This is something I've been working on for a while.


Stalker Online

Chapter Zero:

Prologue

He sometimes wondered if he had forgotten the felling of real rain. It was hard to tell, really, when his only experience for almost a year had been the simulation. It was almost like it had literally washed away the memories.

People had thought a remake of the cult-classic game series S.T.A.L.K.E.R was an odd choice for the first completely immersive virtual reality game using the newly developed NerveGear technology, particularly when the technology was coming from a Japanese company.

Using an existing IP would have been a good choice if they required more media exposure, but NerveGear didn't not lack media exposure. Demonstration of the technology had set the internet aflame. They also weren't lacking the capital to start a new IP from the ground up; the internet frenzy and the thorough debunking of claims the technology was a con had opened the venture-capital floodgates.

When questioned by his investors, Akihito Kayaba – the developer of the NerveGear – stated he had wanted the development team to spend as much time as possible before release refining the technology for the most immersive game possible, instead of spending time building a game lore and story from the ground up. He also told them S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl was a game known for its realism and immersion, which would make best uses of the technology. Any more concerns were further soothed when he informed them of the bargain price he had acquired the IP for from the long defunct developer.

Results from the beta period though were mixed. Like the originals, the game had a steep learning curve that investors feared would drive away players. Kayaba on the other hand argued it didn't matter given the hype surrounding technology, it's current exclusivity, and then pressed the need for a strong and all expansive technology demonstration like that found in S.T.A.L.K.E.R Online.

It was clear now Kayaba had just been buying for time.

The rain refusing to let up, Kirito was at least glad Suguha did not have to go through this. He continued to stew in this thoughts as the Monolith soldiers came into view through the synthetic haze.

Raising his Vintorez's scope to his eye, he carefully noted the number of soldiers, their equipment and – most crucially – their target. If the soldiers had much heavier equipment than anticipated or their numbers too great, or if their target was simply not there, they would let them pass unmolested and try again another day.

Thankfully, some of Argo's information seemed to have been an overestimation. The target's squad was one less than anticipated and they lacked a general-purpose machine gun like a PKM as anticipated. On the downside, the target was not wearing conventional armour, instead he was wearing an exoskeleton designed to increase a wearer's strength and in turn allowed him to wear heavier armour.

This wouldn't be a problem if they were simply going to eliminate the Monolith squad; Kirito would simply put a bullet through the man's head to put him down for good before the rest of his squad opened up. But it wasn't so simple; they were after the information carried, not the man that carried it, and the man that carried it possessed a dead-man switch that would set off a cluster of incendiary grenades and destroy the documents if his brain matter was spread over the Zone.

Some other couriers possessed a simpler but more foolproof dead-man switch that required the courier to hold down a button, but this prevented the courier from using their weapons effectively. No, the latest couriers had started using a more sophisticated dead-man system that literally determined if the man was dead.

This required them to maim the courier enough to stop him fleeing while they finished off his squad, but not enough that he would bleed out before they could secure the documents. An exoskeleton further complicated the equation through additional armour the wearer could carry and the greater ability of exoskeleton wearers to use the system to support grievously injured legs.

"Sinon, you seeing what I'm seeing?"

Using the radio was a risk. Most high-end radios had a channel scanning feature that could detect strong radio signals and allow the user to listen in. The plan initially had been told hold fire if Kirito held fire, and open fire if he opened fire. It was a time proven and reliable way to initiate an ambush. The only way to pre-empt them was to spot one of the potential ambushers. It was a risk they had to take.

Kirito's earpiece crackled for several seconds before Sinon responded.

"I wish I had brought my rifle," she replied irritably.

She had learned early on the general overall weakness of a bolt-action rifle, and was forced to adopt a more versatile semi-automatic platform. That didn't mean she didn't own a large-calibre bolt-action rifle for special occasions, only it required her to know beforehand she would need it. Still, her AR10 was the hardest hitting rifle they had with them and would be needed to punch through that armour.

"Can you make the shot?" asked Kirito.

