I shot awake in a cold sweat and began breathing heavily. No matter how long you've been in the zone, the nightmares almost always have a way of making you wake up prematurely. Between the hideous mutants, trigger-happy bandits, and body-breaking anomalies, you really can't help but get them.
I brought my half-gloved hands up to my face and drew a deep breath before exhaling. I was no veteran S.T.A.L.K.E.R. but I was also no stranger to the nightmares. They had practically been with me ever since day one in the zone, and lately they had been getting particularly rough. I couldn't tell if there was some outside force influencing them, or if my brain was really trying to tell me that I was a dumb fuck for coming here in the first place and it's time to leave.
Speaking of outside forces, I noticed a rumbling in the air and ground, and when I removed my hands from my face I realized that my vision was slightly red; signs that an emission was in progress. Glad we're in reinforced-steel barracks, I thought. I looked around and noticed that there were three other S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s, all still asleep in their cots, though moaning and moving around a bit, signs that they too were getting the nightmares.
It occurred to me that maybe the emissions amplified the intensity of the nightmares. They are composed of psy-energy, it would make sense if that made them sort of like nightmare fuel. I took a mental note to try and keep track of any correlation between the nightmares and the emissions.
I gave my watch a glance; 2:44 AM. "Ughhh..." I plopped my head back onto my shoddy makeshift pillow and began to mentally deliberate whether I should try to get more sleep or just stay up and maybe keep myself busy until the emission blew over. After a short moment, I closed my eyes and began to drift off again, only to be interrupted by the image of that chimera jumping me and getting torn to shreds by the anomaly.
On second thought, I'm just going to wait this one out, I thought. I already had a rough night, and I didn't want it getting any worse. I brought my legs over the side of the ragged mattress and got up. The room around me was fairly simple. There was a single support pylon in the middle of the room, and the walls were lined in sporadic intervals with various cots, mattresses, sleeping bags, and even a ratty couch in one of the corners. To my left were the kitchen, bathroom and exit, and to my right were the lockers where everyone kept their stuff before turning in for the night. I had a pack of cards in my backpack, so I figured maybe I'd play solitaire and- Grrrrrrowwwllll.
Well, my stomach seemed to have other plans. I promptly walked around my mattress and headed straight for the kitchen. As I was walking, I got sort of a weird feeling, like I was being watched. Out of suspicion, I looked at the others. They all seemed to be sleeping, but in the zone one learns to take nothing at face value. I patted my thigh to make sure my knife was in it's proper place. If there was one thing I never slept without since coming here, it was my knife, and while I doubted someone would have managed to take it in my sleep, it didn't hurt to check. I relaxed a little when I felt the familiar sheath and the grip of the combat knife. It was no gun, but it put me a little more at ease.
My stomach grumbled again, reminding me of my objective. Right, I thought. Let's go grab some gourmet preserved food. I turned on the kitchen light as I passed through the doorway. I suddenly wondered how this building, or really any place in the zone, had power. I disregarded the thought and got back to the task at hand. As I was opening one of the cupboards, I noticed the refrigerator in the corner. Since when has the warehouse ever had a fridge? I wondered. Out of curiosity I walked over and opened it. To my surprise, I was greeted by one of the most beautiful sights I had seen since I entered the zone.
Actual produce sat in this glorious gift from whatever god or gods may exist; cold cuts, cheese, milk, fruits, vegetables, the whole shebang. It looked like the most nutritious and tasty food I had seen since I crossed the cordon, and I couldn't help but let my jaw hang down a bit, allowing a string of drool to start dangling out of the corner of my mouth. Hey, you try to go over a month, let alone a year, without any real food, then get back to me about what I can and can't drool over. In that moment I had the most brilliant idea I've had in months. "I'm going to make a sandwich!" I said aloud.
I grabbed a few slices of ham and cheddar, along with some lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and olives, then I searched the cupboards for the best loaf of bread I could find. I pulled out a half-stale loaf of wheat bread, then unsheathed my knife and began gutting through the middle of it. I parted the top and bottom section and began throwing the slices of meat and cheese into the soon-to-be sub sandwich.
This is going to be my best meal I've had in months, I thought as I grabbed a handful of olives and pickles from their respective jars and spread them on top of the slices of cheese. I finished the sandwich with a squirt of mayonnaise and folded the top half of the bread over the glorious flavor-filled center of my masterfully crafted sandwich.
