This only took me a very long time.


Stalker Online

Chapter 7:

Five Tales of Rostok Dreaming

D+41

Kirito checked the time, counting down to the right moment. As the clock clicked over the pounding in his head diminished and the electric hum in the air died. Not as bad as an emission, but still a change in the air. It was a clear day and the sky was bright. To be honest with himself, he really didn't fancy doing this in the pitch black of the night.

He checked his rifle over, making sure the magazine was seated properly and the charging handle was all the way forward before starting the short jog along the path. He had about twenty minutes before the emitter under the old Yantar factory powered up again. If he was still near the factory when that happened his best bet was to use the three psyblock auto injectors he carried on himself and run to safety.

Psyblock was a strange drug to use. It warped your perception in difficult to describe ways and suppressed your emotions. It was hard to care about things under its influence. One of the other beta-testers had described it as like depersonalisation. He'd never seen that specific effect himself, but he could attest to the dulling of emotions.

Still, as he approached the gate to the factory he slowed to a halt and brought up his AK-103. Rounding the corner, there was a zombie only a few metres away. Before it could react he put two rounds into its head which cracked open like a watermelon. He could feel the other zombies in the overgrown receiving area turn towards the noise.

This was his second attempt at entering the factory for this job. Last time he'd spent far too much time putting down zombies that he'd had to retreat from the emitter before he could place the instrument for Professor Sakharov.

This time he ignored the extraneous zombies and immediately turned right. Before him was a gap between the factory fence and a large vehicle garage of some sort. Kirito jogged down the gap, reaching the far end of the receiving area. Peeking out he blessed his fortune as the zombies shambled towards his previous firing position. It would be a pain getting out, but for now it meant he could slip by.

Quickly navigating the stacks of pallets loaded with decaying items he used as cover as he passed the gantry crane, before he slipped down a small roadway behind the administrative block at edge of the receiving area.

Peeking around the next corner he could see another zombie leaning against the wall. Instead of his AK, Kirito left in hang on its sling as he drew his suppressed Makarov PB pistol. The zombie didn't notice him in the shadow of the building as he raised the handgun with both hands, aimed down the sights, and squeezed.

The gun made a small sound, like the sound you get when you open a bottle of compressed gas, as the bullet brained the zombie. It slid down the wall into a sitting position, the loudest noise being the zombie's shotgun clattering to the ground. Kirito momentarily regretted that he didn't have time to loot the corpse as he passed and entered the back door of the building.

Before him was a flight of stairs. He had to take them to the top of the building and then set up the device as instructed by the Professor. Down the stairs to the basement lead to the elevator that lead down to the X-Lab, X-16. They'd found it during the beta but couldn't power the elevator nor open the security gate to the ladder.

Someone would probably have to venture down there at some point. It wasn't a task he relished. Shaking his head he glanced at his PDA, he'd been here for five minutes.

His handgun back in its holster, he raised his rifle to his shoulder and prepared to check the doorways to the two corridors he had pass to reach the stairs. With passages like this, on opposite sides to each other, he really needed a partner. By himself he had to expose himself to both passageways, but could only cover and clear one passageway at a time.

Making a choice at random, he chose to check the left first. Leaning out, he depressed the button on the fore guard of his rifle, lighting up the torch. Sweeping the beam of light across the room revealed turned over tables and shattered ancient computers. Then, there was a roar.

Kirito jumped, and turned a full one-eighty at the noise. In the motion, his grip on his rifle's fore end slipped slightly, turning the torch off. As he readjusted and the light came back on, a disfigured visage was visible before him down the corridor. Hand raised, it gestured, pulling back its hand before pushing forward.

To Kirito it felt like his head was being crushed. He dimly felt the recoil of his rifle firing as he seized and hit the ground. There was a scream, before he took a moment to process that it was his scream. He thought there was something on the edge of his memory, a face, cruel in nature.

Kirito wasn't sure how long it had been when he returned to his senses, but it had surely only been a few seconds at most. Blinking, he realised he had fallen sideways, landing out of sight of the controller.

It had to be a controller. There was no other creature to describe what had just happened.

He scrambled unsteadily to his feet. His head was pounding and his vision dimming, but he thought he could hear its footsteps as the controller walked the short distance down the corridor towards him. Deciding discretion was the better part of valour he turned, and – holding the handrail firmly to steady himself – climbed up the stairs to the next floor.

On the second floor landing he removed an auto-injector from its pouch on his armour, removed the cap and stabbed himself firmly in the leg with it before discarding it on the ground. Then there was a groan behind him.

Turning, Kirito came face to face with a zombie, as it slowly raised its weapon, Kirito tried to beat it to the draw. From the hip, he jammed his rifle's trigger repeatedly, spraying bullets until the zombie toppled over.

Remembering what he was here for, he turned again and went up the next level of stairs. Rifle up, the next level was clear, and he went up again, reaching a door propped open with a sun-bleached chair that lead to the roof.

