God this was a bitch to write.

"I'm starting to have second thoughts." Subaru muttered as they crossed the road towards the group of rookies preparing to attack

"It won't change anything." The Marked One replied. "If these bandits aren't beat back here hard and now even the Cordon will become nigh impossible to traverse for poor rookies and we'll be stuck here You win't be able to make your money, and I won't be able to find Strelok. Besides, you need to get some experience in firefights."

"I nailed that dog earlier." The boy replied with a pout.

"...Not at all the same thing as shooting a human, or getting shot at. These poorly armed and disciplined bums are probably the best shot you have at getting some relatively easy practice." The older Stalker replied with a shake of his head. "Thoug-"

"Pipe down man, let me fill you in." A deep voice called out from the hill. It was a tall, bulky person with a face that was the spitting image of a stereotypical dumb muscle character in an action film. He wore a crude beige jacket with a hood obscuring his hair and backpack typical of novice loners. A short shotgun that vaguely resembled an oversized flintlock to Subaru was leaning the mans broad shoulder. "I'm Petruha, you the guys Wolf sent up?"

"Yes" The Marked One replied.

Petruha glared somewhat disapprovingly at the pair for a moment before silently gesturing the two stalkers up to his vantage point to survey the complex.

Peering through the foliage of a shrub Subaru took in the target. The complex was a dilapidated ruin of what looked like an old garage surrounded by a tall brick perimeter fence to the boy. Something had blown apart the perimeter and outermost building in the left corner and allowing the flicker of a campfire to shine through. The gatehouse seemed intact as did most of the remainder of the facility. A 2 floor building near the middle of the facility blocked much else from being viewed from their current spot.

"Okay we don't know shit about you guys or your skills and as such me and the boys-" He gestured to three more stalkers scattered among the trees roughly surrounding the complex. "-won't be fighting alongside you. We'll be pushing up and attacking near the breach in the wall on the left side." As he spoke he pointed his shotgun towards a large hole. "You guys can either keep watch for reinforcements or sneak around and attack from the right side. There's another breach hidden by the two story building you should be able to get into. If you wait for our mark you should be able to get close enough for some good shots before they see you. Or if you fuck it up and they go after you we'll be able to return the favor."

"How many targets in there?" The Marked One asked.

"Not sure, at least four." Petruha replied.

"Okay we'll do your flanking plan."

Petruha nodded as he pulled a radio out of a pocket. "Guys, Wolf sent us some support along with an all clear to attack. They'll be hitting the left side. Time to move on and be heroes. We attack in five." Returning the radio to his pocket he nodded to his last minute reinforcements before creeping towards his other men.

"Lets go. Stay quiet, stay close, stay down, follow me. Don't shoot until were right on top of them." the Marked One said, creeping towards the right of the facility.

Subaru nodded, crouching and following behind the diminutive Stalker as they advanced towards the far side of the complex. True to Petruha's word there was a breach in the wall between the buildings. As they approached the hole a loud bang sounded in the distance. Petruha's squad had made contact.

"Okay. They've started so lets go. Clear right first." Marked One said, advancing into the breach with his gun drawn. Subaru followed close behind, nervously gripping his pistol. Immediately behind the wall was another hole in the building leading into a large room. Before Subaru could get a good view a pair of dark clad men with crude shotguns suddenly rushed past, intent on aiding their comrades on the other side of the complex.

The Marked One didn't hesitate. His strange gun let off a strangely muffled bang as he fired into the rear man. Again and again he fired even as the target crumpled in a heap. He abruptly ejected the magazine and stated to backpedal as he tried to reload his gun. Unfortunately he hadn't noticed how close behind the inexperienced boy had been trailing him.

The Marked One stumbled as he bumped into Subaru, losing his footing and some of his focus as a shotgun wielding bandit emerged from the building. Before the Marked One could react a deafening pair of bangs sounded and the diminutive man dropped like a sack of potatoes at Subaru's feet, his face and chest a pair of ruined craters barely holding themselves together.

Subaru screamed, shoving the Marked One's corpse off and frantically backing away even as he shakily lifted his Makarov. It refused to remain steady and despite wildly firing the weapon not a single bullet hit the bandit. Seeing this the criminal abruptly charged Subaru, wielding his own gun like a crude club and battering the empty pistol from Subaru's hands. with his prey temporarily disarmed the bandit made a dash for Subaru with his gun raised to prevent him from pulling another weapon. His shotgun butt descended and the blow sent Subaru reeling with a broken nose. In a blind panic the boy scrambled, trying to crawl away.

It was all for naught as the bandit simply reloaded his shotgun and fired both barrels into the boy's back.

Subaru collapsed in pain and panic. His back burned from the buckshot but it was his legs that scared him the most. He could no longer feel anything below his waist. Desperately he clawed at the dirt trying to pull himself away to no avail.

