Chapter 13: A Hopeless Mission

[Audio enabled]
Jargon: Virtue. Virtue wake…
Virtue: I’m awake.
*Virtue rolls away from the wall towards Jargon. His eyes are bloodshot.
Jargon: Oh… how long have you been awake?
Virtue: I never slept.
*Jargon sighs.*
Jargon: I wish I could have told you sooner. If the mission had gone according to plan-
Virtue: What gave you the right to spy on me and my family?
Jargon: I… none, you’re right. I was wrong-
Virtue: It was them, wasn’t it?
Jargon: Who?
Virtue: Those Commie bastards. They found out I left for the Zone somehow, didn’t they?
*Jargon looks around to make sure nobody else is listening.*
Jargon: The paper said she died of natural causes. For all you know it could have been-
Virtue: Bullshit! We may have been poor, but her health was not in question! I left that house promising to come back and start a new life for us, and she’s had nothing but the utmost trust in me. She’s trusted me since we were children. She knew that when I made a promise, I kept it.
*Jargon thinks for a moment.*
Jargon: Maybe you’re right. But how will you ever know the truth about what happened to her now?
Virtue Maybe I won’t. But God help the soul of the person responsible if I ever were to find him or his organization. And rest assured; I will never stop looking.
*Virtue punches the wall next to him.*
Jargon: I understand your pain, son. I’ve felt what you’re feeling many times over the past couple of decades - maybe not so much towards one person, but collectively between many. All of my friends are dead, and it kills me to think that their families were told the same story you’ve been told. I can hardly bear to think of how the last horrible, painful days of their lives might have been spent here in the Zone, whether they died in agony or are still out there suffering.
*Jargon winces as a memory brings back some unknown pain.*
A lot of friends and co-workers died instantly in the first explosion…
*He closes his eyes and swallows painfully.*
Jargon: … but some of them were not given the luxury of death. I’ve had to look into the eyes of the re-animated corpses of people I’ve known throughout the years who I thought had been dead for some time – and put a bullet through their heads. I know that their families will never know of the horrible half-lives many of their loved ones have had to endure here – and THAT is why we are on this mission.
I brought you along because I saw a certain quality in you that I liked; your drive to do what is right regardless of the consequences. I knew I would need someone like you who could keep their composure in intense situations and do the right thing even if it meant sacrificing everything you had.
*Jargon grabs a hold of Virtue with both hands to emphasize his point.*
Jargon: You being here as long as you have been has brought about one of those sacrifices – and now the one you loved most has paid the ultimate price.
*Virtue shakes with hate and sadness.*
Jargon: I can see that you’re truly one of us now – and now I need you to keep your head on your shoulders, and help us do what is right. Now you feel the true weight of the Zone, and you know what needs to be done.
*Virtue sniffs and holds his breath, clenching his fists until he is red in the face. He releases his grip and exhales, a long hate-filled growl escaping with it.*
Virtue: I can’t promise you anything; only that as long as I’m a part of this mission, I will see it through to the end.
Jargon: That won’t be enough. If you can’t fulfill your role, our mission will fail.
Virtue: Why? What has doing the right thing ever rewarded me with? My wife is dead because I thought I was doing the right thing for the both of us in coming here. But since I’ve been here I’ve experienced things I’ve only seen in my nightmares – but I can’t just wake up from this one no matter how hard I try. Even my nightmares are a welcome sight compared to the horrors in this place. Doing the right thing just brings you pain and reaps no benefits. Ever.
Jargon: And it never will if that’s what you believe. This isn’t the same Virtue I met that day in Cordon. No, he’s much more than that now - he just needs to believe in himself again.
*Jargon stands up and starts to walk towards the main room where the other Stalkers are talking and shuffling around, preparing for the journey ahead.*
Jargon: Think about what I’ve said. Look through the murk of the Zone and find yourself.
*Virtue sits up in the bunk bed, feeling as though he has been bolted down to the mattress. All life within him is sucked out, and every attempt to stand feels like trying to break free from a chain wrapped around his neck. Eventually, he crawls out of the bed and lands on the floor below with a thud. He quickly picks himself up to avoid drawing too much attention and takes what seems like an eternity to ready himself for the preparing Stalkers in the next room. He takes a step. Then another. Another. Every one of them feels like walking through barbed-wire. As he rounds the corner into the next room, time seems to slow as his companions slowly turn to greet him.*
Nimbus: H… hey man. Sleep well?
*Virtue’s blood-shot eyes tell everyone in the room of the sleepless and painful night.*
*Gremlin stops talking and motions for everyone to quiet down.*
Gremlin:  Hey Virtue…  I just want to be the first to say I’m extremely sorry about… what happened.
Phantom: We heard you leave last night… Jargon told us about your wife.
*Virtue stares ahead as if in a daze. The Stalkers in the room look around the room, searching for the words to say. Enigma turns away from the group.*
*Phantom arrives at the words first:*
Phantom: Look… I know it was those military sons of bitches who did it – what else would it have been? I promise you, as long as I’m breathing, I will hunt down every single one of those motherfuckers, and squeeze their throats until…
Virtue: I appreciate the sentiment, but I’m sure I’ll get the chance soon enough.
