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Alternities: Aleph One

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  10:01:25  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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On forum: 06/15/2007
Messages: 4189
Alternities: Aleph One

Author's Foreword

This is a work of fiction based solely on the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R - Shadow of Chernobyl. Aside from characters corresponding to those in the game, any resemblance to real people is either entirely coincidental or due to the influence of the noosphere, and possibly that of C-Consciousness. The world-views presented in the story do not reflect those actually held by the author. Any trademarks used are the properties of their respective owners.

If you have not completed at least one of the good endings in STALKER-SoC, there are spoilers within this material that may affect your enjoyment of the game, or at least leave you bewildered beyond the normal consequence of attempting to read the author's prose.

Some of you will recognize the prologue as a slightly embellished form of the introduction to the Alternities 1 mod from seven years ago. Others will recognize plot elements from the ZRP (e.g., secrets). I'm not so much a writer as I am a problem solver. While for years I've had a solution to a problem with an ending of STALKER SoC (the plot was finished in 2007), it is only recently that I finally completed one of the projects related to that solution: this, a form of the "Alternities: Aleph One" mod for SoC presented as a story.

--NatVac
  10:02:07  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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On forum: 06/15/2007
Messages: 4189
    Prologue


"Ah, J.S. I'm sorry to call you back so soon. To the point: We have a problem with an alterniverse, similitude 0.99997, but with a divergence vector delta of 0.7 off the Chernobyl Zone primeline in early 2012. Yeah, 0.7! Brane distortion ripples are already affecting the primeline.

"From the probes, we've determined a likely stimulus: a company called Ziphty Industries has been active in that 'verse, producing enhanced artifacts and weapons based on them. A sales rep from the company has been promoting the products in the Zone, but our probes stopped working about the time the Monolith faction would have access to these Ziphty products. Adjacent alterniverses have gone dark, and new branches are not forming at all.

"We need you to stop whatever it is that's making the brane flap like a sheet in the wind. The only lock we can get now is an early Zone nexus on that particular line, but it is before the Monolith knows about Ziphty. If you can keep the Ziphty stuff out of that faction's hands, we can handle the alterniverse branches once the brane stabiliizes.

"Either the cause of the adjacent timelines' destruction must be prevented, or one of 'you' must be alive on the single branch to stop the blight from spreading.

"We can help you with some new bio-augmentation before nexus injection, but I have to warn you: we still haven't eliminated the amnesia side-effect. We're desperate enough to risk this, since all of our lives may be measured in hours if we do nothing. Will you go?"

Scientists always talked as if their listeners would naturally understand what they were talking about. I was only smart enough to pick out the important parts: Go back into the Zone, forget why, find Ziphty and stop them from helping the Monolith, save the universe.

This was a Hobson's choice: a few hours cowering in fear or a lottery's chance at saving the world again -- and me in the process.

"Sure. I'm ready now." I wasn't ready at all, but I'd rather die trying to do something...
  10:02:43  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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On forum: 06/15/2007
Messages: 4189
    The Same Old Story, Only New and Different


South Cordon

I found myself falling from a considerable height, somewhere over the southwestern end of a Cordon barely discernible in the light of very early morning or late evening -- I recognized the rookie camp. In the adrenaline-choked fear of my imminent death, I'm amazed that I remember everything. I didn't just fall off a death truck this time.

No amnesia! The wonder distracted me enough to keep me from tensing my body as I hit the hillside, perhaps saving my life. That, and/or the body I landed on, which tumbled with me in a horizontal dance duet through the brambles to the hill's bottom.

Sharp cracks of pain continued to shoot through me, but something's wrong -- the pain is too distant, as if the adrenaline was cut with morphine. I couldn't remember the symptoms of shock, and in typical Zone fashion, my ignorance was about to be rewarded with death.


...Ow. Does being dead hurt this much? Sunrays streamed over the hillside, so it must still be morning, and I was only out of it briefly. Cordon? Check. Morning? Check. Health? Oh, oh.

I was realllly feeling it then; my body's fight-or-flight protection must be fading. I couldn't feel my leg, but that was explained when I tried reaching for it -- the reason for my soft(er) landing was sprawled across both my legs. I pushed the body off, expecting to see a rookie that didn't quite make it to Sid's place.

It's me.

My mind went a thousand places at once for a moment, trying to understand this. I calmed down with the thought that this is indeed I, or rather a version of me, the one of this alterniverse. Poor me. It appears this I failed early here.

I was more bent out of shape by the landing than by this news. Of course I'd run into me somewhere along the line, and now there wouldn't be any awkward explanations that might be ill-received anyway.

I pulled the PDA from the inner pocket of my rookie vest to get an idea of who was around, hoping it would be compatible with this timeline at least as far as RFID info. I'd never know; the case was cracked, exposing enough of the broken circuit board inside to tell me it was useless. I stopped still, trying to use my normal senses to detect threats, something I should have done immediately. I guess those PDAs can spoil a guy.

I heard just the expected ambience, some wind, a couple of distant mutants, and the caws of those ubiquitous crows. It was still possible that someone was sneaking up the hill to investigate my dropping in.

Before I searched the body, I quickly inventoried myself. No arm or leg breaks, spine and head seemed okay, leg tingling as feeling returned. I definitely needed some bandaging and antiseptic and it hurt when I drew breath, but I offered a silent kudos up to the folks that sent me here for the improved resilience I seemed to have. I blasted them in the next breath for screwing up on the entry location a bit.

My alter ego had nothing beyond the clothes he was wearing, pretty much the same rookie jacket, hunting slacks and hiking boots I was wearing. No PDA, no weapons. I guess someone had looted the body earlier. I didn't see any obvious wounds.

I heard no noise from the north, in the direction of the rookie camp. Some tired chatter came from the east: the Cordon blockpost military was walking road patrol. I seemed to be enough distant from them to escape notice, and I didn't recall if I screamed during the fall or if it happened before the patrol began. Heck, I didn't even know what was the same and what was different about this world.

It was time to... time to... time to find out what time it was. What day, even. I used the broken PDA as a scraper to dig its own grave under a bush away from the body to keep it from being found, for even broken it might generate unwanted questions about its former owner.

I rose unsteadily in the still-chilly air and stretched a bit tentatively before limping up the hillside to the rookie camp to talk to the Wolf of this 'verse.

Make that the Fanatic. I closed my slack jaw after sneaking a look over the top of the hill at a point southwest of the camp, wondering if perhaps amnesia might have been preferable to this set of surprises. Was Fanatic always here in this timeline, or was it later than it should be?

¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯
Okay, better to take stock first. I was alive. I'd be healthy again soon enough. I had the incredible advantage of knowing the general plot, offset by not knowing the differences, and having wrong expectations could kill me.

I wasn't worried about time; this reality was not my original so there was no problem putting me into the past of an adjacent timestream. It might still be important to find this Ziphty sales dude quickly, before certain events made the problem unstoppable. Maybe I could go see Doc directly, grab the key to the room with the decoder, then pay the C-Consciousness a visit before they really become a problem.

Damn. That meant a knock in the head again at the entrance to Strelok's lair -- my lair -- as this transition didn't fix the original amnesia. I was still J. S., "Just Strelok", as if I'd been born on that death truck "long, long ago in an alterniverse far, far away".

And there was that single timeline facing me. I had a theory: I survived the Zone because I was connected to all the Streloks in adjacent timelines, and somehow knew how some of them died. This is what made me prescient enough to get past the same threats that killed them: anomalies, mutant packs, bandits and others full of ill will toward anyone not holding the same world view. One of me had made it all the way.

