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  19:07:34  2 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

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ZeroDead
11/03/2011 19:11:42
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Episode VIII

“Why would they have this?” Blackjack was asking, half to himself.

“To use it?” Ogre ventured.

“They'd have broken it down in smaller packs if they planned on using it,” Nikolay answered. “I think they had it wrapped up like that for a trade.”

“And who would they be dealing with...” Mystery was thinking. He knew that there were passages and corridors underneath them, crammed with rusting machinery, anomalies and other dangers, but still, he felt as if there was something else down here that was important to him in particular. And his spotty memory still did not stretch that far.

“Let's take it anyway. We can trade it ourselves,” Sataida proposed.

“But what if we're caught with it?” Screws objected.

“Hellooo? There's no cops here, it's the Zone, remember?” She retorted mockingly.

“Yeah, let's see how you pitch that argument to a Duty patrol,” he shot back with an edge. He had gotten ahold of himself and decided that he had been weak for too long. Plus, if he indeed wanted to get her –and the pangs on his chest whenever he turned towards her were strong signals in that regard–, acting meek was not going to help.

“We're not on Duty territory,” Blackjack interceded. “Yet. But still, it may be useful as a bargaining chip of sorts. Maybe one we can use to bribe our way out of trouble sometime.”

“I concur.” Hunter's agreement was flat and dry. Ogre nodded and stowed it on his own backpack carefully.

“What would it be worth here?” The giant pondered.

“Not much, probably... Even if they're quite widespread here, Jellyfishes can't be grown anywhere. Drugs can,” Maxim reasoned.

“Got a point, there.”

Hunter searched the unconscious bandit thoroughly. He found the usual assortment of ammo, food, cheap cigarettes, a smartphone with a set of headphones, and a Flash artifact. “Here,” he said to Ogre, “have it for the moment. You have the heaviest load.”

The giant shrugged and smirked. “Not going to argue, there.”

The mobile phone he handed over to Sataida, who skillfully navigated it. “There's a voice log of sorts here... no, wait. There are several. It's going to take some time...”

“Then get on with it, girl.” Ogre gave her an affectionate smack with one of his massive hands. “What about him? We leave him there?”

“We're not going to drag him across the whole place, are we?” Mystery asked rhetorically.

This time, Blackjack and Mystery took point, Hunter closely behind them; Sataida and Screws were in the middle, while Ogre closed the march. They all wore their masks and protective gear, and it was a good thing they did that because the fumes only got worse as they slowly climbed down the creaking spiral staircase.

And still, when the walls around the staircase opened into a wide corridor crammed everywhere with churning greenish clouds, the distant echoes of high-pitched shrieks could be heard.

“Rodents,” Blackjack whispered. “Stay sharp.”

No one replied. There was no need. They all clutched their weapons with tense hands, with the usual exception of Hunter, who held a throwing knife on each hand almost carelessly.

It was obvious that the anomaly-plagued corridor was too narrow for people to walk side by side, so Mystery took point, followed by Hunter and Blackjack. The amnesiac stalker found it was easier for him to navigate these places not by thinking, but merely by reacting instead; habits he did not know he had made him look around some corners but not around some others, ignoring some places and taking extra precautions near others, as if he already knew where to expect danger. Behind him, Hunter noticed his increasing confidence and followed closely.

Upon reaching a doorway leading to another room, Mystery stopped and raised a bunched fist. Everyone stopped in turn. He listened and watched, again out of long-dormant habit, but nothing perturbed their tense wait other than the muffled screeches of the rodents somewhere deep inside the catacombs and the bubbling of the anomalies. When he was satisfied, he set on again; this room was also chock-full with fuming greenish clouds, and whatever machinery that once had been there was now reduced to formless piles of liquid metallic slag. Only the anomalies lit the hall, and the place was a chaotic dance of shadows and greenish lights as bubbles popped and hissed.

Then again, he rose a hand, and everyone stopped to hear the staccato of automatic fire, followed by high-pitched squeals. There was people down there, and it was not unexpected. Rats everywhere scuttled around for refuge.

Blackjack signaled Mystery to move on, that he kept him covered. Hunter was now wielding the decrepit assault rifle they had taken from the bandit, a battered AK-74, and was also looking down the hall through its sights.

Something roared somewhere down the tunnels, and they all readied themselves for another bloodsucker, but what darted into the room via a doorway on the other end, running in desperation, was a masked soldier, who paled upon seeing the stalkers ready to shoot. Then the roar repeated itself, louder than before. Mystery spotted the blur behind him and raised his AKM: “GET DOWN!”

The soldier immediately got to the ground. Hunter got off the first shot, but it was irrelevant: the mutant was literally chewed down to mincemeat by the barrage of five assault rifles.

“Come, get closer, we aren't going to shoot you,” Maxim invited. The serviceman did not need to be asked twice; quickly he stood up and approached. “You're hurt?”

“God, no! Thank you a lot, you've just saved my sorry ass... but hey, you know you're not going to get a warm welcome down these halls, do you?” The voice was soft, still unbroken by age; probably the soldier was very young.

Mystery quickly warmed up to him. “Well, we're kind of experts in, say, shotgun diplomacy,” he stated with a smirk.

“That won't save you. The things around here aren't about listening, if you get my meaning.”

“Thanks for the heads-up,” Ogre said. “But...” They all looked at each other. Telling the soldier what they were looking for was out of the question.

“You may find some, er, artifacts down here, maybe, but it's dangerous as hell,” the soldier warned. “I, for one, don't want to spend another minute down here. I'm outta here.”

“You're deserting?” Sataida asked in disbelief.

The soldier sought the female voice and stared at her apoplectically. “What? A girl, here? Are you insane? You know what they do to girls here?” Sataida said nothing, but her eyes flashed fiercely behind her gas mask in defiance.

“We've been trying to convince her of that... but well, she's headstrong.” Ogre shook his head.

“I wouldn't bring her into the base. The bunch up there are all criminals in disguise.”

“We weren't thinking of parading her around,” Screws joked, glancing at her. His heart swelled when he saw her grin beneath her mask. “But why are you deserting?”

The soldier drooped his shoulders. “I've been posted down here every day since I arrived. Everyone who gets stuck with guard duty here kicks the bucket sooner or later, there are a lot of uncharted rooms and passages and there's dangerous things all around. And I've outlasted everyone else so far, twice over at that. I guess I've pushed my luck long enough. ” He snorted hatefully. “I've overheard there's bets being placed on who lasts longer, or something. Someone in command would cash in big time if some mutant got me.” He glanced quickly over them all. “Or if some stalker did... So, you see...”

Mystery expressed his sympathy. “Some fellows you got, huh.”

Blackjack put their minds back into their task: “How many soldiers are up there?”

“Up in the base? Say, around forty or fifty men around.” The soldier watched them all carefully. “What, you planning to storm the base?”

“Is there a way?”

“Well, there's a hatch on the other side of these tunnels that leads straight into a backyard, but it's kept guarded; that's how we get down here. But they'll hear you coming; there are sentries posted everywhere. And if push comes to shove they can always radio in for helicopters.”

