May 18, 2007

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.

Chapter 1: First Entry


[Dictation Mode: ON]

Why didn't I leave when I had the chance? This place is cursed by the shadow being cast over everything that used to be good... and it's the only hope left. I don't know how it's come to this; you'd think it would be easy to get a job that pays for even the most basic of needs. I dare say that there is more corruption outside of the Zone than there is on the inside. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

I can still see Emelia laying my son to rest in his crib for the last time in my mind as clearly as if I’m standing over him again. The pain is beyond description; to see him lying there unmoving, never to laugh or look at me with those big, innocent eyes again. It hurts even more that I had to see him sleeping through the pain with his bones poking out as malnourishment took its toll on his frail little body. He never blamed me; he didn’t know what blame was. All he knew is that I loved him, and he died knowing that.

Leaving her behind will be one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I know she’ll beg me to stay, but I’ve never felt the urge to do anything in my life more than I feel the need to enter the Zone now. I believe that a new life awaits me there, with promise of food and money as my reward, as long as I can endure the stress. What danger the Zone holds, I do not know – but I’ll never find out by remaining here to rot with all the time in the world to remember the failure of a man I am. Emelia won’t understand and she’ll be upset, but in the end I know it will all be worth it.

So it's settled then; I will enter the Zone and attempt to make a better life for my wife and I. I’ll go home and spend one more night with her and sleep on it. As much as I feel I need to do this, rushing into something I might not come back from isn’t a good idea. I hate to leave her with the death of our son so fresh in the air... but I can't bear the thought of losing her too. If I am to provide the bread for our table, then I will go to the ends of the earth for the last fucking piece in existence for it.

I've said my farewell. I thought I was quiet enough not to wake her, but as soon as I opened that door for the last time she awoke and asked me where I was going. I told her I had something I needed to do. She said OK and got up to give me a kiss. As hard as I tried I couldn’t stop her. She placed herself in my arms and gave me the goodbye kiss I had been dreading. She sensed something was wrong immediately as she looked into my eyes and saw me fighting back the tears. She asked what was wrong and I told her everything was wrong. When she pressed the issue I forced my way out the door, telling her I wasn’t sure when I’d be coming back. I heard her subtle whimpers as she stood in the doorframe behind me. That wasn’t the way I wanted to say goodbye, but that was the way it happened, and there’s nothing I can do about it now. I have to make it back alive for her.

Jumping the fence marking the border of the Zone shouldn't be an issue, but first I need to get the equipment to survive the journey. I’ll have to lift a Geiger counter from the store so I can steer clear of radioactive hotspots and hopefully get one of those "anomaly detectors" I have heard about. Hopefully this old leather jacket of mine will prove to be adequate protection. I’ve had the thing in my closet for the longest time and don’t even remember where it came from. Though I’ve never had a reason to wear it, I could never find a reason to throw it away either. Emelia always complained it was an eyesore and that I should throw it out, but I could never bring myself to do it whenever I tried – and now I finally found a use for it. Let’s hope my faith in it was justified.

All of these things happening at once is nerve-wrecking...I'm excited, but afraid at the same time. To think that I’m just minutes away from stealing something when I’ve never stolen in my life is horrifying. In your head it seems a simple enough task, but as soon as reality sets in, so does panic. What if I get caught? Will he call the police or just pull out a gun and start shooting? Either are terrible things that I’d like to avoid, which is why if all else fails I’ll have to choice but to run. Food and water I can afford, so I’ll pick those up first and then just slip the Geiger counter in my backpack as I shop... it shouldn’t be a problem.

As for the anomaly detector...  I have no earthly idea where or how to get my hands on one of those. The reports of anomalies are usually enough to steer anyone far away from the Zone. After the second incident, it was nearly impassible as fields of anomalies began appearing, blocking off all known paths of entry. These anomalies, as the stories go, have the ability to crush your body until you’re nothing more than a pile of skin and bones, or just rip you into a million pieces in an instant – and worst of all, most are completely invisible to the human eye. I have heard rumors of some sort of Stalker “training camp” close to the border that may have what I’m looking for. I’ll just have to hope the most direct route there is free of anomalies... and patrolling soldiers.

I stocked up on supplies, got the Geiger counter, and ran like hell! Maybe that run I took last night to forget about the pain did more good than I thought it would... I'm going to need the stamina to outrun soldiers and other Stalkers. With the economy as bad as it is, I’m not surprised he was watching my every move. I thought I had slipped it into one of the pouches on my backpack stealthily enough, but as soon as I got to the counter to pay for the supplies I saw that he had charged me for it. I explained that I could not pay for it, but that I really needed it and would find a way to pay him back. Apparently he didn’t like that idea as much as I did. But really...was one Geiger counter worth all the merchandise he lost with his horrible handling of that shotgun? I doubt it, but I suppose my ability to dodge bullets will soon be put to the test too so I should thank him for the crash course...

I can see the Zone’s perimeter fence approaching quickly – the old barbed wire stretches around a vast area that holds things I can’t even imagine from the safety of the civilized world I am about to leave behind me. The area around it doesn’t look as abnormal as the rumors about the constantly-changing landscape would suggest; fields of tall grass and rolling hills lead all the way to the perimeter, giving off a peaceful calm as they wave blissfully in the breeze.  But there is a change in the air; an overwhelming sense of dread passes over me as I begin to make out small details beyond the barbed wire. Old, abandoned houses, a long, abandoned road whose faded lines and cracks remind me that no vehicles have traveled it on over two decades, and an overgrowth of plants that conceal the rest of the area in mystery.

