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Echoes

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  15:34:15  4 April 2010
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-=Grunt=-
Cake Muncher
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 01/08/2009
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Good story ZeroDead, waiting for more chapters.
  22:34:38  28 May 2010
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

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ZeroDead
05/30/2010 1:00:12
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Echoes, episode 12

<Silence>
“...MY EYES! THE PAIN! I CAN’T--”
“...poor bloke’s gonna roast alive--”
<Silence>
“...heavy... better if we could take it out...”
“...said his neck could be broken...”
<Silence>

Pain seared through Chasme’s head with every heartbeat, even before he had mustered the strength necessary to open his eyes. His limbs felt stiff and almost unbearably heavy and he could not even lift his hand.

“Easy, easy there”, said a voice he did not know, almost in a whisper. “Take a deep breath. Stay calm.”

The voice was soothing, soft and almost feminine in charm. Chasme did as the voice asked. He took a deep, slow breath, exhaled equally deeply and slowly, and did it again two more times.

“There, there... feeling better now? Don’t nod”, the voice asked hurriedly. “You could have something broken.”

“It’s... okay, thank you.” Even through his closed eyes, Chasme could feel the sting of a bright lamp. “Could you... please turn that off? Or turn it away, at least?”

“Yes... sorry.” The light diminished. “You can open your eyes now.”

Again, Chasme did as he was asked. Then he was startled: the voice had belonged in fact to a blond woman with jet-black eyes, who was studying him intently and concernedly. A cruel slash-scar crossed his face diagonally.

“How do you feel?” she asked with a small smile.

“Make an educated guess...”

The woman laughed. She was, perhaps, in her late twenties. She wore a camouflaged outfit he did not recognize; beneath her clothing he spotted the glitter of metal tags.

“You with the army, right?” The girl shook her head. “If I don’t... intrude into something private, why the tags, then?”

“My brother’s.” A shadow briefly crossed her brow.

He tried to shake his limbs. They felt like wooden logs. “Here... help me sit, please...”

“Hang on.” She turned and called out: “I need some help here!” He heard heavy boots running towards them. Two men crouched next to him and helped him up.

“Thanks... What happened to me? To us?” He tried to turn his head around. Pain exploded immediately in his head and neck, bright sparks clouding his eyesight at each heartbeat. He closed his eyes again, willing his body to ignore the pain, and looked around him. He recognized the familiar shapes of the soldiers they had rescued... they still were in the bandits’ compound at the Valley. A few footsteps separated from the soldiers lay a few of the stalkers they had struggled so hard to save from the horde of mutants. He recognized a tall, burly stalker he had met at Seriy’s hideout... and Farsight. His heart sank: the youth’s eyes and forehead were bandaged. What he could see of his skin was scorched with mild burns. Strelok’s artifact belt was buckled around his waist.

Steps came from behind them. At once the girl medic and her two aides stood up. “At ease”, a voice said. The newcomer crouched next to him. He recognized him at once: it was Bondarenko, the survivor they had first saved from a boar. Fresh bandages were wrapped around and over his forehead. “I was told I have you to thank for saving my life and those of my fellow soldiers”, he said.

“...Please, sir. I was just doing what’s right.”

“Drop the ‘sir’ thing. You’re not one of us.” The man’s voice was flat, neither stern nor hostile. Chasme spent a good four seconds locked in an internal struggle, trying to decide what to do...

He sighed. He was committed now. It was time.

“But, sir... I am. Please... help me...” He tried with feeble hands to unlock his helmet. The nurse’s aides followed his hands to find the pneumatic seals and helped him take it off. Then he pulled the chain with his tags from underneath the chest plate. Bondarenko took them:

“Corporal Boris A. Morozov...” The master sergeant looked at him again with new eyes. “I remember seeing that name in a list of missing soldiers.” Bondarenko’s gaze narrowed. “How’d you get this gear?”

“A... a stalker rescued me.” Another sigh. “He was killed at the junkyards a few days ago.”

Bondarenko nodded. “Where were you based?”

“Agroprom, sir.”

“And your unit?”

“Killed by bandits and mutants, sir, most of them. I was stranded on an wrecked train car before this stalker came over.”

The master sergeant sat on a ruinous stool. “So, corporal. What do we do with you?”

“Sir?” Chasme asked in puzzlement. Bondarenko glared at him.

“You seem quite comfortable in the stalker role, corporal. Do I report we found you? Or do we pretend we just were lucky?”

“I assume we are talking outside the chain of command here, right sir?”

