September 15, 2010

Chapter 5: Doomsday


The halls are dark and dirty. Dust particles wink at him as his headlamp scans the walls, ceiling and floor around him. The opposite end of the hallway is invisible to him, cloaked in darkness that seems to stretch to infinity. Although abandoned, the hallway is not silent. His Geiger counter clicks wildly, begging him to leave the area immediately before he is cooked alive in radiation. He ignores the rude reminder and continues on. To his left a series of windows grants a portal to the area outside. A faint red glow saturates the area, smoke rises from the building below him filling the air with the smell of death.
“Must… reach… the end…” he forces his legs to keep moving, wiping the sweat from his forehead, a layer of dried blood and dust accompany it. The heat from below is rising through the floor, nearly unbearable now. “Can’t… give up…” he tries to find the words to push himself onwards.
“Virtue!” a small, desperate voice calls out.
He swivels around to find nothing but blackness behind him. He grips the stock and trigger of his rifle tightly in his hands and turns back around, continuing forward.
“Virtue…” another voice calls out – deeper and louder than the first.
He slowly turns back around. The hallway has changed. There is now a door on the left wall just ahead of him– a faint green glow filters out of it. Images dance along the wall opposite the door as he cautiously approaches it, walking carefully over to the edge and peeking around the corner. His heart drops as he sees a figure on the floor in the middle of the hallway before him. He walks out slowly, his heart rate quickly increasing as the face looks up at him with a hopeless look on its face.
“Emelia?” he says in disbelief. The streams from her tears run through the layer of dust on her face as he approaches her. She appears badly burned – her clothing is tattered and black and her skin is charred and red in places. A fire rages in the room behind her licking out at her, waiting to finish what it started. She reaches out towards him in desperation, blood dripping from her fingers.
“You’re not real.” Virtue responds. “You were made up to keep me out of the Zone.”
Suddenly the fire flares up behind her, forcing Virtue to cover his eyes. When he looks back at the figure on the floor he sees that it is no longer Emelia.
“Enigma!” The air is sucked from his throat as a sulfur taste enters it and dries it. Her blue-grey eyes plead with him in a silent cry for help.
“What you want is here, Stalker. Come.” The other voice echoes throughout the room behind him. He looks back to where Enigma was sitting to find that she is gone. He continues into the room with the green light to find himself back in the C-Consciousness chamber. Seven pods are arrayed in a circle around a central hub, all filled with a greenish-yellow liquid and the bodies of seven people, men and women.
“What do you want with me?” Virtue says as he charges his rifle.
“It is too late for us. The Zone is no longer under our control. You know what you need to do.”
A whimper comes from somewhere behind him. He turns to see Enigma standing in front of him, her face horribly burned.  Small sobs escape her as the fire rages in the hall behind her. The room begins to shake violently and the pods behind him begin to crack. An alarm goes off as steam vents from the floors and the pods shatter, dumping the bodies onto the floor to be eaten by the flames that rise up from it. He turns back around to see a similar vent opening up in front of Enigma. He cries out in agony and dives towards her as the floor gives way and a menacing red flame rises up. He grabs onto her as the floor gives way and they begin to fall.
“I WON’T LET YOU GO!” He yells as they continue to fall down an impossibly large shaft filled with fire and lava. She screams in pain as fire engulfs her, incinerating her in his hands. He falls through the air alone. Going down, down, down…
 “NNNNNOOOOOO!!!” he screams as he sits up abruptly. He wakes up in a cold sweat, heart beating rapidly, and afraid. The room around him is dark, lit only by a few candles. Several clicking sounds return in the darkness – the readying of weapons. A voice that had been speaking before is cut off mid-sentence as the attention of the unknown occupants of the room is drawn to him.
“Calm down!” a voice near him reassures him. “You’re safe here.”
Virtue inhales and exhales quickly, trying to separate reality from fantasy. He sputters a few half words and sentences but doesn’t manage to get much out. The voice speaks again,
“Rest weary traveler, you are in the company of friends.”
Virtue gathers himself as best he can, squinting through the dim candlelight for any hint of someone near him. Sure enough, he can just make out the shapes of several other figures in the dark room, as well as the face of a man on the opposite side of the room, obviously the main focus of the room. No doubt the voice belongs to him.
Virtue slowly rises to the level of the shadowy figures before him, his head is splitting and the room spins a few times before he can focus properly. The man at the back of the room looks directly at him, a look of concern in his eyes. He is an older man, with white-grey hair, cropped – with a kind but weathered look on his face. Bifocals hide his eyes in the glare of the candlelight before him.
“Please, join us while I continue the sermon. The pews are just in front of you.”
Virtue stumbles around clumsily in the dark, bumping into an array of objects and other figures before he finally picks out a shadow that doesn’t look as dark as the rest. He takes a seat, wincing and grunting sharply when the splinters in his ass contact the wooden seat.
“You took quite a tumble. But we have treated your wounds. The pain will subside in time.”
“Thank you.” Virtue responds.
The man continues where he left off, “’’I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lamp stands, and among the lamp stands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lamp stands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lamp stands are the seven churches.”’”
The man looks up from the book in his hands, his eyes still hidden by the candlelight reflecting off the bifocals. After a sufficient pause, he addresses the gathering,
“Mankind has been pouring over these passages for millennia now, attempting to find meaning and validity for themselves for the end times. Many have proclaimed that they knew when the end was upon us, and all of them have been proven wrong.”
He pauses again, letting his words sink in.
“Yet now, even as we speak, a war is taking place on our borders. It is a holy war with one side fighting for the evil that plagues this world and the other for good. *These* are those times, my brothers. *We* are the ones left behind to save others during the times of tribulation! We must take action now against the Evil One as one force in His name. May His will be done!”
Several “Amen's.” are uttered in the darkness around him in response to the preacher’s words.
He closes the book and sets it behind him. “Let us pray.” He begins and those in the room fallow along with him,
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”
Virtue looks around awkwardly as the figures around him begin to shift and move, standing and shuffling out of the room. A bright light suddenly engulfs the room. Virtue squints as sunlight reflects off the dirtied, white robes of the man who had been speaking. The man looks into the sunlight as if it was the presence of God himself. Virtue gradually makes his way towards him as the congregation shuffles past him on their way back to the world above. He looks back at them as they climb the stairs out of what is apparently the basement of the church. They look like most Stalkers but… calmer, somehow. The man tracks his movements, moving his head slowly as Virtue approaches. “Welcome, my brother, to the Church of the Final Day. You may call me Doomsday.”
“That was quite a speech you gave up there.” Virtue responds neutrally.
Doomsday remains motionless, not even a hint of emotion crosses his face.
“I give many such sermons. We meet here regularly and I preach to my congregation, inspiring them with words of hope and truth so that their paths may be ever alit by the presence of the Father.”
