November 28, 2010

Chapter 11: Suicide Mission


“He’s not responding!” one of the Mercs said as he put his finger to Nimbus’ neck to check for pulse before he started pumping his chest, in an attempt to resuscitate him.
The Stalkers tried to stay out of their way as they looked on, worried. He was covered with incisions and puncture wounds – but the sheer amount of blood made it difficult to tell where the more serious wounds were. They got to work separating him from his suit and clothing, wiping away the blood and bandaging the deeper wounds as they discovered them.
“Is there anything I can do to help? Virtue asked as he inched closer to get a better look at him.
“Keep quiet and out of our way – that’s the best way you can help now.” One of the other Mercs insisted, giving him a polite nudge back towards the wall of the chopper.
He nodded reluctantly, his eyes never leaving Nimbus as his body rocked back and forth in the turbulence outside the chopper. Several times Nimbus’ eyes opened and looked in his direction, but they quickly closed again. The cycle repeated until the chopper began to slow and descend, finally touching down with an abrupt jolt.
“Get him to the lab – quickly!” One of the Mercs close to Nimbus ordered as one of the side doors of the helicopter slid open and another group of Mercs appeared outside.
Gremlin hopped out of the chopper as the Mercs brought a stretcher to it and situated Nimbus on top of it. It was dark and gloomy out, but there was no mistaking that the Mercs had brought them to the mobile lab in Yantar where Sakharov had asked them to meet him. The stretcher disappeared over the side of the lab as the Mercs descended a ladder towards the entrance and the chopper began powering down.
“Gremlin I presume?”
Gremlin spun around to see one of the Mercs addressing him.
“That’s me.”
“As you’ve no doubt discovered by now, we were sent on Sakharov’s behalf. He heard that you were… delayed by some of our guys in the Wild Territory and sent us to bring you in alive. It turns out you’re a lot more valuable alive than dead, I apologize for that. He’s cleared all hits from your name.”
“I see.” Gremlin said, trying to be grateful despite his hatred for the Mercs’ methodology. “I guess I should be thanking you for getting us out there before we were all cat food.”
“Don’t thank us yet, your friend is still in bad shape.”
Gremlin nodded and finally asked the inevitable question,
“Is he gonna make it?”
The Merc shook his head slowly, “I don’t know. We’ve got the tools but time is against us.”
Gremlin sighed and turned as he saw the rest of his team exit the chopper. They moved towards him quickly – all with matching looks of concern on their faces.
“Where is he? Is he alright?” the questions all came at once.
“I don’t know.” Gremlin answered; dismay evident in his voice. “All we can do is wait.”
With that, he nodded them forward and they all followed him towards the ladder descending the side of the lab. The airlock with the intercom they had entered before opened willingly as he pressed the open button. They piled in as the door closed behind them and the chamber cycled. When the cycle completed, the door opposite swung open into the lab and they entered. A trail of blood led to a side room where they had taken Nimbus and a ruckus was taking place behind the closed door. After that, was Sakharov’s lab/shop where he did the majority of his research and sold supplies to Stalkers passing through. The old was in the doorway of the brightly-lit room where Nimbus had been lead, biting his nails with concern. He turned as the Stalkers approached the counter, straining to see into the room beyond his.
“Oh, hello everyone.” He said in a somber tone; the polar opposite of his usual cheery mood. He shuffled towards the desk, not willing to look any of them in the eye. He stood there, struggling with a few words and faces before Gremlin decided to go first,
“We made it.” He said, breaking the ice at last.
“Yes, yes… so you did.” Sakharov said at last, looking up for only a moment before his gaze slowly pivoted downwards once more. “I… I am so sorry about your friend. I knew I should have sent the chopper sooner!” he said in anger.
“Don’t blame yourself; there was nothing you could have done.” Gremlin assured him.
“Mm… perhaps not.” Sakharov agreed, shaking his head. “But still, I am sorry.”
Gremlin waited patiently for Sakharov to get to it, hating himself more for every second that ticked by as they were forced to listen to the chaos ensuing in the back room. He looked up again, making eye contact with each of them.