Setting up the device was quick and easy. Having practiced a few times in the lab he just had to unfold the legs and turn on the power, making sure it stood upright. Turning back towards the door, he wasn't sure how long it would take the greatly disfigured controller to climb the stairs up after him. Not willing to risk it he pulled the chair holding the door open out, allowing it to slam shut and then jammed the chair under the doorhandle, locking it closed.

He took a few moments to breath before pulling out his PDA. He had ten minutes before the emitter powered back up.

There was blood on his PDA. Looking more closely he could see blood on his hands too. Panicking for a second, wondering if he had been shot by the zombie earlier, Kirito gives himself a once over before quickly find the source of the blood; his nose. He hadn't noticed the stuff running down his chin and all over his armour. He rubbed the tacky substance between his fingers for a few moments before deciding it wasn't an immediate problem.

Walking towards the edge of the roof he looked down. The zombies must had heard the gunfire because they were wandering towards the administration block he was standing on.

Oh yeah, he was four floors up.

There was what looked like a fire escape staircase on one side, the dark side of the building he had slipped in through. He didn't recall passing a set of stairs on the way through. None the less, he didn't see any other way down off the roof. Checking carefully for waiting zombies, given stairs offered little in the way of ballistic protection, he trod carefully as the metal groaned. Snaking his way down two levels, he reached what should have been level two to find out why she hadn't seen any stairs; he would have to jump down the last level.

Falling over as he hit the ground, he realised he hadn't yet recovered from the bout with the controller. Getting back to his feet he surveyed the area before turning back towards the entry route. A zombie turned the corner from the receiving yard which he shot twice, before quickly dodging between the pallets of factory materials and towards the path behind the workshop.

As he reached the small open stretch between the path and the factory gate he slowed and carefully leaned out. Again, the zombies were following the sound of gunfire and walking away. He jogged out the gate and back towards the Ecologist's lab.

o0o0o

His nose seemed to have stopped bleeding on its own by the time he reached the mobile bunker.

Dumping his rifle on the bed in the small lab dormitory he unclipped his armour. There was blood all down his camouflaged shirt and down his body-armour. Holding it under the light he could see the large stain. He wasn't even sure how to remove things like stains in the game, it wasn't like you had to clean your clothes.

Kirito's mind drifted to the uncomfortable thought about what was happening in the real world. Someone was probably taking care of him, keeping him clean. He had no control over it and he shouldn't worry, but the uncomfortable thought was still there.

He was about to put his armour down again when he notched a small scuff in the fabric. Bringing it back under the light he looked more closely; it was a hole, a bullet hole.

Quickly, he undid the Velcro pounch holding the ceramic plate in place and slid it out. Holding it under the light he could see the spiderweb pattern of cracks across its front surface originating at the plate's centre. There was a crater in the middle and a small piece of jagged metal stick out. It was a bullet that had hit him front, dead-on, centre-mass. If it wasn't for the armour the bullet would probably have killed him.

Collapsing onto the bed, Kirito covered his face with his hands and groaned. As he took a few deep breaths he considered who had gotten the shot off. He had shot at a few bandits as he passed through the wilds, but he didn't think any of them had done it. A few zombies he had downed in his last few days in Yantar had certainly shot at him, again though he wasn't sure any had actually managed to connect. He was sure he would have noticed someone shooting him.

Then there was that zombie, not half an hour ago, on the second floor of the Yantar Factory administration block. He had been in such a daze at the time, made a lot of mistakes.

Fuck it, he had been paid and he needed a break. He was going back to Rostok.

D+42

Asuna sighed. Godfrey had been right; it was easy work. Mind-numbingly boring too. Guard duty so far had meant sitting around, occasionally interspaced with shooting at some wildlife. Her previous shifts had been duty on the south gate – on the road to Garbage and onto Cordon, but today was their first stint guarding the north.

She was joined by two other players; Tenko, a girl a few years younger than her, and Jatta, a guy in his mid-twenties. The watch timetable meant they had been matched up with each other each shift. She wasn't sure if this was the work of a player, or if the NPC that controlled the watch schedule was not very imaginative. The other two were NPCs. They talked when spoken too, but weren't really conversationalists.

Duty wasn't short of equipment. They'd given her a uniform and an allowance of ammo, food and some basic medication, and on duty they had a belt-fed PKM machine gun to fall back on when things got hot. They didn't let her trade in her SKS for something better though, she had to wait a while or take on more dangerous missions for that.

Still, it was cushy, and after only shooting a pack of dogs led by a pair of pseudodogs, the next shift arrived.

"Anything interesting happen?" asked an older girl she didn't know.

Jatta spoke up.

"No, just some dogs," he said. "Bit of gunfire in the Wilds too but it was a fair distance off."

The next shift began to take their positions before Jatta spoke again.

"Are we good to go?"

"Yeah, you stand relieved."

At those words, the NPCs on duty immediately relaxed and wandered off to do whatever NPCs did while the replacement NPCs slotted in. Following suit, she, Jatta and Tenko headed back towards the centre of the inhabited part of Rostok, leaving the new players to stand guard. Duty was somewhat regimented, and leaving your post before replacement would cause you a lot of problems.

