September 22, 2010

Chapter 6: Red Dawn


Virtue laughs and rolls onto the hot, dusty ground that makes the main road into town. The sun is setting deeper into the west, casting an orange glow on the town and elongating the shadows of the buildings on the ground. Virtue scrambles back in horror at the shadows as they stare back at him - mocking him. In a brave effort, he lunges back on top of the knife and quickly goes to work sawing at the ropes behind his back. He moves the knife back and forth rapidly, desperately trying to escape from the ropes restraining him. After a few minutes the rope snaps, and he jumps to his feet holding the knife in front of him.
The shadows just stare back, unmoving and emotionless much like Doomsday and Eyes were. “Maybe they are the evil ones!” He concludes; pleased with how smart he is. Suddenly the ground begins to shake around him. He falls down, scampering backwards as the ground outside of the town begins to fall into an abysmal hole and quickly spreads to encircle the entire town. His eyes go wide with surprise and he quickly runs for shelter inside a saloon-like building.
He bursts through the door and trips over the frayed floorboards, grunting in pain which was surprisingly less than he had anticipated. He looks back at the obstruction and sees a pair of feet much like his own behind him. He traces the feet up to see legs, a torso, and eyeless sockets staring back at him. He scampers back in shocked surprise at the skeleton on the floor next to him. The experience sends him into full panic mode and he races into the back of the dark building as the narrow stairs rock left and right, swinging nearly 90 degrees to either side as he stumbles up them.
More remains line the stairs, arrayed out in varying positions as he climbs them, unaffected by the violent sway of the building. He rushes past them and into the unknown of the upstairs above him. A narrow hallway confronts him, with several rooms off to either side and one at the end. He opens the door closest to him on the left .A flash of light momentarily blinds him and he shields his eyes as they adjust.
Inside, to his complete shock and surprise is Emelia, lying down on an operating table of some sort. “Push… PUSH!” A voice insists from the inside. It’s a doctor. His face looks oddly familiar to him. Emelia screams, obviously in a great deal of pain, as a baby begins to cry. After a few moments the doctor announces, “It’s a boy!” Virtue rushes in, the same joy overtaking him as it did that day. At least he thinks it’s the same.
“Wait… this never happened. My son was born at home… I delivered him myself.”
The doctor and nurses gathered around the operating table look up at him in congratulations.
“Congratulations Yuriy, you’re the proud father of a healthy baby boy.”
The doctor hands him his newborn son, who is no longer crying and is still as death. Virtue looks closely at him and caresses his cheek with his hand. It is cold to the touch. Greif overcomes him and he feels his heart break all over again as he holds the lifeless body of his son in his hands for the second time.
“No…” he sobs. “It’s not fair! He was only a baby!” His vision begins to blur and he wipes the tears from his eyes. When he looks down again he jumps when he notices the baby in his arms is now deformed and grotesque, like a child born of a Chernobyl survivor. “What the…” he staggers backwards as it begins moving in his arms, alive once again. It turns its abnormally large head to look at him, opening its mouth to reveal a layer of sharp, jagged fangs. Suddenly, it lunges at his arm, sinking its teeth into his flesh. Virtue screams in horror and pain as the grabs the baby and throws it off of him.
A look of disgust comes over the doctor as he says, “Get this man out of here!” Before Virtue can react, some great force pushes him out of the room with incredible force. He sours across the hallway and slams into the door on the opposite side of the hall, breaking it down as he goes. He slowly opens his eyes after another bright flash to see the sun shines down on his face. A figure suddenly blocks out the sun above him. A beautiful face smiles down at him. It’s Emelia’s.
“Hey handsome.” She says as she brushes the dark hair out of his face. “You fell asleep. I didn’t want to wake you since you were sleeping so peacefully. You’re so cute when you sleep!”
He looks up at her in confusion. “How long was I out?”
“Oh, not long.” She smiles in reply. “Long enough to miss the lunch you packed. I’ve never known you to miss out on a meal.” She laughs.
“I never have...” he responds. “We never had a picnic in the park. All of this is a lie.”
The smile drains from her face. “What are you saying, Yuriy?”
“My name is Virtue now…” he responds uneasily as his head begins to spin again. “And you… you’re not real.”
The sky begins to darken overhead and her concerned look turns into a scowl. “We’re through! I hate you!” She screams as she slaps him across the face. She must have been practicing, because once again he finds himself mysteriously propelled across the room, this time through a wall. He rolls through the air, crashing through the dried-out wood and landing on his back again.
“Enough with the fucking landings!” he cries out in pain to no one in particular. He moans as he rolls onto his side. A pair of boots comes towards him at a quick pace. He looks up to see the face of a familiar Stalker.
“Virtue! Get up man, there isn’t much time!” A gaunt man with a shaved head and 3 large gashes across the right side of his face regards him with impatience.
“Nimbus…?”
“No time. We must get to C-Consciousness! It’s our only hope for survival!”
“What are you talking about…?”
“Come on! It’s the only way we can save our friends! They’re dying out  there… but together we can stop it!”
Nimbus yanks him to his feet. His head feels like it’s about to explode as the blood rushes to it. Before he can gather his thoughts Nimbus pulls him towards a large machine in the middle of the room. A small pod opens before him and a clear, greenish liquid floats calmly before him, welcoming him in.
Nimbus frantically strips off his gear and clothes then jumps into the pod adjacent to Virtue, who looks on in surprise.
“What are you waiting for!?” he shouts as he motions to the pod in front of Virtue.
“This isn’t right.” Virtue shakes his head and steps away from the pod. “I stopped this. C-Consciousness sees humans as an intrusion in nature and would do anything to see us removed from it. We’d be aiding in the deaths of billions of people.”
“No Virtue… you’re the one who’s killing them!”
The liquid in the pod in front of him erupts, lashing out at him. It splashes on him, burning his skin like acid. He screams and covers his face, stumbling for the exit. He finds it, turns the latch on the door, and runs into the hallway beyond.
Another flash and he is back in the same hallway of doors he started in.
“What the hell is going on?!” he yells angrily as he grips the knife in his hands harder. He swivels around the room frantically, stopping when he notices the door at the end of the hallway shaking on its hinges and a light seeping under the crack. Making the somewhat obvious choice, he heads towards the door, bursting in and waving the knife blindly in front of him. He waits for his eyes to adjust again, bracing himself for God-knows what.
He’s in Limansk now, inside the tower that Enigma called home. Enigma is standing in front of him, her raven-black hair blowing playfully in the stormy wind coming through the window showcasing the dark, gloomy city behind her. An unearthly light shines in her mesmerizing blue-grey eyes. She bites her lip playfully, walking along an invisible line in his direction.
“I want you.” She says bluntly. Those simple words send a wave of emotions coursing through Virtue.
“I… I… I…” he stutters as words fail him.
She bats her long eyelashes and cocks her head as she laughs playfully. She closes her eyes and throws her hair carelessly behind her, gathering it in her left hand as the right goes for the harnesses and zipper on the front of her SEVA suit. The edges of her mouth creep up slyly as the zipper glides down the front of her body. Virtue’s eyes go wide as she steps out of it slowly, revealing the tattered remains of the clothing beneath it.
