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Elena Rudneva.

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  11:59:18  20 April 2006
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Amoki
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On forum: 07/31/2003
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Elena Rudneva.

At first there was only blackness. The kind that greets you when your mind is trying to wake up, trying to sort out reality from the dream world. As her eyes began to function behind fluttering eyelids, a brilliant white light assaulted her, slowly fading into blurred images. Quickly her other senses became painfully aware of her condition, the throbbing pain in her head, the burn in her right thigh... all reminders that she was thankfully not dead.

Elena could remember the mountain pass she had been carefully picking her way through, the trees, the boulders resting in the same places they had been since the formation of the mountains, but what had happened to her? She could remember nothing; her weapon had been slung over her shoulder, had she been attacked? Strange and violent creatures are common in this place, an area of the world where nature itself has been grossly distorted by a man-made disaster.

Her surroundings were in focus now, the fogginess in her mind quickly fading. As she tried to sit up, a tug from her matted hair brought attention to the dried blood that had glued her to the rocky ground she was lying on. Removing a glove and tenderly feeling her scalp, she discovered a gash in the back of her head, which had thankfully stopped bleeding some time ago. How long had she been out? A quick check of the rest of her body revealed only the rip in her fatigues exposing the gash in her upper leg, and a few sore spots and bruises. Elena was made of tougher stuff than she looked, and eased herself to her feet, shook off the remaining confusion and quickly scanned the area for clues as to what had happened.

The path wound its way down a steep slope on the side of a small mountain, the granite rock dominating the immediate landscape. The mid-afternoon sun was shining brightly, filtered by the trees and undergrowth that managed to gain footholds in the rock, blocking her view of any real distance. But what was in the path in front of her startled her, and she let out an audible gasp.

The rock had cracked and buckled right in her path, giant chunks of it torn away, leaving an oddly shaped depression in the ground. But stranger still was the mass of tangled wood, rock, and vegetation that formed a tightly compressed sphere-like mass, hovering several feet off the ground! As quickly as the surprise hit her, it was gone, because she knew exactly what had happened. Gravity inside this area had pulled itself into a single concentrated spot, ripping up trees and granite alike within its grasp, pulling it all in with such force that it could only be compared to a black hole.

Adventurous folks like Elena are referred to as "Stalkers", the name given to those who make their living by exploring this inhospitable landscape for just such anomalies and various types of artifacts. They are hired to collect these artifacts and samples from the Zone, and are paid for successful missions. She was living in a post-nuclear world, brought on not by another war, but a disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which had devastated the Earth, and caused disruptions in nature that man could not have imagined. Such anomalies were common in this place, but this one had not been there earlier, or her detector would have warned her with an audible tone. Speaking of, why was it not going off now? Elena reached into her pack and pulled out her anomaly detector, or what was left of it after her fall.

"Chert vozmi!" her anger obvious as she stuffed the broken pieces back into her pack. This gravitational black hole must have began forming just ahead of her, the debris hitting her and knocking her free of it's increasing grasp, actually saving her life. Had she not been struck, the field would have gained strength quickly enough to rip her apart before she could have escaped. Even at this distance she could feel its tug, the surrounding flora leaning toward the concentrated field in a circular pattern as if trying in vain to reach it. She had seen the remains of unidentifiable creatures that had gotten caught in such violent areas, nothing but a fleshy pulp mixed in with bits of the surrounding environment remained once this concentrated gravity released its grasp.

An uneasy feeling began to creep up Elena's spine, snapping her honed reflexes to attention. She dropped to the ground in a crouch and snatched her rifle from where it lay after her fall, bringing it into position against her right shoulder all in one fluid motion. Although she had only recently passed her twenty third year, her time spent training and scouting in the Zone had sharpened her survival skills to nothing short of perfection. The Zone was all she had known since childhood, and she seemed to have natural talent for survival and artifact collection that made her one of the most respected Stalkers among her peers.

She scanned the area for movement, her breath silent so she could hear every twig snapped, every leaf rustled, listening for danger. Her keen senses put her on high alert as she noticed the shadow of a boulder that seemed out of proportion, her finger resting on the trigger of her LR-300. Praying the machine gun had not been damaged in the fall, she slowly began to creep off to the side out of the open path, seeking cover to aid in defense.

