September 3, 2010

Chapter 3: Burnup on Reentry



Max remains in the abandoned tunnel for what seems like hours along with the other Freedomers, listening and waiting for the mutants howling and growling outside to lose interest in them. Most Freedomers had come to call the abandoned military base home, and Max as well as his predecessors had had great plans for the base – thinking of it as their permanent headquarters in the Zone from which they could eventually expand to cover the entire Zone… and maybe even more one day.
But those dreams were no more; now it was mutant territory, like most of the Zone had come to be as time passed since the Second Incident. To set foot in it again now would be suicide, even if the mutants were exhibiting their normal territorial behavior instead of this new, blood-thirsty one they had just witnessed.
“God dammit.” Max gritted his teeth and cursed at himself for letting the base fall to an attack. He would rather have died given the option, and he almost had, but the fact that he was alive now sitting at the doorstep like an orphaned child was the most humiliating feeling he had ever felt.
“Sir!” Cap, formerly the Barrier outpost’s commander, reports to him, interrupting his thoughts.
“Yes?” he responds wearily, doing his best to hide the hint of defeat in his voice.
“What are our orders?”
Max lets slip a laugh at the hilariousness of the question. To give an order would imply that he was actually in control of anything. He coughs quickly to cover up the laugh when a confused look comes over the Stalker,
“We continue on to Site B. We need to regroup and assess the situation. Then we can formulate a plan of counter-attack.”
“Counter-attack… sir?” the Stalker looks at him incredulously.
“That’s right, counter-attack.  I don’t intend to let them settle in and start nesting in my bed just yet.”
Cap stares back blankly as though he had just been hit in the head with something.
“Max… with all due respect I’m not sure you understand the weight of our situation. They didn’t just take the base… they nearly wiped us out! My men and I are lucky to be alive. The military were a problem, sure, and we stood our ground… but when we saw what they were running from we knew we didn’t stand a chance. As much as I hate to say it, I think we need to count our losses and move on; we no longer have the man-power for a counter-attack. The base, the Barrier… it’s all gone.”
Max looks around the dark, damp tunnel. He should be shocked that there are so few silhouettes staring back at him, but he had never held onto any hope of escape since had had ordered the retreat.
”What the hell am I doing? He’s right; we got our asses handed to us by a hoard of mutants on a rampage for unknown reasons. I’m not going back there until I know what we’re dealing with.”
He stands up. The Stalkers in the room mirror his movement, looking restless and ready to get out of the dreary tunnel as soon as possible. He takes a deep breath for confidence and addresses them,
“Men, we’ve suffered heavy losses today… a lot of good men – our brothers – were killed out there and we don’t know why. Well… we’re not going to let them catch us with our thumbs up our asses this time, and the only way we can do that is if we get moving. We make for Site B. We’ll regroup there, and attempt to establish contact with the remaining Freedom forces so we can formulate a plan. Let’s move out!”
The Stalkers concur heartily, grabbing whatever gear they managed to secure in the retreat and begin following the tunnel due east to the exit on the other side.
“Short and sweet, but it did the job.” Max picks up his backpack with his supplies and begins to walk towards the front of the pack. Site B, as he recalls, is situated on a hilltop not too far from the hidden assets he had called in during their unexpected guests’ arrival. He’d never actually been there, as it was more of an outpost than a secret Freedom base, but he knew it would be large enough to accommodate any remaining Freedom forces. It was frequented by Freedom scouts and rarely saw any action due to the its concealed nature deep within a forested area.
The tunnel ceiling stretches on for a while longer before the dim light of the night sky begins to filter through the other end, illuminating the rusty train tracks, dust, and chunks of broken concrete and steel from the tunnel’s ceiling on the ground in front of them. The moon tries desperately to peek through the thick clouds above them to shed some light on the path ahead, but the way ahead of them is nothing but shadow after shadow at best.
The tracks lead out of the tunnel and continue east into the darkness ahead on a long-forgotten trek towards an unknown destination. But that’s a journey for an adventurous Stalker in search of the next big gold mine of artifacts and other salvage. They divert their course instead into the wooded area on the southern side of the tracks and begin to ascend a shallow, steady incline towards the outpost somewhere above them. Normally, a journey through a wooded area, especially at night would be a suicidal thing to do in the Zone, but time is of the essence and they are in dire need of an update from other Freedom forces. And a plan.
As they begin to climb the hill, a few Stalkers sift through the group to stand at his side. He recognizes them as Screw, Skinflint and Chef – Freedom’s mechanic, trader, and cook respectively.
“Max, wait up!” Screw raises an arm to flag him down. They approach him, walking next to him as he continues to stare straight ahead.
“What is it?” he says apathetically.
“You mean we have to tell you?” says Chef, slurring his words in his usual drunken manner. “We just got friggin owned. I barely made it out of the shitter myself! Ran out mid-session when I heard the gunfire.”
“Shame…” Skinflint mutters.
“HEY!” Chef shouts and points at Skinflint, but no more words come out of his mouth.
Screw ignores them both and continues, “Look Max, you did the right thing back there. Lukash would have done the same thing in that situation. I just wanted you to know that no one judges your decision. You saved lives back there.”
“Me? Save lives?” Max responds sarcastically. “You must be out of your mind. I saved one life, and hoped I’d be next on the menu in the process. Lukash would have fought to the end and probably would have won. What I did will probably erase Freedom from the Zone. For once Chef is right, we’re finished.”
“Finally one of you assholes agrees with me.” Chef responds cockily then hiccups.
