September 9, 2010

Chapter 4: Alone in the Zone


He had been walking for several hours now, veering from the main road to the Bar several times to avoid in increased number of Bandits in the Garbage. He had circled around several large garbage heaps in hopes of avoiding the patrols and come back to the road behind them, but it was obvious now that he had taken a few wrong turns. He came back to the road eventually, only to find that it was not the same road he had followed before, and had run into a substantially larger number of Bandit forces and was forced to take an even bigger detour to the east. Forced off-course, he had found himself in a much more deserted area, relying simply on his compass for a sense of direction.
But in most senses of the word, he was lost in one of the most deadliest places on earth. Worse than that, it was beginning to get very hot as the vegetation around him got sparser and drier. He found himself now in some sort of desolation, spreading as far as he could see in front of him. Pockets of green popped up occasionally around him, but for the most part it was rolling hills covered in dry grass and weeds. The cloud cover over him was almost completely gone now, save for some dark clouds to the north, and the clear blue sky stretched all the way to the horizon. The hot sun above beat down on him, forcing him to stop several times and take a swig from his canteen, which he found was now dangerously close to being empty.
A few abandoned structures stand out around him, looking as dry and barren as the land around him. He realizes that it would be a better idea to attempt to contact someone to get his bearings before he attempts to go any further. He finds a shady spot under a wilted tree, finding it only slightly more tolerable than being in the sun, and takes out his PDA, hitting the button for his radio.
“To anyone in range, please respond.” He figures a short vague message would be a better idea in case he was still in range of the large Bandit base he had passed earlier.
The PDA begins to crackle in his hand. He wipes away the layer of dirt, blood and grime that has accumulated on it unbeknownst to him and holds the device up to his ear as the static on the other end becomes clearer. It’s a man’s voice. He’s older-sounding, but he doesn’t recognize who it belongs to. He can pick out pieces and parts of what seems to be some sort of radio broadcast.
[Unknown]: … seeking to fill… void in your life? Join… church… Doomsday… closer than you think.
“Doomsday?”  Virtue ponders why that word stuck out more than the others. But one thing is clear; something or someone nearby is broadcasting a message. He traces the signal back to its source using the signal-locater on his PDA, which pinpoints the signal somewhere northwest of him.
What the hell, at least they sound friendly… and it’s not too far out of the way.” he decides. Of course whether they’re friendly or not, he intends to investigate the source of the signal and attempt to get directions to the Bar somehow.
He heads off in the direction of the signal, ascending a small hill in front of him. From the top of it the golden fields surrounding him reflect the sun’s light and force him to shield his eyes as they adjust to the increased brightness. He surveys the land ahead of him as he holds out his PDA to get a sense for where the signal may be coming form. Nestled between the bases of two hills to the northeast in a particularly brown patch of land is a small village. The buildings are mud brown and worn to near collapse by the elements. This is no doubt the oldest and most shambled remains of a village he had seen in the Zone or anywhere else for that matter. The one-road town looks like something out of the 1800s… or, with some imagination, the charred remains of Cordon. Besides its old age and obvious wear, he gets a bad feeling about it he can’t quite explain. Anything worth seeing in that village is long gone, he decides.
He traces the road leading into town with his eyes in the opposite direction to the west. A lone structure stands at the top of a dried, weary-looking hill. The steeple on top gives it away as a church. Virtue glances back at his PDA. The source of the signal is definitely coming from there. He lets out a deep breath and slowly approaches the base of the hill. As he draws closer he begins to feel suddenly exposed and not wanting to take any chances alone in this harsh semi-desert, he drops to the ground and pulls out his binoculars.
He slowly and methodically scans the building from top to bottom, especially focusing on any openings for signs of activity inside. After a few minutes with no more than a cobweb waving back at him, he stands up slowly, and cautiously continues towards the church for a better look. “Even if nobody is there now, they were at some point. Something is powering whatever is putting off that signal.” Though it could just be wishful thinking he can’t rule out the possibility that the message is automated and the maker of it is long dead. It could have been running for days… weeks… maybe years already. “So I’ve basically got 50/50 odds that it’s either a trap and someone is waiting nearby to ambush me and steal all my supplies or the person who set up that device died a while ago and there’s nothing to see.” Although it seems like a lost cause, he can’t shake the nagging curiosity begging him to go investigate. He was a Stalker, after all.
