April 20, 2009

Chapter 23: Like a Stalker out of Hell


*Complete chaos has taken over the corridor outside the supply room. The hall in both directions is torn to shreds, ripped apart by bullets, grenades and anything else Freedom and the Military had in stock. The Freedom soldiers are makeshift satchels down the halls and detonating them, forcing the Military to retreat down the hall – but their reinforcements have effectively pinned down the Freedom force. It’s fight or die. Gremlin crawls through the Freedom ranks, Virtue close behind, leading him towards the front lines.*
Gremlin *shouting*: Up ahead! The vent is between us and the Military! We’ll draw their fire while you make a break for it!
*Virtue crouches behind the barricade blocking the Military’s advance.*
Virtue: Do me a favor and don’t let me get shot before I make it there, OK?
Gremlin: We’ll certainly do our best.
*Gremlin gets on his PDA and broadcasts to all Freedomers:*
Gremlin: This is it boys! Execute operation Hissing Snake!
*The Freedomers acknowledge and cease firing. Virtue can hear his ears ringing from the gunfire. The Freedomers quickly and quietly retreat into the middle of their barricade in the hall, each talking a backpack and resuming their positions on the edge of the barrier. The Military bursts out from behind the walls of the hallway, jumping at the opportunity to lay in as much damage as possible to the barricade. Bullets ping and hiss off metal and concrete over their heads as they hold the backpacks out in front of them.*
Gremlin: NOW!!!
*They hurl the backpacks with all their might down both ends of the hall. The Military soldiers yell and quickly try to retreat down the halls, but the trap is already sprung.*
*Several large explosions shake the room. Concrete falls from the roof in chunks as the structural integrity of the hallway continues to decline quickly. Gremlin pushes Virtue forward and yells:*
Gremlin: Go Virtue! GO!!!
*Virtue scrambles across the hall for dear life. Some of the soldiers take notice as they shake themselves off and begin firing. Sparks fly around him as bullets ricochet off the ground and wall next to him. He sees the vent in front of him, collapsing to the floor and sliding in feet first, kicking in the grate as he goes. He slides into the vent – an air duct of some sort, coming to rest at the bottom. Before he has time to get comfortable, he hears Gremlin yell again from above:*
Gremlin: RUN LIKE HELL VIRTUE!
*A small metal object clanks across the floor towards the vent above him. It bounces off the sides of the air duct before coming to a rest on the ground in front of him. It's a live grenade.*
Virtue: Oh SHHHHHHIT!
*Virtue crawls on his elbows, wriggling like a snake down the opposite end of the duct. His back aches as he overexerts himself, shifting his weight around like mad as he crawls for dear life.*
BOOM!
*The vent behind him collapses. Pieces of concrete from the wall above fall into the shaft, sealing it off from anyone who might want to enter. The gunfire above becomes muffled and a dead hush comes over the area. He suddenly realizes that he is alone. A cold wind comes through the vent and hits his face, sending a chill through his body. He swallows hard as he continues on – trying his best to ignore the haunting sounds of the power plant outside the duct.

{Excerpt from Gremlin’s PDA}
*After the grenade explodes behind Virtue, the concrete wall above it collapses due to the continued abuse it has sustained during the fight. The vent within collapses with a sickening squeal. Gremlin whispers to himself:*
Gremlin: God I hope he makes it. Good luck friend…
*He directs his attention back to the Military, who are regrouping for another assault. He leaves his friends for a moment to check the status of his group. As he re-enters the supply room, Solitaire sits up looks at him expectantly.*
Solitaire: How are we doing? Did Virtue make it? How many are there?
Gremlin: We’re OK, but we can’t keep this up forever. Virtue made it into the vent, but only time will tells us if he succeeds or not. The Military keep regrouping with more reinforcements – they obviously have a lot of hidden resources here.
Solitaire: I need to get out there. Give me a gun.
Gremlin: You stay here with them. I’ll go out and stay with the men…
Solitaire: You’re hit, man. I was the only one who didn’t take any flak. It’s my turn to do something for the group, and better way than repaying those scumbags for all the years of lies they put me through? Let me go – I know Military tactics and I can fight them. Consider this my application to Freedom.
*Gremlin hesitates, but reluctantly agrees, seeing little other options. Solitaire limps toward the door, disappearing outside into the ranks of Freedom soldiers. Gremlin turns his attention to his friends, shaking his head as he watches Solitaire leave, an obvious bullet wound in his leg.
Nimbus and Zombie are both turned on their backs, two field surgeons work to remove the bullets and patch the wounds on their backs. Reaper is passed out from the mental strain of the experiment performed on him.
Enigma’s breathing is still strained and forced. Gremlin points at her and yells:*
Gremlin: Has anyone seen to her yet?
[Unknown]: Yes sir.
Gremlin: …and?
*The Freedom soldier walks to him and whispers:*
[Unknown]: We’ve done what we can for her. She has a collapsed lung. There’s nothing more we can do!
*Gremlin curses and paces the floor, then motions to the other Stalkers.*
Gremlin: What about them?
[Unknown]: Those two are nearly good to go. The passed out one won’t be waking up anytime soon.
Gremlin: OK. Keep me informed.
*The field surgeon nods and returns to his work. Gremlin exits the supply room again. Solitaire has set to work barking orders at the Freedom soldiers. They comply without question, willing to do anything that will cause the most damage to the Military and give them a chance at escaping with their lives. Gremlin approaches him as he rests between orders, taking a position on the front line and shooting at the Military soldiers in front of him. Gremlin takes a position next to him, assuming fire on the soldiers continually pouring in. He leans over to Solitaire and says:*
Gremlin: Lukash is still back there somewhere! If he’s still alive it’s my duty to rescue him!
Solitaire: We could really use you here, but I know Freedom doesn’t leave their own behind. Take what you need if it’ll help you – but hurry!
Gremlin: Roger that.
*Gremlin grabs a rifle and heads back into the supply room. To his relief, Nimbus and Zombie are sitting up on the ground, rushing to get their gear back on. Zombie stands up quickly when he sees Gremlin and speaks quickly:*
Zombie: What’s going on? Are we winning?
Gremlin: It’s complicated. I need to go find Lukash but I need help. Can I count on you two?
*Nimbus looks up from the ground, standing as he puts his gasmask back on.*
Nimbus: Where’s Virtue?
Gremlin: He has his own mission to take care of. If he succeeds, we can end this here and now. But he’s out of our hands now… Lukash may not be. If there’s a chance I need to try and save him.
*Zombie slings his rifle over his shoulder.*
Zombie: You’ve got me.
Nimbus: If I can save a life, and help a friend I’ll do it.
*Gremlin smiles.*
Gremlin: I knew I could count on you. Come on, we don’t have much time.
*The Stalkers enter the hall. Bullets immediately fly past their heads. They drop to the ground as Solitaire yells from his end of the barricade:*
Solitaire: Time is of the essence!
*He dives onto the floor as a stream of bullets is directed towards him.*
*Gremlin nods hurriedly, leading the Stalkers around the backside of the barrier. The opposition is just as strong here and a way through is nearly impossible.*
Nimbus: How are we going to get through them?
*Gremlin smiles menacingly, pulling out a small, round device from a concealed pocket in his armor.*
Gremlin: I always knew I’d get to use this someday.
*He rolls the device into the hall where the military is setting up a similar barricade on their end of the hall. It flashes a red light as it rolls into the Military barricade.*
Gremlin: Close your eyes, and stay down.
*A loud bang sounds in the hall as the device seemingly detonates. The Military soldiers shield their eyes as they are blinded by the phosphorus in the device. Gremlin peeks over the barricade as he watches his toy in action.*
Gremlin: Get ready.
