December 4, 2010

Chapter 12: The X-Pedition


After they had all finished drinking they piled into the barracks one by one. Virtue was still drunk by the time he finished writing Nimbus’ obituary. He had snuck one last look at his friend when no one was around, finding him on the table under a sheet in the backroom. Though he was pale and covered with scratches, a look of peace was on his face. Virtue could only hope that his final moments had been pain-free and he had gone peacefully.
He spent most of the night tossing and turning, having nightmare after nightmare. Once he had awoken, he couldn’t remember any of them, but he did remember one unifying element; Nimbus was in all of them.
It’s all your fault.
Why did those words keep playing through his head? He didn’t care anymore.  His mind was more of a cluster-fuck now than ever, he was sick of feeling this way. Every moment that had passed since he had decided to return to the Zone was worse than the one before it. He doubted himself. When he had first come to the Zone and had something to fight for. Sure, he was afraid of the dangers, but failure was simply not an option. Now the word success had been completely erased from his vocabulary.

It was his friends; that’s what he had said to Nimbus hours ago when he was sitting right next to him, alive and well. He told him his friends were the reason he was still fighting. Though that was mostly a lie, there was a shed of truth in it. The truth was, the Stalkers had become close to him – but Nimbus was the one he truly considered family.
Then it hit him; Nimbus was Emelia’s replacement. All this time he had been looking for purpose when subconsciously it had been him all along. Nimbus was the first friend he had ever truly had… and now, he was gone. All that was left of him were memories. That was it then – that was his purpose now. He would fight for those who had fallen living the nightmare he had had to endure every time he closed his eyes. Nikita, Jargon, Phantom, and now Nimbus had all died trying to escape this hell – he owed it to them to make it out alive; to find the reason behind the Zone’s existence and end it all.
“Virtue - wake up!” a real voice said to him. He turned to see Alek kneeling down next to him, nudging him.
“What are you doing?” he groaned.
“Get up, we’re going hunting.”
“Hunting for what? Does Gremlin know-“
“Doesn’t matter,” He cut him off. “He put me in charge of morale and you need a boost. Come on!”
Virtue moaned, his head throbbing as he sat up. He had no sleep and way too much to drink – this was going to suck.
Alek threw his gear on his lap and urged him along.
“Hurry up.”
Virtue put on his suit and clipped on his backpack, slinging his rifle on last and checking his sidearm. He walked to the door, looking back longingly at the happily-resting Stalkers behind him.
“This way.” Alex waved from the bunker’s airlock.
The lab was dark and quiet, most of its systems shut down for the night. As Virtue approached the door he pulled the doors handle, bypassing the airlock and opening it manually.
“Are we supposed to be-“
“Quiet.” Alek ordered.
The door groaned as Alek pulled it open, motioning him forward. Virtue entered as he closed the door behind him and manually opened the other side. As the door opened a cold rush of air hit Virtue’s face. Moonlight shone down on the thick grass and old metal surrounding the lab. Beyond the walls lay the rest of Yantar. The main road stretched north into the fog setting around the remains of Lake Yantar, now nothing more than a clogged up marsh.
The door closed behind him and Alek marched on, signaling an A-OK to an unseen figure above him. A pair of eyes shone down at him in the light of a cigarette as it flared on the roof above them.
“Stay close.” Alek said as he crossed the open gate out of the protected area around the lab.
Virtue jogged to catch up, a wave of fear and nausea coming over him as soon as he crossed the threshold. Most Stalkers refused to go out at night since a lot of mutants were nocturnal and other dangers such as anomalies and cliffs were a lot harder to see with lower visibility. But Virtue would have rather braved those than the sheer creepiness of the area.
Alek jogged on down the road in front of him with determination as old dead trees reached out at them from the side of the road. The fog around them became thicker as they moved through it, further north. Virtue remembered both times he had been in this fog before. When first entering Yantar, the fog had proven extremely deadly when zombies and Zombified Stalkers had used it to mask their approach and surround them. Jester had become lost in it when he had decided to run off towards where he thought the mobile bunker was. Later, when they had made the journey north to X16 they had encountered the same problem. It was a natural hazard that all the inhabitants of the area used to their advantage.
Alek began to slow ahead of him, signaling for him to stop.
“Wait.” He said, holding perfectly still as Virtue approached cautiously.
Alek looked straight ahead, eyes open and alert. He remained still for several minutes before Virtue grew impatient.
“Alek, what are we doing out here?”
