Chapter 2: Life and Death


I woke up feeling more alone than I’ve felt in my entire life. I’m used to sleeping in hard places, but not having Emelia cuddled up against me was a big change that I hadn’t expected. She must realize by now that I’m not coming back anytime soon… I just hope she’s okay and that she stays strong in my absence. She’s the reason I came here, and I’m committed to it now.

After I had awoken I rummaged through my supplies to see what I could find for breakfast. I spied a can of food labeled “Tourist’s Delight” – part of the reward I had earned for helping to clear out the car park. I peeled off the seal and scanned the contents. It looked like military rations. I scanned the side of the can curiously and found the answer to my question in the form of the seal of the Ukrainian Military. Obviously this food had been stolen from the military. Scenarios played through my head as I imaged Stalkers sneaking food out of military crates and raiding outposts. It was enough to distract from the bland taste and slight hint of mold as I shoveled it down.

When I had had enough, I went to go see Sidorovich again about another job. I was still shaken up over the last job and the mutant attack of the night before, but I remembered Averiy’s inspiring words about the potential he saw in me and gathered the courage to leave the house and head for the bunker.

When I appeared in the doorway, he held his arms out and greeted me like we were old friends. He was eager to give me another task, saying that by surviving the first mission there would be many more… as long as I survived and kept the merchandise flowing in. So when he gave me the task of clearing out a mutant infestation in a nearby farm house I thought for sure he was trying to kill me off.

“Relax!” he said, leaning back in his chair and stretching like it was no big deal. “I’m sending you with guys who know what they’re doing, just like the first mission. They’ll show you the ropes!”

I might as well have been signing my own death papers. Regardless, I accepted, and was directed towards a group three Stalkers who didn’t look much more experienced than me with the task of wiping out a “Flesh” lair. I don’t know who was naming these things but I would almost not feel guilty shooting them. The name alone put images of a flesh-eating monster that would kill us all before we could even enter its lair.
The assignment is underway now and I am checking my weapon before we go. One of the other Stalkers in the group gave me a crash course in checking your weapon and making sure it’s not obstructed. It isn’t complicated stuff, the hardest part will be keeping it clean and trying not to let it get too beat up by the environment.

I checked my supplies, zipping up my backpack and joining the other Stalkers as they called me over and we began to make our way to the farmstead.

There were four of us in total, myself, two other newbies judging by the sound of their rambling, and a more experienced Stalker leading us. Mykhailo – the one in charge of the mission – informed us along the way about a military checkpoint somewhere under the railroad tracks that crossed over the main road to the north and so the plan was to cross the tracks further down from the checkpoint. Apparently they don’t really go out of their way to stop Stalkers this deep in the Zone for fear of retaliation.

The area around them us teemed with birds and other wildlife. When I heard the occasional dog bark or other strange animal noises my senses heightened considerably, but they always seemed miles away. It was good to know that they were nocturnal, but it was still going to be a challenge to get any sort of sleep, and I hadn’t even seen this Flesh or any of the other mutants I had been told about. I was sure this wasn’t going to get any easier, so I would just have to get much, much better at it.

As the railroad bridge came into view we continued forward silently, taking a course that brought us around another farmstead and out of the line of sight of the checkpoint beneath it. The voices of soldiers were loud and careless as they joked around, oblivious to our presence as we snuck past them just beyond their line of sight. On top of the tracks sat a rusted old train that spilled over the side of the bridge and into the checkpoint. Several of the cars had become detached and laid on their sides, used as makeshift barricades and facilities for the soldiers - much like all the other junk left behind when the Zone was abandoned.

Once we had crossed over the tracks and down the other side of the hill Mykhailo indicated to a small farmstead nearby – our target.
[Audio enabled]

“That’s the one. Let’s get in there and clear it out before the soldiers get antsy.” He said, watching the checkpoint between the gap in the hills east of us to make sure there were no soldiers looking our way.

“Bastards are blind as bats behind their little barricades!” One of the other Stalkers remarked.

