November 30, 2008

Chapter 12: Undercover

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}
*The jeep rumbles steadily down the road as Gremlin and Phantom, accompanied by their bleeding would-be adversary, Ivan – aka Private Stewart, continue on course to their destination: The Bar.*
Ivan: Unhhh…
Phantom: Moan one more time and I’ll give you something to moan about you little shit!
Gremlin: Quiet. We’re almost there.
*Phantom un-holsters his pistol and aims it at the gagged soldier’s head, ripping the tape from his mouth as he screams in agony.*
Phantom: Make so much as a peep and you’ll be the first course for the dogs tonight.
*Ivan pants painfully.*
Ivan: U… Understood.
Gremlin: This is where we get out.
*Gremlin pulls the jeep over to the side of the road just out of sight of the northern barricade at the Bar.*
Gremlin: Get him.
*Phantom pulls Ivan out of the jeep, yanking him along behind him before he can get his footing. He cocks his pistol and re-holsters it.*
Phantom: Remember what I said.
*Gremlin starts into a light jog, followed by Ivan, then Phantom in the rear – hand on his pistol. Gremlin darts from cover to cover, hiding behind trees and diving under abandoned scaffolding and rusted metal.*
Gremlin: The path is just ahead. Stay close and stay down.
[Unknown]: Hey, you there!
*The Stalkers freeze, looking for the source of the voice.*
[Unknown]: Yeah! You!
*Phantom slowly draws his pistol, keeping one eye on Ivan and the other on the area ahead.*
[Unknown]: I’m talking to you!
[Unknown 2]: Oh… I thought you meant somebody else.
*The Stalkers sigh with relief at the fact that they remain unseen, all but Ivan who groans again.*
[Unknown]: Who else would I be talking to? You’re the only one in front of me.
[Unknown 2]: Ah… so I am.
[Unknown]: What’s your business on Duty territory?
[Unknown 2]: Just looking to have a drink, ya know?
[Unknown]: I haven’t seen you here before. Why are you coming from the Wild Territory?
[Unknown 2]: They don’t call it wild for nothing; you should see the killer parties they have out there.
[Unknown]: Unlikely. How about a real answer this time, before your insides end up on the pavement. Scum!
[Unknown 2]: OK, you caught me. My wife is pregnant and I was looking for the hospital. This it?
*A rifle cocks.*
[Unknown]: You have exactly three seconds to go back where you came from, or I’ll take you back there in several pieces.
[Unknown 2]: I’ve got a better idea.
*Two shotgun blasts sound simultaneously followed by the gurgled sound of the first voice and another nearby.*
[Unknown 3]: This is Duty outpost 3! We are under…
*The voice is silenced by two more shotgun blasts. There is silence for what seems like forever, until Phantom risks a glance over the bottom of the old concrete foundation he used as cover. A Stalker dressed in dark blue camo is standing over the bodies of 3 Duty guards.*
[Unknown 2]: Too bad your whit didn’t match your reflexes, kid.
*Several voices can be heard getting closer, shouting as they approach.*
[Unknown 2]: All this for a drink?
*The Stalker sprints past the barricade and into the base, using his ninja-like reflexes to climb pipes and walls onto the roof of a building near the edge of the base. He crawls along the rooftop and disappears into the base.*
Gremlin: What’s happening out there?
Phantom: We need to run. It’s now or never.
*Gremlin peers over his cover, scans the area ahead, and then makes a mad dash for a broken metal gate opposite the now vacant outpost. Phantom gets up and shoves Ivan in front of him.*
Phantom: Move your ass!
*The Stalkers sprint for the gate and duck behind it just as a squad of Duty soldiers rounds the corner to find the source of the disturbance.*
Gremlin: Let’s get scarce.
*The Stalkers continue into the Wild Territory as the voices die away behind them. Before they die off, more gunfire can be heard within the base until it too dies away.*
Gremlin: What was that all about?
Phantom: It looked like a Mercenary on hit. He must have been discovered after he got in… either that or he succeeded in his mission and he was firing those shots.
Gremlin: Good. That’s a few less Duty scumbags we have to deal with.
Phantom: You said it.
Ivan: Ugh.
*Phantom elbows Ivan in the gut, causing him to keel over as Phantom shoves him forward again, knocking him to the ground. Gremlin turns with a smirk.*
Gremlin: We need the Private in good working order if he’s going to be our meat shield. If you put too many holes in him now you might regret it later.
Phantom: Doubtful.
*Ivan gets back up and looks back at Phantom with a glare. Phantom resists the urge to feed him the butt of his rifle again, but gives him a glare back while pointing to his rifle.*
Gremlin: We need to start moving faster now that we’re clear of the Bar.
*Gremlin starts jogging while looking back at the other Stalkers and motions for them to keep up.*

{End Excerpt}

*Virtue, Nimbus, and Enigma – now back on course for the barrier, continue on towards the edge of the Red Forest. The sense of dread on them seems to be dissipating as they go, despite their eerie and deadly surroundings.*
Virtue: I’ll be happy to out of this place for good. There’s something about being surrounded by red fucked-up trees that is a lot more intimidating than normal fucked-up trees.
Enigma: If I’m remembering correctly, we should be pretty close to the south-eastern edge of the Red Forest. The forest continues on east of here, but we should be able to get clear if we continue more south.
Nimbus: Let’s just hope the artifact we’re following actually works.
Enigma: I’ve known the Forester for a long time. He may be a little… odd, at times – but if he believes the artifact works, it works.
*Virtue’s PDA starts to crackle again.*
[Unknown [incoming]]: …clear of the forest?
Virtue [outgoing]: Hello? Please repeat what you said.
*The static continues for a few seconds, then the signal is suddenly strengthened and the voice becomes clearer.*
[Unknown [incoming]]: Virtue? Can you hear me? This is Jargon.
*Nimbus looks at Virtue with an expression of excitement and disbelief.*
Virtue [outgoing]: Jargon?
Jargon [incoming]: Yes. I’m sorry if you though I met my end in that Lab – I’ll explain later. Zombie and I are in Sakharov’s bunker. Thank God you’re alive!
Virtue [outgoing]: I could say the same to you! Nimbus and I fell into an anomaly of some sort… we’re stranded in the Red Forest near Limansk.
Jargon [incoming]: Limansk? Impossible!
*Nimbus leans close to the PDA.*
Nimbus: Actually, possible.
Jargon [incoming]: Well… at any rate we need to get you back here so we can complete the mission. There must be some way…
Virtue [outgoing]: We have an artifact that seems to be guiding us towards a break in the anomaly barrier. We seem to be getting close now, but it’s difficult to decipher a precise direction.*
Jargon [incoming]: Gremlin gave me your PDA’s ID when I caught up with you in Yantar. Sakharov is going to track your position now. Don’t worry – we’ll get you out of there.
*Jargon stops speaking and background noise and undecipherable voices are all that is heard for a few seconds.*
Jargon [incoming]: We have a fix on you now. Amazing – you’ve come a considerable distance from Limansk. If we can find a break in the barrier there, you should come out somewhere north of the Wild Territory. Hold on.
*More background noise.*
Jargon [incoming]: Yes… yes! We are detecting a weak region of the barrier less than a kilometer from you now. Continue directly south from your current position – there is an opening that you should be able to crawl through if we’re seeing this correctly.
Virtue [outgoing]: Got it. We’ll head south immediately. Thanks… it’s good to hear from you again.
Jargon [incoming]: I told you I sensed something about you. If you’ve survived this long, who am I to dessert you now? Good luck to the both of you – I hope to make contact with you again outside the barrier.
*The signal cuts off, leaving the Stalkers in silence.*
Enigma: Your friend appears to be right – the anomaly is glowing brighter now.
Virtue: Good, let’s hope it keeps doing that as we get closer to the barrier.
*The Stalkers continue due south – silent in expectation as they near the barrier. The anomaly continues to glow brighter as they go south. Eventually, the trees start to get less dense and the first rays of sunlight can be seen through the trees. The Stalkers squint as the brightness and warmth of the sun invokes a forgotten feeling against their cold, pale skin.*
Nimbus: We’re so close!
Enigma: There it is!
*The trees end abruptly in front of them as a large force of some sort creates a distortion in the air in front of them. The effect is like heat on a hot road in summer, but seems to stretch everywhere in front of them as if they are looking across a vast dessert – but instead of sand, a stretch of green hills lies in front of them.
