“Zombie! Gremlin! Anybody!” Solitaire called out as the thunderstorm raged on.
Why had they gone so far away from Shelter, and why weren’t they staying put?
He had been following their beckoning voices up the river for several minutes now. They sounded like they were in trouble, so he had been running the entire time but had not yet caught up with them. He was sure it was them, but the more he searched for them the more his instincts were telling him to turn back.
Something’s wrong… Gremlin wouldn’t be running blindly through a storm. God knows what dangers could be in this remote part of the Zone.
“Go! Cover our asses,” Gremlin called to him. “Intruders!”
Whatever Gremlin was trying to tell him wasn’t making any sense.
“Here!” the voice of Zombie suddenly called to him somewhere off to his right near the river.
“What the hell…” he muttered aloud as he skidded to a stop in the slick grass and leaves beneath him. Between claps of thunder he could hear Gremlin’s continuing to call out to him, fading into the distance while Zombie’s voice became louder, closer.
“Zombie? What are you doing?” he said as he weaved through the thicket towards the river. He burst into a clearing, undoubtedly where Zombie had been calling to him from. Something caught his eye from a large depression near the middle of the clearing. He approached cautiously, whispering for Zombie again as he neared it.
“Here…” the voice insisted in the same hushed tone.
“Come on man… where are you hiding? You’re giving me the creeps.”
As he inched up to the edge of the depression he covered his face quickly as the stench of death hit his nostrils. The mutilated bodies of about a dozen Mercs were scattered around the hole, their armor torn to shreds and most of their skin torn off, leaving only the meat. He held back the urge to vomit as the rain began to fill the hole, turning red with blood and turning the late Mercs into human soup.
“Z… Zombie?” he stuttered as he slowly backed away from the hole.
“Here.” Zombie said, clear as day.
As lightning flashed, he detected a shadow moving, unlike the shadows of the stationary objects nearby. He turned slowly to see a large, cat-like creature staring back at him inquisitively, flicking its tail back and forth playfully. That split second was the last thing he saw that came close to comforting before it let out a low feline growl and he felt himself hit hard in the back and falling into the human soup. His eyes stung as he opened them in the bloody water, seeing the vacant stare of a skinless Merc warning him of his possible fate. He coughed and sputtered as he flailed about in the death-filled water, trying with all his might to find something solid to push himself off of. In his blurred, painful sight he spotted a rogue tree root and grabbed onto it quickly, using it to pull himself to the edge of the pit. He pulled himself to the ledge, surfacing as quickly and subtly as he possibly could.
The blurry shadows of trees glared down at him like evil giants blocking the way out. He rubbed his eyes and choked up some water. He quickly pulled his knife from his back and held it close to his face as he slowly rose to the surface. The rain continued to fall around him, reducing his already poor visibility to piss-poor.
What the hell was that thing? What hit me? Where’s Zombie?
Those thoughts and dozens more whizzed around his head as he looked around desperately for anywhere he could run once out of the water. He decided heading back to the city would be the safest thing to do, but he didn’t know what could lie between there and here – and first he had to get out of this clearing without getting killed in the process. He was in the lion’s den, and that creature was here somewhere. The cat-like creature, as menacing and deadly as it looked could not have knocked him into the pool with such force. There was something bigger nearby.
He stuck the knife in his teeth and bit down as he planted his hands on the edge of the pool and slowly lifted himself out. As he kicked his feet onto solid ground, he took the knife from his mouth and did a quick 360 of his immediate area. It seemed like he was alone, but there were too many dark places in the thicket around him and his eyes still stung. He looked up, allowing the rain the wash the blood from his face and eyes, then carefully wiped it away with his hands.
He sighed with relief as he blinked the stinging from his eyes and looked deep into the trees around him. The shadows were sharper now, but that was the only improvement – the thicket was too dense to make anything out. Lightning flashed, illuminating a set of eyes nearby. He jumped, barely stopping himself from falling back into the pool.
Holy shit… what have I gotten myself into.
He had been trained to kill animals and men as a prerequisite to field deployment in the Zone. In his time serving for the Ukrainian Special Forces, he had killed dozens of men and a stray blind dog or two. This was different. These weren’t animals – they were demons; monsters in a living nightmare, and this was his hell.
He gave himself a quick slap on the face and reached for his rifle. His fingers grabbed at the air, finding no strap or familiar feel of the rifle on his fingertips. He shot a glance back at the pool, hoping to see it laying in or around it but saw nothing. He then reached instead for the holster at his hip, opening it up grabbing his officer-issue Fort-12. He shook it around, and wiped the barrel quickly on his knee to ensure that no blood had clogged in and held it close to him as he looked down the iron sights. The familiar growl of an angered cat drifted into his ears from behind one of the trees or bushes nearby. He scanned the shadows carefully, listening and hoping for another flash of lightning. BOOM! Thunder rolled through the storm clouds above him.
