Chapter 10: Through the Red Forest

[Audio enabled]
*Virtue, Nimbus, and Enigma, travel cautiously through the Red Forest, hugging a small, steep hill to their left along the outskirts. The forest is not as dark as the one they arrived in, but it does have its own sense of danger about it. There seems to be some kind of red hue about the place, but appears to be from the lack of sunlight. The forest is fairly open with more varied plant life within. Many bushes and plants join in-between the trees like a giant net. An owl hoots from deep within the forest and the sounds of other animals can be heard even deeper within*
Enigma: It isn’t much further now – but stay sharp! There are things in this forest that can kill you in a second if you aren’t looking.
*Nimbus cocks his shotgun, ready for anything. Enigma takes notice and says:*
Enigma: If you end up using that, just remember: if it doesn’t have a head, keep shooting it until it stops moving.
*Nimbus looks up nervously*
Nimbus: Right. No problem…
Enigma: I’ll be honest; this forest gives me the creeps every time I’m in it. If you saw the things I’ve seen over the years, you’d probably want to stay out of it too.
Nimbus: I hope I don’t find out…
*Enigma laughs slightly, his synthesizer making it sound more like a cough*
Enigma: We’ll see.
*The Stalkers continue along the outskirts of the forest, trying to stay focused on their path and their surroundings and not the eeriness of the place. They take a few twists and turns to avoid anomalies that lead them further into the forest, but Enigma quickly leads them back to the foot of the hill bordering the forest*
*Nimbus starts to feel nauseous from the tunnel-vision and wave of dizziness that hits him every time they move further into the forest*
Nimbus: Ugh… I don’t feel so good.
Virtue: What’s wrong?
Nimbus: I don’t know… every time we go further in to the trees I feel dizzy and my vision goes blurry.
Enigma: That’s normal, you’ll get used to it.
Nimbus: What’s in there that’s causing this? Radiation?
Enigma: The forest is radioactive, but that’s not what’s causing it.
*Nimbus waits expectantly for an answer but gets none. Virtue breaks the silence*
Virtue: So, Enigma. How did you become a Stalker – if you don’t mind my asking?
*Enigma doesn’t respond immediately. After a few moments he answers,*
Enigma: I was young and stupid. I came here with my brother some time ago when we heard about the looting opportunities. Once word came of strange “artifacts” being found in the Zone we decided then and there to pack up our things and make a life for ourselves in the Zone.
Nimbus: Where’s your brother now?
*Enigma pauses again, then answers*
Enigma: When he heard of a faction of Stalkers, promising fame and fortune and all that, he decided that was exactly what he needed. He always longed for a sense of brotherhood that he never got when he was a kid, so he joined up.
Nimbus: Were you not a good brother?
*Enigma starts to answer, but then stops himself and replies:*
Enigma: It wasn’t that, he just wanted to be accepted by his peers. He was kinda weird around other people… I guess he just saw the world differently and they didn’t understand that.
Nimbus: So what happened to him?
*Enigma takes longer to respond this time*
Enigma: When his faction heard about Limansk becoming accessible, they decided to go on a raid. Unfortunately, the scouting party was taken out by another faction that had been trapped here for a while – I guess the isolation drove them all to insanity. When the faction decided to retaliate, my brother felt on over-whelming sense to help them. I tried to convince him that fighting was not the answer, but I knew he needed to feel accepted by his peers and there was nothing I could do about it. So I joined him.
When the assault began, I stayed right next to him. The leader of the faction decided to make me a temporary member and gave me a weapon and some ammo to help in the fight. I had never held a weapon in my life, and I was scared to death. We advanced through the city, meeting heavy resistance. The Stalkers in the other faction were like savages… they were shouting and running wildly into our lines without a care in the world. One of them ran right up to where my brother and I were hiding, stopped when he saw us, and shot him right in the head.
When I saw my brother fall into my arms with a hole in his head and the look of animalistic glee on that Stalkers face, I lost it. I picked up my rifle and pumped every last round into him, until there was nothing left of his head to identify. After that, I broke past our lines gunning down everything in my path, hoping to catch a bullet to distract me from the pain of losing my brother. That bullet never came. I managed to take out a few squads myself and give our faction enough ground to drive those bastards out. We did, and fortified out position in the city. Unfortunately, the barrier sealed up again the next day and we became trapped ourselves.
What was left of my faction either went crazy and either killed themselves or attempted to find a route through the barrier. Nobody ever came back. Eventually I was the only one left, and I’ve been here alone ever since.
*The Stalkers are silent for a while*
Nimbus: That’s a terrible story. I don’t think I could have lived being trapped in this place.
Virtue: I know what it’s like to lose someone dear to you. I had a little boy… we didn’t even have a name for him yet. I worked hard to support him and my wife so I rarely got to see him. Then one day I came home and he was dead… just like that. I learned that day just how fragile life really is… so I came here seeking a new life for myself.
You know… now that I think about it, I think I came here for the same reason you did. Sure the prospect of money is good, but if I just happen to get shot by the military for trespassing, fall off a dangerous cliff, or get eaten by some killer mutant, at least I would have felt alive for that short moment at the end of my life. Maybe then the pain would finally go away…
*The Stalkers are quiet again, except for Virtue muttering to himself. Then, Nimbus decides to have his say:*
Nimbus: You guys are both right. Exactly right. It’s like… life makes so little sense and everyone wants to see you fail – why not go to the Zone? Nothing makes sense here… I mean, there’s senseless fighting, fucked up mutated shit, danger everywhere, and hundreds of Stalkers who you never know if you can trust or not. It’s like a little pocket of how the world really is, without the bullshit.
And there’s no room for anything fake – you earn exactly what you deserve, people actually communicate with one another and form relationships that actually matter. It’s like a blast from the past, back when everyone actually gave a shit about anyone else. Sure, we have our problems here too – but at least when WE fight, it’s four a cause… for US. Not for some government or corrupt politician or CEO.
Hell… they should be so lucky! If the outside knew what life was like here, they’d envy us. We’re in touch with reality… THIS is what the world really is. Look at us - we’re walking through a contaminated forest within an ever-expanding region on earth that is the direct result of the bullshit that happens out there. If ever there was a physical manifestation of all the problems in the world – this is it: the Zone. Everything that happens here is a direct result of our need to survive as a species, we’re fighting for the entire human race – and it starts with us.
