Chapter 24: The Way Home

*Virtue phases in and out of consciousness as he is carefully carried inside the house. He can just make out the two carrying him – a man and a woman, both appearing to be in their fifties. Their faces are kind, though concerned. They roll him onto a small cot in a backroom of their small house. They leave for a moment, returning with bandages and bottles of various liquids. The liquid sears painfully as it enters his body. Everything goes black.
He dreams deeply for what seems an eternity – like returning to the womb. He relives the pain and sees the nightmare that he’s been though. He remembers his first night in Cordon as the pack of Blind Dogs attacked the camp of Stalkers, feels the anticipation and fear as he peers through the pitch black of X16, and shakes as he remembers the sense of death and decay in Chernobyl. He screams often in the night as all sorts of nightmarish mutants leap out at him from the darkness, sinking their teeth into him, tearing him limb from limb or sucking every drop of blood from his body.
He fights in the thick blanket placed over him on the cot as he sees the faces of his friends as they died. They look into his eyes, and he looks back – seeing the desperation and fear of death as it embraced them. He sobs in his sleep as he remembers Emelia, his head spinning as the word “lie” is stamped over every memory he ever had of her.
He feels his strength slowly return to him. His caretakers – Ilarion and Aleksandra – check up on him often to make sure he still has a pulse. He tries to speak sometimes, but finds he does not have the strength or the will to form the words. Even if he could, what would he say? All sense of self is gone with the wind; he is merely a body with the remains of a soul – C-Consciousness’’ counter-part.
So he takes action. He doesn’t know how or why, he just does. His eyes open and he stands. The room spins around him, the dark boards on the floor and the white walls slowly separating from one another. He reaches for the door and it opens. At the end of the small hallway in front of him is the door to the world. A yellow light filters in, calling him forward. He walks toward it, ready to accept reality.
On a room to the side of the hallway, his caretakers are both sitting in chairs, reading. They notice him together as he trudges forward, immediately getting up and pelting him with a storm of questions.*
Aleksandra: Are you OK?
Ilarion: What’s your name?
Aleksandra: Do you feel better?
Ilarion: Where did you come from?
Aleksandra: Where are you going?
*The questions reach him but no answers come. He answers as completely as he can:*
Virtue: I don’t know.
*He continues to trudge towards the door. It opens as he approaches, the light blinding him as he steps outside. As his eyes adjust he sees a vast world before him. A dry field opens up outside, beyond it are hills and meadows. On the horizon, he can see forests, rivers, and small pockets of human civilization. He welcomes it in as the man and woman run quickly behind him.*
Ilarion: Wait! I can take you wherever you’re going!
*Virtue stops, turning back to the couple:*
Virtue: You can’t take me where I’m going. I don’t know the road, only the destination.
*The two look at each other in confusion. The man tries again:*
Ilarion: That’s it? You can’t just up and leave without a word…
*Virtue reaches into his backpack, shuffling through it until he touches what he’s looking for. He throws a wad of cash on the ground in front of them. The paper is worthless to him. Their eyes go wide as Aleksandra  reaches down and picks it up, looking at is like it’s some creature she’s never seen before. A small scrap of leather falls from her hands as she picks up the money.*
Aleksandra: Th… thank you!  With this we can finally move away from this horrible place!
Ilarion: Wherever you’re going is going to be a hell of a walk. I could drive you!
*Virtue looks slowly at the man, wondering what his definition of “Hell” could be.*
Virtue: Man made Hell. I was born in the heart of it. This is my playground.
*The man and woman look at one another again. He tries one last time:*
Ilarion: Please! There must be something I can do for you…
*Virtue points to the small scrap of leather on the ground. The word “ENIGMA” is still carved into it.*
Virtue: Find Enigma. Tell her that Virtue made it out alive, and that I will come back for her.
*Virtue turns and walks towards his destination, the sun warming his cold, pale face as he goes. He nods silently to Ilarion as he hears him scramble into the house behind him, moments away from committing his own act of Stalking as he sets out on the quest Virtue has given him.
The day turns to night and back into day as Virtue continues to walk. He passes through the Zone unnoticed as he attempts to glue the shattered pieces of his life back together. It doesn’t matter if it’s cracked and fragile – the cracks will fill in time. He looks to the horizon, barely noticing the concrete and lights in the distance. He comes to a familiar road on the outskirts of town – the place he knew as home. The occasional car passes by, the occupants staring back at him as they pass. Pedestrians veer around him, stopping in mid-sentence as he passes them by. The life of the city around him is nearly overwhelming as the hustle and bustle of society come back to him like music to his ears. He passes by a park where children are running in the grass and playing on the swings and slides. He smiles as he sees watches, the result of his decision staring back at him and smiling.