“Now you disappoint me.” Screw steps in front of Max, blacking his path. “You’re out of your element right now so I’ll refrain from punching you in the face.”
“I’ll do it.” Chef interrupts.
Screw flashes a malicious glare Chef’s way. Skinflint picks up on the cue and translates,
“That means shut the hell up now or we’ll hogtie you and leave you as a going away present.”
Chef shuts his mouth and hangs back, message received.
Screw continues, “You of all people should remember what it is exactly that we’re fighting for; an ideal. A free Zone for everyone… because contained within this small, confined place lies opportunity for scientific advancement the likes of which the world has only seen a handful of times. We owe it to our brothers in here, and out there to continue the fight. At least that’s what I signed up for.”
Max looks up at Screw, unable to make out his facial features in the darkness but sure of his genuineness.
“How long you been working on that speech?”
“I had some time in the tunnel. The mutants were distracting but I thought it was pretty good.”
“You’re right though.” Max says, feeling better. “We’re still alive, and still fighting.”
Screw pats him on the shoulder and steps out of his way.
“Well, it seems to me like I’m going to have my work cut out for me when we get to Site B, what with setting up shop there and all. Come on Skinflint, we should take inventory.”
Skinflint obliges, following Screw as retreats back into the group. Chef staggers behind them mumbling to himself.
He walks alone once more for a while, thinking about what Screw said. Even if he didn’t really have the faith that he did right now, it was his job as acting-leader to see to it that his men believed he did. After all, he had to hold the faction together at least until Lukash got back… assuming he wasn’t lying face down in the irradiated dust blanketing Chernobyl. If Lukash never returned, it would be his job to lead Freedom, and he owed it to them to put his game face on now. The world did.
He notices the men around him beginning to stop and looks up to find out why. Cap, in position near the front of the pack, has his fist held up indicating for everyone behind him to freeze. Max moves steadily through the ranks and approaches the him cautiously,
“What’s the problem?” he asks in a hushed tone.
“Movement ahead.” Cap responds in the same tone.
Max squints into the darkness, looking in the same direction for any sign of movement. Sure enough, just ahead of them traveling in the opposite direction, higher up on shallow slope of the hill, several beams of light can be seen filtering through the plants and trees in front of them.
“At least they’re human,” Max mutters. “Let’s try and get a closer look.”
Cap nods and gives the signal to proceed cautiously. The point men sleek forward, moving as quickly and quietly as they can. They sneak closer and closer to the group of Stalkers ahead of them but are still unable to make out any figures or identifying markings of any sort through the cover dense foliage and thick blackness of the night between them and the unknown travelers.
As they approach danger close Cap gives the signal to stop, then leans in close to converse with Max. “This is as close as we can get without a good chance of being detected and we still can’t make out any markings. Recommend I scout ahead alone and try to identify them myself.”
“Agreed.” Max responds.
Cap nods affirmatively, signaling for the group to hold their positions while as he eases carefully ahead, dropping into a prone position and crawling forward on his hands and knees through the dry grass and leaves.
The lights bob up and down as the occupants wearing them continue on, unaware of any other presence around them for the moment. A minute later, Cap returns. Max whispers to him as he approaches,
“What’s the word on our neighbors?”
Cap shakes his head, an annoyed look on his face. “Duty...” He sighs.
Max curses under his breath, balling his hand into a fist and slamming it down on his leg involuntarily.
“Dammit! Leave it to those putrid slugs to show up while we’re cut off from reinforcements. They’ll probably scouts. Well, I hope they get a good laugh when they see we’re not at home – right before they’re chased down and ripped to shreds by our mutant guests.”
Cap snickers hopefully, then asks “What do you want to do with them?”
Max thinks for a moment, thinking of all the fun he could treat them to back at Freedom HQ, but then eventually makes up his mind,
“Those assholes have no business snooping around here. Either they didn’t see all the pretty signs we put up saying ‘Stay the fuck out of our territory’ or they don’t care. Let’s ambush them and take them prisoner. Getting a little information out of those Duty dogs could do us a lot of good right now.”
“With pleasure.” Cap allows a smile to betray his agreement as he signals the other point men to proceed ahead and cut off the scouting party. They fan out, slithering through the underbrush like snakes stalking prey. Quickly, but quietly, they engulf the scouting Dutyers, waiting for the ideal moment to jump out and ambush them. Cap double-checks their readiness before stepping out from behind a tree and announcing,
“Freeze, Duty! We have you completely surrounded. Drop your weapons and put your hands in the air or we will kill you all.”
The Dutyers stop immediately, dropping to the ground and scanning around quickly for the source of the mysterious voice addressing them.
“NOW!” Cap insists, charging his rifle loudly to make his threat more credible.
They quickly drop their weapons on the ground in front of them and slowly raise their arms over their heads. The Freedomers emerge suddenly from their cover around the scouts with their weapons drawn.
Max emerges after their weapons are scooped up off of the ground and into Freedom hands. The Dutyers are heavily-clad in the signature yellow Exosuits given to only the most experienced and dedicated of Duty forces. He knows they would readily die for their cause, especially if it interfered with Freedom’s goals. The ones in Exosuits proved especially resilient in battle, their powerful armor seemingly stopping bullets like they were made of rubber. It had taken them a long time and far too many deaths to discover the weaknesses in the suits and use them to kill the Stalkers sporting the gear quickly in the heat of battle. What struck him as odd though was that Exosuits were rarely seen on scouts since the chunkiness of most designs made them impossible to run in.
