The tracks continued on for miles, weaving through the Zone to places long-abandoned. The Stalkers followed them mostly silent, at least when Reaper wasn’t cracking the off joke or short story, staying alert to the sounds of nearby wildlife in case any mutant should happen by them. Though the area around them was mostly overgrown grass and weeds, there were several thickets around them where anything could pop out at any second should it choose to. Though it had been quiet since they had departed from the Wild Territory they weren’t about to take any chances after the swarm of mutants and fleeing Mercs and Bandits they had encountered.
Virtue looked up as Enigma gave some brief instructions to Gremlin, then slowed her pace until she was walking next to him.
“Hey.” He said as she joined him.
She flipped up the protective shielding on her suit and let him get a good look at her glowing eyes as they gazed back at him mysteriously. Her thin face and pale skin shimmered in the sun coming through the helmet and a grin crossed her lips.
Virtue looked away, feeling suddenly unworthy of her affection. He didn’t know why he felt that way, just like he didn’t know what it was she saw in him besides that they had been through a lot together in the short time they had known each other. Maybe it was simply the danger that had attracted her to him… but why him then and not one of the other Stalkers? Gremlin was more of a leader, Zombie was tougher, Solitaire more controlled, Reaper funnier and Nimbus… well, possibly more handsome. He had always assumed tough girls like her liked the bad boys, and being a former inmate, Nimbus certainly matched that criteria. Why him? He attempted to ask the question in the form of small-talk.
“What was your husband like?” he blurted the first thought in his mind.
The grin vanished as she looked past him, remembering. At length, she spoke.
“He was very dedicated to his cause, which was making money - a lot of money. He always had all these grand schemes about how he would find some lost buried treasure and become rich someday and how when he found it, we’d have everything we could ever want and be happy forever…” She trailed off.
“Sounds like he wanted the best for you.” Virtue suggested.
“I suppose.” She answered. “But the problem was that he was always looking too far into the future; the present was never enough for him.”
“Ahh… I see.” Virtue said and nodded.
“That was the one thing that always bothered me. I felt like he would never be happy until he found his treasure, and everything in the mean-time was just another step towards a goal that he would probably never attain. It was almost as if he felt like he wasn’t worthy of me and becoming rich was the only thing that would make him that way.”
“I think I can understand that.” Virtue said, understanding the feeling completely. He looked away as she probed his mind, scanning his face carefully.
She continued, “I still loved him, despite his flaws. There are few men left on the planet like him; kind-hearted, virtuous… willing to fight for the one they love.” She smiled at him again.
“And in the end, it killed him.” Virtue said a little too bluntly, suddenly remembering the danger he was willing to put himself through for Emelia. It had all been for nothing, and he couldn’t help but imagine the same thing happening to Enigma if she stayed too close to him. Worse, it pained him not to know if he would do the same for her and that he might not truly feel the same way about a woman ever again.
She scowled at his response, “It wasn’t the happy ending I had in mind but it happened, and nothing can change it.”
“Maybe his mind was too clouded by emotion and not focused enough on the task at hand.” Virtue said, returning his gaze forward.
“You of all people should know what extreme emotions can do to your senses.” She argued. “We’ve both had the person dear to us die and both of us had to suck it up so we could deal with the circumstances at hand.”
“But was it worth it in the first place? I’m not so sure anymore.”
“Why wouldn’t it be? The whole reason you came to the Zone was to support your wife and child, wouldn’t it stand to reason that - were they still alive - you’d all be better off now?”
“Yeah… about that…” Virtue replied with a sigh.
“Yes…?” Enigma pried.
He looked in her inquisitive eyes, “Look… I don’t really know how to say it. I don’t really wanna talk about it.”
She put her gloved hand on his shoulder, “Virtue… Yuriy, I’m going to be blunt. I like you. Big shock, I know…” She looked at the scenery around them, “I know this may not be the best place to think about such things and I certainly don’t plan on having any picnics here but it’s a fact. I know you’re probably still mourning the loss of your wife and it’s probably really inappropriate for me to say such things… but when you’ve lived the last two years of your life in complete isolation and danger you have a lot of time to think about things. You learn to appreciate what you have, and hold onto things you need like you may never see them again.”
