August 27, 2010

Chapter 2: There's no Place like the Zone


The sun was just beginning to rise in the early morning hours as Virtue wades through a field of tall grass, a common sight in the Zone. The sky was a deep blue with a hint of orange to the east where the sun was beginning its ascent into the sky. The field of grass and weeds brushed lazily against his legs like a million tiny fingers helping him on his way. Abandoned buildings in the distance pass him by suddenly like small details in a dream which, for all he knows, is exactly where he is since he can’t remember the last time he slept. But that’s not important now… what’s important is that he’s here, whether in mind or body, and his objective is clear; getting back to his friends.
He had been through hell in the matter of just a few days’ time, and those days had changed his life forever. It’s not every day you learn that your entire life has been a lie, everyone you ever knew and loved was a fake, and you’re not the person you think you are. Those things, coupled with the horrors of the Zone left a mark in his memory no amount of effort would ever remove, he knew this for a fact. He had barely escaped the violence the aftermath of his meeting with Dmytro and C-Consciousness had caused; an outbreak of mutants, unleashed from the grip of the hands of the military secretly stationed there.
He remembers walking through the dark, gloomy and decay-laden halls of Chernobyl, feeling as though the malice of all those who had died in agony alone there was intent on seeing him suffer and end as horrible as their own. He remembers the horribly disfigured mutants - twisted, evil forms of the local wildlife and in some cases even humans who once inhabited the area before the 1986 disaster when the Reactor 4 in the CNPP exploded, blanketing the area in deadly radiation. But most of all, he remember the Stalkers who got him through it all… his friends who were still out there, who sacrificed everything to get to the center. They all had their own reasons for going, but they all had the same goal; to put an end to the horror that was the Zone: man-made hell.
Walking through the quiet, deserted field feels the same as it did weeks ago when he first entered the Zone. He remembers the desperation he felt when his son died - a son who was never his to begin with, brought into the world by a wife who wasn’t even real, he had later learned. No, he was just an experiment – a freak like all the other ones crawling on all fours and hunting humans like animals. As real as he felt on the outside, he couldn’t help but feel that on the inside he was a fake; an array of organs grown in a test tube and not his own mother – who was yet another illusion; a false memory implanted by the collective consciousness that was C-consciousness. Yet here he was… making his way back into the Zone very near to the same path he took before for reasons remarkably similar; saving someone dear to him. If that didn’t make him human, nothing did.
He passes his hand through his thick, dark hair, brushing it away from his face. The cool morning wind chills his skin as it flows around him. He listens carefully to the wind whispering promises of adventure ahead; tales of untold action, excitement, and horror. But there’s something else on the wind, something he doesn’t recognize. It could be the restrained sense of dread lingering in the back of his mind that his friends are in trouble, in agony, or worse. No – it’s something more real, more immediate.
Fire.” He realizes. Maybe a small camp of Stalkers was somewhere nearby. Then something else … voices. He listens carefully to what sounds like shouting – too many voices to count – raised in anger, coming from behind a large hill to his right. Something was definitely happening over there.
Curious, he decides to head towards the noise. As he approaches the top of the hill black smoke begins to rise from somewhere below. As he reaches the top he crouches close to the ground to conceal himself in the tall grass. He goes prone and takes out a pair of binoculars from his backpack to get a better look.
Below him is one of the Ukrainian Military’s checkpoints along one of the old roads leading into the Zone. The checkpoint is situated between two hills – the one he is on top of and another to the east of him. A small building stands alongside the road, enclosed in a fence that runs back up along both hills, indicating he has reached the original 30 kilometer boundary of the Zone of Alienation.
Soldiers are set up in a defensive line at the base of the two hills as what appears to be a riot is taking place just outside the checkpoint. He zooms in to get a better look at the action taking place. The soldiers are standing their ground against an angry force of what appears to be civilians… businessmen, doctors, even some Stalkers stand on the opposing side. There are a few small fires burning along the road and the outpost has taken some flak, but the soldiers inside the fence remain where they are, weapons in hand.
A man is standing on a car near the middle of the crowd, shouting angrily at the soldiers. Virtue places the binoculars back in his backpack and crawls forward through the tall grass so he can get closer.
“How long will we continue to sit idly while they continue to destroy not only what remains of our country, but the rest of the untouched world?” the man raises his arms above his head as he addresses the crowd. The crowd yells in agreement, raising their own fists in the air. From the looks of the man, he’s come from a day at the office as the business suit on him would suggest, though the suit is dirty and slightly ripped like he took it from a pile of trash.
Suddenly, an automated message plays over the megaphones situated on top of several old telephone poles near a fenced-in portion of the checkpoint:  “ATTENTION! YOU ARE ENTERING AN ECOLOGICAL DISASTER ZONE. ALL KNOWN CASES OF STALKING WILL BE DEALT WITH EXTREME CONSEQUENCES. WE ARE HERE TO PROTECT YOU FROM THE ZONE, NOT THE ZONE FROM YOU.”
The message is ignored by the crowd as it loops a second time; all attention instead is directed to the man as he continues, “The Zone is your fault, and the more you tamper with it the more innocent lives it takes. You would use it to research more ways for humans to kill themselves as it takes even more lives, both inside and out! It’s high-time we gave the Zone back to the planet and stop playing with what we do not understand! Now is the time not only for the Ukrainian people, but the rest of the world to cry out in one voice; LEAVE THE ZONE ALONE!”
The crowd applauds, chanting with him while pumping their fists, “Leave the Zone alone! Leave the Zone alone!” As the energy of the crowd builds, so does the amount of destruction being dished out. Objects are hurled at the outpost and at the soldiers. Some few gunshots rip through the sky as the soldiers fire a few warning shots at the ground in front of the protesters.