I can already sense the voice in my head telling me to turn back now or be prepared to never return. The feeling of death and decay is strong around me; even though visually the landscape is lush and overgrown with new plant life since the removal of mankind. But my primal instincts are telling me that this place is death and that I’m walking willingly towards my doom.

This is it. I’m standing on the border that separates the rest of the world from the Zone. The barbed wire fence stands before me, not so much of an obstacle as much as a reminder that I’m entering an ecological disaster area. A military checkpoint blocks the road between the bottom of the hill I’m standing on top of and the one next to it. I’m sure I’m out of their visual range, but I don’t want to stick around long enough to find out. I’ve already broken my first law; hopefully the second one is easier. I’m taking my first step into the Zone.

It's funny... I'm only 5 meters away from the real world, but it already seems so far. I've breached a moral barrier just as much as a physical one, I think. As I take one last look behind me at the world I once considered home, somehow, the grassy fields of the Zone stretching ahead of me are a much more welcome sight. The sense of dread that I feel is slowly replacing the feelings of despair and worthlessness I felt just hours ago. I can’t say that it’s a good feeling, but I’ll take what I can get.

Anyway, my first stop should be the “Rookie Camp” that’s supposed to be somewhere off the road, north of the checkpoint. Word has it that they have a trader there with food and supplies I’ll need. Maybe I’ll be able to find a job there too... it’s the only way to find out if I’ve got what it takes.

I’ve made it down the hill and out of range of the checkpoint. I had a little bit of a scare when the base alarm was triggered. I immediately thought I had been seen and that my short career as a Stalker had met an untimely end. I’m not sure exactly what happened, I could hear men shouting and scrambling to man their posts, then the siren just stopped and they stood down. I guess it was just a false alarm. Either that or a... no, there’s no reason to worry about that right now.

I made it to rookie camp. It’s not much more than a couple of fire pits in an abandoned village that’s been worn down to its skeleton. Old houses border a small dirt road that ends abruptly at a hill shaded by large, overgrown trees. There are a handful of men scattered throughout the village, most of them wearing nothing more than raincoats to protect them from the elements. Others have some sort of makeshift protective suits fitted with all kinds of devices. They carry pistols, shotguns, and beat up rifles, holstered at their sides or strapped to their backs. Some have taken refuge in the abandoned houses of the village, visible through the holes in the roofs and walls. The largest concentration encircles a small fire pit in the center, off of the single road stretching through the village. A few Stalkers stand guard on the road and in the upper levels of the houses closest to the road. They’re watching me as I approach, but I don’t think they see me as a threat.

So this is it...I have become a Stalker. I am marked. The military will most likely shoot me on sight if they catch me wandering around freely. I will be risking my life every day for what I need. I can see the looks in the Stalkers’ eyes... like they have witnessed terrible things. Most of them look like me: hopeless, confused, afraid – others look reserved; hardened by the Zone and ready for anything.

I finally got the courage to ask around and was directed down the end of the dirt road towards a small bomb shelter that I missed from the main road. I met the local trader “Sidorovich”, who has set up shop there to supply new Stalkers entering the Zone. Apparently he has a reputation for undercutting newbies and raising his prices based on their need. I heard that he even refused to sell a bandage to a man who was bleeding out all over his bunker because he was a few Rubles short... and then charged him for leaving blood on the floor!

I thought the story was an exaggeration, but as soon as I descended the stairs and saw the man in person I immediately believed every word they said. He was an older, fat, balding man whose demeanor said that he didn’t care much about me and that I was nothing more than another exploitable resource. He sat behind a caged desk, rows of weapons and ammunition lined the walls and tables behind him – most in terrible condition. An old laptop sat on the desk next to him – probably where he kept his inventory – and a small lamp next to it illuminated the dim, cramped space of the small shelter.

“Yeah? Whaddya want?” he muttered into the desk with a deep growl of a voice as I walked cautiously towards him.

“I’m looking for a job.” I said, trying my best not to sound terrified of what I was getting myself into.

He looked up at me, scanning me up and down with his eyes, sizing me up.
“You’re a little on the scrawny side. Are you sure you won’t just shatter at the first scraped knee?” he said, waving his hand dismissively in the air.

“I’m new here.” I admitted. “I’ll take anything you’ve got.”

“Of course you’re new here!” he barked back at me, annoyed. “I know everyone who comes through here, and I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

I looked at the ground in thought, and then nervously directed my gaze at his inventory to make it seem as though I knew what I was doing. He folded his arms and let out a huff of air, whether amused with himself or at me I don’t know.

“So you’re new and you need a job. I’ve got jobs. I’ve even got the supplies you need to get through it alive.” He said with a smile. “But first, let’s talk about you.”

“Me?” I asked. “What about me?”

“Tell me your name, why you are here, what you can do for me; that sort of thing.”

This had to be some sort of test. Obviously he wanted to hear warrior tales, to know that I was a worthy investment. But I didn’t have any of those. The only story I had was the one that was still fresh in my mind, the one that brought me here. It would have to do.