Stalkers are the bandages for the world’s wounds.
*Enigma stops in his tracks*
Enigma: I… I don’t even know what to say. That was beautiful.
Virtue *laughs*: Way to go Nimbus! I think you nailed it… a little off track in places maybe, but the message is there.
Nimbus: Thanks… I’ve had some time to think about it. Life in the Zone is the only life worth living; this is what the world really is. The pain we feel here is real, the problems are real, and the people are real. I wouldn’t trade my life here for anything, not when I’ve got a guy like you to share the experience with.
*Virtue pats Nimbus on the back*
Virtue: Me neither, man. I’m honored to be a part of it.

{Excerpt from Zombie’s PDA}

*Zombie departs from his house in the Zone for the last time, leaving the remains of his sister-turned-zombie to rest forever*
Zombie: I… I’ve been asleep for so long. How long has it been? My head is spinning…
*The mysterious stranger pulls back his hood and smiles at Zombie*
Jargon: Don’t worry, son. It’s over now.
Zombie: Thank you… I… I can’t believe I was being used like a puppet. I was a fool…
Jargon: I knew something had happened to you some time ago, I just couldn’t put a finger on it until recently. I saw you wander off one night, as you normally do, but I was curious to see where you go. So I followed you here and saw that… thing in there. I just happened to be testing an earlier version of Sakharov’s psi-emission device at the time and noticed that a small field was being generated near you. Your “sister” had been corrupting you for some time.
Zombie: I don’t know how long it’s been since she… changed. All I know is that I treated what she said like gospel. I was the blind follower of a corpse… the desecrated corpse of one who was dear to me.
Jargon: How are you feeling now?
Zombie: Betrayed. Used. Forsaken, lost, confused, sad, angry, vengeful, disgr…
Jargon: Hey, it’s ok. Don’t blame yourself for what happened. Just be glad you didn’t turn into one of those monsters roaming Yantar.
Zombie: Yeah, well I wish I could say the same for her… poor Sofiya. She was so full in life…
*Zombie begins to sob*
Jargon: Hey, hey. It’ll be ok, son.
Zombie *crying*: Why did this happen to her? WHY HER!!! She was all the family I had, and she was torn from me!
*Zombie picks up an old garbage can and hurls it at the house across the street, breaking a window*
Jargon: There will be time to mourn later… but right now, I need to know the status of the mission.
Zombie *sobbing*: We… I don’t know. It’s like a distant memory now. Something about Phantom… Phantom… yes! Phantom and I made it out. I didn’t go to the bunker… something happened. A Blowout. He was angry with me. I wanted to go with him but Sister called me… Sofiya…
*Zombie loses his train of thought*
Jargon: Come on, Zombie. Try to remember what happened.
Zombie: He said he was going to return the map of X16 to Sakharov. I wanted to go but Sister was calling me, clouding my thoughts. He left me in that house and I didn’t see him after that.
Jargon: What about the rest of the group?
Zombie: Two of them… Virtue and Nimbus… scattered during the blowout. They ran away from the bunker and we couldn’t see them. We thought you died… I think that’s all that happened. Then you came here.
*Jargon paces the road a few times*
Jargon: We need to get to Sakharov. I still have some of the plans and device blueprints for the facility. These will help a great deal more than a map by itself. We also need to find Virtue and Nimbus. Nimbus had the data regarding… what was that program again? No matter… we need it. It is of vital importance that all of this data reaches Sakharov.
Zombie: Understood. We should leave immediately. The taint of this place is beginning to weigh on me.
Jargon: Let’s make haste.

{End Excerpt}

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}
I just passed the Bar and am on my way to the Military Warehouses.
I hope that Freedom will have the information I need to make my journey to the center of the Zone possible, otherwise I might end up wandering into dangerous areas and may never return.
I keep trying to tell myself that I’m doing the right thing – the necessary thing. I know it’s necessary, but is it reckless? I’ve waited so long to uncover the truth about the disappearances that any further delay only adds to the difficulty of the mission. It’s now or never… I know the danger and I accept it. The truth must be known, whatever it may be or it will haunt me forever.
I miss them so much… it seems like only yesterday my father was here, the protector of the family, always providing for us, always there when we needed him. I still have nightmares about that day in 1986… the day we learned he wasn’t coming back. He always came back… but not today… or any other day for the rest of our lives. In my dreams I see him at the power plant, beckoning to me like he is there, waiting for me. Sometimes I can hear his voice; he says “This is what you are looking for. What you want is here. Come, Stalker.”
Would he be proud of me today? A Stalker - alone in the Zone amongst criminals and enemies of the government? He wasn’t exactly a supporter of the Soviet Union himself, but he was all for progress, and that’s what the Soviets were all about; progress. Willing to step on all the little people, destroying lives in the process.
What if my mission is futile? The Soviet Union collapsed after the 1986 explosion… if the information I find points to a cover-up then who will take the blame? I may just have to live with the fact that those responsible for my father’s death have already met their fate or never will.
It doesn’t matter… at the very least I can give my father the goodbye he deserved years ago. I can only hope that Mother and Kateryna found what they were looking for before they too disappeared.
 [Receiving audio from Freedom on Loner channel]
[Audio enabled]
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Attention all Stalkers! The Military has launched a full-scale raid of the Military Warehouses. Rewards of up to 10,000 RU as well as top-of-the-line weaponry are being issued to anyone willing to join us in the counter-attack. Please report to Freedom HQ to enlist.
Phantom: Shit, top-of-the-line weapons AND a chance to kill those military dogs? Perfect.
Phantom [outgoing]: Freedom HQ, this is Phantom. I’d like to sign up for the job.
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Roger that Stalker, report to… wait… did you say you’re Phantom?
Phantom [outgoing]: 10-4 HQ.
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Sir! We’d be honored, do you need a pick-up?
Phantom [outgoing]: I thought you’d never ask. Forwarding my current coordinates now.
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Roger that! We’ll be there in 5 - over and out.
*Phantom checks his weapons and takes off his gas mask and face shield while awaiting pickup*
*A military jeep approaches and stops near him*
[Unknown]: Sir! We heard you needed a ride.
Phantom: At ease. How bad is it, soldier?
Freedom Soldier: They’re hitting us hard, sir. They’ve got about a dozen choppers and an unknown number of APCs and ground forces.