He climbs the base of the hill the church stands on top of, crawling cautiously through the ever-thinning cover as he listens intently for anything out of place. He inches up to the cover of overgrown plants on the edges of the building – obviously planted there long ago to enhance its aesthetic value. He crouches in the shade along the south side of the building, leaning his head against the cool wood on the side of the building, listening for any sound within and feeling for any vibrations that could spell movement. There’s no doubt in his mind now; he’s completely alone.
He duck-walks over to the door, the sun shines down on him again as he emerges from the shade and stops next to it. Several small holes litter the door, giving off a resemblance to Swiss cheese. He slowly leans towards one of the larger holes, placing his eye socket against it and peering inside. Sunlight shines through the stained-glass windows on the northern side, bathing the room in all colors of the spectrum. Dust dances in the air around the dry old pews. The altar in the back of the room is flipped over and paper litters the floors. He jumps a bit when he locks eyes with a crucifix on the back wall, shuddering slightly at its creepiness. He shifts his weight across his legs to get a better view of what’s near the door. He follows the length of an overturned pew to his right and is rudely greeted with the answer to the door’s sad condition; the barrel of a Winchester 1300 Defender.
He looks up, half-expecting to see someone behind it, but finds that it is mounted on the pew with a thin wire leading from the trigger to a pulley behind it, which leads to the back of the doorknob. “Well… good thing I didn’t march right in…” Virtue thinks to himself, relieved. He leans back from the door, no longer willing to try and enter that way just in case triggering the trap alerts someone or something. When that shotgun was rigged, he doesn’t know, but it’s obvious it was put there to keep unwelcome guests out.
He surveys the area around the hill quickly to make sure nobody has taken notice of him. He can only hope that he can find another way in and that whoever booby-trapped the church has directions to the Bar from here. If someone lived here they didn’t seem to be home… still, that was no proof that they didn’t know he was here or wouldn’t if he wasn’t careful. If there was anything he’d learned from the Zone in his experience so far it was that there was no real safety anywhere.
Determined to enter, he creeps around the building in search of another way in. Piled up in front of the stained-glass windows on the sunny side of the building he finds a pile if discarded furniture. He spies a few sturdy-looking crates nearby and begins to entertain the idea of stacking them on top of each other to reach the windows. To his advantage, one of the stained-glass windows above is already broken, which would give him a noiseless entry. He quickly but quietly begins stacking the crates below the broken windows. After a few minutes he runs out of boxes and resorts to chairs, tables, and anything else he can find scattered around. He nearly loses his footing a couple of times as he attempts to stack objects higher and higher towards the entry point above.
Finally, the structure comes within his height of the windows. He steps back to analyze his work; the rickety structure sways a little at the top, but it’s the best he could do with what was around. He tests the structure with his leg, putting only a little weight on it at first, then a little more, then eventually all of it. He lifts his other leg onto the wooden crate below him, then begins to climb onto a musty couch in front of him on the next tier of the structure. As he climbs on, the structure shifts precariously beneath him. He mounts a greying, water-damaged table next, which comprises the third tier of the structure. The pyramid of death he concocted sways in protest beneath him and the table creaks and groans with seeming laughter at his pathetic structure. His muscles tense as he dares to put more weight onto the table, carefully pulling himself on top of it.
“Balancing acts should be left to the circus...” He thinks to himself as the wind picks up slightly and he compensates for the increased sway beneath him. The structure is suspiciously quiet for the moment, but the tension is evident as he climbs. Standing slowly on the table, he reaches up and touches the sill of the window, looking back at the state of the wobbly pile below him. He can reach the window, but he realizes he’ll have to pull himself up to get inside.
“I get one shot at this…” he thinks. “If I don’t give it my all I fall off, knock the wind out of myself, and probably break the structure in the process. Well… here I go. 1…” He braces himself, gripping the ledge above him tightly and tensing his muscles as he counts silently in his head,
“2…” He grunts as he jumps, pulling his full weight up as he inches onto the ledge. The structure below him falls away from the wall with a crash, tumbling violently down the hillside in a cloud of debris.
He lets out a puff of air as he continues to pull his bodyweight and gear up with him. He can feel his arms burning and his face turning red as sweat collects on his forehead.