He held up a finger for silence. Moments later a lonesome moan came from somewhere ahead of them. A smile crossed his lips as Virtue’s heart stopped in his chest. Alek turned towards him and began to whisper instructions to him.
“Listen up; the key to dropping these things is to aim for vital areas. The head and upper body are good – but if you see anything decaying go for that. You can go for limbs to cripple them if you don’t see any better options.”
Anxiety began to grip him as the moan came again, sounding closer this time. He was beginning to understand what Alek had meant.
“Y… you mean we’re out here to hunt z… zombies?” He stuttered.
“Not weyou.” He corrected him.
“W… why?” Virtue asked.
“Because if this team is gonna have a shot at this mission we all need to be strong, like links in a chain, so we can depend on each other and, no offense, but you’re the weakest link.”
It was true, he knew it. As afraid as he was he knew this was the best thing for him. He had already faced a few zombies under the relative safety of the nearby lab when he had first heard that Emelia had been killed. Then he had been fuled by rage and was half-expecting to be killed but not really caring if he was. This time he was going to be the hunting them - alone.
He gripped his rifle tightly and walked forward into the fog.
“If things get nasty, remember your knife. If you gotta run, use grenades. I’ll be waiting for you here. Don’t come back until you’ve killed at least five. Oh… and watch for the shooters.”
His words brought no comfort to him at all as he looked over his shoulder to see Alek fade into the fog behind him.
OK… focus, you got this.
He tried to maintain his composure as the distinctive sounds of feet shuffling through grass and dirt came from the darkness before him. He turned on his headlamp to enhance his visibility. He stopped as a voice muttered a few unintelligible words. They sounded Russian, which would have comforted him if they hadn’t sounded inhuman as well. He listened hard as the footsteps drew closer, then froze as they stopped suddenly.
Where is it?
He strained to listen, swiveling in place as he looked through the fog.
“Raaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!”
The voice gave an alerted cry as an outstretched arm emerged from the fog, followed by a dead, disfigured head.
Virtue didn’t wait to get a shot. His finger squeezed the trigger tightly as the mutant approached, filling it with bullets. He let off about half a magazine before the zombie finally fell over in front of him, riddled with bullet holes. Normally, anything else would be bleeding out at this point – but Virtue was beginning to doubt the zombie even ran on blood.
Another moan answered the sudden discharge of his weapon in the quiet night… then another… and another. He braced himself and checked to make sure extra magazines were at the ready. The gun shook in his hands as he peered down the iron sights. The more he tried to steady himself the shakier he became.
Come on, you’ve killed them before. They’re slow and stupid – you can do this.
His self-coaching did little to reassure him as the footsteps drew closer and then stopped suddenly. That had to mean they had reached the road.
Another alerted moan as another zombie shuffled towards him. He was ready for it. He fired – the muzzle flashes from the barrel of his gun lit up the zombie’s face like a strobe light at a disco. He ejected the magazine as the zombie fell, quickly reloading the next as another silhouette emerged from the fog. He didn’t quite have the magazine in my the time the zombie reached him. He kicked it away as it neared him. Immediately the stench of death entered his nostrils, repulsing him.
As he finished reloading his weapon he noticed an exposed bone protruding from the zombie’s arm. Acting on Alek’s advice, he aimed and fired. The zombie’s arm flew off as the elbow shattered. Confused, it shambled off into the fog to find its severed limb.
Suddenly a cold, slimy hand brushed past his arm. Without thinking, he twirled around fiercly swinging his weapon with all his might. The butt of the rifle came down with a satisfying crack on the head of another zombie. It paused, slowly bringing its head back to level with his just in time to catch a bullet through one eye.
Three down two to go.
Virtue couldn’t make out anything over the sound of his own heart beating in his head but he thought he heard more moans from all around him. A lot more. Before he had time to confirm, he found himself being pulled to the ground suddenly. He hit face first on the cold, rough pavement, rolling quickly to one side to recover. As he rolled he found himself entering make-out range with one of the zombies he had labeled as dead.
“Shit!” he yelled as the zombie reached for him hungrily. He pulled out his knife and drove it through the zombie’s throat. It gasped for air, trying to breathe around the metal now wedged in its trachea. He pulled the knife back out. To his surprise the zombie quickly regained its strength. He stabbed it in the neck over and over until it finally stopped.
A distinctive growl pierced the night, making his blood run cold.
Oh shit… I’m fucked. He panicked as he jumped to his feet and began to make his way back to Alek.
“Alek! I got ‘em!” he called out.
No answer.