“You all look like you’ve been through hell – and no doubt you have. We should leave this matter for the morning, you all should rest.”
Gremlin began to protest but realized that none of them were in any condition to do anything more. Solitaire still had a crazed look in his eye; whatever shock he had experienced before had only multiplied in the events after. Zombie and Reaper looked like they were still reliving the battle in his head; both tense and distracted. Enigma’s face he couldn’t see, but she also seemed agitated. Alek seemed confused but he didn’t care enough to know why and Virtue… Virtue was unreadable. That concerned him the most.
“OK.” Gremlin said and waited for the Stalkers to dissolve. When they didn’t, he took the initiative, finding a seat on the bench lining the wall and easing into it slowly. Eventually they found their own places in the room, though Virtue was the only one who sat down. He stole a glance at them all, half-expecting them all to be glaring at him for his failure but instead finding them just drifting around in a daze.
I wish Phantom were here. He thought as he began to feel weakness and doubt rising inside of him. I could always depend on him for support in times like this.
He involuntarily slammed his fist into the metal bench beneath him, gritting his teeth as the wonderful sensation of pain flowed from his knuckles up his arm and to his head. Phantom’s death was his fault too. He had failed as a leader again, and again someone had paid for his mistake. Why had he decided to do this after all they had been through already? How had he thought he could do it without a right-hand man he could depend on not only on the battlefield, but off of it as well? He had all the guns, ammo, and Stalkers to fire them he needed – but he lacked the one thing he needed most right now; a friend who knew his weaknesses and could council him. He couldn’t let any of them know he had any weaknesses or the team would crumble… but he began to suspect they knew was only human.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a blue-camo Stalker approaching. He looked up, expecting one of the Mercs delivering news on Nimbus’ status but saw Alek instead. Alek stopped in front of him, forcing him to look up.
“We need to talk.” He said, no hint of emotion on his face.
“No offense but this isn’t the time. Piss off.” Gremlin said, returning his gaze to the floor.
Alek crouched down, forcing himself into Gremlin’s peripheral vision and whispered,
“Is this how you wanna look in front of them? Because, no offense, but you look pretty pathetic.”
For a split second, Gremlin could see his fist soaring through Alek’s face and through the back of his skull, covered in blood and brains from the last Merc who would ever cross him again… but he realized the man had a point.
“What are you trying to say, Merc? He responded sternly.
“I’m saying you need someone who isn’t on the team to make you look good right now – I can be that guy.”
“Now just why in the hell would you want to do that? Fifteen minutes ago I was going to leave you for dead on that rooftop. It should’ve been you in that room bleeding on that table- not him.”
“Yes… it should have been. But instead, he chose to go against your orders and save me. I may have saved you once, but your team has saved me twice – so I figure I owe you. I’ve never seen anyone do anything as stupid and as brave as what he did; no Merc would have done that. I don’t know who you people are or what this mission of yours is, but I think I owe it to you to see that you succeed.”
As much as he hated to admit it, he knew he needed the points right now – and this Merc could help him do it. He looked at him long and hard, looking for any trace of a hidden agenda that he was all-too familiar with when it came to Mercs like him. Finally, he put his hands on his knees and nodded, knowing that nothing the Merc could say would do any more harm than he already had to the stability of his team.
With that, Alek stood back up and walked to the middle of the room – waiting for Gremlin to look his way before speaking,
“I just wanted to say that, if it hadn’t been for all of you, I wouldn’t have made it out of there alive. What your friend did was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do. I don’t just mean the fact that he jumped into a swarm of hungry mutants – but that he did it to save my ass.”
He began to circle the perimeter of the room, passing by each of them as he spoke.
“We Mercs are trained to complete our contracts at all costs and report back to base; regardless of who we have to kill to complete that mission. We don’t have a lot of time to make friends, which makes it hard to understand why your buddy did what he did for me. But I think I understand… and I’m honored that he would do such a thing for me...”
With that he turned in place and looked directly at Gremlin with a mischievous smile,
Which is why I have decided to accept Gremlin’s offer to join the team.