“After what you did for us it would not be very chivalrous of me to turn you in if you don’t want to, wouldn’t you agree?” Bondarenko arched an eyebrow. Chasme was about to ask about what would happen if his superiors learned about that, but that was an empty question in the light of these events.

“Well, sir, since you ask me... I have strong reasons to go and to stay.” He briefly related to Bondarenko about his fiancée and how unappealing he found the prospect of serving six more months without exoskeleton and artifacts.

Bondarenko nodded. “I can’t say I blame you.”

“And now, this...” he turned painstakingly towards Farsight. “What happened? A blowout?”

“Almost immediately after you passed out. Something got him even before the blowout. Isinbayeva and her men were lucky to get here on time.” Chasme blanched. What had happened to Guide then? Where was he? Why had they heard nothing about him?

“Where... where did they come from?”

“Survivors from one of the Crocs.”

Chasme blinked several times in quick succession, trying to clear his sight. The pulsing pain in his head was almost unbearable. “They must be very good. The Valley’s a death trap.” His gaze was on the belt around Farsight’s waist. Bondarenko followed his eyes.

“Volkov told us about the artifacts, and about how he saved the stalkers from a mutant. He reported you were in charge, so I figured you would want him to have them.”

“You figured well, sir,” Chasme said. “Although I figure you’re in charge now.”

“Nonsense. You know the Zone far better than I do, are better equipped, and evidently know your way around here. We can deal with the command chain later. Get fit first.”

He heard Isinbayeva call Bondarenko. The master sergeant tapped him in the shoulder and stood up to confer with the medic. Then, footsteps echoed on the stairs above them, and a familiar voice:

“Is he awake?”

“Yes.”

A scarred, gray-eyed face came into Chasme’s field of view. “Blackjack.”

The Russian smiled. “You have my thanks, and those of Ogre, Screws and Shorty.”

“It was nothing. What happened at the Cordon?”

Blackjack’s response was a whisper. “The army’s taken over there. They stormed the village and arrested everyone they could find. Those who could escaped into the junkyards and the valley.”

As discreetly as he could, Chasme kept an eye on Bondarenko and Isinbayeva: the woman was talking softly and concernedly, occasionally showing him her watch. Blackjack followed his glance and played along with innocuous conversation until the commando approached them.

“Hey stalkers, you have any explanation for this?” He showed them both Isinbayeva’s watch and his own. Both were stopped.

Both stalkers were dumbfounded. Immediately the Russian checked his own: the numbers on his digital wristwatch were completely scrambled.

The commando sighed upon seeing their expressions. “I suppose not.”

“Sir--”

“Just drop it already.”

“Oh, alright... How do I call you then?”

“Call me Misha.” Bondarenko smiled.

“Okay... Misha, could you have someone bring me my backpack?”

“It’s over here, hang on.” The soldier brought Chasme the heavy backpack. Weakly he sorted through his belongings, looking for the phone he had looted off the dead bandit leader’s corpse. He turned it on: the cellphone was working fine, but... “The clock’s scrambled too.”

They all eyed each other in stupor.

“Wait...” Blackjack said. He was listening intently.

“What is it?” Bondarenko asked, then he noticed it too. The silence was complete.

He picked up a headset and ordered through the radio: “Volkov! Report!”

“Everything clear, sir,” they heard him reply. “If I may add, it’s very quiet out here.”

“Check your watch. What’s the time?”

It took Volkov a few seconds to say: “Uh... sir... my watch’s broken.”

“I supposed so. All of our watches are frozen dead.” Bondarenko hesitated a few seconds, then: “Volkov, take the stalkers with you and perform a sweep through the complex. Report any contacts you find. Do not, I repeat, do not engage any hostiles. Understood? Over.”

“Copy that, sir. We’re on it. Out.”

The commando put the headset back next to the radio. Chasme said, “You seem to have everything pretty well organized.”

Bondarenko shrugged. “It’s out of habit, really.” His face was taut and determined. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but whatever it is, if it has placated the mutants, we’re getting out of here.”

“Good idea.” Blackjack’s eyes went from Chasme to Farsight and back. “Chasme...”

“Yes...?”

“How acquainted are you with those artifacts?”

“Enough.” He blinked several times again. The pain was not receding. “Why do you ask...?”

“Do they have any stimulating effects?”

Chasme thought through his pain before replying... [I]Oh, what the hell. “Yeah.”

“I was thinking... Maybe it would be for the best if you wore that belt for a little while until you recover, then you can again pass it on to... er... Farsight, that’s his callsign, right?”

Chasme nodded. “Yes, that’s pretty sensible.” Privately he hated to take the artifacts off the youth because he needed them much more than he did, but if they had a chance to get out of the Valley there was very little to discuss.