The ground and plants around the edge of the barrier are distorted, burned, or otherwise mutilated in some fashion as a result of contact with the anomalies making up the barrier.*
Nimbus: It’s massive!
Virtue: It’s like we were in a giant snow-globe the whole time.
*An abundance of mixed sounds come to them as they get closer to the barrier. A compilation of buzzing, crackling, whooshing, pulsing and dripping sounds.*
Virtue: Alright. This is it. So how do we get through it?
Enigma: I’m not sure.
*Enigma looks at the artifact as it pulses a dazzling blue color. It shakes in her hands a bit, and then starts to move towards the barrier.*
Nimbus: What is it doing?
Enigma: I can’t hold on to it!
*Enigma struggles to grip the artifact and keep it from flying out of her hands. Eventually, the artifact starts to pull her along with it as she holds on for dear life.*
Enigma: It feels like a magnet! It’s getting stronger the closer it gets!
*Virtue grabs onto Enigma and tries to pull her back with him. Nimbus follows Virtue’s example and grabs onto a tree nearby while gripping Virtue’s belt.*
Virtue: Pull me back!
Nimbus: I’m trying to… it can’t be magnetized though - it’s getting harder to pull you by the second!
Enigma: I’m losing it!
Nimbus: Can’t… hold you…
*The artifact launches out of Enigma’s hold and rockets into the barrier, sending the Stalkers flying forward towards the barrier. Just when they think they’re about to be shredded, compressed, and burned to death – the artifact lodges itself into the edge of the barrier, sending out a shockwave that repulses the distortion around them.
The Stalkers look up in surprise.*
Virtue: Wow… maybe an instruction manual would be useful next time.
*Nimbus looks through the barrier into the bright green filed in front of them and immediately runs towards it, smiling.*
Nimbus: Come on!
*Virtue looks at Enigma, who smiles back at him. He runs through the gap to join Nimbus on the other side who is now rolling down one of the grassy hills, laughing with glee.
Nimbus: We made it! We fucking made it!
Virtue: We sure as hell did!
*Enigma walks calmly down the hill, looking out into the bright blue sky as the sunlight reflects off of her smooth, silky skin.
Enigma: Okay boys, stop rolling in the dirt.
Nimbus: When was the last time you saw the sunlight?
Enigma: I… I don’t remember.
*Enigma chokes a little, turning her face to hide a tear involuntarily caressing her cheek. The two male Stalkers look at each other and back at Enigma.*
Virtue: Hey – we made it. You finally get to breathe fresh air and you can go wherever you want in the Zone. Let’s just bask in the moment while it lasts.
*Enigma looks back at the two of them, tears welling in both of her blue-grey eyes. She laughs slightly as the tears fall down her face. The sight is saddening, but beautiful. She takes off her helmet and drops it on the ground beside her, letting her long, black hair out behind her. The wind picks up and chills the tears on her cheeks as it tosses her hair about.
The Stalkers look among each other in serene silence and let out sighs as the dangers of the Red Forest  fade at their backs.*
*Nimbus looks around him, taking in the refreshing change of scenery. He squints at a structure a hill away from them.*
Nimbus: Do you guys see that?
Virtue: That cabin over there?
Nimbus: Yeah. Is that smoke coming out of the chimney?
*The Stalkers look in the direction Nimbus is pointing.*
Enigma: He’s right. I think there’s someone living there.
*It suddenly hits the three of them at once at how tired and hungry they are.*
Virtue: Maybe we should go see if anyone’s home.
Nimbus: I hope whoever it is has food.
Enigma: And a place to sleep.
*The Stalkers get up and walk towards the cabin on the hill to their right. As they get closer they see, to their amazement, a large scythe sticking out of the ground in the front yard, which is otherwise devoid of any other “decorations”.*
Nimbus: I hope that means “welcome”.
*The Stalkers cautiously approach the front door of the cabin. No lights or movement of any sort can be seen inside – only a dim glow of a fire somewhere within. They look amongst themselves, unsure of how to proceed, until finally Enigma takes charge and knocks slowly on the door.
Some noises can be heard inside as it someone or something starts shuffling around inside, causing quite a stir inside. Moments later, someone approaches the door and in a gruff, accented voice, says:*
[Unknown]: Speak in slow, clear English or you’ll be singing it for me.
Virtue: Hello? We’ve just come from the Red Forest and haven’t eaten or slept for a few days – we thought someone might live here who could help us out.
[Unknown]: I said in SLOW, clear English – or do I need to come out there and show you ‘ow to do it properly?
Enigma: Please… we’ve been through hell and back. We really need some help.
*The man behind the door quickly fiddles with whatever locking mechanism is in place, and opens the door to the two male Stalkers – and to his expectant satisfaction – one female.*
[Unknown]: Well shit on my chest and…
*He cuts himself off in the presence of a lady.*
[Unknown]: Sorry lass, I didn’t mean to be rude. You are most certainly a welcome sight, but a strange one…
*He glances between the three of them.*
[Unknown]: Who are you, and ‘ow did you find this place?
Virtue: We’ve come from a mission in Yantar. We got trapped in an anomaly and teleported to Limansk. We just got through a hole in the barrier surrounding the city and ended up here.
*He goes through a wide array of facial expressions as if he can’t comprehend what has just been said. Then he looks up slowly as a grin stretches across his face.*
[Unknown]: Reeeeeeeally…
Virtue: Uh… yes, really…
[Unknown]: So I suppose you don’t mind showing me where this ‘ole of yours is then?
*Virtue steps back into line of sight of the anomaly barrier and points towards where the artifact can still be seen deflecting the advances of the anomaly barrier.
The man glances around the door frame expectantly, and then grabs a rifle off of a rack somewhere near the door and steps out; pointing it at them as he slowly rounds the front of the cabin. He glances around the corner and verifies that there is, in fact, a gaping hole in the barrier. He swings back to them and quickly returns to the front door of the cabin.*
[Unknown]: Eh… so you’re right then. ‘ow did you manage that?
Enigma: With an artifact. It’s still lodged in the field now.
*The man looks up and down Enigma with a sly grin.*
[Unknown]: Well if you ain’t the prettiest thing I ever saw…
*Enigma quickly un-holsters the rifle from her back and points it at the man’s head before he can match her move.*
Enigma: Try anything and I’ll be the last pretty thing you ever see.
*The man, knowingly defeated, smiles mischeivously.*
[Unknown]: I didn’t mean anything by it – only that you’re not the normal gutter trash that comes by ‘ere – ya know?
*The man hiccups, hinting that he is slightly drunk. Enigma lowers her weapon.*
[Unknown]: Well then, I suppose you would rather not stand around ‘ere all day, would yeh?
*His slight English accent starts to become more obvious as he accepts them as company, and not hostile.*
[Unknown]: You can come in. Just don’t touch my shit, o-right? Oh, and the names Reaper – by the way.
*He opens the door fully, and steps back. Enigma enters first followed by Virtue and Nimbus. He gets a good whiff of Enigma as she passes him and nearly faints with delight.
The Stalkers gather inside near the fire as he closes the door and locks it again. He turns back to them and stares at the floor just in front of them as if he’s forgotten what he was about to do. He snaps out of it a second later and looks at them in their famished conditions.*
Reaper: Bloody ‘ell, you all look like shit…
*Nimbus laughs slightly, invoking a smile from the other two.*
Reaper: Well! On the menu today we have Boar, Flesh, some berries that probably won’t taste too good, and some fucked up shit I found near the barrier that’ll probably kill ya.
*The Stalkers stare back at him, about to pass out from lack of food and sleep.*
Reaper: Right… I’ll just go fix us up some B and B.
Nimbus: B and B?
Reaper: Boar and booze chap!
*He says with a grin, and then bursts into laughter at his own cleverness. He recedes into the kitchen area behind a hanging blanket of some sort.
The Stalkers feel their eyes start to get heavy and their feet start to fail them. They immediately collapse next to each other near the fire and fall into a deep sleep.*
[End audio]
How long has it been since I’ve logged an entry in this thing? Well… I’m the first one awake after we passed out in this cabin belonging to a Stalker known as Reaper.
Enigma and Nimbus are still soundly asleep, and Reaper is sleeping on a bed in the corner, snoring with a bottle of Vodka on the stand next to him.
We’ve come a long way and been through an experience like I can never describe with full justice in words. I have no doubt that what the three of us have seen will stay with us the rest of our lives… the old man, Forester, the only soul left in Limansk, the Red Forest with its blood-red trees and bloody pools – and that… thing made of flesh. I’ll never look at anything outside the Zone the same way again after seeing the decay and contamination emanating from this hell.