Come on Yuriy, you can do it… climb!” he cheers himself on as his muscles work. His feet kick against the outside wall in an effort to find some sort of foothold. They scrape against the side as he continues to push, using friction to help push himself up. In a final boost of effort he pushes his arms up and his weight forward, grunting as he gives it his all. Suddenly the resistance is gone and he can feel himself freefalling through the air. He tucks into a front flip at the last moment to avoid landing on his head and slams into a pew with a loud thud. The loud splintering of broken wood is the last thing he hears before a persistent ringing in his head.
“That’s gonna feel terrible in the morning…” he moans as he rubs his head in pain.
He holds his hand out in front of him as it begins to blur, almost as if he’s expecting someone to take hold of it and help him to his feet before he passes out. Jesus’ unwavering stare is the only thing that answers his unspoken call for help as the room begins to go dark. He lets out a small gasp of air in protest as he hears a door somewhere near the crucifix slowly begin to open. A shadowy figure moves over him slowly, the silhouette of a weapon in its hands.
“It would appear that we have another lost soul looking for guidance.” The figure says.
Virtue turns his head towards the voice as he loses the feeling in his arm and it falls carelessly onto the floor beside him. He thinks he can feel himself being dragged across the floor and away from the scene, but he can’t tell as his eyes roll back in his head and the room goes black. The events that have lapsed since the last time he’s slept begin to play through his head and once again he finds himself in Chernobyl surrounded by the darkness of the abandoned, irradiated halls and the evil that dwells within.


*


A timid line of orange light begins to show on the eastern horizon, the first sign of hope on one of the most hopeless days Freedom had ever experienced. In all of their skirmishes with Stalkers and mutants they had always just accepted that outposts sometimes fell and Stalkers sometimes died, but loss was just a prelude to a victory somewhere else. Today was different. Their leader and his successor were both lost in the center of the Zone, probably dead from the same wave of mutants that had nearly wiped them all out only hours ago. Even the Military, with the largest taskforce they had seen in the Zone yet, had not been strong enough for the mutant force on their heels and HAD ended being wiped out.
Max did his best to remain strong despite the extreme sense of loss weighing down on him, but they were nearing Site B and he still didn’t have the slightest idea what they were going to do about their situation.
Is this all that’s left for Freedom in the Zone? Is it my duty now to lead our diminished forces crawling back to territory that nobody else in the Zone would even want to take a shit on? Is this the end?” The thoughts haunt his mind, occupying his attention for what could have been minutes or hours until the Freedomers around him begin to stop. He looks up, directing his eyes upwards to the an abandoned mining tunnel entrance above them.
“We’re here, Max.” Cap informs him as he appears suddenly beside him.
Site B… it had been ages. It was one of Freedoms first strongholds in the Zone, and had served as a hidden underground stronghold where they could spy on the Military and the other factions as they became balance of power had shifted in the Zone over the months and years. Nobody but the most trustworthy of Freedomers were even made aware of its existence because of not only its sentimental value, but its other strategic importance. Hidden deep inside, concealed by the hill above it, were the artillery pieces they had used earlier against the mutant threat. They had been under construction for nearly as long as Freedom had been in the Zone, and it was hoped that they would be used to spread Freedom’s ideals across the Zone once and for all.
The initial purpose of these assets had been to give Duty an ultimatum when they had first tangled with Freedom: to disarm or die. With the massive barrels angled to unleash a barrage of shells directly at The Bar, Duty territory would be taken easily, leaving Freedom to secure the Zone and one day, with luck, kick the Military out of the Zone and open its borders up to everyone. But they no longer had the manpower for that plan… which had been mere weeks away from being executed before things had been changed. They could obliterate Duty easily, but wouldn’t have enough men to occupy The Bar – which would leave the central hub of the habitable Zone open to Bandits, Mercs and all sorts of other unwanted scum, not the least of which being mutants.
As Cap walks back to check on their prisoners Max walks up to a reinforced metal door constructed over the original entrance to the shaft, concealed by dense foliage. He uncovers a small box located to the left of the door and flicks a small switch hidden within. With that, the door slowly recedes along a track running along the top of the shaft. The Freedomers behind him strain to see through the dark tunnel ahead of them, as they shine some lights inside. Max signals Cap to check inside, following behind him as the rest of the Freedomers continue inside cautiously.
