavy hitting the ground. A few instants, then the same sequence repeated itself. Then, a muted groan.

“Hello?” He voiced out as loud as he could, trying not to shout, as Sataida's ears were very close. “Is anyone out there?”


Hunter's head snapped sideways, like a cat's, to face the voice. It was the kid that had first asked him to join his group. Screws.

“I hear you,” he said in as high a voice as he dared, his disquiet about the whereabouts of the mutants not yet eased. “Are you hurt?”

“We're good, but we're trapped here,” the voice said. Another one would have smirked, but Hunter did not, even if he understood what Screws meant.

“Hold on. I will help you out of there.” That said, he set himself to the task, as quickly as his protesting muscles allowed, but he kept his ears sharp.

Dusk had come and gone before he helped Nikolay and Svetlana from under the rubble. They had been very lucky: they had taken shelter behind a column that, upon the first shocks, had drunkenly tilted to rest against one of the hangar's sturdy walls. The collapsing ceiling had fallen all over and around the column, imprisoning them, but not causing them a scratch.

“...only you?” Sataida asked quietly. Hunter shook his head and gestured at the prone forms of Chasme and Oracle. Svetlana looked in confusion. “Wait... why's Oracle--hey!” She was dumbstruck. Screws uttered a surprised exclamation too when he noticed what had surprised her.

“But... they're--”

“The same, I know.” Hunter was, as always, pragmatic. “If you're done gawking at them you should help me dig. Someone else could be alive. And if not, we are going to need all the gear we can get.” That was true. Other than their armor and the -many- artifacts on their belts and satchels, they had nothing. “Once we uncover a crate or a backpack, you two will take turns to sort their contents while the other digs with me. Screws, get started with that.” He pointed at a pile of satchels and boxes he had set aside as he found them.

Night was over them and rains had ceased when they found the remains of Blackjack. The Russian had been crushed by a slab of concrete too large to remove. Hunter was inclined to let Blackjack lie where he was, but Sataida adamantly refused and tried to get to him, without much success; the only thing they could recover from him were a few small satchels, and what Svetlana expected to find: a small locket containing the picture of a girl.

“When we first met... he had said something about how it had been years since he had last seen his daughter,” she explained. She was too tired to cry out loud for her friends. She knew that would come when she had rested some, but now she wanted to honor the man's memory by at least promising herself she would someday find the girl in the locket.

The bald, silent man next to her bowed his head in respect. Nikolay tapped her gently on her shoulder and handed her some dog tags. “These were in his satchels,” he said.

“Chulanov, Maxim,” she read out loud.

Screws nodded. “His name was Maxim alright.” He looked at the wreckage and shook his head. The man had always been steadfast, confident, even optimist at times, however desperate the odds. “He taught me not to let go, never to give up to despair and depression...”

“Then don't,” Hunter said laconically. “Dig.”

A short while later, they found Strelok. He, too, was dead. The mutants had bled him dry. He probably had died before the earthquake was over. As with the doctor and the Skull squad, they pulled the corpse of the legendary stalker from under the rubble and carefully went over him, looking for anything still useful--exactly as he himself would have done. Sataida felt ashamed for looting a friend's corpse, but Nikolay did not. He would have wanted them to take whatever they could, he had reasoned. And even if not, he did not care anymore. The dead did not need those things, whereas the living did. He stopped cold for a second when he realized where his train of thought had finally arrived. After so much death and suffering, I am finally a stalker. The realization left him embittered.

Svetlana searched Strelok fruitlessly for tags or papers or anything that would give him a name other than his moniker. She sighed in defeat. “We don't know his name.”

“And, probably, never will.” Screws reached for his artifact belt and unclasped it.

“I need some help over here,” Hunter called out quietly.

Sataida stood. “I'm coming.” From underneath a large pile of rubble, a single black boot stuck out. She helped him lift another large section of concrete that had once been a ceiling, and beneath it they found Alexei, lying over a pile of stacked rucksacks and backpacks. The artifacts on his belt glowed noticeably, even more so in the night. Hunter reached for his neck and searched for a pulse. “He is alive,” he uttered hoarsely. “Help me move him--”

A struggling voice interrupted his thinking: “Hunter... is that you?” He turned around: Chasme had woken up. “What... you took it off... well, the secret's out now, I suppose...”

“How do you feel?” Hunter regarded him attentively. His motions seemed...

“Dizzy... I just have to...” Then he blanched. “I... I can't feel my legs...”

Immediately the tall stalker rushed to him. “We must remove your armor...”

“Oh, God, no,” Chasme whimpered. “Anything, but this, please, no...” Tears spilled down his dirty cheeks. “Yeah, take it off, take it off!” He said frantically. It took Hunter some ten minutes to remove the armor; then, with extreme caution, he turned Chasme over his belly and carefully examined his back. When he reached his waist he stopped and felt his spine even more cautiously: “What? What is it? What is it?”

“You've broken your spine.” Hunter's voice was callous. “You won't walk ever again.”

“Not if we were outside the Zone!” Chasme growled. The other man shook his head.

“If that damage could be repaired by the artifacts you are wearing--”

“YOU DON'T KNOW!” The response was an enraged yell.

“Neither do you.” Hunter's face was stark, more dispassionate than ever.

Chasme was crying silently. Sataida and Screws witnessed helplessly the exchange, both with tears in their eyes and fists clenched white with powerlessness. “What if... where's Alexei? Where is he?

“We just pulled him out too. He's unconscious, but alive.”

“Help me into the armor again...” he pleaded. “Boris... Oracle... he can't know this. Please.”

“But why?” Sataida stammered.

“I'm an interloper here, understand that! I came from... from another time, this is his reality, not mine!” He struggled not to burst into tears again. “Even if... I recover... he can never know. I would be usurping his life...” He had put off dwelling on what that meant for long, very much aware of the consequences. They both had the same relatives, the same lives, the same friends... the same fiance... But there was room for only one on that life, not for them both. “Even if I recover... I'll have to stay here in the Zone forever...” Again he collapsed in tears.

“But... but there are no artifacts we can use?” Svetlana ventured, even while knowing it was probably a futile question. “None at all?”

“What about the powdered artifacts?” Nikolay said in a flash of inspiration.

“What about them?”

“It... it occurred to me... there was this old action flick called 'Shooter', remember? The dude got shot, and powdered his wound with some thing that stopped him from bleeding out, then drove half across the U.S. to get that hot nurse to fix him up, remember?” Without waiting for a reply he turned on his heel and ran to the pile of backpacks to search for the heavy flasks.

Hunter knew not of the film Nikolay had mentioned, but he understood what he meant. “It's a gamble.” He stared at Boris/Chasme. “I would have to perform a deep cut on your lower back, deep enough to expose your spine, then spread artifact powder there.”

“You... you know how to do it?”

The man nodded. “I have the required expertise, yes, but little in the way of instruments--” Brusquely he stopped and looked at the sky. Sataida needed not asking to know what had attracted his attention.

“How long?”

“Ten minutes, maybe less.” Quickly he searched the pile of backpacks they had unearthed until he found what he sought: a few standard-issue army flares, still capped and ready to use. He lit one, then another, and then a last one, and tossed them around the wreckage of the hangar.

Nikolay ventured, “Shouldn't we hide--?”

“We need help here,” Hunter interrupted him quietly.

“Please, help me onto the armor again,” Chasme pleaded, but Hunter shook his head.

“No one needs to know the truth now. If Oracle awakens I'll deal with him. Someone else will just think you're twins.”

It did not take long. They felt the rhythmic tapping of several helicopters approaching. The noises grew steadily louder all around them, yet there were no navigation lights to be seen. For several minutes they heard the rotors circling around them. “Why aren't they closing in?” Sataida asked.

“They're reconnoitering the area,” Hunter responded, still digging.

Nikolay nodded. “Makes sense... after all, there's no Skull talking to them on the radio.” He looked at the tall man as he dug and realized how different he was now that he had been forced to take the lead. No more a taciturn fellow, now a driven man who always seemed to know what he was doing.

The noises now converged towards them, until they became a deafening roar as one of the helicopters hovered over them in stationary flight. Hunter kept on working as unconcernedly as ever. “Boris and the other wounded can't move. Tend to them”, he merely said to Nikolay and Svetlana in as loud a voice as needed to overcome the roar of the engine and continued to dig. Two ropes were dropped from the helicopter, and four soldiers rappelled down, then four more. Sataida half-expected the commandos to seize them the moment they were on the ground, but she witnessed them as they expertly set up a perimeter around the devastated arena building, evidently not considering them a threat. Why should they? We're harmless...

One of the paratroopers gestured at the helicopter. Cargo was slowly lowered down on a large basket-like contraption; once it was unloaded, the basket was lifted back, and the helicopter slowly started to pick up speed and height. Soon it was speeding again southwards, along with its nigh-invisible escorts.

Only then did the signaling paratrooper approached Hunter. “Are you in charge?”

The man did not stop removing the rubble. “Of what little remains to be in charge of here.”

“How many were here?”

Hunter shook his head. “I was unconscious when the building collapsed, but there were between thirty and forty people in the whole compound. Many of them were killed fighting beasts in the southern checkpoint, however.”

A second nod, then several orders barked out, and two other paratroopers put down their weapons and gear and joined the tall stalker in his task, while a third one sat next to Chasme, Farsight and Oracle. “What is going on here?” The man demanded.

“Do you have surgical instruments?” Nikolay asked in return.

“Why?”

“This man here has...” Screws could not think of the medical term for Chasme's condition, but then he berated himself: Why do I need to tell him that in medispeak? “He can't feel his legs. Hunter, there, said he's broken his spine. We hoped artifacts could fix that, but probably it's too bad of an injury...”

“Wait a second. You are saying some magical thing is going to repair a lesion that can most assuredly kill a person, or put him into a wheelchair for life at the very least?”

“That is, exactly, what artifacts can do,” was Nikolay's matter-of-fact voiced reply.

“Some may,” Svetlana quipped quietly. “We're not so sure now... so...”

“We had this... idea, you see...” Screws pulled one of the flasks containing powdered Souls from the backpack where he had found them. “Cutting him open and spreading this on his wound.” As far as I know, these things aren't radioactive... He cautiously opened the heavy flask: the powder inside was greenish-brown in color and glowed noticeably.

The paramedic snorted. “What this man needs is to be evacuated to a hospital, not some farfetched amateurish butchery! You know that what you propose will probably kill him?”

“You will do what he suggests. Please.” Chasme's voice was low, determined, and steady enough to leave no room for doubt.

“What you want is not important,” the paramedic snarled. “Your stay here depends on the goodwill of the Army, and since I am the officer in charge of deciding whether to treat or evacuate wounded people here--”

“Doctor, would you override his decision?” Nikolay asked rhetorically, looking at him in the eye. “If so, based on what? On the legality of his being within the Zone of Exclusion? Since when does that take precedence over a man's right to decide over a treatment?”

“Calling what you propose doing a 'treatment' is so outrageous that I would have to invent a new word to describe it... but...” The paramedic did not like being wrong, and that irked him.

“What do you know about artifacts, doctor?” Svetlana asked.

“Not as much as I would like,” the paramedic admitted. He understood what she meant instantly. “You... have me at a disadvantage here. We are trained to deal with them as deadly hazards, as we do with anomalies.” He returned the question: “What do you know?”

