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Echoes

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  18:43:01  27 October 2009
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scaeva
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On forum: 07/14/2009
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---QUOTATION---
“He’s dead.” The baldman’s voice was disquietingly flat and empty. He seemed older than ever. “He broke his neck on the fall.”
---END QUOTATION---



I shat a brick.
  00:54:32  28 October 2009
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Nah, begging doesn't suit me Screaming for "MOAR!" atop of your lungs will do.

Working on next update. ETA: 10 days, give or take.
  18:53:12  3 November 2009
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Echoes, episode 9

The rains had almost completely ceased when the sun flared for the last time over the western hills. Clouds covered the sky still, powerful winds driving wedges between them.

Chasme turned from the window and back to the fire Farsight had lit. Doubt gripped him as he debated what to do now. Leaving the Zone and its nightmares behind, with no penalties or sanctions whatsoever, was now a real possibility. A chance to return to Alyosha, and to his family. Of course, after his tour of duty was over. Most likely he would be reinstated in his former regiment – which meant surviving at least another six months. Without exoskeleton, heavy weapons and artifacts.

“How can you feel cold with that thing on?” Farsight asked rhetorically, mistaking his shiver for something else.

The armored stalker shook his head. “No, I was just... just thinking something.” A gust of wind suddenly howled in, stirring the fire into an irritated whirl.

The youth took a wooden stick, dipped it into a can of fuel, and tossed it into the fire. “What?”

Chasme spent a good ten seconds thinking of an adequate response. He did not want Farsight to think he could not be relied upon if things came to a standoff between them and the military. “...I miss my girlfriend. And my family.”

Farsight nodded almost imperceptibly. “Got to deal with that same problem, myself.”

“Your sisters.”

“Yeah.”

Something outside took to the air with a ruffle of wings and feathers. A chilling shriek drove a cold sting down Chasme’s spine. “I can’t get used to these damn birds.”

The sky was darkening quickly. Farsight peeked casually through the window. The horde of mutants that had chased Guide had quickly dispersed upon his friend reaching sanctuary among Bullet’s men; the izloms, pseudodogs and bloodsuckers that had loitered around the gas station were nowhere to be seen now. Echoes of beastlike growls came from all around the place. They were there, and they knew he was there –he was certain–, but he could not see them.

But he was not afraid. In fact, he did not care.

What is happening to me?

“Tell me about her.”

Chasme looked upwards and sighed. “About Alyosha...” he begun. “We’ve been friends since childhood. She spent a lot of time with my family because his father was a drunkard who permanently beat his wife and kids.”

“Sounds like a rough childhood.”

Chasme snorted. “One day he came around totally boozed, demanding we ‘give him back his sunflower.’ I stood up to him and told him that he take a shower and quit hitting the liquor store before shaming her like that.”

“I figure he did not take it kindly.”

“Two days in the hospital for me. Then he got arrested for assault. She’s been living with us ever since.”

“And what did Alyosha say?”

“She was all in tears, but so proud of me...” His voice became dreamy. “I swore to her no one would lay a finger on her again.”

Farsight smirked slightly with a malicious glint in his otherwise cold eyes. “Other than you.”

Chasme laughed. “Watch that tone of yours.”

“And that’s why you joined the Army?”

“Errr... well, that, and being a helpless nutcase when it came to weapons. I just love to shoot things.”

Something roared from the other side of the street. Farsight immediately scooted to the window and looked below, trying to remain inconspicuous as much as possible.

“What is it?” Chasme asked in whispers, as he removed the safe on Guide’s Groza.

“Sounded like a big cat snarling.” He could not see the beast, however. He shrugged unconcernedly. “Wherever it is, it’s big. And sounded angry.”

“Yep...” The armored stalker had noticed by now Farsight’s metamorphosis. Not even Strelok himself had shown such fearlessness in the short time he had known him. “Hey... if you don’t mind me asking... is everything OK with you?”

The youth sat back by the fire. “I don’t know, I... I just noticed it too. I don’t feel anything.” He stared at the whirling flame and allowed himself to be enraptured by its hypnotic dance. “I agree I should be, at the very least, needing a change of underwear. Or feeling concerned by this situation, being as we are surrounded by all manners of nasties on all sides... but I don’t.”

He’s in shock, Chasme thought at once. Poor kid. “It’s okay. It’ll pass.”

“You think?”

“You forget I was in the Army.” He shrugged. “Well, technically I still am. Probably listed as MIA or AWOL now.”

“What?”

“Oh, sorry. MIA stands for Missing In Action, and AWOL for Absent With-Out Leave.” He let out a long sigh. “Let’s only hope they’ve been kind enough to at least lie to my family by telling them they’re doing everything in their power to find me.”

Farsight let out a short, cold laugh. “You don’t seem to hold much faith in your comrades.”

Another snort. “My platoon, officers included, was made of the worst scum you can possibly find in this country. Drunkards, gamblers and former gang members... The good few that aren’t corrupted to the core never make it to the Zone. Think of this place as a penal assignment... if you’re sent here, it’s either because you’re the meanest badass this side of the world, or because you did something wrong.” He scowled inside his helmet. “And no, I’m not SBU like our sleeper here.”

“Then what are you here for? I can’t buy you screwing up that badly.”

“My future father-in-law, the bastard, is a retired intelligence officer. He hates my guts. Even though the army court-martialed him for ‘behavior inadequate of a military officer’ after what happened between us, the asshole still could pull some strings. So...” Another heavy sigh. “...probably it’ll be a long, long time before I report back. Need to build up a name as a stalker and find something really, really juicy to earn a ticket back home.”

