October 19, 2010

Chapter 8: It's a Wilder World


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

*

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

October 9, 2010

Chapter 7: Unity


Smartass looks around him frantically, “What the fuck… who the hell is in here?”
“Drop it dick hole.” Another familiar voice says. “You’re surrounded.”
“I won this fair and square – I get to shoot him now.” Smartass protests.
“Fair my arse! If you drop that piece right now I’ll consider not blowing your fookin’ brains out right now - that’s bloody fair.”
Smartass drops the weapon on the ground as Zombie, Nimbus and Reaper emerge from the shadows, weapons drawn. Arnie comes up behind them, looking at Smartass with anger in his eyes.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t kill him… after hearing what these Stalkers told me I’d have you banned from the Bar for good.” Arnie picks the weapon off the ground and points to the other side of the warehouse, “Put everything you took from this Stalker in the locker in that room, and when he’s made sure that he’s got everything that belongs to him, you and your band of petty thieves get the hell out of my arena.”
Smartass stands to his feet, angry and defeated as he reluctantly heads out the arena, Arnie hot on his heels with Virtue’s AK pointed at him.
The announcer comes back on as they leave, “Well Stalkers… it would appear that we’ve all been had. Virtue is the Loner and Smartass is the Bandit. Why don’t we show Smartass what we think of unsportsman-like conduct in our arena?”
The crowd boos as Smartass slams the door on the other side of the arena, turning their attention to Virtue and shouting words of encouragement at his near-defeat.
“You really ought to get that patched up.” Reapers says, pointing to the wound bleeding through his shirt. “I’ve got some bandages on me; let’s go somewhere a little less crazy, eh?”
Nimbus walks over to him, offering his hand in support as an overwhelming grin spreads across his face. Virtue accepts his hand and allows Nimbus to help him to his feet. He smiles back as Nimbus immediately pulls him into a hug.
“God damn it’s good to see you alive!” he exclaims. “After what happened I didn’t think I’d ever see you again...”
“I was starting to think the same thing.” Virtue says. “I went through hell to find you.”
“So too have we.” Zombie offers.
“It sounds like we’ve got a lot of catching up to do then.” Virtue says as Nimbus releases him from the hug. A sinking feeling comes over him as he looks around for any sign of the rest of his friends but finds none. “Where’s the rest of the team?”
“They made it out alright.” Reaper responds. “Some of them are a little bloody and bruised, but the Zone’s finest are taking care of them right now.”
“What about Enigma?” Virtue’s heart sinks a little as he imagines the many words that could come out of Reapers mouth in response. The seconds pass agonizingly as Reaper attempts to find the best way to inform Virtue of her situation.
“They’re doing everything they can for her. She’s a tough lady… she’s lucky to have made it this far. I doubt she would have if it hadn’t been for all that conditioning Limansk did to her.”
“Thinking of you might have helped a little too.” Nimbus adds with a hopeful smile. “She insisted that you were alive, and never gave up hope, no matter what we thought. I think you were the reason she refused to give up.”
He closes his eyes, relieved at the news. He couldn’t explain his attraction to her, but it went deep. Maybe he felt as though she was the real Emelia all along; the real woman of his dreams masked by the false one planted in his mind by C-Consciousness. Whenever he had seen Emelia’s face after C-Consciousness had revealed his true life to him, he had seen hers almost immediately afterwards. There was something about her that just felt right, and there were no words to describe it, but he didn’t really care. None of his life made sense anymore, he didn’t expect for all the answers to reveal themselves to him right away. Relying on intuition and acting on impulse was the only thing he knew he was good at.
“Come on,” Nimbus says. “Let’s get your stuff and go catch up with the others. They’ll definitely be happy to see you and will probably have a million questions for you.”
“Same here.” Virtue replies as he and his three friends walk out of the arena together, united once more.