“Hey! Keep it down or they’ll hear you.” Mykhailo scolded him with a glare.

The area beyond the tracks formed a narrow valley that closed converged somewhere up the road. I could see another military checkpoint like the one I had passed coming into the Zone, but no obvious signs of activity. When we reached the farmstead at the foot of the hill Mykhailo indicated the exits he wanted us at using hand signals and we took up our positions. Once we were all in position he took a quick look inside.

“Semyon – flush them out.” He whispered to the Stalker near the big doors in front of the building.

“No!” Semyon shot back, a little louder than Mykhailo would have preferred.

“I’m not getting paid to babysit. Now get your ass through that door and draw them out so we can shoot them!”

“No way, man! I’ve never seen these things; I don’t know how to defend myself if they overtake me.”

“Just aim for the head, they’re hard to miss-“Mykhailo said, rolling his eyes in annoyance.

“Then YOU do it!” Semyon interrupted loudly, throwing his arms down in disgust.

“Shut up you idiot!” Mykhailo said harshly, looking about ready to leave his position and slap the man silly. “If you don’t get in there in the next five seconds I’ll shoot you and then kill it myself. “

“Fuck you!” Semyon shouted back, insulted. “If you’re so tough then why don’t you-“

His argument was cut off suddenly by the deep growl of the disturbed mutant inside the building before us.

Semyon quickly un-holstered his rifle and pointed it into the deep darkness of the building before him, his eyes wide with fear.

“Shit…what the fuck was-“

Before he could utter another word a tremendous beast came bounding out of the building – plowing through him like a giant flesh bowling ball toppling a pin. He gasped for air as the beast ran past him and began to loop back around for its next attack. It accelerated with incredible speed, taking us by surprise as it came back at us. It was hideously disfigured, with four stilt-like legs like a Praying Mantis’s and three, bulbous eyes in a row – bloodshot, and filled with rage. It squealed like a pig as it galloped back towards us – unmistakably the larger creature I had heard the night before between dogs barking.

Semyon screamed bloody murder as it skidded to a stop in front of him, drooling as it looked down at him hungrily with its alien eyes. Mykhailo wasted to more time, firing a shotgun blast in its direction. The pellets sunk into its skin like body armor, causing no more than surface damage as far as I could tell to my utter surprise.

“Kill it you idiots! Go for the head!” Mykhailo ordered as he inched closer and reloading the double-barreled shotgun in his hands.

Seizing its opportunity, the beast reared back and sank its talon-like feet into Semyon’s hands, pinning him to the ground. He yelled in agony as it lowered its head and sunk its teeth into his clothing, tearing out a large chunk and then discarding it disgustedly to the side.

“Oh my God get it off me! I can’t feel my arms! Where’s my gun?!” Semyon kicked and screamed as he tried to get out from under the heavy beast but remained pinned to the ground.

The other Stalker ran out in front of the door and began firing his weapon at the creature head-on. I followed his example and began firing… trying my best to aim for its head but finding it difficult as it continued to tear away at Semyon.

“The head you fools – the head!” Mykhailo ordered as he took another shot at the Flesh, and again was greeted with failure as no more than small trickles of blood streamed down its side.

“I can’t hit it – it’s keeping its head down!” I yelled, waiting in vain for it to lift its head so I could get an opportunity to hit it. Blood covered the Flesh’s face as it tore into Semyon relentlessly and he continued to scream louder, begging us to save him.

“Keep trying!” Mykhailo insisted, as he reloaded his shotgun for the third time. Suddenly, another Flesh burst from the door, heading directly for Yosyp who stood between it and the other one.

“Look out!” I yelled as I redirected my fire towards it. But my shots were absorbed by the massive outer wall of flesh and Yosyp soon found himself knocked to the ground near Semyon. I backed away from the farmstead as I reloaded, looking for any window of opportunity that could save them.

“Help…” Semyon pleaded helplessly, crying as he stretched his bloody arm towards me. But before I could react, the Flesh brought its sharp hoof back down again, this time directly through his head. I could hear a crunch as it breached his skull, and he stopped struggling.

