October 19, 2010

Chapter 8: It's a Wilder World


Virtue can feel his heart beating over the sounds of the shouting and screams behind him as he runs. He doesn’t dare look behind him, choosing instead to run down the dark, endless halls in no particular direction – besides the one he came from. He hardly even remembers what he’s running for or why, but he does know that his life is at stake. As he twists and turns around corners he begins to panic as the voices become louder and louder.
“Virtue… you are one of us… you cannot escape your destiny.”
“No! I’m never going back!” he yells as his voice echoes through the halls, reverberating and coming back at him in a high-pitched whine. He screams as the sound threatens to shatter his eardrums. He falls on the ground, covering his ears in pain.
“Stop it! STOP IT!” he begs. He looks up in desperation to find himself looking into a mirror. His reflection stares back at him with the same desperate look in its eyes. The sound stops suddenly as he stands to his feet, analyzing the reflection in the mirror closely. A wall of flame burns in the hallway behind him, slowly creeping around the edges of the hallway. He spins around to find nothing but blackness behind him. Cautiously, he turns back towards the mirror. He freezes as his reflection walks up the very edge of the mirror and reaches slowly towards him. He backs away in horror as the flames continue to creep up behind the reflection in the horror. It begins pounding on the glass, but no sound comes from it. Slowly, the flames engulf his reflection. Almost immediately afterwards, pain shoots through his own body and he cries out in agony,
“Why are you doing this?! What do you want with me?!”
“We need you, Virtue. You complete us.”
“I said no! I won’t be a part of this!” He writhes in pain as the flames continue to engulf him.
“Then the world will burn with you…” the voice echoes through his head as a large explosion shakes the hallway violently. A burst of searing flame travels down the hallway and through his body, consuming him in a flash of light.
 He sits up violently, wiping the sweat from his forehead as he quickly scans his appendages for any sign of the flame that had engulfed him moments ago.
Another nightmare. He shakes his head as he looks around the room at the Freedomers busily moving about the warehouse. He checks his PDA for the time. 5:25. Close enough to sunrise. He decides as he rubs the sleep from his eyes and crawls out of the sleeping bag. He glances at the table near the center of the warehouse to see Gremlin, Lukash, and a few other Freedomers in the middle of a discussion. Curiously, he walks over to the table to get in ear-range.
“There are too many labs to search!” Gremlin protests. “Besides, it’s too dangerous.”
“Not if we work with Duty.” Lukash says calmly. “As much as I hate the idea it’s the best shot we’ve got.”
“I know… but what if they decide to start shooting while we’re all split up? Then we’re fucked.”
“We’ve got just as much of a chance as they do if we ensure that it’s an even ratio of Duty to Freedom. They need us and they know it. Besides… we’ve still got the asset.”
“I know, I know… and it’s your decision, I just don’t like it.” Gremlin says, rubbing the stress out of his eyes.
“Let’s forget about that for a moment and discuss which labs have priority.” Lukash changes the subject.
“Hell if I know!” Gremlin says with disgust. “There’s at least six or so that we know of and a lot of missing number between them; eight, sixteen, eighteen, nineteen…”
“Seventeen.” Virtue adds from the background.
The Freedomers turn to discover who the mysterious voice belongs to.
“Oh Virtue… we didn’t see you there.” Lukash says, returning his gaze to the table.
“I don’t mean to intrude…”
“Nonsense, this involves you just as much as everyone else.” Gremlin says, then crosses his arms and asks, “Seventeen?”
“Yeah… another one I heard about.” He replies.
“I’ve never heard of it.” Lukash says.
“Me neither.” Says Gremlin.
“Do you know where it is?” Lukash asks.
“No.” Virtue responds.
“How did you hear about it?” Gremlin asks.
“I saw mention of it in Chernobyl after we split up...” he says uneasily, not wanting to reveal the fake photograph of his family planted by C-Consciousness.
“Maybe Sakharov has information on it.” Gremlin says. “We can ask him when we get there.”