He hung his head, wishing he could bring himself to tell C-Consciousness’ revelation but nowhere near ready to drop that bombshell. There were too many things he didn’t know, too many questions, too many possibilities. He didn’t want to give himself to her just to have her end up disappointed in the end. Too many things could happen to him before this was all over. He had experienced heartbreak like she had... but if she was anything like him another one would surely kill her.
“I’m sorry.” She said when he didn’t respond. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Hey,” He looked back at her quickly, “I just need time to figure some things out. My entire world has been turned upside down and I don’t know how long it will take to turn everything right-side up again.”
“I understand.” She said with a timid smile. “Well… if you decide you want someone to help you put the pieces back together, you’ve got my number.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” He said with a smile.
As soon as she turned away he gave himself a mental slap in the face.
God dammit Yuriy get over it already! She’s everything you could ever want in a person and all you do is keep pushing her away.
Then again, their circumstances weren’t exactly normal. She said it therefore she knew it. Maybe his origin wasn’t as big of a deal as he was making it out to be. Still, he had to be sure of that before he’d tell her or anybody else. He didn’t know what the hell he was. Human, probably – but without some evidence it was something he couldn’t just assume. Maybe he was just a robot with skin on top – wouldn’t that be a surprise to find out randomly one day.
Gremlin departed from the tracks and down an embankment as they formed a bridge over a road going east and west. To the east was more open field like they had been traveling through, to the west – a wall of rock followed the road on the south side and trees lined the other side. The sound of running water also came from that direction.
As they stepped down the embankment, the bridge’s shadow stretched all the way up the shadow the cliff cast on the road ahead of them. Where the road lead was impossible to see through the thick vegetation now repopulating the area. The wall of rock rose up beside them on the left and a river became visible through the thick trees on the right, making the road the only distinguishable man-made object. Eventually a road sign appeared along the side of the road, probably introducing the name of whatever was ahead before it was completely worn off by the elements.
Solitaire’s gaze remained on the sign longer than the other’s and he finally asked the question on all their minds,
“What’s up ahead?”
“I never bothered to ask the name of the city when we passed through it the first time – I don’t know its name.” Enigma answered.
As they drew closer the tops of apartment buildings appeared over the tops of trees - their empty windows staring back at them vacantly as they entered the outskirts of the city. As they passed a few decrepit old houses the street opened up into the main square. An elevated large statue of Lenin faced north with its hand stretched outwards, presumably towards the future. Ironically, it now addressed the state of the cities abandoned culture center; a complete ruin like the rest of the former Soviet Union he had once seen as a great power in the world. As if for dramatic effect, a dark cloud covered the sun as they entered the square, forbidding any light from shining down on the depressed city.
“What is this place?” Nimbus said aloud as he gaped up at the statue in wonder. “It’s like something out of a book.”
“Just another Soviet city that didn’t survive the collapse...too bad it happened to be within the blast radius.” Solitaire said as he kicked a small chunk of concrete from a collapsed block house nearby across the road. It continued down the road, vanishing into a pothole somewhere further down it.
“Alright – where to from here?” Gremlin asked Enigma.
She squinted through the thick trees as clouds continued to darken the city around her.
“It’s up one of those roads… if we follow the river we should come to the bridge that crosses it further down. That’s how we got into Limansk, Yantar should be south along that same road.”
The wind began to pick up and leaves flew between buildings.
“That storm looks like it’s headed this way…” Gremlin said, looking up at the dark, brooding clouds above them. “It’s an angry fucker too.”
“We should seek shelter.” Zombie advised.
“I think you’re right, and this is the best place for miles as far as we know.” Gremlin said as he looked around the city for a promising place to set up camp. One of the buildings facing the main square had looked to be fortified with boards on the windows and sandbags and a makeshift fence around the base of the building.
“There.” He said and pointed to the building. The Stalkers followed behind him as he approached the building. The wind began to howl behind them as they piled inside the building. As they all gathered inside, Gremlin held up a finger for quiet, and motioned Solitaire and Zombie into the rooms on either side of the entryway.