*


They approach a section of abandoned warehouses in an unused part of the complex. A couple of Duty soldiers in Exosuits stand guard at the entrance as many Stalkers walk around in the dark building beyond. They hold up their hands as the Stalkers approach,
“Stop there. What is your affiliation?” the door guard says calmly but sternly.
“Loner.” Zombie says, speaking for all of them.
The guard analyzes them briefly then nods them inside. As they enter the warehouse, they see countless Freedomers in groups all around them.
“Now that’s a sight I’d never thought I’d see…” Reaper remarks. “Freedom on Duty territory. Now I’ve seen it all.”
“Over here!” a friendly voice greets them and waves them over from a particularly large group of Freedomers near the center of the warehouse. As they approach, Virtue can make out the familiar faces of Gremlin and Solitaire. A look of relieved satisfaction comes over them as they recognize him. Gremlin steps away from the group and comes up to him as he nears. He stands in front of him, shaking his head in disbelief once he confirms his eyes aren’t playing tricks on him.
“God damn is it good to see you again!” he says, offering his hand for Virtue to shake. “I knew our chances were slim but after you disappeared I didn’t have any hope left for you my friend.”
“It must have been pure luck,” Virtue responds. “I fell into some sort of anomaly and came out somewhere far away from the power plant. My wounds were treated and I made my way back out of the Zone, only to find that home wasn’t quite as homely as I remembered it being.”
Gremlin nods, “I guess the Zone was always your home from the beginning, you just needed to find that out for yourself.”
Virtue laughs, “You don’t know the half of it…” he looks around expectantly for Enigma, realizing suddenly that she is not among them. “Where is Enigma?”
“She’s fine.” Gremlin smiles. “She’s a lucky girl… though it’s probably more stubbornness than anything. She refused to quit the entire way back, despite operating on only one lung. She refused to let you go, and it looks like she got her wish in the end. You’re a lucky man.”
Virtue rubs his face with his hands, allowing the burden of her unknown fate to fall away from him.
“Now,” Gremlin says. “We really need to know exactly what happened in there.”
Virtue nods. His friends gather around as he explains his encounter with Dmytro, and the revelation of his true origin as nothing more than a test tube experiment - but he decides to leave out C-Consciousness and his decision to ultimately keep the men and women inside alive until he can saw the extent of the repercussions his actions would have. The Stalkers do their best to keep up with his story and how far-fetched all of it is. He continues, telling of the news report in the diner, and his subsequent return to the Zone – also noting the attack on the outpost he witnessed as he crossed the Zone’s border. The Stalkers stare at him in disbelief for most of the story, but in the end decide to believe him. After his story, Gremlin catches him up with their escape from the NPP, capture by the Monolith, and escape from the horde of zombies.
“We got back to Freedom HQ to find it completely destroyed and infested with mutants. We managed to pick up an automated transmission from Max – our new second in command – saying that they had made a deal with Duty after both of our bases were attacked. At first I thought it was a trap but I know Max too well, he would never do something like that unless he had a damn good reason for it.”
“And I did.” Another Stalker says from behind them. They all turn to see Lukash and another Stalker, presumably Max, coming towards them.
“I was just reviewing Max’s report.” Lukash says. “I believe I would have done the same thing had I been here. Both Duty and Freedom were attacked by mutants and nearly driven out of the Zone completely. Thanks to your story, we now know where they came from. The question remains; what is driving them and how do we stop them?”
“Maybe nothing is driving them.” Virtue offers.
Lukash arches an eyebrow, “What do you mean, Virtue?”
“I mean we know that the mutants were being controlled by remnants of the Soviet Union working in the NPP. We destroyed their labs and drove them out – when that happened the mutants turned hostile towards them. Maybe the problem is that they’re no longer under the control of their masters and want revenge.”
“Mutants with a grudge…?” Gremlin chuckles, “Sorry, I can’t picture it.”