She pointed at Hunter, who was trying, along with the two paratroopers, to lift a heavy section of a collapsed column. “That man dug us out himself, after... after mutants wounded him so badly he nearly bled to death,” she related. “If you check him up you'll see what I mean. And he has lots of artifacts in that heavy belt you see he's wearing.”

The man looked at Hunter, thought for a few seconds, then nodded. “I see what you imply. Topic application... It's a long shot...” The doctor was half-mumbling to himself, and that somehow struck Nikolay as odd. He turned his head around and was startled: Alexei had woken up, and was intensely staring at the doctor; the man, having his back turned to him, did not notice it. “If this thing... has had as potent an effect on your friend as you say... If you still want to go ahead on it, I'll do it,” he told Chasme, “though I can't guarantee anything. I fear all I'll be able to do for you is make sure your condition doesn't get any worse.”

Through the corner of his eye Boris/Chasme noticed Screws had paled, but his features did not give anything away. “Let's do it.”

“Your funeral, then.” He glanced at Screws. “Keep him comfy until we can set up a place where I can perform this... nonsense more carefully.” That said, he turned his head around to check up on Farsight and Oracle. “Oh, so we're awake. Good sign. How do you feel?”

“...It hurts,” was all that Farsight could articulate. The paramedic ran a quick check on him, immediately noticing the glow that seeped through the pouches on his belt. He was about to unzip one of them, but noticed the attentive gaze of both Sataida and Screws. “Is there anything else I should know?” the man asked gruffly.

Nikolay answered, “The artifacts on that belt are what's keeping him alive. Take my word for it. If you're interested in the exact artifact, there were whole crates of the things stacked around here. You'll surely find them as Hunter and your, eh, squadmates clear out the rubble.”

The soldier nodded curtly. “I'll do as you say and take your word for it.” The paramedic concluded his check and reported to his commander. “Probably these two will make it, sir, though I'd wish to have them looked at in a hospital. Head concussion, light slashing wounds and lacerations on this one, crushed chest with multiple rib fractures on the other. The third needs surgery on his lower back badly, and he needs it right now. I need to set up a place.”

“Polyakov! Altunin!” The commander hollered. Two of the sentries immediately ran over and stood at attention. “Help Kamarov set up a field surgery unit.” Then he looked at the teens. “What happened here, exactly? Where is the Duty commander?”

“We're all that's left.” It took Nikolay some fifteen-odd minutes to relate everything that had transpired since their arrival at Rostok. Very carefully he omitted mentioning Hunter's last stand and Alexei's strange talents, talents that somehow had not caused them any bother yet, even if they had been digging in the rubble next to him for a whole day now. That should have intrigued Screws, but he accepted it with a shrug of his inner self that he hid from the soldier. Somehow he felt that the less he knew, the saner he would be.

The commander regarded the youth, evaluating him, gauging his sanity, trying to discern just how shell-shocked the poor teenager would have to be to tell so brutal a story without so much as flinching. The girl, he noticed, was a lot more fidgety and uneasy, clearly intimidated by his presence. They had, somehow, escaped that ordeal unhurt. “You should not be here.”

Screws smiled evilly. “I don't mean whether you mean we should not have survived that, or whether we are trespassing here. In case you think the latter, let me inform you that I was dumped here by the authorities of the Lukyanivska Prison, at the Dytyakty checkpoint, with the agreement of warden Yuriy Shipunov. If I should not be here then I politely suggest you contact your superiors and inquire about him. Probably he's using the Zone to get rid of inmates he disapproves of.”

The soldier stared at him for two whole seconds through his gasmask and night-vision goggles. For an instant he recalled a few comments he had heard about how that godforsaken place changed people, not just by exposure to weird radiations, but also in mindset. “Whatever. Want to get out?”

Nikolay spat. For some stupid reason he was possessed of an arrogant glow. He knew he was treading on quicksand but did not care. “Out there, with no job, no prospect of getting one, and no family to speak of? You mean, back to jail? No, I'd rather take my chances with the mutants and the Zone, thank you very much.”

“I will rephrase what I said then, and you'd better listen up good, kid: want to stay here and ply your trade legally?”

Screws blinked twice. “It would be nice. Though no cards or signed papers will be much good when trying to convince a greenshirt holding me at gunpoint. Hey, Hunter!” he hollered. “Come over here, we need to talk.” Once the tall, quiet stalker had joined them, Nikolay said, feeling a bit light-headed: “Now, sir, if you would be so kind, could you please outline your proposal to us?”

The soldier paused for a moment to take off his goggles and gasmask. The man was blond, his eyes ice-blue, his mouth wide and thin-lipped, his features stern. “I think some introductions are in order first. I am Mikhail Il'ych Bondarenko, SBU, master sergeant and commander of this recon mission. Your names, please? Not your aliases.”

Sataida answered first. “Svet... Svetlana Pavlichenko.”

“Nikolay,” Screws followed suit. “No surname, sorry. I was orphaned very young.”

“Ivan Pugachev,” Hunter said quietly. Screws listened with well concealed surprise and wondered if the name was true. Somehow it ringed hollow to him.

Bondarenko perceived it in the same way, given his looks, but made no comment on it. “You should do something about that, kid, but it's not like you can fix it here. Now, on to the matter at hand... we have been assigned two duties: one, to search for and rescue survivors here, in response to the request issued by the acting Duty commander, but I see we may be too late for that.” The SBU officer shook his head. “Even then, our orders are to set up a safe zone here, evacuate any survivors, and then proceed with our second assignment: make it to the limits of the 'Brain Scorcher' anomaly zone and, once there, search for a way through, if at all possible.” At once Screws snorted a chuckle. “What's so funny?”

“You know that's suicide, right? I was never there myself, and no one else for that matter--nobody who goes there ever returns--” Except Strelok, and he's dead, he realized with dismay he failed to conceal.

“But what?” Bondarenko knew he was on to something. Screws struggled with himself, thinking of suitable excuses, then gave up.

“The one person I heard about, and repeatedly so, that had managed to go there and return was killed in the last earthquake. If he knew of a way, it's lost now.”

“Who was he?” The soldier asked. Nikolay answered reluctantly, knowing what was coming:

“The... bald man we have set apart.”

“But I take you have searched him already.” Bondarenko's blue eyes bored into Screws' relentlessly.

But it was Hunter who answered. Hoarsely. “That we have done. If you ask, we can share with you what we learn from what he left behind. But you have to trust us.”

The soldier measured him and realized that, even while diminished by the ordeal, this man that now stood up to him would be a formidable match in a fight, the outcome uncertain. He could simply order them to surrender what they had salvaged and back up the order with his weapons and his men, but that would erode the confidence he needed from people whom they would have to trust with their lives. “Don't make me regret it.”

Hunter did not reply. He merely glared at Bondarenko, then at Screws; Nikolay nodded. The silent man returned to work on the wreckage, where the two soldiers had apparently found another survivor.

The commander watched him go. “That fellow of yours is queer.”

Nikolay snorted again. “Like you wouldn't know. But it's okay, you won't have to deal with him, only with me. What exactly do you offer us?”

“Freedom to pursue your business here as you see fit. Gear, if you need it--we need you alive if you're to guide us. Once we complete our mission we can make it all official, the Kiev University is always whining for more samples and field observations and I can recommend you to them at our debriefing.” And the quakes have driven them nuts.

Screws was taken aback at how difficult it was for him to picture life going on outside the Zone. He put that aside for later consideration. “And how are we supposed to work with you? I take you would be in charge, alright?”

Bondarenko frowned. “Ideally that would be the case, but let's be honest, you know the hazards of this place much better than we do, despite all of our training and what we've been able to learn from reports. If combat breaks out, you would be expected to stay as far away from it as possible and let us deal with it.”

Svetlana saw fit to take part in the conversation. “So, we would be your eyes, and you would be our fists.”

The soldier smiled. “In a way. I'll be in the lead, but I expect of you to speak out whenever you consider it necessary.”

Nikolay found it hard to refuse the proposal. The officer seemed reasonable, competent and level-headed. He reminded him so much of Blackjack. The thought wracked his heart. “One of my dead friends was a man very much like yourself, sergeant. And he would have said again what I just told you. Going to the Brain Scorcher is suicide.”

“But this fellow of yours found a way.”

“Whatever he found, it cost him dearly. When we first met him he was amnesiac, and most likely was in one of those 'death trucks' that from time to time used to come out of the epicenter. If there is a way, it will be hard to find, and even harder to traverse. He... he kept a log before losing his memory, and had kept it on his smartphone, but he had secured it with a password and had forgotten it. Maybe Chasme knows something else, but he's very badly mauled.”

“Chasme being...?”

“Oh, the dude on the exo. Er, who wore the exo.” The armor was still neatly stacked next to Boris/Chasme. Why the soldiers had not seized it at once was unexplainable, but Nikolay saw fit not to raise the issue. Somehow he felt Alexei's talents were at work, a subtle influence warping events in their favor.

Bondarenko looked at him, then noticed how similar he was to Oracle, despite the wounds on the latter. “How odd, to see twins here...”

Sataida felt tempted to explain how incredibly alike they actually were, but did not as she saw Screws shaking his head slowly. Not only it was hard to prove, it could erode their credibility and that was the last thing they needed now.

“We will have to wait, then... or evacuate him,” Bondarenko mused.

“We should wait to see how he responds to the surgery, and even if that goes sour I strongly suggest we wait until we see if the artifacts can help,” Nikolay advised. “As I said, there were crates stacked with hundreds of the things, and one of our late leaders made a point of equipping ourselves with those known to have regenerative and radiation-shielding properties. Hunter, there, had almost bled to death before we crammed him with Fervent Crystals, and I dare say that's what keeps him going now.” If 'Ivan' heard that, he gave no hints of it.

“'Fervent Crystals'?” The soldier echoed in puzzlement. Screws, in response, opened a pouch in his belt and produced one of the things. It seemed to be a weird formation of lustrous crystal and rock vaguely resembling a heart. The artifact felt light, comfortingly warm, and pulsed with soothing green light. The soldiers looked on in awe. “So... this is what an artifact looks like.”

“There's many more of them.” He then produced a fuzzy ball of thorny spikes that radiated an ominously-looking reddish glow, the Mama's Beads he had found at the Cordon on the belt of the dead Monolith soldier, and something resembling crystallized black leather that felt oddly viscous to the touch. “These are variants of Porcupines, Mama's Beads and Scales,” he said, recalling everything Guide had taught him, blessing his memory. “The Scales are radioactive, but the Crystals and the Porcupines more than offset their effect. You would do well in equipping yourselves with some of the artifacts stashed here, sergeant,” he recommended. “It's not like they'll be going anywhere.”

Bondarenko took the recommendation to heart. “You're the experts.” He was looking at the remains of the arena. It would take days to dig that place out. Time was not an issue; setting up a safe perimeter was. The hundreds of rotting carcasses piled up around the southern entrance were as crystal-clear a warning as they were going to get regarding just how dangerous mutants could become if they swarmed around. He again turned to face Nikolay, but the youth talked to him first:

“If you need anything else--”

“I do, actually,” the soldier interrupted, but cordially. “I want to ask what you know about these radiation storms.”

“The blowouts, you mean?” Nikolay grimaced. “What do you know?”

“Well, we have a standing operational protocol in case of one: seek immediate shelter, something with thick walls, concrete-reinforced being best. But with these quakes and all...”

Screws frowned. “Yeah, not very appealing either. And, something else... when did you last receive Skull's request for aid?”

