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The inhuman condition

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  13:00:52  18 March 2006
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On forum: 07/31/2003
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-Part 3-
John Beyer was no more, and yet there was a consciousness that lingered on, disembodied and ethereal, yet there all the same.

"Am I dead?" it thought. "If I'm dead, why do these thoughts persist?"

There was no answer, only an overwhelming sense of nothingness. There were no sounds, no visual stimuli, no sense of time passing, indeed, there didn't seem to be any point of reference at all. Only the aching awareness of oblivion, and the chattering of it's own voice in it's mind.

"So this is what nothing is like." it thought to itself. "Are my eyes closed? If they were closed I would see black, but I see nothing at all."

"You have no eyes to see with anymore." thought another part of itself.

"Who's there?" it thought.

"No one. I am just another part of your mind," replied the other part of itself.

"Where am I?" it asked.

"You are not anywhere. You died in a thermonuclear explosion, remember?" the other part said.

"Then what is this?" it asked.

"This is nothing." replied the other part. "This is your disconnected mind in the void, and nothing more. There is no space or matter or even time here."

"The void? What is that?" it said.

"The connotation of the human term ' void ' describes emptiness itself. It is the closest your mind will come to understanding where you are."

"I don't like this. I want to leave." it thought to itself. This was becoming scary.

"Where would you go?" the other part of itself answered back.

"Somewhere. Anywhere." it thought.

In that instant, it began to perceive something more than just blank nothingness. Not really a sense of light or movement, but a definite sensation of displacement. The sensation grew stronger and it knew that something was happening. Now there was a perception of speed, though not in any tangible sense. Only a vague feeling like the butterflies you get in your stomach when you leap a bicycle over a ramp, or race a car down a highway at night with the headlights turned off. Then, as if some dark obscurity was receding away from the far end of it's mind's eye, it perceived a blackness punctuated with bright pinpoints. It's field of perception grew wider, as if it was floating down a long dark tunnel towards the end. The blackness and pinpoints of light expanded further until it filled it's vision. It finally understood what it was perceiving. Before it now, was a vast black sky studded with bright shining stars.

"What is this?" it wondered.

"This is the edge of the void. The line between the tangible and the intangible." the other part of him thought.

"You mean I can go anywhere I want?" it thought.

"Anywhere in the universe you can think of, and any time you can think of as well," came the reply.

"Are you really a part of me?" it thought to itself.

"I am you and you are me," said the other part.

"Can I ignore you?" it thought.

"Only to the extent that you can ignore yourself." came the reply. "There is no distinction between us."

"What am I, and where are we now?" it asked.

"You are a residual energy mass, the enduring consciousness of the dead matter known as John Beyer. You are currently static at the center of the universe, where the void translocates the energy of your being when your physical body dies." came the response.

"How do you know this?" it said.

"I know, because you know." replied the other part.

It contemplated this for awhile. "I am John Beyer's consciousness," it finally thought to itself. "I am John Beyer."

The sensation of having no body was maddeningly off putting. How many times a day does one take for granted their physical being? An itch here, or a scratch there? Or a sore muscle after a long day's work? All the little things that let a person know he is physically real. Now there was only the perception of being. Of displacing a mental space in the universe, like an air bubble rising through the ocean. The way he perceived what was around him could not be considered physical sight either. It was more like the representation of sight as seen through the mind's eye. He could see in every direction at once, and yet it all made sense somehow. He knew that if he reached out mentally in any direction, he could be there in an instant. It was time for a little test.

John focused his attention on a distant, but bright star and felt a surge of power in his mind, yet nothing happened. He tried a second time and, for a moment, the star appeared to expand and then contract again, but otherwise there was no change in his position. John felt a momentary prick of frustration and his focus was gone.

"Why can't I move forward?" he thought.

"You cannot move that which does not exist physically. It would be easier to move the entire mass of the universe instead." the other part replied. "Also, you must think chronologically as well as linear."

"How do I know all of these things? How can I know them?"" he asked.

"In the void, there is much time to contemplate the construst of the universe," the other part of him said.

"How long was I in there?" wondered John.

"2.238742 million human years, but you are not human anymore," came the response.

"Why can't I remember?" he said.

"Remember what?" was the response.

'A two million year blank spot and a split personality out of the deal' thought John. The concept was so nebulous that the only answer to the problem for now, was to give up thinking about it. He collected his thoughts and prepared to give it another try. He focused harder on the star this time, imagining his will becoming like the fine point of a needle. Sharpening further and further. Stretching through space and time. He began to feel a pull on his consciousness. He focused harder still, imagining the point of his will piercing the distant star. Then it happened, and it felt almost...natural. Like sand moving through an hourglass, his mind simply emptied from one space and refilled in another. When he released his focus he was astounded to see the star was now in front of him, filling his vision. There was no sensation of heat, but he felt the energy of the red giant coursing through his mind in great, shifting waves. He remained there for a little while longer, basking in the glow of the dying sun, contemplating the where and the when of his next move. After some time had passed, he focused his mind on the word: "EARTH."

-April 12/2006-

His consciousness drifted. This was pleasurable. That wonderful time early in the morning, where you are not really asleep or awake.
He shifted in bed and opened his eyes. The greyish/yellow light filtering through the drapes indicated that it was still early. He drifted off to sleep again and dreamed. In the dream he was floating in the blackness of space, looking at the stars. Someone with a familiar voice was speaking. "I am you and you are me."..."You are not human anymore."

He awoke with a start. The light coming through the window had changed to a bright golden glow. He looked at the clock on the night stand, which was reading 11:34 A.M. in luminous red numbers. He sat up and rubbed his eyes as he yawned the last of his sleep away. Today was the day. Dad's last day at the station. By eight o'clock tonight, they would be on a plane headed back to the U.S.A.

Ken Beyer was a freelance data analyst, coming to the end of a six month contract at the Chernobyl Research and Development Facility. They had come here on Nov 12th 2005, when John was 17 years old. A divorcee, Ken had aquired full custody of his son when his ex-wife had died in a car accident a week before their flight. John put up a good front but Ken knew that the loss of his mother had hurt John deeply. The sadness in John's eyes as he picked at his food during their meals together in the small trailer they called home, tore at Ken's heart. When this tour was over, Ken promised himself that it would be their last. The only reason he ever accepted this crummy contract was because they had promised to pay him a shitload of money when it was over. All they wanted in return was discrete data analysis and no questions asked. Now he wondered if the money was worth it. Whoever was running the show here was going way beyond the bounds of international harzardous waste handling protocols. As a civilian, Ken wasn't allowed to actually see what they were working on, but the data spoke for itself. This place was an accident waiting to happen and the sooner the contract was up, the sooner he could get paid and they could get the hell out of here. It was John that he worried about more than anything though. A makeshift civilian camp, miles from nowhere in a foreign country, was no place for a grieving boy to grow up. He promised himself that he would make it up to John someday. It was too bad that John had had to learn from his mother that sometimes, love is conditional.

