"Alright, nearly there, looks clear." Trout called out from ahead of Subaru.
They had been walking for a fair bit of time, but the dew of early morning persisted long past what Subaru would have expected. He was grateful for the thicker, if smelly leather coat to guard against the chill. They had skirted the anomalies of the landfill and pressed further on towards the farm Subaru had spotted in the distance. Along the way Trout had also introduced Subaru to a new kind of anomaly that Trout had called springboards.
While quite unimpressive compared to the violent maelstrom of a Vortex they still gave a hefty, and likely lethal, blow to anything that triggered them. They were also far more common and spread out all over the field, doubling down on Subaru's earlier lesson of running around the Zone without plotting a safe route being suicidal.
They had arrived at today's destination. A large dilapidated barn near what turned out to be an old railway atop the large embankment. A short distance away a large tunnel seemed to indicate a dry riverbed that went under the embankment. Trout gestured to the clearing near the tunnel entrance and Subaru followed him down the shallow hill. As Subaru approached Trout finished setting last night food tins on a log before opening his backpack and fishing out a pistol. To Subaru it was identical to the pistol Trout had on his hip but this one was clearly in worse condition, with numerous scratches, dents and discolouration all over the gun. Unsellable leftovers, To be expected from Sidorovich I guess.
It was clear now that the stalkers, if they were anything like Trout, had a love – hate relationship with the fat man. He was the only source of food and other equipment, and he payed and took money like the unchecked monopoly he was in the Cordon. Trout had mentioned it wasn't so bad at a large camp deeper in the zone he called "The Bar" but that it was very difficult to get there most of the ti-
"Hey, Retard, you paying attention?" Trout grumbled impatiently.
A hefty slap from Trout had broken Subaru's musings. "You didn't have to slap me!" the boy retorted angrily.
"Your taking this shit way to easily man. You think this is a fucking video game or something?"
Subaru took some offence to that. While he preferred fantasy and story games he had played shooter video games before. "How fucking hard could shooting be? Point and click right? BangBangBang!" he joked, imitating a pistol with his fingers.
Trout responded with a guttural sound halfway between a groan and a snarl. He released the magazine from the pistol and racked the slide, sending a round out and down to the ground. With that he gave the empty pistol to Subaru.
"What you are holding is a Pm, or Makarov. It's a pretty standard handgun with an 8 round detachable magazine. Cheap, common, reliable, and easy to maintain even though it's as old as babushka." Trout said as he picked up the discarded round. "It fires 9x18 makarov rounds. In theory they're perfectly serviceable sidearms but they're somewhat underpowered against big or armoured targets and like all pistols it's pretty short ranged."
Subaru looked over the gun. It looked even shabbier up close like this, with a large chunk of the handle splintered off, marring the soviet star and jabbing into his hand somewhat uncomfortably. As he held it Trout started explaining how to operate the weapon.
"The small lever on the back of the slide is the safety. Down is safe, up is live. On the bottom of the grip there's a latch you press to release the magazine. Try loading and unloading it."
Subaru shrugged and pushed the magazine into the pistol. It caught with the bottom sticking out at an odd angle. He tried tapping on it with his hand but it wouldn't go further in.
Trout sighed. "You put it in backwards."
Annoyed, Subaru pulled the magazine out and inserted it correctly. This time it stuck fast.
"Got it" he said, raising the gun to show Trout.
"Release the magazine."
Subaru obliged, pulling up the gun to look for the latch. Seeing it near the back of the handle he pressed the latch. The magazine promptly slid out onto the ground.
"You should hit the release with he palm of your hand and not drop the magazine when changing. They're not exactly cheap to replace." Trout said as he knelt down.
"Oh" Subaru said. He hadn't even considered dealing with empty magazines. Every game he had played had magazines dropped and forgotten when reloading. Yet another gritty knock to his reality. His attention returned to Trout as he handed the dropped magazine back to Subaru.