She had no more eased over a single step before the sound of scraping claws interrupted the near silence. In the blink of an eye, the creature sprang from its hiding place, leaping though the air to pounce right on top of her. The mere sight of it would have given a lesser man (or woman) pause, which would have been certain death.

Sixteen years ago, before the Chernobyl disaster, it might have been a normal mountain lion. But now it's once slender feline form had been mutated into something much more terrifying. It was twice the size of the normal hunting cats, its enormous maw wide open showing off it's elongated razor-like canines that gave it a somewhat saber-toothed appearance. The claws that had propelled it's great leap were as long as Elena's own fingers and twice as thick, it's muscular frame giving it a weight equal to that of three men. Aiding its massive size was also increased intelligence, giving the animal an uncanny ability for simple reasoning, another product of the nuclear disaster.

The squeeze of the LR's trigger sent a 3-round burst of .223 caliber bullets straight into the huge cat's left shoulder, and the puny creature it had meant to pounce on had rolled off to the side almost in the same instant. The thick muscle stopped the bullets from doing any real damage, and the giant feline landed on padded feet with only minor discomfort. It instinctively spun left and swiped with its massive right paw, narrowly missing its target which again had rolled away, this time straight back. The object this two-legged creature held suddenly let out a puff of smoke and a flash of fire, and this time the cat took notice as the top of its head erupted in pain. The beast didn't understand why, but it did understand it needed to kill this creature quickly.

Impossibly quick for its size, the massive lion lurched forward and to the left, its claws hooking into the rock and sending it right into the path of its prey that had again rolled to the right. The huge saber-teeth snapped shut, cracking and popping noises giving it satisfaction that it had captured its victim. It focused its eyes in time to see its prey crouched out of reach again, an object leaving its hand in a flying arc to land at the great cat's feet. It had just long enough to wonder what it had bitten, when everything went dark.

The feline's head was ripped to shreds when the fragmentation grenade exploded, sending the giant form spiraling end over end right back out onto the mountain pass, and within the horrible grasp of the recently formed black hole. Elena shuddered as the cat's body slid across the barren ground and entered the super-concentrated field, imploded, and added a sickly, red-stained pulp to the mass of debris hovering at its center. At least it didn't feel anything, she thought. Elena regretting having to kill anything, especially something so wondrous as this giant mountain lion, but the name of this game was survival, and Elena did not think much of the alternative.

Her anomaly detector had definitely seen better days, before it was broken from her fall, then crushed by the cat's massive teeth, and finally obliterated by the blast from a frag grenade. This type of detector wasn't very expensive, but she would need every bit of money she would get from this contract to replace it. Her camera, kept in a separate pocket, had survived the battle, so she snapped off a few pictures of the grotesque jumble in the center of the anomaly... someone would be interested in them. She might still be able to profit from this journey.

* * * * * *

Having gathered up her remaining supplies, Elena made a wide path around the distortion, and continued her descent into the valley. She needed to take it slow to avoid any more disaster, especially without the added protection of her anomaly detector, but she had spent the better part of two hours knocked out cold and then fighting with the unnatural beast, and time was wasting. The last thing she wanted was to be out in the Zone after nightfall.

Her head still throbbing and her leg complaining with every step, she made it to the base of the small mountain without further incident. She was in shadow now, the sun having made its way out of her line of sight over the ridge behind her, but the valley before her was still bathed in sunlight. Birds were circling overhead not far in the distance, greenery covered almost every square inch, and the sound of running water filled the air, giving the area a false tranquility.

Elena quickly found the stream, its icy water flowing from a spring somewhere up in the mountain. She quickly surveyed the area for other predators that might have come here for a drink, then dropped to her knees beside the stream and dug into her pack. The waterproof container holding some of her smaller items had protected them well from her fall. She fished around inside it and produced a small, capped vial, another containing a clear chemical, and a folded pair of tongs. She grasped the empty vial with her tongs, removed the stopper, and carefully collected a bit of water from the stream. The chemical was added, the stopper replaced, and she waited impatiently for the results.