“My name is Yuriy, and I came here to make a new life for myself. I can do whatever you need me to do. I just need to earn some money for my wife on the outside. My son died and she’s all I have left.”

He leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin with his greasy hand and contemplating my words. Then, finally he folded his hands behind his head shaking it and laughing.

“Yuriy is it? Shit name. I don’t like you story, it bores me. You’re a scrawny piece of shit that will blow away with a strong breeze.”

I was beginning to see what an irritating me he was. I continued to listen to his long note of rejection, becoming more and more impatient with each passing word. I couldn’t take much more of it.

“You want money? I make the money in here! You’ll be lucky to earn a piece of moldy bread off some unlucky Stalkers corpse. Besides, I’m sure your wife is making all the money you need while she walks the streets at night!” he said, roaring with laughter at his own cleverness. I had officially heard enough.

“Listen you fat slug!” I said, pounding my fists against the cage with a clang that startled him satisfactorily. “If you ever talk that way about my wife again I will kick down that door, and break your fucking nose!”

We locked eyes for several seconds that seemed like hours. I held my furious gaze and he held his curious stare. At long last he looked down at his fidgeting hands, and then shifted back to me with a big salesman smile on his face.

“So... now that we’ve gotten to know each other, let’s talk business. Shall we?”

We negotiated for a while and he agreed to send me on a job to a nearby car park to provide backup for a “hostage negotiation”. He warned me about the men holding the hostage - the “Bandits” he called them - who rob other Stalkers for supplies and leave them to fend for themselves. And here I was thinking that the Zone was an escape from corruption. He said there were many different factions of Stalkers, and that they wouldn't hesitate to kill someone if it meant furthering their own agenda. Nevertheless, I accepted the job – I just hope I don’t actually end up having to use this grimy pistol he loaned to me under the condition that, if I survived, I would bring it back to him... or he would send Stalkers after me. I got the point immediately.

I exited the bunker, inhaling deeply as the reality of accepting my first assignment began to sink in. This was it... no turning back now. I picked a good spot beside one of the ruined houses and loaded a clip into the Makarov loaner pistol, making a mental note of the amount of ammo I had on me and tried my best not to look like a complete idiot while I checked my gear. Once I got the balls, I headed over to the group of men I was told to meet up with next to the main campfire in the center of the village.

As I prep for the mission, I can’t help but eavesdrop on the Stalkers gathered around me. I’m slowly beginning to realize that the value of life is almost non-existent to them. This is a dog-eat-dog world – if you’re not quick on the trigger finger, you’ll wind up a corpse. We’ll be heading out in an hour... maybe I have enough time to have a bite to eat before we leave. I’m nervous about the chance that things will turn violent, but I’ve got to start somewhere and I’ll need to learn how to use a weapon if I’m ever going to survive here.


[Audio enabled]

“Test. Test. It looks like this thing is working, OK. I’ve enabled audio-recording in hopes that I can capture everything that happens, that way I can get it all and add notes in later. I’m minutes away from heading out with the other three Stalkers in on this mission. I’m scared, but excited at the same time. All of them had nicknames, probably call signs in case the military picks up their radio transmissions and decides to go on a Stalker hunt. While they synced their radio together, one of them noticed the PDA sticking out of my pocket. I allowed him to install an app that would let it to function as a radio. That’s less equipment I have to carry and it should work great with the audio-capturing feature enabled so I’m all for it.”

A few beeps come over the radio, signaling that the time to move out has come.

We made our way to the road, made sure that there was nobody on it, and then crossed over to the other side. The old car park sat to the north-earth. Though it had been worn down by the elements, a few makeshift fortifications had been made, and I could just make out the shapes of Stalkers walking across the rooftops over rickety boards like catwalks for their fortress. As we drew closer I noticed that they looked nothing like the men I was with masks over their faces, trench coats, and hoods over their head – all black as night. I was beginning to get a very bad feeling about this.

“Look alive, the door guard has spotted us.”

Our leader said as the Bandit above to the toll station leading in to the park waved his companions over.

They gathered on that side of the base, taking up defensive positions. There had to be about a dozen of them; and they possessed much more firepower than we did, sporting double-barrel shotguns, and sub-machine guns. At this point I realized that we had no choice but to see these negotiations through, or they would kill us all in an instant. I began to tremble uncontrollably as we passed through the toll gate and into the open concrete area within the car park. Seeing all those dark, murderous eyes trained on me was enough to make me wish I was dead already. It was all too apparent now that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. When we made it to the center of the yard, the Bandits encircled us from the rooftops above until their leader finally poked his head out of a door on the second level of one of the nearby brick buildings and he towered over us, opening his arms as if to display his might and remind us of the force he controlled.

“I was expecting you to pussy out.” He said in a deep, powerful voice. “I’m surprised Wolf didn’t send more.”

“Wolf isn’t interested in a fight; he just wants his man back.”

“I thought as much.” The Bandit leader said, kicking some chipped concrete off the top of the roof as he inspected the four of us in turn. He seemed to snicker a little when he looked me, no doubt sticking out like a sore thumb.

“So you’re here to negotiate for the release of the prisoner. What are you offering for him?”