But John had loved his mother regardless of what she did. Even after she had left them and run off with Ken's drunken brother Alvin when John was thirteen, he still loved her. When that didn't work out and she tried to come back to them a year later, drunk and sick, John begged his father to take her back. He had hated his father for awhile after Ken had turned her away flatly. Hated him because he was emotionally stronger than John was, and because he was right. Even as she spiralled into end stage alcoholism near the end, John still loved her. She would show up at the house after school when Ken was still at work, shaking and stumbling around, telling him to never be like she was. Always telling John she was going to get clean. She was going to straighten out and get her life together. John, always the optomist, hoping that she would. At some point eventually, she'd ask if there was any money around the house. She was always looking for 'a few bucks' and John would always give her whatever he could, whether it was his allowance or some of his paper route money. "This is for food, Mom. You gotta eat something." he'd say, knowing full well that she was just going to turn around and spend it on booze anyway. They would play this little charade each time and then she would hug him and tell him she loved him, and that he was a good boy who deserved better. Then she would give one of her patented excuses to leave, like she had to go take some bread out of her oven or some other nonsense, and that would be that. She would be gone again for a week or a month. But the last time she came around, Ken had been there. A fight had broke out. She wanted to see John. From his bedroom, John could hear them shouting at the front door.

"You're not supposed to be here."

"Let me see my fucking son, you asshole!"

"I don't want him to see you when you're like this, Helen."

"Like what?"

"Helen...You're drunk!"

"I'm not fucking drunk! Who the hell are you to tell me what I can and can't do?!"

John pushed the pillows from his bed against the sides of his head as hot tears streaked down his face. He hated when they yelled at each other. Why did she have to be drunk all the time? He lay there crying and listening through the pillows.

"It doesn't matter Helen, because he's coming with me to Russia next week. This is the end of the line for you."

"We'll see about that Baby! We'll just see about that. I'm going down to the courthouse tomorrow and when I get there, I'm gonna tell the judge that you're trying to kidnap him! And then they'll put you in jail, you bastard, 'cuz you can't take him away from me, you hear? You hear me Ken, you asshole?! He's my kid too!"

John heard the door slam and looked out of the window in time to see her peel out of the driveway in her old audi, knocking over the garbage cans at the edge of the sidewalk as she careened out into the street and disappeared around the corner. That was the last time they saw her. The coroner's report, eight hours later, said that she had died instantly, after her car had sailed off the edge of an embankment and into a steep ravine outside of town. The cause was ruled as death by misadventure. Her blood alcohol level had been three times higher than the legal limit. Three days after the funeral they were on a plane bound for Russia.

The first month was the toughest. The friends he had back home wrote letters to him for the first while, but eventually those letters began to arrive less often and after awhile, they stopped coming altogether. Boredom was a constant threat. He was finishing his high school education through correspondence, and often had little to do during the day while his father was at work. Some days he would spend just curled up on the couch reading. Other days he'd just wander around the camp aimlessly. Alot of the time he sat around watching pre-recorded russian t.v. shows and waiting for his father to finish work so they could make supper together and go for a walk in the cool night air. And always the thought of his mother was there, in the back of his mind. The way she had treated Dad and him. The way he'd treated dad after she had tried to come back that time and he'd turned her away. He'd felt ashamed, but his dad never held it against him. He knew now that his dad was just looking out for him. His mother was an alcoholic and in the end, she cared more for the bottle than she cared for them. None of that mattered anymore though, because Dad and he were a team now. I watch your back, and you watch mine.

Best of all, they would be going back home soon. Back to Nebraska. For the first time since they had come here, John felt a sense of happiness. He went into the living room and flopped down on the couch. There was something hard under the cushion on the left side. Reaching under it, he pulled out the VCR remote and pressed play. Someone had made a copy of the film Solaris and left it in the entertainment room and John never got sick of watching it. By 2:25 the end credits were scrolling past the screen and John was feeling hungry. He got dressed and went into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal. As he was getting the milk out of the fridge, he noticed that the light on the answering machine by the toaster was flashing. 'Probably Dad calling to tell me to make sure I have all my stuff packed.' he thought to himself. He pressed the playback button and reached into the cupboard for the cereal. It was his father's voice, but something in it made John stop what he was doing. His voice sounded calm, but there was an edge to it. He could hear some sort of alarm in the background.

"John, pick up if you're there.......John? Look uhhh...there's a bit of a problem here. They're not letting anyone go until the contamination team gets here and checks things out. don't worry though, I'm ok. But I don't know if we're going to make our flight out of here tonight. Anyway, hang in there kid. I'll be home as soon as I can. I love you John." John stared at the answering machine with the jug of milk dangling loosely in one hand. The last part sounded like a farewell.

The clock on the wall advanced to 2:33 with an audible click. A blinding flash burst through the windows, followed by a tremendous explosion which rocked the entire trailer. John was thrown violently to the floor. The milk pitcher flew from his hand and smashed against the refridgerator. In the living room he could hear the sound of the t.v. abruptly stop and then change to the familiar hissing sound of empty static. Then, a few seconds later, it went silent. He could hear gunfire in the distance and loud reports, like gas tanks exploding. Sirens and alarms were going off all over the camp. And in the background he could hear screaming. So many voices screaming. As he picked himself up off the floor and looked out the window towards the sarcophagus of the Chernobyl power plant and the research station beyond, he found his own voice had joined the chorus of screams as well. Everything around the old power plant was scorched black, and in the distance a great black thunderhead rose on a thick column of smoke from the center of the burning research station. "Dad." croaked John, as his vision blurred with fresh tears.

-In the Ethereal Realm Once Again-

His disembodied consciousness watched his younger self live through that day. Watching as body after body was pulled lifelessly from the smoking maw of the research facilities' main complex. Remembering the evacuation of the camp in the middle of the night. Being rushed to a hospital where he was poked and prodded and questioned relentlessly for hours. Watching as an old man delivered a plain white envelope to his hospital room a day later. He remembered the letter well.

Dear John;

The director of the N.A.E.P extends to you his deepest condolences regarding the loss of your father. The events of that day were...most unfortunate. We understand they have not yet recovered his body. We will make every effort to find him, so that you may bury him with the honor and distinction a man of his intelligence deserves. Enclosed you will find a cashiers check in the amount of $600,000 rubles. This pays in full, the balance of your father's life insurance policy to you, the beneficiary, in accordance with the terms of his contract. The motherland mourns with you in this time of loss and grief.

From The Office of the Director - Petrov Ilianovich
National Alternative Energy Program

The consciousness of John watched the events of his life unfold like a series of vingettes. Remembering how he had turned eighteen a week after being released from the hospital. How he had decided to stay in Russia and wait for them to pull his father's body out of the ashes. Watching and remembering as his younger self's sorrow turned into anger and finally frustration over the weeks and months following the mishap. They never recovered his body. Remembering his obsessive need to find answers and retribution for his father death, among the grey ashes of Chernobyl. Seeing the first reports of anomalous activity within the zone. Wanting to go there himself but knowing he wasn't ready. Remembering the period of time he spent underground with a radical branch of the russian militia: The Vipers. Learning to fight. Learning to survive and adapt. Preparing himself for a plan that had been forming in his mind since the day he and his fathers plans went up in smoke. Soon he would be ready return to that ruined place they called the Zone, and find the absolution he desperately needed. Then the first reports come of a new breed of men around 2010. The Stalkers. He wants to be one. He is ready. He watches himself as a recruit in one of the first stalker clans, an offshoot of the Viper militia, going on their first illegal trek into the zone. It's a massacre, one of many in the early days. But he survives again and again. He watches himself learn and adapt. Sees himself hardening with time. Watching as the years passed and the zone grew, reliving every moment.