Ogre swore under his breath. “This just keeps getting better and better.” He turned hopelessly to Blackjack.

“Oh, stop worrying on my account!” Sataida hissed.

“If they're the gangsters in disguise you say they are, you think there'd be someone interested in this?” Maxim signaled to the giant, who produced the package from his backpack.

The soldier shook his head. “No, not that I know of. I mean, maybe, it wouldn't come as a surprise. I know there's someone smuggling in liquor, but how do they do it, hell, I don't know.” He again stared at them each, one by one. “Are you really, really sure you want to go in there? I mean, there's nothing of value there, other than a poorly stocked armory... but maybe you know something I don't,” he added.

“If we told you, we'd have to kill you.” Everyone smirked at Screws' remark; it seemed straight out of an espionage novel.

“Yeah, figured as much.” Then the soldier's face lit up. “Hey, maybe I can help you after all. I mean, you are going to sneak in, right?” Nobody replied openly. “I guessed as much. Listen up, after nightfall the patrols pull back and everyone goes to the barracks to sleep or play dice or get drunk, save a token few who get posted as tower guard or gate sentries. At least one of the command staff, though, remains on the second floor of the main building, every night.”

Ogre allowed himself a cautious smile. “What kind of army discipline is that?”

“None, why do you think I'm leaving?” The soldier asked rhetorically. “Someone wants to turn me into a pile of cash, and because they can't they keep bullying me. They hate to lose their bets against me every night. That's some exemplary... er... esprit de corps, was it?” His French was blatantly mispronounced and heavily accented, but it was clear enough. And it distilled bitterness.

Blackjack nodded, in part to conceal both the relief and the indignation that had surged within him. “It's the best you can do, to get out of here, then. When does the next watch start?”

“Around 0300 hours, give or take. As of late my reliefs have been arriving well past 4 AM.” The youth did not need to clarify why.

Hunter, who for the most part had kept a watchful eye out for mutants and other soldiers, spoke up dryly. “We are most grateful for your help. Now, if you will only join us until we are done, we will set you up properly to make a living as a stalker. It's either that, or being tied up to some pipe. Your choice.”

Most of the group, Mystery and Ogre in particular, were surprised and somewhat disappointed at the icy stalker's treatment of their informer, but it made sense. As easily as he had told about his fellows, the soldier could have a pang of guilt and report their presence, which would of course ruin everything. The serviceman was surprised and angry for a moment, and was about to rudely tell Hunter where he could stick it, but a quick glance at the stalker's readiness changed his mind. He wet his lips, both anger and understanding written in his eyes. “Well, I see your point. I'm coming with you. It beats being tied up to a pipe, I guess.”

Hunter smirked coolly. “Good choice. Here, come with me. We have your payment right here. Blackjack, if you will please...?”

“Of course.” Maxim unslung his backpack and produced the spare black armor suit he had taken from the Monolith dead, back at the rookie village. “Here, put this on.” Silently he complimented the quick thinking of his comrade; if he was dressed like him, it would make it much harder for the soldier to switch sides if their plan – if they had a plan at all – soured up. “You can have my spare rifle until you get one yourself.” That said, he handed him his own SCAR and a few clips, which the now former soldier took unconvincingly. Blackjack was about to ask why he did not have a rifle, but he guessed the bloodsucker he had escaped from had something to do with it. “What is your name, if I may ask?”

“Er... it's Boris.” The transition from soldier to deserter to stalker was going much faster than he had anticipated or was comfortable with, and it showed.

“You will need an alias. Everyone has one here. That one is Hunter; I'm Blackjack. They are Ogre, Mystery, Sataida and Screws.” He pointed at each of them, who saluted him in turn.

“Alright, that's settled then,” Hunter said with finality. “Boris, you stay with Ogre. And keep your eyes sharp.”

They all set on again, Mystery on point, Blackjack and Hunter slightly behind him. Sataida and Screws followed them, then Boris and Ogre. The giant gave him a friendly nudge. “Don't you worry,” he whispered. “He may seem mean, but if you get on his good side he's never letting you down.”

“Yeah, well...” Boris sighed. “It's that...”

“Quiet,” was Mystery's reprimand. “You can cuddle later. I don't want any of his dear mates to hear us.”

They passed by the dead bloodsucker, whose bleeding carcass had attracted over a dozen rats and gigantic cockroaches that were fighting over the remains. They turned left, and found themselves in another barely lit corridor that ran to their left and right. The ghastly green light given by the many chemical anomalies was distorted by the shimmer of very hot air, whichever way they looked.

Mystery gulped. “Burners.”

“Fantastic.” Blackjack turned to Boris. “I take that you know a way?” He was about to say that he had just ran across that gauntlet to escape the bloodsucker, but the gleam in his eye was enough.

The young soldier nodded. Whether he noticed Maxim's unspoken mind or not, he did not say. “Yeah. Which way?” Maxim signaled left with his rifle. “Follow me, then... Step exactly where I step and you will be fine. Don't turn on your lamps.”

It seemed that his story was true, because with complete confidence he worked their way through the stifling hot maze, his steps never faltering; there he stepped slightly to his left, and there again he turned right, and here he walked straight on, almost brushing the deadly green fumes in doing so.

“You must have had quite some time on your hands, to have mapped them so thoroughly,” Mystery whispered, in part to compliment him, in part to conceal his growing uneasiness. He remembered vividly these corridors now, and was certain that he had walked them well over a hundred times, but the burner anomalies were new. And he knew that there was a parallel corridor a few meters to their right, connected to this one via passageways and a room.

Boris swelled with pride. “You bet. I've killed more mutants by using anomalies than by shooting at them. You know, bloodsuckers are almost insensitive to these acid greenish things, but fire kills them just the same.”

“Good to know,” Blackjack noted, as discreetly.

“Do these anomalies shift their positions?” Mystery inquired in a whisper.

“All the time.”

The corridor reached its end; there, a narrower passage led to a barely visible stairway, and a doorway to their right led into a darkened room with another doorway directly opposite. The amnesiac stalker turned right, leading them with ever more confidence as the veils on his memory crumbled away, and found himself in the mirror corridor he expected. His steps grew faster, now certain that he was near somewhere important, and stopped by an open duct on the wall to their left, waist-high; it was wide enough for a man to crawl in it. A ladder was dimly visible on the other end.

“What is it, Mystery?”

He did not answer. Instead, he got rid of his backpack and was about to climb into the hole, but Hunter overrode him. The silent stalker crawled along the duct, reached the ladder, and started to climb cautiously, his senses primed...

Halfway he stopped, smelling fresh air coming from above. That brief stop saved him: his hand hovered in midair almost over a tripwire. Very carefully, almost delicately, his left index finger followed the copper wire to an almost invisible concussion charge, expertly placed behind one of the ladder's arms. For an instant, Hunter considered disarming it, but he needed to turn on his headlamp and that would inevitably warn whomever was on the other side of the ladder, waiting in ambush. Slowly he climbed down.

“We can't go that way,” he whispered. “The ladder is booby-trapped. And someone is there.” He turned to Mystery. His eyes bore into him. “Why did you want to go up there?”