“We can offer you free passage through the Cordon with the understanding that you will not try to rob Stalkers here. Now that we control the border, you have become trapped in the Zone. We understand and would probably resort to robbing too if our survival was at stake. We’re offering you an alternative.”

The Bandit leader lit up at this and a smile began to creep across his face. He began to pace the edge of the roof, pondering his next move. I looked around at the Bandits standing over us; the malicious look in their eyes seemed to say that they had no interest in this proposition. Then, when their leader threw back his head and laughed, I knew it was true.

“Wolf is a fool to think that he understands our cause. This is why he babysits all the young Stalkers when he could be part of a real faction. You “Loners” make me laugh... you think you’re a faction when, in reality, you’re just a bunch of meddling kids with guns who have banded together on the outskirts of the Zone. You’d never survive the dangers the deeper regions have to offer.”

He signaled to his men, who then raised their weapons and took aim at us. My heart stopped as I looked into the barrels of the guns trained on me, knowing that my life could be over in just a few seconds.

“I thank you for the offer, but we’ll have to pass on it for now. However, since you had the balls not to shit yourselves on the way in, I’ll extend the same courtesy to you.”

He shrugged his un-holstered sub-machine gun in my direction and added, “I’m sure your newbie friend will be thankful for the opportunity not to be killed on his first day in the Zone.”

I swallowed hard and my blood burned in my veins as I awaited his counter-proposal, fully believing that it would end in our deaths.

“I’ll give you five seconds to get the fuck out of our territory. Otherwise, if you deny us the sport of trying to hit moving targets, we’ll kill you all now. Choose wisely, Stalkers.”

This was it. I had been in the Zone for no more than a few hours and now I was going to die. I took a deep breath and prepared to run for my life when our leader came back with the last reply I had ever expected to hear.

“We won’t give you that satisfaction, but we will give you the satisfaction of being the last one to die after will finish off your pathetic little band of misfits.”

Before the Bandits could respond he yelled, “Scatter!”

I found myself suddenly being pulled into the building behind me as the arm of the Stalker next to me pivoted and dove through an open window. A sound like a cannon explosion followed as bullets pinged around us, filling the area we had been standing in moments ago. The Stalker began shouting instructions at me, but I couldn’t make out single word over the ringing in my ears. So he gave up, and rolled to the other side of the window, popping out to return the Bandits’ fire. My ears were in turmoil as I cupped my hands over them to block out the noise the hell storm of bullets created around me.

To my amazement, the firefight began to gradually die down, and I was still alive. The Stalker next to me had taken a bullet in his arm but he barely noticed it as he continued to fire out the window. The Bandits’ return fire began to die down and I risked a quick glance out the window. The entire car park looked even more beat up than it had before we entered – something I didn’t even consider possible at the time. The walls outside were riddled with bullet holes and the slumped over bodies of the Bandits hung from the catwalks or had fallen to the rough pavement below, surrounded by bullet casings and blood.

Several sections of wall were missing – apparently blown out by grenades that accounted for the tremors I had felt during the battle but was too caught up in things to try and sort out. I felt a tap on my shoulder and the Stalker next to me said a few more words that I couldn’t understand, but by his hand signals I gathered that he was going to try to move out and make sure that the Bandits were dead. I nodded my head and pulled the pistol out of the pocket I had hidden it in, holding it in a death grip as my bodyguard left me. My hearing slowly began to return and the deafening roar of battle that I had heard before began to fade into an eerie silence that I began to dread more than the noise of the firefight before.

Where did they go? Are the Bandits all dead?

Questions raced through my head and I longed to answer them, but I couldn’t will myself to move from the corner of the building that had been my refuge throughout the whole endeavor. I was completely convinced that any move I made would be my last, and that any remaining Bandits would see or hear me and immediately shoot me.

Suddenly the sound of wood creaking in a room behind me caught my attention, sending adrenaline pulsing through me. Was it one of the other Stalkers or a Bandit? I pointed the iron sights of my pistol in the direction of the noise and waited for the source of the noise to present itself. When it finally did I found that I was completely frozen, unsure of what to do next.

The Bandit leader himself snuck into the room from one of the side-entrances, missing me entirely as I stayed rooted to my corner. He listened for a moment, and then began to duck-walk towards a set of stairs in another part of the room, apparently on his way to inspect a noise he had heard on the floor above. It must have been one of the other Stalkers. I had to do something…

“Hey!” I blurted out, leveling the Makarov’s iron-sights with his head. “Put your weapon down!”

He complied immediately, his eyes darting around the room in search of me. As soon as his weapon was on the ground I began to move towards him. He spotted me and began to laugh, reaching for his weapon again.

“DON’T TOUCH IT!” I yelled, cocking the pistol to prove my seriousness. He understood.

“Are you going to shoot me, newbie?” He mocked me with a sneer.

“I don’t want to, but I will if I have to.” I said, letting the adrenaline rush put strength in my words.

He shook his head, calling my bluff. “What do you think you and your little band of fighters are going to accomplish here? Nothing - that’s what! If you kill me, my life will be on your conscience. Are you prepared to live with that? Are you prepared to live with the knowledge that you killed a man you know nothing about? I bet you and I are not so unalike – the only difference is I know what I’m willing to kill for. Do you?”

