Story

Level 5

A post-apocalypse story inspired by S.T.A.L.K.E.R game series

The trees cast shadows over the dirty window of a car that took us deep into the forest. The road was old and rundown. Overgrown and with bits washed away by frequent rainstorms. I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat, holding my backpack. We’re getting rattled all over. We – as I got an escort consisting of three soldiers. They assigned the best, so I can accomplish my task and get back. Though they say no one gets back from the Zone…

Kir is sitting next to me, he’s leading our excursion. Big guy, looks like a real tough… and a bit of an asshole. He served in special forces for 10 years, then moved to Military Stalkers. There’s more going on in the Zone, he said. I can only guess his real motive. Petia and Ninel are sitting at the back like statues. They didn’t say a word since the beginning of our journey. I know they are to escort me to the Psi emitter, make sure I make the repairs and get me out of there. And so, in complete silence, we are driving to our destination. In the distance, I can see the road ending at a metal wall, built across the forest.

– Here it is…- I sighed. Peering from inside a military UAZ I tried to see the length of the wall stretching all through the forest. The car slowly came to a halt in front of a soldier, who stopped us with a gesture. He was wearing a PSZ 9d body armor and a standard kalashnikov was hanging around his hip. It would have been impressive, if not for the fact my boys had the latest Berill 5M armor. Noticing the difference I felt a bit safer. Good to have them with me in the Zone. The Guard approached slowly to the driver-side window. He looked at me, the soldiers at the back and then at the driver. Both said hi. So they know each other, maybe all will go smoothly.

– ID. – He held out his hand, waiting for the papers.

Without a word I handed my documents to Kir, along with my pass, and he handed it to the guard, who opened the pass and read it. Then he checked my Russian Institute of Psionics ЭСВ card and, while analyzing it, approached my side of the car. I opened the widow nervously, yanking the crank. The guard stretched his hand holding the card and looked at me and then at the picture in the card.

– What do you have there with you? – He pointed at the pack I was clutching.

I have documents, computer, tools, spare parts, some rubles and some personal stuff. – He was looking at me for a moment and held out the other hand.

– I need to see that. Give me the backpack.

I handed it over slowly, it looked a bit like an exchange. He gave back my pass and my card. Opened the pack and rummaged through its contents. I looked ahead, inconspicuously. From the corner of my eye I noticed top brass kind of guy in the guard booth, absorbed in a heated conversation over the phone. “Heated” was an understatement, because he was yelling his head off at someone so loud I could make out some of the words. I was hoping they would let us pass before he finishes his call… That kind of a gray haired fucker will probably make a fuss about something, like my helmet. I looked back at the guard, who put my things over the car’s hood and stared at them.

– Come here. – He gestured at me. I got out of the car and approached him.

– What’s that? – He pointed at spare parts.

– Just spare parts for the emitter. These are inverters, mentioned in the pass. There are also power control systems. All serial numbers are in the pass. – I handed him the sheet, pointing my finger at the numbers table.

– Uh-huh… – The guard muttered and took the document. He checked meticulously if all the numbers on the parts correspond to ones in the sheet. The numbers were neatly engraved on the bottom of devices’ metal cases – there was nothing to cavil at. More nervous now, I looked at the guard booth. The guy, standing in the window, was watching the proceeding inspection, still yelling.

– Open it up. – The guard pointed at the military laptop’s case. I entered the code and the reinforced case popped open. The laptop beeped, displaying the logo of the Russian Institute of Psionics ЭСВ.

– And these are spare batteries and cables. – I showed him a bundle of cables and black batteries.

– Uh-huh. – The guard checked the computer’s numbers. Damn martinet.

He looked at the clothes and the hazardous-materials suit. He squeezed the fabric to make sure there’s nothing hidden there. He opened my notebook, grabbed it by the cover and shook it a little. Some pages and a picture fell out. He looked closely at the notebook and the pages. Then picked up the picture and fixed his eyes on it.

– Wife and son? – He put the picture back into the notebook.

– Yes, he’s 8.

– And this? – He pointed at the child’s blue helmet.

– Bike helmet… my son gave it to me for protection. I promised I’d take it with me. – The guard looked at the helmet, put a hand on it. My forehead started to sweat. In my mind I started to repeat: “Don’t turn it over…”. I hollowed it out on the inside and stuffed it with my psi wave protection system, powerful enough to counter the Brain Scorcher like it was nothing. Unless they take it away, that is.

– It’s not on the list. – He made a serious face, rechecking the pass.

– Yeah, but… –

– Don’t do anything stupid… You can get easily killed. – He smiled as if he gave me the best advice in the world. At this point I had my heart in my mouth.

– Yes, of course. – I nodded.

– Do what Kir says, you’ll be fine. The Zone is no place for an engineer. Pack up and get in.

Yessir! – I gathered my stuff and got back in the car. That picture and the helmet seemed to awaken some human traits in that martinet. It wasn’t such a dumb idea to use the helmet after all. The guard went to the gate and banged his fist against it twice.

– Clear? – He shouted.

– Clear! – Came the voice from the other side.

The guard unbarred the gate and swung it open. There were two more guards on the road behind the gate. Dressed the same, but had their masks on. We drove towards them slowly, passing the rusty gate.

– Stooop! – The guard booth door opened and the general came out, yelling. -Stooop!- The car stopped.

I saw the general walk up and talk to the guard who searched me. He was waving his hands and gesticulated something. The guard came up to my side, looking grave, and stood upright.

– Get out! –

I opened the door and stood in front of him.

– What happened? –

– Spread your arms and legs! – The guard took out a handheld metal detector and began scanning me. The detector beeped quietly around the buttons.

– My watch. – I slid my sleeve up, when the device beeped louder.

– All clear! – The guard reported.

The “boss” went back to his booth. The guard looked at us, sighed and shook his head.

– What happened? – I asked again.

– Procedures… fuc…

The bighead returned with a briefcase, walked up and handed it to me.

– Take it, these are anti-radiation meds and a small ЭСВ kit. Now go.

I got back to the car quickly, in case he changed his mind. The door slammed and Kir started up.