He feels suddenly hungry, his mind insisting on his personal needs now that he feels safe. The light from a sign over a restaurant draws his attention. He approaches it, ditching his weapons in a dumpster nearby to direct the stares away from him. A bell above the door rings as he enters, causing the customers nearby to look his way.
A hush comes over the restaurant as he stands in the doorway. Men smoking cigarettes and drinking from bottles and glasses freeze in place, staring curiously at him. He crosses the room to the back of the diner, sitting in the furthest booth from the door. The room directs its attention to the approaching waitress. She summons the courage to speak:*
Waitress: Can… I get you something?
*Virtue raises his head off the table, returning her curious stare with his weary eyes. The words leave his mouth in a hoarse whisper:*
Virtue: Whatever…
Waitress: I… uh… OK. I’ll bring you the special and a glass of water.
*The waitress waits for confirmation but gets none. She hesitates, and then retreats to the counter to place the order. Whispers fill the room as the men around him begin to point and speculate at the mysterious stranger.
He snaps back to reality as a voice comes over a speaker nearby. The eyes in the room avert his as he looks around the room for the source of the sound, reminded of Dmytro’s voice over the speakers in X16. He looks over toward the counter, seeing a TV mounted to the ceiling above it. A reporter proceeds with a report when a word perks Virtue’s ear.*
Reporter: … Chernobyl. A Reactor in the facility exploded during a safety test back in 1986 and again mysteriously in 2006. Rumors and speculation surround the area around the plant knows as “the Zone of Exclusion” as more strange activity and sighting were seen today. We were able to obtain amateur footage of some of the activity seen today – the content of the footage is… for lack of a better word… eye-opening.
*Virtue looks intently as he sees choppy footage of a line of APCs, Jeeps and other military vehicles rocketing down a long road. Several creatures of varying shapes and sizes pursue the vehicles at amazing speed – their details are enhanced by the zooming of the camera but nothing can describe the hoard of freaks running behind the line of fleeing military vehicles. As the camera pans up, the silhouette of Chernobyl can be seen against the fires burning from within. The reporter continues, holding his earpiece as he receives an update:*
Reporter: As you can see there is a line of vehicles heading away from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and a herd of animals of some sort seem to be running after them. Speculation aside we… hold on… this just in: we have just received electronic data from an anonymous source detailing the apparent military operation in the area. We are receiving what appear to be plans and blueprints of several underground labs within the Zone of Exclusion. Apparently they are all linked to a “Project X”… the details of which are still coming in but it appears…
*The broadcast is interrupted and the station is taken off the air. Loud static fills the room as the waitress quickly changes the channel to another station.
Virtue sighs in relief, remembering Gremlin and the rest of the group, praying they made it out safely. The occupants of the room hear him and focus on him again, looking back and forth between him and the TV screen. Finally, a man near him says:*
[Unknown]: You were there… weren’t you?
*The room leans in intently, anxiously anticipating his answer. He looks around the room at the eager men, finally giving in and responding:*
Virtue: Yes.
*The room bursts into excitement. His corner becomes crowded with chairs and men as they surround him with questions. “What’s it like?”, “What did you see?”, “Were there mutants?”, “Where did you go?”, “What did that to you?” He does his best to answer their questions as a bowl of soup and a glass of water are brought to him by the waitress. The men watch patiently as he downs his entire bowl of soup and glass of water in a few seconds time. Stunned, the waitress stutters:*
Waitress: W…w…would you like s…seconds?
*Virtue nods his head quickly; the warm soup filling a hole in him he forgot existed. One of the men near him shouts to the waitress:*
[Unknown 3]: Get this man a drink, on me!
[Unknown 4]: His next one’s on me!
*Virtue tells the story of his journey in the Zone to the men nearby. They listen intently as he reads them select pieces of journal entries and audio logs, telling the rest by mouth. The sun sets, but the men remain planted in their seats. As the day draws to an end, he finishes his final bowl of soup, adding it to the large stack beside him.*
Virtue: … so I walked into the light. Next thing I knew I was falling through the air. Lucky for me a tree was there to break my fall so I fell through it and blacked out. Fortunately a man and his wife found me, taking me into their home and treating my wounds. Ilarion and Aleksandra… those were their names. I slowly recovered until I felt my strength return. I didn’t know where to go, but I knew that I had a lot to think about. So I started walking and ended up here.