The words seemed to leave the Merc’s mouth in slow motion as rage boiled in Gremlin’s veins. He shot out of his seat abruptly, resisting the urge to dive across the room as pieces and parts of a protest left his mouth. The Merc just watched, obviously very pleased with himself. But there was nothing he could do about it… this was the Merc’s price and he had agreed to it.
The other Stalkers looked over to Gremlin for confirmation as he attempted to disguise his anger.
“Y… yes.” Gremlin stuttered, doing his best to say the opposite of what was going through his head, “We could use someone with his skills on our side. After what happened, I think it’s the best idea.”
Alek nodded, looking around the room to gauge the Stalkers’ reactions. Gremlin was furious and disgusted with the words that had come out of his mouth – but nevertheless, what he said was the truth. It took forcing the words out of his mouth to make it finally sink in. He needed him.
“Well… welcome to the team, mate.” Reaper said, offering a cheer with a shot glass that suddenly appeared in his hand before he downed its contents in one big gulp.
“Thank you. Now I better go thank Sakharov for saving my ass.” He said, giving Gremlin a hinting look as he walked past him.
“I’ll go thank him for the rest of us.” Gremlin added and followed Alek down the hall to Sakharov’s room, leaving the rest of them in silence.
Despite their efforts to ignore the noise coming from the backroom, they could not drown it out.
Again, Virtue found himself adrift in his thoughts. There was too much going on now; he didn’t know what to feel, so he just drifted in a sea of his own emotion. There was fear from the encounter, sadness for Nimbus and anger that he hadn’t gotten to him sooner.
“Drink?”
Virtue snapped out of his daze long enough to see a sympathetic Reaper looking back at him, a fresh bottle of Vodka in hand. Without acknowledging, he took the bottle and began chugging. It burned like hell but he drank anyway, shrugging off his discomfort in light of the intense pain he knew Nimbus had to be experiencing at that very moment.
“Whoa mate… whoa!” Reaper said, grabbing the bottle from him once he hit the halfway mark. “That’s my last bottle there.”
“The Mercs brought a case with them; I saw it on the way in.” Virtue replied in a hoarse voice as his throat burned.
“Oh… well then excuse me for a wink.” Reaper said, planting the bottle next to him and heading off deeper into the lab.
As soon as he left Virtue reached for the bottle again, grabbing at nothing but air where the bottle had been. He looked over curiously to find Enigma sitting in its place, finishing off the second half like it was an Olympic event.
“Welcome to the party.” He said, twitching a little as the alcohol began to course through him.
She put the bottle down, giving no hint of the content’s strength until a few seconds afterwards.
“I never understand how anyone could stomach this stuff – it has no flavor, no class.” She said with a grimace, before meeting his eyes. He held her gaze for a few seconds before he was forced to look away, feeling more unworthy of her attention than ever.
“I should have done something… anything. If I hadn’t…”
“Stop it.” She said, stalling him mid-sentence. “There was nothing you could have done.”
Virtue shook his head in disagreement.
“When we were holed up in that building we were both talking about how we were both just rookies and that we didn’t really belong there. I think what I said made him careless; he was trying to prove himself to the team.”
Enigma threaded put her hand on his arm and forced him to look at her,
“If he hadn’t done what he did, Alek would probably be dead. He saved his life - and in this place, that’s one of the most honorable things a person can do.”
“What if it wasn’t worth it? What if he just stabs us in the back later?” Virtue countered.
“What is he doesn’t and we do need him?” Enigma answered. “There’s no use in asking yourself ‘what ifs’ now, what’s done is done. We have to move on - with or without Nimbus.”
Mere seconds after the words started to seep into the crevices of Virtue’s mind the backroom door creaked and whined as it swung on its hinges. One of the Mercs exited the room and headed towards them, the look on his face told them all what he was about to say.
“We did all we could for your friend… he lost too much blood and we couldn’t stop the bleeding. He didn’t make it.”