More than one rotting corpse had been found lying next to a perfectly normal-looking stream or pool, radiation or even microscopic organisms turning the seemingly innocent water into a lethal poison. The color of the mixture inside the vial would give her assurance that this water was safe. The undergrowth dominating the valley didn't seem afraid and grew right up to the edge; so that was a good sign, and within seconds the now blue-tinted liquid in her vial gave her proof positive. She would still need to check this stream each time she might pass this way, because in the Zone, things could and often do change in an instant.

Another quick survey assured her that she was safe, and she dipped her head into the chilly water. The dried blood began to loosen its hold on her shoulder-length hair as she gently scrubbed it free, and she scrubbed the dirt from her face just for good measure. A quick flip of her head sent the water slinging from her brown locks, as she again checked her surroundings to make sure she was alone. You didn't survive in the Zone by being careless.

The waterproof container produced some antiseptic wipes which she used to clean her scalp and her right thigh, and then dropped her camouflaged pants just long enough to wrap her leg in gauze. The tear would need to be mended, but she had time for that later, right now she needed to get moving. It took her about fifteen seconds to repack her things, splash through the stream, and start off to locate the artifact Viktor desperately needed.

She was very fond of the old scientist, a kind gentleman with wild gray hair, bald on top, with thick glasses that perched on his thin little nose. She contracted most of her jobs from him, often refusing to take the relatively huge amounts of money he tried to offer her when she returned, instead accepting only what she needed. After her parent's death in the Chernobyl disaster sixteen years before, Viktor had been as a grandfather to her, trying in vain to keep her from becoming a Stalker, but knowing her adventurous spirit was too much for him to quell. Elena also had a strong, emotional drive to explore the Zone; she needed to know what happened, what had caused the horrific explosion that had taken her family from her.

Rumor had been buzzing around the Stalker camps about a new threat, another mutation caused by the nuclear fallout in the form of some kind of plant. Word was it would somehow poison a person who passed too close to it, and the person would fall over in convulsions in mere minutes, their minds losing control of their nervous systems and causing a most excruciating death. Viktor needed this plant to find a way to quickly counteract its venom, so Stalkers (mostly his adopted granddaughter Elena), would have one less thing to worry about when out in the Zone. When she announced her intention to find one for him, he begged and pleaded with her to stay out of the Zone all-together until this new threat was averted, knowing full well she wouldn't listen.

The only clue Elena had to go on was that the plant was said to live near still bodies of water, such as a small lake or pond. There was an old cabin somewhere on the other side of this valley, the inhabitants used to sell fish they raised in their pond to the locals who could not afford to get it from the markets. It seemed as good a place to start as any, and word was that Alexei had been in the area searching for gravitational artifacts, and had not returned for some time now. Could be that he got caught in one of the strange anomalies, like the one that almost ensnared Elena, or he could have fallen victim to the giant cat, or something even worse. This wasn't likely, because Alexei was a good Stalker, well-liked within his clan, and hated by their rivals.

* * * * * *

The undergrowth in this valley had taken over completely, and Elena's pace was slowed almost to a crawl. She hacked her way through the thick brush, stopping every few minutes to listen for the tell-tale sounds of danger, or to try and spot movement in the foliage that would signal the passage of some unknown creature. She was about halfway across the valley when something made her freeze in place. It was no more than a mere whisper in the wind, but her keen senses picked up on it long before she could actually make it out. She held her breath and listened intently, turning her head to get a better angle. In the span of a few heartbeats, the sound grew into a recognizable, beating rhythm.

Elena dropped to a crouch, well hidden by the thick brush, slid her binoculars out of her pack, and scanned the sky in the direction of the sound. The helicopter came into view seconds later, over the ridge of the mountain she had recently traversed. The powerful Mi-24 quickly circled the valley, finally coming to rest in a hover position where the birds had been circling moments before and were now in full flight away from the noisy contraption. Its 5-bladed rotor blew the foliage directly under it down into a spiral pattern, and a figure emerged from the side, repelling down a line to the ground.

