I think there was a six month or so gap between writing the prologue and finishing this chapter.
Only a Game
"Hey you! Yes you!" The mid-twenty something with the Slavic features paused to turn to the voice. "You want to buy some info? I know of a few stashes that can get you some decent gear early on."
The woman had a sawn-off shotgun of some kind in hand and was dressed in hooded black leather trench coat.
The stalker looked her over a few times before approaching.
"You one of the beta-testers?"
The girl opened her arms wide as a non-threatening gesture.
"Sure, where do ya' think I got this kit? I sure as hell haven't had the time to make the money for it with the servers coming online only an hour ago."
The man still looked a big uneasy.
"So, what, you sell stash locations or something?"
"That, among other things. I'm Argo, if you want information on anything you can come to me."
She didn't need to mention the price, if you didn't know it would cost you something you were a fool.
"Alright, what will it cost me for a stash with some decent weapons?" asked the man, his curiosity piqued.
Argo pulled out her PDA and took a few seconds to check her list.
"Well, for nine-hundred I can give you the location of a stash with an MP5 in it. Great starter, really accurate for a sub-gun and it's really cheap to feed."
"Nine-hundred!" exclaimed the man. "That's most of my starting money!"
"It's nine-hundred rubles or nothing. You'd have to pay at least four-thousand if you wanted to buy an MP5 off Sidorovich."
Argo gestured towards the crowd blocking the view of Sidorovich's bunker. Sidorovich was the NPC trader here in Cordon's Rookie Village.
"It's even in an easy location; nothing more than some blind dogs nearby," she pressed. "Worst for worst, you die, you end up here in the village, and you try again."
The man quickly caved and traded the money for the stash. With a threat to be back if she had lied, he walked off with his only weapon – an anaemic Soviet-era 9mm Makarov PM handgun – and quickly left the village.
Dressed in the typical rookie clothing of blue jeans and a muddy-brown polyester jacket, the young man with black hair and Asiatic features looked like every other rookie logging on and appearing in the Rookie Village.
"Going for the bandit look?" he asked. Having caught the tail end of the conversation with her previous customer. "I'm kind of expecting you to have some goons ready to jump they guy and steal his can of beans looking like that."
"This isn't the bandit look, it's the information broker look!"
Kirito raised an eyebrow sceptically.
"Right, so why are you selling the locations of those stashes instead of looting them?" he asked. "You said it yourself, that MP5 is worth way more than nine-hundred rubles."
"Hey, I've got to set a precedent as the information broker!" she explained. "Everyone serious about this game is logging on now and I want every one of them to know my name and to know that I'm reliable."
"The image really worth more than the kit?"
Argo looked at him with a mild amount of disbelief.
Kirito shrugged, he wasn't sure he understood the fellow beta-tester's fascination of living out the fantasy as an information broker. It had nothing to do with living out the game world, rather why you would pick an information broken when far more exciting roles to play existed. It was like why you would play as a trader in a game without real money conversion.
"What have you got for me?" he asked.
Argo hummed as she pulled out her PDA again and started scrolling through what was presumably the list of stashes she had accumulated during the beta period.
"I can give you a stash with an AKM, and another with a Bear detector and one of those awful Soviet rubber chemical suits."
The offer seemed far more than fair. He frowned and looked at her suspiciously.
"I'm the same as everyone else, Argo, if you charged that guy nine-hundred for an MP5 there's no way I can afford those stashes.
"I don't want your money," said Argo, smiling sweetly.
"What do you want then?" he asked, not liking where this was going.
"I want a favour," she answered. "One favour from you in the future. It's worth a lot more than a thousand rubles."
Kirito sighed. He hoped this wouldn't bite him in the ass in the future.
"Yeah, you can normally talk to Sidorovich face-to-face," muttered someone at the entrance to the bunker.
"So… what? Is it something to do with so many people trying to buy stuff and get basic missions?" asked the guy next to him as he tapped away at a screen only visible to him.
"I have to think so. There weren't many of us in the beta so I guess we never managed to trip it. I can understand why though, there would be a queue all the way back to the military checkpoint if we had to wait in line."
Walking up to the bunker entrance and the gaggle of people, the game started prompting Sinon to initiate dialogue. Pushing the hovering accept button a dialogue window opened, displaying a portrait of herself on one side and another of a fat balding man on the other side separated by a dialogue box.