Virtue stutters a few more times as she walks ever-so slowly towards him, her scantily-clad body rocking back and forth with each step she takes towards him. She grabs the bottom of her torn, grey shirt and slowly lifts it up and over her head, revealing a lacy white bra beneath. Virtue’s mouth drops as the shirt is thrown playfully at him. The smell of strawberries fills his nostrils as he scrambles to throw the shirt elsewhere.
She slowly undoes the zipper on her ripped jeans as she struts towards him. She stops, rocking her hips back and forth as she pushes the jeans down to her ankles, then steps out of them, discarding them on the floor behind her. She is nearly toe to toe with him now, her chest pushes up against his and she lifts her left leg slowly around the back of his, climbing up to his level and putting her arms around his neck. Her mischievous gaze meets his; the light in her eyes seems to intensify as she kisses him gently, biting at his bottom lip before thrusting her tongue into his mouth.
He drops the knife as his body tingles with sensation. She lifts her other leg, wrapping them both around his waist as she kisses him more ferociously. She continues to get heavier in his arms and eventually Virtue lowers her down. Her hair spreads on the floor and she breathes quickly, moving her hands over her near-naked body. In the faint light of the world outside, Virtue can see small smudges of dirt over her otherwise perfect body – like beauty marks further accenting her features. She meets his approving gaze, and responds, “I’m a dirty girl.”
“Classic.” He smiles as he looms over her on all fours and kisses her passionately. She moans and rocks her body back and forth, grabbing at his shirt and pants. Her breasts jiggle as she continues to rock her body, grinding her pelvis against his leg as she disengages from his lips. She grabs the belt loops on his pants, reeling him towards her.
“Come on, Virtue,” She pleads. “Let me have you.”
“I’m all yours.” He responds quickly, getting more and more into her rhythm as she humps him.
”I’m all yours.” He’d said that to Emelia once, back when he believed her to be the love of his life. But he knew now that she was fake; too good to be true... and so was this.
Enigma regards him in disappointment as he stops. “What’s wrong, baby? Is it me?”
“No. God no.” he responds quickly with an “Are you shitting me?” laugh. He gets up and paces around the room. Enigma slowly stands; her body seems to glow in the pale light outside.
“It’s just that… I haven’t seen you in so long, and I feel like I barely know you. This just… this just isn’t right. Dammit… I don’t know what I feel. This is all wrong…”
She smiles and walks over to him, putting her hand to his lips in a “shush” motion. She lifts his shirt up and slowly kisses his chest and stomach, looking back up at him with her glowing eyes to gauge his reaction. “I know what I feel…”
He forces himself backwards out of her reach. She plants her hands on the floor, a sly grin forming on her lips as she sticks her ass in the air and crawls steadily towards him. She makes a purr-like moan at him - the kind that any guy would die to hear and would be stupid to resist – as she slinks towards his lap.
“Enigma, no…” he says as he stands to evade her advance. She swipes his feet out from under him and pushes her chest into his head, giving him a face-full of cleavage.
“Fuck me!” he says as he rolls out of the way, gets up and runs to the other end of the room.
She makes a pounce-like motion and runs towards the corner he’s picked out. She hits him hard, pinning him in the corner. She lets out a gasp of delight, her eyes going wide with pleasure. He can feel her hot breath on his neck as she grinds up and down on his leg.
It takes every fiber of his being to resist her but he finally manages to whimper “I didn’t mean literally...”
“No.” She retorts, grabbing his shirt at the neck and tearing it off of him. He puts his hand on her head and pushes her away from him. She stumbles across the floor, tripping over the edge of her bed and landing on it with a *thud*. She arches an eyebrow at him, holding out an arm while holding his gaze. A fiery inferno is burning behind her eyes now; her lust reaching its climax. Virtue reaches out for an object to hold onto as he finds himself suddenly and inexplicably dragged towards her. She squeals with delight as he flies towards her, impacting the wall behind her and crashing into the bed. The frame breaks and once again he finds himself on his back and in pain. Enigma mounts his chest, giving him a front row seat to her panties and what’s going on inside of them.
Then, like a late reminder, the words of Eyes come drifting past his ears,
“Pierce the darkness.”
He looks around desperately for the knife he dropped earlier. Spotting it, he reaches for it, struggling to throw Enigma off of him. She places her thighs around his neck and squeezes hard. Virtue can feel himself starting to pass out. At any other time all of this might have been unbearably seductive, but right now it was a matter of life and death.
He decides to do the last thing he ever wanted to do, and kick her with all his might. His foot hits her hard in the back of the head and she yelps in pain. He takes the opportunity to throw her off of him and lunges for the knife. She lets out a blood-curdling scream, blowing all the objects around her onto the other side of the room. The knife, as well as himself, are swept off the floor and into the opposite wall. A table stuck against the window frame stops him from soaring out of the tower to his doom below. The knife flips through the air, landing inches from his head.
Enigma lunges for him in what can only be described as a full-contact tackle-hug. He yells back as he yanks the knife out of the table and in one swift move plunges it into her chest. Enigma makes a sickening gasp for air as the knife penetrates her smooth skin. He holds onto her as she slowly slides down his body.
“Look what you did.” She whispers as she pulls the knife out of her chest. Virtue suddenly remembers running through the halls of Chernobyl with the rest of the team after they had broken out of their prison cells. She had taken a shot to the chest as they ran. Others had sustained injuries along the way as well, but hers had been the most threatening at the time and he thought for sure she was going to die. Hearing her say those words to him made him hate himself as realization came over him.
“She’s right… it is my fault. All of this is.”
Her eyes drift past his and he is forced to look away as the pain behind them becomes unbearable. The light slowly fades away as she sinks to his feet, gradually coming to rest in a tiny, crumpled ball below. The emotion is unbearable. Real or not, watching Enigma die is just too much for him. What he has tried to deny for so long finally hits him like a freight train; for all he knows she could be out there… suffering even as the hallucination below him dies. Maybe she was dead already. Virtue collapses to his knees; the pain bottled up inside him finally breaks through and empties itself all over the room. He screams in rage, throwing himself at the walls of the tower and hurling any objects he can find against them. They shatter and break with satisfying ease.
“It’s funny how much more easily things can be broken...” he laughs through the searing pain cutting through him. He picks up a chair and hurls it with all his might at the wall near Enigma’s bed, screaming at the top of his lungs as he does. The chair breaks into a dozen pieces, as expected, but the wall behind the bed also begins to break. Thoughts race through Virtue’s mind as he attempts to rationalize how a wooden chair can break through a concrete wall. Content to figure it out later, he throws another at it. The hole widens. The more he throws at it the more it opens up into the dim light outside. Finally, once satisfied, he braces himself against the opposite wall and runs with all his might towards the wall. He smashes through the concrete as though it was no more than a figment of his imagination. As he exits the tower, a blinding light hits him again and he plummets from the tower with no sense of what’s below him.
