Chapter 11: Freedom

*Virtue, Nimbus, and Enigma sift through dense bushes and tall grass, going deeper into the Red Forest. They say nothing, listening to the sounds around them. There seems to be a lot of animal life around them and many strange sounds echo throughout the forest. Enigma looks around constantly for any anomalies while Virtue and Nimbus watch for any other danger*
Enigma: We’re approaching the barrier.
*As they draw closer, the invisible wall of the barrier starts to turn a dim blue. The Compass artifact begins illuminating the wall in front of them.*
Nimbus: It’s huge...
Enigma: Yeah. As you can see it’s composed mostly of smaller anomalies. It’s just a matter of finding a path through them that leads to the outside – the Compass artifact should so that.
Virtue: How does it lead us?
Enigma: I’m not sure.
*The Stalkers wait for anything to happen, the sounds of the forest around them make them feel constantly in danger with a large barrier of crushing anomalies right next to them*
Virtue: Maybe we need to move around a little bit, until it locates a path.
Enigma: It’s worth a shot, let’s go this way.
*The Stalkers proceed along the edge of the barrier, watching for any change in the Compass artifact. They walk for some time with no results.*
Enigma: Nothing.
Nimbus: Damn. How are we supposed to find a way out?
*Before Enigma can answer, a loud, human-like yell cuts him off. The wildlife nearby responds with chirps, grunts, and some indistinguishable sounds.*
Nimbus: What was that?
*Enigma holds up one hand in silence and sweeps the area with his headlamp.*
Enigma: We should be careful; the last thing we want is to attract unwanted attention while we’re trying to find a way out of here. Let’s keep tracing the barrier, something tells me the answer lies further in.
Nimbus: Why was I afraid of that?
Enigma: I don’t like it any more than you do, but I feel drawn to it. The artifact seems to be leading me in some way… I don’t know how to describe it. Call it instinct.
*Virtue and Nimbus follow behind Enigma, gripping their weapons tightly as they listen to the strange sounds around them. Another yell/roar stops them in their tracks.*
Nimbus: What *is* that?
*Something moves rapidly through the bushes nearby*
Enigma: Something’s coming. Get ready!
*The sound in the bushes stops and is exchanged with claws on bark.*
Nimbus: Is it… climbing a tree?
*The clawing stops, leaving the Stalkers in silence. They scan the trees with their headlamps for any sign of the source of the noise. Then, from somewhere above, the leaves rustle for one brief moment. The Stalkers towards the noise just in time to see a large creature pounce on Enigma, and soar back into the trees above. Enigma fires his pistol as he is carried off into the trees.
Virtue and Nimbus stare at the treetops as Enigma disappears into the distance, not daring to react and not really knowing how.*
*Another rustle sounds from nearby and they swivel again. Another creature leaps from halfway up a tree trunk, knocking Nimbus to the ground. He yells and opens fire with his shotgun. The creature knocks it from his arms with a roar, then leaps into the trees and follows after his accomplice.*
*Virtue is left alone in the woods*
Virtue *whispering*: What… the… fuck…
*He scans the area for any more of the creatures, expecting an attack at any time… but it never comes.*
Virtue *to self*: Shit… now what do I do? What the hell were those things?
*Virtue picks up Nimbus’ shotgun and slings his rifle over his back.*
Virtue *to self*: Nimbus would hate to lose this, plus I may need the firepower this thing carries.
*Virtue stands still as a statue for a time, never feeling as vulnerable in his entire life. Finally, after what seems like hours, he decides to take the first step out of his concrete mold and head in the direction of the bizarre creatures.*

{Excerpt from Jargon’s PDA}

*Jargon and Zombie arrive back at Sakharov’s bunker, after leaving Zombie’s house to the north. Jargon presses the button outside the door to signal a visitor.*
Jargon: Sakharov, open up! It’s Jargon and Zombie.
Sakharov: Impossible. Jargon is dead.
Jargon: I’m right here, old friend.
Zombie: It’s true, he survived X16.
Sakharov: *psht* And who are you supposed to be? Zombie? Zombie sounds nothing like you… you might want to work on a better impersonation before you try to pull the wool over an old man’s eyes. The two of you better get lost before you attract too much attention and become zombie food.
Jargon: Oh for God sakes, just turn on your camera.
Sakharov: The blowout broke the lens, it’s inoperable.
Jargon: And what if I’m not Jargon? Do you think I’m going to rob you? Kill you?
Sakharov: I don’t know where your allegiances lie, you might.
*Jargon throws his hands up in the air and mutters under his breath*
Jargon: Professor, don’t be a fool! If I knew you were always going to be this stubborn I would have given you some secret code to let you know it was me when I first met you back in ’86.
Sakharov: ’86?
Jargon: Yes, back in the lab at Chernobyl! I could be in the same as you for hours and still startle you with the slightest sudden movement or noise.
*Jargon laughs*
Jargon: Man those were the good times. We were so young then… that was when we still had our families within our grasps.
*The door clicks on swings open*
*Sakharov’s voice is a mix of laughter and tears*
Sakharov: Get in here you delinquent old man!
*Jargon walks proudly into the bunker and walks immediately through the door marked “Private” next to the room with the counter where Sakharov works all day. He walks to where Sakharov is standing and lets him take in that he is the real Jargon. The Professor’s eyes fill with tears.
Sakharov: I… Phantom told me you had died in the lab! I couldn’t believe it… the mission… your findings… all our experiences… the times we had… I couldn’t… you couldn’t…
Jargon: Stop rambling and get over here.
*Sakharov walks up to Jargon and the two heartily embrace. Sakharov sobs a little as Jargon’s eyes well with tears*
Jargon: You’re my oldest and dearest friend… and the only one who manages to stay alive in this place. I couldn’t give that up because a bunch of zombies wanted me dead. Besides, I have a mission to complete.
*Sakharov composes himself and smiles through his tears*
Sakharov: Yes! The mission! I knew you wouldn’t let me down, dear friend. What did you manage to find in that old lab?
Jargon: Some things that the former Soviet Republic would like to see remain forgotten. Take a look.
*Jargon unzips his backpack and tosses a stack of papers onto a table nearby, the papers fan out as they land. The Professor glances over and raises an eyebrow as he approaches the table. He rummages through the documents, picking a few up for closer inspection. The more he reads the more his eyes widen.*
*Jargon leans against the door frame as Zombie leans over the counter outside the room to get a look at the documents.*
Sakharov: This is… this is incredible! This shows the purpose of the devices in X16… all of them are stamped and approved by the Soviet government.
Jargon: Juicy stuff ain’t it? It confirms everything I’ve suspected over the years.
Sakharov: Yes, I believe it does! This goes into detail about many experiments that have taken place in that Lab, many of them with some questionable applications.
Jargon: I think we’ve seen first-hand the result of the “applications”.
Sakharov: So… the emission… the zombies… all of them are under the control of someone or something.
Zombie: Dmytro.
Sakharov: Who?
Jargon: We encountered someone on our expedition into the lab…
Sakharov: Oh… you mean “the voice”? Phantom explained it briefly when he passed through here.
Jargon: Yes, that’s right. He claimed to have some degree of that control over the zombies in the area. He must be tied in remotely to that lab somehow to be able to be able to operate the facility.
Sakharov: How do you know he was not there in the lab?