*Virtue uses every ounce of willpower to look up at the group and fake a smile.*
Virtue: Well, what are we waiting around here for? We’ve got a mission to accomplish, right?
*Virtue drifts into a daze.*
*The Stalkers, forgetting what they had been doing before Virtue had walked in, stand in a stupor until Virtue snaps out of his daze again and starts checking his supplies. They all follow his lead while Gremlin and Jargon go and finalize things with Sakharov before they leave. Zombie slowly walks over to Virtue. He stands in front of him as Virtue kneels over his backpack, shoving things around inside.*
*Zombie walks up to Virtue.*
Zombie: Normally this is the part where I give you some words of inspiration to reassure and motivate you… I know it sounds ridiculous to say this now, but the Zone will answer all your questions in time.
*Virtue doesn’t appear to take any notice of Zombie and continues rummaging through his supplies.*
Zombie: All I can say is: I know she is in a better place now. Where that might be, I couldn’t say – but I know a piece of her will be in you, forever.
*Virtue coughs.*
*Zombie looks around as if trying to find a final thing to say to make an impact, but resigns the effort and slowly walks away.*
*Once Virtue is done checking his supplies, he steals glances at the other Stalker’s and happens to avoid any glances in his direction. All except for one: Enigma’s.*
*Enigma’s eyes are slightly reddened but she manages to maintain her composure as she watches Virtue suffer with every move he makes. As soon as his eyes meet hers she averts them to the floor. Knowing that it’s too late, she looks back up and stares into him with her piercing glare. The look says “I’m here for you”. Virtue manages a fake smile and zips up his backpack with too much effort, quickly slinging it over his back before throwing himself off balance. He stands in place and stares at the floor as if time has frozen in his part of the room.*
Gremlin: OK everyone, gather ‘round.
*The Stalkers – Phantom, Zombie, Nimbus, Enigma, Solitaire and Virtue zip up their backpacks and circle around Gremlin who is in the center of the room while Sakharov and Jargon stand behind near the work station. He looks around the circle at each individual Stalker, reading the emotions in each and every one of them.*
Gremlin: You have all agreed to embark on this journey on a mission of discovery and truth. We are bound for the center of the Zone to discover the Zone’s origins and solve some of our own puzzles. The first tier of the journey will consist of the Red Forest up to Pripyat. We will be passing though the anomaly barrier that surrounds Limansk and part of the Red Forest with the use of a rare artifact recovered by Virtue, Nimbus, and Enigma. What we will encounter there is anyone’s guess.
The second tier of the journey will be everything past Pripyat to the heart of the Chernobyl NPP. At that point in time we will assess the situation accordingly – but our goal will be to get inside the NPP and search for any and all information regarding the incidents, secret labs, mind-control technology, mutants, and any other secrets the world deserves to know.
*He lets everything sink in before getting to the meat of the briefing.*
I’d be lying to you if I said I expected this mission to succeed. I want you all to know that it is likely we’ll be going to our deaths. Any of you who wish to end your journey here, say so now.
*Gremlin looks around the room again. Everyone is solemn, but nobody makes any indication of backing out. Gremlin smiles as assuredly as he can, looking at each of them in turn as he speaks:*
Gremlin: Thank you, everyone. What we’re about to do may set things in motion not only in the Zone but outside of it as well. What we discover may change what the world knows about this place. It’s up to us to succeed – for them, and for ourselves.
*The Stalkers nod in agreement – each for their own individual reasons. Jargon and Phantom remain motionless, but look to be reflecting on some inner pain. But eventually they look up with renewed intensity on their faces.*
*Gremlin shifts his backpack and gear high up on his shoulders and takes a deep breath.*
Gremlin: Let’s get to it, Stalkers.
*The Stalkers follow his lead, putting on their backpacks and slinging their weapons over their shoulders. Sakharov presses the button for the doors and they swing open wide into the morning haze of Yantar.*
Sakharov: Good luck to you all. Know that you are always welcome here should your travels ever return you here.
*The Stalkers say their farewells and start on the path towards the Wild Territory to the north. The exterior door on the scientist’s bunker swings shut and latches behind them in the distance.*
*Nimbus walks from his position in the group over next to where Virtue is lingering in the back.*
Nimbus: Wow, this is kinda exciting! I mean, I know it’s going to be crazy when we get there, but it’s still pretty amazing.
*Virtue says nothing. Nimbus looks away, forgetting Virtue’s anguish in the initial rush of their departure.*
Nimbus: I’m sorry. I doubt you can really feel anything right now… but I’ll be right here if you need me.
*Nimbus pats his buddy on the shoulder and quietly drifts over to another part of the group to give his friend some peace.*

{Excerpt from Nimbus’ PDA}

Nimbus: I can’t imagine what he feels like, but he looks crushed to say the least…
Enigma: I know what it’s like to lose someone that close to you. I wish I had some way of comforting him, but I don’t know how to say it. When my brother died I had to deal with the pain alone. Looking back I don’t know how I did it, and I know there’s nothing I can say that will ease that pain. It’s something he’ll have to heal all by himself, and that will take time.