“October 26th. Three days ago.”

Nikolay was aghast. “THREE days?! We were out three days?” He eyed Sataida, who was equally perturbed.

“The mist again, maybe?” She wondered. Bondarenko seemed to recall something:

“I was going to ask about that, too.” He opened his hip satchel and pulled out a tablet computer protected by a tough-looking case. A few commands, then he started displaying a series of pictures: “These are feeds taken during the last tenday from the ISS.”

Nikolay beckoned Hunter to return and they looked at the pictures together. What they saw on the feeds for October 19th and 20th matched what they remembered from those days: thick cloud rains over most of the Zone. However, the picture taken on October 21st was beyond strange: unnaturally white, thick clouds covered the NPP, like a giant cottonlike blister about to burst. He went on to the next one: it had been taken a scant two hours later. It was as if a shockwave had erupted from the plant and slowly cleared the skies for miles around it, pushing the thick and heavy cloud covers aside. Two more pictures taken in quick succession that same day showed the cleared area growing wider and the clouds being pushed further towards the outer reaches of the Zone. The same pattern had taken place three days ago, with a slight difference: the clouds had been pushed a bit farther beyond the borders of the Zone than the time before. There were more pictures, more measurements had been taken, but they were incomprehensible to Nikolay and Sataida. Not to Hunter:

“The blue mist again.”

Bondarenko looked at him, then at his two young companions. He did not like their worried looks. And he liked how the tall man had dubbed the phenomenon even less. “Shortly after the blowout on October 21st, almost all signs of human activity on the Zone ceased. Contact was lost with military outposts and teams, Duty bases... even many rogue groups went silent.”

Nikolay was about to say that he had seen what had happened at the Agroprom outpost but though better of it. “You say 'many' rogue groups, but not all. So there's people still alive out there?”

“We have to suppose that... I mean, given the info we have we should, but that doesn't make any sense. We've picked up signs of activity within the Brain Scorcher influence zone, especially on Pripyat and the NPP itself.”

“They must be... what did you call them, Kolya? The Monolith?”

“Ehhh--yes, Sveta, them, the Monolith.” Screws was caught off guard by Sataida calling him with a nickname, and had to think for a second to respond in kind.

Bondarenko nodded. “Duty informed of the fanatics. They had managed to capture some of their members on the very fringes of the Brain Scorcher, but never got anything meaningful from any of them: they raved on and on like lunatics about the 'holy Monolith' and how it was 'their sacred duty' to preserve the 'holy land' from 'infidels'...” He shook his head, then straightened up. “In any case, we'll have to deal with them later. We have people to rescue here first.” He looked thoughtfully around him. “With these earthquakes going on I don't exactly look forward to setting up camp on a building.”

“But there's blowouts to account for,” Nikolay argued. The soldier seemed to remember something then.

“We have something that can help there. Go to Kamarov and ask him for anabiotics. Then grab some rest. You've been through enough.”

“Um... okay. And thank you.”

The medic provided them with shiny black tablets on blisters, and instructions to take one right at the onset of a blowout; he went on to explain briefly about how it was thought that a blowout was not only a storm of ionizing radiation, but, on top of that, something else poorly understood that affected nervous systems. The drug would cause them to pass out temporarily and wake up after the worst had passed.

“What happens when there are mutants around?” Sataida asked.

“You hope the blowout kills them then.” Kamarov was blunt. “It's that, or being crushed by concrete or rocks or whatever in case of another quake. Your call. Now leave, I have to tend to your friends. But don't stray far. I'll need you to administer the... that 'miracle powder' you say to have.”

They gave their thanks, and checked on Chasme and Farsight. Boris had been anesthetized in preparation for his surgery and was deep asleep. Alexei had also passed out again, to Nikolay's chagrin; he wanted to ask him how had he influenced the soldiers to be so helpful, for of course he had. There was no other explanation for Kamarov not demanding they surrendered the flasks containing powdered artifacts, or for Bondarenko being so favorably predisposed towards them.

It seemed their help would not be needed for a while. Sataida and Screws watched the soldiers work around them. Hunter, in tandem with the two soldiers Bondarenko had ordered into the task, was still removing the wreckage and searching for survivors -two more had been dug out alive, along with four corpses-, even more vigorously so than when he had first rescued them. Someone else would have wondered at his inexhaustible stamina, but they knew the artifacts kept him going. “How are you?” he asked without looking at her.

She glared at him, unsure of the emotions behind his words. He still did not look at her. “I'm... I'm alive. I don't understand how. So many people were with us... All more experienced than us... They are all dead now.”

He sat heavily over a large wooden crate. It was unnaturally warm. It took him an entire second to remember that he himself had said there were crates filled to the brim with artifacts. And another moment to reflect on how easily and how coolly the replies had come to him. Once he would had been intimidated by the imposing figures wearing black composite armor and night-vision goggles, but now they did not affect him in any way other than instilling a healthy wariness on him. Was that Alexei's doing again? Or had he finally lost his last fragment of self-doubt to become a stalker for good? Did that also imply becoming insensitive to the loss of those closest to him? Why there was no grief? “I don't feel anything. I know I should, but I just... don't.”

She sat over the crate and leaned against him. That her closeness made his heart beat faster was a surprise. She read his features and managed a small smile through her exhaustion and sadness. “Yes, you do.”

Acting on impulse he held her and kissed her softly on her lips. They tasted of dust and tears. With an effort he pulled himself away and stared on those almost unnaturally large green eyes. I am afraid, she was saying through the windows of her soul. Then she spoke her mind out. “Today we live, however impossible... but tomorrow...”

He hugged her again with as much tenderness as he could muster. “I... I love you, Sveta,” he said in an outburst of honesty, the dam collapsing at last. “I don't want the Zone to take me without having told you that.”

A single tear welled. She kissed him back, her heart all the more evident for her clumsiness. Then said it herself. “...I love you too.”

They hugged each other and watched as the soldiers worked about, enjoying the warmth of their embrace, knowing the lull would not last -- and savoring it, with the same thoroughness and intensity a man sentenced to death would savor his last meal.

--------

I should say I feel this is some of the best stuff I have ever written. It makes me smile to re-read it. I hope it makes you feel as it made me feel.
  16:44:20  15 November 2012
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Bladewraith
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 10/21/2010
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bow chica bow wow!

going good my friend, i'm liking what you doing, keep it up
  22:52:57  14 December 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
12/15/2012 1:54:53
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Episode XVI

“I listened to charlatans and philosophers, sought strange plants on inaccessible places and drank philters and potions from many healers. In the end I had to resign myself to lowly mortality.

“But as I journeyed back to my kingdom, one night I saw a light in the desert and, curious that I was, approached it. I found a man, wounded and broken, who I helped. He was a wise man who came from the stars in a great chariot of white bronze. He offered immortality to me as a reward and I accepted. It was my dream come true.”



The next two days saw Chasme recovering at an astonishing pace, to Kamarov's disbelief and amazement. He had put on the armor again as soon as he could, saying that the powered exoskeleton helped him walk, but Screws knew Boris was wearing it to conceal his identity as well; Oracle had woken up, too, and he wanted no questions. His younger self had a lot of new scars to bear, but he was alive. They both had got to work as soon as they could with Hunter and Bondarenko's men. The SBU commander did not really expect to find any more survivors; other than the five stalkers he had recruited as their guides, only two other people had been pulled out from under the wreckage. Their task now was to search for corpses. Not only on the remains of the arena and the entrance checkpoint, but on the buildings that had housed the Duty headquarters and the 100 Rads bar.

Chasme had his headlamp turned on as he slowly labored his way to the bar, with his younger self in tow. “I know I asked this already, but are you sure you're alright?” Oracle asked.

The older Boris stopped and breathed slowly. “I also know you have asked this already. It's been the sixth time now. And no, I'm not okay, but I just can't stand still either.”

“There's no need, you were wounded pretty bad--”

“You're not listening to me. I want to sleep. But I can't.” He was filled at the same time with utter exhaustion and a strange energy, compounded with a constant and unnerving tingling that made his whole spine itch. Beneath his skin. It was disturbing enough to stop the sleep Kamarov had advised him to get from overtaking him, having spent hours on end lying over his sleeping bag in his tent with his eyes wide open, or sifting through all the memory cards and diaries they had salvaged for information on Souls. Pretty much all that he had found were hints about enhanced metabolism and tissue regeneration, usually at the cost of being less resilient against trauma.

But at that time those concerns were locked inside another compartment in his head. Right now, he only wished the lack of sleep would have at least desensitized him a bit to blunt the impact of seeing what was left of the Bar. He could close his eyes and relive it all. The choppy sounds of that ancient radio that somehow still received broadcasts from AM and FM radios outside the Zone; the banter of Barkeep as he greeted both regular customers and first-timers and went about his usual business of pouring watered down drinks and selling weapons and supplies, all for outrageously high prices; the chatter of many stalkers as they traded stories, shared jokes, discussed events, bartered, or ranted deliriously while drunk or stoned... Guide smiling by the table with a bottle of that cheap vodka... All that was gone now. Now the cellar was a festering tomb, reeking of putrefaction and waste.

He could not bring himself to walk any further and stood by the door threshold between the corridor and the pitch-black-dark cellar proper. The ghosts of everyone he had met had come to haunt him. Guide, Strelok, Foxhound, the giant that had been Sataida's best friend, Blackjack, Skull... He felt his heart cracking and wailing under the crushing weight of the misery that flooded him. It would have been for the best if everyone had just listened to the megaphones by the checkpoints and never set foot in this accursed place to begin with.

“I'll go in first,” he heard Oracle whisper behind him. He envied his younger self. To him, this place was just creepy and stinking of dead bodies, not a torture chamber made of his own memories. “Keep me covered.”

“Roger.”

It was a miracle that the ceiling had not caved in during the earthquakes. The bar had apparently been thoroughly looted by Skull's men in the aftermath of the first wave of blue mists; the TV set remained where Barkeep had put him, over the shelf by the wall, but the brazier had been removed. Empty bottles and cans were still on the tables and lying on the floor.

“No bodies here,” Oracle mumbled quietly, “but the stench...down that corridor...”

The older Boris finally managed to will himself out of his spell and lumbered down the passageway, to the small workshop where once the drunkards that repaired gear for Barkeep had plied their trade. The smell was almost overpowering and worse on each step.

“Thank God for the filters on this mask,” Chasme whispered almost imperceptibly. His headlamp pierced the darkness to reveal many corpses stacked, some of them still with their armor or clothes on. “Count them up.”

The younger Boris walked on ahead. “You were here before.” It was not a question, but an inferred conclusion.

Chasme sighed. “Yes, but... please... you'll understand if I don't want to discuss it. You have your own things you'd rather not talk about.”

It was not something too strange to hear, but the tone, the inflection, the cadence between words, the whole way the armored stalker had spoken, everything pierced into Oracle so profoundly that left him paralyzed for a very brief instant, giving him the absolute certainty that Chasme knew exactly what those issues were, as he himself knew them. “...That's true.”

They concluded their search, having counted thirty-one bodies, and left the fetid cellars in silence. Oracle had begun to realize just how little he knew about the armored stalker, but prodding him with questions now was not going to yield anything, he intuited. Instead, after their report to Bondarenko, he sought Nikolay:

“Um, Screws?” He called. The youth was sitting next to Sataida against the huge wooden crate crammed with artifacts, and they both were caught up with cellphones and notebooks. “What are you two doing?”