But if there are no adjacent branches, then what happens here is it. It wouldn't even be like an ironman run, because I couldn't even start over from the beginning.

Now I'm scaring myself! As if the Zone wasn't bad enough...

I took a pained breath and approached the west guard at the rookie camp. His rifle immediate rose. So did my hands, to show that I'm not bearing weapons or malice. He gestured with the rifle to move toward Fanatic, then pointed it back at me as I started to lower my hands. The rookies about the tub fire stood and assumed the "Aim!" stance of a firing squad with my body the terminal point of the forthcoming volley. Fanatic was scowling.

This was not in the script in the other 'verse. Welcome to my second auspicious beginning of the morning...
  10:03:22  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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On forum: 06/15/2007
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    The Plot Sickens


"I would have thought you smarter than this, Marked One. There are less painful ways to die than walking into a camp where your name is merde. Anton! Valeriy! March this filth out of the camp. I suggest you put this dog down near a springboard to the north to save on the cleanup."

"Wait! What? Why? What happened?"

"Oh, how convenient, losing one's memory again! I didn't graze you with my bullet, did I? I'm pretty sure I put it in your back, as you ran away after killing Sidorovich. --Not that he didn't deserve it, but we needed him!"

"Sid's dead? --What makes you think it was me?"

"Your blasted PDA said it was. Or have you forgotten that, too?"

"I -- I don't have a PDA at the moment. Uh, are you sure you got me? Look at me, Fanatic. No holes, just scratches."

"Huh. Well, you were wearing a stalker suit. Maybe it stopped the bullet."

My mind raced. "Or maybe the one who has my PDA was hurt. Think, Fanatic. Would I really be that stupid to walk in here after ... after killing Sid and knowing you knew that when you shot at me?"

"You're insane, Marked One. There's not much difference between insanely stupid and insanely clever." Fanatic grabbed my jacket and twisted me around. My back felt cool as he yanked the jacket and shirt up. "Not even a bruise. Well, I guess that earns you a temporary reprieve."

That was just fortunate timing. I knew there would be bruises showing up later after that fall.

"Now what?" I ventured to ask.

"Now you leave. Do not return without proof of innocence in this."

"Uh... okay. Which way was the fake Marked One headed?"

"North. Into the anomaly field." Fanatic spat on the ground. "Perfect way to escape a bunch of rookies."

"Okay. I'll go looking." Maybe I could press my luck and ask for supplies, but everyone was still showing their "tofu don't taste like chicken" face. Their weapons never stopped tracking me as I exited stage west.

No protective suit. No PDA. Health low and no medkits. I was headed into an anomaly field, and I didn't even have bolts. I remembered a movie somehow: "It could be worse. Could be raining." Naturally I looked up to be momentarily blinded. I shook my fist in futility at the Zone. "Wrong kind of bolt!"

North of the rookie base, I saw a body face down amongst the trees, cautiously nuzzled by a blind dog. Out of habit I reached for my PDA, which of course was not there. Nearby a small bush swayed, well out of the anomaly field in the Zone of my past, but this was a different Zone. I carefully pulled off a reasonable length of branch and used it somewhat like a blind man's cane, swinging it out in front of me as I approached the body.

The lone dog either sniffed me or heard me, and ran off whining. I expected that. I didn't expect to reach the body without triggering anomalies, but none whuffed, thumped or whirred.

Huh. Look at that. His stalker suit had a hole low in the back about kidney height, a likely cause of death. I turned him over, then I whuffed as I sat down suddenly with a thump. Another me.

I was all too used to turning over dead bodies, but the only ones I'd seen so far were alternate versions of me.

I had no love for Sidorovich, despite his jumpstart of my current existence. He used me to kill our common enemies, and tried repeatedly to get me to kill the very kind of rookie as those back at the camp who wanted frontier justice for his death.

No, I didn't care for Sid -- but I would not have killed him. This me did.

What happened here? What was the difference between us? More importantly, why was there another me?

The rain began falling softly, then harder as a bolt struck beyond the fence on the hill to the west. I laughed at the ironic comfort this common occurrence afforded me. Maybe Fanatic was right about my insanity.

Then I laughed again; the rain could help wash away the blood from the suit and make it less of a dog magnet. But I needed it with the blood to show Fanatic proof. I worked quickly, stripping it off him after unstrapping the pack. I pulled a holster with a silenced pistol from his belt along with a PDA -- Marked One's -- and a knife. Was this the real resident of this timeline? Then who was that other guy?

I dropped the pack in a dry spot, thinking to claim it because it belonged to Marked One, and I was Marked One -- both true statements, individually, anyway. I made quick time back to the camp, holding the suit up both as proof and as shield as I neared the wary guard. "Look at this!" I shouted to Fanatic, poking a finger through the still-bloody hole while I stood beyond the camp perimeter. "Your shot took him down."

He hobbled over and looked at the suit. "Where's the body?"

"Where you told me he was, although the dogs might make short work of him. He didn't make it much farther with the bullet you put in his back. And I got my stuff back, even my PDA." I held it up, deftly slipping the lie into the barrel of truths.

He squinted, peering into my eyes. "Okay, your name ain't merde any more -- barely -- but you still look like boar droppings," he said with a slow head shake. "Talk to Tolik; he claims he owes the real Marked One a favor and he might have a medkit." He turned, then paused to spit again. Over his shoulder he said, "Word's been around that you took down the only trader in this area. We'll pass another word around that it apparently wasn't you, but keep your wits close and your head down for a while."

"Thanks, and thank your guys for not shooting me when they first saw me, especially considering what happened. And, uh, would you have any odd jobs you need done?"

He stopped, twisted around and spat yet again out of the side of his mouth as he kept his now-piercing squint on my face. "You lived because they're rookies, idiot. You've made my work harder because even I didn't shoot you. Now I have to remind them that this is the ZONE and that there are NO second chances, NO mercy, NO forgiveness, especially when the madness takes your buddy right next to you. I've warned them: they should always shoot first and skip the questions entirely -- now I have to tell them to do as I say even when I myself don't do it.

"And no, no jobs. Not that I'd offer you one now, in your condition. Do us all a favor and just die in your next mugging, somewhere far away, or at least out of my earshot." He limped off, leaving me to debate doing the same or taking a risk on the medkit.

The guard said softly, "Cut him some slack. He's still dealing with what happened to Wolf."

The way he said it made me think that the Marked One of this reality knew what he was talking about, so I just nodded and made my way over to the ruins housing Tolik according to 'my' PDA, the only green dot on the display. I found him sheltered from the rain and awake, in much better shape than the Tolik I remembered.

He greeted me with the first warmth of the morning for me. "You look awful. I told Fanatic you didn't do it. I wish I didn't have to return this kind of favor under these circumstances," he said, handing me a medkit.

While I wrapped my ribcage with bandages and put painkilling antiseptic on the cuts, he chattered amiably about Zone life, rookie anecdotes with nothing new in them for me, but it was as much balm for my spirit as the medkit was healing for my body. He followed me outside as I filled a canteen with roof runoff and used it to wash the blood off the suit, then refilled it for my own needs.

His last kindness was to help me fit the suit over the bandages. I was glad to be done with the rookie jacket. I wished Tolik well, and slowly made my way out of the camp. I then moved more quickly to the backpack I'd dropped, eager to see what 'I' had been carrying.

