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Alternities: Aleph One

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  10:11:46  11 August 2014
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Senior Resident

On forum: 06/15/2007
Messages: 4259
    Dragon's Domain


The chirps returned once I went below. So did that awful mindspeak telling me over and over that I needed to see the Monolith. The PDA did not show any friendlies.

There were two bodies at the end of what I thought of as the gauss-gun corridor. One body seemed to be resting on the other, as if he'd died after taking station where his buddy had already kicked off.

I took a quick peek around the doorway with the night vision. No one there. Turning back to the corpses, I risked the torch to get a better look. The top body wore a stalker suit instead of the expected Monolith fare. His right hand still gripped an AKS-74, and I had this sinking sensation that this was what the Zone's omen above ground was about: Future Strelok didn't make it. I shouldered the SMG and knelt to examine him.

What followed was a series of psychological shocks: The man's eyes opened and his head turned toward me. He was alive! It wasn't FS, it was Wolf! And when the muzzle of his weapon chucked me under the jaw, I realized he was Monolith, and I was soooooo dead...

The corridor lights blinked and flickered a few times. The Monolith's invitation stopped. Wolf dropped the gun, or rather, he ceased holding it against my throat. His eyes rolled up into his head and his head rolled back to the side.

Then that maddening euphoria gripped me, squeezing hard even as it changed into disappointment, pulling me down into darkness once more.

I awakened to the sound of distant crying. A painful lumpy hardness under me was just Wolf's rifle. Its owner was still out, or maybe dead again.

He was in very bad shape. His breathing was shallow and labored. Patches of dark hair had relocated from his scalp to his shoulders. Raw flesh gleamed wetly in splotches on his face and the backs of his hands. He was dying from radiation poisoning.

Enemy or not, he was Wolf. He might not live long, anyway, but even so no one deserved to die like this. I administered a double dose of antirad and used the contents of a scientific medkit to ease his pain and dress his wounds. I pushed a couple of pills past his cracked lips and slowly poured some water from my canteen into his mouth to get him to swallow without choking or coughing. I finished by putting my newly-acquired Soul artifact on his belt.

I moved the rifle away from his reach, just in case. Then I just sat. The crying had stopped, or perhaps moved away.

That bout of superstition topside was probably just a minor reaction to the emissions that had been coming from the north side of the NPP. I didn't have the protective helmet this time. It was just fortunate happenstance that the generators had been shut down before I reprised my role as Marked One starting with a blubbering visit to a glowing crystal monolith.

For the umpteenth time: What was I thinking? Or rather, why wasn't I thinking?

That shutdown was probably Future Strelok's doing. That made the follow-up much worse; those super-strong emotions that knocked me out seemed to accompany the death of a Strelok.

The sound of someone sobbing reached me again. I rose and went in search of it.

In the long hallway before the stairs I found another loner sitting on the floor, head in hands, keeping about a dozen Monolith bodies company. Next to him an RPG launch tube lay within reach, a missile loaded. I approached him quietly, my MP5A1 in a pistol grip tracking his head. As I crouched to grab the tube, he lifted his head and spoke.

"Are you sad? I'm sad -- I'm supposed to be sad, but I don't know why. And that's sad, too." His youthful face scrunched up. He reburied it in his hands.

"Were I you, I'd be looking for a more radiation-free zone," I told him, casually lifting the tube. I wasn't sure what I would do with an RPG-7u, but I wasn't sure what he would do with it either and I trusted me more than I did him, even if he wasn't Monolith any more. I hid the tube downstairs, figuring that he probably wouldn't even know it was missing but if he did I'd be long gone before he retrieved it. The prize box down there was just shards of wood, the nearby chest empty. I wondered if FS had found anything in this version of existence.

The Monolith must be hard-pressed for recruits, putting not-yet-indoctrinated kids to defend their territory while solely under the influence of the mind machine. That gave me a lot of hope for Wolf. I returned to him.

He was awake. Only his eyes showed any sign of life, but that was much more than just a few minutes ago. I aimed the torch up and opened my faceplate so that he could see me. "Marked One?" he croaked.

"Do you still want to kill me?" I challenged him with the SMG ready.

"No. Didn't want... to kill you before." His eyes closed. "Thirsty."

"Do you follow the Monolith?"

"No. Bad dream. Can't wake... can't wake up."

"Here." I put the canteen to his lips. He drank a little too greedily. The coughing fit had bloody spittle running down his chin.