Screws looked at the younger Boris. “Oh, this... we're going through all the logs and diaries we collected.” His face was stark. “We're looking for clues to the Brain Scorcher, but I doubt we'll find anything. What we've found are locations for stashes, by the dozen. For all the good that will do now.”

“But why the glum face?”

The youngsters looked aged. “Almost all of these diaries belonged to people who had relatives outside,” Sataida described, “all of them desperate to hear from them. I'm not going to put you through the horror of reading the diary of a rookie distressed by the urge to put bread into the table of his family.”

Oracle bowed his head. “Poor kid. If we could do something for them...”

“Even if we knew how to reach them, the intermediaries are all dead or gone now.” Almost certainly Sidorovich is dead now, Screws reasoned, unless he had psi-shielding artifacts. He could have some to smuggle out, right? But one thing is having them and quite another is to wear them. “Wait... Let me ask you something, was the barkeeper dead?”

The younger Boris was puzzled. “Who?”

“He's never been here,” Sataida observed. “We should ask Chasme.”

“Not a good idea right now. I guess he took seeing the place like that pretty badly.”

“Strange that he accepted doing it to begin with... Oh wait, now that I remember, I have something of yours.” Screws stood up and led him to one of the tents Bondarenko's men had planted near the devastated arena. “Come in. But keep your feet outside.”

“Uh, okay...”

Inside, Screws reached for his backpack, opened it, and handed him his dog tags. “I thought you might want them from seeing these.”

“You did right,” Oracle replied. “Thank you.”

Nikolay read his hesitation. “Are you thinking about coming clean?” He whispered.

“...The idea has crossed my mind. But what would it achieve, I don't know.”

Screws commented nothing on it as he reorganized his backpack. “You had a question for me out there. What is it?”

“...I wanted to know about Chasme.”

Nikolay kept working on his gear. “The only thing I'm allowed to tell you is that he was a soldier, just like you. If you want to know more you'll have to ask him yourself.”

Oracle eyed him oddly. 'Allowed' to tell me? “You make it sound like there's something I should worry about.”

“It's not that,” Nikolay lied, or at least he thought he was lying. “Would you go and ask things of a dude you just met to another of his friends? It wouldn't look good, right?”

“True. You're right. Sorry.”

Am I doing right by keeping this from him? Screws had to admit he did not know.

Alexei had also recovered, but he seemed to have taken after Hunter in a way. While not as withdrawn and taciturn as the tall veteran, he did not get himself involved in the grisly task of searching for bodies –only three other survivors had been found, nobody they knew– , or in the preparations for their expedition into the deeper reaches of the Zone. He had taken into the habit of going on scouting runs alone, and nobody found it odd in the least, other than Screws.

“Don't you find it strange?” he asked Sataida that night, right before going to sleep.

“What is it?”

“Farsight going out of the camp on his own?” Nikolay was starting to get scared. Why am I the only one noticing this? “I mean, I wouldn't, not for all the money in the world. And nobody seems to care...”

Svetlana, already on her sleeping bag, sat up in surprise. “You're right, I hadn't noticed it,” she admitted. But it can be expected of him, right? He's... odd. She realized where her train of thought was going and fought to redirect it. “Weird... My first impulse was to think of it as... what, normal, coming from him?”

“Nothing he does is normal anymore... I suppose he doesn't want Bondarenko to know about him.”

Sataida dwelt on that for a minute. She tried to put herself in Farsight's shoes, and failed. “We know so little of him...”

“Chasme said he's got two sisters in Kiev.”

“Not that! We don't know all that he can do.”

Where to begin... Remote view, mind rape, controller miasma... And brainwashing a la Star Wars, probably, too... Can he also pry into our minds? He recalled how exhausted he had been after Hunter's titanic battle at the gates. Chasme said he had overexerted himself, but how? Can he also boost people somehow? Normally, Screws would have thought that he did not want to know. But not now. “He's very much a controller in human form, with a few extra talents tossed in...” He shook his head. “We should ask Chasme about it.” He got out of his sleeping bag.

“Right now?”

“Right now.”

“Wait. I'm coming with you.” She started dressing inside her bag. He was about to say that it was not necessary for them both to go, but thought better of it. She would want to know too now.

They went outside. Nikolay looked around and found what he expected: a headlamp turned on inside one of the tents. He approached it, his girlfriend in tow. “Chasme?” he called softly.

“Yeah?” Came the tired reply.

“We wanted to talk with you.”

The door to the tent was unzipped from within. The headlamp searched them and behind them, an eye gleaming in the dark under it. “Come in.”

They entered the tent. Most of the space was taken up by his backpack, weapons, and the bulky suit of armor. It looked almost intact, down to the black matte finish that was only dotted by a few scratches here and there. Nikolay noticed it. “You've been doing some work on it...”

The older Boris shook his head. “I've done nothing. The thing self-repairs itself.”

Sataida was astonished. “Awesome!” she exclaimed in whispers. “How's that possible?”

Chasme slowly laid down as long as he was over his sleeping bag, winced in pain, then talked softly. “This exo has a long history. It belonged to one of Strelok's friends, a stalker by the name of Fang. I never met him. Strelok himself took it from his grave when he was marooned in Pripyat... he had said that he had to weather a blowout and wait for the lots of anomalies all over and around the place to shift to get it. Somehow the things have done something to it.” The memory of his friend and savior stung him through the conflicting fatigue and liveliness. He wished he could talk to him.

“Amazing... that's the Zone for you, I suppose...” Svetlana noted the older Boris had closed his eyes while speaking. “You're very tired, are you?”

The stalker shook his head. “...no. Not really. It's... I don't know what's happening to me. I'm not tired, and I don't... I don't feel like I need to sleep either... but at the same time my body's almost screaming for it. I feel as if I was freshly awake but my body did not know it... It's driving me nuts. And this tingling and itching... I feel it on my whole spine, and it's slowly spreading all over my body. And scratching at it doesn't make it go away!”

Nikolay looked on understandingly. “I suppose we can chalk it up to the powdered artifacts reacting with your flesh.”

Chasme scowled. “At least I can walk. I guess I shouldn't complain.” He lay face down. “How does it look?”

His lower back was tinted of an ugly yellowish color around the mess of scars and stitches; Svetlana figured that was due to the disinfectant Kamarov had applied to the wounds before doing his work. “It's healing well,” she said.

Boris laughed dryly. “Your concern is touching, girl.” He turned around to face them. “But I suppose this is no social visit, right?”

Nikolay smiled briefly, then his face turned serious. “No. It's about Farsight.”

“Again?” He snorted. “What's wrong with him this time?”

“He's been going out on his own.”

Chasme blinked twice, then shrugged. “I don't think that's none of my business. If anyone's equipped to survive on his own on the Zone, that would be him.”

“That's exactly the point. Notice how you don't think it's out of the ordinary. See?”

It took Boris an effort to notice what Svetlana meant, and another to force his brain to use logic and concatenate facts. “...You're right.” He stared alternatively at both youngsters. “Do you believe he's been brainwashing us?”

“More like brainwashing everyone, I think,” Screws replied seriously. “Time to start packing psi artifacts, I think.”

“I already do.” The older Boris reached for his belt and produced a shiny black lump that seemed to cling viscously to touch, then another similar lump.

“Controller scalps...”

Svetlana swore. “So we can't shield ourselves from him. Fantastic.”

The three shared worried looks. “It appears the only defense we have against it is to look out for it,” Chasme mulled.

After a night of troubled sleep, the next day greeted them with a heavily overcast sky, inky clouds all over their heads. The soldiers had already dismounted and packed their tents by the time the older Boris awoke and left his own.

“Good day,” Bondarenko greeted him.

Chasme took a few ungainly steps forward and returned the greeting. “Good morning.”

The SBU commander regarded him warily. “You should go to Kamarov if you are feeling unwell.”

The armored stalker shook his head. “He's done all that he could, which has been well enough. I suppose we are to leave today?”

The SBU commander bowed his head in agreement. “That's something we have to discuss.” He had his tablet out already and was studying the map. “The epicenter is to the north. There's a road that goes north-eastwards, from here to an old village next to an abandoned military warehouse. We have reports that the warehouse served as a base to a faction of stalkers hostile to Duty.”

“Freedom,” Chasme stated.

“We had heard the name. Still, there may be some survivors there. We do not have orders to check the place, but that's where we are going next.”

“If you do... you could let us do the talking, perhaps. Freedom has no love for the Army either.”

“That has been reported. Okay, we will leave that to you. Pick someone in your group to be our speaker by the time we make it there.”

“Copy that.” Still, Chasme could not help but feeling afraid. The desperate battle that had been fought only a few days before was very vivid in his mind. Nothing stopped a similar horde from catching them in the open.

“Is there anything else?”

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I don't think we can beat off a mutant horde like the one that besieged us here if it finds us on the move.”

Bondarenko nodded gravely, showing that he shared his concern. “We have to get on the move anyway. This place is falling apart. Judging from what I have seen, if there is another attack, making a stand here is not going to help.”

The older Boris had to recognize the soldier was right. Had he not been wearing his helmet he would have spat. “When are we moving on then?”

The soldier quickly glanced at the clock on his tablet, then added up the numbers in his head. “In a bit less than two hours a helicopter will come to evacuate the corpses and what we have managed to recover from the records of the Duty leadership, as well as the two stalkers that aren't with your group. After that, we're leaving.”

A helicopter... out of the Zone... The face of his girlfriend flashed for an excruciatingly painful instant in his mind. If I could... oh, God, why did you have to be so cruel? “...okay. I'll get everyone ready.”

He left Bondarenko to his maps and walked up to one of their tents. Alexei's tent. “Farsight?” He called. “Are you awake yet?”

Something stirred inside the tent. “Actually, I was not,” a voice answered tiredly, “but I guess it's time.” The zip keeping the tent closed was unfastened from inside and the youth's clear eyes appeared. Alexei at once noticed what was happening inside Chasme's head. “I wish something could be done...” he whispered, compassion in his voice.

Boris had to fight hard the urge to smash Farsight in the face for violating the privacy of his thoughts. “None of your--...”

Alexei regretted having pried. “I'm sorry. I... was just--”

“--trying to be kind. Sure. Leave my mind alone or I'll blow your head off clean next time.” Brusquely he turned on his heel. “We leave in two hours. Get ready, for fuck's sake.”

He felt Alexei's eyes on him as he walked away, towards the next tent. This one was Hunter's. He was about to call out for him but the tent opened from inside and the tall man walked out, boots in hand; he raised a hand in greeting, sat on the ground, and started putting on the large footwear. “I take we're leaving soon.”

“Two hours.” Chasme was momentarily distracted from his anger and pains by the grisly spectacle of the grotesque mass of scars on Hunter's chest. There were just so many of them. The quiet stalker glared at him with eyes just barely colored by the unspoken question; Boris just shook his head. “It's incredible that you survived that.”

“No less incredible that you can still walk.”

The retort was flat and noncommittal. He smiled. “You're absolutely right. Excuse me.”

“There's nothing to excuse. Go. Wake up the others.”

Next he stopped by Oracle's tent. He took several deep breaths, unable to speak, locked in conflict between whether to tell him what was right or what was convenient to him. Then the permanent tingling and itching and the pains on his lower back reminded him. “Boris,” he called. “Wake up. We're leaving.”

“Now?” his younger self answered. He was already awake. And dressing, by the sounds of it.