Jargon: We were all over that place, including a few “sealed” places thanks to a little structural damage. That facility was deserted, besides the obvious inhabitants – and nobody could survive outside Yantar, even without the constant threat of zombies the contamination levels are too high.
Sakharov: Yes, I suppose it is an undesirable place to set up base anywhere other than right next to entrance where we are now.
Jargon: There are several large antennae outside the lab that he could use to achieve such a goal.
*Sakharov continues to thumb through the documents, entranced with all the findings*
Jargon: There was one more thing we managed to recover.
Sakharov: Oh?
*Jargon reaches back into his backpack and pulls out a small, shiny orb. The professor’s eyes light up with excitement.*
Jargon: I found this down in the lab. I dunno who left it there but I thought you might like to see it.
Sakharov: *Most* excellent!
*The professor handles the artifact*
Sakharov: I’ll run some tests on it after I’m done sorting through these documents. Thank you, friend – you’ve made an old man very happy today.
Jargon: It’s always my pleasure.
*Jargon pats the professor on the back*
Jargon: Now, we need to talk about the status of the mission. Who all made it back?
*The professor pauses and thinks. He reluctantly speaks:*
Sakharov: I’m afraid Phantom is the only one I’ve seen before you.
Jargon: Nobody else made it?
Sakharov: No. I have not heard any word for more than a day now.
*Jargon looks distant as he ponders what to do next*
Jargon: I’ll give you our full casualty report tonight. In the meantime, I need to discuss some things with Zombie.
*Sakharov looks over at Zombie in front of the counter*
Sakharov: You didn’t sound like yourself at the door.
Zombie: I’ve had a bit of a… Let’s just say the whole experience has brought me back down to earth a little bit.
Sakharov: Well, it is certainly a pleasant change to hear you speak in terms I can understand! Anyway…  I will await your report tonight. Thank you for the information, I’d rather not talk about the casualties until later, so do not bring it up until then.
Jargon: I understand. Just know that you will not have to put my name on that list until the Man upstairs decides my mission is complete.
Sakharov: I will keep that in mind. As always, make yourselves at home – I am glad to offer that to you once again.
Jargon: Thank you, Sakharov.
*Sakharov nods, then clasps his hands behind his back and walks back to the table with the documents on top of it.*

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}
*Phantom walks into the basement of Freedom HQ with Gremlin. As they enter, everyone in the room stands up, clapping and cheering.*
Lukash: Three cheers for the men of the hour!
*The Freedom Stalkers cheer again while some Stalkers gather at the top of the basement to see what’s going on.*
Gremlin: Thank you, everyone. I’m sorry for my delay in getting here; the last mission was a little rough.
*Gremlin glances over at Phantom with a smirk.*
Gremlin: I’ll let Lukash do what needs to be done from here; I’ve got some things to discuss with my friend here.
Lukash: Understood sir. I’ll take care of everything.
*Gremlin leads Phantom back upstairs to the second floor of the building. Stalkers along the way pat them on the back and cheer as they pass, but most are still outside and too busy setting up for a long night of celebration to notice the heroes going upstairs.*
*Gremlin enters his office and plops down in his chair while Phantom takes a couch on the other side of the room. The two are quiet while Gremlin clasps his hands behind his head and basks in the thrill of victory as the sound of pre-party excitement from the Stalkers outside blows in through his window.*
Gremlin: Ahh… what a wonderful breeze we’re having tonight.
Phantom: …
Gremlin: Oh come on, you practically fought the Military off single-handedly! You of all people should appreciate the excitement in the air right now.
Phantom: You motherfucker.
Gremlin: Excuse me?
Phantom: Your little stunt may have impressed your little friends, but you about gave me a fucking heart attack!
Gremlin: I’m sorry… I didn’t exactly have time to find you and tell you I was here with the shit that was going on.
Phantom: Oh don’t give me that. You could have done something to let me know before you came on that speaker like the returning Messiah. I was probably the last one to know you were here… and still alive for that matter.
*Gremlin sits up in his desk.*
Gremlin: You’re right. You’re absolutely right. While we’re on the subject of leaving friends out of the loop, why aren’t you with the rest of the group in Yantar?
Phantom: Zombie and I were the only ones that made it out alive besides Virtue and Nimbus – and they ran the other direction after a fucking blowout hit us.
*Gremlin takes in the new information*
Gremlin: You didn’t answer my question.
*Phantom throws up his hands in disgust*
Phantom: Mission fucking complete, *captain*! I dumped my information on that old prune, put up with the last bit of bullshit from Zombie I ever will, and then got the hell out on my way to the center. I just passed the Bar when I got the call from Freedom, I couldn’t ignore it.
Gremlin: The mission is not complete. Those men we lost out there are irreplaceable – and if they’re still alive, we need to find them.
Phantom: I’m sorry. I guess I’m just not in the mood to sacrifice myself for anyone when other people can just throw away their lives so recklessly.
Gremlin: I did what I had to do. If I hadn’t run down that tunnel with those mutants on me, we would have had them to deal with along with whatever else. Oh, and I’m fine, by the way.
Phantom *sighs*: We I guess we both did what we had to. After you left I assumed control of the mission and I did salvage it as much as possible. I just wish I could have salvaged it a little bit more…
Gremlin: Hey… I’m sure you did the best you could. If it had been anyone else, I doubt anyone would have made it out.
Phantom: Thanks.
Gremlin: It’s good to see you though.
Phantom: It’s good to see you too, brother.
*Phantom stands up and offers his hand to Gremlin. Gremlin accepts, and pulls him in for the real deal. The two give a quick hug and let out a much-needed sigh as their consciences are cleared.*
Gremlin: Look, we have some loose ends to tie up and we will tie them up… but we just gave the Military a kick in the ass!
*Phantom lets out a laugh*
Phantom: Yeah, I guess we did, didn’t we?
Gremlin: You bet your balls! And you… you pulled out the fucking tank?
Phantom: I was just using whatever options were open to me at the time.
Gremlin: I got video of the damage you did to them, I’m going to be watching that for days. That last explosion…. BOOM! It was like a giant foot up their asses as they were running with their tails between their legs!
*The two friends burst out laughing until they are holding their sides in pain*
Phantom: Why the hell are we cooped up in here? There’s a party in our honor right out those windows!
Gremlin: I was just waiting for you to come out of the closet after that awkward hug you gave me…
Phantom: Shut the hell up.
*The two laugh again and head downstairs together. They both step outside together, the sun shining down on them like a spotlight. The Stalkers in the base notice them and start crowding around them, yelling and cheering.*
Gremlin: Aw shit, here we go!
*Kegs start rolling towards them from a building nearby as other Stalkers start hauling out crates of hard alcohol of all kinds from other buildings.*
Phantom: Shit… how much did we get on the last raid?
Gremlin: Not nearly enough it seems….
*The kegs form a pyramid next to Gremlin and Phantom and the beer starts flowing*
[Unknown]: I hoped you guys packed extra underwear. You’re both on a non-stop flight to Happyville.
[Unknown 2]: Yeah – where you two are going, all of the woman look like Jessica Alba!
*The crowd laughs and starts downing alcohol like it’s their last drink on earth. Lines of cups filled with various alcoholic substances pile up next to Gremlin and Phantom in anticipation*
*Gremlin raises his cup in cheers to everyone*
Gremlin: To the baddest motherfuckers in the entire world – and the best fighters I’ve ever served with.