“Well… they were human at one point, right? If I had been one of them I’m sure I would have harbored a lot of hatred towards the ones experimenting on me – especially if I had friends and family.”
The Stalkers look amongst each other, trying to imagine the possibility of Virtue’s claim.
“I remember a story Jargon told me after we found out he had survived X16,” Gremlin begins. “He said he woke up to find a Controller standing over him, just staring at him. It could have easily turned him into another mindless zombie with just a thought, but it didn’t. Instead, it projected images into his mind of cruel experiments and excruciating pain, almost like it was trying to tell its story and the stories of others like it. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that… but I trusted Jargon, and I know that he believed what he was saying with every fiber of his being.”
“He told me the same story.” Virtue contributes. “I believed he meant what he said also… he knew all about the experiments since before the first incident.  It haunted him to his death.”
“Alright, so let’s suppose that is the case,” Gremlin says as he circles around a makeshift table set up in the middle of the warehouse. “Our actions effectively unleashed every mutant in the middle of the Zone, who then chased the fleeing Military out towards our base, and from there they came here.”
“Where did they go after that?” Solitaire asks.
“Duty reports once they got pushed back to their HQ they were able to put up a fight there and the mutants scattered. They’re probably all over the Zone by now…”
“Well… there’s already mutants all over the Zone so it’s better that they’re scattered instead of all in one place isn’t it?” Nimbus asks.
“I don’t know… Duty wants to see us all to discuss that problem.” Gremlin says, looking to Virtue. “Now that we’re all here we should head over to Duty HQ and decide our next move.”
“I need to see Enigma first.” Virtue insists.
“Make it fast.” Gremlin says, pointing to an area shielded by thick concrete walls in the back part of the warehouse.
Gremlin’s voice fades into a deep mumble and the room beyond him darkens as tunnel vision sets in. The thought that she is somewhere just mere meters from him makes his heart beat faster with every step. He swallows hard as he approaches the concrete wall and looks around it. There are several cots lined up along the wall, containing injured Freedomers. He sweeps across the room from left to right, scanning the individual face of each Stalker in the room. He stops on a particular cot separate from the rest and elevated behind a thin makeshift curtain. He approaches the curtain slowly as it flutters in the breeze, beckoning to him.
He peeks his head inside to see a Stalker in a worn-out SEVA suit, littered with countless tears and holes. Beside the bed is a detached helmet with a broken face-shield. His knees become weak as he approaches the bed to get a closer look at its inhabitant. Enigma lies asleep with her head buried in a pillow – a luxury she had no doubt not experienced for time unknown. Her pale white face has been cleaned and her dark, wet hair is hidden behind her. A look of peace is on her face as her chest rises and falls slowly.
He reaches the side of her bed and kneels beside her, overcome with emotion. He decides she looks too peaceful to wake so he is content to watch her sleep in peace for an eternity. Just being in the same room with her is more of a privilege than he could have ever hoped to have again. He grips the side of the bed as she stirs, slowly opening her crystal blue-grey eyes and directing them towards him. They lock with his and he finds himself trapped in her gaze, unable to look away.
“Am I dreaming?” she says, her voice echoing in his ears like music.
He doesn’t know what to say, for fear of ruining the moment with useless words.
“No… am I?” he says at last.
“Pinch yourself. It’s the only way to be sure.” She says with a smile.
He laughs, more out of sheer happiness than her remark.
“What is it about you that makes me feel so good?” Virtue says as he runs his hand through her hair.
“I was about to ask you the same question.” She replies. “Maybe it’s just chemistry.”
“Maybe just destiny.” Virtue responds, disregarding how cheesy the line sounds.
“Maybe.” She replies, biting her lip in thought.
“I… I barely know anything about you and yet it’s like I’ve always known you. I don’t understand.”
“Maybe you should stop trying and just go with it.” She says, batting her long eyelashes at him.
“Maybe.” He whispers as he leans in close. Her smile widens as he touches his nose to hers, staring into her eyes, hoping to get a glance into her soul.
