August 27, 2010

Chapter 1: Report


The commander paced back and forth on the floor impatiently. The soldiers sitting at the terminals beside him did their best to look busy. The tension rose as the mounting need to give some sort of status report built in the minds of the soldiers, but none of them wanted to be the one to say it. The commander stopped in his tracks, suddenly, drawing the attention of all those unfortunate enough to be in the room with him.
The soldiers watched in anticipation as his hands slowly balled into fists and began to shake as negative emotions built up inside of him. Then, in one swift move he pivoted his body to the left, swung his right fist past his head and sent it crashing down on the top of the terminal closest to him. The soldier at the station and those closest to him jumped back suddenly, staring directly at their commander as his face contorted in an attempt to formulate words through his deadly rage.
“Give me a fucking status report! NOW!!!” he yelled at the soldier in front of him. The room went silent as the weight of the moment threatened to crush the very soul of the soldier nearest to him.
The soldier stuttered as the words timidly left his mouth, “I… I have nothing to report s… sir.”
Wrong answer. The commander grabbed the soldier by his collar, forcing him up close enough to his face that the soldier could smell the alcohol on his breath. “Then who the FUCK is monitoring the situation?!” he yells, sending saliva at the soldier’s face.
Another soldier behind the commander offered a suggestion in an effort to rescue his comrade from the commander’s rage, “It is them who have failed to report to us, sir!”
The commander turned his head to the left and glared at the soldier who spoke. The soldier in his grasp swallowed hard and sighed slowly, relieved that the commander’s attention had shifted from him.  The commander dropped the soldier back onto his chair with a *thud* and stared at the other soldier. He seemed to fall into some sort of daze, his eyes locked on the last soldier who spoke – challenging his claim. The nervous silence of the room is ended suddenly by the sound of a gunshot.
The commander’s pistol was pulled suddenly out of its holster and pointed in the direction of the unfortunate soldier who spoke last. Smoke curls out of the barrel as the soldier reclines back in his chair, slowly sinking down with a stream of blood forking down his forehead.
The soldiers in the room gripped the edge of their stations in fear and kept their eyes trained on the commander as he resumed his patrol up and down the row of consoles beside him. He entered a row at random and glanced disgustedly at the lack of useful information displayed on the monitors as he walked past them. He stopped and looked around the room just to make sure all eyes were on him.
Satisfied, he spoke harshly, “Further failure will not be dismissed as mercifully.” With that, he leaned back and threw his fist into the solider closest to him. The soldier yelped in pain as his head smashed into the monitor at his station, cracking the screen and leaving a smear of blood as his head sank to the desk below him.
The commander composed himself and walked briskly back to the front of the command center.
“Now, somebody re-establish contact with our men and get me some fucking results. I won’t ask again…”
With new-found motivation, the room went into immediate action as the soldiers typed on their keyboards and talked over radios in a desperate attempt to get some sort of update from the field.
The commander stormed out of the room, leaving the situation to his inferiors in the chain of command. He walked down the hall outside, soldiers swung wide to avoid him as he continued toward his destination. Once he reached the door to his quarters, he opened it and slammed it shut again behind him angrily. He walked over to a small refrigerator, opening it and taking out a large bottle of vodka. He poured himself a shot, which he drank quickly, wincing as it went down.
After shaking off the burn, he walked over to his personal computer to offer a report on the situation at hand. After a few moments of connecting, a voice addressed him from the computer,
[Unknown]: Hail comrade! What can you tell me of the situation?
[Commander]: The situation is unchanged, sir. We’re still as blind as a child deformed by radiation.
[Unknown]: That’s not good. I trust you to handle the situation, but the longer it is allowed to continue like this the more attention it’s going to draw to our operation. We’ve already had an extensive document leak that’s found its way into international headlines. I can only use my political powers so much before it turns into a real shit-storm.
[Commander]: Understood sir, I am doing everything in my power to correct the problem.
[Unknown]: I understand, but we must see results soon or we’re going to run out of options.
[Commander]: Give me 24 hours. I will have something for you in that time.
[Unknown]: You have 24 hours then. Any more than that and I don’t have to tell you what the consequences could be.
[Commander]: No sir, you do not.