Nimbus: There’s gotta be something you can say. Just think really hard about what was going through your mind as you dealt with it.
*Nimbus glances over at Virtue who is still in the back of the group, following Zombie’s shadow in front of him.*
Nimbus: If there’s anything you can say to him, please say it. I know we have a long way ahead of us, but don’t take too much time. I hate to see him like this, especially after we have been through so much together. He’s always been there for me… sure, maybe it’s because we haven’t been given the opportunity to do anything else, but I wouldn’t want to change that.
*Enigma looks over at Virtue with compassion.*
Enigma: Neither would I. I feel like I’ve known him my whole life. Like someone I saw in my dreams… waiting for me on the other side of the barrier. It’s like, as long as he’s around, I’ll be OK.
Nimbus: Yeah! That’s how I feel too… just something about him reassures me.
*Enigma smiles, meaning more by her words than Nimbus interpretted.*
Nimbus: Well… I haven’t had a chance to talk to Solitaire yet, I’ve been wanting to meet him. Thanks for listening.
*Nimbus walks further up into the group, where Solitaire and Jargon are walking.*

{Excerpt from Phantom’s PDA}

Solitaire: I don’t know. It was highly classified to me.
Phantom: So you know nothing at all about it then?
Solitaire: No. I’m sorry.
*Phantom sighs, frustrated.*
Phantom: Why couldn’t you have been a higher-ranking officer?
*Solitaire laughs slightly.*
Solitaire: Sorry to disappoint you. I was nothing more but meat to them.
*Phantom walks silently for a while. Then he looks back up at Solitaire and says:*
Phantom: My family was murdered by the Soviet Union. I’ve always held on to hope that someday I’ll learn about what really happened to them. I haven’t heard or learned anything in a long time… that’s why I’m on this mission. If we can solve the greatest mystery of the Zone, maybe I can finally learn the true fate of my father, mother and sister. When I finally see those responsible dead at my feet, I can truly rest easy for the first time in years.
*The Stalkers walk in silence as Phantom re-buries old memories. Solitaire continues to walk without any sign of thought, when suddenly he frowns as if trying to remember something. Then, his eyes widen as he looks back at Phantom.*
Solitaire: What did you say your sister’s name was?
Phantom: Kateryna. Why?
*A sudden realization displays on Solitaire’s face.*
Solitaire: I thought that name sounded familiar. One day when I was on duty back at base, I was passing by one of the departments dedicated to operations within the Zone. I was curious so I decided to head in like I had an assignment there so I could sneak a peek at things that interested me. I remember being near a radio at the time. In the static I heard what I thought was a woman’s voice.
It was hard to make out anything… it just sounded like a bunch of whispering – I thought I was hearing things. But then I heard a name… “Kateryna”. I’ve never forgotten it. It was almost as if the voice had waited for me to enter that room at that exact point in time and say that one word to me. It was the creepiest thing ever.
*Phantom stops in his tracks, drawing inquisitive looks from the group and halting them.*
Phantom: Are you sure that was the name? Did you get anything else? Where did the signal come from? When did you receive it? How long ago?
Solitaire: Uh… no, that’s all the voice said. I don’t know where it came from… I was in the room about a week ago – before I received my mission to infiltrate Freedom.
*Phantom thinks rapidly, taking in this new information. Gremlin steps out of the front and motions for the group to continue on.*
Gremlin: What is it?
Phantom: I think my sister is still alive.
Gremlin: Really?
Phantom: I’m not sure. But if she is she must still be in the Zone somewhere. I can’t believe it…
*Solitaire repeats everything he told Phantom to Gremlin as they continue on slightly behind the group.*
Gremlin: Incredible!
Phantom: If there’s even a chance she’s alive… she could know what happened to my father!
*Gremlin stops.*
Gremlin: Phantom… I don’t doubt your sister’s will and ability to survive… but I doubt she could still be alive.
Phantom: But he heard that transmission a week ago! She had to have found some way to stay alive!
*Gremlin looks unsure, but pats Phantom on the back and says:*
Gremlin: If she’s alive, you’ll find her. Just don’t get your hopes up. I’m sorry buddy, but you know what the chances of surviving in that area are… let alone in the NPP itself if that is, in fact, where the signal came from.
*He walks back to the front of the group, leaving Phantom in a storm of thoughts as he wonders about all that could have happened to his sister.*

{End excerpt}

*Virtue continues to walk next to the group in his own little world. Most of the group eyes him from time to time, but none can work up the courage or think of the words to say. Finally, Enigma is the one to approach him.*
Enigma: Virtue…
*Enigma pauses, trying to read his face.*
Enigma: … I know you want to be left alone but I feel that it’s important that I talk to you.
Virtue: If you’re trying to comfort me don’t bother.
Enigma: No… I mean, take it however you want. I just wanted to tell you something about the story I told you when we first met.
Virtue: I’m listening.
Enigma: I told you that my brother and I came into the Zone as looters, we entered Limansk with our faction, and he was killed.