“Looking for something?” she asks playfully, shifting under the covers.
“Yeah… trying to see what you see in me.” He says, hovering over her.
“I could tell you but it would be a lot more fun to see you try.” Staring at him with determination.
He leans in close again for another look, making it only halfway before she grabs him gently and locks her lips with his. They kiss passionately, letting the problems of the world drain from them. He feels new strength building in him as she continues to kiss him; a feeling he had not felt in too long a time. For all he knew, it was the first time; the last time he had felt like this was when he had decided to marry Emelia. It could easily have been an implanted emotion to go along with the implanted memory, either way he was sure that it was stronger this time. Her breathing begins to become choppy and he forces himself away from her.
“I’m sorry.” He says.
“Don’t be.” She says. “I’d do it again no matter how painful.”
He smiles, looking at her glowing face in wonder. Never in his life had he seen something so beautiful – and in such contrast to the world outside. She was like an angel fighting the demons of hell around her with beauty as her weapon. After a long, painful inner debate he finally withdraws,
“I gotta go. But don’t worry… I’ll be back to check up on you later.”
“Good.” She says, giving him a parting bat of her eyelashes. “I’ll be waiting.”
He turns quickly to prevent her from seeing the childish grin on his face and heads out of the room and warehouse beyond it.
It’s good to be back. He thinks to himself as he follows the signs leading to Duty HQ.


*


General Voronin looked to his officials for verification as he listened to the story unfolding before him. Lukash, a man whom he had sworn would never be allowed into Duty territory – let alone the operation center of their HQ – was standing in front of him now with a handful of his men and an unknown group of Stalkers saying things that bordered on the absurd. Still, the story was too far-fetched to be completely untrue – he had nothing to gain from making up such fantastic stories when any one of the several guards stationed around the room had a clear shot at him. He was too smart to be in this position just to screw it all up when the survival of his faction hung in the balance.
“So…” General Voronin says as soon as Lukash breaks for a moment. “What you’re saying then is that the Military – who are our allies – have been operating here in the Zone all this time in secret, are responsible for creating the mutants who attacked us, and are now hell-bent on taking over the world using the Zone as the epicenter of their conquest?”
“In a nutshell… that’s exactly what I’m saying, General.” Lukash says, standing up tall with a loot that insisted upon immediate action from the General.
Voronin smiles and responds, “And I suppose you have the evidence to back up everything you’ve just told me?”
“Actually… I might be able to help you with that.” A voice chimes in from a radio near the front of the room. The familiar voice of the scientist Sakharov comes in over the static. A light knock sounds at the door and Virtue appears in the room just as Sakharov continues.
“Gremlin’s group has been very successful in their mission, and I’ve gone over the files they returned enough that I believe I have a pretty clear idea of what’s going on here.”
“Please continue.” Voronin says as he sits down at the head of the table across from Lukash, staring intensely at him.
“Yes… well, it would appear that everything Lukash has said is, in fact, all here on these documents. The files I have here detail ongoing experimentation on humans in the hopes of eventually deciphering and controlling the mind. It appears that the experiment was a great success, and from there the step towards physical mutation was taken in an effort to create a perfect, controllable ‘soldier’. Though in all actuality it would seem that the ultimate goal was to break a man to the point of being more of a pet than a person.”
“I see…” Voronin says, keeping his eyes focused on Lukash, who returns it with a confident look. “And what, in your opinion professor, would the Soviets have done with this army?”
“No disrespect General, but I believe the answer is fairly evident.” The scientist replies.
“Very well. Thank you Sakharov – please send to me any information you can for my own personal review.”
“Yes, yes – I will send it all when I can.”
“Thank you professor, Voronin out.” Before the General can reach over to flip off the radio Sakharov speaks again,
“Wait! One moment please General, I must speak with Gremlin’s group… privately.”