[Unknown]: Do what needs to be done. Farewell my friend.
The commander stood up, closing his eyes and letting the full weight of the situation sink in. There was a lot of work ahead of him and not much time in which to accomplish it.
“Time for Plan B…” he said aloud as he prepared to return to the command center of the underground bunker hidden deep within The Zone.

*

A cool breeze brushed lazily across the cracked, forlorn pavement as the sun began to set in the sky. Light from the setting sun bathed the once abandoned complex in an orange glow as Duty Stalkers patrolled the perimeter of their stronghold at The Bar, pointing Stalkers to their destinations as they arrived. A steady stream of high-ranking members had been trickling in all day, of them recalled to Duty HQ to assess the situation occurring in the middle of the Zone.
Mace was the last one to pass through the thick, metal gates at the entrance of the large, heavily-guarded building in the back of the complex. He continued through the building, walking slowly, but deliberately down the stairs into the underground complex. The hall was dim and narrow, but light was seeping in from a room in the back of the building where the meeting was scheduled to take place. After the guards brushed him down and stored his weapons, they opened the door, allowing him to enter the room where a handful of Duty Stalkers were gathered at a large table in the center of the room.
The acting Duty Commander, Colonel Petrenko, greeted him as he entered,
“Ah, Mace - It’s good to see you again. Please, come in – we were just discussing the uh… situation in The Zone. I apologize that Voronin could not be here, he is tending to other matters”
Mace walked up to the table, where several maps and photographs were arrayed around. The Stalkers were involved in several heated discussions ranging from the military occupation of the center, the mutant threat at their borders, and the imminent danger of the radiation now leaking from Chernobyl. The excitement in the room was evident... something bad was about to happen.
Mace spoke over the voices in an effort to get everyone’s attention,
“Now that we’re all here, can someone please tell me why I was taken away from my post? No disrespect intended, but every minute I’m not there is another minute the Bandits threaten to overrun our outpost in the Garbage.”
The conversations quickly died as he spoke, and all eyes turned to Colonel Petrenko when he finished, allowing him to take the stand,
“I apologize for pulling you away from your station, but this is much more important.” he said frankly.
Mace squinted narrowly at the Colonel, “What in the hell is going on exactly? I’ve been hearing some serious shit circulating the airwaves.”
Colonel Petrenko sighed, “We don’t know. All of this came without even a whisper in our ears. Our friends in the military are completely silent and all attempts to reach them have been met with silence.”
The Colonel began to circle the table, acknowledging all gathered,
“Our best guess suggests that they were operating in our own back yard, hoping that we wouldn’t notice. That very well could have been the case had it not been for that big black cloud to the north.”
“What do we know about the situation there?” one of the other Dutyers asked.
Colonel Petrenko sighed, rubbing his forehead slowly as if trying to coax the growing headache out of his skull, “Nothing... the air is silent.”
The room quieted to the point of near perfect silence as everyone tried to make some sort of sense of the situation. After a few minutes, another Dutyer spoke,
“What about Freedom?”
Colonel Petrenko‘s look became stern, “What about them?”
“They’re closer to the center than we are; maybe they have a better idea of what happened.”
“Ironic, isn’t it,” Mace interjected. “That our enemies would know about our friends activities than we do…”
Another Stalker added, “What about the latest military operation? The last report indicated that they were forced to pull out of the Military Warehouses due to Freedom’s heavy fortification of the area… could Freedom have learned something of the military’s so-called operation within Chernobyl and launched a counter-attack?”
Colonel Petrenko nodded, “That is possible… but whether they had knowledge or not is not what disturbs me most; it’s the fact that we knew nothing. Granted, our alliance with the military doesn’t mean we share all information, but what business do they have operating in the center of the Zone without telling us?”
The Stalkers nodded their heads and talked quietly amongst themselves. After a few moments, another Dutyer inquired up, “What about the mutant threat?”
The room quieted again and all attention returned to Colonel Petrenko, “It has been and will always be Duty’s core mission to protect the world from the dangers of The Zone, and that includes mutants…“
“Yes, yes… that’s not what I meant.” The Dutyer interrupted, “Something has changed… they have become organized somehow and seem extremely intent in wiping us out at all costs.”