That hit home. I lowered the weapon, unable to fire. It was like trying to shoot my own reflection; I felt like I would be killing myself. I just sat there... that's all I could do. The man was right; nobody would ever know him or his deeds. He was just a man like me, and I had no right to decide his fate.

I was never one to believe in fate; I think it’s an elaborate ruse that leads people to believe that their lives are set in stone; their birth, the events in their life, and their death. But as I looked into his eyes I couldn’t help but ask myself what I would have done in his position, and if my choice would somehow affect me if the tables were turned. Would my fate be affected by what decision I made right here, right now?

But before I could decide he used my hesitation to reach for his weapon. He was slow on the draw, no doubt thinking that I wouldn’t do anything to stop him. But I quickly redrew my weapon and put a bullet in his forehead before he could fire. A loud bang pierced the silence of the room. The weapon fell from his hands and his eyes began to roll back in his head as blood streamed down his face. He went limp, collapsing onto the floor in a pile, letting out one final sigh as the life vanished from him.

I looked at the device in my hands... the tool I had just used save my life by ending another. It would be the key to my survival, and my ticket out of here.  My ticket out... was there really such a thing now? I had just killed another person, and I don’t know if I could live with that if I went back to the real world. There’s no turning back now. If I end up like those who died today, nobody will ever know who I was or why I came here – and I don’t know how long Emelia will wait before she gives up hope entirely.

This is my fate.

After the gunshot, I heard the rickety boards of the attic above me creak and saw the head of one of the Stalkers emerge cautiously from the top of the stairs to see what had happened. When he saw me crouched over the body of the Bandit leader, Makarov in hand, he smiled and yelled,

The other Stalkers converged on us shortly thereafter, inspecting the hunched over corpse of the Stalker who had just been booted out of his position as king of this castle.

“Search the bodies.” Our leader ordered them as he holstered his weapon and descended the stairs to the room and stood in front of me. He pressed the heel of his boot into the Bandit’s chest, knocking him to the floor. His vacant stare met my eyes, and I was forced to look away at the shock of seeing his cold, dead eyes looking back at me.

“Bastard got what he deserved... fucking cocky asshole.” He said, looking up at me with a pleased grin on his face. “They’re so used to just holding Stalkers at knife-point these days that they’re complete shit against us in a gunfight.”

“Good to know…” I muttered, wishing I had been told that information beforehand.

“Not bad for a rookie.” He complimented me. “Maybe you’re not as helpless as you look... you sure proved him wrong.” he said nudging the Bandit with his boot.

“Does it get easier?” I asked as he kneeled over the corpse and began to strip it of supplies.

“No.” he replied after giving it some thought.

“Do you ever feel guilty?”

He paused, seeming to drift into a memory as he stared out the open window nearby.

“I feel guilt every time I’m forced to kill another man – but it’s always forced. You learn not to dwell on it, or it eats you up inside. In the middle of a shootout the last thing you want to be thinking about is the men you’re shooting at, all that does is make it harder for you to kill them and easier for them to kill you.”

He went back to work, taking anything of value and stuffing it into his backpack. He tossed a few pistol clips my way, which I promptly added to my own supplies. “Those are on the house, don’t tell Sidorovich.” He instructed. “You earned them; he doesn’t need to know about them. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there; you never know when you might need them.” He said with a nod.
“Thanks.” I said, feeling a sense of accomplishment that I had never felt before. No amount of pay I had earned before now could compare to the reward I had just received. For the first time in my life I had been given what I needed to survive.

“Speaking of which, we should be heading back soon.” He said, indicating towards the sun as it began to set in the west.

The long shadows of trees and buildings stretched out across the waving fields and a chill began to set in as we made our way back to camp. I hadn’t realized how beautiful The Zone truly was beneath all the dirt and grime. The remaining sunlight enhanced it, making the flowers and paint stand out like a portrait, but at the same time making the shadows darker and foreboding. It’s amazing yet terrifying at the same time…

The Bandits’ supplies were traded for ammunition, food and Rubles at Sidorovich’s bunker. The spoils were divided equally amongst the four of us (after Sidorovich got his cut) and each Stalker did what they wanted with their share. I used mine to buy a few bandages, since I didn’t have very many on me and remembering the wound the other Stalker sustained during the fight I thought they might become necessary very soon.

After I packed everything tightly away in my backpack, I decided to rest. I propped myself up against the cracked, faded wall of one of village houses and slid to the ground. So much had already happened in such a short amount of time that I wasn’t sure what to make of it all. Before I had a chance to think on it, one of the Stalkers from the camp approached me. I looked around me to make sure I was the one he was targeting and, when I was sure, looked him directly in the eyes – ready for anything.

“Hello there, young man. You look like you need a friend - my name’s Averiy.”

“Yuriy…” I introduced myself, surprised and unsure of his intentions. His faded blue eyes locked onto mine, telling of the years of experience that lay behind them. They also looked pained; perhaps weary in his old age. In spite of that, there was a kindness in his eyes that was unmistakable – like the look an old man would give his grandson.

We talked for a while on the outskirts of the campfire. He had been roaming the Zone since day one, he explained to me. Formerly an engineer at Chernobyl, he was present the day the catastrophe occurred. He went on about his work; spewing a lot of technical things I couldn’t understand, but when he mentioned the explosion, it caught my attention.