The rusty gate closed behind us with a screech. Now there’s only us and the Zone. We drove along the same road. Nothing changed, the road is just as rundown, yet still I feel uneasy. That’s the Zone for you, they say. Gives you the creeps out of the blue. As usual, no one’s saying anything and we get tossed around.

– How long ’till we get there? – I looked at Kir, who kept silent for a few seconds. Maybe he was thinking if he’s allowed to answer that question.

– We get to the lab first, to get you a hazmat.

– But I’ve got one right here. – I lifted the pack, suggesting its contents.

Kir looked at me patronizingly and laughed.

– Hahhah… I’ve seen what you got. You can throw that rag away! It won’t help you here, it’s not a park, it’s the Zone. You’ll get better and stronger one, otherwise mere wind will irradiate you and you’ll drop like a Flesh.

– Okay, if you say so…

– Believe me, most of that common access crap is useless in the Zone. It is a completely different place, not like the Earth. – The horizon flashed, oddly though, kind of reddish.

– Oh! Speak of the devil.

– Goddamn blowouts, happen more often lately. – Said one of the soldiers in the back.

– Yeah… – Kir nodded, speeding up. -Let’s get a move on.

– Stalkers, a blowout is coming! Get to shelter! – The radio crackled.

– That’s the last thing we need… quick… – Kir furled his brows. We’re going to old Ugarova factory. We’ll camp there.

– I hope no one’s there this time. – Said the soldier behind me.

– We’ll make it. – Said Kir stoically. I guess he handled worse encounters before. A thunder cracked, flaring up half of the horizon.

I gazed at the clouds, which glided peacefully across the sky, occasionally flashing and flaring. The car’s engine whirred and we got tossed around even more. I set my thoughts back on my objective. The real one. It took much effort to get here and see the Zone, the wardens of which we’re supposed to support. No one below level 5 knows what we really produce at the Institute of Psionics. The name supposedly says it all. Until recently, I had been sure we made equipment for brain stimulation, learning aid, quicker fact association. The truth is that’s just a small percentage of the industry. We make weapons, the biggest of them being the Brain Scorcher, which I was unaware of, until I got level 5 clearance. How is that possible? I created a psi amplifier that stimulates the brain, speeding up its processes. First in mini-version, a special hat, then a transmitter, covering a large part of the institute. All that was met with approval from “up top” and I got my own department for research on a helmet that helps thinking in extreme stress situations. And so, after 5 years after making my amplifier, I find out that, based on my invention, there’s a device which disrupts the brain, controlling its waves and permanently severing its synapses. The Engineers of level 5 through 7 also got my schematics for “their own” research. I got level 5 for working on connecting my brain amplifier with an exoskeleton, which required a 5 level clearance. That way I dug out the Brain Scorcher documentation, research, human testing. I went through reports and records, until I stumbled upon films of a Brain Scorcher already existing within the Zone. I saw its effects. Brain-scrambled stalkers, who came to the Zone seeking riches. The Brain Scorcher in the Zone is only a prototype of a weapon yet to be built. All the psi mutants are the result of The Brain Scorcher, just as the Superconciousness which controls the Zone. Ever since I found that out, I’m not sure what had come first, the Zone or us. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I started having these weird dreams, nightmares, in which someone spoke to me in slow voice. My invention was meant to help people to progress faster, instead it became a cruel, mind destroying weapon. I had a feeling, that I know exactly how Einstein must have felt. I was so angry, I wanted to go there and blow it all up. But I wouldn’t even get past the gate, so I began to plot how to get there and then blow that shit up. It took me half a year to come up with a reason for them to let me in. And I did! I found, or rather created, a glitch in my own circuits, which was also used in the Scorcher. The circuits just caught fire. The danger is very real, though only exists in lab conditions, a fact I omitted in my report to the executive board. Being afraid of their precious baby burning down, they sent me to make the necessary modifications in the living organism – the Brain Scorcher of the Zone – exactly as I had planned. I had to come up with another plan, of what to do when I arrive in the Zone. The simplest way was to blow things up, but explosives wouldn’t pass the gate. I would’ve got shot during the pat-down. So I thought to use the Scorcher’s own system to burn itself down. I had already reconstructed the parts at the lab, just enough to replace them with the ones in the Brainscorcher and home free. To avoid suspicions, I had rebuilt only the devices I knew will appear on the pass. It doesn’t show they’re different under the casing. Even if the guard bothered to disassemble the casing, he wouldn’t make heads or tails of it. Perfect. When I get to the Scorcher, I’ll burn it all down to a big pile of slag. To make things complete, I needed one more thing – something to protect me from The Brain Scorcher, so I won’t end up a soulless shell when I approach it. The machine to counter the effects of the Scorcher I came up with rather quickly – my department worked on the helmets, after all. To smuggle my system in, I took a child’s helmet, hollowed it out and hid the psi-blocker inside.

Another flash, and this time the heat spread over the entire sky. Kir and the guys at the back didn’t even flinch. A moment later we were at the factory’s main entrance. We drove inside. Kir switched on the high beams and, driving slowly, we scanned the room for any movement. We crossed the large, empty hall and came to a halt at the office section. The soldiers formed up and went inside, searching the rooms. I walked slowly behind them, carrying my backpack. The hallways carried the sound of our footsteps, of crunching glass and plaster. We delved deeper into the factory. Kir and the rest of the guys checked the rooms one by one, until we reached a tidied up corridor, which led into a dark room.

– I guess nobody’s home. – Kir smirked.

They went inside, sweeping the room with flashlights.

– Clear! – Ninel shouted.

– C’mon. – Kir gestured at me.

I entered. The soldiers covered the doorway with a metal pane and propped it with an old file cabinet. The windows of the room were taped over with plastic foil, boarded up and barricaded with furniture. Strange, filter like, devices were stuffed into the ventilation holes. Sleeping bags and blankets laid chaotically on the floor. There were even some clothes and other clutter. It looked like a place visited often enough, with a feel of a hobo den though. The guys sat down on the sleeping bags and lit a kerosene lamp. Muffled sounds of the storm reached us through the filter near the ceiling. Flashes outside were bright enough to light the room all red. I sat next to Kir.

– Now what?

– We wait ’till the blowout passes, so a few hours. I reckon we’ll go in the morning. – Kir unpacked the food rations for everyone.