Phantom: Well it’s good I was in the neighborhood then. Let’s go.
Freedom Soldier: Yes sir!
*The jeep embarks down the road with a roar*
Freedom Soldier: We haven’t heard from you in a few days sir, how was your mission?
Phantom: I’d rather not talk about it, suffice it to say that Gremlin won’t be reporting back.
Freedom Soldier: Gremlin got aced? Dammit… we’re fucked.
Phantom: Keep your cool soldier; you should have left that attitude in the military, because that’s what’s going to be going through their minds when we get there.
Freedom Soldier: Roger that, sir!
Phantom: And drop the formalities soldier, we’re Freedom, not Military.
Freedom Soldier: Sorry sir… er… Phantom, it’s just that the last time I saw action was in the military… I guess I’m used to it.
Phantom: Don’t worry about it, just keep your cool, aim for the head and we’ll all get fucked up when we’re done.
Freedom Soldier *laughs*: You got that right!
*A few minutes later the jeep screeches to a halt at the entrance to the Military Warehouses, then backs up into a hidden grotto nearby. The Stalkers exit the vehicles and run to the Freedom blockade on the road to the Bar where a Freedom squad is stationed, surveying the area. The air is filled with the sound of helicopters in the distance or flying over them*
Phantom: Report. Am I on time for the party?
[Unknown]: Glad to see you, sir. We’ve got a squad pinned down in the farmhouse just up the hill from here. Alpha and Bravo are in the village – mutant activity has ceased since the choppers started hovering over the area. Charlie is manning the Barrier and Delta is hiding in the hills north of here. Echo is on standby. No reports of ground troops besides the APCs yet, but those choppers look ready to drop at any time.
Phantom: Very good. You stay here and watch for Duty in case they decide to join in on the fun. Other Stalkers may respond to the SOS also, make sure they are given access to ammunition and note their alias, as always. I’ll take Echo with me and we’ll monitor the path to HQ. If you see any military shits, cap ‘em.
*Phantom straps his rifle over his back and trades it for his sniper rifle*
[Unknown]: Roger that. I’ll tell HQ that you’ve arrived.
Phantom: Echo team, come on boys! Let’s have some fun!
*Mixed cheers from the nearby Echo team*
*Phantom, leading Echo team, jogs along the path towards the Freedom Headquarters to the east.
Phantom [outgoing]: Radio check. Sound off if you wanna kill some military filth!
Echo 1: [incoming]: Echo 1.
Echo 2: [incoming]: Echo 2, reporting in!
Echo 3 [incoming]:  You got me.
Echo 4 [incoming]: Stop the voices!
Echo 5 [incoming]: Someone call for an exterminator?
Echo 6: [incoming]: Is this thing on?
Phantom *laughs*: Alright, we’re good.
*The Stalkers continue down the road until the sound of shots in the distance interrupts them*
Phantom [outgoing]: Base? What was that – who’s shooting?
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Not us.
Freedom General: This is Bravo team! We’ve got snipers to the north! Repeat Snipers, north. Oh shit… hit the deck… [cut off]
Phantom: That’s us guys, let’s show them who the better snipers are.
*Mixed cocky responses from Echo team*
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Sir, the APCs have reached the village and have opened fire. Reports are coming in of Choppers offloading military forces. What are your orders?
Phantom [outgoing]: Take them all down. Fall back to the base if necessary. Echo is heading for the south hill on the village. We’ll engage the snipers when we get there, have our boys find cover until then.
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Roger that. Base out.
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Attention all forces. Engage Military on sight. Alpha, Bravo: assume covering positions and wait for Echo to arrive. Base out.
Phantom: Come on guys, let’s go rescue our boys.
*Echo team changes course and runs north to the hills on the south side of the village near the center of the area. Upon nearing the crest of one of the hills, they take cover and crawl slowly upwards*
Phantom [to Echo]: In position. Targets acquired due north, approximately 1 km from our current position. Paint ‘em up boys.
*The sound of silenced bullets comes from nearby as Echo team paints their targets with their laser-sights, and opens fire*
Echo 1: Special Delivery.
Echo 3: Air mail?
Echo 4: Rush delivery available.
Phantom [to Echo]: Got ‘em! Good job, guys.
Phantom [to General]: The snipers caught a bullet in the head. Focus on the APCs.
Bravo [incoming]: Got it, thanks! Get out the RPGs!
Phantom [to Echo]: Engage any ground forces on sight, and watch those choppers.
*The military APCs surround the village, cutting off Alpha and Bravo team. Military ground forces begin exiting and set up a perimeter around the village*
Phantom: Shit.
Phantom [To HQ]: Base, we’ve got a problem. The Military has cut off the village – our boys are trapped unless we get some support over here.
Freedom HQ [incoming]:  We’ve got nothing to spare. We’re engaged on all fronts.
Phantom [to Echo]: Well guys, we’re the only thing stopping the Military from wiping out our boys. Let’s show them how we do it in Freedom.
*Echo team acknowledges and begins picking off straggling Military personnel, careful not to alert the main force.
Echo 3: That’ll teach you to take a piss on a battlefield.
Echo 2: Say cheese, motherfucker.
Phantom [to Echo]: Stay sharp, they’re likely to notice their missing friends any time now.
*Echo team continues thinning the ranks of the Military squads until someone finally notices somebody missing*
[Unknown] *shouting in the distance*: Get down… we’ve got snipers out there somewhere!
*Bullets fly towards the hills, ricocheting off the dirt near Echo team*
Phantom [to Echo]: They can’t see us, hold your positions.
*The Military resumes fire on the village, while a couple of squads stay on lookout*
Phantom [to Echo]: We’re not going to get anything more done here.
Phantom [to HQ]: Base, we’re compromised. We need some more firepower down here ASAP.
Freedom HQ [Incoming]: Roger that. Perimeter squads are moving in to help out - ETA 2 minutes.
Phantom [to HQ]: Copy that, we need to pull out our boys and fall back to base. Over and out.
Phantom [to Echo]: Alright guys; wait for reinforcements then re-position to the east to cover our retreat. I’m going in.
Echo 1 [Incoming]: Copy that, it was good to have you with us, sir. Kick some ass.
Phantom [to Echo]: Send them back home crying.
Echo 5: Like I did when I joined this faction!
Echo 2: I heard that… got any tissues?
Echo 3: How about some lotion?