“Where the hell are we?” one of the captured Dutyers asks, no doubt sensing the sudden change in temperature and smell.
Cap takes several deliberate twists and turns through the tunnels; a route that would to be known to take again. Finally, they reach a small metal door with a bright light on over it. He cues an intercom next to the door, but instead of speaking, uses the button to send a message in Morse code. After a few seconds, the lock in the door clicks and he pulls the door open.
“After you, Max.” He says as he stands aside and allows Max to pass him.
The room is dark at first, but the lights gradually switch on as Max and the rest of the Freedomers enter it. Max looks around the room in awe, nostalgia washes over him as he takes it all in again for the first time in years uncounted.
“Wow… it’s like coming home again after being gone for so long.”
He walks around the room, running his hands over the dusty racks of World War II-era weapons, military radios, detection equipment, and endless crates of other contraband. He walks into an adjoining room to the left of the main entrance where old computers and mainframes line the walls, also covered in a layer of dust. A large aerial map of the Zone as it was back in 1986 stands prominent against the back wall with a table littered with maps stands beneath it.
“This is where it all began.” Max remembers his early life as one of the first Freedomers in the Zone. This was their headquarters; the place where they could watch and listen to the Zone beneath the detection of the Military or anyone else who did not align with their ideals. Unfortunately, the quick expansion of the Freedom faction meant that the small facility simply couldn’t house them and their supplies. So they left and made a move for territory, inching their way as close to the center of the Zone as they dared in hopes of being the first there to take advantage of all the opportunities there.
“Sir, the guy in charge here is looking for you.” Cap reports as he emerges from another room.
“What’s his name?” he replies.
“Loki.”
“Alright, send him this way.”
“Yes sir.” Cap turns around to go get Loki; the leader in charge of the outpost.
Though Max knew the location of the outpost, the names of Freedomers were kept a secret to protect knowledge of their commanders from prying ears. Freedom had a lot of enemies both inside and outside of the Zone who hated Freedom and everything they stood for, so it was never a bad idea to take the extra precaution. Moments later a young, un-shaven Freedomer with dark hair approaches, both a look of relief and worry on his face.
 “Welcome to the Alpha Site, I am Loki.” He extends his hand for Max to shake.
“Max.” Max returns the shake as he looks around the room. “The place is just like I remember it… minus all the dust.”
“We just watch over the place, we rarely ever use any of the equipment… which makes it even more of a bore around here.”
“Well this is sure to interest you then.” Max begins as Loki cocks his head in question. “HQ is gone.”
 “Gone? As in ‘sucked into anomaly’ gone or ‘burned to a crisp like my mother’s cooking’ gone?
“As in ‘directly attacked by a massive swarm of mutants’ gone.”
Max relives the events of the night in his head and relays them to Loki who looks more and more hopeless as he tells the story. When he finally catches him up to where they are now Loki begins to pace the room. He quickly catches himself in the act and stops, then walks up to Max and whispers to him.
“We should assemble the higher-ranking men in the old command center behind us and assess the situation in full. I recommend we get the rest of the men to work getting this place fully operational. It sounds like we may be here for a while anyway.”
“Good plan.” Max says simply.
“OK. I’ll meet you there.” Loki then turns around and heads into the old command center pending Max’s orders.
Max looks around the room at the Freedomers gathered, most of them are staring blankly at the ground, some look angry, others afraid, and others meet his eyes with a look of readiness in them.
“Attention everyone!” He addresses them all. They all stop whatever they were doing and look at him. The room is deathly silent for a few seconds – no doubt they are all eager to hear what’s next for them.
“All high-ranking officers are to report to the command room to discuss our next course of action. Everyone else is to start working on getting this place as operational as possible. There’s a good chance we could be here for a while, at least until we have a good idea of what’s going on out there. There is a lot of old equipment, weapons and other things that could come in handy here, and we owe it to our fallen brothers to get this place as defensible as possible. We may be wounded but we’re not dead, and I do not intend on going down without a fight.”
The mood in the room seems to become more positive and most of the Freedomers nod their heads and look back with renewed faith in their commander.
“We will do everything in our power to find out why we were attacked, what actions we will take, and take back what is rightfully ours. Now get to work, we’ve got a lot of it ahead of us.”
