Chapter 1

The field before him was a vast open grassland. The blades of green carpet were only a few inches long, only slightly wet. It made for a good comfortable seat. He sat on top of a small hill looking over the quiet land. The only sound was the soft rustling of the breeze through the grass. A few small trees dotted the landscape like ground pepper on a salad. The man pulled off his gas mask forgetting that he had left the radioactive are behind hours ago.

            His face freed from the stifling mask he takes a deep breath of cool air. The air feels chilly as it enters his lungs from hours of plastic mask cover. A rough hand scratches the stubble on a familiar strong chin. Flashlight Nadovev is taking a moment to enjoy his surroundings before he has to get back to work making a living for himself. A man has to eat.

            Leaning back on a Stalker grave marker he pondered the last few months of his life. Events took him places that he’d never thought he’d go. Even with all his experience he still made a deadly mistake costing them the life of one of their squad mates. Nadovev wasn’t sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, he was partly responsible. On the other, Ricky had been a terrible human being.

            Nadovev stretched out his legs with a groan, his muscles releasing their stiffness. With a single finger, he reached up and flicked the gas mask hanging on the crucifix at his back. He checked his watch and noted that Iosif should be meeting up with him soon. I’d be nice to see him again, he thought. It had been too long.  Iosif was one of the few people he got along with. Despite his terrible temper, Iosif was a good man who was honest. You didn’t find many people like that in the Zone. It was the primary reason he had kept him around so long. That, and the brute strength of the six foot six inch, three hundred pound man was handy. It had gotten them out of a few jams. Wielded a pretty mean machine gun too.

            The Soft rustling of glass in the breeze was suddenly broken by heavy footsteps. Nadovev knew that sound, it had to Iosif approaching. He never was one for stealth. He droped his weight down next to Nadovev and smiled to himself.

            “Hope I’m not bothering you. You kinda look like your at peace,” he said.

            “I’m just soaking up as much peace and quiet as possible,” he replied. “Did you get through the Cordon okay? Doesn’t look like you have any bullet holes in you.”

Iosif pulled out his canteen and took a sip of some water sans-radiation. “I swear those clumsy idiots couldn’t hit the largest side of a barn. It makes me wonder why their officers even gave them a machine gun.”

            They both had a good chuckle sitting side by side.

            After their joke died down, Iosif spoke seriously, “How is Arkady? Wasn’t in very good shape the last time I saw him.”

            The question forced the memories back in a flash flood. Every now and then when he closed his eyes, Nadovev could see Arkady being shot by Ricky. It was a terrible day of his life that he’d rather not remember. He’d almost lost his brother in law to his own bad decision as squad leader. He never told anyone, but Nadovev carried with him a tonne of regret and a fair amount of guilt for the incident. Firstly, he shouldn’t have brought Ricky into the squad knowing how poor in character he was. Secondly, he shouldn’t have brought Arkady into the squad knowing how inexperienced he was. But, Arkady had something to prove and Nadovev had felt that feeling before himself in the past.

            “He’s doing good,” Nadovev replied, “after we got him out of the Zone we got him to a hospital. He returned to his normal life in his middle-class office job. My sister was mad at him for leaving, but he has much more respect from my family now. He went out and put his ass on the line just to prove a point. I think he’s richer in spirit for having the experience.”

            “That’s good,” Iosif replied, “I was worried about him.” After a moment of silence, he spoke again, “so we’re at it again, got a job for us?”

            Nadovev coughed, “not yet, but it’s the Zone. There’s always someone hiring for something or other. We just have to wait, jobs come to you. In the mean time, we have to meet up with a new squad member to replace the two that left. He seems like an okay guy, real solid type.”

            “Oh yea?” Iosif said scratching his knee through his Stalker suit, “what’s his name?”

            Nadovev laughed, “they call him ‘Oily’ Boris. Because apparently, he slips out of tough situations like he was all greased up. Seems like the kind of guy you’d want on your side. A real magician at getting out of tough spots. Pretty sure he’s called Oily because he’s so slippery. Got a real sarcastic sense of humour from what I hear.  I asked around about him, his reputation seems to be a joker as well.”