"Once we're done here you should practice reloading on your own. Trout said, pulling his own pistol and holding it in a shooting position. Abruptly he pulled a hand holding the magazine back to a pocket, swapped it, and reloaded the gun quickly before Subaru's face. Lowering the pistol he turned to Subaru.
"Right then, shooting." Trout shrugged. "Hold the gun at arms length" Trout raised the gun. "Safety off." Trout clicked the switch with his thumb. "Line up the target so the center sight is in the middle of the two rear sights, with the center on target. And pull the trigger."
A loud bang made Subaru flinch and his ears start ringing. The Makarov seemed to kick slightly and an empty casing was ejected at Subaru's feet. Looking towards the cans he saw the one furthest left had been knocked over.
"Right, your turn." Trout said, stepping aside.
Subaru took a breath as he took Trout's place. Looking down at the cans he raised the pistol and closed his left eye. He was slightly surprised at how much the gun wobbled as he tried to get on target. Feeling the gun had drifted where he wanted he slammed the trigger.
The resulting bang seemed slightly quieter then before but he was shocked at the force of the recoil as the gun kicked against his wrists.
"Grip the gun tighter. Makes the recoil less of an issue. Also don't jam the trigger down, pull smoothly" Trout offered.
Subaru nodded and tried again. The bang and recoil felt much more manageable now. He tried again, and again. He was actually starting to enjoy this. The noise, the kick of the gun…
The slide jammed back and refused to slide forward again. Realizing he was out of bullets Subaru lowered the gun and Turned to Trout.
"Well you didn't hit it but that's to be expected." Lets go see where your shots landed.
"What's wrong with this thing?" Subaru asked in an exasperated tone. Why would a weapon that can't hit stuff at point blank range be any good whatsoever? If this was a game I'd fucking complain on the forums about shitty balance.
"Pistols in general are shit at longer ranges, especially if they're worn out pieces of junk like yours but I'd wager your technique is the real issue." Trout replied. As he surveyed the log Subaru saw several bullet marks in the log below the cans.
"Looks like your shooting low. Probably overcompensating for the recoil." Trout said. "Common rookie mistake lets try again. This time you should also try reloading" With that he offered Subaru three loaded magazines.
"So what's the story with your machine gun?" Subaru asked as they returned to the shooting postion. "Looks like it's made of molten wax."
Trout unshouldered his tattered main weapon as he explained. "It's an AK-74m, an assault rifle. But yeah, it's real piece of work. Got it at an area north of here we call Agroprom. A soldier blundered into a weird chemical anomaly. Wasn't a pretty sight. Found some scrap metal and managed to pull this from him. Looks like shit and a bit finnicky at times but I'm not turning down free firepower without a good reason."
"Don't you mean Ak-47?" Subaru asked.
Trout shook his head "True Ak-47's are bloody relics. They're older then that Makarov you have there and the magazines aren't exactly common out here. Ak-74 is the common one out here. Basically an AK-47 with better manufacture procedures but fires 5.45 instead of 7.62. More manageable to fire at firefight ranges."
"Neat" Subaru said, not entirely understanding what he had been told. He got in position to shoot again, placing the magazine into the pistol but the slide refused to return to it's normal position.
"Hit the switch halfway down the gun. Trout said, lightly touching the spot in question. Subaru obliged and the slide slammed back into place.
And pinched Subaru's hand.
"Fuck" Subaru yelled. He abruptly broke his stance in shock. Shaking his hand he noticed a cut on his hand.
"Woah, watch the muzzle!" Trout yelled as he approached the boy. Grabbing the gun he forced it to point to the side. The motion caused Subaru to involuntarily squeeze the trigger and send a round into the dirt with a sharp bang.
"Jesus. Watch it retard". Trout sad irritably. "These aren't fucking water pistols. Don't screw around with em, especially near others. They'll shoot you first."
"The damn thing caught me." Subaru retorted. Showing Trout his pinched hand.
"Doesn't matter shithead. You nearly fucking shot me. It's just slide bite. You were holding the damn thing wrong. Just don't fuck it up next time." Trout retorted impatiently.