He had volunteered to be a Liquidators; one of the men who were recruited to shovel tons of radioactive graphite and other contaminated elements back into the power plant as radioactive fumes from the reactor fire filled their lungs, silently killing them. He was lucky enough to have survived the experience, but not all of his friends had. He went on about the evacuation of Pripyat – the city closest to the plant and largest city in the Zone at the time. He was there when 50,000 people were forced out of their homes and evacuated as the city was blanketed with radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. I felt bad for him as he described hearing the news that so many of his friends had either been killed in the initial explosion, or later due to the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation.

As he began to describe the second explosion his mood changed. He talked about the light in the sky that could be seen that night, explaining that it was actually a frequent occurrence in the Zone. He called it a “blowout”, claiming that what can be seen outside of the Zone as a bright, eerie light travels through the Zone as a catastrophic wave of destruction. He didn’t know what caused the blowouts - only the effect they had on everything in their path – which was, simply put, death.

As disturbing as that was, it dwarfed in comparison to what he told me next. He said that there were things lurking in the Zone… terrible things. If he was telling ghost stories he was damn good at making them scare the living hell out of you. He described things he had seen and heard of that live in the deepest, darkest places the Zone had to offer; abandoned buildings, caves, and underground laboratories. He described creatures that could suck the life right out of you before you even realized they were there, creatures that could attack your mind, rendering your weapons useless and even creatures that could use an unknown force to lift objects off the ground, and hurl them at you.

As if all that weren’t enough, he claimed that some Stalkers had even claimed that they could hear voices, like people were talking to them as they explored these places – but that when they looked for the source of the voice, there was nothing there. Usually they would go inside looking for supplies or a place to set up camp for the night when they would hear the whispers echoing off the walls. He explained that it was normal to hear lots of strange noises in the Zone, the weather was unpredictable and the animals are restless; but that this was different. He used the word “animals” with hesitation, like he wasn’t sure he had used the right word.

When I asked him what the kinds of things the voices said he gave me a strange look, almost as if he was recalling from experience. Considering how long he claimed to have been here, it didn’t really surprise me. But when he told me his opinion, I started to lose what little credibility I had in him. He supposed that it was the rambling of dead Stalkers, whose spirits had become trapped in the Zone after their deaths like a sort of purgatory. He claimed that some gave warnings, but that others had crueler intentions, and would lead you into traps for malicious purposes or try to scare you to death.

As unrealistic as his story was I found that I was too afraid to move or do anything afterwards...  and I was too afraid to ask any questions for fear of having an even harder time trying to sleep during the quickly-approaching night.

What in the fuck have I gotten myself in to? I'm not prepared for this shit! WHO THE FUCK IS!?
With that, he left me to go grab some food and disappeared. I don’t know how much of his story was true and how much of it was just a ghost story, but after taking a look around camp I could see that I was not the only one who looked scared out of my mind. Something about the night closing in around the camp put a spell of fear over the Stalkers that I couldn’t describe. Maybe he had been spreading his story around camp and I was just his most recent victim. Whatever the case, it’s going to be an adventure trying to sleep tonight… that’s for sure.

It's getting later and a few of the Stalkers have rolled out mats in the nearby buildings and gone to sleep. The daytime talking and activity has died down and the only sounds left are the crackling of the fire, crickets and wild dogs. There are dogs fucking everywhere! They’re out there, and they've been howling and barking for about the last half hour now. I knew there were a lot of wild animals roaming the Zone but I didn’t expect anything like this.  I almost prefer the silence to the violent snarls and growls seemingly coming from all around me.

“It’s dog eat dog world.” The words of the Stalker from the mission just a couple of hours ago came back to my head suddenly. I’m starting to think he meant it literally.

But there's something more out there... something bigger and meaner-sounding than the dogs. Between the barking I can hear squeals like pigs, only deeper… more aggressive. I find myself suddenly flirting with the rumors I had heard about mutants before entering the Zone and the stories Averiy shared with me. Seeing the looks of horror on the faces of the Stalkers gathered around the campfire I suddenly feel exposed… like something could appear out of the air in front of me at any moment. I can see now that, despite their seeming lack of emotion, we’re all sharing one right now.

Something’s definitely not right here… the men are starting to get really freaked out. If Averiy was even close to being right about the creatures here and the effects of radiation on them then this could be a very, very bad thing. Their growling is so close now... I swear they’re right behind me!

I hear gunshots! The dogs are going crazy now. The Stalkers immediately went into alert mode, readying their weapons and monitoring the wilderness beyond the fence encircling the village. One of the Stalkers on the opposite side of the fire tried to down an energy drink but his hand was shaking violently and he ended up spilling it all over himself, throwing it to the ground quickly as a sharp growl nearby startled him. Nobody seemed to notice though as they stared into the darkness... listening and waiting. This is too much to take in at once; I’m going to switch to audio mode.


[Audio enabled]

The sound of gunshots and shouting just beyond the camp’s perimeter drew closer and closer… all the while, the dogs got louder and louder. Suddenly a wave of bobbing white lights appeared from up the main road beyond the village and about half a dozen Stalkers came running towards us. When they reached the dirt road leading into the village, the camp guards I passed coming on my way in opened fire. At first I thought they were aiming for the Stalkers, but when they started to back-peddle and fire towards the road I knew they were targeting something else. It was hard to tell over the noise, but I thought I could hear the sounds of dogs whimpering in pain between shots.