*The crowd raises their cups in cheers and drink together. Moments later, music starts blaring from an unknown source nearby and the party begins.*
Gremlin: Ahh… that’s some good shit.
Phantom: You said it; I wonder what’s in these?
Gremlin: If I find they’ve put drugs in mine again I’ll be pissed.
*The two talk amongst themselves while the watching the shenanigans taking place in the base. Crowds have formed in the streets and various forms of dancing are taking place as the music plays. Tables and chairs are arrayed around the side streets and grassy areas outside where drinking games and loud discussion are commencing. A football game is taking place elsewhere in the base and is quickly attracting the attention of nearby fans.*
*Radio static from an unknown source*
[Unknown]: Phantom… need you… Zombie’s house… Sakharov… mission…
Gremlin: What was that?
Phantom: I don’t know - it sounded like it came from my PDA.
Phantom [outgoing]: Hello?
[Unknown [incoming]]: Sakharov… mission… come quickly.
Gremlin: Come quickly? Something about Sakharov?
Phantom [outgoing]: Who is this?
[Unknown [incoming]]: Completed mission… Virtue and Nimbus missing… bunker… in danger… answers.
*Gremlin stands up*
Gremlin: Something concerning the mission – I think it’s time we headed back to Yantar.
Phantom: I think you’re right – I just checked the incoming transmission logs; the message was broadcasted on Jargon’s PDA frequency.
Gremlin: Who got a hold of his PDA? How?
Phantom: That voice could have been two people I know: Sakharov… or Jargon himself.
Gremlin: Start packing, I need to go see Lukash about some things then we’ll leave.
Phantom: I’m on it. I’ll meet you in front of HQ.

{End Excerpt}

*Virtue walks aimlessly as the minutes turn to hours. The forest is hauntingly dark and paranoia builds the longer he travels.*
Virtue: Get a hold of yourself, Yuriy. Stay on your toes and aim for the head.
*After what seems and endless stretch of the same trees and bushes, he finally sees a change in scenery – an open, misty clearing ahead.*
Virtue: What’s this? Some sort of bog?
*He steps into the damp ground, his boots squishing in the mud. Then, to his horror, he shines his headlamp on his wet boots and sees that the substance is not water… but blood.*
Virtue: What is this? What the fuck?
*He takes a few steps backwards, every squish sending a ripple through the blood-soaked ground and making him sick.*
Virtue: I… I’m gonna hurl…
*He leans against a tree nearby and steadies himself, taking deep breaths.*
Virtue: Just breathe… focus…
*A moan comes from nearby*
*Virtue swivels around into a low crouch, weapon at the shoulder.
*He waits a few moments, seeing nothing around him.*
*The moan comes again, further away this time.*
*Virtue waits again, then heads in the direction of the main, deeper into the forest.*
*The ground is still wet with blood and it takes him every ounce of control to not stop and vomit. He continues toward the noise while his boots squish in the bloody ground beneath him. As he continues, he notices that the trees themselves are starting to turn into a reddish color.*
Virtue: I guess that’s why they call it the “Red Forest” huh?
*The deeper he goes, the redder the trees and plants nearby get. The area looks and smells like a bog, but the blood in place of what would normally be water makes it extremely nauseating and gruesome to look at, let alone tread through.*
Virtue: This is disgusting… why is there so much blood?
*The moaning continues to lead him further into the bloody bog, and, to his hope; Nimbus and Enigma. The blood level rises as he goes until he is literally wading through blood.*
Virtue: Oh God… I can’t take this anymore.
*Virtue stops where he is and holds his stomach, unable to keep back what little contents are inside. He dry heaves a few times and spits up stomach acid. After a few heaves, something takes notice and moans nearby.*
Virtue: You got me where you want me you motherfucker… I’m in the middle of a blood-filled bog, sick and about to hurl… get out here and see what happens!
Nimbus: V… Virtue?
Virtue: Nimbus? Is that you?
Nimbus *coughs*: Yeah… I’m up here…
*Virtue looks up to see Nimbus wrapped around a large limb in a tree above him.*
Virtue: Nimbus! What happened?
Nimbus: I wish I could tell you. Some creature with massive strength carried me all the way here – jumping from tree to tree then entire way. I didn’t get a good look at it, but it looked kinda like a Bloodsucker.
Virtue: Is Enigma with you?
Nimbus: I don’t know where he went… that other creature took him further in somewhere. As soon as that creature got here, it hit me in the face and I passed out.
*Nimbus turns his head, revealing 3 massive claw marks covering the right half of his face.*
Virtue: Shit, he got you good – are you ok?
Nimbus: It stings like hell, but I think I’m ok.
Virtue: So he just dropped you off and left?
Nimbus: Basically yeah… is that blood you’re standing in?
Virtue: Yes, something about this place is very, very wrong. It’s been like this for nearly 100 meters now.
Nimbus: The leaves in this tree are red like blood too… and the plants around it too.
Virtue: We need to find Enigma and get out of here. Do you have any which direction he might have been taken in?
Nimbus: Before I blacked out I think I saw the other creature stop somewhere south of here.
Virtue: Good enough for me. Let me help you down.
*Virtue climbs up to the branch where Nimbus is and holds out his arm for Nimbus to grab on to. The branch cracks under the added weight and breaks, sending the two falling with a splash in the pool below.*
*Nimbus cuts the surface first and lets out a sickening scream.*
Nimbus: Virtue!
*Virtue breaks second and lets out a similar scream.*
Virtue: Please tell me it was you that grabbed me down there.
*Before Nimbus can answer, the sunken bodies of countless individuals surface throughout the pond. They have all been completely stripped of skin and muscle, leaving only bone and clothing.*
Nimbus: What the fuck is this? What happened to them?!
Virtue: I don’t know, but I really want to get the hell out of this bog now.
*The Stalkers frantically wade through the blood now filled with the floating bodies of skinned men and possibly women. After a short swim though the pool of hell, they emerge on “dry” land on the other side of the pool.*
Nimbus: What the fuck, man? What the FUCK?!
*Vomit projects out of Nimbus mouth, painting a nearby plant.*
*Virtue holds his stomach in, trying desperately to prevent a second wave of nausea.*
Virtue: Enigma was right; this place is evil. I can feel it now.
Nimbus: Let’s just get out of here – the sooner the better… this way.
Virtue: Here, I thought you might want this back.
*Virtue tosses Nimbus his weapon puts his new rifle back into action.*
Nimbus: Oh thank you… I thought I had lost it. I’d hate to go anywhere in here without it.
*The Stalkers go quickly, but cautiously, through the blood-red plants in front of them – doing quick checks of the area around them as well as above them. Finally, Nimbus stops in front of another clearing and scans the treetops for any sign of Enigma.*
Virtue: Over there… that’s his helmet.
*The Stalkers rush over to where Enigma’s helmet with bubble face-shield and built-in gas mask lies; separated from its master.*
Virtue: Well, I think we’re close.
*A muffled scream comes from nearby. The Stalkers glance at each other, then run towards the noise.*
Nimbus: Do you think that was him?
Virtue: I can’t tell… I’ve never heard his real voice with that synthesizer he uses.