Virtue matches his emotionless gaze. “That’s very thoughtful of you.”
“Yes, well one has a lot of time to think in this place. Especially here on this deserted hilltop with that old ghost town below us. Soon, it will be a model for the rest of the world.”
Virtue nods, betraying no emotion.
Doomsday continues to stare, the words seeming to escape his mouth before he even opens it, “You have a haunted past. The spirits practically followed you in.”
“Anyone who enters the Zone is haunted by someone or something.” Virtue responds.
“Yes, that is true, but most of them do a much better job of hiding it.” Doomsday says, seemingly peering into his very soul.
Virtue nods, remembering, “You heard me screaming when I woke up. Sorry for the interruption.”
Doomsday finally lets a smile escape him, easing the tension of the conversation. “It was well timed; it added dramatic flair to my sermon.”
Virtue laughs uneasily, unsure of the man’s humor. Doomsday continues,
“We are all haunted men, but we have found some measure of peace through scripture.”
“So what are you doing out here in this old church anyway?” Virtue asks.
“Now that would be quite a story indeed.” Doomsday looks up at the ceiling in thought. “The short of it is we were once a faction called Final Day, and our goal was to spread God’s word here and be his holy vessels against the demons that linger in this place. But there were some who did not agree with our teachings and took violent action against us, killing our former father. So we were forced into hiding.”
“I heard your broadcast and followed the signal here. I had a hell of a time getting in.” Virtue says as he rubs his lower back in pain.”
“Ah, yes… we were in session when we heard you ‘enter’. Sorry for the difficulty but we do get some less than refutable characters by every once in a while…” He trails off, looking Virtue up and down before speaking again, “Tell me, when was the last time you spoke with God, brother?”
Virtue expected the question; it was something he had always encountered when confronted with the religious type. He almost liked hearing it, knowing that it would invoke an argument in which he could use his superior logic to beat down anything the interrogator in question could throw at him. He responded, challenging the man, “We’re not on good terms. He took my entire life away from me and never gave it back. I got tired of calling.”
Doomsday smiles at first, then laughs a hearty laugh and pats Virtue on the back playfully. “Ah yes, He does work in mysterious ways, doesn’t He?”
Virtue looks on in horror, curious at the man’s reaction.
Doomsday reacts, erasing the grin from his face. If Virtue could see his eyes they’d be staring through him no doubt.
“Do not misunderstand me, friend. My family was taken from me too. I was angry with Him for many years. I cursed his name, I lived in sin, and nearly took my own life in the process. But one day, I realized that all the bad things that had happened to me had happened for a reason. There is always a reason, friend.”
“Yeah? Well I’m sorry I don’t see the reason in any of it.”
Doomsday takes his bifocals are off, placing them in a breast pocket on his robes. His left eye is murky and clouded over. He stares back at Virtue with his good eye – a deep brown color that nearly matches his pupil. He waits until Virtue gets a good look, then speaks,
“The good Lord took my eyesight, so that I might see anew. Where one thing was taken from me, another was given.”
“How can you see anew when you’re blind in one eye?” It was obvious the man was speaking metaphorically but Virtue failed to see how it applied to him. Then it hit home. He relives the nightmare he had just had where he was confronted by C-Consciousness. He had been blind his entire life and hadn’t known until mere days ago when his eyes were finally opened to the truth. That nightmare could have been his brain trying to separate reality from fantasy. Again, the man seemed to have a direct tap into his brain.
“I… think I understand.” He says, surprised at the own words coming out of his mouth.
“Do you?” Doomsday challenges. “Then prove it.”
“How?”
“Go on a quest.”
“A quest? What kind of quest?”
“A quest for truth,” Doomsday responds. “A quest to find yourself.”
Virtue had learned long ago that trying to get specific details out of the religious type usually yielded cryptic answers, but this man had managed to make some sort of sense in his mind – which was more than most ever did. But he didn’t have time for this; the image of Enigma burning before his eyes was a strong reminder that his friends were still in danger.
“Look, I appreciate the offer, but there are some people out there who need my help. I need to find them, that’s why I came here.”
“Where do you need to go?”
“I don’t know… I can only hope they escaped, but I know they’re somewhere to the north I’m going to the Bar. Have you heard anything about survivors from Chernobyl?” the word left his lips without his permission as his mind dwelled on his friends.
“Chernobyl?!” Doomsday exclaims. “Nothing survives Chernobyl. Nothing holy at least… your friends are surely dead, I’m sorry.”
“My friends are different. I know they survived and they’re around there somewhere. That’s why I need to help them.”
Doomsday snorts in dismissal. “You hear but you don’t listen. That place is tainted. Going there was deadly enough before the winds changed, now only those seeking a swift death would dare go there.”
“You don’t seem to understand…” Virtue leans in close to make his point. “I’m not leaving them there. I caused that mess and now it’s my job to get them out of it.”
Doomsday pauses, looking long and hard at Virtue, his tone serious, “What do you mean you caused it?”
Virtue considers his next words carefully, “The explosion… I had to put a stop to the ‘evil’ as you put it.”
Doomsday waits for him to continue, obviously not satisfied with his story. Virtue sighs and continues,
“We discovered a secret lab where the military have been conducting horrible experiments on humans and animals, causing the terrible mutations you’ve seen out there. They caught us and imprisoned us, but we escaped and destroyed the lab. They lost control of their experiments – the mutants – and they pursued them as they escaped...”
Doomsday closes his eyes and clenches his fists as he listens. Virtue crosses his arms defiantly and adds, “A lot of bad people died in there… a lot of good ones too – including some of my friends. We did what we had to do to stop all the senseless deaths in the Zone at the hands of those murderers. I’d do it again if I had to.”
Doomsday sighs, opening his fists and releasing the tension through his fingertips. He stares at Virtue for what seems an eternity, maintaining the emotionless, judgmental stare he was so good at. Finally he speaks,
“What do we do now, Stalker?” he asks rhetorically, shaking his head at Virtue. “I have prayed that this day would come soon and it seems that now it is upon us and I am not ready.” He continues to stare. “But what you say seems to be the truth, and I sense good intentions behind your actions. If what you did was for the greater good, then I would be a fool to not see this as yet another sign of the events I’ve seen in my visions. After all, evil must have some triumphs so that good can win the day.”
Virtue nods, completely lost. What in the hell was this nut talking about?
“I shall seek the guidance of the Father. Leave me so that I may pray.” He points to the stairs leading out of the basement and back to ground level. “Feel free to make yourself at home. My deacon will give you directions to the Bar… just avoid leaving the same way you came in, it will be less painful.”
Virtue rubs his back in memory of his entrance. Nodding, he turns to leave the man to his thoughts and retreats into the sunlight above.