He picked up a handful of photographs scattered on the table and dropped them in front of Colonel Petrenko and continued, “They have never attacked with such strength and intelligence before. It is almost as if they are being controlled somehow… as bizarre as that sounds I would never even think to suggest it had I not seen a whole outpost destroyed by them.”
The pictures began circulating the tables and the Dutyers mumbled to themselves, disturbed looks creeping onto their faces. The Dutyer continued, “We all know that mutants are hostile by nature, as is the result of radiation killing off most higher brain functions, but most simply wander the Zone aimlessly like zombies, killing for food or when threatened. As you can see from the photos, not only are their attacks direct, they seem almost, dare I say it, planned.”
One of the Dutyers at the table suddenly stood and yelled, “What?! That’s absurd! They’re  just defending territory like any other animal… and why otherwise would they kill if not for food? What reason would they have to kill off the most abundant source of food in the Zone – they’d starve themselves! ”
“I thought that too, at first. Then the reports started coming in from other sectors.”
The Stalker pulled a flash drive out of a breast pocket on his modified body armor, standard issue yellow and black like the other members of Duty. He handed the flash drive to Colonel Petrenko. The Colonel raised his eyebrow curiously as the Dutyer continued, “We managed to pick up a few short-range radio burst before we were forced to abandon ship. With your permission, Colonel, I think everyone hear should hear them.”
Colonel Petrenko nodded and handed the flash drive to one of the bodyguards standing behind him, who then inserted it into a device behind him. After a few moments of static, choppy audio began to play,
“Abandon… outpost gone… mutant force… blood… help!”
Petrenko looked around the table to gauge the reaction of the others gathered. Fear began to overcome them all as the audio continued with another voice,
“This is the Duty outpost at Agroprom. We have been assailed by large mutant force, the size of which we’ve never encountered before. We’re preparing the base for attack but I don’t think it’ll be enough, the mutants are… determined. Something’s not right about them… this can’t be right…”
Gunshots drowned out the desperate cries of the Stalker as he screamed in agony. To the dismay of the Dutyers, the audio continued,
“Duty outpost, Yantar. We need reinforcements ASAP! The scientist bunker has fallen under attack by a hoard of mutants. Most of my group has made it to the bunker, I’m remaining behind to help the stragglers outside. Something has driven them all mad… they won’t stop coming… there’s no end… Vasyl – get down!”
The remainder of the audio was littered with inhuman grunts, gunshots, and what sounded like human flesh being ripped apart.
“Enough!” The Colonel demanded quickly, “Turn that off immediately.” There’s was no doubt now, as the looks on the Dutyers’ faces told. He stood up and turned away from the table, allowing time for the fear to be washed from his face.  A few moments later, he turned back to the table and asked, ”When did this start happening?”
The Dutyer who offered the flash drive responded, “By our clocks… almost immediately after we got news of activity in the center. Despite the reports of increased mutant activity there there’s no way these mutants all came from the center of the Zone.”
He leaned in on the table, making eye contact with every person there, “They came right for us, killing a few of my men without warning. We fought off three separate attacks within the course of an hour before we were forced to run. This isn’t a matter of food or territory… they’re exterminating us.”
The Stalkers hung their heads, not a word was uttered. At length, Mace finally asked the question on everyone’s minds, “So what are we going to do?”
Colonel Petrenko rubbed his forehead again, shaking his head slowly as it rested in the palm of his hand and let out a sigh before speaking, “We need more information about what’s making them crazy. They greatly outnumber us and we have been caught unprepared for such a violent show of aggressiveness. Freedom may have the information we need. We should attempt to make contact with them and find out what they know… if necessary we may need to work together to combat this threat.”
The Stalkers at the table went into an uproar, some pounding their fists on the table as they stood in protest. One of them shouts,
 “Those merciless bastards killed one of my teams on a harmless mission to search for artifacts. They didn’t even ask any questions or take prisoners!”
 “Don’t forget they killed my brother in a gunfight between our territories. I would gladly trust a Bandit before I would trust them!” another adds.