*The plants and bushes break in their path as they sprint towards the noise. The scream gets louder and louder until it suddenly stops. The Stalkers slow to a stop.*
Nimbus: What happened? Why did it stop?
*In answer to his question, a dark blur swoops out of the treetops and whisks Nimbus away for the second time.*
Nimbus: Heeeeelllppppp meeeeee…
*Before Virtue can give pursuit, another blur comes out of nowhere, sweeping him off his feet and carrying him through the treetops.*
Nimbus: Virrrrrtuuuuuuue!
Virtue: Hang on! I’m right beside you!
*The two are carried across a few more trees until they are abruptly thrown to the ground. They fall to the ground, which is surprisingly soft and absorbs their falls.*
*They groan, and spread their arms and legs to attempt to grip the springy earth beneath them, opening their eyes slowly as they do.*
Nimbus *groans*: My head… I can’t take any more of this.
*Virtue stands up and analyzes the strange surface below them. He steps on it a few times and notices it springs back into place instantly.*
Nimbus: What did we land in?
Virtue: I don’t know… but it seems to go back into place after I step on it.
*The muffled scream comes again, from directly behind them. The Stalkers turn slowly, guns at the ready. Enigma is behind them, wrapped in some sort of cocoon embedded in a wall. Everything but his face is completely covered, allowing the Stalkers to see the man within for the first time – pale white skin, and no facial hair.*
Virtue: Enigma! What is this? What happened to you?
*The Stalkers approach the cocoon containing Enigma and peel the cover off of his mouth.*
Enigma *in a raspy voice*: We need to get out of here… they’re going to kill us…
Virtue: What’s going to kill us?
*The wall next to the cocoon twitches and it looks as if something is moving beneath the surface of the stretchy material. Then, to their horror, a shape starts to emerge from the material. The shape moves out from the surface and begins taking from.*
Nimbus: It’s… it’s a…
*The form evolves a head, which looks up at them with dead, blood-shot eyes. The head continues to stare at them as its arms evolve out of the center of its form, revealing the upper half of a human body.*
*The Stalkers freeze, unsure of how to react.*
*The head grins maniacally with a tooth-less smile, then roars at them – startling them enough to send them sprawling backwards onto the ground.*
*As they try to get up, an extremely large arm suddenly forms in the surface below them, hitting them both in the chest and slamming them back onto the ground. They struggle to free themselves as more arms form in the surface near them, grapping onto their arms and legs.*
*Nimbus screams in horror as he reaches for the trigger on his shotgun, which is now covered in human arms.*
*One of the arms goes flying off and there is a loud scream of pain from the wall nearby. As the Stalkers look beyond the wall they see a large mass of the substance covering a hill beyond. At the top of the hill, is a sight that can only be described as nightmarish.*
*A mass of human flesh and muscle, obviously the reason for the dead bodies in the pools of blood and the true identity of the substance surrounding them, and at the top of the hill; a tangled assortment of human bodies - all deprived of bones, joined as one giant mass. The flesh appears to be a dark brown/grey - hardened and decaying, like the flesh of many human-based mutants in the Zone.*
*Nimbus fires again, blowing off the unfortunate head of some forming body nearby.*
*The Omni-body cries out in pain, as do some of the torsos forming nearby. The cry sounds like a hundred voices mixed together, the torsos next to them sounding as human as if they were still attached to their bones back in the bog.*
*Virtue reaches for his weapon but it is snatched out of his hand by a nearby torso, who then roars at him and spits in his face. Other torsos nearby also begin spitting, generating more saliva than should be natural for a human body.*
Nimbus: What the hell are they doing?!
*As the torsos salivate on the Stalkers, they begin passing them towards the omni-body.*
Virtue: It looks like they’re lubricating us… I think we’re next on the menu.
*The Stalkers start to panic as they are passed through a sea of torsos. Nimbus holds his shotgun tight to his body and doesn’t allow any of the reaching arms to grab a hold of it.*
*The torsos of the mutant humans twist and mock the Stalkers as they are passed down the line. They look like zombies, but there seems to be an intelligence driving them.*
*Nimbus starts to lose it and breaks down, cuddling his shotgun like a teddy bear.*
Nimbus: Oh God help us… oh God…
*Virtue starts to reassure him but the words do not come. The scene before him is nothing short of his worst nightmare “in the flesh”. They continue to move towards the mass as an array of body parts greets them and speeds them along. Finally, they reach the mass and look up in horror. Whole human torsos and body parts stick out from every direction, like a garbage heap. All eyes, wherever they may be, focus on the Stalkers with lust.*
Nimbus: Oh my God… what are they doing? Oh my God…
*The large arms holding them down lifts itself off of them while a tangle of human torsos, arms, and legs holds Virtue in place. The long arm reaches for Nimbus and picks him up.
*Nimbus kicks and screams*
*A large mouth (or compilation of smaller mouths) opens up in the mass ahead of him with the same toothless grin as the first torso. The arm shovels him towards the mouth.*
*Nimbus screams bloody murder, and unloads every round in his shotgun within a couple of seconds.*
*The Omni-body twitches and shakes in pain as the large mouth and the mouths on all the torsos nearby scream in pain again. Blood shoots out of the mass, re-painting the ground around it.*
*Enigma, still in the flesh-cocoon, is being passed along the torsos and body parts and nearing the Stalkers.*
Virtue: Nimbus!
Nimbus *screaming* What?
Virtue: Listen to me! We need to free Enigma – he’s still wrapped in that cocoon and has no way of fighting back. We need to get him out or he’s done for! Do you understand?!
Nimbus: Yes… yes… what do I need to do?
Virtue: Use this knife to cut through the cocoon. Throw your shotgun over here and I’ll reload it while you do that.
Nimbus: O…OK…
Virtue: NOW, Nimbus!
*Virtue tosses Nimbus his knife. Nimbus catches it and throws his shotgun to Virtue, along with a box of shells.*
*The torsos and body parts continually yell and moan at the Stalkers, slapping them around - disorienting them.*
Enigma: My weapon… on my back. Free me.
Nimbus: I’m working on it man, hold on!
*The cocoon approaches Nimbus. As it goes by, he thrusts hard, causing a huge gash to form in the side.*
*The mouths scream and Nimbus is repeatedly slammed into the ground by the long arm.
Nimbus: Vir… tue… blacking… out…
Virtue: Throw the knife over!
*Nimbus drops the knife as close to virtue as possible, but misses. A nearby arm catches the knife, and holds it tightly.*
*Virtue pulls out his sidearm and shoots the arm near the wrist, forcing the hand open. The knife is released and Virtue grabs it, finishing the gash as the cocoon passed by him on the way to the large mouth.*
*The mouths scream again and throw him into the air, knocking him against a branch in a tree above him and holding him there.*
*Virtue watches in horror as the cocoon enters the mouth, and is consumed.*
*A satisfied moan leaves the mouth and the mouths of the torsos attached and around it.*
*Nimbus is slowly guided into the mouth behind Enigma, completely out of Virtue’s reach.*
Virtue: NO DAMN YOU! NO!