Military soldiers kept watch from the open hatch, their Herstal FN2000 assault rifles and mini-guns ready to perforate anything that dared get too close. They knew many eyes were probably watching them, but failed to notice the single pair of binoculars zoomed in on their activities.

Elena noticed movement at the end of the line once again, and zoomed in on the figures being winched back up to the chopper. The man she had seen repel to the ground had apparently recovered a body, another soldier by the look of his clothing, and something else... a scout. The mechanical robots that accompanied military personnel when they ventured off into the Zone on collection missions, for the Stalkers were not the only ones interested in recovering artifacts. The cable was lowered again, and this time two more figures were winched up, the man she had seen initially, and another body. What had these two been scouting for? Surely not the same thing she was... word of this new plant must be spreading quickly. If the military had interest in it, she needed to find it that much quicker.

The Hind Mi-24 made another circle of the valley, this time slower, as if looking for something, finally turning to head back over the ridge from the direction it came, leaving Elena in eerie silence. Suddenly aware of her vulnerability, and the sight of two dead military soldiers fresh in her mind, she made for the other side of the valley with a hurried pace, hoping not to meet up with whatever had taken those well-equipped men down.

This trip should not have taken this long, and had it gone smoother, she should have been back over the mountain by now. The sun had dipped below the horizon as the cabin finally came into view, casting an ominous shadow across the valley, which was made that much darker by the low rise of the small mountains. At least the full moon would be out soon, bathing the area with its soft lunar light.

The area around the cabin was relatively clear, giving Elena a good view of the place, which looked to have been deserted for some time. The cabin itself wasn't in bad shape, the windows of course had been long broken out, vines crept up its sides in several places, and the front door was hanging precariously on one hinge. Elena waited at the edge of the clearing before proceeding further; it was the magic hour, the twilight that didn't give off enough light to see clearly, but bright enough to render any artificial light sources or night-vision useless. There was no way she was going to head back to base-camp in the middle of the night, so there wasn't any hurry to make a move until the moon had risen so she could survey the area with every advantage possible, besides a midday sun.

Elena could see the tell-tale sparkle of water on the far side of the property, past the cabin. The rising moonlight was reflecting off the shimmering pond like diamonds, and the vapor rising from it in the chilly night air gave it the false appearance of being warm, as if enticing her to draw near. Ignoring the cold, Elena donned her night-vision from its protective case in her pack, the only other large piece of equipment she carried to avoid being overburdened. She silently began creeping toward the cabin first, carefully picking her footing so as to not make a sound. She wanted to make sure it was uninhabited before investigating the pond, to erase the chance of being ambushed by something hidden inside.

Slowly she made her way to the closest corner and got down into a crouch, listening intently before proceeding, all the while inspecting the encroaching vines for some sign of hidden danger. She eased around the left side wall first, to peek in all the windows before committing to entering the single door. There were no windows on this left end, so she eased her line of site slowly around the back corner to survey the rear of the cabin. An outhouse and a lean-to shed were the only standing objects in the rear, both appearing as if they could fall in at any minute, and a fire pit closer to the house. Elena decided she wouldn't risk a look in the outhouse, surely there would be nothing in there but spiders, and the lean-to only had three walls, with the front side open, and not sheltering anything large enough to cause her alarm.

The back of the cabin sported four windows, one on each end, and two close together in the center. Elena eased beside the first window, leaned in and quick-scanned the room, noticed nothing out of the ordinary, and leaned in again to get a better look. A bedroom obviously by the looks of the remaining furnishings, an old wooden bed, collapsed to the floor on one side, a dresser that appeared to have been ransacked was lying face down, its drawers scattered around the room. Nothing signaled movement and a fine layer of dust covered everything, but wait... Elena perched her night-vision goggles on her head, pulled out her small flashlight, and shined it on the floor. Boot prints, recent by the absence of the blanketing dust, entered the open doorway, shuffled about in one spot, then turned and headed back out.

A similar inspection of the next room yielded similar findings, ransacked furniture obviously caused by looters, the boot prints that entered the front door, went left into the bedroom, circled around the main common-room to enter the far doorway, and then back out the single entrance. The last room again was in the same state of disarray, but this room held two smaller beds... children? What had happened to this family? The cabin was far enough away from the main disaster site to have directly affected them way out here.