*The device opens and spills a number of small objects out, which roll over the floor and enter through cracks in the Military’s barrier. A few moments later, as the Military are still rubbing their eyes, a number of chain explosions sound from within their barrier. Pieces of it fly through the air and the ceiling above them begins to give way and collapse. Pieces of concrete smash onto the floor below, covering the barricade and the soldiers within under a few tons of cement. The Freedom soldiers cheer, complimenting Gremlin’s move before turning their attention elsewhere.*
Gremlin: Now’s our chance – GO!
*The Stalkers turn around the corner and head back down the hall they used to escape the Military and meet with Freedom. Angry shouting comes from behind the sealed hallway and the intersecting hallways nearby as the Military standby to begin Phase 2.*

[Audio enabled]
*Every foot feels like an inch, every sound is an announcement of his position. Virtue crawls quickly through the air duct, trying to stay focused on his mental map of what he’s seen of the NPP so far. Sweat drips down his face as the heat from his body threatens to cook him alive in the crowded duct. He can’t tell whether the creaks and squeals are from his weight on the duct or other unseen dangers somewhere nearby.
As he crawls, he remembers the look of confusion on Emelia’s face when he looked at her; like she had no idea who he was. Why couldn’t she? They had been married for long… had he really been gone for that long? Nearly two weeks… had he changed so much that she couldn’t recognize him? That had to be it… come to think of it, he hadn’t seen his own face in a mirror for that length of time, there’s no telling what he looked like now.
What would he tell her of the experience when they finally went home? Would he share all of his experiences with her? Like how it felt when he jumped the fence and looked into the distance at the desolation in front of him, and the irony in knowing it was his only real hope at survival. Would he tell her of the first time he held a weapon in his hand… how it felt when he killed the bandit in the car park? Sparing Nimbus’ life, assisting the Stalkers against a Bandit raid, the horror at seeing the dead walk in Yantar, the secrets of X16, falling into an anomaly that took him to the dead city Limansk…
He holds his head in pain. He met someone there… someone who had feelings for him. Someone who helped him and Nimbus escape. Why was it so hard to remember her? He shakes it off; his headache slowly drops in intensity. He begins to feel dizzy – maybe the lack of food, water, sleep, or blood finally catches up to him.*
Virtue: Can’t stop now… must keep going…
*The sides of the duct start to roll form side to side as he moves. He begins to feel sick to his stomach. Claustrophobia sets in. He collapses suddenly, his body feeling like a thousand pounds. The duct agrees; it collapses under his weight. He slides out, no energy left in him to break his fall. He lays sprawled out on the floor beneath him. A bad taste is in his mouth. He quickly sits up and vomits as he realizes that a spoonful of dust on the floor has just entered his mouth. He coughs violently, the measly contents of his stomach stare back at him.
Suddenly a growling noise sounds near him. He springs to his feet, his gun bouncing back and forth in his hands as he weaves from side to side, trying to keep his balance. He looks down. It must have been his stomach. He hopes it was. He takes a look at his surroundings. A corridor, somewhere outside the maze leading to the Military’s command center in the NPP. He walks slowly forward, trying to figure out where he is in his mental map of the facility, but mostly he’s just distracted by his own shadow, watching the gun in his hands shaking.
He keeps walking, the shaking doesn’t stop. He blinks as his shadow on the wall starts to blur in the light cast from a small hole above him. As he returns to dimmer light, his shadow returns – but something is different. He looks closely in confusion. He can make out his outline, the gun in his hands… but there’s something else, something larger.
He swivels around quickly, nearly falling over as he attempts to make sense of the dark hallway behind him. His vision is blurred, so he squints but sees nobody behind him. He looks at the wall beside him again – the shadow remains. The silhouette is similar to his, although a good foot or two taller. What is it?
The mystery is quickly solved when he feels a stream of hot air hit his face. A deep growl comes from the hall in front of him. Two small lights move slowly towards him. Before he has a chance to move or scream, the Bloodsucker comes out of stealth, its dark-black skin gleams as light hits its wet surface. It rushes Virtue, taking him its powerful arms and running down the hall at blinding speed. Virtue tries to vomit but doesn’t get any further than a dry-heave as he is whisked away by the powerful predator.
He feels weak, defenseless, and starts to panic. He fires blinds into the air as the creature runs with him. It screeches at him and throws him across the hall. He rolls across the floor like an empty paper towel roll, finally coming to rest in a corner. The creature roars again, slinking towards its prey and extending its blood-sucking tentacles outward from its mouth. Virtue slowly looks up as the creature closes in. With the last of his energy, he lifts the rifle up a few inches from the ground and holds down the trigger.
The creature shrieks in pain as it runs toward him at full speed, taking a steady stream of bullets as it does. The bullets seem to empower it as it continues forward, not slowing down for anything. Just before it reaches Virtue it shrieks again as it realizes it can take no more and rams into the wall above him, reflecting off and landing next to Virtue with a thud. His eyes grow wide with horror as he looks dead into the creature’s eyes next to him. The rifle clicks in his hand as he subconsciously releases and pulls the trigger continuously.
He snaps back to reality, simultaneously reaching for his pistol as he slowly moves away from the unmoving Bloodsucker. He almost makes it to knees before the creatures tentacles lash out at him suddenly. He yells in shock and instinctively punches the creature in the side of the head. It slowly turns its head back towards him, hissing and drooling on the floor next to him. A voice in his head yells “SHOOT IT, SHOOT IT!”
The pistol in his hands comes up and releases every bullet in the clip into the creatures head. It screams and shakes as the bullets pierce its thick skull. The weapon shakes in his hand as he watches the creature twitch next to him. He scrambles to his feet, not wanting a repeat of what just happened. The adrenaline rush helps him focus better on his surroundings as he frantically checks his surroundings. Nothing stirs as blood seeps from under the Bloodsucker, filtering through the gaps in the tiles on the floor. He kicks it in the head just to make sure, and then walks away.

{Excerpt from Gremlin’s PDA}
*The Stalkers return to where Lukash fell behind them. The two Freedom Stalkers are lying in pools of their own blood while a long trail of blood leads away from the hall, back towards the cellblock.*
Gremlin: They must have taken him alive. Come on!
*The Stalkers jog down the hall, surprised at the lack of opposition in their way. Nimbus speculates aloud:*
Nimbus: I guess they’re all fighting Freedom over at the barricade…
Gremlin: No. They’d have some guys to cover their flanks. Something’s not right.
*The trail of blood diminishes as they follow it, but it’s enough to lead them back to the cellblock they escaped from. Gremlin skids to a stop before rounding the corner into the next hall. He peers slowly around the corner.*
Gremlin: They’ve got to be holding him in the cellblock; the only two guards for miles are posted outside.
*Gremlin leans around the corner, gunning down the two guards in front of the door. The door to the cellblock bursts open. The Stalkers aim for the door, fingers in their rifles’ triggers. A squad of Military soldiers fans out, all of them holding some sort of bullet-proof riot shield. The Stalkers fire at the shields, their bullets reflecting off the surface ineffectually as they slowly retreat. Suddenly a voice yells “STOP!” over the gunfire. Seeing no other option, the Stalkers cease fire. Commander Tann walks out of the cellblock, protected by the line of shields set before him – a large bruise on the side of his head.*
Commander Tann: Well, well… I see you’ve returned for your friend. We were just about to start the show.
*Commander Tann points to each Stalker as if counting them in his head.*
Commander Tann: Perfect.
*He yells at the soldiers near him, rage in his voice:*
Commander Tann: TAKE THEM!
