Smartass looks around him frantically, “What the fuck… who the hell is in here?”
“Drop it dick hole.” Another familiar voice says. “You’re surrounded.”
“I won this fair and square – I get to shoot him now.” Smartass protests.
“Fair my arse! If you drop that piece right now I’ll consider not blowing your fookin’ brains out right now - that’s bloody fair.”
Smartass drops the weapon on the ground as Zombie, Nimbus and Reaper emerge from the shadows, weapons drawn. Arnie comes up behind them, looking at Smartass with anger in his eyes.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t kill him… after hearing what these Stalkers told me I’d have you banned from the Bar for good.” Arnie picks the weapon off the ground and points to the other side of the warehouse, “Put everything you took from this Stalker in the locker in that room, and when he’s made sure that he’s got everything that belongs to him, you and your band of petty thieves get the hell out of my arena.”
Smartass stands to his feet, angry and defeated as he reluctantly heads out the arena, Arnie hot on his heels with Virtue’s AK pointed at him.
The announcer comes back on as they leave, “Well Stalkers… it would appear that we’ve all been had. Virtue is the Loner and Smartass is the Bandit. Why don’t we show Smartass what we think of unsportsman-like conduct in our arena?”
The crowd boos as Smartass slams the door on the other side of the arena, turning their attention to Virtue and shouting words of encouragement at his near-defeat.
“You really ought to get that patched up.” Reapers says, pointing to the wound bleeding through his shirt. “I’ve got some bandages on me; let’s go somewhere a little less crazy, eh?”
Nimbus walks over to him, offering his hand in support as an overwhelming grin spreads across his face. Virtue accepts his hand and allows Nimbus to help him to his feet. He smiles back as Nimbus immediately pulls him into a hug.
“God damn it’s good to see you alive!” he exclaims. “After what happened I didn’t think I’d ever see you again...”
“I was starting to think the same thing.” Virtue says. “I went through hell to find you.”
“So too have we.” Zombie offers.
“It sounds like we’ve got a lot of catching up to do then.” Virtue says as Nimbus releases him from the hug. A sinking feeling comes over him as he looks around for any sign of the rest of his friends but finds none. “Where’s the rest of the team?”
“They made it out alright.” Reaper responds. “Some of them are a little bloody and bruised, but the Zone’s finest are taking care of them right now.”
“What about Enigma?” Virtue’s heart sinks a little as he imagines the many words that could come out of Reapers mouth in response. The seconds pass agonizingly as Reaper attempts to find the best way to inform Virtue of her situation.
“They’re doing everything they can for her. She’s a tough lady… she’s lucky to have made it this far. I doubt she would have if it hadn’t been for all that conditioning Limansk did to her.”
“Thinking of you might have helped a little too.” Nimbus adds with a hopeful smile. “She insisted that you were alive, and never gave up hope, no matter what we thought. I think you were the reason she refused to give up.”
He closes his eyes, relieved at the news. He couldn’t explain his attraction to her, but it went deep. Maybe he felt as though she was the real Emelia all along; the real woman of his dreams masked by the false one planted in his mind by C-Consciousness. Whenever he had seen Emelia’s face after C-Consciousness had revealed his true life to him, he had seen hers almost immediately afterwards. There was something about her that just felt right, and there were no words to describe it, but he didn’t really care. None of his life made sense anymore, he didn’t expect for all the answers to reveal themselves to him right away. Relying on intuition and acting on impulse was the only thing he knew he was good at.
“Come on,” Nimbus says. “Let’s get your stuff and go catch up with the others. They’ll definitely be happy to see you and will probably have a million questions for you.”
“Same here.” Virtue replies as he and his three friends walk out of the arena together, united once more.
They approach a section of abandoned warehouses in an unused part of the complex. A couple of Duty soldiers in Exosuits stand guard at the entrance as many Stalkers walk around in the dark building beyond. They hold up their hands as the Stalkers approach,
“Stop there. What is your affiliation?” the door guard says calmly but sternly.
“Loner.” Zombie says, speaking for all of them.
The guard analyzes them briefly then nods them inside. As they enter the warehouse, they see countless Freedomers in groups all around them.
“Now that’s a sight I’d never thought I’d see…” Reaper remarks. “Freedom on Duty territory. Now I’ve seen it all.”