            The wind rustled through the grass and brushed against the Stalker grave marker Nadovev was leaning against. The sound made Iosif pick up a bit. “I’d be nice to have someone around that knows how to make people laugh. The bad blood between Arkady and Ricky was… Well, you know how it was.”

            “Yea,” Nadovev replied.

            Iosif scratched his chin and continued, “you know, I don’t mean to sound like a monster… but, I’m not sorry he’s gone.”

            After a moment of silence, “yea, I figured as much,” Nadovev said.  “It was my fault for putting the two in the squad together. I should have realized there was going to be a problem. And when I did, I thought Ricky would have smartened up.” He sighed deeply and finished his thought, “I almost lost my brother in law to that mistake. My sister wouldn’t have forgiven me.”

            “We all make mistakes,” Iosif reminded him. After a moment he broke the silence, “we’d better get going. It’ll start to get dark soon. Don’t like being out here at night. Should still be fifteen or so kilometers to Skadovsk. I assume that’s where we’re going. It’s your favourite watering hole.”

            Nadovev chuckled at the joke, “yea. Yours too. I heard Beard has a new BBQ sauce for the wild boar sandwiches.” They both laughed.

            Knees groaning, Nadovev stood up stretching his legs. It felt good to get moving again. Next to him Iosif hefted his three hundred pound bulk off the ground and dusted off his trousers with his hands. His trusty old PKM machine gun was still slung across his back, fully loaded and ready to go. It was like nothing had changed since they last saw each other. Nadovev cracked the knuckles on his left hand as he took the fore grip of his AK.

            After checking his AK magazine, Nadovev looked off into the horizon. He noticed that just a smidge of purple was creeping its way across the sky. The beautiful colour came out like thinly spilt paint slowly creeping across an artist’s canvas. The big man passed in front of him as he began the journey. The beautiful sky juxtaposed to Iosif’s gruff exterior made him laugh inside. Here they were, at it again, carving out a living in the most dangerous place in the world: The Zone. Few men dared to travel such a land, let alone voluntarily live in it. It was a daily reminder how fragile life is, and how quickly it can be snuffed out in the Zone.

            With Iosif leading the way, Nadovev looked back the lone grave marker on the hill he was just resting against. The gas mask swayed in lonely isolation in the wind. He looked across the horizontal wooden plank of the cross. He remarked to himself what a good job he did carving the word “Ricky” on it. With that, he turned his back on the dead man for the last time and made his way with Iosif towards the next chapter of his life… Wherever that would take him.

*                      *                      *

The walk to Skadovsk didn’t take too long. Even through the swamp, it was relatively easy going. It was later in the year and the ground was cooler. Thus, the mud was harder and easier to walk on. Only twice did they encounter beasts. Those confrontations were settled quickly with AK and PKM smoking barrels. Nadovev could almost swear that he was getting used to the mutated animals.

            The sold rusty ship was without any change. The red and black armoured guards stood on the deck with their eyes peeled for trouble. Bandits weren’t that common in this area, but they were known to make trouble. The two Stalkers stepped out of the swamp onto the lowest deck of the ship by walking through the mostly missing hull. Iosif stopped to scrape the mud off his boots on the edge of a support beam. His weight caused him to sink into the mud more than most. They were good boots too, only a few months old.

            The sky was just about approaching black when they arrived. The guards were just gathering together their night vision gear when they approached. Lucky bastards, Nadovev thought. Such equipment was insanely expensive in the Zone since the Clear Sky faction was wiped out at the nuclear plant. To this day no one really knew for sure what had happened. All they did know was that there was a good deal more zombie Stalkers walking around after that. Monolith’s ranks swelled a good bit then too.

Nadovev almost felt at home; as at home as anyone could in the Zone. Iosif was right, Skadovsk was his favourite watering hole. Best vodka around. Just forget the fact that every place sold the same brand of it. The purified water wasn’t too bad either. But Iosif had his favourite, one his stomach was already growling for.