"What do you take me for?" she replied. "It's no more than one-fifty, maybe one-sixty metres."

That wasn't what he meant. He was well aware of Sinon's shooting prowess.

"Just remember to go through the servos."

"I said, what do you –" she said before stopping and sighing. "Understood."

"Everyone, stand-by," finished Kirito as he picked out a target.

They would normally have emplaced mines in the ambush zone, such as claymores or the Soviet copies that were so ubiquitous in the Zone, but that wasn't a viable option here. Nor was hammering their position with GP-25 grenades or an RPG. Even Klein's light machine gun was of limited utility here, though if things went south fast its firepower would be quickly appreciated.

Lining up the chevron-shaped reticle of his rifle's scope with the Monolith squad's pointman, he waited for the crack of Sinon's rifle.

o0o0o

It was ironic in a way, really, that she had joined S.T.A.L.K.E.R Online to get past her fears. The game was supposed to be challenging, realistic and scary at times. She felt it right balance of everything to conquer her fears, after all, could she have done it in a heavily stylised, non-immersive, first person shooter with low perceived stakes? The death game though was a bit much, and utterly strangling her fears was the only reason she was still alive. She could cry later in the safety of Rostok.

The game had taught her to kill, and not in the "think of the children" concerned parent sort of way. It actually forced her to kill, to put down the PK'ers who were literally no different than bandits or better than blind dogs, or in one instance to put down the sorry soul who couldn't take it anymore and had felt the need to ease everyone else's suffering on the way out.

At least the Monolith soldiers, like people who had been zombified by an emission or a controller, were already dead. They were just NPCs with the faces of dead adults and children. As long as you didn't think about the face, it was easy to line up a shot that in real life would be beyond cruel.

Lining up the reticle on the expensive optic and following the aim-point through, she slowly exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The match-grade projectile quickly closed the one-hundred and fifty or so metre gap, passed through the couriers left knee servo, through the knee itself and out the other side. The courier's leg immediately collapsed and he keeled-over sideways.

Long before the Monolith squad could react, Klein's Fabrique Nationale Minimi light machine gun opened up with a roar a dozen metres to her right. Trying to avoid the courier, he had targeted the squad's pointman at the front who quickly went down. Every fifth round was a red line of a tracer, and sometimes the tracer bullets would hit the ground, ricochet and then shoot off in streak of red in odd directions.

Pushing the distraction out of her mind she lined up a quick shot on another squad member trying to scramble over some rusting fencing to concealment. She put two rounds into his side as he side-saddled over the fence before seeing him drop and disappear over the other side of the fence. Uncertain she had actually killed him, she finished up with a few more rounds through the lower portion of the fence where he should have fallen and hoped for the best.

The Monolith squad was beginning to return effective fire now as several members of the squad at the rear managed to move back twenty meters and find some defilade in the form of a rusting bulldozer. Only able to identify Klein's position due the distinct and regular muzzle flash, they mostly focused their return fire there. Close by, she could easily recognise the distinct supersonic cracks of bullets passing overhead. Instinctively sinking into a lower position, she lined up her rifle in the direction of the squad members returning effective fire to witness one gripping the pistol grip of his under-barrel GP-25 grenade launcher.

She barely registered it before she saw a small puff of smoke and the grenade began to close the two-hundred metre gap.

"Grenade! Down," she shouted.

Klein's fire ceased as he presumably hugged the ground and the relatively slow grenade made its four-second dash.

Part of her absently noted how the game managed to replicate the thud you could feel in your chest as the grenade fell a dozen metres short, detonating on the embankment below them. Mud and gravel rained down on them to add to the drizzle of the rain.

o0o0o

Kirito lined up the second chevron from the top of his scope on the Monolith soldier wielding the AK-74M with the attached GP-25. Too late to stop him firing, he put two rounds into his chest in rapid succession and watched him drop almost instantly, the armour piercing SP-6 cartridge easily defeating the soft body armour.

