Chapter 9: The Lost City

I can’t believe it’s so late… the darkness around us engulfs the sun. The only light around us seems to be remnants of whatever dreams we had last night… just a dim fog like a memory.
The night was cold and dreary, and I swear I heard something out there, not a distinctive howl or anything, but I could hear bushes rustling. It might have just been the wind… no… when the wind blows I never feel like I’m being watched.
I… I doubt I’m going to get much writing done with conditions being what they are. I just want to get out of here with as little hassle as possible. I hope everyone back in Yantar made it safety.
[Audio enabled]
Nimbus: I don’t like this place at all…
Virtue: You won’t see me vacationing here, that’s for damn sure.
Nimbus: Why do I get the feeling that we’re not supposed to be here?
Virtue: I get that feeling all over the Zone… I thought it was normal for a rookie.
Nimbus: Well yeah… but this is different. I can’t really place it.
Virtue: This place looks like it hasn’t seen human contact for years… possibly never.
Nimbus: I hear you.
*The two pause and listen to the ambient sounds coming from deeper in the forest. Nothing can be distinguished from them*
Virtue: Well, where do we go now?
*A long pause is all the response Nimbus can give initially*
Nimbus: I… don’t know. Let’s try to get out bearings – I’ll check my GPS.
*Nimbus’ PDA beeps away as he triangulates their position. After a minute he stops and stares at the information shown*
Nimbus: This can’t be right…
Virtue: What?
Nimbus: According to this, we’ve been teleported about 10 kilometers from where we were, in a section of the Zone marked as inaccessible.
Virtue: Inaccessible?
Nimbus: Yes. After the second explosion at the NPP, the entire Zone was inaccessible, until anomaly detectors were invented to get around the anomalies sealing off the Zone. However, anomalies tend to shift and many of them create natural barriers within the Zone the shift with blowouts. This part of the Zone has been inaccessible for years.
Virtue: So… in other words, we’re lost without a map.
Nimbus: Unfortunately, yes, I believe so.
Virtue *sighs*: Ok… let’s just keep our cools. I think it’s safe to assume an anomaly was responsible for us being here… if there are so many around this area  there’s got to be another one that leads somewhere outside.
Nimbus: It’s a pretty good chance… but we have no idea where one could be, or where it will lead if we find it.
Virtue: No… you’re right.
*Another pause*
Nimbus: Well we’re not getting anywhere standing around here. According to GPS maps of the area, there is city due south-east of here. If nothing more, we can find shelter there. I don’t really like the idea of sleeping out here again.
Virtue: Me neither. Your idea sounds good.
Nimbus: Alright. It looks like the most direct route is to head east for a few kilometers and then we should see a road leading into the city. Let’s just hope we don’t run into any anomaly barriers on the way.
[End audio]
It seems like it’s getting darker the longer we walk. I swear I keep seeing things in the forest, but I don’t know what it could be. It’s gotta be my eyes, I’m just seeing things. Nimbus seems a little more on his guard than usual, I wonder if he sees things too.
Anyway, we’re heading east from our original location. We’re sure the anomaly we came out of doesn’t lead back to where we were – I threw a bolt in and it shattered into a million pieces. We should see a road after a few kilometers assuming we don’t encounter any obstacles along the way. I just hope we see some sign of civilization soon… I didn’t realize just how comforting the urban decay I’ve seen for the last week can be compared to the wilderness of the Zone.
We’ve walked about a kilometer and a half so far, marking the halfway point to the road.
I feel so lonely out here… if Nimbus weren’t right here I don’t know what I’d do. But I can’t help thinking about the other Stalkers who we were separated from… and those who didn’t make it. Emelia too… I hope she’s ok – I can’t believe I’ve been here for a whole week, it seems like it’s only been a few hours, or a day.
I can barely make out what I’m writing anymore; it’s getting foggy. Switching to audio.
[Audio enabled]
Nimbus: Do you smell that?
Virtue *sniffs*: Yeah… smells like a swamp.
Nimbus: That’s what I thought; the air is really thick here.
*The Stalkers continue on without a sound for a while, until finally Nimbus breaks the silence*
Nimbus: Whoa…
Virtue: My God…
*The Stalkers take in the scene before them. They are now standing in front of a vast, murky swamp that seems to stretch forever. The area is completely devoid of movement or sound beside the wind and the occasional plant disturbing the dark waters.*
Nimbus: What is this place?
Virtue: This looks like a lost chapter out of pre-historic times.
Nimbus: I’ll say. This entire place looks like it hasn’t been touched for millions of years.
Virtue: Let’s hope so. I’d hate to think what kind of creatures might call this place home.
*The Stalkers walk steadily forward. The area is thick with strange plant-life spanning the ground and drooping vines hanging from ancient-looking trees over-head. Ahead, sturdy ground ceases to be and is replaced with damp, fungus-covered strips of mud that cover the swamp ahead in a honeycomb-like fashion.
The fog ahead makes the correct path or any unforeseen danger impossible to make out.*
Nimbus: I’m reading some spikes in radiation ahead, let’s stick close – I don’t want to think about what would happen if one of us falls into that water.
Virtue: I just hope I can watch my footing with all these weird plants around.
Nimbus: Agreed.
*The Stalkers trudge through the muddy strip before them, sending small ripples through the dead water on either side of them. Nimbus take his best guess in determining which path is the least hazardous*
Nimbus: I hope we know what we’re getting ourselves in to. We have no idea how long this swamp stretches… for all we know the road could have been covered up a long time ago, and we might just have more swamp to go through once we get there… if we can make it out.
Virtue: I think it’s the best shot we have at getting out of here, like you said. I don’t like the amount of unknowns either, but it’s the best thing to do in our situation.
Nimbus: Yeah… I just feel vulnerable, I guess.
Virtue: I’m right there with you, but I trust in your sense of direction.
Nimbus *laughs*: Let’s hope that trust is well-founded.
*The Stalkers continue forward for another 20 minutes without a word, until the tension is enough to cause Nimbus to speak again*
Nimbus: Hey… Virtue.