Elena made her way around to the front door and illuminated the common-room with her flashlight, nothing moved, and the fact that there were no rodent tracks in the dust suggested there was nothing alive inside the cabin, save possibly a few insects. Her night-vision restored, she silently made her was across the rest of the clearing in the direction of the pond.

As she inched closer, the moonlight suddenly began to dim. A breeze whispered across her face, carrying the smell of moisture. She looked up in the direction of the moon, the green illumination of her night-vision showing her a slowly moving wall of green clouds blocking her only source of light. A storm was coming, and in the Zone, the rain may or may not be hazardous to your health. She didn't yet hear the tell-tale sound of the drops hitting the trees in the distance, so she quickly stowed her delicate goggles from the coming storm, pulled out her flashlight, and sprinted the rest of the distance to the pond, anxious to know if this trip was going to pay off.

The faint glint of metal right in front of her made her heart skip a beat as she slid to a stop. Her flashlight illuminated a weapon, a very expensive weapon carried by the military. Her breath coming in nervous gasps; she scanned the side of the nearby pond with her light, and saw his boot. This soldier must have been who the helicopter had been looking for, but he was well hidden, because the only visible portion of him out of the water was his right boot and lower leg. That would have been quite enough in itself, but the sight of a carnivorous plant attached to his leg dominated her attention.

It could only be described as a sort of venus fly trap, but slightly larger, it's fleshy spines that actually would serve as the trap mutated into needle-like fangs. It seemed to be feeding on the soldiers leg much the same way a spider would, sinking its needles into flesh and pumping in highly concentrated venom that would liquefy the tissue inside so it could suck it back through its syringe-like fangs to feed. The rumors had said that it took several minutes for the victim to fall ill with the venom, so why was the poor soul face-down in the water in the very spot he was bitten?

Elena just stared at it in horror, wondering if she would even approach the thing, but also knowing full well the scientists would need to study it to come up with some kind of defense against it. The sound of approaching rainfall snapped her out of her troubled thoughts, and she quickly spun around and made for the cabin, scooping up the soldiers FN2000 machine gun as she went. The first drops fell as she skid through the doorway, coming to a stop in the center of the room. Down in this valley, with a completely overcast sky, she couldn't see her hand in front of her face without her flashlight. She made for the corner opposite the main doorway, checked it for spiders or other nasties, and then slid into a sitting position on the floor, her back resting against the wall.

She dare not put on her night-vision goggles, a flash of lightning could cause permanent damage or even blindness, so she twisted the focusing lens on her flashlight to flood the room and set it on a small table next to her. The extra batteries in her pack would keep it going all night if need be.

Elena sat motionless and without incident for the better part of an hour with the rainfall steady outside before she began to relax. She looked to the weapon she retrieved from out by the pond, it was very nice, and despite the macabre circumstances in which she found it, she smiled at her fortune. Yes, it was very nice indeed. She removed the magazine, noticed that it was still full, and ejected the shell that was in the chamber. She then skillfully disassembled the weapon and removed a cloth from her pack to wipe away the grime, then slid a clean bit of cloth down the barrel with a piece of stiff wire to clean out any foreign matter. Satisfied, she replaced the round into the magazine and popped it back into the gun, then set it aside and repeated the process with her trusty LR-300.

Another hour had Elena sound asleep, it would have been impossible to stay awake after the strenuous trip to the cabin, and the soothing sound of the acid rain falling outside. The red-colored liquid in the vial lying on the small table told her it was good that she made it indoors when she did, and thankfully the roof in this old cabin wasn't leaking. The gentle breeze had not been enough to blow the rain in through the windows, blocked as it was by the surrounding mountains, and so she slept, still sitting in her corner with her head hanging limp on her chest.