He had expected the words this whole time but that did nothing to ease the punch to the stomach they delivered. He felt himself keel over, feeling sick to his stomach. Enigma put her hand on his back and rubbed it slowly as the room got blurry. Next he knew he was vomiting on the floor. He stared at the yellowish blur on the otherwise white floor tile beneath him as the Merc muttered something else he couldn’t understand. His knees felt weak as he teetered on the edge of the bench. He felt Enigma save him from falling face-first in his puddle as his knees hit the floor.
The room spun around him as he looked up at the blurs representing the rest of his friends who had made it this far. The idea that Nimbus wasn’t one of those blurs and would never be again devastated him. The idea played through his head over and over like a subliminal message as his sense shut down and he lost consciousness.

*

Gremlin stopped Alek just before they entered Sakharov’s room.
“What in the hell was that all about? That was your price – to join my team? God help you if you so much as blink wrong in my direction-“
“Relax! If I wanted you dead I would have done it already. The fact is, I’m alive now thanks to you – even if you tried to kill me once already. Plus it’s not like I haven’t had to team up with people out for my head before… we Mercs get into trouble every once in a while too and sometimes we have to dodge bullets from our own friends in the heat of things.” Alek assured him.
“Sounds like you picked the wrong friends.”
“I didn’t pick them, but I am picking you. This might be hard for you to believe but I’ve dealt with worse than you before.”
Gremlin sighed. Everything in him hated Mercs and all they stood for but he had met worse than Alek before. He detected sincerity in Alek’s voice; something he had never heard come from a Merc before. It was almost though there was a human being under that distinctive body armor that marked him as a merciless contract killer.
“If this even has a shot at working I’ll have to be able to trust you like I trust my right hand.”
“No problem. I’m good at anything you could want – sniping, dogfights, you name it. You point at something I’ll kill it dead before you can drop your arm. I won’t let you down.”
“I hope not. You’ve got big shoes to fill…” Gremlin trailed off, referring to his late friend Phantom whom he trusted with his life. With that, he opened the door to Sakharov’s lab and entered. The old man was organizing some documents on the table at the back of the room. He looked up as the door opened and greeted them as they approached.
“Hello, hello. I was just finishing recording the documents you brought from X16 before I send them to my employers. If this doesn’t convince them of the Zone’s threat to the world then nothing will.”
“Let’s get to it.” Gremlin cut to the chase.
“Right…” he shifted his attention to the stack of papers he had compiled and laid select pages down on the table in front of them. “As you can see, the documents you brought from X16 had a lot of information in them. After pouring through them I’ve learned a lot about the lab and its role in Project X-”
“What’s Project X?” Alek butted in.
“It’s the reason all those underground labs exist in the Zone.” Gremlin answered him, recalling the team’s trip to X16 where Dmytro introduced himself and mentioned that the lab was only a piece in a much larger puzzle. Later, when they had reached Chernobyl, Commander Tann also confessed his job was to oversee the success of the project - a goal that he could never hope to accomplish now that they had destroyed the lab he and Dmytro oversaw there.
“You said you needed more information – what kind of information?”
Sakharov fumbles through some papers as he attempts to answer Gremlin’s question.
“The documents you brought contained information on X16’s role in the project but nothing beyond its own walls. I only have information on what entered and exited the lab, and from there I can guess at what the other labs were responsible for. Up until this point I thought I had at least heard of all known labs but I recently found I was mistaken.”
"What did you find?” Gremlin asked, curious.
“I’m glad you asked,” he said with a smile typical of a scientist who had or was on the verge of a breakthrough. “X16’s primary goal, as you well know, was mind-control – evident in all the zombified Stalkers wandering around Yantar. Well, while pouring over the shipment manifest I noticed an interesting import; a shipment from lab X-17. I’m betting there may be enough pieces of the puzzle there to help us give us a clearer picture of what is happening in the Zone.”
“X-17? Any idea where that is?” Alek asked.
“No… but fortunately I know someone who I believe has been there.” Sakharov said, his smile slowly fading to dismay.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Gremlin asked, confused.
“Yes… yes, but he has not been back for days now. I sent him to the coordinates I believed the lab could be found so he could confirm its location… but he stopped reporting in about a day ago.”