"What are you guys doing now?" asked Tenko. The girl was young, but seemed keen to make friends everywhere. Asuna wasn't sure how the girl had ended up in Rostok. Now, Jatta she could see getting here. From what she had seen so far he switched from relaxed and quiet off duty, to serious and calm on duty. It was like he was built for this dangerous work.

Jatta shrugged.

"Still waiting for a friend to rock up," he said. "So I'm off to the bar."

Tenko nodded.

"I think I will too, I could do with some food" she replied. "What about you, Asuna?"

"I might drop by later, I wanted to speak to Godfree," she replied.

Jatta and Tenko waved her off as they reached the point where they split up.

Asuna passed the NPC trying to encourage people to sign up for the Arena – the gladiator pit where you could enter fights to the death against bandits and various monsters. She doubted anyone entered them now, but people could watch and most nights they had various fights between NPCs and wildlife.

The NPCs at the gate to Duty's compound nodded at her before she followed the route to Godfree's office. She wasn't sure exactly how Godfree had advanced up the ranks so fast, even though he wasn't actually that high up. Technically he was Lieutenant Godfree of Duty. Some of the NPC officers would shout if you addressed him as something other than sir if they were in earshot. It was strange to see the NPCs acting that way.

His rank got him an office to himself at ground level. Duty's leader, General Voronin, and most of his senior staff including Colonel Petrenko lived and worked in the bunker under Rostok. She "met them" once (as much as you can meet an NPC) and had not had any reason to speak to them since. For good reason.

"Ah, Asuna," he said, looking up from his work. "What can I do for you?"

She wasn't exactly sure how to approach it, but she was here now, and just had to spit it out.

"I was…" she said, giving herself a second to think. "I was hoping you might have some other work for me."

Godfree looked at her in confusion for a second.

"Like work on the patrols?" he asked curiously.

"No," she said, drawing out the word. "I'm not sure where to even start with that kind of fighting. I was thinking more like the administrative stuff. Organising things, managing people, trading supplies, that kind of thing."

She wasn't sure administrative was the right word there. Administrative would be correct in the business world, a world her father had encouraged and her mother had frowned at, but she wasn't sure it was correct here in a military-like organisation.

"Well…" he replied contemplatively as she looked around the room.

There was clearly some of that going on here, plans and notes Godfree had written covered his desk while open filling cabinets had papers and folders handing out. Maps and diagrams adorned the walls too, along with photos of various things.

"Have you got some experience with that sort of thing?"

He didn't say it, but she presumed he was referring to her age there. She could see why a guy in his late twenties or early thirties could be skeptical a teen had some experience in the area.

"My father is the director of a… large company," she said carefully, being sure not to name it or explain how big it was exactly. "I've had some hands-on experience in how it all works."

Godfree nodded before shrugging.

"Truthfully I don't have much experience myself. I've just been muddling through it."

"What have you been working on," she asked after a few moments. "If you can say that is."

Godfree waved her off.

"Most of it is just what I said at the meeting. You were there, I remember?" Asuna nodded. "Yeah, so it's mostly just getting myself in a good position and getting things ready in the meantime. Once we've got enough players inside Duty, we'll push out the NPC leaders and take over. Then, we'll be able to direct the NPCs about and allocate resources how we want."

Asuna nodded in understanding.

"What do you need then?"

o0o0o

She and Godfree spent a few hours going through what Godfree had done so far. Once they called it a night they headed to the bar. Asuna saw Tenko slumped in a corner asleep, her food and drink discarded on the table, while Jatta chatted with some people on another table.

Working with Godfree was what she had had in mind, when she wanted to help, so Rostok was the right place to be.

D+44

Sinon was tense, to put it lightly. Yuuki could see how firmly the girl gripped her Dragunov. Her eyes darted about the many people congregating around the stalker camp. Aiko glanced worriedly to them occasionally as she tried to negotiate with another stalker.

The plan was to sell some of their stuff to pay the toll, then fence their artefacts at the Bar. None of them had been to the Bar before, but it was supposedly large, safe and well defended. A bit like the Rookie village except filled with more experienced stalkers.

As they'd crossed the Dark Valley and the Garbage through the night it had snowed lightly. The Zone had taken on its own strange beauty.

"How about some ammo instead?" asked Aiko. The boy had already passed on the PPS-43 to replace his PPSh-41.

"Hmm, what can you do for fifty rubles?" he replied uncertainly.

Aiko paused as she considered it.

"I'll give you fifty rounds of 7.62 Tokarev for fifty rubles."

The boy shook his head.

"I'm not that desperate for ammo."

Yuuki tuned the negotiations out as she gazed around the small stalker encampment. It was in the ruins of a collapsed building only a few hundred metres from the gate to Rostok. The parts of the building still standing were a good vantage point and you could take cover from emissions in the remaining lower levels. It wasn't a bad strong point except for the fact it was the first settlement you would come across as you left the Dark Valley.

Yuuki tried to give Sinon a small reassuring smile.

"You alright?"

Sinon just gave her an indistinct "hmm", not meeting her eyes.

"Come on, the stairs to up top are over here."

Sinon gave her a curious look.