– Do blowouts happen often?

– More often lately. – Said Petia. – Once a week, at least. It gets more dangerous when we’re on the move. One can catch you short of your destination…

– Thanks, for helping me fix The Scorcher. – I looked at each of them all in turn.

– Order is an order. – Said Kir, wolfing down his food can with a spoon.

– Right, well… – Not the answer I was expecting, but then what could I expect from guys who stay for years in a most fucked up place on earth? I laid on a free sleeping bag and closed my eyes.

The room filled with darkness, which devoured even the lamp light. The walls began to whisper. One of them stood out with a lower tone. I felt it was speaking to me. I tried to make out the words. There were many, but one that repeated most often was “turn back”. These words were stronger and struck my mind. I couldn’t escape. The voices grew more and more obtrusive and painful.

A thunder outside woke me up. I looked around the room. The door was open. Petia and Ninel were sleeping on their places. I had a nightmare again. I stood up and quietly went outside. I heard a voice, from a radio it seemed, and Kir’s. I listened to the conversation.

– …safe. We’ll be there in a few hours. Won’t be any more problems.

– When he finishes repairing the Scorcher, lead him into the red forest and shoot him.- Said the voice in the radio.

– Yes sir.

One could say I was eavesdropping at the right time. I stood motionless. What was the meaning of this? I was supposed to be sent on this mission as a helper and a hero, and that’s what I hear? Maybe they figured out it’s just a ruse? I returned to ‘my’ sleeping bag quietly. No, they can’t know… If they did, I would get a bullet right after getting into the Zone. They wouldn’t even have to explain what happened to me. This must be something else. I tried to analyze the conversation again. “Order is an order” – said Kir, as I remember. Whatever it was – I’m useful until I finish my task. I’ll have to figure out something later, if I ever want to get back home.

I lied down and closed my eyes. I woke up every so often, each rustle seemed suspicious. Even, when I told myself I’m indispensible to them ’till I fix the Scorcher, I couldn’t calm my mind and I listened closely to what was happening around, trying to visualize the room. Eventually I fell asleep.

Ninel slowly pushed the cabinet aside and peeked into the corridor. I opened my eyes to see what’s happening. Petia and Kir were standing next to him, ready to help. I felt like a wreck. I got up clumsily and stretched.

– Looks clear. – Ninel scanning ahead with a Geiger counter and moving on.

– Let’s go. – Kir gestured me to follow.

We followed him, listening to the slow pitter-patter ’till we got to the car. I got the feeling everything’s out of place, sort of inverted, and that we entered the place from a different side than we’re leaving it. As if we’re in some kind of a mirror.

– Everything’s normal, let’s get outta here. – Ninel stopped by the car, packing the counter. I was far from saying the same, something was wrong but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was the same but different – an enormously stupid statement. As a scientist, I was ashamed to admit I came up with it. Yet that’s the exact feeling I got.

We got in the car and drove out of the factory hall, getting back on track. The sun was shining pleasantly, lightening the way and the trees. My anxiety receded slowly.

No more than a few minutes drive, we noticed a strange object ahead of us, which seemed to levitate. I stared at the phenomenon. When we approached, to a dozen meters or so, the indistinct apparition turned into an anomaly that looked like two huge, asphalt hands trying to reach each other with tips of their fingers. I leaned forward to take a good look at the thing.

Suddenly, a strange mutant appeared in front of the car. The thing had its head seemingly melted together with its torso. It bent backwards and roared. The roar mixed with a squeal in my ears, until I felt a burning in my head.

– Oh, fucking shit! Controller! – Kir yelled frantically, stopping the car with a screech of tires. I fell face forward into the windshield. -Run into the forest and don’t look at him!- Kir shouted to me.

The soldiers sprung out of the car, spraying the mutant with bullets. I run out of the UAZ. Everything seemed to slow down, I felt slower and dulled. In an instant, I got a headache like a biggest hangover ever. I heard screams, gunshots, sound of a gun falling to the ground. I looked behind to see what happened. At that moment the Controller reached out his hand to me, made a fist and pulled me towards himself. I suddenly felt breathless, as if I was in the desert. I felt as if a great hand squeezed my brain. I heard tissue ripping inside my head, and then my consciousness was torn out of my body and flew towards him. I ceased to feel my own body, yet I heard the sound it made as it fell to the forest floor. The mutant repeated the motion, again I heard a brain being ripped. All went white…

I looked around, everything was white. I couldn’t make out how big the room is, because it was perfectly white – no walls or horizon. I looked down. I saw my shadow on a perfectly white surface. No sound reached me, no wind blew, no smell. “Have I passed out?” Or was it some kind of hallucination?” – I thought, making a few steps with my arms extended in case I walk into a wall. The whispers returned. One big gibber.

– Gleb… – I heard a strong, deep voice or many voices speaking together.

-Who are you? How do you know my name?!- I turned around, searching for the source of the voice.

– …we know everything about you. We even know what you have not spoken to anyone yet. We know things you do not remember… buried deep inside your mind… We know your real intentions. – Said the voice.

– What could you possibly know?! How did you put me here?

– We know the Brain Scorcher malfunction does not exist. We know it was a ruse to enter the Zone and destroy the device. We know you will not succeed.

– Are you threatening me?

– A warning. Turn back or the Zone shall devour you and you will never see your son and wife again.

– Never!

– Turn baaack! – The voice hissed piercingly and a terrifying form appeared in front of me, as if emerging from a thick, white liquid. It resembled a human with several faces fused together, stretched pink skin and a mutated jaw consisting of several mandibles. The creature stood in a crooked posture, it’s ribs protruding out of its chest along with multiple limbs. Shivers ran down my spine as I fell down, recoiling.

– We know. You will not succeed !- The creature repeated. It reached out, as if to squeeze my head. I bent back and looked up, into a completely white sky. I fell motionless.

Cold wind blew across my face, cooling down my burning cheeks. I heard the trees swaying in the wind. The treetops emerged out of the whiteness, as did the clouds and the blue sky. I was back in my own body. I wriggled my fingers and feet, then lifted myself despite the headache. There was no more sound of combat. Just the trees, grass and the wind. No screams or gunshots.