The amnesiac stalker cursed. Now everyone was looking at him. “Well... I... see...” he stumbled. He closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes to stare back at Hunter: “I know that place. It's a hideout. Some friends use it.”

“Those 'friends' are the Monolith?” Blackjack asked, his face blank, but his voice a warning.

“Hell, no! The damn maniacs hunted us. They...” his words trailed off. “...They killed a friend of mine. Fang, he was called. A sniper shot... him... through the collar of his exo...” He seemed to recall something: “Remember when Screws... showed ...?” He tried not to tip off Ogre, Sataida and Boris about the artifact.

Maxim nodded. “What's it?” He said brusquely.

“I had said something about a Dragunov and a friend, yes? It was him who got killed...” More faces flashed through his mind. “There were others too... Guide, Ghost, Doc--”

Ogre interrupted him: “Guide? THE Guide?

“Who's Guide?” Boris asked in puzzlement.

Mystery did not reply. He was paralyzed, struggling with his thoughts and emotions and his haltingly recovering memory. Blackjack stared at him thoughtfully. He had known him briefly, and while he had always had his misgivings about the man's memory loss, it seemed real. But if everything had been just an elaborate act to draw them into an ambush, it had been an impeccable one. Everything it takes to get us now is armed men appearing on both sides of this corridor, and we're toast.

“And some of these friends of yours are up there now.”



You got that one right, thought Guide, overhearing everything. Finally, Strelok was down there. And not alone, it seemed.

“...and what do you want to do?” He heard that unknown voice ask. He looked into Ghost's eyes. Then, into Farsight's.

A choice had to be made. Kill Strelok, or talk to him. Strelok had to be stopped, the youth and the controller had said back at the Valley, but stopped from doing what? Destroying C-Consciousness? And how?




A stone clanged loudly over the metallic duct. Everyone was startled.

Hunter reached for the stone, which was wrapped in some kind of paper with something scribbled over it. He removed the paper and read what was written in it...

“Keep your eyes open. Someone will be coming down to disarm the trap.”

The next few minutes were insufferably uncomfortable. Hunter had his senses primed on the scuffling and shuffling that was taking place somewhere in the duct before him, while the rest of them watched out for more mutants or soldiers. Blackjack consulted his own smartphone for time: 23:17. He found himself sweating beneath his mask, and hating himself for being led into such a dangerous situation, for everything about this unexpected rendezvous screamed: ambush.

Then someone spoke, the voice a muffled echo distorted by the duct walls: “...your amnesiac friend can come up on his own, if he wants.”

All eyes were fixated upon Mystery. The man slowly picked up his backpack and AKM, and crawled into the duct. With quivering hands, he climbed up the ladder. A gloved hand helped him out of the duct.

There were five people in the room. Two of them he did not recognize; one of them was a stocky man built like a rock who looked like a foreigner, given the non-Slavic features of his face, and a young boy, who hardly looked older than sixteen, that was staring at him as if he was reading him. He recognized the sharp, gaunt face of Ghost, who had helped him into the small utility room, and that of Guide, balding, weathered, the first stalker to ever breach into the Zone, and... someone wearing Fang's exoskeleton...

Slowly, the man on the exoskeleton took off his helmet. Mystery blanched and stared in disbelief. That was the young soldier he had met not an hour ago. That could not be. Shakily he raised a finger and pointed at him: “You... you...”

Guide stepped forward. “Welcome, Strelok.”

WHAT?!? Did he just call me...?
  14:44:44  3 November 2011
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Bladewraith
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On forum: 10/21/2010
Messages: 306
Yet another fantastic chapter, keep up the good work
  02:31:31  5 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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I'm kind of a bit uncomfortable myself with this episode. Too many things slipped by.

I don't know about you, Blade, but I tend to write a little every day, and it's a very rare occasion when I have a clear idea about what I'm going to write. And sometimes organizing my thoughts on a language that's not my mother tongue tends to get tricky.

Feel free to hijack this fic with ideas, everyone. I got a vague idea of where everything here is heading, but not a clue about how will I get there.
  05:01:32  7 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
 

Message edited by:
ZeroDead
11/07/2011 23:42:05
Messages: 197
Episode IX

Guide looked at Alexei. The youth was still staring at the apoplectic Mystery.

Who was not Mystery anymore, but again Strelok. The veils that had shrouded his memory had been swept aside upon recognizing his friends.

Alexei was doing nothing, other than boring into Strelok's eyes with his own. Guide had vaguely expected him to attack the amnesiac stalker, or at least talk to him, but Farsight was frozen still. He sensed Foxhound's and Ghost's restlessness.

Then it dawned on him that probably Farsight, despite how utterly alien and inhuman he had become, was also locked in conflict about what to do.

Strelok was hardly able to speak. But he looked not at Farsight. His dumbfounded, entirely disbelieving self was totally focused upon Chasme.

“...It cannot be. Unless you're... his twin, or something...”

The former soldier shook his head. “No, I am not.” He sighed and stepped forward. “Listen, it's going to take a long talk for you to understand...”

Strelok let himself fall over a crate. He shook his head. “At least I got my memory back... Why are you wearing Fang's exo?”

Chasme swallowed. He was about to reply but Guide overrode him. “He took it after you died.”

His friend diverted his disbelieving eyes towards the old stalker. Then his expression changed and he burst into laughter. Cold, unhappy, almost hysterical laughter. A shiver ran down Guide's spine, afraid of Strelok losing his grip on his sanity. “You know, this is a deeply illuminating experience for me... I don't recall dying, and most definitely I don't recall resurrecting either. But if I did don't come around asking questions about the afterlife 'cause I don't remember shit. So,” he boomed, straightening up, “care to tell me just what the hell is going on?”

“He lies not.” Guide again had to suppress a shiver, but this time Alexei was the cause. “Mercenaries killed you at Seriy's hangar.”

“Oh, really? And how many bullets did they need to bring me down? I always thought I was a tough nut to crack.” Strelok was grinning almost maniacally. Then abruptly, his mood changed. “I don't know who the fuck do you think you are, kid, but if you would care to cut the crap already--”

He did not expect Ghost to move so fast, let alone to punch him so squarely in the head. He ended up sprawled in the floor. “Get a grip, you idiot! Will you just for once clean up your ears and listen up?”

It took a few seconds for Strelok to stagger back to his feet. “Whoa... I don't think you ever hit me like that...” He shook his head, only to instantly regret it. He winced with pain. “You'd better have some tylenol or ibuprofen around.” He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the temple where he had been hit by Ghost's bunched fist, trying to will the pain away, and failing. He muttered a curse under his breath, then turned again to face them. “Okay. Let's assume that somehow I believe you. I died, then I was somehow brought back... I mean, it's the damn Zone, what else could possibly happen that someone may call an impossibility? Time travel?”

The foreigner he had never seen before could not help but laugh. “Bingo. That's exactly what happened,” he offered. “I met Guide, Farsight and Chasme –the kid on the exo– at the Dark Valley, a few days after you were killed.”

“You were right, Strelok... everything you had said about the Monolith is true,” Guide cut in. Then he went on to explain everything that he had read off his friend's own memory card. It took him some ten minutes. Strelok tried hard not to disbelieve what he was being told. “This is your own log, here. Read it out.”

