Chapter 5: It's a Wild, Wild World

[Audio Enabled]
*The group introduces themselves to Nimbus as they continue into territory unknown. When they finish, Virtue takes the opportunity to approach him.*
Virtue: Hey, Nimbus…
Nimbus: Yeah, Virtue?
Virtue: Sorry I left without saying anything. I feel bad about it, but Nikita said there wasn’t any room for you. I was offered a job and had to take it.
Nimbus: I understand. Missions are sensitive things; you can’t have too many or too few people and expect it to go as planned. But it looks like I showed up at just the right time and got to come along anyway. You can’t use an excuse like that to ditch me.
*He smiles playfully. Virtue returns the smile.*
Virtue: Yeah, but we’re both pretty inexperienced out here compared to the rest of these guys; I didn’t want to just leave you there after all that happened yesterday. I really hoped we would be able to find work together.
Nimbus: Don’t worry about it, I’m used to it. I understand why you did it anyway – you actually have something worth working for.
Virtue: Well, I’m glad to see you decided to tag along anyway. I’d hate to never get to see you again after the excitement of the other day.
*Nimbus laughs.*
Nimbus: You’re the first OK guy I’ve met since I’ve been here; I wasn’t going to let you just vanish without at least getting your address so we could be pen pals.
*Virtue returns the laugh.*
Virtue: Well, I appreciate that.
Nimbus: I doubt you’d keep me around if it weren’t for my amazing skills with a shotgun though - I know Gremlin wouldn’t.
*Virtue laughs again.*
Virtue: Probably not.
*The Stalkers continue walking in the eerie silence they seemed to like so much. Then, to Virtue’s surprise, Phantom hangs back a little until he’s walking next to Virtue.*
Phantom: Hey, Virtue – mind some company?
Virtue: Uh… no - not at all.
*Nikita motions Nimbus over, probably to fill him in on the same limited information he gave Virtue that morning.*
Nimbus: I’m gonna go talk to Nikita about the mission.
Virtue: Good luck with that, he’s pretty hushed about it.
*Nimbus drifts over to Nikita and they begin discussing things Virtue can’t quite overhear.*
Phantom: Hey. You kept your cool pretty good back there.
Virtue: On the outside maybe. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared to death through most of the… experience.
Phantom: Not many Stalkers have seen a Bloodsucker, let alone survived an attack. And you came out like a trooper… unlike some of us.
*Phantom glances back at Jester. He stares blankly at the ground as he continues walking; the silence from him is more awkward than that of the others.*
Virtue: I hope he’s alright.
Phantom: He will be. I’ve been friends with Gremlin for years now. That’s one of the ways he breaks Stalkers into the Zone – he exposes them to it all at once, figuring if they’re still alive afterwards they’re made of the right stuff.
Virtue: Is that what this mission is all about?
Phantom: Not exactly… but it is a side-effect when you take new Stalkers in to missions such as this one. He figures he’s doing everyone a service; if you’re good, you get the experience – if you’re bad… well, you become a meat-shield.
Virtue: Why all the secrecy with the mission?
Phantom: Let’s just say its top secret, and there are ears everywhere.
Virtue: Fair enough.
Phantom: Trust me when I say the rewards are well worth the risk involved.
Virtue: I hope so. I have a wife waiting for me on the other side of that fence… depending on me. Every day that goes by is another day that I don’t have the reassurance that she’s still alive and well.
*Phantom sighs, obviously on the verge of digging out his life story. Virtue waits as he gathers himself.*
Phantom: Back in 1986, I was seventeen, living in Ovruch, when my dad got a job working in Chernobyl. He took my mom and my sister with him but I refused to go. I lived and worked in Ovruch when the first explosion took place. After the cleanup crews finished and the total damage was assessed, I learned that my father was working a shift that night, and was near the reactor when it exploded. My mother and sister were convinced that he was still alive, and risked everything they had to try to get back into the Zone after it was evacuated.
The weeks went by and the chance of my father’s survival dwindled. Eventually it turned from a rescue mission into a search for his body. On one of their journeys into the NPP, they said they could hear screams of what sounded like men… but animalistic. They also stumbled into a military operation in the area. Apparently a secret command center had been set up inside the plant, for some top secret project. They kept ranting about something referred to as “Sector X” within the reactor. They always gave me updates on their latest findings as they came in. I told them that they were in extreme danger and that Father would never have wanted them to be there.
One day I stopped receiving updates from them. I went to visit them where they were living at the time to see if they were alright. Someone who knew them said that one day some men in uniform came to the house and left with bags marked with radiation symbols on them. I checked the obituaries that day, and both of their names were on the list. I was devastated to lose them… they were the last of my family I had who were dear to me. When I heard of the second explosion in ‘06 I decided it is time to face my problems and begin my journey to Chernobyl to learn the truth of my father’s disappearance, and avenge the murder of my mother and sister.
