*Virtue opens his eyes slowly, peering into the dim, cloudy light outside the south door of the large warehouse, trying to decide if it’s morning or not. All the fires in the camp sites inside appear to have died hours ago so it’s freezing cold. He tries to rub the haze out of his eyes, only to find that it was the Zone producing it, not his eyes.
Not five seconds after he looks around to see if anyone else is awake, Nikita - who had apparently been up for some time - comes out of the corner he was crouching in and slowly approaches him. It looks like he had been watching over him for some time.*
Nikita: Good morning, Stalker. the Zone doesn’t announce the sunrise the same way you’re used to but rest assured it is morning. The animals have been howling for a few hours now - you slept right through it.
Virtue: Usually the early morning is comforting to me, but I can’t say I’m disappointed to have slept through that.
*Nikita tries to grin, but is obviously unsettled. It’s obvious he doesn’t handle the mornings very well here.*
Nikita: Well, if you’re up we should get going so we can make good time. I promise you no morning here can come close to the danger of night where we’re going.
Virtue: And where would that be…?
Nikita: A good Stalker never tells others where he is going until he gets there.
Virtue: What if you were to get lost or need help?
Nikita: Then you’re on your own, unless you have good friends. You could always contact the nearest military outpost but they’d just as soon shoot you for trespassing. I’d rather take my chances.
Virtue: Good point. I remember the pockets of military checkpoints I’ve passed by already. They were armed to the teeth and looked like they were always expecting something to happen at any given time.
*Nikita gets up and signals to some Stalkers that Virtue hadn’t seen behind him on the other side of the external wall to the warehouse. He counts four of them - all with their own customized Stalker suits. They seemed to have a lot of extra add-ons too - more than most of the Stalkers in this camp - gas masks, air tanks, various scanners and some other equipment he can’t identify.*
Nikita: They’ve been waiting for you, let’s not disappoint them.
*Virtue turns to wake Nimbus.*
Virtue: Alright, let me tell Nimbus what’s going on.
*Nikita grabs his arm gently.*
Nikita: No! Leave him. We only have room for you on this mission.
Virtue: But… without him I might not been alive right now.
Nikita: the Zone decides who lives and who dies. He’ll walk the path the Zone lays before him; I’m offering you this one…
*He points north along the main road. Virtue sighs.*
Virtue: He’s the first Stalker I’ve met who seems to be on the same level as me, the rest of you are still a mystery to me.
Nikita: Today should change that. You’ll get more than a taste of what the Zone has to offer - you’ll get a whole bite.
*Nikita looks back at the other Stalkers, who look impatient.*
Nikita: Time to move out.
*Nikita grabs Virtue’s backpack and holds it out for him to put on. He takes it and puts it on as Nikita starts to walk towards the group of Stalkers. Virtue follows behind, taking one last look at Nimbus - his new-found friend. He has a look of inner-peace on him. Virtue just hopes the feeling would remain when he awoke to see that he had been abandoned.*
Nikita, the other Stalkers and I have started along the road north. Where to: I can only guess. The mood is casual right now; the Garbage seems to be just a stroll through the park for them. I’ll turn on audio logging in case they say anything interesting along the way. They don’t seem like the kind for idle conversation so I’m not very anxious to start one.*
*The group of six travel north through the main road in the Garbage. Nikita travels near one of the Stalkers in the front, leaving Virtue awkwardly in the back. Making it even more awkward, is the fact that all of them have some sort of protective face shield masking their faces from him so he can’t see what they look like or read the emotions on their faces. They pass by mounds of contaminated waste in silence for what seems like hours until one of the Stalkers finally decides to break the silence:*
[Unknown 1]: Ugh… I think the smell is starting to soak through my suit.
Nikita: I doubt that; opposites attract. When was the last time you took a shower?
[Unknown 1]: Don’t tell me *you’ve* been taking showers. Hasn’t anyone told you the water out there is contaminated?
Nikita: Only from the last time you were in it.
[Unknown 1]: Not my problem your mother’s a dirty whore.