“Over here!” a friendly voice greets them and waves them over from a particularly large group of Freedomers near the center of the warehouse. As they approach, Virtue can make out the familiar faces of Gremlin and Solitaire. A look of relieved satisfaction comes over them as they recognize him. Gremlin steps away from the group and comes up to him as he nears. He stands in front of him, shaking his head in disbelief once he confirms his eyes aren’t playing tricks on him.
“God damn is it good to see you again!” he says, offering his hand for Virtue to shake. “I knew our chances were slim but after you disappeared I didn’t have any hope left for you my friend.”
“It must have been pure luck,” Virtue responds. “I fell into some sort of anomaly and came out somewhere far away from the power plant. My wounds were treated and I made my way back out of the Zone, only to find that home wasn’t quite as homely as I remembered it being.”
Gremlin nods, “I guess the Zone was always your home from the beginning, you just needed to find that out for yourself.”
Virtue laughs, “You don’t know the half of it…” he looks around expectantly for Enigma, realizing suddenly that she is not among them. “Where is Enigma?”
“She’s fine.” Gremlin smiles. “She’s a lucky girl… though it’s probably more stubbornness than anything. She refused to quit the entire way back, despite operating on only one lung. She refused to let you go, and it looks like she got her wish in the end. You’re a lucky man.”
Virtue rubs his face with his hands, allowing the burden of her unknown fate to fall away from him.
“Now,” Gremlin says. “We really need to know exactly what happened in there.”
Virtue nods. His friends gather around as he explains his encounter with Dmytro, and the revelation of his true origin as nothing more than a test tube experiment - but he decides to leave out C-Consciousness and his decision to ultimately keep the men and women inside alive until he can saw the extent of the repercussions his actions would have. The Stalkers do their best to keep up with his story and how far-fetched all of it is. He continues, telling of the news report in the diner, and his subsequent return to the Zone – also noting the attack on the outpost he witnessed as he crossed the Zone’s border. The Stalkers stare at him in disbelief for most of the story, but in the end decide to believe him. After his story, Gremlin catches him up with their escape from the NPP, capture by the Monolith, and escape from the horde of zombies.
“We got back to Freedom HQ to find it completely destroyed and infested with mutants. We managed to pick up an automated transmission from Max – our new second in command – saying that they had made a deal with Duty after both of our bases were attacked. At first I thought it was a trap but I know Max too well, he would never do something like that unless he had a damn good reason for it.”
“And I did.” Another Stalker says from behind them. They all turn to see Lukash and another Stalker, presumably Max, coming towards them.
“I was just reviewing Max’s report.” Lukash says. “I believe I would have done the same thing had I been here. Both Duty and Freedom were attacked by mutants and nearly driven out of the Zone completely. Thanks to your story, we now know where they came from. The question remains; what is driving them and how do we stop them?”
“Maybe nothing is driving them.” Virtue offers.
Lukash arches an eyebrow, “What do you mean, Virtue?”
“I mean we know that the mutants were being controlled by remnants of the Soviet Union working in the NPP. We destroyed their labs and drove them out – when that happened the mutants turned hostile towards them. Maybe the problem is that they’re no longer under the control of their masters and want revenge.”
“Mutants with a grudge…?” Gremlin chuckles, “Sorry, I can’t picture it.”
“Well… they were human at one point, right? If I had been one of them I’m sure I would have harbored a lot of hatred towards the ones experimenting on me – especially if I had friends and family.”
The Stalkers look amongst each other, trying to imagine the possibility of Virtue’s claim.
“I remember a story Jargon told me after we found out he had survived X16,” Gremlin begins. “He said he woke up to find a Controller standing over him, just staring at him. It could have easily turned him into another mindless zombie with just a thought, but it didn’t. Instead, it projected images into his mind of cruel experiments and excruciating pain, almost like it was trying to tell its story and the stories of others like it. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that… but I trusted Jargon, and I know that he believed what he was saying with every fiber of his being.”
“He told me the same story.” Virtue contributes. “I believed he meant what he said also… he knew all about the experiments since before the first incident. It haunted him to his death.”
“Alright, so let’s suppose that is the case,” Gremlin says as he circles around a makeshift table set up in the middle of the warehouse. “Our actions effectively unleashed every mutant in the middle of the Zone, who then chased the fleeing Military out towards our base, and from there they came here.”
“Where did they go after that?” Solitaire asks.
“Duty reports once they got pushed back to their HQ they were able to put up a fight there and the mutants scattered. They’re probably all over the Zone by now…”
“Well… there’s already mutants all over the Zone so it’s better that they’re scattered instead of all in one place isn’t it?” Nimbus asks.