“I’m going to check upstairs to make sure we’re not intruders in something else’s territory.” He whispered to the rest of them. “Reaper, come with me. Virtue, Nimbus, Enigma – you three cover our asses.”
“Aye aye, captain.” Reaper mock-saluted and held his rifle close as he proceeded cautiously up the stairs in front of him. Gremlin followed just behind him, flashing an assuring smile and a thumbs-up to the Stalkers as he disappeared in the stairwell.
“What was that supposed to mean; ‘It’ll all be OK kids’?” Nimbus said, slightly annoyed.
“I don’t know about you but I think I’d be dead about a dozen times over by now if it wasn’t for Gremlin and the rest of them.” Virtue said with shrug.
“Yeah but I’ve got the shotgun – it just begs for something to jump in front of me so I can blow it’s goddamn head off!”
“What if there’s more than one? You have to be able to keep your cool. In the Zone, the odds are rarely stacked in your favor.” Enigma added.
“I’ll just spray and pray. In a small room, nothing will survive.”
“Ammo.” Enigma reminded him.
“When I’m out I’ll use furniture, geeze.”
“What if there isn’t any in the room?”
“Uh… crap” Was all Nimbus could say as he closed his eyes and sighed, hanging his head in defeat. The other two chuckled quietly at his defeat.
“Don’t worry; I’ll throw you behind me when that happens.” Enigma said, nudging him playfully.
A few seconds later Zombie appeared back in the doorway of the room he had searched.
“Clear.” He said simply, looking past them for Solitaire.
The other Stalkers followed Zombie’s gaze, also seeing no sign of him.
“The building looked symmetrical from the outside; shouldn’t you two have come back at the same time?” Virtue surmised.
“Yes.” Zombie as a nearly undetectable look of concern crossed his face. “Remain here.”
He continued on into the other room quickly but quietly, disappearing around a corner.
The three Stalkers looked around curiously, coming up with their own theories of where Solitaire could have ended up. A few moments later they heard Zombie again from around the corner,
The Stalkers looked at each other inquisitively, then went in the direction of Zombie’s voice. Enigma took point, rounding the corner first. The room was mostly open, with a couple of smaller rooms and a hallway towards the inside of the building. The rooms and hallway were dark and Zombie was not visible from where they were.
“Where?” Enigma whispered harshly.
“Here.” The voice insisted.
She cursed under her breath and continued forward.
“Check those rooms,” she indicated to the rooms off of the hall. “I’m going to check down the hall. Meet back here.”
The Stalkers nodded and continued to their assigned areas.
Virtue looked over at Nimbus, who was trying to hide the fear in his eyes less effectively than he was. He looked over at Virtue with a knowing look. Something’s not right. He shook his head, tapping the stock of his trusty shotgun and offering the most encouraging he could before disappearing through the door next to Virtue. Virtue swallowed and continued into the darkness of the room before him. Before going any further he flicked on his headlamp. Dust particles drifted in the stagnant air before him as he scanned the room slowly.
The deep boom of thunder sounded suddenly, making him nearly jump out of his skin as the storm began to grow more ferocious outside. He took in a deep breath and continued into the room. The old floorboards creaked beneath him as he walked slowly forward. The darkness of the room seemed to devour all other light and even the bright light from his headlamp seemed to be dimming. He rubbed his eyes, thinking dust might be collecting in them.
The voice echoed in the room clear and crisp. It sounded like Zombie was right next to him. He did a quick scan of his immediate area, finding no trace of the voice’s owner.
“Zombie… where the hell are you?” he whispered at the darkness.
The voice insisted again. Becoming annoyed, Virtue walked dilberately across the room, determined to find Zombie and wring his neck. There were two other rooms within this one – a bathroom and a small closet of some sort. He decided to try the bathroom first. The beam of light coming from his head narrowed as it squeezed its way through the doorframe. The dirty old porcelain and floor tiles winked back at him as the light passed over them. He stood just outside the doorframe, shining his light slowly and carefully around it to get a full view of the bathroom. Nothing.