*Phantom rolls out of cover and runs behind some houses on the south side of the village, un-slinging his rifle as he goes. He pops in and out of cover on his way to the Freedom squads on the east side of the village. He’s barely past the perimeter when he runs into a group of Military running through the city*
[Unknown]: Hey!
[Unknown 2]: Gun him down!
*Phantom dives behind cover, then pops out and puts a round in the head of the closest Stalker*
[Unknown]: Shit! Take cover!
*Phantom un-clips a grenade from his belt and pulls the pin. He tosses onto the road outside, away from the building he’s in*
[Unknown 3]: Grenade!
*As the grenade explodes Phantom jumps out the front door, firing into the street. He fills a fleeing Stalker with bullets as he does. He lands in the middle of the street and rolls to the ground, scanning the area for an immediate threat. After seeing nothing, he gets up and enters the house next to him, knowing there is at least 1 target unaccounted for*
[Unknown] *whispering*: Guys?!
*Phantom duck-walks through the house, listening for anything that might give his hidden target away. He hears heavy breathing in a room to his left, listens in an attempt to find which part of the room his target is in. After deciding the last guy is next to the door frame, he rounds the corner and points his weapon immediately next to him on his left.
[Unknown]: Please don’t shoot me!
Phantom: I’m not a cold-blooded killer; I’m just a regular guy, like you… “Private Stewart”.
*The Private lets out a sigh of relief*
Private Stewart: Thanks… the guys back at base told me you guys were…
Phantom: Sorry.
*Phantom raises the butt of his weapon and hits the Private across the face, knocking him unconscious*
Phantom: We’ll chat later.
*Phantom exits the house and continues north into the village. The resistance is heavy and the military is closing in on Freedoms location*
Phantom [to HQ]: Base, we need those reinforcements.
Gamma [Incoming]: Look to the east in about 10 seconds…
*Phantom takes cover under a porch and looks around the hill to the east. A few seconds later, Gamma team emerges from around the hill, marching down the path to the village – armed with RPGs and other heavy weaponry*
Phantom [to Gamma]: Yeah! That’s more like it!
Gamma [incoming]: Hit the deck, boys!
*Several RPG launchers fire simultaneously, screaming towards the APCs in the middle of the village. The Freedom Stalkers hit the deck while the Military scatters into the houses nearby. A few seconds later, the RPGs impact the APCs closest to the action, sending flames shooting into the air*
Gamma [incoming]: Ha ha ha. Burn!
*The Military Stalkers emerge from the houses and direct all fire at Gamma team*
Phantom [Outgoing]: Alpha, Beta – move into the houses and take them out. Keep Gamma alive – we need those APCs dead!
*Phantom leaves cover, and joins what’s left of Alpha and Beta squad. The remnants of the two teams have retreated to a tower in the north-east of the village, with Stalkers on all 4 levels positioned near the windows*
Phantom: Where’s Alpha 1?
Alpha 1: Here, sir! I’m commanding all that’s left of us.
Phantom: Very good – gather your men, we’re getting out of here.
Alpha 1: You got it. Teams – move out!
*Another round of RPGs cuts through the village, hitting more APCs and some houses nearby*
Phantom [to Gamma]: Gamma – we’ve moving out. Head back to base – out!
Gamma [Incoming]: Roger that. One more round and they’ll have a wall of fire to get through if they want to catch us.
*Alpha team emerges from the tower first, and fills the street with bullets. The Military return fire from windows and holes in the houses nearby as the last wave of RPGs rockets towards them. The RPGs explode with a satisfying boom that echoes through the area. Secondary explosions from nearby APCs shake the immediate area and create a wall of fire across the street, sending houses up in flames*
Gamma [Incoming]: There we go, let ‘em simmer for a while. When we’re done here we can come back and roast marshmallows – we’ll see you back at base!
*Bravo team leaves cover traces the eastern edge of the village. Alpha team lays down suppressing fire, then joins Bravo team*
Phantom [to Echo]: Echo – you know what to do.
Echo [incoming]: Roger that. Paint your targets.
*As the Stalkers fall back to base, the Military begins to regroup and pursue them. A few moments later, gunshots ring out mixed with cries of agony and surprise when they begin taking more sniper fire*
Phantom [to HQ]: We’re returning home, HQ. Keep the doors open.
Freedom HQ [incoming]: You got it - just make it quick; those choppers out there are getting antsy.
*The Stalkers reach the Freedom base just as the first APCs emerge from the crest of the hills behind them*
Phantom: We’ve got company. Are all squads in position?
[Unknown]: Yes sir.
Phantom: Good. I’m going to head over to HQ and see what we’re up against. Alpha 1 – man your position.
Alpha 1: You got it – lock and load guys.
*Phantom runs down the main road through the base as the large metal doors close behind him. Freedom Stalkers are running all over the base, preparing for the oncoming assault from the Military. The base, ironically enough an abandoned military base, is composed of various multi-purpose buildings that have been refitted for the needs of Freedom.
The main road splits into a few other symmetrical roads fanning out to enclose grids of small buildings between them. Freedom HQ is a large building off to the right of the main road, the only multi-level building within the base. Directly across from it is the seconded largest building in the base: the vehicle hangar.
Phantom proceeds inside the HQ and down the stairs to the basement level. The room is filled with maps and computers, the glow of the monitors painting the walls with a wide assortment of colors. Stalkers are busy on the consoles while a group near the back of the room focuses around one Stalker in particular. The man is pointing to the map and giving orders to squads via radio. He notices Phantom standing in the doorway, and stops what he’s doing*
[Unknown]: Well, well! It’s good to see you Phantom.

{End Excerpt}

Enigma: Here we are; this is the Forester’s place.
*The Stalkers stand before the building the Forester calls home. It looks like any ordinary industrial building, minus the large metal antenna-like structure on the rooftop.
Nimbus: I bet he gets great reception in there.
Virtue: Why watch TV when you live next door to a circus?
*Enigma leads the Stalkers through the clearing at the edge of the forest, to the abandoned industrial complex in which the Forester lives. The area looks more like a small extension of Limansk, not quite as menacing as the Red Forest, but eerie and quiet.*
*Enigma presses a small button beside the door and waits. A moment later, the door opens and an old man with a fur hat emerges from the building*
The Forester: Enigma! It’s good to see you! And what’s this – you’ve brought friends?!