            Both men nodded to the armed guards as they passed through the door. The place hadn’t changed. The old rust bucket was still its post-industrial self. The walls were covered in rust covered panels. Support beams and bars ran across the sides of the ship holding the thing together. Nadovev was reminded of the time Iosif called them BBQ coloured ribs. The clientele hadn’t changed much at all; lots of lone Stalkers mixing it up with a few bandits. Even a few Duty members were floating around engaging in conversation and drink.

            On the right-hand side of the big main room, Nadovev noticed a painting. The classy thing was so out of place in the whole ramshackle building-ship. In a simple frame stood a painting of a red sky crackling with thunder and hate. The energy seemed to leap off the canvas with the artist’s brush strokes. The painting was of an emission just before its peak output. Nadovev wondered how the artist knew what an emission looked like. Perhaps he’d seen one and lived to tell the tale, or painting for that matter. It was a beautiful piece no doubt. But, a beautiful piece that reflected the danger involved in getting such a view to make it from.

            Breaking from his reverie, he noticed that Iosif was already walking towards the bar with his hand up waving at Beard. The two of them had a pretty good relationship. Beard made BBQ mutant wild board sandwiches, and Iosif ate them. Sometimes he wondered if Iosif would marry the man if he got the chance. Seeing the big man ordering food his own stomach growl. He’d been on the move for a few days now and needed something to eat. That tourist delight shit wasn’t cutting it anymore.

            “Beard, you bastard! How are you!” Iosif jovially bellowed at the barkeep. Reaching the counter he casually dropped his hand on the counter and smiled at him. “You know what I want, man!”

            Beard stepped away from the gas powered grill and walked towards the big man laughing. Beard was in his mid-forties with some greying hair. He had a stained white chef’s apron on over his MOLLE vest. He was no small man himself, he was pretty beefy, imposing as well. “Come to eat up my entire inventory Iosif?!” he responded. Reaching under the counter he pulled out a fresh bottle of Cossack vodka. Well, it was as fresh as anything in the Zone was. “Here, flush some radiation out of your gut.”

            Picking up the bottle, Iosif pounded it. “Ah, room temperature alcohol! You treat me so well!” Another swig and his thirst was satiated.

            “You’re just in time,” Beard said, “I just finished cooking up some more meat. I assume you’ll be getting some?”

            “I didn’t come back from Donetsk for your pretty face,” he laughed.

            Beard pulled out a glass and poured himself a shot. Together he and Iosif took a drink. The two big men took their drinks with no effort. Heavy drinking was common in the Zone, but these two men could handle their alcohol.

            “So,” Beard said, “you’re back for more?”

            Shaking his head clear of alcohol, Iosif put the bottle down on the counter. “Yep, we’re looking for a job right now. But, right now we’re here to meet up with a new guy joining the squad.”

            “Is that so?” Beard answered, “last time I saw you guys, you had more men with you. They gone?”

            “Yea,” Iosif shook his head, “the one guy got shot and went home. The American guy died.”

            Beard’s demeanour turned sober, “sorry to hear that.”

            “Don’t be,” Iosif replied taking another swig of vodka, “I’m not.”

            “Oh.”

            Nadovev caught up with them putting his elbows down on the bar. He looked over beard’s shoulder at the cooking meat, his eyes starting to get bigger than his stomach. “I think I’ll have some myself, this time, Beard.”

            Beard laughed, “good to see you too Nadovev. Hopefully, you’ve lightened up in your old age.” The joke had always been Nadovev’s 24/7 professional manner. And the fact that Beard was clearly older than him. He’d always felt that Nadovev was too serious about life when he didn’t need to be.

            Beard stepped away from the counter with a smile on his face heading towards the smoking grill.

            “So,” Iosif said, “did you see our new comrade yet?”

            “No,” Nadovev said shaking his head, “can’t see him anywhere. Can’t really say we need him to hurry up. We don’t even have a job yet. If we can’t find anything we’ll just fall back on artefact hunting. I heard there’s some new anomalies appearing out near the train yard in Yanov. Some glowing rock things. The scientists are always looking for new stuff, and they always pay good money.”

            Iosif perked up at the mention of Yanov, “maybe we could take a crack at finding the Oasis,” he suggested.