Colonel Petrenko raised a hand and waited for the room to quiet down. The Stalkers sulked angrily, not anxious to hear any more of his proposal,
“I know we have our differences, and that many Stalkers have died needlessly on both sides. But we may not have any other option. The Bandits mostly occupy the outskirts of the Zone, and they would more likely shoot us down and rob us before they would help us, at least Freedom is out to accomplish something, even though it does conflict with our goals. The Mercenaries only love is money and they could give two shits about the Zone or anyone in it. Loners might help but I wouldn’t entrust anything to them. As for the military… well, I certainly don’t see them rushing to our aid.”
The Stalkers were still riled, but began to nod grudgingly.
The Colonel continued, “At the end of the day, we’re all in the Zone for our own reasons… sometimes our methodology just causes us to have issues with other Stalkers. But this matter is bigger than our petty conflicts, so if we can just put our differences aside for a moment maybe we can get back to completing our primary mission. In the end, that’s all that matters anyway.” The Colonel shrugs, allowing the hint of a smile to cross his lips. “Who knows, maybe by the end of this they’ll see that we’re all just human and our struggle will bring our factions closer together.”
The tension in the room eased slightly and a few laughs were directed at the Colonel.
Mace took the opportunity to speak again, “That may be a bit of a stretch, nonetheless the Colonel makes a good point and anything that will help us in our primary mission should not be idly dismissed. I don’t know about the rest of you but if I can waste less ammo on a fellow human being and put more into those mutant freaks out there I’m all for it.”
There were no objections, although a few Stalkers still looked disgruntled from the thought of any form of interaction with Freedom. The Colonel waited for any more questions before standing and announcing his decision, “It’s decided then. Our priority should be making contact with Freedom and keeping our ears open for any updates from the center. Once we know what we’re dealing with we can decide our next move. You are all dismissed.” He walked out of the room, his bodyguards followed in his footsteps, and left the Stalkers to talk amongst themselves.
Mace stretched as he leaned back in his chair. Thoughts flooded his mind as he envisioned how deep the effects of the most recent disaster in the Zone could go. The two disasters that took place in the two decades before were considered the worst the worst the world had ever seen… where would this one register on that scale? “Assuming the outside world is even watching at all…” he thought to himself. “Will this event mark the next chapter in the Zone’s deadly history? Will it be the last? “
He dismissed the thoughts. “Too much speculation; this is one of those times where the best thing to do is stay calm and don’t overreact. The information is there, just waiting to be uncovered, there’s no sense wasting resources until an accurate assessment can be made.”
He stood up, and said his farewells to the other Dutyers before leaving the room, hoping that a good night’s sleep would help him process all the information floating around in his head, but more so that the morning would yield some answers.

*

Dark thunderclouds churned in the sky - not an unusual sight deep in the Zone - but something about them felt almost more disturbing than usual; like some malicious presence was about to make itself known. The small, but heavily fortified Freedom base in the Military Warehouses was on high alert, not knowing what to expect but prepared for anything. The eyes and ears on the borders of their territory had gone blind and deaf respectively - all they could do now was hope that their other senses could make up for the loss.
“Anything yet?” asked Max, Freedom’s second in command in their leader’s absence.
“Nothing…” replied one of the Freedomers under his command. “As far as we know they achieved their objective and got out but stopped reporting afterwards.”
Max cursed and did his best to resist the urge to look helpless but he knew full well that the confidence of his men was in jeopardy, “Keep trying. If you get so much as a whisper I want to know about it immediately.”
“Understood sir.” The Stalker said as he returned his eyes to the station in front of him.
Max turned to leave but before he could the Stalker looked back at him,
“Sir, if I can speak frankly…”
Max hesitated and looked around the room as curious onlookers gazed back, “Sure… I mean go ahead.”
“Just what in the hell is going on? We haven’t heard anything back from our team in the center, and now our outposts have gone silent. Are we under attack?”
Max did his best to smile positively and responded, “You know as much as I do, Stalker. The best thing we can do right now is wait and prepare... just in case.”
The Stalker looked satisfied for a moment, but then concern came over him and he spoke again, “Prepare for what, sir?”
Max refrained from breaking eye contact, and tried, unsuccessfully, to maintain his composure, “Anything...” With that, he left the room; letting his absence ease the tensions within.