*Nikita fakes a laugh at the stupid comeback.*
Nikita: Yeah… well…
*One of the other Stalkers in the group comments:*
[Unknown 2]: Is that the best you can come up with, Jester? With a name like yours I’d expect better.
[Unknown 1 – Identified as Jester]: Well… with all the little ears around I didn’t want to offend anyone.
[Unknown 2]: Who’s got little ears? You don’t mean the new guy…?
Jester: No, I meant you.
*Another one of the Stalkers chimes in.*
[Unknown 3]: What’s his name anyway?
Nikita: His name is Virtue.
Jester: Cute name.
[Unknown 3]: Shut up Jester.
[Jester]: Hey, just breaking the silence. I feel like I’m talking to a dead dog when I’m around you guys - especially you, Zombie. You haven’t said shit since yesterday.
[Unknown 4 -Identified as Zombie]: The hunter must silently stalk his prey, ever-conscious of those who may be stalking him.
Jester: That’s deep, man. Did you read that off a cereal box somewhere?
[Unknown 2]: Hey, we were talking about the new guy, remember?
Jester: Yeah, yeah. Well I’m Jester; the only sane one here. He’s Phantom.
*Jester points to the second Stalker who spoke. He does a mock bow.*
[Unknown 2 - Identified as Phantom]: At your service.
*Jester points at the Stalker in the front of the group.*
Jester: Gremlin there.
*The Stalker waves back without looking at him.*
[Unknown 3 - Identified as Gremlin]: Nice to meet you, Stalker.
Jester: And the one who looks like he’s a mile away is Zombie.
*The last Stalker in the group simply stares straight ahead, either not hearing or not responding to the comment.*
Jester: Yeah… well he doesn’t talk much, and when he does you can’t understand shit anyway.
Zombie: The lizard does not compromise his cloak that you may understand him. He remains mysterious until he is assured of safety.
Jester: Right… I rest my case.
Phantom: At least he remembers to close his mouth after he’s done talking.
*Gremlin holds up his hand for silence.*
Gremlin: Enough. We’re nearing the Bar.
Well, it wasn’t quite the introduction I was expecting, but at least I know their names should a situation arise. We’re continuing north towards what the Stalker “Gremlin” identified as “the Bar”. Whatever it is, it seems to be a good place to go, Jester’s eyes lit up when he heard the name.
We’ve reached the Bar. From the outside it looks like nothing more than a bunch of abandoned buildings and warehouses blocked off by spare pieces of concrete and sheet metal. I can hear a loud voice echoing from the inside, over a speaker system of some sort. Whoever it is seems to be announcing news and jobs to everyone inside. From the look of all the Stalkers wandering around it’s like a central stronghold for Stalkers from all over the Zone. I can see several small camps inside with many strange-looking Stalkers around them. It’s nothing like Cordon or the Garbage; everyone here has their fair share of stories and experiences – that much is clear.
We’re inside the central part of the Bar now. Most of the buildings here show the wear and tear of over twenty years of abandonment. Fallen ceilings, rust, scraped paint, and some more recent scorch marks and bullet holes. Most of the buildings have been patch up in some makeshift way, if only to protect from the elements it seems. Some of the buildings in the area have been modified for a purpose with spray painted words on pieces of metal above the doorways. The building across from the “100 Rads Bar” where we’re headed is simply titled “Arena”. The pavement between buildings in this old warehouse compound is rough and cracked, with nature taking over wherever possible.
The Bar looks little like the name suggests; just a bunch of makeshift tables and chairs outside a “bar” along the back wall. The bar is little more than a modified counter, but the array of vodka bottles stacked on the back wall behind it helps the atmosphere. It’s livelier in here than anywhere I’ve seen and it’s a relief to know that such a place exists in the Zone. Others in the room don’t look so relieved though; many of them are drunk and have a look of hopelessness about them. Others are concealing themselves in the darker corners of the room - just staring straight ahead, barely moving.