I brought the delectable sub to my mouth and slowly bit down on one end, taking the time to savor the moment. I ripped the piece from the rest of the sandwich and began chewing, letting the collage of taste mix and collaborate on my tongue. I actually let out a moan when the flavors all coalesced into a single heavenly flavor that could be rivaled only by the fruit of the gods. I finally swallowed the clump of moist delicious produce and prepared to repeat the process.
My ear twitched; I froze. It took me an instant to realize that I was being watched; stalked, even. I closed my mouth and slowly began setting my sandwich down on the table. I almost thought that, over the raging emission, I actually heard a voice say something to me, but I couldn’t tell what it said. Regardless, it helped put things into perspective, and I knew that if I didn’t do something damn fast, I would probably not be alive for much longer. As if on cue, I heard a floorboard creak behind me.
I wasted no time in reacting to the sound. I dropped my sandwich onto the table and pulled my knife out of it’s sheath, spinning around just in time to intercept another S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s dagger, stopping it just centimeters short of my face. I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t prepared for that, but his reflexes saved him from any counter as a boot connected with my rib cage, sending me backwards and into the table behind me. The force sent him back a meter or so, and he took the opportunity to charge at me, no doubt going for a hard slash to my neck. I ducked just under the knife, close enough that I felt the disturbance it made in the air. I launched myself upward and swung my fist in a hard uppercut into the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s jaw. I felt it connect, sending him reeling backwards. I saw him drop his knife, and I took the opportunity to subdue him. I tackled him to the ground, turned him on his stomach and pinned him. I brought my knife under his throat and pressed it against his neck. I wasn’t going to kill him yet; I needed answers.
“Trying to be sneaky, eh?”
“Tvoyu mat!” he replied in a strong Belorussian accent.
“Suit yourself,” I said as I pressed my foot onto his upper back whilst tugging on his arms. He began yelling in pain as his shoulders were overstretched. “And for the record, my mother is a saint, sooka,” I said. There came a point where I felt one of his shoulders pop out of place, which prompted a particularly agonizing scream from the man. I eased up a little bit, just enough to let him collect his thoughts.
“I'm sorry, maybe we got off on the wrong foot. Why are you trying to kill me?”
“Go to hell!” I rolled my eyes and repeated the process, this time with more force. Does he not get it? I wondered. I began thinking about who would want to kill me. I mostly kept to myself, though I did occasionally harass bandits. Even still, I really hadn’t done anything to piss anyone off enough or draw enough attention to kill me, or hire an assassin to do it. Maybe this guy just wanted to kill me for my gear, not that it was particularly valuable. The only weapons I carried were an AK-107 with a scope and a Beretta M9, each with only 6 or 7 mags. I only carried enough food and drinks for three days, and I didn’t have many tools that most S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s didn’t already have. I didn’t have any artifacts either, not even any of the common ones. I really didn’t have anything out of the ordinary. Still, it may have been more than this guy had.
I came back to the question of why someone would want me dead. I was a fairly reputable guy, I couldn't think of a single reason good enough to make someone want to kill me. Something didn’t feel right. Something was up, and I got the feeling that this guy wasn't here entirely of his own volition. If I was right about that, then that meant someone, or a group of people, with a lot of power really wanted me dead for some reason, and that was really bad news for me.
I almost forgot that I was in the middle of an interrogation. I gave the man’s arms a hard yank, popping the other shoulder out of place and warranting another scream of pain. I looked around and noticed that the other two S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s had woken up and were watching. “Go back to sleep, I’m in the middle of something,” I said. They simply shrugged and put their heads back down. They probably weren’t unfamiliar with this sort of situation. Such was life in the zone. I noticed that the emission was starting to calm down, so I figured I would step up my game a bit.
“Okay, come here birthday boy,” I said sarcastically, dragging him to his feet and heading for the exit. I opened the door, letting some of the energy from the emission into the barracks and giving myself a headache. It was a small price to pay. I threw the guy outside, exposing him to the powerful waves of psy energy and putting him in extreme pain. I didn’t like torturing anyone, but as far as I was concerned, this man was dead to rights. I grabbed his ankles, which were still inside the building and dragged him back inside before his mind got fried. He stopped screaming and took numerous heavy breaths, some of which came out as rough coughs. “You bastard!” he said.