“Where the hell is he?” he muttered aloud. “ALEK!?”
The sound of boots stomping through grass and leaves drew closer. He waited patiently for Alek to catch up to him. He could hear strained breathing through a gas mask as he drew closer. By the time he sounded like he was only yards away the footsteps stopped. Virtue looked around, but saw no sign of him.
“Alek?” he whispered as the sounds of strained breathing continued. “Over here!”
If he had blinked he would have missed it. The bottom of a boot suddenly appeared in front of him, slamming into his face and sending him into a backflip. He landed back on the pavement, letting out a sharp oof as the wind was knocked out of him. He gasped for air as he tried to figure out where the thing had gone… but more importantly, where his weapon was.
There it was. He spotted it a few feet away, lying idle on the side of the road. He reached out for it, willing it to fly into his hands. When it didn’t, he resigned to crawl towards it. The need became more pressing as panting sounds grew louder in the fog behind him. Before he could reach out and grab it, something heavy hit him square in the back, knocking what little wind he had left completely out of him. He would have yelled if he had any air in his vocal cords but he quickly realized that wasn’t an option.
The disconnected air hose of an old, worn out gasmask slapped against his head as he struggled beneath the creature above him.
Snork. There was no doubt about it. He was in real shit now.
It roared and sunk its dead black nails into his back. He cringed as sharp pain shot through his body, rejuvenating him suddenly. He used the sudden adrenaline rush to shift all his weight to one side and roll out from under the creature. He pushed off, rolling down the damp grass and dirt on the side of the road. Loose dirt and gravel slid after him as the creature hobbled after him on all fours.
He drew in a deep breath and jumped to his feet. He knew it would lock onto him and lunge as soon as it was sure he wouldn’t get back up from the blow. He stole a glance over at his rifle still on the side of the road, then down at his belt for his pistol. It was gone. He grabbed his knife and braced himself for the lunge he knew was coming. Without warning the creature launched itself into the air with incredible speed. He swung with his knife as the creature soared under him, knocking his feet out from under him.
He was on the ground again; face down in a pile of leaves - the knife stuck in the ground next to him. The Snork tucked into a roll as it landed a few yards away and started to turn back. He hurried to get back to his feet, grabbing the knife and bracing himself again. It came at him again. He locked onto the cracked, dirty lenses shielding its malevolent eyes from him, watching, waiting.
It lunged again. Time slowed as his heart raced. He waited for it to come danger close before shifting his weight to one foot and kicking it in the head with all his might. It veered off course, shooting past him and tumbling violently across the road behind him. This was his chance. He made a mad dash for his weapon. The Snork roared ferociously at him, angrier than ever. It speed after him, fueled by rage. His gun was too far away. It stopped just for a moment, preparing for a knock-out pounce. It cleared several yards in a fraction of a second before time seemed to slow again. He had just enough time to drop to his side and slide towards his weapon.
A large blur passed over him as he neared the weapon. Out of the blur, a gnarled hand emerged – its sharp nails dragging across the bridge of his nose as it flew over him. His head turned towards his weapon as the nails cut into him. It was in range. He reached out towards it, scooped it up and began firing after the Snork. Bullet casings clinked on the road next to him as he adjusted his aim from his sideways position on the road. The Snork twitched as the bullets hit it in the back, but still it pressed on. It turned, panting heavily as it limped back towards him, slowed considerably by the bullets in its limbs. He didn’t waste the opportunity.
Two of his shots entered the monster’s head, expelling blood and brain matter out the back of its skull. It collapsed onto the pavement with a final sigh fading out of its gasmask filters. Virtue didn’t dare take his eyes off if it until he was sure it was dead. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted his pistol glistening in the light of his headlamp. He picked it up cautiously, looking and listening for any more signs of trouble. More moans and groans approached.
Fuck this, I’m out of here.
If Alek had a problem counting the Snork as two Virtue wouldn’t care – he had survived, and Alek had done nothing to help what could have been his death.
“Alek! Where the fuck are you?” he called out angrily. Still no answer. “God dammit.”
He began back-tracking along the road, recognizing the spot Alek claimed he would be waiting. There was no sign of him. He stated to run as the sound of angry mutants closed in around him. He could only assume the Merc had bailed on him. The sounds began to die away as he put distance between him and wherever he had been before.
Where’s the lab? He wondered through the thick fog. How was he supposed to find it? He knew countless Stalkers had lost their direction and, consequently, their lives by getting lost in this fog. There had to be a way to find the bunker. Then, off to the side of the road, he spotted a body. As he got closer he could easily identify it as a zombie. From the looks of the blood on the ground it was a fresh kill.