“No, no, it isn't necessary... No, fuck me, give me that. I'll read it all eventually, I think.” He took the proffered memory card and swapped it with the one installed in his own phone—noticing, with diminishing perplexity, that they were perfectly equal. He was extra careful not to allow them to come into contact with each other. “So, it's all a hoax? The Monolith is just a load of crap? And some evil mastermind of sorts concocted it all?”

“And spawned the Zone as we know it,” Chasme added, nodding.

Strelok looked at Ghost. His friend's brow was still knotted, but he nodded too. “Guide told me all you've just heard, and more. I didn't believe it all at first myself. I needed some... help.” He glanced coldly at Farsight for a second.

The amnesiac stalker nodded. “...Fine. You were always the realist, so I'll have to take your word. Still,” he said, raising his eyes again to meet Guide's, “that doesn't explain how come I died and resurrected or time-traveled or whatever.”

“That is the result of the intervention of the mutant gestalt spawned from the demise of C-Consciousness. One of their agents had us transported two weeks into the past to stop you.”

Strelok was startled for a brief instant, but relaxed when he saw that nobody was pointing a gun at him. “To stop me? From doing what?”

“Destroying C-Consciousness.” Alexei stared at him intensely. Strelok quailed under the strength of his gaze. “You will do that if you are allowed to continue on your current track, and not even all the combined military strength of the Monolith will be able to stop you. And it will make everything worse. You see... what created the Zone was a gigantic mistake, one that even C-Consciousness itself cannot understand, even if its insights and perception are unimaginably superior to those of any man. But only C-Consciousness may have an actual chance at fixing the problem it created.”

“You said 'may have.'” Guide's comment was a surprise, and Strelok listened attentively. Apparently they had argued about it before.

“Right. I don't know, but it's our best shot. I... well... the gestalt I was in contact with cannot properly exist as an independent entity, until those controlling it are disposed of.” Alexei hesitated, causing everyone else's attention to focus on him even further. “I can tap into that gestalt, in a way, but it's not self-aware. And even if it was, it's not... skillful or knowledgeable enough.”

“And neither are its members aware about them being part of it?” The foreigner asked.

“Wait a second, wait a second. Did I get it right?” Strelok was stretching his already dumbfounded understanding to its limits. “Are you, er, in touch or talking or whatever with some great disembodied mutant intellect or something? Did I get that one right?”

“Give or take. With one slight difference: it still doesn't know it exists.”

“C-Consciousness would have to disappear for it to happen,” Chasme nodded.

Strelok gaped at Alexei. “...Whoa. And... how does a body get to... tap... into it as you do?”

Farsight glared at him sadly with his dead eyes. “Being nearly mind-blasted to death by a controller while exposed to a blowout.”

Ghost chuckled in spite of himself. “Not worth it.”

“Believe me, I agree with you.”

“I wonder why does it have to happen during a blowout...” The foreigner pondered.

“I just know that is when everything happened. The reasons are unknown to me.”

A brief silence gathered. They all looked at each other for a moment, digesting what had just been said.



“...So what do we do about this...?”

Blackjack straightened up. Everyone else was watching him intently.

“What's going on with Mystery, then?” Screws whispered.

The scarred russian was still tottering under the impact of what he had overheard. IF he had overheard correctly, that was. The twists of the duct distorted the voices.

But if he had heard right...

“I'm... not sure, really,” he whispered back. “Most of it is incredible. I just know for sure--”

He was interrupted by the metallic sound of feet descending down the ladder in the duct. Strelok's head appeared. “...You may come up if you want... they're friends, it's alright.” He glared at Boris for a second, then blinked and shook his head slowly. His eyes were distant, as if his mind was somewhere else.

Makes sense, Blackjack thought. Who wouldn't be like that? He looked at Hunter, who glared back at him and nodded. “Screws, you go on in first,” he said. “Sataida, you follow him. We'll cover the exit.”

Nikolay did not allow his discomfort to be seen; he crawled into the duct and disappeared inside. Sataida followed him, then Ogre.

“Why did he just look at me like that?” Boris pondered, haunted by Mystery's glum face.

Blackjack struggled with the answer, but lost. “You'll have to ask him,” he lied instead. “Now go.”

He was the last to climb up the ladder. And he was halfway up when he heard a deep, rumbling thunder, and the floor quivered beneath his feet. A blowout was coming. Even if he was some ten-odd meters underground, and theoretically safe, he shivered.

He got out of the duct and into the small room, now crammed with a dozen people, to see an unknown man in an exoskeleton securing a heavy hatch-like door on the adjacent wall. “Best to keep this one closed in a blowout,” a weathered man with leathery skin was saying.

When the door was properly shut, the two groups of stalkers were staring at each other. Hunter, Ogre, Screws, Sataida and Boris were leaning against the wall opposite to the door, while the old man and his companions –a thin, gaunt, wiry stalker with iron-gray eyes hard as steel; a youth with a dreamy expression written on his face who never seemed to blink; the exoskeleton-clad stalker, who regarded them behind his helmet; and a burly, squat man with non-Slavic features– flanked the secured door.

Only Mystery stood in the middle, bridging and separating both groups.

“Well...” he begun, speaking to the old man. “These here are... Boris, Blackjack, Hunter, Ogre, Sataida, and Screws...” Then he turned to his newly made comrades. “And these are Chasme, Farsight, Foxhound, Ghost, and Guide.” Each nodded in turn when he or she was named.

“Blackjack, there is something you all should know, before we move on to anything else... Remember when you found me? I was clutching my phone, and it was flashing with a message about someone called Strelok, right?” Maxim nodded. “You see, I... well, I'll never be able to kill this Strelok, because I'd have to kill myself.”

Screws gasped. Sataida and Ogre stared at their –erstwhile?– comrade in utter surprise. Boris looked as if he had no idea what was going on, which was more or less to be expected in his case. And Hunter was, as usual, looking completely bored or, failing that, not interested at all in the situation.

Strelok was about to continue, but he was cut short by the thunder of the starting blowout.

Then the floor beneath them started shaking. Dust spattered down through cracks on the ceiling. Soon they had to hold on to something not to fall.

“There's something... this is wrong!” Ghost had to shout to make himself heard over the rumbling, catastrophic roar. “This is no blowout, it's--!” A wild shock almost threw him to the ground.

“The ceiling!” Ogre yelled. Cracks were widening sickeningly fast. “We have to get out of here!”

“Quick, to the corridor!” Chasme smashed the latches and yanked the door open. Everyone hastily reached for their gear and whatever they could salvage from the ammo and supplies stockpiled there and raced for the passage--

With a crashing noise, more felt than heard over the thunder of the earthquake, the ceiling collapsed. Tons of concrete, rock and dirt avalanched in. The stalkers stumbled as they could, deafened, half-stunned, half-choked and half-blinded by the dust, and reached for the exit, Chasme's headlamp a beacon they all tried not to lose. The way out of the passageway and into the small utility room leading to the surface was sickeningly long. Another wild shock threw them to the ground, and another did the same as they were trying to get back up. Screws was too panicked to scream that it was pointless, that getting to the surface during a blowout was suicide, but they could not stay down there either--

Another shock. The corridor behind them disappeared as the ceiling gave in. Another cascade of dust and debris flooded the small chamber.