“Hey, if you just told me what I wanted to know, you wouldn’t be in this mess. So I’m going to ask you again, why did you try to kill me?”
“Sooka!” he said between ragged breaths. Aside from that, he kept his mouth shut. It became clear to me that this guy was really holding on to something, I would have suspected most S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s would break at this point. Well, once more into the breach, right? “Alriiight, back into the emission you go.”
“What?” Poor shit, he really doesn’t get it, I thought as I brought him back onto his feet and towards the door once more. “No! Wait!” he protested.
“What’s that? I can’t hear you!”
“Stop, I’m begging you, please!”
“So, you going to talk, or what?”
“Yes, yes, just don’t throw me back out there!”
“Well why didn’t you just say so?” I threw him back onto the floor of the barracks. “So, what’s the word?” I asked. What he said next took me by surprise. “The mercenaries; it’s the mercenaries. They have a bounty on you.” I actually had to stop for a minute and think. Mercenaries? I’ve only had one or two run-ins with them, and they both ended peacefully. What interest do they have in me? I wondered. “They just said they needed you out of the picture; that’s it, I swear,” he added. I figured he was telling the truth. Emissions cause immense pain when they don’t immediately kill you, and I’m sure that’s something this asshat didn’t want to go through again. I released a breath and said, “Alright, I believe you. Now surely you’ve changed your mind and you’re not going to try killing me again, are you?”
“Oh hell no, I’m done with this, I mean who kills for profit anyways?” he said hastily. I groaned and got up, leaving him on the floor. “Move from this spot and I will shoot you. I’ll be back,” I said as I headed towards the locker where my equipment was stored. I opened it and searched for my pistol. It didn’t take long for me to find it, wedged between the side of the locker and my backpack. I pulled it out and released the magazine; fully loaded. I slid it back in and smacked the bottom. It probably wasn’t completely necessary to hit the magazine into the gun, but I’ve heard stories of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s who met an early end because they fired one shot and had the magazine fall out. I pulled the slide back to see that a round was already cambered. I released the slide and flicked the hammer into place; ready to fire.
I shut the locker behind me, then walked back into the barracks. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was still on the ground, like a good boy. Looks like he’s learned his lesson, I thought as I walked closer to him. “Hey, w-wait, I thought you were not going to kill me if I didn’t move!”
“Oh relax, I’m not,” I said. He likely began to panic from the sight of my handgun.
“Really? Then what’s that for?” he asked, looking straight at my Beretta.
“Assurance,” I replied simply. “If I have a gun and you don’t, then I’m assured that you won’t try something stupid.” I know it may seem like I was being cold, but when life points a gun at your face, you point a high explosive rocket back. You can’t be a pushover in the Zone. You don't have to be a dick, but you can't let people get away with being a dick to you; that's a good way to a quick death. The emission was practically over at this point, so I figured now was a good time to take buddy-boy over to the leader of the camp. I disregarded the fact that I was only wearing sweat pants and a t-shirt. It was still early in fall, so the weather was decent, and being this far out from Chernobyl, the ambient radiation was weak enough that you didn't risk illness, even with minimal protection.
"Okay scrubby, let's go meet with Gregor. He'll know what to do with you," I said.
"He won't kill me, will he?" he asked. This guy clearly wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. I sighed and replied, "If I wanted you dead you would be dead, I don't have to get someone else to do it for me. Now, I can't guarantee that he won't kill you if there's bad blood between you two for some reason, but I can guarantee that he won't do it on my behalf. Now get up, let's go."
I may have been a bit cold and calculating, but I wasn't, and still am not, a liar. The worst I imagined Gregor doing was maybe giving him a slap on the wrist before making this guy work for him for a few months. I probably didn't mean much to Gregor, but we were on friendly terms. Plus he liked to regard himself as the sheriff of the warehouse, so he probably wouldn't mind trying to rehabilitate the would-be assassin.
Of course, I still had questions, but I didn't think I would get any more answers out of this guy. I would probably have to pay a visit to Rostok, or maybe even the rookie village, to see if anyone had more info on this bounty. I don't know what I did to warrant the attention of the mercs, but it must have been important. I mean, if the people who usually get paid to do wetwork were essentially paying independent S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s to do it for them, it must either be something they want to keep under wraps, or there was something big going on with them, something where they would cash out with a lot more than they put in.