The man on top of the car doesn’t even flinch as a few of the bullets ricochet off the car roof in an effort to scare him off of his perch. Instead, he slowly crouches down to take a bottle being handed to him. He holds the bottle high in the air, taking a lighter from his pocket and igniting a small cloth protruding from the end. The cloth begins to burn, flame creeps towards the liquid contained within the bottle.
He shouts again as the cloth slowly disintegrates, “No longer will we allow them to tamper with the Zone behind our backs! No longer will they claim to protect us from the Zone when they are using it to kill us! No longer will our children suffer at the hands of these maniacs, who we trusted with our lives when they have only ever had their own best interests in mind! We are the Ukrainian people, and we have a voice too! We will be heard!”
The crowd turns ferocious as the man looks menacingly at the soldiers, the bottle still aflame in his hand. He cocks his arm behind his head, but just before he can throw the bottle, an earth-shattering roar comes from somewhere in the Zone beyond. Startled, he over-throws the bottle as the soldiers at the checkpoint react, looking behind them for the source of the noise. The Molotov veers from its intended target, hitting a soldier square in the chest. The liquid pours down his body, coming in contact with the flame and turning him into a human torch. The soldiers quickly turn back to face the crowd and, taken by surprise at seeing their comrade on fire, begin shooting wildly into the crowd. The crowd panics and dives for cover.
Virtue squirms through the dense grass towards the bottom of the hill as the man on top of the car rolls off of the roof, barely dodging several bullets as they whiz over him. He hits the ground, scrambling to the back of the car. Once there, he opens up the trunk, taking out several weapons and tossing them to the protesters as they too go for cover. They take cover behind poles, concrete barriers, cars, and in the worst case, people. Many of the protesters are gunned down before they even know what’s happening – but the ones with guns begin to return fire at the soldiers who also run for cover. Forced out of their defensive position, some run into the hills on either side of the checkpoint while others seek cover behind the walls of the small building at the checkpoint.
Virtue watches in shock as the scene unfolds. The men outside the checkpoint outnumber the soldiers but are also falling much faster than them due to inferior weaponry. He rolls into cover behind a concrete barrier alongside the road as the soldiers are taken out one by one. The crowd slowly pushes its way into the checkpoint, shooting at anything that can be destroyed as they mop up the remaining soldiers.
The grass rustles suddenly near Virtue as a retreating soldier runs past him. He tries to roll out of the way but the soldier trips over his unseen leg before he can. The soldier face-plants on the pavement, looking around quickly to find what tripped him. He spots Virtue hiding behind the barrier next to him and quickly scrambles backwards in surprise. Virtue puts his finger to his lips in an effort to quiet and calm the man but the fear in his eyes is so intense that he begins to panic and pulls out his pistol, firing rapidly over Virtue’s head.
Virtue curses and dives over the barrier, rolling on to the other side and pulling out his sidearm. He lines up his shot, hoping the soldier will cease his fire as he stands above him. To his dismay, the soldier continues to fire while backpedaling away from him, obviously scared out of his mind as his bullets inch closer and closer to their intended target. Out of options, Virtue curses again and squeezes the trigger on his pistol, putting a bullet directly between the soldier’s eyes. The soldier stops firing, collapsing to the ground as blood seeps from his mortal wound.
Virtue sighs, stepping over the barrier to watch the man breathe his last breath. He reaches out with two gloved fingers and closes the man’s eyes, sending him into his eternal slumber. Suddenly, the memory of the first life he had ever taken floods his memory. He remembers the mission the trader Sidorovich at the rookie camp Cordon gave to him, to eliminate the Bandits at the car park. The Bandits were just another danger in the Zone, preying on Stalkers both new and experienced. They were infamous for stealing their belongings and leaving them for dead. He had found himself alone in one of the buildings, confronted by one of the last remaining Bandits who tried to fool him into letting him live so he could shoot him and take his belongings. He said something to him that would most likely stick with him forever, "Are you going to shoot me? What do you think you and your little band of freedom-fighters are going to do here? Nothing! If you kill me, that's one more life the Zone claims, and one more soul that will be forgotten. Can you handle that "Stalker"? I bet you and I are not so unalike."
Though the man was trying to trick him, he did have a point. The Zone had claimed so much life already, and many of those who died were lost souls that the world had given up on, and would forget like they had never even existed. With that on his conscience, how could he possibly kill another person? Unfortunately, he was forced to act in self-defense when the man pulled a gun on him. It was by pure luck alone that he hadn’t died right there and taken the man’s place as the soul that nobody would remember.
But this man seemed different, Virtue thought as he pulled his wallet from one of the pockets on his uniform. Inside, among his identifications and credit cards were pictures of a women and children. “This man was married and had kids”, Virtue thought, which he quickly confirmed by glancing at the man’s drivers license. He tried not to think about the news his family would receive very shortly. “We regret to inform you that your husband/son/brother…” The men in uniform would begin. Nothing else would matter after that. No amount of consolation or praising his accomplishments would change the fact that this man – Fadeyka Kovalevsky - had died and was never coming back. Death was a natural part of life, and he understood that. He had dealt with it first hand before even entering the Zone, but what the soldier’s family would not hear was how needless his death was and how frightened he had been in the seconds before it had ended. There was no honor in that. All that this man was; his friends, his goals, his interests and aspirations had ended in a second at Virtue’s hands, and was now collecting in a growing red puddle beneath him.
“Does it make me soft that I feel such sympathy for a man who might have killed me moments ago without a second thought?” Virtue ponders to himself. “No.” He thinks, ”The day I stop feeling pain for the loss of life is the day I become just another monster roaming the Zone”.