Virtue: Yeah?
Nimbus: Have you noticed how the plants react when the ripples reach them?
Virtue: Yeah… I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.
Nimbus: It looks like they start shaking as soon as the ripples hit them.
Virtue: I know; I’ve never seen a plant do that before.
Nimbus: Maybe the radiation spikes I’m reading have something to do with it.
Virtue: I can’t think of any other reason they’d move like that.
Nimbus: Look at that!
*Nimbus points to a plant to their right that seems to be a large, mutated version of a Venus Flytrap*
Virtue: Holy shit… that plant is huge!
Nimbus: It looks like a Venus Flytrap… on steroids!
Virtue: If were weren’t in the middle of a dangerous swamp surrounded by weird plants I might find that very cool, but honestly I’m just freaked out even more.
Nimbus: I know what you mean, but that’s amazing! I wonder if we’re the first ones to ever see one.
Virtue: I don’t know, but considering it’s growing in a contaminated swamp in an inaccessible part of the Zone, I don’t really like being near it.
Nimbus: You’re right, maybe it’s poisonous or something. Let’s keep going.
*Nimbus walks forward a few paces, then stops suddenly*
Nimbus: Did you feel something?
Virtue: Like what?
Nimbus: I’m not sure… it was like something touched my leg.
*The Stalkers look around, listening intently for a few seconds*
Nimbus: Maybe it was nothing.
*Nimbus moves a few more paces, then stops again*
Nimbus: Ok, I know I felt something that time.
*Nimbus looks around his feet and takes another step forward. His foot slips and he nearly falls into the water*
Nimbus: Whoops! Whoa… that could have been bad*
*The ripples from the disturbance travel to the edges of the water in both directions. The plants on either side shake intensely*
Nimbus: Shit… what’s going on?!
*The water begins bubbling slightly and several dark shapes in the water begin moving around*
Virtue: There’s something in the water…
*A large hand-like root crawls onto the muddy ground by Nimbus’ right boot and “grabs” a hold of him, immediately yanking him off his feet and into the water*
Nimbus: FUCK! What the hell is that?! Virtue…
*Nimbus is cut off by the water filling his mouth*
Virtue: Nimbus!
*Virtue sticks his hands into the dark water, trying to feel around for any sign of Nimbus*
Virtue: Nimbus, can you hear me?!
*Nearly a minute passes by with no trace of Nimbus*
Virtue: No… Nimbus…
*Virtue stands up and surveys the water around him for any sign of Nimbus, dead or alive. After finding no trace he begins to pant frantically, enraged and confused*
*Suddenly, the surface of the water breaks and Nimbus gasps for air, the hand-like root firmly placed around his neck*
Nimbus: Virtue… *gasp* help me!!!
*The root begins pulling Nimbus in… closer to the Venus Flytrap. The mouth of the trap begins to release some sort of liquid, mimicking saliva*
Virtue: Hang on Nimbus!
*Virtue un-slings his AK and opens fire at the mouth of the Venus flytrap. Chlorophyll flies out like blood and the mouth opens, twisting around seeking its target. The root around Nimbus tightens and he grips his neck, unable to breathe*
Virtue: Let go, damn you!
Nimbus: Can’t… breathe… *gags*
*The plant continues to rustle and reel Nimbus in. Then, virtue notices a large red sac near the base of the plant and adjusts his aim. The plant starts shaking violently, the root dragging Nimbus around on a thrill ride of deadly proportions. A red substance erupts from the sac, “bleeding” into the water.
Virtue: Die you overgrown weed!
*Finally, the plant is depleted of the red fluid, and the trap collapses to the ground, throwing Nimbus to the ground in front of Virtue*
Virtue: Nimbus! Nimbus, say something!
*Nimbus lies on the ground face down, pale, shaking, and cold*
Virtue: Nimbus! Come on man!
*Nimbus flips over suddenly, the root still wrapped around his throat. He reaches for Virtue’s pistol and grabs it, hand still shaking. He then points it at the main root and unloads a clip at it*
*pop pop pop pop pop pop pop pop click click click*
*The root loosens up and goes limp, releasing Nimbus. Nimbus inhales deeply, coughing up grimy water.*
Nimbus *coughing*: I’m fine…
Virtue: Fine? You just got tossed around like a rag doll - by a fucking plant no less!
Nimbus *coughing*: I’ve been through worse… *attempts to laugh but just winds up coughing more*
Virtue: You look like shit.
Nimbus: That root, or whatever it was, tried to drown me. The water felt disgusting enough without the root around my throat, but when I was down there I saw bodies at the bottom of the swamp. Overall it wasn’t an experience I would like to repeat.
Virtue: I thought that thing had killed you…
Nimbus: It almost did. I’m sure if I hadn’t grabbed a knife I saw on one of the bodies down there I would have ended up like those corpses.
Virtue: I’m glad you did… I had no idea what had grabbed you. It didn’t even dawn on me that it was that Venus Flytrap that was pulling you in until you surfaced and that root started pulling you into it.
Nimbus: I didn’t know what had gotten me either… mutated animals are one thing, but PLANTS too?! I thought a Bloodsucker or a Snork got me, not a household plant.
Virtue: If we get out of here, maybe you can be the first one to name it.
Nimbus: But we have to get out of here first, and I don’t know about you but I’m ready to get the hell out of here.
Virtue: I’ll lead the way this time; I want to name the next freak of nature we run into.
*The Stalkers continue through the swamp, being especially careful to not disturb the water. After about an hour they emerge from the swampy area, mostly unscathed by the local plant life. After walking another kilometer, they finally see a break in the trees*
Virtue: Hey – you see what I see?
Nimbus: Yes! That’s the road! All we need to do now is follow this road south and we should see the abandoned city soon.
Virtue: Do you know anything about the city?
Nimbus: No. I’ve only heard that it has been inaccessible since the Second Incident. A lot of Stalkers have been trying to find a way in because of all the anomalies and promise of untouched treasure here.