Evening sunlight filters through the stained-glass windows, painting the room in a fantastic orange and a broad spectrum of other colors. A dozen or so Stalkers drift around the room, either sitting on the pews praying or gathered in small groups, keeping their voices confined within. Many of them stare at him as he ascends the stairs. He plants his feet at the top with an effort as the strain in his back returns to him. All eyes turn to him as he comes into full view of the congregation. One of the Stalkers breaks from a group and approaches him. The calmness of the men remaining and the general cleanliness and lack of scars/wounds seem to suggest they don’t see as much action as most Stalkers. The man stops in front of him, not seeming much older than him in age but certainly in demeanor.
“You look hungry. Would you like some stew?” he asks in a quiet voice.
“What kind of stew?” Virtue replies.
The man lets out a small smile as his eyes remain locked on Virtue, “That is not a good question to ask. It is meat - that is all you need to know.”
“Well that’s helpful. With that kind of information I could very well be eating another human-being.” Virtue thinks, which makes his stomach begin to churn as he analyzes the bowl of stew being eased towards him. The man’s gaze remains locked on him. He takes the bowl, lifting it out of the man’s hands. He inhales the steam coming off of it deeply, never daring to look away from the man or the others in his peripheral vision. He doesn’t sense any ill-intent but they are a little creepy to him. It smells like stew and has meat and some type of plant or vegetable in it.
“Don’t you people usually eat together?” Virtue asks, hoping one of them will sample the food for him first so he can tell how good or bad it is.
“Yes.” The man breaks his gaze only to turn to a large bowl of the same substance on a table to Virtue’s right. He scoops some of it into a bowl, the others in the room gathering behind him and filling their own bowls. The man’s eyes return to him as the others finish filling their bowls, standing behind the man and waiting patiently for him.
Realization hits him, “You’re not waiting for me to pray… are you?”
“You are our guest. We would be honored if you would. Consider it a return blessing for the stew.” The man bows in his direction and smiles.
Virtue sighs… he’d never done this before. Reluctantly he bows his head a little and half-closes his eyes. He sighs in relief as they all bow their own heads, averting their eyes from him. “Great, now only ever ear is on me… now what?”
“Dear God…” he begins. “Good start, at least you didn’t get the wrong guy”. He says laughing at himself and continues, “Thanks for the stew. It smells… delicious. I bet you’re sitting up there laughing at the road kill I’m about to eat. That’s OK, at least you and your friends here will get a good laugh about it later when I’m gone.”
He looks up to see if anyone snickered. Their heads remain bowed with no emotions on their faces. He bows again quickly and wraps it up,
“Anyway, thanks for the hospitality, and please don’t let the food be poisoned.” He laughs awkwardly. “Uh… amen.”
The men slowly look up and return his gaze. He looks down at the stew swirling with colors in the bowl before him. He slowly puts the bowl to his lips and tilts it back. To his further relief, the men in the room mimic his action as the liquid touches his lips and he swallows. The others finish their meal as he does, making an awkward situation a little less awkward.
“Oh hell... why would they have treated my wounds if they wanted me dead? I’m just being paranoid. Just because they’re a little creepy doesn’t mean they’re going to kill you in your sleep…” He concludes. The stew is horrible in comparison to the last one he had outside of the Zone in that diner, but he can think or worse things to eat. The men stare back all smiles as he places the bowl back on the table next to the pot.
“A beautiful communion, brother.” The man in front – whom Virtue decides to dub “Eyes” – declares after they finish. “Feel free to rest here and pray with us if you wish.”
“Are you the deacon?” Virtue asks.
“Yes, I am.” He responds.
“Doomsday said you could give me directions to the Bar?”
Eyes looks discouraged, “You would leave us so soon? We have barely even begun our nightly meditation… you must stay for that!”
“Maybe some other time… I’ve got a thing.” Virtue says pointing in the general direction of north.
“Very well…” he says, the disappointment in his voice betraying the first hint of emotion Virtue had seen from him. He breaks eye contact and leaves at last, rejoining the others around the alter in prayer.
“Creepy.” Virtue shudders a little as he takes the opportunity to look over his supplies after falling on top of them. He un-slings his rifle from his back and sets it on the floor, taking his backpack off and setting it on the next to it. The LR-300 has a good layer of grime on top of it, making it appear as though it’s been soaking in a swamp for days. The SUSAT scope on top has a thin crack along the outer lens, nothing that would affect the sight too bad but it could become worse with time. Virtue makes a mental note to learn how to clean the weapon before it becomes completely unusable.
His stomach begins to growl as the lingering scent of stew enters his nostrils, making him realize it wasn’t enough. He opens his backpack and takes out a can of non-perishable food remaining from his last trip to the mobile lab in Yantar where the scientist Sakharov sent them into the underground lab known as X16 to retrieve some secret documents.
X16… he memory of the place would forever be one of the most horrifying experiences he’s ever have to recall. Two of the group of Stalkers he was with died inside, two more missing, they saw horrifying things and encountered a horde of mutants who chased them out of the lab. Almost immediately afterward they experienced what he had heard called a ‘blowout’ – some sort of eruption of energy that spread deadly radiation throughout the zone, shifted known anomaly fields, and was no doubt one of the most frightening things he would ever experience in his life.
After that, he and Nimbus fell through an anomaly and found themselves transported to the dead city of Limansk where they met Enigma and were forced to travel through the equally horrifying Red Forest; the remains of the Worm Wood Forest which had been destroyed because of the dangerous levels of radiation from the Chernobyl explosion. Unfortunately, not the entire forest was destroyed, and a lot of it had grown back since then and was teeming with mutants. They barely made it out of the forest alive through a gap in the massive anomaly field cutting the city off from the rest of the Zone to return to their friends in Yantar. It was there that Virtue learned that his wife Emelia – the reason he had come to the Zone in the first place – was dead. Life as he knew it changed then, and life as a Stalker became suddenly real to him then.
Then there was Pripyat, and Chernobyl after it. Needless to say, the Zone was one worse nightmare after the next, and he never would have made it through had it not been for the help of his friends. He could only imagine the balls required to go it alone, as the first Stalkers and many of the legendary ones did now. He had heard stories as they traveled of Stalkers capable of amazing things. Many sounded far-fetched like they made for good campfire stories and nothing more, but he knew they believed what they were saying like they had met the Stalker themselves.
After his encounter with C-Consciousness, where he learned that he was nothing more than a test-tube experiment, he knew that this would be his life form now on. It was poetic, and ironic, that he been created for the sole purpose of doing the bidding of that evil machine, and now he was doing everything in its power to undo whatever damage it had done. The Military knew… they controlled it, and he wouldn’t stop until all the damage they had caused was repaired.