“Fuck this shit - I’m outta here!” Mykhailo said, holstering his shotgun and making a run for it back up the hill.

“Hey! Where the hell are you going?!” I said, yelling over the sound of gunshots as I unloaded another clip futilely at the Flesh that was now having its way with Yosyp.

“I’m getting out of this hell hole! If you make it back you can keep the earnings!” he yelled over his shoulder and then vanished over the top of the hill.

I looked back at the gruesome scene in horror. Semyon was dead and quickly being devoured while Yosyp was fading in and out of consciousness from the concussion caused by the rock he hit on the way down.

“Yosyp!” I shouted at him, wishing that my words word somehow give him the strength to throw off the monster and run, but when that didn’t happen I took aim with my pistol and fired one last shot – through Yosyp’s head – and then started running. I tried not to look behind me as the sound of grunting and squealing continued behind me, somehow seeming to get louder as I ran. When I finally did get the nerve to look behind me, I found that a third one had emerged from the farmstead and was now giving me chase.

I pumped as legs as hard as they would go, struggling to climb the slope leading up to the railroad as the Flesh gained steadily on me. I got about halfway up the slope when I realized there was no way I could outrun it. Its leg’s gave it the ability to follow easily up after me and it showed no signs of fatigue. Then I remembered how the other two creatures had lunged at Semyon and Yosyp and got an idea.

I changed course, running along the hill sideways and then used gravity to give me a burst of speed as I ran back down the hill and into a copse of trees. The Flesh followed, as I knew it would, closing the gap between us faster by the second. When I had found a suitable spot, I stopped, and turned to face the monster coming at me. I froze as it locked onto me with its malicious eyes… I would have to react quickly. Then, after an eternity, it lunged.

I dove to the side as it flew past me, ramming head-first into the tree behind me. It let out a hideous and painful squeal… indicating that my plan was working. It stepped back, wobbling on all fours as it tried to shake the dizziness off. It turned to face me, focusing all three eyes on me with newfound hatred for me. I swallowed hard, and quickly repositioned myself. I wasn’t quick enough. In my hesitation it lunged again, clipping my arm as it moved past me. It felt like I had just been hit by a bus. A spun around more times than I dared to count, finally collapsing into a pile of leaves as my arm began to go numb.

Where is it?! I demanded the answer from my senses as I looked through the blur of colors that had become my world to find my adversary. The shapes spun around me, mocking me as I tried to stand and steady myself. I could hear the huff and puff of its breath as it came around for another pass.  Everything was spinning, and panic threatened to overtake me. I forced myself to calm down and focus, listening to the sound it made as it cut through the grass towards me.

You can do this. You have to do this. I assured myself and braced myself for the worst. The sound of swishing grass stopped suddenly and I used every last ounce of energy to throw myself to the ground and roll. To my satisfaction and relief, I felt the wind move as its mass sailed over me, landing somewhere beyond the small copse of trees. I got back on my feet, crouched, and looked on as my vision began to focus again. The Flesh had landed in a small crater of some sort and was recoiling from the shock of missing its target. As it began to make its way out, it started to struggle. I watched in amazement as some unknown force began to pull it back towards the center of the crater. It kicked its feet and tried to dig itself into the earth, making long marks in the dirt as it was pulled up into the air.

It’s an anomaly! There was nothing else it could have been, nothing on earth could have done what I was seeing now. As it was pulled up it started to spin, going faster and faster as it moves up an invisible whirlwind of energy. It squealed in agony as it reached the top, spinning at breakneck speeds as it came to a stop. Then, when I thought it was about to be torn limb from limb, it was. It suddenly exploded in a shower of blood, flesh, and the few remaining organs that survived. Body parts fell to the earth, flopping onto the ground or hanging from trees depending on where they fell.

All I could do was sit there for a few minutes and try to take in everything I had just witnessed. Seeing the Flesh mutant and what they were capable of would be enough to traumatize a normal person… but seeing how insignificant one was next to the force of an anomaly was paralyzing. One wrong step and I could end up in a million pieces before I even knew what had happened.