Enigma: Yes. Gentlemen, this is the Forester.
The Forester: I told you it’s just “Forester”. Isn’t that what you kids are doing nowadays - giving yourselves your own names that make no sense? Anyway… so what brings you here?
Enigma: It’s a long story, and I’d rather not talk out here.
*Forester looks out into the forest beyond*
Forester: Ah yes, I know how much you hate that forest – and for good reason! Come in, come in!
*The Stalkers enter the building, ascending a metal staircase to their left. The interior of the building is little more than a large elevator shaft with maintenance facilities on various floors. One of the rooms has a light on inside*
Forester: How’s your equipment holding up? I know it’s been some time since you last paid a visit.
Enigma: Just fine, it’s done the job.
Forester: Good, good! If I wasn’t so good at repairing weapons and armor like I am, I doubt I would have made it in here for as long as I have. Ah… but I would have stayed anyway – this place is my home, and I’ve grown accustomed to it. Here we are… have a seat.
*The Stalkers look for a place to sit but find none. Enigma plops down on the floor and glances up at Virtue and Nimbus, who then do the same.*
*Forester has a seat at his desk in the small room. Along the walls near him are trophies of various mutants.*
Nimbus: Holy… how did you get those trophies?
Forester: Ah! Well, when have as much free time as I do, it helps to be a good shot. Especially with local wildlife being what it is these days…
Virtue: You killed all of those things yourself?
Forester: Yes. It’s not much different than the hunting I’m used to, the only difference being that you can’t eat them afterwards. Well, they’re also more aggressive… and faster… and more unpredictable… but at least they’re easier to find!
*The Stalkers say nothing*
Forester: Yes… well… anyway, I’m sure you came here for a reason.
Enigma: Yes. Why don’t you tell him what you told me?
Virtue: Well, you see. Nimbus and I were in Yantar running from a blowout and were looking for shelter. Nimbus ran ahead of me and disappeared over an overhang. I ran up to see where he went and fell into an anomaly of some sort. We were both teleported into an ancient-looking forest west of here.
We decided to head east, thinking we could find shelter here and maybe some information on how to get out when we met Enigma here. He said that certain holes could pop up in the barrier from time to time, and that if anyone knew a way out, it was you.
Forester: *He* said that?
Virtue: Uh… yes.
*Enigma makes a cough-like sound through his synthesizer*
Forester: Ah… oh! Ok! Well, lucky for you – you came to the right place. You see – I have this special artifact that I obtained some time ago called the “Compass”. Guess what it does.
Nimbus: Uh… points in a certain direction?
Forester: Yes! But not just any direction… it shows a path through anomalies. I’m no rocket scientist, but I would say it has some sort of “anti-anomaly” energy. Think of the ability animals have to sense friend from foe – this artifact can sense an anomaly as a friend, and thus the holder of the artifact. You can use it to find a way out of the barrier.
Virtue: Really? Is it that easy?
Forester: Well, since you asked: no. There are very few places within the barrier that shift at all. There are only a few places you could even *begin* to look – and all of those places are deep within the Red Forest.
Nimbus: Oh… so that’s why you’ve never left?
Forester: Me? Oh no… this is my home and will be until I die. But, uh… I think maybe Enigma is still here for that reason.
Enigma: That forest is evil. Every time I’ve tried I feel overcome with some sort of dread. It’s so bad that it’s physically impossible as far as I can tell. You experienced the first wave of that on the way here, Nimbus.
Nimbus: That was the *first* wave?
Forester: I myself can only venture in a certain distance before I feel like I’ve gone too far. But that’s ok with me; there are plenty of things to hunt at the edge of the forest.
*The Stalkers are silent. Forester seems to be drifting in and out of consciousness and mutters to himself. Finally, Virtue stands up and speaks.*
Virtue: I’m not going to stay in this place for any longer than I need too. I have a wife, friends, and people who depend on me to complete my mission.
Nimbus: *Our* mission. And I’m carrying the information, so it’s my job to see that it gets to its destination.
Enigma: If you go, I’m going with you. I’ve gained nothing but insanity in this place, waiting for the barrier to magically open up again, and you’ll need my help navigating the Red Forest.
Forester: Ah… well I will be sad to see you go. But at least I still have my friends here.
*Forester gestures at the trophies on his wall*
Nimbus: Yeah…
Virtue: Well, I’d like to leave while we still have daylight.
Forester: Very well. It’s a shame to see such a unique artifact go, but it’s doing me no good here.
*Forester stands up and opens a cabinet behind him. The room fills with a light blue glow as he turns around, revealing a round object with several rectangular protrusions coming from it.*
Forester: Take it. All you need to do is keep it near you and all anomalies in your path will be revealed.
Virtue: Thank you. If not for this, we might have been trapped here for a long time.
Forester: Oh don’t thank me yet. Thank me when you make it out of here in one piece. Or three pieces… well three altogether but one piece each.
*The Stalkers stand up and prepare to leave*
Forester: Oh wait! I almost forgot.
*Forester turns around again and opens another cabinet behind him. He turns back around revealing 3 polished and heavily modified weapons*
*Nimbus’ jaw nearly hits the floor in awe*
Forester: I was working on these for Enigma some time ago and never got a chance to give them to him. I think you’ll need them if you want to stand any chance of making it through that forest. Take them… and don’t let them rust! Heck, I’ll even give you some spare cleaning kits I have here – you’ll be the envy of the community!
Virtue: Wow… thank you, sir.
Enigma: These will do nicely, Forester.
*Nimbus continues to stare in awe but looks up long enough to acknowledge his thanks at the SPAS-12 he has received*
Forester: Aye. Just remember to clean them daily so they stay in mint condition! Goodbye, Stalkers.
*Forester sits down at his desk, and nods, smiling at the departing Stalkers.*
*The Stalkers exit the building. The door closes behind them and locks with a click.*
*Nimbus is the first to speak*
Nimbus: WOW! A SPAS-12! I’ve seen these in the military and in magazines but I never thought I’d get to hold one… let alone use one! This baby can pump out 4 rounds a second, one round per trigger pull.
Enigma: This is a G-36. 200 to 800m range, dual combat sighting system, 750 RPM, with a 30 round magazine – it’s a killing machine.
Virtue: Mine has a scope…
Enigma *chuckles*:  That’s an LR-300. 950 RPM, 300m range - very good for close to medium range combat.