Virtue: Yes.
Enigma: Well… what I didn’t tell you was that he wasn’t my brother.
*Virtue looks up at her, meeting her semi-moist eyes with his own bloodshot eyes.*
Enigma: He… he was my husband.
Virtue: Your husband?
Enigma: Yes.
Virtue: Why did you tell us he was your brother?
Enigma: Well, for one thing you still thought I was a man when I told you that, I had to maintain my cover. The other thing is: I had overheard from Nimbus that you had a wife back home; I guess I just didn’t want you to think about her more than you had to. I knew the pain you would feel if you ever lost her.
*Virtue looks down again, clenching his fists as he re-lives the pain of the previous night.*
*Enigma’s voice quivers as she tries to reassure Virtue.*
Enigma: I do know how you feel. I know the indescribable feelings of rage, hurt, anguish and despair - all of which are going through you as we speak. I said I would not try to comfort you but I need to tell you something.
*Enigma touches Virtue’s chin and pulls it up to her face, then whispers to him:*
Enigma: I love you…
*Virtue stops unintentionally abrupt, halting the group of Stalkers once again. He looks back at Enigma, confused. She smiles back at him, her face blurring out the rest of the world around her. Time seems to slow to a stop in that frame for what seems like an eternity, she looks like an angel fallen from heaven.
Time moves slowly forward again; the next frame is her closing her eyes slowly and pulling his face towards hers with her now un-gloved hands. Her lips touch his and his heartbeat soars, blocking out all sounds around him. His vision flushes red and pulses slightly as he reciprocates, putting his hand on the back of her head and pulling her tightly into his grasp.
They seem to be locked in this brace for an eternity; all other senses are devoid of contact with the outside world. His eyes are closed, but Virtue can see an entire world where it is just him and her, forever locked on each other. He knows from that moment on, that as long as they are together, everything will be OK.*
*A dull clanking noise sounds close to them, snapping Virtue out of his vision.*
*Nimbus scurries to pick up his shotgun, which he had dropped on the ground near them. The Stalkers around him are looking directly at them, staring in awe.*
*Enigma’s lips release from his and she slowly opens her eyes again. There seems to be some inner light that was formerly hidden now brightly shining in her eyes. She smiles again. Virtue, suddenly feeling like the energy has been sucked out of him, drops to both knees, unable to move or think. Everything is still moving slowly as he watches Enigma walk back to the other side of the group. He watches in awe as she slowly replaces her gloves and situates her helmet on her shoulders.
She glances back at him, her gaze piercing through him like an invisible wave of emotion being broadcasted directly at him. Her eyes illuminate the inside of her helmet as she slowly lowers the face shield, releasing him from the spell.*
*Reality slowly comes back to him and time slowly returns to its normal pace. Virtue looks around him at the group of Stalkers, trying to make sense of everything that just happened. The looks of awe have changed to smiles and laughter.*
*Gremlin coughs.*
Gremlin: Alright… let’s uh… *cough* well… um…
*He gives up and just starts moving, motioning the group forward. He steals a glance back at Virtue and smiles slyly.*
*Nimbus walks over and helps Virtue off of the ground.*
Nimbus: Damn! Are you OK, man?
Virtue: I… think so. I just need to clear my head… I’m not exactly sure what just happened.
*Nimbus chuckles subtley.*
Nimbus: Do you want a play-by-play or the summary?
*Virtue smiles back at him.*
Virtue: I think I got the short story down; I’m just trying to make sense of the big picture.
Nimbus: Ain’t that the fucking truth! You should have seen your face when she kissed you; we all thought you were going to pass out!
*Zombie overhears them from behind and tries to contain his laughter.*
Nimbus: Well… whatever you figure out, know this: she cares for you and she did what was necessary to help you get your senses back. I consider you my best friend… I can’t say I would’ve done the same thing as her, but I care about you too. We need you to be the Virtue we know – the one who does the right thing even if there’s a hoard of Bloodsuckers, Zombies or other fucked up shit standing in our way.
Everyone has their own reason for heading to the center, and they will do anything to get there; we’re stuck with them now. We’ll need to be at the top of our game to stay alive, and when the shit hits the fan, I want to be able to rely on you. Whether we live or die, I want to be standing, fighting right next to you.
*Virtue is speechless for a moment, then laughs slightly again.*
Virtue: Once again, another award-winning speech from Nimbus.
*Nimbus smiles but quickly returns to his serious state, awaiting an answer.*
Virtue: Look, there are a lot of things going on inside me right now that will take some time to sort out, but when the time comes – I’ll be there for you buddy.
*Nimbus rests his hand on Virtue’s shoulder.*
Nimbus: That means a lot to me man. It’s good to know that someone’s got my back for once in my life.
*Nimbus walks over to another part of the group, looking back at Virtue with a reassuring look.*
*The Stalkers continue down the road from Yantar to the Wild Territory, on their trek for the unknown.*


My head’s spinning. My heart is broken. I feel invincible. I’ve taken on so much pain nothing can possibly break me now. We continue on our missions for the center of the Zone to find to truth behind the disasters and the origin of the Zone’s evil. What I used to fight for is now gone, now all I can see is the path in front of me; everything else is just an echo in existence.