*The Stalkers start to run but are already cut off by soldiers in the hall behind them. Gremlin curses as their weapons are taken from them and they are forced into the cellblock. They are lead to a cell near the center of the block – Lukash is inside. The soldiers grab them by their collars and force them inside. Gremlin rushes to where Lukash is sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth.*
Gremlin: Lukash! Are you OK? What have they done to you?
*Lukash continues to rock back and forth, staring at the cell across from them. Gremlin turns slowly, following his vacant stare. He curses and jumps to the back of the cell, the other Stalkers doing the same as they notice the four pairs of dark eyes staring back at them in the opposite cell.
The fate of the group of Freedom Stalkers taken from them is now apparent as the four Controllers return their gazes with a cold, dark stare. Their uniforms are torn, most noticeably so in the upper-body areas where their muscles have expanded. Their hair has fallen out and their skin is rough and cracked – their heads slightly deformed and larger in the back of their skulls. They remain eerily still, the rising and falling of their chests the only sign of life as they continue to stare. Commander Tann approaches their cell and leans on the bars.*
Commander Tann: I congratulate you. Not only did you come back for the glorious Freedom leader, you even came back for his precious soldiers. Well… I’m sorry to say that they may have had a change in heart since their time with us. But still, very valiant of you – and now they’re going to kill you. Farewell my dear Stalkers – and may the Zone rest your soul.
*Commander Tann laughs as the soldiers around him snicker at the Monolithian reference. They walk out of the cellblock, the familiar sound of the door slamming and clicking behind them fills the Stalkers with fear. The Controllers across from them slowly start to smile in a sick, twisted way. Gremlin whispers aloud as horror grips the three of them.*
Gremlin: Hurry Virtue… hurry…

[Audio enabled]
*Virtue reaches blindly for a magazine in his backpack. He finds one, and attempts to load it into his rifle. It slips from his sweaty hand and fall to the floor. He gulps, feeling defenseless without the bullets at his disposal. He kneels down, picking up the magazine and desperately trying to load it into his rifle. A pipe falls to the floor with a loud metallic clank. He jumps to his feet and begins to run. He imagines a hundred terrible things that could be behind him. The cold, damp air on his face feels like a creature is right next to him, panting just before it will lunge on him.
He pays note to the signs on the walls as he runs. Dmytro is close. He rounds a corner; his internal organs feel like they all shift in his body as he skids in the dust on the floor, landing on his back. He backpedals quickly as he scrambles to his feet, blinking to double-check what he sees. A wide variety of mutants block the way in front of him, guarding the door to Dmytro’s control center. He stands perfectly still, hoping none of them took notice of him. They remain motionless, staring back at him blankly. He tries to catch his breath while he devises a plan, whispering to himself:*
Virtue: Come on Yuriy… Virtue… whoever the hell you are now. Just get inside and end this. How do I get through that? Come on!
*He clenches his fists, hitting the sides of his legs in frustration. As if in answer to his plea, his arm hits an object near his waist. He opens the pouch inquisitively, finding the last of his grenades inside. He looks up, as if questioning the wisdom of his revelation. He looks back at the hallway full of mutants in front of him. They smell his fear, and charge.
His eyes grow wide in surprise. Quickly, he pulls the pins on all three grenades simultaneously and rolls them into the oncoming mutants. They detonate in quick succession, sending blood, dust, and body parts through the air. Through the haze, he can see more mutants moving towards him. He fires into the cloud of destruction, targeting anything that moves. The chamber clicks. He frantically pulls another magazine from a pouch as the shadows in the cloud draw closer.
A human mutation with arms and legs twice as long as normal becomes visible first, running on its elbows while the rest of its arms drag on the ground behind it. He looks on in sorrow at the mutant who could almost pass for human if it weren’t for the cold, emptiness behind its eyes. He shoots it in the head, throwing off its balancing as it rolls to a stop in the dust, its arms and legs flailing like a windmill behind it.
Another creature emerges from the dust behind it, this one sporting a suit similar to Virtue’s. A former Stalker, mutated by extreme radiation. It is about half his height, and three times his girth, like a large dwarf. He aims for its fat, round head concealed under the torn, leather hood of its protective gear. It holds out his hand, appearing to “absorb” the bullets as they fly for its head. The bullets fall to the floor as it cocks its hand back and quickly forces it towards him. His feet are forced out from under him and he slides backwards across the floor, rolling backwards and slamming into the wall behind him.
He comes to a rest upside-down on the wall opposite the mutant, pinned by some unknown force as it approaches him. It cocks its hand back to deliver another blow – this one threatening to force his body through the wall behind him. He is temporarily released as it prepares and cartwheels around the corner of the hall, barely avoiding another wave of force as it slams into the wall. He leans quickly around the corner. The creature waddles angrily forward in search of its lost prey. As it nears the corner, Virtue pops out from behind the wall, catching the creature off guard. He grits his teeth and unloads the remainder of the magazine at it. The bullets pass easily through the creatures skull without its protective shielding up.
He looks back into the hall, weary and unprepared for what else might emerge from the haze at any moment. He ducks in confusion as a severed arm soars past his head, hitting the wall behind him and falling to the floor. He falls flat on the floor as an entire body follows in its wake, collapsing on the ground next to him. He looks in disgust at the maggot-filled corpse underneath the rotting protective gear. Body parts begin to pelt him like a storm, as he crawls forward in disgust and horror. Then, from the nearly-settled curtain of dust and blood comes a large ball of electricity. It unleashes a loud, distorted roar at him.
He fires into the cloud; electric discharges escape it where the bullets enter. He continues hopelessly as pieces of bodies continue to fall around him, unsure of any effect his bullets are having on the bizarre creature.
He remembers Jargon telling him a story on his first day in the Zone about “the ghosts of dead Stalkers” and the encounter his friends had in X16. He remembers the horror he felt on top of knowing about the existence of mutants and how it escalated as the possibility of ghosts was unveiled to him.*
[Unknown]: Yuuuuurrriiiiiiiyyyyy…
*His blood turns to ice as he hears his name echo through the hallway. He looks up at the swirling ball of electricity, a large current of air whistles through the hallway as bodies and all sorts of debris swirl around it. Unsure of what to do, he calls back:*
Virtue: WHAT DO YOU WANT?!
*The ball of electricity hums and the air continues to whistle as it whirls around it. He can make out several mutants behind it, all staring at him as if awaiting a response. The voice answers back like a whisper on the wind:*
[Unknown]: Youuuu… an offer we maaaaaake… your skills are of valuuuuueee… join ussssss… and we will reunite you with your wife and sssssoooon…
*Virtue crawls towards the ball of electricity to get a better look at it. Upon closer inspection he can see the faint outline of a human-like figure at the center of the sphere. Its dark, eyeless sockets stare back at him inquisitively, awaiting a response.*
Virtue: Why should I join you?!
[Unknown]: Yooooouu have potential… there is untapped pooowerrrrr within you… you will make a great asset to us…
Virtue:  Why should I trust you?! I’ve seen the evil of the Zone. I’ve felt the pain and suffering associated with it, and I know what the Soviets are planning to do here. I won’t be a part of your army, no matter what the benefits are.
*The dark eye sockets of the creature seem to distort into anger at his words. Virtue looks as a similar looks seems to cross the faces of the mutants near him. He looks through the sphere of electricity and see a single shape standing behind it – a Controller. The Controller’s mouth moves as the sphere speaks again:*
[Unknown]: Yoooouuu will join ussss… or watch as all of your freindssss dieeeeee…
*A dark crescent appears beneath the dark eyes sockets of the sphere, mimicking a demented smile. Virtue nods at the sphere, thinking over his options before responding again. The Controller remains behind the sphere, nearly invisible through the light and distortions between it. Virtue slowly moves his hand to where his sidearm is holstered and answers:*
Virtue: I choose the third option.