“And you hope Guide will help you with that.”

“That’s pretty much about it.” Chasme stood up, his joints creaking, and looked through the window again. He would not allow himself to be lulled into believing they were safe, cozy fire and warming conversation or not. “I feel naked here.”

An outburst of angry snarls and frenzied screeches came from the street. Farsight casually stretched his neck to have a look. “Well... mutants or not, they still behave like wolves.”

His armored comrade regarded him with curious eyes. “Man, I’m amazed at your... er... ‘visual acuity’, would it be? How come you can see so clearly in the dark without any form of night vision?”

Farsight shrugged. “Dunno, you call it a gift. Since childhood.” He threw another fuel-impregnated stick into the firepit. Flames blazed at once over it.

“You haven’t told me about you.”

The youth shuffled uncomfortably, clearly reluctant to talk about the issue, but fair was fair. “I never knew who my family was. I was raised by an old crone who made it clear, from day one, that she was only helping us. Valentina was quite the harsh and demanding foster mother; she always said she would not be around forever, so she wanted us to be self-sufficient. By the time I was seven, I knew about cooking, sewing, cleaning the house, and tending to my little sisters. She even arranged for a hunter to teach me his craft. Only then did she send me to school.”

“And she never told you anything about your parents?”

Farsight shook his head. “Not a thing. I didn’t have much time to ask her about that, either. When I was 13, she died in her sleep.” He took a deep breath, then continued. “I didn’t realize, until then, what she had done for me. For us. I was able to sustain us entirely by hunting; we didn’t have much left for clothes or school, but we could eat.”

“No wonder you’re such a crack-shot.”

“Heh. Need begets skill, I guess.”

“And what happened to you? Once you said that you got caught stealing to sustain your sisters.”

He nodded. “I was first caught hunting without a permit. My only rifle was confiscated and a social worker was assigned to ‘help’ us.” He spat the word with hatred. “The bitch only helped herself to our house. She locked us up, had it written down to her name with the help of a lawyer she was screwing, and never let us out. So one night I managed to unlock the door on our bedroom, stole her wallet, and escaped with my sisters.” He shook his head. “We took a bus to Kiev, and rented a room for us there. I spent a whole year scavenging during the day and burglarizing houses during the night. Then I got caught again. I gave the cops a false name and told them I had no family, to keep the bitch away from my sisters... Valentina had raised them like she had done with me, so I thought they would manage.”

Chasme looked expectantly. “And...?”

Farsight sighed again. “One year later, I escaped the reformatory and returned to my sisters. They were still there. Elena had become a hooker. Maria had been working as a domestic employee for an old couple and had fared a little better.” He shuddered. “Elena wanted to protect our younger sister at all costs, and she did it, but what she paid for doing it...”

His armored companion took a deep breath. After a while he said: “You weren’t joking when you said you were better off here in the Zone.”

“Of course I wasn’t. Nobody would dare to come looking for me here.”

Chasme thought long and hard about Farsight’s words. I should be thankful. The only thing I have to care for is myself... and I have a family, and a future, out there, provided I fix this situation, which I will somehow. And I have all the tools I need to do that.

“After hearing you, I feel guilty for wearing this suit.”

Farsight smiled. Kindness softened his features. “I think it’s not my size anyway.”

Night was over them now. The land went alive with crickets, nightbirds and bats. The youth noticed this, and immediately noted that the mutants had gone silent outside. “Listen”, he said.

“What is it?” Chasme asked, then he noticed it too. Out of reflex he cocked his assault rifle, stood up slowly, and went into the hallway to check the tripwires he had installed on both ends. They were intact.

Farsight was behind him. “Next time let me set them up, let’s see if I got it right”, he whispered.

“It’s not hard. It’s trickier to disarm them... but now, you’re the one who sets them up, so it’s no big deal.” The echo of a growl coming from the hangar reassured them of the importance these precautions had. With signs, Chasme suggested they returned to their hideout. They walked back in silence, their ears primed into the sounds coming from the lower level. The growls grew more abundant, an obvious indication of mutants having entered the complex. Chasme found himself having no fear now, and pondered the reason... in Farsight, he had found a kindred spirit and a reliable companion... whatever dangers the Zone had in store for them, he was convinced they would be no obstacle for them both. In the end, he thought, all you need is a friend.
  01:54:30  4 November 2009
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Do0mzday-Jesus
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On forum: 09/01/2009
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Nice! Keep it coming!
  17:02:06  17 November 2009
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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Echoes, episode 10

Stars greeted Guide’s eyes when he opened them. He blinked tiredly a few times, his head swimming, then looked around him. He recognized the shapes of Bullet and Karbysev in their sleeping bags. The two wounded stalkers who went by the aliases of Othello and Tusk were asleep as well.

Foxhound was nowhere to be seen.

Immediately concerned, Guide got out of his sleeping bag, checked his shotgun was fully loaded, and crawled up to Bullet’s side. “Hey, wake up”, he whispered, and shook him mildly. The Dutyer did nothing. He turned him around and immediately cringed in shock: his eyes were open, but glazed and dry. Saliva dripped off his drooling mouth.

Horror dawned in his mind as he put two with two together and figured out why his head felt fogged. He blessed Chasme for insisting that he take Strelok’s artifacts; he lurched up groggily and walked drunkenly from under the bridge, his eyes darting all around him, dread gripping him as he sought what he thought to be the source of the psi-field...