“Which way did he go?” Alek asked.
“North, to the Red Forest…” Sakharov trailed off.
Gremlin closed his eyes and let out a sigh. Of all places he never wanted to go, the Red Forest topped the list by a long shot. He could only guess how exponentially worse the dangers would be now that the Zone was being overrun with mutants.
“I know.” Sakharov said apologetically. “He practically accepted before I had even put the offer on the table – I suppose he was so focused on the opportunity he disregarded the danger.”
“This is some bullshit!” Alek said, laughing at the professor’s obvious insanity. “The Red Forest is one of the most dangerous places on earth… before it was filled with anomalies and mutants. Not to mention it’s huge… trying to find an underground lab would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Oh! And I almost forgot… once we make it through all that we have to search a dark underground lab filled with God-knows what hazards and somehow make it all the way back!”
Sakharov and Gremlin looked at each other, forced to admit that he was absolutely right but thinking the same thing.
“Look at it this way,” Gremlin said. “You make it there and back; you’ll get a cut of money so big you’ll never have to worry about money ever again.”
Alek paused, imagining the possibilities. But after only the moment of hesitation he said,
“It ain’t worth it- I didn’t sign up for a suicide mission.”
“Actually you did.” Gremlin said, reminding him of the words he had spoken only minutes before. “You said it in front of everybody.”
“That was before I knew about this bat-shit insane ‘plan’ of yours.” He said as he walked towards the door.
“That’s a shame,” Gremlin said over his shoulder as Alek began to pull the door’s handle. “I guess I’ll just have to let your Merc friends know that you’re skipping on a contract.”
He stopped in his tracks.
“That’s right. You Mercs may have no honor but you do have a code. You skip on a contract; you earn a bullet between the eyes. I know how you bastards work.”
He turned from the door, looking back at them.
“I knew you were crazy but this is something else. Your team can’t hack it. They’re good but not that good.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Gremlin said, poking a finger at him. “Don’t make me remind you what one of them did for you. The ones that don’t have the skill have the drive; which can be just as deadly in battle.”
“Against another human maybe, but mutants can smell your fear…”
With that he opened the door and left. Gremlin picked a wall to stare at. Sakharov favored the floor.
“I know I’m asking a lot of you… but if you and your team aren’t up to the task-“
“We will be.” Gremlin interrupted.
“Good.” Sakharov continued. “The Zone may be going to hell, but I fear if we don’t do something to combat this threat ourselves, the outside world will be forced to take action. We need this information, and we need it fast.”
Gremlin nodded and handed the professor his PDA so he could upload all of the information he would need. Sakharov plugged the PDA into his personal console and, after a few seconds handed, handed the PDA back to him.
“All the information you need is there. The co-ordinates are also marked on your map.”
“Alright, I’ll inform the team and we’ll leave early tomorrow morning.” He said and began walking towards the door.
“I can’t thank you enough. I know I don’t have to tell you to be careful… but please, be extremely careful. I don’t want to be responsible for sending any more Stalkers to their deaths.”
“You won’t be.” Gremlin said, giving the most confident smile he could muster even though he felt anything but. It took every ounce of effort to hold the smile as he walked back to the lab’s entrance where his group was waiting.

*

Virtue hugged his raincoat tightly around his body, thinking it would somehow conceal him more as he leaned out from around the irradiated car; one of countless more in the vehicle scrapyard he had decided to explore while patrolling the neutral outpost in the Garbage. The Bandits outnumbered  him and blocked the easiest way out. If he moved he would be seen. There were two choices: try to stay hidden, or kill them all.
One of the Bandits looked strikingly familiar. As he turned Virtue could make out a shotgun in his hands and three large scars on his face. As he focused on him, the other Bandits disappeared deeper into the scrapyard but he continued to look in his direction.
Does he see me?
Virtue wondered as he ducked back behind the car. As he peered cautiously back around the car the Bandit was suddenly right in front of him. Virtue nearly jumped out of his skin as he fell onto his back, pulling a pistol from one of the front pockets on his raincoat.