That's when it sank in: I was off the mark time-wise in this version of the Zone.

The rain had stopped. I checked the PDA, probably the best source of info here. The date, if this PDA was to be trusted, was May 3, 2012.

And the only pending task was to find the Ziphty salesman.
  10:03:51  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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On forum: 06/15/2007
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    A Wealth of Questions, A Dearth of Answers


The rest of the backpack contents were typical: a couple medkits, an antirad injector, some bandages, cans of what was probably this Zone's equivalent of Tourist's Delight, and two boxes of 5.45x39mm ammo. The pistol's magazine was empty.

It was almost noon by the sun, casting intermittent shadows through broken clouds. I sat and leaned back against a tree to rest and think about things, after looking around for mobile dangers.

A few hours here and already I'd had a month's worth of surprises. No Wolf, Sid's dead, and that done by a version of me, which made the rookies mad at this me. There's more than one other me here, and all dead, so far. And a PDA with my purpose already on it.

It might be possible that Strelok 3 (I considered myself just Strelok, and I'm counting the first dead one as Strelok 2) just happened to note in his PDA that the Ziphty saleman would be a good one to find, once he heard about him. The salesman could be a very useful source of weaponry and information.

Yes, sometimes stuff eerily just happens, but I'm not one for coincidences as a way of life.

It could be simply that there were more timelines with future folks smart enough to detect a problem with this one, and some of those had spare gunslingers they could throw at the problem. But objects like PDAs sent back in time had the same loss of info that people did.

Yet I remembered things. Perhaps Strelok 3 remembered as well and simply added the task to his PDA.

__________

They didn't brief me for this mission, expecting the amnesia effect to render that a waste of time. But the time spent with my current employers helped.

In some alterniverses, C-Consciousness survived any outside attempts to discover their secret, and were even somewhat successful in a few of those in containing the noosphere crack called the Zone. My employers were from a Zone where C-Con ceased to exist, thanks to a certain amnesiac gunslinger. They pulled me forward through time into their period of existence, one where the noosphere was part and parcel of humanity's existence -- they were all aware of their collective consciousness.

I remember hearing a lot of indistinguishable-from-magic technical stuff about branes and quantum foam and "null point stochastic fluctuation management" which they use to sync timelines for nexus transfer by momentarily creating "simultaneity" -- or faking it, depending on your point of view. Remembering is not understanding. What I think I understood was that pulling someone forward in time along a timeline is easy, but moving someone backward along a line is impossible, for as soon as 'insertion' is achieved, it's a different timeline, usually with a radically different divergence from the origination line.

It would make another timeline branch on the fractal tree of existence.

They know they can move people into other timelines in different branches if those branches were close enough, but even there a "blood-brane barrier" -- not my term, but the scientist just laughed when I asked him about it -- exists, a resistance to preserving timeline-related data in the machines and memories of humans they moved through a nexus formed by the intersection of a "brane" with an alterniverse. This resistance produces amnesia in the one transferred. It might be a noosphere-imposed limitation.

So why did I remember so much?


¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯

Well, I had a suit in reasonable repair and a pistol. What I'd like to have was a rifle and sufficient ammo for it. I started to make notes in the PDA that I could not yet consider mine -- especially if Strelok 2 left a wake of enmity in his travels.

I would go see Doc. Maybe "my" rifle would still be there. Probably not. But I'd be able to get the key to the Pripyat hotel room for the decoder. That would open up some options -- if I couldn't stop the Ziphty guy, dealing directly with C-Consciousness would still be possible.

It didn't take long for the crows to find me. (Marked One: species Human, subspecies Crow Magnet.) Their strange knack for knowing my location was countered by an equally strange lack of mutants and humans noticing, at least in the alternate Zone I came from. There seemed to be fewer crows here, though.
  10:04:40  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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On forum: 06/15/2007
Messages: 4189
    Ups and Downs


The "safe" areas south of the railway were devoid of any artifacts or boxes that might contain stuff. I hadn't checked the military base and the bandits' carpark for obvious reasons, but I was feeling a bit desperate. This scavenger hunt had started long ago for everyone else.

The afternoon downpour was brief. The sporadic wind drove the last of the raindrops horizontally against my back as I headed up the hill east of the main road, approaching the bandit hangout with "my" PDA out before me. I didn't expect to find Petruha or his associates drunk around a fire barrel, but instead of the indication of a few bandits there were a half-dozen grey spots. No life here.

The wooden windchime sound was new. Coming through the carpark entrance I saw the loose bones on the skeleton that made it, hanging from the factory. I also saw something encouraging: among the bandit bodies were several pseudodog carcasses. That meant I might be able to find something worth looting. I stopped, looked around, listened. Just wind and bones.

I crouched to examine the first bandit after picking up his sawn-off shotgun. As I opened his pack, I caught a whiff of extremely bad doggie breath, and the juxtaposition of the newly-opened backpack with the stench delayed my realization that I was not alone. I sprang to one side as a p'dog leapt snarling past the spot where I was, but it still caught my thigh with a claw.

Scrabbling frantically around the factory's broken wall, I cracked open the shotgun and checked the shells; both had the pin dents that said spent. It was hard to watch for the beast and search for a usable weapon at the same time, and I was bleeding pretty badly from the gash. I needed to get where the p'dog couldn't, and that meant up. I ran for the burnt timbers at the north end of the building, my wound screaming in staccato annoyance with each step.

Before scooting up an angled beam I turned with the re-awakened insight of a lifetime of been here, done this. Sure enough, smart doggie was already pouncing in anticipation of my climb. I twisted the other way, and it flew hurtling past me.

I immediately moved up the beam, knowing I could make it to the cross-timbers out of the reach of the pseudodog. I carefully made my way around the roofline edge to the opening in the south canopy, collapsing onto the solid surface of the "true" attic.

I pressed my hand on the sticky slash across my thigh in an attempt to stem the blood flow. I didn't think I'd bleed out the way Strelok 3 did, but if I didn't get this sealed, I might still be weak from blood loss after the bleeding stopped.

I cursed silently in the realization I'd approached the camp from the windward side, and this ambush was my fault. Having a new PDA can make one stupid.

Some cloth would serve as a tourniquet or makeshift bandage. I looked around for anything up there that might be of some value. I saw a crate! I didn't recall a crate up here before -- this was indeed another reality, with the crate lottery popping up in different places.

Ah, but this one wasn't empty, when I broke into it with the knife: No bandage, but something possibly far better -- a pristine MP5A1, smelling faintly of oil, along with a full magazine. Ensuring the SMG was set for semi-auto fire, I moved out of the attic to rid myself of a troublesome beast.

While the perch was precarious, it provided a good view of much of the area, including the patch of ground with an ever-increasing number of blood spots directly below me. No creature, though. A couple of knife taps against the wood were all it took to draw the monster back into view, its mouth drooling that viscous saliva in anticipation of more fresh meat sport. I braced the weapon against a beam pointing to a spot where the animal's head would cross in its pacing below. It still took two careful squeezes, two precious bullets to bring it down.

No other noises, no other smells, nothing. Before descending I switched the weapon over to full auto; staying alive counted more than bullets now.

My bleeding had slowed. I made a quick search of the bodies, pretty much taking everything from each pack, then returned to the attic. There I removed my sodden slacks and inspected the damage. I applied a couple of bandages to fix the immediate problem after burning the wound with a bit of bandit vodka. After rinsing as much blood out of the pants leg as possible with canteen water, I put them back on, figuring they'd dry faster that way.