He urged the next flash of lightning on. An eternity of seconds later lightning went off, flashing three times. He took full advantage of the time, doing a full sweep of the 180 degree area directly in front of him as put his back to the river. The light glinted off of something straight ahead and a little to his left at the end of the third flash. He fired a couple of shots then, after hearing a satisfying scream, fired a few more. The strained meow that followed was like music to his ears.
“Got you, you little bastard!” He announced triumphantly to his dying foe.
He stood cautiously, waiting for the next flash of lightning to light up the area once more so he could deem it safe to move. Seeing no eyes looking back at him from the bushes, he crept forward, following the sounds of the dying monster he had shot. He found it, bleeding from two bullet wounds in its side. It rolled one of its lizard-like eyes around to glare at him, snarling through its bared teeth as he stood over it. Even moments before its death, it looked ready to reanimate and tear the living out of him at any moment. That was all the justification he needed to finish the job and kill it. It was no animal.
His face twisted as he lifted his boot off the ground, then slammed down on the monster’s head with all his pent-up rage. He didn’t bother to confirm the kill as he continued stomping, erasing all doubt from his mind that it was dead. When satisfied, he walked away – not daring to look at the creature’s remains.
He walked slowly out of the clearing, trying his hardest not to envision the innocent creature the monster had once been in another life. He loved animals, and he would never forgive himself if he killed an animal who wasn’t suffering in such a way.
He only had a few seconds to try and shake the feeling of murder from him when a deep rumble caught his ear. It wasn’t thunder. He cocked his head and looked on in horror as a large four-legged creature trotted towards him.
Oh no… what the fuck is it?
He backed up slowly, back into the clearing as the beastly creature charged towards him. As it drew closer a deep pain quickly rose in his chest as he identified it. As it galloped towards him, he could see its large, flat teeth glinting back at him in a permanent smile due to its recessed gums. Its large body was covered in cuts and gashes and muscles bulged all over its body, turning its once long, slender body into a rippling wave of destruction. Its long mane blew behind it in the stirring wind, and he could see that the front of its body and its hooves were covered in blood.
He panicked, scampering backwards until he tripped and crashed into a nearby bush. He fought against the tiny branches in an attempt to return to his feet as the creature slowed to a stop at the entrance to the clearing, shaking its body fiercely before rearing up on its hind legs and whinnying loudly. The military man in him nearly broke down completely to see what he considered one of the most graceful animals on the planet reduced to this. That cat he had killed only moments ago was just a footnote now; if it had been a monster this was a demon.
The horse came back to earth, flicking the remains of its scraggly long-haired tail behind it as it approached the pool like a trough and began to drink from it. The sunken eye guarded by a layer of peeled-back skin on the side of its long head gazed hungrily into the thicket near him as it drank. It was then that he noticed a set of curved, protruding incisors on the end of its mouth where its nose used to be. Above it now were just two large holes, pulled back all the way to its skull, making the creature look hideously ugly.
After its thirst was satisfied, it sniffed the water curiously. Then, in one swift move, leaned down and plunged its long neck into the water, coming back up with a severed arm that had been cut using its new, powerful incisors. It barely chewed as the arm disappeared inside its mouth and it dunked its head in again.
He couldn’t take any more of this. Slowly he inched his way through the bushes, dropping to the ground and crawling forward. The creature’s eye remained fixated elsewhere he crawled towards the edge of the thicket, involuntarily passing right next to the dead cat. He held his nose as the stench of it drifted by him. He had no doubt it couldn’t have smelled any better in life as he brushed past its tufts of thin, grey hair – which barely clung to its rough, cracked skin.
The horse grunted suddenly. He peered through the nearest bush to see its head swiveled in his direction. He froze, not even daring to breathe. It sniffed the air, its gums rippled as it let out an angry huff. It turned slowly back to the pool, keeping its eye on the area behind it as much as possible.
Then, before he could fully understand what was happening, a figure appeared and then disappeared behind it as it kicked its powerful legs behind it. The figure flew backwards, rolling violently along the ground from the force of the kick. The horse turned, stamping angrily on the ground as it prepared to engage its new prey. Solitaire didn’t have time to think; this was his chance to react. He dove for a tree nearby and began firing. Several bullets entered the beast but were seemingly absorbed by the hard mass all over its body. It turned towards him quickly; more angry than hurt.
Was all he could say before he dropped to the ground, barely avoiding a hoof in the face. The creature bucked angrily in the clearing as he continued to fire and then charged at him. It hit between two trees just in front of him, which shook and groaned with the impact, sending a shower of leaves and branches down on him. It continued to run while wedged between the two trees, kicking up dirt behind it and snapping its jaws at him. He took the time to reload and continued firing, managing to hit it once in the snout as its head twisted around.
It whinnied, recoiling from the shot and dancing around in the clearing again. As it did, the same figure suddenly ran towards it, jumping and slamming into the side of its body feet-first, knocking it onto its side. It slid around in the mud, snorting and huffing angrily as the figure stood over it and began firing. It whinnied painfully as blood shot out of its underside. The figure then dropped the gun and lunged on top of it, the glint of a knife shining in its hand as lightning flashed again. As soon as it landed it was thrown off again as the beast waited for it to land before kicking off of the mud, catapulting the figure into the river nearby.