Something disappeared behind the wreck of a car to his left. Instantly he dropped to the ground, shotgun in hand, making an awful lot of noise... the shape reappeared, stumbling as it went. It was Foxhound, alone and unarmed. The stalker was grasping his head with both hands. Hastily Guide grabbed Bullet’s Abakan and rushed towards him, oblivious of the noise now, knowing that Foxhound was a dead man unless he brought him to safety.

“Easy. I have you now. Come on.” He helped him stand and walked him away from the bridge. He noticed his mind grew more awake and sharper the further they went from the place.

Foxhound slurred between gasps: “Bullet... the others...”

“Nothing we can do for them now. Come on!” He turned his head, again seeking –and hoping not to spot– the emitter, yet he saw nothing but the bulk of a warehouse complex. He put aside his anxiety at the threat of a controller lurking around and focused on getting to safety. He thought of no place other than heading back to the complex where Chasme and Farsight had holed up, but treading through the mutant-infested plains with a half-conscious man to take care for was tantamount to suicide. He relieved Foxhound of his mask, produced a small hip flask from a pocket and put it to his mouth: “Here. Drink up. It will do you good.”

Two gulps later, the stalker shook his head, blinked half a dozen times and slapped himself in the face. “Thanks, Guide... you saved my arse.”

“Save that for later. Do you think you can jump through that springboard?” He pointed in the darkness towards a cluster of what seemed like invisible bubbles bursting, which was squarely in the way of a door on the side of a train car. Foxhound squinted in the night with a scowl, then shrugged.

“Sure, why not? I already almost died once tonight.” The warmth of the liquor was quickly spreading to his limbs and clearing his head. He shook his arms and legs vigorously and searched for his gun... but Guide offered him Bullet’s rifle, along with two full clips.

“Better than nothing.” The Briton hesitated, but took the proffered weapon. Guide was right after all. He cocked it, set it into fully automatic mode, stepped cautiously towards the rumbling, and jumped back in the precise moment a powerful shockwave sent dust, gravel and leaves flying every which way; then, he immediately jumped through the anomaly, landing inside the train car. Darkness swallowed him. Mutants growled in the night some thirty-odd meters behind Guide.

“Clear”, Foxhound whispered from inside the train car, as loudly as he dared to. Guide needed no further encouragement. Doing exactly as the Briton had done, he jumped through the anomaly into relative safety. A pseudodog howled somewhere behind the car instants later.

Guide sat next to Foxhound at the end of the wagon. He closed his eyes for a brief while and again thanked for Chasme’s insistence. “That one was very close.”

“Too damn bloody close for my liking, I agree.” The stocky man shook his head. “What in the name of all gods living and dead and yet to be born happened back there?”

“I was expecting you told me that. No one told me I was supposed to stay on sentry duty.”

Foxhound started to answer, but was interrupted by the sound of dry leaves being crushed outside. At once they pointed their weapons to the other end of the car, ready to blast into mincemeat anything that managed to negotiate the anomaly. The echo of a hideous gurgle reached them. Then, an angry snarl, followed by the thunder of the springboard. Then, again, silence.

Guide and Foxhound looked at each other. They had narrowly escaped the deadly clutches of the Zone, but it would not be denied so easily. The Briton shuddered and swore in his mother tongue. “Now, this is a fix I really can’t say how I’m going to get out of.”

“I have friends in the building who will help us with that. Keep an eye on the door and shoot anything that moves in.” Foxhound nodded. The old stalker activated his radio. “Chasme, Farsight, this is Guide, come in.”

There was a lot of static in Farsight’s reply. “Loud 4nd cl3ar. G0od to h#ar you, Gu1de. Ev3rything ok4y there? 0Ver.”

“No. I can barely hear you. I have one of Bullet’s men with me. He and the rest of his group are... have been zombified.”

“Wh4t? Did you just s4y zomb1fi#d?”

“As if the Brain Scorcher was right here and functioning. They had all the signs. The artifacts saved me. Is Chasme awake?”

“N0pe... he just f#ll asl3ep. It’s my w4tch n0w, but I’ll t#ll him.”

“Be sure to do that. His persistence saved my life.”

“I wi11... wher3 are y0u now?”

“Inside a train car next to the road. We escaped the mutants by a hair’s breadth. Can you see any from your position?”

“1 don’t h4ve a view of y0ur p4rt of th# r0ad from th1s point. L#t me wake Ch4sme and reloca7e. It’ll t4ke some t3n- or tw3nty-odd m1nutes.” A brief, static-riddled pause, then: “Wh4t do y0u think 1t is?”

“A controller, maybe even more than one. I could not see any, however.”

The pause was longer now. The radio transmitted what he thought to be some shuffling happening on the other end, then: “H0ly shit, Guid#... If 1 was talk1ng with any0ne els#, I’d say I re4lly hope y0u’re wrong.”

“My thought, exactly. Worse still--” the sound of heavy hoofs on the road outside interrupted him. The springboard thundered again. “Worse still, something is interfering with my radio. You can hear me perfectly but I can barely understand you.”

“We sh0uld have ins1sted on n0t lett1ng you go...”

“Nothing can be done about that now.” He pulled out the cellphone he had taken from the dead bandit’s bag, turned it on, and checked the time: it was almost 4 AM. “We will wait here until dawn, then try to join you there. Then we—wait...” It was faint, but growing in volume: the distinct tap-tap-tap of an helicopter in the distance. “...I think more soldiers are about to join us here in the valley. I hear an helicopter coming.”