“I don’t know… Duty wants to see us all to discuss that problem.” Gremlin says, looking to Virtue. “Now that we’re all here we should head over to Duty HQ and decide our next move.”
“I need to see Enigma first.” Virtue insists.
“Make it fast.” Gremlin says, pointing to an area shielded by thick concrete walls in the back part of the warehouse.
Gremlin’s voice fades into a deep mumble and the room beyond him darkens as tunnel vision sets in. The thought that she is somewhere just mere meters from him makes his heart beat faster with every step. He swallows hard as he approaches the concrete wall and looks around it. There are several cots lined up along the wall, containing injured Freedomers. He sweeps across the room from left to right, scanning the individual face of each Stalker in the room. He stops on a particular cot separate from the rest and elevated behind a thin makeshift curtain. He approaches the curtain slowly as it flutters in the breeze, beckoning to him.
He peeks his head inside to see a Stalker in a worn-out SEVA suit, littered with countless tears and holes. Beside the bed is a detached helmet with a broken face-shield. His knees become weak as he approaches the bed to get a closer look at its inhabitant. Enigma lies asleep with her head buried in a pillow – a luxury she had no doubt not experienced for time unknown. Her pale white face has been cleaned and her dark, wet hair is hidden behind her. A look of peace is on her face as her chest rises and falls slowly.
He reaches the side of her bed and kneels beside her, overcome with emotion. He decides she looks too peaceful to wake so he is content to watch her sleep in peace for an eternity. Just being in the same room with her is more of a privilege than he could have ever hoped to have again. He grips the side of the bed as she stirs, slowly opening her crystal blue-grey eyes and directing them towards him. They lock with his and he finds himself trapped in her gaze, unable to look away.
“Am I dreaming?” she says, her voice echoing in his ears like music.
He doesn’t know what to say, for fear of ruining the moment with useless words.
“No… am I?” he says at last.
“Pinch yourself. It’s the only way to be sure.” She says with a smile.
He laughs, more out of sheer happiness than her remark.
“What is it about you that makes me feel so good?” Virtue says as he runs his hand through her hair.
“I was about to ask you the same question.” She replies. “Maybe it’s just chemistry.”
“Maybe just destiny.” Virtue responds, disregarding how cheesy the line sounds.
“Maybe.” She replies, biting her lip in thought.
“I… I barely know anything about you and yet it’s like I’ve always known you. I don’t understand.”
“Maybe you should stop trying and just go with it.” She says, batting her long eyelashes at him.
“Maybe.” He whispers as he leans in close. Her smile widens as he touches his nose to hers, staring into her eyes, hoping to get a glance into her soul.
“Looking for something?” she asks playfully, shifting under the covers.
“Yeah… trying to see what you see in me.” He says, hovering over her.
“I could tell you but it would be a lot more fun to see you try.” Staring at him with determination.
He leans in close again for another look, making it only halfway before she grabs him gently and locks her lips with his. They kiss passionately, letting the problems of the world drain from them. He feels new strength building in him as she continues to kiss him; a feeling he had not felt in too long a time. For all he knew, it was the first time; the last time he had felt like this was when he had decided to marry Emelia. It could easily have been an implanted emotion to go along with the implanted memory, either way he was sure that it was stronger this time. Her breathing begins to become choppy and he forces himself away from her.
“I’m sorry.” He says.
“Don’t be.” She says. “I’d do it again no matter how painful.”
He smiles, looking at her glowing face in wonder. Never in his life had he seen something so beautiful – and in such contrast to the world outside. She was like an angel fighting the demons of hell around her with beauty as her weapon. After a long, painful inner debate he finally withdraws,
“I gotta go. But don’t worry… I’ll be back to check up on you later.”
“Good.” She says, giving him a parting bat of her eyelashes. “I’ll be waiting.”
He turns quickly to prevent her from seeing the childish grin on his face and heads out of the room and warehouse beyond it.
It’s good to be back. He thinks to himself as he follows the signs leading to Duty HQ.
General Voronin looked to his officials for verification as he listened to the story unfolding before him. Lukash, a man whom he had sworn would never be allowed into Duty territory – let alone the operation center of their HQ – was standing in front of him now with a handful of his men and an unknown group of Stalkers saying things that bordered on the absurd. Still, the story was too far-fetched to be completely untrue – he had nothing to gain from making up such fantastic stories when any one of the several guards stationed around the room had a clear shot at him. He was too smart to be in this position just to screw it all up when the survival of his faction hung in the balance.