"Sidorovich: Another rookie," was written in the dialogue box before the floating window began to speak with an older male voice, repeating the words. "Do you want me to feed you the usual bullshit I feed the rookies or do you think you're a big girl and we can get straight to business?"
The window didn't have any obvious dialogue choice buttons like any game she'd played before. She was about to try experimenting with the various buttons when a second overlay popped up.
"Welcome to your first interaction with an NPC!
A number of NPC interaction options are available to you. The default is voice interaction, however written interaction and traditional dialogue options are available. Other options such as NPC muting, secret interaction, and disabling of the trader and dialogue window are also available.
NPCs use a sophisticated soft AI system and are capable of understanding most questions and responses."
"Uh, okay…" said Sinon, momentarily lost for words. "What is 'secret interaction'?"
"Secret interaction mutes your voice to other players during interaction with NPCs allowing you to hide your purchases and other dealings."
"Uh, right," she responded. "Um – close window?"
The window now closed she returned to the conversation.
"I don't want to be fed bullshit, but I would like some advice."
"Hmm, there are plenty of jobs about if you need one, you just have to ask. I can recommend basic equipment based on your personal preferences. I can also give you some tips of the various hazards of the Zone such as anomalies, blowouts and mutants. I can point you towards good anomaly fields and recommend good detectors; it is after all in my best interest for you to return with the loot. I can give you an overview of the local area and I can sell you intel. What else would you like to know?"
Sinon frowned. Maybe she would need to start from scratch; she wasn't sure what half of what he said was.
Double checking the manual again, Asuna Yuuki was finally satisfied she'd correctly set up her brothers' NerveGear virtual reality system. He'd probably be a bit disappointed he'd missed out on being first to play it, but he would be away for at least a good few weeks on business. It was not like he'd lose out on anything with her using it early and it was easier to ask for forgiveness anyway.
Sitting on her bed, back against the headboard, she slipped the helmet on.
It was disorientating at first, like she was in free fall, before her senses adjusted and she found herself standing in an endless void in front of a computer window. The window was a game select screen that current only have one game on it: S.T.A.L.K.E.R Online: Shadow of Chernobyl.
Reaching out to touch the start game box she realised her hands were grey and featureless before she found herself assaulted by the logo of Argus, the company that made the NerveGear helmet, the logo for Cardinal, the software that manages the virtual reality system, and then the words "Directed by Kayaba Akihiko".
Asuna then found herself in a dingy room overlooking the iconic shape of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The grey sarcophagus had patches of fire on it, the heat haze distorting the grey skies beyond.
Pulling her eyes away from the scene she looked over the room. The floor were empty cartridge cases, a few pieces of military equipment such as a gas mask and over against a wall was some sort of rocket launcher. And there was the menu screen.
Selecting new game, it asked for a name and she entered Asuna before it asked her what world she wanted to join. There was only one option though:
World 1 … Location: Japan … Difficulty: Master … Player count: 9,336/12,000 … Ping: 8ms
This was really her first proper gaming experience, she wasn't even sure she would keep playing this. Really, she was only here because she had heard the hype and figured she should at least take a look at the world's first fully immersive virtual reality simulator. Despite her inexperience though, she knew "master" was not an easy difficulty, in fact she was sure it was usually the hardest difficulty level.
"Well, it's not like I intended to play this seriously" she though as she accepted the only currently available game world.
The game dropped her again in another endless void, only this time there was a generic European male wearing track pants and a dirty brown leather jacket in front of her. Several windows accompanied him. It took her several seconds to realise they were character customisation windows before she first switched her gender to female and her ethnicity to Asian.
She gave a momentary though to what her mother would have said if she knew the game threw in Japan with the other Asian nationalities before adjusting the age slider to her own. She almost immediately changed her mind when she realised the game would give her some leeway with her appearance.
After making some positive adjustments she moved on to find the game didn't give her any other options for clothes besides "muddy jeans #1" and a "track suit #3" before she reluctantly settled on looking like a vagrant.
Satisfied with her physical appearance if not her clothes she pushed the Start Game button and found herself in a ruined village.
"Heh, another one?"