“More than one, Guide”, Foxhound cut in, listening intently.

“This just keeps getting better and better”, he grumbled half to himself. “Wherever you relocate to, try to stay out of sight. Now that Bullet and Karbysev are zombies we have lost our... you call it ‘diplomatic immunity.’ Contact me once you have a clear view of our hideout. Out.”

“I g0tcha. On it. 0ut.”

The old stalker checked his shotgun was fully loaded and crawled towards the door, Foxhound at once covering him with his rifle. He tapped the wall of the train car for consistency: it seemed thick enough to stop claws, but even so, he did not trust it enough to put his back against it. With his cold blood still intact, Guide peeked around the door frame, the rumble of the springboard in front of him becoming an almost numbing thunder...

The mutants that had chased him had vanished. He turned his head towards the bridge and saw the bushes on either side of the road shaking with movement. He looked left: no movement there. The rhythmic tapping of the helicopters was closing in by the second.

“Had I been told this, I would say it to be a lie... the mutants are going to ambush the soldiers...”

Foxhound blinked behind him. “What?”

“Exactly as I said.” Guide’s heart was racing. His intuition screamed at him to leave the train car while the distraction lasted, yet his best judgment was totally against it: it was simply impossible that there were no more of the beasts lurking somewhere near the apartment building.

As if answering his unvoiced objection, there was movement in the tall overgrowth in front of him. At once the old stalker brought his shotgun to bear. The abnormally large head of a controller came into view.

Guide froze. The terrible mutant limped ahead a few steps, and stopped in the middle of the road. It looked at him with blank, dead eyes.

“Guide...?” Foxhound whispered cautiously, unable to see anything from his position. “Are you okay?”

The old stalker felt the hairs on the back of his head stand as he gazed into the creature’s eyes... and saw... or thought that he saw... a cold, alien intelligence... the controller’s eyes gleamed as it made what it seemed an obscene rictus of acknowledgement...

Guide’s heart jumped a beat.

The mutant looked to its left, to the bridge and the sound of the approaching helicopters, and uttered a low grumble towards Guide. Then it turned left and limped away.

The old stalker found himself breathing heavily.

What did just happen?

Have we just been spared?, he pondered, his mind struggling to apprehend what he had seen. But even if we have... these poor bastards on the helicopters are about to be turned into zombies... or mutant meal...

“Are you okay?” he asked Foxhound in whispers.

“I’m feeling better now, thank you.” Guide frowned in puzzlement. How come the controller had not fried Foxhound’s mind? It had been more than close enough to do it...

“Get moving. We are making a run for it.” He put on his headset and turned on his radio, hoping to catch wind of the military transmissions, but he was not very hopeful... the Army had a penchant for coded or scrambled transmissions, something twice as likely when considering that they were on a search-and-rescue mission. For SBU members.

Foxhound checked the safety on his Abakan and ensured the weapon was set to autofire mode. “Ready.”

“Okay. I go first. You follow me.”

“Roger that.”

Guide walked out of the train car and into the ramp, feeling painfully naked. The rumble of the anomaly numbed his ears. Again, he cautiously walked until he was at the edge of the springboard, jumping back immediately when the anomaly unleashed its thundering shockwave and darting ahead while it was inactive. He jumped two steps ahead into the middle of the road, the artifacts again sharpening his senses through another adrenaline jolt; he blessed Chasme again and Strelok’s memory. He made a quick scan for mutants, not seeing any, and--wait... where did the controller go?

The springboard boomed. Foxhound gasped behind him. He turned around: the British stalker was lying on the floor, both of his hand clutching his bosom. He cursed loudly and tried to help him stand, with no success:

“Come on! Stand up!”

“Dammit, Guide...” He coughed explosively. Blood splattered on the dusty pavement. “Sorry, man... I... I miscalculated...”

“Not that it never happened to me. Come on!” Again he tried to help him stand, but as he tried to stand on his left leg, Foxhound screamed in pain and collapsed again. Guide felt ice in his marrow as his muscles tensed, expecting the shrieks of mutants anytime now... he activated his radio: “Farsight, Chasme! I need your help!”

What once was a static-riddled but understandable transmission was now a jumble of unintelligible fragments amidst a soup of blank noise. He yelled in anger and again spoke through his headset: “I can’t hear you! We are coming down the road! I need cover!” Three short static clicks answered his transmission: that was Chasme’s signal for agreement, which they had agreed on in case it was inconvenient to communicate openly. He slung Foxhound over his right shoulder, wielded his Benelli shotgun with his left hand, and set on.

“Inbound helicopters, come in!”, he called as he went. “The soldier in the bridge is dead! You copy? Over!” The sound of the rotors was loud now, but no reply was forthcoming. Foxhound was surprisingly heavy, but then, in his hurry he had not relieved him of his backpack or weapons. It was too late for that now anyway.

Behind him, rodents shrieked and dogs howled in the wind. Gunfire erupted. A stray bullet whizzed past him. He steadied Foxhound over his shoulder, holstered his shotgun, and ran, trying to ignore the pitched battle that was taking place at the bridge--

Something exploded violently. He turned his head to see one of the three helicopters erupt into a fireball on the ground. Jumbled but still understandably frenetic radio traffic filled his ears. Again he called: “Inbound helicopters! Proceed to the apartment building! The area is safer! You copy? Over!”