Looking to his right he checked Agil, Silica and Aiko were putting fire on the Monolith squad's new position before looking over towards Klein's and Sinon's positions to see them recovering fire, relatively unhampered by the grenade. Pinned in position, the Monolith squad's fire began to falter as their maimed leader went through his programming and began to tourniquet his shredded leg.

"Agil, Aiko, with me – move up!" he ordered. "Silica, move up when I give you the signal."

With Klein and the main source of noise one-hundred odd meters across the road and the small valley, he could should loud enough to be heard by all three.

"Got it," replied Agil and Aiko as they stepped out of their rough foxhole, rifle raised.

Silica barely gave him a nod as she kept firing her MP5SD in the enemy's general direction, the soft sound of the suppressed sub-machine gun lost is the regular crack of rifle and machine gun fire.

At only thirteen, Kirito wanted to minimise Silica's presence on any combat party, but it was difficult to say no to extra help particularly with his hurriedly and haphazardly constructed party. Maybe if they had been going up against PK'ers such when they had to put down bandits instead of NPCs he would have refused her help. A part of him reminded himself she was only two years younger than him but he tried to internally justify position as refusing to destroy one of the few remaining go-lucky players around; the loss of her smiling face would be a blow to moral.

Leading from the front and the enemy focussing on Klein and Sinon, Kirito quickly navigated down the side of the small valley trying to avoid slipping in the wet mud with Agil and Aiko following behind. The fence that ran along the road would shield them from view as they approached the pinned Monolith soldiers, but its thin sheet-metal construction offered little to none ballistic protection.

Shortly along the path he could make out a body lying at the base of the fence in Monolith colours. Unsure if it was alive of dead, he squeezed off two shots on the approach. Besides the slight movement as the heavy subsonic rounds met flesh, the body didn't move. Approaching quickly but cautiously he could see the soldier's neck was at a funny angle, probably from falling off the fence, and he was perforated with many bullets.

Idly considering the cost of the wasted ammo, he stepped over the corpse and kept moving, momentarily looking over his shoulder to see Aiko and Agil still following when he heard the distinct sound of bullets hitting light sheet steel.

"Fuck," he swore as he instinctively hit the ground.

He wasn't certain what had given their approach away as the enemy couldn't see them and had not shot at them when they were visible on approach. Chalking it up to mixture of it not mattering and a quirk of the enemy programming, he started crawling and signalled to keep following as the odd round perforated the fence.

"At least they don't know where we are," he said over his shoulder.

"I don't think Sinon and Klein can suppress them from their position," replied Aiko.

"I think you're right," said Agil. "It might have something to do with why they're shooting at us now."

He had not considered that, but the thought that the soft AI that controlled the Monolith soldiers had come up with that was concerning. They were not below learning, but it was usually a very slow process for the primitive and low computational demand algorithms that controlled complex interactions between thousands of humanoid NPCs and tens of thousands animal NPCs across the Zone.

Shaking his head wearily, they crawled the remaining fifty meters to the end of the fence.

o0o0o

It was a constant mantra in Silica's mind: they're just NPCs. The thought enabled her to line up her sights on a simulacrum of a person and squeeze the trigger, to know they're not real people even if sometimes they wore faces she recognised. To know the blood and the gore was not real. The words were almost so strong in her mind she couldn't spare a thought to great risk of death all of them, everyone her friend, risked on this mission. In a way it was a blessing and she knew she would barely function with that constantly on her mind.

"Klein, when I say go, cover us," she heard Kirito order over the radio.

"Hold up, hold up, I need to load more ammo," she heard him reply.

Klein's fire immediately dropped up as he presumably began to reload. To prevent the Monolith squad from recovering, Sinon did her best to pick up the fire. Adding to the fire herself, it felt like a long fifteen seconds before Klein responded.

"Alright, I've got another two-hundred rounds in the gun."

Kirito didn't wait.

"Go!"

Klein's fire immediately went to an almost constant stream of fire. Adding her own into the mix, she quickly drained the remains of her magazine and began fumbling for a new one when three rapid tremendous cracks and flashes of fragmentation grenades lit up the Monolith position through the haze of the rain.