Voronin raises an eyebrow as warning sirens blare inside his head.
“Uh… concerning what, professor?”
“Please… it is a private matter. A dear friend of mine went with them to the center and I have not heard from him in some time, I just want to know if he is OK.”
Voronin looks to Gremlin in confusion.
“I’m sorry Sakharov, Jargon didn’t make it.” Gremlin says, bowing his head slowly as the pain of both of his fallen friends returns to him.
The static spikes a little as Sakharov sighs over the radio. “I feared that was the case when I got no response from his PDA. I would very much like to know how he died… it might bring some peace to me as I mourn him.”
Gremlin looks helplessly at Voronin, and shrugs his shoulders.
General Voronin sighs as he stands. “Very well… you have one minute.” He holds up a finger for emphasis. “But if there is anything… and I mean anything out of place when we return, I am placing you all under arrest.”
“You have my word, General, as your guests we will remain respectful of your hospitality.” Lukash assures him.
“I would hope that you do.” Voronin responds as he motions for all Dutyers in the room to exit. He closes the door behind him, not daring to break eye contact with Lukash until the moment the door closes.
Gremlin walks over to the radio and speaks in a quiet tone, “We’re alone Sakharov. What is it?”
Sakharov begins to speak but cuts himself short and asks, “Is what you said about Jargon true? Is he dead?”
“Yes… I’m sorry. But we’ve only got about a minute so say what you need to say quickly.”
“Yes… right, business first.” He clears his throat and continues, “You’ve provided a few pieces of the puzzle but I believe we need more before we can hope to attain any sort of goal with this. Every Stalker in the Zone has their own reasons for being here and would kill to know more about what they’re dealing with, whether for financial gain, scientific research, weaponry, or revenge.”
“I think I see where you’re going with this, professor.” Gremlin butts in. “You want more information, and you need a team to get it for you.”
“Well… yes. That is exactly what I need. I refrained from saying anything in front of Duty for fear that they would use the information to their own gain. While I respect them and their cause, out of sympathy for… my old friend and our business relationships in the past I decided to give it to you and your team exclusively.”
Gremlin smiles, a playful light dances in his eyes as he imagines what solving the puzzle of the Zone’s existence could mean for those who knew about it. It would be a treasure map for those seeking riches, a golden age for the scientific community, and a tactical advantage for Freedom. He looks back at the other Stalkers with a mischievous grin on his face.
“The man needs a team… what do you say gentlemen?”
The Stalkers whisper and smile amongst themselves, excited at the opportunity to take on one what could be one of the most profitable missions ever possible in the Zone. All except for Virtue.
“Virtue… what’s wrong man?” Nimbus asks as he notices the discouraged look on his face.
Thoughts swim in Virtue’s head as he remembers what C-Consciousness told him. Before that revelation, he knew who he was and what he was fighting for. Now nothing was certain. He had found his friends at long last, and though he was thrilled to see them it wasn’t the same for him. He was empty inside… but Enigma had been filling that void in the time since. He still didn’t know how she was doing it, but she was – and if he didn’t take the time to figure out what she was filling him with there would be no room left for him in his own soul.
“I can’t leave Enigma behind. She’s in no condition to go, and I need to be with her.”
Reaper shakes his head and lets out a puff of air. “You are as whipped as they come, lad.”
“That’s not it at all!” Virtue blurts out harshly to the Stalkers’ surprise.
“Virtue… buddy.” Nimbus begins as he stands next to him. “You spared my life, and for that I owe it to you. I will go where you go no questions asked… but I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation here.”
“You don’t understand the gravity of mine. None of you do.”
“What do you mean?” Gremlin asks.
Virtue plants his hands on the table and closes his eyes as his thoughts threaten to break out of his skull. “I don’t know what I mean. I’ve been trying to figure it out for days now.”
Gremlin stands across the table from Virtue and mimics his stance, “Something happened in that hellhole you’re not telling us… didn’t it?”