Seeing himself at twenty eight years of age, in the heart of the zone, fighting for his mind and his life against a particularly intelligent Controller. Seeing himself pursue it underground into an abandoned laboratory. Remembering how it baited him telepathically with visions of rare anomalous artifacts. Watching as it springs it's trap. Seeing himself fighting off a horde of drooling, craven zombies under it's control. Seeing himself hurt and lost in the dark with the Controller in the bowels of that old lab. Remembering the way it had sent him horrible telepathic images of his own death and decay as it stalked him through the darkened corridors. Visions of twisting, snapping bones and exploding guts. Visions of dogs fighting over his ragged corpse. Remembering the malevolence in those thoughts and the cruel intellect behind them. Remembering how he had thought about putting a gun in his mouth to end the torment. Seeing himself stumble across a prototype psionic shield generator in the darkness of a wrecked testing room. Seeing how, after arming himself with the generator, he had worked his way around the abomination. Watching himself, stealing out of the darkness behind it and placing his knife blade against the creatures neck. Hearing it shriek and feeling the pulse of it's mutated heart quicken. Watching it's black blood splash on to the ground as he pulls the blade across the thing's scrawny neck and steps away. Seeing it fall to the ground, clutching at it's ruined throat and gasping for breath. The creature's eyes, turning up to meet his, are as cold as flint. Then, a glint of recognition, followed by a look of sorrow and despair. Remembering the last telepathic message it sent to him from it's dying brain. At the time he'd only caught a whisper of it(I'm sorry) thanks to the psionic sheild generator. Watching it again now, as a being of pure thought this time, he heard it loud and clear: "I love you John, I'll always love you. I'm sorry. Forgive me."


The consciousness of John raced over the fields and forests of the zone. Through the abandoned cities and towns his mind hurtled. Racing forward in time, catching up with the spectacle of his own death. Seeking. Searching. Mad with the need for revenge. It was the blinding thought that drove him onward day and night. Revenge against those who destroyed his father. Revenge against the unnatural creatures populating this festering hell hole.The zone would be his slaughtering ground.

No man could hide from his all seeing eye. He could hear their thoughts, like whispers in the dark, at all times. Military or scientist, he was indiscriminate in his rage. His appetite for destruction became wanton and boundless. He found himself able to choke and crush his enemies with a mere thought. He was able to break their bones merely by wishing it to be so. His legend grew among the humans and mutants. The military kept sending more men into the zone, and he was only too happy to welcome them in an embrace of death.The Controllers and other telepaths in the zone would go berserk with terror at his approaching. He would posess them. Make them gouge their own eyes out. Force them to bite off their own tongues and swallow the black blood until their bellies burst. Even the G'Tai, the powerful entities inhabiting the leech-things in the remaining swamps, feared him. They recoiled from him as his presence rushed over them. Their mental constructs were no match for his fury. He turned their gravity waves and their psionic powers against them, taking a perverse pleasure in watching them slaughter each other mindlessly with their own tools of destruction. There was no remorse left in him. All of it was washed away by the overriding need for retribution.

The only ones he spared, were the stalkers. And even among them, there were those that he turned his hate against. The liars and the double dealers. The swindlers and the cons. The murderers and thieves. The others, he watched over. Cleared the way ahead for them. Protected them when he could. Many times he passed near the small sphere that Angus had given him before he died. And for a time it remained unfound, and untouched, buried in the glass fused surface of what was once a festering swamp forest. The stalkers stayed away from that area now. Too hot, and too much attention focused there. But John's consciousness was vigilant. Four months after his physical death, true to form, the scientists and military began to converge there in droves. They knew something was there under the irradiated ground. They wanted it so badly and John's consciousness could feel their desire for it. At first he would not let them near it and, in the days ahead, he toyed with their minds and tormented them as they struggled to reach it.

"This is for you, father."

Their detectors didn't work on him. Like a wraith he would swoop through their encampment, watching them shoot their primitive weapons wildly into the air. He would take two or three of their minds over at once and cause them to pull the pins on their grenades. They would stand there, eyes blank, until the grenades blew their limp bodies apart. In a textbook display of refraction, the spraying gore sometimes left a brief, shimmering rainbow in a nearby drifting shaft of sunlight. They persisted. He brought all manner of calamity on them. Sometimes at night he would telepathically hurl boulders and rocks at their tents, smashing them to pieces and crushing the occupants within. Like clockwork, they would turn all the camp lights on and race around frantically, searching for their assailant. The futility of their efforts amused John's consciousness to no end and at times he even pitied them a little.

But still they persisted, and only by sheer numbers did they eventually find it. When they did, he changed his tactics and abruptly stopped his attacks. He would wait until he had the information he wanted before he cleansed this place of their presence. John watched as they quickly erected a portable lab around the sphere. Scientists were brought in by the truckload. He watched them as they entered the lab, almost tripping over themselves in their eagerness to see this artifact. They couldn't believe that such a little thing could hold such power. They wanted to run a million tests on it immediately. He could hear everything they were thinking.

He understood now that the sphere was the result of what they were working on when the research facilty went up in smoke all those years ago. He learned this from the many scientific and military minds he squeezed and tormented over the next day or two. Catching them in their tents at night. Jerking them out of bed. Taking what information he wanted and then leaving them with scrambled brains. He learned that the sphere was the source of the anomalies in the zone. He learned of the matter transformation experiments at the facility south of Chernobyl. The more minds he probed, the more he came to understood that these men of science really had no concept of the sphere's true destructive potential. They wanted nothing less than absolute power, and such a power could never be left entrusted to them. He had a vision of the world in the near future. They think they have harnessed the sphere. They try to release some of the anti matter and convert it into useable energy. They lose control. It sets off a chain reaction. The universe implodes and winks out of existence.

John knew immediately what he must do. He hurtled down into the camp, randomly knocking unseeing scientists and soldiers alike off their feet. He upturned vehicles and tents as he passed by. The alarm was sounded. He passed through the wall of the lab tent. The sphere lay on a table in the middle of the enclosure. Around it frightened looking soldiers waved their guns in all directions, while their eyes darted back and forth, up and down. Searching but not seeing. John released his murderous will and the soldiers fell to the ground. Their eyes bulged out and blood poured from their ears and mouths in copious amounts as they writhed and twitched on the floor in a macabre dance of death. He absorbed the anti-matter sphere, felt it mingling with his own energy, and rocketed into space. He thought of his father and mother as he raced back towards the void. He wondered where they might be now. He thought of the eager apprentice back at the city. Greedy little thing he turned out to be. The second time John had met him, as an invisible consciousness, the scoundrel was trying to kill the scotsman for the sphere in his hand. He remembered how the scotsman had ran screaming at the sight of the younger stalker who suddenly, for no apparent reason, started cutting into the white flesh of his own legs with his rifle bayonette. John laughed as he thought of the trick he'd played on himself with the younger stalker's body in the city. That was one for the history books. He thought of Angus. Poor old Angus. Poor dead Angus. Had they lived, John suspected they might have become great friends. But those times were behind him now, and the void was drawing near. He thought of himself. His death and rebirth.

"Why did I become this way?" he wondered. "Maybe I am the first conscious anomaly of the zone. A product of the thing I hate. Oblivion seems a better place." He barely even noticed as he projected himself and the sphere into the void and passed from all knowledge.