The bandit simply walked up to the boy and roughly kicked him, flipping him onto his back and pinning him with a foot to the boys chest. With his prey pinned he leisurely broke the shotgun open and fed two new shells into the weapon. With a loud clack he finished and lowered the weapon towards Subaru, who could do nothing but watch as the twin barrels hovered right above his face.

"Fucking pussy." The bandit drawled as he pulled the trigger.


Subaru gasped as he legs buckled and he collapsed to the road. The sudden sensation of feeling his legs again briefly overwhelming him.

"Hey. You alright kid?"

Subaru turned. It was the Marked One, alive and well.

"Y-yeah, wait no!" he said as he shakily got up on his feet again. "This really is suicide. I don't know anything about gunfights. I'm scared shitless an-

SMACK

Subaru flinched from the sudden sensation of pain in his cheek. It took him a moment to realize that his companion had slapped him.

"Fine, stay here and rot. whatever." He growled, shouldering Subaru aside as he headed for Petruha's group. Subaru looked on before returning to the village. As he returned he headed for the group of Stalkers sitting around the campfire. The idle chatter died down slightly and heads turned as the boy shifted himself into the periphery of the group. Noticing he had become the center of attention he drew himself in and tried to make himself less noticeable.

After an awkward moment one stalker finally broke the silence and the general campfire banter started up again. The conversations made little sense to Subaru and what he did understand sounded mostly like down on their luck Stalkers cursing out The Zone, bandits, Sidorovich, the military and mutants. Despite his exclusion the general banter brought a homely feeling to the boy and he relished the chance to calm down and, dare he think it, relax.

"Hey. Kid!"

Subaru looked up. From the underground cellar entrance a stalker he didn't recognize stepped out. "Thanks for saving me man." the stalker nodded to him, limping over to sit beside Subaru At this the boy finally finally recognized him.

"Tolik?"

"Yeah man, say where's the Marked One?" the older stalker asked.

Subaru's expression fell "He's... He went to meet up with Petruha to hit the bandits at the carpark."

Tolik hummed at that as he rolled his heavily bandaged right shoulder "Well hope they succeed. Damn bandits."

Subaru nodded.

"So you guys aren't a team then?"

"No, we just happened to be in the same damn truck when it crashed and no one else would have anything to do with us till we found you."

"Hmm, makes sense." Tolik as he fished something from his backpack. "So your not up for hitting the bandits."

Subarus expression darkened. There were loads of stalkers all over the camp who seemed fine leaving the bandits alone. "I don't exactly see many people around here lining up for it. Besides I can't shoot. My first time trying was this morning. I'll just fuck up and get myself killed." He bitterly retorted.

"Heh. Got me there." Tolik replied. "Still though. Even if your not attacking the bandits you'd better find some way to get practice in if you ever want to be more the Sidorovich's little bitch."

"Even if I was the most accurate sharpshooter in the world it doesn't just work like that. I've been shot before. It freaks me the fuck out when I think about it and I just freeze up at the thought of it happening again." Subaru burst out.

The wounded mans eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You've been shot before? The fuck you saying?"

Subaru realized his mistake. "Shot at. Shot. At." He quickly corrected. "When I was shooting with Trout this morning a bandit attacked us. I just froze up in panic then wasted a bunch of ammo panic firing. I nearly lost my magazine. If it weren't for Trout I..."

Tolik still looked suspicious but seemed somewhat placated. "Hmm. Don't know how I can help you there." He thought for a bit before continuing. "So what did you do?"

"Huh?" the boy asked.

"When you were being shot at. What did you do?"

Subaru thought a bit. When he had been shot at with Trout he didn't do much but maybe he could use this to get help with what he messed up with the Marked One.

"I was... too close I think. When he tried to fall back he bumped into me. I froze up... nearly got both of us killed."

Tolik shrugged. "I don't know what to say man. you saved my ass and I'm thankful for it but all I know is a few of the drills the damn military did with me"

Subaru looked to the man "Huh, you were part of the army?"

"Conscription. Mandatory service. Most of the older stalkers either completed their service or deserted. Doesn't guarantee they'll be any good but plenty will likely have at the very least had an introduction to firearm combat tactics." Tolik replied.

Subaru's mood sank even lower. Yet another hurdle to overcome in this hellhole.

"Ah you'll find a way through. I'm sure of it." Tolik replied. As he spoke he revealed what he had pulled from his backpack. A large sausage of what seemed to be deli meat. Breaking it in half he offered a portion to Subaru as he stuck his own on a stick to dangle over the fire. The aroma won out and Subaru gratefully accepted the meal as the day wore on.