*Virtue listens in horror – questions whiz through his mind at a million kilometers per hour. Men in uniform, murders, animalistic screaming within Chernobyl, and “Sector X”? the Zone suddenly seemed much more than just a cordoned-off disaster zone – there was outside involvement as well.*
Virtue: Wow… that’s quite a story. What do you make of your mother and sister’s findings?
Phantom: Well, I know for a fact that the radioactive bags they carried away contained the first evolution of the artifacts we have in the Zone today. How they got them… I can only guess.
Virtue: What about this “Sector X”?
Phantom: I can only assume it’s the part of the reactor where the remainder of the nuclear fuel spilled after the explosion. The radiation is extremely intense there. It’s rumored that might be where the first mutants came from.
*Virtue takes in this new information, his face contorting in realization and horror as he asks:*
Virtue: You don’t mean human mutation… do you?
Phantom: I do. The Soviets rushed everything they did, including the cleanup of the disaster. The Liquidators – the men in charge of shoveling as much of the contaminated particles back into the reactor room - for instance. The radiation was so intense as they worked, they had to run in, dump as much waste as they could back into the reactor, and run to safety within about ten seconds or suffer the side-effects of radiation poisoning.
Now take into consideration the fact that they were in the middle of the Cold War with America. Do you really think they would have spent the extra resources doing a thorough job when they had other affairs to attend to?
Virtue: Wh… what are you getting at?
Phantom: The bodies! They didn’t recover the bodies of those who stuck around those extra few seconds to save a handful more lives! There was too much contamination! They figured they might as well have been dressing their own corpses for their funerals so it was easier to just shovel the dead back in with all the waste.
Virtue: So they just left all the bodies…? What about the families who had funerals?
Phantom: All closed-casket. It’s easy to claim you identified a body through DNA sampling or Dental records and never show the corpse. The real ones are still in Chernobyl… and some aren’t as dead as people think.
Virtue: How do you know this?
Phantom: The second explosion was a sign to me that the truth needed to be revealed. With the disappearance of my family and all of the other unexplained things I owed it to them, myself and everyone who lost a family member to find the truth. So I decided to enter into the Zone after the second explosion. I was one of the first ones who made it to the center before it became impassable. I made it to the NPP.
Virtue: What did you find?
Phantom: Hell… man-made Hell.
Virtue: What do you mean?
Phantom: Between the first and second explosions whatever the government had been working on there had been abandoned, but they didn’t take anything with them.  I found bodies strewn about rooms, as if they had just been discarded like garbage. Smaller rooms had bodies stacked inside, all of them charred and mutilated. But all of that was tame compared to what I saw as I neared the reactor…
Virtue: What did you see…?
*Gremlin cuts them off before Phantom can respond:*
Gremlin: Quiet guys - we’re nearing our destination. Up ahead is the Burner tunnel. 
Nimbus: Burner Tunnel?
Gremlin: If you haven’t run into an anomaly before, you have now.
Nimbus: Do you know the way through?
Gremlin: It shifts constantly; we’ll have to “feel” our way through. Everyone follow in a line behind me. I’m going to use some bolts to test where the anomalies are.
*Gremlin opens a small pouch and takes out a handful of old, rusted bolts used in construction. He tosses a small bolt, which lands on the ground a few feet away.*
Gremlin: So far so good, follow my path.
*He throws another. As it flies ahead of them, a flame suddenly shoots up from the ground out of nowhere. The bolt rolls through the flames on the ground ahead, red hot.*
Nimbus: You sure this is going to work?
Gremlin: Just follow my path exactly and you’ll be fine.
*Another bolt is thrown, contacting the ground.*
Gremlin: Forward 6 paces, then right four paces.
*Another bolt is thrown, incinerating in a Burner anomaly.*
Gremlin: Forward ten paces.
*Another bolt is thrown, and is also incinerated.*
Gremlin: Left eight paces.
Nimbus: How do you know this goes all the way through?
Gremlin: It always does.
*Another bolt is thrown, and is incinerated.*
Gremlin: Forward four.
*Another bolt is thrown, contacting ground*
Gremlin: Step around the bridge support, then go forward eight paces.
Phantom: It’s getting hotter in here.
Gremlin: Don’t worry, this’ll work.
*Another bolt is thrown, and is incinerated.*
Gremlin: Left two and-a-half paces, forward five paces.
*Another bolt is thrown, and is incinerated*
Gremlin: Right three paces forward two.
*Another bolt is thrown, and is incinerated*
Gremlin: Uh… Left 1 and-a-half paces.
Nimbus: It’s getting really hot now.
*Another bolt is thrown, and is incinerated*
Gremlin: Forward six paces.
*Another bolt is thrown, and is incinerated*
Gremlin: Shit…
Phantom: Uh-oh.
Nimbus: What’s uh-oh?