The End
  12:55:40  18 March 2006
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back with a vengeance


On forum: 07/31/2003
Messages: 1729
-Part 2-
At first he ran in a blind panic, sure that the presence in the house would give chase and tear him to pieces. He'd never encountered an entity like this before, though he had heard reports from other stalkers about them. He was not prepared for the terror he had felt when the chair fell over and moved towards him on it's own. Besides that, the way the room had turned freezing cold and the way the light had seemed to be sucked out of the house unnerved the stalker to a degree he had not thought possible. He'd seen alot of things in the zone. People killed, grotesque mutations, and all manner of atrocities. This was different. It was one thing to fight physical beings with weapons of steel and gunpowder. It was another thing altogether to fight something that didn't even have a physical form. All these thoughts swirled in the stalker's head as he ran from the city in the dead of night.

An hour later, his legs would carry him no further and his lungs were burning like they had been filled with sulpher. He guessed that he was at least four miles from the city now, though it gave him little comfort to be away from that place. The first light of a new day was creeping over the horizon to the east when he came to a stop alongside what appeared to be an outpost of some sort. The place was a mess and had apparently been abandoned. The prefab plastic building was about fifteen by fifteen square. There were holes in the walls and part of the roof had collapsed. Empty supply crates with military insignia lay strewn around the place along with various pieces of paper and other garbage. The door to the building was lazily creaking back and forth on it's hinges in the light morning breeze. A loose paper brushed up against his leg. He picked it up and looked it over. On it was written:

USMC Military Intelligence - 08/11/22
From: Director of Field Operations
To: USMC Outpost #31 / Sector 14
Attention: Leiutenant Commander A. Whitworth

Since our last communication there have been some disturbing trends that we feel you should be made aware of. We have received numerous reports of increased activity in sectors twelve through sixteen. Outposts 28, 32, and 34 have recently come under attack by a force of unknown origin. Casualty rates at this time are assumed to be 100%, as recon surveys of those areas have revealed no surviving personel and the outposts themselves are completely obliterated. Our foothold in the area is slipping, yet we must maintain a military presence in all sectors, no matter the cost. To that end, we are deploying a second and third platoon to be amalgamated with your current one. As yet, we have no data on how to combat this growing menace. Rest assured, our scientists are working on the problem and we hope to have a solution very soon. Until such time, your orders remain the same.

General T.S. Banks

'Attacked by a force of unknown origin,' the stalker thought to himself as he crumpled up the paper and threw it aside. Swell. He looked around uneasily, suddenly feeling very exposed and vulnerable. He moved to the door of the outpost and peered in, expecting to see dead bodies. The place was in ruins. He stepped inside. Some kind of firefight had gone on here, that was certain. Empty shell casings littered the floor along with various pieces of smashed equipment and more papers. Supply crates like the ones outside lay overturned, their contents scattered all over the room. Bunks and footlockers were smashed and broken. There were, however, no bodies or blood. The stalker shivered. The piece of paper he had just read was dated 08/11/22, barely two days old. Whatever had gone on here had happened less than 48 hours ago. The rising sensation of fear was gnawing at him again, threatening to turn into panic. He thought about the novice stalker with his legs torn off, laying on the doorstep of that house back in the city and shivered again. There was a splintered mirror on the wall nearest him. He moved to it and looked at his own shattered reflection. 'What is my name again?' he thought to himself. For a minute he couldn't remember. He was used to being referred to by others simply as "Stalker". Then a word materialized in his head. John. That was his name. John Beyer. He was about to say it out loud when from outside, and to the left, he heard a sound like bottles clinking together. He held his breath and could feel his heart beating wildly in his chest. The sound came again: "Clink!" He unslung his rifle and stepped back outside. Whatever it was, it was just around the corner. The stalker edged along the wall until he was positioned near the corner of the building. Steeling himself up, he shot a glance around the other side of the outpost. Relief washed over him in a great wave. It was another stalker, scavenging the contents of a supply crate. His weapon lay beside him on the ground.

'He must have crept up while I was inside the outpost', thought the stalker to himself. 'Now, how do I alert the guy without getting my head blown off in the process?' He wondered. Then he uttered two words:

"White flag."

The Scavenging stalker dropped the bottle of vodka he had just pilfered from the crate and simultaneously lunged for his weapon.
The silence was shattered by the sound of breaking glass as the bottle landed against a rock.

"Whoa!" said John as he instinctively raised his own rifle, "I said white flag. Peace. I don't want to hurt you."

The scavenging stalker brandished his weapon towards John, but said nothing. They stared at each other that way for what seemed like an eternity. Then John dropped his rifle to his side and held his hands open in front of him, palms up, in a gesture of peace.

"Look" said John, "I'm sorry I scared you. I'd react the same way if someone snuck up on me like I just did to you. I don't want any trouble."

The other stalker wavered for a moment longer, then he too lowered the barrel of his weapon. As he spoke, John detected an unmistakeable Scottish accent.

"What the bloody 'ell you doin' sneakin' aroond so far inta the zoon anywee old man, eh?"said the scavenging stalker as he stood up. "Ya cost me a pearfectly good baw-ull uh vodka doncha know!"

"don't worry about the vodka man, there's a whole crate of it inside there." said John, jerking his thumb towards the outpost.

"Aye? Well then what the 'ell ur we doin' standin' aroond fer then, huh? Let's 'ave a drink!" exclaimed the Scotsman as he slung his rifle over his shoulder and started walking towards John, his face breaking into a wide grin.

"Name's Macneil. Angus Macneil." said the stalker as he took John's hand and pumped it up and down vigorously. John couldn't help but like this Scotsman a bit already. Anyone that could think of booze this early in the morning couldn't be all bad.

"John Beyer." replied John, grinning stupidly.

"Nice ta meet ya John." replied Angus. "Now...where's that drink?"

They went inside and opened a bottle of vodka from one of the upturned crates. They sat against an over turned desk and talked, telling each other about where they were from, why they were here, and all the other casual bullshit strangers in the zone talk about. The bottle of vodka passed back and forth between them as they alternated between speaking and drinking.

"Soo, what are ye doin' oot here anywee?" asked Angus, his thick accent tumbling from him cracked lips. He took a large slug from the bottle and passed it to John.

"I was taking a new guy out to the edge of the city back there when the blowout came. We were looking for a fairly big anomaly. We got...seperated. He didn't make it." said John.

"Didn't make it? How d'ya know he dinny make it, if ye got seperated?"

"Because I found him laying back there in the city, with his legs torn off at the groin. Some....thing got to him while we were apart." replied John, taking a mouthful of fire and swallowing it down with a wince.

"Aye. There's a lot of that goin' aroond." said Angus. "Dog pack then, was it eh?"

"No, I don't think it was." said John. " It was...well, it was something that only gave off faint readings on the psionic detector. Something I couldn't see."

The Scotsman frowned at this. "Ye mean, soom kinda phantom?"

"I don't know what I mean. All I know is it scared the shit out of me and I got the hell out of there."said John staring at the ground. "I don't know if it's what killed him, but it brought him to me for some reason. I didn't stay to find out." John took another drink and passed the bottle back to Angus.

"Nay, I would'nta stayed neither." exclaimed the Scotsman. "And pray tell, what happened ta this place?"

"I don't know." said John. "There's some paperwork laying around here from the D.F.O. Something's been wasting outposts all up and down the line in the last few weeks. Something they only refer to as a 'force of unknown origin', whatever that means."