As the thoughts rolled around in his mind he found that he was becoming a little dizzy. He closes his eyes and rubs his forehead, wondering if maybe something in the stew was reacting poorly with his stomach. Out of the corner of his vision, Eyes slowly rises and gathers the attention of the men in the room, announcing, “He’s ready.”
“Wha’…” Virtue responds, confused. He flails his arms helplessly as the men in the room carefully approach him and begin to bind his arms behind his back with rope. He tries to fight back but finds himself suddenly weakened and unable to do more damage than a small child.
“What are you doing… back-stabbing assholes!” Virtue protests as his vision begins to blur and the room spins around him.
“Relax.” Eyes responds. “This is all part of the process. The more you struggle the worse it will become.”
“Process?! What process…?” Virtue demands as he is forcibly lead back into the basement of the church where Doomsday had remained. He is dragged down the stairs involuntarily, but carefully by the men holding him. Doomsday looks up from his meditation as they approach, getting up quickly and walking into another room somewhere in the darkness. He returns momentarily and says,
“The way is open. Quickly!”
The men comply, dragging Virtue through the room as his legs flail helplessly beneath him. He glares at Doomsday as he passed him.
Doomsday responds to his glare sympathetically. “We mean you no harm; this is just the way it must be done.”
Virtue grunts an angered retort and is led through a cellar door of some sort in the back of the church – completely concealed by the layers of grass above. He is lead away from the church, drifting in and out of reality as the world continues to spin around him, twisting and changing colors before his very eyes.
“What in the hell… seeing things.” He reports almost giddily as some sort of drug high courses through his veins. “Tickles…” he laughs to himself.
“You are becoming enlightened” Eyes says from somewhere behind him.
“WHA’?” Virtue yells behind him at the voice.
“To combat evil, you must be able to see it.”
Virtue’s mouth goes loose with numbness and he drools on himself. This cycle repeats itself for what seems like hours until Virtue finds that he’s been lead just outside of the ghost town he saw on his way to the signal being broadcast.
“Do I live… here now? It’s dark in here… someone turn on the lights.” Virtue says in a stupor.
A knife is thrown onto the ground in front of him. He realizes for a moment that all of his weapons and gear are still back in the church, but the moment passes and his thoughts return to their previous state.
“Wha’do I do with’at?” Virtue stumbles over the words as they leave his mouth.
“Pierce the darkness.” Eyes responds. “Unbind yourself from its grasp and fight back.” With that, the group turns and leaves quickly, but he barely notices as the dark, scary-looking buildings twist and distort around him like a funhouse full of monsters.


*


Max rests his head in his hands as he cycles through frequencies on the old radio on the desk in front of him. It’s mostly static, but occasionally he picks up a few words, all in Russian. It’s chaos out there, that much he’s sure about, but he can’t tell who’s fighting who or who’s winning. “Whatever operation they’re referring to is obviously being executed. It sounds like hell is being unleashed out there, and here we are sitting around when we should be fighting back against those dogs! He pounds his fist on the desk, creating a cloud of dust that slowly settles back down on the console.
Freedomers have taken up stations around the old base, which in the last hour or so has been cleaned up and looks remarkably as it did in the old days.  Screw and his team, including Skinflint and even the drunken Chef are hard at work repairing the old weapons lining the dusty racks getting them ready for possible action. Screw himself though seems to be tinkering with some old contraption, no doubt finding a way to put it to good use as is his custom. Loki is back in the command room, giving orders to his men and pointing to areas on the old map behind him. He looks around for Cap but finds no trace of him.
“The prisoners…” Max remembers, and abandons the radio in search of Cap. He exits the room, entering a long hall opposite the door to the command room. Doors line the sides down either end, so he walks past them all trying to remember which one contained the old prison cells. He hears a commotion from one of them near the end of the hall and peeks inside. The three Dutyers have been placed in separate cells, stripped of their equipment. They look up at Cap with fear in their eyes as he interrogates the one in the middle cell.
“I don’t want to hear that! It’s your fault we were attacked and you will PAY for it!”
“We already told you, we didn’t do anything! We were almost wiped out too!”
“They’re your friends – that makes you guilty by association!” he spits back as he punches the man in the face.
“I thought we agreed on a ceasefire… this could be considered an act of war, you know” The Dutyer looks back at him angrily as his eye begins to bruise.
“It’s too late for that.” Cap responds with hate in his voice. He pulls his arm back to deliver another blow as the Dutyer braces himself.
“Cap!” Max says as he steps into the room. Cap looks back at Max, slowly lowering his fist as he approaches.
“Max. I was just making sure our friends were uncomfortable.”
“That’ll do, Cap. Report to Loki.”
Cap looks discouraged but reluctantly sighs and walks out of the room, glaring one last time at the prisoners behind him as he exits.
Max approaches the prisoners, all of whom have a decent amount of bruises, no doubt all the work of Cap. His dislike for Duty stretched back to the Faction Wars when many of his close friends at the time were killed. He was the type of man who would likely hold a grudge forever. It made him a deadly warrior, but slow to make friends – which was why he was the perfect commander for the Barrier, on the borders of Freedom territory.
“Round Two?” the tougher of the three in the center cell asks him.
“No.” he responds quickly. “I don’t share the same hate for Duty that my friends does. That’s not to say I don’t disagree with your methods, I just think you’re more valuable to us all as friends.”
The other two Dutyers look relieved at this, the man in the center cell remains apathetic.
“What are your names?” he asks them.
“I’m Brome.” The one in the left cell replies.
“Bullet.” Says the other.
“They call me Skull.” The one in the middle crosses his arms and announces defiantly.
“Well Brome, Bullet, Skull.” He looks at each one as he addresses them. “As of this moment you are our guests here, and we ask that you help us in our time of need.
Brome and Bullet nod, Skull looks at the ceiling. Max continues,
“I need to know exactly what happened so that we can decide what to do next. I’m not asking you to reveal anything compromising; I just need to know what we’re up against.”
“Well…” Brome begins.
“Shut up! Don’t him anything.” Skull cuts him off.
“What harm is it going to do?” Bullet jumps in. “What use are we if don’t?”
“Are you stupid?” Skull walks over to the cell holding Bullet.
“I’m just saying they could help us…” he shrugs. “We’re in a bad way right now.”
“Yeah - and help themselves to the Bar while they’re at it! You fucking retard…”
“I don’t think I like your tone…” Bullet says as he stands up to meet Skull at the bars between their cells.
“Gentlemen!” Max interrupts. “This is getting us nowhere.”
Skull glares threateningly at Bullet who shakes his head back at him in a way that says “Try it.”
Brome continues, “They came from the north…” Skull punches the door to his cell with all his might, letting out a huff of air as he plops down on the floor, staring straight ahead. “A heavy fog rolled in… we couldn’t see anything. Before we knew it they were right on top of us. I was at Rads getting shit-faced when I heard the shooting. They plowed through the northern checkpoint like it was nothing… pushing us all the way back to HQ. We made our final stand there. Barin ran into us and told us to get the word out when it looked like we weren’t going to make it… he said they got Petrenko.”