The “Barman” as they call the man behind the Bar looks content despite his patrons. He looks like most shop-keepers I’ve seen in my life; on a mission to make as much money as possible - and always trying to hide something about his merchandise from you if it makes him more money. Behind him, above the line of alcohol, are racks of beat-up weapons with the corresponding ammo below them - the ammo boxes are in the same condition as the weapons if there are boxes at all. For the Zone, it looks like this is one of the best places to get anything you need for your travels. There are medical supplies and crates of food scattered on the floor behind the bar also. That must be what the man with the rifle next to the bar is guarding; it looks like a precious resource.
We’ve stopped for supplies but Gremlin says we can’t stay long. Phantom had some extra ammo for my AK and I used the money I had to buy some food and a couple of bandages for the journey.
We’re heading west from the Bar. I wanted to stay longer and meet some of the Stalkers but Gremlin is in a hurry. I noticed a heavily-guarded base behind us on the way out of the western checkpoint. All of the Stalkers there had unique, yellowish armor with a special logo on them. Jester said that was “Duty” territory – Duty being one of the factions in the Zone. I remember the announcer on the loudspeakers mentioning something about Duty… something like trying to protect the world from the Zone and saving the planet or something like that. They sound overzealous, but they do seem to have admirable goals at least. Maybe I’ll run into them some time later.
The Bar is fading into the background and the sound of the loudspeakers system set up within is dying away. We’re approaching an area Phantom called the “Wild Territory”. The road there is dotted with abandoned buildings and warehouses like the area inside the Bar - but with no Stalkers in sight. The buildings that still have windows are nearly impossible to see inside of with all the years of dust accumulated on the surface of the glass. The ones without windows are blacker than a moonless night.
We’re all on our guard – Gremlin says this is Mercenary territory. I can’t keep typing this, it’s too quiet around here and I’m getting a bad feeling about it.
*The six Stalkers continued into the heart of the Wild Territory, destination unknown to most of them. Being on the road feels like asking anyone or anything that might be in the area to come out of hiding and ambush them. Jester makes it well known that he had a bad idea about where they were and where they were going despite constant reprimanding from Phantom. Gremlin refuses to go any closer to the abandoned buildings though - he wouldn’t say why. Finally, Jester curses and stops; causing Phantom to run into him from behind.*
Jester: OK… hold on for just a second. Why are we walking down the center of the road when there could be Mercenaries in every single one of those buildings waiting to ambush us?
*Phantom yells at him in a harsh whisper:*
Phantom: Can’t you shut up for two seconds?
Jester: Yeah, as soon as our almighty leader here tells us why we’re strolling down headshot lane.
Phantom: No, the question is why you can’t just shut the hell up about it…
*Gremlin cuts in:*
Gremlin: The reason we’re not going anywhere near those buildings is because that mouth of yours might wake up something worse than napping Mercs.
Jester: So we’re better off out here in the open, in range of every sniper they have in the area? Yeah, that makes a hell of a lot of sense…
Gremlin: If they wanted us dead we’d be dead already, Mercs keep to themselves unless the job requires them to do otherwise.
*Jester snickers, looking at Gremlin with a challenging look in his eye.*
Jester: I think you’re just afraid of going in those houses.
*The group goes silent, all eyes turn to Gremlin in anticipation of the inbound storm.*
Gremlin: You’ll thank me for keeping you away from them later. Now keep moving and keep that big mouth of your shut.
Jester: No. I’m tired of all this mystery bullshit. Either tell me what the fuck is going on, or I’m going back. I’m not staying anywhere near this clown car. We’re sitting ducks here.
*Gremlin is silent. The group waits in anticipation for his response to Jester’s challenge of his authority. He walks up to Jester and - before anyone can react – punches him hard in the face. Jester stumbles and falls backwards onto the ground in rage.*
Jester: Fuck! What the hell was that for...?
*Before he can finish his sentence Gremlin stands over him and yells down at him, putting emphasis on his words to get through Jester’s thick skull:*
Gremlin: I’m tired of your SHIT! I’m taking us this way because it will keep us ALIVE! If you want to go another way then GO! But not on this mission - this one’s MINE!