“OK.” Lukash says. “So the plan is, we work with Duty to raid every known lab in the Zone and find any information we can relating to the Military’s experiments and attempt to find the cause of the mutants change in attitude and the best way to calm them.  I will remain here with a squad of soldiers and coordinate our efforts with Duty.”
“That squad should be with you at all times.” Gremlin insists.
“I doubt Duty will allow me anything more than a few bodyguards but I will do what I can.” Lukash assures him.
“Fair enough, I’ll wake the boys in a little while and then we’ll make for Yantar to see what Sakharov wants.”
“Very well.” Lukash says as Gremlin walks away from the table. As he approaches Virtue, Lukash follows in his footsteps, coming up beside him.
“Gremlin…” he begins.
“Was there something else?” Gremlin asks.
Lukash scans the floor for the words to say. “I just wanted to say that it’s been an honor knowing you and serving under you. Whatever happens, I just wanted you to know that. Good luck in your travels.” He says, extending him his hand. Gremlin gives it a firm shake, reaching his other hand around and clasping the other side of Lukash’s hand.
“Just promise me you’ll keep these kids in line.” He says as he points a thumb at the Freedomers behind him and smiles.
“I promise.” Lukash says, giving Gremlin’s arm one more pump before turning to Virtue and extending the handshake to him as well.
“Keep an eye on my friend, and be careful out there.”
“I think he’ll be the one keeping me out of trouble.” Virtue says, giving Gremlin a knowing look.
“Very true. Farewell, Stalkers.” Lukash says and returns to the table to plot Freedom’s next move.
“He’ll do fine… I just hope Duty doesn’t try to pull anything on him. I’ve seen the tricks they play.” Gremlin says as he watches Lukash coordinate with his officers.
“I wasn’t planning on waking the team for a few more minutes – maybe you should say goodbye to your woman.” He suggests, nodding towards the makeshift hospital against the far wall.
“Good idea.” Virtue concurs. “I’ll be back in a few.”
“I’ll be over at Rads, doing one last supply run.” Gremlin says, then nods and retreats from the warehouse.
Virtue quickly heads for the back of the warehouse and enters Enigma’s segregated room. His heart jumps suddenly when he finds she isn’t there. He looks around the bed for her helmet, suit, or any other personal belongings, but finds nothing. He exits the room frantically, scanning the cots along the wall for any sign of her. He looks around for anyone up and about, spotting one Stalker leaning over one of the cots and typing something on his PDA.
“Hey – where is the Stalker who was in that room?” he asks.
“I didn’t see anybody leave. She was in no condition to go – are you sure she’s gone?”
“Yes, I just looked.” Virtue says worriedly.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know – but if you find her tell her to get back in that bed immediately.”
Virtue leaves the room, scanning the warehouse for any sign of her. Seeing none, he decides to head outside and look around the building. He jogs the building’s perimeter, eventually coming back to the entrance without any luck.
Maybe Gremlin saw something. Virtue thinks as he runs towards the 100 Rads bar. He follows the road to the small warehouse with the sign and arrow pointing through the door and follows it out the side of the warehouse to the entrance of the bar. He heads down the stairs, ignoring the curious stares of early-rising Stalkers as he scans the room for Gremlin.
“Good morning sunshine.” A synthesized voice says from somewhere behind him. He turns to find Enigma leaning in a doorway near the bar with her suit and face shield fully repaired.
“Are you absolutely sure you’re OK to go? I won’t refuse another skilled gun but I don’t think it’s a good idea or what Virtue will-“Gremlin stops his sentence short as he approaches from an unseen room behind her.
“Speak of the devil…” he says as he looks from Virtue to Enigma curiously.
“What in the hell are you doing out of your bed?” Virtue demands.
“I’m getting ready for the mission.” Enigma replies.
“Like hell you are, you’re in no condition-“
“Look, buddy.” She says in a threatening tone, most likely a stage performance for the Stalkers around them. “You can try to stop me if you want but I promise it will end with me feeding you your own balls.
Some of the Stalkers in earshot snicker under their breaths, even Gremlin looks at the floor to conceal a grin on his face.