Virtue is silent. An insistent knock sounds on the door followed by General Voronin’s voice.
“Your time is up, we’re coming in.”
“Come to Yantar.” Sakharov says quickly before ending the transmission.
General Voronin and the other Dutyers who had been in the room previously filter back into the room quickly. They stand around the table as the General stands next to his chair at the head of the table. He glances around the room suspiciously, eyeing each Stalker individually for any sign that they may be hiding something.
“I trust the professor was satisfied with the account of his friend’s death?”
“Yes.” Lukash says. “He ended the transmission a few seconds ago. No doubt he’s mourning him as we speak.”
The General retains eye contact for a few moments then sinks slowly down into his chair.
“Indeed. Now… we will wait for the professor’s documents to reach us before we decide to take any course of action. You are all free to do what you will around the Bar. But if you start any trouble do not expect us to be forgiving. We will meet back here in the morning as soon as the sun rises.”
“Agreed.” Lukash says as he stands to leave. “Thank you for your kindness, General. It will not be forgotten.”
“I can only hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me…” he says, clasping his hands together on the table in front of him. “It would be unfortunate to have to send you on your way back to your own territory in the state that it’s in… especially after losing so many men.”
Lukash forced a smile as rage built up inside of him. The General had every right to mistrust him, even more so after the conversation they had just had with Sakharov, but it didn’t make the words any more soothing to his ears. As he walked towards the door, the other Stalkers got up to follow him, leaving the Dutyers to talk behind their backs all they wanted. Once back outside the building, the Stalkers gathered around him in a circle.
“Well… I think that went pretty well all things considered.” Lukash says.
“Yeah, I’m not too sure about that last comment but that’s not my arena anymore.” Gremlin says, shifting his gaze to the sky above.
“So when are you taking off?” Lukash asks.
“I think the best idea would be to head out before sunrise so we don’t get tangled up in politics. Plus I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep tonight anyway so we might as well not waste too much time.”
“I’m sorry about Phantom.” Lukash says as he puts his arm around Gremlin. “I know he was like a brother to you, and he died needlessly. But I think, in the end, he found the peace he was looking for.”
“Yeah thanks.” Gremlin says hurriedly and brushes Lukash’s arm away. “I’m gonna check on the camp, see you later.”
Lukash sighs as Gremlin walks away briskly, doing a terrible job at hiding the tears welling up in his eyes.
“I can’t imagine what he would have done to me if I had actually managed to kill Phantom myself that day.” Solitaire says, remembering his assignment to infiltrate Freedom and kill Gremlin and Phantom, his second in command – a plan that had ultimately failed due to Phantom’s intervention.
“Time is a healer.” Zombie says as though it were written right in front of him. “His wound will heal.”
“Well there it is; Doc says he’ll live so it must be so!” Reaper says with a sarcastic laugh.
“I need to get back to the camp. I know I can only order Solitaire around so I’m ordering you to take the rest of the day off… but I think you all could use the break.”
“Yes sir.” Solitaire says with a salute and a smile.
Lukash leaves in the direction of Freedom’s temporary base, leaving the Stalkers alone. They look among themselves seemingly for the first time. It’s a borderline awkward feeling being in each other’s presence while out of immediate danger for the first time since they met.
“Well… I think I’m gonna head off the 100 Rads. You guys coming?” Solitaire invites them with a wave of his hand.
“You bet yer arse! I could sure use a pint after the shit-storm I’ve just been though.” Reaper says as he joins him.
“I’ll take that offer.” Nimbus says. Zombie says nothing but joins Solitaire’s side with the others. Solitaire looks at Virtue with concern on his face.
“Virtue...?”
“No. I need to check up on Enigma. Maybe later.”
Now all of them have the same look of concern on their faces. He forces a smile as he waits for them to turn and head off without him.
“If you change your mind, you know where we’ll be.” Solitaire says as the group departs.