Then the quake ceased.

For a long while, nobody could speak. They just lay there, trying to catch their breath, coughing in the dust. Chasme pointed to his own helmet, then to its built-in air filters; everyone understood and donned their masks, which helped to ease their lungs.

“Is... everyone okay?” Guide asked when he managed to take two deep breaths without coughing. No response yet. He counted... Chasme, Strelok, Ghost, the soldier called Boris, Blackjack, Farsight, the girl, Screws, Hunter...

“Foxhound... and...”

“NO!” Sataida screamed, and raced for the corridor, now obstructed by debris, and frantically started digging with her bare hands.

“GIVE US A HAND OVER HERE!” Screws shouted, joining her. Blackjack and Strelok rushed in to help, but it was quickly obvious that it was pointless. Digging through that impassable amount of dirt just with their hands simply was not possible. Still, Sataida kept digging, sobbing, throwing pieces of debris aside, ignoring her screaming muscles. Screws assisted her despite knowing that her desperate quest was without hope.

Then, when her arms finally failed her, she let herself fall forward over her knees. And wailed aloud. “NO, NO, NO! NOT YOU! NOT YOU!” She punched on the floor in rage and grief, again and again. And again.

“Sataida...” Blackjack laid a hand over her shoulder, but she furiously shook off the proffered arm.

The soldier nodded. He had lost friends and soldiers before. Silently he turned around and walked back into the utility room. Strelok followed.

Only Screws remained next to her, achingly wishing he could comfort her somehow. But he was not closer to her than Maxim. He did what he thought best at that time: opening his backpack, he retrieved his sleeping blanket, and gently laid it over her shoulders. Then he stepped back, keeping his distance, but still nearby.

That she suddenly flung herself into his arms was completely unexpected. Sobs racked her as she held him tightly as tears streamed down her cheeks beneath her mask.

For a while he was paralyzed. Then, very softly, he pressed a hand to her head, and held her as she cried, for what it seemed to be hours.
  10:51:16  8 November 2011
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Bladewraith
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another great, would i be right to assume the next chapter might have to be on an erotic literature site?
  18:56:51  8 November 2011
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ZeroDead
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ZeroDead
11/08/2011 23:46:48
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Episode X

Sorry to disappoint you, Blade. I don't do lemons.

I hope you like this instead. Here you'll see, for the first time, the thing that gave this fic its name.

--------

For hours little was said. Sataida was huddled against a corner, wrapped in the blanket Screws had given her, neither saying nor listening to any words, and refusing to eat or drink anything. She had coldly sent Strelok away when he had wanted to check her out for wounds, but otherwise had remained literally frozen still. Even Nikolay had stayed away from her.

Guide found himself hardly touched for Foxhound's demise, and that led to some harrowing soul-searching. If that was a sign that he was detaching himself further still from others around him, that was troubling. But he was so very weary... the Briton had been just another entry on a long list of comrades and friends claimed by the Zone.

But even if death was an everyday occurrence there, he still did not like himself taking it so lightly.

That had not been the case with Chasme. The former soldier, however experienced he had grown during the course of their adventures, was not as inured to a loss as he was, and the death of his comrade had been devastating. But instead of sitting despondently against a wall, as Sataida had done, he had done his best to keep himself occupied. He had taken it upon himself to see what had been salvaged from the hideout and to check if they had enough stocks of ammunition and consumables. The results were not good: Ghost, Strelok and Sataida had lost their rifles. Most of them had no ammo besides the magazines loaded on their weapons, other than Blackjack, Hunter, and Screws; Nikolay had six clips for his SCAR, and half of them he passed on to Boris. They were down to very basic medical supplies. They did, however, have food and water to spare, and most of their survival gear was undamaged. He relayed his findings to Guide, who breathed deeply and sighed.

“Bad news. The weapons we can replace... we have stashed away several spares and equipment near the railway tunnel at the Garbage. But we are critically short of first aid elements.” He looked at him covertly, gauging his mental strength, and noticed his restlessness. But he did not see it fit to intrude into his pain. It was a shock, but one that he had to work through on his own unless he reached out for help.

Given their shortages, it was a fortune that most of them had only suffered just a few scratches and concussions. Other than Farsight, that was. His right shoulder was bruised and swollen, and he could barely move it without wincing. He had also dislocated one of his ankles, and Hunter had said that two of his ribs were cracked. Thus, Chasme had passed on his artifact belt to him:

“Strelok... if you want... you can take it back. The belt, I mean. It's yours. And the exo.”

“Mine...? Oh, surely I collected them before I...” Strelok's voice trailed off as he considered it. “How good a sneak are you?”

“Average. I'm no ninja, I just was a regular Ukrainian army corporal.” Boris had raised his head upon hearing that, but he did not feel he had a bond strong enough with the stalkers to interfere, so he had said nothing and remained on the floor, lying there over his sleeping sack as long as he was, thinking about whether he would have lived or died had he chosen not to desert. Ultimately he had to admit that he would never know and that it was pointless to dwell on that.

“Then keep them for the moment. Ghost and myself are better off with light armor.” He had clapped him on the shoulder and left it at that.

“Ghost should take my rifle...” The voice, hoarse and raw, had been Farsight's. He seemed to be in very great pain, even with Chasme's/Strelok's artifact belt clasped around his waist, and they had little in the way of painkillers.

The wiry stalker had wasted little time. He expressed his admiration at the weapon; it was a powerful Arctic Warfare Magnum, and had been carefully kept sparkling clean by its user, protected from the elements by means of wrapping a camo cloak over it. “You know, I've seen this one around...” He turned to Guide. “Don't we have one of these stashed?” The veteran stalker nodded slowly in silence, too weary to explain him how the weapon had got into Alexei's hands.

Ghost shrugged and thanked him. “Never mind. If you can't use it, then I'll take it until I get a new gun. And there's something I can do for you before we set on...” That said, he took off his armor, and was stripped down to a shirt and a loincloth. “This thing helped me a lot when a bloodsucker almost got me. Here, let me help you put it on...” The youth clenched his teeth when Ghost eased him off his battered stalker suit, but did not complain. When he finally was fully suited up, he noticed the indefinable warmth flowing from the belt and into him was amplified somehow by the vest. He felt the pain fading away, replaced by a deep sensation of relief. Soon his features relaxed and he drifted thankfully into a tired sleep.

Hunter, whose equipment had somehow escaped the catastrophe, had gone up the ladder and left to scout their surroundings, taking a rugged, old portable radio handset at Guide's behest, but he had made no reports. Then, some ninety-odd minutes after departing, a sharp metallic object tapped the hatch four times, in code. Shortly afterwards he was descending the ladder.

“And?” Chasme asked, eager for news.