Alek must have come this way.
He left the road, continuing in a straight line from where the body had been. Along the way he spied a few more. He inspected the ground as he walked forward, looking for any telltale signs it was Alek who had been here.
Thud!
He shook his head as he recoiled from the unexpected blow to the head. The outer wall of the mobile lab stood before him. Relief washed over him for a moment – but only until he heard several weapons charge on the other side of the wall.
“Hello? It’s Virtue! Let me in Alek!”
“Virtue?” an unfamiliar voice answered. “I don’t know any Virtues.”
“You got that right you compassionless asshole.” An unseen companion of his joked.
“Eh… you got me there. Like if this guy doesn’t know the password, will I let him in anyway? Probably not.”
“Password? What fucking password?” Virtue shouted back.
“Oh… you mean Alek didn’t give it to you?” the second voice said in faked sympathy.
“Poor guy.” The first voice added.
“That motherfucker!” Virtue said disgustedly. “He left me for dead!”
“Looks that way.” The first voice answered. “Either tell us the password or fuck off.”
“Stick around and we’ll finish what he started.” The second voice said.
“I’m with Gremlin’s team – tell him Virtue’s here.”
“He’s away right now - but if you’d like to leave a message-“
Virtue had had enough. He was ready to make as much noise as it took to get one of his friends’ attention. He started kicking at the gate. The metal creaked and groaned and the chains holding them together rattled loudly.
“Virtue! Stop – I’ll let you in!” he heard Alek say from inside the compound.
“Jesus Alek… your friend might have woken up all of Yantar with that.”
“It’s my fault – I’ll take over your watch to make up for it.”
“Deal.” Both of the Mercs agreed.
The gate opened timidly as the chains slid off the inner handles. Alek appeared off to the side as it swung open slowly. His two Merc friends stood on either side of the gate. Their eyes grew wide as he leveled his weapon with Alek. The Two Mercs immediately snapped into action, taking aim at his head.
“Drop it!” they shouted.
Alek put his hand on their arms to steady them.
“Easy guys! Virtue… take it easy; it was all a test and you passed it!”
“You left me for dead you back-stabbing piece of shit!”
“You had to experience it by yourself. All this time you’ve had the assurance that your friends would be there to save you.  This was the best way to break you out of that mold.”
“There was a Snork! I barely survived!” he protested angrily.
“Yes, and there’s a lot more where that came from. The point is you’re alive and your team can depend on you in a fight.”
Virtue hesitated before he answered. He may not have approved of Alek’s methods, but nevertheless he was right. He had survived and, although he was bitter, deep down it felt good. He had just killed three zombies and a Snork all by himself, using the skills he had learned from watching his teammates. The experience had all but erased any doubt that he was as much of a rookie as he thought he was. He lowered his weapon to the relief of Alek. Eventually the two Mercs lowered theirs as well.
“Thank you. I’m sorry I had to do what I did but you’ll thank me later.” Alek assured him. “Now get some sleep. We’ve all got a long, long day ahead of us.”

*

Lukash took a deep breath as the smell of morning dew entered his nostrils. Today was his first official day as the new leader of Freedom… and it was going to be one hell of a day.
He walked around the makeshift Freedom base as the teams prepared to move out to their assigned areas.
“We’re good to go here, Boss.” Max said as he broke away from his squad. “How are our new ‘friends’?” His voice fluctuated a little on the last word.
“My final meeting with Voronin is in fifteen minutes. Once final preparations are made we’ll give the command to move out via radio to make sure communications are good. We’re going to need it.”
“Yeah, being underground is one thing, but the distance and heavy interference are going to play a real number on us out there.” Max agreed, looking up at the red morning sky.
Lukash was about to ask him if he was sure he was ready, but changed his mind when he considered that there was no other option. Max was the best they had. He had earned his title as Guardian of Freedom for his perseverance and deadliness when the odds were against them. It was unlikely Freedom would have survived past the faction wars had it not been for his bravery and conviction.
“Proceed to the rendezvous point. I’ll make contact with you soon.”
“You got it, Boss.”
He turned back to his team and went over the plan in detail. Lukash made some final preparations and then headed for Duty HQ.
This morning was different somehow. Granted, there was a lot going on and he was under a lot of pressure but he felt surprisingly weakened by it all. No, there was more to it than that – it was something in the air. He noticed his Geiger counter clicking as he walked. He tapped it suspiciously as the numbers slowly climbed. That couldn’t be right.