After about a minute they held their fire, freezing in the middle of the dirt road and sweeping their headlamps across the road, lighting up the entire segment in front of the village for several moments.

Suddenly, I heard a rustle in the bushes beyond the fence next to me. “Fuck! What the hell was that?!” I said loud enough for the Stalkers by the fire to hear me. They directed their attention towards me as I jumped up and slowly backed towards them.

As I looked through the broken fence, I saw one of the dogs standing right next to where I had just been a second ago. He blended into the ground he stood on so well and the light of the fire hadn’t reflected off his eyes to give him away. Then I discovered why; he didn't have any eyes. He was as still as a statue, except for his nostrils as he sniffed the air. I was so frightened by it that I suddenly found myself running into the house behind me. The Stalkers around the fire, startled by my sudden action, looked ready to either join me or start shooting wildly in all directions. With their weapons in their hands and eyes wide they stood ready for anything.

Then, before anyone knew what was happening, one of the dogs got too close to the edge of the fire and growled. The Stalker closest jumped, spun around, and shot the damn thing right in the head! It yelped in pain and died seconds later, flopping to the ground in front of them. Dozens of growls returned the yelp beyond the tall grass outside the light of the fire and the Stalkers quickly formed a circle around it, shaking, and sweaty as they trained their weapons on the darkness in front of them.

Then, quiet… dead fucking silence. How they all held their triggers as tightly as they did with their hands shaking and yet managed to not fire… I had no idea. Then, from all directions they came at the Stalkers – their heads quickly emerging from the darkness as they attacked. There were about 20 - no - 30 of them, all bounding towards the fire. They were all as blind as the one I had seen earlier with a rough patch of skin covering where their eyes should have been. As they came into the light I could finally get a good look at them. It looked as though they had all suffered severe burns with patches of rough skin intermittent between clumps of dirty fur. It must have been an effect of the high levels of radiation they had been exposed to for generations.

The Stalkers went ballistic and started shooting at anything that came their way. I was completely frozen in place, unable to move. The scene was traumatizing; dogs yelping, blood flying everywhere, limbs being blown off by shotguns. In the small, lit radius around the fire it looked like the few Stalkers fighting off the dogs were being endlessly assaulted by hell hounds from the depths of the abyss as they emerged from their dark hunting grounds. Every time a dog would fall to the ground, another one would emerge right behind it.

I could hear them running past the wall right next to me. Out of desperation, I ran back from the door into another room, un-holstered my pistol, and prepared myself for the worst. I couldn’t see them anymore, but I could hear the Stalkers coordinating with each other, saying things like, "Throw me a mag!", "One over there!", "Behind you!", "How many are there?!" "Stay in the light!”
I peered around the doorframe of the room I was in towards the door I had come from. A couple of dogs ran in front of it - one got shot immediately, flopping lifeless to the ground in front of the door - the other one jumped over the corpse, twisting his body in mid-air, and bolted inside the door.

Its teeth were bared, and it was sniffing furiously as it headed directly for me. I yelled and unloaded the pistol in its general direction. It yelped ferociously and started to limp - but that didn’t seem to slow it down at all. I could see its shadow closing in on me as I ducked back around the wall and pulled another clip from my backpack. I fumbled to load it into the gun as my hands trembled without remorse.

Then, as soon as I leaned back around the corner again, it lunged at me - clamping down on my exposed arm with its powerful jaws. I screamed in pain as it sunk its teeth deep into my arm, dropping my pistol onto the wooden floor. Up close it smelled like death, and as its hot breath assaulted my face I thought I nearly vomited. I felt around on the floor with my free hand and managed to find my pistol. It pushed down on top of me, knocking me to the floor with incredible force, biting deeper into my arm.

From my position under it I couldn’t get a good shot, so instead, I gathered all the strength I had in my other arm and pistol-whipped it in the side of the head. That only made it more violent. My arm felt sticky - I thought it was the things drool, but then realized I was bleeding badly. The room started to spin and everything got hazy – the nausea from the stench threatened to knock me out. But just before I felt myself start to go I heard gunfire from the door nearby. Its jaw loosened up immediately and it detached its teeth from my arm. I rolled it off of me, turning on to my side to face the door of the house. There, standing in the doorframe, a figure stood with its rifle aimed where the dog had been on top of me moments ago. Smoke curled out of the end of the barrel as it began to come towards me. The image of its hand reaching down towards me is the last thing I remember before everything went dark and I slipped into unconsciousness.

I awoke some time later to find myself in another room of the same house I had been in before I had passed out. It was still dark out, but the atmosphere had changed considerably. I could hear the Stalkers outside, talking excitedly about something I couldn’t make out as my senses slowly returned to me. I sat up, and gathered enough strength to crawl over to the nearest window. I looked outside and tried to make out what had happened.

Carnage were everywhere… bodies, blood, shell casings, and some collateral damage. I counted more dogs than human so it looked like a victory for the Stalkers. I felt relieved… though what had happened was horrifying this was the first break in the tension I felt since I had arrived here. I watched as the Stalkers hauled the bodies of the dogs and tossed them into fires around the edges of the village. I also saw about three or four dead Stalkers lying near a small hill on the southern end of the village who were awaiting the graves being dug for them.