The sound of voices snapped me back to reality and I ducked around the nearest tree to see a small group of Stalkers heading towards me. I squinted, making out the patch on one of their arms marking them as the Ukrainian Military. I cursed as they drew closer, looking around for an avenue of escape. Then I found it; a small grassy part of the hill to my right. I crawled over to it, using the tall grass as cover as I made my way up the hill. I had to stop when it got too low for fear that I would be given away, but luckily I wasn’t seen, and managed to make it all the way to the tracks and down the other side, retracing the steps Mykhailo had taken when he had led us here.

I made it back to camp about an hour later with little problem, thanks in part to the bright morning sun illuminating everything in my path. When I reported back to Sidorovich he was noticeably irritated, and was surprised when he looked up and saw me standing in front of him. He told me that Mykhailo had reported back already, claiming that he had cleared the lair himself and that the rest of us had died during the ambush. When I told Sidorovich what really happened he was hesitant at first, but believed me after noticing the large tear in my raincoat.

“Damn mutated pigs…” he muttered after inspecting it.

Pigs? I could hardly believe he was referring to a common farm animal… but he was. If radiation could do that to a pig, I was afraid to think of what it could do to more aggressive animals.

“And I gave that lying coward a reward meant for four Stalkers!” He said, outraged.

“I guess there’s nothing that can be done about it now.” I said, accepting the loss.

“Like hell there isn’t… I will ban him from camp, and tell everyone that he’s a low-life Bandit thug!” he rose from his chair like a judge who had just passed a ruling.

“It’s no big deal.” I lied, not wanting to cause an unnecessary trouble. “I’m sure he’ll get his due soon enough.”

“You’re right about that – and it will be my doing!” he said, pounding his fist on the desk for emphasis. “Nobody cheats Sidorovich and lives to tell about it!”

I watched as he paced the floor, muttering to himself about what he was going to do about the situation.

“You wouldn’t happen to have something else would you?” I asked, interrupting his conversation with himself.

He stopped, raising an eyebrow curiously as he looked at me. He folded his hands on his big belly and cocked his head as he spoke.“You come here looking like a boar fart could blow you over, you survive two missions most wouldn’t come back from, and even get cheated out of a reward… and now you’re asking me for more work like it’s nothing?”

“If… if it’s too much to ask right now I can come back.” I said, not wanting to make him angry with me.

His famous smile crossed his lips, and his belly shook as a laugh began to rise in him. Then, he threw back his head and laughed like he had just heard a hilarious joke. “Too much to ask?! Shit, man – I wish more Stalkers were like you! If I wasn’t so concerned for my merchandise I’d come out there and kiss you!” he said and continued laughing. I could see how it could be funny, but knowing that I wasn’t doing it for the fun of it, especially after being forced to kill another man for the second time in my life - mercy killing or not - I gave a forced smile instead.

“No… you deserve something better.” He said after he had begun to settle down. “I’ve got something much better in mind for you. Close the door.”

I closed the door to the bunker behind me and leaned over the counter as he pulled up something on his laptop. After reading over whatever he had pulled up for a minute or so, he looked back up at me completely serious.

“There’s a Stalker who’s recruiting for a mission deeper in the Zone. He’s looking for a Stalker who has the potential to see it through to the end, someone who’s got balls, a survivor, someone he can trust… someone like you.” He said, nodding as he glanced back at the computer and then back to me.

“The assignment will take you far beyond the camp, to the Garbage. There, you’ll meet up with the group of Stalkers who contracted the mission and travel with them to their destination. If you succeed, I promise you you’ll have a reward big enough to support you and that wife of yours for the rest of your lives. Whaddya say?”

The look on his face was unmistakable; this was a big deal that he wouldn’t hand out to just anyone. I had proven myself to be a Stalker with potential, and he was offering me the chance to really make something of myself, and return to Emelia with the answer to our problems. I imagined a future with her away from all the pain and suffering the Zone had brought on us for nearly all our lives, where it was just her and I – no more problems, just each other.