It’s been nearly a week since I last saw my wife or made any sort of contact with her. I see Enigma looking at me when she thinks I’m not looking, but I can see her stare in the way she does – a sort of painful, yet hopeful look. I know she must hide a world of pain behind those eyes, but whatever hope has been driving her for the last few years is there still, and I can feel it getting stronger every day. I only hope that our relationship does not become as close as I fear it may… I could not put Emelia through that.
I don’t know what lies on the road ahead, but I know our next objective should be to rendezvous with the rest of the team to complete our mission. What happens after that is anyone’s guess… do I roam the Zone alone, find another mission, make a home for myself, or start my own band of companions to travel by my side? These are the things I think about all the time when thoughts of my wife and the dangers of the Zone do not take priority.
I should wake the others – we need to get to Yantar before dark.
[Begin audio]
Virtue: Hey! Wake up.
Nimbus *groans*: What time is it?
Virtue: Time to go. We’ve got to get moving if we’re going to get to Yantar before dark.
*Nimbus’ eyes widen as he remembers the last encounter with the zombies there.*
Nimbus: You’re right.
*Virtue leans over to Enigma and brushes her dark hair behind her ear, touching her cheek slightly in hopes of a slightly more welcoming awakening.*
Virtue: Wake up.
*Enigma stirs – alerted at first, but after scanning the two Stalkers standing near her, she relaxes and lets her guard down.*
Virtue: We need to make for Yantar – we should go now if we want to get there before dark.
Enigma: Alright. Let’s get moving.
*Reaper grunts and sits up in his bed.*
Reaper: Who brought the bitches?
*He looks over (still half-asleep) towards the three Stalkers, his eyes resting on Enigma. After realizing he was only dreaming about naked women again, he looks back to Virtue.*
Reaper: Where are you all off to?
Virtue: We need to complete a mission we started a few days ago; we’ll need to go now if we’re going to make it before nightfall.
Reaper: Aww, what’s the ‘urry? Can’t you stay for a drink er somethin'? Ya didn’t even touch yer boar meat!
Nimbus: You know, we still haven’t eaten in a few days now…
Reaper: Don’t make me beg now… I ‘aven’t ‘ad company for God knows ‘ow long now!
Virtue: Well, alright. But then we’ll have to leave. Thank you for your generous hospitality.
Reaper: My pleasure, gents – and genitals.
*Reaper’s eyes fall in embarrassment of butchering yet another reference to the female Stalker.*
Reaper: Right… let me go warm some ah that up then.
*The Stalkers wait quietly, feeling well-rested, but still very hungry from their long excursion within the barrier. Enigma steals glances at Virtue, mistakenly thinking that his long black hair in his eyes is blocking his vision.*
Reaper: Now that’s what I call supper!
*He lays a generous slab of Boar meat on a plate in front of each of them, and they quickly dig into the meat like ravenous wolves.*
Reaper: Wow… you weren’t kidding were you?!
*He scratches his short brown hair in amazement as the Stalkers engulf their food.*
*He waits anxiously for the Stalkers to finish, then asks them about their mission while he grabs them all a mug of some sort of beer. They take turns explaining their stories to him as he sits next to them by the newly-built fire, hanging on every word in anticipation.*
Reaper: Really?! The artifact just jumped outta yer arms?
Enigma: Yes. I thought I was going to be pulled into the barrier along with it and get shredded to pieces.
Nimbus: Then we stepped through the hole in the barrier.
Virtue: Nimbus saw the smoke coming out of your chimney and thought you might be able to help us.
*Reaper ponders their story for a while, rocking back and forth on his leg with some sort of excitement.*
Reaper: So… that means that anyone could go in or out of the Red Forest now.
Virtue: Yes, I suppose they could.
*Reaper’s expression changes after contemplating this.*
Reaper: We need to get that thing out of there.
*Reaper stands up and grabs a G-36 off of a rack near the door.*
Reaper: If those bastards start coming near my cabin, they’ll start sniffing around my food… or worse. I’ll make ya a deal – I’ll trade ya that artifact for enough supplies to get you where you’re going and then some.
Enigma: What would you use the artifact for?
Reaper: Why do you think I’m ‘ere? I’m a Stalker like any of you – if I can get my fair share of picking out there, I’ll bloody do whatever it takes to get my ‘ands on it.
Enigma: But what about those creatures we told you about? There are more of those things and other monsters worse than them roaming around in there – if you were to get killed, they might be able to escape through the gap and infest other parts of the Zone closer to the habitable places.
Reaper: Oh, you don’t need to go and worry about that now… I would take the artifact with me – if those bastards take me out, there’s no way in ‘ell I’d let them get outta there.
Virtue: It might be a good trade. We need the supplies, and who knows when somebody else might wind up in that place like us and need a way out. Reaper could very well be the only hope for their escape.
*Enigma is hesitant to agree at first, but eventually nods.*
Reaper: Capitol! I promise I’ll do whatever I can to keep it safe and ‘elp others. It gets awful lonely out ‘ere and I can never pass at the chance at a visitor. As long as they don’t try to steal my shit, that is.
Virtue: Good. We’re holding you to your…
*A large static hiss echoes through the sky outside. Reaper runs to the window in the back of the cabin and peers outside.*
Reaper: What in the blazes…
*A man is yelling outside while shotgun blasts sound nearby. The door to the cabin bursts open suddenly, revealing another man also with brown hair and blue eyes. The sawn-off shotgun he’s holding is smoking as he tosses it on the ground, sending it skittering across the floor.*
Reaper: Oy! What in the fuck is going on out there?!
[Unknown]: I don’t know! Some sort of hole in the barrier – there’s a hoard of mutants coming through it. Where’s my rifle?!
*The man reaches up for a shelf above the door (an easy feat since he is about as tall as the doorframe), and finds an old Mosin Nagant that he had apparently been searching for, and loads a magazine and a charger inside, taking the rest of the box with him.*
Reaper: Shit! That’s bad! Come on chums, grab yer gear and follow Grisha ‘ere and me!
*Reaper grabs his G-36 off of the gun rack and a box of magazines on top, following the Stalker named Grisha through the door. The other Stalkers check their weapons and follow behind the first two.*
Grisha: I don’t know what’s happened! We can’t stop them all!
Reaper: Yes we can! We know what’s causing the ‘ole there – you three see if you can fix it, we’ll make a bloody mess around you!
*A wave of mutants like Bloodsuckers with slight variations bursts through the hole, lunging with incredible strength as they go towards the Stalkers.*
Nimbus: Look at those guys! Those must be the things that carried us through the tree-tops! They look like Bloodsuckers.
Reaper: Well… lucky for them I brought my favorite toy with me – meet “Blood-fucker” you bloody Chavs!
*Reaper opens up with his G-36, dubbed “Blood-fucker”, tearing into the first wave of mutants as Grisha finishes them off with a powerful shot to the head with his bolt-action rifle.*
Reaper: Ha ha ha! ‘ow you like that you tentacle shits!
*The two Stalkers open up fire as the other three try to be as subtle as possible as they approach the edge of the barrier, near the warfare.*
Virtue: How exactly are we going to remove this thing?
Enigma: I don’t know… but the Forester got it somehow, it must come back out.
Nimbus: At least those two are loud enough for the three of us; I don’t think any of the mutants have discovered us yet.
*The Stalkers move quickly, but quietly to the edge of the barrier while the battle continues on the hill behind them. They get to cover behind a rock as close to the artifact and the stream of mutants as possible.*
Virtue: We can’t get to the artifact as long as those mutants are pouring out of the hole.
Nimbus: Maybe if we shoot it we can knock it out of place.
Virtue: It’s worth a shot, give it a whirl.
*Nimbus cocks his shotgun and aims directly for the artifact.
The blast releases a shockwave the sends him flying backwards and sends the mutants closest to the artifact scattering in every direction.*
Nimbus: Shit! It didn’t work.
Enigma: They know we’re here!
*The mutants near them track the source of the blast, and immediately scramble towards the Stalkers. Reaper takes notice from on top of the hill he and Grisha are stationed and shouts:*
Reaper: Oh no you don’t!
*The mutants heading in their direction start to drop as Reaper and Grisha focus their fire towards them. Nimbus opens fire as soon as one of the Bloodsucker-like creatures gets close enough, sending its torso and body parts flying into the barrier beside him and exploding into a million pieces. Virtue and Enigma fire their own weapons afterwards, releasing a hail of bullets and a few grenades from their attached grenade-launchers. The grenades either explode their targets on impact, or send the mutant in its path soaring towards the anomaly barrier to be shredded, or the Stalkers on the hill to be filled with bullets.*
Virtue *shouting*: Aim for the artifact when they’re near it! It sends out a shockwave that forces them back!