I propped him up a bit higher. While he recovered from the fit, I looked into his backpack. It didn't have much. I supplemented the contents with more food, then took a couple swigs of water from my canteen before adding it to his pack. "Your healing is going to make you very hungry. Space out your eating. As soon as you feel like moving, try to make your way south. If you can make it back to the Cordon, quite a few there would really like to see you again."

He smiled weakly. "Wonder why. Don't owe anyone any money."

"Well, you can thank Fanatic for indirectly saving your life. Give him my regards and he'll understand." I stood and adjusted the straps on my backpack. "Your bad dream is temporarily over. I intend to permanently end that bad dream, or die trying."

He reached into a pouch at his hip and pulled out a lump. "Here," he said, handing it to me: an F1 grenade. "Maybe this will help."

"Thanks." I didn't really want to reduce his inventory, but were I in his shoes, I'd want my gratitude to have weight. I put the grenade in my own hip pouch.

"Good hunting, stalker," he said.

I nodded. "You, too." I closed the faceplate and turned to leave before the scene became too maudlin.

The kid was rubbing his eyes as I passed. I said what more I had to say, which was nothing.

The SEVA and the antiradiation artifacts were doing their job well enough that I could concentrate on the path to C-Consciousness. It was an obstacle course of corpses and high-powered weaponry. But there was no freakin' ammo, save for shotgun shells. I would leave those as well; they were heavy and not much use against the snipers on the gauntlet run.

And instead of complaining I should be grateful. Future Strelok had given me a walk in the park, so far. I knew what price he'd paid.

Monolith Control

I came across not one but two exo-skeleton outfits in perfect condition. I ignored them just as FS did, and probably for the same reason: the ability to run mattered more than protection on the north side of the NPP.

FS had left nothing alive for me, not even pyrogeists in the generator chamber.

Not even himself.

I knew the body clad in the Skat-9M military suit was Strelok before I reached him. He had collapsed near the door to the hall that led to the NPP's north side. His arm reached to the door, hand resting on a VSS Vintorez.

Damn it, Strelok. I wish I had known you.

As I reached his body, a familiar light show began behind me.

Strelok's body could wait. It was my turn, and I had an advantage on C-Consciousness: I knew how this story ended.

I turned to face the C-Con representative.
  10:13:41  11 August 2014
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Senior Resident

On forum: 06/15/2007
Messages: 4259
    Over My Dead Body

The C-Con hologram was looking down at Future Strelok's body. "So close, so close! We had hoped it would be he." He shook his head.


He turned to me at my remark, smiled. "Hello, Strelok. It's good of you to come at our behest. Welcome to our apotheosis."

Big words didn't dispel the strong sense of familiarity I felt. "Isn't this where you admit you made a mistake?"

"Oh, no mistake. And our counterparts in your, ah, timebranch, did not make one either. They were merely acting under our compulsion. As I indicated, we invited you."

Well, he might have muffed his lines in the script, but I could still work with it. "Death wish, eh? Running this little corner of the universe a bit too much for you?"

"Quite the opposite. Thanks to you and your doppelgangers, we are about to experience an evolutionary advance that should firmly establish our control."

"'Thanks'? How, exactly, does our destruction of your emission towers and your army of misled Monolith worshippers earn your gratitude?"

"The emitters are now superfluous. And the deaths of our servants have proven more valuable than their defense. Attend closely and you will understand.

"The local noosphere comprises the aggregate of every human's nous, and some non-human. This mind energy, if you will, is normally lost at death, so the noosphere size remains proportional to the population.

"As you did in your universe, our Strelok made his way past the emitter. He was captured in a manner similar to your own, I'm sure. When our Strelok died while we were re-purposing him, our instruments detected a release of nous that was thousands of times greater than the amount a normal human releases upon death.

"Until that happened, we were unaware that the amount could exceed the limitations of the brain's physicality. We reasoned that our gunslinger was unknowingly acquiring the nous from his counterparts in adjacent timebranches as they died.

"We worked quickly to develop machinery to likewise capture and store this nous. The research also provided evidence that a sufficiency of nous could be used to free our collective consciousness from the physical instrumentalities of muscle and machine.

"But the amount needed to free us is great. The limited range of the collection device and the relatively meager death rate locally meant that it would take a decade to accumulate it, a time during which alternate timebranches would discover the same principles. We prepared and refined a plan to shorten this time, using an entangled-tachyon field suppressor to mask the effect that allow adjacent timebranches to be aware of each other -- consequently preventing transfers between timebranches in the process -- after we planted the seeds to bring a few of your oh-so-special ilk to our timebranch. This acquisition of their Streloks depletes their timebranches of the same, an added benefit."