I had increased my supply of 9x19mm and 5.45x39mm FMJ ammo and added some for the pistol, but the pair of AKS-74U rifles were in sorry shape. I kept one anyway. If I ran out of 9x19, I still might get a few shots from the rifle before it jammed. I still had less than 20 kilos of extra weight.

After I wedged my pack between a pair of roof support beams, I managed a reasonably comfortable position leaning against it. I popped open a tin and ate, using my vodka-treated knife as a spoon. I could feel the tension leaving my shoulders, as if this were the way it should be: me, cut, bruised, barely surviving. Was I starting to lose it?

I decided against spending the night in the attic; this was likely still a favorite spot for bandits and more might be along at any time. I rearranged the backpack for quick access to the medkits and ammo and headed north, stopping only to check the pseudodogs for tails good enough to trade (none, of course). The plan was to find a hole in the railway fence, spend the night in the homestead near where I first met Fox -- or at least in this alterniverse's equivalent of the homestead -- and then go meet Doc.

It would be out of my way, the way I should be going to find that Ziphty weapon vendor. I realized that my reason for doing so had nothing to do with my purpose here, other than maybe keeping me sane.
  10:05:35  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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On forum: 06/15/2007
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    The Other Side of the Tracks


North Cordon

The hole in the fence was still there. I didn't even bother going near the railway bridge. If he was still there, I might be able to be able to bargain with this verse's Kuznetsov if I had enough money. I certainly didn't have enough money, at least not yet, and I definitely didn't have enough armament to safely go that way in any other scenario I could imagine.

I could see dogs and boars scattered about, resting in the late afternoon. It was about to rain again, something that would make it both easier and harder to pass by the creatures. I kept low after checking the wind, choosing to edge closer to the boars than those dogs with their superior sniffers.

After making it to the farmstead without attracting any mutant attention, I felt a bit stiff and sore and quite weary. I'd spent a lot of nervous energy the last few hours.

No one was here, no one had been here recently if the cold firepit was any indicator. I went up to the attic of the adjoining ruin.

The rain was light, but the tin on the roof made it sound loud anyway. I didn't remember that, but then I didn't sleep here the first time. I crawled through the hole in the roof and made it over to the section of the attic blocked by the heavy crates. I could camp here and still hear danger approaching, at least after the rain stopped.

I put down the pack and used it as a pillow while cradling the MP5 with a hand over the safety. I'd meant to rest, thinking the popping tin would keep me awake.

--I snapped awake. It had been a good dream, or at least not one of the nightmares, so something else needed my attention. I quietly readied the weapon for firing, my senses open to any threat. I must have been really tired to sleep through that racket; now that the rain had stopped I wondered if maybe the silence had awakened me. The PDA came out of its sleep state without complaint. That it was sleeping itself meant no change; no nearby people.

The only other sounds were from wind trying to sneak through the building and failing, and the snarling disagreement of a couple of pseudodogs over something to the northeast. The bandage over my thigh wound was weeping red, begging for attention. I ignored it until my new adrenaline surge had receded, long enough to realize that there was no way anyone was entering this attic without quite a bit of early warning. I redressed the wound after a little more cleansing with vodka.

The rest of me was still sore, but all in all I was doing much better. I could sleep normally now, a good thing because it was growing dark and I didn't want to be traveling at night with pretty much just an electric torch and a knife. As I lay down the same way as before, an automatic position for defense, I wondered just how many human corpses and skeletons had I found positioned exactly the same way, so very long ago and so really far away. I left the safety off.


The next morning held the promise of a new day. That thought made me smile; the Zone had lots of promises and all were lies. I ate again, then rinsed with a swig of vodka after using a forefinger to rub away some of the fur from my teeth. Mental note: Make a chewing stick. I might live long enough to make it worthwhile to take care of myself.

I shouldered the pack and weapon, dropped carefully to the ground through the hole in the ceiling and readied the weapon again. The PDA was still clear. I took the opportunity to complete my toiletry behind a bush to the east near the fence, and wouldn't you just know it, right in the middle of my personal business I spotted a pseudodog laying on its side, just staring at me. A moment later I saw the blood beneath it.

It was dead, with a bullet hole through its shoulder. I took the tail; a little bloodied but worth some barter if they still did that here.

The blood drops tracked back to the north. About 60 meters that way, I saw a mangled body near a springboard, with a rifle nearby. The wind was almost still and there were no obvious signs of mutants or people near, so I checked him out.

A bandit, reasonably recently deceased pseudodog fodder. And an AKS-74 in reasonable condition! Twenty-nine bullets in the magazine, and I now had a plausible explanation for why I awakened so suddenly last night.

The backpack was that of someone planning a long stay someplace. Food, medical supplies, a Makarov, FMJ ammo for both his weapons, and a Meat Chunk. I put that to use immediately. I dropped the crappy AKS-74U nearby after I unloaded it.

The main road to the Garbage and from there the road to the Agroprom were likely to have unfriendlies in the bottlenecks. The best way to see Doc would be through the shortcut from west Cordon directly to the Agroprom. I packed up again and headed west.

No one at the farmstead to the west of the main road. No thing either. A boar snoozed near the underpass tunnel; the morning's sun had not yet risen high enough to make him move. I felt strangely giddy as a rush of good feeling hit me, as if the Meat Chunk was making me high. I had the crazy thought that this Zone was not that bad.
  10:07:03  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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    Doc


Agroprom

My giddiness had long since faded by the time I reached the Agroprom fence. What was I thinking? There were soldiers arrayed in a line from the west Agroprom fence almost all the way to the east fence. I didn't want to fight them in my 'verse and I definitely didn't want to fight them here.

There was a way to the east, past a boar lair. This group was mostly up and about, but if I kept to the fence and moved slowly, it should be possible to avoid them. I put the Meat Chunk away, just in case.

It was easier than I expected. The radiation was bad in the southeast corner of this Agroprom, too, but I was able to move quickly past it and return to the fence, now tracking northward. A lone sentry was taking potshots at the dogs from the bend in the road. Neither man nor dog seemed that interested in taking the other down. A few minutes later, I was southeast of the northern Institute complex wondering how I was going to deal with any bandits at what I called "Mole's entrance" to the underground.

I heard the sound of gunfire in the Institute. A quick PDA check later, I had the discouraging discovery that soldiers and bandits were fighting. No neutral folks here, no one to talk to. I quickly moved out of PDA range, through the bushes east of the complex. Hopefully they were too busy with each other to check their PDAs. The hill to the north had a lot of useful cover; it would be easier for me to deal with mindless anomalies than inimical life.

The only life, some blind dogs well north of Mole's entrance, didn't seem to care until a typical capricious gust of Zone wind let them know I was here. In equally typical fashion, the gust died. An anomaly huffed at one curious dog that got a little too close to it. The creatures went back to cautiously sniffing the air.

I would have run if the wind hadn't died. I didn't want to fight any mutants here, either.

Some inner voice called me coward. That inner voice could go hang. I didn't have enough ammo to be comfortable taking on a bunch of dogs, but a greater concern trumped even that: I wasn't just responsible for me, I was responsible for the universe. --Universes. Whatever. I took some comfort in the thought that if the Strelok that is "I" didn't make it, maybe another Strelok would. There seemed to be a few of us here. Maybe we could gather together in our common purpose to stop C-Consciousness from doing whatever it was they were doing.