Virtue watches them walk down the road without them. Nimbus sneaks a look back at him as they round a corner and continue through the warehouse the leads to the 100 Rads bar. Virtue sighs and walks down the same road, turning the opposite way towards the warehouse where Freedom is taking refuge. Before he can enter he notices Gremlin walking along the road leading out of the Bar; the same one he came in on. Curious, he decides to follow him. He passes by the door guards who part as he walks past them without a word. They watch him curiously as he continues down the road a little ways, then branches off into a small flowery meadow. As Virtue passes by the same guards one of them speaks quietly behind him,
“If you’re looking to off that guy I’d be careful, he looks pretty pissed off.”
“I’m not.” Virtue says without looking behind him.
He can see the meadow clearly as the evening sun filters through the trees nearby. The orange light shines through the translucent petals of the flowers as they dance in the breeze, painting a colorful picture on the grass canvas beneath them. A small cluster of makeshift crosses pop out on the top of a small hill, decorated with beat-up old gear, gas masks, and weapons. He watches as Gremlin falls to his knees, then takes a small item out of a pouch in his suit and places it on the ground in front of one of the crosses. He reaches over to pluck a flower from the ground and places it next to the item then becomes still.
Virtue approaches him cautiously to prevent startling him and stands beside him just out of his view. Gremlin doesn’t react right away as he bows his head slowly, but then reaches for his sidearm, drawing it and pointing it directly between Virtue’s eyes in less than a second. Virtue freezes as Gremlin stares back at him, anger and sadness bleeding through his wet, red eyes.
“Oh… Virtue. It’s only you.”  He says as he quickly turns away, placing the pistol back in its holster.
Virtue looks at the item on the ground as Gremlin picks it up.
“He gave this to me a little while after I first met him and told me the story of his family. He said I should hold onto it in case we ever tried to go find them. Now that they’re all dead it only makes sense that they should be buried together. I can only hope that wherever they are now, they’re together and happy at last.”
His hand shakes as he places the photograph back at the base of the cross and plants his head at the base of the cross, gritting his teeth as the wall holding back his anguish breaks at last and he begins to weep. Virtue puts his hand on his back in support as his own emotions begin to overpower him. Gremlin continues to shake violently under him as he pounds the ground in front of him.
“You were my best friend you son of a bitch! How could you do this to me!? Why?!”
Gremlin shifts his body in Virtue’s direction and squeezes as hard as he can. Virtue falls to his knees as Gremlin continues to squeeze the air out of his lungs, but the emotional pain quickly overcomes the physical as his hand subconsciously drifts towards a special compartment in his backpack. He had almost forgotten he had brought it with him, but at this moment there was nothing more prevalent in his mind. He grunts painfully as Gremlin squeezes again. Gremlin eases his grip and looks up at him.
“Sorry… I’m sorry.”
“I understand.” Virtue says as he eyes the photograph in his hands.
“W… what’s that?” Gremlin says between sobs.
“My family. What used to be my family…” he says as his own tears begin to fall.
Virtue presents the photograph to Gremlin who takes it from him and analyzes it through his cloudy eyes.
“This is the day your son was born – isn’t it?”
“Yes. I delivered him myself. It was the happiest day of my life.”
Gremlin smiles sympathetically and puts his hand on his Virtue’s shoulder, “We’ve both lost family then.”
“Something like that…” Virtue trails off.
“Virtue… when are you gonna come clean? Something is bothering you.”
“I… don’t want to talk about it.” Virtue says, turning away from him.
“Listen,” Gremlin begins. “I’ve known you for a little over a week or so and I’ve seen you go from a rookie to where you are now. You’re a skilled Stalker and one of the best human beings I’ve ever known – if anyone deserves to get what they’re looking for it’s you. Your family is dead and yet you’re still here… why?”
“I had to make sure you all made it.” Virtue says.