He lands suspiciously early – on his feet no less – and tucks into a small as his feet contact the ground. His surroundings slowly shift into focus and he can begin to make out the same ghostly buildings that he had seen on the way to the church– only this time there were bathed in moonlight. He stands up to make some sense of what has just happened, looking behind him to see a large hole on the top floor of the saloon-like building he had entered for refuge during the strange earthquake he had experienced. He looks around the town for any sign of the strange crevices that had opened up around it to find nothing but still, silent dust all around as though he had imagined it all.
Looking back at the hole, he notices a large, motionless arm sticking out of it. The dead, fleshy eye sockets staring back at him are a clear indicator of the offender; a Poltergeist. He shudders at the lifeless gaze staring back at him and decides it would be a very good idea to get the hell out of the old town as soon as possible. He runs like a bat out of hell – and in essence he is – in the direction of the Bar. If there was any confusion in his mind it’s gone now. Despite the demon-like creature’s ill-intent, it inadvertently made him address and stand up to his own demons as it attempted to break his will. He turns and gives a mock-thumbs-up whispers “Thanks.” to the dead Poltergeist behind him as he turns and walks out of the old town.
“Welcome back to reality, brother.” A familiar voice greets him from somewhere nearby.
He looks around frantically as a figure emerges from a doorway. He pulls out his sidearm and aims it at the figures head as it emerges, holding out its hands in a show of peace. His head is still spinning from the drugs, but he senses that this is real.
“There’s no need for that, I come in peace.” Doomsday says calmly as he approaches.  “I trust that you have been enlightened by your experience?”
“What in the hell is that supposed to mean you crazy old cook? That thing could have killed me!” Virtue keeps the pistol aligned with the man’s temple, rage and pain still venting from him.
“Yes, it could have…” Doomsday responds simply, he eyes hidden by the dark lenses over them. “But it didn’t, and you’re alive to tell about it. So tell.”
“What the fuck did you drug me with and why?” Virtue shoots back as he closes the distance between them.
“It is a special blend that we use to help us reach enlightenment.”
Virtue pulls the hammer back on his pistol, unsatisfied with more cryptic answers.
“LSD. Among a few other things.” Doomsday replies quickly but calmly. “I am sorry I did not warn you, but when I prayed for you I felt that it was a necessary evil. You fought the demon that has lingered in this town since its inhabitants left long ago, and for that we are thankful. I can only hope that you have also taken something from the experience.”
Virtue squints at the man. His calmness is remarkable, and he can read nothing from his emotionless gaze. At length, he lowers his pistol and re-holsters it at his hip. Doomsday waits patiently for him to recount his experience.
“Fine. Maybe I did learn a thing or two. There are a few things that have been rolling around in my head lately and it helped.”
“Good.” Doomsday says and begins to smile. “I wish that you would stay so that we could discuss it more but I know the path before you and that you are anxious to get back on it.”
“I am.” Virtue nods. “More than ever now.”
 “Well,” Doomsday continues. “It would not be God’s will for you to leave on such a treacherous journey without assistance from his church.” With that, he reaches into a bag hanging from his robe. It begins to radiate an eerie white light as he pulls out a strange object. It looks like a necklace of some sort, with a crucifix attached in the middle, though it was nothing like Virtue had ever seen before. But the glow coming from it can be nothing other than the glow of an artifact, spawned from one of the Zone’s many anomalies.
 “The whispers of the Zone refer to this artifact as ‘Mama’s Beads’. It has the miraculous power of stopping bullets from piercing you. No… we don’t know how it works, but we do know it is a gift from the Father. Please, take it, as a reminder that he is with you and watching over you always.”
Virtue gazes into the artifact, the light dances in his eyes as he reaches out to accept the gift. “I… don’t know what to say. Thank you.” He places the artifact in the specially-designed pouch on his belt and immediately feels the strange energy of the artifact course through him. He doesn’t feel more powerful necessarily, but he does feel different… renewed somehow. Whether it is an effect of the artifact, the drugs, or divine inspiration he can only guess.
“Go now,” Doomsday points north towards the Bar. “Follow the path intended for you.”
Virtue nods and walks past Doomsday who turns to watch him leave. As he leaves the village behind he hears him call behind him,
“I would not blame you for never returning again after our deception, but should you forgive me in the future, our door is open. Just knock next time, it will be less painful.”
“I’ll do that.” Virtue smiles as he waves over his shoulder.
He sets off towards the Bar with the moon and stars lighting the way. He ignores the dangers of night; too determined to let anything stop him now. Sometime down the road the frequency he picked up originally crackles to life and the voice of Doomsday comes over it clearly,
“…and bless our new friend Virtue, the weary traveler on a selfless quest to save his friends from the evils of the Zone. Guide him and protect him on his journey into treacherous lands, and keep his friends safe until he is reunited with them again. In Your name, amen.”
The frequency breaks into static again and Virtue switches it off. He walks with newfound strength, realizing for the first time that though he is alone, the thoughts of others are with him. He imagines that his friends must be worrying just as much about him as he is them. As long as he stays focused on them, his journey and life will have a purpose. The thought of being reunited with the only people in the world he could truly call family encourages him on his long overdue journey to right the wrongs done to him, his friends, and the rest of the Zone.


*


Lights dance in Commander Petrov’s eyes as he watches the blinking red dots burn out on the console in front of him one by one. He turns from the console, unsatisfied with the speed of things in progress. “What’s our ETA?” he demands.
“We’re securing the perimeter now, Commander. We should be up and running in a few minutes.” The soldier closest to him responds.
“Excellent! Most excellent…” Petrov paces the room anxiously, unable to contain the excitement mounting in him. “This is it. Finally, all the testing will be put to real use and the Soviet Union will have the power it truly deserves.”
His thoughts are interrupted by the same soldier, “Commander, we’ve established a video feed in the field - putting it on the main screen.”
Petrov turns to face the main viewer as the feed switches to a dark, torn area. The camera pans slowly over the desolation and the sound of heavy breathing can be heard in the background.
“As you can see sir, the NPP is completely deserted now. No person or animal in sight.”
“What about ghosts?”
The soldier taps an unseen device on his helmet. “Thanks to the Ecologist we don’t have to worry about that either sir.”
“Good. Proceed then.
“Yes sir.” The soldier complies with his orders. The camera bobs up and down as he descends a large, blackened hill. Dozens of soldiers follow his lead on either side of him. A loud boom fills the room as thunder echoes through the dark cloud above. The camera swivels up to look at the sky above as a malevolent storm begins to form above them. The soldier curses in Russian, looking down at the burning power plant dominating the area in front of him. Another loud sound comes over the speakers, this one different from the first.
“What was that? Check your scanners!” He yells to one of the soldiers near him.
“Scanners show nothing, sir!” the soldier reports back.
“There has to be something there, what the fuck else could have caused that?” he says as his hand protrudes into the camera, pointing at an unnatural formation of earth, twisted into what resembles a bony hand with vertical spires of rock – with curved, sharp ridges formed around a central point. A deep humming noise emanates from the central point, reminiscent of an anomaly, though much larger than any previously encountered. Several similar anomalies surround Chernobyl, the laws of physics seemingly ignored here.