The voice said again suddenly from the ceiling above him.
“Are you… above me?” Virtue asked.
It was good to know he had another word in his vocabulary, the constant Here was starting to get creepy.
“How did you get up there?” Virtue looked around the room for some way to access the space above him. No response. Virtue sighed and walked out of the bathroom, scanning the ceiling of the main room and again finding nothing. Finally, he decided to take a look in the closet or whatever it was. He shone his light up and down the small room and found a small, square hole in the ceiling above him. Several boxed piled up inside made it easy for him to climb up and poke his head through the hole.
The space was cold, damp and musty-smelling. It was some sort of crawlspace between the top and bottom level of the building. He squinted as his light went on into the infinite darkness of the space stretching out in all directions around him. It passed over old pipes, wires, boxes, and metal panels.
“Zombie?” he whispered.
A shape flew between two boxes in his peripheral vision. He struggled to get his rifle though the hole but quickly found that it was an impossible task.
“HERE!” the voice insisted loudly. He looked around him desperately in search of the voice that sounded so close to him.
“WHERE?!” he yelled angrily.
Suddenly, the shape emerged again – only this time it was coming right for him. Then another, and another. His eyes grew wide as what appeared to be a slimy ball of fur with teeth lunged towards his face with incredible speed. He ejected himself out of the hole with all his speed to avoid getting his face shredded by a set of razor-sharp teeth. The contents of the closet spilled out with him as he pushed himself away from the closet with all his might. The ball of fur followed him down, hissing at him as its claws scratched across the wooden floor. The unmistakable screech of an angry cat’s meow filled the room as the creature lunged at him and hit him square in the chest.
He screamed as it tore viciously at his thick suit with its sharp claws. At this distance, he could tell it was definitely some sort of cat, but the resemblance stopped at its shape. With its thick, bloody claws, razor-sharp, protruding, interlocking piranha-like teeth, lizard-like bags around its throat and a disproportionately large upper body it more like a killing machine from another time than a domestic housecat. It looked at him with murder in its feline eyes, no doubt angry that no flesh had been stripped form his body despite its efforts. It hissed at him again as he desperately reached for his sidearm. He fired a shot at its head, which passed through and exited its cheek and came to rest in its upper shoulder. The creature howled at him and swiped at his hand, leaving several deep scratches in his arm. He yelled in agony as he rolled to his side and quickly kicked the creature hard in the side.
“Virtue!” the voice of Nimbus yelled from outside the room.
“Help!” he yelled back as he pushed himself backwards across the floor with his legs, firing at the enraged mutant. It flew around the room, dodging his bullets with incredible agility as he fired. The pistol clicked in his hand, indicating the clip was empty. The mutant took the pause in fire to stop and face him, shifting its weight forward and compressing its body to the floor as it prepared to pounce. He was milliseconds away from securing the next clip in the pistol when the creature pounced, once more hitting him square in the chest. His arms flew up to protect his face seconds before sharp claws began tearing shreds of leather from the armor protecting his arms.
“HEY!” A shadow shouted angrily as it appeared in the doorframe.
The creature hissed and reared up on its hind legs, bearing its hideous fangs at the unwelcome company.
The creature’s head exploded in a cloud of red vapor and its lifeless body slumped onto the floor. Virtue peered over his arms to see Nimbus standing next to him, shotgun shaking and smoking in his hands. He looked at the headless corpse bleeding out on the floor, petrified.
After trying a few times Virtue finally whimpered a pathetic, “Thanks.”
Nimbus barely had time to collect himself before the sound of claws clicking above them snapped them out of the trance.
“Get up… hurry!” Nimbus motioned, offering a hand to Virtue. He accepted it gladly as more of the creatures rocketed down the wall from the same hole in the ceiling, sensing their hearts racing in their chests and locking onto them. Nimbus yanked as hard as he could, throwing Virtue out of the room and into the door.