A view through binocs showed no one at the entrance to the Agroprom sewers west of the Institute's northern campus. With the AK in a two-handed grip before me I hightailed it to the opening, looping around to keep as much distance as possible between me and the Institute. At the ladder I shouldered the AK and pulled out the silenced pistol. Still no one around. I climbed down.


Beep! went the PDA. Of course there would be bandits. I knew this, yet I came here anyway.

"Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most." And of course that stupid joke would come to my mind as I scrambled in panic to examine my PDA. Only one. I heard him yell; yep, his PDA probably beeped, too.

"Back for more, you asshole? Did you decide to waste your ammo anyway?" The bandit's raspy voice put him in the room before the stairwell down. His taunts bewildered me. Perhaps that was his intent. I moved quietly toward the voice, keeping a support pillar between me and that room.

"Come on, you sadistic scum! Let's end this!" His jibe came from somewhere on the left side of the room. I couldn't see him from the pillar even with the crappy nightvision this suit had. I ducked, crept toward the opening to the room with the AK on full auto and very ready to speak.

His spoke first. Dust and concrete chips scattered from the wall edge. The fool chose to empty his magazine. I heard the sounds of reloading, my cue to "end this" per his request. I moved up. As soon as I saw him, I fired a burst.

Although I was sure at least one round hit him, I scuttled to the other side of the room around the shaft enclosure that formed its central feature. There I waited. No sounds. I risked a quick peek around the corner of the enclosure. Even with bad nightvision, I could tell his hands held no weapon.

I switched to torchlight and approached. His body slumped as if he were sleeping off a drunk. There was blood all around. There was a lot of blood, with a smeared trail of blood leading back from the room I had been in. His vest had quite a few holes in it. His pants were coated in dust and a sticky wet redness.

Suddenly his taunts made sense. What I'd taken as foolishness was just desperation to end his pain as quickly as possible.

His backpack held nothing. Even the magazine he'd attempted to insert into his AK was the same one he'd just emptied. Someone had evidently robbed him while he lay dying. He was a bandit by his own choice, yet this was indeed cruel. Was it was the same Strelok who'd killed Sidorovich? No, that Strelok would have taken the AK. Maybe another Strelok?

Okay, this stairwell led down to "my" hideout, but the path wound through a bad place. I went into full stealth mode despite the earlier gunfire, hoping that any bloodsucker below would not be paying attention to the distant noise.

There was only one in the dungeon hallway, and he wasn't paying attention to anything, being full of bullet holes and quite dead. This somehow increased my nervousness instead of quieting it. No PDA alerts, though. No one was nearby.

At the entrance to the hideout I removed my suit and used the AK to push it ahead of me up the ladder in the large duct. Nothing. If this version of the zone had a booby trap, it was not on.

I came through the opening at the top of the pipe into the small room. The body of a stalker sprawled prone in the middle of the room, the back of his head toward me, gruesomely showing a bit of the bloody floor beyond through a large opening in the center of his skull. Despite the different suit, he looked suspiciously like another me.

Beyond his body, behind an overturned table, the legs and feet of another stuck out. I glanced again at the PDA, but there was still no indication of any human beings. I pulled out the pistol and moved to face this new person.

Long brown coat? Grey beard? Augh! It was Doc! It ... was ... Doc. His eyes were glassy, unfocused, a streak of dried blood tracking around the left one from a hole above it.

Oh, Doc! As the shock faded, a new pain took over, a visceral ache more intense than any bullet, fang or claw had ever caused, great enough to drop me to my knees.

That damnable inner voice tried to tell me that this was not my Doc, that I was overreacting. It didn't matter. This would have been my Doc here. He was wise where I was foolish, he was a friend even when I was a jerk. All I had in my small world since my awakening were the flashback memories of Fang, Ghost and Doc, and only Doc was more than a memory.

My reaction came from the same place those flashbacks did: The real me.

¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯¯
I lost some time in grief, finally stopping only because I had resolved to find this killer if possible. I could mourn more later, should I live.

--Who was I kidding? My purpose here didn't seem to matter any more. Yet I could still use it, to put this wrongness aside for the moment.

I searched the bodies and found what I expected: nothing. That included no Pripyat hotel room key.

The hideout was likewise empty of anything I would consider useful, save for a length of rope.

Letting them rot down here as rat food didn't sit well with me. I dropped their bodies down the tube, then dragged them through the halls and up the stairwell, one at a time, to a box I'd placed below the ladder leading to the surface. I needed the box because the rope I'd found in the hideout wasn't long enough to hoist them up.

After emerging up top with pistol drawn to determine the threat level (low), I looped the rope around the topmost rung, then climbed back down and tied it around Strelok 4's chest under his arms after propping him up on the box. I was able to pull him up using the rung as a low-mechanical-advantage pulley. Good enough. Doc's body was more difficult; he was a bit larger in girth with a corresponding gain in heft.

I went back down and fetched the bandit's body, for some unknown reason. He weighed very little.

It didn't take long to locate a nearby vortex, what I used to call the Zone's garbage disposal. Now it would serve as crematorium, sort of. I had to watch for dogs and take care not to get caught myself, but I managed to return all three bodies to their component atoms. Or small bits, anyway, some of which spattered on me. Only a solitary blind dog noticed the blood on the air after I finished with Doc, and I easily kept the vortex between it and me until it gave up the search.

That burial and the subsequent poor attempt at cleanup did cost me some time, but I imagined it was quite a bit less than I would have spent if Doc had been alive.

From here, I could go to Yantar or the Bar via the Garbage. Yantar was risky; I didn't know if the psi emitter was off and that was on top of the zombies and radiation. The Bar had quite a bit of draw for me: it was Information Central.

The trek to the Bar began with a retracing of steps north then east around the Institute, far enough that the PDA stayed asleep. The sky did its early afternoon thing of growing dark and then dumping water. Something I hated in my alterniverse was very welcome here; a short time later my canteen was full again and the last of the blood was off the suit and the rope. I put the Meat Chunk back on my belt and went to work on a kolbasa.


The Garbage

As I topped the hill overlooking the western entrance to the Garbage, I didn't see the expected group of bandits camped by the concrete rubble on the road west of the hangar. I didn't see them rushing the hangar either. Still, I put the Meat Chunk back in the backpack.

Once past the rubble, I heard bandit taunts coming from inside, punctuated by the occasional gunshot. An entrenched battle was winding down, by my guess. No request for help from Barkeep; might be a PDA issue or something else. In another place I might have helped the oppressed anyway, but here I would likely reject any request. I stayed clear of the scene, going north past the tracks and then turning east, putting the big hill between me and the hangar.

The rain had stopped. If anything, the clouds seemed lower, seeking out the claustrophic. The breeze was still cool, the moist air not yet uncomfortable. Those birds were back. "Hey, guys! He's over here!" I was confident no one was listening, so I tuned them out.

I heard mutants. Their idle sounds helped to keep me from seeing them.

Even the gate at the Garbage Duty blockpost was open. The warrant officer was not someone I recognized, but he waved me on through and nodded. He kept me in view as I passed, his gaze part of a quizzical expression that may have been borne of too many Streloks going north without the same number going south. I just smiled, giving him a slight nod in acknowledgement, then started paying attention to something in my backpack as if everything was normal.