Virtue sighs, holding up his hands in resignation. “Fine, I know when to back down.”
“Damn right.” She says, bumping into him hard as she brushes past him. As she does he can make out a subtle girly giggle meant only for him. She watches his reaction as she leans over the bar and flags down Barkeep.
Virtue looks back at Gremlin who quickly glances back down at the floor. He looks up again as Virtue stares, obviously trying hard to keep the grin from reappearing on his face.
“What?”
Virtue shakes his head in mock shame and turns and walks over to Enigma, stopping beside her and copying her stance as Barkeep leaves the counter for a moment.
“I’ve never understood you rebellious types.” Virtue whispers to her.
“And I’ve never understood you nice guys.” She whispers back.
“I don’t think what you’re doing is a smart idea.” He says.
“I’m fine.” She protests. “The last thing I want to do is let a little pain stand in the way when people need me. I didn’t do it when my husband asked me to come with him to the Zone and I’m not going to do it now.
“What do you mean?” Virtue asks.
“Don’t worry about it.” She responds. “The point is, I’m going because you need me… and I need you.”
Virtue gazes deep into the visor hiding her from the outside world but can get no read of the emotions on her face. He allows a smile to cross his lips at those last few words.
“Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment.”
“If I allowed that I wouldn’t have survived two years alone in agony.” She says, turning away from him.
“I’m sorry.” He says, moving closer to her. She turns back towards him as his hand slowly creeps towards hers. She opens her fingers to allow his to intersect hers.
“Here you are! I believe this is what you’re looking for.” Barkeep says as he appears in front of them suddenly.
“Yes… thank you Barkeep.” Enigma says quickly, caught off guard.
“Ah… Virtue!” he says, opening his arms in acknowledgement of his presence. “What can I do for you this fine morning?”
“Oh, uh…” Virtue stutters as he slowly retracts his hand from Enigma’s. “Um… do you have anything that’ll wake me up?”
Barkeep snickers as he turns to the back counter and selects a canned drink of some sort, plopping it down in front of Virtue. The can has been stripped of its original label, and instead has the word S.T.A.L.K.E.R. painted on the aluminum surface in black. Virtue picks up the can suspiciously, looking for a contents label or anything that might tip him off to the contents inside.
“I don’t know what’s in it,” Barkeep says after reading the look on his face. “But I know that the boys love it. It’ll keep you going for hours with no known side-effects. Perfect for long missions.”
Virtue opens the can and takes a sip of the mysterious fluid. He cringes as swallows the harsh liquid, coughing and sputtering as it goes down.
“What the hell is this… gasoline!?” Virtue says in-between coughs.
“Take another swig, give it a chance.” Barkeep suggests, pointing at the can in Virtue’s hands.
Virtue closes his eyes and takes several big gulps of the fluid, slamming the can down and gagging; fighting to keep it in. He grips the bar hard and holds on for dear life as his muscles begin to tense up. He looks up suddenly with a look of surprise on his face.
“Whoa…” is all he can think to say as Barkeep nods his head in approval.
“Told ya.”
Enigma laughs a hearty laugh beside him.
Virtue looks behind Barkeep to see a shelf full of similar-looking cans.
“How much for all of them?” he says, pointing at the shelf.
“With your discount and because I like you, I’ll let you have them all for a hundred.”
“Sold.” Virtue says eagerly as he plops the Rubles down on the counter, taking off his backpack and setting it down on the counter in front of Barkeep. Barkeep scoops the cans off the shelf and places them strategically in Virtue’s backpack.
“There you go, man – that shit’ll keep you up for days.” He chuckles, handing the backpack back to Virtue who returns it to his back.
“Well… we should be heading out now.” He says as he turns to Enigma.
“Absolutely.” She agrees and waits for him to make his move.
“Good luck on your travels Stalkers.” Barkeep says with a wave. “Try not to get killed too bad, eh?” he jokes as he turns to busy himself with other customers. With that, Virtue heads for the door. Gremlin is waiting in a corner silently staring off into space. He snaps back to reality as they approach.
“We’re ready to get this show on the road.” Virtue announces confidentially.