“So…” General Voronin says as soon as Lukash breaks for a moment. “What you’re saying then is that the Military – who are our allies – have been operating here in the Zone all this time in secret, are responsible for creating the mutants who attacked us, and are now hell-bent on taking over the world using the Zone as the epicenter of their conquest?”
“In a nutshell… that’s exactly what I’m saying, General.” Lukash says, standing up tall with a loot that insisted upon immediate action from the General.
Voronin smiles and responds, “And I suppose you have the evidence to back up everything you’ve just told me?”
“Actually… I might be able to help you with that.” A voice chimes in from a radio near the front of the room. The familiar voice of the scientist Sakharov comes in over the static. A light knock sounds at the door and Virtue appears in the room just as Sakharov continues.
“Gremlin’s group has been very successful in their mission, and I’ve gone over the files they returned enough that I believe I have a pretty clear idea of what’s going on here.”
“Please continue.” Voronin says as he sits down at the head of the table across from Lukash, staring intensely at him.
“Yes… well, it would appear that everything Lukash has said is, in fact, all here on these documents. The files I have here detail ongoing experimentation on humans in the hopes of eventually deciphering and controlling the mind. It appears that the experiment was a great success, and from there the step towards physical mutation was taken in an effort to create a perfect, controllable ‘soldier’. Though in all actuality it would seem that the ultimate goal was to break a man to the point of being more of a pet than a person.”
“I see…” Voronin says, keeping his eyes focused on Lukash, who returns it with a confident look. “And what, in your opinion professor, would the Soviets have done with this army?”
“No disrespect General, but I believe the answer is fairly evident.” The scientist replies.
“Very well. Thank you Sakharov – please send to me any information you can for my own personal review.”
“Yes, yes – I will send it all when I can.”
“Thank you professor, Voronin out.” Before the General can reach over to flip off the radio Sakharov speaks again,
“Wait! One moment please General, I must speak with Gremlin’s group… privately.”
Voronin raises an eyebrow as warning sirens blare inside his head.
“Uh… concerning what, professor?”
“Please… it is a private matter. A dear friend of mine went with them to the center and I have not heard from him in some time, I just want to know if he is OK.”
Voronin looks to Gremlin in confusion.
“I’m sorry Sakharov, Jargon didn’t make it.” Gremlin says, bowing his head slowly as the pain of both of his fallen friends returns to him.
The static spikes a little as Sakharov sighs over the radio. “I feared that was the case when I got no response from his PDA. I would very much like to know how he died… it might bring some peace to me as I mourn him.”
Gremlin looks helplessly at Voronin, and shrugs his shoulders.
General Voronin sighs as he stands. “Very well… you have one minute.” He holds up a finger for emphasis. “But if there is anything… and I mean anything out of place when we return, I am placing you all under arrest.”
“You have my word, General, as your guests we will remain respectful of your hospitality.” Lukash assures him.
“I would hope that you do.” Voronin responds as he motions for all Dutyers in the room to exit. He closes the door behind him, not daring to break eye contact with Lukash until the moment the door closes.
Gremlin walks over to the radio and speaks in a quiet tone, “We’re alone Sakharov. What is it?”
Sakharov begins to speak but cuts himself short and asks, “Is what you said about Jargon true? Is he dead?”
“Yes… I’m sorry. But we’ve only got about a minute so say what you need to say quickly.”
“Yes… right, business first.” He clears his throat and continues, “You’ve provided a few pieces of the puzzle but I believe we need more before we can hope to attain any sort of goal with this. Every Stalker in the Zone has their own reasons for being here and would kill to know more about what they’re dealing with, whether for financial gain, scientific research, weaponry, or revenge.”
“I think I see where you’re going with this, professor.” Gremlin butts in. “You want more information, and you need a team to get it for you.”
“Well… yes. That is exactly what I need. I refrained from saying anything in front of Duty for fear that they would use the information to their own gain. While I respect them and their cause, out of sympathy for… my old friend and our business relationships in the past I decided to give it to you and your team exclusively.”
Gremlin smiles, a playful light dances in his eyes as he imagines what solving the puzzle of the Zone’s existence could mean for those who knew about it. It would be a treasure map for those seeking riches, a golden age for the scientific community, and a tactical advantage for Freedom. He looks back at the other Stalkers with a mischievous grin on his face.