Our car stood there, on the road, with its engine on. Bent over, I walked up to it, looking for the guys and that mutated bastard. I peeked over the hood and saw Petia and Ninel laying on the ground. Kir was sitting, backed up against a rock, a bit further away. He was still breathing. I run up to him and knelt down.

– Kir… – He had a gaping wound on his chest.

– Son of a bitch… – He looked at me and coughed blood. – That son of a bitch took control of Petia. Before I noticed, Ninel got a bullet to the head. Had to shoot him…

– Easy, Kir. – I examined his wound. He had so much lead in him it’s surprising he was still breathing. – I’ll drag you back to the car so we can get to the lab, they’ll patch you up. – I took Kir’s helmet off and put it away. I propped his head against the rock.

– Fuck it. – He held his breath, closing his eyes, out of pain it seems. -Look at me, I’m leaking my guts out. Won’t live an hour. Get me the radio, it’s in the car, quick!

I ran to the car. That damn radio was crammed into the door pocket – the same radio which delivered an order to kill me. I reached for it, but a thought crossed my mind: get him the radio and risk him finding someone to lead me to the Scorcher, or leave him and go alone? I hesitated. Even if I managed to get there alone and kill my way through the mutants, I still require a hazmat and, most likely, codes to enter the building. Radio it is, then.

– What do I do? – I asked Kir, returning to him with the radio.

– Set channel… 10… then red button… – He coughed again, vomiting blood all over his chest.

– Bring it closer…

I obediently set the channel, clicked the button. The radio crackled.

– This is Kir… Lab, are you receiving me?

The radio buzzed, Kir looked at asphalt in front of him, taking shallow breaths. That “won’t live an hour” seemed like an optimistic understatement.

– Yeah, we hear you, what’s up?

– We got fucked up… by a Controller… need backup.

– What’d you mean “fucked up”? You just got here. How could it come out so early?!

– Son of a bitch came out of nowhere. The engineer needs help.

– How is he?

– Alive, lucky bastard, didn’t get his noggin boiled… You gotta get him. Tell Yuri to go to the Rusty Hair.

– Okay. I’ll send him right away. Yuri? – A conversation went on in the background, mentioning Kir. – Okay. Yuri is packing and on his way.

Fucking great, for a second there I thought Kir will speak some code and they’ll come to off me. The Zone made me strangely paranoid.

– Kir?- Said the voice on the radio. – Kir? Fuck!

I looked at Kir, his eyes were fixed on the Controller’s bullet-filled corpse. He wasn’t breathing anymore. I took the radio away from his face.

– Kir… he’s dead…

– Ah, hell! Get out of there. You know the way to Rusty?

– I don’t. We’re on some forest road, a big anomaly in front of us, asphalt hanging in the air. Car won’t get past it.

– Last night’s blowout was a big one, this may be something new… what color is the forest? Red or green?

– Green, normal…

– Go along the road as you have. At the fork with a small guard booth turn right and continue along. If you see the Rusty, don’t enter it under any circumstance! Got it?

– Yes, straight ahead, booth, right. Don’t walk into the Red Hair.

– Got a weapon?

– No.

– But you can shoot, right?!

-I can, not perfectly, but I can…

– Get Kir’s rifle or the others. They won’t miss it, but it can save your ass.

– Right, I’m off. – I picked up Kir’s blood-spattered weapon. Cleaned it a bit.

– Take Geiger counter as well. Good luck! – The radio crackled and then fell silent.

It almost sounded like a warning. I looked at the radio, released the red button and attached it to my belt. I also searched Kir. An extra magazine is always handy. I found a strange card in one of the pockets. It was a piece of white, thick metal with “Kir Yurkov – Lev8 – X-ZERO” engraved on it. It looked like a pass or an access card, some kind of military RFID, by my estimation. What does it mean Lev8? Level 8? Fucking hell, how many clearance levels is there if such terrifying freaks are on 7 already? Maybe Lev8 is simply the access to the Zone and I’m just getting worked up over nothing? Could make sense though…

I searched Petia and Ninel. Apart from ammunition, they didn’t have anything more interesting than Kir’s card. But if Lev8 is Zone-access, then they should have one. I took the briefcase the general gave me and opened it. Inside there was a PDA, slightly but visibly worn down. I turned it on. It displayed a map of the Zone with a small cursor on the road. I found the Scorcher on it. In the middle of a great forest, in the middle of nowhere. I examined the PDA’s case. The battery was somewhat different than usual ones. I took it out, only to discover it had a small indentation. It housed a small device, about the size of a pinky. A locator.

– Sneaky bastards… – I packed the stuff from the case into my backpack and went on, steering clear of that powerful gravitational anomaly. As the stalkers of The Zone would call it. In its center, I saw a red mist and pieces of entrails. Some animal must have walked into it, because a human couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to blunder into something this huge. I took a few steps toward that strange phenomenon. The ground trembled here in a bizarre rhythm, as if playing bars. A deep bass sound could also be heard, as well as a repeated shriek. A disturbing sound, weird, so… unearthly. I listened a while to this strange music, dark, but somehow fascinating. A melody of a broken, twisted planet. I could just stand there, staring, for a long time. Oh, if not for my “mission”, I would study the thing. I got back on my feet and went on alongside the road. I was walking for more than a dozen minutes in complete silence. As if in contrast to recent events. Only a whistling wind accompanied me. All the way I felt I can still hear the deep hum of the anomaly. I was feeling it all over my body and got goose bumps every now and then. Odd, very odd. I arrived at the fork in the road and a guard booth was there, as the voice in the radio said. I turned right and went on, to a wind’s tune. The forest thinned out here and I walked into a clearing. There were still some sparse trees. Some small buildings and hillocks. A dozen or so steps ahead the ground turned kind of reddish and looked like a dried out lake of rust. Realizing I stepped into it I run clear of it, going around the spot of rust at some distance. I could swear there’s the same anomaly as before, somewhere near. Or this thing could affected me in such a weird way. Anxious, I gripped kalashnikov tightly.

– Is that you? – Said the voice over the radio. Different than before.