“Then let’s not waste any time and get to it.” Gremlin says with a smile as he stands up straight. “I’ll go wake the others.”

*

The Stalkers make their final preparations and leave the Bar behind them, bound once more for the Wild Territory, due west. The sky is still a deep blue, though the sun is peeking slowly over the abandoned buildings to the east.
Virtue remembers the first time he passed through the Wild Territory, bound for Yantar. He was just a rookie then, and had spent most of the journey in a heightened state of nervousness as the dark buildings around him glared back ominously. He had imagined all sorts of mysterious, deadly mutants mere seconds from popping out and killing him – but not before scaring the living shit out of him first. This time was no different.
Though with his acquired skills and new equipment he would stand a better chance it wouldn’t really affect anything if he was forced to go toe-to-toe with a mutant. He lacked the skills and knowledge necessary to do any more than simply aim and fire, unlike the other Stalkers. He was the greenest of them all, and now that he once again found himself heading into the unknown it bothered him – more so now as the Zone’s creepy post-morning ambience played a symphony around him.
“Don’t all those noises out there creep you out?” he offers a general question, trying not to let the quiver in his voice betray his fear.
Solitaire sighs with relief, “I’m glad I’m not the only one creeped out by it, I would have felt like a pussy saying something.”
“I still haven’t gotten used to it…” Nimbus contributes.
“It’s just a part of the Zone you learn to get used to with time.” Gremlin says from the front of the group.
“You think that’s bad, you should hear the shit that comes out of the Red Forest.” Reaper adds. “Most nights I can sleep like a log, but on those nights I’m all out of the drink I can’t sleep a wink.”
“When the Zone chooses to sing it is polite to listen.” Zombie says in his usual, cryptic manner.
Virtue looks over at Enigma beside him, who remains quiet. She catches him looking at her and responds. “It was always quiet in Limansk. Sometimes I thought I could hear other people but I just ruled it out as insanity due to isolation.”
Virtue nods, refraining from asking anymore as her eyes become vacant.
He listens to the sounds carried by the wind: the rustle of leaves in trees and bushes, the creaking of the old buildings around him… but no early-morning birds. He can hear plenty of other animal sounds, though they all sound distant and unfriendly. Then, clear as day he hears a single gunshot. Then several more.
“Wait.” Gremlin says, holding up his hand and balling it into a fist. Automatic weapon fire begins to go off as the roar of some unknown mutant reflects of the row of buildings on either side of them. As the sound passes through them, several other growls and hisses come from close by.
Gremlin motions everyone down and quickly scans the dark buildings around them. He flicks on his headlamp to see further back into the building closest to them. Inside, about a room away from the front of the building, previously out of sight in the dark, is a nest of Bloodsuckers. Nearly a dozen or so of them twitch as their upright slumber is suddenly interrupted. Several eyes reflect Gremlin’s light back at him as they slowly open.
“Everybody… move very quietly away. Follow me.” He takes great care in silencing his footsteps as he walks away, pointing out anything ahead of them that could be a potential threat to their sneaky retreat. The gunshots continue somewhere ahead of them and the voices of Stalkers can be heard shouting orders back and forth to each other.
They manage to sneak past a few buildings before a sheet-metal fence in front of them comes crashing down and a two-headed beast comes bounding towards them.
“SHIT! FIRE!” Gremlin yells as he un-slings his rifle and begins firing at the monster in front of him.
The mutant, which Virtue recalls as Chimera, runs around them with incredible speed looking like a bear on steroids but with agility like a cougar. Before most of them can react it’s already behind them, slowing to turn and face them head-on.
“Scatter!” Gremlin yells as he motions them all out of the way. As they do, he unleashes another stream of bullets directly at the charging beast. It roars like a lion as it hurls itself at him, soaring through the air like a missile. Gremlin throws himself to the ground at the last possible moment, barely avoiding being knocked to the ground and torn to shreds by the massive claws on the beast’s front and back paws.
Suddenly, several hisses and shrieks come from the buildings around them as the Bloodsuckers within awaken.