“Hey!” Solitaire yelled at the creature, not really knowing what to do but considering the mysterious figure his best hope at survival. The beast stood on its feet, fresh blood coating its underside. It focused its attention on him, staring down with its long, grotesque face and an unearthly rage in its eyes. He didn’t have to wait long before it charged him, clearing several yards in a matter of second. He reacted quickly, waiting until the beast was danger close before quickly rolling to one side. To his amazement, it tracked his movement with incredible agility, almost predicting his path as it twisted its neck down with him and snapped its jaws down. He felt a pinch and a tear, and cried out in pain as a section of his uniform disappeared from the top of his left arm and began to darken with blood.
He rolled onto it painfully, holding his arm in pain as he pulled himself back onto his feet. The mutant was already turned almost completely back around and ready for another pass. He swallowed hard, unsure exactly what his next move would be and how it wouldn’t end worse than his first.
“Drop!” a voice behind him called.
He didn’t have time to argue. He dropped to the ground as bullets flew over his head and, seconds later, the beast. He looked behind him as it charged into the river, jumping in with a splash right on top of the Stalker, whoever he was.
“No!” he yelled, finding his pistol again and aiming it at the beast. Click. He was out of bullets. Horrified, he watched as the beast and the Stalker struggled in the water. There was no way that man could survive a beast like that… it was like going after a tank with a knife. He looked around desperately for something, anything that could help him. Then, he spotted his rifle. It was at the bottom of the bloody pool. There was no time to think about it. He aimed as well as he could, and jumped in. The unwelcome taste of blood entered his mouth and his eyes screamed at him again as he pushed the bodies away. He grabbed the rifle and resurfaced, hurling himself out of the pool and shaking the weapon off violently as he ran towards the bank of the river.
“Get off of him you mutant fuck!” he yelled as he fired at it again. It bucked around in the water, turning to face him again. He began to reload as it came back up on the bank and charged him. The other Stalker yelled something unintelligible at him. He ignored it and began firing again as the tank-like mutant came closer and closer to squashing him like a bug. He squinted, the blood stinging his eyes and darkening his vision again as he continued to fire at the dark shape in front of him.
He closed his eyes as the rifle clicked in his hands and he dropped blindly to the ground. He tried not to make a sound as he waited for the monster to sink its teeth into him and tear him limb from limb. He could only hope it would be quick. But it never happened. He dared to open his eyes again a few seconds later to find that the blur was gone. He wiped the blood from his eyes to see the figure approaching him from the river. It offered him its hand, and he accepted it gladly. As it pulled him to his feet, relief washed over him.
“Zombie… my God. Thank you.”
He nodded, stepping over the remains of the monstrous mutant – blown to pieces by the grenade he had forced it to swallow.
“I thought I had seen enough shit in my day to last a lifetime…” Solitaire remarked, staring into the vacant eyes of the beast’s severed head. “None of it even scratched the surface.”
“Today you have seen the Zone for what it truly is.” Zombie said, frowning at the gash on Solitaire’s arm then quickly taking a field dressing from his backpack and applying it.
“We must leave.” He instructed once finished.
“You don’t have to tell me twice. If I never experience what just happened here again it’ll be too goddamn soon.” He said, following closely in Zombie’s wake as he led them out of the clearing and away from the hellish scene. Despite his all his efforts and training, he couldn’t stop shaking as his mind replayed the images of his experience; a slideshow of his greatest fears realized.
Virtue sat propped himself silently against the wall close to the fire as the storm raged on outside. Raindrops pounded against the sheet metal and plywood window coverings, but could not enter their fortified stronghold. The other Stalkers gradually gathered around the campfire – Gremlin last of all. Enigma sat to the right of him, not inclined to expose her sex to the mysterious Stalker – instead, electing to remain silent. Nimbus sat to his left, staring off into space.
“So,” Alek began as they all settle in. “We’re all here, how about some show and tell?”
The Stalkers stared curiously back at him, Gremlin glared.
“Nobody? Alright, I’ll break the ice.” He said, standing up on the other side of the fire as all attention gathered to him.
“Like I said, my name is Alek. Back home, they used to call me Michael. A little south of here they called me Sergeant Gilstrap. I was born and raised in Iowa outside near Des Moines. I joined the military when I was eighteen and shipped off to Afghanistan in 2008. Needless to say, I did more than my part and left when they refused to let me leave. Now I make my living here, and still get the occasional fight every once in a while. Life couldn’t be better!”
He stretched his arms out freely and grinned.
“That’s my story – who’s next?” He passed the baton, waiting eagerly for a volunteer to offer up their life story.
The room was silent.
“Really? What are you all afraid of, I’m not gonna tattle on you if you did something bad…”
Virtue sighed and spoke up.