"Does this mean," I interrupted, swallowing, "does this mean my timeline won't be destroyed?"

He laughed. "Would you have come if it were not life or death? A chance to save the world again? No, your timebranch and everyone else's is fine, the local branches are just isolated while the field suppressor is in operation. From their viewpoint the brane is distorted, but it is analogous to the heat distortion around a burner anomaly."

The relief I felt left me strangely drained. "What now?"

"Now you help us transcend."

"And if I refuse? Assuming I still have free will."

"Oh, you still have it. But the exercise of your free will is nothing more than the Brownian motion of a water molecule in the river of existence, coursing down a predefined channel to an inevitable end." The hologram actually looked smug. Glancing down at the body of Future Strelok, he repeated, "He brought us close, oh so close."

Turning back at me, he went on, "And yes, please refuse. Go forth, kill and be killed. --Or not; stay alive if you can. It no longer matters. Sometime in the next few deaths we will have enough anyway.

"While your purpose has never been what you thought it to be, Strelok, your fulfillment of our purpose serves a far greater good. Although that is not even a small comfort to you, we still look forward to your contribution. You will be remembered."

The hologram went dark, leaving the afterimage of a Cheshire Cat's infuriating grin. A strong euphoria again arose in me, a sense of anticipation, and as it slowly faded I now knew it was definitely not my emotion.

No, I was feeling stunned. I expected that to fade into frustration. And anger. Lots of anger...

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, North Side

They had left open the door that led back to the south side of the NPP. Returning was out of the question for me; it merely delayed and ensured the inevitable. The only real chance I had required the destruction of C-Consciousness before it/they transcended.

Before I went in search of the physical location of C-Con, I took what supplies I could from Future Strelok, an unexpectedly difficult effort. I took his improved nightvision visor, even though the SEVA's was probably good enough. I also came away with a Moonlight, a Mama's Beads and a Crystal, all of which were immediately belted. Now that I knew that C-Con wanted death, I was inordinately glad I had the lightweight SMG ammo. AP ammo might have been better for disabling without killing, but the machine gun didn't do much damage either way. I still strapped his Vintorez to the outside of my backpack with the Velcro and tucked a few rounds of SP-5 and SP-6 ammo inside, for the endgame.

I knew it would be night outside, but the generators were not working to charge the sky. In the darkness the stars were clearly visible. This was very good fortune for me; even if they had night vision it would be easier to avoid being seen, especially by snipers.

Without the noise of the generators to mask the ambient sounds, I could hear the hum of the portals, something I'd not noticed back where I came from.

I reached the first portal a bit disappointed; it's hard to just wound with an inaccurate weapon while they are trying to kill you. C-Con was now one death closer to godhood.

It would still be a gauntlet run. They would be hard-pressed to hit me if I kept moving. I just had to make it to the end...

That hope was short-lived. Of course they'd change the portals. It could be that they were just different because alterniverse similitude, not exactitude. But if I were the bad guy here, I'd change them. There might not even be a final teleport that opens in the C-Con life support chamber.

They were just rubbing it in, how little my Brownian-motion effort was going to change the result. With the fourth portal I came to a familiar place that was quiet enough to take a breather. I had to solve a conundrum: How does a thinking molecule not go with the flow?

By thinking, maybe? Molecules are small enough for quantum mechanics effects, aren't they? Well, if not, I was just going to think small, like sub-atomic small. Some kind of access to the life-support chamber was still needed, something that would have been built before the first Strelok came to call.

I looked around. The rooftop was high enough and it was dark enough to reveal a lot of portals to the night-adjusted eye once I turned off the night vision. Nothing stood out, so I repeated the scan after each teleport. It paid off after the second Monolith death, after the seventh portal: There was a portal visible in the very middle of the generator group, one that didn't exist in my 'verse.

Two teleports later, I was close enough to risk the ground radiation. I climbed down and ran. To my pleasant surprise, the ground near the generators was free of the deadly stuff. I reactivated the good night vision to resolve the particulars of this portal.

Nestled in the midst of the generator spheres and dwarfed by them was a rather nondescript building resting on a broad base of concrete with sloped sides. The teleport spiral I'd seen glowing from a distance was spinning on edge before one end, pointing where one would normally expect a door. I sprinted up the sloped concrete, jogged to the portal and walked through.

Bingo. A familar hallway awaited me on the other end of the teleport.

The blue-white swirl of another portal hung in the air off to the left at the end, beyond the eight translucent cylinders that radiated like fat spokes from a central hub. They glowed with the same soft, steady fluorescent lime-green they had in a previous life, a vague darkness within each hinting at its contents. I strode with grim purpose down the dimly-lit corridor toward these would-be gods, readying the MP5A1 but thinking the Vintorez or Desert Eagle with AP ammo might be needed.