As he rounded the corner to Duty HQ an unfamiliar voice called to him from a building nearby.
“Hey – Freedomer, come here.”
He looked around him, spying a Dutyer leaning against a wall just outside the door to Duty HQ. He looked like a door guard with his Exosuit, colored and decaled like other Dutyers. On one of the front armor plates was a small skull. He approached cautiously, finding it odd that no other Dutyers were around.
“I’m a little busy.” He replied, doing his best to be polite.
“Why you gotta be so rude? I just want to have a chat.” The Dutyer replied, pushing himself off the wall and standing straight as Lukash approached.
“Maybe some other time, I’ve got an important meeting to get to with your boss.”
He turned to leave but the Dutyer persisted.
“Hey! I’m not done with you!” he yelled after him.
That was enough of that. Lukash spun around and faced the Dutyer who had begun to walk towards him.
“Oh, you’re quite done. And when I tell your boss you’ve been harassing Freedomers you’re going to be in big trouble.”
Lukash stood his ground as the Dutyer stood toe to toe with him. What was he hoping to accomplish with this? If any harm came to him not only would it mean war for Freedom and Duty, all hopes of stopping the mutants running rampant in the Zone would be lost.
“This ‘alliance’ is a big mistake. We don’t need your scum here. You’re a disease that’s entered our bloodstream. A taint on our territory – our Zone!”
Lukash practiced his new official tone, even though he wanted nothing more than to put the Dutyer in his place.
“I’ll be sure to voice your concerns to General Voronin when I see him. Try not to hurt yourself in that thing.”
He said, nodding at the Dutyer’s suit then turned to leave.
“Your days are numbered, Lukash. The minute you became leader of that band of rejects was the minute you signed your own death certificate.”
The Dutyer laughed as Lukash continued into Duty HQ. First day as official leader and people already wanted him dead. He did his best to shake the disturbing conversation from his head as he entered the underground bunker. The Dutyers standing guard acknowledged him and opened the door, allowing him to continue into the briefing room where General Voronin and his officers were gathered.
“Ah, here he is. Let’s get settled in.” Voronin said to all gathered. They found their seats as Lukash entered and took his place opposite from Voronin next to Cap and Skinflint.
“Good morning.” He said to them both as he took his seat.
“I can’t believe we’re actually doing this.” Cap said, looking not at all pleased.
He leaned in and whispered back “I know, Cap. But we don’t have a whole lot of options right now. This is for the good of Freedom.”
Cap sighed. Lukash could only hope he too would believe that statement in time. The results of this mission would tell.
“Barin – do you copy?” Voronin spoke into his radio. A voice came on after a few moments.
“Barin here, I copy.”
“Is your squad ready to move out?”
“Ready, sir.” Barin replied.
Voronin smiled, looking across the table at Lukash as he cued his own radio.
“Come in Max.”
“Max here.”
“Prepare to move out on my command.”
“Yes, Boss.”
Voronin nodded, leaving his chair to stand next to a map of the Zone.
“Our sources have confirmed the location of two underground labs: Agroprom Underground, located beneath the Agroprom Research Institute and Lab X-18, located in the Dark Valley. X18 appeared on the manifest for Lab X-16, which our friends in Freedom graciously recovered for our use whereas the entrance to Agroprom Underground has been known to us for some time.”
He pointed out the location of both facilities on the map for all to see.
“We will enter Agroprom Underground through the Garbage while Freedom proceeds through the Dark Valley into X18. They should know the area well, considering it was their old stomping grounds.”
Lukash wasn’t sure what to make of that comment. Back in the Faction Wars, they controlled much of that area before they had moved north towards their ultimate goal: The Military Warehouses. They had sacrificed everything to secure the base and make it their home in the Zone, but the price had come at a large cost. Once they had taken the base from the Military, Duty swept in to help their allies, flanking Freedom as they sent in reinforcements and all but eradicating them. Lukash was sure the General meant no disrespect, but that didn’t stop the two Freedomers beside him from muttering under their breaths.
“Once our teams have gathered all the intel they can, we will coordinate with Sakharov in Yantar and see what he can make of it all. Any questions?”
The room was silent – that was until a voice spoke up from the door which had opened sometime during the briefing.
“Yeah, I got one. How long is it gonna take before Freedom stabs us in the back?”
Lukash looked over his shoulder to see the Stalker with the skull on his suit standing there.