“No, in two hours. Open up. I need to talk to you.”

Inside the tent, again the voice pierced deep into the younger Boris. He unfastened the zip. “Come in.”

With as much caution and dignity as his healing body allowed, Chasme crouched and stepped in. The massive bulk of his armored silhouette took almost half the space of the 4-man tent, but Oracle had packed most of his noncombat gear already so that was not an issue.

“What is it?” the younger Boris asked. He felt something important was coming when he noticed Chasme's struggling with the zip to close the tent again. Finally he succeeded, then he turned to face him. At first, the eyes stared at him hesitantly from behind the goggles in the helmet, but then the hands rose slowly to unclasp the seals keeping it fastened to his head, and finally to pull it off.

Oracle was struck speechless. He was looking at himself, sans scars.

“A chopper will be coming,” the older Boris said lowly and slowly to his livid young self. “They will evacuate the corpses, the other two survivors. We will talk to Bondarenko and ask clearance for you too. Get out of this place. Go to her.” Tears were streaming down Chasme's eyes, but his face was frozen into an emotionless mask. “One of us must, and I can't ever leave the Zone now.”

The younger Boris tried to speak for a long minute, but words failed him. Then, at last, he managed to stammer: “How... it can't be... you... er, I... and I...”

“I won't torture us any further. I came from the future, with Farsight, Guide and Foxhound, to look out for Strelok. Now Strelok and Guide are dead. Also Foxhound.” Chasme's mask finally cracked. “I... so... so much want to see her again... but this is your time... not mine.”

Oracle finally found the will to articulate something coherent. “...there is no way back for you?”

“I must go to the epicenter to know. You have a life out there. Go and live it.”

They both were silent for a while, staring at each other in the eye, one still trying very hard not to disbelieve it all, the other striving equally hard to stick to his chosen course.

“Th... thank you,” Oracle uttered at last. He offered his hand.

“...no.” He refused his younger self's hand politely. “We don't know what could happen if we... you know. And thank yourself. If you weren't like this I'd have killed you and taken your place.”

Tears streamed down Oracle's face too now. He nodded in understanding, filled with a gigantic glow. “I... it will be like leaving myself behind.”

“Get that idea out of your head. There can be only one Boris Aleksandrovich Morozov. That's you. I'm Chasme here.”

Oracle nodded slowly, unable to stop looking into his older self's eyes. “You, um, I--we... I didn't think we could be so brave.”

Chasme finally smiled through his tears. “Act on it. Now come. We must talk to Bondarenko.”

“What are we going to tell him?”

“The truth.” Chasme produced his dog tags from beneath the breastplate of his armor. “We both have those, right?”

The SBU officer was understandably shocked and adamant in his refusal to believe the insane story the two stalkers tried to tell him, until he saw, touched, weighed and compared both sets of dog tags. He considered to ask Kamarov to run tests on them, but that would only further complicate an issue the two Boris had already offered a way out from. “I... think that can be arranged.” He looked at them both, still fighting the urge to call the whole thing the load of nonsense it seemed to be. “How much further did you have to serve out?”

“...Um... almost six months, sir.”

The man held his chin, thinking. Then his face lit up. “Would you say you are an expert on Zone phenomena? Be honest here, or I won't be able to help.”

Oracle shifted uncomfortably. “The only stalker that could be called an expert was Guide, sir, and he died here. I can say I have a lot of experience on detecting and evading anomalies on my own, without instruments or aids. And I know about mutants, too. I have to admit I don't know that much about artifacts. I haven't had time to get, er, acquainted with them.”

“That will do. I'll pass on a request with my personal recommendation for you to become an assistant instructor on the Zone at the SBU barracks in Kiev. In the meantime you'll probably be held at our headquarters for debriefing. That's the absolute best I can do for you two.”

Chasme nodded. “It is enough.”

Oracle did the same. “...Thank you, sir.”

Bondarenko glared at the armored stalker. “You and I are going to have long talks.”

The older Boris shrugged and walked away. “There's time,” he said gruffly.
  01:00:26  23 April 2013
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

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ZeroDead
04/23/2013 1:01:04
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Episode XVII


“The sage bathed me in green fire that did not burn, and then returned to the stars aboard his great bronze chariot. I thought he had mocked me, until, on a battle, an opponent stabbed my heart clean with a spear. I simply laughed, tore out the sharpened stone and kept on fighting.”


They were all restless, the hypnotic tapping of the helicopters' propellers growing stronger by the instant, as they kept nervous guard on the exit leading to the wild territory and the military warehouses where Freedom was headquartered.

Chasme and Oracle stood next to each other, each one lost in their own thoughts. The news that the scarred youth was a surviving comrade had spread quickly among the SBU members; the soldiers had congratulated him for his “will to survive” and had all backed his superior's decision to have him sent out of the Zone. No such thing had happened to Chasme, who had kept his own background and past a secret from everyone.

“Here they come,” Farsight said quietly as the three aircraft appeared from behind the cliffs to their east, and suddenly the echoes of their engines turned into powerful mechanical roars.

One of the Hind helicopters hovered in stationary flight over the cliffs, while the other two maneuvered to touch down on the large clearing left of the road. Hunter nodded to himself, noting the skill of whoever was in command of that mission, but said nothing.

The aircraft touched down softly, but before then the doors of their cargo bays had already opened and squads of soldiers were scrambling around hastily to secure the landing zone. Chasme watched Bondarenko with stinging eyes as the SBU commander strode forward towards one of the helicopters and saluted the officers as they set foot on the ground--

“Is that--?” he heard Oracle gasp.

“Yes.” Their father-in-law had come himself, no doubt looking out for the youth he had had sent to the Zone. They saw the man –old, slightly overweight, his face pimply and red– glance across the stalkers, then over the two of them. His eyes glittered with recognition for an instant, then he stopped looking to deal with Bondarenko and his report.

“I never thought he would come himself...” Alya must be mad with grief and worry...

“Alya must have driven him crazy with guilt,” Chasme said, voicing Oracle's thoughts.

“Morozov, come over!” They heard Bondarenko shout their way. They looked at each other one last time, then embraced each other.

“Try not to get killed,” Oracle whispered as soberly as he could. Then he exchanged goodbyes with the rest of the stalkers, one by one, and finally walked ahead towards the helicopter.

Farsight was the one closest to Chasme. He glanced at the armored stalker, but Boris –the only Boris among them now– seemed frozen into place, arms crossed over his chest. They watched in expectant silence as supplies were unloaded, the wounded were carefully helped aboard, and the officers conferred – and, at last, as the pimply elder clapped the youth in the shoulder –apparently surprising him– and gestured him to get on the helicopter. He looked at his erstwhile comrades one last time, then he disappeared in the passenger bay. His helicopter took off immediately, gained altitude, then turned south-eastwards and sped towards the horizon.

“Goodbye, Oracle,” Nikolay said aloud. Svetlana squeezed his hand, joining him on his unspoken prayer.

“Yeah... Godspeed.” Boris turned on his heel dispiritedly and picked up his backpack and the late Blackjack's customized Abakan. He blinked several times to clear his eyes, then focused on their current task: “Is everyone ready?” A series of nods answered his query. Then, he turned to the SBU commandos, who were clustered in a tight knot a few paces away. “Everything's prepared here,” he reported, unwittingly assuming command over the stalker squad.

One of the soldiers nodded his agreement. The woven patch over the breast pocket of his flak jacket read 'Polyakov'. “Surely the boss'll ask you to lug around our RPGs, given that armor you've got,” the rugged man said, pointing at the small stack of weapons and supplies the helicopter crews had unloaded on the pavement.

“The story repeats itself,” Chasme muttered darkly.

“Say that again?” The man asked.

“That -29 you found on the wreckage, it was one of my guns.” The weapon there was lighter, probably a RPG-32 by the looks of it.

Polyakov was about to ask if Chasme had ever gotten to fire it, but even if the weapon had been crushed and crumpled into an useless piece of twisted metal, it had been immediately evident that it had been used more than once. “What's around that needs to be shot at with it?”

“Pseudogiants.” Boris was in no mood for boasting or explaining. If I have to use it again, better not to miss this time around.

The second helicopter, having unloaded its cargo and recovered its crew, finally took off; the Hind holding station over the cliffs quickly fell by its side, and they both sped south-eastwards. The echoes of their rotors took a few minutes to completely fade off. In the meantime, Bondarenko ordered his men and his stalker guides forward. He looked at Chasme and gestured at the weapons he had requisitioned: “I had one of these brought in specifically for you. None of my men could carry it around for long, let alone fire it without deploying it first, but that exoskeleton you have will make it easy for you.”

The armored stalker spent no time picking up and steadying the huge machine gun. “It's heavy alright, sir. I didn't know we had Kords.”

“Seized from a gunrunner supplying some of the rogue factions here. Given the strength of the... opposition, and since you are the closest we are going to have to a tank, I thought I should as well have you outfitted for the role. That's why I would like to know if you could take the RPG too.”

Chasme hoisted the weapon, then the canisters containing the grenades themselves. “It should be no problem at all,” he stated reassuringly. “Nikolay, you would perhaps like to have Blackjack's weapon.”

“Absolutely.” Screws took the rifle expecting a pang of sadness, but he felt nothing. It would be a fine replacement for the SCAR-H he had lost on the destruction of the arena.

Bondarenko glanced at the rest of the stalkers. “Here are extra loadouts for each one of you. Whatever you don't use, carry it as spares. Don't take supply flights like this one as something ordinary.” Apparently the weapons had also been seized from the same gunrunner, because they were unusual ones at that: FN F2000 rifles in assault configuration, with grenade launchers slung under the barrels.

“This is very expensive stuff,” Farsight appreciated, noting the fire control module installed instead of the usual telescopic sights. “Whoever bought this must be funded better than some third-world countries.”

“I was coming to that. We have additional orders. Visiting the abandoned military base is now compulsory.” Bondarenko added no further details. “Now, a few clarifications are in order. Arkhimov, you're on point as usual, but you're having company this time. Pugachev, you're going with him.” He glanced at Hunter, already clad in his repaired ghillie suit, who returned the look with his usual blank face. The man had been described by every other stalker in grandiose terms regarding his stealth and close combat skills, which made him an ideal point man, and even if he did neither like nor trust him he could not let those assets go to waste. “Where is your weapon?”

Hunter opened the folds of his suit just enough to reveal it: a compact sniper rifle of bullpup layout, carefully wrapped in camo netting and cloaks to shield it from the dust, but still recognizable. One of the SBU members caught his breath in surprise: the Walther WA-2000 was a weapon rare enough to be worth a small fortune, and this one was in pristine condition. The officer nodded without comment. “Good.” Then, he turned to the teenager couple. “You two are on fire support. Kamarov will direct you as needed.” Both Sataida and Screws nodded. To Chasme, he said: “I don't need to say that you're our heavy weapons specialist. Volkov usually fills up that role, so you'll work with him.” He turned around and was about to change subjects--and saw Farsight, and noticed he had not picked a role for him. The other stalkers had mentioned he was a very good marksman, and the AWM rifle he carried with casual confidence seemed to back up that story. “What is your name?”

“Alexei.”

“You'll work with Altunin as his backup and spotter. He will fill you in on that if you need it.”

Farsight shook his head. “I've worked on that role before. You don't need to worry.” Nikolay watched the exchange with distant interest. Alexei probably would not need to fire a gun ever again, but it was pointless to tell that to the soldiers. They would not believe it, Zone or no Zone.