“We’ve got a problem here, gents!” Reaper announces as he backs away from a building quickly.
“This is a cluster-fuck… we need to get out of here!” Solitaire concludes as he fires several busts of bullets into a nearby building and takes off running.
Gremlin looks around frantically as the Chimera scampers back around for another pass at him.
“Through the hole it made; it’s our best bet!” he yells, backing up to the brick wall attached to the section of fence that now lay on the ground. He braces himself against it as the Chimera charges again, the lunges at him. Gremlin quickly rolls to the side as the Chimera flies past him, colliding with the brick wall with a loud crash. The Chimera shifts its head around to find its vanished prey, twisting its head in such a way that it manages to lodge it in the hole it just created.
“Come on, hurry!” Gremlin yells as he runs over the collapsed fence. The Stalkers comply immediately, running for their lives as several dark blurs close in on them quickly from behind.
Gremlin quickly surveys the area ahead of them. Most of it is open road and loading areas between warehouses. He spies a ladder leading up to the second story of a warehouse nearby and runs for it as fast as he can. The other Stalkers filter through the fence behind him, following after him as he begins to climb the ladder. He can hear static on his radio as he reaches the top of the ladder, but ignores it in favor of more pressing concerns.
Nimbus comes up the ladder second, followed by Reaper. Once they’re safe Gremlin tells them to fire as the other Stalkers make their way up the ladder. As their bullets meet the dark forms below them, blood and angry shrieks begin to fly.
Solitaire makes it to the top next, yelling, “Fire in the hole!” as he lobs a grenade into the path of the Bloodsuckers. A few seconds later it explodes, sending one of them flying and severely injuring a few around it.
“Use ‘em if you get ‘em!” Gremlin yells as he props a foot up on the railing of the covered balcony and moves his finger to the weapon’s alternate trigger. Quickly, he takes a grenade from his belt and loads it into the grenade launcher, then fires it at the largest concentrations of dark blobs. Three more go flying as the grenade nails one head-on, sending it and two unfortunate enough to be danger-close to their deaths.
Enigma tries not to show her strain as she attempts to catch her breath at the top of the ladder.
“They’re not gonna make it…” Enigma says, indicating Zombie and Virtue who are quickly finding themselves cut off from the group by the Bloodsuckers. “We should hit the ones in front of them with grenades and fire at the ones-“
A loud shot echoes through the area, followed by several more. Several Bloodsuckers near Virtue and Zombie flop to the ground suddenly like rag dolls.
“What the hell…” Gremlin says as he looks for the source of the shots. Virtue makes it to the ladder first and climbs it with the speed of a monkey in a tree while Zombie holds at the bottom a few more seconds, firing into the crowd before climbing even faster behind him. The two race for the top as they hiss and claw at the ladder rungs beneath them.
“Holy shit…” Virtue shakes his head in astonishment as he catches his breath. “That was some damn fine shooting guys.”
“That it was,” Solitaire nods. “Except it wasn’t us… there’s snipers out there somewhere, judging from the power of those shots.”
“Oh?” Virtue pants. “Who could it have been?”
“I’ve got some theories…” Gremlin says as he squints at the windows and rooftops of the buildings opposite of them for any sign of their saviors. The radio on his PDA begins to crackle again, so he pulls it out of a pouch on his suit and fiddles with it for a few seconds as a voice begins to come in clearer over it,
“Repeat: to whomever’s asses we just saved, please acknowledge us.”
Gremlin cues the radio and responds, “We acknowledge and we thank you for the help. Who are you guys?”
“Just your friendly neighborhood Mercs.” The voice on the other end responds. “It looks like you came from the Bar – we need some information from you.”
Mercs were generally neutral to other Stalkers, typically more involved with the next best way to get rich then the affairs of Stalkers. Since they rarely explored the Zone like other Stalkers it was thought they had a base of operations somewhere in the area, but its location was one of their most well-kept secrets.
“That’s correct,” Gremlin confirms his statement. “What do you need to know?”
“Where the hell all these damned mutants came from!” the voice responds angrily. “They’re seriously fucking up our ability to operate here!”