I didn't hear any more dogs for the rest of the night… in fact, what I did hear something much better. The sound of a guitar being strung abruptly hit my ears and notes began to drift through the air, canceling out the tension that had plagued it before. Never have I felt so at peace to hear something so simple in my entire life. I sank down into the corner of the house near the window, at peace but still haunted by all that I had been through.

I looked down at my arm to see that it had been dressed and bandaged. Then, as if to answer the very question that popped into my head next, my savior appeared at the door to the room. He smiled and leaned against it with his arm, inspecting his handiwork.

" does it feel to have survived your first mutant encounter?" Averiy said, smiling.

"Painful." I remarked.

His smile broadened slightly. "I think your canine friend knows the meaning of pain a little bit better than you now." He said, patting the rifle at his side. "You will get used to that in time."
Coming from him and his experience he could have meant anything by that. "Now that you know what the Zone has to offer, do you really think you can make a better life for yourself here?" he asked.

"I have never been given much of a choice about anything in my life." I replied. “I’m doing this out of necessity.”

He nodded knowingly at this. "No honorable Stalker does, the best ones are here for the same reason as you; necessity.” He said and walked into the room, crouching down next to the window in front of me. “But now I know something more about you; you've dealt with pain all your life and have risen above it. That tells me that you are capable of more than the murderers and thieves out there could ever be. You truly belong amongst us Stalkers, fighting for what we fight for."

"I didn't come here to escape government persecution, steal things, or murder people. I came here to make a better life for my family." I said.

"I didn’t come here for any of those things either." He clarified. “I came here for justice; to see the victims of Chernobyl and their families finally get the closure they deserve.”

I let that sink in for a while. Here was a seasoned veteran of The Zone, who had probably been here since the existence of the Zone itself, who had just saved my ass, and was telling me that I was meant to be here.

Then, as if he could tell exactly what I was thinking, he said, "Don't go thinking just because I accept you the rest of my friends will. Though they are my friends they don’t always have the same goals or guidelines that I do when choosing their friends.”

"I didn't expect to make any friends here. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect… and now that I’ve had a taste of it I don’t know how to take it.” I said, looking up at him, hoping he had the answer.

He looked back at me sternly, making sure I was paying attention, "I can tell you this much beyond the shadow of a doubt. In the Zone, you can only ever have one true friend." he said and nodded towards the rifle at his back. "Others come and go, but your weapon always has your back, and will never let you down."

The fires outside flared in his eyes as they burned, illuminating the inside of the house brightly long enough for me to see the seriousness in them. He was definitely much older than any of the men I had seen - even Sidorovich – and much wiser. He had silver-white hair, the kind you would expect to see on a much older man, but he had the body of someone half his age. He was in incredible physical condition, his blue eyes concealed a strength that threatened his enemies, but promised safety to those he considered his friends.

"I don't make the rules,” he continued “But I've seen enough treachery in my time to know that we’re all inherently evil. We made this hell, and even now when we should be fighting it, we’re stuck fighting each other." He stood, placing his rough hand on my shoulder and gripping it strongly. "I have faith in you Stalker, and will be watching over you... but think hard about what you're getting yourself into. What you’ve been through today is nothing compared to what awaits you out there. If you go alone and unprepared you won’t make it far. Eventually you’ll have to pick a side and be ready to sacrifice everything for what you believe in. So make sure you’re ready in here…” He pointed at my head, then, allowed his finger to drift down to my chest. “... And in here.”

With that he left, leaving me to think about what he said. As hard as I tried, I found the my mind was too full to fully process everything going through it, so I made my way downstairs and out into the open. The air smelled like burning flesh, just as it had for as long as I could remember now. I dragged myself over to the fire where a few other Stalkers were seated and without even thinking, sat down next to them and stared into it with them. They were a lot more relaxed now, due in part to the sound of the guitar playing nearby I’m sure, but more than they had survived another night in the Zone. Now I understood them, because I was one of them now.

One of the other Stalkers looked my way and, after noticing the bandage around my arm, pointed at it and said,

"Hey, are you the guy that pistol-whipped that Blind in the head?"

I had to think about the word for a second before I realized that he meant the dog that I had hit in the head with the butt of my gun in the heat of my struggle with it.

"Yeah, I guess I did." I said.

"You left quite a mark." He replied, pointing towards the exposed head of the dog roasting in the fire. It had a rectangular-shaped indentation from the pistol’s clip right above the left eye socket. I couldn’t resist the urge to tell the joke that suddenly crossed my mind and grinned mischievously as all eyes looked to me, awaiting my response.

"Oh… I just wanted the chef to know which one I wanted rare."

The Stalkers roared with laughter - the first sign of notice I had received from them since I had arrived.

I smiled, and basked in the aura my dry humor had created.

When the meat had been cooked thoroughly, one of the other Stalkers sitting nearby offered the first piece of the steaming-hot meat he had cut. I accepted graciously as the stories about what had occurred that night began and we had our victory feast. After dinner, I returned to the house I had awoken in, ascended the stairs and instantly passed out when I hit the floor, full of the most satisfying meal I had ever had.