Bondarenko buckled the belt around his waist. Again he felt the familiar jolt and the energy coursing through his muscles. Instantly he felt better. The commando noticed it and shook his head slowly in amazement. “I would surely love to know how these artifacts work. You look better already.” He turned around and called Isinbayeva and her fellows. “Prepare the wounded. If Volkov reports everything is OK, we’re leaving.”

“Where do you plan to go?” Chasme asked. Bondarenko shrugged.

“We should head to the Cordon... you won’t like it, I’m sure, but I can put a good word for you. I’m not one for pulling rank, but an SBU carries a lot of weight.”

“If that worked... that would be fine for me, but what about them? Farsight, Foxhound, Blackjack...?”

Bondarenko shrugged again, uncomfortably. “I will talk to my CO. I heard passes are being granted for stalkers on behalf of the Kiev University. Maybe we can arrange something.”

Chasme shook his head slowly, hoping the receding pain would not smite him again. “Maybe is not enough.”

The commando nodded thoughtfully. “I know. That’s the best I can do.”

The armored stalker stood up ungainly. Being again on his feet made him feel much better. He shook his limbs vigorously and took his helmet. He looked at the commando with firm eyes. “Still, that’s not enough.”

“You think I like it? I’d hate to see you wounding up in prison for rescuing us. Look, corporal, nobody said we had to like it. You really are willing to have your friend take your chances with the Zone when he can have the best medical help at the disposal of the SBU?”

“Chasme...” Blackjack said quietly, “the soldier’s right. We can’t help Farsight here.”

Chasme looked at them both, hating the trap he was in. He wanted to help Farsight, yet he did not want them to be locked up if they turned themselves in with the military. Yet, the choice was his... What would Guide do?

Anyway, it’s pointless now, he isn’t here. So it’s up to me. “Alright. To the Cordon it is.”

Bondarenko nodded. “Then let’s get everything prepared.” He put one of his formidable hands on Chasme’s shoulder: “Look, I understand you. I assure you, I’ll do my best to keep them all safe. You have my word on that.”

Chasme nodded tiredly, suddenly dispirited, feeling that he had doomed his comrades even while knowing there was nothing better he could do. He heard Volkov talking on the radio and he saw the commando rushing to answer to his report, but he suddenly did not want to hear anymore. He sat tiredly on the single ruinous stool available. Blackjack came closer and begun to say something, understanding clear in his face, but Chasme held up an open hand and closed his eyes. The stalker nodded and turned around.

“Everything’s quiet out there”, they heard Bondarenko say. “Too quiet, Volkov said... there’s not even a breeze. I suggest we get moving, now.”

“Okay.” The commando handed him back his G36. “You think you’re in shape to fight?”

“I’m not dying on this hellhole, you can count on that.” He put his helmet back on and strapped the backpack behind his shoulders. His strength was quickly returning but he did not delude himself; it was the artifacts that kept him going. Even so, they were going to need him now. He counted the wounded: three soldiers, a chopper co-pilot, the large stalker he thought to be Ogre, and Farsight. Six. “I assume you already have found a way to carry them all.”

“I’m thinking... we can’t just lug or drag them all in stretchers.”

“We use tables,” Blackjack proposed. “There’s got to be two or three on this complex. We turn them over and put them on them. And tie some ropes to drag them.”

“Good idea.”

Chasme excused himself saying he needed some air and went to the rooftop. The sky was uniformly gray. He immediately felt Volkov had understated the quietude: the silence was absolute. No wind blowing, no rustling of leaves, no mutant snarls, no nothing. He slowly turned his head. A milky haze was slowly creeping towards them from the east. To the south, towards the Cordon, the road seemed invitingly clear...

And the anomalies? Where are them? He reached into his backpack for his binoculars and carefully scouted the road. No sparks. No lighting. No distortions. He stood still for a moment, filled with foreboding, but then decided he was jumping to conclusions too fast. He radioed his observations to Bondarenko.

“Is that usual?”

“Some anomalies disappear and then appear again, but nobody can tell when will that happen. I haven’t been here for long, but I never knew of so many anomalies shorting out at the same time.”

“So, that’s a no.”

“Right.”

“You’re the expert and you’re in charge, corporal. What do you say?”

“We bolt while we can. I don’t see any mutants, any anomalies... it’s almost like the damn Zone wants us out of here.”

“Then let us oblige it”, Bondarenko replied. “Join us at the courtyard. We’re ready here.”