“It’s happening all over the Zone.” Gremlin replies.
The voice on the other end pauses for a moment then comes back, “We need to have a little chat. Let’s meet inside the building you’re currently near.”
“OK…” Gremlin replies, defenseless.
“Out.”
“What happens now?” Solitaire asks.
“I’m not sure,” Gremlin begins. “They might let us pass through, they might help us, or they might kill us. I’ll just tell them the truth and hope that they find it in their interests to let us go. Otherwise we’re screwed.”
“Awesome.” Nimbus contributes.
“With those snipers up there, running would be suicide.” Solitaire agrees with Gremlin.
“We’ll just have to use our overwhelming charm to convince the blokes we’re not worth the trouble.” Reaper suggests hopefully.
Gremlin finds a door leading the inside of the building to a catwalk lining the upper level. He leads the group down a metal staircase as a group of Mercenaries comes in on the opposite side. The Mercs are all clad in their standard blue suits with body armor and custom upgrades, all with their own specialized weapon loadouts complete with tasteful decals. They line the catwalks, all except for two of them who continue down the stairs as another Merc in an Exosuit comes in and followed behind them. The three of them along with Gremlin’s team stand a few feet apart as the Merc in the Exosuit speaks to them through the suit’s filtration system.
“Thank you for coming. Most would have tried to run and met an undesirable end.”
“We know when we’re outgunned. Besides, nobody has the time to just sit down and talk these days it seems.” Gremlin responds.
The Merc chuckles back at him, “True enough. I am Hook, and this is my team. We came here from a small town west of here which doesn’t have a name. We’ve been operating there for a while now, never threatened by anything until now. You said this mutant problem is happening all over the Zone? Please explain.”
“There’s not much to tell,” Gremlin begins. “The Military is up to their usual tricks and pissed off the local wildlife.”
Hook points at the patch on Gremlin’s suit. “I see that you are affiliated with Freedom-“
“Was.” Gremlin interrupts. “I just recently got out of it. After my best friend died I decided to go my own way.”
“Ah… I see,” Hook continues. “Nevertheless, I would expect such claims from a Freedomer - present or former.”
“He speaks the truth.” Reaper chimes in. “They captured us all and even strapped me to a machine and fucked with my brains a little.”
“Where were you captured?” Hook inquires.
“Chernobyl…” Gremlin hesitates as the words leave his lips.
“Chernobyl?!” Hook exclaims and laughs deeply. “Nobody can get to the center! You expect me to believe that?”
“Well, I was hoping that you’d understand how outlandish my claim would be and know that I wouldn’t be stupid enough to make something like that up.”
“You got the outlandish part right… I’m still deciding whether or not you’re stupid enough to make something like that up.” Hook says.
“We’ve been there and seen it with our own eyes.” Virtue says. “The Military had a lab and a base of operations there where they kept ongoing experiments on humans. We destroyed their facilities, which caused them to lose control of the mutants there. They all died trying to escape and we barely made it ourselves. They’ve been spreading out form the center on a rampage ever since.”
Hook crosses his arms as he thinks. A few moments later he speaks again.
“I thought there was something a little peculiar about their behavior… it didn’t seem like their normal territorial attacks.” He ponders the claim a bit more. “So pretend for a moment that I believe you; what are all of you doing out here alone?”
“Whatever we can to stop them and prevent the Military from ever doing anything like this ever again.” Gremlin says confidentially.
“I see…” Hook responds. “Then it seems, in a small way, our paths are aligned for the moment. But that doesn’t quite answer my question.”
“In all honesty, we’re not quite sure. We’re going off a rumor of an underground lab that may contain some of the information we seek.” Gremlin says. “The best way you can help is head to the Bar and speak to Lukash, the leader of Freedom.”
“Now I know you’re lying,” Hook says, stepping toe to toe with Gremlin. “Freedom would never willingly ally with Duty, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“Lukash is different; that’s why I made him my replacement.”
Hook cocks his head to the left and inquires, “What’s your name, Stalker?”
“Gremlin.” He responds.