– I guess so… – I looked under my feet and noticed a flittering red dot of laser sight. -And that’s… you? – I waved the gun muzzle at the ground.

– Yeah, I’m Yuri. I’ll be right there.

Not a moment later I saw a figure walking towards me. I tried to distinguish what kind of uniform he wore, but what he had was looking better than exoskeletons I worked on. Sons of bitches, I could no longer comprehend what was happening at the institute…

– I’m Yuri. – He greeted me with an extended hand.

– I’m Gleb. – I shook his hand.

– You didn’t walked on the Rusty?

– Nope.

– Your shoe buckles look kinda’ rusty.

– I got off it soon enough. – Though now I began to wonder if I did give that spot a berth wide enough. – Does it do anything?

– You could say it attacks metals… they just break down after a while in the Rusty.

Damn, my equipment breaking down was the last thing I needed…

– That’s all?

– Well, if you’d keep standing in it, your skin supposedly comes off, like from a baked potato, then the muscles… Terrible and painful death.

I gulped.

– Good thing… I got off it in time…

– Yup. I expected you to look like docs from my shelter. Yet there you are! – Yuri took a good look at me.

– Meaning what? An egghead with glasses? – I smirked.

– Almost. White clothes, rubber gloves and a little notebook too.

– Glad to surprise you then.

– Yup, me too.

– I have the gloves in my pack though… – I couldn’t get Yuri’s new exoskeleton out of my mind, or rather the fact I didn’t know about this model. – You look different than I expected too, your uniform and exoskeleton…

I looked at it more closely. It had external armor plates on the chest. The servos were different than the ones I used, kind of a mobile armor, a Kevlar-like material. Why am I even surprised?

– What? Nice exo, right?

– Yeah… I‘ve never seen one like that.

– It’s a prototype. – Yuri grinned. -I was given it for field testing in the Zone.

– Impressive…

His gun was attached to a metal structure which looked like an arm integrated into the exoskeleton. And the gun itself, small, futuristic. Looked like FN P90, though a bit more massive, and had a combat info display…

– And this? – I pointed at the gun.

– Nice piece too. 40 round mag’, fire rate fast as fuck! Perfect for zombies and dogs.

– Zombies?

– Zombies. Some places are crawling with them. They shamble up to the shelter sometimes. I started to go on patrols lately, because it’s a problem when they gang up.

– Why’s it a problem?

Yuri looked at me oddly.

– Ah, right, you’ve never seen those fuckers. One is not much of a threat. Even if he shoots. You can take cover behind something, aim and take him down with a single shot. But a bunch of them – it all goes to hell. That’s why I go and shoot them off, while they are still in numbers I can manage on my own. It costs less ammo to just one-shot them. A horde won’t give you time to aim.

– Didn’t know there’s so many of them…

– More every day.

That’s interesting, or rather troubling. Was it related to the increased activity of the Brain Scorcher? Or was there an accident and the soldiers, who worked there, were suddenly “scorched”?

We walked to a small valley, at the bottom of which was a shelter. A strange construction, seemed to be made from a single piece and then somehow transported here. It was rather small. The entrance had an airlock, a short corridor housing the hazmat suits in a thick, glass cases. Two small bunk rooms for the staff, a social room and two sizable laboratories, stuffed to the brim with lab equipment. We entered one of the laboratories, where two men in white overalls were sitting. They were talking over some papers and didn’t notice our arrival. I immediately recognized one of them – Dima.

– Guys, this is Gleb. – Eggheads turned around.

– Yes, yes. Hi. – Whatever they had in that paper must have been really important, because they gave me but a glance before returning to their work.

– Yup. Now you know what I meant. Valeri’s the one on the left, Dima on the right.- Yuri gestured at them.

– Yeah, I get it.

It seems Dima didn’t recognize me. Good, it would only complicate things, even though I was curious how he got here. 4 years ago there was an accident during a weapons test and Dima “died” at the spot. The explosion supposedly torn him to pieces, leaving nothing to speak of. My entire team was at his funeral, closed casket – for obvious reasons. We donated to his wife and kids, as I remember. Now I see it was just another ruse, the accident being a cover to get here.

– Sit down. – Yuri sat on a chair and pointed at the other one. I sat down at the table. I noticed some big, gray boxes with orange markings. We transported weapons and electronics in such. The boxes were quite sturdy and secured with a coded lock. Rumor is, they can be thrown out of the plane and remain undamaged. The boxes, not the contents, of course.

Yuri reached inside the drawer and procured a bottle of vodka.

– Ha? – He lifted the bottle up, “asking” if I want a drink. I guess he was pleased I showed up at the shelter. The guys, academics, likely weren’t too keen on vodka. Neither was I, as it wasn’t the best time. But had to keep appearances and earn a traveling companion. He didn’t hear the order that asshole from the guard booth gave, probably…

– Sure! – I nodded. In a second the glasses were full and Yuri was slicing bread into thick chunks with his dagger. Quite a blade he had there, by the way.

– Bottoms up! – Bellowed Yuri, rising his glass.

I took a shot and winced. Warm vodka. As soon as I put the glass down, Yuri poured another. A dozen or so minutes passed in this manner.

– Tell me, Yuri, what’s that box over there? – I pointed at the gray box.

– This… – He smiled and wobbled up to the box. – …is…- He entered the code on the pad and the box opened. – …one awesome gadget! – He reached inside, to take out the contents.

– It’s not a gadget! – Valeri stopped him, running up and slapping his hands. -And not a toy! Don’t touch it if you’ve been drinking.

Yuri stopped, looking at the egghead.

– Didn’t know you can move that fast! Fine, you tell him. – He sat down and took another shot of vodka, observing Valeri as he took the gun out.

– This is G2. – Said Valeri. – Our experimental weapon against mutants with psionic powers. The weapon’s primary function is to nullify the powers with the first shot that hits the target. No matter if it’s a shot to the back, an arm or foot. Shoot next to the target and it would still work, until it moves away, that is.

– Fascinating. How does it work? – This “gadget” sparked my interest.

– Quite simple, it uses electromagnetic impulses and a direct current.

– So… it’s a taser?