Gremlin: Nothing, it’s no problem. Side-step forward six paces, then step behind one pace, pivot right and walk two paces forward.
*The group carefully complies, after a little confusion, but make it through the obstacle course of invisible anomalies with little problem. The heat continues to rise as they near the end of the tunnel. Gremlin throws another bolt, which rolls out onto the road outside of the tunnel. He sighs in relief.*
Gremlin: Four paces left, four forward, around the support and we’re out.
*Phantom looks over his shoulder at an unmoving shadow behind him.*
Phantom: We’re short a man.
Gremlin: Jester, come on!
Jester: What were those directions again?
Gremlin:  Weren’t you paying attention? I don’t remember now. Throw something ahead of you.
Jester: I don’t have anything to throw!
Gremlin: Dammit!
*Jester moves cautiously forward, trying his best to remember the directions given for his position in the tunnel. As he nears the group, the air around them gets hot and a sudden burst of flame shoots up from the ground, invoking a scream from Jester.*
Gremlin: Shit! You misstepped!
*Jester decides to jump from where he is just behind the Stalkers to where they’re standing just outside of the tunnel. He soars through the air, freedom close at hand. The group shields their faces and stagger back as a large Burner anomaly erupts as Jester passes through it. The flame roars over him as he passes through it and out onto the road, smoking as he rolls down the gradual slope outside the tunnel.*
Jester: FUCK!!! Put it out! It’s too hot!
Phantom: Stop, drop and roll!!!
Jester: I am! It’s not going out!
Gremlin: Stand back!
*Gremlin tackles Jester to stop the roll and begins tearing off pieces of his armor in a last-ditch effort to save him from becoming engulfed in flame. Pieces of his armor fly off, the flames devour them hungrily. Jester pants and struggles as the last of flames vanish, leaving no trace of the armor they engulfed.*
Gremlin: There! You’re OK now. The fire those things spit out isn’t like normal fire. It’s like Hell’s fire - the flames don’t stop until everything in their path is destroyed. Your burns will heal.
Nimbus: Are you alright, man?
Jester: Well let’s see, I was on fucking fire a few seconds ago – so NO, I’m not!
Phantom: At least your mouth is working again…
Gremlin: Enough, we need to keep moving if we’re going to make good time.
Jester: Oh don’t worry about me - I’ll be in the back so you don’t all have to smell burnt flesh the whole way.
 [Audio Disabled]

That Jester guy can joke his way out of anything – no doubt that’s how he got his name. He’s got some pretty nasty burns after that incident and his armor looks like an old teddy bear some dog got a hold of. Hopefully he’s learned his lesson though - Gremlin has a harsh way of doing things at times, but he’s gotten us this far with little problem.
I can’t stop thinking about Phantom’s story. That really shed the Zone in a different light. The longer I’m in this place the deeper it seems to get. Halfway through that tunnel back there I got the feeling that it was a one-way trip. I’m starting to think that the Zone might keep me here forever.
No, I can’t think that way. Emelia deserves more than that.
It’s getting dark now, but it seems that the light is fading at a faster rate than it should. The area ahead is foggy and it’s hard to make out anything beyond the road in front of us. The only hint at where we’re going is a sign along the road… I think it read “Yantar”. Gremlin shuddered a little as we passed it.
This place gives me the creeps. I thought the Zone was a pretty creepy place, but I see now that everything I’ve seen so far was just the welcoming room. It smells like a swamp ahead and it’s getting darker by the minute out here. We’ve all turned on the headlamps attached to the hoods of our suits, making everything a lot creepier - but easier to see. There’s a slight breeze in the area, the air is damp and cold with a kind of deep moan to it as it goes by. I swear… it sounds like someone or something is nearby, moaning as we pass. I know it’s just the wind though…
Something’s wrong. The fog is too thick and Gremlin can’t figure out where we are on the map. He and Phantom are looking over it on Gremlin’s PDA while the rest of us keep watch. It’s almost completely dark; the sky is a dark blue with a tinge of blood-red sky to the west where the sun is nearly set. The fog does seem to be dissipating a little, but I still can’t see more than 30 meters away. The wind has died down and the air hangs thick with around us. I can still hear the moaning noises despite the fact that the wind has all but died… weird. Even Zombie looks a little unnerved now.
It looks like we might be moving out soon, so I’ll turn audio on.

[Audio Enabled]
Gremlin: Dammit! We should have been there hours ago. I can’t think of anything I hate more in this fucking place than fog.
Phantom: You didn’t know it was going to be this bad.
Gremlin: We should have left earlier…
Phantom: Well we can’t change that now, let’s just head in the direction of the bunker and hope we hit it.
Gremlin: Do you have any idea what’s out there?!  If we just start walking around we could hit the swamp, the fields, or God-forbid the Facility! Not to mention the several dozen large pockets of radiation!