He looked out at the foreboding clouds and fog slowly seeping towards them shrouding the Barrier – the main line of defense between the inner and outer Zone - leaving its ongoing operation solely to his imagination. Cap, the commander in charge of defense of the Barrier, had barely escaped moments ago with a handful of survivors from his post there. He saved as many men as he could when they fell under attack by a large Military force, forcing him to retreat south down the main road leading to Freedom HQ.
The decision was not hastily made, as the Barrier was the only thing standing between them and a direct attack on Freedom territory from the dangers of the inner Zone, including the mutant and Monolith-filled Red Forest, Pripyat, and Chernobyl itself. He had held the Barrier against many attacks for as long as Max could remember, always using the experience gained to help fortify the position in hopes of making it a permanent blockade to ensure the safety of the inner Zone. But the recent attack changed all that.
Max inhaled deeply and let out a heavy sigh, hoping that the fear clearly visible on his face would soon dissipate. All contact with the team Lukash sent to Chernobyl on a suicide mission to save Gremlin’s group was lost after their last report, which stated that they had managed to meet up with his group, destroy some secret military lab within the plant, and get a ride out before everything within turned to chaos. There was too much to report and not enough time in which to report it in, but of the utmost importance was the radio silence. He supposed it had something to do with the clouds slowly blocking out the setting sun, which he had just realized were smoke clouds.
“What the hell did you do, Gremlin?” he wondered to himself as he watched the black clouds block out the remaining daylight. Before he could speculate further, he was jarred from his thoughts by what he initially thought was thunder from the approaching storm, but then suddenly realized was actually gunfire in the distance. He quickly re-entered his command center and demanded a report,
“Any updates?” he asked anxiously.
“No sir. But…” The Stalker stuttered and looked around the room for support.
“Go on. Remember, even a whisper deserves our attention right now.” Max reassured him.
The Stalker continued, “We… we were just saying that either the storm approaching is producing incredibly rapid thunder or… we’re hearing gunshots.”
Max nodded, “I thought the same. Put us on high alert; we’re blind as a bat here and those are gunshots or I’ll fuck a mutant.”
The Stalker nodded, hitting a button on his console which triggered the base’s old air raid siren. The wailing sound of the siren scrambled the base to full battle readiness as Stalkers ran through the streets of the base, grabbing their gear and reporting to their posts. Floodlights set up around the perimeter walls were activated to illuminate the immediate area around them - the highest concentration of light was aimed to the north towards the Barricade.
The Stalkers outside of the base immediately ran inside as the large outer doors were closed and barricaded behind them. They ran up the stairs and climbed ladders onto the catwalks on the inner part of the walls where an array of sandbags was set up on top. Squad leaders shouted orders as the men under their command moved to their defensive positions. Tensions rose as the siren continued to wail, echoing throughout the entire region and alerting all outposts within of a possible imminent attack. Max could only assume the outposts were still there at all.
Once the chaos died down, the Freedomer at the station near him reported, “All squads are in position. What are your orders, Max?”
Max nodded in acknowledgement, resting his chin in his hand and stroking the gruff hair under his chin in thought, “Kill the siren. Now we watch… and listen.”
The siren was cut, making a slurred whirring sound as it deactivated. Gunshots rang out somewhere in the darkness and fog around them. The Stalkers on the walls gripped their weapons hard as the sounds seemed to draw closer and closer to their position. Deep booms began to pound their ears, sending tremors through the walls around them.
There’s was no doubt now that a large battle was taking place just beyond their sight and drawing closer by the second. The pattern of the gunfire sounded disorganized and desperate, as if a large force was coming towards them with all their speed, shooting behind them as they approached.
Max glanced at the perimeter cameras as they scanned the brightly illuminated hills outside the perimeter walls and the dark, mist-filled hills behind them. Small flashes suddenly became visible in the fog, obviously the result of large mounted guns being fired. Then, all at once the situation became clear. The roaring of engines approached from the darkness beyond and a cluster of APCs, Jeeps, and other vehicles came rocketing towards them, carving a path of destruction in front of them as they flew over hills and crashed through trees, destroying anything in their way.
Max’s eyes grew wide with sudden realization, “It’s the Military! They’ve come for another attack! Open fire!” he yelled.