Reaper *shouting*: You got it, chap!
*The Stalkers re-direct their fire towards the artifact as the mutants continue to storm towards it, sending them flying away from it when they get close enough.*
Reaper *shouting*: We got problems over ‘ere chums!
*The three Stalkers look back to see a few remaining mutants lunging towards the two on the hill with their incredible strength and agility. Reaper’s magazine runs dry and his rifle emits nothing but clicks as he attempts to put down the mutant nearest to him.*
Grisha: Come on! They’re moving too fast for me to hit them! I don’t have a shot!
*The three Stalkers attempt to neutralize the mutants, but from their angle a good shot is more difficult to get.*
Grisha: REAPER!!!
*A mutant lunges on top of Reaper, knocking him to the ground and sending his magazines flying into the air. Just when the mutant looks about ready to tear his head off, it erupts into a fountain of blood and guts. Reaper stands up in the cloud of vapor and throws the pin of the grenade he lodged into the mutant to the ground.*
Reaper: Whew! That was a close call ‘ey?
Grisha: Heads up!!!
*Reaper quickly slams another magazine into the chamber of his rifle and continues reducing the swarms in front of him into a bloody trail of bodies leading towards the hole in the barrier.*
*Virtue and Enigma, with their freshly-loaded grenades, launch another volley at the mutants between them and the other two Stalkers – further thinning their numbers.*
Reaper: We’re pushing them back! Do whatever you need to do now!
*Enigma quickly analyzes the state of the artifact, trying her best to ignore the eyes in the dark forest in front of her.*
Enigma: I think I can grab it without any problem – something about being in close proximity to a person triggers the effect, I think I can just grab it to negate the effect.
Virtue: Be careful – we’ll cover you.
*Enigma runs over to the artifact while Virtue and Nimbus run to either side of her, watching all movement in the forest in front of them. Enigma reaches out and touches the artifact to no effect. Then, she grabs on and starts pulling with all her might.*
Enigma: It’s stuck! I can’t get it to move!
Nimbus: Those eyes are coming closer… they look hungry!
*The trees and bushes in the forest start to rustle rapidly as mutants rapidly approach the barrier wall again, attempting to get some easy kills out in the open.*
Virtue: They’re coming!
Enigma: Help me! Maybe if you pull me we can break it out of whatever force is holding it in place.
*Virtue grabs onto Enigma’s body and starts pulling as she braces herself against the ground and pulls her all her might.*
Nimbus: Guys…!
*Suddenly a mutant rockets towards the Stalkers, coming within a few feet of them before its body impacts the artifact and sends it rocking back and forth in place as it flails through the other side of the barrier. Eventually, the hole starts to collapse and the distortion of the barrier begins to refill to gap.
The mutants in front of them shriek as the hole closes, and imitate their companion’s lunge for the center of the hole. Just as the first ones reach the hole, it closes completely – cutting the mutants who made it partially through in half, and vaporizing the mutants behind who hit the barrier wall directly.
A series of buzzing, crackling and whooshes accompany each mutant who hits the wall, as their bodies are torn assunder.*
*Reaper raises his weapon in the air and jumps up and down on top of the hill.*
Reaper: Woohoo! We did it! Go back to yer tree-houses ya fucking Wookies!
*Grisha sighs with relief, and sweeps the area for any survivors, giving them a final shot through the skull.*
Reaper: Did ya get the artifact back safely?
Enigma: Yes – I have it here.
Reaper: Capitol! I suppose you’ll still honor our agreement then, right?
Virtue: We have no further use for it – it’s all yours.
*Reaper’s eyed widen as the blue glow of the artifact reflects off of them. Enigma hands it to him and he accepts it, holding it above his head as if to fully understand its secrets. He finishes then looks back at the Stalkers in front of him.*
Reaper: Very good – come with me.
*Reaper heads back into the cabin while Grisha keeps watch outside for any mutants who may have become attracted to the scene. He leads them to a back room in the cabin and pulls a rug in the middle of the room towards the wall, revealing a hidden hatch in the floor. He pulls on a metal handle and the small door comes open, revealing a large cache of food, ammo, med kits, and other necessities.*
Reaper: Take whatever you can carry – go on, don’t be shy now.
*The Stalkers peer inside the compartment, taking what food, ammo, and supplies they can carry.*
Reaper: By the way, that was some bloody fair fightin’ you did out there. I wasn’t sure how I was gonna get outta that one.
Virtue: Recent circumstances have required us to become better versed in our use of weapons.
Reaper: I’ll bet, considering where you’ve been… anyway, you’d better get started if you’re to be there before dark. Go ‘ave a chat with Grisha outside before you go, I think he may be ‘eaded in that direction -  ‘e might be able to help ya get there faster.
Virtue: We’d appreciate that.
Enigma: Thanks again for your hospitality – we couldn’t have gotten far without you.
*Reaper blushes.*
Reaper: Well I… you betcha.
*Nimbus steps in before Reaper turns any redder.*
Nimbus: It was nice meeting you.
Reaper: Same to you.  Best of luck on your travels – and ‘ey, if you’re ever back this way look me up, o-right?
*The Stalkers exit the cabin as Reaper closes the door behind them. Virtue scans the immediate area, now fresh with the smell of gunpowder and blood for any sign of Grisha. He spots the man over on another hill, patrolling the area.*
Virtue: Grisha?
*Grisha turns slowly to face the group. From his position on the hill, it appears as though he is towering over them, although he is only a few centimeters above them all in height. His face is scarred and hardened – whether by battle or a tough life is unknown. His eyes suggest a man dedicated to a cause and duty, with a lot of time to contemplate the world around him and become lost in thought.*
Grisha: That’s me.
Virtue: Reaper said that you might be headed our way and that you might want to travel with us.
Grisha: I am.
Virtue: Without going into detail on our mission, I’m sure any help we can get wouldn’t hurt us.
*Grisha looks into the south as if fore-seeing their destination or some future event. His blue eyes distract from the rest of his rough, dark exterior as they seem to see everything at once. After a while, he replies:*
Grisha: I’ll help you.
*He looks at Enigma inquisitively.*
Grisha: Can she fight?
Virtue: You bet your ass she can.
*He looks at her with a gaze that threatens to reduce her to ash at any moment.*
Grisha: OK.
*Grisha looks at the ground in front of him, catching something twitching to his left. He slowly walks over and stomps with all his might on the head of one of the creatures that is suffering in its final moments beside him. Blood sprays out of the damp, squishy ground where the head was moments ago.*
Grisha: Let’s go.
*The three Stalkers follow behind Grisha silently as he follows the path on the map in his head. Reaper’s cabin fades into the distance – all except for the scythe in the front yard that glints in the sunlight for a while longer.*

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}

*After a long jog – even longer with Ivan struggling to keep up, Phantom and Gremlin finally reach the outskirts of Yantar.*
Ivan: You guys are crazy! Do you know what kind of things are in this area?
Gremlin: I do – just yesterday I was running from a mob of really pissed off things.
Ivan: Just how in the hell could you possibly escape that?
Gremlin: Well, lucky for me I found that they’re not too good at climbing. As I was running through an underground tunnel with all kinds of shit behind me, I saw an access shaft off to the side - and knowing that there wasn’t a chance I could outrun them, I dove into the shaft and climbed up a maintenance ladder so I could shoot anything that decided to follow me up.
Well, they must have thought they had me cornered, and in their desperation at losing me they crowded the bottom of the shaft and started clawing to get up. When the blood started flying they went crazy and started attacking each other. At that point, it was just a matter of following the shaft to a service station outside which lead me outside.
Ivan: I didn’t know the beasts were cannibals too!
Gremlin: They’re not – but under extreme conditions humans have eaten their own body parts or animal companions. The smell of blood just drove them crazy.
*Phantom glances over at Gremlin.*
Phantom: If that access shaft hadn’t been there, you’d probably be dead – and I would have blamed myself for not being there to bail you out.
Gremlin: Don’t beat yourself up about it. Any of us could die at any moment – the point is we’re still alive now. There’s too little time in life for regrets, hasn’t the Zone taught you that every moment in life counts?