"Everyone, hold fire!"

Klein and Sinon cut off their fire as three figures came out from around the fence, rifles raised. They fired a few small bursts of fire before reaching the former Monolith position.

"We're clear."

She sagged with relief at the words, flicked the fire select lever to safe and began to grab her empty magazine off the bottom of her foxhole.

"Sinon, what's the Courier up to?"

Sitting up and looking herself, she could see a trail of blood and scuff marks across the trail leading to a position concealed by the fence.

"Well, he's still kicking," replied Sinon. "He bound his knee and is trying to drag himself along the fence line. He left his rifle behind."

There was a crack of a handgun as Aiko finished off one of the Monolith soldiers that hadn't made it to the last stand by the bulldozer.

o0o0o

Kirito could see the courier's SIG SG550 assault rifle lying in the mud to the side as they approached with rifles trained on him. The Monolith were programmed as fanatics, so the lack of the rifle would not easily be a hindrance to him trying to kill them. All it could take was a hand grenade or for him to pull his sidearm. He would rapidly die to Sinon's bullet but with him he would take Kirito, Aiko and Agil.

Looking up to the hillside, Kirito was glad to see Sinon hunched over her rifle and ready to dispatch the courier if he seemed to be reaching for a weapon. It would mean the loss of the documents but the documents were very expendable compared to people. They'd just have to wait again for another of the routine interception missions.

The courier only noticed him as he leant down and pulled the Ukrainian made Fort-12 handgun from the holster on his waist and threw it to the side. NPC AI was always growing and with it came oddities; it may be that the game decided a grievously wound NPC should have a lower situational awareness like would be the case in real life, or it might be some other strange bug.

Making sure he didn't get in Sinon's line of fire, he grabbed the courier by the strap of his load bearing vest and rolled him onto his side causing him to groan in pain and leaving him supported by the bulk of his backpack. The backpack contained the prize. Checking the pouches on his front, Kirito removed a single RGD-5 hand grenade and a folding knife. Dropping grenade in his dump pouch he unfolded the knife and moved to roll the courier back over again so he could disarm the incendiary device attached to the documents when he finally noticed the face.

He could never have said they were friends, or even on agreeable turns, but he would never have wished such an inglorious death on Kobatz, lieutenant-colonel of Duty. He and his small group of elite Duty members had gone searching for the location of one of the X-labs, X-14, several months back. Without much headway on shutting down the brain scorcher several of Duty's senior members including Kobatz had theorised the lab – as the closest lab to what they thought was the location of X-19 and the controls for the southern antenna array of the Brain Scorcher – might lead into X-19 and allow them to bypass the surface route through the Brain Scorcher, and across the Monolith and zombie infested surface. Shutting down a section of the brain scorcher (or all of it) was crucial to allowing them to push towards the CNPP and ending the game.

It wasn't much of a shock after his disappearance – people didn't just disappear in the Zone; they died, or got zombified, or fell to the charm of the Monolith – but was clear something had gone wrong with their plan.

Trying not to think about it, he rolled Kobatz onto his front eliciting another painful groan and began pulling the backpack open. Inside he found a manila folder with a scuffed red cylinder taped to it with gaffer tape. The cylinder appeared to be a grenade body with the standard timer grenade fuze pulled out and an electrically initiated blasting cap inserted and taped in place instead. Defuzing was a simple matter of pulling the blasting cap from the grenade body before cutting it off. The remains of the grenade might have some value so he dropped it into his dump pouch along with the knife.

"Kirito…"

He froze. His mind whirled for a few seconds before he came to the conclusion this was just a new trick the AI had cooked up to mess with their heads

"Kirito…"

The strained voice was clearly coming from Kobatz as he began to try and right himself.

Not sure what he was doing he grabbed Kobatz by the strap of his load bearing equipment and slowly turned him over. Kobatz's eyes were clear and his breath short and strained.