Bondarenko nodded. “The rest of you, on me. Now, stalkers, please tell me what to expect in our journey.”

Chasme took that as a cue for him to speak. “Mutated animals and people that have degenerated into beastlike forms have been swarming around in incredible numbers, as you surely have... inferred from the corpses. That's not a threat we can beat off with firepower...” his voice trailed off as he looked at the SBU commander, but Bondarenko did not interfere, so he continued. “The Duty men had a dozen machine guns at their disposal, and they were overran. We have two, and we must deploy one of them to fire it. The best I could do for you in the worst case scenario, armor or not, would be to buy time for you to escape.”

“Specific threats we should know about?” Altunin asked. His question made sense – as the squad marksman, he would prioritize high value targets.

“Two stand out. Both are humanoid mutants, one of them with an abnormally large head that usually walks with a limp, and the other a large fat mutant usually cloaked in a coat. Both can strike from afar with...” He struggled for credible words, and failed. “Call them psychic powers if you want, for they may as well be just that.

“The first one will give you the worst headache you can think of within minutes of being next to him, and it will only get worse from there if it focuses on you.” He glanced at Farsight as he spoke. “The other ones... well, you all have seen Star Wars here, right? Those are worse than Yoda on steroids. They can hurl stuff at you, pull your guns out of your hands, strike at you with directed shockwaves, and if all else fails they can choke the breath out of you or shield themselves from all gunfire for a short time.”

Arkhimov, the scout, shook his head. “That sounds very hard to believe.”

“Be grateful you have someone who can tell you about them,” Bondarenko replied. “I recruited them because of what they know. It's been said but it bears repeating: these stalkers have survived what you may be up against. Heed their words.” All SBU members nodded. Bless you, sergeant, Chasme said to himself, knowing that their advice would not be questioned after that. “Anything else you have to add?” the commander asked.

“I'm curious, if I may...” Bondarenko nodded, so Chasme inquired, “What have you been told, exactly? How have you been briefed about the dangers of the Zone?” He found himself wishing they had had time to discuss that earlier, but preparing the wounded and digging out the dead for burial and intel had consumed most of their time since the SBU squad had arrived, so he had to settle for this. And he did not like the looks he was getting.

“We were told about some of the mutants... those like dogs, boars and pigs,” Volkov answered. “Also about the rat-like ones. And about several anomalies, like the shockwave ones.” He went on to explain the extent of their intel on the Zone for a few minutes, some of his comrades adding something here and there. Chasme tried not to sigh. The SBU squad had as much knowledge on the Zone as a rookie who had made it to the junkyards would have. They were elite soldiers by the looks of it, but whomever had picked them out had considered them over veteran stalkers that signed up with the military. He shook his head.

“Not good.” Flustered, he turned to Bondarenko. “Sergeant, seriously, who the fuck was in charge of briefing you?”

“I can give you his name, rank and posting once we get out of here,” the man replied grimly. “Is it that bad?”

“No, it's worse. I haven't even mentioned bloodsuckers and pseudogiants yet. And you know barely of a third of all the anomalies I've had to deal with first-hand.”

The SBU sergeant slowly turned his back on him, deeply worried by his words. He mulled them for a few seconds, then turned to his men. “Listen up. This stalker is now in charge. You still respond to me, but treat him as my superior while this mission lasts.”

A chorus of agreements answered him. “Yes, sir.”

Boris was surprised. “I didn't see that coming.”

“It's only right. If you've made it this far in the Zone, you're better than I for the position.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, sir.” He then gazed at the sky. “We should go, sergeant. The way to the warehouses is to the north. It's not long, but there's little in the way of cover or defensive positions if we're again hit by mutants.”

“You heard the man, squad,” the soldier ordered. “Point men, move it!”

The noon sun saw them leave the ruins of Rostok and brave the open, ruined road that snaked towards the north, towards Freedom territory, the Brain Scorcher, and the epicenter. The day was hot, the weather humid, the mood dreary as the stalkers scanned the hills before them for the hordes of mutants. But even if the mutants proved elusive to find, they were very present in their minds. Not in those of the soldiers, apparently; they conducted themselves with mechanistic precision, their routines only interrupted by a few comments on the outlandish anomalies and how they warped -in the case of Whirligigs and Vortexes- or directly burned -as Burners, Electroes and Fruit Punches usually did- the terrain around them. Nikolay pondered for a while if that steel-cold behavior would remain while under assault; they looked very capable... but here, in the Zone...

Farsight's behavior was to him another source of disquiet. Even if the youth appeared to second the SBU marksman on his task of scouting for threats, he was withdrawn, as if focused on his own thoughts. Occasionally he would see him grimace briefly as if in pain, then carry on as if nothing happened. Maybe it's his wounds, artifacts or not, he thought.

Chasme was anxiously gauging their progress, thinking that perhaps they had another hour to go and wanting to get somewhere more defensible as soon as they could, when the radio chirped. “Command, this is point,” the scout reported flatly. “We found something you may want to see.”

“Roger.”

What Arkhimov and Hunter had found was a single mutant corpse. The creature had been human once, but its shape had been monstrously bloated into a body almost as wide as it was tall. It was robust and heavy with muscle, however, and appeared to have little in the way of fat. It was covered in ulcers and bites all over. The hands in particular had been brutally torn apart.

“Study it well,” Chasme said, “for this is a burer. The Yoda-like mutant I told you about.” He was intrigued by the find. Especially by the eyes. They still seemed to glitter with an intelligence of their own, as opposed to almost every other mutant he had seen before...

...with the exception of the controller that had hurled Farsight and he himself, along with the late Guide and the late Foxhound, back in time.

Farsight stared at the dead creature long and hard. Both Nikolay and Svetlana noticed it. “What is it?” she whispered.

“The next time we find a single lone burer I'll deal with it.”

Chasme and Bondarenko looked attentively at the youth but he just moved on back to his place next to Altunin. The SBU sergeant then looked at Boris. “Between the tall fellow and this kid I'm hard pressed to say which one I find queerest.”

Boris snorted. “This one, by a long shot.”

“Why?”

“He's a walking Zone prodigy. It's in your best interest to just know that for the moment.”

Bondarenko seemed less than content with that answer but let it slide. “Best to learn one thing at a time? I agree. Let's start with... the Morozov kid that just left and yourself for the moment.”

The armored stalker agreed reluctantly. “What do you want to know?”

“Anything you haven't told me about it yet.”

Another snort. “There's not much, other than I envy him big fucking time.” He sighed. “A part of me keeps asking why I didn't just kill him and go instead of him... and another part of me answers that I couldn't live with myself if I had done that.” The pain had yet to go away. Hoping that there could be a way back for him on the epicenter was little comfort.

The soldier bowed his head thoughtfully. “That was a very noble decision.”

The words stung Chasme, even if they were kind. For a moment he felt tempted to return the compliment with some bitter maxim about how the Zone punished selflessness, but gave up on the idea. “...yeah.”

Bondarenko was reading him. “That's not something to regret. What goes around comes around.”

That was too much to bear. “Except that the Zone hits you really hard for anything you do for free.”

“You talk like this place was the whole world for you.”

“Because it is. I'm not getting out, ever. Even if there was a way to get 'legit' ID and papers, I'm another Zone freak now. God knows what that powder is doing to my body now.” The venom poured out of him, burning his tongue as he spoke.

“Then... you are going to the epicenter just because we hired you.”

“Don't worry, sergeant, I'm not going to get us all killed because of a death wish.” Then he relented with a sigh. “Honestly, I'm hoping there's something over there that can help me. Even if the whole 'Wish Granter' thing is a hoax.”

“‘Wish Granter’?”

“Zone hogwash.”

Nikolay saw fit to take over then, in light of Chasme's increasingly foul and miserable mood. “Before the blue mist, there was a legend that spoke about a mystical artifact buried at Chernobyl itself, a thing that could grant a stalker's wish. Like a radioactive genie bottle. Then... Strelok managed to go past the Brain Scorcher, and found out the thing does exist, but grants no wishes. It brainwashes stalkers. That's how the Monolith gets more fanatics to serve it.”

Boris cut in abruptly, “And knowing that got him killed.”

Bondarenko was lost. “Strelok? The bald man we buried at the Duty headquarters? Kamarov said he bled to death...”

“Before I was sent back in time mercenaries shot him at the junkyards. And then we went to the valley looking blindly for some bandit slicer to crack his journal, and all hell broke loose there. Mutants in droves, just like what happened in Rostok.” Then he spoke no further. The soldier, reluctantly, let him be for a while. His mind resented the whole time travel thing, and arranging for Oracle’s exit had not eased his concerns.

They came upon no mutants on their journey, but Chasme made use of the authority granted to him by Bondarenko and ordered everyone to remain vigilant, to only reiterate his command as the road snaked down a hill and the walls of the derelict warehouses came into view. He did not believe for even half a split-second that they were alone.

Cautiously they climbed the hill crowned by the abandoned cabins, searched them thoroughly, and temporarily made a stop there. Again the silence was eerie, only perturbed by the wind blowing. Boris looked uneasily at the sky, then wondered what he had expected to find there. The tension that they had experienced while besieged at Rostok was returning, only worsened by the fact that the enemy was not in sight.

Hunter and Arkhimov walked into the large cabin the last, burdened by several backpacks not their own. The soldier saluted Bondarenko, who returned the greeting and inquired: “What have you found?”

“The village on the other side of this road and the hill behind it is deserted. We found human bones picked clean, but no signs of life. What you see here is what we could salvage from their gear; given the condition of all this I'd say they've been dead for a week now. The stalker went on to scout some of the houses on his own but came back empty-handed.”

Boris glanced at Hunter, wishing he had Guide and his experience with them now. He had heard at the 100 Rads bar about the bloodsucker village and knew why the silent stalker had bid Arkhimov to stay back: if someone could fight and defeat one of the terrible mutants in close combat, it was him. “And the Barrier?”

The man spoke with the raw voice that was characteristic of his. “I saw twelve men split in squads of four. Three of the soldiers wore black armor like that.” He gestured at Nikolay’s looted suit. “One squad was on guard, while the other two were kneeling around fires and spun their heads around almost frantically.”
Chasme swore. “The Monolith...”

“Altunin and Polyakov, you’re on sentry duty,” Bondarenko ordered on the spot.

“Yes sir.” The soldiers went outside.

The SBU commander turned back to Arkhimov and Hunter. “You spotted no one on the village.”

The soldier shook his head. “Neither there, nor at the old guardpost to the northwest.”

“Only at the Barrier... Perhaps they’re just guarding against intruders?”

“If I may...” Nikolay rose a hand. Chasme nodded. “What about the base itself?”

“The gates were obstructed by a barricade. We noticed no one inside. No lights on either.”

“Corpses?”

“None that we could see,” Arkhimov admitted.

“Not that it means that there’s no one around.” Boris turned to the SBU commander. “Freedom was very large and its members well equipped. If there are no bodies around it can only mean that someone buried them.”

“Not that there weren't any bodies?” Sataida ventured.

“Possible but unlikely... What was the final body count at Rostok? Over two hundred bodies, right? Of those, thirty-odd survived the blue mists and the earthquakes. I don't see why I should think otherwise of Freedom. Besides, that barricade did not get there on its own.”