*Suddenly, the sound of muffled gunfire sounds from near the mouth. The mouth and torsos flail in pain. The mouth opens and lets out a loud cry, and as it opens, ejects the freed Enigma out in a stream of blood and saliva. As Enigma leaves the inside of the creature, he hurls a grenade inside with all his strength.*
*Seconds later, the grenade explodes, severing the top half of the Omni-body from the lower half. Blood rains over the area as the torsos along the fleshy surface scream and flail in pain, reaching across the surface as if trying to sever themselves from the rest of the flesh to escape the pain.*
*The Stalkers are released as the torsos and body parts along the surface flail in agony and begin to disappear back under the surface.*
Virtue: Nimbus! Enigma! Are you ok?!
*Virtue runs over to Nimbus, who is closest, stepping on the partly-submerged faces of the creature as they rejoin the main body.*
Nimbus *moaning*: Can we stop wandering into places with pools of blood and mutant plants in them?
*Virtue attempts to laugh*
Virtue: Sure thing, I’ll try to avoid them from now on. Come on; let’s make sure Enigma is ok.
*The Stalkers approach the exhausted, mutant flesh-covered body of Enigma, who is panting heavily. As they approach he holds up a hand*
Enigma: Wait!
*The Stalkers stop in their tracks.*
Enigma: My helmet… where is it?
Nimbus: It’s just back that way a little, let’s go get it.
Enigma: NO! I mean, no… I’ll go get it.
Virtue: I don’t think you should go alone considering what we’ve seen and been through so far.
Enigma: It’ll only take a minute.
Nimbus: Hey – you’re bleeding.
*Nimbus goes over to take a look under Enigma’s shirt. Enigma rolls over and pulls out his sidearm.*
Enigma: I’m fine!
Virtue: No, you’re not fine. We came all this way to find you, let us help you.
*Enigma stares at them with his pistol still drawn. After a few seconds he surrenders and pulls off a large piece of the mutated flesh that is still attached to his head. The Stalkers eyes go wide in amazement.*
Nimbus: Dude… you… you’re…!
Virtue: … a woman?

{Excerpt from Jargon’s PDA}

*Jargon and Zombie search through the thick foliage near the wooded area west of Yantar where Zombie last saw Virtue and Nimbus.*
Zombie: Do you think Phantom got your message?
Jargon: I can’t say for sure. The Professor’s antennae is extremely strong, but he could be anywhere by now. I fear that he may even be headed for the center of the Zone as we speak.
*The Stalkers check for places likely to go during the intensity of a blowout. They search around for hours with no leads on where their missing companions might have gone.*
Zombie: We’ve been out here for hours… we should have at least found their remains by now. If they survived, why wouldn’t they go back to Yantar?
Jargon: Maybe they did and became mutant food.
Zombie: We’ve searched everywhere within the radius they would have been in given the timeframe allowed by the blowout… they’re not out here.
Jargon: You’re right. As much as I hate to do it, I think we need to assume they didn’t make it.
*As the Stalkers head back to Yantar, they pass by on overhang off to their left. Jargon pauses and stares intently at it.*
Zombie: What is it?
Jargon: There’s something strange over there.
*The Stalkers climb to the tip of the overhang, where Jargon pauses again.*
Jargon: We are standing on top of an anomaly – the sort of which I have not seen in a long time.
Zombie: What kind of anomaly is it?
Jargon: A teleportation anomaly. It has the ability to teleport a living being to its second “mouth” elsewhere in the Zone. I’ve seen one of these only once before this one.
Zombie: Where did it lead?
Jargon: The dead city of Limansk.
Zombie: *The* Dead City?
Jargon: The same. I believe they could have accidentally fallen into this while escaping the blowout.
Zombie: I suppose it’s possible, but we’ll never know unless we enter… and as I recall, those who enter, never return – hence the name.
*Jargon looks around the edge of the overhang for a little while, deep in thought. Finally, his eyes settle on a specific patch of ground and he crouches down.*
Jargon: Here’s our proof.
*He holds up a small patch that has been custom-made for a specific Stalker:*
Zombie:  Nimbus…
Sakharov: They both must have gone through the anomaly… possibly to their dooms. We should return to Sakharov immediately, he might be able to use these scans of the anomaly to locate the exit point. Once we confirm that, we might be able to send a message to them.
Zombie: I like that better than calling them dead. Let’s go.
*The Stalkers return to Ecologist bunker, and enter after Jargon gives the professor the new “entry code”.*
Jargon: Open up you old fool.
Sakharov: Welcome back, Jargon and Zombie.
*The door clicks and swings open. The Stalkers enter and approach the counter.*
Zombie: You know I’m sure other people would probably use the same phrase at some point in time, considering how paranoid you are against intruders.
Sakharov: Perhaps, but my memory is not what it used to be and I might forget if we change it now…
Jargon *whispers*: Don’t bother, I already tried…
Jargon: We know what happened to our boys.
*Jargon presents the patch to the Professor, then puts it back in one of his pockets.*
Sakharov: Where did you find it?
Jargon: At the edge of an overhang, right above an anomaly.
*The Professor looks dismayed*
Sakharov: Oh… I’m very sorry to hear that. I wish that…
Jargon: A Teleportation anomaly.
*The Professor looks up*
Sakharov: Teleportation anomaly? I haven’t heard of one of those since… I can’t recall. Are you sure?
Jargon: I took a scan of it. Hopefully it will tell us where it leads and our boys are alive on the other side.
Sakharov: Yes! Yes… I will get to work on this right away.
*Sakharov takes a flash drive from Jargon’s PDA and returns it to him, then retreats to a computer in the back of the room. After a few minutes, the professor returns to the counter.*
Sakharov: Yes… it seems that the exit point is about 3 kilometers away from Limansk – to the west.
*Jargon thinks to himself*
Jargon: Hmm… 3 kilometers. As I recall there is a lot of danger within 3 kilometers of the city. I explored that area long ago, but a lot has changed since then.
Sakharov: If they did happen to make it to Limansk, I can bounce a signal off of the receiver towers in the area. All they would need to do is respond using any means they can and that would verify that they are still alive.
Jargon: Do it.
*Sakharov walks back to the computer and punches up a map of the area around Limansk. He types in a few things and then presses enter.*
Sakharov: There. If they are anywhere within signal range of those towers, they will get a signal. Now all we can do it wait for a reply…

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}

*Phantom finishes packing some supplies from his room in the base, and heads to the front of Freedom HQ. The sun is beginning to set and the light rays are filtering over the hills to the west. Along the way he passes his drunken comrades, completely wasted at this point. Many are too drunk to notice him and continue with whatever they’re doing, others try to get him to drink but he declines. He reaches the front and waits for Gremlin to finish his task.*
*After a few minutes, Gremlin steps outside. Lukash stands in the doorway behind him and waves him farewell. Another man follows behind and Lukash shoves him out the door. It is the private Phantom spared in the bloodsucker village.*
Phantom: All finished? What is he doing here?
Gremlin *sighs*: Yes. All finished. This is Private Stewart. He is going to assist us on our journey.
Phantom: Assist us? Do you really think that’s a good idea?
Gremlin: We need all the help we can get, and the private was kind enough to offer his services.
Private Stewart: Look… Phantom, right? I really appreciate what you did back there… sparring my life and all. Back in training we were told that you were all just a bunch of savages who would shoot any military on sight…
Phantom: Funny… I don’t remember giving you permission to speak.