“Skull, you’re out of line.” Voronin warned him.
“What’s wrong with you all? Did you forget what happened back in the Faction wars? They’re all a bunch of Anarchist scum. They go against everything we are.”
“Skull-“
“They took me as their prisoner and beat me. They’re a bunch of spineless cowards! If, by some miracle, they do complete their half of the mission they won’t share anything with us. They all deserved to be drug out of here by their feet and killed one by-“
“SKULL! THAT IS ENOUGH!” Voronin slammed his fist down on the table, enraged. “Get him out of here!”
The door guards reacted immediately, grabbing his arms and escorting him from the room.
“Get off of me!” he threw their arms off of him with incredible strength, thanks to the exosuit marking him as an esteemed member of Duty. The door guards stood down, looking to Voronin for guidance. “I know the way.”
He looked at Voronin who glared back at him. His gaze shifted down to Lukash and the two Freedomers beside him. The cold, tinted eyes of his suit’s faceplate met theirs apathetically – but they could sense his disgust as he shook his head and marched out of the room. The sound of his boots stomping on the concrete echoed down the hall until the door closed once again. Voronin took a few more seconds to compose himself as he leaned over the table.
“I’m sorry… Skull has a lot of bad blood with Freedom. He’s young and stubborn; please pay no mind to his words.”
“That’s OK.” Lukash said, lying through his teeth. Such was the world of politics.
“Well… all that’s left to do now is to give the final order.” The General held his radio at the ready, inviting Lukash to have the honors.
Lukash held his radio to his mouth. Voronin looked on, expectantly.
So this was it. For the first time in their long and violent history, Freedom and Duty would finally join forces and work together. He wasn’t sure how long this alliance would last as the two factions were simply too different as they stood to coexist. But looking across the table at the opposing faction’s leader he saw himself: just another man, uniting Stalkers under a single flag to further their goals in the Zone. If their mission failed, there might not be a Zone left to fight over. This was for the good of them all.
“Max?”
“Here.”
“Move out.”
“Understood.”
Voronin cued his radio next.
“Barin – copy?”
“Copy.”
“Proceed.”
“Yes sir.”
The General stood, looking over the faces of his colleagues for assurance that they were doing the right thing. The looks of concern on them all were all too evident. On the opposite end of the table were the Freedomers, all wearing their poker faces. But he knew they were thinking the same thing the turned faces of those sitting in front of them.
This had to work.
“Dismissed.”
The Dutyers and Freedomers stood and filed out of the door in a line.
He wasn’t sure where the two factions were headed or what the outcome of this mission would be but he knew one thing; as long as the Zone existed Duty would be there… or die fighting for it.

*

Virtue joined with the rest of the Stalkers at the crack of dawn. They all looked as much like hell as he did, but there was a new determination in their eyes. They looked like he felt. They wanted just as much justice for Nimbus as he did, he could feel it.
Gremlin had some parting words with Sakharov and met them in the lab’s main room as they finished checking their gear.
“Alright, listen up everyone. I think everyone had a pretty good idea of what we’re up against here but I just wanted to say a few words before we leave.”
The Stalkers stopped what they were doing and gave him their full attention, unaccustomed to hearing any speeches from him.
He looked up at them all individually, going over the notes in his head all the while,
“I’d be lying if I said I expected us to make it out of this completely unscathed…” he hesitated slightly as he continued. “We’ve already had a taste of what we’re up against and how much more dangerous the Zone has become because of what we started. It’s our job to get to the bottom of this shit-storm and make sure those responsible pay. We owe it to everyone who has died to those monsters and the people controlling them. Let’s make sure they don’t die in vain.”
Short, simple, heart-wrenching; it took every ounce of effort to hold the tears in as memories came flooding back to him. But he realized he was only the most recent person to lose someone dear to him. Gremlin had lost more than a friend – he had lost a brother; someone who he had known for years and trusted with his life. Enigma had lost her husband; the man she loved and had to endure the loss of for years, completely separated from another human being who could have helped her through it. His pain was deep – but he owed it to them to suck it up and make sure they all made it out OK.
Gremlin smiled as Sakharov shuffled out of his lab, bearing a bag of unknown contents.
“Look I… I wanted you all to have these. I feel partially responsible for what happened and, where you’re going, I think you’ll need them.”
Gremlin graciously accepted the bag and opened it up. A spectrum of light immediately flooded out of it, colors dancing across his face. The Stalkers’ jaws collectively dropped as they crowded around Gremlin.