*He pulls out the pistol and shoots through the sphere at the Controller behind it. The Controller roars in anger, sending Virtue slowly sliding away from it as the mutants around him begin to close in. He fires as quickly as his fingers can possibly go, the Controller grunts in pain as the bullets continue to hit it. Then the bullets stop… the chamber clicks as he pulls the trigger. He ejects the clip, mouth agape in despair as he looks into the empty clip. Darkness overtakes him as the mutants block the light around him. He collapses on to the ground, closing his eyes as they overtake him.
“This is it.” he thinks to himself. “This is the end. After all we lost, all we fought for… I’ve failed.” Pictures of his life flash before him as he sees himself as a child. He feels the pure innocence associated with it and remembers the time in his life when everything was simpler. Then he sees himself as a teenager and remembers his eagerness to learn and experience new things. He sees himself as a young adult, his entire life ahead of him – his hopes and dreams seem nearly within his grasp. Finally, he sees the last 2 weeks of his life and how all of it lead up to this moment. He sees himself in the third person, running around the Zone gunning down mutants left and right. He focuses in on his sidearm, seeing the object the lead to his death – only his eyes are no longer closed, and it’s not his gun.
He blinks twice. The mutants are all over him, biting and tearing at his suit. He sees the severed arm of some unfortunate soul. In it, is a large pistol… a Deagle as he recalls. A final surge of strength comes from within him as he grabs the weapon and squeezes it in his hand, allowing the final moments of his life be decided by it and his trigger finger. He shuts as eyes as hard as he can and yells at the top of his lungs.*
BOOM!
*The shot rings through the hall. The mutants stop and listen for a moment, then return to the feast in front of them. The gun smokes as it slides from Virtue’s hand, falling to the floor next to him, satisfied at taking one last life in the Zone.*

{Excerpt from Solitaire’s PDA}
[Audio enabled]
*The barricade is overrun and abandoned by Freedom as the Stalkers run in a last-ditch effort to cripple the facility. Solitaire yells frantically, using his knowledge of the Military to quickly find the vital areas of the facility and cause as much damage as he possibly can before he and the men with him are eventually gunned down. They frantically hurl IEDs, grenades, and spray gunfire into the labs around them. Glass shatters, littering the floor behind them just before the room erupts into fire. The hallways behind them look like a riot scene, but it pains them to think that all of the destruction they’re causing can be replaced in time.
Solitaire gives the men their final orders, ordering them to use the rest of their explosives and then run for their lives if at all possible. The men carry out their orders, checking their side-arms to make sure there is a bullet in the chamber for their heads once the explosives are depleted. Solitaire sighs, checking his own sidearm.
As the Freedomers finish their final task, he splits off from them and heads back to the cellblock. If there’s even a remote chance he can find his friends, he’d much rather die with them than alone in the corridor or in a room out of the way somewhere.
He guns down any Military in his path. They are scattered in pursuit of the Freedomers and trying desperately to put out the fires raging in the facility. He takes a few bullets along the way but hardly notices through the mayhem around him. He reaches the external door to the cellblock – two soldiers managed to stay in their posts outside the door. They turn surprise as they see him coming at them and open fire. He drops to the floor, sliding into them and knocking them off their feet. He stands over them, putting a round in both of their heads as they plea for mercy - he hates himself for it, but they chose the wrong side.
The door is locked. He pulls a wad of C4 out of his backpack and plants it on the doors seal. He yells into the door in hopes that Gremlin and his friends are standing near it attempting to escape.*
Solitaire: STAND BACK!!!
*He steps away from the door and braces himself on the wall next to it. The C4 explodes, forcing the door open and off its hinges. It falls to the floor with a loud metallic clank. Seeing no one in the corridor, he rushes in, checking each cell as he goes. As he nears the middle of the cellblock, he sees Gremlin, Zombie, Nimbus and Lukash all sitting on the floor in the center of the cell.*
Solitaire: I found you! Don’t worry, I’ll get you guys out of here and we can get back to the fight!
*They say nothing, staring straight ahead. Solitaire thinks nothing of it, accounting it to their failure at rescuing Lukash or the sounds of the battle outside. He plants another wad of C4 on the cell door and runs into the cell next to them. The C4 detonates, shattering the lock on the cell door. He runs up and yanks it open. It slides with a sickening grind across the floor. The Stalkers remain sitting on the floor.*
Solitaire: Come on! We’ve got to get out there and finish this! Guys…?
*He spins around, matching their blank stares. He stumbles backwards, seeing not one but four of the creatures like the one he saw lying on the floor near Jargon’s body staring back at him. The only thing that gives away their identities is the torn Freedom suits hanging over their bodies. Horrified at his first real encounter with a live mutant, he opens fire into the cell as he runs away.
The door of the cell is blown off its hinges, slamming into the cell opposite. The Stalkers inside don’t move a muscle as Solitaire covers his ears and hits the deck. The Controllers walk slowly out of the cell towards him. He claws at the ground in desperation, but his efforts are futile as he is slowly dragged towards them. He fires madly in their direction, bullets ping off the metal of the bars around them and into the concrete floor and ceiling. Not a single bullet hits them, but instead seems to be vectored away effortlessly.
He closes his eyes and swallows hard, reaching frantically for his pistol. He grabs it, holds it up to his head as he slides across the floor. He grits his teeth, slowly gripping the trigger tighter in his hands.
BOOM!
Everything goes black…*

{Excerpt from an unknown source of audio}
*Dmytro lounges in his chair, satisfied at what his brains have accomplished once again. He watches as the Military closes in on the Freedom soldiers, slowly cornering them in the facility. He speaks to the tanks behind him.*
Dmytro: Well, they gave us quite a scare for a while there, but thanks to the all-seeing Dmytro, we played with them like rats in a maze. Every step they took drove them more and more mad and they separated, leading to the deaths of two of their friends, not to mention all the others killed along the way. It’ll be that much easier to purge the Zone of their filth and claim the world for the resurrected Soviet Union.
*Dmytro sighs, pleased with his torture techniques. He glances over his monitors planted all over the facility, leaning back in his chair and watching all of the action taking place like an action movie.
He glances back at the monitor of the camera outside the control room. The mutants are still pouring over Virtue’s body outside. He looks back at his other monitors to find something more interesting to watch. He pauses, looking back at the monitor showing Virtue lying on the floor. He squints as he repositions the camera to look to where the Controller he was ordering was standing before. He raises an eyebrow in confusion as he sees it twitching on the floor outside the door.
He sighs and rolls over to the door, releasing the lock and opening the door. The smell rotting flesh enters fills the area and he winces. He rolls up to the twitching Controller, the mutants under its power stare at it, awaiting further orders. Dmytro curses, throwing a loose piece of concrete from the wall near him at it.*
Dmytro: Stupid piece of shit! Now I gotta report this back to HQ. I know that asshole Tann is going to rip me a new one for this.
*He sighs again, reaching down and grabbing the creature by the arm, tying it to his chair and turning to haul it in to his command center. Before he can close the door, a shape lunges at him from the crowd of mutants…*
{End excerpt}
[Audio enabled]:
*Virtue fires another shot into the Controller’s head. The creature reaches out in pain as it roars in one final breath. A Psionic shockwave leaves its body, shaking the area and knocking the mutants outside to the ground in confusion. Dmytro’s chair goes spinning out from under him and flies across the room, sending him to the floor as Virtue flies over his head. The shockwave disrupts the power to the machines in the room, taking most of them offline. The chair smashes into the wall of monitors, rolling off into a corner of the room.