Phantom: Well, if we sit here it’s just going to keep getting darker… and there’s more than fog out there that could be closing in on us.
Gremlin: Darkness is better than fog.
Phantom: That’s not exactly what I meant… but we need to do something and do it quickly.
Gremlin: I know… I know. It might be best if I try to find the bunker and the rest of you stay here.
Phantom: There’s no way in hell I’m letting you go alone. If you go, I’m going with you.
Gremlin: Alright, let’s do it then.
*Gremlin turns to the rest of the group, who had heard the entire conversation unbeknownst to him.*
Gremlin: OK, change of plans. Phantom and I are going to scout ahead and try to find the bunker. The rest of you stay here. We’ll come back for you when we find it.
Jester: And if you don’t come back…?
Gremlin: If for some reason we don’t, Zombie will know what to do.
Zombie: I am as a Falcon; ever watchful.
Jester: That’s *real* reassuring.
Gremlin: If we’re not back in an hour, execute plan B, Zombie.
Zombie: It will be as a man on his deathbed.
Jester: Do you try to freak people out, or does it come naturally?
Zombie: Men fear what they do not understand.
Jester: Yeah, well I understand we’re in real shit right now.
Gremlin: Zombie is a capable Stalker, Jester. One hour – we’ll be right back.
Jester: Yeah, see you in the next life.
*The five remaining Stalkers walk up to a nearby abandoned car on the side of the road, and sit on top of it as they wait for the return of their companions. Crickets chirp and animals swish through the tall grass and splash through the water of the damp, swampy land around them. They hold their rifles closely to their chests as they listen to the sounds around them, trying to label each new sound as it reaches their ears. They hear what sounds like something trudging through the mud near them and a constant moaning noise that as soon as they classify as the wind, it evolves into something mysterious again and the cause eludes them.
Finally, Jester checks an old wristwatch on his wrist and stands up in disgust and anticipation.*
Jester: It’s been an hour! Where are they?
Zombie: Patience is a virtue.
Jester: And Virtue is a Stalker.
*Nimbus fakes a laugh:*
Nimbus: Har har.
Jester: What exactly is “Plan B” anyway…. or “Plan A” for that matter?!
Nikita: I think it’s safe to tell them what Plan A is now.
Zombie: A man has a right to know what he’s fighting for.
Jester: That’s more like it. What’s Plan A – and where the hell are we anyway?
Nikita: Freedom – a faction of Stalkers, recently discovered that the barrier blocking the route to the center of the Zone is a psionic field generated in a lab in the Red Forest. Another such lab exists here. The job was commissioned from Freedom to Gremlin to learn about the device generating the psionic field in hopes that it would be the key to bringing down the field in the Red Forest.
Jester: And where is this lab exactly?
Nikita: It’s underground within the complex north-west of here.
Jester: Underground?! Nobody told me this was an underground mission!
Nikita: As I recall, you didn’t ask. You just jumped in head first the same way you do with every other mission you go on.
Jester: Yeah… but that detail would have been nice to know before-hand.
Nikita: The reward is well worth it, and you know it.
Nimbus: What’s the reward?
Nikita: One beyond your wildest dreams; a chance to be granted a wish.
Virtue: A wish…?
Nikita: You obviously haven’t heard of the local legend around here. Supposedly there’s a monolith inside the sarcophagus that appeared sometime after the second explosion that is capable of granting a wish to the first Stalker who gets there.
Virtue: You believe this?
Nikita: the Zone is a strange place; you never know what truth something may hold until you are staring it in the face. But either way, there’s obviously something to be had behind “the Barrier” as they call it, otherwise what’s the point in it being there?
*Jester quickly crouches down and listens intently ahead.*
Jester: Hey… someone’s coming!
*Footsteps approach slowly in the distance.*
Jester: Gremlin? Phantom? Hello?
*A distinct moaning noise responds. It’s definitely not the wind.*
Virtue: I’ve been hearing that sound for hours now… I thought it was the wind.
*Zombie cocks his rifle.*
Zombie: The hunted becomes the hunter.
Jester: What?
*Nimbus looks at Nikita, shaking in fear and anticipation.*
Nimbus: Who or… what is over there?
Nikita: I’ve only heard rumors about this area.
Nimbus: Regarding what, exactly?!
Nikita: All I can say is Stalkers stay away from this area. They say the danger outweighs any reward.
Jester: Great! Fucking great! We’re going right into the heart of it aren’t we?
Nikita: Yes.
Jester: What’s this danger? Does it have to do with that moaning sound? Huh?
Nikita: Yes.
Jester: Then what…
Zombie: Silence!
*The sound of the slowly approaching footsteps closes in on them. The silhouette of another Stalker emerges from the fog near them. The Stalkers swivel towards the figure as it draws closer. Suddenly, Jester lowers his weapon and stands up in amazement.*
Jester: Mykola? Is that you?