“CLOSE IT!!!” he said, his face contorting as unloaded the remaining shells in the shotguns chamber as fast as he could pull the trigger. Blood, fur, and a chorus of ravenous feline sounds filled the room as Nimbus swiveled behind the wall and confirmed his order.
“NOW DAMMIT, NOW!!!”
Virtue reached out for the doorknob, which suddenly seemed several more feet away than he had previously thought. With the monsters closing in, there was no time to think, he lunged for the doorknob, making contact with one of his arms. Then, with all his might, he shifted his body weight to one side, causing the door to swing with him. His body shook tremendously as the door closed slowly, and the monsters closed in quickly. Several hungry mouths opened as they flew towards him. He closed his eyes, willing the door to close faster. But it closed slower. A fraction of a second before the torrent of rage collided with him, he felt Nimbus grab his feet and use him to pull the door closed the rest of the way. It slammed shut satisfyingly, as the monsters contained within slammed into the other side, clawing and hissing after them.
“Oh my God… Oh my God…” Virtue propped himself up against the wall and finished reloading the imaginary clip in his hand as he stared into oblivion. Nimbus took the opportunity to reload a few shells as Enigma came rushing around the corner.
“What is it? What happened? Is he OK?” she demanded.
“I… I don’t know… I think so…” Nimbus stuttered as he struggled with the shells in his hand.
“Virtue?” Enigma said, crouching down in front of him with a horrified look on her face. “Talk to me.”
He continued to stare into space, but managed to point towards the door and mutter, “Mad cats,” As his heavy breathing continued.
She took a look at his shredded armor, looking carefully at parts covered in mutant blood before announcing, “I think you’re OK. We need to get out of here.”
“Help him Nimbus, I’ll keep us covered.”
“Alright.” Nimbus concurred as he finished reloading his weapon.
The door began to splinter as Nimbus helped Virtue to his feet.
“What the hell is in there?” Enigma said as she began to follow Nimbus down the hallway.
“No fucking clue… it looked like some sort of mutated cat.” Nimbus said as he nudged Virtue along. “There was one on top of him that I got with my shotgun, then about a dozen or so more came running. They’re fucking fast!”
“We need to find Gremlin.” She said as they rounded the corner and returned to the main entrance. She shouted up the stairs for Gremlin and Solitaire. Nothing but the sound of the mutant cats tearing at the door to the room they had come from could be heard at first, but then heavy footfalls and the sound of an explosion going off above them.
“GREMLIN!” she shouted again.
“RUN!” his voice called back from somewhere upstairs.
He yelled something unintelligible just before gunfire suddenly erupted.
“Come on!” Enigma said. “He might be bringing them out in the open, we need to be ready!”
The Stalkers followed behind her as she ran toward the statue in the middle of the square and took up position at the bottom of the steps leading up to the platform it stood on. The Stalkers didn’t have to wait long before Gremlin, followed by a bloody Reaper came bursting through the front doors, spraying bullets and lobbing grenades behind them.
“Get ready!” he yelled as he turned and saw them in front of the statue. “I don’t know how many there are.”
The Stalkers took aim, squinting through the smoke and flame of the grenades going off in the building before them. Gremlin and Reaper ceased fire and took up position next to the Stalkers, kneeling beside them at the base of the statue. They panted heavily as they looked down their rifle scopes.
“Cats?” Enigma asked quickly.
“Yep!” Gremlin shot back just as quickly.
“I fucking hate cats.” Reaper said, for once not looking very happy as a stream of blood oozed from a gash on his chin.
“Where’s Zombie and Solitaire?” Gremlin said, looking around suddenly.
“No idea.” Enigma replied.
Moments later, several dark figured began to emerge from the building, heading straight for the Stalkers.
“FIRE!” Gremlin ordered. The Stalkers fired into the swarm of cats, doing on unsatisfying amount of damage against them as they advanced.
“They’re too fast!” Reaper said, doing his best to keep up with their erratic movements.
“We don’t have enough firepower!” Enigma shouted over the noise.
Gremlin’s heart pounded and his head raced. We can’t stay here and we can’t run. What do we do? What the fuck do we do Gremlin? Think!