“I’ll do it.” I said with determination, acknowledging his faith in me and giving the only answer he would have accepted.

“That’s my boy!” he said, punching the air victoriously. “OK listen up, the Stalker you’ll want to meet with is named Nikita – he’ll meet you inside the house closest to the bunker on the right side as you exit. He’ll tell you everything you need to know in more detail and you’ll head out with him.”

I nodded my head, and stood there awkwardly for a few moments before finally turning and pulling the heavy metal door open again. “Thank you for everything.” I said over my shoulder as I began to descend the stairs.

“Don’t mention it.” He replied, returning to whatever it was he did in that bunker all day. “Well… good hunting, Stalker.”

His words filled me with confidence as I re-emerged into the morning air. As I stood there taking in the sights and smells of the morning Zone, I realized that I was now a part of it. I had just been knighted, passing my initiation with flying colors and becoming a true Stalker in every sense of the word. I walked down the dirt path with my head held high and then took a right and entered the first house on the right as Sidorovich instructed.

A lone Stalker waited inside on a couch that was worn nearly to the frame. He looked up at me as I walked towards him, moving his hand slowly to the sidearm on his belt.

“Nikita?” I asked. “Sidorovich sent me – he said you had a special task I’d be interested in.”
He motioned towards a chair on the opposite side of the room that faced away from the cracked, peeling wallpaper of the wall behind it. I took a seat as he watched me, stroking his thin black beard thoughtfully. When I had sat down I looked back across the room at him, his deep brown eyes continuing to scan me. He ran his hand through his slick black hair and then folded them both under his chin and rested on them.

“I’ve heard good things about you from the men around camp. They say you shot the Bandit leader at the car park during the last raid – right in the head too! You are Yuriy - are you not you?”
“Yes, I am.” I said, surprised that word had already gotten around so quickly.

He closed his eyes and smiled, nodding a little to himself. When he opened them again he directed his gaze to the rip in my raincoat. I shifted my gaze as he did and noticed a light layer of blood crusted beneath it.

“It looks like you’ve seen some action today, Stalker.” He said, folding his hands in his lap and reclining on the squeaky couch.

“You could say that. I was sent on a mission to clear a farmstead of mutants and almost didn’t make it back alive. We got attacked by Flesh’s and the other two members of my team were killed, while our leader ran off. I was forced to run as one chased me… luckily I was saved by an anomaly.”

Saved by an anomaly?” he repeated, tilting his head and looking confused.

“Yeah… there was this copse of trees that I saw as I was running so I got this idea that I could stand between one of them and the Flesh, wait for it to come at me, and then jump out of the way. My hope was that if I got it disoriented I could shoot it in the head… but instead it clipped me and then ran into an anomaly by mistake.”

He looked at me, dumbfounded, like he didn’t believe me. But then a smile crossed his face and he shook his head when he realized I was being serious.

“Amazing. You’re just the sort of man I need.” He said as he rose from couch and walked over to a window facing the main road of the village. Stalkers listed lazily outside, some walking through the camp, others telling stories, laughing at jokes, or resting.

“I always like coming back to this place… I think a lot of Stalkers do. It reminds them of their roots; like their home away from home. Most Stalkers never make it out of here, and those who do are usually killed as soon as they take one step out the door. The only ones who ever make it are the ones who stay neutral, make friends, and keep their heads on… someone like you.” He said, turning his head to look at me again.

“Honestly I don’t know that I have what it takes.” I said. “I’ve barely survived the situations I’ve been in so far, and I’ve been terrified the entire time.”

He chuckled, admiring my honesty. “We’ll see about that. I’m giving you the chance to move out of this kiddie-coral and on to some real shit. No more of this ‘run errands for me and I’ll give you a pile of crap’ bullshit.” He said, mimicking Sidorovich.

I laughed and replied, “Maybe you’re right, and it’s only as bad as the company you’re with.”