            Nadovev stared at him blankly, “there’s no fucking Oasis,” he replied in a serious tone. “I always told Arkady that. People just want to believe the myth because they want to find something that will make them rich and famous. I’ve seen God knows how many men waste their time looking for that fucking place. It doesn’t exist, and I don’t want to be the next fool the story gets killed.”

            “Alright, sorry,” Iosif said apologetically, putting his bottle of vodka up in defence. A smile broke out across his square jaw.

            Two clunks of metal broke the ensuing silence as Beard put down to plates with BBQ wild boar in front of them. The smell was simply romantic to the nose and intoxicating to the eyes. The sandwiches didn’t last long. In a few bites, they were buried deep within the stomachs of the two Stalkers.

            Gut satisfactorily full, a thought came to Iosif’s mind, “is Camera going to be meeting up with us?” he asked.

            Nadovev shook his head no as he was chewing his last bite. “He decided that he’d rather work on his own doing contract work, than with a team of Stalkers,” he said after swallowing. “I think the whole episode with Ricky was too much for him. It was tough enough to get him to come along last time. He’s not really a people person. But, who knows? We’ll run into him again.”

            “Too bad,” said Iosif with a frown on his face. “I liked him. He was reliable. And one good fuckn’ shot too. You can always use a guy like that.”

Nadovev nodded. “Well,” Nadovev added, “how do you want to kill the time? Beard’s got some hookahs and tobacco. And I think you carry some cards with you.”

            Iosif shook his head, “Nah boss, I don’t smoke. But yeah, I could play some cards.”

            “Okay, we’ll-“

            BAM!

            Everyone in the ship suddenly whipped their heads towards the entrance. The heavy steel front door had been slammed closed. A ship guard in his black and red uniform was throwing the big metal bolt lock across the door. Turning around he made a hand signal to Beard. Beard picked up a microphone from under the counter and spoke quickly into it.

            “Attention fellow Stalkers! Skadovsk is under attack! The ship has been put on lockdown. All Stalkers on board prepare to repel attackers!”

            Men scrambled from tables and conversations, abandon-ing food and drink. They all marched up the stairs in the back and made their way to the top of the ship. Beard stepped out from behind the counter and locked the door behind him. The oddity of it struck Nadovev, he’d never seen Beard out from behind the counter before. In his hand was an AK-SU and a worn bag containing a few magazines.

            Iosif and Nadovev followed Bear up to the top deck of the ship. Boots rang echoes out as everyone made their way to the top to repel whatever attack was taking place. Just another day in the life of a Stalker. Death was around every corner, waiting for anyone it could catch unprepared… and even those that were.

            Reaching the top of the ship, all the Stalkers had their weapons braced against the handrails of the ship which had been covered in steel plates. The construction made one mean long circular firing position from aft to fore. Beard had certainly planned for the trouble that was inevitable in the Zone.

            One of the guards jogged over to Beard with a message on his lips, “Beard, our spotter has located a Bandit force moving in on us. About fifteen of them coming in from the East,” he said.

            Nadovev noticed that the few Bandits that were on the ship a few minutes ago were gone. They must have been hanging around scoping the place out to see how many people they were going to have to take on, he thought.

“Fucking Bandits, too lazy to make a real living like Stalkers!” Beard cursed in a gruff voice.

            All around them red and black guards lined up with regular Stalkers, guns raised out over the sides of the ship preparing for the assault. Both Nadovev and Iosif wasted no time in setting up their own weapons. Nadovev was down on one knee with his AK resting in the corner of two horizontal and vertical support bars. Iosif had the PKM on the railing while Slav squatting behind it, trying to keep his massive frame out of the path of the eventual enemy bullets.

            It was eerily quiet. Standing next to Beard, Nadovev heard his radio crackle with a warning that the Bandits were almost there.  Just as he braced himself, the bullets began to fly. Rounds smacked into the steel around them with deadly force. It seemed that the Bandits wanted Beard, the boss man, to go down. With a strong laugh, Beard returned fire along with everyone else. The battle had begun.