Virtue slowly rises to his feet, his knees threatening to buckle at any moment. He un-straps the rifle from his back, firing in bursts at every machine in the room. He does his best to aim, but his best efforts only allow him to send several hot lines of lead wildly around the room, ricocheting off of the walls. He hobbles forward, lettings bursts out as he goes. Glass breaks and machines spark and smoke as his bullets stop their operation.
Dmytro crawls along the floor towards Virtue, yelling:*
Dmytro: Stop! STOP!!! You’ll kill us all! Stay away!
*Virtue doesn’t heed the warning over the sound of his gunfire and the satisfying sounds of things breaking in front of him. A tentacles fires out from Dmytro, sweeping his leg out from under him and sending him to the floor. He lands on his back as the ceiling spins and phases in and out above him. He grabs his throat as the tentacle wraps itself around it, suffocating him.*
Dmytro: You should have just let well enough alone Virtue. You’ve got a hidden power in yourself… I tried to get you to join us, but you had to choose death.
*Virtue pulls raises his other arm over his head as he pulls at his throat and directs the Deagle at Dmytro’s head. Dmytro’s eyes go wide as he grips tighter. Virtue’s eyes start to close as he gags, on the verge of passing out. He winks at Dmytro as he pulls the trigger.*
Dmytro: God dammit…
*The bullet leaves the chamber, sending Dmytro’s brains out the back of his skull. Virtue throws the tentacle off of him as it releases him from its grip. He stands in the room, looking around at the vast array of machinery within for the best way to destroy the command center. As he walks around the room he notices a door behind a large machine. He shoves the machine aside with all his might, clearing the door of the obstruction, and slowly opening the door.
Inside, is a long, dark corridor – at the end, a faint green glow comes from an unknown source. He proceeds cautiously down the hall, watching the shadows dance on the wall next to him and hearing them whisper to him to turn back. He ignores them and continues toward the light. As he enters the room, he looks at the single device in the room. A machine of some sort with a series of tanks lying on the floor, all connected to a central console. Various tubes and wires lead out of the room into areas unknown. As he approaches the tanks he is surprised to see people – actual human beings floating in each one.
He walks up to one of the tanks cautiously. There is a man inside, completely naked, floating in some sort of hibernation. As he presses his face onto the glass to take a closer look a voice suddenly comes from somewhere in the room:*
[Unknown]: Welcome, Yuriy… or would you prefer Virtue? We can’t really tell the difference anymore, and neither can you we see. We know why you’re here, and what you plan to do, and thus we have conceived a counter-offer if you would but lower your weapon and listen to what we have to say.
Virtue: We…? Who are you?
*A series of voices answer:*
[Unknown 2]: We are C-Consciousness.
[Unknown 3]: We have been watching you.
[Unknown 4]: We are aware of your abilities.
[Unknown 5]: We know your past.
[Unknown 6]: We feel your pain.
[Unknown 7]: We can help you…
[Unknown 8]: … all you need do is spare us.
*The original voice responds again:*
[Unknown]: We are the minds controlling the Zone. We do as the ones who created us instruct us to do, to further their plans of controlling the human mind, and eventually the world.
Virtue: Why do you need me?
[Unknown]: You are a missing part of our thoughts. Without you, we cannot fully function, and are useless. Without purpose, life afloat in these tanks is… dull.
[Unknown 5]: We miss you so, Virtue. Come back to us?
Virtue: Come back? What in the hell are you talking about?
[Unknown]: Oh dear… it seems that bump on the head you took on your way down here did not work for the better. We had hoped that wouldn’t happen so you could make it to us in one piece but events occurred that we could not foresee...
*Virtue notices a large tube leading to the central structure of the machine. He walks over it and points his Deagle at it. The voices cry out in unision.*
Virtue: You’ve got five minutes to start making sense or I’ll see you all rot in your casks.
[Unknown]: Very well. We’ll start at the beginning… you are one of us.
Virtue: I beg your pardon?
[Unknown]: When Project X was devised, the architects knew they would need a hive mind to control that would in turn be their failsafe between the mutant commanders and themselves. But something went wrong in the implementation of us – of C-Consciousness. You resisted – you fought us. You managed to escape, and without you we were left weak, unable to feel your thoughts. When we saw that our efforts were futile, we planted false memories in your brain to erase anything that could lead back to us and your life here. We had always hoped that someday you would return to complete us, and here you are.
*Virtue looks at the sleeping faces of the various being floating in the tanks in front of him. He holds his head in pain, trying to search his thoughts for any ray of truth in their story. He gives up after a painful attempt.*
Virtue: You’re lying! I have a wife who I’ve spent nearly every day of my life with! The only reason I’m here is because of her… and you’re telling me that I’ve actually spent… how long, floating in a tank with you guys?
[Unknown]: Approximately twenty-three years.
Virtue: Twenty-three…
*The saliva in Virtue’s mouth turns to dust as the words leave it. How could this be true? Was it possible? As he rolls the notion around his head over and over, the voice speaks again:*
[Unknown]: When you left us, the government kept an eye on you. You were too dangerous to approach since you were stubborn when it came to doing what you believed was right. So they assigned one of their agents to act as your wife for a few months while you sorted things in your mind. We planned for your “son” to die so that you would re-enter the Zone, and later made you believe that your wife had died so that nothing would stop you from dedicating yourself to your mission. That mission brought you to us.
*Virtue listens in disbelief, questions race through his mind as he tries to make sense of everything.*
Virtue: How could you have planned for everything? How could you possibly have known what I was doing at all times?
[Unknown]: Why, your friend Jargon of course.
Virtue: Jargon…?! But…
[Unknown]: He was a Mercenary hired by the Military. Don’t hold any hard feelings toward him; he had nothing but the utmost respect for you and the other Stalkers you traveled with. All he wanted was justice for those who were mercilessly slaughtered by the Military for their experiments. He reported your movements to us and in turn we helped ease his mind of the pain he felt. What you’ve experienced over the past two weeks Jargon experienced for the past two decades. We felt mercy for him, and promised him inner peace if he would just a few things for us when we called on him.
Dmytro was becoming less and less satisfied with our abilities, and took us for granted. The Military turned him into a monster, and we became his puppets. We chose Jargon to be our messenger in the Zone, without the knowledge of Dmytro. It’s unfortunate that your friend Phantom killed him, meeting his father again was just too much for him… we felt the pain in him. But we will watch over him and allow him to rest in peace here.
*Virtue just stares, unsure of what to say. His brain feels like its twisting in his head. If what he’s hearing is true… everything he knows in life, all of the experiences, all of the relationships before he came to the Zone are all lies.*
[Unknown]: Join with us Virtue. Take your rightful place with us, and together we will have the power to overthrow the Military’s hold on us and be free to control the Zone as we see fit. Soon, the violence in the world will be ended and we can sleep in peace.
Virtue: W… what do you mean ended? What do you plan to do?
[Unknown]: The human race is evil. We have transcended our bodies and achieved of state of harmony within our minds. The body is a prison, sealing you off from true enlightenment as it constantly calls for attention… to breathe, eat, sleep, reproduce, feel pain, grow old, and die. Together, we will free humanity from its prison, and we will all join together in peace.
Virtue: What if that’s not what they want? What if all of those things are part of the experience, the root of everything we learn? Humans learn by making mistakes, and the body is the essential instrument in the learning process. Without it, we would be mere thoughts adrift on an endless sea. There would be no true space or reality as we know it; we would become lost and lonely without our bodies to give us a sense of being and existence. You’re asking for humanity to give up its very essence… you’re asking for their souls!
[Unknown]: Yes, one might say as much. Look around you. All of this is the result of the mistakes of humanity. Can you really allow them to continue to destroy the world knowing that you are the key to stopping it all? The sacrifice of their bodies will be nothing when compared to the end result. The planet will begin to heal itself in our absence, and life will once again surround us from the dead remains of their fallen cities. We will be one with our planet, returning to the womb that spawned us. It is our destiny, our final evolutionary path. Do not hold them back any further.