Gremlin: Hey… it’s OK. He’s been through an extensive “interview”, he can help us. We’re not getting any help from the Freedom boys tonight – they’re all belligerent by now. Private Stewart has extensive training and sympathy for our cause. Plus a change of company couldn’t be all that bad.
Private Stewart: I signed up for the mission, not the uniform. I knew I would need some training to survive in here, so I got it, and here I am.
*Phantom sighs, resigned to Gremlin’s charismatic and overly-optimistic approach to the situation.*
Phantom: Whatever.
*The three walk in silence, avoiding the drunken crowds as much as possible to avoid attracting too much attention. Eventually, they make it to the gate and the door guards let them through. The doors close behind them and the sounds of the party inside slowly die away. Gremlin and Phantom walk on either side of Private Stewart as they head for the Freedom checkpoint to the south-west.*
Phantom: You got a name, private?
Private Stewart: Jonathan. Jonathan Stewart.
Gremlin: That’s terrible!
*Private Stewart looks at Gremlin inquisitively.*
Gremlin: Not your name itself… though it is painfully American, but you need an alias. Did the Military give you an alias?
Private Stewart: No. It wasn’t exactly a “bonding” experience for me. I didn’t make any friends. My only friend was a deck of cards.
*Gremlin thinks to himself as they continue walking. Then, he raises his head suddenly as if he’s just had an epihpeny.*
Gremlin: Solitaire!
Private Stewart: Yes, I played a lot of solitaire.
Gremlin: But it sounds like “solitary”.
*Private Stewart ponders this.*
Private Stewart: Yes, I suppose it does.
Gremlin: It’s perfect! Don’t you think?
*Private Stewart says the name aloud to himself to himself a few times.*
Private Stewart:  Well I’ll be damned – I like it!
Phantom: Now all that’s left is to go buy him a little pink collar and a feeding dish.
Private Stewart: Do I get a little bell too?
Phantom: Shut up, maggot. An hour ago you stood for everything I despise in my life and now you expect us to just take you in like a wayward son. You better do a lot fucking better than that if you want me to respect you. You smell what I’m cooking… *private*?
Private Stewart: Understood sir. I know my methods are questionable, but I assure you my motives are not.
Gremlin: Oh don’t worry about him, he’ll come around.
*Gremlin laughs to himself*
Gremlin: I just realized I’m a little drunk.
Phantom: …
*Phantom doesn’t bite. Gremlin directs his attention elsewhere.*
Private Stewart *chuckles*: Oh I get it; I’m just the designated driver.
Gremlin: Precisely. So shut up and drive.
Private Stewart *mock salutes*: Yes, *sir*.
*The Stalkers come to the south-west checkpoint where Freedom secretly stores its vehicles for transportation around the Zone.*
[Unknown]: Sir! It’s good to see you, we showed those Military motherfuckers what we…
*The Freedom Stalker stops when he sees Private Stewart.*
Gremlin: Don’t mind him, he’s with us.
[Unknown]: Uh… yes sir. Will you be needing a vehicle?
Gremlin: We’re driving, don’t worry yourself about it. Have a good night.
[Unknown]: Yes sir, you too.
*The Stalkers walk south to the small grotto where Freedom keeps a small warehouse of jeeps and other vehicles for transportation.*
Gremlin: The keys are in the ignition, *Solitaire*.
Private Stewart: Very good, sir.
*Private Stewart starts the ignition while Gremlin and Phantom hop into the back.*
*They start down the road to the Bar. Phantom is the first to break the silence.*
Phantom: What’s gotten into you?
Gremlin: I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.
Phantom: Don’t give me that shit. From the second you got back to base you’ve seemed like an imposter… everything that’s happened with you so far seems extremely fake; like it’s just scripted responses coming out of your mouth. I know bullshit when I smell it, so let’s have it.
*The smirk on Gremlin’s face dies away and he looks serious for the first time the entire day.*
Gremlin: Fine. I resigned my position as leader today.
Phantom You WHAT?!
Gremlin: You head me. Lukash is the leader now.
Phantom: Lukash?! I mean, he’s a good guy and a competent leader… but why would you do such a thing.
*Gremlin punches the seat behind Private Stewart, who looks behind him, concerned.*
Gremlin: Why? WHY?! Because yesterday I realized what kind of a leader I am – reckless, over-confident, foolish! I ran away when I should have been with the rest of the team on that mission! I failed them… I failed myself.
Phantom: Listen to me, and listen well. Had it not been for you, this mission wouldn’t have ever taken place. You had the balls to accept it when nobody else would – and it was worth it. The evidence I gave to Sakharov proves what we thought… the Soviets were behind the Chernobyl explosion.
Gremlin: How much of that information did we actually get out though? We lost half of the team, including 2/3 of the information we recovered! We didn’t succeed at all! Those maps you picked up were just pin-ups for Sakharov’s refrigerator – the real stuff is either buried with the men who died in that hole or lost with Virtue and Nimbus.
Phantom: You can’t blame yourself for that – if that was Jargon on that broadcast that means that he made it out and already gave Sakharov the diagrams of the devices inside the lab.
Gremlin: That may be the case, but it wasn’t through any “help” of mine that he made it out of there.
Phantom: That doesn’t matter. Remember what you said when things got rough during the mission? You always knew the right thing to say and kept us going when it looked hopeless. You knew the abilities of everyone in your group and those who died sacrificed themselves willingly.
Gremlin: Except Jester.
Phantom: Jester was a fool. I’m talking about the rest of the group, the ones who are actually worth a damn. You did what was necessary as a leader and they followed you without question. You were a damn good leader and we never would have made it as far as we had without your guidance.
*Gremlin puts his head in his hands and runs his fingers through his hair*
Gremlin: Maybe you’re right.
*Gremlin lets out a long sigh*
Gremlin: I just can’t help but feel guilty as a leader. You have to be a step ahead of everything and able to react on a whim. You hold the lives of everyone in your hands, knowing that one wrong step could send them to their dooms. When someone dies, you can’t help but asking yourself “what if”. What if I hadn’t told them to go there, or do that, or open that door, or climb into that hole? What if had died and not them, what if I make a mistake?
Phantom: That’s all part of being a leader. You are what I could never be – I’m just a follower. You and other leaders like you do what the rest of the world can’t do by themselves. Anyone can be a leader, but it takes serious guts to be a good one.
*Gremlin looks up and stares off into the sunset.*
Phantom: You’re the best leader I’ve ever known, and I’m honored to have served as your second in command, and I’m honored to be your friend.
*Gremlin looks over at Phantom with the first genuine-looking smile since their reunion.*
Gremlin: Thanks, bro.
*Phantom leans in close and whispers.*
Phantom: But I’m still not sure about this private, I’m not going to pretend I enjoy his company.
Gremlin: You’re right… I don’t know what I was thinking, maybe the booze got to me. But the fact is we do need all the help we can get, nevertheless I was careless in choosing him. He told me his story and I just soaked it all up, figuring he was just going to die anyway so why not?
Phantom: I’m going to walk behind him with my rifle at his back until we get to Yantar.
Gremlin: I can’t say I blame you. I’m sorry I didn’t think the whole thing through.
Phantom: I understand. Just promise me that if he makes one wrong move, I’m the one who gets to blow his military brains on the pavement.
Gremlin: If he betrays my trust, I’ll hold him down for you.