When he reached the hangar entrance he saw them all were ready indeed: Bondarenko, Volkov, Blackjack and his companions (Screws and Shorty, if his memory didn’t fail him), Foxhound, and Isinbayeva and her aides. While the latter were dressed in military uniforms, they held their AKs a bit awkwardly. Chasme sighed to himself.

“I see we have to deal with a few rookies”, he said flatly. “You three”, he pointed at the medic and her aides with a confidence he did not feel, “will stay with the wounded and drag the tables.” One of the men was about to say something but the armored stalker held up an open hand. “It’s best that way. You don’t seem to have much in the way of combat experience. A single mutant that jumps you and you’re toast. Bondarenko and Volkov will stay with you. They’re both SBU so they’re the best close-quarters fighters we have. Sergeant, you feeling okay today?” he asked Volkov.

“Much better, s--... corporal, thank you. Yes, I can handle it.”

“Good. I’m counting on it.” He turned to Blackjack. “You and your men will go ahead of us. Twenty paces. I’m sending you because you know each other as a team, but I don’t. Splitting you up would do us no good.” By this time, the first tendrils of mist were almost over them. It was almost creamy thick. He was about to ask if either Screws or Shorty were sharpshooters but in that fog those skills would be wasted. “I’ll take the rearguard with Foxhound. Any questions?” There were none. “Alright, let’s go.”

They set off in the absolute stillness, only broken by the grate of the tables as they were dragged over the pavement. Chasme expected something to react at that noise, but nothing did. Unease was seeping into him. He thanked for the helmet that concealed his face, telling himself that it was because he did not relish leaving their refuge to wade into the fog and turn himself and his friends over to the military. While that was true and a perfect rationalization of his anxiety, it did not dispel it.

A hundred paces down the road west, and the fog completely enveloped them. Blackjack and his men were barely distinguishable through the mist. “Blackjack,” Bondarenko said, “stick a little closer. I can barely see you.”

“We barely see nothing ourselves”, he heard him say. His voice seemed to come from far away. The commando frowned, wishing he had more experience in the Zone.

“Nothing prepares you for this”, he mused, half to himself. Volkov nodded next to him but added nothing.

A moan rose from one of the wounded. “Wait!” Isinbayeva shouted. Everyone froze. She turned towards the left table. “What is it? Who is it?”

As if he had just risen from the dead, Farsight clutched at the table’s legs and stood up ungainly. “Don’t”, the medic said. “Stay still. You can--”

“Silence.” The youth’s voice was unearthly callous. Everyone heeded his command, even the medic trying to tend to him.

Chasme felt a shiver going down his spine. He paid no heed to it.

Farsight stood straight and almost instantly his weakness seemed to leave him. He turned around himself slowly, breathing heavily. His armored comrade recognized the movements: it was as if he were surveying the terrain around him, as if he could see. Even with his eyes bandaged. Again he felt the shiver.

“My gun”, he said. Bondarenko half-turned towards Chasme, who nodded in spite of himself. The commando handed him his AWP uneasily. With startingly familiar motions Farsight checked and cocked the weapon, then he fell next to Chasme and Foxhound.

“Farsight... Alex... everything okay?” the armored stalker said haltingly. The youth nodded -either very coldly or very calmly, Chasme couldn’t say- but said nothing. He glanced at Foxhound and recognized his same uneasiness in the Briton’s eyes. Dread stalked them all now.

They walked past the wrecked school bus, the mist growing thicker by the second. Soon Chasme couldn’t see Blackjack ahead of them, and Bondarenko and the wounded were barely visible. Never in his entire life had the armored stalker felt so naked, artifacts and exoskeleton or not.

“Blackjack?” he heard the commando say, as if he were hundreds of meters away. He heard no reply. And, apparently, neither did Bondarenko. The commando reached for his radio and turned it on... and immediately he bent over grasping his head and took out his helmet. Volkov helped him stand straight: Chasme could see him talking, see his lips moving, but he couldn’t hear him. The mist roiled around them all now, ever thicker.

Soon they couldn’t see Bondarenko and the wounded either.

“Misha...?” He called. Silence was his only answer. Foxhound was watching ahead intently. Neither stalker dared to turn on the radio.

Chasme realized his fingers were hurting. He unknotted them from the grip of his G36. Then he realized he was scarcely breathing as well.

Then Farsight spoke a single word: “Come.”

With unnervingly firm motions he walked on ahead, and turned left when the path bifurcated. Chasme and Foxhound followed him as if in a dream. Bondarenko, Blackjack, the wounded and the rest of the stalkers had completely vanished. Soon, they came upon a rusty gate. They went inside and found themselves in a courtyard with a large crane and several building materials.

To the side, a doorway into a large building. And, right under the doorway, two humanoid silhouettes...