The whuff! of the Springboard when I passed too close triggered a bout of laughter from the gate's guards. How many different reminders did I need that this was not my Zone?
  10:08:55  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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    Barkeep Has a Job


Bar

I kept to the fence on the east as I approached the Bar side of Rostok. But I didn't even hear any mutants. The Duty blockpost looked bored. They also looked as if they wished to stay that way, glaring at me as I approached. I grimaced back at them as I passed by. There was no Dutyer patrolling the elevated walkway in the building before the Bar proper, either. I took a moment to rest in the hangar outside the bar, within earshot of a couple of loners around a firepit.

"... can tell what faction even when they aren't wearing their colors by the way they mime shooting a gun at you," one was saying. "As he pulls the pretend trigger, a loner will say 'bang!' or 'pow!'. A bandit will say 'chiki briki'. And you will know it's a merc if he says 'cha-ching!'"

His buddy chuckled. "What would a spetsnaz say?"

"Nothing. His weapons are silenced."

That silliness actually made me smile. His buddy had a big grin, too, even as he reached over and shoved the jokester good-naturedly.

If there had to be only one alterniverse, maybe this one would still be okay...

And maybe I'd just wink out of existence. And maybe without any choices creating new alterniverses, freedom of thought would just be an idea relegated to history, something that no one would be doomed to repeat because they would not even have the opportunity.

And what about the other you, Strelok? You know, the one that joined C-Con? The thought came unbidden, feeling foreign. I had an answer, though. That Strelok would die, would cease to exist just like every one else a myriad times over, if they were not in this 'verse. Besides, I was here, already biased not to join. I had to hope one of "me" (the branches of the original me, and --now that I thought about it-- of the other versions of me that wanted to find the Ziphty guy) made it into the single timeline and solved the problem before all the adjacent branches disappeared.

The 100 Rads Bar had the same sign out front, but there was no guard just inside. No greeter, no bouncer either. The bar itself was darker than the one I remembered, with fewer -- and much quieter -- patrons nursing vodka and some dark lager.

Barkeep was wiping the inside of a glass, making it look even dirtier, but he turned toward me as I approached the bar. "You look like twice-eaten kolbasa," he growled, nodding in greeting. He was the same scowling guy with the same gravel voice. But he wasn't, no one here was the same, and my thinking otherwise was detrimental to my survival here.

"It's good to see you, too." I drew a breath in preparation to launch into my spiel.

"Any luck finding the killer?" he asked.

I exhaled. So he's already seen some version of me. "Not really, other than the fact I'm still alive. Have you any news?" A gamble, perhaps, but I didn't think the knowledge that there were more than one of me was that common yet.

He gave the glass a moment of scrutiny before putting both glass and towel down and leaning toward me, hands on the bar edge for support. "I do. There's a merc in the Wild Territory who calls himself Ax Grinder, claims the killer is not a merc. He's willing to trade some info according to one of my scouts." He pulled a PDA from under the counter, tapped it. "You've got the details."

His scowl softened a bit. He spoke quietly. "You need to find this killer quickly, Strelok. My customers are continuing to abandon the bar, and rumors about the deaths are mounted on Moonlights." He rubbed his neck. "And now I can't reach Sidorovich on the shortwave."

He mistook my expression of surprise as concern for Sidorovich. "It's probably some radio problem. Anyway, I can sweeten the pot a bit: I've also got a lead on that traveling salesman you asked about. I'll give you that when you give me that killer."

"Okay. Thanks." I turned and made my way out, scratching my chin to check the position of my jaw. It was not dragging on the floor. It only felt that way.


Of course I didn't have the details. My PDA wasn't the same one that got the earlier info on this killer. But all I had to do was find Ax Grinder in the "Wild Territory" side of Rostok and get him to tell me what I needed to know to complete this task.

How in any wild way of the Zone did Barkeep know "I" was Strelok, the Shooter? Did my alter-ego tell him? Was it a timeline thing?

That line of thinking was just a distraction. I resolved to focus on more important matters as I moved toward the Wild Territory. My real goal was to stop the C-Consciousness of this 'verse before ... before something happened that was not good for all the other versions of reality. A primary task toward that end was finding the Ziphty salesman quickly, and a possible lead was mine if I found and stopped a killer for the Barkeep.


Wild Territory

The rain had resumed as I crossed the divide separating the east and west sides of Rostok. It would take longer to find this Ax Grinder without the RFID location marker, but hey, why should this task be any different?

A pair of loners chatted in subdued tones at a small camp before the tunnel. No others showed up on the PDA. The loners might have had interesting stories, maybe even a lead on the salesman, but Ax was my highest immediate priority. I moved quickly through the empty "tunnel", all in all looking like "my" tunnel. A sharp stab of deja vu hit; I almost ducked in reaction to the strong sense of battles and bodies.

Lightning struck to the west as I left the building. While there was no PDA activity after the loners went out of range, there were always mutants about, back where I came from. Which really wasn't here. My brain was going to break with the conundrums created by my presence in this place.

As I moved cautiously toward the steps at the train station house, I heard a cough to the west through the rain. Then that giddiness hit me again, a dizziness that had the world spinning. I fully expected a blackout complete with flashback, but nothing happened other than a strong feeling of happy satisfaction. It dampened a bit when I realized that I must be nuts. Either the Zone madness had found me, or I really didn't belong here and this Zone knew it.

A bit further south and west the PDA came to life. Two contacts, an enemy merc named Ax Grinder and ... Marked One.

They were in the shack on the other side of the tracks. The PDA showed a grey dot there as well. I now knew what that cough meant, and I'd bet the guy just died from the weapon that had spoken.

More lightning, more thunder. I used that opportunity to move quickly around the tanks on the north side, pulling out the AK. Maybe this Strelok didn't get the message about Ax Grinder yet. The merc was in danger.

I didn't expect to see him sitting on a body, back to the fire, chatting amiably with a badly-wounded Ax Grinder, who in turn was propped up against the south shack wall in that classic resting-defense pose, eyes closed, hands and legs in a pool of blood that was commingling with a growing pool from the other body. "... luck," Strelok was saying. "Just plain bad luck. I'm not like the others. Mercenaries are my friends. I even wanted to be one, in another life." Strelok stood up slowly, and brought his silenced Desert Eagle to bear on the merc's head. "But, as a former boss of yours once said, 'No wit-'"

"STRELOK!" I yelled, even though it moved my aim a bit. He did just as I expected him to do: turned and shot at the unexpected visitor. All I had to do was squeeze the trigger.

I felt the whick of air near my head; his shot had come close. Mine had taken him in the lower jaw, punching his body backward into the other room a bit. His death rattle was a sloppy gurgle.

I started to make the same noise; another wave of light-headed dizziness struck, a much stronger feeling of euphoria this time. I barely felt the faceplant as I passed out.


Mud and Zone scrub do not taste good. What had happened? I wasn't shot, but the merc jumped as I raised my head, as if I were a zombie rising.

I brushed off my face, turned and spit. The rest of my attention then went to Ax. He did not look happy.

"I could not believe how good it felt when I thought both of you were dead," he said. "I hadn't felt that good since, since a very long time ago." He blinked, then squeezed his eyes shut. "Must be from blood loss. Go ahead and finish the job," he continued, shaking his head weakly. "And they call us mercs greedy."

I spared a quick look at the PDA; no others around despite the sound of my gunfire. "Barkeep sent me to meet you," I told him as I looked him over. His leg had a through-and-through that was only serious because it was not being treated, a situation I rectified immediately with a medkit and bandages. His collarbone was broken. That was less life-threatening but he wouldn't be earning his pay for a while.