Three days had passed. The Marked One, Petruha, and the rest of the strike group had not retuned. Bandit attacks had further increased and rookies rarely left the village anymore save for increasingly fruitless trips to the nearby landfill anomaly or to not return. The mood around the rookie camp had plummeted as the desperation increased.

Subaru was ragged and exhausted. He had barely made enough money to eat two light meals even doing every one of Sidorovich's tedious chores he could grab. Reloading magazines, cleaning the looted gear of presumably dead men, and countless latrine bucket trips leaving him a tattered and ragged wreck. In his little spare time he had questioned Trout and Tolik about what to do in firefights but had not really tested or or really internalized the brief pointers as a result of his exhaustion.

He was returning from yet another latrine run when he heard the sound of gunfire near the rookie village. Panicking he bolted towards Sidorovich's bunker. Unusually the outer bunker door was slammed shut. He ran up to the door, desperately trying to open it and take cover. inside. It was for naught as the massive door didn't budge. A bullet impact near the door forced the boy to turn. An unknown man atop the right hill was aiming with what seemed like an old rifle. He wore the typical dark tracksuit of the bandits he had seen previously.

Panicking Subaru bolted towards the village itself.

The usually calm firepit was a charnel house, at least 8 stalkers lay dead and dying around the courtyard, Tolik included amongst them. Telltale gunfire came from the houses indicating some survivors had holed up in there. Subaru quickly rushed into the nearest one. "Friendly!" he called out as he neared the door. Thankfully the occupants didn't shoot at him. As he rounded into what was once the kitchen he saw Trout in cover behind the stove.

"Bandits" he spat as another round punched into the wall above his head. In retaliation the stalker fired a quick burst from his AK through the window.

Subaru quickly rushed to the dining room window, drawing his pistol. He tried to make sense of Trout and Tolik's vague tips and pointers he had overheard. With a deep breath he peeked his head barely passed the window.

He saw nothing out of the ordinary for a moment before slight motion near a shrub caught his eye as he squinted to see more clearly a dim, near unnoticeable flash and deafening bang roared from the bush.

Subaru quickly ducked back into his cover trying to catch his breath. This was do or die. He took a deep breath before peeking out with his pistol at the ready. He scanned towards the bush and took aim. As he did so a figure peeked out. recognizing it as the bandit he lined up the crude iron sights with the target. In desperation he fired. He couldn't tell if he hit or not but, remembering Toliks advice, he ducked back into cover. Several retort shots indicated he had missed. With another breath he popped out the window and fired again. The worn makarov barked twice before the slide locked back. His magazine had run out.

"Damn it" Subaru groaned as he ducked back into cover and started trying to reload his pistol. As he was doing so a deafening boom sounded from the kitchen. The force sendinga wall of dusty air through the doorway in a veritable albeit temporary gale.

"TROUT!" Subaru called, rushing into the room.

It was a disaster zone. Almost everything was covered in shrapnel scars. Behind the stove Trout lay motionless, his uniform streaked with bloodstains. It was almost as if a bomb had gone off in the room.

As if on cue a small round object flew lazily through the window. It suddenly made sense to Subaru now. These were grenades.

Subaru rushed bark towards the front door. the shockwave knocking him over as he ran. Scrambling to his feet he bolted towards Sidorovich's bunker. As he ran he heard a change in the chaos. Far less gunshots that were much more spaced out. Even Subaru could tell it meant that the battle was winding down.

"Hey, we missed one!" A voice called out. Subaru turned to see a grinning bandit aiming a shotgun at him.

Subaru bolted as the shotgun fired. His calf burned horribly as a pellet hit but it was not incapacitating enough to stop his dash. As he reached a large tree he glanced to his pistol.

He hadn't finished reloading, furthermore he had lost his earlier magazine. with a curse he grabbed another magazine and slotted it in. Releasing the slide he rounded the tree to aim at the bandit. As he did the bandit was a clear target as he advanced, aiming his shotgun at the other side of the tree. As the shotgun started to move Subaru fired.

The bandit flinched as the 9x18mm bullets struck his chest. throwing his aim off and causing his final shot to go wide. The bandit screamed in pain as he collapsed. Knowing more bandits were coming Subaru broke and ran for the hills, leaving the wounded bandit to his fate. As he crested the hill he noticed the military checkpoint. From what he had heard they would shoot him on sight. However further to the right he saw a large storm culvert. He had heard it led to a large swamp He didn't know much about the area but the stalkers who operated in the Swamp had never been explained as being aggressive or dangerous to loners. With the Rookie Village gone it seemed like Subaru's best hope. He hurried down the hill towards the old drainage pipe. As he scrambled over a large fallen tree he slipped and fell over the crest, landing in a jumbled heap.

"The Fuck!"