Virtue: So it’s like a goldmine that caved in.
Nimbus: Essentially, yes. Nobody knows what’s here now – whether treasure or danger. But whoever manages to get in here could be in for a quick profit… or a quick death. So it’s enough to make mention of around the campfire.
Virtue: You said that it became inaccessible. Do you think there could still be people living here?
Nimbus: Who’s to say? I don’t know how quickly the barrier sealed the area off, but it is possible. There may even be some Stalkers trapped in here attempting to get out, like we are.
*The Stalkers follow the road for about an hour, basking in what little sunlight is available here. Finally they encounter a highway marker on the sign of the road: “Limansk – 1KM”*

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}

[Begin Audio]
*The blowout is at the height of its intensity, shaking the entire area and bathing it in a blood-red light*
Phantom: Where the hell are they going?! VIRTUE!!! NIMBUS!!!
Zombie: We must seek shelter.
Phantom: You’re right; maybe they spotted a bunker or something. We need to move!
*Zombie and Phantom break into a sprint, away from Lake Yantar and the other two Stalkers in their group. The blowout continues to rock the area, and their Geiger counters begin to rise steadily*
Phantom: Shit, shit, shit! We need shelter, and we need it NOW!
Zombie: We will not make it to Sakharov in time.
Phantom: Dammit those two are dead men, and so are we if we don’t find somewhere…
Zombie: Up ahead. There is refuge from the storm.
Phantom: Good eye! Let’s just hope it’s adequate.
*The Stalkers run towards a small subterranean dwelling a few meters in front of them as their Geiger counters continue to click faster and faster*
Phantom: This better be unlocked, or we could be in for some problems!
*The Stalkers round the back side of the structure, and approach the door. Phantom attempts to open the door*
Phantom:  Of fucking course! The door won’t open!
Zombie: Stand back.
*Zombie shoots the lock, and kicks open the door. As he does, there is a roar from behind them*
Phantom: Shit! Those Snorks followed us all the way here! Get inside, I’ll hold them off!
Zombie: *We* will enter the structure and stay there until the blowout is over.
Phantom: Not before I take a few of those motherfuckers with me!
Zombie: They will die whether you kill them or not, there is no need to kill them.
Phantom: You don’t get it. I DO need to kill them. If not for them we’d probably all still be together, and ALIVE.
Zombie: Don’t let your anger dictate your actions. It is foolish to expose yourself to a blowout.
Phantom: Maybe I don’t give a fuck anymore!
*Zombie slams the door to the underground dwelling and props his rifle against the handle*
Phantom: NO!
*Phantom kicks the rifle out from under the door and attempts to shoot at the Snorks outside, but   before he can pull the trigger, Zombie pulls his rifle from his hands and holds it above his head*
Phantom: Give me back my god damn weapon.
Zombie: You can have it back when you’re not jeopardizing our safety, and the mission.
*Phantom struggles a little, but resigns to the fact that Zombie is physically stronger than him*
Phantom: God damn you…
*Phantom descends the stairs into the main living area slowly as his Geiger counter rises rapidly. Zombie props his rifle back against the door as the Snorks outside begin clawing and growling at the door, attempting to seek refuge from the blowout. He then descends the stairs, grabbing Phantom by the arms and hauling him down with him*
Phantom: You have exactly 5 seconds to put me down before I put a hole in your head.
Zombie: …
*A loud whooshing sound shakes the area as the Geiger counter Zombie dropped at the door shoots off the scale. The Snorks outside wail and hiss, then scatter in every direction*
*Zombie carries Phantom into the deserted kitchen of the underground dwelling, and locks the door inside, putting Phantom down once the door is locked*
*Phantom stares intently at Zombie as the area continues to shake, the Geiger counter upstairs clicks rapidly, and the sounds of Snorks outside dies away. He and Zombie remain motionless for minutes, until the blowout finally concludes and they are left with silence. After a few moments, Phantom speaks*
Phantom: I hope you’re real proud of yourself.
Zombie: …
Phantom: I could have rid the world of a handful of those monsters, indirectly saving the lives of countless Stalkers.
Zombie: …
Phantom: Do you even give a fuck about anything I’m saying to you?
Zombie: Your vendetta is with the Zone, not them.
Phantom: Those things ARE the Zone. THEY are what we are fighting for the sake of all the lives lost because of the Zone. I mean look at them! They are the living embodiment of everything we’re against. THEY USED TO BE US! If you ever turned into one of those things, I’d put one right in your head out of respect for you.
Zombie: the Zone chose to make them its disciples; their salvation is out of our hands.
Phantom: Oh! Here we go again with the riddles! For all you know, one of those Snorks might have been one of my friends… and you just denied me the right to end their cursed existence. You might as well have denied me the right to attend the funeral their families gave them outside the Zone when they never came home!
Zombie: the Zone makes everything as it should be. You are only a fly that will be swatted when you annoy it sufficiently.
Phantom: the Zone is out to KILL YOU! You CAN’T pretend to understand it! You CAN’T say things like that and assume you’re invulnerable to the pain it serves on a daily basis! The people whose lives have been affected by it don’t deserve that!
Zombie: You cannot play God.
Phantom: I’m not playing God, I’m just the messenger! What’s going on here is evil, and, as a human being, I can’t sit by and let this happen.
Zombie: …
Phantom: Fine. Play neutral all you want. While you’re out “observing” the Zone your friends are going to die! Like Nikita, Jester, Gremlin, and Jargon – maybe even Virtue and Nimbus! For all we know we might be all that’s left of the group and everyone died to your “almighty Zone”.

Zombie: …
Phantom: You know – you make me sick. Those people would have died fighting to save you when your ass was on the line, and what would you have done? You’d probably start praying to the god of the Zone while your friends were dying around you.
Zombie: Phantom…
Phantom: Save it. My friends are dead and you couldn’t give a shit about it. You’re no friend of mine. I’m going to get to the bunker, give this information to Sakharov, and get the hell out of here. You can have your cut, and when you do, you can go meditate in a radioactive sewer.