Bondarenko did not like the teenagers taking part into the discussion, but that was not the time to bring up the issue. “I would agree,” he nodded as he considered their choices. Their position was awful. The path to the Brain Scorcher was blocked by hostiles. The derelict military base was likely occupied by Freedom, and they had no love for the Army either. Their actual position had the advantage of high ground, but what little cover was there would not stop a rifle bullet, much less a sniper round. “Arkhimov and Pugachev,” he ordered at last, “I want you back on the hills. Hunker down somewhere and keep an eye on the Barrier. Altunin and Alexei, you go with them...”

The echoes of distant gunfire interrupted him. Immediately he spoke to his headset: “Report.”

“Nothing we can see, sir,” Polyakov replied. “Seems to come from the other side of these hills. From the village.”

Hunter stood up. “We’ll spot targets for the snipers.” That said, he walked out. Arkhimov hesitated, then followed him. Chasme watched them go, then turned to Bondarenko:

“We move out?”

“Now. We’ll take our chances. I don’t like it but if they pin us down here...”

“That would be inconvenient. Everyone, you hug the walls all the way to the entrance, and keep an eye on those hills. Move!”

They ran up the hills, reached the walls, and kept running next to them, feeling horribly naked as they did. To their left, the echoes of more shots came erupted from the hidden village, followed by the painful yelps of wounded beasts and several growls and roars. No one needed to be told what that meant.

Then an armored, masked silhouette popped up from behind the hills and demanded with a muffled voice: “Stoi!”

Hunter turned on the spot to bring his rifle to bear and loosed a single shot on the Monolith trooper. The man was flung backwards as the back of his head exploded in a red mist. He let the others run ahead as he kept trotting at a slower pace, looking out for more of them--
He saw the muzzle flash over the Barrier right before a fierce thump near his left temple sent him flying. He rolled unceremoniously on the ground, the barks of assault rifles and the blast of Farsight’s AWM rifle seemingly coming from miles away, the alarmed voices of his companions even more distant still...

“HUNTER!” Screws screamed.

“Keep running!” Chasme bellowed, his blood chilling. The stalker’s head was raw with blood. He crouched next to him, oblivious of the deadly chatter of rifles before him, and was about to slump the stalker’s body over his shoulder--

--and Hunter blinked several times to clear his sight, rolled in the grass, and fired a second shot. Someone cried out in the distance.

“Can you stand?” Boris asked, astounded at Hunter’s resilience. “Come on, lean on me!” He helped the man on his feet, passed his left arm behind his shoulders and ran on, shielding him with his armor, and ran as fast as they could while bullets whistled all around them. Something hit Chasme on the flank, and another round smashed his shoulder, but the armor protected him: “I NEED SOME COVER HERE!” he shouted, more out of sheer fury than anything else, since his teammates were already hammering at the assailing Monolithians, as Nikolay and Svetlana dashed ahead like madmen, rushing for the barricade...
Just before the end of the wall Screws stopped, fearing to find someone hostile on the other side of the wrecked drums and vehicle wrecks, but a bullet whistling past just inches away from his ear reminded him of more pressing dangers, so he jumped straight over them. No one around. No one visible this side of the walls either. “IT’S SAFE!” His teammates needed not to be told that twice: first, half the soldiers came on through, then the other half, Bondarenko among them, and then Chasme with Hunter -who somehow could still stand despite the horrid gash on his head- and last of them all Farsight.

“You take Pugachev inside and take care of him!” Bondarenko ordered. “We’ll set up a defense here! Go!”

Again Sataida and Screws raced ahead, knowing that if there was anyone else in there probably they knew they had guests, but no one showed up, nobody challenged them. They raced across an empty street and hauled Hunter inside a two-story building, where they helped him sit on a decrepit chair. “How does that look?” Nikolay asked.

Hunter tried to shoo the help away: “I’m fine...”

“No, you’re not, Hunter.” Chasme removed the man’s gas mask, now soaked with blood, and grimaced behind his own. The bullet apparently had ricocheted off the bone, if the barely visible white spot amidst the bleeding was proof. He had heard about that but never had he witnessed it himself. He casually glanced at Hunter’s mask: “...but you’re one lucky fucker.” He showed the mask to Nikolay and Svetlana: there was a perfectly round hole near the left temple.

“The artifacts,” Screws said at once.

“We can gape at that later, we should stitch and bandage that now, don’t you think?” Sataida was looking inside her backpack for her first aid kit.

“...Just a bandage,” Hunter groaned. “The stitching is unnecessary...”

Chasme was about to override him, but then the scars all over his body jumped to his mind. “You know what you’re doing,” he replied gruffly and reached for the machine gun he had left leaning on a wall. “I’d better get over there and help Bondarenko. You keep an eye on him.” He raced outside with heavy footsteps. Barrages echoed over to them from the village, but nobody was shooting at them now apparently. Still, all the SBU men had taken positions behind the barricade, well protected and on cover, their lanes of fire overlapping with each other; anyone trying to storm the base now would be treated to a very nasty hail of lead.

Bondarenko was scanning intensely for targets, looking down the road from behind the crosshairs of his assault rifle. He did not seem to notice Chasme arriving, but he said: “They’ve got the beasts to deal with apparently.”

“I never thought I would be glad of having a mutant swarm around,” Boris replied, concealing his unease. It was uncannily convenient for the beasts to act up only then, after days making themselves scarce. And they were in a way more defensible position now. “Still, doesn’t make any sense.”

The SBU sergeant did not cease his vigil. “I’ll leave those ponderings to you stalkers.” In fact, the soldier seemed confident, almost glad for the change of pace. The Zone was not his area of expertise. A shootout was. “The casualty?”

“He’ll make it. Bullet ricocheted off his skull...” Then he remembered the perfectly round hole on the mask. It did not add up. That shot would have killed him outright...

“You were saying?”

“Kamarov should take a look at him in any case.”

Bondarenko merely gestured backwards with his head, and the medic reached for his gear and raced inside the base. “Seems we got this covered,” he said quietly. “You stalkers should make doubly sure this place is secure. If there’s any secret entrances or exits we don’t know of we’ll be dead by the night.”

Boris glanced at Farsight. The youth was not in the least concerned by the soldier’s words. However... his first idea was that appearances should be kept, but even if he could simply chalk up their certainty to just being the Zone, a conscious sweep would help them rest a bit easier. Especially now that they apparently were trapped inside the base. “Yeah. Farsight, come with me.”

Alexei said nothing as he slung his sniper rifle to his shoulder by its strap and followed him. Chasme put his ever-present concerns about him aside: “How does everything look?”

Farsight took a few seconds to word a reply. “Better than it seems.”

Boris exhaled. “Good news for a change.” Then: “Where’s everyone? I don’t buy Freedom just packing up and leaving, where would they go?”

The youth answered with another question: “Aren’t you intrigued by Hunter’s luck and toughness?”

It caught Chasme off-guard. “Er... if anyone would know if there’s something... odd... about him, I would think that someone could be you.”

Alexei shook his head. Is he... smiling? “I’m not omniscient, Boris, even if sometimes I seem to be.”

They found a partial answer to Chasme’s question some ten-odd minutes later, as they opened a rusty hangar door and were treated to the acrid smell of burned flesh: oil drums filled to the brim with blackened bones were stored there. “They’re recent,” the armored stalker mumbled half to himself. He felt tempted to turn over one of the drums and see what had killed them, but chances were that would not add anything new to his conclusion. “Whatever’s left of Freedom burned those that died to the blue mist and the quakes and then fled.”

Farsight was disquieted by those words. “...I... I would have seen them... unless they went...”

“Towards the Brain Scorcher?”

A nod. “That, or... they left this place much sooner than what I think.”

Chasme thought he had spotted the Alexei he had once known in Farsight’s hesitant words. “Come, let’s continue.”

They reverently closed the door behind them and continued their sweep. Boris found it unnerving to perform such explorations while a veritable battle seemed to rage at the village, but Bondarenko had not summoned them, so it appeared that their enemies were tearing at each other for the moment and that was indeed a relief. The walls had been kept in condition by Freedom, and wherever cracks appeared repaired and reinforced; it was a testament to the skill of the engineers that had first erected them that they had survived the earthquakes with only a few more cracks.. The razor wire atop them apparently had been replaced not a long time ago, given how it was not encrusted with rust yet. The towers had been well maintained too. “I’d want these manned... if only we had more people and the enemy was not at the gates...”
Alexei nodded vaguely in agreement. “They’d pick them off clean while they climbed the stairs now...” His voice trailed away.

“You’re still intrigued about it.”

“Am I that transparent?” Farsight smiled. “I just don’t know...”

They approached the blocked train tunnel cautiously, their detectors screaming caution and warnings, the air completely distorted by the haze of several anomalies... Burners, given the twin puddles of molten metal of the railway.

Boris sniffed the air. “I’d say... something went off recently here.” It reminded him of the smell remaining where a grenade exploded. “TNT.” He carefully negotiated the pools of deadly heat and studied the wreckage. It looked like the tunnel had collapsed once, and then something had exploded there to cause a second cave-in. “Yeah... apparently the ceiling came down right over the spot where they planted the bomb, but why would they go and do that?”

“Probably they were trying to hide a door.”

“An utility tunnel...?” Chasme pondered that. “If I were trying to make sure no one followed I’d do that, but then I couldn’t turn back either... and if there’s a place in the world where I’d rather not be trapped underground...” And that’s without considering earthquakes. He turned to Alexei. “You know where this railway goes?”

Farsight nodded, having foreseen that question. “Deep into Brain Scorcher territory.”

I’d only want to go underground, down a tunnel leading into the heart of Monolith turf, if I had no other choice... And being trapped by mutants and fanatics in a base where the buildings were falling apart sounded probably like a case where having a horrible choice was better than having no choice at all. He studied the debris before him, wishing he could dig through that.

“There’s another possibility,” Alexei stated. “What if they simply did not want to get infiltrated by Monolith goons coming out of this tunnel?”

Chasme wanted to slap himself. “You’re so right,” he said with an embarrassed smile. “I was too focused looking for an explanation...”

The answer to that dilemma was already waiting for them at the two-story building where they had taken Hunter. “Check out what we found,” Screws said in welcome. Kamarov was busying himself with an old map a and a note written on a dirty piece of paper.

“Where was it?” Chasme asked.

“Stowed behind a cupboard.”

Alexei and Boris looked over Kamarov’s shoulder. The ‘message’ was a bunch of letters jumbled together with no meaning or structure. The medic was apparently making progress on his own: “It’s a simple cipher, really. Not meant to keep anyone busy for long.”

“Clearly meant for other Freedom members at large,” Farsight nodded.

A few minutes later, Kamarov read out loud the ciphered message:


If you are reading this, then we have evacuated the base and moved away from the Barrier while we still could. We cannot hold this place anymore, me plus other ten alive, everyone else killed by the fog or the Monolith. Cannot raise anyone else inside or outside the Zone. Try to make it to Yantar, if there is a place that could resist this it would be the scientist bunker. Good luck, God knows you’ll need it. Lukash.


The medic held up the map: a route to Yantar was outlined in red, through the hills surrounding Rostok. He handed them over to Chasme. “The commander has to see that.”

Boris summoned Bondarenko over the radio. They conferred over the map and the message. “This communications blackout he mentions... would he refer only to friendlies?”

“Hard to say... Skull could raise people from outside the Zone. But he didn’t hear even a whisper from Freedom, whether they were talking to him or not.”

“Some local phenomenon...”