“My name is Virtue. I was born and raised in a small town south of here. I came to the Zone to support my wife after our newborn son died but now she’s dead too.” He said.
“Damn…” Alek shook his head. “That must have sucked. Glad I never got tied down.”
He looked over at Nimbus next.
“I’m an ex-con. I stole to survive and got caught. Once I broke out, this was the only place I could go. Once I got in I did what I did best and started stealing again.”
“So you were a Bandit then.” Alex concluded. “Most of them are assholes, some not too bad. All ruthless though.”
“Yeah.” Nimbus nodded. “Fortunately for me Virtue wasn’t as ruthless though. I was in the scrapyard at the Garbage when he ambushed me. He let me live for information on a raid we were planning on the neutral outpost. I owe him my life. Anybody who fucks with him has to go through me first.”
“Battle buddies. Right on.” He said as he turned to Enigma who promptly flipped him off.
“Hey now, don’t make me put you in timeout.” He said as he pointed jokingly at her.
“My story is like Virtue’s. That’s all you need to know.” She said through her helmet’s voice-changer.
“That’s very intimidating. Who are you supposed to be - Darth Vader?” He said with a laugh.
“It’s Enigma. If you don’t like it you can kiss my ass.” She said defiantly.
“Right…” he said as he rolled his eyes and turned to Reaper.
“Reaper. UK. I sleep with my rifle which I call Bloodfucker on account of the fact that I’ve dropped more Bloodsuckers than women I’ve fucked and booze I’ve drunk combined. But I’ll make an exception for the occasional nosy Mercenary.”
“Finally, a sense of humor!” Alek exclaimed and slapped his hand on his knee. “Thank fucking God – I was beginning to think you were all a bunch of stiffs.”
“You’ll know the real meaning of stiff if when you’re a corpse if you even think about asking me a single fucking question.” Gremlin spoke up from his spot in a dark corner of the room.
Alek turned slowly and engaged him in a staring contest, the playfulness in his eyes that he had had before was now gone.
“You know, you’re a very rude guest - especially when I saved all of your asses. I didn’t have to do that, you know.”
“Just because you saved my ass doesn’t mean I have to like you – and I’m sure as fuck not going to throw my weapon on the ground, hold hands and sing Kumbaya with you, Merc.”
“Ah… I think I understand the problem.” Alek said as he rested his arm on his knee and planted his hand on his fist. “There’s this common misconception going around your little Stalker sowing circles that we Mercs are all the same – that we’re all just hired guns that’ll switch sides like some turncoat. Well we’re not. We might all wear the same colors but we’re on nobody’s side but our own. I don’t appreciate this guilt by association bullshit - so you can drop it any fucking time, chief.”
Gremlin remained silent with his arms crossed and the two resumed their staring contest. Onec satisfied his point was made, Alek retreated back to the window at the other side of the room and kept watch – though probably more on his peripheral vision than anything else.
The silence in the room was awkward for a few moments until Reaper began to move, pulling a bottle of Vodka from his backpack and taking a few shots. Eventually, everyone followed him and began checking their supplies or having a small snack.
“You OK?” Nimbus asked Virtue with a nudge.
He didn’t respond initially but then shook his head back and forth quickly, erasing the glaze from his eyes.
“What? Yeah.” He responded, sounding unsure of himself.
“It’s OK.” Virtue assured him. “I feel like I’m in over my head too.”
“Ch’yeah…” he said with a confirming puff of air. He flipped his shotgun over his head and held it on his lap, staring at it intently.
“She was right - Enigma. I mean… yeah, I was just trying to lighten the situation by joking around but she was right all along.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, leaning towards him to limit the conversation to their ears only.
“I might help out every once in a while but I’m still just a rookie.”
Virtue didn’t say anything, but smiled, finding comfort in knowing he wasn’t alone with his feelings. Nimbus looked directly at him.
“You ever feel the same way?”
“Yes… actually I do. After today I’m starting to wonder if I can do this anymore.”
“Me too… I don’t know if I can hack it.” He said, tracing his fingers over the edges of his shotgun.
“It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. I’ve got nothing to lose now anyway, for me I guess it’s just as simple as the commitment I made. I vowed to stay as long as it took to ensure that my family would be safe. You guys are the closest thing I have now… that’s my purpose now.”
Nimbus laughed, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Goddamn you’re good. You know you really should have been a writer instead? Leave this shit to the grunts – you’re a thinker.” He laughed, giving him a friendly punch in the shoulder.
“Nah… too much feeling is lost when you’re not experiencing it first-hand. I’ll ride this wave out to the end.”
“Then so will I.” Nimbus declared, pumping his shotgun for effect. “But it’s your turn to save my ass this time – and it better be good too because those cats almost tore you to shreds.”
Virtue laughed and nodded, doing his best to block out the images of the horrible creatures they had encountered. He stole a glance at Nimbus once he had returned his focus to the weapon to see his eyes glazed over again; once again finding comfort in knowing he wasn’t the only one still terrified.