“Hold.” He orders as his Geiger counter begins to click rapidly. “Hazardous radiation levels are present here. We need to find a way around.”
“How do we do that? Our scanners are shit here!” another soldier protests.
The camera pans as the soldier opens a pocket on his breast and pulls out a handful of bolts and other small objects. “We do it the old-fashioned way.” He says as he cocks his arm back and throws the bolt in a straight line in front of him. The bolt makes it a few yards before a disturbance in the air catches it and stops it mid-flight. It hovers there for a few seconds before it suddenly explodes into tiny metal flakes. The soldier curses again, “Not that way…” he mutters to himself. The other soldiers open up their own pouches and begin tossing objects on front of them in an attempt to find a way through the field of anomalies.
Moments a deep boom rattles the camera and the soldier behind it falls to the ground, staring straight up at the sky. The clouds above the power plant begin to swirl around it like a hurricane and the ground begins to rumble. Lightning rips through the sky, striking the highest points on the power plant, especially the largest one closest to Reactor 4, which is leaning over it dangerously.
“REPORT!” the soldier yells to his comrades as they scamper back up the hill beside him, trying their best to regain their footing on the steep slope but failing horribly. They look up at the sky in confusion as the clouds continue to swirl over them, faster and faster.
“Tornado…?” one of the soldiers near him replies.
Obviously not the case as some of the soldiers around him begin to realize what’s going on and run for their lives, dropping their weapons on the ground behind them.
“Oh shit…” are the only words that can be heard from the soldier’s mouth before a violent explosion erupts in the sky over him, turning the eye of the storm a fiery red. Loose dirt and rock vibrate on the ground below him as the dark clouds begin to evaporate to reveal the same blood-red color behind them. The camera feed begins to break into static as a large shockwave begins to move out from what looks like a “crack” in the sky. The wind picks up ferociously as the shockwave approaches. The soldier, holds his arm in front of his eyes and whimpers in a futile attempt to stop the unstoppable wave of destruction headed towards him. His Geiger counter can just barely be heard over the nightmarish noise, clicking in one long sound – indicating that it is off the chart.
He screams as the shockwave hits him, sending him flying backwards through the air and over his fleeing comrades far below him. Soon, they are swept up too and sent on courses along his. His screams are barely heard for a few more seconds before he careens towards the earth below him in a freefall. He impacts it. Several sickening crunches sounds can be heard as his limp body is tossed around on the ground like a rag doll. The camera comes to a rest on his blackened, twisted arm as it twitches lifelessly beside him. The feed begins to break just before the sound of grinding metal whines in the background. The smokestack atop Chernobyl tilts a few more degrees before a cloud of dust erupts beneath it and it disappears into the sarcophagus of Reactor 4. A large plume of dust shoots out of the sarcophagus like a dead man’s ashes, just before the feed is lost completely.
The control room is silent as static filters through the speakers. For once in his life, Petrov is too shocked to find someone to vent his anger on. He does his best to hide the look on his face but quickly finds it impossible and leaves the room quietly – bound for his quarters to report the operation’s status to his superior.
He walks briskly past inferior officers, who regard the look on his face with confusion, having never seen their commanding officer in such a mood. After an eternity he unlocks the door to his quarters and continues inside, re-locking it behind him. He immediately goes for the refrigerator for a drink, but finds that the Vodka bottle is empty. He goes to pour a glass anyway, pouring nothing but air into the glass as it shakes in his hand. He discards the bottle on the table, which then falls to the floor and shatters as he takes a drink from the cup, grabbing his laptop and sitting in a nearby chair. It isn’t long before a connection is established.
“Where do we stand, Commander?” the voice on the other end asks him.
Petrov stares back at the screen blankly. He hadn’t actually thought of what he was going to say. There was obviously no way to cover this up and he wasn’t quite sure how doing that would be of any benefit to him considering the violent turn the entire operation has just sent on.
“I take it that your silence means something is wrong. Let’s have it…” the voice says sympathetically.
“If only you knew Mr. Serdyukov….” Petrov says as he adjusts the quickly-tightening collar around his neck.
“T… There’s a s… sit… situation. S… Sir.” He stutters over the words like one of the pathetic weasels under his command, disgusted at himself as he does.
“Go on.” The voice responds sternly.
“There was an emission. No one survived.”
“Dammit!” the voice says in anger. “We’ll just have to send another team then. If we go now we should have a big window of opportunity before the next one.”
“No…” Commander Petrov cuts him off. “There’s more…”
Mr. Serdyukov waits patiently for him to continue.
“The power plant sustained some damage before the blowout… and this one was very powerful. The sarcophagus has been breached. The remainder of the unspent nuclear fuel beneath the reactor is currently venting out as we speak.”
Mr. Serdyukov tries a few word combinations before finally settling on, “Are you certain…?
“Positive, sir.” Petrov replies.
“What of C-Consciousness?”
“We don’t know…” Petrov trails off.
Mr. Serdyukov whispers to someone in the background before responding, “Find out, Commander.”
“Sir, the area is being blanketed with deadly levels of radiation as we speak. We’d be lucky to get as far as Pripyat!”
“Then I suggest you move quickly, Commander.”
“Sir-“
“THAT’S AN ORDER, COMMANDER! I’m about to have the shit-storm of a lifetime on my hands here. If you don’t get in there now and assess the situation the only thing we’ll be able to do is sit back and wish we did when the rest of the world finds out!”
“Yes sir.” Petrov replies, hopelessness in his voice.
Mr. Serdyukov leans in close to the microphone and speaks in a serious tone, “You listen to me Commander, and listen well because your life depends on it. There’s no way out of this now. If this operation fails, our lives are over. We’ll be branded as war criminals and will be hunted down like Nazis in the last world war we fought. That possibility will be reality if you fuck this up!” he yells out the last few words to get his point across.
Petrov smiles, his motivation now fully restored, “I understand sir. Completely.”
“Good. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got another disaster to cover up.”
Anatoly Serdyukov, the Defense Minister of Russia, ends the call - leaving Commander Petrov’s head spinning as he walks briskly back to the control room to whip his dogs back into shape. They were afforded the luxury of seeing failure on his face once, but that would never again be a possibility, as failure was no longer an option. He re-enters the room, waiting for everyone within to look at him and see the look of business on his face. He pulls a nightstick from a concealed loop under his officer’s jacket and drags it along the tops of the terminals as he begins barking orders angrily at the soldiers in the room, stopping to hit anyone who did not execute them immediately. He smiles in satisfaction as he feeds off their fear and erases the word ‘failure’ from his vocabulary.


*


Virtue freezes when he hears the rumble rolling over the hills nearby. The night walk had been uneventful for the most part; he had only seen a handful of mutants and they had been some distance from him. They probably preferred greener pastures, which was a pleasant sight for him to see now. But that had changed now that he felt a tremor beneath his feet. Fear rose in him as he imagined what it could be. He pulls out his PDA in desperation, re-checking the distance to the Bar on his PDA.