*Jester looks up at the others, then back at Gremlin – speechless for once.*
*Gremlin looks around for a few seconds. Then his eyes lock on a small warehouse covered in over-grown weeds. His eyes light up and he grabs Jester by the collar of his suit and starts dragging him over to the warehouse.*
Jester: What the hell are you doing?!
*Jester yells, trying to grab Gremlin’s hands. The blood from the fresh wound on his head stings his eyes and he diverts his attention to them as Gremlin drags him along. The rest of the Stalkers just watch in shock and awe at the scene unfolding.*
Gremlin: You want to know why we’re not going near those buildings, so I’m going to show you. I thought it was safe too, so I went in that one once…
*He points at the warehouse he’s headed for in front of them. Jester tries to make up for his actions much too late:*
Jester: Hey… look, the road is fine! I’ll shut up, I promise!
Gremlin: I doubt that. But maybe after you’re shown why you should, you will.
*Jester starts to panic.*
Jester: What the hell is in there?! What is it?!
*Gremlin just laughs in anticipation:*
Gremlin: You’ll see.
*The other Stalkers glance at one another, unsure of what’s about to happen. Virtue walks over to Nikita and whispers:*
Virtue *whispering*: What’s going on? What’s in there?
*His voice shakes as he responds, fear beginning to grip him. The rest of the group begins to step back from the warehouse as Jester starts to kick and scream.*
Nikita *whispering*: Only the Zone knows…
*Finally, Gremlin comes to a stop at the entrance of the warehouse and throws Jester in the doorway. He points his weapon at Jester’s as he scrambles off of the floor and says:*
Gremlin: OK, now listen carefully: inside this building is the reason why we’re sticking to the roads. Go inside, make a right, and follow the corridor down to the end. Then head down the stairs into the basement.
*He grins slightly, then looks serious again.*
Gremlin: If you decide you need to exit in a hurry, just make sure you scream real loud to let us know you’re coming. Then run outside and duck.
*He picks up Jester’s weapon from the ground and slings it over his shoulder. Jester reaches out in protest:*
Jester: Hey… I might need that!
Gremlin: It’ll only slow you down; you don’t want it swinging around when you’re running.
*Jester yells back in question:*
Jester: RUNNING FROM WHAT?!
*At that, a loud roar-like sound echoes from within the warehouse. The Stalkers whip out their weapons and train them on the warehouse in the direction they think the noise is coming from. Jester turns white as a ghost.*
Jester: Oh God… don’t make me go…
*Gremlin cocks his rifle.*
Gremlin: You’ve already pissed them off - we need bait or they’re going to spread out and come after us one by one.
Jester: No… please…
*Gremlin shoots a round into the wall beside Jester’s ear, causing him to fall into the room inside the doorway, and then scramble back up at the growl that follows the shot. He stands just within the door, looking back at the group of Stalkers - all of their weapons trained in the doorway. He un-holsters a pistol that had been hidden in his suit, looking like he might try to kill one of the Stalkers right there. But instead he just spits on the ground in front of Gremlin, and then proceeds deeper into the building - a mixed look of anger and fear on his face.
Once he’s out of sight, Nikita whispers to Virtue:*
Nikita *whispering*: Aim between the eyes.
*Virtue whispers back a little too loudly:*
Virtue *whispering*: You know what it is?
*Phantom overhears and responds:*
Phantom: The question is what *was* it?
*Zombie contributes quietly:*
Zombie: The nightmare within the nightmare.
*The outside is deathly silent for about a minute or two, nobody moves a muscle. Then, breaking the silence is a soul-piercing roar. Gunshots and screams echo from within the building, getting louder as they approach them. The Stalkers grip their weapons tightly, like Virtue remembers the Stalkers do in Cordon before the dog attack. He braces himself.
The gunshots stop but the screaming doesn’t – it gets louder as the source draws closer, just a few rooms away from the door now. They hear Jester panting as he runs, apparently too afraid to scream now. A few seconds later, he bursts out of the front door, pale as death, and dives all the way behind the semi-circle the Stalkers had formed in front of the door. The Stalkers are too focused on the door to ask how he managed to dive as far as he did.