“Oy! Virtue - come over, mate.” Reaper threw his arm in an arc over his head, motioning him over. He got up and sat between him and Gremlin. A bottle of vodka sat opened on the ground in front of him.
“You look like you could use some liquid courage. Have a swig.”
“Thanks.” He said graciously, taking a sip.
Reaper watched as he swallowed it down with a grin and gave him an encouraging pat on the back as he handed it back.
“I couldn’t help but notice you’ve got the thousand-meter stare goin’ on. What happened back there?” he asked, taking a big swig from the bottle as he listened.
“Does it ever get any easier?” he returned his question with another question. “Mutants, Stalkers, radiation – everything out there is out to kill you. You have to react quickly enough to stay alive, or you’re dead.”
“Too true.” He said, offering the bottle again and continued as Virtue took another drink, “You know, I don’t tell many people this but maybe it’ll help you. I got into some shit back in the UK before I came to the Zone. No shock there, right? No – I’m talking some bloody horrible shit. I was just another poor lost soul in the world, and I thought drugs, booze and women could fill the holes in my life. They couldn’t, in fact they made them worse.”
Virtue continued to listen as Reaper took another, long swig from the bottle.
“Finally, I hit rock bottom. I hot hopped up on some hard shit, hit the bars, and got laid. It must have been a bad trip or something because something clicked in me that I could no longer live on earth as the person I was. The problem was I didn’t know what to do with my life. I was scared; normal life just seemed so dull… that’s why I turned to drugs. The thought of living a dull, meaningless life scared the living shit out of me – yet ironically, that’s exactly what my life was.”
He continued to pass the bottle back and forth between them, sounding more depressed as he drank.
“So one night I decided to end it all and over-dosed, then went back to my crummy apartment and just sat in front of the TV. I guess I was waiting for divine inspiration or something. Well… as I lay there, something on the TV caught my attention. Talk of trespassers, mercenaries and all kinds of nasty shit somewhere in Ukraine. Then it hit me: that’s where I was supposed to be – I can’t explain it, I just knew. I forced myself to throw up all the pills I had taken and spent the time it took me to get clean to research this place.”
He laughed and eyed the bottle in his hands. “I couldn’t get myself to give up the occasional drink, but I’ll never touch another drug as long as I live – not even anti-rad. I guess it’s just fate that I always have a bottle on hand; since it makes for a cheap alternative to anti-rad.”
He smiled and sipped happily from the bottle.
“Anyway, my point was that though the thought of going to the Zone scare the shit out of me, I knew it was the right thing to do, and I was right. If it wasn’t for this place, I doubt I’d be here talking to you now. Fear has many different faces and we all have our own fears. The Zone helped me overcome mine. Maybe, in time, it’ll help you to overcome yours.”
Virtue nodded, feeling a tingling inside. The booze might have been having an effect on him, but Reaper’s words inspired true confidence in him.
“You’re right.” He said. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it, mate.”
He got up to return to the wall where he had left his supplies, stopping and looking back at Reaper before he did.
“Those mutants we ran into… they were scary as hell, weren’t they?”
“Fucking terrifying. There’s only one time in my entire life I’ve been more afraid and I’ve just told you that.” Reaper answered, gulping down the remains of the bottle then staring vacantly at the flames in front of him.
So that’s my problem; everyone’s just as scared as I am - I just need to work on my Poker Face. He realized as he returned to his space.
He had barely walked around the fire when something suddenly pounded on the door. He froze, dropping down as everyone scrambled for the weapons.
“Let us in!” a muffled voice said from behind the door.
“Who the fuck is it?” Alek shouted back.
“Open the Goddamn door and we’d be happy to tell you our life stories!” the voice responded.
“That sounds like Solitaire – open the door!” Gremlin demanded.
Alek got up and pressed himself against the wall, unlocking the door and aiming his rifle at the frame.
“It’s open. Enter slowly.”
As the door creaked open the business end of Solitaire’s rifle greeted him.
“Lower your weapon!” Alek yelled as he and Zombie entered the room.
“Do as he says!” Gremlin ordered as they slowly entered the room.
The two had a determination in their eyes like nothing the Stalkers had seen before. Zombie retained a death grip on his weapon with eyes wide like he had seen a ghost, Solitaire’s face twitched and his weapon shook in his hands. Alek backup up slowly, realizing he didn’t stand a chance against them in their current state.
“Boys, boys - calm down.” Enigma said as she stood and approached them cautiously.
They lowered their weapons slowly, but the alertness in their eyes remained.
“What the hell happened back there?” Gremlin said as he moved towards them.
“It’s not right. This whole city is fucking wrong. Evil…”
Solitaire said as his balled fists shook at his sides. The stench of death flowed out of him and several cuts and gashes covered his face and hands. Zombie, though more controlled, also looked like he had met his match and then some in battle – he looked ready to tear the head off of any of them at any moment.
“My God… it was the cats, wasn’t it? Did you two fight the mall by yourselves?” Gremlin suddenly realized from the state that they were in.