General statements of agreement sound around the room as the men immediately set to work clearing the dust from the tables and sifting through the items cluttered on top of them. Max continues into the command room as the last of the high-ranking officers enter and shuts the door behind him. Loki stands in front of the map at the front of the room as the other men gather around the consoles facing it and sit down. He stands next to Loki who steps aside so that he can have the floor.
As he looks at the faces staring back at him he is reminded of the first time he stood in this room among the founding members of Freedom, many of whom were no longer around. Back in those days they were an ambitious and angry group of Stalkers, most of them freshly AWOL from the military and ready to do whatever it took to see them suffer for their own reasons. They did not have the numbers at the time to affect anything in any major way, but they had a strong collective will and a largely-unclaimed Zone for them to play in. And now here he was again, years later, and hoping to inspire the same will in his men now. They needed it more than ever now if Freedom was to survive in the Zone.
 “Alright, thank you all for showing up. First, we should determine how our current supplies look. Skinflint – how do we look?”
“I was able to grab some of the best weapons I had on me at the time… a couple SVU’s, a Dragunov, and a nice F2000. A lot of the supplies we brought included about a dozen LR-300s, some SIG SG-550s, a few G36s, and a couple Grozas and Vals. We also brought plenty of side-arms, mostly USPs and P220s, though we also have some Berettas and a few Desert Eagles.  A couple shotguns too. A fair amount of ammo with them all. Some explosives, grenades and C4 mostly. No rockets.”
“We’ve also got the old World War II-era weapons here.” Screw adds. “I won’t lie, they’re in pretty shitty condition but with a little polish and some minor repairs they could be put into service. We’ve got plenty of ammo for them so I’d recommend it.”
“I’m pretty good with a Mosin Nagant, do we have any of those?” Loki suggests.
“I’m pretty sure I saw a few lying around. There might even be some nice scopes to put on them.” Screw responds.
“Alright, so we know where we stand on supplies. Now we need a plan.” Max says.
“You said Lukash, Gremlin and a team of other Stalkers got trapped in the middle of the Zone and that’s where you believe the mutants and the Military came from, right? Loki asks.
“We believe so, yes.” Max replies.
“Then I think we should make it a priority to find out where they are and what they know ASAP.”
“I agree. I believe we also need to figure out what’s going on outside. Those prisoners we picked up said the Bar was attacked too… that means Duty could be in the same boat as us right now, or any of the other factions for that matter.
“I could interrogate them.” Cap rubs his hands with a hopeful gleam in his eye.
“Only if necessary.” Max points at him to emphasize his point. “They seem to be pretty shaken so there’s no need to stir them up any. Let’s try to get any information they’re willing to give first and go from there.”
“What about Duty?” Loki asks.
“What about them?” Max replies.
“If those Dutyers you bumped into are telling the truth, and you said they seemed to be, then chances are Duty is in over their heads and the Bar is overrun.”
“He’s right.” Cap adds. “This could be our chance to take the Bar.” The officers in the room murmur amongst themselves at this idea.
“Wait!” Loki cuts them off. “We’re going about this wrong.” The murmur dies down as he holds his hands out to invoke quiet. “Look, I know I’m probably alone when I say this but I think we should look at this in more than just a tactical way. This could be our chance to form an alliance.”
“Are you kidding?” Cap stands in protest. “If they were attacked by a swarm of mutants they’ll just use that to prove that the Zone is a danger to humanity and just tote their ‘saving the planet’ crap even more!”
“Maybe…” Loki continues. “But you also said that you encountered the Military fleeing the center. Duty can’t be happy with that. Allies or not I doubt they would have knowingly allowed the Military to operate there.”
“He has a point.” Max agrees.
The room falls silent for a moment as the Stalkers mull over the possibilities. Footsteps can be heard outside the door as it opens and one of the Freedomers enters.
“Sorry to interrupt, but there’s something you all might want to hear.”
Max glances at Loki as he returns an inquisitive look and heads out of the room. The other officers follow behind Max as he exits the room and catches up with Loki who is hovering over an old radio. He rests his arm on the desk nearby and leans in to listen as the Freedomer turns up the volume.
[Unknown]: Roger that. We’re moving into position now.
*Static*
[Unknown]: Uhh… we’ve got a problem here. There are civilians in the checkpoint. They appear armed and heavily fortified.