– So to speak. Unlike the taser, this one’s energy is stored in the projectile. It looks like a rod and contains a special emitter system and a battery. The rod is also cathodes due to its dual structure and electrifies the victim just like a taser. The difference is it emits a wide spectrum of waves, suppressing most mutants.

– Would it work on a Controller?

– Yes. It was already tested. A creature took a rod to the collarbone. Couldn’t do anything, just stood there and kept straining.

– …’till it got shot in the eye. – Yuri added.

– And would it work on a Superconsciousness

Valeri looked puzzled and fell silent for a moment. Dima looked at me, squinting his eyes.

– You see… – Valeri put the G2 into the box. – I have read about The Brain Scorcher malfunction. Dima and I tried to recreate a scenario in which it could happen here. Not a single simulation managed to generate a feedback you described in your reports. We also tried to introduce different anomalies in the system functions. Everything was fine. I thought such a distinguished person as you, a legend almost, couldn’t be wrong about something as important… but now I know our calculations were correct and you are a saboteur. You’re in deep now…

Things got tense. I didn’t expect such turn of events. I gave Valeri and Dima a surprised look. When I tried to turn to Yuri, he leaped at me with his blade. The edge cut my left hand, but I managed to stop the attack. I grabbed his hands and fell on the table, scattering the bottle and the glasses over the floor. We wrestled frantically, the blade getting closer to my face. Yuri hissed through clenched teeth as sweat ran down his face. I braced my back against the table and grasped Yuri’s blade more tightly, turning it aside, away from my face. The eggheads didn’t even flinch. They were just watching, stock-still. The blade was almost on Yuri’s Adam’s apple. My fingers cramped from squeezing so hard, but couldn’t push the knife away. We stared each other down as we struggled. Our hands quivered from strain, muscles ached. Suddenly, the table cracked and we both fell on the floor. Yuri gurgled and wheezed, as if he was drowning. The blade pierced his neck, coming out the other side. Bloody foam came out of the wound, pushed out by Yuri’s desperate breath. The blood ran down the knife, warming my hands as it reached them.

You rattt.. ra… – Yuri gurgled again, spitting blood. He let go of the knife. His eyes stared blankly ahead and his head drooped. I pushed him off me and stood up, panting.

– You mustn’t destroy The Fathers of the Nation project. – Said Dima, backing away into the lab. I reached for Yuri’s gun on the floor.

– Dima, stop! – He didn’t, he kept backing away. – Don’t make me do this… – He leaped for the radio standing on a shelf behind him. I shot him in the back. He fell motionless on the floor, still clutching the radio. I turned my eyes to Valeri, who stood with his hands in the air. He looked like he’s seen a ghost, scared out of his wits. I aimed the gun.

– No, please! I’m not like them! Please! – He almost wept.

Who would have thought this bald dick almost got me killed a second ago… I stepped forward, aiming at his chest.

– Nooo! I’ll tell you how to shoot G2! – That hit the spot. It was the only thing that could interest me.

– No funny business. – Valeri nodded and took a step towards the box. -Where do you think you’re going?! On the table, sit on your hands.- I pointed the gun at the spot and he obediently sat on his hands.

– You’ll tell me what to do. – I put the gun next to me and took out the G2. It was big and heavy, but fit my hands nicely.

– The bolt is up top, as with normal weapon. You pull it back after loading a magazine or turning the safety off. – I did, the weapon clicked.

– There are buttons on the fore-stock, under your left hand. You release the safety catch with your thumb, sliding it back the switch.

I turned the safety off on the gun, the G2 made a shrill noise inside, like a flash lamp heating up. I saw diodes flashing under my fingers. I tilted the weapon to take a better look.

– This shows the discharge power. 7 red lights is a maximal discharge power and greatest recoil. All the projectiles are charged the same and emit the same wave strength.

I aimed the G2 at Valeri, making him jump and cover his head.

– Nooooo! – I shot the radio next to him. The recoil from the ejected rod made me stumble back, and a strange whizzing sound echoed in the room. Paper pages on the tabletop scattered in the air and metal objects moved a bit towards the rod.

– Go. – Valeri lowered his hands, giving me a frightened stare. – Go! – I motioned the bunk rooms with the gun’s barrel. He ran into the room, cowering. I closed the metal door behind him and turned the locking lever. – I’ll get back and free you once I’m done.

– You won’t get within a kilometer of the transmitter. The Scorcher will fry your brain and you’ll end up like the rest in the forest.

– I’ll be fine… – Valeri babbled on, but I stopped listening. I went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror, my face, my hands, all covered in blood. I washed it off my hands, then face. When I closed my eyes I saw Yuri’s face and the hole in his throat. The memory re-winded and played out more clearly. My hands began to shake. I scrubbed my face, trying to get the blood off. I heard the deep hum of the anomaly, as if it haunted me. And whispers again. The air got stuffy.

– Fuuuck! – I yelled neurotically, hitting the mirror. – It’s not how it supposed to be! First Kir and the guys, now this! – I panted loudly, trying to calm down. – You can make it. Those were the risks. – I looked in the mirror with a clean face this time. I took some more deep breaths. I calmed down, the whispers and the hum ceased. -Good… now the Scorcher.

I took a rag and wiped the G2 clean of blood. Then cleaned it again… I tossed the rag in the corner. I went to the lab where Dima and Yuri lied. I took my stuff. My hands were still shaking. I checked the table Dima and Valeri sat at. There were plans and schematics on it. Some of the elements looked very familiar, but the scope and level of complexity of the project looked like nothing I have seen at the ЭСВ. Curious, I decided to take a look. It turned out that a building plans were among the papers. An “X-ZERO” figured in the metrics. I began to sift through all the plans and papers lying on the table and its vicinity. The more I read, the more horrified I was at the scale and advancement of the device, said to be housed within the new complex. The device was to create a new form of humans, a transcendent super consciousness. It was supposed to be some kind of non-physical form of being, if I understood it correctly, one merging several other consciousnesses. The Fathers of the Nation, as they were called by the document authors. It even pictured how the hybrid was supposed to look like – five men standing side by side. Bent back a little, as if they were to fly away. A dignified postures. Divine. Shining, as they were to be made out of gold, or gold-like substance. Fathers of the Nation, indeed. According to the notes, the device was already operational, although in a some kind of pilot mode. It’s “global” launch, whatever it meant, was to commence at the end of this month… Now I know why they were so anxious to fix The Scorcher. I packed maps and notes into my backpack. I switched my PDA with Valeri’s, which were near Dima’s corpse. I looked at the map, to make sure I know where I’m going. It was more up-to-date than the one I got from the general. More detailed too, as mine has displayed merely a forest, where the other one displayed a great wall in a honeycomb pattern, with some buildings in the middle. Also, it stood in my way to the Brain Scorcher… It’s getting more exciting every second.