“A few on the way in – but there’s worse…” he said as he plopped down in front of the fire, suddenly stripping off his drenched uniform and discarding it to the side.
Dried blood covered his arm from a hastily-bandaged wound on his shoulder. Zombie stood next to him, lifting his shirt to reveal a large bruise on his torso. Two hoof-shaped impressions had swollen the area around them. He sat down next to Solitaire, grimacing at what had to be intense pain as he bent over to allow the fire to warm his extremities.
“Jesus…” was all Reaper could think to say after a long silence from everyone.
Gremlin reached Solitaire and analyzed the wound carefully before slowly taking off the bandage. Fresh blood oozed out of it as Gremlin tore through his supplies for a proper fix.
“We need to get the hell out of here.” Solitaire said as he began to stand.
“No! You’re in shock. Sit down.” Gremlin said fiercely.
He sat back down, rocking back and forth uncomfortably as Gremlin re-bandaged his arm.
Alek looked on from his dark corner without a word. The look on his face was hard to determine – maybe fear, possibly amazement.
A deep growl came from somewhere nearby followed by a voice:
“Hey!” it said, sounding almost identical to Solitaire.
In one swift motion his rifle was back in his hands and he opened fire at the door and boarded windows, twisting around on the floor as the Stalkers dove for cover.
“GET OUT OF MY HEAD!” he yelled before Zombie jumped him and wrestled the weapon from his hands.
“It’s the Luller!” he insisted as he tore the weapon from his hands and held it behind his back.
“The what?!” Solitaire shouted back as he looked around the room in fear.
“The Luller.” Gremlin repeated. “I didn’t think they existed but it would make sense...”
“What’s a Luller?” Nimbus asked hesitantly.
“A mutated cat like the ones we saw but bigger. It has the ability imitate anything it hears, like voices, and use it to lull Stalkers into traps.”
“Little bastards…” Reaper shook his head. “They split us all up, hoping to take us one by one.”
“They almost got away with it.” Gremlin said as he approached Solitaire again carefully and finished bandaging him as he lay motionless on the floor.
Zombie approached one of the windows, now riddled with bullet holes and looked out into the rain. Alek gave a hesitant nod as he regarded him with a soul-crushing glare, his tree-trunk like arms no doubt ready to rip him in half and eat him for lunch if he got on his bad side.
“Hey big guy… I’m Alek.”
Zombie didn’t acknowledge him as he continued to stare out the window.
“Zombie doesn’t talk much.” Gremlin said. “But he’ll be your friend as long as you don’t do anything to piss him or me off.”
“Great. I’m off to a good start then.” Alek said sarcastically.
A few awkward moments later, Zombie spoke at last.
“We need to leave.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” Gremlin asked.
The answer was all too evident when the sounds of claws scraping on wood filled the room. Through the holes in the plywood, they could see several dark shapes flitting between them.
“Shit! Someone cover me, I’ll try to scare ‘em off.” Alek yelled as the minigun began to whir to life. Moments later the room began to rattle as the deafening noise of the gun firing filled the room. Gremlin ran over to the window off to the side and began shooting at anything that got too close to the hole the minigun protruded from.
“What’s the best way out of here?” He yelled over the noise.
“Rooftop! I set up a collapsible bridge to the next apartment - it’s our best shot.”
“Take me there.” He looked behind him and shouted in Reaper’s direction, “Reaper! Man the gun!”
Reaper acknowledged and took control of the turret as Alek got up to leave.
“If there’s one thing I hate it’s hairy pussy...” He muttered as he fired into the mutants’ midst.
Alek pressed his ear to the door and listened for a few seconds before opening it quickly and moving outside. He looked down his rifle’s night-vision scope into the hallway outside, motioning Gremlin and the rest of the Stalkers forward as they gathered behind him.
“Go go!” he yelled, waving his hand forward motioning for them to move up the stairs to his right.
Gremlin and Zombie took point in the stairwell, checking left and right as they reached the top.
“Hurry!” Gremlin shouted behind him. “They’re climbing up the walls!”
They continued up the twisting stairwell until they reached the roof and emerged onto the flat, concrete rooftop. Gremlin looked around frantically for the makeshift bridge Alek had mentioned, seeing no trace of it. The Stalkers piled up behind him, fanning out over the rooftop as Alek followed behind them, closing and locking the door as he came through it.
“Where’s the bridge?!” Gremlin shouted.
“Over there!” Alek swiveled to his right and pointed. His gaze drifted downwards and his arm dropped when he too saw no trace of the bridge.
“WHERE?!” Gremlin demanded as he grabbed Alek by the collar and shook him.
“It’s gone! The storm must have blown it off.
“Well that’s fucking great! Now we’re stranded on the goddamn roof!” he said in disgust, pinning Alek up against the door.
“What about Reaper?” Virtue said. “He’s still down there!”
“Look for rope or cable… anything we can use to get back into the room.”
The Stalkers spread out, scouring the rooftop as Gremlin continued to lay into Alek. Zombie remained with him for backup, just in case the Merc decided to try anything.