The Stalkers in the room raced into action, declaring the order to open fire over their radio equipment. Moments later the outer walls lit up with gunfire. Rockets and RPGs screamed as they left their tubes and soared into the oncoming military force as it continued to careen towards them on a reckless path of destruction. Explosions lit up the hills and shook the walls as Freedom whole-heartedly welcomed the military back on a second tour of their base and the armaments contained within.
The Russian/Ukrainian military, Freedom’s worst enemy, embodied everything the anarchists despised. They constantly launched raids on Freedom outposts and most boldy their HQ. They were intent on stopping them at all costs, hoping to silence their voices of dissent for all time. For what reason, the Freedomers weren’t quite sure, but it didn’t stop them from poking around in the military’s affairs. The last attack on their base of operations in the Zone had happened only days before, and had been a lot more organized than the apparent show of power the military was putting on now.
Max watched the monitors in satisfaction as the vehicles are torn asunder in a flash of light and fire. Soldiers rolled out of their vehicles, dying in a bath of flame. The vehicles continued to pour in, though they did not directly engage Freedom forces but instead continued into fire into the unknown behind them.
“Why aren’t they firing at us?” Max half asked/half thought aloud. The answer was suddenly all too apparent. Before anyone could react, a seemingly endless sea of mutants began emerged from the darkness behind the military, following over the hills behind them. Max’ eyes grew wide with surprise and he quickly choked out an order, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… cease fire! Cease fire!”
The Stalkers in Freedom HQ acknowledged, radioing the ceasefire to the Freedom troops. The flashes and smoke trails originating from the outer walls ceased and the Freedomers stood down, watching in horror as the military’s pursuers revealed themselves.
“Look out!” Max yelled at the monitors as the military vehicles crashed into the walls full force, completely out of control. Freedomers fell from the walls as the vehicles hit, some inside, others outside. Those inside scrambled to return to their posts, those outside braced themselves against the walls, doing all they can to dodge the incoming vehicles crashing around them.
Max continued to watch the monitors as soldiers began crawling out of the vehicles and desperately clawed at the outside walls of the base. They tried desperately to climb up the tall outer wall in a futile effort to escape certain death at the oncoming wave of mutants closing in on them. They made every effort to show their non-hostile intent to the Freedomers, jumping on top of their wrecked vehicles and hastily constructing white flags and hoisting them up on the ends of their rifles.
They continued to pound on the walls and began to form human ladders – doing whatever they can think to do to get inside the base.
“Sir…” the radio at the terminal closest to Max transmits the voice of a desperate Freedomer somewhere down in the chaos below “The Military is trying to get over the walls. There’s got to be at least a hundred mutants behind them closing in on us. They’re all going to die! We can’t just let them get slaughtered like that!”
Max continued to watch as the mutant swarm drew closer. The military, knowing that their efforts to enter the base are futile, turned and faced the swarm. They take up their arms and mount the turrets on top of their APCs, unloading everything left in their arsenal into the approaching darkness.
Max took one last look at the swarm and at the tattered remnants of the military force before making up his mind, “Help them. All forces engage the mutants – but DO NOT let the Military in. They brought this mess to our doorstep and that’s where it’s going to remain.”
The room went into action, the men in charge gave orders to the teams at the walls telling them to target the mutants and leave the military force to its fate.
“Fire at will!” Max gives the final command over the radio. The walls immediately lit up again. Rockets and bullets soared over the soldiers backed against the wall and into the rapidly approaching mutant army. The area north of the base lit up as a stream of bullets and explosions pierced the darkness in front of them, revealing an endless sea of mutants coming right at them.
Max glanced back at the monitors in dismay, “It’s not enough… we’ve got to get more firepower out there.” He pointed at a Stalker sitting at another terminal who had been waiting anxiously since the battle started. “Call in support.”
“Aye sir.”  The Stalker immediately radioed for the hidden asset that Max had been neglecting to use unless absolutely necessary.  Freedom had been busy in the Zone, and with the constant haggling of the military it was decided long ago that they would need a bigger presence if they were to stay indefinitely. Those involved had agreed that it would be used as a last resort only, and kept hidden at all times. In this desperate hour, Max could see no better use for it, especially since there probably wouldn’t be any military left outside to report what they had seen.