"Soonds like trouble ta me." said Angus in a quiet voice. "These goddamn blow-oots are gettin' worse and worse all the time. Lots of stalkers, even veterans, are goin' missin'. This was to be mah last haul and if ah ken make it oot this time, then I'm goin' back to Glasgow."

John only nodded his head in agreement. He was thinking the same thing. This place was getting too dangerous even for a veteran. If the military was getting wiped out like this, how much of a chance did a lone stalker have? He reached into his backpack and brought out the GPS. It was 13.1 kilometers to the nearest perimeter fence from here. Between here and there though, were a number of well known anomalous areas. They would have to plot their course carefully.

"Look Angus, we stand a better chance of getting out of here alive, if we stick together. You're right, this place is getting way too dangerous. Whatever did this could come back again. There's no way to fight it with the weapons we have. We'd be sitting ducks. We should start back as soon as possible."

Angus stared hard at John for a minute, his brow creasing into deep furrows. Finally he spoke.

"Aye, I think yer right. I'm fer gettin' the fook outta this place right noo. How far is it ta the border from 'ere?"

"About 13 K to the closest perimeter fence." replied John. "What time is it?"

Angus looked down at his watch. "Six-Thirty, ay em."

"Well, considering the terrain ahead, if we leave now and keep a steady pace we can be there before nightfall." said John.

"Then what are we waitin' fer? Lets go." said Angus, taking the last four slugs out of the bottle and casting it aside.

By ten o'clock they were within seven kilometers of the perimeter. They had passed around two known anomalous gravity zones since then, their detectors going off like mad all the while, and now were hiking over a series of wooded hills. They both knew that beyond the hills, there was a long stretch of thickly wooded swamp. Many a stalker had been lost to that cursed swamp country before it was tagged as an 'extreme hazard zone' by the science division. On the military map John was carrying, it was simply and ominously noted with a large black X. A handful of people over the last few years had been lucky enough to escape with their lives from that place, and what they told others was enough to make any sensible person take a wide detour around it. The woods grew particularly thick in that area and in places they said that the sun did not penetrate the dense foliage at all. Near darkness abounded in the worst of it, even in broad daylight. And in that horrid darkness, there were things waiting in the many putrid and dank water pools among the trees. The few that had survived encounters in those dark swamps related storied of their companions being pulled under the water and savaged by what looked like gaint mutated leeches, long and black, with stupid red glaring eyes and gaping mouths full of large, razor sharp needle-like teeth.

They would not go that way. As they crested the last hill they saw that the land sloped down and away from them. To the southeast lay the swamps. Just looking at the dense woods in that direction gave John an uneasy feeling. To the southwest lay an open tract of grassland, and beyond that they could see a sparse stand of pines. And beyond that, presumably was the fence. After surveying the land ahead to their mutual satisfaction, they rested for a bit and ate some of their rations. There were birds in the sky off to the south wheeling and diving over the prairie. John watched them for awhile and wondered if they were mutated or normal. They looked more like bats than birds, but it was hard to tell from this distance.

Angus looked down at his watch and spoke the time aloud: "11:36, and we've only got what? Five? Six kilometers ta go? I'm thinkin' were gonna be ok Johnny, so long as we stay well to the southwest."

For the first time in the last twelve hours, John felt a dawning sense of optimism. All they had to do was cross the prairie, go through the last bit of forest, then get through the fence and sneak out past the patrols. They started to make their way down the decline and into the clearing when Angus' tracking unit began to warble and beep. They stopped and John stared at the Scotsman as he whacked the tracker across his knee and cursed under his breath.

"What's it saying? Let me..." said John as Angus abruptly cut him off with a finger to the lips hushing gesture.

"What did you say earlier aboot faint psionic readings, John?" whispered Angus, his eyes darting in all directions. "Did they look anything like this then?"

Angus tilted the display towards John and, as he looked, he felt his blood run cold as ice. "Those are the same readings." whispered John gravely.

"What are we gonna do?" said Angus in a panicky whisper. All at once the display went silent.

"Run!" yelled John as he grabbed Angus by the arm and pulled him towards the open clearing. Behind them, they heard the sound of trees splintering, like gunshots, as if something huge was crashing it's way through the forest towards them. The birds John had seen before, perhaps sensing some imminent disturbance, were gone now . Angus dropped his pack, stopped to grab it, then sprinted ahead of John. John held onto his pack but dropped his rifle. There was no time to stop. The sound of destruction in the forest behind them urged them on faster. They had reached the middle of the clearing and were running flat out when John glanced back and saw that a gravity wave was rolling across the field towards them from the northeast and picking up speed, crushing the prairie grasses and flowers in it's wake. Abruptly, he was stopped by Angus, who was yelling and pointing the other way. John looked towards the tree line to the southwest, and saw another gravity wave rolling towards them from that direction too. Then to the west, a third smaller wave materialized and rushed toward them. Three waves all moving straight at them, closing in on them in the shape of a huge invisible triangle. John suddenly realized what was happening. They were at the eastern tip of the triad. They were being herded towards the swamps.

"The swamps!" yelled Angus. "It's the only place to go, c'mon!"

"We'll die in there!" yelled John over the thunderous roar of the tumbling waves.

"We'll die oot here too!" said Angus pulling him along.

John protested for a second more, then gave up and followed Angus into the fringe of trees that marked the edge of the swamp country. As soon as they had penetrated the forest a few meters they stopped and looked back. The three gravity waves converged into one enormous wave. The sound was deafening. The wave crashed and rolled towards the swamp. When it reached the treeline, it dissolved into nothing. John and Angus looked at each other for a second and then burst out laughing.

"Let's go back." said Angus as he patted John on the shoulder.

They walked towards the open field again. As they reached the tree line though, a low rumble began and the gravity wave reared up in front of them again out of nowhere, distorting their view of the prairie to the west as they stared through it. They ran back into the woods a few meters and the wave dissipated again. John and Angus stared at each other. John began to get the feeling that some kind of trap had been sprung on them.

"What in the name of Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick is goin' on here!" bellowed Angus. "We were so damn close to the bleedin' perimeter too. I've seen gravity waves before, but not like that. Not...organized like that."

"I don't know." said John. "I saw something similar just after my apprentice disappeared back on the edge of the city. Like it was pushing me towards the city. At the time, I thought it was just another rouge gravity anomaly, but now I'm thinking that maybe it's something else. I can't figure it out."

"Maybe I can laddie." said Angus. "I didn't want ta tell ye before, as I thought ya might go thinkin' that I was the one that killed yer partner."

"What are you talking about?" asked John.

"This." said Angus. He pulled open his backpack, drew out something wrapped in a leather cloth and placed it in John's hand. It felt warm to the touch and was vibrating ever so slightly.

"What is it?" asked John.

"Open it, and see fer yerself." replied Angus, who had sat down and was now leaning against a nearby tree.

John unwrapped the cloth and looked inside. It was like nothing he had ever seen before. Cradled in his hand was a black, glass-like sphere. Inside it, he could faintly make out tiny bluish/white electrical charges swirling around back and forth, around and around. John pulled out his detector and ran a scan. The scanner buzzed and chirped for what seemed like a very long time and then fell silent. Then the display lit up with a long list of properties and measurements. John's jaw dropped.