I smashed the glass shielding the hazmat suits in the corridor. I broke off every piece jutting from the frame. Don’t want to be munched by maggots because of something as stupid as a hole in the suit. I took a hazmat and suited up. Then slowly opened the airlock to check in front of the shelter. All was quiet, no more sound than rustling trees. No mutants or anomalies. Opening the doors wide, I went on my way to the Scorcher. It was warm, as the sun was high over the horizon. The road was to lead me right up to the Brain Scorcher building. I was thinking, I’d have to get off course a bit to avoid the new building, which was probably full of soldiers. The suit began to heat up in the sun, and the Geiger counter to crackle slowly and silently. The forest gradually lost its green color, until it was red. I moved on with G2’s safety off, turning to every rustle and sound that seemed suspicious, for almost an hour. I noticed the forest in front of me began to thin out, revealing a concrete wall, several meters high. Behind it was an openwork structure which looked like Duga. It wasn’t as tall as the original, but it could reach beyond 40 meters. I spotted guards, patrolling its walkways. They seemed to be wearing exoskeletons and they certainly were armed. I moved away from the wall, trying to get deeper into the thicket, but not far enough to be swallowed by the Zone. I was still feeling the alcohol, my visor was fogged a bit and I smelled vodka… Drinking wasn’t the best idea. I heard a conversation in the distance. I came closer, approaching a gate. It was crawling with soldiers. Tough luck, because I have to get to the other side of the road, completely exposed. I crouched down, lurking.

– This is Valeri from the Lab. Attention all!- The radio blared, I grabbed it and turned the volume down. That asshole had another radio it seems. -We have a serious problem…- The egghead went on. – …Gleb, who was to fix the Scorcher is a traitor. He killed Yuri and Dima and locked me in the laboratory. He’s moving towards X-ZERO in one of our hazmat suits. Yellow one. You are to find him and shoot him on sight. You hear me? He took our hazmat and will try to sabotage the Nation’s Fathers…- He finished talking. Still crouching, I was waiting for the answer. Maybe no one’s listening. Maybe it’s just two of us on channel 10 and only I can hear the moron…

– We’ll get him.- Said a calm, gruff voice.

Now, I broke out in a cold sweat. The soldiers at the gate began to look around more attentively. I ducked behind the bushes and sat there, unable to move. A few of them observed the road, I couldn’t run across it now. I heard a roar behind me, a wheezing breath and the sound of branches breaking. A zombie soldier waddled in my direction. Last thing I needed!

Fortunately, he didn’t have any weapon. I could take him down quietly, but what if he breaks my suit. If I shoot him, the sound of G2 firing will be heard for kilometers and I’ll have a whole squadron on my head.

I looked at the soldiers at the gate, then the zombie, then soldiers again. I hanged the G2 over my neck and ran out of the bushes and across the road.

– There he is! – I heard as I dashed into the forest on the other side. Gunfire thunder. The bullets whizzed above my head. I was speeding ahead blindly, just to escape. The forest darkened, but the shots and bullet swishing didn’t stop echoing. The visor was fogged so badly it looked as if I was running through the mist. Suddenly I ran into something or someone. I bounced off and fell into the leaves. More automatic fire erupted over my head. A regular firefight began. Shots also came deeper from the forest. Then the noise stopped. I was laying motionless. Nothing hurt. I guess I didn’t get hit…

– Get up! – Someone grabbed my arm and lifted me up. I ran along, led by the stranger. The mist on my visor began to condense. I had no idea where I was. After a few minutes we stopped near some building. I took off my helmet and crouched to take a breath.

– You’re okay? – The guy in front of me asked. He had a shabby uniform, a leather jacket and a kalashnikov. Didn’t strike me as the Zone military type.

– Guess so… – I examined the suit. – Who are you?

– Let’s say, we’re your friends. The only friends you have in the Zone.

– How come?

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes. We have common goals.

– You want to destroy the Scorcher?

– The Scorcher is just the start. It’s the biggest problem right now. However, the target is X-Zero.

– The Fathers of the Nation?

– Yes. The Fathers of the Nation are just a nice name and a cover. Behind it is a weapon, which can control people. Fate worse than being a zombie.

– I saw them… The Fathers.

– You talked to them? Know how to get to them?

– They spoke to me when a Controller attacked me. They warned me to turn back. They looked like a creepy mutant, or some kind of failed experiment.

– They shown you their form… Then you really must have something that threatens them.

– I have a plan to destroy the Scorcher. I’m one of its creators, unfortunately… but I want to destroy it and if I can get to it, I can burn it down in seconds. I also have a special helmet to nullify the psi field…

The guy looked at his companions. They in turn exchanged looks and nodded.

-We will get you there. No time to lose, let’s go.

I followed this group of 6. They didn’t have exoskeletons, their weapons weren’t the newest. Used up, rather, and in disrepair. But fancy weapons and body armor didn’t save Kir and his men, so it couldn’t be that important. We were walking for a while.

-When we get in range of the Scorcher, we can escort you within a 100 meters of the entrance at most. Otherwise we’ll turn from friend to foe. We have some psi protection, but it only work at a distance, limiting the effects of the waves. The building should be empty, we watch it often. Except for zombies, no-one hangs around the area. Even the mutants stay clear.

– I understand. A hundred meters sounds enough. If it really is empty, it will take only a couple of minutes, tops.

– Excellent.

Our conversation was cut short by the roars of the zombies, a band of which just showed up ahead.

– Hide behind a tree. T. Get ’em.- Said the man.