*Phantom looks at the ground. Gremlin quickly adds:*
Gremlin: And I mean the Zone as a place – not a being. I’m sorry I lead you to believe otherwise. I know now that it was stupid superstition, and I was a fool for ever thinking it.
*Phantom looks up again, relieved.*
Phantom: It’s good to hear you say that. I can understand how this place would make you believe that. With so many unknowns, you’ve got to fill in the gaps in your own way. People have been doing it since the beginning of time to explain the unknown. It’s perfectly natural.
Gremlin: I suppose so. But I also let it interfere with our friendship and out mission. I won’t let that happen again.
*The Stalkers are silent for a while. Ivan’s expression has changed from hate and anguish to calm and resolved.*
Phantom: Ivan.
*Ivan quickly looks at Phantom, unknowing of how to react.*
Ivan: Yes?
Phantom: We’ve made it this far and you haven’t tried to run away or shoot me in the back yet. Why’s that?
*Ivan ponders the question, carefully considering his words.*
Ivan: The story I told you before was partly true. Yes - I was enlisted by the Ukrainian army to infiltrate your ranks, but now that my career is over I can’t say that I’ll miss it. I’ve been a… Stalker for hours now and already I can see why you fight like you do.
Phantom: Do you? Why don’t you explain that to me so we can see eye-to-eye.
Ivan: Well, I won’t presume to know your reasons – but I do know my own. The world’s gone to shit, everyone knows it, but the worst part about it is that nobody helps anybody out anymore. But in here it’s different – you can do whatever you want without fear of oppression by government, or a boss, or a thug.
I mean, I know you have your factions and whatnot – but you all basically live it total anarchy; you do everything for yourselves and do not answer to anyone else. There are few places left in the world where you can live that doesn’t require you to abide by a code or law besides your own. It’s ironic that this place is the largest ecological disaster zone, because from what I’ve seen and read about the Zone, I see now that the people here have achieved more as a society than the rest of the world could ever hope to.
*Phantom looks at Ivan, reading whatever he can about him to verify his sincerity.*
Phantom: Big words. But if you want to make it in the Zone, you need to back up what you just said with action. Trust is earned here, not assumed – and no title or status will give you leverage over anyone. Your character will be dictated by your skill with a weapon, and your actions towards other Stalkers.
Ivan: I understand that – and I would gladly back up everything I said if given a chance.
Gremlin: That’s what I like about Phantom; he could be standing over you with a gun one day, but prove yourself to him and he’ll give you another chance to live another.
*Ivan laughs as best he can.*
Phantom: So I guess this is your chance.
*Phantom leans in close.*
Phantom: But rest assured. If you fuck up this chance, I will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth. I will find you and make you suffer for everything you stood for in the military. If you ever associate with any of them ever again, it will be the last thing you ever do.
Ivan: I swear to you, I will never attempt to join those scumbags ever again. Not after what I’ve seen here.
*Ivan leans in to assure him of his seriousness.*
Ivan: Never.
*Phantom, satisfied, lowers his rifle and pats Ivan on the back.*
Phantom: I hope not. Actions are the only words here.
Gremlin: So, what was that name I had for you?
Ivan: Solitaire.
Gremlin: Why don’t you start using it?
*Ivan smiles; embodying the new name and life he has just been given. He stares ahead with a new purpose and all his troubles are immediately erased. He looks down at his uniform with a sudden disgust and starts tearing off all markings and symbols that bound him to the service of corruption. Phantom looks on proudly and hands the former-soldier back his weapon. Solitaire straps the weapon to his back with new-found pride.*
Solitaire: So, it begins here then.
Gremlin: Come on, brother. Walk with us, this path is yours too.
*The three walk together, shoulder to shoulder in their newly-formed pact.*
*After walking for a few kilometers in serene silence, they are abruptly stopped by a sudden rustling in the bushes along the road they are traveling.*
[Unknown]: Go!
*The bushes beside them rustle loudly as guns and heads poke out of them.*
[Unknown]: Stop where you are! We have you surrounded!
*Phantom and Gremlin quickly raise their weapons, but they are knocked out of their hands as a group of Stalkers closes in on them and quickly disarms the three of them.*
Solitaire: What’s the meaning of this?
[Unknown]: Well, well… here you are “Private”. Did you get lost? The Duty base is back that way!
*The unknown accomplice looks at the three of them as the dozen or so men in his company encircle the group with their weapons aimed towards them.*
[Unknown]: What’s this? Your uniform is torn. Were you attacked by a wild animal?
Solitaire: I am no longer in the service of the Ukrainian government.
*The man bursts out laughing as he looks around the circle at his laughing comrades – all garbed in dark blue camo.*
[Unknown]: Oh Ivan! You are ever the kidder! I would just DIE to see the face of your superior when you tell him that not only have you failed your mission, but you’re turning your back on your comrades, AND your government! Hey… what a coincidence; we’re going there now to finish the mission for you! You’re welcome to come along and tell that joke to him.
*The group continues laughing at the wit of their leader.*
Solitaire: I’m not going back. I failed my mission. I’m already a dead man, I’d stand a better chance killing you right here in front of your friends than going back to face my commander.
[Unknown]: Well here’s a thought for you; you and your friends are wanted dead or alive – so why don’t you take that weapon off your back and gun me down right here. Go ahead – let’s see if there’s any honor left in your words. It’ll go good entertainment before we kill your friends and take you back screaming like the coward you are.
*The group continues to laugh hysterically as their leader starts to keel over with laughter. Phantom’s hands are shaking with rage while Gremlin stares at the leader of the group with a passive fury in his eyes.*
*Before anyone knows what has happened, a pistol goes off nearby. The group immediately stops laughing and drops to the ground. They scan the area around them but cannot find their assailant. Then, they look over at their leader who is still keeled over. A bullet hole is visible in the back of his head as his forehead hits the ground and he falls to one side. A pool of blood starts to form under him.*
*The encircling Stalkers look up at Solitaire, who is pointing a concealed pistol at their leader. The barrel is smoking as he lowers it. Phantom and Gremlin look behind them at Solitaire as he grabs their weapons from the two Stalkers closest to him and tosses them back to them, shooting the two in the head and grabbing their bodies before they fall for cover. *
*Phantom and Gremlin grab their weapons and rush the Stalkers closest to them as they dive for the bushes to the side of the road. The group of Stalkers opens fire on the middle of the circle while snapping out of their confusion, but Phantom and Gremlin are already behind cover and the Stalkers now find themselves out in the open.*
*Suddenly, a small object projects itself from behind the bodies and lands in the middle of the group. A bright flash goes off, blinding the group of Stalkers.*
[Unknown 2]: Get Ivan!!!
*The group targets Solitaire, who is quickly backing up with the two bodies in front of him for cover. The bodies twitch as they fill with bullets. Phantom and Gremlin lay into the group from behind cover as they fire blindly towards Ivan, stumbling around attempting to find cover.*
[Unknown 2]: The bushes! They’re in the bushes!
*The group quickly turns and fill the bushes with bullets, only to be met with a continued hail of bullets from an unknown location. After a few seconds of returned fire, the last of the ground falls to the ground in a pool of blood.*
*Solitaire, who has dragged the bodies of the dead Stalkers all the way to a downed concrete column to the side of the road, slowly pokes his head over the top to take in the scene.*
Solitaire: Did we get them?
*Phantom and Gremlin emerge from behind a group of trees.*
Gremlin: We sure as hell did! A little heads up would have been nice…
Solitaire: There was no time. You would have done the same thing, assuming I did my research on you two.
Gremlin: Yeah… yeah I guess I would have! Good man.
*Phantom picks up the small object that was thrown.*
Phantom: A flash grenade eh?
Solitaire: I know they’re a rare commodity here, I thought it would be a good distraction.
Phantom: You were right. Not bad.
*Phantom pats Solitaire on the back.*
Solitaire: Who were those guys? I’ve never seen them before in my life.
Gremlin: Mercenaries.
*Gremlin stands over the body of the leader, inspecting his suit and gear. He takes a PDA out of the dead man’s bag and presses a few buttons.*
Gremlin: See for yourself.
*Solitaire examines the PDA’s screen. He looks down at the ground, then hands the PDA back to Gremlin.*
Solitaire: I should have guessed they’d be looking for me. I just thought I’d have more time…
Gremlin: Look at it this way: they probably won’t try again. You’re officially a free man now!
*Solitaire looks back up and smiles.*
Solitaire: You’re right… they won’t waste any more resources for a lost cause. I’m free.
Phantom: You’re still hot property around us though; we’re among the most wanted men in the Zone.