*A hissing sound comes from the machine nearby. Virtue looks over as one of the pods slowly opens up to him. The clear, greenish liquid looks familiar to him. It feels like home. The voice pleads with him one last time:*
[Unknown]: Come home, Virtue. Let us heal the wounds of our planet together, starting here in Chernobyl.
*Virtue feels as if his brain is about to meltdown and explode, much like the destroyed reactor somewhere in the facility below him. He tries to imagine a world adrift as nothing more than a thought, surrounded by the thoughts of every other being on the planet. He can see nature reclaiming the planet like it had already begun to do in Pripyat in the twenty-year absence of human presence.
But then he thinks about the things humans have done for the planet. He thinks of the brave men and women of history, who fought against overwhelming opposition for what they believed in. He thinks of the advances made and the continuing will to improve the quality of life. He remembers the experiences of the recent days of his life, all of them blending into one as he loses sense of time.
He hears the cries of pain and suffering fill his ears as C-Consciousness attempts to probe his thoughts. He can feel every life, and every death. The pain is overwhelming. How can he stand by and allow this kind of suffering?*
Virtue: STOP!!!
*The voices stop suddenly. The overwhelming pain drains from his body, but the aches and pains he has incurred return, reminding him of how fragile he is. He steps towards the pod, hearing the familiar voices of his family beckoning to him as he comes. He knows now; this truly is his home – the return to his true family.
He stops in front of the pod, the calm, green fluid welcoming him inside. He looks at all of the other pods, each person inside remains emotionless, but he knows, somehow, all eyes are on him. He takes a final look around the room, remembering the walls that he called home so long ago. He smiles, finally at peace with himself, and says:*
Virtue: We made this mess. We’ll clean it up.
*He directs his rifle to the main vein of piping and wires leading out of the facility, knowing well what it leads to.*
Virtue: Goodbye, brothers.
*He unleashes a stream of fire down the length of the cable. Steam and liquid ooze from the holes, spilling over the ground as an alarm triggers and red lights illuminate the facility. The voice seems to sigh as it accepts its fate:*
[Unknown]: Then you have damned us all.
*Virtue turns and runs from the room, all thoughts return to the mission and his friends. He can only hope he’s not too late.*

{Excerpt from Solitaire’s PDA}
BOOM!
*Solitaire looks up suddenly, checking the gun to make sure he hadn’t pulled the trigger. A deep rumble shakes the facility and a loud alarm sounds throughout it. The fighting suddenly comes to a halt outside. The Controllers release Solitaire from their gaze, twitching as though they are malfunctioning robots. He quickly runs out of the cell block to see what the panic is about. He is nearly knocked off his feet as a large group of Military soldiers run past him, barely taking notice of him as if he’s just an object in their way.
A deep groan sounds from somewhere below him in the facility, as the NPP seems to growl at the infestation within its halls. A loud desperate voice comes on over a speaker nearby:*
[Unknown]: ATTENTION! C-CONSCIOUSNESS IS DOWN! REPEAT: C-CONSCIOUSNESS IS DOWN! EVACUATE THE FACILTY IMMEDIATELY! REPEAT: EVACUATE!
*Solitaire doesn’t have time to think about the meaning of the message, he watches as a group of soldiers pour into the cellblock and are immediately thrown backward as the wall around the door erupts into a series of concrete blocks and prison cells. He scrambles back in horror as entire blocks of cells tear through the hallway, ripping a giant gash in the roof and floor of the facility. The soldiers in its path are instantly killed as giant pieces of concrete careen down the hallway like a tsunami.
The four Controllers emerge from the cellblock, stepping over the gaping hole in the floor like it doesn’t exist, somehow using their telekinetic abilities to create a sort of mind bridge over the hole. They pass right next to Solitaire, who huddles next to the hole in front of the cellblock, giving him less notice than an ant on the sidewalk.
Through the hole below him, he can see another facility full of labs containing the sick machines of the Military. He watches, too frightened to move as scientists rush out of the rooms, throwing clip boards, instruments, and anything else that hinders their movement to the floor as they run for their lives. They are quickly overtaken as a group of Snorks pounce on them from behind, tearing them to shreds as they hit the floor screaming.
He’s confused, but he can’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction at seeing the monsters turn on their makers. He quickly remembers his friends in the cellblock behind him, stepping out on a steel beam exposed on the floor below him and attempting to cross it to the hole where the door once existed. A lab below him erupts into flames, sending shards of glass and pieces of machinery at him. They hit him like daggers as he yells and loses his balance, falling onto the beam below him.
He holds on for dear life, swinging back and forth as a swarm of mutants storm down the hall below him. A Snork sees his dangling legs and decides to take advantage of the situation, leaping down the hall and latching on. He yelps as the added weight causes his hands to slip from the beam. The creature crawls up his side, its blood-stained teeth barred as it roars in his face. The pure, merciless thirst for blood in its dead, blood-shot eyes quickly gives the reason for the evacuation of the facility. Hell has officially broken loose.
The creature sinks its teeth deep into Solitaire’s leg. He screams as he kicks at it with his other leg. He holds on with all his might, feeling himself about to slip to certain doom below. Just as he feels his arms about to give out, a friendly face approaches from above.*
Solitaire: Gremlin!!!
Gremlin: Hang on!
*Gremlin lies down on the edge, reaching down for Solitaire’s holstered pistol. The Snork bats and claws at his arm as he reaches down. Blood begins to seep from the cuts on his arm as his fingers make contact with the pistol. He reaches it, grinning as he pulls it out.*
Gremlin: Send this to your former masters.
*The bullet hits the creature in the head. It collapses, snagging Solitaire’s pants on the way down and getting caught on his legs. Gremlin reaches down as Solitaire starts to fall, catching him before he lands in the stampede below. The Snork is hit by a large mutant as it dangles, forcing it free and knocking it lifeless to the ground under the feet of the mutants below.
Gremlin quickly pulls Solitaire up as he is joined by Zombie, Nimbus and Lukash, all rubbing their heads in pain. They stand back and observe the situation in silence before Solitaire urges them on:*
Solitaire: Come on! The facility’s gone to hell! The mutants are breaking free of the Military and killing everyone!
*Gremlin smiles, the relief on his face cannot be expressed in words.*
Gremlin: Then Virtue succeeded. We did it. Thanks for coming back for us Solitaire. If we survive the trip, you’ll make a great Stalker.
Solitaire: We can’t reminisce if we don’t leave… NOW!
Lukash: I couldn’t agree more.
*Lukash gets on his radio and alerts all remaining Freedom Stalkers:*
Lukash: Boys – this is Lukash. Thanks to a daring rescue by our friends, I am alive and well. Let’s meet back at the barricade and get the hell out of here.
*Multiple acknowledgements come over the radio as Lukash leads the way back to the barricade.
When they arrive, they find the area in complete chaos. The ceiling is almost completely caved in and the floor looks like it could give way at any moment.*
Solitaire: We had to leave the injured behind. I hope to God they’re still alive and OK…
*Lukash approaches the supply room first, stepping cautiously on the cracked floor under him. He opens the door, finding a few of his Freedom soldiers, as well as Enigma and Reaper still inside.*
Lukash: They’re here – but they’re not in good shape. We’ll need to carry them out. Each one of us is gonna need to carry one.
*The Stalkers nod, accepting their burdens. Lukash begins to carry them out, one by one. Closing his eyes as he crosses the shaky floor beneath him. Reaper is out, followed by Enigma and the three Freedom soldiers. The remaining Freedomers in the facility gather around them, a total of five remain from the twenty or so that were with them initially. Lukash gets on his radio:*
Lukash: Is that it? Is there no one else?