But Enigma is there. Enigma stands out from the blurs around me. Other faces phase in from time to time, but hers is the most prominent feature in the blend of colors drifting around me. Where once there was just another face, there’s now a strange glow about her. It’s eerie… I’m still in disbelief of what happened… or at least what I think happened.
One moment my world was turned upside down, inverted, and imploded; and I was lying at the bottom of a bottomless pit – now there’s a strange light at the top, and hope of a way out. Enigma is there, calling me to her with a simple look as she reaches her hand down to me. No one has ever made me feel this way. I didn’t know anyone could.
The path ahead, once unsure, is now riddled with a strange beacon guiding me through the fog. It’s as if to say that no matter where I go, I’ll have a light to guide me along the dark, dreary path.
Follow the light. Follow the light…

[Audio enabled]

*The Stalkers approach the southern border of the Red Forest, entering a familiar field with rolling hills. A battle has recently taken place here. A mix of humming, buzzing, and windy sounds grows louder as they approach the edge of the forest. Smoke rises from a chimney in the distance.*
Nimbus: There it is! That’s the cabin.
Gremlin: You’re sure this Reaper guy will just give up his artifact without a fight?
Nimbus: I hope so.
Phantom: But if he doesn’t at least we have him outgunned, right?
*The Stalkers climb the hill on top of which stands Reaper’s cabin. Dried blood paints parts of the hill around them and a line of Bloodsuckers and other mutants hang from an old clothesline in the yard.
Phantom: I stand corrected…
*The group reaches the front of the cabin. Nimbus steps out in front and knocks on the door.*
*Something shuffles around in the cabin. Objects inside hit the exterior walls as if there is a contained war taking place within. Finally the noise reaches the door.*
Reaper: If you ‘ave more than two legs or any extra body parts you can just fuck right off!
Nimbus: Reaper! It’s Nimbus!
Reaper: Numbskull?
Nimbus: No! Nimbus! I’m with a group of Stalkers on a mission. Virtue and Enigma are with me.
*There is no response for a momment.*
Reaper: You brought the pretty one?
*Nimbus glances back at Enigma, unable to ascertain any reaction since her face shield down.*
Nimbus: Ye… yeah, the pretty one.
*The door bursts open to reveal Reaper standing just inside with his shotgun in one hand and rifle in the other. He scans the group slowly with suspecting eyes.*
Reaper: Ahh! There you are ol’ chap. It can’t ‘ave been a day and already you’re back up ‘ere with friends! I must be a better ‘ost than I thought.
*Nimbus introduces Reaper to the group, all of them hesitant to make any sudden moves as Reaper shifts his weapons from one person to the next as they are introduced. Once the introductions are done, Nimbus cuts to the case:*
Nimbus: We need to borrow the artifact we gave you.
*Reaper’s mood goes from happy to stern.*
Reaper: And what would you be needing that for?
Gremlin: We’re on a mission to the center of the Zone. We need to pass through the Red Forrest to get to Pripyat. From there, we’ll look for a path to Chernobyl.
*Reaper shows no sign of acknowledgement of what was just said.*
Reaper: You’re crazy.
Nimbus: He’s not crazy. We’ve been through so much shit already…
Reaper: You’re all crazy. Crazy! The center of the Zone is inaccessible… and even if it was that’s the last place you ever wanna go! You think the Zone is hell? The center is like walkin’ into the lake of fire itself!
Nimbus: Look… Virtue, Enigma and I survived the trip from Limansk through the Red Forest. We’re braced for anything that could possibly come at us…
Reaper: It’s not a matter of being ready, mate. It’s not even a matter of skill. The fact of the matter is you CAN’T do it. Nobody has ever returned from the center alive, and everyone who has gotten close has returned screaming or worse. I’m tellin’ ya, save yourself and turn back now.
*The group looks amongst each themselves, unsure of how to proceed. Finally, Phantom steps up:*
Phantom: Hey! Listen to me, and listen well. I’m going to the center of the Zone, even if I have to pry that artifact from your cold dead fingers. My father died – possibly murdered by the Soviets in an attempt to cover up something, and my mother and sister may have followed in his footsteps.
I’ve been looking for answers, looking for the truth for years now. If there’s even a chance I can learn what happened to them, I’ll take it.
*Jargon steps in next to Phantom.*
Jargon: My colleagues died in tragedy on that day in 1986. Years later I learned that it may not have even been an accident that killed them. I’ve been in the Zone for more than 20 years, and I finally have a chance to get to the source of the problems here, and maybe end them for good. The families of the dead deserve answers, and if I have to kill one person to get those answers, you can bet your ass I’ll do it, son.
*Gremlin chimes in from behind Phantom.*
If the government is in any way involved in the death of countless good men, and the continuing death of more and more each day the Zone exists, then it’s my duty to put an end to their atrocities. For freedom in the Zone, and everywhere there is persecution.