He snaps back to reality. The soldiers are dead and bleeding on the ground, while the protesters wander around the outpost, admiring their work while making sure none of the soldiers are still alive to shoot them in the back. They get to work looting the building and removing body armor and weapons from the soldiers, claiming them for themselves.
The automated message being played over the loudspeaker continues to play, “ATTENTION! YOU ARE ENTERING A-”
A lazy burst of gunfire goes off somewhere near the loudspeaker. A loud, electronic whine sounds from the loudspeaker as it crackles and dies. “It’s you who should have listened to us!” the owner of the weapon retorts.
“Time to get some answers.” Virtue decides as he takes a deep breath and walks out into the open, walking steadily down the road leading to the checkpoint now currently under new ownership. As he approaches the checkpoint some of the protesters take notice and point their guns at him timidly.
“Fresh meat... welcome to the Zone, Stalkers.” Virtue allows a hint of a smile to cross his lips, swallowing back his fear as the weapons stay trained on him. More take notice, stopping what they’re doing and watching him as he enters the checkpoint. They try to look tough but it’s obvious they are afraid and unsure of him and what will do.
He walks into the middle of the fenced-in compound between the gates dividing the inner and outer checkpoint, searching for the man in the grimy business suit he saw before shouting on top of the car. In the confusion, Virtue was unable to tell whether he had actually survived the initial firefight or not, but if he had, he would be the best source of information. Apparently a lot had happened in his time away from the Zone.
He sees the man walking through the main building of the checkpoint, attempting to organize the men and women and plot their next course of action. Virtue walks into the room quietly and waits for them to take notice.
“Get all the uniforms and gear you can find. Bury the bodies outside. If we work fast it’ll look like nothing happened.” The man assures the people inside.
“You mean besides all the scorch-marks, bullet holes and blood, right?” Virtue interrupts as he stands in the doorway.
The man looks back at the doorway, his eyes resting on Virtue. “Who are you?” He raises his newly acquired AKS-74U at Virtue, demanding an answer.
Virtue decides to choose his words carefully, “I’m no friend of the Military, so I guess that makes me a friend. My name’s Virtue.”
The man looks him over, analyzing all the gadgets and markings on his suit. A smirk slowly crosses his lips and he responds, “You’re a Stalker… and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
He slings the weapon over his back and raises his arms in greeting, “Welcome, friend, to our new base of operations My name is Choma… at least it used to be. I don’t think my worldly name really applies anymore since I’ve committed an act that will surely bar me from that world ever again.”
“Speaking of which,” Virtue responds. “Maybe you can help me. You see, I’m a little behind in the news outside...”
Choma laughs knowingly, “Yes, yes I suppose you would be now wouldn’t you?” He stops laughing, an incredulous look on his face, “But what are you doing all the way out here and so close to a military checkpoint for that matter? I thought you Stalkers stayed as far away from these places as possible.”
Virtue confesses, “There was something I needed to take care of outside, but I didn’t stay long enough to get any updates in that part of the world.”
Choma stares at him for a while, probably trying to figure out if he was exchanging any compromising information with the outside world, specifically about their new occupation of the checkpoint, but at length he speaks, “Well, you’ll be hearing… or better yet seeingfor yourself what happens very soon. Needless to say, the world’s going to hell in a hand basket, and there’s a giant magnifying class hovering over this particular part of the world as we speak.”
Virtue arches an eyebrow, as Choma explains, “The Ukrainian Military is mobilizing, setting up a perimeter around the entre Zone. The Ruskies are in a real pot of shit right now after what they pulled in Chernobyl… that little skirmish of theirs within our county has attracted the attention of the entire world... probably something to do with all that smoke pouring out of the plant. I guess they’re not keen on more radioactive fallout landing on their soil.” He jokes.
Virtue cracks a smile, admiring the man’s sense of humor as the world around him burns. If only he knew that he’d just met the man who had a major part in the current state of things there. He scolds himself silently… he should have known that his actions as well as his friends actions would have had such consequences. But everything had happened so fast and they had to act quickly, doing what was necessary to stop the Military’s experiments there once and for all.
 “So what brought this on?” Virtue indicates the checkpoint around him. “Somehow I doubt this was just a spontaneous trip to the Zone.”
Choma nods and replies, “In that, you are correct. We are all appalled by what has occurred here without our knowledge – but more so that we did not have the wisdom to predict this.” He pauses, looking at the floor briefly before meeting Virtue’s eyes again. “I know our actions were… drastic and maybe even murderous in some people’s eyes… but I believe we had no choice. Had I not taken action someone else would have in my place. A message needed to be sent; we will not hide in fear while corrupt politicians play their games. No – we’re calling the shots now.”
Virtue nods respectfully, remembering his reasons for entering the Zone, and taking matters into his own hands. He lived that lie of a life where he was nothing but another number in a sea of numbers; underpaid, disrespected, and depressed. But he knew that life was a lie now, just like the other lie he was nearly tempted into believing when confronted by C-Consciousness saying that if he would just sacrifice his body, his mind would be at ease and the problems of the world would slowly die away. In that way, he and Choma were alike; both of them were new residents in the Zone, both seeking to define their new lives the way they wanted to.
“So what will you do now… what do you hope to accomplish here?” Virtue asks.
Choma thinks for a moment, as if he had not yet planned that far ahead yet, “I think we’ll stay here and fool as many soldiers as we can into thinking the outpost is OK. Obviously, other soldiers will get suspicious if they had friends here and they don’t recognize the voices coming over the radio – but the Zone is a dangerous place, with all the confusion it will be easy to make it seem like they were killed by some other means.”