Solitaire: I think I can take the heat.
Gremlin: If you can, you’ll find life in the Zone an excitement every day.
*Solitaire looks at Phantom and Gremlin with a cocky smile.*
Solitaire: I look forward to it.
Gremlin: Get what supplies you need from the bodies. Other Stalkers will be your life and death in the Zone. Make it quick, Yantar is less than an hour away.

{End excerpt}

*Grisha, followed by Virtue, Nimbus, and Enigma, continues on the path to Yantar. The grassy green hills begin to flatten out into a plain with sparse trees and bushes. In the distance, visible from the top of the last line of hills, the buildings within the Wild Territory can be seen.*
*The Stalkers continue in silence until Nimbus says:*
Nimbus: So… do you travel much?
*Grisha quickly glances over at Nimbus as if we has just violated the sanctity of their trip. After staring for a few seconds he seems to understand and replies:*
Grisha: Yes. I am an observer of nature. There is a biologist in Yantar that I made friends with a while back. I guess you could call me his “Field Biologist” – I went around the land observing the behavior of the animal and mutant life there.
Nimbus: How did you observe them without them knowing it?
Grisha: I’m an ex-con. I know how to not be seen. It helps that I have a sort of fascination with nature, so I’ve studied how to mask your scent to observe animals.
Nimbus: You don’t say! I’m an ex-con too. What’s your story?
*Grisha just stares at him.*
Nimbus: If you don’t mind my asking, that is…
*Grisha stares ahead as if looking now into the past.*
Grisha: My fascination with animals and nature started when I was a child. I would stay up to dusk just watching animals in the woods by my house all day. When I was a teenager my father took me hunting, but I never wanted to kill another animal, only to watch their movements as my dad moved in for the kill. When I became an adult, I decided I wanted to get an education to support a family – I figured studying animals was a childish thing and that I should invest my time ion something more “real”.
So I went into banking. Business was OK at first, but it wasn’t long afterwards that the Chernobyl accident occurred. After that, business started slowing down until a few months later, I was in debt. I lost my house, my job, and any hope or raising a family. Nature had become my home – I felt like an animal that people just wanted to stare at, nobody wanted to see that I was a human being.
In a final attempt to get my life back, I tried to steal from one of my wealthier clients, a man the business taught me to build a relationship with to milk him for all he was worth. I got past the guard dogs using skills I had acquired – but the guards inside were a different story. They caught me, and I spent nearly 2 decades in prison.
By 2006, news of the second explosion at Chernobyl reached the prison. I heard of the strange animal mutations as well as strange artifacts promising a small fortune to anyone who found one. I knew it was an ecological disaster, nut to me it sounded like a dream come true. I could study new species of animal life, while building a new life for myself.
So we set plans in motion. I had befriended three other inmates and together we planned to escape. Two of the men I escaped with were caught, but their sacrifice allowed my friend and myself time to escape. We made it to the Zone, and all hope they had for catching us was lost when we jumped that fence.
We walked to the nearest camp and there we quickly learned the survival skills necessary in the Zone. On my first mission, I was given a special mission – to find a nest of mutants so that another team could move in and eradicate them. Using my skills, I was able to track them to their nesting grounds and make it back to the Stalker to report of my findings. He was thoroughly impressed with my skills, and decided to give me an old weapon he had lying around.
*Grisha looks behind him at the Nagant strapped to his back.*
Grisha: I’ve never gone anywhere without it. Unfortunately, my partner wasn’t so lucky… we both got signed on to a mission to take out some Bandits at a car park nearby. We were pinned down and surrounded, but the rest of our group kept fighting to the death and my friend was shot. It was then that I learned to harness the full power of my weapon and use it not as a tool of death, but as a tool of life. I learned that day that my rifle would be a saver of lives, and that it would be up to me to learn everything I could about it to prevent any more loss of life.
It wasn’t long afterwards that I set out on my own into the Zone. Eventually, I found myself in Yantar after hearing about the animal mutations also affecting humans. Rumors of “zombies” sparked my curiosity in other facets of biology, and I decided to learn everything I could about them to further understand what was happening in the Zone.
It wasn’t long afterwards that I was ambushed my Snorks… I underestimated them as mere animals and forgot about their former-human senses. They found me with little trouble and I had to run. As I was running, I remembered a bunker-like structure surrounded by a tall metal fence off the road as I was coming in to the area – I decided to make for it.
I came to the door to find no handle or any visible way to enter. I pounded on the door in anger, bracing myself for my death. Then, the door suddenly swung open and I ran inside. It was there that I met the biologist – Sakharov, and he and I have been good friends ever since.
*Grisha continues looking ahead, deep in thought. Nimbus feels obligated to tell him his story in the Zone so far as well. Grisha continues to stare, with the occasional nod at certain parts in the story. When Nimbus is finished, the silence resumes until:*
Grisha: What is the nature of your mission - assuming it is not classified.
Virtue: Well…
*Virtue goes over what has happened in the mission so far, which Enigma also listens to intently. Grisha nods during this also.*
Grisha: I see.
*Instead of staring straight ahead, his eyes shift from point to point over the landscape and sky as he appears to be considering something.*
Grisha: I can see that you’ve been through a lot in your short time in the Zone. Judging by the look in your eyes, I can see that this is the kind of mission that can change you and the way you see things forever. I know you came from the Red Forest – I hadn’t been able to find a way in until I noticed the break in the barrier surrounding it. I would very much like to study the wild life in there, to see what was become of them.
*Grisha looks directly at Virtue for the first time.*
Grisha: But I fear that your ultimate goal will lead to your own demise. I can feel myself getting older every day, and if I am ever to have my own family, I will need to stay sharp and keep doing work that I am good at. I feel that what you are doing is right and that it will solve a lot of questions… and I want to help… but I owe it to my future family, wherever they are, to stay alive.
*The three Stalkers in the back look at the ground and glance at each other.*
Virtue: I have a wife back home – she is waiting for me to return so we can live our new lives together. At least that was how we envisioned things… after nearly a week here I can already feel myself start to doubt the purpose of my being here. I thought my life was going to be my top priority, to maintain until the time was right to return with enough money to move far away from here and start life anew.
But being here and seeing things with my own eyes changes things. I owe it to the friends I’ve made, the Stalkers who have died, the families that will never see their sons and daughters again, and myself to learn the true nature of the Zone, and to stop whatever force is behind the evil here.
*Grisha thinks long and hard about this.*
Grisha: If I had that guarantee, that somebody would remember my actions and my death would not be in vain, I would join you in a second. But I do not have that guarantee. If I die, nobody would know, and nobody would care. I have nothing to live for, and nothing to die for.
Virtue: I understand. For what it’s worth, thanks for leading us this far. I’ll make sure Jargon knows that you helped us.
*The Stalkers continue on towards Yantar. As they near the outskirts, they pass a ring of recently killed Stalkers in dark-blue camo suits.*

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}

*Phantom, Gremlin, and Solitaire approach the scientist’s bunker in Yantar, sprinting for the door once it is in sight.*
Gremlin: Sakharov! It’s Gremlin! Open the door and let us in?
Sakharov: What? Who did you say it is?
Gremlin: GREMLIN!
Jargon: Open the door!
Sakharov: Alright, alright!
*The door swings open and the three Stalkers approach Sakharov.*
Gremlin: Jargon?!
Jargon: Gremlin?!
Gremlin: I thought you…
Jargon: How did you…
*The two Stalkers embrace heartily, congratulating each other on their triumphant return. Zombie walks over to Phantom as the two share their stories.*
Zombie: Phantom.
Phantom: Zombie…
Zombie: I want to apologize for the things I said. Jargon has helped me to… see things more clearly. I understand that I was acting foolishly and blindly following misplaced faith.
*Zombie tells Phantom about the encounter with Jargon at his house and the zombification of his sister and the influence he was under. Phantom listens intently as his questions appear to be answered.*
Phantom: How long?
Zombie: I don’t know… a few months at least. She must have changed slowly enough that I didn’t notice any physical changes by the time she started influencing me.
Phantom: That’s terrible.
*Zombie looks at Phantom expectantly.*
Phantom: I’m… sorry about the loss of her. And… I’m sorry for the things I said to you the other day as well.
Zombie: Shake and make up?
Phantom: You got it.
*The two Stalkers shake hands as their problems are resolved. After exchanging their own stories, they head back to the other two Stalkers who are in a heated discussion about the status of the mission.*
Gremlin: … but that’s insane! We’ve already lost two good Stalkers, and what you’re talking about is suicide! It can’t be done!