“The man needs a team… what do you say gentlemen?”
The Stalkers whisper and smile amongst themselves, excited at the opportunity to take on one what could be one of the most profitable missions ever possible in the Zone. All except for Virtue.
“Virtue… what’s wrong man?” Nimbus asks as he notices the discouraged look on his face.
Thoughts swim in Virtue’s head as he remembers what C-Consciousness told him. Before that revelation, he knew who he was and what he was fighting for. Now nothing was certain. He had found his friends at long last, and though he was thrilled to see them it wasn’t the same for him. He was empty inside… but Enigma had been filling that void in the time since. He still didn’t know how she was doing it, but she was – and if he didn’t take the time to figure out what she was filling him with there would be no room left for him in his own soul.
“I can’t leave Enigma behind. She’s in no condition to go, and I need to be with her.”
Reaper shakes his head and lets out a puff of air. “You are as whipped as they come, lad.”
“That’s not it at all!” Virtue blurts out harshly to the Stalkers’ surprise.
“Virtue… buddy.” Nimbus begins as he stands next to him. “You spared my life, and for that I owe it to you. I will go where you go no questions asked… but I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation here.”
“You don’t understand the gravity of mine. None of you do.”
“What do you mean?” Gremlin asks.
Virtue plants his hands on the table and closes his eyes as his thoughts threaten to break out of his skull. “I don’t know what I mean. I’ve been trying to figure it out for days now.”
Gremlin stands across the table from Virtue and mimics his stance, “Something happened in that hellhole you’re not telling us… didn’t it?”
Virtue is silent. An insistent knock sounds on the door followed by General Voronin’s voice.
“Your time is up, we’re coming in.”
“Come to Yantar.” Sakharov says quickly before ending the transmission.
General Voronin and the other Dutyers who had been in the room previously filter back into the room quickly. They stand around the table as the General stands next to his chair at the head of the table. He glances around the room suspiciously, eyeing each Stalker individually for any sign that they may be hiding something.
“I trust the professor was satisfied with the account of his friend’s death?”
“Yes.” Lukash says. “He ended the transmission a few seconds ago. No doubt he’s mourning him as we speak.”
The General retains eye contact for a few moments then sinks slowly down into his chair.
“Indeed. Now… we will wait for the professor’s documents to reach us before we decide to take any course of action. You are all free to do what you will around the Bar. But if you start any trouble do not expect us to be forgiving. We will meet back here in the morning as soon as the sun rises.”
“Agreed.” Lukash says as he stands to leave. “Thank you for your kindness, General. It will not be forgotten.”
“I can only hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me…” he says, clasping his hands together on the table in front of him. “It would be unfortunate to have to send you on your way back to your own territory in the state that it’s in… especially after losing so many men.”
Lukash forced a smile as rage built up inside of him. The General had every right to mistrust him, even more so after the conversation they had just had with Sakharov, but it didn’t make the words any more soothing to his ears. As he walked towards the door, the other Stalkers got up to follow him, leaving the Dutyers to talk behind their backs all they wanted. Once back outside the building, the Stalkers gathered around him in a circle.
“Well… I think that went pretty well all things considered.” Lukash says.
“Yeah, I’m not too sure about that last comment but that’s not my arena anymore.” Gremlin says, shifting his gaze to the sky above.
“So when are you taking off?” Lukash asks.
“I think the best idea would be to head out before sunrise so we don’t get tangled up in politics. Plus I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep tonight anyway so we might as well not waste too much time.”
“I’m sorry about Phantom.” Lukash says as he puts his arm around Gremlin. “I know he was like a brother to you, and he died needlessly. But I think, in the end, he found the peace he was looking for.”
“Yeah thanks.” Gremlin says hurriedly and brushes Lukash’s arm away. “I’m gonna check on the camp, see you later.”
Lukash sighs as Gremlin walks away briskly, doing a terrible job at hiding the tears welling up in his eyes.
“I can’t imagine what he would have done to me if I had actually managed to kill Phantom myself that day.” Solitaire says, remembering his assignment to infiltrate Freedom and kill Gremlin and Phantom, his second in command – a plan that had ultimately failed due to Phantom’s intervention.
“Time is a healer.” Zombie says as though it were written right in front of him. “His wound will heal.”