Chasme froze. Foxhound gasped. The one standing to the left was Guide. And, next to him, a controller. Two pairs of eyes floated behind the mutant, flanking it. Even through the air filters built into his helmet Chasme smelled the ghastly, terrible and familiar stench of stale blood.

They were dead.

The mutant’s mouth curved and opened into a horribly distorted smile full with sharp teeth. A voice rang in their minds.

Come in. We expected you.

Farsight walked in.
  08:38:23  13 June 2010
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
Echoes, episode 13

Chasme was not moving.

“Wait... why aren’t you...?”

You knew him.

“Him?”

Strelok.

The controller turned around painstakingly and limped back inside the building. The floating eyes followed him, and with them, the horrible stench of stale blood.

Guide knows. Ask him.

As if in a dream -or a nightmare- Chasme watched the mutant kneel next to a fire lit on the other end of the building. Guide clapped him on a shoulder.

“Come. Let us sit a little.”

“Sit?” Foxhound replied in exasperation, whirling at him. “A dozen people among able men and wounded have all vanished, a controller and his two bloodsucker flunkies and God knows how many more mutants we can’t see welcome us in their lair, and you just want us to sit back and relax?”

“It is the Zone. Thank you are alive and be done with it.”

Foxhound bit his tongue, staring back at Guide with burning eyes, but he could not defeat the simplicity of his words. He cursed in his mother tongue and sat over a crate.

Chasme saw with equal parts of astonishment and horror that Farsight had calmly walked up to the firepit and sat in front of the controller. He turned towards his mentor with fevered eyes. “Guide... what... what’s going on? Is this all real? Are you alright or I’m just hallucinating because of the controller?”

“Calm down. Give me your PDA. And the memory card.”

He felt he was teetering at the edge of insanity, his mind in the verge of snapping. Still not knowing whether that was reality, a dream, a nightmare, a hallucination, all of these put together or none at all, he complied. He watched Guide as he turned off the PDA, inserted the memory card, turned the device back on, and when prompted for a password he simply inputted the letters CC.

“Strelok made a mistake”, Guide said, as if he already knew the contents of the memory card. “First, there are some things you should know. Me, along with Ghost, Fang and Doctor, had to leave him behind during a blowout on Pripyat, you know that. What neither you or I knew was that Strelok was found by Monolithians and taken to the CPP, where he was brainwashed.”

“By whom?”

“By this.” Guide showed him a picture on his PDA: a series of suspension vats filled with thick yellow-green liquid, the outlines of human bodies inside them. They were all linked to a central machine of some kind.

Chasme’s fevered mind jumped at the enigma as a dog would when thrown a juicy piece of meat. “What is this?”

“This is life support equipment destined to sustain the bodies that made up one of the most successful and secret experiments ever carried on by the USSR in this country: C-Consciousness. A single psychic coalescence which was more than the sum of the minds used to create it.”

Foxhound came closer in spite of himself. Had he not seen the greenish glow of the image he would have thought Guide was insane. “And this brainwashed him?” he asked.

“Yes. It brainwashed him, marked him, and sent him to the outer reaches of the Zone with a mission: kill Strelok. And thus, he became the Marked One we have all heard about.”

“But this is nonsense. This consciousness sent him to kill himself.”

“True. But C-Consciousness did not know what Strelok looked like. It only had heard about how a stalker who went by that name almost reached its sanctum after bypassing the Brain Scorcher, something theoretically impossible. Such an extraordinary stalker was too much of a danger to leave to the devices of the Zone, so it decided he had to be terminated.”

“So that’s how he was found in the death truck...”

“True again. It was clear that C-Consciousness did not expect Strelok to not only repeat, but surpass, his previous exploits. So he shut down the Brain Scorcher, triggered a siege at Pripyat, infiltrated Chernobyl, and reached the entity’s inner sanctum. There, he was told what he was and how he had came to be there. And presented with a choice.

“Here I must make a digression and detail the activities of C-Consciousness. According to Strelok’s diary, not only did it feel the existence of a noosphere, which hypothetically is an informational field surrounding Earth that contains the reflections of the thoughts of all rational minds on the planet, but could also affect it. And it tried. Its stated goal was to ‘improve mankind by removing all negative emotions from the noosphere.’ It failed.”

“And what happened...?”

“The Zone happened.”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You say the Chernobyl disaster happened because of C-Consciousness?” Chasme asked.

“No. The second explosion was caused by the tampering of C-Consciousness with the noosphere. And that spawned the Zone as we know it.”