"Tsk, tsk. Premature exultation is never a good thing. Disarm him." I heard the words clearly inside my head.

The machine gun was wrenched violently from my grasp, pulling me around and dislocating my forefinger as it released a couple of wild shots that echoed loudly in the chamber. Down the corridor from whence I'd come, the SMG floated in the air before a robed and hooded creature standing with arm outstretched as if offering a benediction. The short, squat creature wore a face made from roadkill. I reached down for my pistol but the weapon flew out of the holster to join the the SMG. The Vintorez shoved me to the floor and dragged me a bit before ripping through the backpack Velcro in its haste to float with the others.

The robed obscenity was limned by multiple shimmers of light appearing behind it: reinforcements were arriving. I popped up, turned and ran toward the giant starfish-shaped device that still housed the corporeal bodies of C-Con, then jumped into a feet-first slide under the massive tubes on the left side.

My PDA went nuts with new beeps. "No shooting here! Take him outside and deal with him." This time the voice came by radio.

I was making and discarding plans in panic as I went. Maybe I could pull the plug. I saw more machinery here than in the chamber from my alterniverse. An important-looking metal box with engraved Cyrillic letters had pipes that dropped to the floor and ran to the wall; that was new to me. And a glass sphere almost a meter in diameter was mounted like an oversized snow globe on a shiny silver-metal pedestal and wrapped in a mesh of the same metal. The glass container held a lively plasma, a mesmerizing mix of electric and sky blue coruscation, a gorgeous marble.

The cables to these units were impossible to move, so I didn't even try to pull them out. I settled on the power cables leading to the life support for C-Con. I managed to yank one from the base of the hub, yet I knew it would only be a temporary setback for C-Con. I thought to smash the glass tubes or even the sphere, but I'd given my canteen and tins to Wolf.

Wolf's gift! Somehow, I still had the F1 grenade in the pouch. I dropped to a knee next to the base and grabbed another cable, stepping on the grenade I'd palmed. I stood and pulled on the cable to hide the fact that I'd also pulled the grenade's pin as I rose.

The first of the reinforcements, an exosuited Monolith soldier lumbered around the last cylinder, knife point-down in his grip. I stepped off the grenade in a feint toward him, then dodged his clumsy slash with a leap past him into the portal.

There was a drop of a couple of feet, the price of not simply stepping into the teleport. I was next to another portal vortex, high atop a wide and very tall chimney. A quick but careful side-step later, I avoided the pursuing Monolith's appearance and took advantage of the moment he needed to get his bearings by shoving him into the portal.

Vertigo hit suddenly, unexpectedly. An overwhelming panic and a sense of great loss seized me, dropped me to my knees, drowned me in nausea. My gorge filled with acid.

A scream started immediately to my left and dopplered downward: the Monolith soldier had reappeared just beyond the tower and plummeted, a cruelty obviously meant for me.

An instant later the incapacitating feeling was gone. Another moment after that, a muted thump came from the direction of the generators.

I never heard the exosuited Monolith agent hit the ground. Although still queasy, I crawled to the edge and looked out at the glowing portals and the remnants of fires from the military attack. The earth suddenly rumbled and the tower shook, wobbling to and fro as if to throw me off. The nearby portal crackled and sputtered before going out, its swirls becoming thin tendrils of vapor before dissipating, its thrumming silenced. The tower continued rocking quite a few seconds even after the rumbling stopped, enough to push me over the edge: I barfed in my helmet.

How anticlimactic.

Most of the mess was in my faceplate. I popped the seal and waited for aftershocks. After an uneventful minute passed, I unwrapped a bandage and wiped my face and the inside of the faceplate with it. I used an alcohol wipe from a scientific medkit to scour the scent off the faceplate as best I could before removing the helmet to let it air out.

The darkness was not total, but the starlight above and the spots of fire below were merely isolated points of light. Gusts of wind kept the ambience from complete quiet.

I rolled onto my back, gazing up at those cold, faint pinpricks of light in the sky. The adrenaline rush was fading, leaving me drained despite the Moonlight and fully aware of a painful throbbing in my trigger finger and a cavernous yawning in my stomach.

My stomach had settled enough to enjoy some dry bread. I thought about what to do next while I ate. I really wanted to sleep, but the darkness and the chaos surrounding the Monolith would pass soon, so now would be a good time to leave the NPP. I put the helmet back on. There was still a faint tang of bile, but maybe the SEVA's air filtration could take care of that.