*Static is the only thing that comes over his radio. He hangs his head in sorrow, then solemnly announces:*
Lukash: Move out.
*The men begin to move, filling Lukash in on a possible escape route. They briefly describe a drainage pipe on the outside of the facility that they could slide down to get to ground level. He acknowledges, and asks:*
Lukash: How do we get to this pipe?
*The soldiers lay out a mental map based off some blueprints they recovered in their scouting. Lukash nods in agreement and they head back to the prison block.
Most of the Military has evacuated this part of the facility, making their own exits in the walls bordering the area. The occasional soldier runs past them nearby frantically, screaming only moments later as an unseen creature runs into him and kills him.
They return to the cellblock, the areas above and below it in the facility are exposed through the aftermath of the Controllers outburst of rage as they were freed of their leashes.*
Nimbus: How do we get past that?
*Zombie quickly opens his backpack and pulls out a long rope. He ties the end into a lasso, and swings it over his head, throwing it out and catching it on a large steel nail sticking out of a beam from the exposed ceiling in front of them. He tests its strength, satisfied, and swings across the large gap in front of them, landing near the former entrance to the cellblock. He throws the rope back, Lukash catches it and pulls on it to double-check.*
Lukash: I was never very good at this, but I don’t see any other way.
*Zombie shouts from across the hall:*
Zombie: If you don’t, you owe me a new rope!
Lukash: Well, when you put it that way…
*Lukash puts a death grip on the rope and swings across. Zombie grabs hold of him as he lands on the beam and throws the rope back to the group. The injured are tied at the waist and pushed across the gap. Amazingly they all make it OK, to everyone’s relief. The others swing across easily enough, the only real concern coming when a section of the floor collapses under one of the last Freedom soldiers to swing across. He is quickly grabbed by his friends before he fall to the floor below.
Gremlin is the last to cross, breathing deep as he tries to dismiss the pain and fatigue he feels from the long journey here. He grunts as he pulls his weight on to the rope and swings across. The Stalkers on the beam reach out as far as they can, but they miss. Gremlin curses as he swings back the other way.*
Zombie: It’s no problem… just swing yourself back – we’ll get you!
*Gremlin curses again as he feels the remainder of the strength in his arms begin to deplete. He swings himself back and forth in an attempt to reach the platform until his strength finally gives. He flies towards the Stalkers on the beam, who then brace themselves in anticipation. He body slams Lukash, who flies over the hole behind him and into the group of Freedom soldiers on the other side.
Another section of the floor collapses, leaving Zombie, Nimbus, and Gremlin trapped between two large holes in the floor. Zombie pulls the rope off of the beam and attempts to find an appropriate place to throw it across the hole behind them. Finding none, he shrugs to the soldiers on the other side. Lukash shouts:*
Lukash: Throw me the rope! You tie yours to the beam and we’ll hold ours while you climb across.
Zombie: Sounds like a plan!
*Zombie gets to work tying the rope around the beam in the floor. He tests the strength again, and gives the soldiers on the other side the thumbs up. They brace themselves and return the thumbs up. Zombie gets on the floor and crawls across the rope first, accepting the responsibility if it gives out for any reason. He makes it across and is helped up by the soldiers on the other side.
Nimbus goes next. As he crosses, he notices several dark figures in the hall below. He panics and begins to rapidly traverse the rope. The Freedomers begin to slide on the smooth floor as they attempt to compensate for the added weight. Nimbus scrambles across, looking down into the darkness below him, pointing at something.
Gremlin again goes last, carefully climbing across the rope as he peers into the darkness of the room below him. The room is charred and ripped apart, the wires from the light fixtures in the room spark and crackle below him. Suddenly, he hears a familiar hiss. A head emerges from the darkness, its tentacles wrapping around his boot as it latches on to it. Nimbus yells:*
Nimbus: Bloodsucker! BLOODSUCKER!!!
*The Freedom soldiers slide forward quickly as the weight on the rope triples. Lukash yells back at his men:*
Lukash: Get it off of him! Shoot it!
*Nimbus grabs one of the rifles off their backs, pointing it carefully towards the creature’s head as it swings back and forth from Gremlin’s boot. It falls back into the shadows below as it releases its tentacles fan outwards in a scream.
A short grunt/growl sounds as another mutants takes notice of the action. A Snork skims the ceiling of the room below, clawing as it leaps through the air towards Gremlin. He cries out in pain as it soars past him, leaving a large gash in his back. He holds on with all his might and scurries across, blood dripping from the fresh wound on his back.
A sea of dead, rotting hands reach out form the darkness below as the blood drips on to them. They reach up desperately for a taste of the warm liquid. Nimbus grabs a grenade from his belt and chucks it in the room below, extending his hand to Gremlin as he nears.
Seeing the urgency of his situation, he crosses the rope with renewed motivation, grabbing hold of Nimbus’ hand as the Stalkers haul him up. They retreat to the more-intact end of the cellblock as the grenade detonates behind them, sending a spray of blood up the walls behind them like a fresh paint job.
The door in front of them is already ajar, obviously opened in a hurry. They run through the room ahead of them. Several machines and consoles line the floor and walls – it appears to be the operation center for the entire facility. Papers are scattered all over the floor, discarded by the fleeing soldiers are the evacuated the area. They continue through the room and through a couple of hallways outside. They end up in another room with a single device in the center.
A hologram of a man projects itself from the machine. The lines of a grid flash as he is constructed in front of their eyes. He greets them each, somehow calling them each by their first names. The Stalkers look at each other in confusion, but have no time to pay attention to it as they proceed out the adjacent door.
They find themselves in a series of hallways that look like a maze before them.*
Nimbus: This is the way Virtue lead us! He sensed the way somehow, but it was complicated and there’s no way I could even begin to tell where we are...
*Nimbus cuts himself off, looking at the ground for a moment, then asking:*
Nimbus: Did Virtue… make it out?
*Gremlin hesitates, then slowly puts his hand on Nimbus’ shoulder and regretfully answers:*
Gremlin: I sent him on a mission that I don’t even think I could come back from. He agreed to it knowing full well the danger he faced. The chance of survival was slim to none… if he’s alive the mutants would have overrun that part of the facility by now. I’m sorry.
*Nimbus winces, taking the news like a kick to the gut. Finally he nods and says:*
Nimbus: Then let’s get out of here and shut down this operation, once and for all.
*Gremlin can’t agree more, repressing his own feelings of loss as they follow Lukash’s soldiers to their escape route.*

[Audio enabled]
*Virtue hobbles out of the room, leaving the faint green glow of the machine behind him as sirens and red lights flash around him. He doesn’t know where he is going or why as the puzzle that was his life in recent days is thrown into the trash and burned. His mission is complete, leaving his life in utter ruin. He wanders aimlessly back the way he came as deep explosions shake the facility below him. He loses his balance, holding his hands out for the wall beside him to steady himself as the NPP shakes around him.
He passes the body of Dmytro, his cold, dead eyes  speak of his failure as blood slowly collects in the corner of the room. A gas line ruptures in the room behind him, starting fire in the various machines within. He slowly closes the door behind him as secondary explosions erupts behind him. Pieces of machinery hit the door behind him as he enters the now vacant hall. Not a single mutant can be seen in the path before him.
The door behind him flies off its hinges as a large explosion bursts from the room behind it. He barely flinches as hot sparks and ash soar past his face, nearly burning the back part of his protective hood completely off. Disorientation sets in as he rounds the corners and sees an endless hall stretching in front of him. He falls to his knees in despair, unable to continue. He reaches down the hall towards the unreachable exit somewhere ahead of him.