Nimbus: Man… I feel like I can take on the world now!
Enigma: Stay sharp enough and you might. Just don’t point it at me.
*The Stalkers lock and load their new weapons, take one last look at the dead city in the distance behind them, then head east towards the Red Forest – and the inhabited Zone.*

{Excerpt from Zombie’s PDA}

*Zombie and Jargon – who has undoubtedly survived X16 – start on their return to Yantar to return the information Jargon has acquired and learn the status of the mission and their party.*
Jargon: I can see you are still shaking off the effect of the emission. I’m sure you’re wondering how I managed to make it out alive. Focus on my words; it will help you… re-align your mind.
*Jargon takes in a deep breath and tells his story*
Jargon: After you all ran off, I lay alone in that room, waiting for the Zone to take me. Eventually, I drifted out of consciousness, feeling as though death had me in his grasp.
I found myself at the gates of heaven. I walked toward the light filtering through the golden bars and saw many people around me, waiting for me to arrive. As I approached the gate, they started to follow me –I recognized some of them from the Plant back in ’86. I waved to them but they said nothing and continued to follow me.
Eventually, I came to the gate and stood before the gatekeeper. He smiled down at me and looked through the Book of Life, to see if my name was written there. He stopped on a certain page and looked up at me, then motioned me forward. I approached the book and looked at the page. The page contained the name of several hundred people… alphabetized A-Z. This made no sense since there were so many pages in the book yet this one page had a list with names ending with both A and Z.
I looked at him inquisitively, and he said,
“These are the names of those whose lives you have ended.”
As I looked back at the page in horror I him pick up a quill next to the book and write my name in the middle as the contents mysteriously shifted around it.
“Why did you write my name down?” I asked.
He replied, “Because of your inaction, you have allowed yourself to die.” Then the sky grew dark and his face became contorted.
“Fool!” He yelled as his eyes turned red and my body went flying across an invisible surface. Then all the people who had been following me became mutated and enraged. They shuffled after me like zombies and pushed me over the edge and plummeting to the world below.
I watched in horror as the ground approached rapidly… closer, closer. As I got closer, I could see a large storm beneath me. I fell through the clouds and saw the entire Zone below me, filled with darkness and evil. I continued to fall until I returned to the very spot I had “died”.
Zombie: What happened then?
Jargon: I woke up, in a daze. It took me a minute to realize what had happened and where I was, but once I did I knew I had to leave. My wounds had not been as serious as I thought… but someone wanted me to believe they were. I knew that having a dream as vivid as the one I had could only mean one thing – something evil was near… hunting me.
I got up and started to head down the service tunnel in the direction you did when I felt something was out of place. I looked behind me and saw that surrounding the room I had fallen in, was a line of zombies – motionless. The way they stood looked exactly like my dream after they had pushed me over the side of that surface.
As soon as I took notice of them, they all looked up at me. I had enough time to take in their features. I… I recognized some of them as former co-workers… seeing them there as zombies was enough to make me keel over. I felt sick to my stomach. Then, near the back of the room emerged the source of the evil: a Controller.
Zombie: A Controller?!
Jargon: Yes. I looked on in awe of the situation. I figured I would have been dead already if he wanted it that way, but for some reason he had spared me. I remained motionless as he shuffled through the crowd to the middle of the room. He gazed slowly up at me with his dark, soulless eyes. He sent me a single image telepathically: the last image of his life.
Zombie: What did you see?
Jargon: It’s as clear as a memory: he was dressed in his work clothes monitoring some part of the station, as usual. Then, the door to the room burst open and a group of Soviet soldier rushed into the room, yelling at everyone to get down. The commander of the group entered, and said,
“You have all been re-assigned. You are to stay where you are and listen to what I have to say.”
With that, he brought in a portable computer and set it on top of a workstation nearby. He then ordered everyone in the room to be strapped to a series of piping nearby while soldiers hauled some radioactive drums to the doors nearby. All soldiers were then ordered to exit the room. As he departed, he said,
“You are now part of a test for the betterment of Mother Russia. If you die, you will be forgotten. If you live, you will be heroes.*
The door closed and he struggled with the other workers to free themselves from their binds. The soldiers and the commander stood outside and observed the room. Moments later, a strange substance started oozing out of the pipes near them. The workers screamed and spit the substance out of their mouths, but it kept oozing out of the pipes onto them.
The laptop on the console activated and cycled through millions of pictures of death and violence. The sound coming from it was like a million screams all at once. Horrified, the workers cried out in agony and flailed against the restraints, but could not free themselves. The soldiers outside observed in wonder as the screams of agony became roars of rage. They observed their readings outside and found that the first stage of the experiment had been completed successfully: the subjects had become telepathically linked. They had become Controllers.
The rest becomes hazy… more like a dream than a memory… but something happened. They got loose and killed everyone in the room – save the commander… they had something else planned for him. After hunting him down, he screamed in horror as they projected the images of his soldiers being torn apart and enslaved to the Controllers’ wills.
They dragged him through the halls and into Reactor 4 of the Power Plant. Then something happened… the Reactor went critical… somehow their rage had caused the Reactor to overheat and because of the flawed design, there was nothing the plant workers could do to stop it.
The Controllers initiated some sort of mind-shield that protected them from the resulting explosion.
Zombie: The Controllers were responsible for the 1986 explosion?
Jargon: According to the image I was given, yes. But only indirectly; had it not been for the action of the Soviets those men would still be alive today.
Zombie: Was there anything more?
Jargon: Yes… just a final image, like a reminder of the Controller’s power. Once the plant exploded, they went deep into the heart of the reactor where no human could go, and subjected the commander to their own sick experiments. They tortured him daily, sustaining his life by feeding him piles of radioactive waste now abundant beneath the core of Reactor 4.
They kept him alive through some ability they had been granted, and allowed him to suffer acute radiation sickness with no possibility of death. As time passed his body mutated into something resembling more of a beast than a man – a fitting punishment for the crime he had committed to humanity.
Afterwards, they set him free to roam the Zone – forgotten as they were. Now, he crawls around the Zone on all fours like a dog, his pain shown by the rips and tears of his flesh and clothing. His teeth are always bared because of the agony he feels constantly, and the only way to satisfy it lies is pools of radioactive material. The only thing identifying him as human is the broken gas mask still tied to his head, in mockery of what little his “protection” served him in the end.