Subaru groaned as he took aim at the cans again. On his sixth shot the can he was aiming at toppled over.
"Good. You hit one." Trout said as Subaru took the last shot in the magazine. "Reload and try hitting the other cans. We'll check it out once your out of bullets."
Subaru nodded as he reloaded the Makarov. His next two magazines resulted in three hits total.
"Well your getting better." Trout said, checking the bag. "We're down to 9 magazines left. We'll reset the cans and shoot 4 more mags before we head back. Damn Sidorovich."
"Wait. I need way more practice. What's he thinking giving me such a low amount of ammo?" Subaru asked in mounting horror. He could barely hit anything right now. He'd be useless if a situation came up.
"How to save Rubles and thoroughly fuck us like the cash desperate whores we are." Trout groaned. "You should save the last 5 mags for emergencies". He said, handing Subaru the last of Sidorovich's free ammo.
Trout was abruptly interrupted by a staccato of gunfire in the distance.
"What was that? Subaru asked.
Trout paused and listened to the cracks before shrugging. "Not entirely sure. Wasn't military, sounded more like pistol and shotgun fire. Lets finish up here and check in with Fatass."
"Got it" Subaru said as he went to put the cans back on the log.
All in all it was going better for the stranded teen. Trout had told Subaru he was improving pretty quickly for a novice and he had gotten 10 hits with his 4 magazines.
"So how the hell am I supposed to get better at shooting without ammo." Subaru said as they packed up to return.
"Make some money and buy more. Not everything Sidorovich offers for work involves shooting or anomaly diving" Trout responded. "Granted it typically doesn't pay nearly as-
A lone, loud gunshot cut Trout off. He immediately turned towards the barn with his rifle raised.
"SHIT" Trout yelled, letting off a burst of fire towards the barn. It didn't hit anything but it bought time for Trout to rush behind a tree. He glanced to Subaru. The boy was standing out in the open, looking around with an expression of confusion.
"TAKE COVER AND RETURN FIRE RETARD!" Trout yelled as he let another burst out towards the barn. As he leaned back into cover a large chunk of the tree he was hiding behind was blown out from another shot from the unknown assailant. Retaliating once again he used the opportunity to dash to another tree as he hoped the attacker kept their head down.
Definitely a bandit or we'd be dead Trout thought as he looked to Subaru. The boy had gotten himself behind a tree but he was simply cowering and staying as low as possible.
"WHAT DO I DO?" The boy yelled, clearly terrified. Another shot hit the tree Subaru was hiding behind, splintering bark with a loud crack that made the boy curl up even lower.
"STAY DOWN OR SHOOT BACK! PICK ONE!" Trout called as he opened up on the corner of the farm. It was the only place a shooter would have any solid cover. He knelt down and took aim, waiting for the shooter to reveal themselves. Sure enough a dark figure rounded the corner with a firearm raised. His attire of a ragged black tracksuit and balaclava confirming Trout's suspicions. He simply took aim and fired with his AK. "HE'S AT THE CORNER OF THE BARN."
Subaru simply pointed the pistol from around the corner and fired wildly, emptying the magazine and not sending the bullets anywhere useful. Trout used the distraction to dash for a tree closer to the railway, allowing him a better angle. Peeking from his cover he saw bandit creeping to the edge with a long gun. He was trying to get a shot on Subaru but he had made himself wide open to Trout's new location. Trout pulled the trigger.
The bandit abruptly crumpled, clutching at his chest. A quick pause with no return fire told Trout this was probably the only Bandit thankfully.
"OK I got him" Trout said, coming out from his cover. He heard no response. "Oi, kid!" He called out.
Nothing. Trout ran to the tree ha last saw Subaru behind. The boy was unhurt but terrified. He was crouched low and fiddling with the Makarov. Trout noted the empty magazine on the ground.
"Come on man it's done. Let's go."
"Subaru looked up. Trembling "Really?"
"Yeah. I got him. You hit?" Trout didn't see any blood or other signs of injury but one could never be too sure in the Zone.