[Unknown 2]: Come again - did you say civilians in the checkpoint?
[Unknown]: Affirmative - armed and dangerous. Our men are nowhere to be seen, but it looks like they’ve been killed. How should we proceed?
*Static*
[Unknown 2]: They’re trespassing in an ecological disaster zone – we can’t save them now. Engage and proceed to objective.
*Static*
[Unknown]: Roger base. Engaging and proceeding to objective.
Gunfire, radio chatter, and other sounds of battle dominate the room as Max looks up to gauge Loki’s reaction.
“They’re shooting civilians who took over the checkpoint?  What objective are they referring to?” He scratches his head in confusion.
“I don’t know, but we need to find out what the hell is going on out there and we need to know now.” Max pounds his fist down on the desk, no longer willing to stand by and wait. “We got our asses handed to us on our own turf because of something those Military fuck-ups did and now they’re on our border shooting at Stalkers.”
He paces the room, becoming more and more angry every second he is forced to listen to the Ukrainian military invading the Zone.
“Get people on the radio and have them scan all frequencies. We’re not just going to sit by and let this happen. Contact anyone you can find and demand some Goddamn answers.”
“I’m on it.” Loki quickly stands up and looks around the station at the Freedomers around him. He speaks loudly in an authoritative voice, “You heard Max, get on it people!” a chorus of affirmatives come back at him as the room goes into a flurry of action. Loki retreats from the room and back into the control room to carry out the mission.
“Gremlin, Lukash… the two of you better get your asses back here and explain the situation to us before the entire Zone collapses in around us.” Max tightens his grip on the edge of the desk as he continues to listen to the sounds of civilians fighting and dying on the Zone’s borders for reasons he can only guess at for the moment.


*


Gremlin and the rest of the Stalkers look frantically around the room for some way to escape their restraints. The Monolithians surrounding the room outside begin chanting some gibberish, as the Bloodsucker roars ferociously at the Stalkers in close proximity to it. The chanting gets louder and louder and anticipation mounts in their voices as they gaze intently into the room.
Though the creature looks like a Bloodsucker, there’s something different about it. It’s unusually built with a darker, slimier complexion than the usual dark, matted brown fur, making it appear much more frightening than the usual scary-as-hell Bloodsucker. It fans out its four, exceptionally large facial-tentacles towards them. Saliva drips from its mouth as the creature lunges from the cage opposing them, lashing out with a ravenous thirst for their blood. The Stalker brace themselves simultaneously as the shadowy beast dominates everything in the room.
BOOM!
A loud sound comes from behind the Bloodsucker, causing the Stalkers to nearly jump out of their skin. When they open their eyes again they see the door has been kicked in and a large man appears in the frame with a large gun in his hands.
“Zombie!” Gremlin yells in surprise.
The Bloodsucker shrieks at the disturbance behind it as it spins around to defend its food. As soon as it does the distinctive sound of a Gatling gun barrel spinning up is the last thing they can hear before the room erupts in a hellish display of light and noise. The creature roars in pain as hundreds of bullets enter its body and it flies towards the back wall of the room.
Gremlin looks up in horror as its broken body slams into the wall next to him and slowly slides down his body. He kicks at the heavy corpse in horror as its blood-sucking tentacles slither across his arms.
“OH MY FUCKING GOD GET IT OFF!” he shouts as he dances and twirls around in his shackles, traumatized.
“That is bloody disgusting!” Reaper says as the Bloodsucker comes to rest at his feet.
Zombie runs into the room slashes Gremlin’s bindings, handing him his knife before quickly turning back around to prepare for the pending attack. The Monolithians outside the room burst into angry shouting and violence, quickly rushing towards the room as the Gatling gun begins to spin up again.
“Follow me!” Zombie yells just before another round of ear-shattering noise and bright light pave the way in front of him. Gremlin finishes freeing everyone and quickly follows the trail of bodies and debris to find Zombie continuing down a side hall towards a guarded area. He blows past the guards in front of him quickly and kicks open a barred door behind them.
“Retrieve your equipment!” he yells behind him as he motions inside.
The Stalkers rush in and retrieve their guns and backpacks. Zombie drops the Gatling gun and retrieves his own gear. Just as they grab their weapons an angry crowd appears in the hallway they had just come down, shouting all manner of damning insults at them.