“There’s more to it than that. Is it Enigma? You two have really been hitting it off lately, almost like you were soul mates or something.”
“I don’t know… but that’s something I want to figure out.” Virtue sighs. “I wish I could tell you more, but I honestly don’t really know what I would say. Life as I know it has been turned upside down and I’m trying to figure out where to go from here.”
Gremlin looks up at the sky, deep in thought. “I think I understand… and I will do whatever I can to help you find what you’re looking for.” He laughs as more tears begin to fall.
“What’s funny?” Virtue asks.
“It’s just that I said those exact words to Phantom the day he told me about his missing family. I just understood him from the moment I met him like I had known him all my life. So from that moment, like a big brother, I made it my job watch over him.” He scans Virtue carefully, wiping away the tear lines on his face. “You two aren’t too different, you know. It would be an honor to help you find the answers you’re looking for. We all will.”
With those few words, Virtue can feel the void in him fill a little more. There was no doubt in his mind now that the Stalkers he had come to call friends would truly be there for him until the end. He would have his answers, and they would fight and die for him if that’s what it took.
He looks at the photograph of him holding his newborn son in his hands and Emelia; exhausted but smiling in the background. As he holds the picture up to the light he can make out subtle writing on the back that he had passed off as mere smudges before.
Property of X17
He blurts out a laugh, smiling as he places the photo next to Gremlin’s at the base of the cross. That was all the proof he needed to finally leave the person he was behind and attempt to discover the new person one piece at a time.
“And it would be an honor to be a part of your team and help you accomplish yours.” Virtue says as the two stand together, drying their eyes. Gremlin smiles, giving Virtue a firm pat on the back as he exhales a deep breath that had needed to come out for a while.
“I don’t know about you, but I think it’s high time we left the dead to lie and do what we can for the living.”
“Agreed.” Virtue says as he turns to follow Gremlin back towards the Bar.
“Oh, and one more thing…” Gremlin whispers into Virtue’s ear. “If you tell anyone you saw me running like a faucet, I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
A smile creeps up Virtue’s face as he imagines the consequences of such a situation.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.”


*


Virtue and Gremlin walked into the 100 Rads bar as the rest of the team waved them over to a table near the back. As Virtue crossed the room, Barkeep waves him over.
“Hey! Virtue! Come here man, I’ve got something for you.”
Virtue approaches the bar curiously as Barkeep leans in to talk to him privately.
“Hey, I heard about your little scuffle with Smartass, and I just wanted to say that he’s been kicked out of the bar permanently. He’s been grating my last nerve for some time now and I’m about one bad piece of news away from putting a hit on his head. So with that said, you and your friends drink free tonight and I will give you a discount on any supplies you might need for the road ahead of you.”
Virtue looks over at his friends, drinking and reliving the adventure so far in excited tones.
“I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to know. Thank you.”
Barkeep grunts a protest before he can turn to leave and motions him close again.
“Hey, I don’t say this to many Stalkers but I think you’re an OK guy. Wish there was more like you in the Zone. If you ever need some asshole like that one offed or anything else just let me know and I’ll see what I can do.”
Virtue nods and accepts a bottle of vodka that seemingly appears in Barkeep’s hands and is extended to him. The Stalkers welcome him with open arms as he takes a seat around the table, bombarding him with questions and boasting of their successes. He joins in, feeling good as the vodka courses through him. They stay for the majority of the night, eventually staggering back to Freedom’s warehouse and crashing in their own drunken piles within. Except for Virtue, who spends another hour or so next to Enigma, watching her sleep peacefully.
I know you can’t hear me, but I’m coming back for you. He promises as he looks at her pale skin illuminated in the moonlight. No matter what.
With that, he leaves to find his own place to rest his weary mind and body, eventually finding a suitable vacant sleeping bag and curling up for the night. He tosses and turns, but after the hell of the last few days it’s the best rest he could have ever hoped to have.