“Brome, shut your fucking mouth!” Skull yells. “Why don’t you tell them our every weakness while you’re at you piece of shit!”
“SKULL!” Bullet thrust a finger at him. “Enough!”
“Fuck you! You can’t tell me what to do!” Skull yells back, flipping him off.
“Last I checked we were on the same side man. Cool your fucking jets!”
“Whatever…” Skull rolls his eyes and continues to stare straight ahead, rage in his eyes.
“Look,” Max puts his hands out to invoke calmness. “We’re trying to find out what we’re up against so we can fight it. Bickering amongst ourselves for our ideological differences is not going to change the fact that we seem to be fighting a losing battle. We need to act now, and to do that we need information.”
The Dutyers say nothing for a while. Max turns to leave when Bullet calls back,
“Wait. Call Duty. Ask for Barin – tell him Bullet authorized you. Here’s my ID.”
Skull mutters under his breath as Bullet tells him his personal code for Duty’s broadcast frequency.
“Thank you.” Max says as he walks back out of the room. “I promise you that your help will not be forgotten.”
He can just make out Skull saying, “Fat chance.” As he leaves the room and re-enters the operations room. He walks into the command room, where Loki is still having his men pick out whatever they can from the broken Military broadcasts from around the Zone. He walks over to one of the empty terminals and finds the proper frequency, broadcasting the ID code Bullet gave him. A few moments later the static breaks and a voice comes over the frequency loud and clear,
[Unknown]: Bullet? Where the hell are you man, you were supposed to keep in touch! Did you make contact with Freedom?”
”So he was telling the truth, they were trying to find us…” Max summons Loki over. He stops what he’s doing and walks quickly over to the station Max is at.
“What have you got? He asks.
“The key the Duty’s broadcast frequency, courtesy of one of our friends.” He smiles back.
Loki returns the smile, running out of the room and summoning the other high-ranking Freedomers who enter and shut the door behind them. Max cues the talk button on the radio and responds to the man on the other side,
[Max]: He found us and gave us his ID code. He told us the same thing – that you were looking for us.
Static is all that comes back for a little while, no doubt nobody was expecting a member of Freedom to have access to their frequency. After about a minute another voice comes on, more authoritative than the first.
[Unknown 2]: This is General Voronin. Who am I speaking with?
“The General himself? I’ll be dammed!” Loki says, dumbfounded.
General Voronin, known to Freedom as the Dutyer who declared the cease-fire with Freedom when his predecessor, friend and fellow founder General Krylov was killed in the Faction Wars a year or so ago. Since then, there hadn’t been any major conflicts with Duty, besides the occasional rogue elements who still held a grudge after the Faction Wars. Cap was an example of one of those elements in Freedom, though he knew better than to do anything that would break the treaty.
Max cues the radio again. “Hello General, my name is Max.”
“Where is Gremlin?” The General asks.
“He is… not available at the moment. I am in charge here.” Max responds.
“I see.” Voronin replies, pausing for a few moments. “Well… since it is obvious our boys found you I will cut to the chase. We require need information – information which you may have.”
“I’m listening…” Max waits.
“We were recently attacked by a large group of mutants… a very large one. As you are full aware, mutants make the occasional skirmish for territory but this one seemed deliberate, and we encountered mutants we have never seen before. They came from the north, out of the Military Warehouses. Since your base of operations is there I thought you might know something about that.”
“Well then we have something in common.” Max begins. “We did encounter the mutants you speak of.”
“Indeed? Forgive my bluntness, but why did you not warn us that such a large mutant force was moving towards us?”
He looks at the Stalkers gathered around him, hopelessness returns to them as they remember the attack they had barely escaped with their lives. “Because our base was destroyed, General.”
More static comes from the other side, so Max takes the opportunity to ask his own questions.
“Now you must forgive my bluntness but I must insist on asking you something in return; what were your Military allies doing at the front of the wave that ended up at our doorstep?”
“We… do not know what the Military was doing there, nor what they are doing now.” Voronin replies hesitantly. “They have ceased communications with us.”
Max glances suspiciously at the Stalkers beside him as they return the look to him.
“Left high and dry by their friends?” Loki asks, scratching his head.
“It would seem so…” Max replies. “If he’s telling the truth it would seem we have a common enemy. The Military left their mess on both our factions’ doorsteps.” He cues the radio again. “Then it would appear the Military has a lot to explain.”
“Yes, it would…” Voronin replies, pausing for a moment before asking, “I don’t suppose you’ve been watching the news, have you?”
“Not really, we get shitty reception out here. Although we have been picking up a lot of Military chatter… it sounds like there’s a war going on out there.”
“There may very well be soon. Trust me, I am General after all… which brings us to the point of this conversation. I propose that we form an alliance, share intel, trade supplies, secure the Bar. By the sounds of things over there we would both benefit from what the other has to offer…” he trails off again, allowing Max to think about the offer.
Max consults the Stalkers around him again. Mixed looks are on their faces, and for good reason. The General was right; both sides would profit form an alliance, and in the end, it might even be necessary. But doing so was unrealistic in the long-run, as the factions’ goals and ideals were almost the complete opposite of each other. However, the situation was as dire as Max had feared and could soon escalate to all-out war in the Zone… something that could very well wipe out not only Freedom, but every Stalker in the Zone if the Military was allowed to continue interfering as they were.
“I hate it.” Caps response comes as no surprise to Max. “They’ll stab us in the back the second we let our guard down.”
“I can’t help but agree.” Screw contributes.
“Hey, if it opens up trade we could certainly use the supplies.” Skinflint says.
“True.” Screw agrees.
“I don’t think we have a choice in the matter,” Loki suggests. “We’re limping right now, our territory is all but lost. We’re going to need them to reclaim it.”
“Like they’d help us with that…” Cap disagrees.
“Maybe not directly, but they could give us the means.” Max says.
“They’d probably just as soon shoot us as soon as they give us what we need and take it all back. Then our base would just be sitting there waiting for them. No more Freedom!” he says, forming his hands in the shape of two pistols and shooting them at Loki. “Boom boom…”
“I think Loki’s right. I think, in the short-run, we need to do whatever we can to work together and defend ourselves from whatever’s out there, whether mutant or Military. It’s unfortunate that Duty controls the Bar, but the fact is that’s where the highest human population in the Zone is, and it was our unofficial duty to protect them at the Barrier. Well… we failed, and Duty can’t hold it alone. Aren’t we all Stalkers deep down… and human for that matter?”
“Well, when you put it that way…” Cap crosses his arms and bows his head in thought.
“Max?” the radio comes back to life.