He looked even more surprised when I began treating him. "What the hell is going on? You guys clones? Or a new form of Zone spawn?"

"Zone spawn?"

"You know, when the localized blowouts happen, we get new mutants. Are you mutants? Or clones?"

"'Clones' is close enough for now. Can you tell me what happened here?"

"Barkeep told me you'd be coming, so when the other you, the first one showed up -- Strelok, there," he indicated the first body with his chin, "I was ready to talk. But then he had the face of the killer -- huh, you have the face of the killer. Anyway, I reached for my gun and he shot me."

He wiped his face with his left hand. He was already looking better now that he thought he might actually live, but I pulled the Meat Chunk out of my pack and put it on his belt. It would help replace the blood he'd lost. "Go on," I encouraged.

"But he didn't kill me. He asked about the killer, promising a medkit if I told him what I knew. But I saw him kill someone--" He stopped and blinked again, as if he'd just connected a couple of dots. "I take it you are not all the same?"

I knew what he meant. "No. That doesn't mean I won't defend myself if you shoot at me. Please, continue."

"Well, I was reluctant to talk to him because I thought he really was the killer and was just fishing to see what I knew. Then the second clone showed up" -- his head jerked, tilted back to identify the other body -- "And-- And--" He looked like a miserable little kid.

I turned my focus to the first body and really saw it for the first time. His gun hand had a large bloody hole in it. Both kneecaps were shattered behind the ripped cloth. The blood from under the protective stalker suit suggested the killer had lifted the outfit up enough to put a round into his gut. And most of his nose was missing.

The gut wound would have eventually been the cause of death if the killer hadn't put a round into his skull. I pulled him up enough to gain access to his backpack's contents, trying not to think about who this really was.

"He shot Strelok's hand, then his knees. Then he stomped on me." Ax gingerly touched his collarbone. "Strelok was already down, and this bastard shot him in the gut and then stepped on his head to-- Augh!"

The merc looked up at me. "We may be killers, but we are not sadists! It's just a job."

I didn't want to engage in philosophy at the moment. "I'm thinking that the sadistic clone is the one who has been murdering loners, and that your information will confirm that, right?" I pulled out a medkit and some ammo for the MP5A1 as well as Strelok's PDA before moving to check the inventory of the killer.

"Well, it's the same outfit, but that isn't proof. I remember he was missing a finger." He raised his left hand again and wiggled his pinky. "This one."

The killer's body was clad in a PSZ-9d Duty armor suit, a little too worn to salvage. I pulled the body over to see his hand. "Yep. That's good enough for me. Barkeep will be happy to hear this. What were you wanting for this information?"

He was surprised only for a moment. "I was thinking a couple thousand rubles. But--"

"For info? Now who's greedy?" I teased him.

"I was going to say that it was covered because you saved my life."

"'Tell you what: Keep the Meat Chunk, and here's some spoils of war." I handed him one of the Flashes I'd pulled from the killer's backpack, plus some food. "But I'd like you to contact Barkeep again and tell him that the man he sent took care of the killer."

He nodded. "Sure."

In addition to the pair of Flashes, I also found some AP rounds for the AKS-74 and a dozen .45 ACP HydroShock rounds. I pocketed the silenced Desert Eagle, removed the AKS-74 from his shoulder and put it next to mine. That these weapons had been used to murder other stalkers was just an idle thought. The killer's side pack was full of surprise: eight PDAs, his and seven deactivated models. I pulled them out, showed them to Ax. "More evidence," I said. I shoved them back into the side pack, removed it and fastened it by mine before rising.

I rose and turned back to the injured merc. "I don't suggest going anywhere for a while, and when you do you need to get that collarbone looked at. Since these bodies might attract some unwanted company I'm going to move them. Do you have enough ammo to defend yourself?"

"I think so, though I might waste some shooting lefty."

Minutes later I'd finished dragging the second body over to the quiet wreck of a helicopter. I wondered if it had carried the Kruglov of this world, and if it did, whether he'd made it to safety. As I grabbed my pack to leave, Ax said, "One last thing. Should we meet again, raise your left hand. I'll know it's you that way."

"For your sake, I hope you don't run into any more like me." That they would probably shoot first went unsaid. I'm sure he thought it, though.

As I headed back to the Bar, I looked at the new PDAs. One said Strelok, two others Marked One. Barkeep's task to find the killer was on Strelok's PDA, but all three had the task to find the Ziphty salesman.

One of the other PDAs had belonged to Doc. That discovery left me feeling strangely empty, as if I'd been cheated of bringing his killer to my form of justice. The PDA told me Doc was already aware of the multiple Streloks in this "branch of the multiverse" as he put it, but none of them were his Strelok. He also recorded the location of an ammo stash in Pripyat, something that might yet prove useful.

And he'd given the key to "future Strelok", who had told him what was happening. Although the journal lacked specifics, this Strelok was going to stop the C-Consciousness of this branch.

I decided to keep Strelok's PDA as my own. It would not likely make me any safer, but I had a host of sentimental reasons to do so. I deactivated the rest, then dug a hole with my knife in a secluded place and buried Doc's PDA with those of the Marked Ones. I wasn't sure if that burial stemmed from simple caution or a growing paranoia. And the Zone wasn't helping with those spasms of euphoric giddiness. That the merc had also felt something helped, but only a little.

I realized that if I had my old PDA, that one unfinished bit of business could finally be checked off.
  10:10:33  11 August 2014
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NatVac
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    The Goods on the Ziphty Salesman


I made it back to the Bar in the dark without any new Streloks popping up. The situation here gave new meaning to the expression that I was my own worst enemy. I had hoped we'd be joining together in common cause -- why else were we here? -- instead we were killing each other off.


Bar

Upon clearing the barrier between Wild Territory and the Bar, I saw lights shining away to the north; several stalkers were headed that way. The Duty blockpost had only one guard, who didn't even look up from his PDA as I passed.

The lights were up in the 100 Rads Bar, showing even more vacancy. Barkeep looked up from his PDA and nodded. "Got a message from the merc. My agents can't verify anything at the moment. Did you bring back any proof?"

I put the laden hip pack on the counter. "Looks like he was taking trophies."

He made a cursory scan of the PDAs before returning them to the pack. "I'll keep these in case any next-of-kin come calling," he said, moving the pack under his counter. "Good job." He tapped on his PDA and my new PDA jingled. I'd made a good choice, it seemed.

"That's for the successful completion. Not that it will help my business, for a while anyway," he said, waving a pudgy hand at the empty bar. He looked at me and grinned. "Maybe when they get back from the north. The Scorcher is down!"

Well, that explained a lot.

He continued, "I'm sure you'll be going north as well. Here's the info I promised." A swipe and another tap on his PDA made another update on mine, under the "Find the Ziphty salesman" task. "The arms dealer was seen talking with the Freedomers occupying the abandoned Army barracks to the north."

"Thank you!" That was the first real info toward my goal since I arrived in this Zone.

"You've earned it. And you can stay the night here at no charge if you wish. There are bunks in the back."

I took him up on his offer, and purchased some ammo for the AKS-74 and some extra food with the reward money and the money Barkeep gave me for the extra weapons. If the Scorcher was down, resources might be scarce until I reached Pripyat. He gave me a slightly-used SEVA suit in trade for the stalker suit plus an IOU; I promised to pay the rest when I got the cash. Somehow we both knew the odds of that happening.