"Yer machine ain't broken." said Angus. "That little sphere contains enoof anti-matter particles to blow the world in two aboot a million times over. I don't know what contains it, but I'm just glad it's contained!"

"Where did you find this? What does it have to do with my apprentice?" asked John.

"I found it on the edge of the city durin' the last blow-oot. Probably the same anomaly you were trackin'. It was just layin' there, like it had fallen oot of somebody's pocket. That's where I met up with yer ' so called ' apprentice. And let me tell you, you did well to be rid of that piece of trash when ya did. He came at me from behind as I was wrappin' the sphere up in that piece of leather. I couldn't believe there was actually another man stupid enough, besides me, to be out in the middle of a goddamn blow-oot. Mind you, it was the biggest damn anomaly I'd ever come across. I turned and saw the knife flash in his hand and I was sure he was gonna stick me in my guts, when then the strangest thing happened. The goddamn crazy bastard started cuttin' his own legs up! I let oot a holler and got the fook outta there, let me tell you! I figured there must have been a controller nearby, you know, fooking with his mind or something. I wondered why he wasn't fooking with mine too. Anywee, like I said, I beat a hasty retreat and took refuge in the city until the blow-oot passed. As I was leaving, I picked up your trail and followed you ta that outpost. The already know. I didn't kill 'im, your partner that is. He killed himself. That sphere, as I'm sure you have realized by now, is worth alot of money. I'd be willin' ta share the profits 50/50 if we ken get oot of here alive. Whadday say?"

"It's worth alot to whatever has us trapped in here too, I'm betting." said John. "I think it wants it back. That's must be what's been ravaging the outposts. Maybe if we leave it here, it will let us out of the swamps."

"Well, what if it's gonna use it ta destroy us all?" said Angus. "Believe me, I wanted to throw the damn thing awee when I found it, but it's just too dangerous to leave it layin' aroond. Maybe this is the key ta the whole damn problem here in the zoon."

The more John thought about it, the more he agreed with the Scotsman. They had to get it back to the science geeks. It could be a key part of this whole stinking mess. The money wouldn't hurt either. Then he could leave this place for good. Let someone else risk their neck, he'd had enough. He was sure of that much anyway.

"50/50?" asked John.

"Aye, 50/50." said Angus.

"Lets' go then. If we stay on the edge of the swamp, and keep moving south maybe we can avoid any unpleasant, uh...conflicts. This place scares the shit out of me." said John. He wrapped the sphere up in the leather cloth and handed it back to Angus.

"Aye, me too. I lost a cousin a year ago to this fookin' swamp. Only one person in his party survived. Poor bastard lost both his legs below the knee and an arm to those gaddamn things in the marshes, but he lived to tell. Let me tell ya, ya don't forget a story like that."

For a while, they walked in silence on the edge of the treeline, making a wide path around any body of water they came across. The smell of the place became fouler the further they went. Anytime they got too close to the edge of the treeline, the rumbling would start again and the gravity wave would re-appear, shimmering in the air before them. Then, about 500 meters from the zone's perimeter according to John's GPS, they reached an impasse. The trees became particularly thick and gnarled together. There was no where to go unless they went deeper into the swamp to the east. There was no other choice. As their path lead them further into the swampland, the light of the sun grew dimmer and the trees became thicker and more twisted together. The sickly sweet smell of the marsh grew worse too. It smelled like dead things and rotting fruit mixed together. Before long, the marshes were all around them and the smell became unbearable. Every so often they could see ripples on the surface of a body of fetid water off to their sides, as if something had just stirred undernearth. Then their footing began to give way, and they found themselves hopping from mushy bluff to mushy bluff. The undergrowth tugged at their packs and clothing and they had to hack their way through the denser brush. John pulled out his GPS again, and to his dismay he saw that their course was almost parallel to the zone's perimeter fence. It was still about 500 meters off to their right.

"What time is it Angus?" asked John.

"3:00 p.m. God, this place stinks worse than my mother's haggis! Why haven't we reached the fence yet?" said Angus in a voice full of disgust.

"Because we keep moving parallel to the fence. It's only 500 meters to the right. I've been using the GPS to try to angle our way over there, but the growth here is just too thick. We've only gained a few meters in the last 500 we've walked. At this rate we'll never get there!" exclaimed John.

"Well fook! Ain't that a fine how d'ya do?" said Angus. "So what do we do now?"

"don't know, but if we're still here when night falls we aren't going to be able to see shit, and I don't want to be here when that happens." said John. "We have to move directly south now, even if it means going through the deeper undergrowth."

"Fine by me, the smell of this place could put a man off his food for life. I'd rather smell my dog's ass. Jesus!" exclaimed Angus.

They turned south and kept walking. The sun was rapidly sliding below the tree tops. Angus was a dozen meters ahead when John stopped and kneeled down to tie a bootlace that had come undone. When he looked up, Angus had disappeared from sight into the dense foliage ahead. The light was almost gone from the day, and the last red rays of the dying sun were drifting and filtering through the trees. John was about to call out when he heard a splash and then a scream, followed by more splashing. He rushed forward and hacked his way into the dense thicket of trees before him with his sap encrusted machete. The growth here was unyeilding and tough but he fought onward. The splashing grew louder. "Angus!" John yelled, but there was no answer. He pushed blindly ahead, cutting his face on the jutting branches of the trees and his hands on the wiry undergrowth. The thought of being lost and alone after dark here struck him and he called out again. "Angus!, can you hear me?" There was still no response. Everything was cast in deep shadows now as he crawled through the thick foliage on his hands and knees. He stopped and listened in the darkness. Silence greeted him back. He fumbled with his utility belt until his hands closed around a familiar object. He shook up the chemical lantern and looked around. There, less than four feet in front of him, was Angus submerged chest deep in a pool of vile looking grey/brown water.

"Angus!" exclaimed John as he crawled to the edge of the pond. "Angus, speak to me. Are you alright?"

Angus didn't respond at first. He seemed to only stare straight down into the water. His head lolled to the side a bit. Then he let out a groan and his head wobbled up to meet John's face. As their eyes met John could see something, like short bits of very thin thread, floating around on the surface of his eyes. Only it wasn't thread. They were like tiny little eels, all writhing and squirming around together and they were inside his eyeballs. John recoiled in horror. Then he saw that a large leech-like thing was attached to Angus' back, just below the surface of the putrid water. It's long muscular looking tail was wrapped tightly around his midsection. Suddenly the head of the thing slid out of Angus' back and broke the surface of the water. It turned towards John and hissed at him, revealing a mouth full of silver needles and two smouldering hate filled red eyes. Then, with a splash, it plunged it's head back inside the gaping wound in Angus' back.

"Take it..." croaked Angus as he lifted his backpack out of the water with his right hand. "Take it and kill me, please. I can feel them inside me, it's babies, eating, growing...please...kill me." John could see things squirming under the skin of Angus' right hand and forearm. He grabbed the pack and backed away. With tears in his eyes, he detached a grenade from his jacket harness.

"Hurry." whimpered Angus.

John pulled the pin and tossed it into the pool beside Angus' twitching body and scrambled from the thicket. Behind him he could hear a muffled explosion and an inhuman screaming sound that quickly died away. Then, silence. He reached inside the pack and pulled out the leather wrapped sphere, then threw the pack aside.