The voice was high pitched and definitely sounded young, but it also had a slight nasal quality to it. It seemed fitting given it had come from what looked like a twelve-year-old girl.
"Want to join our clan?" she asked. "Girls only – you seem like the right sort."
She was a bit touched that someone had already wanted to invite her to a clan (some ort of group?) and was about to ask some questions when another distinctly male voice cut in.
"Hehe – yeah, guys in real life. Girls – get it?"
Except the voice wasn't coming from a male, it was coming from a woman with the most ridiculous body proportions Asuna thought she ever seen.
"Heh – yeah, I was a bit disappointed the game won't let undress my character," replied the 'twelve-year-old'.
Feeling a bit sickened she replied, "I'm a girl, thank you very much."
Her distaste was clearly evident on her face and in her tone.
The man posing as a child mimed a groping gesture before replying, "Sure you are."
Before she could reply the two men walked off.
She was tempted to immediately log out and take a shower but realised she'd been here all of two minutes and should at least take a look around.
"Come on, Yuuki, it will be fun!"
Aiko guided her sister through the dilapidated village. It was strange to be in such a filthy place after the last few years of obsessive cleanliness and minor-illness-driven anti-socialness. The fact it wasn't technically real didn't matter; Aiko and Yuuki were outside again and could have some fun.
The breeze she could feel didn't seem exactly right, but it was close enough that she could get used to it. She was not sure this was the right game to enjoy the breeze though.
"I'm still not sure about this game," replied Yuuki. "Couldn't we have waited for a game a bit less serious?"
"Ugh, that's months away! We've got to make the most of it."
Yuuki frowned slightly at the comment, but she couldn't really say no when he sister suggested they did something together.
They already had gotten some equipment from the trader – a worn looking pump-action shotgun and a slightly rusty sub-machine gun – and were looking at their first adventure. The trader had given them a simple mission of killing some mutants. Their PDA's map gave them a location about an hour's walk away deeper into the zone, past the railway embankment in the distance. The mission was slightly more difficult than a solo mission as they'd signed up as a pair.
Heading out of the starter village it was hard to remind yourself that this was just a virtual world. The landscape really did look like civilisation abandoned by man, former fields that would have once been filled with crops were clearly delineated from the forests at their edge, former homes stood by derelict, their windows smashed and doors rotted, the tarmacked roads they crossed were cracked and trees grew up through them.
Still, everything felt unnatural. For example, there were no birds singing in the trees, only crows that watched you like they were waiting for you to keel over and die, and the wind sounded… unsettling, like it was haunted.
"This place is so lonely," said Yuuki as they approached the railway.
"It's a bit creepy," her sister agreed.
The embankment the railway was situated on was a good twenty or thirty metres high with steep sides and loose stones.
"The satellite map isn't as useful as I thought it would be, it's basically impossible to tell there was an embankment here from it," said Aiko looking up from her PDA at it.
"Climb, or go around?"
In a more normal game they might have given a shot at climbing it, but here – even though you couldn't really die – it still felt weird to risk your neck climbing the loose stones.
"Around I think," replied Aiko as she looked at her PDA again. "Yeah, there's a bridge about 500 metres to the east," she continued, gesturing towards their right. "Looks like a road goes under it."
Trailblazing through the waist high grass it wasn't long before they could clearly see the bridge and the ruined road beneath it. Approaching closer they could see the bridge itself was also ruined, a distorted patch of light and clouds in the centre of the gaping missing piece and a perilously hanging railcar.
"Is that an anomaly?" asked Yuuki.
"Uhh, maybe?" replied Aiko. "It looks like what the trader described."
They had halted in the grass, gazing up at the monstrosity when suddenly a staccato of cracks filled the air. In their pondering they had missed the soldiers guarding the pass.
Yuuki grabbed her sister by her jacket and pulled her to the ground. The enemy fire increased as presumably all of the soldiers guarding the pass were alerted, but unable to get a bead on them in the grass the fire was scattered.
"Shit, shit, shit," was all Aiko could say as they started to crawl back the other direction along the path they had blazed.
Yuuki didn't add to it but it was hard to think this was just a game when the supersonic crack of bullets passed over your head. She could admit to herself it was thrilling and certainly got her heart racing. But still…
Eventually as the fire dropped off they felt safe enough to move to a low run just in case the soldiers tried to follow them.