Hook nods, “I’ve heard that name before… I believe one of my boys even had a contract to kill you.”
“Still do.” One of the Mercs behind him confirms, inching his finger towards the trigger on his rifle.
“Interesting.” Hook says as he takes a few steps back, allowing the Merc behind him to take aim.
“That won’t accomplish anything,” Gremlin assures him, training his eyes on the Merc above him. “If we don’t work together we’re all as good as dead.”
“Is this how you beg for your life?” Hook says, shaking his head. “It’s nothing personal, you’re just a job.”
As he says the last few words one of the Mercs beside him whispers something in his ear.
“What… where?” he whispers back angrily.
The Merc continues to whisper in his ear, causing him to curse and stomp the concrete floor beneath him angrily.
“I’m sorry Stalkers; it seems we’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands. The rest of you can leave, but you Gremlin – smile for the camera.”
“NO!” Solitaire yells, springing in front of Gremlin and shooting down the Merc before he can take his shot.
Hook and the Mercs beside him bolt from the room, shooting behind them as they flee. A few seconds later, the snipers outside begin shooting and an intense gun battle erupts nearby.
“Dammit! Warn me next time!” Gremlin looks at Solitaire fiercely, then quickly calms himself. “But thanks.”
“Where the hell are they going?” Nimbus shouts as he ducks behind a metal support and scans the room for any enemies.
“I don’t know, but this could be our chance to get the hell outta here!” Reaper says as he peaks around a loading door at ground level.
Gremlin and the rest of the team join him. After a quick survey of the area Gremlin announces, “It looks like their snipers are occupied with the ‘situation’, if we’re careful we can sneak by them and get out of here. Zombie, go take a look and tell me what’s happening out there.”
Zombie complies, looking left and right cautiously before jumping through the door and moving along the wall to the corner of the building. He peeks his head around the corner for a second, then books it back to the team’s location.
“Bandits. Lots of Bandits.”
“Dammit… they’re right where we need to be. Do you think we can get past them?”
“No.” he responds.
Gremlin curses and begins to pace as he tries to think of a way to get where they need to go.
“Wait,” Enigma offers some advice. “I remember passing through here to get to Limansk… we followed the train tracks.”
Gremlin stops, looking up at her hopefully. “I know the tracks… it’s worth a shot. Do you remember the way there?”
“I think so…” she responds. “I can try to lead us there.”
“Do it.” He says.
She takes point, compressing her body along the outside wall of the warehouse as Gremlin and the rest of the Stalkers pile up behind her. She inches her way to the corner of the building and takes a look around.
“All clear,” She announces. “But it looks like we might be exposed up ahead.”
“Be careful.” Gremlin warns her before she takes of running through the street to the next available cover. The Stalkers follow her lead one by one as she darts from cover to cover, doing her best to avoid open areas as the morning sun rises behind them. She leans around a corner a couple building away from them and quickly compresses herself back against the wall, motioning them all over.
“What is it?” Gremlin says as he stacks up next to her.
“Bandit camp, right on the tracks.” She says.
“Son of a bitch… they’ll see us for sure.” Gremlin says, sighing in frustration.
“Let’s take them out.” Nimbus offers.
“There’s got to be another way…” Gremlin insists.
“We can’t get around them and we sure as hell can’t reason with them. The only other thing to do would be try to barter but if they outnumber us they’d just take everything and make us run away naked for their own amusement. Trust me… this is the only way.”
Gremlin grits his teeth and squeezes the butt of his rifle, but gives up on trying to find another way.
“We’ll take a poll; yea – we take them out, nay – we find another way.
All say yea except Virtue. Gremlin acknowledges him saying, “At least we know one of us has a shot at not going straight to hell. Alright, let’s do this.”
He rolls out of cover, taking a grenade from his belt, pulling the pin with his teeth and tossing it directly into the middle of the camp of a dozen or so Bandits. The grenade rolls into a group sitting around a campfire. By the time one of them sees it and begins shouting in alarm as it explodes, killing him and three others instantly. The other two fall back into the camp and yell at the others who get to cover immediately.