*Phantom swipes his weapon out of Zombies arms and brushes past him on his way out the door. Zombie remains motionless as Phantom kicks his rifle out from under the door and steps outside, closing the door behind him*
[End Audio]

{End Excerpt}

[Audio enabled]
Nimbus: Limansk… I think I’ve heard that name before.
Virtue: Yeah?
Nimbus: I remember some of the bandits talking about a Stalker who got to the center of the Zone; he went through Limansk to get there. I think… a while ago, the anomaly barrier around the area was breached and some Stalkers were able to get in before it sealed up again. They wanted to stop the Stalker from getting back to the center, claiming that it was because of him the Zone was going crazy with all the blowouts and mutants crawling around it.
Virtue:  Maybe someone wanted to keep something a secret.
Nimbus: Who knows? Nobody knows enough about what’s happened here in the last 2 decades and especially the last few years to give anything more than a theory.
Virtue: Do you think the anomaly barrier around this area is due to someone trying to keep something a secret?
Nimbus: Maybe… for all we know we could all just be rats in a maze and someone is controlling all the mutants and anomalies in the Zone.
Virtue: If that’s the case, I think we just jumped a wall in that maze.
Nimbus: Yeah, we’re in uncharted territory now…
*The Stalkers follow the road for about an hour before the first signs of civilization become visible from the road. The city of Limansk is now fully visible from where they stand on the road*
Virtue: Would you look at that…
Nimbus: The city looks like it’s being preserved in a bubble… just frozen in time.
Virtue: That’s a good analogy, considering it’s surrounded by an impenetrable barrier.
*The Stalkers pause and take in the area. The city looks dark and gloomy, despite the various colors of the buildings contained within. It looks like most other towns in Soviet Russia; rushed with signs of heavy construction and industry everywhere. If there was any touch of cheer anywhere within the city it’s now masked by the gloom that now hangs over it*
Virtue: So, now that we’ve found shelter, what do we do now?
Nimbus: The best we can do is search for some maps of the area and see if we can uncover any information about the barrier and how to get out of it.
Virtue: Alright, let’s see if we can find the city hall. Maybe the information we need is in there.
Nimbus: It’s a start.
*The Stalkers enter the dead city, feeling completely alone and lost like never before. They pass old apartment buildings, seemingly frozen in time, protected from looters and even the elements in some areas. The hum of anomalies is constant around them as there appear to be large pockets in certain places – some of which have engulfed entire buildings, leaving gaping holes in places creating a Swiss cheese effect.
The streets are like rows in a morgue; abandoned vehicles litter the streets as well as the personal belongings of the previous residents of the city. Various plants and trees, now left untended, appear to be assuming control of the city, threatening to break it down into the base elements given enough time. The sky is overcast and there is a sound like thunder over the city, though it could be an anomaly. A light wind sends old paper and light objects drifting through the city like a curtain*
Nimbus: Man… have you ever felt so alone and out of place in your entire life?
Virtue: No. It feels like I’ve gone backwards in time… or I’ve died and I’m just a spirit adrift in the world.
Nimbus *shudders*: This isn’t an experience I’ll ever forget, that’s for sure.
Virtue: Nor I.
*After a few more meters, the Stalkers round a corner and find an old bus stop with a map of the area posted on the side*
Nimbus: Ah, here we go.
*Nimbus looks over the map*
Nimbus: According to this, we’re close to the city center now. It should be just a few blocks to the south. City hall is located here.
*Nimbus points to a square on the map*
Virtue: So, if we have this map here, what do we need from the city hall?
Nimbus: Blueprints, if possible. Maybe there are some underground tunnels or sewers that lead out of the city. From what I’ve heard of anomalies, most exist above ground – there’s a good chance of bypassing the barrier.
Virtue: Let’s hope so.
*The Stalkers continue down the road towards the city hall. They travel nearly 2 blocks when they are interrupted by what sounds like a growl coming from an apartment nearby*
Nimbus: Tell me that was your stomach.
Virtue: I wish it was…
*The Stalkers listen intently to the wind for any verification of what they heard.*
Nimbus: What was that?!
Virtue: Where?
Nimbus: Up in the window – I saw something!
Virtue: I think I did too. This goes against my better judgment, but I think we should take a look.
Nimbus: Take a look? Why?
Virtue: We can’t discount the possibility that there are still people here. If there’s someone in there he might be able to help us.
Nimbus: You’re right. Whoever or whatever is in there doesn’t matter… if I’m ever going to make a life for myself here I’ve got to take any chance I can get. Plus this place is like an untapped resource, we could make bank here!  I just hope that if it was someone, he was *really* hungry.
Virtue: Let’s go have a look.
*The Stalkers inch into the building, relying on the skills taken from their mission with the other Stalkers thus far. Nimbus steps in first, checks left and right, then motions Virtue in. Virtue comes around from behind and checks the room to the left while Nimbus checks the left one. Finding the area clear, they glance up the stairs in the middle of the room and proceed upward*
Nimbus: Nothing so far. That room was about 2 or 3 down on the right side.
Virtue: Roger that, I’ve got out flank.
*Nimbus inches forward while Virtue checks all rooms they pass, glancing behind them as they go*
Nimbus: This is it.
*The Stalkers peer into the room seeing nothing initially but darkness, besides a small section of dim sunlight on the floor next to the window*
Nimbus: Look. There are bodies over in the corner by the window.
Virtue: Yeah, lots of blood too. It looks like they were torn apart by something. Maybe we should…
*A low growl echoes in the room, freezing the Stalkers in their tracks. A pair of eyes appear in the corner opposite the bodies, focusing on the Stalkers*
Nimbus *whispering*: Back up slowly…
*Before the Stalkers can react a sharp sound interrupts them*
[Unknown]: PSST!