Zombie: He was a Snork!
Jargon: I believe you’re right… maybe the first one in the Zone.
Zombie: What do you make of all this? How did you make it out?
Jargon: After the images stopped, the Controller simply turned and left the room. The zombies followed in his wake.
Zombie: That’s it? He just walked away.
Jargon: Yes. I’ve seen some strange things in my day, but nothing like that.
Zombie: Do you think there’s any truth in the images he showed you?
Jargon: I can’t think of any other explanation. Why else would he surround the room with zombies, walk right up to me, and project something other than threats of pain and death on me? He had something to say, and he did.
Zombie: Why would a Controller want to do that?
Jargon: I can’t say. Maybe when we turned off the emission it affected the mutants somehow… or maybe it was just time to bring the truth to light. If what he tried to tell me is true, the Zone is the result of the human lust for power. It’s a representation of all that is evil in us, breaking out if its cage to devour all who do evil to others.
Zombie: This could explain a lot of things not understood about the Zone. When we get this information back to Sakharov, maybe it will bring more evidence of this to light.
Jargon: No doubt. If there is even a speck of truth in this, everyone deserves to know.

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}

*Phantom walks into the room. All eyes look to him as he approaches the man in charge.*
Phantom: I was just in the neighborhood; I thought you could use a hand.
[Unknown]: Well, since you are second-in-command, I’ll let you deal with the defenses if you’d like.
Phantom: That’s your arena, Lukash. My place is on the battlefield.
[Unknown: identified as Lukash]: Where’s Gremlin?
Phantom: He didn’t make it. It’s just me.
*The room freezes for a moment*
Lukash: You mean he’s dead?
Phantom: You heard me.
*The Stalkers in the room look at each other in surprise*
Phantom: We’ll discuss this later. Just tell me where you need me.
Lukash: R… right. All squads are in position – we’re just waiting for them to commit before we take any other action. Until then, we’ve fortified our position.
Phantom: A solid plan. Let them see what they’re up against, maybe they’ll see how stupid they are and run away.
Lukash *snickers*: Well, if they don’t we’ve got a few of their former belongings around the base that they might want back while they’re here…
*The Stalkers in the room laugh knowingly*
Phantom: You’re a sick, sick man Lukash. I like the way you think.
Lukash: You got that right, sir!
Phantom: Go back to whatever you were doing. I’ll be at the gate, welcoming our old buddies.
*Phantom heads back up the stairs while Lukash returns to giving orders. As soon as Phantom steps foot outside, bullets begin raining down from the helicopters overheard*
Phantom: SHIT!
[Unknown – Incoming]: They’re shooting! Open fire!
*The base erupts with gunfire as the battle begins. The wall on the north side of the base, where the gate is, lights up with gunfire and RPGs directed at the charging APCs. Snipers in the towers at all 4 corners of the base start picking off targets on the perimeter. In the middle of the base, weapons and ammunition are pouring out of buildings on their way to supply the base perimeter.
A few seconds after the initial command to open fire, the base air raid siren goes off – alerting anyone in the area of the battle taking place. The Military APCs outside the wall begin pumping rounds into the gate, sending Freedom Stalkers running for the concrete walls surrounding it. Moments later, the APCs burst through the walls, turrets pointed in every direction gunning down anything in sight.
RPGs leave the small buildings near the gate, obliterating the first oncoming APCs. More come to replace them as Military Stalkers rush into the base, attempting to secure a perimeter from within.
Phantom runs to join his brothers in arms at the front of the action.*
Phantom: Get more RPGs on those APCs!
*Seconds after the APCs storm the gate, helicopters sweep the base from the east, raining fire on the streets.*
Phantom [to all squads]: All squads! Take out those choppers, now!
*The Gatling guns mounted on the choppers cut through the ammunition stores, causing several chain-explosions throughout the base. Freedom Stalkers dive for cover as the choppers zoom over them.
A wave of Freedom Stalkers emerges from the vehicle hangar behind with a fresh wave of RPGs ready. As the choppers fly overhead they let the rockets loose. A loud whooshing sound coupled with the scream of the rockets blocks out the sound of the Military APCs firing near the gate. Seconds later a few explosions ring out as 2 of the choppers take a rocket. One of the choppers explodes in the air, sending a shockwave throughout the base while the other spins out of control and crashes to the ground.*
Phantom [to all squads]: Good hit! Focus fire on the APCs until those choppers come back!
*The APCs continue to pour into the base. The RPGers in the buildings near the gate continue to reap havoc to the APCs while Freedom Stalkers nearby fire all weapons and throw grenades in the path before them. A nearby M249 mounted on top of sandbags nearby pounds away, pouring lead into the Military Stalkers attempting to seal Freedom in a tomb.
The helicopter start to make another pass from the west, focusing fire on the sniper towers on that side of the base. One of the towers erupts in flames and slowly falls to the ground with a loud crash.*
Freedom General [Incoming]: Tower 2 is down! Repeat: Tower 2 is down!
Phantom [to all squads]: The choppers are back, focus fire on them!
*The helicopters re-focus fire on the streets, forcing Freedom fighters to scatter again. Another round of RPGs greets them as they fly overhead. The choppers split north and south, evading the RPGs - but two late RPGs fire right after they split and impact both, destroying one and forcing the other one to crash-land outside the base.
A loudspeaker sounds from outside the walls of the base:*
*The fighting dies down for a moment as the some Stalkers look around, unsure of what to do.*
Phantom *shouting*: What are you doing? They’re lying to you!
*The Military spreads into the base, weapons aimed at the Freedom squads who are now unsure of what action to take.*
Freedom HQ [incoming]: Phantom, you better do something, and do it quick.
Phantom [to HQ]: Put me on speaker.
Phantom [on speaker]: Freedom – this is Phantom, your friend and second in command. The Military is lying –they are losing and this little ploy is meant to distract you!
Phantom [on speaker]:  Yeah? And what do we get if we leave peacefully? Protection from the government? A normal life? Equality?
Phantom [on speaker]: What peace? Living in a corrupt government that constantly uses its citizens to cover up its evil past? Political injustice and a poor excuse for a life, living in government supplied cardboard boxes? I’d rather be in prison then be subjected to that kind of live – which is convenient because that’s exactly where you’re going to put every last one of us for treason!