His heart jumped as someone replied frantically: “We copy! Moving out!”

It was too late for the crew of a second chopper. He saw it moving erratically, barely twenty meters high. Something... no, someone fell off the troop compartment screaming to his death. The helicopter stood still in midair for a second, then spiraled downwards out of control. It exploded to his right, a dozen meters from the gas station. The violent shockwave threw him to the ground.

He heard a wet cough. “Hang on!” he shouted to Foxhound. “We can make it!”

“Leave me <cough> here...” the Briton said with difficulty. “Save yourself... these wounds... I’m dead already...”

“You would be, outside the Zone” he grumbled back. Despite Foxhound’s protests, he stood up, again slung him over his shoulder, and went on. A shadow darkened the sun above him. He needed not raise his eyes to see it was the last surviving helicopter.

A bullet whizzed overhead. Something behind him screamed in pain afterwards. Then there was another yell. And another. Evidently Farsight was up to his business.

He was by the closed doors of the apartment building by now. Suddenly, they busted open: the armored silhouette of Chasme came into view. Immediately Guide turned left, towards safety.

“Welcome back, Guide!” Chasme greeted him with irony.

“My pleasure,” he snapped back with equally grim humor. Carefully he helped Foxhound sit against a wall. He took out his artifact belt and strapped it around the Briton’s waist. “This will help you,” he said. “Breathe lightly.”

“I hope you’re right... Thanks, man...” Bloodstained phlegm was dribbling down his mouth now. Guide forced himself not to shudder and reminded himself Ghost had survived worse wounds thanks to his anomaly-enhanced armor.

“Not just yet. We may all die still.” He turned to Chasme: “Secure this place! The military will be arriving any time now!”

“Do I shoot them?”

“Only if they shoot you first,” he retorted with an edge. He took the flight of ramps to the upper floor. Something rocked the roof of the building. Jagged cracks appeared in the ceiling, raining dust all over them. He swore. “Get out of here!”

He barely had time enough to help Foxhound to the safety of a storage room next to the entrance hall when the roof gave in. The helicopter smashed down through the building. Guide flinched and tensed, expecting any time now the explosion that would level the structure and kill them all...

But only silence came.

The stalkers breathed in relief.

Someone appeared amidst the thick dust. It was Farsight. He had draped a tattered old blanket around his rifle.

“So much for a rescue mission...”
  19:32:33  1 December 2009
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HL2 Master
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Okay then! MOOOOOARRRRRRRR!!!!!! RAARRRRRGGGGGGGGGHHH!!!!!!!


MOAR!!!!!!


HL2
  03:32:27  12 March 2010
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HL2 Master
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WHERE THE HELL DID THIS STORY GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! MORE!!!!!!!!!!! MOARR!!!
  02:08:12  2 April 2010
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ZeroDead
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Echoes, episode 11

Hey guys... sorry for the hiatus... I guess you could call that a mixture of a creative hiatus and a lot of work/study.

I hope you enjoy this one because it's been long in the making. Cheers!

--------

Chasme was on his belly over the roof of one of the buildings of the complex, his shielded eyes glued to the binoculars as he surveyed the road, the vegetation on both sides of it, and the nearby landscape. It was very hot under the merciless afternoon sun –his armor making it only slightly more bearable–, and no clouds shrouded the sky – but even then, his vigilant eyes encountered far fewer mutants than what he expected to find. His mind was on Guide. The old stalker had left at sunrise, determined to find a safe route out of the valley before they ran out of food and water.

An event that was almost upon them, considering that they had to care for several wounded.

“Look, Guide”, he had said as he watched him prepare his equipment for the journey, “I won’t dare say you’re mad and that your search is pointless, but you’ll understand if I’m a little anxious about it.”

“Someone has to do it.” The old man’s reply had been flat. “That armor is of great use in combat, but it will get you killed if your survival depends on stealth. Farsight might have better luck, but he is too inexperienced yet.” He had raised a hand to quell the youth’s protest, but Farsight had remained silent. He was right, after all. “So, it will be me. Just keep the wounded alive.”

Some task... Most had survived the crash, but with such terrible injuries, surviving was something of a curse. His young partner had argued, with devastatingly cold and simple logic, for putting them out of their misery: trying to save them all would only succeed on getting them all killed. Even with the astonishing ‘magic’ of Strelok’s legacy.

Again he surveyed the land around him carefully. He saw nothing other than boars, a few fleshes, blind dogs and pseudodogs. No signs of izloms, bloodsuckers, or –a shiver ran down his spine– controllers. No signs of human presence other than their own on the whole valley either... no distant yells, no gunfire, no nothing. He sighed dispiritedly, suddenly possessed of a sense of loneliness, picked up Farsight’s AWP and went below, to the lowest level of the stairwell.

It was cool and dark in there. Five soldiers and the copilot lay on the floor, wrapped in whatever manner of cloth and rags they had been able to salvage from the wreckage of the helicopter. Foxhound was there as well, but his wound, terrible as it had seemed, had healed almost completely within the night.

“Anything?” the British stalker asked, raising his head. He had been busily working on hot-loading some of their ammunition. The fact that Foxhound had that talent was totally unexpected, and a welcome surprise.

Chasme shook his armored head. “Nothing. Wherever he is, I can’t see him.”