"We may never have been friends –" he said as he gasped a short breath, "but thank you for saving me from the dreams."

He gave a few final gasps for air before stilling, his eyes never left Kirito.

Behind him, Aiko and Agil were pale and wide eyed. Hearing the sound of feet on gravel he turned away from them to see Silica approaching them. Her MP5 was hanging down her front from a one-point sling as she shuffled through a backpack she was carrying.

"We can't tell anyone about this."

It was Agil who said it. As the oldest – and probably the most wise and worldly of the group – he had his finger to the pulse of every Stalker that passed through his shop. He knew what this revelation would do to morale, what it would do to many of the younger stalkers who could only walk out the door and fight knowing the Mono with their friend's face that they had just brained was just a shell. Even the ones who didn't avoid PVP jobs like hunting bandits would be troubled by it; bandits chose their life, those controlled by the Monolith did not. How many could make the necessary sacrifice? What would it do to morale? Their psyche?

Silica was getting closer.

"What about zombies?" asked Aiko.

He didn't know, where they just shells like they had thought?

"I played the original STALKERs," said Agil. "It was years ago, but one of the missions… it… it had you helping a bunch of guys who had broken free of the Monolith find a new group."

Agil shook his head.

"That was after the C-Consciousness was destroyed be Strelok though."

Aiko put her fingers to her lips and signalled Agil to stop speaking; Silica was far too close and Agil had been right about not telling.

"We'll talk later," said Aiko quietly as Silica came to a halt.

"Got the documents?" she asked.

"Yeah," replied Kirito, motioning to the bundle of papers in a manila folder with a half-attached piece of tape on its front laying a few feet from Kobatz.

"Can you help me get his backpack off?" she asked. "I'd like a new one."

Her existing bag – in hand – was clearly of Soviet make and made from faded tan-green canvas the Soviets had favoured in the 1960s. Having carried a similar bag in his first few weeks of the beta he knew they were uncomfortable to use and the game managed to accurately replicate the feeling of the thin straps cutting into your shoulders if you overloaded them. The bag Kobatz had been using though was a modern Western military assault pack with MOLLE attachment points and comfortable padded straps.

"Oh."

Silica had noticed the face.

"He was one of the Duty big-wigs, wasn't he?" she asked sadly, misinterpreting the group's discomfort.

He could almost hit himself for the five-second delay in replying.

"Y-yeah," he replied before awkwardly adding, "Kobatz was his name."

Silica gave Kirto a sad smile.

"Just remember it's not a real face."

He gave her a strained smile and nodded. Distracted with helping pull the pack off, she didn't notice the falseness.

"Klein, Sinon, keep an overwatch while we loot," he ordered over the radio.

Most of the weapons carried by the ruined Monolith squad were pretty mediocre by the group's standards and weren't worth the weight of carrying them back for sale. Even Agil with his sense of entrepreneurship wasn't interested. The only weapon of interest had been Kobatz's SIG SG550. The real money to be made was in the ammo carried; people always needed ammo.

o0o0o

"We're not going to make it back before the blowout."

They still didn't know what did it, but a lot of stalkers swore they could predict blowouts were coming tens of minutes before the official sensors tripped and the warning was given. It was like an itch or just a feeling in the back of your mind, a feeling something was about to happen. They weren't sure if the game changed an environmental cue slightly or if the game had picked stalkers randomly to get the "feeling" of a blowout before it happened.

A lot of the more experienced stalkers could do it and even a few of the rookies; Kirito, Agil, Aiko and Sinon included.

Turning to Sinon, Aiko agreed with her.

"Yeah, I've been getting the feeling. It must be an early emission."

To the "non-force sensitive" the feeling was a mystery, even if they quickly learned to trust the feeling of their fellow stalkers. For one it would save your life if there was no nearby shelter or if that shelter was cut off by enemies. It wasn't unheard of to stumble into shelter at the last minute only to find you're sharing the space with a snork or five. If you had extra time you may decide to forgo fighting snorks in close quarters and run the extra distance to the next nearest shelter.