“I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you, Merc!” Gremlin shook him again.
“Yeah, I ordered the weather to knock out the fucking bridge, trapping myself along with you.”
“I find it really odd that you were the only one left here – they planted you here didn’t they?”
“They fucking abandoned me here!” Alek shouted back.
“Maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe you’re a bad omen.”
“Accuse me all you want – I didn’t do shit. You’re lucky that was even an option, I was gonna stay holed up in that room until all those fuckers were dead or I was.”
“I don’t believe you.” Gremlin said as he pulled out his sidearm and eased under Alek’s chin. Alek began to ease his hand towards his own pistol but found Zombie’s hand suddenly pinning it to his side.
“There’s nothing here!” Gremlin heard Nimbus say from somewhere behind him.
“Gremlin, there’s nothing up here we can use to get to Reaper or get him to us.” Enigma said as she approached his side carefully. As she spoke shouting and gunfire erupted behind her as Reaper’s so-called “Pseudoraptors” began to crawl onto the rooftop.
“You hear that?” Gremlin said to Alek as he looked beyond him at the mutants closing in around them. “You got us into this mess; you’re going to get us out.”
One look at Zombie, and Alek found himself being carried across the rooftop and dropped between the Stalkers and the oncoming mutants.
“Fuck you!” he spat behind him as he engaged all the mutants around him.
The Stalkers fought their own battles behind them, picking off most of the cats before they crossed the threshold onto the roof. Suddenly, the roar of the minigun below them ceased. Gremlin rushed to the edge of the roof and yelled over the side:
“Out of ammo!” a muffled cry came back.
“Hold them off as best you can!” Gremlin shouted back. He didn’t have time to hear Reaper’s reply before he was forced to fire at several angry cats. Once they had crossed onto the rooftop they became much more deadly as they cleared the empty space quickly and easily.
“Keep them off the roof!” he shouted as he moved away from the edge and back towards the center.
“We’ve got a problem here!” Virtue shouted from one of the rooftop’s corners.
Nobody had to ask when a sudden burst of cats began climbing on to the rooftop.
“SHIT! GRENADES!” Gremlin ordered, becoming desperate.
Several small explosions went off. Fire and fur covered the rooftop for several seconds until the Stalkers had nearly exhausted all of them.
“HELP!” Nimbus yelled as he dropped his empty shotgun on the ground and switched to his sidearm, firing frantically as cats began to overrun his part of the roof.
“FIRE IN THE HOLE!” Gremlin yelled, firing a grenade from his under-barrel grenade launcher, hitting the cats head on.
“Thanks!” But Nimbus’ relief was short-lived as another wave quickly replaced the original one. He had barely enough time to pick up his shotgun before he was forced to throw it towards the door and start running.
What now? What the hell do we do now?
Gremlin searched his head desperately for answers as it became all too apparent that they would not win this fight and that there was no way off this rooftop. His heart jumped for a moment when he thought he heard the minigun begin to fire again below him. But nothing happened. His heart fell again.
“Fall back!” were the words he elected to be his last as the Stalkers were forced back towards the door.
Alek let off strings of obscenities as he attempted to fight his was out of his own isolated circle cut off from the rest of the Stalkers.
“Alek needs help!” Nimbus yelled over the sounds of battle.
“We can’t help him now!” Gremlin shouted back.
“What?! But he saved our lives!” Nimbus protested.
“Don’t risk your life for him, he’s not worth it!”
“GREMLIN! He needs our help!” Nimbus shouted back angrily.
Gremlin could hear what sounded like the minigun revving up again, but again nothing happened.
Where is that sound coming from? He wondered.
The answer came from the southern horizon as a small object approached quickly from behind Lenin statue. As it approached, Gremlin recognized the shape and the sound became clear.
“HELICOPTER!” he shouted.
The Stalkers stole a glance for a fraction of a second to see that was indeed correct.
Who would be flying a helicopter, how they had gotten one operational, why they were out here, what they were doing, and dozens of other questions in his mind remained unanswered as he tore through his backpack for something he had not used since his days in the military. He pulled a glow stick from his backpack, breaking it and tossing it high into the air, hoping the pilot would see it.
“Who are they?” Enigma shouted as it drew closer.
“Friendlies!” he yelled back. “Hopefully…” he muttered. It wasn’t like they had any hope otherwise.
Alek screamed as he disappeared under the sea of fur, fighting to keep the mutants off of him as he shot them with his pistol, one by one.
“Dammit!” Nimbus yelled as broke away from the group and began pushing his way through the swarm towards Alek.
“Nimbus!” Virtue yelled after him as he watched him shoot his way through the oncoming mutants. They latched onto his body, clawing their way up him as he struggled to get to Alek. Moments later, he too disappeared beneath them.
“NO!” Virtue yelled and focused his aim in their direction, firing around the small lump where Nimbus was struggling.
Gremlin watched in horror as Virtue soon followed after Nimbus, running headlong into the mutants.