“We need to get out of here NOW!” Lukash shouts.
“I couldn’t agree more.” Gremlin concurs as he takes a grenade from his belt and pulls the pin. “FIRE IN THE HOLE!”
The grenade flies through the hallway, hitting the ground and rolling beneath the Monolithian’s feet. They scramble over each other to avoid the impending explosion but three-fourths of them are stuck in the blast radius as the grenade goes off. A fountain of blood and appendages erupts where many of them once stood.
“Holy shit…” Nimbus remarks as he watches the red mist settle on the floor and walls.
“I’ll say…” Solitaire adds. “Where’d you learn to throw like that?”
“No time – GO!” Gremlin yells as he opens fire at the remaining Monolithians and dives into a room off to the side of the hallway. The Stalkers follow at his heels as he makes his way down the hall, gunning down any Monolithians that appear in it. They make their way as quickly as possible through the hall and up the stairs, finding a side-entrance on the side and running for it as fast as they can.
They emerge outside in the main square outside the Palace of Culture. Gremlin stops and looks around to try and get his bearings.
“Anyone know where the APC-“ Before he can finish his sentence a bright flash of light comes from one of the tall apartment buildings near them, followed by a loud ping as a bullet ricochets off the ground in front of him, leaving behind a large hole and charring the ground around it.
“FUCK!” he yells as he jumps back. “There’s a sniper! RUN!”
“Not so fast!” a voice behind him shouts. The Stalkers swivel around suddenly as Scar speaks to them from behind a wall of Monolithian soldiers. Before the Stalkers can react, more Monolithians emerge from the cover of buildings, foliage and other abundant hiding places around them.
“Put down your weapons! Your plan to escape is futile.”
The Stalkers point their weapons all around them as a circle of Monolithian soldiers begins to close tighter and tighter around them.
“Dammit… they got us.” Lukash sighs.
“What the hell did they fire at us?” Gremlin whispers to him.
“I don’t know… nothing I’ve ever seen, but I don’t want to find out how accurate it is.”
Scar walks down the front steps towards them, the Monolithians behind him mimic his movements like shadows. “It is a rare thing that anyone ever passes through our city without us knowing about it. Our mothers and fathers demand that their sanctuary be left alone by those who have not been marked. They seek their lost brother, the one known as Virtue. We ask simply for his return. Tell us where he is, and you will not be killed, as all who attempt to pass through the city of the Monolith do.”
“We don’t know where he is!” Gremlin shouts back. “We already told you, we thought he was dead!”
“Then find him, and bring him here. It is the only way you will leave this city alive.”
As Scar finishes his sentence, a large crowd of unidentified Stalkers filters around the sides of the building behind him. The Monolithians behind him begin to murmur and bow to the Stalkers. He glances over his shoulder and smiles back at them with a look of glee on his face.
“It seems some of our brothers from deep in the Zone have come by the will of our mothers and fathers. Your deaths will not be as merciful as we would have made them.”
The large crowd meets the back of the Monolithians and continues slowly forward. Moments later confused shouting and cries of protest pass through the back of the Monolithian ranks before screaming and gunfire break out. Scar spins around in confusion and looks on in horror as the mass of zombies begin to tear through the Monolithians behind him.
“What is this treachery?” Scar protests. “Turn your hunger to the blasphemers, not your brothers! Stop! STOP!” he addresses the mindless crowd, holding his hands out in a show of peace. He drops to his knees as he offers up a prayer to the Monolith in hopes of an answer to the mindless killing being witnessed.
“Guys… I think this is our chance!” Gremlin whispers as he begins to inch away from Scar. Another flash of light from the building tops halts him in his tracks, until he spots the resulting hole in the middle of the oncoming zombies. Other rooftops begin flashing as the Monolithian snipers begin targeting the swarm. 
“GO!” Gremlin yells between gunshots. The Stalkers take off running away from the zombies. Scar shouts in protest behind them but doesn’t seem to take any action to stop them as he begins firing his own weapon into the crowd of zombies in front of him. Other Monolithians emerge from cover around the building and join him in the fight in an apparent civil war with their mutant ‘brothers’.
“Where the hell did they came from and why are they shooting at them? Solitaire shouts as they run.
“I’m guessing that’s the rest of the mutants who were too slow to keep up with the Military after the booked it out of Chernobyl. It looked like all zombies so that would explain it.”