“Less than a kilometer. I can make it…” he braces himself, taking a deep breath before sprinting in the direction his PDA pointed him in. Moments later his fears are answered and the night sky lights up like the day. Bright light filters through the dark, night clouds – originating from the north. The last time this happened he hadn’t had to worry about it for long as he and Nimbus had fallen into an anomaly and had somehow missed the blowout entirely. Maybe it was the anomalous wall shield around Limansk, maybe it was luck. He didn’t know, but he did know that such luck was not on his side this time. He was alone, in the middle of nowhere, and a wave of death was headed his way.
He bounds up another hill, his legs burning as he climbs. From the top, to his relief, he can see the Bar below him, lit up in a red hue as the emission builds in strength. The regular audio broadcast is switched off and the air raid siren sounds loud and clear throughout the area.
“It’s all downhill from here…” he says as he quickly, but carefully makes his way down the slope towards the road leading into the enclosed area. But all his caution is out the window when a loud explosion rips through the air, seemingly coming from all around him as it echoed off the nearby hills. He trips as the living hell is scared out of him, rolling down the hill in an ungraceful manner. He hits the bottom, landing in a puddle of hell-knows what. He stumbles to his feet with the wind knocked out of him.
“Great… that’s gonna help.” He pants as he does his best to maintain a jog, his breath quickly leaving him as the ground begins to shake more and more rapidly. He can see several figures outside the Bar running for the entrance as fast as their legs can take them. He looks up at the sky for any indication of how much time he has… but finally concludes what the Stalkers ahead of him must have; there’s no time.
He reaches the road, using every ounce of energy to haul himself towards the Bar.
“It’s a straight shot now… you’re almost there!” he encourages himself along as the sandbags and barricades in the distance get closer and closer. The last of the Stalkers crosses through the gate and the guards vanish into some unseen place to wait things out.
“Come on… faster! Haul ass!” he says as he takes deep breaths, finding the will to go on wherever he can. Sweat drips down him as the ground begins to wave around him, knocking him off balance. He struggles to stay upright as he is rocked back and forth like a ship at sea. A large wall of dust and particles emerges from behind the Bar, closing in on it like a tidal wave.
“NO! COME ONE! YOU CAN MAKE IT!” he insists as he grunts and pumps his legs as hard as they will go. The Duty checkpoint is closer now but it might as well be miles away as far as Virtue is concerned. His legs start to give out on him, refusing to carry him and all his equipment any further.
”NO! YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO QUIT! MOVE YOUR FUCKING ASS!”
A Dutyer pokes his head out from behind a building, looking at Virtue, back at the wave behind the Bar, then back at Virtue. He hesitates for a moment, then sprints with all his might towards Virtue. He closes the distance between then in mere seconds, grabbing Virtue by the arm and forcing him to run alongside him.
“Come on Stalker! I’ll drag you in if I have to!” the Dutyer says as he pulls Virtue along.
The wave hits the far end of the Bar, engulfing the buildings in a deadly wave of radiation, giving them a handful of seconds to get to safety.
“Move move!!!” The Dutyer insists as he begins to run as hard as he can, yanking Virtue along. Virtue struggles to stay on his feet, summoning whatever hidden reserve of energy he can find inside of him to continue moving. He gulps as the wave reaches the road leading into the Bar and quickly progresses down the street. He can feel the air push against him with incredible force, slowing him to a walk as the wave comes within a few yards of him. Then everything goes black.
He drifts in a sea of nothingness for an eternity, afloat in his own consciousness. “Is this my death?” he wonders in the silence and pure darkness surrounding him. He begins to panic as he imagines himself stuck in this darkness forever, cut apart from human contact for all of eternity. Never again to see a sunny day, feel joy, or even learn from a mistake. Sadness overtakes him as he floats on in loneliness, a slave to his timeless purgatory. Then, he sees a light, then a face.
“Hey – Stalker - you alive?” the Dutyer who saved him looks down on him from a seated position in the dark place.
“You tell me…” Virtue manages after thinking about his fate for a few seconds.
“You owe me a drink.” The Dutyer responds, looking relieved.
“I owe you my life,” Virtue says frankly. “But a drink is all I can afford to give you.”
The Dutyer laughs, satisfied with the offer, and asks, “What’s your name, bro?”
“Virtue.” Virtue answers.
The Dutyer looks surprised. “Virtue? The one and only?”
“As far as I know…” Virtue responds. “Why, have you heard of me?”
“Yeah,” The Dutyer laughs. “At least the things they say about you.”
“Oh? What do they say?” Virtue sits up curiously. A red light filters through a thick metal door up some stairs to his right. Apparently the blowout is still in full gear and they made it into a bunker of some sort… instead of the hell he thought he had been in for a few terrifying seconds.
“The usual; you killed someone’s friend, stole someone’s shit, trespassed on someone’s camp - that kind of stuff. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, I’m sure it’s just some jealous newbie trying to pin something on you to his own advantage.”
“Oh…” Virtue says, wondering who could have been spreading rumors and why.
“It’s not all bad though,” he continues. “They also say you helped Sakharov and survived X16 with a group of Stalkers – a few renowned ones too – and that you’ve survived a couple encounters with the Zone’s more… ruthless inhabitants. That’s the kind of stuff that makes Stalkers either like you or leave you the hell alone; it’s a respect thing.”
Virtue thinks back at some of the many encounters he’s been a part of in the last few days. They had escaped his mind like a dream upon waking, but were coming back to the more he though back on them. There were the Bandits at the car park in Cordon, Stalin and his group of Stalkers at the edge of the Red Forest, and possibly more by association. He always knew there would be repercussions for having a part in their deaths, he just didn’t expect word to spread so fast or that those spreading it would know him by name. Without his friends to cover for him, he would have to be careful who he revealed his name to from now on, lest he received a bullet in the head.
The tremors shaking the thick walls of the bunker begin to subside and the air raid siren stops blaring. A Dutyer near the door peeks out the small window before re-opening the door the outside, He waits a minute or two before declaring, “It’s safe.”
To his surprise, several other Stalkers begin to filter out of the bunker in close proximity to him. No doubt they could hear most of the conversation he and the other Dutyer could have. Some of them eye him as they exit the bunker. He stands to leave when the Dutyer he had been talking to calls behind him,
“Hey. If you get into any shit around here just ask for me. The name’s Barin.”
“Thanks.” Virtue waves behind him as he steps out of the bunker. The hairs on his body stick up slightly as he re-enters the fresh air… due to some kind of post-blowout charge in the air he supposes. He looks north up the road leading into the heart of the Bar. In the sky, the aftermath of the blowout can still be seen visibly; a large portion of the sky is still blood-red and clouds are moving frantically away from the light. He watches as the thunder and lightning begin to die down and the red slowly fades back into navy black. The floodlights outside the Bar switch on as it becomes too dark to see and he continues towards his goal.