“Everyone: focus fire there, keep them covered! Zombie: watch our backs.” He shouted as he tossed Zombie his knife. Zombie took Gremlin’s knife and his own in each hand and began slashing wildly at the mutants as they came at him. The Stalkers then turned towards Virtue and did their best to keep him covered as he made his way to Nimbus and Alek.
“Nimbus!” he shouted as he began tearing cats away from him the pile with his bare hands, ignoring his fear and pain in his arms as they clawed back at him fiercely.
“Virtue…” Nimbus responded painfully.
The helicopter began to stir dust and leaves on the rooftop as it neared it, slowing to get in position over them. A bright light shone down over them, illuminating the entire rooftop for them to see. It settled down on the roof a few feet away from them. Several Stalkers jumped from the sides, clearing a path through the mutants as they approached them.
Gremlin glanced over as one of the Stalkers ran towards him and shouted. The man and his squad was clad is blue camo, favored my Mercs.
“Get to the chopper, we’ll cover you!”
“Get to them first!” Gremlin pointed to where Virtue was struggling with the mutants.
“Shit – focus fire here; Stalkers in distress!” the Stalker ordered as he pointed towards Virtue. His men complied, moving forward through the mutants with incredible skill as they closed in on Virtue.
“They got him! Get on!” The Merc said again.
Gremlin looked on to see the Mercs clearing the way for Virtue as he pulled Nimbus by his feet, who was hanging on with all his might to Alek’s leg. The Mercs fought to clear the mutants off of Nimbus and Alek as they emerged. He couldn’t see much as he was being led towards the chopper but he could see blood; lots of it.
“Wait! I’ve got one more man on the level below – he was manning the turret there!” he said as he boarded the chopper.
“We’ll send down the ladder.” The Merc said.
“Let me go down with it; you’ve done enough already.” Gremlin said.
“Suit yourself.” The Merc responded and directed him towards the rope ladder as they began to lift off. He strained to see into the back of the chopper to make sure that they were all accounted for – and alive – but could not see past the crowding Mercs. The rope ladder deployed and the Merc directed him down it. He descended the ladder carefully as the helicopter swung around in front of the building.
“REAPER!” he called out as the chopper got as close to the room as it could.
“Gremlin!” he could hear over the sounds of a pistol firing. Despite his efforts, he could not see Reaper from where he was as cats swarmed in under the small opening under the turret.
“Dammit! He’s trapped in there! I can’t get in!” Gremlin called back to the Merc above him.
“Which side of the room is he on?” he called back.
“Uh… far left!” he answered.
“Hang on, Stalker.” Was the only information the Merc offered back as the helicopter swung around the Lenin statue to face the building head on. It hovered in place for a few moments before a deafening his went off near him. Moments later, a brilliant explosion lit up the front of the building – blowing a hole on the right side of the room they had been holed up in. Countless cats either flew from the building, or incinerated in the fireball rising into the sky.
As the fireball died, the helicopter began moving towards the new entrance it had created.
“Go go!” the Merc called down at him as the ladder contacted the charred ledge where the minigun had been moments before.
He dropped down into the room, scanning the other side for Reaper. He found him crouched atop several boxes, hastily stacked in the corner as a last-ditch effort to hold off the advancing mutants. He switched between his knife and pistol as the remaining mutants fought to get to him.
“We’re getting the hell out of here! Head for the window!” he ordered as he took his rifle and began firing.
Reaper dove over the cats, landing on the floor and rolling as he ran towards him. Gremlin waited for his to be a safe distance away before shooting a grenade into them as they regrouped. Several secondary explosions went off behind them as the grenade ignited something explosive behind it.
“Oh shit! Go go!” he urged Reaper along as he climbed the ladder in front of him.
He had just made it clear of the hole when a large explosion roared under him and flame belched out of the room, bathing the bottom of the ladder fire.
“Whoa…” the Merc said as he helped him up the ladder and secured the side doors.
“Must have hit the last of the supplies…” Gremlin guessed as he stood near the front of the chopper, head spinning.
“Is everyone onboard?” he asked quickly. “There was me, Virtue, Nimbus, Zombie, Solitaire…”
“Yes, we confirmed it with your friend… Virtue I believe his name was.”
“Good.” Gremlin said with a sigh, plopping down on the floor, relieved but exhausted.
“One of them is in bad shape.” The Merc continued.
“Who?” Gremlin asked, jumping to his feet again with concern. He didn’t need to wait for the Mercs response as he looked past him. At the back of the chopper was Alek, popped against the side with his head in his hands, panting, while on the floor in front of him lay Nimbus - covered in blood.
Gremlin’s heart sunk as Nimbus’ unresponsive eyes stared back at him, reminding him that this was his fault. The Merc had just saved them all for the second time, and because of his Gremlin’s stubbornness, Nimbus had paid the ultimate price. He dropped to his knees as the Mercs went to work trying to revive him, even as the blood pooled under his body.
He would never forgive himself.