Max meets eyes with all the Freedomers gathered around him. Their looks tell him what he needs to know.
“General… we agree.”
“A wise choice,” Voronin responds positively. “I would like to invite you all to the Bar. We are working on opening up as many buildings as we can in the complex as we but are focusing on repairs to our defenses first. We should have enough room for all of you.”
“Thank you, General. May this be a big step towards the continued success of our goals in the Zone.”
“I hope it will be.” He responds passively, “General Voronin out.”
Max sighs, grateful for some news of the outside world at last but unsure of the decision he had just made and what the end result would mean for Freedom. At the very least he was confident in the fact that if Duty tried anything, they would soon discover the hidden asset that Freedom had been keeping a secret for as long as he could remember.
“Well…” he looks at the men who had come all this way with him. “This is it boys, time to pack up and head out. Our next stop is The Bar.”


*


Zombie walks out into the open. The Stalkers follow behind him as the knife in his hands glints in the early morning sun. The mutants shift their gaze towards him as he stands in the middle of the road. They cock their heads slightly; regarding him curiously as he stands perfectly still in before them. But after they see the other Stalkers joining him the one closest to them opens its mouth suddenly – its jaw hanging unhinged from its skull – and lets out a deep, inhuman growl. The mutants gallop towards them, using their long arms to glide over obstacles in the road like insects.
Zombie waits until the closest one is nearly directly in front of him before yelling, “NOW!”
The Stalkers run past Zombie, splitting off in random directions, past the mutants. The first one reaches Zombie, swinging a lanky arm at his head like a mace. He ducks as the arm goes sailing over his head with a loud whoosh, crashing through the window of a car next to him. As the mutant’s weight shifts to one side, he swings the knife around with both hands and drives it into the side of its head with all his might. The mutant moans in pain as an arm flails up towards its head to find the source of the sharp pain. As it does, Zombie runs under it and positions his knife against its throat and pulls back hard, creating a deep slit in it. The mutant lets out a painful gurgle as it chokes on its own blood, falling on to the car with the broken window with a loud crash.
“A little help ‘ere, ‘ey buddy?” Reaper shouts as he desperately tries to outrun the mutant on his tail. It takes a swipe at him, its arm hitting him in the side of the head. He trips and falls, rolling across the cracked pavement and coming to rest in a gutter.
Zombie springs into action, running up to the creature as it bends down to finish its prey. He jumps on its back and sinks the knife into the back of its head, quickly pulling it out and stabbing the mutant repeatedly in the back. It twirls around in circles frantically as he holds on to the tattered remains of its blood-stained clothing from a former life. The mutant begins to buck in anger, kicking its legs and swinging its arms in an attempt to dismount him. Zombie holds on for dear life and continues stabbing it again and again. Eventually, it begins to slow, panting heavily before leaning forward and falling on to the road in front of it. He dismounts its corpse and looks for the next one.
Solitaire runs past him with another one of the mutants right behind him. It swings low, knocking him off his feet. He flips through the air, landing on his back and staring up at the mutant as it stands directly over him. It growls, then leans in and sinks its teeth into his nose.
“Aaaaaaahhhhh! FUCK!” he yells as it twists and bites harder.
Zombie rushes up and kicks it in the stomach with the tip of his boot. It snarls as it is interrupted from its meal, looking at him with rage in its eyes. He takes the opportunity to tackle it with all his might, knocking it onto its back. The mutant swings its arms around, but is unable to reach him when on its back. He raises the knife over it and plunges it deep into the creature’s chest. It screeches and looks back at him in horror, almost like the man under the beast is trying to escape in its final moments. It twitches and gasps for air, which never comes, before it lets out a sigh and goes limp.
He looks around quickly for the last mutant and finds it wobbling through the street behind him with a twisted metal bar sticking out either side of its body. Nimbus steps out from behind a broken concrete barrier, panting, but with a victorious look on his face. The Fracture stumbles on down the road, not daring to look back as blood drips down the bottom of the bar now embedded in its stomach.
“Too slow...” Nimbus says to Zombie as the rest of group gathers back together in the middle of the street. “I got him though.”
“Hell yeah you did,” Solitaire takes a hand off his bloody nose to give a light clap of approval, revealing several deep bite marks in it as he does.
“That’s gonna need stitches, mate.” Reaper says as he comes up beside Solitaire, holding his head and wincing in pain. “After this, I’m going on vacation… fookin’ Christ.”
Gremlin protects Enigma as they run out onto the street where the others are. “Come on, we’ve got to get to that APC. Those zombies can’t be far away!”
The Stalkers concur, and resume their run towards the last known location of the APC. Lukash assists Gremlin in helping Enigma through the streets. As they reach the next intersection Gremlin shouts, “I think it’s just one block awa-“ he cuts himself off as he turns on to the next street to see yet another street infested with zombies. “Shit – too many zombies! How many of these fuckers are there?!”
They backtrack down the road towards where they fought the Fractures. Halfway down the street Gremlin and Lukash stop again to see another wave of zombies hobbling into the intersection, drawn by the smell of fresh blood. Gremlin swings around and runs back down the street, looking for another way as zombies filter into the opposing intersection as well, sandwiching them between the other group.
“Fuck! Smart bastards…” he curses in surprise, looking around frantically as the two groups of zombies hobble towards them. They moan and shuffle forward faster, reaching their arms out as if to close the gap between them and the Stalkers in front of them. Gremlin looks up at a building towering over them, holding his gaze there for a moment before shouting “Quick, in the building!”
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing,” Lukash says. “If we get trapped in a building with zombies blocking our only exit…”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan. Just cross your fingers…” Gremlin pants as he hurries up the first flight of stairs in the back of the decaying lobby of the apartment building. “Zombie – scout ahead with Nimbus. Look for any way to get across to the adjacent building to the west.”
Zombie nods and brushes past them in the stairwell, conquering several stairs at a time as he speeds up the next flight. Nimbus follows behind him, trying his best to keep up.
“So that’s your plan?” Lukash asks, disbelief in his voice.
“Yeah. I was thinking we’d stick to the rooftops - ninja style. What do you think?”
“I think you’re crazy… but if we make it there very well may be a promotion in store for you. Maybe even my job.”
“Give it a rest, I already told you it’s your job now.”
 “Right, I keep forgetting that.” Lukash does his best to laugh as they continue to haul Enigma up the flights of stairs. After an exhausting few minutes, they reach the top of the building and open the door to the roof. Nimbus is tearing supplies out of a small shed up top while Zombie fashions some sort device out of the parts.
Gremlin rushes over to inspect Zombie’s handiwork. “Excellent, that’s exactly what I had hoped for.” He says as Zombie secures the top of some sort of pronged garden tool to a spool of leftover cabling. Zombie completes his work, inspecting the makeshift grappling hook before cautioning the Stalkers. “Stand aside.”