*The eyes let out a roar and focus on the pile of bodies, then slowly slink over to them. The eyes glance down at the bodies, sniffing intently. Suddenly a fist comes out of the bodies and impacts right between the eyes. The eyes roar in anger as a body emerges from the pile and stands directly in front of them*
[Unknown]: Smile…
*A pistol flashes from a holster and appears under the eyes. The eyes squeal in astonishment as the weapon discharges, blowing its brains all over the ceiling. The eyes, turned Bloodsucker, fall to the floor with a thud – staring directly at the Stalkers. All activity in the room ceases, besides the smoking of the Berretta at the side of the corpse, turned Stalker*
*A synthesized voice comes from the gasmask of the unknown Stalker*
[Unknown]: Welcome to Limansk, Stalkers.
[End audio]

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}
That dumb meat-headed son of a bitch. He’ll just never learn that the Zone is a place - not a god, and that the people inside of it are not just victims of fate. I hope he stays in that hole until he figures that out, he’s weird enough when he keeps to himself, he only makes it worse when he opens his mouth.
I don’t mean to be so hard on him, but I can’t say he doesn’t deserve it with his apathetic attitude towards everything. Besides, I’ve never seen him display any sort of emotion, maybe it’ll do him some good.
Well, the bunker is less than a kilometer ahead.
[Audio enabled]
Phantom: Sakharov! Open up!
Sakharov: What? You’re back? Where is the rest of the group?
Phantom: I’m the only one who made it back.
Sakharov: That’s terrible! Come in, we’ll discuss it further.
*The security door hisses and swings open*
Sakharov: So, what did you find out?
Phantom: A lot, but not a lot of tangible proof.
Sakharov: What do you mean?
Phantom: We encountered a… “Voice”, if you will. It threatened to kill us if we tried to remove any information from the lab. It also claimed to be in control of the emission as well as the zombified Stalkers and possibly the mutants. It also had one hell of an ego.
Sakharov: Did you bring anything at all back with you?
Phantom: Yeah, I got a map of the facility myself. I know that would get a good price from any trader around here, but I’d rather give it to you and make it public knowledge.
*Sakharov scans the map for a few seconds*
Sakharov: Marvelous!
*Sakharov continues scanning*
Sakharov: Hmm… this doesn’t really help to solve anything, was there nothing more?
Phantom: Well… there was, but the information was scattered between the group and, like I said, I’m the only one that made it back.
Sakharov: What else did you manage to get from the lab?
Phantom: Nimbus got some sort of classified file from a computer we found there and Jargon picked out a few choice objects from a control room.
Sakharov: Well, then we need to get those items! Those files sound particularly helpful!
Phantom: Well, the problem is Nimbus was with Virtue and they got separated from Zombie and I during the blowout that just hit.
Sakharov: I see. What of Jargon?
Phantom: He didn’t make it.
Sakharov: Didn’t make it?
Phantom: No… he died saving us from a hoard of zombies and mutants.
*Sakharov remains silent, then – obviously pained - speaks *
Sakharov: I… I don’t believe it. All those years… he finally succumbed to the weight of the Zone. He was a good Stalker – no – more than that, a good friend. The shadow over the Zone grows darker with his loss.
Phantom: It was tough for all of us, but we had already suffered casualties so we managed well enough.
Sakharov: Who else didn’t make it?
Phantom: Nikita, Jester, and Gremlin.
Sakharov: Gremlin? He was the one who accepted the mission! I warned him of the risk but even I had faith that he could do it…
Phantom: Yeah well, he’s gone, alright?
*Sakharov studies Phantom for a few moments, then collects his thoughts*
Sakharov: Very well. You accomplished, in part, what you set out to accomplish. This map will help in further study of the facility and its systems. I trust that the emission will also be at a minimum for a while?
Phantom: It’s safe to assume; we killed the controller responsible for it.
Sakharov: I look forward to a full report. But you look weary so I will allow you to stay in the bunker for as long as you need. Maybe your lost companions will return to you.
Phantom: No amount of time will return them.
*Sakharov refrains from saying anything further on the subject, disheartened from the loss of his friends*
Sakharov: I will await your report. The facility is open to you, as always.
[End audio]
Mission accomplished.
What did we accomplish? Of the Eight Stalkers who were sent on this mission, thee Stalkers died, three are MIA, and the last one is brooding in a hole in Yantar, totally devoid of any feeling concerning our losses.
The reward was more than enough, but it has no value to me. What do a few Rubles and random devices mean when your friends are dead or missing? For all I know, Virtue, Nimbus, and Gremlin are dead too and I’m just being generous by labeling them “missing in action”. Maybe Zombie did finally get some sense knocked into him and decided to knock it back out with a bullet.
So what do I do now? My ultimate goal seems like a distant dream now. If a mission like this can go so wrong so quickly, how can I even begin to calculate for a journey to the center of the Zone? You can’t buy friends, and that’s what it will take to make a journey like that possible. There are too many unknowns right now, if Gremlin were here he would know what to do.
But I haven’t slept for a while and my head isn’t the only thing that’s foggy. I’ll just have to sleep on it and hope the matter is cleared up after a good night’s sleep.
Goodnight father, mother, sister - wherever you are.

{End Excerpt}

*The mysterious Stalker stood before them, completely covered with protective clothing and hi-tech gear*
Nimbus: What are you doing here? This part of the Zone hasn’t been accessible for years.
[Unknown]: Well that all depends on who you talk to. I’ve been here for a while now.
Virtue: What’s your name?
[Unknown]: My name? I go by Enigma.
Virtue: Fitting. I have no words for what I just witnessed here. I’m Virtue and this is Nimbus.
*Nimbus gazes intently, speechless*
Enigma: Oh that little feat? That’s just the opening act…
Nimbus: Hardly! That was incredible… you stood there and shot that thing in the head without even flinching!
Virtue: I tend to agree, you even waited for it to open its mouth so you could hit the brain through the back of its throat.
Enigma: Nah, it just had really bad breath.
*Nimbus laughs generously, enthralled by the god before him*
Enigma: So what about you two? What are you doing here?
Virtue: We’re trapped here. We were escaping a blowout in Yantar and fell into an anomaly that teleported us into the forest west of here.