“Well there it is; Doc says he’ll live so it must be so!” Reaper says with a sarcastic laugh.
“I need to get back to the camp. I know I can only order Solitaire around so I’m ordering you to take the rest of the day off… but I think you all could use the break.”
“Yes sir.” Solitaire says with a salute and a smile.
Lukash leaves in the direction of Freedom’s temporary base, leaving the Stalkers alone. They look among themselves seemingly for the first time. It’s a borderline awkward feeling being in each other’s presence while out of immediate danger for the first time since they met.
“Well… I think I’m gonna head off the 100 Rads. You guys coming?” Solitaire invites them with a wave of his hand.
“You bet yer arse! I could sure use a pint after the shit-storm I’ve just been though.” Reaper says as he joins him.
“I’ll take that offer.” Nimbus says. Zombie says nothing but joins Solitaire’s side with the others. Solitaire looks at Virtue with concern on his face.
“No. I need to check up on Enigma. Maybe later.”
Now all of them have the same look of concern on their faces. He forces a smile as he waits for them to turn and head off without him.
“If you change your mind, you know where we’ll be.” Solitaire says as the group departs.
Virtue watches them walk down the road without them. Nimbus sneaks a look back at him as they round a corner and continue through the warehouse the leads to the 100 Rads bar. Virtue sighs and walks down the same road, turning the opposite way towards the warehouse where Freedom is taking refuge. Before he can enter he notices Gremlin walking along the road leading out of the Bar; the same one he came in on. Curious, he decides to follow him. He passes by the door guards who part as he walks past them without a word. They watch him curiously as he continues down the road a little ways, then branches off into a small flowery meadow. As Virtue passes by the same guards one of them speaks quietly behind him,
“If you’re looking to off that guy I’d be careful, he looks pretty pissed off.”
“I’m not.” Virtue says without looking behind him.
He can see the meadow clearly as the evening sun filters through the trees nearby. The orange light shines through the translucent petals of the flowers as they dance in the breeze, painting a colorful picture on the grass canvas beneath them. A small cluster of makeshift crosses pop out on the top of a small hill, decorated with beat-up old gear, gas masks, and weapons. He watches as Gremlin falls to his knees, then takes a small item out of a pouch in his suit and places it on the ground in front of one of the crosses. He reaches over to pluck a flower from the ground and places it next to the item then becomes still.
Virtue approaches him cautiously to prevent startling him and stands beside him just out of his view. Gremlin doesn’t react right away as he bows his head slowly, but then reaches for his sidearm, drawing it and pointing it directly between Virtue’s eyes in less than a second. Virtue freezes as Gremlin stares back at him, anger and sadness bleeding through his wet, red eyes.
“Oh… Virtue. It’s only you.” He says as he quickly turns away, placing the pistol back in its holster.
Virtue looks at the item on the ground as Gremlin picks it up.
“He gave this to me a little while after I first met him and told me the story of his family. He said I should hold onto it in case we ever tried to go find them. Now that they’re all dead it only makes sense that they should be buried together. I can only hope that wherever they are now, they’re together and happy at last.”
His hand shakes as he places the photograph back at the base of the cross and plants his head at the base of the cross, gritting his teeth as the wall holding back his anguish breaks at last and he begins to weep. Virtue puts his hand on his back in support as his own emotions begin to overpower him. Gremlin continues to shake violently under him as he pounds the ground in front of him.
“You were my best friend you son of a bitch! How could you do this to me!? Why?!”
Gremlin shifts his body in Virtue’s direction and squeezes as hard as he can. Virtue falls to his knees as Gremlin continues to squeeze the air out of his lungs, but the emotional pain quickly overcomes the physical as his hand subconsciously drifts towards a special compartment in his backpack. He had almost forgotten he had brought it with him, but at this moment there was nothing more prevalent in his mind. He grunts painfully as Gremlin squeezes again. Gremlin eases his grip and looks up at him.
“Sorry… I’m sorry.”
“I understand.” Virtue says as he eyes the photograph in his hands.
“W… what’s that?” Gremlin says between sobs.
“My family. What used to be my family…” he says as his own tears begin to fall.
Virtue presents the photograph to Gremlin who takes it from him and analyzes it through his cloudy eyes.
“This is the day your son was born – isn’t it?”
“Yes. I delivered him myself. It was the happiest day of my life.”
Gremlin smiles sympathetically and puts his hand on his Virtue’s shoulder, “We’ve both lost family then.”