*The men continue to stare, mouths open in awe. Virtue looks around and quickly concludes with “The end.” The men break into applause and cheer, patting him on the back and complimenting him on the great story – regardless of whether they believe it or not. The crowd slowly clears, leaving Virtue to his thoughts once more. Finally he stands to leave, making his way to the door. The men say their farewells, touching his suit as he passes and putting money and other items in his pockets.
He exits the restaurant, picking up his weapons from the dumpster outside and continuing on down the street. The way is illuminated in front of him by streetlights above him as the sun sets behind him. He passes familiar places along his path, remembering the things that took place in his artificial memories.
He stops as he comes to a house off of the main road. He looks up slowly, taking in the details. It’s just as he remembered. He slowly walks up to the steps and onto the porch. Tears begin to well in his eyes as memories of him and his wife flood back to him. He can see his son sleeping in her arms as they watch the sun set together and a warm summer evening.
He steps up to the door. A white piece of paper is nailed to the door, on it is written: “Notice of Eviction”. He casually opens the door like he did every night after coming home from the factory. The worn wood around the lock cracks and splinters as he pushes the door open. The familiar rooms open up to him and the wind trapped within blows past his face. He recognizes a faint scent in it – Emelia’s perfume.
He runs quickly into the bedroom, a faint hope in his heart. He peers into the room, seeing the bed, furniture, and some of his personal possessions in the room just as he left them. Emelia is nowhere in sight. He slides down the doorframe, accepting the truth he knew all along. He cries quietly – surrounded by the empty house and meaningless objects that once had value to him.
He knows the memories were never real, but the sense of loss couldn’t be any more real. He sobs as every memory of who he was slowly drains from his mind. The shattered pieces of his mind begin gluing themselves back together.
He returns to the door of his house, closing it and propping a chair against it to shut out the night. He tests the lights and, finding power still flowing to them, turns on every electrical device in the house. The house is brightly illuminated, allowing him to see into every dark corner. Nothing can get him now.
He walks into his bathroom, staring at the toilet like it is blessing from God. As he walks inside, he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. He turns quickly to see another man standing in front of him. He freezes in place, the other man just stares back. He finally summons up the courage to speak:*
Virtue: Who are you?
*The man mouths the words back to him. He shakes his head in denial as he realizes he’s staring at himself in the mirror. His normally medium-length hair extends past his eyes in long, black strands and his close-shaved face is now a short, rough beard. He pulls his protective hood back from his head, the light above him shines on his face. Dark, black circles have formed under his eyes, and cuts and gashes line his face.
He drops the suit on the floor, the sudden loss of weight leavers him feeling cold and naked. He takes off his shirt to closer inspect himself. His once tanned, toned body is now white and ripped. He pulls the large bandages from his body, revealing several large claw-marks as well as bullet holes. His hands shake involuntarily as he looks down at them. He runs his hands through his hair, shifting the long strands behind his ears. The eyes looking back at him are dark and bloodshot. He smiles slightly, talking to the image in the mirror:*
Virtue: You look like hell… whoever you are. Yuriy? No… Virtue. Your name is Virtue. You were conceived as part of a military experiment in an attempt to take over the world. That attempt failed because you stopped it with the help of your friends. You are a new being, your life is now under your control. You’re in charge.
*The man in the mirror smiles at him, his new motivation giving him identity and purpose.
He retreats to his bed and collapses into the sheets, sleep instantly overtaking him. The cracks in his broken mind slowly begin to seal as he sleeps peacefully for the first time in his life.
Suddenly he hears a voice in his head calling to him: *
[Unknown]: VIRTUE!
*The voice resounds through his head. He sees the face of the one he loves – but this time he can focus in and make out her features. It’s Enigma.
He awakens; the ghost of Emelia in the sheets next to him disappears as he remembers Enigma. “What am I doing here? This isn’t where I belong.” he says to himself. He throws off the sheets, scrambling to get his clothes and gear back on. He runs out the door into the dim morning light, grabbing his rifle as the empty house fades out of existence.
He runs will all his might, escaping the cold, empty shell of a life that lies behind him. He leaves the city – the sun shines over the horizon illuminating the wide-open fields and hills in front of him. He approaches the fence… the same one that changed the course of his life so long ago. He hesitates, taking one last look at the grey city behind him. This time the feeling is reversed. He leaves the world behind him, crossing over the barbed wire and heading north, finally on his way back home.*


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