He stands in front of them as they are pushed into line by Freedom forces with their hands behind their heads and are searched. “What are you doing on Freedom territory?” Max asks them sternly.
“What is the mighty Max doing so far from Duty HQ?” the Stalker responds haughtily. “Shouldn’t you be jumping in front of mutants for us with your friend Cap here at the Barrier?”
Cap gives him a face full of rifle butt, shattering the left goggle integrated into his closed cycle suit. He grunts painfully, an obvious welt on his face already starting to form below his left eye.
Max smiles with satisfaction, eager to let the Dutyer know what his bluntness could cost him,
“It’s funny you should mention that… it seems your friends in the Military decided to bring us a little present earlier. I swear they’ll just never be content to keep their own damn problems to themselves!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The Dutyer glares back angrily.
 “You don’t?” Max continues, “Well… no doubt your other scouts will soon reporting back on the ‘condition’ of our base soon. Assuming they can get out fast enough to report back in one piece, that is.”
The Stalker responds, confused, “Look… I’m not assigned to that area. I’m just a simple border patrol.”
“Bullshit you are!” Max barks back at him. “You think I’m stupid enough to believe that? They don’t just hand out Exosuits like yours to the low-ranking dogs!”
Max un-slings the G36 from his back, aiming it at the Dutyer’s head and looking at him through the scope.
“You’re in a dangerous position right now, Duty scum, and rest assured that your words will dictate whether we decide to take you prisoner, or just blow your brains out for the local wildlife to sample.”
The Dutyer gulps, obviously well aware of his situation and apparently not used to verbal confrontation with a Freedomer; nor should he be as the “shoot on sight” rule is the only mutual agreement between the two factions.
“What was the Military doing in the center of the Zone?” Max shouts and pushes the rifle to his temple. “Why did they pull out? Why were there mutants following them and why did they attack us? ANSWER ME GOD DAMMIT!” he clicks the safety off, and pushes the end of the rifle into the Dutyers head, knocking him off balance and toppling to the ground with a thud.
“WE DON’T KNOW ANYTHING!” he shouts back desperately.
“What the fuck does that mean? Duty and the Military are allies; surely you would know what they were doing there!”
“Duty doesn’t know! They didn’t tell us anything, we were in the dark like you! We don’t know what happened, we thought you did it! We were attacked too!”
Max continues to inch towards him, squeezing the trigger as he studies the man and his companions. The look of horror on his face seems genuine – he’s doesn’t want to die, and he’s willing to say anything to keep it that way. His allies look to be in a similar state, breathing heavily as the Freedomers in front of them prepare to fire on Max’s command.
Desperately, the Dutyer adds, “Look… the Military isn’t exactly on the top of our friends list right now either. They lied to us… and whatever they did in the center is affecting us too. The mutants attacked us too… we barely made it out alive!”
Max hesitates as he stands over the man, now shaking on the ground beneath him. He’s skeptical, but can’t shake the fact that a scout wouldn’t be as heavily armed as this man, or as bloody. The markings on his suit, claiming him as a Duty member, are all but covered in blood and guts, now clearly evident in the light shining off of him.
Max squints, beginning to believe the man’s claims, “What are your orders?”
“My orders are to find you and call an emergency ceasefire until we can sort out this mess.” He gulps as he stares down the barrel of Max’s rifle.
Max looks away from the scope, studying the man’s face. Horror is still in his eyes, but it’s more than Max could have put in him alone. Though his encounters with Duty had taught him to never take their word for anything, if there was more information to be had here, he needed it.
“I’ll spare your life” he waves his rifle in an arc, motioning at the other Dutyers. “All of them. But you are now prisoners of Freedom. We will take you to the nearest outpost for further questioning. If anything you told me is found to be in contradiction and you’ve wasted my time I will shoot you. Do I make myself clear?”
The Dutyers nod affirmatively.
Max nods to his men, who begin blindfolding the Dutyers and binding their arms behind their backs.
“Don’t worry,” Max assures them. “We won’t lead you into too many anomalies; we just can’t allow you to see our home away from home.”

*

Had the situation been different Virtue might have been grateful for the pleasant change of weather as the clouds above began to dim the intense sun rays beating down on him, but the smell of fire and death fills his nostrils, dominating any other sense pleasant or otherwise. He begins to walk down the decline of the hill, letting gravity do the work for him as he walks on.
Destination… that was something he hadn’t given much thought. Ultimately his goal was attempt to get word of his friends any anything else happening in the Zone any way possible but he hadn’t really given any thought as to where he was actually going, and in the Zone that was always a gamble.
I’m bound to run into another Stalker eventually.” He thought. Though whether the other Stalker would just shoot him on sight or be otherwise uncooperative was another question. Suddenly he felt naked… realizing how short on supplies he now was after his journey to the center and the supplies used to aid in his recovery afterwards by the friendly old man and his wife. What were their names again?
Dammit. They saved my life and I didn’t even remember their names.” But that was the way of the Zone; legends lived on but the details became faded with time.
He sighs, letting the noise of bugs chirping and buzzing in the tall grass around him sing to him. Somewhere in the distance around him distant gunfire and explosions continue to echo through the air. He sees the battles in his mind as he listens; Checkpoints along the borders of the Zone being ambushed - either taken by surprise or overwhelmed by superior numbers. The world was going crazy around him. What was stopping reinforcements from coming in and smashing them like bugs? Hopefully it was because the revolts taking place were being led by the very citizens of the county the military was trying to protect; no longer content to go about their lives while the shadow of Chernobyl slowly crept into their very backyards. The Zone was expanding and this was the sudden activity at Chernobyl was the last straw for them. Things would change even if they had to force them to... even if they had to die so that the sins of their generation would not fall in the hands of their children.