*The Military has fully engulfed the base by this time. Ukrainian Special Forces have moved in to the flank and many Freedom Stalkers have laid down their weapons in surrender. The helicopters hover over head, guns at the ready*
Unknown [on speaker]: We would rather die you Military pigs. Freedom, this is Gremlin!
*Phantom looks around in shock. The Freedom Stalkers look up in awe at the return of their leader and cheer*
Gremlin [on speaker]: Sorry for the delay, but I have returned to help you fight off this lying scum. How they taint the Zone with their presence and still live stuns and disgusts me.
Gremlin [on speaker]: You are the only criminals here! You lie to your citizens, and allow them to suffer while you get fat off your paychecks! It’s your fault the Zone exists and you won’t admit it, nor will you lift a finger to clean up the mess you’ve caused! Well I’ve got news for you! We take it as a gift! We will make a new life for ourselves here where we will not harm anyone who wishes no harm to us! You can keep your country, your laws, and your “glorious” country. This is our land now!
*The Freedom Stalkers perk up and begin to rally together, despite the yelling and warnings of the Military forces near them*
Gremlin [on speaker]: NO! It is YOU who will not survive! We’ve thinned your forces to a fraction of what they were and you continue to lie and threaten us! You will never again set foot in this land – this is Freedom’s country now! FREEDOM!
*With that, an uproar fills the Freedom base. Moments later, the Military loses its cool and begins shooting in all directions – but before they can do any real damage, an unknown force flanks them from behind and opens fire, killing a large portion of the ground forces outside in seconds.
Freedom RPGers in the buildings immediately fill the air with a full volley of RPGs. Chaos ensues in the base as gunfire, rockets, explosions, and yelling fill the air.
Phantom, cut off by Special Forces in front of HQ, decides instead to rush into the vehicle hangar and see the result of Freedom’s efforts in repairing the vehicles inside*
[Unknown [incoming]]: Freedom HQ – this is the neutral force. We have exterminated all Military reinforcements beyond the base; we will hold the perimeter as your purge your system.
Gremlin [incoming]: Roger that. Keep the skies clear.
*Phantom enters the vehicle hangar in search of any toys to play with. After about a minute of checking under tarps, he looks to the back of the room and sees, to his glee, a newly repaired tank.*
Phantom: Come to daddy…
*Phantom starts up the tank and it comes to life with a roar. He checks all onboard systems for functionality. To his added pleasure, he finds that the auto-mated shell loader is currently online and carrying active shells.
The tank rolls forward steadily with an eager growl from the treads. The tank exits the warehouse, and greets the outdoors with a friendly roar. All unoccupied Stalkers look over in either excitement or horror.
Phantom swivels the turret around, seeking his first target. A Special Forces squad is positioned near a barricade near Freedom HQ, pinning down a Freedom force behind a barricade down range. Phantom rolls up behind the Freedom force and allows the Military to look down the barrel of his turret.*
Phantom *in an accent*: Say hello to my little friend!
*He lets a shell loose while the Special Forces attempt to jump out of the way*
*The barricade breaks into a millions pieces, including a few body parts. The Freedom Stalkers nearby cheer, some jumping up and down or mock-worshipping the tank. Several Freedom Stalkers within Freedom HQ stop what they’re doing and gather at the windows to find the source of the loud noise nearby.
Phantom rolls on, seeking his next target.*
Phantom: Come on, I need something worth my time…
*Target acquired; the remaining APCs in the base gather up the last of the Military forces for a full retreat.*
Phantom: Stick this in your pipe and smoke it!
*A trailing APC takes a direct hit, exploding into a fireball and shooting up into the air, flipping end-over-end like a flaming pancake. Another cheer from the Stalkers nearby.
The Freedom squads mop up the resistance as the tank rolls down the main road, “escorting” the Military out of the base.
A grin spreads across Phantom’s face as he cues his radio:*
Phantom [to speaker]: Leaving so soon? How about a going away present?
*The Freedom base goes wild with anticipation at what could possibly happen.*
Phantom [to speaker]: From the Zone, with love!
*A high-yield explosive shell leaves the tube, soaring through the air in the direction of the escaping APCs*
*The Freedom Stalkers assume cover behind anything they can find and stretch out to see the fate of their aggressors.*
Freedom Stalkers: Ohhhhh…!
*The shell continues to soar through the air, arcing into the path of the APCs.*
Freedom Stalkers: OHHHHH…!
*The shell lands, sending a large shockwave rocketing towards the base and creating a massive fireball that covers the area north of the base. 2/3 of the remaining forces are immediately incinerated, sending parts flying over the area and creating intense heat throughout the base*
*The Freedom Stalkers lose all sense of control, and burst into cheering, weeping, and shouting. They jump onto the tank and open the hatch to reveal the main responsible for the light show. Phantom emerges from the top of the tank in the arms of his fellow Freedomers.
He raises his weapon in the air and yells:*
Phantom: FREEDOM!!!
Freedom Stalkers: FREEDOM!!!
*Bullets fill the air from the rifles of the ecstatic Freedom forces as they carry Phantom to Freedom HQ. Gremlin and the rest of the officers within Freedom stand at the door. When Gremlin spots Phantom he rushes into the crowd and helps him down.*
Gremlin *shouting*: Once again, we have thwarted our ex-comrades plans to exterminate our presence in the Zone – and we sealed it with our blood, sweat, and tears!
*The Freedom Stalkers cheer again, and more gunshots echo through the sky*
Gremlin *shouting*: We have once again shown them that we are stronger than them! To live out our lives in their mistakes and remain triumphant gives no greater victory!
*More cheers and gunfire*
Gremlin *shouting*: Freedom from oppression! Freedom from the lies! Freedom for the Zone!
Freedom Stalkers: FREEDOM FOR US!
Gremlin *shouting*: Secure the base and bring out the booze. We’re gonna drink until we piss pure Vodka!
*The Stalkers cheer one final time, loud and long, Then, they divide into groups and see to the cleanup and refortification of the base.*
*Gremlin and Phantom, along with the rest of the Freedom officers, head back into the command center.*
Phantom: Gremlin! I thought you were dead!
Gremlin: If you’ve learned anything about me as a friend so far, it should have been that nothing stands between me and Freedom.
Phantom *laughs*: Yeah… I should have known. At any rate, I’m happy to see you alive.
Gremlin: And you. But we have things to discuss… let’s go to my office.

{End excerpt}