*Private Stewart continues driving, oblivious to anything happening around him. Gremlin speaks up.*
Gremlin: So… “Solitaire”, I don’t believe I asked you about what you plan to do as a new Stalker in the Zone.
*Private Stewart glances in the rear-view mirror, taken off guard.*
Private Stewart: Me? Oh uh… you know, see the sights, breathe the free air. Maybe join with Freedom and hunt some artifacts with you guys.
*He pats Gremlin on the leg for emphasis.*
Phantom: How long have you been planning your little insurrection?
Private Stewart: A few years now – like I said, I’ve been training in the Military for the experience, I never intended on staying in for the long run. I tried to get assigned here so I could just disappear one day. When I heard about the raid coming up, I knew they would add my name to the MIA list and I’d become a free man.
Phantom: Yeah. Takes a real man to bullshit his way through life for a few years to further his own agenda and then assume that everything in his life will just magically fall into place.
* Private Stewart glances up at Phantom in the rear-view mirror and fakes a smile.*
Phantom: Oh I meant no offense – in fact, I like that you pooled the wool over those bastards’ eyes. Those Military scumbags all deserve to die.
Private Stewart: Definitely.
*The Stalkers are awkwardly silent. Then, a grin crosses Phantom’s lips and he looks over at Gremlin with a smirk.*
Phantom: So you said you’ve been learning about the Zone for some time now?
Private Stewart: Oh yes. I’ve done a lot of research on the whole place.
Phantom: Really, you don’t say! Which place is your favorite?
Private Stewart: Uh… I don’t know. The Bar looks pretty interesting. Knowing you guys, you probably go there a lot, right?
*Gremlin looks over at Phantom, a look of curiosity on his face.*
Phantom: Hah… actually no. We got into some trouble there last time… some real heavy *Duty* stuff.
Private Stewart: Oh yeah? Did you get pretty fucked up?
Phantom: You could say that. But hey, how were we supposed to know the guys we were trying to buy drinks for were on *Duty*.
Private Stewart: But this is the Zone! Who cares about duty?
Phantom: I know, right? I mean, it’s not like there are other factions out there gunning for us. Nope, just Freedom and the Military around here.
Private Stewart: You got that right.
*Gremlin’s look of curiosity has changed to shock at what he is hearing. Another awkward pause is broken by Phantom.*
Phantom: Wanna hear something? Gremlin and I have a pretty big bounty on our heads.
Private Stewart: You don’t say.
Phantom: I do. Some lucky guy could make a killing off of turning either one of us in, let alone both at the same time!
*Private Stewart wipes his brow and glances up at the rear-view mirror quickly.*
Private Stewart: R… really?
Phantom: Really!
*The jeep starts to accelerate a little.*
*Phantom leans back and lets the breeze flow over him, pleased with the scene unfolding before him.*
Phantom: So when you join Freedom, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Private Stewart: Oh… you know… just be a part of the team.
Phantom: We’re more than a team – we’re family. Teams are for the Military and football games.
*The jeep accelerates some more.*
Phantom: Say, *private* - how do you know the way to the Bar so well?
* Private Stewart starts to sweat.*
Private Stewart: Lucky guess… I’ve seen some maps.
Phantom: Yeah, back in your briefing room you Military shit!
*The jeep swerves off the road, throwing Gremlin and Phantom against the side of vehicle and out onto the road, stopping in the opposite direction it was traveling in. Private Stewart jumps out of the jeep and starts sprinting with all his might towards the Bar.*
*Phantom and Gremlin shake off their disorientation, and make a mad dash for the private. They slowly gain on the Private, their years of intense experience in the Zone far beyond whatever skills he may possess. Phantom reaches him first and tackles him to the road, slamming his face into the pavement.*
Phantom: Got you, you little shit! Once Military, always Military eh?
Gremlin: What the hell was that all about? Did you take me for a fool?
*Private Stewart raises his head off the pavement and looks back at Gremlin.*
Private Stewart: Yes, actually.
*Phantom slams his head back into the road.*
Phantom: You better shut your fucking mouth, or I’ll make you eat pavement all the way to the Bar.
*Gremlin approaches the downed soldier, searching him for any identification.*
Gremlin: What’s your *real* name, and rank *Private*?
Private Stewart: Fuck you!
*Phantom pulls the private off the pavement and punches him across his bloodied face, then kicks him in the stomach, bending him back into the street in pain.*
*Gremlin pulls out his pistol and whips the Private across the face with it.*
Gremlin: Maybe you don’t understand who you’re FUCKING with! I have no problem ending your miserable life right here! Your kind disgust me – doing whatever the corrupt government wants you to do, killing innocent civilians, and never once thinking for yourselves.
*Phantom kicks the Private again to make sure the point is made.*
Phantom: You’re lower than human, maggot! You’re just a number in a system of numbers – no identity, no rights – NOTHING!
*The Private groans in pain and bleeds on the rough gravel on the road.*
Phantom: Don’t bother with him; only seeing what we fight for firsthand will have any effect on him, he’s too far gone. Let’s leave him here to make his own way back to his Military friends.
Private Stewart: No… please… if I go back like this my career is over.
Phantom: You should have thought of that before you tried to collect your reward, asshole!
Private Stewart: No! I’ll travel with you if I have to. There’s no way I can make it back by the deadline now… I’m done for. At least let me keep the shell I’ve been reduced to.
*The Stalkers stand over the Private, pleased to see him broken down to nothing.*
Gremlin: Fine, we’ll need a meat-shield where we’re going.
*Phantom laughs under his breath.*
Gremlin: You’ll take the point – no weapon, no supplies, nothing! You don’t eat, drink, piss, or breathe without my permission. If you decide to be a good little soldier, maybe I won’t shoot you once we complete our mission.
*The Private glances at Gremlin, then at Phantom – a look of utter despair in his eyes.*
Private Stewart: Just let me live, and I’ll do whatever you want.
Phantom: Funny… I remember hearing something like that back at that house in the village before you ate the butt of my weapon.
Private Stewart: That was my mission; it was all part of the plan! I’ve failed my mission… there’s no point in making up a story… my life is in your hands.
Gremlin: If that thought escapes your mind for a second, your blood will be the only thing on my hands, and since you’re just a number, there’s no guilt involved.
Private Stewart: U… Understood.
Gremlin: Good. Now as long as we understand each other – what’s your name and rank? If you don’t want to say what I want to hear this time I’ll let Phantom make one up – after you kiss his boots and call him “master”.
Phantom: Oh, I like this game!
Private Stewart: It's Ivan, Ivan Shvets of the Ukrainian Special Forces.
Gremlin: Well, that's more like it. Better than that crappy American-wannabe name you gave me before.
Ivan: Yeah, we need some help in that department.
*Phantom grabs Ivan by the collar and drags him over to the back of the jeep, then throws him into the back seat.*
Phantom: Get in.
*Gremlin enters the driver seat as Phantom walks around the back and sits in the passenger seat. He starts the ignition and resumes their course to the Bar. Ivan grunts and groans as the jeep bounces around.*

Gremlin: Well, it looks like we're still the most infamous men in the Zone for another day.
Phantom: Us? You're the one who's supposed to take the heat - I'm just another nameless Stalker.
Gremlin *laughs*: Forgive me, I forgot - I'm the pretty boy.