"I…I don't think so." Subaru replied.
"Good, let's go" Trout said briskly, he grabbed the boy by the arm and tried to force him to his feet. Shakily the boy stood. To his surprise Trout was heading toward the barn.
"W-wait Why are we going up there? What if there are more?" Subaru asked nervously.
"They would've been shooting at us if they were. Also make sure you grab that mag you dropped."
As Trout came up to the corner of the barn he saw the bandit in question crumpled in a heap. his gloves stained with blood as he pressed them against the wounds on his chest. off to the side was a rusty break action double barreled hunting shotgun that Trout assumed was a TOZ 64 based on the barrels. Raspy sucking breaths told trout their assailant still lived.
"What the fuck man. Why did you shoot at us!" Subaru yelled at the man. "What did we ever do to you?" The man barely moved his face to look at Subaru and only responded by spitting a wad of saliva and blood ineffectually toward him
"Save your breath kid. He's probably a mafia or gang member. Bandit's don't give a rats ass about nobodies like us. All they want to do is kill us or threaten us into giving them everything of value we have." Trout said as he reached for his pistol.
Before Subaru could respond Trout quickly aimed his Makarov at the bandit's head and pulled the trigger.
Subaru jumped back at the sound of the round. He looked in horror at the bandit to see him now sprawled on the ground perfectly still. A small wound disfiguring the side of his head. Subaru couldn't get the sight of his face out of his head. He was an young man younger then even Trout, probably in his early 20's with rough but patchy stubble and bulging brown eyes. his vacant stare haunted Subaru. Fearfully he turned to Trout.
"Y-You killed him." he said, backing away as he did.
"Hey he started it." Trout said gruffly.
"I-I know, it's jus..." Subaru struggled to finish his sentence. He couldn't really think of a reply.
Meanwhile Trout had gone up to the corpse and started patting and fiddling with it. "Fucking bandits."
"W-What are you doing?" Subaru asked.
"Seeing if this bastard has anything good on him." Trout replied.
"B-But what abou-"
"Do NOT go on a tirade about respecting the dead. I don't care. He wouldn't have cared, the whole fucking Zone would not have cared." Trout snarled as he worked the cadavers backpack off. "In case you haven't noticed, supplies are at somewhat of a premium out here. Now I'm not going to go around randomly killing people but if there's a stack of supplies sitting right in front of me you better be damn sure I'm gonna take a look. God knows I've eaten enough radioactive meals as is." Trout ranted as he organized the loot he had found. it consisted of a nearly empty pack of cigarettes, a Makarov with 3 magazines, a PDA, some wrapped bread, a nearly empty vodka bottle, some unlabeled syringes and 13 loose shotgun slugs to accompany the shotgun.
Trout took everything except for the bottle and unknown drugs before turning to Subaru. extending a hand holding 2 of the Makarov magazines. "Here, you'll need these more then I will.
Subaru numbly accepted the gifts before watching as Trout packed away the rest of the loot before finally tying the shotgun to his backpack.
"Alright lets head back now." Trout said.
Wordlessly Subaru followed. The journey back to Sidorovich's bunker was one done in complete silence.
"Ah your back." Sidorovich rasped to the duo as they entered his bunker. To both Subaru and Trout's surprise there was another man in the bunker this time. He was a short, gaunt man, slightly shorter then Subaru with close cut hair, wide ears, and a weathered face. He wore the standard rookie attire of a tan leather coat, thick cargo pants, and a camouflaged backpack.
"Just in time too. Our second survivor woke up." Sidorovich continued.
"Second survivor?" Subaru asked.
"He was in the same truck as you boy." Sidorovich said. "Though he seems to be suffering some severe amnesia. Poor bastard doesn't even remember his own name."
Subaru looked to the man. Everything about his was utterly forgettable to the boy. He seemed like some random extra that would disappear into a crowd. Aside from his eyes. They had a haunted, empty feel to them that creeped Subaru out somewhat.
Trout coughed slightly, getting Sidorovich's attention.