Enigma: Ah, so the barrier is still up then.
Virtue: As far as we know, yes.
*Enigma lets out what sounds like a sigh, synthesized through whatever apparatus is inside his helmet/gasmask*
Nimbus: How have you survived in here?
Enigma: I was part of an expedition into this part of the Zone some time ago. The barrier surrounding this place fluctuated enough that Stalkers started to seek treasure and glory here. There was a large battle between factions and few survived. By the time to survivors filled their backpacks with as much loot as possible, the barrier sealed up again. Some of them went crazy and committed suicide, others were killed by mutants.
Virtue: How many are here now?
*Enigma hesitates for a moment*
Enigma: I haven’t seen another Stalker alive for a long time… not since the two of you walked in here.
Nimbus: How have you survived so long?
Enigma: Played it smart. I’ve learned to listen to the Zone. I get my food and water from observing the animals and mutants around here. I know where the best spots are. I also know where the best shelter is. Then there’s the Forester – as long as there aren’t too many anomalies blocking the route.
Virtue: The Forester?
Enigma: Yeah, he’s an old man who lives just outside the city to the west. He’s been here for some time. He’s really good at fixing things is completely self-sustained in the building he calls home.
Virtue: Do you think he knows of a way out of here?
Enigma: No. If he did I would have left long ago.
Nimbus: So he’s trapped in here too?
Enigma: Yeah, but he doesn’t mind as much as you might think. He says he’s just doing his part like any other Stalker, but he doesn’t have to deal with the stress of claustrophobic old buildings. He hunts mutants on occasion for sport.
*The Stalkers stand in silence for a few moments*
Virtue: Well… we were headed to the city hall to see if we could dig up any blueprints or anything else that could help us find a way out.
Enigma: You won’t find anything. All ways out are blocked.
Virtue: There has to be a way, I won’t give up that easily.
Enigma: I gave up long ago. You’d be better off just staying here. I wouldn’t mind the company; it’s been ages since I’ve interacted with someone other than the Forester.
Virtue: I don’t mind, but I’m not going to stop trying to get out of here. What about you Nimbus?
*Nimbus breaks from his trance*
Nimbus: Huh? Yeah, whatever you say.
Enigma: Heh. Alright then. Well, we should leave before his friends come.
*Enigma kicks the corpse below him and heads for the door behind them. The Stalkers leave the apartment and head into the street*
Enigma: My place is a few blocks west of here, over-looking the Red Forest. It’s the best view in the city.
Virtue: Lead on then.
*The Stalkers embark down the street, passing more apartments like the one they had been in previously. Many of the building resemble the ones next to them, with minor differences besides exterior color. Nimbus glances repeatedly at Enigma when he isn’t looking*
Enigma: Hey, wanna know a secret?
Nimbus: Who me? Sure.
Enigma: When the two of you came in, you scared the hell out of me – I’m not quite as invincible as I might seem.
Nimbus: You coulda fooled me!
Enigma: I thought I had gotten careless and allowed more than one Bloodsucker to enter the room I was in, I thought I was dead for sure this time.
Nimbus: What a relief, eh?
Enigma: Yes… I wasn’t exactly expecting to survive, let alone meet more Stalkers.
Virtue: Well, I hope that was a blessing and not a curse; you might be stuck with us for a while.
*The Stalkers eventually come to a river the marks the west side of Limansk. Bordering it are various bridges and towers, most of them destroyed beyond repair, others show faint distortions from anomalies located on or around them*
Enigma: Here it is.
*Enigma leads them to a watchtower on top of a hill along the river, offering an un-hindered view of the city behind and the Red Forest beyond. The tower is heavily fortified with countless hours of work put into its modification and it looks like crude floors have been added into the interior of the structure like a tree house*
Nimbus: Wow… does Tarzan live with you?
Virtue: I was wondering where the indoor pool was.
Enigma: What can I say? I’ve had some time on my hands.
*Enigma leads the Stalkers into the base of the tower. As they enter, they find a vast assortment of items from all over the city, mostly useless material objects*
Virtue: Wow, I didn’t take you for the collector type.
Nimbus: Got any baseball cards?
Enigma: These things remind me that there is still a world out there. I’d probably be dead if it weren’t for that.
*Virtue and Nimbus look around at all the accumulated items while Enigma stays rooted in place, any sign of emotion hidden by his facial visor*
Enigma: Come on; let me show you the view.
*The Stalkers go back outside and ascend the ladder to the top of the tower*
Nimbus: Wow…
Virtue: Amazing. You can see the barrier all around the area.
Enigma: Yeah, another reason for the things I’ve collected while I’ve been here. The barrier is always out there, like the sides of a bottle I’m trapped in. The only connection I’ll ever have with the outside are the things I keep with me here.
*The Stalkers stare into the distorted haze all around them in the distance*
Enigma: If you look over there, you can see the facility where the Forester lives.
Nimbus: I see it! It’s just behind the hill over there.
Virtue: You said that you see him whenever you can find a way, right?
Enigma: Yes. The barrier is constantly shifting, with pieces being moved around all the time. Sometimes I can find a path through them.
Virtue: If the pieces are always shifting, don’t you think they would shift enough that the barrier would open in some places.
Enigma: Yes, it does. The only problem is the last time I tried; I got stuck in a small pocket for nearly a week. Being stuck in a bubble a few meters wide for that long is reason enough to not do it again.
Virtue: You said the Forester has been here for a while. Do you think he’d know more about the barrier?
Enigma: He might. I stopped asking him a while ago, I don’t think he likes the idea of losing my company.
Virtue: I’d like to find out what he knows.
Enigma: Alright. I can go check my routes and see if one of them is open. Make yourselves at home – there’s some canned food on those shelves.
Nimbus: You don’t want any company?
Enigma: It’s too dangerous, I’ll go alone.
Virtue: Are you sure? We can handle ourselves pretty well.
Enigma: I don’t doubt that, but there are some places that are a tight fit and would require fore-knowledge in how to squeeze through if you get stuck.