Just as the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. got up, I managed to get a glance into the kitchen again. There, on the table, was my sandwich, splattered across the table in a mess of condiments. I gave a long mournful sigh. Why is it that the tasty die young? I thought as my stomach growled again.
The barracks led directly to the interior of the old, and damn near completely destroyed warehouse. Well, it actually used to be one of those garage-like things for trains, but I don’t know the name for that. Everyone else calls it the warehouse anyways, so I pretty much just fell into the same habit. While it was very easily defensible in the case of a gunfight, it hardly provided any environmental protection, let alone protection from an emission. It used to be in better shape, even after the 2006 explosion which created the zone to begin with, but several years of brutal gunfights had taken their toll on the already weakened structure of the building. One bandit had the ingenious idea of bringing an RPG to a gunfight, which is what caused the collapse of the roof and northeastern wall. Regardless of the catastrophic hit, the defenders managed to hold off the bandits’ advance, though they did evacuate the building in fear that it would collapse further.
Of course, that was a few months ago, and while there is still a marginal fear of something breaking and falling on someone, it hasn’t happened since the battle, and what was left of the building seemed stable enough that the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s moved back in within a week. Most have moved on since then, but some have stayed, as they have since coming to the Garbage. The warehouse is typically used as a pit stop between the cordon and Rostok, so most don’t stay for more than a week or so. Of course, with the building’s superstructure destroyed they had to build a makeshift bunker, and so the barracks was formed.
We stepped up the stairs and onto the main platform. It ran the length of the warehouse and was paralleled by another platform across from some broken railroad tracks. Like I said, it was really more of a train house than a warehouse. We turned towards the Western end, which was still mostly intact and housed the command center for the camp. One would think that I wouldn’t be able to talk to Gregor directly, what with it being 3 AM, but he made a habit of staying up late, and I could see his headlamp casting light through the windows of the command center. I kept the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. in front of me at gunpoint, just to make sure he didn’t do anything. I didn’t have the patience to tie his hands or anything, so I just made sure he kept his hands at his sides.
We turned and headed up the staircase to the catwalk where the command center was located. It was essentially just a small platform hanging over the western entrance to the warehouse. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave an excellent view of the warehouse, and it satisfied Gregor.
“Ey, Gregor!” I called. Technically it was Russian, and the difference between “hey” and “ey” is negligible at best, but Gregor didn’t know much English, so I accommodated for him. Gregor’s name was actually Grigori, but everyone in the zone who spoke English just called him Gregor.
The figure in the command center turned around and shined his light on me. “Ey, tyi govoryat po-angliski?” said another S.T.A.L.K.E.R. I recognized. “Yeah, I speak English,” I replied. He grunted in acknowledgement. I didn’t know his name, but I had seen him here before. He was one of the more nomadic types, a true loner who found their way around the zone taking any job that will pay for their next meal or gun repairs. He was 5’11”, a little taller than me, and he was extremely thin; thin enough that it made me question his eating habits. He had brown eyes and hair, and was extremely tan.
Evidently, Gregor was indisposed one way or the other, though I didn’t understand why he would put this guy in charge. I didn’t know him well enough to be an accurate judge of his character, but knowing his habits and his wayward wanderer sort of lifestyle, I couldn’t help but be a bit distrusting. Maybe Gregor payed him to keep an eye on the base or something, I didn’t know.
“So, where is Gregor?” I asked.
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. looked towards me again and replied, “I think he said he was going to Rostok to get some ammo or something. I heard someone say that the usual merchants have been selling out fast lately, making it hard to get much of anything anywhere else lately.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Yeah. Not sure why, but I heard that the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s in Rostok are preparing for something. If that’s true, then I doubt Gregor is going to be leaving with much more than he came with.” If they were stocking up for some sort of battle or siege, Gregor wouldn’t be leaving with a single bullet more than he came with. In times where Rostok is suspected to be attacked for whatever reason, Duty seizes all military assets and drafts any S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s they can find. It was one of the things that pissed me off about Duty; they always ask for help from other S.T.A.L.K.E.R.s. If it were Freedom instead of Duty, they would actually give you a choice. Well that is unless you were actually a part of Freedom, of course.
“Preparing? Are the Monolith making a push or something?”