John sat down and cradled his head in his hands. Darkness rushed over him as the chemical lantern died out. It was hopeless. He cried. There was no where to go in this darkness. He'd end up just like poor old Angus. Food for those things. He shuddered and pulled his jacket tighter around himself. 'I'm going to die here tonight.' he thought to himself. 'Those things in the water are going to come after me any time now, and then it's game over.' Something made a sound to the left. Then to the right. Then he heard a great host of sounds all around him. Slithering, squirming sounds. His heart was beating like a jackhammer, but the adrenaline felt good. He reached into his backpack and pulled out an object with the words 'phosphorus flare' written on it. He triggered the ignition mechanism and tossed it a few feet in front of him as it flared to life. What he saw was worse than what he had imagined. The leech-things were all around him, thousands upon thousands of them inching slowly in the darkness towards him. They had been coming for him alright. John pulled another device out of his pack. This one was marked with the words: ' Thermonuclear Device - 0.5 Kiloton Yield '

"If I'm going to die, then I'm taking all of you fucks with me! You hear?!?" he screamed into the darkness beyond the flare's illumination. Then something truly unexpected happened. The leech-things, instead of attacking him, began to coalesce into one large mass. Thousands of them, squirming together in one great repulsive pile. John noticed that the mass was taking on a shape. A roughly humanoid shape. A pair of arms first, then two legs, followed by a torso and finally a head was formed by thousands of these writhing creatures. When it had completely formed, it 'stood' at least twelve feet tall. John's will to fight was gone. This was too much. Then it spoke in his head.

"Human, do you know that the world's sundering is at hand?" it said in John's mind.

"No." thought John. "What are you?"

"We are the dwellers in the dark places of man's domain. The G' Tai. We control the controllers. We control everything in the zone. The gravitational anomalies that plagued you in the field and by the city...that is our making. We are the architects of your species destruction."

"What do you want?" thought John.

"The device that you carry, it is precious to us. It is the force that aligns our will and is the giver of power beyond imagination."

"Then why don't you just take it?" thought John.

"These fragile bodies we inhabit would whither and die upon contact with it. We need a more advanced lifeform to wield the power of the sphere. The bodies of your species will do nicely. We were in the process of preparing your friend for the change when your incendary device, the one you call 'grenade', stopped his life functions. If you destroy yourself, we will have to wait for another to find the sphere. Though we could wait for millenia, we tire of this stinking place. You will assist us."

The last words hit John's brain like an icepick, and he was aware that these things were attempting to use their considerable psionic influence to take control of his mind. He struggled to keep them out, only dimly aware now of the bomb in his hand and the deactivated psionic shield generator toggle on his wrist computer. They pressed harder and he felt his mind caving in under the pressure. He struggled to move his hand to the wrist computer. It felt like his arm was moving through molasses. They pushed harder still, and with all his strength, John fought them. His hand hovered over the toggle switch. They were winning. His finger trembled an inch above the toggle switch. Then, with the very last of his strength, he mashed the toggle to the 'on' position. There were terrible screams of a million voices in his head as the generator enveloped him in it's protective shielding. Their mind link was broken. The writhing humanoid thing of leech-like creatures fell apart and, in unison, they swarmed away from him. John smiled as he pulled the detonator pin and closed his eyes. White light filled the world and then John knew nothing more.

Excerpt from Science Division Operational Headquarters(S.D.O.H.) weekly journal:

...though we do know that the blast radius was consistent with a half kiloton device. While at least three quarters of the swamp was obliterated, there still remains a viable portion in the southeast corner of sector 14. Preliminary data, collected from remote units on site, revealed a massive anomalous reading at the epicenter of the explosion and we are eager to investigate this further. Once radioactive emissions have fallen to acceptable levels(2 - 4 months), we anticipate the full deployment of an analysis team composed of selected scientific and military personel to the area for a complete investigation. At this time the military denies any involvement in the event, and one spokesman for the D.F.O. was quoted as saying: "We don't know who set off the device, but it wasn't any of our personel, I can assure you." In other news, two more stalkers went missing...
  12:53:30  18 March 2006
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back with a vengeance


On forum: 07/31/2003

Message edited by:
03/18/2006 12:56:48
Messages: 1729
The inhuman condition

-Part 1-
How long had he been here now? An hour? A day? The Stalker could not remember. He sat up and looked around at his surroundings. He was in a dirt basement of some sort, though he didn't remember how he'd got there. He glanced at his watch, but the face had been smashed. When the blowout happened, his younger recruit and he had been on the fringe of the derelict city, in the heart of the zone. He knew the time was getting close for another cycle to start, maybe a day or two at most. Plenty of time to get in and out. But this time the blowout happened much sooner than predicted by the science geeks.

That was the thing about the Zone. You couldn't apply any rules to it. You couldn't rely on previous successes. Chaos was the only rule. The science guys thought they could change that, but they rarely penetrated the Zone this far. They never saw how wierd it could get. His partner was new to this world too, having only joined the clan a month ago. He was green and untested when they entered the Zone and, if it wasn't for the older veteran stalker, he would surely have met his maker several times over. Not that anyone around here much believed in a maker anymore or cared.Twice the younger stalker, eager to see what lay ahead, very nearly rushed blindly into variable gravity fields. The ones than didn't show up on any sensors. The ones that turned you inside out and ripped you limb from limb, all the while screaming your last scream through a mouthful of your own frothing blood. And twice the veteran stalker pulled him from harm's way.

"What kind of god would allow this perversion of nature to persist, much less grow?" wondered the veteran to himself. In the Zone, invariably, all thoughts of god ceased as did any thought other than survival. Only the will to survive, combined with the knowledge of the dangers ahead could save a would be explorer deluded enough to actually enter this wasteland of rot and decay. That and more than a little luck. There was a saying in the zone: "On a long enough timeline, everyone's survival rate drops to zero." There was no doubt in the stalkers mind that this was true. Greed killed more men here than anything else. Certainly it was true for the younger stalker. When the blowout came, they had been tracking an unusually large anomaly on the edge of the ruined city. The younger stalker, excited about the prospect of a fat paycheck, began laughing and talking about what he was going to do with his share of the reward when they got back to camp. As the younger man talked louder and louder he could feel himself becoming mildly annoyed.

"If this is as big as I think it's gonna be, then see ya later Jack! You know, it's gonna be like 'fuck you Zonerino' ", said the younger stalker gesturing wildly with his middle fingers at the abandoned city buildings. "Cuz I'll be long gone to Jamaica where the nights are dark, and the women are darker." the younger man exclaimed as he danced around. "Gonna get me a sweet jamaican queen and live the good life. No more scratchin' for dirt for this guy!"

The veteran took no notice of him. He was fixed on the detector in his hand. Twice, from the corner of his eye, he had been sure that something had flashed across the screen. But the thing was silent. Too silent perhaps. Maybe it was his nerves. Too many trips into the zone. Maybe it was because the kid was carrying on and yelling like he was trying to raise the dead. In this place anything seemed possible.

"I think you should be a little more quiet there, recruit", said the veteran to the younger stalker. "You're liable to call on a pack of dogs if you keep on like that. don't make the mistake of treating this place like the real world."

"Aw c'mon man! We're gonna be rich! All we gotta do is get that big assed anomoly back to the geeks and then it's au weidershein baby!"