Farsight still sat by the radio they had salvaged from the helicopter, along with a pile of gear in passable condition: ammunition, clips, a single PKM machine gun and four Abakan rifles, grenades, backpacks, batteries, medical supplies, field rations, and some water. Chasme took off his helmet and looked inquisitively at the youth, who shook his head in turn.

“I managed to get the distress beacon on the wreckage working”, he said. “But no one’s on the radio. We’re alone here.” To further illustrate his point, he unplugged the headset and increased the speaker volume: blank static flooded the air.

The former soldier cursed under his breath. “Being stuck here is driving me crazy.”

“Chill out, man. It’s Guide out there, not your everyday rookie fresh into the Zone.”

Chasme wanted to blurt out, ‘but he’s not a god’, but he did not. He hated the fact that the best chance in his mind was to trust their elder companion’s skills, but there was little he could do about it.

Farsight turned casually towards him. “You been doing some work on your armor?”

“Why do you ask?”

“It’s... well, more in shape. It doesn’t look as battered as when Strelok was wearing it.”

Chasme shrugged, Guide’s tale about Ghost’s armor again in his mind. “So it’s a self-repairing suit. Big deal.” Foxhound half-heartedly raised a hand, as if he were about to make a comment, but hesitated and gave up on the idea. He turned back to his work. The mood was sour and heavy, dread stalking them all.

The day rolled on, and night came. No word at all from Guide. Chasme and Farsight again readied their weapons and, after installing tripwires to protect their hideout from sneaking bloodsuckers, they went back to the roof, leaving the Briton to care for the wounded.

The crescent-shaped moon cast a dim light over the Dark Valley. The silence around them was colossal, only disturbed by the wheeze of distant but powerful winds. No mutants stalking them this time, but no encroaching night bugs either. The Valley was as eerie and as quiet as a tomb.

Farsight needed no night vision gear to scout the barely lit landscape that stretched below them. His rational mind was unsettled by the utter silence, but his heart was untouched. And that puzzled him even more.

Muted thunders rumbled to the south. Immediately both stalkers turned their heads. In that direction, some twenty-odd kilometers away, lay the Cordon.

“No clouds”, Farsight whispered. Chasme nodded.

“Seemed like cannon fire to me.”

“What would they shoot at?”

“Hmph. Hell if I know.” Chasme strained his eyes, trying to discern anything as he studied the horizon through his binoculars. “I can only think of one thing worth shooting with a cannon.”

“A pseudogiant?”

“Yeah.”

“You ever seen one of those?”

Chasme shook his head. “Not that I look forward to that anyway.” That was the closest the armored stalker was to making a joke.

The eerie quietude turned the sound of the slight breeze into a disquieting howl. Chasme fidgeted uncomfortably for a second inside his protective suit.

“It’s the waiting”, he suddenly uttered.

“Huh?”

“Being stuck with nothing to do drives a body crazy. I envy Foxhound.”

Farsight nodded. “It’s the waiting, rather than the fighting, that gets under your skin. I agree. And by the way, isn’t hot-loaded stuff dangerous?”

Chasme nodded in turn, glad to have something to distract himself with. “Yeah, it is. Puts a lot more strain on the gun and makes it kick like a mule. But it adds stopping power.”

The dulled booms of exploding ordnance thundered again, somewhat closer this time. Bright fireballs flashed on the horizon.

“Holy crap...” Chasme froze. Through his binoculars he had spotted movement, far away. Several figures hurrying from the Cordon. “You see ‘em?”

“Errr... yes...” The youth zeroed in on them. Whomever they were, camouflage was not a concern, but speed was. Moonlight lit them, clearly enough for him to be sure they were... “Stalkers. I make three... no, wait, four of them...” Dog howled distantly in the wind. Something powerful and huge growled behind the huge bulk of the fuel tanks on the other side of the street.

“Fuck this... ” Chasme grumbled as he cocked his assault rifle. Farsight was already on his belly, his left eye scanning for targets through the scope.

Sparks of light erupted in the darkness. Instants later, the staccato of machinegun fire reached them, intermixed with animal yelps. Whipped by urgency, Chasme dropped a knee, sought the running stalkers through his sights and searched for their targets. Cats. He took aim at one of the agile puma-like mutants and waited for it to stop moving... and, next to him, Farsight pulled the trigger. The cat he was targeting was blown away several meters.

“Damn you... You just stole my kill!” Farsight uttered a dry laugh. The armored stalker briefly envied his companion’s eyesight, and searched for more targets...

A large shadow pounced across his field of vision momentarily. “What was that?” Chasme uttered, unnerved. Then again, this time distant but no less terrifying, the powerful growl.

Moonlight briefly shone over the shadow. On all fours, like some monstrously misshapen tiger, a creature with two heads and wickedly long claws sped like a demon towards the incoming stalkers, who were, as yet, unaware of its presence. Chasme felt sweat bead on his forehead as his urgency turned into a scream of desperation in his mind. Without thinking, he whipped out a signal pistol and shot a flare upwards in a wide arc between them and the stalkers, hoping it would go off over the monster. Farsight shot a glance his way for a split-second, then again put his eye to the scope.

With a dry bang, the flare went off, bathing in crimson light a wide swath of the plains. Right in the middle of it, the creature stopped momentarily, surprised by the appearance of the light. Next to him, Chasme heard Farsight catch his breath for an instant...

The AWP thundered again, but futilely: the beast sensed something in the air and immediately jumped sideways. Farsight gasped: “What the...!”