The last time he had been here, he had merely stopped for supplies and hadn’t had the time to truly take in all that the Bar was. At the heart of humanity’s reoccupation of the Zone, it was a pretty lively place. Stalkers from all over the Zone could gather here for supplies, shelter, a good meal, drinks at the 100 Rads Bar, or even sign on to Duty if they felt so inclined. As he follows the path through a series of warehouses he notices an arena of some sort also.
“As if there isn’t enough trouble in the Zone...” He shakes his head as he imagines Stalkers beating the living hell out of each other for fun or maybe even a grudge. As he walks, the internal audio system kicks back on and a member of Duty comes on,
“This is General Voronin. I hope everyone’s alright out there. As you know, Duty is always looking for new members to fight the Zone’s evil – evils like that emission you just survived if you’re hearing this now. Join Duty, and we’ll give you a shot at some quality weapons and armor to help you survive even more. If you’re interested, make your way to Duty Headquarters. You can’t miss it.”
Shortly after the message ends, a few Stalkers come trickling out of a warehouse across from the arena. They glance at him as they walk by, paying him no real attention as they head off towards the direction of Duty HQ. He hadn’t given joining a faction much thought; then again he had barely had time to give anything much thought since he had been so occupied with the various missions he had gone on. But he was a free man now… now that he knew he had nothing to go back to, and it was time to start thinking for himself.
“I’ll think about it…” he says in response to the message and continues on.
Another sign nearby entitled “100 Rads” points in the direction the Stalkers had come from. He follows the arrow though the warehouse they had come from and around the side of a brick building. Concrete steps lead down into the underground building. He can hear about a dozen voices inside, talking and laughing. He can smell several different kinds of food as he begins to ascend the stairs. The stairs take a turn about halfway down and a Stalker glares at him from behind a fenced-off area.
“Hey! You new here? I don’t recognize you.” The Stalker as he scans Virtue’ face and gear for anything he might recognize.
“Yes.” Virtue replies.
“Then welcome to the 100 Rads bar. Keep your weapon holstered at all times or I’ll personally chop your balls off.”
“Understood.” Virtue says and waits for any more instructions the man might have.
“Well, come in. Don’t stand there!” the Stalker says, annoyed.
Virtue takes his cue and walks past the man, into the heart of the bar. It’s dark, like most bars, save for a solitary light over the counter where the man Virtue remembers as “Barkeep” is glued to a TV sitting on the top shelf. The reception is terrible, but through the breaks in static Virtue can clearly see two naked women kissing and fondling each other. He walks into the room, past the tables lining the exterior walls and the Stalkers staring at him in through the darkness. He coughs as he reaches the bar.
Barkeep holds up a hand and continues to watch the screen. Virtue looks away as the women become more and more invigorated with their foreplay. Barkeep laughs and claps his hands with satisfaction as he turns around.
“Haha! Man, I don’t know which is more beautiful; sunrise in the Zone or two girls making out.”
“I couldn’t say, I haven’t taken the time to watch either.” Virtue replies.
“What?! Then you’re missing out!” Barkeep shakes his head, taking out a rag and wiping off the counter in front of Virtue. “So, what can I do for you Stalker?”
“I need information.”
Barkeep stops wiping the countertop and looks up dismayed. “Then Snitch is the guy you want.” He nods his head towards a dark corner of the bar. “He’s over there.”
Virtue thanks him and walks towards the corner. The light from a cigarette flares above the table and a Stalker in a trench coat and mask regards him as he approaches.
“You’re a customer I take it?” he says as he exhales a small cloud of grey smoke.
“That’s right.” Virtue replies. “I’m looking for information on the whereabouts of some friends of mine.”
The cigarette flares again as he takes another drag. “I might be able to tell you that. I’m pretty good at that sort of thing. What are their names?”
“They’re being led by Gremlin of Freedom.”
“Shh…” the Stalker puts his finger to his lips. “Don’t say that word so loudly here, it’s not safe.”
“Somehow, I don’t doubt it. My aplologies.”
Snitch puts his free arm on the table and leans in close, motioning for Virtue to come closer. Virtue leans in curiously as the Stalker speaks in a hushed tone, “I heard something about them recently that I think will help you. But before we discuss that, let’s discuss payment.”
Virtue digs through his backpack and finds his wad of cash. He picks through bills under the table and pulls out 100 Rubles, placing it on the table between him and Snitch. Snitch’s cigarette flares again as he takes the bill, looking at it in disgust as he pockets it.
“You shitting me?” he leans back on his stool, resting his head against the wall, looking up at the ceiling as he takes another drag.
Virtue takes out another 100 Rubles and places it on the table. Snitch slides his hand along the table without looking away from the ceiling, picking up the bill and holding it in the light of his cigarette. He pockets it like the first, shaking his head. “Not even in the ballpark.”
Virtue sighs, becoming annoyed. He pulls out another 800 and places it on the table for an even 1000. Snitch sits up straight again, counting the bills in front of him. He nods as he pockets the rest of the cash and takes one last drag on the cigarette before extinguishing it on the table. He leans in, motioning Virtue forward again as he speaks, “I’ve been picking up a lot of chatter around the Military Warehouses. They’re saying that they were on some sort of secret mission to the center of the Zone and haven’t been heard from since.”
“Yeah, I know that part.” Virtue interrupts. “I want to know where they are now.”
“How the fuck should I know? If they’re your friends shouldn’t you know?” he says with a snicker, shaking his head as he goes for another cigarette.
Virtue can feel anger building inside him from the man’s attitude. “I didn’t pay you to get information I already had.” He says in a serious tone.
“Tough shit, ask the right questions next time.” He says as he flicks his lighter on and lights his cigarette. He holds it in the flame for a few seconds, looking back up at Virtue with an arrogant look in his eyes. The look begins to fade as he sees the mischievous smile creeping across Virtue’s face. The next thing he knows Virtue has him up by the collar and halfway across the table. The cigarette falls from his mouth and into a crack on the floor, never to be seen again.
“The bouncer didn’t say anything about keeping these holstered…” Virtue says through his teeth. All eyes in the bar are on him and the bouncer is now standing in the doorframe he came from watching the dispute with his weapon pointed at the ground in front of him.
“Come on man… you’re ruining my image.” Snitch whispers as he looks around the room nervously.
“I don’t give a flying fuck about your image!” Virtue yells, cutting the silence of the bar.
Snitch sighs, looking around the bar at the potential clients he could be losing. “OK! Fine… just let go of me and I’ll tell you everything I know.”
“My God, an honest merchant… whodathunk?” Virtue says sarcastically as he shoves the man back in the stool.
Snitch wobbles on the stool a little, doing his best to maintain his balance as it rocks back and forth in place. He successfully stops it, to his relief, and leans forward on the table, putting his head in his hands as he thinks back on what he knows. After a few moments, he whispers, “Alright, look... a few hours ago I heard some Freedom guys try to transmit a signal back to their base; they said Gremlin was with them. But, since nobody’s home, I’d say they’re probably headed this way.”