Virtue: Alright, we’ll stay here then.
Enigma: Good. I’ll be back soon.
*Enigma opens the make-shift door and steps outside. After checking for any immediate danger, he shuts the door behind him. Virtue and Nimbus sit in silence for a few seconds*
Nimbus: Well, I don’t know about you but I’m hungry.
Virtue: You said it, toss be that can of ravioli.
*Nimbus tosses the can to Virtue while selecting his own dinner. The Stalkers dig into the cans like wild animals*
Nimbus: Mmm… how long has it been since we’ve eaten?
Virtue: I hadn’t thought about it until just now… more than a day I think.
Nimbus: Oh man… this sure beats stale bread.
*The Stalkers finish their food within a minute and resume their former silence*
Virtue: So what’s your story?
Nimbus: My story? You mean how I got here?
Virtue: Yeah. You said that you escaped from a prison, right?
Nimbus:  Yeah, it was minimum security so it wasn’t too hard. The only thing really holding me back was a mental barrier.
Virtue: How so?
Nimbus: Well… it’s hard to say. Basically, I’m the oldest one in my family – I have two younger sisters who have always looked up to me and aspired to be like me. Well… I got into some trouble as a teenager, which indirectly hurt them. I care for them deeply, but after the trouble I’ve been through I doubt they’ll trust me ever again. I’ve tried to tell them that I care, and that it was never my intention to hurt them, but they won’t listen to me.
So I decided to join a local mob so that I could at least feel accepted by *someone*. I got caught on my first assignment, and was taken to prison. I sat in there for a few months before I got over the fact that my sisters didn’t bother to visit me. I realized I had to let them go, I was just letting them hurt me the same way I hurt them.
One day, I heard one of the inmates talking about the Zone, saying that he was going to break out and go there to escape the law. He and I started plotting our escape together. By the end of the week we had both eluded the guards and made it outside the perimeter fence with little trouble.
After we had crossed over the border of the Zone, we were ambushed by Bandits north of Cordon. Since he had offered to carry our supplies, they held him at gunpoint. He pleaded with them that without these supplies we could not start a new life for ourselves. The Bandits didn’t care. They shot him and took all of our supplies. Then they threatened to kill me if I didn’t join them… so I did.
After that, I ran into you – and now we’re here.
Virtue: It sounds like you’ve seen quite a bit of action since the moment you set foot in the Zone.
Nimbus: It’s amazing; I didn’t think anyone could be crueler than the Zone. My boss was one of the cruelest bandits in this part of the Zone – I was his favorite because I would do anything without a second thought. My life was in ruins, I just didn’t care anymore – and he took full advantage of that. It’s a fucked up world we live in.
*Nimbus pauses*
Nimbus: So what about you? You said you’re here to make a new life for yourself, and you have a wife?
Virtue: Yes. Emelia. Our son died a few weeks ago from malnutrition. After that, I promised to provide more than enough food for the rest of our lives, and I knew the only way to do that was to travel to the Zone.
Nimbus: I’m sorry about your son.
Virtue: I wish I had gotten to see him more. I worked so much to make enough money to buy food, and I rarely came home before dark. I rarely saw him awake, I don’t know what he was like – so his death felt empty. Emelia was heartbroken and I became bitter. So I stole a Geiger counter from a store near our house ran toward the Zone, attempting to run off the pain. When I jumped the fence I had time to realize what I was doing, I knew I wouldn’t be getting out any time soon.
Nimbus: So, your wife then. How do you keep in touch with her to know she’s alright?
Virtue: I don’t. The only thing I can do is hope that she’s back home, waiting for me to return.
Nimbus: I think I do too – for my sisters. I just hope that wherever they are and whatever they’re doing, that they still care.
Virtue: I’m sure they do. Maybe they just don’t realize it right now.
Nimbus: Maybe you’re right…
*The Stalkers are interrupted by a knock at the door. It opens and Enigma steps inside*
Enigma: We’re in luck; the nearest route is currently open.
Virtue: Excellent. We should head out before it gets too dark.
Enigma: I Agree. Come on.
*The Stalkers depart, heading for one of the bridges crossing the river*
Nimbus: Are you sure about this… it looks like there are anomalies all over here.
Enigma: Yes, as long as you mirror my steps you’ll be fine.
*As the Stalkers approach the bridge, the booming sounds emanating from the anomalies get louder*
Enigma: This way. There’s a service tunnel under the bridge.
*Enigma leads the Stalkers under the bridge and opens a door beneath it. The door closes behind them and the booming sounds are diminished. Enigma clicks on his headlamp*
Enigma: Follow me.
*As they continue down the tunnel, they pass by generators and lights in rooms to their left. The lights shed a dim orange glow on the walls of the tunnel*
Virtue: What are all these generators doing down here?
Enigma: There was an assault here some time ago. When Limansk became open, the factions spent every available resource to be the first ones here to control the area. This was the site of a failed assault from one such faction.
*Enigma motions into one of the rooms. Propped up in a corner, is a man in advanced stages of decomposition, still wearing his protective clothing and rifle in hand*
Nimbus: I think I’m gonna hurl.
Enigma: He won’t bite. He was a member of the faction “Clear Sky”. Unfortunately, he was on the wrong side of the assault when the Bandits and Mercs came through these tunnels.
Virtue: Poor guy. It looks like he died fighting to the end.
Enigma: Weapon in hand – the best way to die.
*The Stalkers continue on, passing a few more bodies along the way. Some of the bodies are marked like that of the first they’ve seen, designating them members of Clear Sky, others have markings never seen before*
Nimbus: What are those other markings on them?
Enigma: Some of these are sub-factions of the Bandits and Mercs. I don’t know about the other ones. Here is the exit.
*Enigma opens a door as a sharp grinding sound fills the tunnel. The Stalkers step outside into the dim light once again. They walk a few meters, passing a booth at the end of the bridge and stopping at the end of the road on the other side*
Enigma: Beyond is the Red Forest – one of the most contaminated places on earth. We’ll only brush the perimeter, but you may see some… disturbing things. Try to stay close.