"What's the nearest shelter people know of?" asked Kirito.

It wouldn't be until the emission officially began that they got map markers on their PDAs.

"The gang and I –" Klein said, referring to his group of door-kickers called Fuurinkazan "– camped out in a big stormwater pipe nearby a month back. But I think with all the rain it will be flooded."

The statement got a few unhappy agreements as the party halted and mingled as people dug out PDAs and began looking at their maps trying to predict the shelter locations.

"There's a substation about five-hundred meters to the east," suggested Sinon. "They usually have a brick-constructed equipment building on site."

Everyone looked the Klein as he apparently knew the area better.

"Nah, I think it's packed with electro-anomalies."

"Typical," someone muttered.

"We can't guarantee we can get into it either," added Kirito. "The doors are usually pretty solid."

The discussion ground to a halt as the sounds of Zone died off.

"Too late," said Aiko.

The Zone groaned and a huge crack with a note deeper than thunder came from the centre of the Zone. Radios crackled to life.

"Attention, an emission is approaching, find cover at once!" said the voice of the NPC.

The safe shelter lit up on their PDAs and they began to run.

o0o0o

The old bomb-shelter they had found themselves in was attached to a ruined house. The distinctive circular sections of missing brick walls and roofing were indicative of former habitation by either vortex or whirligig anomalies. They would not likely have spotted the bomb-shelter on their satellite maps and would likely have dismissed the house as too ruined to offer protection. Unfortunately, the bomb-shelter was also home to a good foot of water pooling in its bottom.

Beggars couldn't be choosers.

"I was hoping to get some shuteye," said Aiko irritably.

The emission outside was intensifying. Multi-coloured flashes of light were lighting up the sky and an almost constant barrage of thunder could be heard. They had made it with perhaps five minutes to spare.

"I can't say I'm going to enjoy spending the new few hours standing in freezing water either."

Everyone murmured their agreement to Sinon's statement as they spread out into the small two-roomed shelter. The second room had shelves with a few very rusty cans of food and a few rotting barrels.

"Hey, I think there's a door back here," said Silica, climbing over the junk.

Though waterlogged and damp, the old door was quickly converted into a suitable seat by putting it on top of the barrels. No one was going to complain if it helped get them out of the water.

"Let's hope the barrels don't collapse," said Agil. As the heaviest in the group he was more liable to break their new seat than anyone else.

Aiko managed to get the spot on the end and fall asleep against the wall, while Agil, Silica and Klein quietly chatted and broke out some snacks. Kirito and Sinon took watch.

"Yeah, not really hungry," she said with a shrug when asked.

Looking Kirito in the eye, he knew she was lying and it was clear she wanted to talk about something in private. Hopefully, near the door, the sound of the emission would drown out a hushed conversation.

Despite the emission's lethality, the watch was necessary. It was far from uncommon for some poor soul to not reach shelter in time and it wasn't uncommon for said zombified stalker to just keep walking in the direction they were going. Worse was to have a controller stumble upon you. While almost every other creature in the zone took shelter during an emission, controllers did not.

There was little point in taking shelter to avoid an emission only to have your brain fried. Thankfully he'd only heard of it happening once in his time in the Zone.

Looking up the rough concrete staircase that lead out the bunker, he could see the multicoloured lights of the emission. The lights could best be described as a red and orange coloured aurora. He wasn't in a rush, Sinon could ask what she wanted to ask on her own terms.

"So, what did Kobatz say?" she asked a few minutes later. She didn't turn to face him and instead chose to lean against the wall, staring out at the emission.

He wanted to give her a questioning look and pretend there was nothing but she asked again.

"It was easy to see that what he said bothered you guys."

She turned to face him as he damned high-magnification scopes.

"I can't read lips."

He frowned.

"Do you really want to know?"

Sinon paused for several seconds.

"I don't like being left in the dark."

Kirito turned back to the emission and ran his fingers through his hair nervously.