"You're not worried about leaving your sister alone?" she asked quietly.

Yuuki shrugged.

"Not too much; there's a lot of people about. You'd have to be really stupid to try something. Even if someone else didn't immediately cut you down you'd never be forgiven as a player killer."

Sinon didn't move for a few moments, still watching Aiko and the boy negotiate before she suddenly relaxed and turned to follow.

The remaining standing portion of the building was an old fire escape. Almost every floor opened out to mostly missing floors, usually only consisting of a small jagged ledge of reinforced concrete. At the top floor a slightly larger ledge remained and a small nest of sandbags had been contracted. Two stalkers sat there, one watching out towards the Dark Valley and the other – a bit more relaxed – watching out towards the gate and the Garbage.

"Hey," said Yuuki to the two stalkers on watch. They replied with a few grunts of acknowledgement.

The remains of the top floor ran along a narrow but passable ledge along the last standing wall of the building.

"Along here," encouraged Yuuki as she did her best not to look down. It wasn't a path so narrow it was dangerous to tread, but there wasn't a railing or anything else to stop a fall either.

As she reached a larger section she turned to find Sinon following her route gingerly, hugging the wall. When Sinon reached her, she gave Yuuki a pained expression before turning and watching the dozen or so stalkers below, cradling her rifle in her arms.

She seemed happy to stand there for several minutes before asking her question.

"Why did you bring me up here?" she asked.

Yuuki shrugged, even though Sinon – still gazing out over the stalkers – couldn't see her do so.

"You seemed like you needed some space."

Sinon turned to her.

"Yeah," she replied sadly.

"Come on, take a set," said Yuuki, gesturing to a slab of concrete next to a window looking out east, before making some small talk.

Sinon wasn't sure how she would deal with Rostok.

D+48

Her detector crackled as she scampered up the side of the garbage pile. Bits of debris rolled down as she passed.

Scavenging wasn't glamorous work. She earned a pittance pulling scraps of electronics and bits of copper wire from various bits of junk that scattered the radioactive landscape. But it was pretty consistent; while the anomaly divers would only occasionally bring in an artefact at the roll of a dice, she could bring in various bits of scrap consistently day after day.

As Silica reached the top and her Geiger counter became more urgent, she paused for a second to take in the view. She could see in the far distance the huge form of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The large dark grey Sarcophagus surrounding reactor Number 4, and the red and white striped ventilation stack next to it.

Closer she could see the apartment blocks that made up the town of Pripyat, and closer still the factory complex of Rostok. Off to the right was a large antenna array that supposedly made up one of the antennas for the Brain Scorcher. And on the left was more factories and towns in the distance.

It made her feel even smaller, knowing the vast distances and incredible odds stacked against them.

The counter's shrill crackling brought her back to her task. Nearby was a dinged-up steel cabinet of some sort which she decided it would be her first salvage of the day.

Leaving her PPSh-41 on the ground in arms reach and using a piece of steel rebar she kept around for exactly this purpose, she wedged it into the gap around the door and put her weight behind it, quickly popping it open. Inside was an assortment of electrical parts and copper cable which she quickly started disassembling as quickly as possible.

Shrugging her backpack off her shoulders, Silica loaded everything in and started searching for a new target. A short distance away was an equipment rack of some sort. The kind used to hold scientific instruments and the like. Several of the panels had lights on them, one had a roll of yellowing paper on the front and another had an old-style TV-screen.

Silica figured this was probably worthwhile. Specialty items used in scientific equipment was more valuable than the run of the mill junk she usually pulled. She wasn't certain what the equipment I the racks was, but she figured it was more valuable assembled than in pieces. As she unscrewed the first part and slid it out of the rack she realised how heavy it was; it was probably a good twenty kilos, on top of the other junk in her pack. The other bits weren't exactly the same as the rack she was holding, but they probably weighed something similar.

Deciding she could only take one rack plus her pack right at that moment, she decided to leave the three remaining racks for later.

A girl in the railway shed an hour's walk away or so was running a side business reselling their junk. Some of it was supposedly more valuable being sent to Cordon for outside sale, others were more valuable going deeper into the Zone for the Ecologists, other factions and stalkers to use in experiments. She was running a business working out the best place to send it, which in turn meant they could get more for it. It also meant they didn't need to lug their junk to Rostok or to Sidorovich.

As she gingerly tried to get down the garbage pile, her heavy pack on her back and the scientific instrument cradled in her arms weighing her down, Silica slipped. She always tried to fall backwards – slipping was just something that sometimes happened climbing up and down these wretched piles – but due to a combination of bad timing and her forward foot with all the weight on it having been the foot to slip on whatever slipped metallic object was busied just below the surface she went face forward.

The device slipped out of her hands as she desperately tried to mitigate the damage, but the heavy load in her pack made that very difficult. As she hit the ground she dimly noted the sound of rubles vanishing into thin air as the scientific instrument smashed against the ground, and again, and again before she and it stopped at the bottom.

Silica spent several seconds in a daze before pushing herself upright. Giving herself a once over she found herself – almost miraculously – without any serious injuries; just a few scrapes and bruises. Looking back up the hill she could see the scuff mark in the dirt where she had slipped. It was a long way up.