“Something along those lines, yeah.” He gave a slight chuckle. “I heard they even managed to train a chimera to help them.” I couldn’t help but to burst out laughing. “Oh please, if they managed to train a chimera, they would be in control of the entire zone!” I said. I let out a couple more hoots of laughter before straightening up and getting back to business. “Anyways, this S.T.A.L.K.E.R. tried to kill me. Mind putting him in a cell or something just until Gregor gets back?”
“Hey, I’m just here to keep an eye on the place; I’m not your errand boy! You lock him up!” he said, handing me the key to a storage closet. I groaned and turned back, pushing the other S.T.A.L.K.E.R. back down the staircase, this time turning right and going towards a door. It read “storage closet” and also had the words, “don’t dump your junk in here, Tracker!” etched under the label. I pressed the man against the wall while I inserted the key into the lock and turned. I felt the bolt click into place, allowing me to pull the door open. Despite the warning on the door, it seemed like someone made a habit of dumping things in here. Whether it was Tracker or not, I couldn’t tell.
“Wait! You’re not just going to leave me here, are you?” God, for a guy who tried to kill me, he sure made a habit of whining. “Yeah, I am. Don’t worry though, once Gregor gets back I’m sure he’ll take care of you.” I threw him into the closet and closed the door, locking it before he could make a break for it. I put my pistol into my pants behind my back before taking out a small piece of paper and a pen and jotted down a message for Gregor. “Some guy tried to kill me. I left him in the storage closet. Hope you don’t mind taking care of him. IOU. –Exile.” I folded the note and replaced the pen, then headed back up to the command platform. I figured I would talk with the nomadic S.T.A.L.K.E.R. a bit.
I climbed the staircase up to the platform. Apparently he heard me, as he brought his light around before I even crested the top step. “It’s just me, don’t worry,” I called just as my head came into his field of vision. He gave a shrug and went back to looking over the warehouse. “So, just curious, why are you here? Did Gregor pay you?”
“No. I owed him a favor.” It was only then that I noticed his posh English accent. At least I wasn’t the only Englishman in the zone. “A favor? I thought you were a true loner. What did he do that you owed him afterwards?”
“Something I’d rather not talk about, Exile.” I was taken aback, somewhat. Mostly because I didn’t take him as the type to hold things back, and also because he knew my name. “I’m sorry, how do you know me?”
“Well,” he started, turning slightly towards me. “Gregor mentioned you once or twice when he gave me this job. Said you were a good guy, and judging by how you dealt with that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. it kinda fits the description. I mean, I probably would have just shot him.”
“Yeah, well I didn't have a reason to. I had him on his knees in under fifteen seconds; he wasn’t worth the ammo. Besides, I felt like he was working for someone, and I needed answers.” He gave a grunt of acknowledgement. “I’m assuming you got your information?”
“Yeah. I had a little help from that emission.” He turned his head towards me with a look of pure astonishment. “Don’t tell me-”
“Yeah, I did,” I finished for him.
He gave a low whistle. “That’s pretty cold.”
“Yeah, well if you’re being hunted, you gotta do what it takes to get answers.”
“Mmm, true enough. Though some people appreciate the adrenaline; the rush.” He paused, thinking for a moment. “Though those people tend to be insane, to some extent,” he added.
“Well, as I learned, the Mercenaries put a bounty on me.”
“Yeah, there are a lot of people who would try to kill you for 100,000 rubles.”
“Wait, so you know about the bounty?” I asked, reaching back for my pistol.
“Yeah. I heard someone mention it at the 100 Rads. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try anything.”
“Well, that’s good to know.” I released my grip on the Beretta. I began to think about who would want to come after me. Quite a few loners who didn’t mind killing for profit, every merc in the zone, bandits, and that’s about it. Maybe one or two Duty soldiers would try it too, but they would probably only do it "off the books." For those reasons, It may not be 100% safe to go to Rostok, but it beat the hell out of staying in the Garbage much longer. I decided I would wait until the crack of dawn before setting out, but I was going to the 100 Rads.
“Well, this has been a nice talk, but I got to go. In case our paths cross again, what should I call you?" I asked.
“Nomad,” as his character implied. I nodded and turned to head down the stairs. "Oi!" he called back to me. "Take care of yourself, out there," he said. "Yeah, you too, mate," I replied. I came down the stairs and headed back towards the barracks. I wanted to grab my gear and prepare myself before heading out at daybreak, and maybe even reconstruct my sandwich so that I can eat it uninterrupted.