They stand to either side as he swings the cable over his heads, putting more and more momentum on the cable. He approaches the edge of the roof and puts one foot on it for support before releasing the cable. It flies through the air, across the street, and onto the roof of the adjacent building, catching on it. He tests its strength before deeming it safe, then announces, “It’s secure.”
“Good work!” Gremlin praises him. “Zombie, since you saved our asses you go first. Since I got us here I’ll go last.”
Zombie immediately sits and swings his legs over the side of the roof, looking into the dark sea of zombies beneath him. Then, he flips around and dangles over the edge by his arms. He gives the cable a few test tugs before he puts his full weight on it, then grabs onto it with both hands and crawls along it with the agility of a spider on a web.
“He makes it look so easy...” Nimbus says uneasily as he looks over the edge at the street far below.
“The trick is not to look down.” Gremlin reassures him as Zombie scampers to the other rooftop and fastens the cable securely - the two Freedomers hot on his tail - and waves an arm, beckoning the next person over. “Your turn.”
Nimbus sighs and reluctantly swings his legs over the edge, slowly lowering himself over the edge with and closing his eyes as he prepares to grab onto the cable. He grabs on and lifts his legs on to the line, scooting across the gap, muttering to himself the whole way over as he avoids looking down at all costs.
Moaning sounds begin to echo in the stairwell behind them. Not wanting to make a scene, Gremlin leaves Enigma in Lukash’s care and digs through the small supply shed for something to blockade the door. He finds a rusted pipe of adequate size and runs towards the door. Peering inside, he can see several small shadows getting larger as they get closer. He quickly closes the door and feeds the pipe through the handle and the lock bolted on to the wall beside it. After testing it to make sure it’s secure, he resumes his position next to Lukash and whispers, “We’re might have a very hungry problem on our hands in a minute.”
“If they get through the door they only have a single narrow corridor and we have guns – but I’m almost out of ammo…”
“One step ahead of you.” Gremlin replies with a cocky grin as he reveals another large pipe he grabbed from the supply shed.
“Still refusing that promotion?” Lukash asks playfully.
Gremlin just shakes his head as Solitaire crosses to the other side. He signals back, leaving Gremlin, Lukash, Enigma, and Reaper on the other side.
“Reaper, you’re up.” Gremlin motions to the line with one hand.
“I… I’m not so good with heights.” He says holding his stomach with a nauseas look on his face.
“Hey, it’ll be OK. Everyone else made it just fine. What happened to that iron will of yours?”
“I left it on the ground where it belongs…” Reaper says, looking around him timidly; a rarity for him.
“I’ll go with him.” Lukash says. “That cable should be able to hold both our weights if Zombie has the other end secured.”
“Alright, go.” Gremlin says. The sentence is barely out of his mouth when a loud thumping sound begins to shake the door to the stairwell. Gremlin looks over at Reaper hurriedly, “The sooner the better.”
Reaper balls his hands into fists and straddles the edge of the roof, practically falling on to the rope with a loud yelp.
“GO GO!” Lukash yells from behind him.
“I’M GOIN’!” Reaper yells behind him as he lifts his legs on to the line and inches his way over, looking over his shoulder at the ground below him and whimpering “Oh bloody ‘ell…”
Lukash sighs as he attempts to help him out, but is suddenly cut off by a loud bang and the sound of a pipe clanking on the ground.
Reaper lets out a scream and zips across the line, almost faster than Zombie. “That’s… yeah, you nailed it!” Lukash says in surprise as he rushes over the line behind him. “Gremlin, get your ass over here!”
Gremlin looks down at Enigma who props herself up and drags herself towards the line. “Go, I’ll cover you,” He says. “Hurry…”
She nods and crawls faster, wheezing painfully.
The zombies continue hungrily towards Gremlin, their broken, decayed teeth bared as they snarl at him.
“Let’s dance, cupcakes.” He says, gripping the pipe tightly in his hands. The closest zombie reaches its arm out for him, muttering some Russian gibberish as it closes in. He takes a swing, hitting it in the side of the head with a satisfying clank. The zombie stumbles to the side, knocked off balance, and walks right over the edge of the building, falling to its death below.
Another attacks; swinging its gnarled, sharp-nailed hand at him. He dodges it, swinging the pipe low as he does hitting it in the knee. The bone shatters with a crack, twisting the zombie’s torso around as it falls to the ground with a howl.
Gremlin backs up as more zombies shove their way through the narrow doorway, coming at him fast. He swings the pipe in wide arcs, doing his best to keep them at bay.
“GREMLIN!” Lukash shouts from the other rooftop. “COME ON!”
Gremlin glances behind him quickly to see Enigma being pulled up on to the other roof. He runs for the cable, throwing the pipe into the crowd as he goes, hitting an unlucky zombie right in the forehead causing it to fall over in its own footprint. He swings on to the cable and squirms quickly across. He makes it about halfway when he feels the cable begin to shake. He looks back at the rooftop he came from to see zombies clawing at it, many of them reaching for him too far and tumbling off the rooftop in the process. Suddenly, their tampering causes the knot to weaken and the cable slips away from that side of the roof, sending the cable and him along with it falling towards the opposite building.
“Fuck my life…” Gremlin whispers as the cable as he swings through the air in a free-fall. He crashes through an open window about halfway up the building, flying through the room to the wall opposite it and slamming into it. He slides down the wall, all of his weight coming to rest on top of an old creaky desk below him.
“Ughh…” he moans, thankful at least for a semi-soft landing. The table protests the sudden added weight, cracking and splintering beneath him, completing his landing sequence. He falls onto the hard floor with an “Oof! ”as the wind escapes his lungs.
I should have known a soft landing was too much to hope for with an entrance like that…” he scolds himself as he gasps for air.
“Gremlin!” He can hear Lukash out the window as he shouts from the roof above him. “Can you hear me?! Are you alright?!”
Gremlin tries to shout back, but with the lack of air in his lungs he manages little more than a nonsensical “Yuuuuuhhhh!”
“We’re going to use the cable to scale the opposite side of the building! Head to the room across the hall, we’re going to drop the line there!”
“Uhhh Kuuhhh!” He acknowledges.
He rolls onto his stomach, wishing he hadn’t as a sharp pain pulses through his body. He yells in pain, intensively cradling his lower ribs. “Cracked rib.” he informs himself, curling into a ball and holding his side in pain. He drags himself sideways across the floor, kicking off of walls and objects in the room until he gets to the hall. He pokes his head out, looking down either side for any sign of trouble. Once satisfied, he gives himself a big push off of the doorframe, clearing only about a foot of hall due to the layer of dust and grime coating the floor.