Shortly after the radio command was given, several thunderous booms sound from somewhere far south of the base like an epic firework finale. Moments later the sound of falling bombs reached their ears. The glass in the windows of the command center rattled loudly as a deep vibration shook the earth around them. The monitors filled with static as the perimeter cameras were knocked offline.
Max walked over to one of the windows facing the action in time to see several large fireballs light up the entire north side of the base. An eruption of dirt, flame and metal shoot up from the ground. The fireballs curled upwards angrily before dissipating and darkening the area again, leaving the floodlights to survey the aftermath.
The perimeter cameras flicked back online. Where moments ago there were green hills with overgrown grass and weeds there was now just a black, burning patch of land between the outer walls and the darkness.
The Stalkers in the room cheered at the outstanding effectiveness of their secret weapon, jumping out of their seats, cheering and high-fiving each other. Max looked on as the cameras panned across the sea of black and red, strewn with the broken remains of their would-be assailants. He allowed a smile to creep across his face as he surveyed the destruction with relieved satisfaction. While turning from the monitors he addressed all Stalkers in the room, “Well done boys, well done. It would seem that our years of fortification here prove that we are indeed here to stay. With that amount of destruction available at our discretion surely the entire Zone will soon recognize our true strength!”
The Stalkers cheered again in agreement, boasting their new-found confidence in the face of previously dire odds. Max’s smile widened as he watched his men dance around and shout victoriously. He turned to leave the room and survey the entirety of the battle first-hand when suddenly the sound of gunfire, once again, rose in the background. He stopped in his tracks, arching an eyebrow and pivoting around to look back into the room in confusion as the Stalkers slowly stopped their cheering, taking notice of the resuming gunfire as well. They scrambled back to their stations, spewing reports simultaneously at Max. He could barely make out a single word but the message was clear, “They’re still coming.”
Before anything could be done, the mutants quickly regrouped and attacked in a manner never before seen by any of them. Acting as if they were determined to kill anything and everything at all costs, the mutants leapt and charged directly into the walls, the force of their combined strength knocking large groups of Stalkers from the walls and twisting the old, rusty metal forming several gaping holes in it. Max watched in horror as several of his men are instantly crushed to death under the walls as the mutants topple it.
“They’re… they’re breaching the walls, sir!” One of the Stalkers in the room shouted at him frantically.
He watched as his men tried desperately to hold their positions on top of the wall as it swayed and buckled under the repeated blows of the mutants on the other side. The Stalkers on the ground began firing through the holes as the smaller mutants began to trickle through them.
“Have they gone insane?! What would cause them to attack us like this?” Max thought desperately to himself.
One of the Stalkers in the control room shouts, “Sir, they’re overrunning us! We’re going to have to abandon the outer walls.” He looked at Max with a doomed look on his face.
After a good dose of abuse from the mutants outside, the walls began to fall, sending the remaining Stalkers scrambling away, laying down fire as soon as they run in the opposite direction. The walls fell with the sickening sound of grinding metal followed by a loudthud.  It was painfully obvious now what had to be done.
“Abandon ship. It’s over.” He stated apathetically.
The room went deathly silent, all eyes looking to him for confirmation.
“Abandon ship… sir?” One of the Stalkers repeated Max’s order for clarification.
Max looked the Stalker in the eyes, trying his best to hide the anguish and shame building up behind them, “You heard me! Take what you can and get the hell out of here!”
All Stalkers in the room looked at each other stunned, in confusion, and slowly begin taking in the urgency of their situation.
Max pressed a button on the console nearest to him, as he leaned in and spoke into the microphone, “Attention all Freedom forces: this is Max. We are abandoning the base, repeat: abandon the base! All Freedom forces are to evacuate and head for Site B, repeat: Site B. Lay down suppressing fire, and retreat.” He hesitated, sinking down into the desk as he repeated, “Repeat: all forces retreat…”
He swallowed hard, slowly releasing the button as he tried to confirm whether the words had actually left his mouth or not. He stood back up and looked out the window in front of him, confirming that all forces were in full retreat. The men behind him began to run. grabbing their gear and heading for the Evac point. He waited until the room was completely empty before walking briskly out of the room, down the stairs, and out into the yard outside.