Virtue understood wanting to affect change – his journey was proof of that – but how long did they honestly hope to interfere with the military operation in the Zone before they were just exterminated and branded as terrorists? You don’t just start destroying military checkpoints and not expect repercussions. Yet how would the military respond to this threat while the Russian military ate at their heart like a worm? He didn’t know the answers, but he did know that the answer would come very quickly. The game was on, and it was the Ukrainian Military’s turn to move.
He perks up suddenly at the familiar sound of a guitar being strummed. He looks up to see a familiar and much welcomed site: Cordon; known to most Stalkers as the “rookie camp”. The sweet, savory smell of cooking meat fills his nostrils and makes his mouth water.
“Perfect… I can restock here and rest before I move on.” He thinks as he picks up the pace, his stomach growling as he imagines some of that meat in it.
A more seasoned-looking Stalker in a tattered rain coat stands in the middle of the road running through the middle of the village eyes him as he approaches, gripping the double-barreled shotgun in his hands closer to his body as Virtue approaches.
“Stop.” He says as he slowly raises the gun and points it at Virtue’s chest. Virtue stops, putting his hands out to the side cautiously to show he has no ill-intent. He catches a glint of sunlight glaring off two pistols protruding from the upper level of the houses on either side of the street being trained on him. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“My name’s Virtue, and I’m here for supplies.”
“Virtue?” the Stalker looks sizes him up as he searches his memory for a moment, then shakes his head back and forth. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” He says as he clicks the hammer back on his gun.
Virtue thinks for a moment, then reaches into his belt compartment, keeping his other hand in the air.
“Here’s my identification.”
The Stalker inches forward, ready to fire as Virtue presents a small, bright object. His mouth begins to drop as he gazes into the crystal clear ball of light presented to him.
 “My God… it’s a… that’s… amazing!”
Virtue glances back up at the houses at the previously unseen gunmen who are now leaning out with a similar look on their own faces. He places the artifact back in his belt as the Stalker lowers his weapon.
“Go… go ahead.” Is all the other Stalker can manage as he waves Virtue down the road, staring behind him as Virtue continues down it.
The smell of food becomes overwhelming as Virtue approaches one of the campfires that normally occupies the abandoned village. A feeling of Déjà vu washes over him as he approaches the underground bomb shelter at the far end of the village. It felt like an eternity had passed since he had first come to the Zone, though a quick glance at his PDA reminds him that it had, in fact, been just a little over two weeks. But so much had happened in that time; a lifetime of events had flashed In front of his eyes… literally.
He descends the stairs and stands in front of the large metal door at the bottom where the trader Sidorovich had set up shop. Sidorovich, he remembers, was the primary trader for the newcomers who frequented the area. He dealt with many of the imports and exports that were seen in the Zone, and was infamous for ripping Stalkers off. His favorite pastime was giving newbies barely functional weapons and gear and then sending them out on tough missions, then claiming the weapons for himself and loaning them to the next loser who came through when the survivors brought them back for supplies. It was a vicious circle, and he was in charge of it all. He would have made an excellent businessman on the other side.
Virtue knocks deliberately on the door. A deep, annoyed voice greets him from the other side,
“Yes? Come in already, I’m a busy man!”
Virtue opens the thick, metal door. It protests with a loud, screeching noise before coming to rest on the wall beside it.
Sidorovich grunts and covers his ears with his hands.
“Dammit! I gotta get someone to fix that thing.” He regards Virtue idly as he stands in the doorframe. “Well… you gonna stand there all day or are we gonna do business?”
Virtue smiles a little, “It’s good to see you again too, Sidorovich.”
Sidorovich stares at him blankly at him from his chair behind the counter for a few moments before speaking, “Which one are you? Clumsy? Hunter? Nimble? My God man… if I have to loan you one more gun I’m going to start charging!”
“It’s Yuriy… I go by Virtue now.” Virtue interrupts.
Sidorovich sifts through his thoughts again, “Yuriy… Yuriy…” he looks up again, realization coming over him. “Oh… OH! Yuriy! I remember you!” he throws his head back and lets out a hearty laugh, nearly falling out of his chair in the process. “I’ve been hearing all sorts of things about you… crazy stories! They say you’ve been going to underground labs, explored parts of the Zone nobody has been to in years and even made it to the center of the Zone! What a load of shit!” he throws his head back and roars with laughter again, the chair moaning dangerously under him as he does.
Virtue joins him in laughter, realizing for the first time just how absurd all that would sound to someone else.
Sidorovich begins to quiet down, wiping the tears out of his eyes as he regards Virtue again. He stops mid-wipe as the state of Virtue’s suit catches his eye. He points with his other hand, moving his finger in a circular motion, “So uh… where exactly have you been then if not all those crazy places?”
Virtue says nothing because there’s no excuse good enough to explain his appearance.
Sidorovich sits up suddenly, then rips open a drawer next to him and pulls out a Geiger counter, holding it close to Virtue. It begins to tick rapidly. Sidorovich’s eyes go wide as he flies backwards in his chair, sending it crashing into the display rack showcasing his wares behind him.
“Get the hell back! You’re lit up like a damn Christmas tree!”
Virtue takes a few courtesy steps backward as Sidorovich turns to the counter behind him and shuffles through some drawers. He begins to inch out the door, unaware of the man’s intentions. Relief comes over him as the old man turns back around, tossing a small package and a bottle of vodka at him.