Jargon: Just listen to me. You don’t have to remind me of who and what we’ve lost, and I shouldn’t have to remind you why we’re doing this! I’m telling you, it’s the only way – and it’s our duty to get it done!
Gremlin: Don’t you ever use that word around me.
Jargon: Bad choice of words, I’m sorry – but you get my point.
Gremlin: Your point isn’t the issue, it’s following through and getting there that I have a problem with!
Sakharov: Boys, boys! Let’s just wait for Virtue and Nimbus to get here – their last transmission said that they were on their way as we speak. So let’s all keep our heads, I’ll get back to work on getting you any more information I can, and you all just relax and think it over.
*The two Stalkers sigh and resign their arguments.*
Phantom: Hey, what was that all about?
Gremlin: The man’s insane! He’s saying that the only way to find the answers we need, is to get to the center of the Zone!
Phantom: The CENTER?!
Gremlin: I know! He’s absolutely out of his mind…
Phantom Hey, hold on! I think we need to consider that it might be the only way to finish our mission. I don’t have to tell you about all the other missions that have failed, maybe we should consider it.
Gremlin: Even if it was a good idea, there is absolutely no way to get there! It’s impossible.
Phantom: Is it? You said Virtue and Nimbus made it out of the Red Forest, right?
Gremlin: Right.
Phantom: Well… how do you suppose they made it through the barrier?
*Gremlin starts to speak but cuts himself off.*
Phantom: Maybe we should wait for them to get here – they made it through Limansk, another place that is supposed to be impossible to get in and out of, and they’re still alive. I think we should consider it. If two rookie Stalkers can survive a trek through Limansk and the Red Forest and actually make it through the barrier, we owe it to them to try and do it again.
Gremlin: *I* owe it to them. They were under my command when I lost them.
*Gremlin sighs*
Gremlin: You’re right. If there’s any possible way to get through the barrier and past it into Pripyat, we should take it. We owe it to them, and everybody else to try.
*Solitaire, who has been quietly sitting in the back of the room, overhears and says:*
Solitaire: Uh… I might be able to help once we get to Pripyat.
*Jargon and Zombie who are nearby stop their conversation to listen.*
Jargon: What’s this? Have you re-thought my proposal, Gremlin?
Gremlin: Look… there’s some things we need to talk about when Virtue and Nimbus get here, but I’m not opposing it.
Phantom: How can you help us?
Solitaire: I was briefed on some top secret maps on the closest five kilometers to the center of the Zone. They used some sort of special imaging system to get the maps.
*Solitaire opens his backpack and pulls out a map piecing together the inner five kilometers of the center of the Zone.*
Jargon: My God… could it have changed so much after all these years?
Gremlin: Incredible.
Sakharov: What? What’s all the commotion about?
*Solitaire hands the map to Sakharov.*
Sakharov: No… could it possibly be?
Jargon: That’s it. Not quite like I remember it either.
Sakharov: It’s been so long… this looks like the surface of Mars. Astounding…
*Sakharov uses some sort of imaging device to snap a picture of the map and returns it to Solitaire, then returns to his work shaking his head and muttering to himself.*
Jargon: So we now have a map. Do you know a way through?
*Solitaire looks at the faces of the expectant Stalkers around him.*
Solitaire: That was classified information.
*The Stalkers’ hope falls and they start to pace around in thought.*
Solitaire: But I did overhear some of the officers above me talking about some sort of tunnel system in the area.
Jargon: Tunnels? Where?
Solitaire: I’m not sure… something about a secret radar project of some sort. I think they called in the Brain Scorcher…
*Gremlin throws his hands down.*
Gremlin: Great… just great! The one direct path we have to the center of the Zone and it had to be there…
Solitaire: What’s the Brain Scorcher?
Jargon: It’s an old Soviet Over-the Horizon Radar system turned mind-control device. It continually sends out a psionic emission that fries the brain of anyone caught in the wave, turning them into zombies.
Solitaire: Zombies?
Jargon: Don’t tell me you worked for the government and know nothing about that.
Solitaire: I was never cleared for that information…
Jargon: Well now you are. The government you’ve worked so hard for has developed a mind-control device and might even be behind the existence of the Zone itself. We found one of the devices here in Yantar in an underground lab and managed to bring back some of the blueprints and plans for the device and the rest of the facility. That’s why we need to get to the center… to destroy whatever it is that is causing the Zone to exist.
Solitaire: But… if you destroy the Zone, what about the lives you’ve made for yourselves here? What about everyone else? What will you accomplish by abruptly ending it all?
Jargon: Justice. Justice for all the families who lost their loves ones in the tragic events of both explosions…
*Jargon tells everyone about the disturbing vision that the Controller in X16 projected into his mind.*
Jargon: I know that it is not tangible evidence, but it does confirm the suspicions I’ve had since that day in 1986. The Soviets slaughtered thousands of their own citizens for their own sick experiment for mass manipulation. If there’s even a hint of truth in what I saw, the world deserves to know.
*The Stalkers sit in silence and contemplate everything that has been said.*

{End excerpt}

Virtue: There’s the lab ahead! We made it!
*The Stalkers run to the door and activate the door bell.*
Virtue: Sakharov! It’s Virtue! I have Nimbus and a few friends with me!
Sakharov: Who…
*The door swings open as Jargon curses in the background.*
*The Stalkers enter the lab, which has become quite crowded at this point to the faces of their shocked companions.*
Gremlin: Virtue! Nimbus! My God… I can’t believe you made it! Outstanding!
Sakharov: Grisha! It’s so good to see you again! I’ll tell you; this man is my best field biologist. Why, one time, he spent an entire week buried in the mud surrounded by rotting carcasses to study a pack of Snorks! Then, this other time….
*The Stalkers look around the room at each other, then shake hands and pat each other on the back as they re-unite and bring each other up to date on the situation. Everyone is introduced to each other if they haven’t been already. Everyone is noticeably shocked at meeting Enigma and hearing her story. After they are up to date, Jargon asks Virtue about the hole in the barrier:*
Jargon: And so… this hole was triggered by the artifact, which is now in the possession of the Stalker – Reaper was it?
Virtue: Right.
Jargon: Do you think he’d be willing to let us use it again?
Grisha: I’ve been staying with Reaper for a few weeks. I know how attached he is to anything that is in his possession. You’d probably have to force it away from him… or give him something better in return.
Gremlin: What’s better than an artifact, and one that could very well be the only one of its kind and provide access to a wealth of unknown treasure past that barrier?
*The Stalkers stop to consider this, their expressions getting more angry by the second as the success of their mission seems to become more impossible by the second.*
Sakharov: If I may… what if you barter that map with him. With the map in his possession, he could have access to anything within five kilometers of the Zone where no other Stalker has access. Surely he will find a way to any one of the towns there.
*The group takes this information into thought.*
Jargon: Hmm… it might be too big a sacrifice for him, but I think it’s the best chance we’ve got.
Sakharov: Here, I took the liberty of making another copy for you to keep.
*He hands an exact copy of Solitaire’s map back to him.*
Gremlin: So… are we all in agreement then?
*The Stalkers in the room are silent at first, then eventually they all nod their heads in agreement.*
*Gremlin takes in a deep breath and lets it out.*
Gremlin: OK. Get some rest and do whatever you need to do. Tomorrow… we’re bound for hell.
*The Stalkers break into groups and start up conversations with each other, telling their stories about what’s happened to them recently and reflecting on their mission past and to come. Grisha approaches Virtue.*
Grisha: I wanted to say thanks for the company, and also, good luck on your mission. As I said, my place is here, but I wish you success.
Virtue: Thanks, I appreciate it. I hope you reclaim your life and find your family someday.
*Grisha smiles appreciatively at Virtue and pats his shoulder.*
Grisha: I hope you return to yours.
*He stands up and recedes into the back of the bunker, closing the door behind him.*
*Enigma is standing near the middle of the room, attracting the most attention and doing her best to answer all the questions being directed at her.*
Jargon: Was the statue in the park still intact?
Enigma: I think so.
Phantom: How many Bloodsuckers have you seen?
Enigma: A lot.
Gremlin: What was the name of that faction your brother was in?
Enigma: The Renegades - it was some offshoot of the Bandit faction.
*After a long queue of questions, the Stalkers finally focus their attention elsewhere and resume their conversations amongst themselves.*
Virtue: Now you know how actors feel.