* * * * * *

She might have picked up on the sound sooner if not for the falling rain, and the second her eyes popped open she knew she was in trouble. Her light had gone out, and the noise came to her again, from outside the cabin. A wet, sloshing noise… was something stirring in the pond? Very carefully she twisted the end of her flashlight open, dropped the batteries into her lap, and eased the fresh ones out of her pack. The noise was more obvious now, a rhythmic sloshing, like the sound of many footsteps... it was getting closer, and seemed to be all around her. Lightning split the darkness for a brief moment, just long enough for her to make out a human figure in the doorway, but the stench of carrion that accompanied it suggested otherwise. She slid the batteries into the tube, and quickly replaced the cap as a floorboard creek made her heart leap into her throat. With a trembling finger, she clicked on the light.

Elena had seen many unusual sights in her time out in the Zone, and she thought she had seen it all. But there he was, standing right in front of her, the soldier from the pond. His entire body was bloated and colored a sickly white from being submerged in the water, pieces of flesh torn away, and his eyes were eaten out from the inhabitants of the pond. The lower portion of his right leg had turned to mush from the plant's venom, which gave the zombie a very awkward gate. To her horror, she quickly realized he was not the only one in the room. Two more zombies were coming through the door, these were smaller... the children from this cabin? The thought sent an uncontrollable shiver down Elena's spine.

She quickly snapped out of her initial shock, her survival instincts taking over her movements. She snatched up her LR-300 with one hand, snapped the flashlight into its socket under the barrel with her other, brought the weapon to bear and sent a line of .223 caliber bullets into the thing's head, exploding it into a sickly spray, all before the zombie had taken another step. It fell backwards onto the floor at the same moment Elena had risen to her feet to the full height of her 5' 8" slender frame. From this vantage point and a quick scan of the room with the under-barrel light, she could see the two child-like zombies coming through the door, followed by two more. Another was coming through the far bedroom doorway having obviously crawled through the window, and the same with another from the bedroom to her right. Still another was reaching for her from the closest rear window of the cabin. This zombie too she recognized, and let out an audible shriek. Alexei had looked better.

Her mind raced, bringing the business end of the LR inline with Alexei's head, which exploded in similar fashion as the soldier's. Swinging her machine gun in a clockwise motion, she dropped the zombie coming through the far bedroom… then swung it around to the right to drop the zombie that had made it out of the closest bedroom and was almost on her. She turned her attention to the two children approaching her, their lifeless eyes a milky white, their mouths open in a feral snarl. Any pity she might have felt was overruled by the fact that the two more zombies behind them were also now in the room, and she could see even more of them outside the door.

"Nu ladno, dostatochno etogo derma!" she growled through clenched teeth, and opened fire into the four already inside the room. Lightning fast, she slid the LR with her mounted flashlight onto the little table in position to illuminate the room, snatched up her new Herstal FN2000 and launched a 40mm grenade right out the front door. Zombie appendages were soon scattered everywhere from its explosive force. During the commotion, another zombie had replaced Alexei, and made it through the window. It reached for her and got it's filthy claws hooked into the sleeve of her left shoulder, and in the blink of an eye Elena swung her weapon around and connected the butt of it to the side of the zombies head, slamming it against the wall, then flipped the lightweight weapon around and nearly cut the thing in half with rapid, close-range gunfire.

Another zombie approaching from the right side wall received a well-made boot to its face, and then got the remainder of that clip in what used to be its head. A grenade launched into the far room blew apart a few more who had made their way through that window, but even more were approaching the outside door. Elena took a brief second to slip a new magazine into the 2000, which used the same magazines and bullets as her LR. She grabbed her flashlight from the barrel of her 300 lying on the table, clenched it between her left hand and the Herstal's forward grip, and squeezed the trigger. The mass of zombies pressing into the room through the front door were greeted with .223 caliber slugs, their mutilated forms falling to the ground outside, congealed fluids leaking out in disgusting globs.

Despite her dire situation, Elena grinned in satisfaction at her new toy. But this wasn't the time for celebration, shuffling and moaning sounds made her painfully aware that she wasn't in the clear yet, and she needed to find a way out of this mess. The thirty rounds held by the 2000 were spent, so she quickly grabbed the last magazine out of her pack, and popped it into the bottom of the Herstal. She launched another grenade back into the far bedroom, the explosion this time taking out part of the inside wall, allowing her to see two more zombies lying on the floor, ripped apart from shrapnel. Another grenade went out the front door to stave off the advances from outside for a precious few more seconds. A quick dash to the right-side bedroom door had another zombie without a head on the floor, then Elena made for the rear window, desperately seeking a solution.