*The rest of the group speaks up:*
Solitaire: For freedom, and the end of persecution.
Nimbus: For friends, and justice for the Zone.
Enigma: For loved ones passed.
Virtue: For Emelia.
*Reaper looks over at Virtue.*
Reaper: Emelia? Wasn’t she that wife of yours?
Virtue. Yeah. Was.
*Reaper scans Virtue over for a moment, realization dawning on him.*
Reaper: What happened to her?
*The look in Virtue’s eyes gives the answer away immediately.*
*Reaper squeezes the weapons in his hands, his arms shaking with anger. Finally, he puts his weapons aside and thinks hard for a moement.*
Reaper: you may find this ‘ard to believe, but there once was a time when even Reaper ‘ad a wife. She kept me level-‘eaded, not like the charmer I am now. I lost ‘er too, an’ when I did, I knew things jus’ wouldn’t be the same again. Then I came here.
*Reaper walks through the group and gives Virtue a bear hug. Virtue looks uncomfortable, but too afraid to try pushing him away. Reaper pats him on the back and whispers in his ear:*
Reaper: There, there, mate.
*The rest of the group shifts around uncomfortably. Finally, Reaper detaches from Virtue and looks over the group again.*
Reaper: Bah, fuck it. You can ‘ave the artifact. You need it more than I do. I won’t expect to ever see it again though. As much as I ‘ate to say it, you’re all going to your deaths.
*He looks at the ground and shakes his head in sorrow. Then, he sighs and retreats into the cabin, returning with the artifact.*
Reaper: It’s a shame I never gotta use it. ‘ere ya go.
Nimbus: Thanks. If we do make it back, I promise you can keep it.
*Reaper tries to smile, but for once cannot figure out how.*
Reaper: Don’t make promises you can’t keep, mate.
*With that, Reaper takes a last look at the group, knowing it will be the last.*
Reaper: I hope you all find what yer looking for. I’ll see ya in the next life.
*The door slowly closes as Reaper’s eyes remain fixed forward. The group doesn’t react for a time, taking in everything that was said and reassessing their mission in their own minds. Finally, Gremlin takes charge, sounding hesitant, but dedicated:*
Gremlin: Alright… we got what we came for… let’s go.
*The Stalkers leave the cabin behind, moving over the hills beyond Reaper’s house towards the border of the Red Forrest until they reach the barrier.*
Nimbus: Alright, here it goes.
[Unknown]: Hold on there!
*The group stops, looking for the source of the unknown voice. Coming down from a hill beside them, is a group of unknown Stalkers, all of them wearing armor that makes them look more like tanks than people.*
Gremlin: Who are you?
[Unknown]: I’ll be asking the questions here if you don’t mind.
*The unknown group of four Stalkers slowly approaches them, the hydraulics of their high-tech armor hissing slightly as their arms and legs move. Finally, the two groups are toe to toe. Their armor makes them look like giants in comparison to the other group.*
[Unknown]: Where are you headed?
Gremlin: That’s none of your business.
*The unknown Stalker, apparently the leader of the group, picks Gremlin up by the throat at launches him towards the barrier. Gremlin lands on the ground dangerously close to an anomaly, quickly picking himself back up and aiming his weapon at the leader.*
[Unknown]: I wouldn’t recommend that. We wouldn’t want your bullet to ricochet off my armor and hurt someone.
*The other Stalkers with him laugh in deep, hearty chuckles.
Jargon: What’s this all about, gentlemen?
[Unknown]: Are you deaf, old man? Shut the fuck up unless spoken to.
Jargon *muttering*: Young people…
[Unknown 2]: What did you say?!
*The unknown leader waves his hand, dismissing Jargon’s comment.*
[Unknown]: Someone better speak up soon. If you don’t you’ll be leaving with a few less people than you started with.
Phantom: Kiss my ass.
*The Stalker next to the leader sucker-punches Phantom in the face full-force, sending him hurtling to the ground. He doesn’t get up.*
*Solitaire taps on Phantom’s shoulder and checks for his pulse.*
Solitaire: Phantom? Are you OK?
[Unknown] I said SHUT UP!!!
*Solitaire freezes, then slowly backs away from Phantom.*
[Unknown]: Now then. A little introduction is in order. I go by a few names, but I think I’ll let you call me Stalin, because I am your new dictator. Boys, introduce yourselves.
[Unknown 2]: You can call me Martha, pretty boys.
[Unknown 3]: I’m Bubba. Yee-haw!
*Bubba raises his weapon in the air, imitating a lasso.*
[Unknown 4]: And you can call me Slayer.
*Slayer makes a mock-bow in their direction, then fires a suppressed round into the dirt directly in the middle of the group, sending them jumping out of the way.*
Stalin: Alright now. Down to business. We claim this part of the Zone. We represent the biggest, baddest motherfuckers on this side of the former Soviet Union. We’ve seen shit that you’ve only seen in your nightmares, and lived to tell about it. The suits you see are gifts from our employers; the men who put us here to ensure that the Zone doesn’t spread out too far. We kill a few mutants, we get paid. What we do in our free time is our business, nobody can tell us what to do. We fucking hate it.