“Here! Break that package up in the bottle, shake it, and pour it all over yourself! Don’t ask me how it works… just take it and get out of here!”
Virtue nods and runs back up the stairs, stopping on a patch of dead grass and following Sidorovich’s instructions. He pours the solution all over his suit, mindful of the tight places. When finished, he continues back down the stairs to find Sidorovich sitting back in his chair trying to catch his breath. He places the bottle on the desk in front of him as he continues gasping for air.
“Here you go; a souvenir from the center of the Zone.”
Sidorovich pulls the Geiger counter out of his pocket and holds it up to Virtue again. Only a few random ticks this time. He rolls his eyes in relief and collapses back in his chair.
“Damn you fancy-suited Stalkers… just because you’re safe on the inside doesn’t mean you’re not a walking X-Ray machine to everyone else!”
“Sorry about that. I haven’t had the time to do anything about it; I’m trying to get back to my friends.”
“Nikita and Jargon where with you this whole time?” Sidorovich leans forward, interested.
“Not the whole time.” Virtue looks at the floor, remembering the last time he saw them. Nikita had died during the mission to X16 when an overwhelming force of zombies overran them at the entrance. Jargon died later in Chernobyl at the hands of Phantom who was defending his father-turned-Controller. “They didn’t make it.”
Sidorovich sits frozen in front of him, stunned. “That’s too bad. They were good Stalkers… may the Zone watch over them.” He shakes the look of sorrow from his face and resumes his normal business routine. “Anyway, I don’t really care where you’ve been. You’re here now and that means you need something from me. What can I do for you?” he asks as he leans back in his chair again.
“I need supplies. And directions.”
“Directions I can give you for free, supplies… on the other hand.” Sidorovich rubs his fingers together imagining the wonderful sensation of money between them. “Supplies will cost you.”
“Sounds like a fair trade.” Virtue says as he rummages through his backpack, checking his supplies. He has less than a clip of 5.56x45mm NATO rounds for the LR 300 given to him by Forrester in Limansk. His food and medical supplies are dwindling and, to his dismay, he notices a large hole for the first time near the bottom of his bag, explaining the lack of any other supplies.
Sidorovich licks his lips happily as he watches Virtue puts his arm through the hole at the bottom of his backpack in horror.
“So… it looks like you’ll be needing a little of everything then?” he rubs his hands together, beaming brightly in his chair.
“Yeah, it does look that way. What have you got?”
Sidorovich smiles, rising from his chair and showcasing his goods in true businessman form.
“Well, I thought you’d never ask! I’ve got lots of ammo for 9x18 and 9x19 caliber pistols as well as your standard 12 gauge shotgun rounds. I’ve got a variety of gins to match, including a nice MP5 some newbie picked off a Bandit – near new condition! Oh, and I’ve even got some 5.45x39mm rounds and a nice, modified AKS-74 to match.” He hovers over a beat-up gun lying on the table showcasing his goods, running his fingers over the dirty, scratched exterior. “Treat her nice and she’ll treat you nice, eh? Or maybe not, if you get me!” Sidorovich laughs, amused with himself.
Virtue eyes his own inventory again, knowing what he has probably won’t be enough to make it anywhere near where he is bound; a decision he still needed to make soon. Reluctantly, he asked the question no doubt dominating the trader’s thoughts.
“How much?”
“How much you got?” Sidorovich quickly shot back. Whether it was a joke or not, he couldn’t tell.
Virtue rummages through one of his backpack’s pouches, finding a wad of cash comprising all the money he had made since coming to the Zone.
Sidorovich waddles over and leans forward on the gate over the counter between him and the door, preventing Stalkers from lifting goods from his shop. He regards the wad of bills as one would a cheeseburger after days without food, tracking its movement as Virtue sifts through the worn, beat-up bills for what he thinks is a fair price.
“Sold!” Sidorovich shouts, startling him slightly at the sheer intensity of his voice.
“How does 5k for the gun and the ammo sound?”
“5k?! You come in here with your pockets full of gold and all you want to buy is that old piece of shit? You’re killing me, man!”
“I thought you said it was a good gun…” Virtue says as he retracts the money.
“IT IS! SPECTACULAR!” Sidorovich shouts as he presses his eye up to the gate to get a clear view of the cash.
“Let me try it out then.”
“No! You’ll just have to take my word for it!”
Virtue does his best to resist the urge to laugh at the thought of taking a greedy merchants word that his wares are as amazing as they claim, however outlandish those claims might be.
“Fine. In that case I’ll just take some food and some anti-rad. You did say you had more 9x18 rounds didn’t you?”
“OK, OK!” Sidorovich waves his arms in the air, plopping back down in his chair, defeated. “10k for the gun and the ammo, plus the food, anti-rad and 9x18 rounds. I’ll even throw in a new pack for you.”
“Let me guess, you just rounded to the nearest five-thousand for your tip right? Or is there some new Zone tax that was recently imposed? Damn those politicians!”
Sidorovich sneers at him. “It’s the letting you borrow the gun for testing purposes and the rounds left in the clip it came with.”
“How generous of you!” Virtue fakes a smile as he separates 10,000 Rubles from the stack and feeds it under the gate. Sidorovich eagerly accepts the cash, quickly stowing it away in a safe somewhere behind him. Once his money is safe, he swivels back around looking satisfied.
“Step around here.” He motions to the barred-door to his left. Without even bothering to open it, he fits the weapon through the door, then returns to the desk and passes the rest of Virtue’s supplies under the gate. “Speak to Fanatic outside; he’s taking over for Wolf right now. He can show you where you want to go.”