“Yeah, I saw that.” Chasme removed the silencer on his G36, wanting to draw the creature’s attention from the incoming stalkers, and blasted away in short bursts. The monster managed to dodge the worst of the barrage and let out a roar of pain and rage, but then sparks of gunfire flashed their way: the stalkers had killed or driven off their attackers and, warned by the flare, had spotted the threat and were firing at it. Caught in the crossfire, the beast bellowed in anger and pounced sideways, off the pool of crimson light. The night swallowed it. The armored stalker yelled through the radio: “GET MOVING! HURRY!”

Farsight fired another shot at something only he could see. A roaring scream of pain rose in the darkness. “You got it?” Chasme asked anxiously.

“I’m not sure... I could only see its shape. It moves so fast!”

The former soldier was about to say that he knew it, but was cut short by a cacophony of barely audible growls and screeches in the darkness, coming from the way to the junkyards. The stalkers were coming from the opposite direction. His blood chilled. “HOSTILES INCOMING FROM THE JUNKYARDS!” he yelled through the radio again. “MOVE! GO, GO, GO!”

“Here they come!” Farsight warned. The scene was as blasphemous and horrifying as a sneak peek of the apocalypse. A shambling, chaotic mass of silhouettes frantically ran on towards the building, spread in a wide arc almost a hundred meters wide. There were so many of them he could barely tell a beast from another: fleshes next to blind dogs next to izloms next to pseudodogs next to boars... next to bloodsuckers...

Chasme felt ice in his marrow. He tossed his rifle aside and discarded the five clips he was carrying, along with the large drum magazines that, this time, were full. “Grab my gun and keep them at bay!” he ordered. “I’m going for the big guns!” Right now, he wanted to kick himself for not thinking about building a machine gun nest up there, but there would be time for recriminations later on.

If there was a ‘later’ after all.

He ran down the flights of stairs, jumped over the tripwires, and almost collided with Foxhound and one of the wounded from the helicopter; the soldier was still wearing Strelok’s artifact belt. The Briton had the salvaged PKM in his hands and was lugging Chasme’s RPG along with some rockets; the commando brandished an Abakan and a bag of munitions.

“Hello, sir, sergeant Volkov here”, the soldier said, obviously judging he was in command because of his imposing armor. And, in Guide’s absence, he actually was. “We heard the noise and the stalker here suggested you could need our help.”

Foxhound shrugged genially. “We thought you might need those.”

Chasme smiled behind his mask. “And you were absolutely right. Great thinking, Fox! Here, let me have the RPG. Watch out with the tripwires!” They went back up the stairs, but Chasme stopped on a rest. A small window there overlooked the whole street, providing ideal cover and an excellent field of fire. “Sergeant, how good a gunner are you?”

“Average, sir”, the commando admitted. The man’s talking was a bit slurred and his whole being literally radiated exhaustion; clearly his condition was far from ideal, even from acceptable, but they were going to need all the help they could get. “Our specialist is still unconscious.”

“Foxhound, stay here with the sergeant. I want you two to keep the horde of mutants coming from the side of the junkyards at bay. We got friendlies coming from the west so be careful.”

Foxhound nodded phlegmatically and set himself to the task of deploying the heavy machine gun, while Volkov started linking the ammo belts. He ran up the flights of stairs three steps at a time, struggling to load an explosive rocket on the RPG; over him, he heard Farsight blasting away in long barrages against the mutant horde. WHERE THE HELL DO THEY COME FROM?! He was only two steps from the roof when he heard the powerful metallic thunder of the PKM firing below him.

“We got some help!” Farsight yelled over the loud staccato of the assault rifle.

“Yeah, and at the perfect moment too.” With grim satisfaction he saw the creatures fall in droves as the PKM scythed through their ranks like an invisible blade. The swarm hesitated, its spirit faltering as the intense fire hammered at it...

And then, like lumbering heralds of doom, two immensely powerful pseudogiants burst through the horde, shrugging aside the gunfire as if it was nothing.

Farsight immediately reacted. He dropped the G36 and grabbed the AWP, but Chasme yelled: “DON’T! Keep the pressure on them! I’ll take these beasts out!” With fevered motions he finished loading the rocket, turned on the light amplification module, set his eye to the optical sights and aimed. They were so large it was nearly impossible to miss, especially when they marched straight towards the entrance of the building, clearly knowing they had to get inside to get their assailants.

He pulled the trigger. There was a blinding flash of light and fire behind him. A fireball erupted as the mutant he was targeting exploded into a thousand gory pieces. Frantically he began to reload. HURRY! Discard... unpack... the pseudogiant roared as it neared the door... load... lock into place... aim... the mutant raised a mighty leg...

Again he pulled the trigger. Another blinding flash of light and fire. The rocket exploded in a fireball. And the echo of wood splintering reached them. Chasme cursed: the mutant had stomped the floor just immediately after he had fired, making his shot miss by literally a hair’s breadth. The explosion had hurt the mighty mutant, however. The creature, too badly wounded to walk upright, had heaved its massive bulk against the door, shattering it. The horde was still kept at bay by Foxhound and Volkov, but such a breach was perilously close to the hideout where the rest of the wounded lay.

“SHIT! TO THE REFUGE! GO!” Chasme tossed the RPG aside and literally jumped down the stairs, shotgun in hand. He came upon Foxhound and Volkov: they were already reacting to the situation and redeploying the PKM near the entrance to a passageway leading to the depots and the main hall. That’s army training speaking, he thought. “FARSIGHT!” he yelled, as the youth did not come down. “HURRY!”