*Enigma mock-wipes her brow in exaustion.*
Enigma: I haven’t had to answer so many questions in my life!
Virtue: I can’t say I blame them. Most of them haven’t seen a woman in years.
Enigma: I suppose not.
Virtue: Well, I’m sure you’ll get used to that in time.
Enigma: I doubt I’ll go around parading my sex any time soon.
*Virtue laughs.*
Virtue: Yeah, probably not a good idea when you’re surrounded by hundreds of men who haven’t been around women in a long time.
*Enigma laughs uneasily. Virtue quickly changes topics.*
Virtue: Well… we’ve been walking all day and we have even further to go, so I think I’m gonna turn in.
Enigma: Good idea. I’ll see you in the morning then?
Virtue: That’s pretty likely.
*The conversations in the room slowly die down as the time starts to hit everyone and they slowly find their ways to the bunk beds in one of the back rooms.*
[End audio]
It’s great to see everyone again. It’s hard to believe we first met merely days ago… I feel like I’ve known these men my entire life. So much depends on the success of our mission tomorrow… all of these men have their own reason for getting to the center of the Zone; wealth, fame, truth, and revenge.
I hardly feel like I belong in this place anymore. All of these men have lost something great in their lives or never had anything to live for in the first place. I thought my life was so bad, and yet I came here thinking it was just going to be another job – another 9 to 5 grind. I couldn’t be more wrong.
So tomorrow we make for the center of the Zone – the site of the events that happened so long ago. What awaits us there is completely unpredictable. After seeing that map of the area, it looks like somebody escaped from hell with a map and wants to go back for their soul. We very well may be going to our deaths… so I will write this to anyone who may discover this PDA in hopes that it will clear up a few things.
To my wife, Emelia:
Dear Emelia,
the Zone is not like anything I could have expected. The things I’ve seen and heard here could not be possibly expressed in words. I’ve seen disturbing things and felt emotions I’ve never felt in my life. The Stalkers here are like brothers – sometimes they feud but deep down they have more care and respect for each other than I have ever known possible in another person.
That is why I can’t return to you. We are on the verge of discovering the source of the evil in the Zone. What we find there will explain everything. I just wanted you to know that I love you and feel like this is my purpose in life. I have some friends here who I have entrusted with some money I have made along the way. I’ve made enough for you to move far away from here and start a new life for yourself.
You will receive the money in 7 days from now, should I fail to return from my mission. I want you to take the money, and live the life you’ve always wanted to live – without me. Don’t mourn for me until you are far away – leave immediately, and don’t look back. I am sorry I can’t share the last days of my life with you, just know that I died peacefully – doing what was right.
I will always love you, wherever I am.
Your husband,
[Begin audio]
Sakharov: Virtue. Wake up… there’s something I need to tell you.
Virtue: Wha… what time is it?
Sakharov: Please, there is something I need to tell you.
*Virtue crawls out of bed at some unknown time in the night and follows Sakharov into the lab.*
Sakharov: At Jargon’s request I’ve been monitoring the news outside the Zone. He cares for you and holds much faith in you. He thought it appropriate that you see this. I… I am sorry if my timing was bad, I can never tell…
*Virtue scans some information on the monitor. It is a scan of the local newspaper in his local town.*
Virtue: It’s my local newspaper! How did you get a copy of this?
Sakharov: This bunker is a monitoring station with an extended range so it can cover much of the Zone, as well as some of the area outside of it. Jargon asked me to keep an eye out for certain pieces of information. I regret to inform you that some information has come to light… please keep reading…
*Virtue continues to scan the newspaper for any relevant information. The newspaper section goes over various articles with no real focus.*
Virtue: I… don’t get it. What does this have to do with…
*Sakharov points to a section of the newspaper. Obituaries.*
*Virtue’s heart drops as he solemnly scans the column. The further he reads the less he wants to. Then it hits him like a crushing weight on his shoulders.*
Virtue: No… it can’t be. It can’t be her!
Sakharov: I’m sorry. It says she died of natural causes; there was nothing that could have been done.
Virtue: But she was still young! There’s no way! She was… I…
*Sakharov attempts to comfort him, but Virtue pulls away in disbelief.*
Virtue: Open the door.
Sakharov: I can’t let you out there.
*Virtue grabs the rifle off his back and points it at the professor.*
Virtue: Open the God damn door, or I’ll do it myself.
*Sakharov sighs and pushes the button to unlock the door. Virtue immediately storms out the door. The second it closes behind him he keels over in pain and slowly drops to the ground.*
Virtue: Emelia… I was coming back…
*Tears pour down Virtue’s face; the cold silence of the foggy night in Yantar seems to focus its attention on him. He looks up into the darkness in disgust and yells at the top of his lungs in anguish. The darkness welcomes him into it and he accepts the offer, gladly.*
Virtue: Come on, where are you motherfuckers!
*He marches on into pitch-black silence, searching for any sign of life on his deadly path. He fires a few rounds into the air as he goes. *
*The cold dark around him starts to turn into a hot redness, and the path in front of him, now illuminated by his hate, is guiding him to his destination. He fires more rounds into the air.*
Virtue: Get out here you shambling fucks!
*His call is echoed by moaning nearby. Virtue yells and charges a group of zombies shuffling off the path in a ditch beside him. He runs up and feeds a zombie the butt of his rifle then turns it and fills it’s head with bullets. A nearby zombie takes notice and reaches towards Virtue with a welcoming grasp. He disappears into a cloud of red vapor moments later when a grenade is loosed from the barrel of Virtue’s weapon.*
Virtue: COME ON!!!
*More moaning nearby. Virtue drops to one knee, and lets the rest of his magazine go – the muzzle flashes illuminates his face as he screams at the top of his lungs at the emotionless faces of the zombies in the path of his bullets. The chamber clicks repeatedly, indicating the magazine is dry. He gets up and lunges at the nearest zombie, sending them both to the ground. He pulls out his knife and slashes deep across the zombie’s jugular vein. Blood pours out of the zombie’s neck as it flails on the ground.
He springs up from the zombie and tackles another one nearby who is attempting to jump on top of him. The zombie is pinned against a tree while Virtue punches him in the face, sending him to the ground. The knife is out again. Virtue is in the air. He lets out a horrible scream, driving the blade into the zombie’s skull again, and again, and again.
Another magazine is in the rifle. The shell casings fall into a small puddle nearby as the area is illuminated with light from the weapon’s barrel.*
Jargon: Virtue!!!
*Pistol shots go off nearby, as nearby zombies collapse with bullet-holes in their heads.*
Jargon: Virtue! Come on, we need to get back to the bunker!
*Virtue continues yelling as his magazine expends it’s rounds. The zombies in front of him share his pain as they die one after another. Jargon grabs Virtue’s arm and insists again.*
Jargon: Virtue… please.
*Jargon uses force to drag Virtue away from the scene. Virtue laughs maniacally as he goes.*
Virtue: She’s gone. She’s gone forever and it’s their fault. It’s my fault.
*The laughter is confused as tears continue to roll down his face. He continues screaming as he loads another magazine and does his best to aim forward while being dragged along the ground. Jargon stops and pulls the weapon from Virtue’s grasp, then continues pulling him along, grunting as he starts to go uphill.*
Virtue: They killed her… they knew and they fucking killed her!
Jargon: That’s why we’re going to the center tomorrow. Tonight was the only time I could think to tell you before the mission. Now you see what they’re capable of. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
*The zombies shuffling below start to lose interest in the lack of noise or lights of any sort, and go back to roaming the area.*
*Jargon reaches the bunker door.*
Jargon: Open up you old…
*The door swings open. Jargon looks surprised, but says nothing and shows no other emotion. He props Virtue up against a wall just inside the door, out of earshot of the other Stalkers. He sighs deeply, closing his eyes as he does.*
Jargon: We’ve all had our losses in the Zone… it comes with the place. Tomorrow will change that. I’m sorry I had to break the news to you like this. Please try and get some rest, we’ve got a long road ahead of us. You’ll have a lot of time to think about this along the way, that’s one of the benefits of traveling the Zone.
*Jargon gets up, leaving his hand on Virtue’s shoulder.*
Jargon: We’ll get the bastards that did this. I swear to you that they will pay for what they’ve done. I take that promise to my grave.
*Virtue sobs. Then, he pulls Jargon close and whispers in his ear through his tears:*
Virtue: Promise it on their graves.
*With that, he half walks half crawls back to his bunk and lies down, staring at the wall motionless for the rest of the night.*

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