Breathing hard, she turned to the battered remains of the device. The front glass screen was completely missing, the glass fragments that once made it up were probably scattered all over the Garbage. The casing he popped open and was bent, and right there…

… was a small dirty brown object floating a short distance from the battered casing and rolling lazily in the air.

Silica's eyes widened almost instantly.

As she approached she could make out the artefact's skeleton like structure. Its shape reminded her of a lantern, like the sort you would put a candle inside of. Pulling out her detector she turned on artefact detection mode. It immediately let out a long beep and flashed, and with every step she took towards it the rate of beeping increased, as did the radiation counter.

She didn't have an artefact container to safely transport it, and while she could burn through her stock of valuable radioprotectant and antirad to get it to a trader she wouldn't have many Rubles left over after doing that. She needed a container, which was probably why someone had stashed the artefact in the device to begin with.

o0o0o

"Hey, Silica," said the girl, not looking up from the antiquated computer she was dismantling as she absentmindedly tucked her short hair behind an ear.

"Hey, Liz," Silica replied.

She dumped the smashed up scientific instrument on the table before shrugging off her pack and placing it next to it. At the sound, Lisbeth looked up.

"That's… a bit banged up."

Silica deflated.

"I slipped."

Lisbeth stared at the device for a few moments before getting up and inspecting it. As she peeled back its cover her face tightened.

"How whole was it when you found it?"

Silica sighed.

"No marks, nothing. As I said, I slipped going down the garbage pile. It bounced down a good twenty metres of hill and then hit the bottom."

"Yeah," replied Lisbeth tiredly. "The Barman in Rostok has a pretty decent offer out for an oscilloscope at the moment. This isn't worth much now. The display tube is dust, as are most of the vacuum tubes."

Almost impossible as it was, Silica managed to deflate even more.

"There's some more equipment on the rack I pulled this from, but this was the only one like this."

Lisbeth looked up from her inspection of the oscilloscope's shattered remains.

"Do you know what the other things were?"

Silica shrugged.

"A couple of them were just almost blank panels with rows of lights on them. One was some sort of printer with a big roll of paper in it."

Lisbeth just nodded. She couldn't make any promises about their value before seeing them, but they sounded useful. The Barman was always buying scientific equipment. It was probably on sold to the more scientifically minded factions like the Ecologists or Clear Sky. She'd make direct connections with those factions someday, instead of using the Barman as an intermediary.

Silica stepped closer to Lisbeth's work bench. Noting the girl wanted to ask something quietly she leaned in.

"Have you got an artefact container, somewhere?"

Liz raised an eyebrow at the question. She knew Silica wasn't a diver, but then again it wasn't exactly strange for diggers to run across artefacts on occasion.

"Yeah, it's five-hundred rubles."

Silica's face twisted slightly at the price.

"You know I'm good for a loan, Liz. I'll bring it back in a day or so, with an artefact you can hawk. If I pissed you off I wouldn't have anyone to sell my scrap to."

o0o0o

Silica fired off a short burst at the flesh. It squealed as a few rounds dug deep into its flesh. Deciding their potential meal was perhaps a bit too dangerous, the pack turned around and retreated, the wounded flesh limping a few dozen metres before keeling over dead.

The lead artefact container she now carried in her pack was heavy, but not as much as a good haul from a day's digging did. Adjusting the straps on her pack, Silica kept walking.

As she approached the base of the garbage pile she carefully surveilled the area for anyone else about before approaching the half-submerged car. The front end was crushed under tonnes of rock, but the back end was still serviceable. Opening it up, she peeled up the rotting carpet to reveal the round hole where the spare tire would have sat, and her artefact.

She quickly loaded the battery into her container and sealed up the lid with its clasp before putting it back in her pack.

Climbing up the garbage pile again she found the rack of scientific instruments. Rostok again stood in the distance. With the artefact she now carried and the bit of extra cash from the stuff she was pulling she wondered if she should move onto Rostok. New opportunities might await. New, safer work, maybe some people should work with. It was for later she told herself. Another ten minutes later she managed to slide to the bottom of the pile with another scientific instrument in her hands.

"Hey."

She gave the two stalkers a small smile and a nod but kept walking. She had reached the road she could follow to the Rail Shed about ten minutes before and not long after these two stalkers appeared. One carried a cut down pump-action shotgun of some sort, the other an MP5 submachine gun. They were lightly armoured in the usually ratty clothes most stalkers in the Garbage were wearing.

They gave her a wave before briskly out pacing her. With the rack-mount printer in her hands she couldn't reply. Another quarter of an hour later they disappeared around a bend in the distance. She relaxed a bit as they disappeared out of sight. She couldn't jump at shadows, but she was well aware she could be robbed. She didn't think the fact she was carrying an artefact was obvious – she just looked like every other digger honestly – but she wasn't going to take the risk.

As she turned a bend though she came within a short distance of four stalkers. Wearing balaclavas, they were perhaps two-dozen metres away with their hands on their weapons. Though not pointing them anywhere, yet, they were in a line across the road, their eyes on her.