"We got attacked by a bandit out by the farm. got some stuff to sell. Never got around to the radiation lesson yet." Trout said as he began rummaging through his backpack and laying out the 2 looted guns. Sidorovich quickly appraised them.
"Well the shotgun is completely useless except for parts. The Makarov isn't much better. 1500. As for the PDA..." Sidorovich grabbed it and plugged it into a cord connected to his computer. After a minute of typing he turned to Trout "2000 rubles. Only value is the PDA itself. Speaking of which I never got you a PDA yet did I, boy?"
Sidorovich transferred the money to Trout before doing some more typing. Then he unplugged the PDA and handed it to Subaru. "Here I just wiped the last guys data so it should be good as new, you'll find this really useful. I was about to give the Marked One an intro to his PDA. Good timing heh." Sidorovich then turned to Trout.
"Anyway so you guys were hit by bandits?" Sidorovich asked Trout.
"A single bandit, he must've been high, or drunk or something." The Stalker replied.
"Agh your the fourth group today they've hit." Sidorovich said. "AA's group got attacked near the Rookie eater, Dima's group hasn't said shit since they went to check out the swamp. And Nimble's group was hit right outside the village."
"Nimble? shit." Trout said.
"Looks like they took him alive, killed the rest of his squad, and are going to ransom him to me once they're done searching and interrogating him. See, Nimble has a flash drive with some vital data on it. I'm paying well if you can retrieve it. Wolf has been organizing a group of guys to hit the bandits at their base in the old vehicle station. The pay will be good and the area will hopefully be a bit safer. Two jobs in one."
"Who is this Nimble guy." Subaru asked.
"He's kind of a Courier and gopher for Sidorovich. Does merchant type jobs that Sid won't leave the bunker for. He used to also be a bit of a guide in the outer reaches of the zone but I don't think he's doing that as much anymore. All round a decent guy." Trout said.
"Right then if you guys want to help out talk to Wolf, he should be near the entrance to the village. In the meantime I'll show you how those PDA's work.
Sidorovich gave a half assed explanation of how the PDA's were operated that was little more then how to navigate the menu's and the data stored on them. Wanting at least a hint of normalcy Subaru decided to try talking with the Mysterious co survivor.
"So you were in the Truck as well"
"I guess, based on what I've been told" he replied Softly.
"Did you really forget your name?"
"Jeez that must be weird."
"... The only lead I have is the name Strelok. I had a PDA note on me saying to kill him." he replied.
Subaru was at a loss for words.
"In the meantime I'm gonna go for a little walk" The Amnesic said, pushing past Trout and heading for the doorway.
"Wait! It's really dangerous out there." Subaru warned, remembering his first little outing.
Subaru ended up tagging along with the mysterious person. Mostly out of curiosity. While he panicked when the went towards the dump with it's anomalies he was surprised that he seemed to know and understand anomalies. He had said it just came back to him when he saw the anomalies and supposed he must have been a Stalker before he lost his memory. Following the visit to the dump the unlikely pair began to traverse up and around the village. As they approached an old, overgrown boxcar the scent of blood and gunpowder started to tinge the air.
Suddenly a low groan broke the silence.
Turning toward the noise Subaru spotted two prone figures lying atop a hill among some long discarded cement prefab supports. One of the bodies was perfectly still while the other gave the occasional shudder.
"He's still alive!" Subaru exclaimed, rushing towards the survivor. "Hey! "You alright?"
As he approached the injured man a low growl caught Subaru's attention. Turning he saw one of the mutated dogs of the zone approaching. It was roughly the size of a German Shepard but with patchy fur that did little to cover it's leathery skin. it had no visible ears and the traditional lupine snout of a dog was distorted by a mass of muscle and skin atop its snout, covering where it's eyes would be. It began closing on the fallen stalker, snarling aggressively to Subaru as it approached.
"Shoot it" The wounded stalker called out.