The young sniper came down at last, an expression of puzzlement in his face. “What is it?” Chasme asked.

“There were so few bodies... I would have thought we would have killed over a hundred of them, but I counted barely ten corpses...”

An instant of confused silence passed before Foxhound uttered: “We’ve been deceived...”

Screeches and the sounds of gunfire came from outside. Chasme cursed again. More than ever, it was obvious that something was not only guiding the mutants, but was also doing it with an expert tactician’s acumen. He kept his rising fear in check and drew upon his training to assess his options: the best idea was to get the machine gun back to the stairwell, but there was no way to know how brutal would be the onslaught that would be pouring in through the shattered gates. He wished he could tell real mutants from ephemeral ones... but what was spawning them? That was something only the Chernobyl dogs were capable of doing, to his knowledge. But this is the damn Zone, I forget that. He glanced at Farsight: the youth returned his look and nodded, clearly understanding what was going through his mind.

“Volkov”, he said at last, “stay here and cover the passageway. If they get past the tripwires I’ll get the stairs. Foxhound, you get the window on the stairwell and cover these stalkers. Farsight, grab your rifle, go to the roof, find whatever it is that is spawning these phantoms, and kill it. And everyone, watch your ammo. Make your shots count.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Understood.”

“On it.”

A torrent of shrieks and roars came from the entrance hall. Chasme heard Foxhound fire at something on the street. He waited with Volkov in tense silence, perspiration beading his forehead, poised to turn anything that came through that corridor into a leaky piece of meat. His heart raced on his chest, his hands feeling cold with sweat inside the armored gauntlets. What I need now is a damn flamethrower, not an assault rifle...

A detonation sent vibrations through the building: a cloud of smoke and debris flooded the corridor. Something had triggered a tripwire. Instinctively Chasme and Volkov crouched down even further, bracing for the onslaught of the beasts...

The sergeant reacted first, his senses augmented by Strelok’s artifacts, and opened fire in a barrage as a swarm of ravenous rodents abruptly showed up in the corridor. The tiny mutants were literally dismembered limb from limb as the heavy tracers ripped through them. Chasme held his fire, waiting for larger targets, but none came. He could hear angry growls coming down from the hall, but they were somewhat muffled, as if something obstructed them. Meanwhile, Foxhound continued blasting away at something only he could see from his position. Amidst the nearly deafening sounds of gunfire Chasme thought he heard the echoes of frantic human voices...

“You think you can handle them?” he yelled at Volkov.

“I’ll try!” the soldier replied. “Why?”

“Friendlies are almost here and we can’t back them up if we’re all boxed here!”

“Go then and pray I don’t run through all my ammo before we’re done!”

“I hope Farsight gets us out of this mess, I’m praying for that” he said, and ran up the stairs until he reached a long corridor that led to a balcony over the main hangar where they had first infiltrated the complex; windows all along it gave him a great field of fire over the inner courtyard. He reached into his backpack for flares and tossed one into the hangar, then another on the courtyard proper. Then he loaded one of the two large drum magazines into his G36, cocked it, and set it into semiautomatic fire. He could hear the echoes of many mutants all around the building but he could see none.

Below, gunshots rang, tracers whizzed and something shrieked in pain. Then, many boots running as fast as they could.

“GO!” he yelled. “GO GO GO!”

Four stalkers stumbled into his field of view, their wind gone. The disturbing murmur of the angry horde was behind them. His finger changed the fire selector to fully automatic mode. To hell with ammo conservation, he thought. The metallic thunder of Volkov’s PKM rumbled again below him in short barrages.

The stalkers were on the steps of the concrete platform next to the hangar entrance when the ravenous mutants appeared. Immediately Chasme pulled the trigger, sending a long burst of armor piercing shots into the crowd, trying to aim for heads. The horde recoiled from the assault and sent angry yells his way.

Something hit him violently on his chest, sending him flying against the opposite wall. The impacts knocked the breath out of him. He gasped, his lungs burning, gulping for air, and tried to stagger back to his feet. The world spun around him as he straightened up. What... what the hell was that...?

His rifle was on the floor. He crouched to pick it up but again fell unceremoniously.

“Come on!” a familiar voice yelled. “Guys, help me pick him up!”

Strong arms caught him under his armpits and helped him down the stairs. The battle raged around him, gunshots, yells and screams flooding his ears, but he could not remember where he was or what was he doing there, all he knew was that he was wounded and the enemy was all over them and that his squad needed him.

“What happened to him?” the voice came from far away, as if he were dreaming. Then there was a loud, low thunder, and something akin to a shockwave hit him on his forehead, and his stomach turned in the very moment the world became pitch black and silent.
  18:59:47  3 April 2010
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Vartuoosi
(Novice)
 
On forum: 01/31/2009
Messages: 20
Nice update.
What does "hot-loading ammunition" mean?
Something along the lines of adding extra gunpowder in to the catridge?
  19:33:15  3 April 2010
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197

---QUOTATION---
Nice update.
What does "hot-loading ammunition" mean?
Something along the lines of adding extra gunpowder in to the catridge?
---END QUOTATION---



That's about it, exactly. Hot-loaded bullets carry a heavier gunpowder load than its normal counterparts, as opposed to cold loaded ammunition which carry less. The effect usually is that which Chasme describes--a hell of a recoil, increased stopping power, and a much greater chance the gun will say "Fuck you" and go blammo in your hands. It's risky business but I suppose sometimes you need every edge you can get.
 
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