“So they are alive then.” Relief washes over him as he hears those words. That was information he had been hoping above all else was true, even though deep down he knew they had to be. They didn’t make it as far as they did just to die there; they were more resourceful than that. Even though he had only known most of them for a few days now, they had been through enough that he trusted them with his life, and for good reason. He believed they could get through anything as long as they were together. But something didn’t add up… why wouldn’t Freedom HQ return their call? He squints at Snitch, confused,
“Why would they come here? This is Duty territory.”
“What are you, stupid?” Snitch looks at him in disbelief. “Their base was attacked by mutants. “
The brief moment of relief he felt quickly fades as he processes the new information. This was all his fault… it had to be. Ending the military’s control over the facility must have caused the mutants to go rogue, and they must have been angry.
“That’s all I need.” Virtue says as he walks away from Snitch. Snitch adjusts his collar and waves him off, pulling out another cigarette and lighting it as he leaves. All eyes in the bar follow him as he approaches the bouncer, who presents the door to him.
“At least you didn’t shoot up the place.” He jokes as Virtue passes him by.
Virtue forces a smile and continues back up the stairs the way he came.
“So much for keeping a low profile.” He thinks. But he wasn’t someone to be taken advantage of, and now that Stalker and the others in the bar knew that. He just hoped it wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass.
“Hey Stalker!” someone behind him says to him. He turns around to see a group of Stalkers behind him, clad in custom Loner outfits. The one in the middle regards him with a sneer, “Are you Virtue?”
“What if I am?” he asks cautiously.
The other Stalker smiles menacingly, “Well, if you’ve seen my friend Jester.”
“Jester…” Virtue thinks back to the journey to Yantar, where Jester had vanished into the night fog and was left behind when they were forced to flee from a large group of zombies that had nearly cut them off from the Ecologist’s mobile lab. He was presumed dead until they had bumped into him the following day, shambling around in X16 as a mindless zombie. In the end, they were forced to shoot him before he could shoot first, and had to leave him there. He shakes his head and replies, “He didn’t make it.”
The Stalkers look to the one who addressed him. He says nothing for a few moments, then asks, “How did he die?”
“He was zombified. The psionic field in Yantar got him.” Virtue responds.
The Stalker crosses his arms, shaking his head in disappointment. “That’s a real shame. I don’t suppose you happened to take his shit with you, did you?”
“No. We were surrounded by zombies, we had to run.”
Another mischievous smile crosses the Stalker’s lips. “That’s an even bigger shame.”
Virtue starts to get a bad feeling and looks around for a possible escape. The Stalker makes eye contact with one of the Stalkers next to him and nods. The Stalker rushes Virtue, knocking him to the ground as the others hold him down.
“Hey! What the hell is this?!” Virtue yells as he struggles against them.
“Eh… Jester was a funny motherfucker but he owed me money. Since he’s dead and you were with him last, I’m taking it out of you.”
“I barely knew the guy!” Virtue protests.
“Close enough.” The Stalker responds as his friends tear through Virtue’s backpack, searching for anything of value. They drag him and his belongings over to an empty warehouse nearby out of sight of the bar and proceed to lay the contents of his backpack on the concrete.
“Let’s see what we have here…” The Stalker eyes his belongings greedily as they are arrayed before him. “A nice wad of cash, good AK, a beat up LR, some ammo, a shitty-ass Makarov, food, bandages – check those pouches.” He instructs the Stalkers. They open the pouches on Virtue’s suit, checking each one for anything valuable. As they get to his belt, they open the pouch containing the artifact he received from Doomsday. The white glow illuminates their greedy eyes.
“Well, well, well…” the Stalker says as he takes the artifact in his hand, stroking his new trophy with glee. “Now this is a find!”
“Give that back asshole!” Virtue continues to struggle against the other Stalker. “It was a gift!”
“Oh?” the Stalker looks at him with false concern. “Well then Merry Christmas to me!”
The other Stalkers laugh. One of them kicks Virtue in the stomach as they throw his empty backpack in his face and start walking back towards the bar, joking with each other over the ease of their ‘transaction’.
”No!” Virtue screams out in his head. “I’ve worked too hard to lose all that. This is my chance to prove I’m strong even without my friends by my side.”
Virtue explodes onto his feet, ignoring the pain in his stomach, and lunges on top of the Stalker. The Stalker hits the pavement with a satisfying “Oof!” as Virtue proceeds to pommel him with his fists. His friends work quickly to remove the surprisingly-resistant Stalker from their friend, finally throwing him against the brick wall of the bar. The Stalker looks at him in surprise, smearing the blood running from his nose with his hand and inspecting it.
“You little cocksucker…” he says as his friends hold him tightly.
Virtue braces himself as he takes a fist full-force in the stomach. He hunches over in pain, still trying to block out the pain from the first kick he took. Before he can have time to feel another wave of pain he takes another fist to the face, this one hitting him square in the eye. He grunts in pain as he feels his face begin to swell. The Stalker looks at him as he makes eye contact, unsatisfied with the damage.
“I wanna fight him.” He says.
“You sure?” one of the other Stalkers asks him.
“Yeah.” He says. “Go tell Arnie there’s gonna be a match.”
The other Stalker runs off around the corner in the direction of the arena. The remaining Stalkers drag him towards the arena as the instigator slings his brand-new AK over his back. As they enter the open area between the warehouses, he is drug around the side of a large warehouse where the “Arena” sign is mounted. They sit him up against the wall out of sight of other Stalkers and gag him. The instigator heads off around the corner where his messenger went while the other Stalkers hold him.
“Is this your opponent?” he can hear someone ask through the wall.
“Yeah, this is the loser.” The instigator says with a laugh.
“Very well, what rule have you agreed upon?” The other voice asks - presumably the arena master, Arnie.
“Well, he’s feeling balssy so he’s going to take me on with just a Makarov, one clip. He says he can beat me no matter what gear I’m using.” The instigator responds.
“Damn right!” his emissary agrees.
“Have you been drinking?” Arnie asks. “You’ll be severe disadvantage.”
“I’m so sure I can beat him, that I’ll let him kill me if I lose.” The emissary boasts.
Arnie sighs, “Alright… I can’t be held responsible for what happens if you lose. As long as you’re both agreed, I’ll let you in there.
“Agreed.” The instigator and his emissary respond together.
“Alright, one of you can load up here – one of you head over to the other side.”
“Excellent.” The instigator says and walks out of the room. As he exits the building he glances around the corner at Virtue, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. Another Stalker, no doubt Arnie, follows behind him. The instigator’s emissary comes around the corner, motioning for the Stalkers to bring him over. They drag him over to the room as the emissary begins to discard his gear.
“Quick, take all his shit off!” he instructs. The other Stalkers comply, removing Virtue’s gear forcefully. They finish quickly and ungag him holding his own pistol to his head while the emissary holds a finger to his lips in warning.
“Alright… you’re all set to go.” He says with a smile as he opens the door into the large warehouse beside him. “Have fun!”
They push him into the room, throwing his Makarov in behind him and slamming the door shut. He groans and holds his stomach in pain. The room before him is dimly lit, but him he can hear the voices of several stalkers talking and cheering above him. He picks up his Makarov and stands to his feet.