First things first: reach the bottom alive. I peered again over the lip of the chimney. With the good nightvision, I could see maintenance walkways girdling the tower with ladders connecting them all the way from the ground to the final landing about four meters below. I carefully secured one end of the rope to the rail, tossed the other end over the edge and swung my body into a position for half-rappelling. I had to drop the last meter, but the rusty walkway held. Mental note to self: Pick up another rope ASAP.

The climb down was precarious but otherwise monotonous. I thought about what had happened, and what would happen. If the surviving Monolith didn't kill me, the radiation at the bottom might. But I'd done it -- we'd done it -- we Streloks had accomplished what we came here to do. The proof was in the last emotional broadcast of panic and loss, abruptly cut off.

I felt positively bouyant, all the more because it was my emotion and not C-Con's. The great C-Con had been toppled by its own ego, helped by a small bit of Brownian motion from the little molecule that could.

I guess I won't be remembered after all. Tsk, tsk.

            -- End --
  19:38:32  11 August 2014
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On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
A gripping tale.
  21:33:38  11 August 2014
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On forum: 05/28/2014

Message edited by:
08/11/2014 21:34:11
Messages: 9
I liked it a lot it was different but very good. .Keep writing your very good at it.
  02:16:35  12 August 2014
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off to new worlds


On forum: 10/31/2008
Messages: 4290
Well played; well played indeed
  12:16:45  15 October 2014
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Senior Resident

On forum: 06/15/2007
Messages: 4259
Thanks, guys, for reading the story and even more thanks for providing feedback!

BobBQ, think of the rictus that results from a tale that grips like this for seven years! Just like your gripping tales -- doled out in little dribbly bits over years! I was only cruel to myself while you were cruel to every reader! (Do it again! )

ktoutlaw80, I'm really not a writer. If I were, I'd rewrite the prologue and the first and last chapters, and seriously edit everything in between. As an example of how little a writer I am, I've already mentioned that the plot was conceived in 2007, in an attempt to explain away the immersion-breaking idiocy of how the C-Con could screw up so badly and make the Marked One go after Strelok. (There's even a meta-gaming story in the plot: How could the amnesiac Marked One know and do enough to survive to the end in the original SoC story?) It then took me seven years to write this short story around the plot -- and I even took shortcuts to simply get it out the door.

The plot did evolve a small bit. There was no burer initially, and the story originally ended with JC falling from a great height after passing through the portal at the end (AKA "Everybody dies... maybe.").

Plots I can conceive anywhere. Stories have to be done with pen/paper or a computer, and I have to sit down and actually produce words, a painful thing for one as undisciplined as I am. I'm thinking I should have worked with one who actually does write, like BobBQ.

Thanks, hhiker. My guess is that you have a personal mission to encourage anyone who produces anything for STALKER, and quite successfully from what I can see, in part because you actually read and watch what is produced and then provide remarks that show you really care. Your clever comment here makes me feel that I've accomplished more than just personal catharsis.
  00:54:26  17 October 2014
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off to new worlds


On forum: 10/31/2008
Messages: 4290


Thanks, hhiker. My guess is that you have a personal mission to encourage anyone who produces anything for STALKER, and quite successfully from what I can see, in part because you actually read and watch what is produced and then provide remarks that show you really care. Your clever comment here makes me feel that I've accomplished more than just personal catharsis.

My pleasure. I'd have to refute that first guess, though
As with books, as with games in general, as with mods for those games, as with let's-plays, fanfic, metagaming, as with forum threads, as with all content and interpersonal interaction alike, my consumption capacity, ability to focus, and overall goodwill towards humans are far too limited to even attempt scanning through all things produced. Even within the specific bounds of Stalker-verse, even within the bounds of these forums that still applies. I merely stumble upon stuff somewhat randomly, or following some sniffing parameters not explicitly known to me, and sometimes take a closer look (maybe it was a good day; maybe i was feeling sassy and creative, maybe i was checking updates on some other thing i was already invested in).

So yes, if my involvement has crossed the “say something” threshold, you can be sure there’s real attention to back that. But that process does not extend the other way: most of the stuff out there simply goes past my radar without notice.

Won’t argue the accomplishment part, though
  23:29:50  22 October 2014
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On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336

Plots I can conceive anywhere. Stories have to be done with pen/paper or a computer, and I have to sit down and actually produce words, a painful thing for one as undisciplined as I am.

I wish I could say it was easy for me, but this is pretty much my exact experience - more so once I got good enough to value quality over quantity.
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