*The Stalker doesn’t respond and keeps walking towards them. *
Jester: Mykola! What the hell are you doing here, I heard you were headed this way but you never reported back! What happened?
*The Stalker still refrains from speaking, As his facial features become visible, Nimbus notices his eyes: one is rolled back in his head while the other wanders lazily around in the socket as he limps towards them.*
Nimbus: Something’s not right… look at his eyes…
Jester: Mykola… man, what’s wrong? You look half dead.
*A loud moan comes from Mykola, followed by a burst of gunfire from the rifle in his hands.*
Jester: Shit! What the hell’s wrong?
Nimbus: Get down!
The pellets from Nimbus’ shotgun pierce the chest cavity of the approaching Stalker, sending him to the ground. He twitches and struggles as blood seeps into the grass beside him. Finally, his struggle ceases as he lets out a long moan and slowly comes to a rest on the side of the road.*
Jester: I… I can’t… what happened to him?!
Nikita: That’s what I was afraid of. His brain got fried by the emissions out here, he was zombified. 
Jester: How? How did that happen?
Nikita: The psionic emission field that is generated here fucks with your mind, making it the ultimate artificial barrier blocking off parts of the Zone. The body can’t function without the mind, so they fry your mind, turning you into a roaming machine for them.
Jester: Who’s “them”?
Nikita: Whoever put up the barriers.
Jester: Well fuck this. I’m not going to be next on the menu!
*Jester storms off into the fog in a panic – muttering to himself as he does.*
Nikita: Jester! Get back here! Don’t go out there!
Jester: They said the bunker is that way, so that’s the way I’m going!
Nikita: You idiot! Stay here; you don’t know what you’re doing!
Jester: Better than staying here. I don’t want to be Zombie bait!
Nikita: If you leave, we’re not going to go looking for you!
Jester: I’ll see you all at the bunker!
*Jester walks off into the fog, towards where he believes the bunker is located.*
Nikita: Dammit… that stupid idiot.
Zombie: May the Zone sign his fate with a loving hand.
Nimbus: What do we do now? Gremlin and Phantom still haven’t shown up.
Nikita: I don’t…
*The sound of gunshots nearby pierce the night fog. Several moans from multiple sources come from around them.*
Nimbus: Where’s that coming from? Is that Jester?
Nikita: I don’t know… but it’s close by.
Zombie: Brace yourselves for the storm.
Nimbus: Behind you Virtue!
Virtue: Shit!
*Virtue drops to the ground with a thump, crawling to safe the behind the car.*
*Boom! The sound of Nimbus’ shotgun rocks car next to him.*
*A sea of shadows emerges from the fog around them – all of them look half-dead, like their bodies are intact but their brains are completely gone. Their suits show a variety of customization of gear and color – much like the Stalkers gathered at the Bar. These men must have come from all over the Zone in search of some treasure here – all ultimately failing due to the “Emission” Nikita spoke of. Some speak as they approach:*
[Unknown 1]: Youuuuuu… Ouuuutttt…
[Unknown 2]: Geeeeeett… theeeeeemmm…
*Zombie unloads his rifle at anything within range. The rest of the Stalkers don’t need any more incentive, and mimic his action.*
Nimbus: Stay down Virtue - there’s more coming up behind you!
Virtue: Shit… I dropped my weapon when I fell!
Nikita: I got it… here!
*Nikita tosses his rifle back to him. He catches it and gets back on his feet.*
Virtue: Thanks.
*Nikita and Virtue join the remaining two Stalkers in the firefight.*
Nimbus: How many are there?
Nikita: They must have known about us the whole time, probably just outside our line of sight in the fog!
Zombie: Back to hell with you, demons!
*The Stalkers pour through bullets like crazy as the shapes continue to emerge from the fog around them.*
Nikita: I need a mag!
Virtue: I’m out!
Zombie: Last one. May it pierce their soulless hearts!
Nikita: Keep it up, there’s more from the south-west!
*Distant gunfire and more coherent shouting approaches from somewhere through the fog south-west of them.*
Nimbus: There’s more gun-fire coming from that direction!
Nikita: It’s not erratic enough to be the zombies… who is that?
Nimbus: Someone else is definitely out there - Nikita! Down!
*Another shotgun blast goes off, emptying the content of the victims’ head all over the ground behind it.*
Nimbus: Oh God, that’s sick…
Nikita: I’m dry!
Nimbus: I’m getting low on shells here!
Zombie: Purge these foul creatures from the Zone!
*Zombie slides a box of shells across the road to Nimbus.*
Nimbus: Thanks man!
*Nimbus and Zombie continue to hold off the Zombified Stalkers approaching from the south. Then, Zombie points at two Stalkers running through the fog towards them and indicates not to shoot them.*
Zombie: The hunted return!