“What about all that talk about leaving the Zone alone? Isn’t this interfering in a pretty big way?”
Choma half-nods, “In a way, yes, but this, ‘interfering’, as you put it, is necessary to ensure that the Zone is never again touched by those who would use it for evil purposes.”
Virtue says nothing, given his current lack of information on the situation, but gives Choma a look that more-or-less agrees with him. He looks around as the former citizens turned Stalkers go to work gathering supplies digging graves for the bodies in a grassy area outside of the checkpoint concealed from sight of the road.
“Well… good luck with everything, maybe I’ll bump into you further in the Zone, Stalker.” He reaches out and offers a hand shake. “Now I have my own mission to accomplish.”
Choma shakes his hand and motions out the door behind Virtue, “Don’t let me stand in your way – and if you ever do head back this way and we’re still here look us up. It’s obvious you’ve seen some action and we could always use another gun – especially an experienced one like yours…” he trails off, noting the beat-up state of Virtue’s armor.
Virtue smiles and throws up a mock-salute for the new self-appointed commander of the checkpoint, “Roger that, sir.”
Choma returns the salute hesitantly, no doubt realizing the true weight of his new position, and retreats towards the back of the checkpoint. No doubt there was a lot of work ahead of them if they were to have a chance at pulling off their little operation.
Virtue continues down the road heading north out of the checkpoint, grateful for a path to follow with a wide-open view of the things head of him. But the condition of the road is a small pleasure that is quickly overtaken by the all-too familiar smell of death the suddenly assaults his nostrils. He stops short when he looks from side to side and locates the source of the stench. He does his best to keep from gagging from the smell coming from the corpses dumped hastily along the road just out of sight of the checkpoint. Soldiers and Stalkers alike lay motionless, some in several pieces, obviously mauled to death by mutants as the teeth and claw marks on them show.
“Why are there so many dead… and where are the mutants who did this? Why would they just kill and leave the bodies here to rot?” The questions swirl around in Virtues head. None of this made any sense. From what little he knew about mutants, he knew that they rarely went on random killing sprees - killing only when their territory was invaded or when hungry. “Either a whole bunch got really hungry, or there was a big territory shift.” Virtue surmises. “But that still doesn’t explain why they didn’t eat anything...” Things in the Zone really were getting bad; it was all too apparent now that a lot had happened since the events within Chernobyl and his return now, merely days later.
The road begins to climb slightly, giving him a good view of the Zone stretching before him as he reaches the summit of the slope. He rubs his eyes as he squints along the horizon, thinking that they must be playing tricks on him. No… the image is still there. More smoke, like from the fires he saw burning around the checkpoint before… several of them. They’re too far off for him to accurately gauge their size and location - but if he had to guess, he’d say every checkpoint this side of the Zone is under siege.

*

The sky above is nearly pitch-black, dark enough without any help from the smoke billowing out of Chernobyl behind them. The only thing to light their way on this moon-less night was the blood-red glow seeping from the power plant like all the demons of Hell being unleashed upon the surface of the earth. The landmark smokestack of Chernobyl near Reactor 4, undoubtedly the most famous notable part of the facility, now leans at an angle as the fatigued metal holding up the side closest to the reactor is weakened by the fire raging beneath it. It seems as though it could fall at any moment, the result of which would no doubt cause significant damage to the sarcophagus holding back the radioactive remains of the reactor within. The APC roars away from plant; speed its ally and time its enemy.
Lukash leans over the shoulders of the two Freedomers in the driver and passenger seats of the APC as they bounce up and down over unseen obstructions in the deteriorated road beneath them, covered by over two decades of plant growth and debris from the tall, decaying buildings on either side of it.
“How do we look?” he asks urgently.
“No sign of pursuit.” The Freedomer in the passenger seat replies. “I think we finally lost them.”
“Good.” Lukash sighs with relief. “Keep your eyes open… one wrong move and we could wind up riding a tidal wave of shit before we’re out of here.”
The Stalker nods his head affirmatively as Lukash retreats to the back of the APC where the remainder of the team - minus their friend Virtue – is recovering. Gremlin is frozen in place like a corpse, staring with bloodshot eyes at the floor of the APC, his head rocking like a bobble head as the APC roars along. Reaper, the Stalker who alerted Freedom to their perilous journey and played a large part in their survival, is fast asleep, no doubt trying to drown out a splitting headache after the experimentation performed on him during his capture. Enigma is lying across the floor, the top half of her SEVA suit hangs from am equipment rack near her, the bottom half of her tattered shirt is ripped off, making  a makeshift bandage over the wound in her chest and exposing the dried blood on her midriff. Her breathing is choppy and slow, obviously painful for her, but the wound appears to be adequately dressed and airtight to allow her collapsed lung to heal. Nimbus, Zombie and Solitaire barely acknowledge him, apathetic looks on them all. He nods at them, and kneeling down to make sure Enigma’s wound hasn’t been irritated by the harsh journey away from the NPP. She regards him distantly, her eyes glazed over with a film of water.
He knew little about her, as did most of the Stalkers on the team; suffice it to say she was loyal and by far the toughest women they had ever seen. She was the only survivor of one of the first expeditions into Limansk, a city that was lost for years until a way was found through the anomalous field surrounding it. She and her husband had gone there in hopes of having first dibs on the gold mine of artifacts and other loot thought to be there, but found themselves in a blood bath as rival factions, their names now unknown, fought for control of the city. In the end, all involved lost as they killed themselves off and their supplies dwindled down to nothing. But the real coup de grace was when the anomaly field shifted, sealing the survivors inside the city like a tomb. She was forced to live alone for years, bordering on insanity as she became a master of survival skills.