He reaches out for the opposite doorframe to the room across the hall, stretching painfully as he grabs onto it and pulls himself inside the room. He does a quick scan, nearly jumping out of his skin as he makes contact with an eyeless stare looking back at him from a bed near the doorway; the remains of some unfortunate Stalker who had made it into the city and died sometime afterwards no doubt. He continues to propel himself across the floor, using any available objects to assist him. As he crosses into the remains of the apartment’s living room, he sees the cable dangling in front of the window there. He inches towards a couch in front of the window, easing himself onto it while he catches his breath. A few moments later, Lukash comes rappelling down the side of the building.
“Unnnhhh!” Gremlin shouts as he approaches the window, throwing up his hand to get his attention.
“You made it!” Lukash exclaims, his eyes going wide with excitement. “You should have seen it, it was like something out of a movie! You OK?”
Gremlin grunts and looks down at his cracked rib in pain.
Lukash loses the smile. “Oh… so you didn’t ace the landing like I imagined then. I gotcha, don’t worry.” Lukash leans in to the window, allowing Gremlin to grab hold of his hand and gives him a count down, “One… two… three!” With that, he pulls Gremlin up with all his might. Gremlin yells in pain as he falls in to Lukash’s arms and holds on for dear life as Lukash rappels them both to the ground quickly, careful to account for the added weight.
On the last stretch of cable, Lukash misses his footing and lets go of the cable, dropping the remaining few feet suddenly. Gremlin loses his grip and falls on him, landing directly on top of him as they hit the ground.
Lukash opens his eyes slowly, rubbing the back of his head in pain. He squints at the dark blur dominating his vision, and opens his eyes suddenly when he finds Gremlin’s angry glare looking back at him, inches from his face. “Why Gremlin… I never knew your feelings for me went that deep.” He smiles mischievously.
“You horses ass! I’ll fucking kill you!” Gremlin grunts as he rolls off of him and Lukash helps him back on his feet.  The rest of the Stalkers make their way down the side of the building behind them. Zombie comes last, pulling the cable down off the roof and gathering it up quickly, stowing it in his backpack as he catches up to them.
“There’s the APC!” Nimbus shouts, pointing to the vacant APC in the road a block west of them.
“Get in there and get us the hell out of here!” Lukash commands the two Freedomers who acknowledge and sprint up ahead in an effort to get the vehicle ready to go. The engine roars to life as they approach and one of the Freedomers stands at the back ramp motioning them forward. They make their way inside as the Freedomer secures the ramp and bolts it shut before running back into the driver’s compartment and taking his seat. The engine revs and the driver guns it, peeling out in the street with a satisfying squeal as the APC lurches forward, barreling down the street faster than any zombie could ever hope to go.
The city of Pripyat fades slowly into the morning fog and thick, black smoke spreading out from the power plant burning behind it. The sun peeks out from behind the smog as they head south; back towards what they believe is the safety of the Freedom base in the Military Warehouses.


*


Commander Petrov returns to the command center of the hidden underground bunker. He smiles as the tension of the room visibly mounts at his presence. He loves seeing the fear in the soldier’s eyes and the inspiring effects it has on him. He selects a station at random and leans close to the cowering soldier’s face and says, “Are we clear for launch?”
The soldier stutters at first, checking a few things on the console in front of him, then answers, “Y… yes Commander! Everything is as planned!”
The Commander holds his malicious glare with the soldier, who gulps and shifts his eyes uneasily around him. “Very good,” He says when satisfied with the effect the uneasy silence has on him. “Then what are we waiting for? Launch Operation: Red Dawn.”
“Yes Commander!” the soldier says as he quickly stands and barks orders to the other soldiers in the room. The command bunker goes into a furry as messages are broadcasted to destinations and people unknown.
Commander Petrov walks down the middle aisle in the center of the room with his hands behind his back, taking in the sounds of the ultimate plan going into effect, the plan that his predecessor – Cammander Tann – had failed days ago when a group of Stalkers managed to make it all the way to the center of the Zone and sabotage his lab there next to the sarcophagus. ”Fool.” He thinks as he erases the man from his thoughts forever.
After a few minutes of chaos around him, he walks back to the center of the room and shouts over it: “Let’s watch a little TV, shall we gentlemen? Put the news on the main viewer.”
Moments later, the screen dominating the front of the room switches to a local news station, where a report over the events unfolding is currently broadcasting. A reporter is standing behind a barricade set up a safe distance away from a checkpoint on the border of the Zone. Smoke is pouring out of several buildings and a strong military presence is in the area, conducting an investigation.
The reporter continues, “… The protesters were arrested but many resisted, and were shot. Now, the military isn’t saying anything but it appears that the weapons may have been hidden within the checkpoint itself when the civilians decided to attack and overrun it. This suggests that there may have been inside involvement. Rumors of bribes and favors are not uncommon, especially in cases of successful Stalking where a trespasser may have secured valuable loot and is willing to trade his loot for free passage into the Zone. We can only speculate that-”
The reporter is cut off by gunfire from the outpost. He drops to the pavement and the camera man zooms in on the action unfolding. The Ukrainian military stationed at the remains if the outpost has turned around and is currently engaged with an unseen force coming at them from within the Zone. Several inhuman roars and shrieks sound simultaneously. The camera drops to the ground as the camera man drops suddenly.
The reporter’s eyes go wide as he whispers, “What the fuck was that?!”
The reporter in the studio comes over the air and timidly demands, “W… What’s going on there? What are they shooting at?”
The reporter in the field doesn’t hear him. The sound of battle is deafening on the other end as the Ukrainian soldiers mount tanks and APCs stationed nearby and begin to fire, forming a wall of dirt and fire in front of them. The camera man picks up the camera and runs, getting as close to the action as he can. Not much can be made out as the tanks and APCs position themselves in the middle of the road to block whatever is coming at them. Suddenly a large object bounds over one of the tanks and lands on the camera man, letting out a violent scream as it straddles him. He screams as blood splatters the camera lens and the transmission is killed.
The camera switches back to the studio where the reporter stares in shock at the events he just witnessed. He looks at the camera but no words come out as he fiddles with his papers nervously.
“I… I… believe we lost… the transmission. We’ll send someone to make sure he’s OK…” he says, a horrified look on his face. Finally, he tosses the papers aside and announces. “We’ll be right back…” The station cuts to commercial quickly.
Commander Petrov applauds the screen, laughing at the scene unfolding. “Good work boys, keep this up and you’ll all be promoted before you know it!” the soldiers in the bunker light up at this, smiling and talking amongst themselves as they work.
“That’s right; eat it up you pathetic little worms.” Petrov praises himself for the false hope he has instilled in them. “By the time this operation is over, you’ll all be dead and I’ll be drinking Vodka with my dirty boots on the desk in the Oval Office fucking your wives and telling them you all died as heroes of war. “

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