Zombies do not animate by themselves, there is always an outside, psychic force that drives them, using the lifeless bodies to do their will. These inhuman creatures, known only as "Controllers", were the ones responsible for attacks like this... and there he was. Elena cursed herself for not checking the outhouse earlier. Her flashlight, twisted back into a focused beam, caught the glint of a pair of eyes watching the scene from the vent over the top of the outhouse door. Elena sprayed the rotting structure with the remainder of her last clip, but the cautious creature ducked down out of sight, and ordered its remaining zombie force, which was still considerable, to attack.

Inside the cabin, Elena's mind raced. Her gaze fell on the twice-dead soldier, and to the pouch at his side. A gleam entered her eye as she pulled out two extra clips for her new Herstal. Zombies were pouring in through the front, coming through the doors from the adjacent bedrooms, and ambling around the back to come at her from the windows when Elena locked and loaded a new clip into the FN2000, aimed at the rickety outhouse, and again squeezed that menacing trigger.

The sweet sound of rapid machine gun fire echoed off the mountain walls, then a brief pause… then the sounds of another full clip echoed across the valley. The commotion came to an abrupt halt, and anything surveying the area would have seen a legion of zombies surrounding the small cabin collapse to the ground, lifeless once more. The rain had begun to subside, the acidic pools on the ground slowly eating the flesh off the rotting bodies. Anything that had thoughts of approaching the cabin to see what was going on had a second thought and turned to flee.

Inside, Elena grinned wickedly at what was left of the old outhouse, which had been reduced to splinters, the perforated body of the Controller lay partially exposed, its limbs twitching from uncontrolled nerves. Elena, taking this sudden lull in the excitement to re-arm, searched the soldier for more ammo and found two more clips from a pack on his other side, reloaded the Herstal, and slumped back into her corner, her adrenalin giving way to exhaustion.

* * * * * *

A slender sunbeam made its way to Elena's eyelid, causing her to stir. She woke in a panic, cursing herself for falling asleep in such hostile territory, but calmed quickly when she saw that all was well. Except of course for the sixty or so dead bodies that lay strewn about, some missing their heads, others blown completely apart, and still more that had just fallen where they were when the Controller was taken out. Elena imagined the other members of this family were here somewhere; the Controller must have been collecting this zombie horde for a while, and most likely was what had taken out the military scouts.

She gathered up her belongings, slung her two weapons, and stepped out into the warm sunshine. Rats were scurrying about, enjoying their good fortune at such a large banquet, but Elena strode right past them, oblivious. She stepped over to the edge of the pond, and sneered at the silly little plant she had come after. A quick kick to its "head" sent it reeling, and she ripped it from the ground by the roots and stuffed it into her specimen container. After the previous night's struggle, this little thing was about at menacing as a tadpole.

Elena then stomped over to the annihilated outhouse, grabbed the Controller by an arm, and yanked it out into full view. Its grotesquely human form didn't even faze her as she whipped out her combat knife and sliced the thing's head off, which she stuffed in a pillowcase taken from the cabin. She knew she would be able to auction this prize off to the highest bidder, many would give their right arm for the chance to study this creature's head for a key to its psychic abilities, but most likely it would wind up in Viktor's lab for a fraction of the rubles he would offer her for it.

Her next gruesome task was to remove the heads from the rest of the bodies to keep them from being taken over by another Controller, or possibly something even worse that she had never even heard of. She took time to properly bury what was left of Alexei and the children, saying a few words over them before packing up to move on. She had resisted the temptation to search the Stalker for anything she could use, although it was common practice in this wild land. After the way poor Alexei had been treated, she couldn't bring herself to plunder his mutilated body.

Anything with even a little bit of sense that might be watching from the surrounding area could look at the carnage around the cabin, and this lone figure walking confidently across the valley, and understand that this one should be left alone. And if it didn't understand, it would find out the hard way.
 
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