“Are you holding up OK?” Lukash asks.
She bites her lower lip and nods, more tears welling up in her eyes as she does.
Lukash sinks to the floor next to her as she begins to whimper quietly. He looks away, putting on his best poker face, as his position in Freedom constantly required him to do. At length he speaks, keeping his tone as reassured as he can, “Virtue did a brave thing. He stopped a grave injustice taking place, and asked for nothing in return.”
She whimpers more, pressing her hand on her chest in pain… no doubt more than simply external.
Lukash kicks himself, realizing it probably wasn’t a good idea to upset her in her current condition, but he had to say it. He continues, “Hey… it’s OK. He acted selflessly and saved countless lives in the process – including ours. I know that won’t bring him back but he would be happy if he could see us all alive right now. He’d want you to be happy.”
Enigma reaches out for Lukash’s hand. He holds it out uneasily as her crystal blue eyes meet his and she whispers, “He made it out of there... I know he did.”
Lukash breaks eye contact, feeling ashamed as he nods in helpless agreement.
She smiles as tears roll down her cheeks. He remains in her weak but merciless grip until she’s satisfied her point is made and releases him. He stands slowly as her vacant stare returns to the blank ceiling above her.
Nimbus, Zombie and Solitaire direct their attention to him as he leans against the doorway.
“How is everyone else?” he asks.
The three of them look around the cramped compartment, taking everything in again as though it were the first time they realized where they were, even though it wasn’t.
“We are alive.” Zombie responds simply in his usual, stoic manner, though it’s obvious there is a lot on his mind that he’s not willing to share. But to press him would be stupid, as he was by far the most heavily built and could probably snap any of them in half without much effort, though he would never do that to a friend. He was like a big, horrifying teddy bear, but he had earned their respect, and they had earned his. Lukash knew he would follow them to the ends of the earth, even if it meant jumping off head-first.
Lukash scolds himself, “Stupid question.”
“It’s cool.” Nimbus responds blankly as he slowly turns his head away to stare at something non-existent.
The former Bandit, whose life Virtue had spared when he encountered him patrolling in the Garbage, was doing his best to hide his devastation at his friends loss. He had been an ex-convict on the outside world, and came to the Zone seeking refuge from his captors. Unfortunately, being with the Bandits had proved less forgiving than prison and he was eager to leave them far behind. With time, and Virtue’s seemingly unending compassion, he came to trust Virtue with his life, calling him a friend, and following him into the center of the Zone along with the others.
Lukash sighs and joins them in the compartment, plopping down onto the bench next to Solitaire and Zombie.
Solitaire shakes his head slowly and says, “I can’t believe it. How could they have gotten away with so much in there… experiments… murders…” he balls his hand into a fist, anger washing over him. “I should have known about this… should have done something. Anything.” The ex-soldier, turned Stalker, was another trusted member of the team. He became a prisoner of Freedom when the Military attacked the Military Warehouses days before, just one of many random raids they had staged in an attempt to eradicate the anarchists from their refuge in the Zone once and for all. He had attempted to befriend Gremlin, the former leader of Freedom in an assassination attempt, but was stopped by Phantom before he could. Upon learning about Freedom in-depth and the Military’s true agenda in the Zone, he had decided to discard his rank, tearing the patches from his uniform and became a Stalker in hopes of stopping the Military from doing further damage.
Lukash rests his arm on Solitaire’s shoulder, “Hey, you’re above their shit now, friend. That was your former life; you’re not a part of their system anymore. You were extremely brave in there, and you helped us deal a blow to them that they’ll never forget. You did the best you could do.”
“No I didn’t.” Solitaire argues, standing up quickly and grabbing on to the overhead handrail above him. “They used me, and I let them. I was never more than just another body for them to bury from the beginning... I realized that and should have done more to stop them. If it takes my entire life I will hunt down and kill every one of those merciless bastards.”
Lukash rises to his level, grabbing on to the handrail and stepping into the aisle between seats to face him, “Sounds like you could use some help. There’s bound to be a lot of people that would be willing to help you. In fact, I may know some… and I just bet they would gladly do so if you asked them.”
Solitaire looks at him inquisitively as he reaches into a pouch on his armor and pulls out a small patch. The letter A is stitched in the middle in green, the lines protrude outside the circle containing it clearly denoting the symbol for Anarchy.
Solitaire’s eyes light up as he reaches out to accept the gift, “You… you mean?”
“I do. You showed a kind of toughness and dedication that only the toughest men are made of back in that hell-hole. You know we share your hate for the Military – we will help you get your revenge.”
Gremlin, the leader of the team, looks up slowly, observing the micro-ceremony taking place.
“Unless there are any objections…?” Lukash hesitates as takes notice of his former leader.
“How many times do I have to tell you – you’re the boss now. You don’t need my permission to do anything.” Gremlin waves his hand in dismissal.
“And let me remind you that it’s not official yet. I won’t accept that promotion until it is seen and acknowledged by all of Freedom… sir.” Lukash retorts.
“My will to lead died in that plant with Phantom.” His eyes begin to turn red as his gaze shifts away and he returns to his trance-like state, silently mourning his dead friend.
Lukash chokes a little as a sharp pain fills his throat. Phantom was one of those quiet men who never really said much but you just automatically liked for reasons you couldn’t explain… like he was a brother you had grown up with your entire life and just understood. He had saved Lukash’s life more times than he could count, relying on some unknown power deep within himself to know what his commander was thinking and acting upon those impulses. That, coupled with his marksmanship with most ranged weapons made him a very desirable soldier, and friend. He would be dearly missed by all, but none more than Gremlin who considered him his best friend.