“What have you gotten yourself into Yuriy…” he asks himself as he grips his pistol tighter. Deep down, he had feared what the true purpose of the arena had been when last he had passed through the Bar, and now that fear had become a reality. It was combat without rules – and in this case it was probably to the death. His opponent had all of his gear while he was stripped down to near nothing, save for the Makarov he had acquired on his first day in the Zone. As much as he hated to say it, he was screwed.
“All I had to do was lay low… but no, I had to go and paint a giant fucking bullseye on my forehead!”
Suddenly a voice echoed throughout the room,
“Hello Stalkers, and welcome to the arena!”
Clapping and whistling come from windows lining the east and west sides of the second story above him, and he can see the silhouettes of dozens of Stalkers lined up in front of them.
“For today’s matchup, we have two Stalkers. Smartass – A Loner of great renown! A genius in the field of science and an expert artifact hunter, he seeks to rid the Zone of all those who would do evil! How humble!”
The crowd cheers.
“Smartass? Are they seriously cheering for this guy?” Virtue laughs in disbelief, and to calm his nerves.
“And, in this corner…” The announcer continues as a blinding light activates over Virtue’s head. “We have Virtue – a lowly, stinking Bandit!”
The crowd begins to boo, slinging insults at him as his eyes slowly adjust to the light.
“I could go on but I think you all know the story here – the only good Bandit is a dead Bandit!”
The crowd cheers again, the excitement building as the announcer wraps up his introduction.
“Alright Stalkers, now that that’s out of the way it’s time to get this show on the road. Stalkers… begin!”
The remaining lights in the warehouse click on, revealing a vast array of obstacles before him. Large cargo containers make up most of the obstacle course, with some old vehicles, crates and random piles of junk making up the rest. Fear rises in him as he fully embraces his situation. For all he knows, this could be like going against a tank with a flyswatter. He swallows and proceeds slowly ahead.
He tries to focus all his attention on listening for any signs of his opponent, but the intense cheering from the sidelines makes it all but impossible. He curses and presses himself up against the cargo container closest to him, peering around the corner slowly to gauge the size of the course before him. The opposite wall appears to be about 50 yards away, giving him and his opponent plenty of places to look … or hide in.
Seeing no sign of Smartass, he breaks from cover and moves up to the next obstacle – an old, beat-up car in the middle of the floor on his side, giving him a good view of his part of the room. He ducks behind the door and peeks through the broken window - still no sign of his opponent. A few seconds later he hears a shot fired from what sounds like an AK.
“He’s testing the water…” Virtue concludes. He sneaks up towards the next obstacle to get closer to the source of the sound. He leans around a pile of crates to get a better look at the center of the room. Another shot is fired, this one somewhere to his left. He moves cautiously around the crates and behind another large crate. He leans cautiously around the left side and looks in the direction of the gunshot. Smartass stands in the middle of the aisle on the left side, armed to the teeth and sporting Virtue’s AKS-74 in his hands. He unleashes a bust of fire in his direction; the bullets ping off the metal shipping crate and send tiny puffs of pulverized concrete flying up from the floor of the warehouse.
Virtue checks the clip in his Makarov and finds a full clip with 8 shots in it.
“Fantastic…” he groans. “If I fuck this up it’s down to hurling insults.”
He panics as he hears footsteps approaching rapidly and looks around frantically for anywhere to run. He makes for the opposite side of the shipping container and presses his body up against it as Smartass steps around the other side, scanning the area where he had been.
“Come out, come out little chicken shit!” Smartass attempts to coax him out, firing a few more shots at the ground around him.
Virtue takes the chance, and leans around the crate, firing the pistol at the Stalker. Smartass drops to the ground as the shots ping off obstacles around them, one of them hitting him in the back of the leg. He curses as he unloads the remainder of the AK’s magazine in Virtue’s direction. Bullets fly around him, and he takes the opportunity to run towards the opposite side of the room.
The crowd boos as he runs, obviously not thrilled at a supposed Bandit scoring a hit against such a heavily armed Loner. They Cheer Smartass on as he yells in rage behind Virtue,
“I can’t believe you shot me! You’re a dead man!”
Virtue looks around for a good place to hide as Smartass runs back in his direction. He spots a place wedged between two crates and crouches between them. He checks the clip in his pistol again – 3 shots left. He would have to use them wisely. He can hear Smartass panting nearby, slowing as he crosses the middle of the room. As he catches his breath, his breathing improves and Virtue can no longer hear him. He resists the urge to look around the crates, electing to stay put and trust in the hiding spot he chose.
 “You can’t die here.” He encourages himself. “You can’t afford to be another nameless face forgotten in the Zone. You know too much…”
After a few moments, he can see Smartass’s shadow close to his position, stopping close to him. He freezes, holding his breath as he keeps his eyes fixed on the empty space in front of his hiding place.
“Can he see me?” he wonders as he desperately tries to decide whether to stay put or run for his life. The shadow moves closer and he can hear Smartass charging the rifle. He holds the Makarov in a death grip as Smartass walks right in front of him.
“SHOOT HIM!” he yells at his body as he slowly lines the Makarov’s iron sights his with Smartass’s head. A small beam of light glints off the pistol as he raises it up, causing Smartass to freeze and turn towards the direction of the glint. Virtue pulls the trigger as Smartass notices an out-of-place shadow staring back at him. He holds down the trigger as a shot pierces his upper body, then another, and another. He grunts in pain as Virtue lunges for the weapon. Smartass pulls of a knife and swings it at him as he does, carving a gash across Virtue’s stomach. Virtue yells out in pain as he collides with Smartass, sending them both to the floor.
Virtue keeps his arms pinned as Smartass struggles against his weight in an attempt to free either the hand with the AK or the knife. He grits his teeth and pushes against Virtue as he begins to pull the knife from his hands.
“You’re tougher than you look, I’ll give you that.” Smartass says as he grins at Virtue, intensity in his eyes. “But you can’t win this fight. Your shit looks better on me.”
“I didn’t come this far to die.” He says as the knife begins to slip from Smartass’s hands. “It’s important that I find my friends… our lives could depend on it.”
“Then I’ll pass a message along to them after you’re dead!” Smartass says as he pulls the knife back with renewed strength. Virtue fights back, pulling against him with all his might. Suddenly, Smartass releases the knife from his grip, and Virtue stumbles backwards, falling onto the ground with the knife on his hands. He scrambles to get back onto his feet, but Smartass has already assumed a position over him and points the AK directly at his forehead.
The Stalkers around him cheer victoriously and chant, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Smartass looks down at Virtue with a smile, “Well, it’s been fun, but it looks like your fate is sealed.”
Virtue braces himself as Smartass looks down the iron sights and asks, “Any last words from the mighty Virtue?”
“This is a mistake. My friends will find you and kill you.” He says as he looks down the barrel of the gun defiantly.
Smartass laughs, shaking his head at him, “If they’re such good friends where are they now?”
“Right here.” A familiar voice says from somewhere in the shadows around him.

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