“Thanks, Sid. I’d tell you I owe you but you practically cleaned me out so I say that makes us even.”
“Yeah… whatever.” He waves his hand dismissively at Virtue. “Just don’t let that girl get too damaged. If you die and it makes its way back here I don’t want to have to clean it again.”
“I’ll do my best.” Virtue shakes his head as he shoulders his new backpack full of supplies and turns around to leave.
“Well… good hunting Stalker.” Sidorovich mutters behind him as he begins to ascend the stairs leaving the bunker.
Virtue steps out into the open air once more. The smell of flowers drifts by him, reminding him of the forgotten beauty of the Zone slowly taking back what humans had built on top of it. New plants and trees were quickly overtaking the village, unrestrained due to the lack of people to maintain it. He walks back down the road the way he came, spotting an important-looking Stalker in standard gear, much more than the rookies around him could hope for at the moment. He eyes Virtue cautiously as he approaches.
“Fanatic, I presume?” Virtue asks the Stalker as he comes to a stop in front of him. The Stalkers at the campfire look up from their meals as he engages the man in conversation.
“You presume correctly. And who might I presume you are?” he responds, trigger-finger resting comfortably on the AKS-74U in his hands pointed at the ground in front of him.
“Virtue. Sidorovich said you could give me directions.”
“I could do that. But I won’t take you there. Find Guide or someone for that – and good luck.”
“Can you tell me how to get to the Freedom Base in the Military Warehouses?”
Fanatic chews something unseen in his mouth a few times before responding, “Sure. I wouldn’t recommend it though, the areas overrun.”
“Overrun by what?” Virtue arches an eyebrow.
“Mutants I heard. They hit the Bar after that, so I don’t think you wanna go there either. A lot of Stalkers who went there recently haven’t come back. No contact.”
“Well I’m going there.” Virtue insist. “My friends are there, and I need to find them.”
“It’s your life.” Fanatic shrugs and point north along the road leading out of Cordon and beyond. “That way.
“Thanks a lot.” Virtue stands awkwardly in front of him for a few seconds as he continues to stare back at him, motionless. He takes a few steps away and starts down the road when Fanatic adds,
“The Military checkpoint ain’t there so just watch out for whatever killed them and you’ll be fine. If you make it to the Bar in one piece radio back so we stop jerking each other off out here not knowing what’s going on out there.”
“I’ll do that.” Virtue says over his shoulder as he continues on the path leading out of Cordon. As he approaches the guard out front again he looks back expectantly,
“Hey man, can we see that artifact again?” he asks as Virtue walks past him.
Virtue stops, thinks for a moment, then pulls the artifact back out of the pouch on his belt. The light dances in the Stalker’s wide eyes.
“Oh man… what I wouldn’t give to have one of those. Then I could finally be out of this village and start seeing the real Zone.” He says as he is mesmerized by the dancing light escaping the exquisite orb in front of him.
Virtue holds the artifact out at arm’s length. The Stalker’s daze is broken as he looks at Virtue in confusion.
“Take it.” He offers. “There’s a whole world and a trove of these things out there waiting for you.”
The Stalker shakes his head in bewilderment,
“I… I don’t know what to say. Thank you!” he says as he reaches out and eagerly accepts the gift. “What’s your name, man? You’re an alright guy.”
“Virtue.” He replies.
“Thank you, Stalker! I’ll be sure to tell everyone back at camp how you helped me out.”
“Don’t mention it.” He says as he continues up the path and onto the main road leading out of Cordon to the north. The Stalker behind him abandons his post, running down the road to camp, probably to show off his new toy.
He turns north as he reaches the road and marches deliberately forward towards the Bar and hopefully, eventually, his friends. From the sounds of things though, there could be a more danger than he’s prepared for ahead of him.

*

The Stalkers shield their eyes from the intense light shining into the APC. Lukash walks blindly forward to cut their unknown assailants off from the other Stalkers, holding his empty hands out in a show of surrender.
“Military?” a voice asks.
“Maybe.” Says another. “He’s got clothes like theirs.”
“But look at the other ones,” Yet another voice chimes in. “They’ve got different suits.”
A murmur of agreement passes through the sea of unseen beings behind the blinding light.
Lukash’s eyes finally begin to adjust and the silhouettes of innumerable Stalkers begin to appear in front of him.
“We’re not Military.” He says, careful not to reveal more information than he has to before he can establish their motive.
“Then why have you come here?” the crowd quiets down as a more distinctive voice questions him.
“We…” Lukash stammers. “We’re enemies of the Military. We’re trying to stop them.”
A murmur arises in the crowd again as they discuss the situation over again. Curiosity overtakes him, and he asks,
“Who are you?”
The crowd hushes as two Stalkers step into the light shining on him. He doesn’t recognize them, but their affiliation is unmistakable – Monolith. Little was known about the faction, other than they were extremely xenophobic; shooting all who approached their territory in the center of the Zone on sight. There were some who claimed to remember them as a normal faction at one time, obsessed with the Zone and all its wonders. But that obsession turned into fanaticism, and one day they packed up all their things and traveled beyond the Barrier. Freedom had regular skirmishes with them at the Barrier, but all prisoners they had captured in an attempt to establish a reason had killed themselves before they could.
“We are the children of the Zone” one of the two says. “The Zone guides us, protects us. We are hers and she is ours.”