{Excerpt Phantom’s PDA}

Sakharov read my report. He was shocked to hear about Dmytro and the events that took place inside the facility. He says that this “complicates” things, whatever that means. He seemed to be a little shaken up over the losses we suffered – especially Jargon. He then said he was busy and that I was welcome to stay as long as I needed to.
I’ve slept on it, and I know what I need to do. Despite the losses, I am more than capable of completing my mission at the center of the Zone, and will leave immediately. I’ll mourn our losses later – I am all that’s left of the group and, as such, I will complete the mission on my own.
I heard that the Freedom base in the Military warehouses to the north has maps of the area north of the barrier. I’ll start there and see if there is any way around the Brain Scorcher. I’m sure they won’t mind seeing an old friend again…
I’ve said goodbye to Sakharov. I don’t know whether he’s deep in his work or troubled, but he acknowledged my departure, nonetheless. I have enough supplies to last me a week, so my next stop will be the Freedom base in the Military Warehouses.
After all this time, maybe I’ll finally learn the true secrets of the Zone, and the disappearance of my family. One thing’s for sure; it’s now or never. I can’t be tied down by my friends anymore; they just wind up dead because of me.
Should this be my final log… no – I must succeed.

{Excerpt from Zombie’s PDA}

I have hurt Phantom. He offends the Zone. Death is pre-selected by the Zone. We cannot change that.
The others are one with the Zone, it is a joyous time. Our mission was secondary to learning what we have about the Zone. Dmytro is the Zone. Getting to him will answer my questions. Where he dwells, only the Zone knows.
What have I become? Every word uttered from my lips is puzzle. I do not feel that I am in control of myself anymore. Sister would not want that. Sister always knew what my words meant. They will understand soon.
“the Zone is not a god”. Is there wisdom in his words? Was Sister wrong?
I do not know what to believe. I shall go see sister now.

[Audio enabled]
*Zombie leaves the underground dwelling where Phantom left him and walks alone into the night. It is just him, and the Zone – wrapped in a twilight embrace that is a usual occurrence between them. After what seems like a few minutes to Zombie, he arrives in a small, deserted town. He casually locates a particular house in the town and opens the door, wipes his boots on the mat outside, and takes off his suit*
Zombie: Sister. I have returned.
*Zombie plops down the carcass of a dead Blind Dog he somehow obtained during the journey. Sister – the only surviving family of his within the Zone - immediately tears into the meat while staring at Zombie with a vacant glare*
Zombie: Good, I see you are hungry. I have many questions I wish to pose, if you will hear them.
*Sister says nothing and continues to rip her dinner to shreds. Zombie waits for Sister to finish*
Zombie: Now, I have questions pertaining to the Zone.
Sister: Unnnnhhh…
Zombie: My first question is this: Does the Zone dictate who lives and who dies?
Sister: Ehhhh…
Zombie: In that case, is the Zone a living being or controlled by one?
Sister: Rrrraaaaaahhh…
*Zombie stands up abruptly*
Zombie: YOU LIE! I heard a voice in the lab! It was the voice of the Zone!
*Sister, angered by this outburst, shakes her shackles and growls at him*
Zombie: Why do you lie to me? I take care of you, and when I am in need, you do not return the favor?
Sister: Meeeeehhh…
Zombie: Fine - but only if you promise to behave yourself.
*Zombie unshackles Sister from the wall and is immediately knocked over. Sister lunges on top of him and attempts to take a bite out of his throat*
*Zombie slaps a shackle on Sister’s neck and backs away from the wall. Sister pulls with all her might against the chain, but to no avail. Finally, she slinks back down to the floor*
Zombie: Now, you will answer my questions.
Sister: …
Zombie: Was Phantom right when he said I care nothing for the loss of our comrades? Should I feel like their contribution to the Zone was for naught?
Sister: Ahhhhrrrrrhhh…
Zombie: Why do you insist that? Sometimes I feel as though you are misleading me for your own personal gain. I thought you loved me…
*Sister growls at him*
[Unknown]: Zombie. Step away.
*Sister roars at the intruder*
Zombie: YOU?! What are you doing here?
[Unknown]: Get away from her. She’s not the sister you once knew and loved anymore.
Zombie: Yes she is! She loves me!
*Zombie reaches over to pet Sister and nearly gets a chunk taken out of his arm*
*The intruder activates a device on his belt that emits a low whirring sound*
Zombie: What… my head…
*Zombie falls to the floor*
*Sister flies into a rage, biting at the chains that constrain her*
[Unknown]: You might not be the one chained to the wall, but you are the only slave here Zombie. I have come to free you.
Zombie: Stop… the images… Sister…!
*Sister stretches herself to the limit of her chains, and then slowly glides down to where Zombie now sits. As soon as her head is as close as possible to his she lets out a blood-curdling scream*
*Zombie, shocked at the response, un-holsters his weapon and aims it at her. His eyes go wide with surprise as he sees the true malice and rage behind the once-loving eyes for the first time*
Zombie: You… you’re a… you’re not my sister…
*Sister lunges at Zombie and is immediately forced back by the chains, falling again to the floor*
Sister: Yooouuuu… dieeeee… Sisssssterrrrr…
*Tears stream down Zombies face and he screams while unloading his magazine at the atrocity before him. The zombified remains of Sister collapse to the floor, a satisfied grin on her face. Zombie immediately falls to the floor, overcome with emotion*
[Unknown]: Everything’s going to be OK. Your sister is in a better place now. Whatever person or force that was controlling her is gone from this place now. Do not let her plague your mind any further.
Zombie *crying*: H…How… are you alive? How long has that thing been in here? Where am I?
[Unknown]: The answers will come in time, my friend. But for now, we must leave this place and you must never return.
Zombie: V…Very well… let me gather my things and I will not return here.
[Unknown]: Good. Now I’m a little out of date – what’s happened in my absence?