Gremlin himself had always been a bit of a mystery to Lukash, but since he had out-ranked Lukash as leader of Freedom he had never bothered to pry into his personal history – which in the Zone, was one of the most valuable things you could give to another Stalker besides an artifact. He was the best damn leader Lukash knew, always doing the toughest part of the job without question, always saying the right thing at the right time to keep morale high, and he never quit, even in the most dire of circumstances. He was one of those Stalkers who refused to die, and a hatred for the military burned inside of him at all times. He was the perfect leader, and though Lukash was happy to accept his promotion, he couldn’t help but feel Gremlin was the better man.
Lukash swallows hard and turns his attention back to Solitaire with a sigh. He watches with amusement as Solitaire tries to fit the patch on his arm over a tear in his uniform where the patch claiming him as part of the Ukrainian Army used to fit before he tore it from his uniform.
“Sir,” one of the Freedomers interrupts his fun from the front of the APC. “We’ve got a problem.”
Lukash heads back towards the front compartment and leans over the Stalkers’ shoulders again, glancing back and forth between the indicators on the consoles in below them and out the dark viewport in front of them.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
The Stalker in the passenger seat points ahead as the APC begins to slow suddenly. Lukash squints as what appears to be a large distortion appears in the air in front of them. Looking down at the road, he can see that it ends suddenly - a gaping hole lying instead where it should be.
“Anomaly?” he asks in awe as he tries to get a better look and gauge the size of the distortion.
“It appears so, sir… but I’ve never seen one as massive as that.” The driver responds.
“Let’s not take any chances.” Lukash responds. “Let’s just backtrack and find another-“
Before he can finish the sentence something hits the APC with a loud thunk, making everyone within jump suddenly. The Stalkers look around the inside of the APC for the source of the impact when something begins to slide down the viewport in front of them. The decapitated corpse of a Russian soldier slowly slides down the front of the APC, leaving a smear of blood in its wake. The order barely leaves his mouth before the Stalkers react,
“Go! GO! Get the fuck out of here!”
The wheels on the APC squeal as it begins to reverse. The body of the soldier slides off the front of the APC like a ragdoll. They move only a few yards before the APC comes to an abrupt halt.
“What the hell… what did we hit?” he demands.
“We have zero visibility, sir!” the driver responds as his hands fly over the APC’s controls.
Several smaller thunks begin to pound the outside of the APC. Noises that sound like men shouting pick up in intensity nearby.
Solitaire approaches the front of the APC, stopping behind Lukash a look of concern on his face. “Are those people I hear out there?” he asks.
“I don’t know, but whatever they want they’re getting it – we’re stuck.”
A loud banging sound echoes through the back compartment as the sound of a blunt object pounding against the rear ramp pierces the low roar coming from outside. Part of the rear door mechanism breaks and several hands grab onto the ramp, forcing it down. The Stalkers freeze like a deer in headlights as the shine of several lights fill the darkness of the compartment.
“We have you now, evildoers!” a strange voice announces. “Your days of spreading lies are at an end.”

*

The night watch was never a highly sought-after shift on Duty territory. Patrols were positioned just inside the perimeter of the abandoned factory complex, using the outer-most buildings as protection to wall them off against attacks of any sort. The Loners used the run-down, leaky buildings on the interior of the complex for shelter and a place to rest, usually before moving deeper into the Zone, while Duty claimed the exterior buildings in an effort to defend the complex against anything that sought to kill them.
The Bar, as Stalkers had come to call it, was mutually agreed upon by all to be the true center of humanity’s resettlement of the Zone. Loners were always welcome to stay and enticing messages would often play over the speaker system rigged all over the complex welcoming them to the 100 Rads Bar for a drink or to find work, or to fight in the Arena nearby against other Stalkers for sport, rewards, or the occasional dispute. When none of this was happening, music would play during the day when the mutants weren’t on the hunt. And, of course, the standard Duty recruitment message would also play among all of these.
At night, while the Loners got to sleep safe and sound, Duty stayed alert and guarded the perimeter. As unsettling as night was anywhere in the Zone, this was the place Stalkers felt safest, and by all definitions the Zone allowed, it was. But during the day, the Bar was seen as a bastion of hop; a reminder that you had made it this far and survived the horrors of the Zone up to this point, and deserved to be here. This was no land for newbies, as danger unknown stretched in every direction beyond this point.
This night was no different… and yet, it was especially dark somehow – like the impending fury of Hell was imminent. The nights were always filled with the inhuman howls of the creatures outside to remind the Stalkers within what was out there hunting them. But not this night; not even the crickets dared to chirp. A dark fog began to roll in from the north, cutting visibility down to dangerous levels.
Nestled under heavy guard in the north-east corner of the complex, Duty HQ was as alive as ever, discussing what to do in the aftermath of what was being referred to as The Third Incident to accommodate the first incident in 1986 and the second in 2006.
“It’s an outrage!” one of the higher-ranked Dutyers protested as he stood from his chair and pounded his fist on the large meeting table for emphasis. “A goddamned slap in the face from those who we considered our allies! We’ve killed, and helped capture men who we would have openly accepted into our ranks had they not been at the top of the Military’s wanted list.”
Another officer stands in agreement, “The cowards! We’ve been pushed around by their kind for long enough.”
Colonel Petrenko stands to speak, reminding the men of their rank. They sink slowly back into their chairs as he speaks, “Now gentlemen. Let’s not forget that it was the Russian army, not the Ukrainian army who was reported fleeing Chernobyl.”
“What’s the difference?” another officer questions defiantly. “They’ve all got the same agenda, which includes not telling us what they’re up to.”