"Damn," was all Yuuki said as they reached roughly the point where they had first met the embankment.
"Yeah, my heart is going a mile a minute," replied her twin, wide eyed. "I didn't even manage to get a shot off."
Secretly she was thankful she had a sling for her shotgun else she'd probably have dropped it and left it behind.
"That was a bit more extreme than I had expected," Aiko continued. "If you – uh – want to stop this and wait for a new game… we could do that."
Yuuki shook her head.
"No, I'm okay," she replied. "It was scary… but good."
Further discussion was cut off by the barking of dogs. Turning to the sound they could see maybe a bit short of a dozen dogs were quickly bearing down on them.
Aiko immediately stepped forward, brought her shotgun to her shoulder and fired off a round. One of the dogs yelped as a piece of buckshot grazed it, but due to the distance the remainder just kicked up chunks of damp soil. She momentarily forgot to reload as she pulled the trigger again to no effect before she remembered to cycle the action.
Yuuki cut in at that point with her PPSh-41 firing off a long burst and emitting a gout of flame from the vintage sub-machine gun. The burst had been as effective as the shotgun blast had; one hit for a dozen misses, except this time a bullet scored a direct hit causing the dog to give a whelp before collapsing as speed and flipping end over end.
As the dogs got quickly closer they suddenly found their inaccurate fire could actually begin to strike down the dogs, but it wasn't before long that one was within biting distance. The dog leaped towards Aiko and tried to snap at her neck which she only narrowly avoided by side stepping at the last moment. Turning around she aimed her shotgun as the dog tried to regain it's footing for another pass she pulled the trigger only to receive a click in return.
It took a fraction of a second for it to register she was out of ammo before she quickly scrambled to grab more shells from the pocket of her jacket. Flipping her shotgun over she fumbled with the shell, trying to get it through the loading gate and into the magazine but as the dog rapidly closed the distance she gave it up as a bad job and dropped her shotgun, allowing it to hang awkwardly by it sling.
Extra shells clattering to the ground she drew her handgun and fired off a round at the dog, which landed a good foot to the left and leading to Aiko discovering a handgun is much harder to aim. As the dog got increasingly closer she ended up mag dumping the remaining six rounds in the gun at the dog which put it down with a yelp.
Turning again she found Yuuki with her PPSh hanging by its sling and drum magazine discarded on the ground with her Makrov out and the surviving dogs on the run. Yuuki stared at the last wounded dog before shooting it and turning to her.
"Over the embankment?" she asked after a few seconds breather.
Aiko realised her ears were ringing slightly from the gunfire.
"Yeah, I think so," replied Aiko before shaking her head, hoping to clear the noise. "We should probably reload first."
Yuuki nodded and picked up her discarded empty magazine as Aiko went to look for her lost shotgun shells. Taking a second to examine the dogs Aiko could see all of their eyes were surrounded by cancerous growths and exuded copious amounts of what looked like puss. The dogs had been effectively blind.
The climb up the embankment was perilous as loose fist-sized stones constantly were dislodged and tumbled down. Both felt like they might become unstuck at several points and tumble down after them.
At the top they had a good enough view to see all the way back to the Rookie Village and the military cordon in the distance, in the other direction in the distance was lots of large mounds and what looked like vehicles. Down the track in the opposite direction to the ruined rail bridge was a lone distant figure examining a few derail rail cars.
"I wonder how much of this place we can explore?" asked Yuuki.
"The game area is supposed to be about sixty kilometres across and roughly round. I'd hope most of it."
Getting down the other side of the embankment was far easier than going up. Aiko followed her sister through the bushes at the bottom and found Yuuki facing the muzzle end of an AK.
"Hands in the sky, girlie."
The man holding it was wearing a black trench-coat and a balaclava. He spoke Japanese but with a clear accent she wasn't familiar with.
Reacting on instinct she fired from the hip, hitting the man in the gut while Yukki at the sound of the shotgun went down and sideways. She managed to avoid the gout of fire from the man's rifle as he went through the motions of death.
She hadn't noticed them until she had cut the first man down but on her left and right were similarly dressed bandits. It was almost like slow motion to Aiko as her sister gave the man on her left from the ground a long burst from her PPSh, bullets impacting his chest, neck and then his head as the recoil carried the muzzle of Yuuki's gun up.