“Loner!” he yelled and raised the barrel of his shotgun to level with Virtue’s head.
Virtue yelped and fired a shot at him, hitting him right between the eyes. The Bandit’s eyes rolled back in his head and he fell to his knees, collapsing onto his side. His dead eyes stared back at Virtue in anger. Despite his efforts, Virtue could not bring himself to look away. He knew this man. His eyes continued to stare back at him accusingly. He reached his hand out cautiously to close them, trembling as his fingers neared the sockets.
“It’s all your fault.” the corpse said, miraculously. Virtue jumped away as it stood to its feet, blood forking down his face. He closed his eyes as the shotgun leveled with him.
BOOM!
It discharged. Somehow he knew that, instead of just being dead. He could hear himself breathing. Had he missed? He opened his eyes slowly to find himself standing, somehow, at the back of a group of Stalkers. He felt as if he knew them all, but he couldn’t place it. One of the Stalkers pointed to a particularly ominous-looking building to their right. A terrifying roar came from one of the rooms deep inside. One of the Stalkers entered and, moments later, came diving back out of the door as the group fired their weapons inside the building.
A pair of eyes, which later had a body attached came surging out of the building and directly into the group of Stalkers. He dove out of the way as it came for him. He looked up from the ground to see a pair of boots in front of him. He looked up to see the same Bandit standing over him, aiming his shotgun at the mutant.
BOOM!
The mutant collapsed on the ground beside him, blood collecting on the pavement under it. He looked back up again to thank the Stalker but he was gone. So were the other Stalkers. The corpse of the mutant stared back at him – only it wasn’t the mutant anymore, it was the Bandit.
“It’s all your fault.” It said as blood began draining from its mouth.
BOOM!
He rolled, hoping he could somehow dodge a shotgun blast at point-blank range. Yet somehow he had.
He was now deep in a forest, crossing over a march of some sort. Near him was the same Bandit as before. Suddenly the Bandit was sucked into the water by a giant plant of some sort.
“Help me!” he begged as he struggled to stay on the surface of the water. He fired into the water, aiming for the stems of the plant that somehow had the man tangled within. The plant refused to let go and he was out of ammo. He looked into the water as the ripples and bubbles stopped and plant became calm. The water was too dark and murky to see through. He plunged his arm into the water, feeling around for any sign of the man who had disappeared under the surface.
Suddenly, he felt a strong grip on his arm and found himself being pulled in. The water got darker and darker as he sank. He struggled with all his might but could not get free of whatever had a hold of him. Remembering his headlamp, he flicked it on. As the light pierced the dark water he could see a pair of pupil-less eyes staring back at him. The Bandit. His lifeless body was somehow pulling him down. Then the eyes rolled back and made contact with him. He couldn’t make out the sound coming from his mouth was but the movement of his lips was clear,
“It’s all your fault.”
BOOM!
The sound, amplified by the water, was deafening. His ears rang as he held them in pain, opening his eyes to find what had caused the noise.
He found himself on a rooftop in the middle of an abandoned city.
“Get ready, they’ll be here any second!” a voice next to him instructed.
There was no time to ask questions. He got up and unslung his rifle from his back. Moments later, a swarm of mutated cats climbed up over the side of the roof heading straight for them. They began firing, picking off whatever they could before it got too close. But it wasn’t long before they were completely overwhelmed. Suddenly, he felt himself being thrown to the ground.
“Stay down!” the voice instructed. He felt the weight of the man press down on him suddenly as he attempted to shield his body from their attackers. He listened in horror as the man yelped in pain over him. The cats tore and bit at him, tearing him apart. Eventually the pained moans stopped and all was quiet. Virtue didn’t want to open his eyes but he knew he had to. He risked a glance to either side. Nothing in sight. Carefully, he rolled out from under the man who had sacrificed himself to save him. It was the Bandit he was so sure he knew. The mutants had mutilated him badly and would probably return later to feed.
He ran up to the edge of the building and looked over the side to make sure they had all gone. This was his only chance to escape this gloomy, death-filled city. Satisfied, he turned from the edge – only to run right into the Bandit who he thought had to have been dead. His body was covered in blood from open wounds as he glared back at him, betrayal in his eyes.