The Stalkers gathered around the room nod their heads and voice their agreement, some clapping and cheering.
Colonel Petrenko sighs, keeping one hand planted on the table in front of him while using the other to massage his temples. It was never an easy thing to call off an alliance – especially one with a much more powerful ally. But Freedom was in direct conflict with the Military and had constantly held their ground raid after raid. Maybe Duty could do the same.
Almost on cue, another officer at the table held up his hands in question and asked, “What about the Freedomers? Shouldn’t somebody go tell them to stop shooting us on sight if we’re really going to call off this alliance?”
“If we could get the damn radios working you could tell them yourself. But for whatever reason that’s not an option right now, so we should pull all patrols back to base until further notice.“ He motions out the window as the fog continues to roll in, “We’re blind enough already, and whatever that shit is out there, it’s bad. We just need to strap in and ride out whatever’s in this storm.”
The Stalkers nod without a word. None of them like silence and the lack of information coming in about things happening right outside their doorstep, but they know that all storms pass with time, and all they can do is wait it out and attempt to fix their problems when it’s gone.
Suddenly the general alarm begins to wail throughout the base. The Dutyers at the table rise slowly, looking around the room in confusion. After a few moments, the door to the room opens and one of the door guards announces,
“I’m sorry to interrupt gentlemen, but a large mutant force is approaching rapidly from the north. They’ve already broken through the checkpoint there. We were taken completely by surprise.”
Colonel Petrenko stands quickly, knowing that the time for talk has long-passed.
“Everyone grab your weapons, I’ll meet you out in the yard. GO!”
The Dutyers snap into action, taking their weapons from the door guards as they make ready to join the battle quickly picking up outside.
Colonel Petrenko leaves the room last, taking a left before exiting the building and turning to a console in the largest room in the underground portion of the building. He holds down a button and speaks into a microphone nearby, his voice comes in clear over the speaker system within the complex.
“ATTENTION ALL STALKERS, THIS IS COLONEL PETRENKO: WE ARE UNDER ATTACK BY A LARGE MUTANT FORCE FROM THE NORTH. WE ASK THAT YOU TAKE UP ARMS AND HELP US FIGHT OFF THE INVADERS. WE LET YOU SLEEP IN OUR HOUSE, BUT NOW IT’S TIME FOR YOU TO PAY THE RENT. COLONEL PETRENKO OUT.”
With that, he walks down the hall leading out of the complex and continues out the door, his legs burning as he ascends the stairs.
“I’m getting too old for this.” He protests.
As soon as his head pops out from below the ground, the scene instantly opens up to him. Countless tracer bullets are fed into the encroaching fog. Muzzle flashes within are masked by the gloom like ghostly firecrackers. He runs towards the north-west checkpoint, following the road outside between the buildings in the complex north, then turning west and weaving through buildings to the end of the complex where a sandbag barrier is set up on the road and several watchtowers line the tops of buildings nearby. As he approaches he is greeted by Barin, a veteran Duty member and self-appointed bodyguard.
“Colonel,” Barin greets him with a salute. “It’s a mess in there. We’re blind and they just keep coming. Bloodsuckers, Snorks, even some Pseudogiants, Dwarfs, and some shit I haven’t even seen before.
 “Where in the hell did such a concentrated force come from?” Colonel Petrenko thinks for a moment, trying to make some sense of the situation.
“I don’t know sir, but that talk about them wanting to wipe us out seems to have been right on.”
Colonel Petrenko nods, “It would seem so. Let’s make sure to give them a warm welcome then; let them know that we only share our house with those who are invited.”
“Yes sir!” Barin replies and snaps another salute as he turns to climb the ladder of an observation tower nearby.
Colonel Petrenko follows him up, doing his best to ignore the pain in his legs as he ascends.
From the top of the tower, little more can be seen than from down below. Some equipment is set up nearby – radar, radio and a few other devices of varying nature. Nothing indicative of a threat is shown on them, save the motion-detector alarm on the perimeter flashing red.
“Can we make out anything?” Colonel Petrenko asks Barin as he squints through the fog for any sign of their attackers.
“Not really sir, no.” Barin responds back with dismay.  “Like I said, they took us completely by surprise. Had it not been for the motion detector alarm being tripped on the perimeter we could be back at headquarters right now with flamethrowers in the hallway.”
“If only we had a few flamethrowers right now.” Colonel Petrenko says wishfully.
“Sir, I can’t do anything more up here. I request permission to join the fight below.”
Colonel Petrenko glances back into the dark fog at the constant muzzle flashes and explosions taking place within.
“Normally I’d want you by my side back at HQ, but the Zone rarely plays fair.”
He puts his hand on the Barin’s shoulder and smiles, “Alright, on one condition.”
“Sir…?”
“You remain at my side.”
Barin’s eyes go wide in shock. “Sir… you can’t! What if… I mean… we need you sir. If anything were to happen…”
“Look, Barin, whether I’m here or back at HQ doesn’t matter. The way I see it we’re fighting a losing battle anyway.”
“Don’t say that sir, we’ve weathered all kinds of attacks and always came out on top. We can pull through this.”
Colonel Petrenko cracks a hopeless smile and continues, “Well… if we do I want to be able to say to myself that I stood alongside my men instead of cowering in a room somewhere. That’s my duty to you all, as well as to myself.”
Barin protests further but sees that his words are futile. The Colonel’s made up his mind. He eventually sighs, letting loose a little laugh at the Colonel.
“I hope I don’t end up as stubborn as you, sir. Alright… let’s get down there then.”