Silica halted in her tracks.

"Hand it over, kid," said the man in the centre after a few agonising seconds.

To his left were two men armed with a cut down pump-action shotgun and an MP5. They wore the same ratty clothes they had worn earlier, sans the balaclavas. There was an anger deep inside her that she'd never felt before as she stared defiantly at the eyes of her fellow players. It was a strange type of treachery to face.

Silica stayed rooted to the spot, her PPSh-41 hanging limply across her shoulder by its sling and her hands full of heavy scientific equipment. She might have been able to run, the corner she had just walked out from – the corner than had allowed the bandits to get the jump on her – was only a few metres away. But then what? Would there be a few bandits shortly behind her to stop running attempts? Would they quickly follow and shoot her in the back as she ran?

It's was an uncomfortable feeling to be at the complete mercy of someone who wishes to do you harm.

"I said hand it over," their leader repeated, bringing his AK carbine up to his shoulder, his fellows following his lead.

Slowly she knelt down, placing the heavy printer on the ground. As she stood up and took a step back, her hands up, Silica silently cursed herself for trying their patience.

"You know damn well I'm talking about the artefact, bitch!"

Yeah, she was lucky they didn't shoot her.

Silica carefully shrugged the straps off her shoulders and then lowered the heavy pack to the ground.

"You gun too, and your ammo."

Even more carefully she slid the sub-machine gun off her shoulder, placing it on the ground next to her pack by its leather strap. She then pulled out a few magazines and dropped them to the ground.

"Start running."

Silica took a few steps back before turning and breaking out to a sprint. The lack of weight on her shoulders a harsh lesson on the Zone. When she came back an hour later, all that was left was bootprints and the printer she had left behind.

D+87

"Grenade out!"

The heavy cast-steel body of the grenade make a clunk as it hit the concrete. The bandits stopped shooting for just a second as they realised what it was.

"Oberezhno! Hranata!"

The gunfire in the confines of the building was hell on their ears, but the grenade going off with a bone shaking noise was worse. It took a few seconds for the bandits to recover from the shock of the explosion and the wounded to start screaming.

Leaning out from behind the frame of large door to the workshop, Klein spotted a bloodied bandit hunched over and out of cover. The bandit was still moving and trying to get to his feet. Rather than given him the chance, Klein lined up the green T-shaped reticle on his rifle's sight with the bandit's chest and fired. The bandit jerked and slumped before he fired again at his head for good measure.

He took the opportunity to advance into the building, taking cover behind a piece of machinery.

"Cease fire!"

There were a few desultory shots after he gave the order, but the gunfire quickly ceased. Everyone waited at the ready for any movement or the appearance of some more bandits. Glancing behind himself, Klein could see all of his friends in Fuurinkazan standing and unwounded, but up the back a young man was giving medical attention to one of the people Diavel had given him who was on the ground and clearly bleeding. He gave a himself a moment to decide if he should leave someone behind the guard them, but decided against it as more of Diavel's people would be following up very soon.

"Dynamm, Harry, check those bodies," he ordered quietly before pointing at two of Diavel's people, a girl and a boy in their late teens. "You two watch our backs, everyone else watch the stairs."

Dale, Issin and Kunimittz, along with the three remaining of Diavel's people moved towards the stairs, taking cover behind whatever they could find. Finding himself behind a concrete pillar near the centre of the room, he gazed up the stairs. They had used some pictures of the outside of the building to put together some maps of the place. They were currently in the workshop with its high ceiling, one floor directly above them but on the second landing of the stairs was an office space, and on the first landing was a skyway across to another two-story office building.

His musing was broken by a single gunshot. Almost everyone turned their weapons towards Harry who was pointing his PPS-43 at the floor.

"Sorry," he said simply.

They'd planned this assault out step-by-step, but it was still high risk, which is why Diavel had hired them. Diavel had lots of people, but none of them had done any assaults before. To be honest, he hadn't either, at least not like this. They'd spent the first few weeks out west of Cordon, shooting zombies for loot. It wasn't much, so they moved on to hitting small groups of bandits. Hitting them in the dead of night in the many small villages that dotted the swamps.

So, despite never having done an assault like this before, they were probably the best qualified group south of Rostok to lead the assault on these buildings near the Agroprom Research Institute. Theses bandits had been causing trouble all along the west side of the Garbage, and this was their safe haven.

He still felt a little bit bad taking Diavel's money, but the reality was that he needed to feed himself and the rest of Fuurinkazan, buy and maintain gear, and buy ammo. So, they took what Diavel could spare. About a hundred people threw in money; not a lot, usually on a few hundred rubles each, but enough they'd been able to top up all their magazines, buy a new AK-74U for Dale, waste the last week on drills for moving through buildings and buy some armour for those who would be on point.

That said, moving up the stairs before them was going to be a bitch.

Pointing at the stairs, his people got into position. On his go, he and Issin walked up the stairs backwards, weapons covering the top landing, while Harry took a position at the top of the stairs and covered the skyway opposite.