"I'm not sure Monolith shells exist anymore," he said, turning back to face Sinon.

"What did he say?' she asked cautiously.

"He… he thanked me," Kirito replied. "He thanked me for saving him from the dreams."

Sinon was pale and looked like she was trying to hug herself.

"I took the shot."

"It's far from your first kill," replied Kirito with a sigh.

Real shells didn't count, but bandits like Laughing Coffin or the other bandit gangs did, even if they decided to trade in their humanity. His comment wasn't the most sensitive.

"Everyone else deserved it," she said darkly. "The Monolith really just controls people then?"

He nodded.

"It seems so."

"Agil mentioned a mission in the original trilogy. You had to help a group of Monos find a new faction after the C-Consciousness was destroyed and their minds were freed."

He shook his head.

"We don't know – Agil, Aiko and I didn't get much of a chance to discuss it before the emission – but maybe everyone who got brainwashed was supposed to be freed when we completed the game."

"Sounds like something Kayaba would do," replied Sinon before she sagged and continued. "What about zombies?"

He gave a half-hearted shrug.

"I don't think that's supposed to be a recoverable injury."

They stook in an uneasy silence for several minutes.

"There's nothing we can do about this, is there?"

"I doubt we were the first to discover this, we're just another in a long line to keep it quiet."

o0o0o

Kirito left a few minutes later offering to get her some food but she waived him off, leaving her to think. The emission continued to be as beautiful as it was lethal and gave her the time she needed.

As the emission finally started to die down, she heard the splashing of water and turned to see Aiko came out of the back room and join her on watch.

"You look like shit." She really did. "Did you get any sleep?"

It wasn't like having rings under her eyes was significant – everyone had those – but instead in her posture, like she was exhausted.

"Yeah, but it hasn't been doing me much good lately," Aiko replied.

"What's been happening?"

Aiko surveyed her for a few seconds before answering.

"Headaches, dizziness. Sometimes – you know… it's like holding your breath for too long and everything dims." Aiko seemed resigned. "It's like I'm short of breath but I can still breath. It comes and goes."

Sinon frowned and contemplated.

"A bad bug maybe? We've been in her nearly a year, maybe there's something wrong with using NerveGear for so long?"

Aiko shook her head.

"I know what it is. It's fine." Aiko's tone stony, it brook no disagreement.

"You know that's an acronym, right?" asked Sinon.

Aiko scrunched up her nose in distaste.

"Yeah, I know."

"You mind taking watch? I want to get some food."

"Sure," replied Aiko.

Sinon turned to walk into the back room before pausing.

"It might not be my business to know what's wrong, but Yuuki is family, and it makes it hers. Don't forget it, because I'll know."

Looking over her shoulder, she saw give a small Aiko nod.

o0o0o

It was difficult to know what exactly was wrong with the taste of your food when you hadn't been able to compare it to the real thing in months. Still, the creature comforts of Silica's miniature propane stove seemed to distract everyone from their water-logged boots. No one else bothered to carry one; travelling light was a valuable asset for the more veteran stalkers and if you really desired a warm meal you could either get one back at base or build a fire. Silica's stove was a nice convenience though.

"I think we need to mix it up," said Agil offering out his can of beans. "Sausages and beans is far more interesting than one or the other."

The preserved sausage Kirito was cooking on the open flame of the stove was beginning to char slightly.

"You'll probably want some as well," he said nudging Klein. "It's probably far better than the mystery meat in that canned soup."

Klein gave him a sceptical look.

"You don't exactly need to eat healthily in this game, you know."

Agil rolled his eyes.

"God, don't you want some actual texture in your food? I can guarantee you that soup is just a puree."

Klein scowled.

"I know." He contemplated for a few seconds before agreeing. "Get your cup out and I'll give you half the soup for half that sausage."

Kirito have him a strained smile.

"I didn't bring it. I don't normally carry it and certainly not for a day mission."

"Fine, drop that sausage in the cup and we'll share," said Klein with a slight about of exasperation.

"What about me?" asked Agil as he held out his can.