“The place is a wasteland. Apparently most of the underground facilities have caved in: the landscape has sunken at several places, and the buildings at the institute and the military outpost have all collapsed. I haven't seen a single person alive other than us.” He unslung his backpack and opened it. He had taken all the ammo, food and medical supplies he had found, no doubt from the corpses of their late owners, and over two dozen memory cards and flash drives. He had also brought some weapons for those who had lost them, namely AS Val and Abakan rifles. The supplies and guns were immediately distributed, somewhat mitigating their most immediate problem. “I haven't found a single mutant or living animal around either.”

Guide blinked a few times upon hearing that. “Several hours have passed since the blowout already.”

Hunter shrugged as usual, then continued. “There was something else, a thick mist, blue-grayish in color, almost creamy on its consistence. I saw it rolling down the hills near the ruins of the military base before heading back here.”

Chasme immediately jumped forward. “Say that again.”

The tall stalker eyed him with a blank expression etched on his face. “Just as I said. A blue-grayish mist, almost solid-thick.”

“It's the mist again!” Chasme exclaimed. “We could go back in time again!”

“What?!” Sataida was on her feet so fast that she took everyone by surprise.

“There is no way we can know that,” Guide retorted. “Last time around the gestalt intervened to send us back.”

Boris and Screws were beyond confused. Sataida was possessed of a desperate, sudden hope, caring not about why that was possible at all. Blackjack, Ghost and Strelok, knowing a little better, looked on expectantly.

Farsight opened a tired eye, awoken by the sudden exaltation, then another. Then closed them again, getting in touch with his gift, apparently unaffected by his injuries. “It is not the same...” he managed to whisper at last. “It won't do... There is something else at work here...”

“Do we want to know?” Guide asked, looking into Alexei's blind eyes, that even then stared at him as if they could see. The youth could not answer. “Then we will stay here until it passes over us. We are unable to leave for the moment anyway.”

The girl's arms fell slowly to her sides. A single tear ran down her cheek, but otherwise her face did not change. Despondently she turned around and went back to her spot against the wall, where she sat and again wrapped herself in Screws' cloak.

Nikolay could barely withstand seeing her pain, but he could not get any closer than she allowed her to. He was little more than a stranger, just a sparring companion, and very much afraid of her refusing him. But even then he wanted to ease her somehow.

In the end that intent won. He closed in and, without word, took her backpack and unfurled her sleeping sack. She raised an annoyed hand but he silenced her with a stare.

“This will keep you warmer than just that blanket.” That said, he laid it over the dusty floor, using her backpack as a pillow of sorts.

“Th... thanks.” She slowly stood up and again hugged him, not as intensely as before, but much more tenderly. “Thank you for looking after me,” she whispered before letting go.

He stared into her eyes, and found himself shackled fast by those twin pools of unfathomable green mystery. Again he felt that whatever he was thinking or feeling, she could read with absolute ease. But, if that was the case, she did not shun him.

Unexpectedly tears spilled again. “Please... don't leave me too,” she begged, her voice a breaking whisper.

“I won't,” he promised.

Sataida did not tuck herself into the sleeping sack Screws had laid out for her. Instead she huddled herself against him and fell asleep instantly. Nikolay covered them both with his blanket and her sack and passed an arm behind her shoulders, cradling her, entranced by her fragility.

But that trance was cut short by a jolt that shook him. Sataida, startled, awoke with alarm written in her eyes, then she felt it too. It was a cold, tingling, deeply uncomfortable feeling, as if numberless tiny frost needles pierced the skin of their legs. Then he noticed some volutes of mist seeping through the wreckage that blocked the corridor.

“It's the mist...” was all that he managed to whisper. Breathing suddenly had become a feat of willpower. He could barely move his fingers.

Sataida clutched at him weakly, desperation written in her eyes, trying her best to pant, the imminent suffocation an excruciating agony. Her eyes went wildly towards the others: their movements had become slowed and difficult as well. Hunter was unable to remain on his kneeling position anymore and ended up sprawled in the floor. Strelok and Ghost were staring in disbelief and horror at the corridor, trying to crawl away. Guide was frozen still, his remaining energies sapped away by the mist that now seeped from the walls as if they were not there. Chasme was hunkered down against an instrument panel, the weight of his exoskeleton suddenly a brutally heavy burden, Blackjack next to him and equally powerless.

But Farsight was not affected. He felt the heat radiating from the artifact belt intensifying. A mild glow started to seep out through the fabric, and even if he could not see it he quickly understood what it meant. “Quick! Get close to me!” he commanded with a surprisingly strong voice. The others did their best to do it, but they could barely lift their fingers.

It dawned on Alexei that it was up to him. Gritting his teeth, he straightened up, ignoring the sharp pain he felt on his chest, and stood up ungainly over his weak legs, his movements purely powered by Strelok's artifacts. He reached for Guide first, who was the closest to him, and the old stalker noted that the weakness ebbed away the closer he got to the belt. He managed to get on his feet and had Alexei go with him for Chasme first, since he would be able to gather them all around them much faster once he shook off the enervating effects of the mist. Soon they were all huddled up around Farsight, shivering with an unexplainable cold that neither blanket nor cloth could block, but very much alive, even if breathing was still hard and their arms and legs felt very heavy. The mist was roiling all over and around them now.

“Just... what... what is this...?” Boris managed to utter through his rattling teeth.

“I do... not know... I never... never felt this before...” was all that Guide could reply.

Alexei grit his teeth as the needles now tingled over his loins and belly, the feeling horribly awful and violating. He closed his eyes, drawing himself inward, to his gift, and to his amazement found himself able to think vastly more clearly than usual, far beyond from what was usual for him even. Whatever that mist was, and however horrible it felt, it somehow boosted his extraordinary senses. And what these senses found out was blood-curling, but he only could whisper weakly:

“It'll pass... It will take a while...”

“It'd... better... be over already!” Blackjack stuttered with urgency. Never in his entire life had he felt so weak and defenseless. They all remained tightly huddled, the rattling of their teeth the only sound they heard amidst the absolute silence and the ghastly dancing of the mist over them, wildly hoping for Farsight to be right, their headlamps occasionally –and sickeningly– blinking on and off...

...And, slowly, almost reluctantly, the mists seeped around them and into the walls, passing over them, washing over them. And it was over.

“Just what the FUCK was that?!” Ghost exploded.

“I don't know, but it's related to the blowout... just like the earthquake was,” Farsight murmured. “I could think so clearly while in its grip. I could see... sense so much further around me than usual.”

Boris took several deep breaths, immensely glad of being able to breathe again. He stood up and shook his limbs vigorously to get his blood flowing. His face broke into a relieved grin. “I never thought I'd be so happy of... well, you get me.”

“I concur,” Hunter agreed. Even he was smiling, similarly relieved. Farsight eyed him oddly.

“How likely is it that other blowouts will be as powerful as this one?” Guide questioned Alexei. The blind youth shook his head.

“Can't tell.”

Blackjack noted that there was something about Farsight that had not yet been explained to him, but chose not to say anything about it. He felt that would be clarified pretty soon:

“What did you see?” Chasme asked as he aped Boris. He smirked to himself when he realized it. But then he thought: I'll have to take off my helmet sometime... how will he take it?

Farsight swallowed and closed his eyes. “Everyone not protected against psionic emanations is now dead. The mist literally froze their brains over.”

They all stared at him in shock.