Not seeing anyone, he used his off hand to tap Issin on the shoulder who stepped left, rifle still trailing the upper landing and took his first step onto the next staircase.

Pop.

The olive-green shape of a grenade sailed through doorway at the top of the stairs, bounced off the balustrade and sailed between them, before hitting the concrete with a clink on the first-floor landing. Issin blinked, before Klein grabbed him by his jacket, and pulled him down the stairs. Overbalancing, Klein fell backwards, pulling Issin with him, landing on Harry before rolling to the bottom of the stairs in a pile of limbs.

The following explosion was too close for comfort.

"Fuck," said Issin as he untangled himself from Klein and Harry.

Issin was pale, and staring up the staircase while Harry looked a bit squished. Some of the other guys from Fuurinkazan looked worried, while some of DIavels guys looked almost sick. Klein himself didn't feel too hot either. Swallowing, he tried not to show it as he went with plan B.

"You good to try again?" he asked them.

Issin looked more pained about the prospect than Harry, but both of them quickly nodded.

Turning to face Dynamm, he had to trust him to have a good throwing arm. He gestured for him to come closer.

"Put a grenade though the upper window, we'll go on the explosion, use one of the F1s," he said quickly and quietly.

Dynamm nodded and he pulled the heavy cast iron grenade out of a pouch on his webbing, before turning towards the large sliding door they had entered through. He stuck his head out, clanging both ways, before stepping out and turning towards the building. Eyes up, he pulled the pin and pulled his arm back to throw.

Klein turned away and faced up the stairs. He didn't like it very much, but needs must. Grenades were great going down stairs, but at the bottom, one mistake meant the grenade bounced back at you, with predictable results. Dynamm putting a grenade through the window was slightly better, but it was still easy to hit the window frame and have it come back at you.

Klein steeled himself, and waited for the body jarring explosion.

Bits of dust fell from the ceiling as the building shuddered and they began to move. A small bit of dust wafted through the doorway at the top as he came to the first landing. Again, he tapped Issin to move, and followed him up the stairs. As he reached the top he quickly passed the doorway to take up a position on the other side, while Issin stacked up on the left. There was a bang and a cloud of dust as a survivor took a shot at them.

Klein pulled out his own grenade, an RGD-5, pulled the pin, before releasing the spoon. The grenade made a pop sound as the striker fired, and Klein agonisingly counted to two before lobbing it under arm through the doorway.

"Hranata!" a bandit managed to get out before the cooked-off grenade exploded.

Klein and Issin stepped through the door at the same time – a tight squeeze – and swept the room. Klein took the right to find two bloodied corpses, before shouting "clear!" and then turning left.

Issin had his rifle up, stepping sideways to look around what appeared to be a wall of filling cabinets before he let off two long bursts. There was a soft thud followed by the clack of a weapon hitting the floor, before Issin leaned out again and took another step. He paused for a second then shouted "clear!".

Curious, Klein walked around the see what Issin had shot. There was a bloodied man slumped in front of a large desk, an AK underfolder on the floor next to him. Paper littered the small alcove the bandit had built, some now rapidly soaking up blood. Klein noted the safe in corner, but that was for later, they had another building to clear.

Klein reached for his radio

"Diavel, first building is clear, you can move up," he said through the radio.

"Understood," Diavel replied.

Harry was still covering the stairs as he walked back through the door. When he reached the bottom he found Essex. Essex was the guy who was supposed to lead the people Diavel had sent with him.

"Top floor's cleared. I need your guys up top now," he ordered.

The kid looked a bit unwell, so he gave him some more orders to keep him focused, saying them loudly enough so everyone could hear.

"Remember, you just have to put most of your guys on watching the hills to the east, but also don't forget to have someone watching west.

Essex nodded as his people started moving around.

Klein found his people and told them to get ready to assault across the skyway, then looked about for the person who got hit earlier. He gave a sad sigh when he saw the guy who had been tending to him sitting on a box a short distance away, while the body of a mid-teen lay a short distance away, with a pile of bloody bandages and empty packets of coagulant powder nearby.

Klein mentally berated himself for not noticing earlier, that he should have asked how their wounded was doing first and maybe not talked down to their leader who was on the verge of panicking.

His radio flared to life and Klein swore.

"Attention, an emission is approaching, find cover at once!"

o0o0o

The emission was a few minutes away. He could see the lightshow beginning in the sky.

"Diavel, you need to keep moving!"

The shouting probably didn't help, but it was frustrating how badly the emission was affecting their radios.

The plan had been for them to advance in two waves. Too many people in the confines of the workshop would be a disaster if a bandit lobbed a grenade or got the drop on them, so Diavel had been waiting about five-hundred metres away in the nearby railway tunnel with anther twenty odd people.

"I know!" he shouted back, his voice crackling and distorted.

Through the PU scope he used for spotting, Klein could see where Diavel and three others were taking cover behind an isolated boxcar from the window, towards the north-east. He was two or three hundred metres away from their position and they were about one hundred from the fence line surrounding the factory. Closer were some more of Diavel's people, near the factory gates. On the hillside to the north were the remains of the bandit counterattack they had routed. The bandits presumably took shelter here during emissions, so not long after the announcement, a large group of twenty or so bandits starting down the hill towards them, some remaining up top to support them.