Nikita: Up ahead… I think it’s Gremlin and Phantom!
Virtue: That’s them!
*Gremlin shouts over the gunfire and moans of the Zombified Stalkers:*
Gremlin: Cover us - we’re coming right for you!
Phantom: Watch yourself, Gremlin! They’re closing in from the side.
*Gremlin and Phantom run towards the car where the Stalkers are desperately firing into the fog at anything that moves. They run through the hoard of shambling men, shooting at anything that gets too close until they finally reach the car.*
Gremlin: They used the fog as cover! They’ve been all round us the whole time!
Zombie: The pack is patient until the kill; then instinct takes over.
Gremlin: In other words; they’ll keep coming until they overtake us – but we found the bunker! We’ll need to make a break for it or we’re dead meat!
Nikita: Virtue and I are out of ammo - Zombie and Nimbus are low.
Gremlin: What about Jester?
Nikita: He ran off a few minutes ago for the bunker, we thought your gunfire was his…
Gremlin: Damn that fool!
*Phantom tosses a magazine to both Virtue and Nikita, which are actually two secured together with a rubber band for double capacity and easy swapping.*
Phantom: Here are a couple magazines for both of you. Don’t waste them!
Gremlin: Alright, we need to get the hell out of here. Go!
*The Stalkers start running, gunning down anything in their path as Gremlin and Phantom clear the way through the thick fog and Zombified Stalkers in front of them.*
Gremlin: It’s not far! I mapped it out on my PDA. The fog made it hard to find, but we did it!
Phantom: Don’t let them get too close to you!
*Nikita trips on a fallen Stalker in the path and face-plants on the ground in front of him with a grunt.*
Nikita: Fuck!
Phantom: Nikita is down - I got him!
*Gremlin stops and waits for his friend to catch up.*
Gremlin: Phantom! Come on!
Phantom: Keep going, I’ve got him!
Gremlin: Dammit! Come on guys!
Phantom: He twisted his ankle, he won’t make it! I’m staying here!
Gremlin: Don’t be a fool!
Phantom: It’s foolish to leave a good man behind.
*Gremlin curses, knowing that this is not the time for words.*
Gremlin: Alright… alright… here’s my last mag, and that scope I promised you a while back.
Phantom: Thanks.
Gremlin: I’ll be back for you as soon as I get them to safety.
Phantom: Don’t worry about me. Get out of here.
*Gremlin turns away reluctantly, addressing the rest of the group as Phantom begins to drag Nikita through the fog to supposed safety.*
Gremlin: Alright Stalkers, let’s move!
*Minutes pass filled with the gunfire, moaning, and running all mixed together. Finally, the Zombified Stalkers become fewer as they near a large, metal fence.*
Gremlin: The bunker is just ahead; once we’re inside we’ll be safe!
Nimbus: What about the others?
Gremlin: They’re on their own now – we’ll have to worry about it later.
Zombie: the Zone will watch over them.
Gremlin: There’s the perimeter fence! Keep go…
*A loud moan comes from nearby followed by a short burst of gunshots. Zombie grunts in pain as his leg buckles beneath him.*
Gremlin: Zombie! Are you ok?
Zombie: The prey is wounded.
Gremlin: Shit man, don’t stop now!
Nimbus: His leg is torn up pretty good, give me your arm!
*Nimbus takes Zombie’s arm and wraps it around his neck as he helps him along.*
Gremlin: I got this one. Move out!
*Virtue is the only one left with the ability to fire a gun with any hope of hitting his target. He swallows hard, taking the initiative:*
Virtue: I’ve got us covered!
Gremlin: Don’t let anything through that fence!
*Virtue lays down suppressing fire while the other three Stalkers limp towards the bunker. He yells at the nearby Stalkers, drawn in by the sound of gunfire:*
Virtue: Get back! BACK!
*Retaliating moans answer his challenge. He yells back as they fall to the ground, one by one.*
Virtue: Don’t come any closer!
*They fight back - sporadic gunfire from multiple sources ricochet off the ground and fence near Virtue.*
Virtue: Shit, they’re closing in guys!
*Virtue fires desperately at the closest targets to him. They each fall to the ground in front of him as another shadow emerges near it.*
*A multitude of voices respond this time as an engulfing shadow of shambling Stalkers close in on the gate to the bunker, sealing them inside the compound.*
Virtue: Shit… there must be hundreds out there!
Nimbus: I hear them! There’s too many!
*Virtue looks back as the Stalkers approach the door to the metallic structure located in the middle of the fenced-off area.*
Gremlin: That’s the door! Knock three times!
*Virtue quickly backs into the compound as the Zombified Stalkers filter in through the gate.*
Virtue: They’re inside the perimeter! I can’t kill them all!
Gremlin: Get over here Virtue! We’re almost inside!
*A voice comes through a small speaker located by a button near the door.*
[Unknown 1]: What’s going on out there?