Gremlin moves up to a train car on the track closest and motions the other over as he lays his gun down on the bed and begins blind-firing into the camp. Return fire ricochets off of the car, buildings, and ground around him.
“Fan out!” Gremlin shouts as he loads a new magazine.
The Stalkers spread out along the length of the train car, popping out and returning the Bandits fire.
A loud clunk directs Virtue’s attention for a moment as he looks for the source of the strange noise. He spots a grenade rolling towards him, panicking as he tries to decide the best course of action. His heart races as he reaches out for it, picks it up and lobs it back with all his might. Just over a second later, it explodes, resulting in several screams and the sound of a small metallic roof collapsing onto the pavement.
He risks a peek over the top of the train car to see the roof of the small outpost collapse on the Bandits within, trapping them beneath. They wiggle beneath it as they attempt to move the large piece of sheet-metal off of them.
“They’re trapped!” Gremlin shouts. “Close in on them!”
With that, he bursts out from behind the train car and moves rapidly up to the destroyed camp. A couple of the Bandits quickly emerge from the edge of the collapsed roof and begin firing while prone.
“Shit!” he shouts as he dives for cover behind the concrete platform next to the far side of the tracks.
Virtue skids through the grass and dirt next to him, pressing up against the platform and copies Gremlin’s blind-firing tactic while Nimbus slides next to him.
“I got these assholes!” he declares as he waits for a gap in their firing then jumps up, aims and blows the nearest one away with his SPAS-12.
“One down!” he announces as he drops to the ground to avoid a return hail of gunfire.
Virtue quickly crawls through the grass to the other side of Nimbus and waits until he has Gremlin’s attention. As he looks over he nods at him, signaling him to fire. Gremlin nods back, standing up quickly and firing a few burst shots before dropping back down quickly. As he does, Virtue mimics his moves, standing quickly and aiming down his weapons iron sights.
Time seems to slow as he locks in on his distracted opponent. He uses that split second to align the iron sights with the head of the Bandit in front of him, clad in a black trench coat and balaclava mask. The second is over and the Bandit quickly zeroes his submachine gun on Virtue. Adrenaline races through Virtue as he stares down the barrel of his opponent’s weapon for a millisecond, just before he pulls the trigger and watches several holes appear on the Bandit. The Bandit convulses as the bullets pierce his body, flopping onto the ground like a fish as he drowns in his own blood.
Virtue closes his eyes, and sighs with relief as his heartbeat slowly returns to normal. Nimbus appears beside him with an astonished look on his face.
“Nice shooting, Virtue. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“Neither did I.” he says, enjoying the feel of victory over his more experienced opponent.
Gremlin jogs over, patting Virtue on the arm as he approaches. “Nice job, way to take the initiative.” He praises him, and then jumps onto the platform to make sure the rest of the Bandits don’t try anything stupid.
Virtue, Nimbus, and the rest of the Stalkers join him as he stands over the collapsed roof, then jumps on top of it, resulting in a chorus of grunts from beneath.
“Slide your weapons out and we’ll let you live.” He demands.
Several submachine guns, rifles, and side arms come sliding out from under the sheet metal as the Bandits beneath beg him for help.
“Don’t worry; your brothers will be here soon to help you.” Gremlin assures them. “Well… as long as they survive the battle with the Mercs that is.”
He looks back towards the location of the battle behind them. A large group of Bandits is flooding out of the warehouse the Stalkers had just come from, heading in their direction.
“Ah… here they come now. That’s our cue to leave; it was nice meeting you.” Gremlin says as he jumps off of them and looks down the length of track stretching into the mysterious beyond.
“That’s the way.” Enigma says, coming up beside him.
“Good… then that’s where we need to go as quickly as possible.”
He and the rest of the Stalkers take off down the tracks, putting as much distance between them and the approaching Bandits as possible.
Virtue risks a look behind them as they run, seeing the Bandits group up around the collapsed roof, looking up and down the tracks for the fleeing assailants. He returns his gaze forwards, picking up the pace in hopes that they got away undetected but expecting no such comfort.

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