“But... this makes no sense...” The armored stalker struggled to find the logic on Guide’s words, and failed. He threw up his hands in frustration. “Oh, forget it, I’m looking for a scientific explanation to a phenomenon that probably doesn’t have one.”

“That’s correct... and no. C-Consciousness made another miscalculation. It told to Strelok that the underlying consequences of the disaster were far greater than he could imagine, but it did not realize they were greater than even its own superior perceptions could fathom.”

Their vision was suddenly distorted by a bluish haze, and everything vanished. Then they saw a man in a white coat, surrounded by medical equipment. Their vision partly cleared; the ghostly specter of the man superimposed itself over the shape of the controller.

“He was once like us”, Foxhound said, understanding at once. Specters of other men appeared over the two pairs of floating eyes that flanked the mutant.

Guide added, “Apparently, every humanoid mutant was.”

“But... what turned them into what they are now?” asked Foxhound. The controller stared at them, then everything vanished again in the blue haze. Their minds filled with formulas, scientific enunciates and principles, and images of labs filled with research equipment and scribbled blackboards. Then, they saw a street, crammed with people, and their thoughts were audible to them, a veritable cacophony of whispered voices as people went about their lives, thinking, planning, talking to themselves. Then they were looking at the whole city from above, all their thoughts and plans turned into a maddening torrent of voices, but an underlying pattern was soon evident in the chaos: despite how different people were, they all believed in a series of common principles—the earth was round, things fell, fire burned... and these principles roughly corresponded themselves with the scientific principles they had witnessed earlier.

“I don’t understand this”, the Briton said. Their vision clouded again, to show an image of an elderly man atop a partly inclined tower, dropping two metallic spheres of different size. They all fell at the same speed and touched the ground at the same time. Then in their minds they witnessed a classroom where a teacher instructed her pupils on the principles of gravity, using that same image to explain them.

“Wait... I thought that experiment was myth”, objected Chasme.

Guide replied, “It is. But what the controller wants to show us is different.” Next, they saw a reversal of Galileo’s pretended experiment: he was at the base of the tower, not on top of it, and when he let loose the spheres, they would fall upwards. Then, again in the classroom, the teacher was teaching gravity as if things actually fell upwards.

In spite of himself Foxhound laughed. “Imagine if things were like that.” Suddenly a single word echoed in their heads: Precisely.

“The controller wants us to know that what happens in the noosphere affects reality”, Guide explained. “The world as we know it is not based in absolutes. If everyone believed things could fall upwards, then probably there would be cases when it would make sense. As insane as it seems.”

Again the blue haze. Then, immensely large antennae, and the image of the Chernobyl sarcophagus behind it. A blue glow and many, many electrical tendrils all over it and over a series of spherical constructs near the NPP. Their perspective suddenly went right inside the glow: the cacophony of whispers they had heard before over the city was tinged with distinctive ringings of fear, hate and anger. Then, in a flash, they had a glimpse of a gigantic intellect contained within the spheres: the intelligence was at work, filtering these negative thoughts from the flow of energy that streamed into the antennae, and releasing the flow back to the noosphere.

“C-Consciousness”, said Farsight simply.

Time was accelerated to a point where day and night lasted seconds. The energies focused by the antennae grew more and more powerful with each passing day.

“Was it trying to take in more of the... noosphere?” asked Chasme.

“Apparently”, was Guide’s reply.

The tendrils of lightning were now spreading towards the plant itself, towards the Sarcophagus. Then, several dozen days later, a blast of light and an incredibly powerful pulse of energy, and everything turned burning white. The tendrils of lighting had vanished, but the blue glow remained. And the stream from the noosphere was now totally jumbled—what once were voices barely understood, but understandable still, now were a chaotic soup of vocalizations totally lacking in meaning and form. And now they had reflections on the real world.

“That’s how anomalies come to be”, Guide said.

Then, a laboratory somewhere nearby. People were caught in full by the pulse of energy and monstrously twisted by it—most of the time it turned soldiers into bloodsuckers, scientists into controllers or burers, workers into izloms or plain zombies.

Foxhound uttered, “So that’s how mutants...”

Then, again the blue haze. Again everything vanishing. Then, a sort of satellite feed of the Zone, with hundreds of places where the image shifts chaotically in patterns they, as stalkers, recognize as anomalies. And, over it, the visage of an old, weathered carpet, rent in the same places where anomalies appeared in the background. They had another glimpse of the vast intellect, now scrambling in panic to contain the damage.

“C-Consciousness could fathom the extent of the catastrophe, even if it could not know how the noosphere worked”, Guide explained, “and struggled to contain it. And the choice it presented to Strelok was this: join it, in mind, body and soul, to add to its power and help it mend the damage, or perish.”