T. was a nickname I guess. One of the “friends” twisted a silencer onto his pistol and silently, hiding behind trees, he snuck up to the zombies. I just heard a soft clicks and the roars fell silent one by one. The husks didn’t give off even a single shot. The men fell on them, looting and scavenging the ammunition for pistols and rifles. Meantime I took my bike helmet and batteries from my pack.

What the hell is this?! – The puzzled leader of the group asked.

– It’s my device. I had to disguise it in the helmet, otherwise they wouldn’t let me inside the Zone.

– For a second there I thought we’re escorting some kind of lunatic…

– You do… The Scorcher is partially my invention.

– You get the chance to make up for it.

I attached the batteries to the helmet, plugging it up. The diodes lit up, signaling the device is operational. I was relieved, because I feared the Rusty anomaly may have damaged it. I strapped the helmet, pulled up the suit’s hood and we moved on. The helmet was a bit tight. A while later I felt we’re getting close. The surroundings turned yellowish. It’s not that good. Nothing apart from the view changed, but it was most disturbing anyway. We went over the dilapidated fence and emerged from the forest and into the Scorcher complex. The building was situated in the valley, about a 100 meters ahead. A couple of zombies shambled about.

– There’s the entrance to the Scorcher. – The man pointed at it. We must stay, but we’ll cover you.- He took a sniper rifle. -Don’t worry about the zombies.

– Good. Thank you for your help.

– We’ll be here… if you’ll make it.

I moved on. I didn’t mention it to my friends, but my plan changed a bit since I was in the lab. If I told them the new version, they wouldn’t help me. But I consider it better than the last one. My plan for burning down The Scorcher wouldn’t work now. A greater threat arose, in the form of the Fathers of the Nation. The Scorcher is just a shield to protect the Fathers’ project until it’s fully initialized. Dima and Valeri surely weren’t the only scientists to work on the project. The soldiers that chased me, could only be a percentage of the army that guarded project X-Zero. Even if I destroyed the Scorcher it wouldn’t make a difference. A group of 6 is no match for an army in exoskeletons. So, I will use their shield against them. I’ll get to the Scorcher and increase its power, frying every fucker in the Zone. Everyone will turn into zombies. That way no-one will be able to finish the experiment or protect what’s left. This was the new plan.

The zombies ahead of me fell to the loud chords of the sniper rifle, a bloody mist bursting out with each headshot. My friends protected me. The closer I was to the gate, the weirder the vision became, my sense of balance got a bit crazy. I reached the massive door. It was hard to open and the metal screeched over the entire valley. I unlocked the G2 and entered. A narrow staircase led me to an underground, claustrophobic hallways filled with darkness. A humming sound returned. I bumped into walls every now and then. An assorted clutter covered the floor, the rooms looked like a hurricane went through them. Increasingly dazed, I walked deeper in, reaching a great control room. A huge screen lit the room, displaying a map of the world with many dots on different continents and countries. All the dots were marked with the same symbol, the one I saw on the map in the place I’m right now. This must be the plan of this… global launch. The walls began to whisper. The vision began to pulsate and my eyes burned. I had a few minutes at most, the helmet was giving in. I ran to the control column. All the cables came together in this spot, powering the emitter at the top. The emitter was situated above the building. The doors to the room slammed shut loudly.

– We know… – Deep voice resonated within the room. Startled, I shot a burst of rods towards the door. Sparks lit up the room, but no-one was there. My hands began to tremble.

– You can’t stop me! – I shouted across the room. I dropped the pack and took out the quickly modified circuits.

The mutated form of the Fathers of the Nation appeared in front of me. It crept out of the shadows and roared with all five of its maws. I felt it. This thing stood before me physically, materialized. My legs got soft. The mutant took a swing at me with its overgrown limbs. I leaped back, getting hit in the arm. I fell on the control panel a few meters away, face first into the metal desk. The visor of my hazmat cracked and shattered. The strike was very hard, but I felt it quite differently than a normal hit. My muscles tingled violently at the spot and I felt an electric shock going through my arm. I shot another burst at the monster. The rods went right through its body, which faded for a moment. They hit the big screen. The display burst into flames, smoking up the place. The mutant roared and advanced, stomping heavily, like an elephant. His weight was real, palpable. I shot another burst under its feet. The rods pierced the tiles, forming a line. The mutant crossed it, his body blurred and the roar of pain or anger was cut short, resonating off the walls. He backed away and tried to get around the line. I pushed away from the panels and ran back to the column. I shot a tight circle around me. The body of the five distorted, as if made of smoke. Now to stop the driver and plug my own circuit in. I swung open the box, spilling the cables out. I felt the mutant’s eyes upon me, my skin crept. My left hand stiffened. I dug among the cables for the circuit of my design. It looked exactly like the one I took to do the switch. I had no problem finding it. My mouth was dry. My breath was heavy. I unhitched it and began to tear out he cables, plugging them into my own circuit. The hum kept getting louder. First, I switched the cables in the control device so the system can’t detect the circuits being replaced. Then goes… My thoughts started to fade. I wasn’t sure I plugged the cables right. The skin on my hands paled. My body started to change. I stared at the thicket of cables. Tried to remember what to plug next. Maybe it was turn for the power outlet. A voltage modifier… I heard a roar and it wasn’t a roar of the Fathers, as if someone else was in the room, standing next to me. I looked around, the room was full of smoke. I connected more cables. My brain almost boiled. Just a few more wires. Heard the roar again, felt it in my own throat. I wanted to speak, prove to myself it was still me. But my lips could not form a syllable. Instead, I heard a roar again. My hands let go of the device. I was no longer in control.

– We knew you could not succeed. – I heard the mutant. For a while I struggled to do anything to signal I’m still in my body. I had no more thoughts left. My consciousness has burnt out.

 

[…]

A yellow-clad figure appeared from the Brain Scorcher building.

– Hey boss, he’s out !- T. reported.

The group of stalkers burst with enthusiasm. One of them even started to unbuckle the psi dampening device.

– That’s not him. – Said one of them, peering through the sniper scope.

– I can see it’s him, yellow hazmat, that blue bike helmet… – T. objected.

– Yes, but it’s not him anymore.. .- The stalkers fell silent, their faces saddened. – …Should I…? – The sniper asked.

– Leave him… – Said the leader.