The mutants were closing the distance between the Stalkers quickly and Gremlin was out of ideas. He had never felt so useless in his entire life. Surely death was right around the corner. He stood and was just about to give the order to run in any direction as fast as possible when another player joined the fight. The ground pounded as the sound of a large-caliber weapon shook the square. Hot metal bullets rained down like a storm of death in the mutants’ path. The Stalkers all looked towards the source of the gunfire to see a six-cylinder barrel protruding from the top level of the city’s cultural center. Discarded bullet casings rolled and bounced down the front of the building like confetti for on building’s opening day.
“Head for the building!” Gremlin yelled, charging towards the building – too concerned for his life to worry about who was up there. The Stalkers complied, having no protests whatsoever. They ran inside and went straight for the stairs leading to the second level. They darted down the hall, following the sound of the gun shaking the walls around them. Finally, they came to a closed door. Gremlin tried the knob but found it was locked. He pounded on it frantically the mutants’ hisses and growls echoed in the lobby below them. After a few seconds that seemed like an eternity the gun stopped and the door flew open.
“Move, move!” a Stalker clad in body armor over blue camo and a gas mask motioned them inside quickly. After they were all inside, he quickly closed and locked the reinforced door again.
“Get in firing positions!” he said, pointing towards the windows as he re-manned the mounted minigun in front of the central window. As he held the trigger, the motor revved up and the barrels began to spin, firing another wave of death at the mutants below. The Stalkers joined him, picking their targets using their new fortified positions working to their advantage. The mutants clawed angrily at the door behind them, but their claws had no effect on the strong door.
The mutants continued to come from the deep recesses of the buildings around them. There had dozens on them, maybe hundreds. After several minutes of continued fire, the clawing at the door stopped and the animals began to scatter and retreat. The mysterious Stalker on the minigun continued to fire at the base of the buildings until there was absolutely no movement left in the square before finally letting off. The engine powered down and the barrels slowly came to a stop. It took several minutes for the ringing in the Stalkers ears to subside and for the shock of the battle they had just fought to leave before any of them even thought to speak.
Gremlin watched the Stalker cautiously. He didn’t seem to notice as he pulled out a pair of binoculars and surveyed the carnage below, finally letting out an impressed whistle as he placed the binoculars back in their place.
“Damn… that’d fetch a pretty penny if they had actually contracted me to kill those things.” He said as he reached into one of the pockets on his body armor and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He pulled one out and touched it to part of the minigun, causing it to ignite after a few seconds.
“Smoke?” he asked as he turned to regard the Stalkers.
Gremlin silently echoed his question as he eyed each of the Stalkers. When he turned back, the Stalker cooly pulled his sidearm from its holster as he leaned in to take a drag from the cigarette.
“Whoa…” Gremlin said, holding up his hands in a show of peace.
“Just a formality.” The Stalker assured him as he exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Who sent you?”
“Nobody sent us, we’re just exploring.”
“Ain’t nothin’ here. The towns been picked clean. It’s been dead for years. Guess that’s why they call it Dead City.”
“I thought Limansk was called Dead City.” Nimbus chimed in.
“Common misconception. The two cities are literally a river apart but Stalkers usually took other routes to get to Limansk… back when you could actually get there anyway.”
He took another long drag, then propped one leg up on the windowsill and exhaled again.
“Name’s Alek – and if you couldn’t tell, I’m a Merc.”
“Why no nickname? Usually you Mercs love making yourselves looking more badass than you are.” Gremlin asked.
Alek laughed, “Good call. Actually, Alek is my nickname – I’m American, so I figured I’d jack a Russian name. The boys gave it to me.”
He unslung the rifle from his back and pointed to a logo on the butt. The silhouette of a hamster with a PKM gunning down all kinds of monsters was painted in white on the custom black SG 551, complete with scope and lasersight.
“I’ve got a thing for hamsters though, so you can call me the Kamikaze Hamster if you so please.”
“Alek’s easier in a fight.” Gremlin said.
“Suit yourself.” He said as he moved over to a stack of boxes filled with ammo and other supplies and had a seat.
