I've got three chapters in varying states of completeness.


Stalker Online

Interlude Two:

Consideration

D+142

There was blood all down his brother's front. Silently his lips moved as he tried to call out. One hand outstretched, trying to reach him, the other trying to hold his shredded insides in.

Akkun woke with a start. The dreams just kept coming, night after night, relentlessly.

Checking his PDA he found it was still early in the morning, and though he couldn't tell from his basement sleeping location in the Rookie Village, the sun probably wasn't up yet.

Knowing he wouldn't get back to sleep, he began the task of packing up his equipment and putting them away in his pack. He wasn't as quiet as he liked, a fellow stalker quietly muttering: "keep it the fuck down" as he swung his bag over his shoulders, pushed his rifle through the hole and climbed the ladder up to ground level.

There weren't many people moving around the village at this early hour; some people on guard, some haunted faces around the campfire. A small group of ragged looking stalkers entered the village from the east and headed towards Sidorovich's place. He followed, the same destination in mind.

It was the same house after house, desperate face after desperate face. A digital reality where anything should be possible, but instead it was a life of squalor and suffering. To the east, the sun was rising, the light peaking through the scattered clouds. A beautiful sight in a world made for evil.

His stomach rumbled as he reached the steel door into the bunker. He couldn't spare any rubles for food yet, he needed to know what jobs Sidorovich had in store first, to give him a good idea as to what he could spare from mission supplies and into food.

As he reached the bottom he found the ragged group bartering their meagre loot. Sidorovich was a hard ass on the best of days and the ragged group before him looked despondent at what they had gotten in return for risking their lives in the Zone. Their lone Crystal artefact only fetched them a fifteen-hundred or so rubles, split between all five of them, and their other stuff was just junk, only netting them a few hundred more.

They were starving and desperate, and their only option was to take the pitiful amount Sidorovich was offering.

"Naka died for this?" said one of them quietly as they climbed up the steps behind him.

There was no use hurling insults or fighting Sidorovich on this. Swallow your hate, your words, for they meant nothing to the program.

"What can I do for you stalker?" he asked as Akkun approached the barred counter.

"I'm looking for work."

"Ah yes," he replied. "I have a few jobs available. Even a few I wouldn't normally offer, but you have a history of good work."

He gestured for Sidorovich to go on.

"I have a package that needs to be delivered to Skinflint by the Army Warehouses, it can't fall into Duty's hands so you'll have to take the long way around the Bar. The job is 4,000."

That was a long way and the roundabout path was treacherous, but it didn't require any fighting. The money wasn't great, but he would have to consider it at least.

"What else?"

"Something killed one of my couriers between Cordon and the Garbage, whoever kills it gets a 1,000-ruble bounty"

Lots of uncertainty there; the problem could be anything from a pack of stray dogs to a bloodsucker. It also wasn't a job, just a bounty. Someone else could get there first. If he passed by and spotted the problem, sure, but he wasn't going to go looking for it.

He gestured for the next job.

"Find me a Moonlight, 5,000."

Yeah, it would certainly be nice to find one of those.

"A man stole something from me. I want him dead and I want my stuff back. 2,000 rubles for his head, 2,000 for my stuff, and you can keep whatever else he is carrying."

He needed to know more.

"Where is this man?" he asked.

"Over in Darkscape, he's trying to lie low at a stalker camp over there."

He could do that job in two or three days. He wouldn't have to cross the long and unfamiliar landscape past Dark Valley and into the Army warehouses, and he would get paid the same for it.

"Anything else I should know? What is it I'm supposed to retrieve?"

"The items are a prototype detector and a thumb drive with some crucial data. If you try and pawn them off instead of returning them to me, you'll join him."

He nodded and took the target's details from Sidorovich. The photograph Sidorovich sent him was of a man in his thirties, pale skin, perhaps Western looking with the name "Dima" under it. His equipment was pretty standard for a stalker down on his luck; just a jacket, jeans, a cheap set of canvas webbing and a Mosin carbine. It was possible he had found his fortune in the interim, but unlikely.

"I accept."

o0o0o

There was a deafening silence. No crunch of gravel under feet, no haunting sounds of the wind blowing through trees, no pounding in his head as his heart worked furiously to move him forwards.

He spotted a dead tree in a small dip and moved towards it, gingerly bending down to place the pale and clammy body upright against it. He said deaf words towards the body, a plea perhaps, desperate, raging against fate.

A small drop of blood at the corner of his lips, his brother's eyes cold and lifeless.

He woke to vaguely familiar surroundings; the inside of a cargo container that had come off a freight train and slid down the embankment. It was raining lightly outside, the morning dark as the sun tried to peak through the grey clouds. It didn't feel like an emission, just regular rain in their simulated reality.

He wasn't sure anymore of the memories of his brother's death. Awful dream after awful dream blurring the memory of reality and imagination together. It was horrifying in its own way and no small part of him whispered the word traitor at the idea he was no longer sure what had happened. He had a duty, and he had failed it.

Eating bit of preserved sausage and some bread he packed away his gear and carefully extracted himself from his shelter. Darkscape was rocky and heavily wooded, there was little out here but bandits, anomalies and mutants. Zombies too, some of the first desperate stalkers having died here trying to find some new fertile ground to live off.

Standing atop the cargo contained he swept the area, looking for threats. On the road back towards Cordon he could see the shambling and bloodied forms of two zombies. He involuntarily closed his eyes to awful images and gave a shuddering breath before he managed to control himself, breaking his eyes of the sight.

To the road north was the slight shimmering of a few anomalies and a few more pulsating in the rain, warping the ballistic path the droplets would normally follow as they fell from the sky. He was sure there were more, but the poor light made spotting them more difficult than usual.

He climbed off the container and unslung his SKS, turning towards the north.

o0o0o

He couldn't hear the words, he refused to understand them. The doctor in bloodied threadbare scrubs shook his head and stalkers in the cramped clinic avoided his eyes.

With nothing left to feed it, the pool of blood had halted its advance, cold dead eyes staring back.

He woke cold and wet under a tree. He had a green tarp wrapped around himself, but the downpour had rendered it moot.

He carefully shook as much rain off it as he dared and folded it up. Looking through the undergrowth he could see the stalker camp from his position. There was roughly a dozen of them, sitting about around the campfire or standing watch. Some looked like thugs, but some just looked desperate, his target among them.

He watched for several hours as people came and went. They stood watch, ate food, went for a wander, to look for artefacts or for junk they could sell.

And every single one was human.

There was no stiffness of an NPC, no following of a script, no repeated motions. It was just humans, humans trying to get by in a fucked-up world. His target might have been desperate, but he could see him talk with his comrades, joke, laugh, stand watch – stand guard over his friends.

He didn't steal from a player, he didn't leave someone for dead, he didn't leave a stomach empty or a hand unarmed. His crime was to steal from some fucking robot, a merciless taskmaster who made the Zone's suffering all the more worse.

Akkun put down his binoculars and leaned back against his tree with a sigh.