“One for each of you…” the professor instructed. “They are my primary source of income and research but I think they will help you much more than me.
“Bless your soul, old man! You’re the Santa Claus of the Zone!” Reaper exclaimed, gathering Sakharov in his arms and giving him a bear hug.
“Ow – my ribs!” The Professor cried out painfully as Reaper put him back on the ground.
“Thank you.” Gremlin said, passing the artifacts around like one of Santa’s helpers.
“It’s the least I could do.” Sakharov shrugged, cupping his hands behind his back. “Besides, if you come back from X17 anything you bring with you could make me a fortune.”
When we come back.” Gremlin corrected him.
“Yes, yes… of course.” Sakharov nodded and faked a reassuring smile. When Gremlin had finished passing the artifacts around Sakharov pointed in the bag and added, “Their known properties are all on the note I included in there. You may want to decide on which best suits your needs.”
“Thanks again.” Gremlin said as he turned and pressed the button to cycle the airlock door.
“Good luck, Stalkers.” Sakharov gave them a parting wave as they passed through the airlock and into the early Yantar morning.

*

The soldier’s breath dominated the audio feed and clouded his closed-cycle suit’s face shield as he and his squad marched on through the torn, irradiated streets. The city looked worse than ever. Permanent cloud cover cast a dark shroud over it, blanketing it in a fresh layer of fallout from the plant burning to the north. They were walking into hell and they knew it.
“We’re nearing the Cultural Center now, commander. Radiation levels off the chart.”
The soldier’s Geiger counter protested wildly in the background. He did his best to ignore it but the fear in his voice was evident.
“My God…” another voice off camera murmured. “What in the hell happened here?”
The camera focused in as they drew closer to the city’s center. Dozens of bodies littered the concrete park. They were in advanced stages of decomposition, looking like they had been there for a while.
“There’s a lot of bodies here.” The soldier reported.
“Yes, I can see that,” Commander Petrov replied, annoyed. “Now get closer so I can see who they were.”
The soldier continued on, checking his surroundings as they entered the open. He motioned for his wingmen to go before him and cover him as he approached one of the nearest bodies. He stood over it, panning up and down so Petrov could get a good look. Its skin was grey and cracked, it’s jaw unhinged on one side, teeth chipped and worn, nails black, clothes shredded.
“Civilian Zombies. Find out what killed them.” He ordered.
“Yes sir.”
The soldier ordered his squad to search the area while he proceeded to the Cultural Center to oversee them. He stopped as his foot landed in a particularly large hole in the cracked concrete. The hole was surrounded by a large scorch mark, indicative of an explosive. They pocked the entire area. He stepped out of the hole and began to continue on but Petrov stopped him.
“Stop! What created all those holes?” he demanded.
“Unknown, commander. Grenades?” the solider speculated.
“Those are too deep for grenades to have made, dimwit!” he seethed. “Find out!”
“Proceeding inside the Cultural Center.” He radioed back.
He waited for his squad to stack up on him, scanning the crude tribal graffiti covering the outside of the building. Petroglyph-like drawings depicted mutants, men and a large monolithic object in the center of it all, obviously the focus of their attention. The Wish Granter, he decided. Too bad for them it was a fake – just an illusion generated in their former lab in the NPP. But they were no more misguided than any other religion, he mused.
He signaled his squad inside. They checked side rooms and cleared the area in front of him as he continued inside.
“This was the Monolith’s favorite place. If there are any of those rock-worshippers around this is where they’ll be; stay alert.” He radioed to his squad as they spread throughout the building.
“I’ve got something here.” One of his men radioed in after about a minute. “You might wanna come see this, sir.”
“On my way.” He radioed back and continued into the building’s auditorium.
He took the stage access door and emerged on one side of the stage, finding his man holding his position in front of a large object in the middle of the room. He easily identified it as one of their central worship centers. They had found one of the antennae the Soviet military had been experimenting with in the early days and constructed a monolithic structure around in composed of whatever they had at their disposal.
“One of their monoliths. I’ve seen them before – so what?”
“Look.” The soldier nudged his rifle towards the far side of the monolith.
Propped up against the far side he could see movement. It looked like the rapid rise and fall of a man’s chest. He pulled out his rifle and ordered his man to circle around. It was definitely a man. He appeared to be tangled in the structure somehow.
“Identify yourself!” The soldier said.
The man’s turned his head towards them slowly. They froze as his bloodshot eyes stared back at them hopelessly. The skin on the bottom half of his jaw hung from it clumps and what was left of the skin on the rest of his body was brown and cracked. He screamed and convulsed as they looked on.