The voice made Subaru look up. He saw three men abruptly reaching for AK rifles to aim at him. Their green uniforms were clearly not bandits but they were far to well dressed to be Stalkers. They had bulky vests, helmets with goggles that obscured their eyes. After noting the small blue and yellow patch on their shoulder their identity became clear.

These were some of the military soldiers he had been warned about.

They had all pointed their AKs at the boy. Subaru extended his hands slowly and froze, dropping the Makarov in the process.

"Please help me. I'm from Japan. I don't know how I got here but"

"SHUT UP" The lead soldier shouted. "Vronik, search him."

One of the soldiers stepped forward and started roughly patting down Subaru. As his hands brushed Subaru's beltline the found the makarov holster he ripped it off and flung it to his comrades. The search concluded with Vronik pulling off Subaru's backpack and taking it back to his squad to finish searching it.

"Just some food, an old knife, a wallet, and a PDA here, nothing of real value."

The apparent leader snorted maliciously "Innocent civilian my ass."

Subaru, sensing where this was leading, tried one last desperate plea. "Please, My ID is in my wallet. I was found by some guy named Sidorovich near the village. I

BANG

Subaru jumped as the soldier fired. the Bullet hitting right in front of the boys head.

"I said shut up you retard!" He growled.

Vronik then piped up. "Uh sir. he does have an asian ID on him, can't understand it but it seems legit." As he spoke he waved it in the squad leaders face.

"What? Let me see." The squad leader roughly grabbed Subaru's ID before scrutinizing it. After a minute he turned to Vronik.

"Probably fake. Even if it wasn't it's just gonna be a shitload of trouble with the higher ups for us. I ain't handling the paperwork and crap for this.

"But sir if they find ou-" Vronik started, only to be cut off by the squad leader.

"Find out what? We saw a Stalker, followed our orders, and shot him, or he got nailed by mutants, or irradiated himself and fell in an anomaly. There won't be any repercussions or extra work for us this way." As he said this the third soldier took Subaru's wallet, ID, and food and chucked it into the campfire.

Subaru. Realizing what was going to happen, lost it. "NO PLEASE, YOU HAVE TO-"

BANG.

Subaru crumpled in a heap as the 5.45 bullet slammed into his face.


Subaru fell flat on his ass in recoil from the impact and his own instinctive impulse to jump out of the way. Looking around he saw he was back on the trail. beside him was The Marked One

"Hey, you alright?" The Marked One asked.

"No." Subaru muttered darkly. "I'm stuck in this godforsaken hellhole with god knows how many violent bastards gunning for me and I can't do shit. I can barely shoot and I know nothing."

"...and bitching about it won't solve anything. Did you mummy and daddy wipe your ass for you back home?" The Marked One retorted.

"Back home I wasn't being shot or risking dismemberment via stepping in the wrong spot." Subaru wailed.

"That was then. This is now. I'm going to try killing these bandit pricks and then find Strelok. I'll accept help but if some bitchy piece of shit can't even help himself how will he ever get others to put their faith in him."

"But how? I'll just panic if I end up if a gunfight and I don't know shit about this area."

"Only one way, experience it for yourself and survive it."

Subaru was about to reply when he thought for a moment. This place was certainly hell, and if he wallowed in despair he'd never escape it. The Marked One was right. The only way through this torture was to face it head on and push through.

"Y-yeah. your right." Subaru shakily said. As he did The Marked one extended an arm to him. The boy hesitantly accepted and allowed the man to pull him to his feet. Despite this Subaru had another question."

"Why help me?"

"Aside from the fact that it ultimately helps me, we were both on that Death Truck. There must be something special about you If you were on board one of those. Plus with all the suspicion of our circumstances your the closest thing I have to a trustworthy comrade right now." The Marked One replied.

"Trustworthy?" Subaru questioned.

"Don't get me wrong I wouldn't trust you in a firefight yet. But I do trust you to not shoot me in the back or betray me lightly."

"Well it's a start." Subaru said with a light chuckle. "So about those bandits. Your right. I want to help. But I don't know how I can help. I froze up when I was shot at.

"We'll have to think of something. In the meantime maybe you can draw fire while me and this Petruha fellow can pick them off?" Pity you can't just have a bunch of mock firefights to build your confidence. Pretty sure that's how the military does things."

At that Subaru stopped. While the pain of getting shot was horrible he seemed to come back to life every time without fail. Maybe he could get all that firefight experience. It would be long and painful but he saw no choice in the matter. The Marked One had been right. He would never escape this hellhole by waiting and relying on others. This cruel land demanded self sufficiency to the point of callous selfishness to survive. If he ever wanted to make it more then a week into the zone he would have to take the initiative and handle most things himself. Subaru knew he would die. Likely several times, but it was the first clear path to his escape he had seen since arriving.

And Subaru was determined to take that path and find its end.