The Colonel mounts the ladder and begins to slowly descend, Barin follows right behind him. They barely make it halfway down when Petrenko shouts,
“Back up! Back up, sir!”
The Colonel looks up in time to see a Snork fly out of the dark mist below and smashes through the old, wooden ladder beneath him. He curses as the bottom half of the ladder falls to the ground taking him with it. He scrambles to his feet, pulling out the Beretta he keeps as a sidearm and begins firing at the Snork as it rolls onto the pavement behind the ladder. It screeches and roars in rage as it limps towards him. The bullets pierce its body, sending spurts of blood out of the impacted flesh. It comes within inches of him, lashing out with a boney, claw-like hand, catching a rogue strap on his Duty-supplied uniform and tearing off a good-sized piece of it. He empties the clip. Most of the remaining bullets pierce the beast’s formerly-human skull, putting its growling to and end as it collapses to the ground in a pool of blood. He retreats back into the tower, now cut off from the ground below.
“Sir, are you OK?” Barin yells back up to him as he ejects the clip and pulls out a new one from a pouch on his belt.
“Yes, I think so.” The Colonel replies as he pushes himself back up onto the platform with a heave. “I’ll have to find another way down.”
“The roof of the nearest building is close. Ease yourself over the guardrail and onto the roof. It slopes downwards steadily – you should have no problem getting down there.”
“Dammit, Colonel Petrenko, what are you thinking in your condition?” The Colonel scolds himself as he walks over to the rail, slowly easing himself over one leg at a time. The tower begins to rattle and shake as a loud stomping noise approaches from somewhere below.
“FUCK!” Barin yells as he unslings the OTs-14-4A "Groza" from his back and flicks it to fully-automatic. “Get out of there sir!”
The Colonel looks on in horror as a large hulk of a mutant lumbers out of the fog in his direction. Pseudogiant; a big, mean-looking one too.
He scampers over the railing and braces for a jump. The sound of the Barin’s fully-automatic rounds go off beneath him, causing the creature to growl in protest as a human would a nagging fly.
“SIR…!”
The Colonel leaps from the tower, not daring to look behind him, landing hard on the roof nearby. He barely has time to collect himself before a loud crash and the sound of wood splintering comes from behind him. He looks back to see the top of the tower falling quickly toward him. He rolls to the side, nearly falling off of the roof entirely as the tower comes crashing down on the rooftop, crushing itself under its own weight.
He breathes a sigh of relief, but when he tries to move, he finds that he can’t. Confused, he looks back to see what could possibly be holding him back. His question is soon answered when he sees a large part of the destroyed observation tower resting on top of his leg. He curses as Petrenko rushes towards him to check on him.
“Colonel! Hurry, I’ll help you down!”
“Negative Barin,” he replies strictly, nodding back to his pinned, bleeding leg. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Barin curses, glancing behind him quickly at the chorus of roars, screams and gunfire quickly approaching,
“Sir I-“ he begins.
“That’s an order, Barin!” Colonel Petrenko snaps back at him.
Barin shifts uneasily but eventually responds, “Yes sir. I will come back for you, I promise…” He snaps the Colonel one last salute before turning back towards the remains of the splintered tower and quickly diving out of the way. Moments later, several Duty and Loner Stalkers come pouring through a small split in the sheet-metal fence below him bordering the building he’s lying on top of. The larger, clumsier mutants hit first. The fence bends and breaks, but stands steady as smaller mutants stream around it. The Colonel struggles to keep his eyes fixed on the mutants as he winces at the pain in his legs.
Then, to his horror, a pair of eyes suddenly float around the large mutants, undetected by the Dutyers. It scales the fence just below him, drawing closer to him. He closes his eyes just as the eyes turn to meet his, a sniffing sound emits from where its nose should be.
“It smells blood.” The Colonel realizes.
The creature roars excitedly and digs its invisible claws into the metal fence, making a sickening screech. The eyes bob along the fence-line like something out of a nightmare, drawing quickly, but carefully towards him.
“Be strong, Colonel,” He orders himself. ”It’s not going to take you without a fight.”
He reaches behind him and struggles to yank his AN-94 “Abakan” from the strap on his back. It breaks free, and he directs the barrel directly at the eyes, imaging the shape of the creature they belong to. He opens fire – most of the bullets fly into the air but a few disappear into nothingness, causing a satisfying roar of pain and blood splatter to emit from the creature.
Suddenly the gun emits a disappointing click, indicating all rounds are expelled.
“Well, it’s been fun. You’ve been a cruel mistress but I loved you all the same.” He whispers to the Zone as he releases the rifle from his grip. It clatters to the ground below as he turns painfully to look up at the moon emerging from the thick fog above, imagining the patterns on it are the faces of people he knew and respected. Then it goes dark and the faces are replaced by a set of bright, menacing eyes. He swallows hard as the face of his slayer is finally revealed – its camouflage quickly changing into a sickly-brown, matted-furred appearance common amongst Bloodsuckers.
Its facial tentacles spread out in “kill mode” and it reveals its dagger-like fangs. Saliva begins to drip onto his face moments before the creature plunges its teeth into his throat.
He yelps as the little daggers intrude into the flesh on his neck. The monster feasts happily, digging its teeth deeper and thickening the flow of blood. His vision begins to blur and time seems to slow. He reaches out in agony towards the retreating Duty forces, quickly becoming overrun by the horde of mutants streaming through the torn, twisted fence. His life flashes in front of him as his limbs go numb from the blood draining from his body. His arm falters, falling onto the roof beside him helplessly. The limb turns a sickly white before him as everything goes impossibly dark.
So this is what it feels like to have the life sucked out of you.” He thinks. “Not as poetic as I imagined...”

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