As the war continues behind them, zombies lingering in the streets near them take notice as they run close and begin to follow them.
 “They’re coming this way… we need to find the APC.” Lukash says, looking at the two Freedomers for any help.
 “It should be somewhere west of here.” One of them says.
“The zombies are slow enough that if we run, we should be able to slip past them and get to the APC before they overtake us.” Gremlin says “Come on, follow me!” He begins to run west out of the main square with Nimbus, Enigma, Zombie, Solitaire, Reaper, Lukash, and the two Freedomers close behind him. The zombies continue to shuffle towards them in pursuit. The scattered gunshots ringing out from the Monolith headquarters behind them do nothing to distract them from their next meal.
He leads them through the worn street where overgrown trees, abandoned vehicles, and unfriendly-looking distortions obstruct the path ahead of them. He looks quickly for a safer route to the APC, the moans at their backs a constant reminder of their dwindling time. He darts down an alley leading down to a parallel road, hoping there will be fewer obstructions here.
As they near the next street, Gremlin skids to a stop in front of them. The Stalkers stop behind him, following his eyesight to several humanoid shadows being cast in the dim light on the street in front of him.
“Dammit… fire!”
The Stalkers open fire on the zombies immediately in front of them. The zombies reach towards them, shrugging off the bullets as though they were flies. Gremlin begins to circle around the zombies towards a more open part of the street. They continue to hobble towards them, more determined than any zombies any of them had ever encountered.
“This I why I hate these bloody things!” Reaper protests as he finishes his clip on the zombie closest to him. “They won’t fookin’ die!” The zombie finally collapses on the ground, riddled with bullet holes. He has little time to enjoy the victory before it suddenly stands up in the street again and lunges for him as it yells at him in gibberish.
“Sweet fookin’ Jesus!” He yells as he whips out a machete from under his backpack and brings it down on the zombie’s head with full force. It looks up cross-eyed at the large piece of metal now adorning its head just before its eyes finally roll back in its head and it falls over on the ground. Reaper reloads and puts a few more rounds in its brain for good measure before retrieving the machete and putting it back in its hiding place.
“These ones are stronger than any I’ve ever seen.” Lukash shouts as he follows Gremlin in his circle around the angered zombies. They continue past the stragglers and into the next intersection, turning to the right in hopes of finding a safer route to the APC. They barely make it around the corner before Gremlin stops in front of them again and quickly begins to backpedal.
“Shit! Into the building!” he yells as he dives through the window of the apartment building next to him. The Stalkers mimic his action, peeking out from behind the broken windows as a small group of grotesque mutants run into the intersection and stop to sniff the air for a trace of whatever it was they had just sensed.
“What the hell are they?” Nimbus whispers to nobody in particular. His question goes unanswered initially as everyone is captivated by the odd mutants in front of them. The mutants, obviously a human variant, walk on all fours, like a Snork, but have extremely long arms and an elongated neck. One of the arms seems to be longer than the other which, although it results in an unnatural[C1]  running pattern, doesn’t seem to affect the mutants speed all that much.
“I don’t know, but I barely had time to react when I saw them coming down the street.” Gremlin whispers back. “Those fuckers were fast! They sorta… galloped down the street on their lanky arms like gimpy deer or something.”
“The creature is called ‘Izlom’.” Zombie clarifies. “Some simply call it Fracture” He extends his empty palm towards Reaper and continues, “I’ve encountered them before. Give me your blade… I’ll take care of them.”
“Not that I doubt your skills, mate, but you can’t hope to take on all the blokes alone…” Reaper says in disbelief.
Zombie responds, “Our ammunition won’t last forever. Bullets are less effective against these foes. I do what must be done.”
Reaper sighs then replies “Look… I’ll… I’ll make a scene – get their attention – then you just do what you do best.”
“You better include me in that. We’ll split up; confuse them.” Solitaire adds.
“You’re gonna need a fast runner by the looks of it, and that’s me.” Nimbus chimes in.
Lukash chuckles, then stands up and says, “Let’s make it a party; the more the merrier. We’ll all go out there – they won’t know what to do.”
“A word of caution…” Zombie says as he sneaks towards the exit, making sure he has the full attention of the group before finishing his sentence, “Duck.”

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