The veteran had had enough of this. He turned around and jerked the younger man closer to him by his jacket."Listen boy, and listen good. Nothing in the Zone comes that easy. I been coming in here for nearly two years now and I've seen alot of good men die in here. Better men than you. This isn't a cakewalk. You think like that in here and you'll end up like all those other guys. Food for the things. And you'll get me killed too. So do me a favour and just shutup!"

The younger stalker's face screwed up in a look of hate. This was typical of the veterans he'd gone into the zone with for the last month. Always giving orders. Always telling you to 'shut up' or 'sit down' or 'stay put'. This one was no different. He didn't talk as much as the others, bu he was just as moody.

"Man, what the fuck is your problem?" said the younger stalker as he jerked out of the veteran's grasp. "The last guy that touched me is dead now, so you better just back the fuck off."

"Anytime you want to go on your own, go ahead." said the veteran calmly. "But if you're going to travel with me, you better learn to talk alot less."

"You guys are all the same. Think you're something special 'cuz you've been here longer? Well, I've seen some shit too. I could make it here on my own."

"Then go ahead." said the veteran bluntly.

The younger stalker was about to open his mouth to speak again when the blowout abruptly began. Then the earth started quaking, the boiling sky went black and the intense lightning storm began. The veteran, though taken aback by the timing of the blowout, knew exactly what they had to do...they had to find shelter immediately. Not from the storm though. That was the least of his worries. It was because after the blowout, when the world had gone two colored and the eerie silence ensued, that the most dangerous time of all to be at the heart of the Zone was at hand. Only once before had this happened to the veteran stalker, and that time he had been much closer to the edge of the Zone. He'd lost all his gear and food while fleeing from a pack of wild mutant dogs across the scorched plains during the blowout, and it was only by sheer providence that a cadre of stalkers from another clan had found him injured, starving and close to death. But this time they were too far in, and finding a place to hole up in would greatly increase their chances of survival. The younger stalker would not listen though.

"We have to find a place to ride this out. Some empty building on the edge of the city!" yelled the veteran stalker as the wind rose to a howl.

"Find shelter?" said the younger man. "And what? Let some other stalker take the prize while we hide like scared rabbits? No way man, I'm going on with or without you."

"Son," replied the veteran gravely, "that money won't help you much if your dead. No one's going to go after that anomaly during this blowout. We have to get out of the open right now."

But the younger man was undeterred. "I guess you won't mind if I take it for myself then, huh? See you around pops." he yelled above the wind and thunder as he jogged away and disappeared into a bluff of trees in the direction of the anomaly. The veteran watched for a moment longer and thought of going after him, then shook his head and looked towards the city. He looked back at the bluff of trees again, which were now whipping back and forth in the wind. He sensed that the blowout was getting worse, and it was. Much worse than he had ever seen before. Suddenly, fluctuating gravity fields began wreaking havok on the landscape all around him. It looked like a huge invisible hand was bashing craters into the earth and throwing up plumes of dirt into the air high above him. That made up his mind for him. As he began to run for the city perimeter, he remembered seeing an enormous gravity wave rolling across the landscape, crushing everything in it's path. It came across the plain towards him, smashing the bluff of trees the other stalker had entered moments before to splinters as it picked up speed and beared down on him. That was the last thing he remembered until he awoke in this dirt cellar.

The veteran crawled up the stairs of the cellar and gingerly pushed the door open. The door squeaked on it's rusted hinges, making the stalker wince and draw in a sharp breath. He waited for something to happen. Nothing did. He ventured a look around the door and saw that he was standing in a old house. Garbage littered the floor along with old newspapers and several faded photographs of what he assumed was the houses previous owners. Their faces smiled blandy in the strange two color glow of the blowout's aftermath. Memories of a happier time. The stalker moved to a window and peered out. The house was on the edge of the city, and he could see the plain they had come across and the smashed bluff of trees off to the right. The countryside was now littered with craters varying in size from a few inches to more than one hundred feet across. He thought for a minute about the younger stalker and wondered if he could still be alive, but then immediately perished the thought. The stalker took a deep breath and let out a sigh. What was he to do now? There was a chair in the corner of the room. He sat down in it and closed his eyes. In the distance he could hear the sound of dogs growling and barking. He thought again about the younger stalker. Nice enough kid, just a little too greedy. The number one rule of this place, mused the stalker, is you have to save yourself from yourself. If you can't do that, you're dead before you even step foot into the Zone.

The Stalker opened his eyes and thought about his situation. Another day and the worst of the blowout's effects would be past. The creatures in the zone would be more active, but normal light would return shortly, and that would make the trip back easier. The two tone negative light of the aftermath was a double edged sword. Many of the gravitational and psychoactive anomalies would be visible in the light, but on the other hand, it also seemed to sharpen the psionic abilities of the zones more dangerous inhabitants. No, the stalker thought to himself. He would wait for another day at least before making the trip back to the outer rim. He had enough rations and if he kept his eyes and ears open he could probably avoid any unwanted attention. His combination psionic energy/motion/proximity density detector was not registering any activity within it's 200 meter range and so the stalker settled in and waited and slept.

It was night when the Stalker was startled awake by the sound of his detector pinging softly. He thumbed the safety off of his automatic rifle and raised it towards the door. Looking down at the detector, he could see that the signal was coming from the plain they had crossed at the edge of the city. One hundred and fifty meters and closing. One hundred and twenty five meters and still closing. At one hundred meters the pinging of the detector changed to a higher pitch and the stalker bolted upright out of the chair. The signal was small, less mass than an average man by at least thirty kilograms, but it was moving fast and directly towards him. He stared at the detector and as he did he noticed that at almost imperceptable moments it was picking up faint traces of psionic energy. Traces of psionic energy? His mind raced. Instinctually, he snapped the psionic shield generator toggle on his wrist computer to the on position and heard the sound of the unit cycling up to full power. Sixty five meters and closing. The stalker moved to the window and peered out, but all he could see was murky darkness. Thirty five meters. Twenty. The stalker moved away from the window to the center of the house. Sweat rolled down his brow and stung his eyes. Ten meters. He reached down and turned the detectors alert sound off, noting that the psionic flactuations in the readings had stopped. Nine meters. Right outside the door. The stalker stood there in the dark, ready for anything and sure of nothing. Ten seconds went by. He looked down at the display. The target was still nine meters away. No psionic activity, no motion, only the proximity air density readings. Something with a readable physical mass was waiting out there. At least that was something. It was always better when you could see your opponent. There were worse things in the zone, things he dared not imagine or say their name out loud. ' Why did it stop', the stalker wondered to himself? Why would it wait if it knew he was in here? Half a minute passed. Still no change. The stalker moved towards the door slowly, rifle raised. He stopped at the threshhold and cautiously looked out.

There, crumpled on the ground before him, was the younger stalker. His body was motionless. The veteran stalker was just about to go to the the younger man when he noticed something quite obvious. The younger stalkers legs were gone. They had been torn off at the groin. All that remained were two ragged and bloody stumps. With a dawning sense of horror the stalker realized that something had carried the younger man and left him here at the doorstep, like a grisly calling card. Something invisible to the detector. Suddenly, the room grew icy cold and darker somehow. The chair in the corner fell over and skittered several feet towards the stalker. His finger tightened up on the trigger of the rifle even as he realized that there was nothing to shoot at.

"Poltergeist" whispered the stalker as he turned and fled the house.
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