I lay in relative comfort on a mattress in one of the Bar's back rooms and mused on the events of the day. Someone had made my life a lot easier by disabling the Scorcher, and I'd bet good money that this "someone" had my exact build and appearance: Doc's "future Strelok".

The pains of my aches melted into the mattress. A susurrus of distant rain began, something that would compel sleep in others, but I simply checked the safety on the pistol beneath my hand under the thin blanket. In this darkness I would only sleep knowing that anyone entering would bump the bucket I'd placed in the way.


No new Strelok or Marked One interruptions occurred overnight. After a quick preparation and a farewell to Barkeep, I made my way north to Army Warehouses as the morning sun cleared the horizon. Someone from Duty might be waiting, and I didn't want to deal with them if Freedom knew about the Ziphty representative.


Army Warehouses

I needn't have worried. There were dogs and more dogs, angry that I disrupted their feasting on new bodies and eager to add me to the menu. I had to shoot my way to the concrete pile at the swing-arm gate on the west side of the warehouses area.

I wasted a lot of the ammo I'd just purchased on these beasts. I wasn't any more accurate with single shots than bursts because they would not keep still. Finally the last couple of dogs ran off. I dropped down to the ground and looked at the half-dozen bodies. They were mostly loners, picked clean, likely by the ones that shot them. The dogs were just opportunistic scavengers here.

I looked around. This Zone had the same radioactive relics and debris in the same places as in my Zone. Only the anomalies and life differed. That meant that the alternities diverged after the event of 1986, and perhaps even after the beginning of the Zone.

There were Freedomers at the military base, but very few. No guards stopped my approach up the main road into the base, because there were none on the road at all. At the main building, the HQ of my past, the solitary Freedom obstacle stubbornly refused to let me in, telling me that no matter what I wanted I had no business there.

I saw Skinflint through the window, though, and called to him. His television was quiet. He sat by the window and sighed. "I'm not going to let you in, either. Don't waste your time. You can waste your money, though." A relatively new scar across his left cheek flared an angry red as he grinned. "But we're out of medical supplies."

"I'll pay for information, if it's not too expensive."

"That's free, if it has nothing to do with us."

"I'm looking for a sales representative, works for Ziphty. Do you know anything about him?"

"I know that he's dead. I hope he wasn't a close friend."

That was unexpected. Was I too late? "Uh, no, I just wanted to talk with him. How did he die?"

"I don't know the details. I know he wound up in a cookpot. We were negotiating prices on some of his company's goods when he went missing." He shook his head slowly. "The leader of the gang that claimed to have eaten him was gutshot in our recent battle with the mercenaries. I saw a dog dragging out his entrails at the edge of the battlefield. Karma." After a pause, he added, "Anything else?"

I needed time to think, to rein in my wild thoughts. "No, that helps a lot. Thanks for the information." I nodded and turned back to the road.

Now what? Well, it was either too late or the Ziphty salesman was not the catalyst for the threat to the myriad alterniverses. Either way, the only practical option left for me was to head north and take the fight to the C-Consciousness of this place-time.


I had sufficient antirad and a decent suit. The sun was still antemeridian, far from its zenith. I passed the deserted Barrier in silence. I began to think I could probably make it to Pripyat by late afternoon; the path would be relatively clear as most stalkers would be pushing for the nuclear power plant remains.


Red Forest

No, most stalkers would be remains, pushing up daisies. There was smoke still curling around several Duty bodies near a small crater by the truck at the south end of the road running to the east of the Red Forest. A bit farther north, more signs of a big battle between Duty and Freedom became evident. A few blind dogs moved off as I came up to the guard shack, their bellies quite distended following the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Again, nothing gained in the cursory examination of the bodies. The survivors had looted them, I guess. From the numbers of dead from each faction, I had no clue which side won.

The road seemed the safer bet. I carefully skirted the dog camp on the right. I imagined I knew how the wildebeest herd survivors felt as they passed by the pride of sated lions.

There were a lot of bodies of all factions, much more than I remembered from my Zone. A batch of helicopters flew directly over Red Forest, likely on the way to the NPP. At their high altitude, the military aboard the gunships probably saw the corpses below as mere sprinkling of condiment on the landscape.

I made very good time. The radiation spots were the same in this Zone and easy to avoid. It helped that the Scorcher wasn't messing with my head. No dizziness, no phantoms. A good thing, since I had no protective psi helmet. "Future Strelok" was doing all the work. I wondered idly if he was experiencing repeats of those flashbacks. I wouldn't mind some flashbacks, if they would reveal more of my true past.

And then it rained. It had never rained in my Red Forest. I broke the seal on the SEVA's faceplate and opened it to feel the rain on my face. I closed it when I realized it was quickly becoming quite sticky inside the suit.


Pripyat

I entered southern Pripyat just after three in the afternoon, along with the usual warning signs of a blowout starting to the north. Coincidence or not, I took it to mean Future Strelok would be in the Sarcophagus by now. I hurried to the underground carpark, passing lots of inanimate organic matter, none of it alive beyond the cellular level. A faint noise grew into a sustained roar, announcing a score of choppers on their way out of the north, their primary rotors angled well forward for maximum speed. I wondered if they'd make it far enough south in time.

Underground there was only one neutral, a Dutyer apparently in the process of becoming a loner with a suit change. His wary look kept me from doing anything more than nodding and moving away to a spot that should be safe from both man and blowout.

After the skies calmed down, I detoured south to the school to find Doc's cache of ammo. I located it easily on the second floor, but my hope sank: there were only three hundred rounds of 9x19 FMJ and a note scribbled on a scrap of construction paper.

"I'm sorry, but I'm ahead of you and will likely need the rifle ammo before you do. If you find me, you can have what's left. --Strelok", the note read. I grabbed the ammunition and left quickly, turning northward again. Ashamed that I'd forgotten how "we" were saving the entire Aleph One of alterniverses, the infinity of universes each with infinite possible branches, I was now fully determined to help Future Strelok in any way I could.

I had to get to him first, which meant staying alive, which meant staying alert. While the anomalies on the way were noisily announcing their presence, I kept an eye out for mutants -- rumor (and Ax Grinder) had it they spawned in blowouts -- and Monolith, especially snipers.


Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, South Side

The trek north was so uneventful that my body finally got through to me that I'd not eaten since breakfast. Yet even as I took care of the hunger I tried to keep focus, tried to remind myself that this was the Zone. I remembered a quip about piloting a plane: there were hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

The carnage increased the moment I crossed the first viaduct bridge just south of the NPP. Strangely, every military or Monolith body found seemed to have been searched and looted. The blowout likely sent the surviving Monolith underground and the military scurrying south in an emergency evacuation, but someone spared the time for the bodies anyway.

At the train tracks before I turned west, I did find a veteran loner who survived or avoided the battle, but not the blowout. His PDA yielded information on a stash: a "huge" collection of ammo and artifacts in the Cordon. I laughed at the irony. Although there wasn't much in the way of ammunition in his pack, he did have an Urchin, a Soul and a scientific medkit.

The rest of the westward trek was quiet, just anomalies, radiation and bodies. Lots of bodies. My PDA never chirped, not even once.

The sky brightened before I entered the opening in the building leading to the south Sarcophagus entrance. The dark clouds streaming from the north had broken briefly to reveal the sun low in the west. Its blood-red rays crawled across the sprawled bodies on the field of death, bodies of men whose last moments were filled with pain and violence. One would think the Zone was trying to tell me something.
 
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