“If only that really were true…” he said, as his smile transitioned to seriousness. “Here, that is more or less the case… but this nothing compared to the heart of the Zone. The things here are nothing more than a shadow of the things that lay ahead. There are real problems in the Zone, and we have to deal with them every day. There are things much worse than Bandits and mutated pigs in the Zone…” He said, trailing off as he returned his gaze to the Stalkers walking up and down the dirt road.

“What kinds of things?” I asked, taking the opportunity to learn more about what was to come rather than walk into it blindly.

He continued to stare silently out the window for a few moments, and then answered. “The Zone is its own nation; independent, uncharted, and contested. Stalkers fight and die every day in a fierce competition for wealth, honor, and territory. If they don’t die in the conflict between factions, they get careless and are killed by radiation, anomalies, or mutants. Stalkers like that are a dime a dozen… we need someone different.”

He looked at me, eagerly expecting my reply. I couldn’t forget the way Sidorovich has reacted when I explained my story to him so I was naturally guarded. But he seemed like a good Stalker, and I was prepared for the worst.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to support my wife – she’s the reason I’m here.”

Nikita moved from his position at the window and stood in front of me. “The way I see it I’m saving your life by pulling you from this stagnant little mud puddle of mediocrity… there’s nothing for you here. All I ask is that you return the favor if the time should come.”

“When you put it that way, I guess I don’t have much of a choice.”

He put his hand on my shoulder for support and continued. “You’ll travel with us, and we’ll take you under our wing and show you what it really means to be a Stalker.”

His hand stayed rooted on my shoulder, he refused to move it until he had his answer. Since I had been here only one other Stalker had reached out to me like he had – and I hadn’t seen Averiy since the other night. But I remember his promise, saying that he’d be watching my back because he had faith in me and my cause. Now Nikita was doing the same thing. There was only one way to know if he was telling the truth or not.

“What can I say? I accept.”

“Excellent!” he said, giving me a congratulatory shake before removing his hand from my shoulder. “I’m glad to hear there is at least one level-headed Stalker in the Zone.”

“So… what’s next?” I asked as he pulled a backpack out from under the couch and slung it over his shoulders.

“Next, we travel to the Garbage. Follow me.” He said as he made for the door. I followed behind him and walked beside him as he traveled up the dirt road and began our journey into parts unknown to me.

“Why doesn’t it surprise me that after all these promises of moving on to better things we’re starting in a place called the ‘Garbage’?” I said, finding the irony in its name.

“The Garbage is still just another entrance to the Zone, but a much bigger and more dangerous one. It’s plagued by Bandits and the Loners are constantly at war with them, trying to push them off the main road that leads deeper into the Zone.”

“More Bandits? Like the ones here in Cordon?” I asked.

“Yes. A while ago we only had to worry about the occasional random attack on the road, but now they’re more coordinated and attack in squads like we do. They’ve banded together on the outskirts of the Garbage and press their attacks on us constantly.”

“What’s so important about the Garbage?” I asked.

“Well…it’s the main route to and from the Cordon and the Bar beyond it, which means if they can control any part of it they get to ambush and rob all the newbies coming in.”

“Why are there so many Bandits? Why do they have to resort to robbing others when they could be doing what the Loners are doing?” I asked.

“Personally, I think most of them are just a bunch of frightened little kids wanting to take the easy road to glory by preying on the success of others. I like to think of them as the ones who cheat the system to get ahead – some get caught and sent back to square one, others can make it indefinitely. I won’t rest easily until every single one of them has been removed from the Zone.”

“So… what? You’re going to kill them all?” I asked.

“It’s them or us, Yuriy… and personally I’d rather keep the dogs outside well fed next time I wander through the Zone. There’s not enough room in here for honorable Stalkers and those fools who think they can just rob people blind and leave them for dead.”
“Hopefully we don’t run into any trouble on the way…” I said, hoping that I wouldn’t find myself in another firefight against an overwhelming number of them with just the two of us fighting back.