He rolls off of his face, and crawls backwards - scared out of his mind. The Stalkers keep their weapons pointed at the door. Nothing stirs inside of the warehouse afterwards. They keep concentrating intently on the door for what seems like an eternity. Virtue looks away from the iron sight of his rifle for a few seconds to see what the other Stalkers are looking at, thinking they see something he doesn’t. As he glances over at them, the light distorts in the doorway. He immediately looks back at the doorway down the iron sights of his rifle.
The eyes now have a body attached to them. The creature looks nearly human, with dark, brown skin, an elongated skull, and four tentacles protruding from the sides of its mouth. It lunges outside with incredible speed - right at Jester. The Stalkers dive out of the way and then scramble to get back on their feet and resume firing. The creature runs straight for Jester who has broken into a sprint back towards the Bar. It lunges after him.
A loud shot echoes through the sky - the force of which knocks Virtue to the ground. Everyone scrambles up, trying to figure out what happened - except Jester, who had been knocked to the ground when the creature plowed into him full-force. The creature is filled with holes, most notably a large one in the frontal chest area. Jester, underneath the fresh kill is covered in blood, still alive - but staring blankly at the ground in shock. Gremlin speaks first, confused:*
Gremlin: Who…? What…? Who got it…?
*A voice from somewhere behind Virtue announces:*
[Unknown]: That would be me.
*Virtue swivels around and steps out of the way, exposing the unknown voice to the rifles of all the other Stalkers in the group.
Before them stands a Stalker in a new-looking Stalker suit, holding a modified Winchester shotgun. The barrel is smoking as he pulls back the protective leather hood attached to the suit, revealing his shaved brown hair and deep brown eyes.*
*He smirks and replies:*
Nimbus: Why didn’t you tell me you were in trouble?
*Gremlin attempts to compose himself and responds:*
Gremlin: We weren’t. I had everything under control…
*Nobody says a word - least of all, Jester. Virtue breaks the awkward silence:*
Virtue: How on earth did you find us?
Nimbus: I talked to that old guy - Jargon. He said you guys were headed this way. Mercs and Bandits maintain a fragile truce, so I’ve been in this area a few times with the Boss. I used one of the towers the Mercs like to use to scout the area to find you guys. I decided to follow you and when I got closer I heard the gunshots and ran to catch up. I came around that corner and saw that… *thing* pounce on your friend.
Gremlin: It was a Bloodsucker.
Virtue: Bloodsucker? Is that what that thing is called?
Gremlin: Yes. The Stalkers that have lived to tell about them call them that.
*Jester, who was still buried under the corpse of the Bloodsucker the entire time, finally gathers the will to push the thing off of him. He stands up, his eyes trained on the ground in shocked silence.
Gremlin, feeling accomplished, yet shaken from the encounter says:*
Gremlin: We need to keep moving. There’s no telling who or what heard our little shuffle here.
*He looks over at Nimbus.*
Gremlin: If you keep shooting like that we might just have room for you in our group.
*Nimbus, relieved to be going with them, says:*
Nimbus: Thanks! I’ll do what I can! I know I wouldn’t survive two seconds out here alone…
Gremlin: No problem… just stick to the road.
*He glances at Jester who is now at the back of the group to see if his point was taken. Jester continues to stare at the ground. Satisfied, he says:*
Gremlin: Let’s go.
Well… I hardly know what to say so I’ll stop off with the easy stuff.
We’re heading out of the Wild Territory now due south-west. I still don’t know where we’re going, but I have a feeling some of the other Stalkers do, and they look unsettled about it – and that’s saying something considering the encounter we had just now. At least some of them are talking now… that incident back there scared most of us shitless.
That creature the “Bloodsucker” as Gremlin called it - looked almost human. I can’t think of an animal around here that it could have mutated from. But if that’s the case is makes it even more disturbing… seeing those eyes - there were nothing human about them, almost as if the person who used to inhabit that body was replaced with an animal… or demon. The Blind Dogs don’t even have eyes but I’m sure I could sense the same thing when I stared into those sockets… a lack of any form of empathy – just lust for death and destruction.