Phantom: You're "recognizable", let's leave it at that.
Gremlin: Hey, I'll pull this car over.

{End Excerpt}

*Virtue and Nimbus stare at Enigma, unsure of what to do next. Enigma wipes off the remaining pieces of mutated flesh and stands up, looking at the other two face to face for the first time. Her dark brown hair is tangled and matted, but she is very beautiful. Though she is pretty to look at, she also has a degree of sadness and deadliness behind her blue/grey eyes – the kind that pierce the soul. She sighs reluctantly,*
Enigma: Yes, I am a woman.
Nimbus: You’re… you… I…
Virtue: What he said.
*Enigma looks from Nimbus to Virtue, a look of anger on her face.*
Enigma: Just because I'm female doesn't mean I can't kill either one of you before you can blink.
Nimbus: Oh no... I don't doubt that. I just would never have guessed that… you’re female.
Enigma: I did what was necessary to survive when all the men in my group either died or killed themselves. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I don’t have the balls required in this place.
Virtue: Your ability to endure in harsh circumstances is incredible, there's no doubt there.
*Virtue and Nimbus stare at Enigma for a few moments, creating an increasingly awkward situation as they do.*
Enigma: We need to get out of here as soon as possible.
*The Stalkers wake from their trance.*
Virtue: Right.
Nimbus: Uh huh.
*Enigma waits for them to start moving. After more silence she presents the way with a wave of her hand.*
Enigma: After you, gentlemen.
*Nimbus leads the group back to where Enigma's helmet lay. Enigma picks up her helmet and places it on top of her suit, locking it in place. Then, she flips up her face shield - her smooth, facial features offsetting the deadly look of the heavily-modified armor and the weapon in her hands, at the ready. She speaks without use of the synthesizer in her helmet, the sound of her voice is a welcome replacement,*
Enigma: Thanks for finding it. Now we need to think about finding a way out of this place, and quickly.
Virtue: Where do you suppose we are now?
*Enigma checks her surroundings, looking for any point of reference available.*
Enigma: I’ve never been this deep before… I had a bad feeling about it, and it appears I was right.
*The Stalkers look back into the clearing where the bizarre perversion of nature lies in a bloody, smoking pile of decaying flesh behind them.*
Virtue: I’ve only seen things like that in my nightmares, seeing it in the flesh was a little… startling.
Enigma: I don’t know if that’s the word I would use, but I agree. I’m glad I had enough sense to stay out of here whenever possible.
*Enigma pulls out the Compass artifact and looks for any sign of activity within it.*
Enigma: Well, based off of what I could see of my surroundings as I was being carried off, we are about 2.5 kilometers south of where we last were together. Following the natural arc, the barrier should be less than a kilometer east of here.
Virtue: I hope our little journey didn’t throw us far of course.
Enigma: For all we know we could be closer now; I still haven’t received any sign that we are nearing a breach in the barrier. We’ll head east towards the barrier and see what happens when we get there.
Virtue: Let’s do it.
*Enigma passes by Nimbus and gets a good look at the right side of his face, blood from the scratch on his face is dripping on to his armor.*
Enigma: Are you OK?
Nimbus: Fine. Why?
Enigma: You’re bleeding.
*Nimbus touches his face and winces in pain. He pulls back his hand and finds a good deal of blood.*
Nimbus: I forgot about that. I’ve been so caught up in everything I didn’t remember the pain until just now.
Enigma: Let me fix that up for you.
Nimbus: O… OK…
*Enigma pulls out a bandage and some disinfectant from her backpack. She soaks the tip of the bandage and gently wipes the disinfectant across the cuts on Nimbus’ face. He looks at her as she focuses intently on cleaning the wound. She catches him looking and he looks away quickly. She smiles a little at him,*
Enigma: How long has it been since you’ve been around a woman?
Nimbus: Uh… a while. Before coming to the Zone I was locked in a cell.
Enigma: What did you do?
Nimbus: Nothing really. It was petty theft, I just trying to make a living.
Enigma: How did you get out?
Nimbus: It was minimum security. With a little time and patience, I managed to escape with a fellow inmate. He didn’t make it and I was captured by Bandits shortly after I got in.
*He looks over at Virtue.*
Nimbus: I met Virtue a little while later. He spared my life and I decided to leave the Bandits and join the Loners. I’ve been traveling with him ever since.
Enigma: Any other faction in the Zone is a step up from their scum. What about you Virtue?
Virtue: I came here seeking work for money and food. My son died and my wife and I agreed that this is the only hope I had of making any sort of life for myself – for us.
Enigma: So you’re married then?
Virtue: Yes. I married my childhood sweetheart – Emelia.
*Enigma looks at the ground, then continues dressing Nimbus’ cut.*
Enigma: I’m happy for you. You two must be very happy together.
Virtue: We love each other, but life has been tough for us. I’ve found that life in the Zone is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do… but at the same time, the most rewarding.
*Enigma smiles.*
Enigma: I know what you mean. I hope you can make a better life for yourself and your sweetheart.
Virtue: Me too… me too…
*Enigma finishes cleaning the wound, then wraps a small section of bandage over the cut.*
Enigma: There you go. When it heals you’ll have a nice scar to show the boys.
Nimbus: Is it that bad?
Enigma: Don’t worry; it makes you look very distinguished. Other Stalkers will think twice before messing with you.
Nimbus: I just hope my mother will still accept me if I return home. She always said I had the face of an angel, I don’t know what she’s say if she could see me now.
Virtue: When all is said and done, I think she’ll be proud of the choices you’ve made. You’re made of something tougher than most people I’ve known in my life, you stand up against opposition and fight for what is right, regardless of the opposition. You’re a loyal companion, and I think your family would be proud of the man you’ve become.
Nimbus: Thanks. I hope you’re right.
Enigma: Well, we should get out of here before any more surprises pop up.
*Virtue gets up suddenly and looks around.*
Enigma: What is it?
Virtue: I hear something… like a beeping noise.
Nimbus: Beeping? Maybe your PDA battery is low.
*Virtue pulls out his PDA to check the status indicators.*
[Unknown [incoming]]: …read me? … come in…
Virtue: I’m getting a message!
Nimbus: A message? From who?
Virtue: I don’t know… listen.
[Unknown [incoming]]: … bunker… status…?
Virtue: Dammit! I can’t make it out.
Nimbus: Try responding. At least whoever it is will pick up the static and know we can acknowledge that we are trying to send a message.
Virtue [outgoing]: This is Virtue.
[Unknown [incoming]]: … believe it! … current location?
Virtue [outgoing]: I can’t understand you but I am receiving your transmission. If you can read me – I am stuck outside Limansk in the Red Forest with other Stalkers. We’re trying to find a way out.
[Unknown [incoming]]: … reading you… Jargon… mission.
*The transmission cuts off*
Nimbus: Well, somebody knows we’re out here for sure.
Virtue: Did I hear him say something about Jargon?
Nimbus: I heard it too. I wonder if it’s about the mission.
Enigma: If you want to get a better signal we’ll need to get through the barrier first.
Virtue: Whoever that was is looking for us, and it sounds important – possibly related to our mission. We need to get out of here ASAP.
Enigma: What mission?
Virtue: It’s a long story. We’ll fill you in on the way.
Enigma: The barrier is this way, follow me.