Gremlin: Sakharov! It’s Gremlin!
[Unknown 1 - Identified as Sakharov]: Who?
Gremlin: GREMLIN! I was here a few minutes ago with Phantom!
Sakharov: What’s all that noise out there?
Gremlin: We’ve got zombies closing in! Open the door!
Sakharov: Who was this again?
Sakharov: No need to shout. I’ll open the door right now.
Gremlin: Any day now…
Sakharov: Sorry, I can’t remember which button opens the door… I really need to color-coordinate these. Now was it this one… or that one. Maybe that one - no… it might have been…
Sakharov: This is a sophisticated laboratory; I can’t just go around pressing buttons without knowing what will happen. The last time I did that I made a Pseudodog! Heh heh… little joke.
Gremlin: COME ON!
Sakharov: Oh - here it is! I couldn’t see the word “open” on it. There you go!
*The door to the bunker swings open.*
Gremlin: Everyone inside! Come on Virtue!
*Virtue makes a break for the door before the zombies overtake him. Gremlin presses a button on the inside of the door as Virtue enters. The door begins to close.*
Gremlin: Die you brainless bastards!
*Gremlin opens fire with his rifle. A barrage of gunfire and moans return the favor as he runs back behind a wall further inside.*
Virtue: Gremlin. Watch your right!
*An excited moan comes from nearby as a shotgun blast goes off, sending Gremlin to the ground.*
Virtue: GREMLIN!
*Virtue rushes to the front of the closing door and opens fire, tearing into the zombie the shot Gremlin and sending the rest outside into a frenzy of moans.*
Gremlin: *coughs and sputters* Unh… I’m *coughs* OK. Just get me inside. *coughs*
Virtue: I’ve got you, don’t worry!
*Virtue keeps the trigger pulled until the magazine is empty and all that remains are empty clicks. Once the door is nearly closed, a sickening crack comes from it, indicating a hand getting caught in the doorway. The door closes with a hiss from the hydraulics. A severed hand falls to the floor inside as the zombies outside bump against the exterior metal of the bunker and moan and claw at the door. Virtue remains stationed at the door as Gremlin props himself up against the wall opposite and reassures him:*
Gremlin: They can’t get inside, we’re safe here.
*Nimbus emerges from around a corner left of the door.*
Nimbus: Are you guys OK?!
Virtue: I’m fine. Gremlin took a nice shot to the chest though.
Gremlin: I’ve had worse. Good thing I packed extra body armor today.
*Gremlin laughs at his own joke.*
Nimbus: Listen to that… they’re all up against the door like they’re trying to force their way in.
Gremlin: They don’t want to get inside - they want to *keep* us inside.
Nimbus: Why…?
Gremlin: Nobody ever comes here except to go to the complex where the emissions are coming from. They’re protecting it.
Virtue: You took a good hit; we need to get that fixed up.
*The man that matches the voice on the speaker emerges from around the corner in a blue lab coat. He is an old man in his sixties or so with snowy white hair. At first glance, he looks like he could be an ex-Chernobyl employee.*
Sakharov: What’s going on here? I just cleaned these floors!
Gremlin: Keep complaining and you’ll be cleaning up your own brains old man!
Virtue: Gremlin and Zombie are wounded, sir. They need help.
Sakharov: I have the proper facilities is back, but I can only work on one at a time.
Gremlin: Take Zombie first, I’m fine.
Sakharov: Ok. In the meantime here is a med kit and bandages to stop the bleeding. Zombie is already on the other room so I’ll be in there.
*The scientist, Sakharov, vanishes once more around the corner to tend to Zombie’s wounds.*
Nimbus: What about those guys out there? We left them all alone…
Gremlin: They made their choices. There’s nothing we can do for them now. We’re stuck in here until those zombies find something better to do.
Virtue: Dammit!
Gremlin: Like Zombie said, the Zone will watch over them. It will decide if they live or die.
Nimbus: Yeah, no offense or anything but I think that’s a load of shit. WE can do something about it and WE should.
Gremlin: Oh? You want to go out there and gun down a fuckload of zombies, be my guest.
Nimbus: Are you just going to give up?
*Gremlin attempts to sit up but fails, so instead punches Nimbus in the shin to bring him down to his level so he can grab him by the collar.*
Gremlin: Listen to me! There is NOTHING we can do! Whatever force is controlling these guys has an agenda… and right now it wants to keep us in here. If we try to go out there we’re all dead!
*Nimbus stares back with determination in his eyes:*
Nimbus: Well then what CAN we do!?
Gremlin: Wait.
Nimbus: That’s it? Just wait?!
Gremlin: That’s it. I’m sorry. Sorry about punching you too.
*Nimbus gets up, and walks away in frustration. Gremlin looks up at Virtue solemnly.*
Gremlin: It’s the way of the Zone. He’ll understand that in time.