Then, the man on the right shot her twice in the back of the head.
Aiko barely had time to realise what had just happened and pump the action of he shotgun when the man on the right turned his gun on her and gave her a burst of fire. A burning pain in her chest, her legs immediately gave out and she fell over backwards.
As everything began to fade and unable to feel any thing bellow her chest, panic set in at the realisation of what just happened before she found herself hyperventilating in a black void.
"The Zone claims your life."
She barely had time to ponder the words before she found herself again in the Rookie Village. A million thoughts raced through her mind as she dropped to her knees and felt like she was about to vomit.
She felt a hand on her shoulder before it wrapped her up in a hug.
"Aiko?" It was Yuuki's worried voice.
Kirito felt somewhat naked climbing the exposed railway embankment with nothing more than a Makarov handgun, a few spare magazines and the clothes on his back. Clothes that offered zero ballistic protection, no camouflage and had barely enough pockets to carry three magazines and a PDA.
A few kilometres from Rookie Village, he'd only seen a few whirligig anomalies, and a couple of mutant boars and disfigured fleshes. Getting some decent kit was top priority and the AKM would be a good start. With it he could go into the deeper parts of the Zone before pretty much anyone else, arrive first at the anomaly fields and the artefacts they held, and get a hold of some of the deeper stashes he knew about off the top of his head.
Reaching to top of the embankment he found the old dual railway track. A thick coating of rust on the top confirmed no train has passed by in many years or – more correctly – the design artists had a sense of detail.
The first stash was apparently stuffed into the exhaust of the huge diesel-electric locomotive in front of him. He climbed the ladder and walked along the top until he met the diesel-stained pipes that made up the exhaust system for the locomotive. Bending over to reach in and grab the chemical suit he paused at the sound of gunfire. Satisfied it was healthy distance away from him he managed to grab the rubber material and pull it out. There didn't seem to be an anomaly detector remaining in the pipe, so he checked and found it was wrapped up in the chemical suit.
The suit would be awful to wear but he could guarantee he would die a quick death without it if he went anywhere near the gas anomalies in the Garbage or the fruit punch anomalies commonly found in enclosed spaces looking for artefacts. He just needed a gas mask to go with it.
"So, a Mosin-Nagant M91/30, a PU scope, a curved sniper bolt handle and forty rounds of my cheapest 7.62x54mmR ammo."
After going through all the motions of informing her about the Zone, the trader Sidorovich could apparently recommend a loadout based on how much you wanted to spend and some personal preferences, but with only 1000 rubles the pickings were incredibly tough. For a "sniper rifle" the only option in this price range was a Mosin-Nagant, a bolt action rifle introduced into Imperial Russian service in the 1880s and stayed around with the Soviets with some slight modification all the way up to the 1940s when it was replaced by the SKS and then the AK-47. The 3.5x scope that went with it was almost as archaic as the rifle, but the ammo was at least guaranteed to work most of the time.
Apparently, the NPC traders normally operated on supply and demand, increasing prices when items got popular and dropping prices when items weren't, but this was being disabled for the first few weeks of the game in Cordon. It obviously would have been impossible to buy anything with the rush at the start of the game if they hadn't.
"Yeah, I'll take it," replied Sinon.
Despite being on the surface and not facing Sidorovich in his overcrowded bunker, the rifle with its accessories and two little paper wrapped bundles appeared in front of her waiting for her to grab them. The game hadn't prompted her to give any money to Sidorovich but she assumed the game automatically did that, leaving her with only twenty rubles to rub together.
"Good hunting, stalker."
Deftly loading each or the brown lacquered cartridges one by one and chambering a round, it felt comforting and secure to hold it in her hands; protection from a violent past. The ability to do violence onto other that could do her or loved one's harm. A curse that brought her years of trouble.
Her PDA put her first mission about twenty minutes' walk to the east.
It took him fifteen minutes to get to the next stash, following the railway tracks towards the forest that bordered Cordon and then up the hill where the tracks met a tunnel. Having expended two magazines on a pack of dogs and only having one left he felt increasing worried to be so lightly armed and was anxious to get his hands on some decent firepower.
The rifle was apparently in a tree and came with four loaded magazines.