“And Strelok chose the latter, I presume, or else he wouldn’t have made it back to the bar.”

“That is correct. C-Consciousness expelled him from the plant and sent a battalion of Monolith soldiers after him. He battled them all, navigating the exterior of the plant, reached C-Consciousness’ control room and destroyed it.”

At this moment, the controller sent another glimpse into their minds that sent them all reeling with pain, grasping their heads: after Strelok fired his gun into the suspension tanks and the equipment that sustained C-Consciousness, a scream of unimaginable pain ringed all over the Zone, causing a cataclysmic blowout. Strelok, protected by the ceramic psi-helmet and being deep in the bowels of the plant at that time, noticed nothing of it.

And then the torrent of jumbled voices turns into a flood. Anomalies spawned like a plague.

“So that was Strelok’s mistake”, said Chasme, understanding. “C-Consciousness was the only one capable of holding reality together here.”

“As much as it saddens me to admit it, you are correct”, Guide said heavily. “And now everything is unraveling. Or worse, it has become so fragile that minds strong enough can impose their will on it.”

“Wait... you mean, like, psychics...” Foxhound fell silent when the enormity of Guide’s words, and their repercussions, sank in. “But that means controllers get to run the show!”

After another blue haze, they saw again the controller in front of them, then another sitting alone surrounded by trees, then another resting inside a wrecked car, and several more at different places in the Zone. The echoes of their thinking reached them: they all were alike and sounded alike, and changed in concert.

“They are bonded”, Chasme deduced instantly.

“Not just controllers. Watch”, Guide said. Now they catched glimpses of what went through the minds of izloms, bloodsuckers and burers; with some mild variations, they also were alike. “The destruction of C-Consciousness has created the largest gestalt consciousness in history.”

“How come it only affects mutants...?”

“Not only mutants.” The voice, cold and devoid of emotions, was Farsight’s. Chasme stared at his comrade with wide eyes, equally amazed and horrified. “Until now.”

“What about Monolith stalkers?” Foxhound asked. Their vision immediately darkened, and then showed many men as they, one by one, walked up to the gigantic monolithic crystal inside the sarcophagus and uttered their deepest desires. Then, one by one, they fell unconscious, only to awake as absolutely dedicated worshipers of the Monolith.

“C-Consciousness could not control them outright”, Guide said. “They were not warped by the first blowout, as mutants were. Perverse as it may be, every human caught in the first blowout not only was thoroughly mutated but also chained to the entity that caused the disaster.”

“Blessed mother of God...” Chasme shook his head in disbelief.

“But now... since they are so many more than those few plugged into this hodgepodge of a machine... you can’t heal the Zone?” Foxhound asked. “How many mutants are there in the whole Zone?”

“Controllers can’t,” replied Farsight, with that new, vastly calm voice. “They’re nowhere nearly as powerful as C-Consciousness was. They can burn your mind to ash and turn you into a zombie, but they can’t truly control anyone. That was something only C-Consciousness could do.”

“So, Strelok blew it, and blew it big...”

“It was not his fault. He could not know.” Guide handed Chasme back the PDA. “Actually, I think it is safe to say no one is to blame, but C-Consciousness.”

“And, tell me...”, Foxhound asked, “is this reality warping mess as dangerous as it seems?”

“Quite”, Farsight said.

“And why us? Why haven’t you told anyone else?”

The controller sent another image into their minds: the head of another of its kind in the center of an aiming reticle, the crosshairs set right on its forehead. The same scene repeated itself with a different controller, then with another one.

“It’s right... the only way I would have looked at a controller would have been through a rifle scope...” Chasme admitted. Then, another image: Chasme, Guide and Strelok walking on the alleys around the Bar.

“They wanted us, because we knew Strelok, and if we did not know exactly what he went through, we could guess”, Guide said. “And so, we were better prepared to apprehend the truth.”

“But that doesn’t explain why they attacked us at the bandit stronghold, or why they chased you at the bridge.”

The controller knelt again in front of the fire, slowly turning their backs on them. They were all conveyed the distinct feeling that he was sorry. Then, they were shown again the image of the antennae, and then that of a bloodsucker struggling to head in a direction, but moving the opposite way as if in spite of himself. Then, again the psychic screams of pain –this time, not powerful enough to cause the stalkers harm–, and at first nothing happens. Then the sun sets, and rises again, and the mutant shakes itself, roaring, cloaks, and runs into the wilds—the way it originally wanted to go.

“I’m puzzled”, Foxhound admitted, dumbfounded. “We already know that they are no longer under control. But what does the passing day mean?”