“It’s all your fault.” He said as he aimed his shotgun at Virtue’s torso.
“No! Don’t do it!” Virtue pleaded. “I’m sorry!”
BOOM!
He sailed over the edge of the building as the force of the bullets pushed him. He clawed at the air as he flipped head-over-heels towards the ground below.
“It’s all your fault.” He heard the words whispered into his ear just before he hit the ground.
He sat up suddenly, ready for anything.
“Whoa, whoa… easy, Virtue.” Gremlin said as he entered the room. Looking around the room, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to explain the looks of devastation on them all. He hung his head as realization hit.
“Nimbus… is…” Virtue couldn’t even finish the sentence before he was forced to bury his head in his hands. The nightmare was true then. His friend was dead, and he had done nothing to prevent it from happening. He shook as he sobbed quietly, the tears forcing their way out whether he wanted them or not.
“I’m sorry.” Gremlin said; deep sorrow in his voice. Virtue felt the bench move as he took a seat next to him. What felt like minutes passed before Gremlin finally spoke, his voice pained.
“I know you probably feel like it’s your fault. I know I did when my best friend died. But I want you to know that it’s not your fault; it’s mine. I know you probably can’t believe that now, but it’s true, and you’ll understand that with time.”
That was it. With his mission accomplished, he stood back up and walked out of the room – several doors slammed behind him.
It wasn’t long before Enigma’s sobs broke the silence and he felt her nudge his arm. He looked sideways at her to see her crystal blue eyes shining back at him brighter than ever as her tears amplified their properties. She put her arm around his waist and pulled herself closer. He got the hint and offered her his other arm, accepting her offer for a hug. She squeezed him hard as tears fell from his cheeks and onto the top of her padded armor.
Reaper came back into the room. The distinctive sound of a glass bottle hitting other glass bottles rang through the room as he entered. He started to say something but cut himself short as soon as he knew. He muttered a subtle “No…” and slumped onto the bench near Virtue and Enigma, the bottles clanking against each other in his hands. He subconsciously twisted the cap off of one of the bottles and took a long swig, setting the bottle down between him and them as he closed his eyes and nodded his head in silence.
“He was a good Stalker.” Solitaire said from across the room; the first words he had said since they had escaped Dead City.
“May the Zone watch over him.” Zombie added his contribution as the two of them got up to join the rest of the Stalkers on the bench. Reaper passed the vodka around and they drank together, reliving their memories and experiences with him and praising his contribution to the team.

*
{Virtue’s PDA Log}
[1:13] It’s been a while since I’ve logged anything in my PDA, but I figured today was an exception. I’ve drank away all the pain so I can say what I need to say without choking up too bad. Nimbus, formerly a Bandit named Boris died today saving a man he barely knew. It’s a bizarre coincidence that he probably wouldn’t be alive today had I not done the same for him back in that vehicle scrapyard in the Garbage. I guess his fate is almost poetic in that regard.
Gremlin was right; I feel guilty as sin for what happened to him. But I shouldn’t. I find myself thinking that if I had just let him die back in the Garbage his death would have been someone else’s problem. But if I had done that, I never would have made it as far as I did. He was the only who made me feel comfortable when I was first recruited to this team by Nikita back in the Cordon. He was a real person, like me, and he always spoke his mind. I have no doubt in my mind that, if our affairs in the Zone were over, we could have been life-long friends.
I wish I had gotten to know him better – but in this place that was a luxury that couldn’t be afforded. In another way he was a lot like me; a good man that was forced into a bad situation. His ex-con status was something that, in a less crazy and war-torn world, would never tarnish his name. But he made the best of a bad situation and it saved his life when he decided to turn away from the Bandits and help the Loners and myself. We owed each other our lives up until today, but he’ll never have to worry about that again. I hope that, wherever he is, he finds the peace he deserved but never had in life.
This log was written in honor of him, in hopes that he will be one of the few souls that won’t die forgotten in the Zone.
R.I.P. Nimbus
[End Log]

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