 “Great... fucking fantastic!” Lukash groans.  “So what’ll it be gentlemen? You gonna skin us alive and feed us to your ‘brothers’, or just keep us in captivity until we starve to death. No wait – maybe you’ll send us out into a pocket of radiation so that we may be shown the light and transcend our bodily form!”
The two Stalkers slowly turn to look at each other for a few moments, then return their blank stares back to Lukash.
He continues, “Let me know when you’ve decided so I can make sure I’m ready to blow my brains out. If I’m going to die I’ll go my own way, thanks.”
“No.” the first of the two says, his widening eyes the only hint of emotion in him, and marches up the ramp towards him.
Lukash braces himself for an attack but it never comes. The Monolithian stands in front of the light, bearing the standard garb; a dark-colored Stalker suit with symbols of some sort painted on it a red dye. His face is scarred from the custom of initiation required to accept someone into their ranks. Based on the amount of scarring and symbols on him, he appears to be a high-ranking individual.
“We seek guidance. If you are not our enemy than perhaps you can help us.”
“Help you?! Now why in the fuck would I want to help you?! Your band of cultists has killed countless of my men mercilessly and we don’t even know why.”
The second Monolithian approaches, standing at the top of the ramp next to the other.
“Our Mother has forsaken us. We are…“the second Monolithian cuts himself short as he looks past Lukash to the inhabitants of the APC. His eyes grow wide as realization of their identities hits him.
“It… it is you! Heathens!”
Lukash looks behind him at the other Stalkers who look at the man in horror.
“Get them!” the first Monolithian shouts.
The Stalkers resist hopelessly as they are dragged away one by one by the crowd of Monolithians and out into the cold, dark night. Enigma yelps in pain as she is forced down the ramp by a particularly unforgiving one.
“HEY! Be careful with her, she’s injured!” Lukash demands.
She lets out a pained moan as she is slung over the back of the brutish man, unheeding Lukash’s words.
Reaper wakes up suddenly as he is drug away and begins shouting as soon as he becomes aware of the situation. “Oy! Put me down ya fookin’ cornholers!
The butt of a rifle hits him in the side of the head; ending his plea and making his body go limp again. Two Monolithians grab him by the arms and drag him across the pavement as two more catch up to grab his legs.
Lukash curses under his breath, knowing that further protest won’t yield any results. He does his best to stay on his feet as he is carried through the abandoned city of Pripyat. The light of headlamps and torches reflect off the cracked, dirty windows of the tall buildings towering above them as they go. He can imagine all manner of creatures and maybe even a few Monolithians hiding in the buildings, watching with curiosity at the scene unfolding below. Their destination seems to be a building near the center of the run-down city.
Town Square.” Lukash decides as they turn down another street and makes a B line across the intersecting avenue towards the old Palace of Culture building – once Pripyat’s cultural center. The building has decayed with time, but has amazingly accumulated a wealth of furniture as well as Monolithian symbols decorating the exterior. The charred bodies of Stalkers litter the concrete park in front of the building, most likely other Stalkers who made it this far by some means only to find their journey quickly ended by Monolith forces.
“Ironic that what was supposed to be a cultural site is now under control of the most anti-cultural people in known existence.”
They continue into the building and up a flight of stairs to the second level. Lukash gazes in awe as they enter an old auditorium. There’s no doubt in his mind that this was the center of their supposed power, built right on top of the old heart of the city. A large wooden structure stands in the center of the room, constructed from chairs, benches and other furniture from elsewhere in the building. Everything else in the room, including benches that had been in the way, now were piled up haphazardly against the far wall. Apparently, the Monolith weren’t keen on sitting on them anymore.
One by one, the Stalkers were led to the front of the auditorium between the monolith-like structure and the stage, and are thrown onto the floor in front of it. Enigma tries to tuck and roll but instead lands on the floor with a thud. She gasps painfully as she slowly rolls over onto her back. Gremlin rushes to her aid, urging her to take big, deep breaths. Reaper moans and begins to stir after he is thrown onto the floor, slowly lifting himself up into a sitting position and holding his head in his hands.
The two Monolithians, who had before appeared to be higher-ranked than the others, stand on the stage to either side. The Monolithians filling the room keep their weapons at the ready should the Stalkers attempt to run or do anything else stupid like before.
The first of the two speaks,
“You have been here before, Stalkers…”
“Some of you, not all.” The second one adds.
The first speaks again, “You are responsible for the death of Specter – our leader appointed to us by the Monolith. You have also killed a most sacred creature of our Mother.”
“Why?” the second one asks, finishing the others thought.
“It matters not.” A third voice says from somewhere behind the two. They bow their heads as another Monolithian appears from the shadows behind them and stands at the front of the stage between them. “I greet you Stalkers. My name is Charon, and I am the true vessel of the Monolith.”
Gremlin speaks first, “I recognize the two of you… you were the ones who found us and brought us here before. Danilo and… Petro was it? And you…” he trails off as he takes a hard look at Charon. He wears an Exoskeleton, the original colors barely visible under the dyes and wear from what must be years of usage. On his back he carries a VSS Vintorez sniper rifle and on his hip is a USP Compact. A fairly unique loadout in the Zone, granted, but something in his voice tips Gremlin off.
“The one I was died long ago, there is only Charon now.”
Gremlin searches his memory but can’t seem to jog it.
“Our Mothers and Fathers told us of your arrival. But one of you is missing. We seek the Stalker known as Virtue.”
“He’s dead.” Lukash says solemnly.
“No he is not.” Charon replies. “He is alive, and has returned to the Zone. Our Mothers and Fathers told of this.”
“What?” Nimbus blurts out. “How do you know?”