"What's this about?"

"They're arguing about food," explained Silica to Sinon who had just walked through doorway.

"Oh, well I would like some non-western food for once," said Sinon. "I don't mind this stuff but I would like something a bit different after so long – something from home."

"Yeah, I heard you, I travelled back and forth between the States and Japan a lot as a kid so I can tolerate the Western heavy diet, but I would like some more variety," said Agil. "There's so many things I'm doing when we get out of here. My wife…"

Agil stopped and shook his head.

"Yeah, what are you going to do to your wife?" asked Sinon with exaggerated lecherousness.

Agil gave her a sceptical look.

"I'm not discussing my sex life with a fifteen-year-old."

Sinon laughed at him before sighing.

"I could never have said that to anyone a year ago."

"Let's stick to more happier topics," suggesting Silica, steering the conversation away and slightly red in the face.

"I hear Kirito doesn't have your problem, Agil, if what I've heard from Asuna is right," said Sinon with a smirk.

Everyone turned to Kirito to confirm it.

"Thanks for sharing that, Sinon," he said with a strained voice.

"So, have you two been having fun?" she kept pushing.

"You know the game doesn't support… intimacy, right?" he asked carefully.

"And let's be thankful it doesn't, given the types of people stuck here in the Zone with us," muttered Klein.

Silica gave him a glare.

"When I said I wasn't going to discuss my sex life, you realise I meant it the other way too, right?" said Agil through a mouth of beans and sausage. "Look, you want relationship advice I can give it, I've got more sage advice that this idiot." He indicated to Klein. "But I'm not giving you the birds and the bees talk."

Sinon gave him a cheery salute before pulling out some food and heating it up.


Some story notes from the author:

Stalker Online is my attempt to make a better Sword Art Online. The concept of the virtual reality deathgame is excellent, many of the characterisations are great, a few of the plot arcs have been great (mostly Mother's Rosario) ... the rest though has been pretty meh. I guess it pissed me off that the author could come up all these great ideas before weighing it down with harem garbage, a damsel in distress every hour, and a very bland main character.

For the SAO fans who will inevitably complain that I have criticised their favourite franchise: I don't really care and I (and probably the moderators) would appreciate it if you don't shit up the reviews section with said complaints. If you must, PM me, though I make no guarantees I will reply. That said, I'm quite happy to accept genuine criticism. If you believe I have butchered a character you can say so.

A number of characters from later SAO seasons have been brought in despite in SAO canon never being stuck in the deathgame. Sinon is from the Gun Game arc, and sisters Yuuki and Aiko are from Mother's Rosario being the main ones.

And then, to top it all off, I chose to stick them in STALKER, what is probably the worst game world you could possibly ever find yourself stuck in. Stalker fans should note that in story, STALKER Online is an adaptation of Shadow of Chernobyl. There will be many things recognisable to fans, but you shouldn't look at SoC (or CS or CoP or Call of Chernobyl) as being the definitive guide for the comings and goings of SO.

The first few chapters are very much based off the plot of the first few episodes of SAO, but soon after the plot will really get off the rails.

Regarding Sinon (minor spoilers for the fic):

I chose to change Sinon's back story very slightly. In canon she's slightly scared of men and very scared of guns for reasons you can look up on the wiki. I chose to go the other direction; instead of guns she's scared of being a victim and of being powerless, a gun (and any other weapon) as a means to protect herself is a comfort. Feed an apparent fascination with weapons into how Japanese society would view a child who has killed someone (no matter how justified it was) and you end up with a socially ostracised and frowned upon teenager.

The end result though is the same, just in a way I felt was a bit better. I just couldn't really come up with an idea how to explain a girl who's deathly afraid of firearms yet felt she needed to overcome that fear in a nation where they're almost non-existent.

Her motivations will be explained in story at some point. I just haven't figured out when yet.

I would like to thank TheannaTW for her fic Stalker Zero which provided some inspiration for this.

So, lets get on with the story.

181102 - Some typos and minor rewording