“Hey, if you get killed then we’ll just pass your belongings down to the next Stalker and try again. Don’t worry - you’ll get a small funeral first.” He said with a laugh.

I tried to find his bizarre humor funny but I couldn’t quite adapt to how easily everyone handled death here. I knew it was something that I couldn’t allow either… how would Emelia ever know what happened to me if I did?

“What are the chances of that happening…?” I asked out of curiosity, meaning an ambush – I think he took it to mean the chance of me getting killed though.

“It all depends on how well you can aim that weapon of yours, how fast you reaction, how well you learn to depend on your senses and your instinct. We could run into more than just Bandits on the way, so be ready for anything.”

“I already know I’m good at running, that’s got to count for something.”

He smiled as we left the dirt path and stepped onto the hard pavement of the main road. “Sometimes that’s all you can do.” He said as he turned north onto the road, seeing our destination somewhere further down it. “Now let’s get out of this run-down shanty town and onto a giant pile of junk and radioactive debris.” He said, patting me on the back as we set off down the long road before us.

I looked behind me at the rookie camp that had been my home for almost a day now, taking in the sights and sounds one last time before I left them behind. Then I looked even further behind me to see the road stretching towards the checkpoint and the world beyond that I had left behind me. I hoped that I would walk this road again in the opposite direction, and make my way back to Emelia upon completion of my mission. I hoped that she was still alive and well, and would be waiting for me on the other side.

“I can’t wait.”

Nikita continued confidently up the road as we neared the final checkpoint that Mykhailo had made every effort to avoid earlier that morning. The soldiers within monitored us casually as we approached, showing no signs of hostility until we reached the outer wall of their barricades and ordered us to stop and keep our hands where we could see them. We complied, and a man in a Special Forces beret emerged from his post inside one of the overturned train cars.

“The toll is 600 today.” He said to Nikita, who nodded and began digging into his pocket for the required money.

“600? That’s up 100 from yesterday.” He commented as he sifted through a small wad of Rubles in his hands.

“Yeah, there was a small mutant problem we had to deal with earlier. A Flesh lair was disturbed by some careless Stalkers and we had to clean up after them, so we’re charging more today.” He said, looking me over as Nikita separated the toll amount from the rest of his cash.

So Mykhailo’s mistake was going to cost everyone who wanted to pass safely through here today. There was no way the soldier could have known it was me, but I felt as though the look of guilt slowly crossing my face could give me away at any moment. But I quickly shrugged it off, knowing it was just a military tactic and that there was no way he could have known I was a part of that mission.

Nikita handed him the money and he counted it. When he was satisfied he yelled, “Paying customers!” over his shoulder and waved us through. The soldiers within the checkpoint stood to one side, allowing us to pass through unhindered. Nikita was right, the really was governed by its own rules. We had just bribed a group of soldiers, who had orders to shoot Stalkers on sight, and they this this every day.

I looked around the checkpoint curiously, catching the eye of some of the soldiers as we passed by them. Most didn’t react; regarding us blankly is we went by. Others regarded us with disgust, obviously not pleased at their commander’s decision while others still looked at us with a longing, like they wanted to be us. They kicked at the ground and shifted nervously like they were seconds away from abandoning their posts and following us. When we had crossed under the rail bridge and out of the checkpoint, they resumed their posts – watching us as we continued down the road and out of their sight.

Nikita told me that when we reached our destination, I would be assigned to a neutral squad of sorts to see how I performed on my own. I will be marked as a Loner and, if I perform well, equipment to match. I’m excited at the thought of possibly getting one of those suits I’ve seen a lot of the more experienced Loners wearing… this shredded raincoat feels so inadequate compared to them and barely offer any protection whatsoever.

It feels like the real adventure has truly begun and I am moving beyond the training grounds and into the true Zone. Everything is in motion now and my success will depend on my strength – both mental and physical. This is my chance to prove my worth to my wife, myself, and every Stalker I encounter in the Zone. My new life has just begun… in the biggest deathtrap on the planet.