“It means that C-Consciousness’ influence still endures, even if it diminishes with each passing moment”, Farsight explained. “Probably, the entity’s last order was to wipe out every human in the Zone, which would explain why they massacred the bandits here and launched assault after assault against the Duty checkpoint. The mutants here were forced to heed that mandate until today. Take it as you may”, he concluded, “but our host here regrets it.”

Chasme stared in disbelief at his friend and the absolute calmness and steadiness of his whole being, even if his whole head was still bandaged from the nose up. Then, Guide’s words rang on his head: it’s the Zone.

“What happened to him?” he asked in the way of the mutant. Farsight answered instead.

“I shot one of them to save you. It was the backlash. Do not worry for me. This won’t stop me from stalking.” Chasme’s automatic reflex was to ponder how he was going to do that if he was as blind as he thought he was, but then probably his injury was not as grievous as he thought... or more likely –and this sent another shiver down his spine– seeing was no longer necessary for him. He looked at him again, and suddenly he understood the reason for his apprehension—while Alexei, the youth, was still there, his behavior, his gestures, even the very air around himself had changed. He shot a glance towards Guide, half-expecting him to have changed... no, to have succumbed as well, but the old stalker had not. The elderly man noticed his look and nodded reassuringly.

“Okay. Now what?” he asked. At that very moment his PDA flashed with an alarm. He dropped it in surprise, not expecting it... in large characters, a task was etched in its screen...

“‘Stop Strelok?’” Foxhound read. “It makes no sense, someone already...”

“Look.” Guide was pointing outside. The thick mists that had blanketed the whole Valley were slowly dissipating. Echoes of voices they did not recognize were now reaching them. As one, they turned again to face the controller: it was gone.

“Bloody--... where did it go?” Foxhound asked in puzzlement.

“Not only that. My watch works again... and...” Chasme spoke haltingly, as if trying to reassure himself of what he was seeing. He picked up his PDA and checked it as well: its calendar also was more than two weeks behind the current date... Then he understood. “We have gone back in time...”

“Can I say ‘we have been sent back in time’ instead?” the Briton asked, with a slight irony on his voice.

“So, what now?” Chasme asked, half expecting the answer.

“Well then... if preventing Strelok from destroying C-Consciousness is what it takes to prevent the Zone from expanding, then that is exactly what we will have to do.” Guide sat on his haunches and closed his eyes. It was a burden he wished upon anyone else’s shoulders, but his. On the other hand... probably he could prevent his death, if he did it right... but that would probably cause a paradox or some other thing...

He shook his head. Temporal physics were way beyond his field of expertise. He was a stalker, the one that had given rise to the word. He knew exactly what he would have to do to prevent Strelok from repeating his previous actions--

“One thought has just hit me”, he said. His partners immediately looked at him. “What if this controller was still under the control of C-Consciousness and tried to deceive us into preventing the destruction of its original vessels?”

Foxhound clapped once. “A shame our host is not around to ask that question.”

“No, it’s not, but Farsight is.” Chasme was staring at his –erstwhile?– friend. The youth was undoing the bandages wrapped around his eyes and forehead. When he was done, he turned to face him: his eyes were dry and stared sightlessly ahead.

“Nothing I tell you will convince you. So, wait... you’ll have a chance to see that by yourselves.”

The armored stalker turned away from him. He was gone. Sadness overwhelmed him for an instant.

“Er... Farsight...” Foxhound stumbled, “can you see?”

“Not through my eyes, if that’s what you mean.”

“Then... how do we call you?”
  22:45:09  13 June 2010
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th3l4st0ne
(Novice)
 
On forum: 05/21/2010
Messages: 40
dude, you just blew my mind...
  22:58:50  13 June 2010
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Thrashdude
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 01/15/2010
Messages: 3940
What the hell...

Nice though. I feel like I am stoned.
  00:57:50  14 June 2010
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ZeroDead
Senior Resident
 

 
On forum: 12/07/2008
Messages: 197
For a moment I thought I had just gone too far myself. Anyone who has played Mage: The Ascension surely will want to put a Vintorez round through my head. <chuckles>

What do you fellow stalkers think that could happen next? I have several ideas but I could use some fuel.
  01:32:24  14 June 2010
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-=Grunt=-
Cake Muncher
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 01/08/2009
Messages: 4114
Awesome chapters.. Didn't expect that to happen at all haha.
  04:38:59  15 June 2010
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Vartuoosi
(Novice)
 
On forum: 01/31/2009
Messages: 20
Well, that was unexpected.
This story is getting more and more interesting with each update.
 
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