“I don’t suppose you saw two other Stalkers besides us, did you?” Gremlin asked, hopefully.
“Nope. I was keeping my head down until I heard you all come bursting into the middle of town with every mutant within a mile after you. Little assholes moved in a few days ago and booted us all out.”
“Who?” Gremlin asked.
“My buddies and I. They came out of nowhere… too many to count. A lot of my friends died while everyone else ran. Only a few of us survived, and I haven’t seen anyone else for days now.”
“How did you survive?” Nimbus asked.
“Skill, probably more luck though, I dunno. I woke up in a den of those things… probably drug there by one of them to feed to its babies. They were all sleeping so I spend the rest hours crawling around without making a sound, trying to find a way out. When I did, I locked myself in here and have been fortifying the place ever since.”
He held the cigarette between his lips and looked down the rifles scope again, scanning the area.
“Where did you last see your friends?”
“In the same building we were in; they went to check the bottom level for mutants and never came back.” Virtue said. “I kept hearing Zombie calling me but never found him, then those cats came out of nowhere.”
“It wasn’t your friend calling you.” Alek said, looking away from the scope. “My friends and I figured out that there are two different kinds and they work together. The bigger ones with the bags under their throats can imitate voices almost perfectly. They tend to leave you alone, but they like to lead you towards the smaller, vicious ones – the ones like housecats on crack. Pseudocats I guess you could call ‘em.
“More like Pseudoraptors!” Reaper piped up. “I’ve seen some feisty cats in my day but those things were bloody nasty.”
“Call them what you will, but if I had to bet I’d say your friends are probably following one of the big ones right now. If you said anything to each other when you entered the building they probably heard it and are mimicking your voices to lead your friends into a trap. They’re probably dead already.”
“You don’t know our friends.” Gremlin spoke sternly. “One’s ex-special forces and the other is built like Rambo, they’re resourceful.”
“So were my friends.” Alek said with a morbid smile. “Don’t bullshit yourself, you saw those things. They could reduce a man to bone in seconds if they wanted to like… goddamn land piranhas.”
Gremlin kept his eyes locked with the strangers, challenging his opinion, even though deep down he couldn’t deny the odds. He had encountered a lot of mutants in his day and heard new rumors all the time. But these things posed a real problem. Cats were one of the most over-populated mammals on the planet and the Zone was full of them. Now there were at least two species working together to form an incredibly fatal mix. The Zone was in real trouble, and he was beginning to realize they’d need an army to stop them… or something with equivalent firepower.
Rain began to fall outside, bouncing off the window sill and bringing the coppery smell of the blood beneath them into their nostrils. Alek got up and began to close the makeshift blinds made of sheet metal and plywood, looking over his shoulder as he did.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you want on one condition.”
“Name it.” Gremlin said without a second thought, not about to try setting up camp anywhere else in the city.
“When you leave, I’m coming with you.”
Gremlin sized up the man, attempting to assess his motives more than actual skill, seeing as he had saved them all.
“I guess I can understand why you’d want to leave, but if you try anything I’ll shoot you down myself, Merc... I’m not a big fan of men who change sides when for money.
“I only work for one side; my own.” Alek declared proudly.
“Let’s hope your side is also our side, otherwise you’ll find yourself on the other side of my bullet really damn quick. Understood?”
“You got it, boss.” He said haughtily.
“I’m not your boss. I just want to get out of here as bad as you do. I think we all do.”
“You said it.” Nimbus said pulling up a nearby crate as Alek began to construct a fire in the middle of the room. The rest of the Stalkers slowly joined him, pulling up their own sitting devices or simply sitting on the floor.
They engaged in small-talk and about their experiences in the Zone - so long as it didn’t reveal more information than was necessary. Gremlin stayed quiet, besides the occasional cough when too much was being said. Alek resented it, but Gremlin didn’t really care. He had learned on many occasions not to trust a Merc, especially with all the hits on his head as the former leader of Freedom. He tried not to surrender his guard as his thoughts remained focused on Zombie and Solitaire, hoping that they were able to find shelter and had not encountered any trouble.