Virtue: I can’t help but feel the same way. I mean, I know there’s a horde of zombies out there… but I feel like sitting in here is getting us nowhere.
Gremlin: When you’ve been in the Zone as long as I have you’ll learn that everything happens for a reason, and you have absolutely no control over it.
Virtue: I don’t believe that. I believe that we control our own lives… nothing or nobody else controls it.
*Gremlin laughs at Virtue’s apparent delusion.*
Gremlin: Maybe outside, but in here it’s different.
Virtue: Why do you say that?
Gremlin: There’s another force at work here. Something we have no control over. Every Stalker here has tried to understand it, but nobody can. The best thing we can do is stay clear of the barriers and keep whatever secrets they conceal hidden. This mission treads on breaking that unspoken promise we keep between that unknown force.
Virtue: What about your friend Phantom? He seems to think differently. Don’t you think he deserves some answers?
Gremlin: Answers to what?
Virtue: About what happened to his family?
Gremlin: He told me his family died when he was a teenager.
*Virtue goes into detail about the story Phantom shared with him on their way to the bunker. Gremlin listens curiously as Virtue lays out an entirely different story than the one he had apparently been given from Phantom.*
Gremlin: I… I’ve never heard that story.
Virtue: Maybe he never told you because he respects your friendship and didn’t want to compromise your beliefs.
Gremlin: Yeah… but if I had known all of that…
Virtue: You’re a good leader, and those are hard to find these days. A good leader has a goal, and motivation to reach that goal. Maybe he didn’t want to distract you from your mission.
Gremlin: Maybe. But now I might never know. He’s still out there and those monsters are blocking our only exit.
Virtue: Well, if there is another force at work here, as you say, maybe it’ll let him live.
Gremlin: One thing’s for sure: the second those things move an inch away from that door I’m going out there. You’re right, Virtue: he does deserve my help, and I’ll be damned if I let anyone try to stop me from helping him. He deserves to know what happened to his family and I owe it to him as a friend to help him find the answers he seeks.
Virtue: Thanks for hearing me out.
Gremlin: Thanks for giving a damn.
[Audio Disabled]

It’s about a quarter-to-one in the morning and the zombies are still outside, barricading the door. I can still hear them moaning and grunting all around the bunker, making it very hard to concentrate on anything. Zombie and Gremlin are all patched up and good to go - according to them anyway. Those guys can really take a beating. As for Jester, Phantom and Nikita… as they say “only the Zone knows”.
My fourth day in the Zone has been one of the most earth-shattering for me. Seeing the heart of the human re-occupation of the Zone – the Bar, and the look of hopelessness I see in the eyes of other Stalkers makes me wonder if any of us will make it here.
It’s good to see Nimbus again, I’m amazed he managed to make his way to us and even rescue us from that Bloodsucker. I dare to think that we could have been killed by that thing if he hadn’t had the urge to find out where I went and follow me. I spared his life so I guess that makes us even. I have a feeling he could turn into the kind of friend most people can only hope to have at least once in their lifetime.
That Bloodsucker… was one of the scariest things I’ve seen in my life. The zombies around me are like something out of a horror movie, but that Bloodsucker was like a nightmare incarnate. Did it used to be human, a Stalker maybe, with a husband or wife, kids even? Whatever it used to be, it’s far from now. Those eyes seemed to pierce flesh and see every flaw I have, and behind them… only a lust for blood. It was aptly named, of that I have no doubt. If there is another “force” behind the Zone like Gremlin was talking about, it must be stopped… at all costs if this nightmare is ever going to end.
Tomorrow we’re going to begin our true mission, which Gremlin has laid out for the rest of us. Our mission is to infiltrate an underground facility beneath the large, abandoned facility to the north knows as “X16” and discover the source of the Emission that blankets the area around it.
Sakharov, the scientist in charge of the lab here, has some sort of makeshift device he says should dampen the effect of the emission to prevent it from controlling our higher brain functions. He says it’s just a prototype, so he doesn’t know how well or for how long we will be protected from the emission, but he suspects that once we’re within the lab, the effects of the emission should be lessened.
Gremlin has given up trying to get out of the bunker to rescue Phantom and Nikita. He finally sat down next to the door, holding his rifle like a teddy bear and fell asleep.
I’m the last one awake besides Sakharov, who never seems to sleep. He mumbles a lot and seems to be a bit absent-minded. But he does a lot of research on Zone-related anomalies and artifacts and seems to be an overall good person.
Nimbus and I talked briefly before he was too exhausted to talk anymore. I guess he ran most of the way through the Wild Territory, using paths frequented by Bandits and Mercs to get to us faster than other Stalkers would be able to normally. He enjoys my company and the company of the other Stalkers in the group. It must be one hell of a change compared to what he’s used to in the Bandit’s company.
Anyway, we’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow. Virtue out.