“Praise… the… Monolith…” he said in croaky, pained voice.
His face contorted as if trying to smile, but the lower half of his jaw continued to sag, making it impossible. Blood ran from his dark eye-sockets like tears and his mouth opened and four tentacles emerged from it.
“He’s becoming a Bloodsucker!” The Soldier reported, astounded.
“Capture him and bring him in for study.” Petrov ordered.
They approached the man, standing in front of him to either side. He looked back at them, pleading,
“Kill me… please…”
“Something’s got a hold of him,” the soldier indicated to his man. “It’s wrapped around his arms and legs.
“Stay away…” The man warned them.
“Quiet! We’re taking you with us.” The soldier said. “Try to get him off of there while I verify C-Consciousness is still broadcasting to these antennas.”
“Leave now, and you may survive.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I don’t speak gibberish.”
“It’s dug into his skin.” The other soldier said as he tried to free the man from his bondage. The man watched his attempt with interest, sniffing intently as he did. He let out a sharp, animalistic growl and lashed out at him with his facial tentacles, barely missing his face.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed as he jumped backwards. “Keep it in your mouth, pretty boy.”
“Getting a signal from the antennae… confirmed; C-Consciousness is alive and ticking.” The soldier reported.
“Excellent.” Petrov acknowledged from the command center. “Now we just need to get back to the lab in the station and fix its broadcasting parameters.”
“That’s odd…” the soldier trailed off as he sifted through some reports on his PDA.
“I’m waiting.” Petrov replied impatiently.
“Sir, it looks like C-Consciousness is still active and focusing its efforts on an individual target.”
“What does that mean in English?” Petrov said.
“It means that, right now, all of its psionic capabilities are being focused on an individual specimen. We won’t be able to regain control of all specimens in the Zone until the anomaly is corrected.”
“What target does it have selected?” Petrov replied.
“I can’t tell through all this gibberish.” The soldier said after sifting through a few more reports.
“Well find out! Now!” Petrov shouted over the radio. “We need to get that hunk of meat and bolts back in our hands ASAP.”
“Must… feed…” The man started suddenly and strained to reach them, becoming more and more violent. “We all must… feed!”
“What did he say?” The other soldier asked rhetorically.
“Just hurry up so we can get out of here. He’s still mostly human anyway, I doubt he’ll do much.”
The other soldier tried again as the man growled like an agitated lion. Suddenly, the soldier’s arm was pulled into the monolith.
“Something’s got me!” he said and began to panic. “It’s pulling me in! Help!”
The soldier backed away, unwilling to risk his skin to whatever was hiding inside the monolith. Several alerted roars and hisses filled the room as the soldier began to walk backwards quickly.
“Contact in the auditorium!” he radioed his team as several bright eyes suddenly lit up in the heart of the structure. The structure creaked and groaned as the soldier was pulled inside screaming. Wood and metal went flying as it exploded suddenly, revealing a full nest of Bloodsuckers inside.
“Shit… shit… shit…” the soldier repeated as he ran out of the room with all his might.
“Sir!?” One of his soldiers bumped into him outside the room. He grabbed the soldier by the collar and threw him between the room and him, then shot him in the kneecap so he would have no chance of escaping.
“NO!” he heard him scream behind him as he continued to run. The camera bobbed up and down as he sprinted out the door and back into the open.
“Take the road north,” Petrov instructed. “You’ll have to investigate the NPP alone.”
“What?! Are you insane? Did you see what was in there? This place has gone to hell!” the soldier objected.
“You will turn around, and you will march your ass to that NPP or I will have you shot.” Petrov threatened.
“Fuck you – I quit!” The soldier said as he continued to run. He panted hard as the roar of a Bloodsucker echoed through the empty city.
“Dammit!” Commander Petrov cursed and stomped around the command center, enraged. “Which one of you incompetent slimes put this team together?”
“M… me sir.” One of the subordinates raised his hand timidly. “I think if we took some time to analyze the signal we can figure out where it was being focused. We’ve still got a shot-“
BAM!
The man stumbled backwards into the row of console behind him, falling to the ground with his hands to his chest. He fell to one side as dark blood escaped from the hole he had been trying to cover. Petrov holstered his pistol, ignoring the feed of the soldier being preyed upon by the Bloodsucker that had chased him out of the Palace of Culture.
It looks like you’re the one who got a shot. He laughed at his own pun, and then left the room to report his success to his boss.

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