            There was a smaller ship a few dozen meters or so away from their ship. It was mostly used as a guard post, and a check point if necessary. Iosif saw two Bandits sneaking around the side looking to get a solid firing position. They’d moved up fast, crawling on their bellies like the snakes they were, using the brush as light cover. Once the two stuck their heads around Iosif opened fire. The PKM rattled away leaving a stream of brass cartridges spewing from his side. Tracer round glowed from his gun drilling holes in the smaller ship. A bloody hole or three appeared on the head and torso of one of the Bandits who fell down dead.

            A smile cracked Iosif’s lips.

            Beard returned fire with gusto. He was adamant that no lazy Bandit asshole was going to take his home from him. Rust flakes blew off the steel covered railing as he let loose his bullets of defiance. Bandits screams could be heard all around as they shouted orders to their comrades. To Beard’s left, a red and black guard struck the ground holding his gut. The visceral mess made Beard baulk for a moment. But he quickly returned fire, killing the man who had injured his guard.

            Nadovev noticed the skill the bandits were displaying with their tactics. These cock suckers have been planning this raid for some time now. They’ve got positions marked out to shoot from. And positions to hit, he thought. Mud splashed up as he threw more rounds at the Bandits. We’ve got this battle, he said to himself, our position is too strong.

            Just as he had the thought, a lone Stalker a few meters away from him went down, dropping his pistol.

            The Bandits were getting close to the sides of the boat. A few of them were running from cover throwing grenades up at the defenders. They were falling short, bouncing off the sides of the ship. One or two made it onto the deck killing a Stalker. The situation was looking bad. The Bandits were really organised and putting up a good fight.

            Then it got worse.

            More Bandits came out of hiding. A dozen more came out from behinds shrubs and rocks opening fire on the ship’s occupants. The fire from the attackers increased two-fold. Rounds from SMGs fell like rain drops upon the ship. All around voices were cheering in ascent. In the distance the words “a nu cheeki breeki iv damke.” could be heard. It felt as though ants were closing in on a roadside picnic.

Nadovev, Iosif, and Beard were firing like madmen trying to keep the Bandits at bay. Iosif adjusted his aim and his firing position. Several more Bandits were killed in a flurry of 7.62 rounds. Three excellent shots from Nadovev sent three Bandits to hell with head shots. The psychological accuracy of the shots threw the Bandits off balance. Redoubled efforts from the surrounding Stalkers managed to push the Bandits back as they gave it their all.

            The panic that had started to set into the defenders was beginning to lift. Brass shells littered the deck as black trench coated figures began to litter the swampy ground. The sun was quickly setting, a twilight was pushing in steadily reducing visibility. If the battle continued much longer, the Bandits were going to have the advantage of being able to throw grenades up at them in the dark. Effort poured from each man as they gave their all in repulsing the Bandits.

            In a moment’s time, their line broke causing many of them to retreat. Slowly backing away, vicious Bandits were taking pot-shots at the defenders out of spite. They had lost, and they knew it. Into the inky darkness, the Bandits melted away.

            “Jesus Christ they really didn’t want to lose this one!” Nadovev yelled out.

            As he said it he dropped face forward onto the deck as though he’d been struck from behind. In fact, he had. A Bandit had managed to scale the ship and climb onto the deck. Nadovev howled in pain as he grabbed his back. The Bandits stood over him with his SMG pointed down at his head. He laughed in a mock victory. His said a lost the battle, be he was still going to have the last laugh in killing Nadovev. Nadovev saw the hate in the Bandit’s eyes as his body failed to obey his instructions.

            A sudden shot burst open the head the Bandit in a fountain of gore. Everyone looked over and saw a lone man standing atop the bridge. He was holding a smoking VSS Vintorez with the barrel pointed up. At the last moment, he’d saved Nadovev’s life.

            A mischievous smile was pasted across his triumphant face, “Mr Nadovev, I presume?”

            Grimacing in pain, Nadovev looked up and the man, nodded his head and said, “Oil Kyong, I presume?”

            “You presume correctly, sir! I’m here to join your team as scheduled.”