So you’re probably asking yourselves “If life is so good, why bitch and moan about it?” I’m glad you asked. You see, recently we’ve become quite bored with camping out in this shithole for a measly buck. We want a pay raise. Not to say that we don’t have the skills required, but recently the things we’ve seen coming from the center there have gotten a bit tougher. Weird shit’s going on in there, and it’s got us curious. So we figure, if we go in there and kill a bunch before our employer asks us to, we’ll be commended for our work. That’s where you come in.
We heard what sounded like a war going on there the other day. Usually old Reaper gets the occasional mutant passerby but that day it sounded a little different. So we decided to take a peek, and lo and behold we should find a hole in the barrier… and that guy right there taking something out of it.
*Stalin points directly at Enigma, who has her face shield down, disclosing her sex.*
*Stalin slowly walks up to Enigma. The group of Stalkers becoming extremely agitated as he moves between them. They look toward Gremlin for any hint as to what to do.*
Stalin: What? You don’t wanna tell me how that hole appeared in the barrier?
*Enigma is silent.*
Stalin: If you don’t wanna tell me I can always force it out of you. This suit gives me enhanced strength, stamina, and resistance to bullets as well as anything nature can throw at me, and some things it can’t.
*Stalin bypasses Enigma and walks directly up to the barrier. He slowly moves his hand through the barrier, causing an instant reaction with the anomaly – shooting his hand back out again.*
Stalin: As you can see, the anomalies in the barrier are no problem for us, but the barrier itself is still impassable. I want to know what you had that causes that hole in the barrier.
*Stalin slowly walks by Enigma again and stands directly in front of her. There is silence for what seems like an eternity. Then suddenly, the sound of glass shattering disrupts the silence. Before anyone realized what has happened, Enigma is on the ground, her face shield shattered.*
Virtue: Leave her alone dammit!
*Stalin looks inquisitively at Virtue.*
Virtue: *Her*?
*Stalin stoops down to where Enigma has fallen, rolling her onto her back to verify Virtue’s claim. He looks back at Virtue in surprise.*
Stalin: Well I’ll be dammed… what’s a woman doing in the Zone? Shouldn’t you be cooking something?
Enigma: The only thing I’ll be cooking is your balls when I sever them from your lifeless body and use them for dog bait.
*The group of assailant Stalkers bursts into laughter, keeling over and holding their sides.*
Stalin: You think you can kill me?
*The Stalkers continue laughing. As the laughter subsides, Stalin takes out his sidearm and points it directly at Enigma’s exposed head.*
*Gremlin’s group immediately reacts, stepping forward and pointing their weapons at the leader. The other group mirrors their action and points their weapons back.*
Stalin: Whoa, whoa, whoa… no need for that.
*Stalin flips the pistol in the air, allowing it to land in his hand backwards. He guides it into Enigma’s hands and slowly closes her finger around it.*
Stalin: Come on honey; give it your best shot.
*Enigma shoots on to her feet with remarkable speed, draining the entire clip into the Stalin’s body armor. The bullets make their way deep inside the suit, appearing to do some damage.*
Stalin: Very good. It looks like you found the weak spot in my armor. Oh wait… what’s that?
*The bullets are slowly forced back out of the body armor, as some sort of foam fills the holes and re-solidifies the armor of the suit, making it look brand new.*
Stalin: Aww… that’s too bad. You see, this is what the boys in the weapons department like to call the “Exosuit”. You can’t kill us doll face, we’re here for good.
*Stalin stands up, grabbing the gun out of Enigma’s hand and forcing it out, nearly tearing her arm out of its socket in the process.*
Stalin: Now that we’ve established who’s boss; open the barrier.
Gremlin: Do it Nimbus.
Martha: If one more word leaves your mouth, I’m putting a bullet through you!
*Nimbus reluctantly complies. He holds the artifact up to the barrier. After a few seconds it starts to shake and flies out of his hands, gravitating within the field, distorting it and creating an opening. The hole slowly spreads until there is enough room for them to fit through, one at a time.*
Jargon: Astounding.
Martha: Shut up!
*Stalin steps through the hole first, motioning the rest of the group forward. They follow, one by one, until all of them are in.*
Stalin: Alright, now get it out of there and give it to me.
*Nimbus hangs back and touches the artifact in hopes of releasing it from the field. The artifact reacts and weakens the distortions it sends out, making it easier to move. When the distortions weaken enough, he grabs the artifact and hands it over to Stalin. The hole seals up behind them, shutting everything outside and in.*

Great. Right before we’re about to re-enter the Red Forrest, we get side-tracked by a bunch of bullies walking around with armor more durable than a tank.
I probably won’t be able to write much in here before one of them notices, so I’ll just make some notes.
I think Gremlin has a plan. They don’t seem to take much notice as long as we’re not talking and Gremlin has been communicating to Phantom with some form of sign-language. I don’t know where we’re bound yet… but it looks like they intend to
[Audio enabled]
Martha: Hey! What are you doing with that thing?
Gremlin: Relax, the barrier blocks all transmissions in the area, he can’t be doing anything to alert anyone.