“Everyone?” Strelok repeated. “Everyone where?”

“As far as I can sense... at least, all over Agroprom. I don't know how badly the mist has affected the rest of the Zone, but I know that it spread out like a shockwave, all the way from the epicenter at the NPP.”

They were left speechless by the enormity of the repercussions implied by his terrible words. At last, Guide spoke. “If it killed everyone other than us here at Agroprom, being as we are so far away from the epicenter, it would be safe to assume that most people, other than the elite Duty, Freedom, mercenary and lone stalkers, are all dead. Other than the Monolith...”

“Strelok's log says that Monolith are mind-controlled by C-Consciousness, could that have protected them?” Ghost wondered. Farsight did not reply.

“No way to know that, I guess. Until we find one of them.”

Screws chuckled mirthlessly at Blackjack's words. “Not looking forward to that, myself.”

“Would C-Consciousness itself be behind this?” Chasme pondered.

“We do not even know if it actually has anything to do with the blowouts themselves,” Guide answered. He then noted the dumbfounded looks of Boris, Sataida and Screws. “A very, very long story. We will tell you the details later.”

Strelok straightened up with a determined look on his face. “Well then,” he said genially, “we're going to find out. After all, C-Consciousness wanted me out of the picture, right?”

--------

The blue mist was originally conceived by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in one of their tales, "The Forgotten Experiment". While my version is not an exact copy, it was inspired by theirs.
  01:44:05  1 December 2011
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Bladewraith
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ahem...
*looks at watch...
  06:48:18  5 December 2011
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ZeroDead
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Apologies for the hiatus. I've hit a creative brick wall of sorts and I don't like the ideas I'm coming up with... no, scratch that, I don't know how to put them together. That I've been up to my neck in exams and assignments hasn't helped.

I hope to produce something postable within a tenday or less.
  17:46:10  5 December 2011
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Bladewraith
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---QUOTATION---
Apologies for the hiatus. I've hit a creative brick wall of sorts and I don't like the ideas I'm coming up with... no, scratch that, I don't know how to put them together. That I've been up to my neck in exams and assignments hasn't helped.

I hope to produce something postable within a tenday or less.
---END QUOTATION---



no worries buddy, i know what it's like. been there done that. good luck with the exams and what not. if you need i've a plenty. shame i've got none for my own story... irritating how brains work eh?
  00:58:10  20 December 2011
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ZeroDead
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Message edited by:
ZeroDead
12/20/2011 2:13:50
Messages: 197
Episode XI

It was not easy for them to leave their dusty hideout. Even if blowouts were an everyday occurrence in the Zone, it was one thing to deal with 'normal' ones, and quite another to seek shelter that would not collapse in the event of another earthquake. Which normally were few and far between, especially in a non-seismic area such as that, Boris had reasoned. “Tell that to Foxhound and Ogre,” had been Guide's bitter remark.

With Farsight wounded, it was plain obvious that they could not set out yet to the NPP. “Where do we go then?” Boris asked.

“To the Cordon,” Guide replied. “We have to get him to a place where we can wait until he recovers. And we should try to seek out other survivors. There must be some.”

“We must get Alexei out of here first. He's in no shape to move on his own just yet...” Chasme's words trailed off as he saw Hunter diagnosing the youth. Alexei groaned in pain when the man's rough hands felt his ribs. The stalker nodded.

“Better, but not good enough,” he said laconically.

“We should get a stretcher, or something.” Strelok stood up and grabbed his Val rifle. “We'll go to the outpost and find something we can use as a stretcher. Who's coming?”

“I'll go,” Ghost volunteered.

“Good. Get ready to go when we return.”

They did return when noon had passed and shadows were becoming longer under the sun. Again, four taps in code, then Guide opened the hatch. He glared at Strelok and Ghost: their faces gave away how baffled they were. “What is it?”

Ghost shoved a sack towards the manhole. Lights of many colors seeped through the fabric. “Guess what’s inside.”

The weathered stalker stared at the sack, his eyes mirroring his friends’ bewilderment. “Where did you find these?”

“All over the place. Nearly every anomaly all over Agroprom has spawned them.”

Besides two wooden poles, a few blankets and some ropes, Ghost and Strelok had hauled three sacks full of artifacts to their hideout. “We took some time sorting out the best. There’s lots of them to be found.”

Blackjack let out a hoarse laugh. “If we could find someone who would take these off our hands now, we’d be set for life.”

“We didn’t spend that much time out there just to haul in some loot,” Ghost retorted. “We’d better give ourselves every edge we can get, given where we’re going.”

The group crowded around Strelok. Most of them he outfitted with artifacts that shielded from gunfire and radiation, enhanced wound recovery and helped stave off hunger, but to Farsight he handed a bundle wrapped in a dirty blanket. “These will do you good.”

Weakly Alexei unwrapped the package and felt its contents with his bare hands. Most of these items were round and felt leathery and fleshy to the touch, and yet oddly hard. Warmth seeped off them and into him. “Souls,” he said.

“Indeed,” the stalker agreed. “With these you’ll be like new in a few days.”

“You have my thanks, Strelok… but… let me see what else you have found... please?”

Puzzled, the experienced stalker did as he was told. They all watched, as in a spell, as Alexei went over the hundred-odd items they had collected, thoroughly feeling every artifact with his hands, then moving on to the next one. Eventually he settled for half of the blue-greenish artifacts Strelok had given him, and an equal number of transparent, red-tinted polyhedral objects.

“Batteries?” Ghost asked.

“You’ll see… please, help me out of here…” Feebly he tried to stand up. Screws rushed to assist him. Ghost and Guide looked at each other in puzzlement, then the veteran shrugged.

“He knows things we do not,” he reasoned in a low voice. “Best we assist him.”

Strelok helped Farsight out of their hideout, and Hunter and Blackjack carried him on a stretcher they fashioned out of the poles, blanket and ropes he had brought earlier. “I’ll help the kid,” he said to Guide. “Make sure everyone gets ready to go in the meantime. I’m going to need someone else for backup.”

“I’m going,” Nikolay volunteered. Sataida hesitated briefly, then joined him, her AK ready. Strelok hesitated, judging them too green, but Hunter had reported that there were no mutants around a few hours earlier… and, if Farsight was right, there were no bandits to worry about. And they were outfitted with a country’s worth in artifacts.

“Then get moving.”

Blackjack could not help but feel intrigued. “What exactly are we looking for?”

Farsight replied, “An Electro anomaly...” His voice was a bit steadier now, no doubt helped by the Souls on his belt.

Strelok smirked. “Easy enough. Tons of them around. We’d better make haste, though; I don’t want to be caught outside after sunset this light on guns.”

The first thing Blackjack, Sataida and Screws noticed was that their pointman had indeed been busy: the landscape was dotted everywhere with the bouncing lights of hundreds of artifacts, which were even more visible now under the quickly darkening sky. The scarred veteran thought to himself, Every stalker’s wet dream… how ironic, is it, that artifacts spawn like this only when everyone is dead. It’s as if these things were the trapped souls of people who die here… which would be horribly right, considering the C-Consciousness mess and the whole damn deal, right? The idea was, indeed, so horribly nasty, but at the same time so implausible, that he was relieved for not knowing whether that was the case or not. Ignorance is bliss.