“This close to the Brain Scorcher? It could be... never heard of it happening before, but nothing ever stays the same for long here. And it also happened to us back at the Dark Valley.” A shiver ran down his spine. If we consider how that turned out...

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come back to bite us in the ass later.” He looked at the map. “This route they said to take goes through the wilderness...”

Chasme shrugged. “Some secret path of theirs.” He hesitated to continue speaking.

The SBU commander read him: “What’s it?”

“Well... we don’t know anything about that general area. I didn’t even hear rumours or stories taking place there.”

Bondarenko eyed him oddly, then shook his head. “What I had heard about stalkers is that they usually go where no one else dares... but then, I imagine the greater the risk, the fewer that come back.”

“You imagine right. Back when... this place still had a semblance of an everyday life... people would gather at Rostok, and discuss ‘safe’ artifact hunting grounds. Safe meaning, the only things you usually had to worry about were bandits trying to rob you, other stalkers staking out the place, the anomalies themselves, invisible radiation pockets, and blowouts.”

“That’s not what I would have taken for ‘safe.’”

“Then try going to a place where you don’t know where the anomalies are, how abundant mutants are, how likely you’re to get your head blown off by someone else...” Chasme shook his head. “True, I heard of guys that were desperate enough to go in deaf, dumb and blind, and left the Zone set for life.”

“But for each one that returned...”

“You get the idea.” Another look at the maps. “Another way to reach Yantar would be to retrace our steps and go straight through the Rostok train yard. But I would avoid it if I could. The place was already called the Wild Territory when Duty was still around to keep heavy guns pointed that way.”

Bondarenko frowned. “So, it’s either the deadly danger we know about or the deadly danger we don’t know about, right?”

“That pretty much sums it up. Unless you were to decide to stay and look for that way through the Brain Scorcher...”

“Something tells me you’re less than keen with that idea.”

A snort. “With mutants and maniacs duking it out less than a click away? You don’t say.”

“We still have to... but how to do it...” Another frown, then he sighed. “I’m starting to understand what you meant when you tried to warn me about how difficult that is.” He straightened up. “To Yantar it will be then. Once we search this place through and through. Then there’ll be no point for us to stay.”

“No time. If we’re to leave we have to do it now.” That Farsight had spoken those words on a low voice had the effect of making them almost overwhelmingly compelling. The SBU commander wanted to object, but Chasme was already moving out:

“Then we’re going out. You two, help Hunter,” he said to Nikolay and Svetlana. Kamarov hesitated, seeing Bondarenko in doubt, but ultimately they followed.

The rest of the SBU commandoes were dumbfounded when they saw them cross the bridge towards them. Altunin, the sniper, was visibly irked. “We just went through that shootout and found ourselves a good position to dig in for a while, and we have to leave? Just so?”

“Digging in won’t help us get through the Brain Scorcher, if that’s your mission,” Chasme replied, using his most reasonable voice tone, just as he had seen Blackjack do not long ago. “We can’t break through the Monolith goons here, not with the firepower we’ve got. Guide could have found us a way, but he’s dead.”

The lean marksman wanted to press the point, but remembered what his superior had said. He glanced at Bondarenko, but the man was silent, so he sighed and clenched his teeth: “So, what’s the plan?” he muttered with as much unfriendliness as he could. Chasme ignored his hostility, understanding it.

“Lukash, the Freedom leader, is alive and went to Yantar a few days ago, with whatever was left of his men. He may know of a way, but we have to get to him. And unless Farsight here is wrong, if we don’t seize the moment now and move out while the mutants are keeping them busy, the damn maniacs will box us in.”

That analysis earned him a couple of reluctant nods from the soldiers. “He has a point,” Polyakov conceded.

“Then let’s move out, people. Delaying will only make things harder.”

“What about him?” Arkhimov, the scout, pointed at Hunter; Kamarov had sewn his wound and bandaged his head despite his protests.

“He’s made of sterner stuff than most.” That said, Chasme set off. Farsight caught up with him, and after a word and a nod, he took point. Screws noted that the skirmish at the village had winding down, the gunshots growning a bit more distant. Have the mutants driven them off? It seemed a horrible time to leave the safety of these walls. He squeezed his girlfriend’s hand as he went, eyes darting all around, fearing for her safety... the tension growing more on each step, as they raced as fast as they could next to the walls, feeling horrifyingly vulnerable...

Then they abruptly stopped. Farsight held an open hand towards them, but his attention was focused ahead of him, staring at something the rest of them could not see. “What is it?” Bondarenko whispered.
Something squealed ahead of them.

Then, from behind one of the trees near the cabins, a lone flesh emerged. One of its hind legs had been crudely bandaged and splinted.

Chasme was dumbstruck. “What the...”

Farsight smiled and crouched. The beast scrutinized him thoroughly, stepped closer slowly, and rubbed itself against the youth, grunting with delight.

Bondarenko took a single step forward and the flesh immediately squealed with fear. “Keep your distance,” Alexei warned. “She doesn’t trust you yet.”

The SBU sergeant turned to Boris. “What’s all this about?”

The armored stalker took a long, deep breath. “Sergeant, if you still don’t believe me when I say that we were hurled back in time, then you’re not going to get proof as solid as this one. When we were back at the Dark Valley, along with Guide, we found a wounded flesh blocking one of the secret entrances into the bandit base. Farsight tended to its leg. That exact same leg. What are the chances of someone else having done just that?”

The flesh again rubbed itself against Farsight, then walked away a few steps. Then it turned its head around, looked at him, yelped softly, and continued walking. Three more steps and the creature again stopped to look back at him.

Farsight hesitated, then walked after the mutant in silence. The rest of the stalkers and soldiers followed without a word, the former amazed, and the latter utterly flabbergasted.

--------

This hearkens back all the way to a specific part of Echoes, the prequel to this fic. Apologies for the hassle. It's still around here if you want to look for it.
  06:58:12  7 June 2013
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ZeroDead
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ZeroDead
06/07/2013 7:08:49
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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?"

"Listen."

Chasme did as he was told. He thought something was grunting in the distance, but the sound was odd, as if the sound came from behind a-"Snorks... behind the bunker?"

"Possibly. Nothing around us."

He then looked at Arkhimov. The man seemed fast asleep. "Any idea about what got him?"

"Not one." Again the dry reply.

A curt nod. He turned around to face his companion. "We should get him to safety-ngh!" With an effort he stopped himself from screaming. Hunter questioned him with his eyes, then gazed around for threats: "...no, no, nothing shot me or bit me..." he panted. It felt as if a red-hot spike had drilled through his left thigh, but now the pain was quickly fading away, only leaving behind a vibrant tingling all over his leg.

To his left lay the corpse of the zombified stalker woman.

"Stay away from the zombie corpses."

The silent stalker bowed his head in acknowledgement. Without comment he shouldered the unconscious soldier and started walking back to rejoin the rest of the squad, Chasme covering their retreat.

"What got him?" Bondarenko asked once they were back behind the hill.

"Whatever it was, we stay away from dead zombies," Chasme answered. "I felt like I had been shot when I got close to one. Now, we should get back down there. I don't want night to catch us in the open."

They were extra careful around the half-dozen cleanly sniped zombies they found. Now that he was aware of the hazard, his body still tingled slightly whenever they got close to one. He held out his Geiger counter next to three of the dead. Two of them only read between 80 and 170 microsieverts, and the last one tallied for 2742. He ran some figures in his head... 5000 mSv is the instantaneous median lethal dose... I think. If he had recalled that number correctly, then no, radiation was not what had caused him the pain on his leg. Yet another enigma.

Hunter approached the fence with his usual liquid motions, then signaled him to come closer. He covered the thirty paces on a quick sprint, then they looked inside the fence. More dead corpses, four within sight, all equally sniped and equally rotting. None bore labcoats, hazmat suits, nor any item that Boris would expect a scientist to wear. Then, some ten steps within the fence, the bulk of the bunker. Something hummed inside the structure-probably it still had electrical power.

"The snipers are inside, aren't they?" Chasme whispered.

"And they know we're out here." Boris could almost feel his companion's concentration as he intensely scanned the ground around them. He pointed at a spot behind them. A clear footprint and hints of several more.

"Is that a day old?"

"Possibly less." Hunter stepped away from the fence as he tried to follow the trail. Chasme could not notice any other signs of people coming and going, but his companion could. He had taken about six steps towards the looming bulk of the factory complex when he stopped. "They went that way."

"The same people?"

Hunter picked up something in the mud, then tossed it to Chasme. He caught it in midair: a spent casing. All the zombies he had seen had been armed, but their assailants had not taken away the weapons; probably they had learned the lesson Boris had just learned himself. None of the guns he had seen matched this casing, for it was very long. Boris read the stamp on the base of the casing: .338 Norma mag. He tried to recall what he knew about that round...that was Lapua Magnum ammunition, bullets used on sniper rifles. A zombie could have one of those, but then there would be many casings around. And using that kind of stuff on stiffs seems such a waste... unless you're down to your last... Suddenly he felt very, very, very uncomfortable out there in the open. He weighed the cartridge in his hand... but if they fired at one of these zombies, how did that cartridge end up there? A very close range shot?

"No way we can actually know if they see us."

"They're thinking whether to shoot us." Hunter turned towards Chasme. "Knock."

Boris was aghast for an instant. Then he slowly stood up from his crouched position, his legs protesting. He took a step from behind the fence and was in full view of the bunker.

Then the heavy blast door yanked open.

The armored stalker looked at his companion. He positioned itself by the edge of the fence and gestured him to go.

Chasme unknotted his aching fingers from the handle of the F2000 Screws had loaned him, then brought it to bear, barrel staring at the open door. Slowly he walked up to the threshold, and listened. The murmur of working electrical equipment was stronger now, but he could hear little else. On the other side of the small decontamination chamber -for that's what it was, with built-in sprinklers and all-, there was another solid metal door, and it was closed.

He stepped inside.

The outer door closed behind him. A dim yellow lamp turned on, then a red LED indicating the offline status of the decontamination system.

Then, nothing.

Chasme did not dare to move. His whole being was poised to shoot at whatever thing appeared on the other side of that chamber when the door opened.

But it did not.

Seconds passed.

And then, finally, the inner door opened softly inwards. His trigger finger itched with anticipation.

The inside of the bunker was only dimly lit. His eyes took a while to adjust. The door opened into a small corridor that turned left. Some other noises were heard now: the soft whirring of computer cooling equipment. No human-made noises. The air smelled of rubber, mud and burnt gunpowder.

But his quickly developing sixth sense -or his paranoia- told him that there was someone else in there. And he was waiting for Chasme to step through the door, weapon at the ready. Much like he himself was.

But that standoff could last forever and he could not wait. Night was approaching fast and the rest of the squad was woefully exposed. If that place was empty he needed to know.

"Hello?" He called.

Nobody answered.

He sighed. "Hello, someone there?"

Still nothing.

Silently he checked that the safe of his rifle was off, then took a soft but purposefully noticeable step forward. Still no reaction.

He closed his eyes and committed himself. He knew he was going to be ambushed but not how. As noiselessly as he could he crouched, he advanced... still nothing...

...and peeked around the corner.

Someone put a silencer to his head. "You would better explain how you came upon that suit of armor."

It took him a whole second to recognize the hoarse, throaty voice.

Slowly he turned to face his assailant. The man was bald and elderly, his eyes uniquely old.

"...Guide?!"
 
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