He wasn't sure what their plan was; they were going to die where they were when the emission hit. If the bandits ran, they could still make the railway tunnel Diavel had just abandoned. He could only assume it was some quirk of the AI.

"Everyone, get ready to fire on my mark," he ordered around the room.

There was about fifteen on them on the top floor, facing the blown-out windows. Everyone could see the muzzle flashes on the hillside. The people armed with submachine guns were really pushing the four hundred or so metre distance to the targets, but at this point every shooter counted.

"Last chance, Diavel. We'll be providing covering fire in about ten seconds, keep running and don't stop for anything."

There were a few glances at each other as everyone took position, weapons up and pointed at the hillside. About five seconds later Diavel responded.

"We'll be ready."

Klein counted down in his head before depressing the talk button and giving the order.

"Go, now!"

Klein raised the PU scope again and watched as people started shooting. He could see the form of Diavel and someone else dragging another person between them. They were short, and maybe quite young. Klein grimaced at the fact Diavel had to carry wounded. Truthfully, Diavel mentioning it wouldn't have changed anything – he couldn't send anyone out to help at this late stage, but he would have liked to have been told none the less.

But then, after about twenty metres they dropped the girl who started running too. Bewildered, he watched as the bandits tried to pick up the fire again. As tracers snapped past them they passed a stack of concrete railway ties and the girl dove for cover. In front of her, the other three stalkers didn't see she had stopped, and didn't look back as he asked until they hit the fence line.

"What the fuck is she doing?" he muttered.

Safely in cover, Diavel turned and realising their fellow had been left behind, shouted at the girl as she hid from the bandit's fire. Some of his people started to jog the route around the buildings to the entrance. The emission would be here at any moment, but Diavel stood there shouting as two loyal stalkers stood by.

"Diavel, you need to move, now!" he shouted again into the radio.

Diavel didn't responded and continued to shout and gesture.

"Damn it," Klein swore. "Diavel, move!"

Still no response.

"Drag him back here or you'll die!" he radioed again, hoping to appeal to the stalkers standing nearby. He thought he could make out them moving this time.

Klein stood tense, watching the scene, before the two stalkers grabbed Diavel. He resisted for few moments before disappearing out of sight behind the building.

"Cease fire, get back from the windows," he ordered.

Towards the north he could see the wave energy building as it approached them. As always it was hauntingly beautiful. As the wave hit her, Klein could see her topple over and begin to jerk like she was having a seizure. Not wanting to watch the gruesome spectacle anymore he turned and headed down the stairs to the workshop.

He glanced at the three corpses arranged near the door, some of Diavel's people were standing nearby offering their prayers to their comrades, before turning to Diavel himself.

Diavel looked murderous as he kicked a crate repeatedly, the two stalkers who had presumably manhandled him towards cover stood awkwardly by. He didn't acknowledge Klein as he continued to vent his frustration before suddenly slumping and then sitting down, his head cradled in his hands.

Klein couldn't blame him really. He'd been lucky to have no lost any of his group, Diavel though had lost four people today, four people that were probably his friends. There were some other wounded as well, milling around. Harry had the worst of it from Fuurinkazan, having taken some frag from a grenade. His soft flak jacket did its job though, he'd only been wounded on the leg and arm.

Seeing as Diavel was in no state to talk, he turned and went back upstairs again. As the next emission wave grew, Klein could see the shambling form of the girl following the train tracks towards the fence line.

He could make her out now as she got closer; just some fucking kid who had not place here in the Zone. He watched her for a few moments longer before raising his AK. It was a relatively easy shot at a bit over one hundred metres.

None of them had a place here.

o0o0o

The next day they laid out all of the equipment looted from the bandits on the floor of the office for distribution. A few things had probably disappeared during the looting, but it wasn't worth fighting over. After everything was divided, Diavel's people had managed to gain some more serious firepower while already well equipped Fuurinkazan mostly took ammo and other little items having already been paid for the work.

"Where are you heading after this?" asked Diavel.

Diavel had spent the last day sullen, his second Essex taking up most of the work. He was still a bit green and Klein wasn't sure anyone would follow him in a fight, but corralling loot wasn't above him.

"Rostok, it's about time we headed north," Klein replied.

Diavel nodded slowly.

"If you need us for more work you can leave a message there. I'm pretty sure we'll going in and out of Rostok for a while."

There was some small talk as Fuurinkazan packed their gear away and got ready to head out on the road.

"Are you going north through Yantar, or through the Garbage?" Diavel asked, meeting them at the gate.

"The Garbage," Klein replied.

Yantar and then the Rostok Wilds apparently meant avoiding the toll, but…

"I haven't been up that way yet," he said as he shook his head. "Not sure I want to risk it yet until I've got some info from people who have been there."

Diavel nodded before, at the last moment, Diavel held out his hand which Klein shook.


This was supposed to be an interlude, but as you can see, it got a bit out of hand.