Subaru fumbled as he drew his pistol and hastily clicked the safety off. As he did so the dog seemed to switch it's attention to Subaru. It recognized the sound of the safety? Subaru wondered as he raised the pistol to aim at the twisted beast. As he pulled the trigger the dog abruptly leapt at Subaru with a loud bark. Subaru panicked and fired rapidly at the mutant until the magazine was emptied. Most of the bullets missed and one merely hit it in the shoulder but fortunately one bullet had struck the dog in the skull and destroyed its brain. The beast collapsed in a miserable heap at Subaru's feet. Subaru took a few deep breaths before he remembered the wounded man. He raced over to him. "Are you okay?"
"Ugh." Came the reply. The wounded stalker seemed delirious and ignored Subaru.
"Shit!" Subaru quickly checked the injuries. He was clutching his abdomen and a noticeable amount of blood had seeped from the wounds. As Subaru was examining the man injuries he abruptly looked to Subaru.
"Shit!" The man cursed. He suddenly snapped out of his delirium. "Help me brother. Take the medkit off the stiff. I can't crawl over like that.
Stiff, does me mean the other guy? Subaru pondered. He looked to the corpse only to see that the amnesic had already gotten to it and was walking towards Subaru with a small red pouch and roll of bandages.
Opening the kit revealed several small syringes and pills. The Amnesic first jabbed one of the stubby syringes into the injured mans leg before fishing out a couple additional syringes and repeating the process.
"Move" He said, holding up some bandages for emphasis.
Subaru obliged and the man immediately set to bandaging up the wound. After a couple minutes of this the man abruptly sat up.
"Thank you Kid, Marked One. I'm Tolik. You guys are alright. I'll tell the guys back at the village you helped me out.
"Marked One?" Subaru questioned
"Guess that's going to be my name from now on." The amnesic responded, rolling up his sleeve and revealing his S.T.A.L.K.E.R tattoo. "I'm just going to check the boxcar and we can get him back" With that the Marked One ducked into an opening and disappeared into the boxcar.
"Were you with Nimble?" Subaru asked.
"Yeah. Damn bandits jumped us near the bridge. Nailed Tonka there and thought they got me. They were about to shoot Nimble but he told them he knew a huge artefact stash. The nabbed him and took him to their base in the vehicle station."
As Tolik finished talking the Marked One returned, carrying a few metal boxes tied to his backpack or in his hands.
"Alright lets head back" He said. "You take Tolik, I'll cover you. As he said this he drew a pistol Subaru didn't recognize. It resembled his Makarov but had a fat round barrel. Subaru nodded, pulling Tolik up and supporting him on his shoulder the trio returned to the Rookie Village.
"Whats going on!" A voice called out. Subaru recognized it as the Stalker who had accosted him on his first loop. Upon seeing Tolik he rushed over. "Hey Tolik, you okay?"
"Yeah. These guys saved me. I was this close to being dog shit." Tolik laughed as he was shifted to the Stalker.
"Very funny. Let's get Patch to have a look at you then we can have a drink." He then turned to Subaru and the Marked One. "Thanks for saving Tolik. Feel free to use the village if you need help."
"Where's Wolf?" The Marked One asked.
The Stalker nodded to a pair of figures holding each holding an AK near the gateway to Sidorovich's bunker. "Wolfs the one in the darker green suit. Other one is Fanatic." With that he led Tolik into an underground cellar. Subaru turned to the Marked One but he had begun walking towards Wolf.
"What are you doing?" Subaru asked.
"These bandits are just going to get worse. I'm volunteering to join the attack. I think you should too."
"Me." Subaru questioned. "I can barely shoot and I'm scared shitless of getting shot.
"That won't change if you refuse. And if the raid fails it will get way more dangerous around here. You wanna end up like Tolik, or that other guy? Sidorovich mentioned you needed lots of money and this will pay way better then polishing gun parts or emptying latrine buckets."
Subaru thought for a moment. What the Marked One was saying made perfect sense to him. On the other hand he was terrified of dying again. Then his thoughts went to Tolik. He seemed like a decent enough person. If the Bandits took control many more of them would die.
"Alright... I'm In"