Suddenly a small voice sounds in his head:*
[Unknown]: Virtue… you may have denied us, but you did not kill us… we thank you… we cannot bear to see one of our own suffer… go… and attain peace.
*An image appears in his head - a map. He looks to his right and sees a door nearly invisible under a layer of dust. He limps to the door, opening it slowly. Stairs - leading somewhere above. He climbs the steps slowly, each step threatens to send him back down the entire flight. He reaches the final stair after a lifetime of waiting, and opens the door.
A rush of wind knocks him over, dropping him to his knees. He is outside, atop the roof of the NPP. The sky is still cloudy and red. The large smokestack that was pouring red smoke when they first saw the facility is now pouring thick black smoke. The air smells of burning flesh and chemicals.
He drags his feet through the gravel on the roof, hardly noticing the stream of ant-like people below him running to APCs, jeeps, helicopters, and any other form of escape they can find as a larger stream of mutants steadily exits the NPP after them, gaining rapidly.
The sound of helicopters fill the air amongst the lightning in the sky above. They soar over him, bound for parts unknown. He continues forward, up ladders and across large sections of roof towards the escape C-Consciousness gave him as a parting gift.
APCs and jeeps pull away from the NPP, racing down the road in streams as a stampede of mutants follow behind them. Gunfire fills the streets and parking lots outside as the soldiers try desperately to escape with their lives. All of it fades into the distance as his goal draws near. A large light shines in front of him. He holds out his arms as he approaches like the way to Heaven has opened just for him. He enters the light and is taken from the facility and out of the middle of Hell as the heat continues to rise.

{Excerpt from Gremlin’s PDA}
*The Freedom Stalkers point excitedly ahead as they approach the piping that will lead to their escape. They kick in the door to small maintenance room and quickly remove the vent cover from a large pipe protruding into the room. They hold Lukash’s feet as he leans in to inspect it for himself. He calls back to the room:*
Lukash: It looks clear! I can see light at the bottom – we can make it!
*The injured Stalkers in the group are awake and active enough through the bumping around on the journey to be up and about. Enigma looks back at the facility behind her, tears welling in her eyes as she holds her chest in pain. Nimbus puts his arms around her to comfort her.*
Nimbus: He did it… he saved us all. He’ll be remembered as a hero… we have to remember that…
*Nimbus’ voice cracks as he tries to form the words through his distress:*
Nimbus: … he… didn’t die in vain.
*The words do nothing to comfort either of them. Gremlin summons them to the pipe as the last of the Freedomers slide down it to the ground below.*
Gremlin: Come on… we’ve got to go.
*Enigma bursts into tears.*
Enigma *crying*: We can’t leave him… we can’t!
Gremlin: There’s nothing we can do for him! The facility is swarmed… there’s no way he could have… he just… we can’t…
*Gremlin tries hard to articulate his thoughts but can’t help but feel he is abandoning a friend, although the explosions and mutants no doubt make getting to him impossible. He turns them around, and begs them:*
Gremlin: Please… we *have* to go NOW!
*Nimbus sobs and forces himself down the pipe, sliding slowly down to the ground below.*
*Enigma takes one last look at the facility, the moment will never last long enough for her as she captures as much as she can.*
*Gremlin grabs her hand gently, beckoning her to go. She turns toward the pipe, her heart crushed. She slides down it, barely trying to slow her descent as she goes.
He sighs and takes the chance to pay his final respects to the bravery of those who died for the mission. All he can do is salute the air as tears well in his eyes. He turns and follows behind the rest of the Stalkers.
Gunfire, screams, and the sounds of escaping vehicles and helicopters fill his ears as he nears the ground. He shoots out of the bottom of the pipe and is quickly grabbed by a couple of Freedom soldiers as they run with him towards a nearby APC. Lukash yells back at him from the group in front of them as they sprint across the parking lot towards a row of APCs in front of them:*
Lukash: We shouldn’t have any problem blending right in to the Military as they leave. They’re not going to notice one APC heading in another direction – its every man for himself out here!
*Gremlin tries to find the words but can find none as they sprint to the nearest APC.
The Freedom soldiers mount up in the APC, taking the driver seat as well as the mounted turret on top. Lukash takes the passenger seat as the rest of the Stalkers pile in to the back. They get a final glance at the NPP behind them as flames lash out of several windows and black smoke pours from the smokestack near Reactor 4. Mutants flood out like an overflow of water across the asphalt and grass around them, but they take no notice of the single APC splitting off from the main group.
The gunfire from the APCs and the roars and screams of the pursuing mutants finally fade into the distance, but they still seem to linger in their heads for a long time afterwards.
The Stalkers sit quietly in the dim light of the APC as it bumps around on the terrain. Gremlin is the first to look up. His eyes feel like rocks grinding in his sockets as he moves them. He looks at the face of each of the occupants in the APC with him. The Freedom soldiers are asleep, using the opportunity to sleep on the way back to base. Reaper is out cold again, no doubt fighting a huge battle in his head. Nimbus, Enigma, Zombie, and Solitaire are all active by some definition of the word, their eyes frozen in place on the floor in front of them.
They slowly take notice as Gremlin looks at each of them. His eyes are moist and bloodshot, causing his attempt at a smile to fail horribly. The other Stalkers return similar glances. Words don’t need to express the thoughts that pass between them as they look at one another. Enigma begins to sob again. Gremlin uses the last of his restraint to whimper:*
Gremlin: We did it.
*His head immediately falls into his hands as he weeps silently. The group huddles close, pressing their heads together in a small circle and joining him in silent mourning for all that they lost. They in their huddle for the remainder of the trip, each of them eventually passing out from exhaustion as the APC continues away from the NPP and towards safer lands.*

[Audio enabled]
*Virtue finds himself falling through the air, finally crashing into a tree and rolling down the hill below it. He comes to a rest at the bottom, and promptly passes out.
A wooden door open and closes nearby. The sound of footsteps quickly approach and a female voice yells:*
[Unknown]: Ilarion! Ilarion come quick!
*The door opens and closes quickly again as more footsteps approach.*
Ilarion: What on Earth happened, Aleksandra?
Aleksandra: I don’t know! He just… fell out of the sky and through that tree! I came out and saw him roll down that hill – he’s out cold!
Ilarion: Look at his weird clothes. He’s all cut up and scorched to a crisp. Damn, he looks like hell…
Aleksandra: Is that a…
Ilarion: Yeah… this man’s been shot. A few times by the looks of it. I can’t believe he’s still alive.
Aleksandra: We’ve got to help him!
Ilarion: I know, I know… don’t get your panties in a wad. I need to make sure it’s safe to move him first.
Aleksandra: you don’t suppose he’s one of them, do you?
Ilarion: By the looks of his suit and the cuts on him it looks like it. I’d bet a hundred Rubles on it!
Aleksandra: What if he tries to kill us?
Ilarion: Relax… he’s a man in need and I’ll be damned if I turn him down. We’ll fix him up and let him go about his business. Wouldn’t want him telling his friends how inhospitable we are. Now help me bring him inside.
*As they begin to drag him towards their house, Aleksandra notices an object gripped in his fist. She opens his fingers are analyzes the small piece of torn leather. On it, is written the word “ENIGMA”.*
Aleksandra: Look here! He had this in his hand. It looks like he tore it from his suit.
Ilarion: What’s it say?
Aleksandra: “ENIGMA”
Ilarion: Who do you suppose that is?
Aleksandra: It’s gotta be one of those Stalkers. Do you think it’ll ever reach him?
Ilarion: I know a guy who sees to this kind of stuff… it’s like they run their own little country in there. I’ll make sure he finds this “Enigma” and gets it to him. Now come on, before this man dies from his wounds.

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