“Something like that…” Virtue trails off.
“Virtue… when are you gonna come clean? Something is bothering you.”
“I… don’t want to talk about it.” Virtue says, turning away from him.
“Listen,” Gremlin begins. “I’ve known you for a little over a week or so and I’ve seen you go from a rookie to where you are now. You’re a skilled Stalker and one of the best human beings I’ve ever known – if anyone deserves to get what they’re looking for it’s you. Your family is dead and yet you’re still here… why?”
“I had to make sure you all made it.” Virtue says.
“There’s more to it than that. Is it Enigma? You two have really been hitting it off lately, almost like you were soul mates or something.”
“I don’t know… but that’s something I want to figure out.” Virtue sighs. “I wish I could tell you more, but I honestly don’t really know what I would say. Life as I know it has been turned upside down and I’m trying to figure out where to go from here.”
Gremlin looks up at the sky, deep in thought. “I think I understand… and I will do whatever I can to help you find what you’re looking for.” He laughs as more tears begin to fall.
“What’s funny?” Virtue asks.
“It’s just that I said those exact words to Phantom the day he told me about his missing family. I just understood him from the moment I met him like I had known him all my life. So from that moment, like a big brother, I made it my job watch over him.” He scans Virtue carefully, wiping away the tear lines on his face. “You two aren’t too different, you know. It would be an honor to help you find the answers you’re looking for. We all will.”
With those few words, Virtue can feel the void in him fill a little more. There was no doubt in his mind now that the Stalkers he had come to call friends would truly be there for him until the end. He would have his answers, and they would fight and die for him if that’s what it took.
He looks at the photograph of him holding his newborn son in his hands and Emelia; exhausted but smiling in the background. As he holds the picture up to the light he can make out subtle writing on the back that he had passed off as mere smudges before.
Property of X17
He blurts out a laugh, smiling as he places the photo next to Gremlin’s at the base of the cross. That was all the proof he needed to finally leave the person he was behind and attempt to discover the new person one piece at a time.
“And it would be an honor to be a part of your team and help you accomplish yours.” Virtue says as the two stand together, drying their eyes. Gremlin smiles, giving Virtue a firm pat on the back as he exhales a deep breath that had needed to come out for a while.
“I don’t know about you, but I think it’s high time we left the dead to lie and do what we can for the living.”
“Agreed.” Virtue says as he turns to follow Gremlin back towards the Bar.
“Oh, and one more thing…” Gremlin whispers into Virtue’s ear. “If you tell anyone you saw me running like a faucet, I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
A smile creeps up Virtue’s face as he imagines the consequences of such a situation.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”
Virtue and Gremlin walked into the 100 Rads bar as the rest of the team waved them over to a table near the back. As Virtue crossed the room, Barkeep waves him over.
“Hey! Virtue! Come here man, I’ve got something for you.”
Virtue approaches the bar curiously as Barkeep leans in to talk to him privately.
“Hey, I heard about your little scuffle with Smartass, and I just wanted to say that he’s been kicked out of the bar permanently. He’s been grating my last nerve for some time now and I’m about one bad piece of news away from putting a hit on his head. So with that said, you and your friends drink free tonight and I will give you a discount on any supplies you might need for the road ahead of you.”
Virtue looks over at his friends, drinking and reliving the adventure so far in excited tones.
“I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to know. Thank you.”
Barkeep grunts a protest before he can turn to leave and motions him close again.
“Hey, I don’t say this to many Stalkers but I think you’re an OK guy. Wish there was more like you in the Zone. If you ever need some asshole like that one offed or anything else just let me know and I’ll see what I can do.”
Virtue nods and accepts a bottle of vodka that seemingly appears in Barkeep’s hands and is extended to him. The Stalkers welcome him with open arms as he takes a seat around the table, bombarding him with questions and boasting of their successes. He joins in, feeling good as the vodka courses through him. They stay for the majority of the night, eventually staggering back to Freedom’s warehouse and crashing in their own drunken piles within. Except for Virtue, who spends another hour or so next to Enigma, watching her sleep peacefully.
I know you can’t hear me, but I’m coming back for you. He promises as he looks at her pale skin illuminated in the moonlight. No matter what.
With that, he leaves to find his own place to rest his weary mind and body, eventually finding a suitable vacant sleeping bag and curling up for the night. He tosses and turns, but after the hell of the last few days it’s the best rest he could have ever hoped to have.