Kirito checked the stash note Argo had written:
014792 – AKM rifle and four magazines, second branch up a tree fifteen metres north-east of the low y-shaped tree with the soldier's corpse up against it.
The six-letter grid reference gave him a 100 by 100 metre area to search. Thankfully in a forest of mostly straight pines and the occasional anomaly distorted tree, the y-shaped tree with the corpse was pretty distinctive.
The climb up the tree was easy and he found the gun secured by its sling wrapped around a branch and the magazines taped to the stock. Leaving the rest taped in place, he pulled one magazine off, rocked it into the gun with a small click, and then pulled and released the charging handle, chambering a round. Satisfied he could fight off more than blind dogs he slung the rifle over his back and shimmied down the tree.
The rifle was quickly in his hands though as he saw the man with red hair waiting at the bottom of the tree for him.
"Uh, hi," he said, putting his hands up in the air.
The rifle kicked like a bitch but quite satisfyingly it almost immediately dropped the mutant boar. The sound had been sharp on her ears. The action felt clunky as she worked the bolt handle, ejecting the spent casing before pushing a new round home. Finding the next target, she absent-mindedly noted the scope had a good crusting of brown gunk around the edge of the lens before the reticle lined up on the next boar. The boar had finally realised it was under attack and was getting to its feet. She pulled the trigger.
With a 148-grain ball round removing some of it's grey matter it slumped over and jerked slightly.
"Ah crap," she muttered as three more shapes revealed themselves through the brush.
There weren't three mutant boars as she had though, but six. Working the action she dropped another before reaching into her pocket for some more loose ammo and inserting it into the magazine bring up her magazine count to three before trying to work the action.
"Oh crap," she said with a bit more panic this time before giving the bolt handle a hard push but finding it wouldn't go forward.
Turning the rifle over slightly to look under the scope and into the action she could see the problem instantly: rim lock. As a very antiquated design, the Mosin-Nagant used rimmed cartridges. All cartridges have a rim so they can be extracted from the chamber after firing, but on the rimmed design the rims were protruding rather than recessed like on more modern cartridges. If they weren't loaded correctly into the magazine they caught on eachother.
With three angry boars about to run her down she flipped the rifle over and tried disengaging the latch that held the fixed magazine shut before realising the boars were actually really damn close and she needed to leg it, fast.
Seeing a tree that looked climbable she ran, rifle in hand before making a dash up the side as fast as she could with the mutants on her heels. After a few seconds breather she looked down from her perch and found three very angry boars circling. With a few grunts they gave a tree a good sniff and a nudge before deciding to wait her out.
Thankfully, they didn't understand the power of firearms.
The Rookie Village was still packed when Sinon got back but the crowd had died down enough for her to actually set foot in Sidorovich's bunker. Down the winding staircase and behind a cage wall, he was about what she had expected from the man; fat, balding and surrounded by his various wares.
"What do you want, stalker?"
"I did the job," she replied, quickly having preferred the convenience of voice interaction.
"Good, good, here's your payment," he said, handing her a bundle of cash. "Six-hundred, as promised. Is there anything you need?"
"Yeah, what other jobs have you got?"
Sidorovich scratched his chin.
"Well, now you're demonstrated you can perform some basic work, would you like something a bit more challenging?"
"Well, I've got clients looking for some artefacts, I've got a package I need delivered to the 100 Rad Bar in Rostok, and a man who ran off with my last package who needs to be disposed of and if possible, I want my package back. I have more difficult missions that will require you to put a crew together to complete as well if you're up for it."
She didn't know anyone just yet, so the more complex missions were out. She had no experience with artefacts though, so it might be a good learning experience.
"I need a jellyfish, a battery and a soul artefact. I'll give you sixteen-hundred for each."
Pulling out her PDA she checked the in-built Zone encyclopedia for more info on each artefact. Each could apparently be detected with the most basic artefact detectors, but soul only formed in chemical anomalies, so she'd need a chemical suit and gas mask while the others formed in the less dangerous gravity and electric anomalies.
"I guess I'll take the jellyfish contract."
Sidorovich shook his head.
"This isn't an exclusive contract; my artefact jobs are open contract. First in with the artefact gets the money."
It made sense.
"Right, I need a detector then."
181102 - Minor rewording.