They found what they were looking for almost immediately, upon coming within view of the railroad, which was chock full of the electrical anomalies. “Here, this is it.” He turned towards Alexei: “Now, it’s up to you.”

“What do you want us to do?” Hunter asked.

“Just put me down here, then… then help me stand.”

Once they had done so, he made sure the belt was fastened to his waist, then weakly walked on towards the anomaly, slowly, his legs feeling like jelly. Behind him, Screws wanted to ask if he was sure of what he was doing, but he seemed determined enough… after all, he had had them carry him all the way here, just for whatever he was doing. His companions looked on expectantly, waiting, similarly enthralled. Even Hunter himself, Screws noticed.

The anomaly exploded with a thunderbolt, blue-purplish tendrils arcing towards him and wrapping him like incandescent ropes. Alexei stood amidst the raging miniature electrical storm, frozen still…

“Look at his hair!” Sataida exclaimed, pointing.

“What is it…? Oh…” Nikolay noticed that Alexei’s hairs were not standing.

The youth turned to face them, his gait much steadier and more secure now. He was smiling broadly, oblivious to the crackling, swirling energies all over and around him.

Strelok smiled. “So that’s why you wanted us to drag your ass here…”

Blackjack closed his eyes. “What wouldn’t I have given for knowing this trick before.”

Farsight walked back to them, all his ills, pains and weaknesses forgotten. “Let’s go. The rest are waiting.” They followed him as in a dream, leaving the makeshift stretcher behind.

When they came upon the manhole, they found everyone had already left their refuge and were finishing preparations. No one was realistically surprised about Alexei’s recovery, other than Boris, who was as green a stalker as they came. “Ghost,” Farsight called, “I’d like my rifle back.” The wiry stalker complied without a word, and took one of the spare Val rifles they had collected earlier.

“How can he shoot if he’s…,” Boris’s voice trailed off.

“Do I tell you that you should have seen what we’ve just seen, or do I just leave the obvious unspoken?” Strelok asked rhetorically. “This is not the strangest thing you’ll see in the Zone, not by a fair margin.”

Guide replied flatly: “Please explain the obvious to me, Strelok.”

The stalker laughed. “Simply put? Alexei taught us something that solves our meds problem. Just jump into an Electro with a load of Batteries on your belt.”

This time there were several perplexed stares, but even these did not last long. Ghost laughed out loud. “That’s cheating, pal!”

“Consider it a boon to know this,” the first stalker ever stated grimly. “In all my years here I have only learned that for every advantage you get here there are challenges to overcome several times harder.”

“‘For every treasure the Zone spits out, it kills a hundred of us…’” The faces of Foxhound and Ogre were vivid in Chasme’s mind as he quoted Strelok’s words, pronounced almost a month before… or was it two weeks? Damn time travel thing…

Hunter was once again back into his bored self and oblivious to the foreboding effect of their words. “Where to?” he requested dryly. Farsight stared at him, and this time the distant stalker noticed his gaze and stared back.

“It’s pointless to go to the Cordon now, right? I mean, with Farsight back on his feet…”

“We still need food, and extra medical supplies,” Chasme stated in reply to Strelok’s question. “And our ammo count is not that huge, really.”

“The latter, we can solve,” Ghost retorted in turn.

“True,” Strelok conceded. “But the kid here’s right. Artifacts or not, we gotta eat. And we gotta have meds.”

“But if everyone’s dead I don’t see how are we going to get that… other than from the military,” Ghost reasoned.

“Or from stashes. I say we go to the Bar area. I don’t know of any other place where there were as many stalkers around in a semi-permanent fashion.”

“Team?” Chasme asked to the rest. “What do you say?”

Blackjack was the first to speak. “I’d go to the Cordon first. It’s a lot more likely we’ll find what we need there, other than risking the lottery of finding someone else’s stash or not.”

Screws agreed. “Maxim’s right.”

Sataida shrugged. “You’re the pros,” the girl said. “I wouldn’t know shit.”

Boris shrugged in turn. “The girl here has a point.”

All the while Hunter had been locked in a stare-wrestling match with Farsight. The youth seemed fascinated with him, and his eyes, while blinking occasionally, just would not let him go.

“What is it?” he asked Alexei, in a cold but still cordial voice.

Farsight closed his eyes and nodded very slowly, in apology. “I find you intriguing.”

The quiet stalker let out a dry laugh. “I am positive you know better than that.”

“Um… guys?” Strelok asked, noticing the exchange. “I don’t know what the two of you are up to but we’re trying to make up our minds, here. Care to contribute? You in particular, kid.”

Alexei glanced at Hunter one last time, and then he turned to Strelok. “I find your suggestion more likable… if we go to the Cordon we’ll have the military to deal with… I guess. I don’t know how far the mist has gone.” For a brief, sick instant, Screws thought, What if the mist has affected the whole world over? “Going there would be a way to know about that, though… no, wait. Forget what I said. Helicopters will be landing near the destroyed outpost soon.”

“I don’t hear anything--” Boris’s words were cut short as he realized how everyone else was reacting to the youth’s warning.

“Then we’d better get moving, now. Off to the Bar we are, but first we need ammo.” That said, Strelok set off towards the junkyards, and the rest of the squad followed him.

They had barely come within view of the bulk of Seriy's hangar when Strelok stopped. “Ghost, please come with me,” he said, and walked up a hill to their left.

“A stash?” Boris asked.

“One of them,” was Guide's laconic reply.

Minutes passed by and they were not returning. “Just how much stuff do you have over there?” Chasme asked.

“Not that much,” the veteran stalker said, now worried. Something was not right.

Then, at last, they saw Ghost show up atop the hill. “Anyone over there is a real pro disarming traps?”

Maxim was going to volunteer, but Hunter beat him to it. “I may know a bit,” he offered.

“Good. Then get over here. Someone booby-trapped our stash. And probably looted it, too.” It was plain obvious that Ghost was very angry, and only slightly less worried.

The quiet stalker climbed up the hill and disappeared in turn. Behind him, Guide and Blackjack organized the rest of them into setting up a defensive position, in case something unexpected cropped up. Time dragged on slowly, and the waiting was tense.

Over twenty minutes later they returned. Dismay was etched on their faces.

“What?” Blackjack asked.

“Not only our stash is empty,” Strelok said, “but they left this as a present.”

“A MON-100 mine,” Maxim said, recognizing the round, bowl-shaped device almost instantly. “This is very, very deadly stuff…” He eyed Ghost, Hunter and Strelok worriedly. “How was it placed?”

“Expertly,” Hunter replied. “It was primed to explode upon opening the hatch.”

“The stash was on a control room for a pipeline buried under the hill that runs right over the railroad tunnel,” Strelok explained. “You can enter it through an airtight hatch.”

“That someone went through the hassle of setting up such a complex trap on a place as obscure as that only means one thing,” Guide said, voicing the thoughts on Ghost’s and Strelok’s minds. “Someone knew not only about the stash, but also about who was using it. And he wants us dead.”
 
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