Upon stepping out the door, a hot wind brushed against his face, filling his nostrils with the smell of smoke and death. The roads between the buildings inside the base are a chaos of Stalkers running to and fro, grabbing what they can and firing at anything not human. Several explosions went off near him as grenades and rockets explode in front of large groups of mutants, sending a fountain of blood and body parts into the air. “Maybe running would be a good idea.” he decided as several hunched-over creatures began to move towards him.
He picked up the pace as he headed to the Evac point – the old train tunnel leading through the hill forming at the base’s eastern boundary. Screaming and gunfire filled the air around him and the air was ripe with fear. He did his best to focus on getting to the tunnel, but was constantly reminded with every step that he was responsible for every life being torn from the Stalkers who were dying to cover his retreat.
He slowed to a walk as a group of Freedom Stalkers bumped into him, looking inquisitively at the man walking back into the gunfight. Once they identified him, they grabbed his arm in protest, “Sir - you need to get to safety! This is NOT where you want to be right now!”
“Give me your weapon.” He ordered.
“Sir, I don’t think you understand…” the Stalker protested.
“You’ve done your job. Now get the fuck out of here – I’ll cover you.” He said as the Stalker handed him the rifle in his hands.
“Y… yes sir.” The soldier looked back at him, concerned, then obediently headed off to the train tunnel behind him.
All the rage building up inside Max reached a peak as he charged the rifle and continued walking into the midst of firefight taking place just ahead of him. More Stalkers ran past him, double-taking as he their acting-leader walked past them into the hellish fight they were attempting to flee from.
“I’m not losing this base without a fight…” Max thought to himself as he fired into the oncoming mutants between him and the wall of fire forming behind them.
“Come on! You’re not welcome here mutant filth! You are going to pay for the lives you’ve taken.” He yelled as he let a grenade fly from the under-barrel grenade launcher attached to the rifle.
A Snork appeared suddenly in the air in front of him, knocking a Stalker in front of him to the ground before clawing at his clothes frantically to get to the warm, juicy flesh contained within. Max squeezed the trigger, letting the G36 do what it did best. The muzzle flashes betrayed the look of satisfied vengeance on Max’s face at seeing the creature take a storm of hot metal before collapsing on the ground with a squeal of inhuman agony. He walked carefully up to where it was twitching and suffering on the ground and fired one last round through the back of its’ head.
The Stalker on the ground rose painfully to his feet, looking at Max, wincing in acknowledgement of his savior.
“Come, brother - it’s time to leave.” He took the man’s arm and slung it around his shoulder as he limped alongside him. He urged the man along as he headed quickly towards the train tunnel. Stalkers continued to fight and die all around him as he used every ounce of his strength to help the man to safety.
“If I can save one man, maybe then I’ll feel like I did everything I could.” Max thought to himself. In the face of a surprise attack against overwhelming odds he felt that maybe his actions would be justified if he could at least say that. The two of them entered a small utility door off the tracks beneath the tunnel as other Freedomers urged them forward. They grabbed their arms, practically hurling them inside like luggage. Max appreciated the lack of prejudice considering his current leadership, especially since he felt like such a failed one. That was one of the things that Freedom stood for - and even in the end it was still worth fighting for.
Max sits down next to the Stalker, a man he had personally never met before. His mind began to wander as the circumstances of their retreat began to play out in his head. The sounds of battle outside began to die as the last of the surviving Freedom forces dove through the door and it was slammed and bolted behind them. A loud boom shook the tunnel causing particles to fall from the concrete ceiling like ashes. The mutants could be heard just outside the door clawing and growling angrily at their escaped foes.
As the Stalkers closest to the door set to work barricading it with anything they could find lying around the tunnel Max found himself replaying the images of the last few minutes over and over in his head.
“Those men out there died for a good cause. They died fighting for what they believed in.” Max reassured himself as best he could with all the deaths now weighing on his conscience. The dark, damp train tunnel grew eerily quiet as the unknown number of Stalkers inside quieted down, hoping that the mutants would lose interest soon and leave them alone.
“The only hope we have now is to get to Site B.” Max sighed as he thought of the long road ahead and what they would do when they got to their destination. “All we can do now wait…”

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