“Our Mothers and Fathers never lie to us. They know all.”
“Just who are these ‘Mothers and Fathers’ you keep talking about?” Gremlin asks.
“That is not for the unfaithful to know.” Charon responds, finally breaking out of his statuesque pose and stepping on to the floor in front of them. “Nevertheless, they have called for him, and their will shall be done.”
“What do they want with him exactly?” Gremlin asks.
“It is not our place to question, simply obey.” Charon responds.
“Oh, blind faith. That’s a smart idea!” Solitaire laughs.
“Heathen!” Danilo shouts as he jumps of the stage and punches Solitaire in the face before returning to his post. Solitaire struggles angrily but is held in place by a couple Monolithians who had snuck up behind them.
“His words are wise.” Zombie adds. “To obey unquestioningly is the way of the fanatic. There is no wisdom in that.”
Charon walks in front of Zombie, intrigued at the well-spoken but misguided man amongst them. He stands over him silently for some time before speaking,
“You remind me of a man I killed once in this very city before I was shown the ways of the Monolith. He spoke like you, looked like you, believed like you. I chased him here as he and his friends looked for a way to get the Monolith. In the end, their greed overwhelmed them, and it destroyed them, as all who oppose the power of the Monolith do.”
Gremlin’s eyes light up suddenly as realization hits him.
“No, it can’t be. Scar…?”
Charon cocks his head to the side as he turns to look at Gremlin. “I have not been called that for a long time.”
Zombie slowly stands to his feet as a chorus of weapons cocking sings out to him.
Charon regards him curiously. “Why do you stand in my presence?”
The normal reserved look on Zombie’s face is all but gone, and on it instead is a look of growing anger instead. The old floorboards creek under the weight of his bulging muscles and the countless weapons in the room seem a lot less dangerous by comparison.
“The man you spoke of, whom you killed. His name was Fang.”
“Yes.” Charon responds. “That was his name.”
“He told me of his desire to travel to the center of the Zone and find the Wish Granter. I supported his desire, but believed that it was far too dangerous a journey. But greed compelled him, and he soon set out with his friends to find the center. I learned that he was killed some time ago on his journey by a scarred man with a Vintorez who had been stalking him. It was said that his killer disappeared sometime after a great emission occurred and was presumed dead.”
Charon moves directly in front of him and begins to take off the front of his protective face shielding built into his closed cycle suit. Gremlin’s jaw drops as he reveals his sickly white skin, pale white eyes,  and a distinctive scar running diagonally down the left side of his face form his nose to his mouth.
“Scar!” Gremlin says in shock. “It is you!”
“How is it that you know Fang?” Charon, aka Scar asks Zombie, ignoring Gremlin’s excited exclamation.
Zombie’s eyes sink into his skull like two tiny black holes as he whispers back.
“He was my brother.”
In the blink of an eye Zombie ejects a knife he had hidden somewhere near him and swipes it across Scars face, slashing it twice before Scar reacts with amazing strength, shoving Zombie across the room. Monolithians quickly scramble to hold him down. Zombie throws them off like ragdolls as they come at him, not doing much to impede his progress back towards Scar to finish the job he started. He comes within a foot of Scar and attempts one final slash. His arm is caught by Scar, who glares back at him, a curtain of blood running down the left side of his face.
The two struggle against each other as the knife is forced back and forth between them. Hatred burns in Zombie’s eyes while Scar snarls back at him through his teeth. Then, Zombie finds himself on the floor as two Monolithians pull his legs out from under him and begin dragging him away. He plunges the knife into the floor on front of him and grips it with all his might, halting the Monolithians progress in dragging him away. Another comes in and slams his boot down on Zombie’s arm to release his grip to no affect, finding the knife in his foot instead as Zombie quickly pulls it from the floor and swings it back down. He grunts more in anger than pain as he is drug along with Zombie out of the room behind them all.
“Now, when you see your reflection, you will forever see my mark upon you!” Zombie yells just before he is ejected from the room and led down the hallway beyond.
Scar wipes the blood from his face and walks over to a large, broken mirror near the stage. On top of his original scar, crossing it on top and bottom, are two new scars in the shape of the letter “Z”. Either coincidentally or intentionally, Zombie had left his mark physically as well as metaphorically. Scar, seeing no threatening injury, returns to the Stalkers who stare back at him, in awe of his new appearance.
“Take them. You will be shown the ways of the Monolith and join us as brothers and sister.”
“Blessed are they, as they enter their eternal union with the Monolith.” The Monolithians say together as the Stalkers’ hands are bound behind them. Several of them begin to gather around the pile of garbage stacked in the center of the room, kneeling in front of it and bowing their heads to it.
The Stalkers are led down another set of stairs to a room in the basement of the building illuminated by eerie blue lights on either side of the room. The Monolithians gather at the door and peer through small windows spaced around the room on opposite sides. They are all placed in restraints attached to the far wall, most of them no doubt taken from the abandoned hospital nearby, as the Monolithians fiddle with an unseen object in one of the room’s dark corners. They move the object along the floor just in front of the door and then retreat back outside the room, slamming the barred door behind them and gathering at the windows in anticipation. The Stalkers look amongst themselves in confusion, all obviously wondering what was in store for them. The answer to their questions becomes painfully obvious as an ear-splitting roar scares the hell out of them all. A pair of red, malice-filled eyes appears in the same dark.
“So this is how they get their marks…” Gremlin trails off as the creature becomes more and more agitated, eventually slamming against the door with enough force to break the weak lock attached to it.

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