*Martha hits Gremlin in the face with the butt of his rifle. Phantom’s face contorts in rage as he looks directly into Martha’s eyes with a look that threatens death.*
Martha: What are you going to do about it? Huh?
*Phantom continues walking, keeping one eye on Martha.*
Martha: That’s what I thought.
*A moment later, Stalin speaks up:*
Stalin: Ah… what a beautiful day for a walk in the forest.
*The Stalkers don’t react.*
Stalin: You know, I just thought of something. As much as I like my walks, I hate running. It would be very dangerous for all of you if one of you were to run.
*He looks from Stalker to Stalker; making sure his point is made. His eyes come to rest on Solitaire.*
Stalin: What are you supposed to be? Some sort of little soldier boy?
Solitaire: Something like that.
Stalin: Where are all your patches and marks? It looks like they all got torn off.
Solitaire: I’m in-between jobs.
Stalin: I see. You know, in those clothes you’d be very hard to find if you were to run off into the forest.
*Solitaire looks at him in confusion.*
*Stalin stops, bringing the group to a halt.*
Stalin: You see, I believe in giving people chances. I figure everyone should get three shots at everything. Once is a simple mistake, twice is a stupid mistake, and three times is a fatal mistake.
*Stalin un-holsters the rifle from his back and shoots Solitaire in the leg. Solitaire screams out in pain.*
Stalin: I also believe in prevention. I’m preventing you from making your first mistake. If you try to run now, that’s another mistake. You don’t want to know the consequences for that.
*Before Stalin can react, Zombie is on top of him, desperately trying to find a weakness in the Exosuit. Stalin and group laugh at his futile attempts.*
Stalin: Stop! Stop it tickles!
*Zombie begins bashing the suit with the butt of his rifle. Stalin begins to become annoyed and hurls Zombie off of him, catapulting him into the air. As Zombie nears the ground again, Stalin takes his rifle in both hands and, using it like a bat, swings at Zombie. The force of the blow knocks Zombie to the ground near Solitaire.*
*Bubba signals like an umpire:*
Bubba: Safe!
*Stalin, jokingly enraged, pushes Bubba:*
Stalin: What?! Are you blind? He was out!
*Stalin starts moving again, the other three Stalkers in Exosuits forcing their captives along.*
Gremlin: What are you doing! We can’t just leave him there! He’ll die!
Stalin: With each mistake you make there is also a chance. He has a chance to either survive, or die. He’ll have to learn from his mistake and take a chance at correcting it.
Phantom: You son of a bitch! Take off your suit so I can kill you with my bare hands!
*Stalin let’s off another round in the leaves next to Phantom’s right foot.*
Stalin: You almost made a mistake. Be careful now.
Zombie: You said with each mistake there is a chance; let me stay behind with him. He won’t survive with an injured leg; the blood will attract all sorts of monsters.
*Stalin thinks about this for a moment, grinning as does.*
Stalin: Now you’re getting it! You can stay. We wouldn’t want the Bloodsuckers to have to fight over one body, so let’s give them two!
*Gremlin grabs Zombie’s arm in protest.*
Gremlin: Zombie, you don’t have to do this. I’ll stay with him.
Zombie: No. I can find the way out of here once he recovers.
*Zombie pulls Gremlin closer to him and whispers:*
Zombie: We’ll catch up to you at the NPP.
*Gremlin nods with a sigh, returning to the group in dismay.*
*The group is forced along as Solitaire looks on behind them in pain. As he and Zombie fade into the distance, the forest seems to grow darker around them, engulfing their bodies.*
*Enigma begins to weep. Her tears are mixed with blood from glass the shards of her helmet cutting her face.*
Stalin: Aww… there, there little one. I’m sure he’ll be alright. What are a few Bloodsuckers anyway? Just aim between the eyes and cook at 350 degrees.
Enigma: You’re a monster.
Stalin: I know. But the world needs people like me to weed out the weakness in society. If he’s strong he’ll survive to fight another day.
Enigma: You’re not helping him by giving him an unfair disadvantage.
Stalin: Life is rarely fair.
Enigma: Only because people like you that make it that way.
Stalin: People like me lead the strong to success. Without us, there would be no order and society would crumble.
*Enigma doesn’t respond, leaving Stalin to bask in his self-righteousness.*
*The Stalkers march on until the day is all but gone. Gremlin and Phantom look continually forward in expectation. Jargon is near Gremlin and Phantom, trying to make sense of their sign-talk, taking in the world around him as if remembering days here in times past. Enigma and Nimbus are quiet and reserved. Enigma shoots the occasional glance over at Virtue. Every time she does the world around him starts to haze again and he is filled with a mix of emotion that is still indescribable to him.
Virtue continues to walk in a daze, living in his own world within himself, reflecting on recent events when before he knows it, the trees have thinned and an object stands in front of them. The object seems familiar to him, like he’s seen it many times before but in a former life. A highway sign next to a road. It reads: PRIPYAT: 2km.*
Stalin: Here we are. Welcome to the biggest ghost town in the world.