Chapter 1

All five men kept a steady pace through the empty countryside. All that could be heard was a slight rustling sound as the knees of the men ploughed their way through the four foot tall grass. The soft wet ground sucked at the men’s boots with just enough force to remind them where they were, but not enough to allow them totally free movement. Disturbing dark shades of forest green seemed to drip off the tall grass. Above them a grey overcast kept the sun off them holding the heat down. This was being offset by the slight humidity from the wet environment. At least there was a cool breeze was coming in from the west. Once in a while, it could be heard picking up with a kind of ghostly howl.

            Flashlight Nadovev, the leader of the group, had his eyes peeled for any sudden movement. In this area of the Backwoods you never knew what was stalking you. Especially with grass so high providing such excellent cover. Stalking the stalkers, the idea brought a slight crook of a grin to the corner of his mouth.

            Nadovev was a natural choice as leader for the “Radiochemical Company”, as they were known in Stalker circles. At 37 years old he had more experience in the Zone than most of the men there. He’s veteran with 13 years of Stalking under his belt, and a popping sound in the left elbow to show for it. His face is prematurely aged from the harsh conditions and life in the Zone. A long stubble covered face ends at a shaved head which shows clear signs of premature balding. His deep hooded eyes add a slight measure of nobility to his gaunt face.

            Nadovev was only 5’8″ but had all the bearing of a military veteran. He’d never served in any armed forces, but he learned a good deal of his survival skills from ex-military personnel. His build was average, maybe even a bit thin from rough living in the Zone. His legs were another story. They were a bit too long for his torso, and thick like tree trunks. Some have joked that he could walk the entire length of the Zone and not get tired. Others claimed it was from running away constantly. Those who dared utter such disrespect didn’t live long. Nadovev was one of those Stalkers you didn’t joke around about; you took him seriously twenty-four hours a day… or else.

            He’s a fully hardened veteran of the Zone. His experience is unmatched by anyone else in the squad. They like to joke that there’s only a few people he hadn’t fired a gun at in his day. With such a hardened personality and discipline, there was little that could convince the squad that someone else should be the leader. This unquestionable, and successful leadership, is what gave him the nickname flashlight. A beacon that can illuminate the way.

            “Wait!” Nadovev said with a commanding whisper as he threw a fist up. The members of Radiochemical company each dropped to one knee and began surveying the landscape. Nadovev scanned his eyes across the patchy forest of tall grass listening intently. He swore that he could hear Arkady beginning to break out into a nervous sweat. Arkady began to train his gun back and forth in jittery motions as he began to look desperately for what Nadovev was alerted too.

            “What is it?” a voice called from behind Nadovev, “what did you see?” He wasn’t sure who it was.

            Nadovev stared intently at a particular patch of tall grass. He looked down the sight of his SIG P220 .45 pistol. He quietly waited for movement. Had he seen something? Was his mind playing tricks on him? The combination of overcast and tall swaying grass was playing with shadows and movement in his peripheral vision. He suddenly noticed that the grey clouds were moving across the sky faster than they were a minute ago. Taking one last sweeping look around he decided it had been nothing. At least he hoped it was nothing. Nadovev holstered his side arm and rose to his feet.

            The rest of the members of his squad followed in kind lowering their weapons and returning to their brisk walk. Looking back, Nadovev thought Arkady was about to have a conniption.

            Nadovev had a hard time trusting Arkady as a part of their group. The man was just too high strung to be a Stalker. He was the kind of man who would either suddenly change and become adapted to the Zone, or he’d just snap and lose his mind.  Nadovev had a pretty good idea of which one was likely to happen. Arkady was an average sized man who probably never performed an hour’s worth of manual labour in his life. He was an averaged sized man, not tall, but had an average build. His babyish face made him look like a bit like a trust fund baby. He clearly had no experience in being on his feet in rough terrain.    He was clean shaven with a round face that made him look younger than he was. Arkady had just passed 26, but he didn’t look it. The man had nervous pale green eyes that told you he might run in a firefight. He had the stereotypical Slavic chin, but he carried well. His hair was short, in a corporate, Western White suburb style. You could tell just from looking at him that he came from money.

            His gear stood out from the rest of the group as well, it was all new, expensive and had yet to be broken in. Arkady had chosen the German flecktarn camouflage with the red mixed in. It was the expensive top-of-the-line Goretex that almost no Stalker could afford, let alone get a hold of. The straps for his gear were relatively clean and completely unused. The rest of the squad had older worn gear that looked like it might have come second hand. To be honest the squad was a little bit jealous that such high quality gear was being used by someone who probably didn’t even know it’s proper name.

            It was also abundantly clear to the group that Arkady had never fired a gun in fight before. And in the Zone, that was liability.

            After about an hour more of walking the grass started to become thinner and the patches were spaced further apart. The ground had become increasingly wet, and the water was reaching over the lower laces of their boots. A lone tree stood about nine meters away. It was bare, and looked dry. It had a sort of crooked loneliness to it. Nadovev suddenly stopped and stared at it for a bit. His gut was telling him something. A cold breeze suddenly picked up which made his feeling worse. He called the group to a halt.

            “Iosif, come up here.” He motioned for the big man to step forward by waving his left hand.

            Loud sucking sounds plodded up behind him as Iosif Ox reached his commander. “Does the anomaly detector reading anything?” He asked.

            Iosif reached into his MOLLE mounted anomaly detector pouch on his breast and took the detector out. Truth is, it hadn’t beeped in a while. He opened up the device and took a quick scan of the immediate area. The detector didn’t make any noise. He swept it back and forth a few times concentrating, trying to see if he could pick up even the slightest trace of an anomaly. The detector wasn’t a top-of-the-line model. It was only the “Bear” model. But it was better than that piece of garbage first generation Echo model. While Iosif trusted it, he had a healthy respect for Nadovev’s instincts that came with experience.

            “I don’t see anything showing up.” Iosif said with his deep voiced, heavy guttural Russian accent. He continued to sweep the detector around.

            “I know,” Nadovev said, “but I got a feeling something is out there.”

            Iosif looked at him and said, “There’s always something out there, it’s the Zone.”

            Nadovev looked up at the sky and took a deep breath. He wondered if his sense were failing him today. It had been a long couple of days trying to keep on schedule for the client.

            “Maybe I’m just being a bit paranoid.” Nadovev suggested. “I heard a story a few years back about a bunch of mercenaries at the Army Warehouses who got trapped in a space anomaly after an emission and couldn’t get out. No matter which way they went, they just ended up right back where they started. Like they were stuck inside some kind of infinite loop. The thought of that scares the Hell out of me.”

            Iosif continued scanning the area thoughtfully. “We’ve all heard stories like that. The Zone is full of such tales. Some Stalkers over at Zanton claim that some actually found the Oasis. We heard yesterday at the camp that there’s an underground passage from the Jupiter factory to Pripyat. Hell, the Wish Granter is a tale that most Stalkers come out here for. I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that any of its true.”

            Grimly Nadovev responded, “yea I know, it’s just that-“

            “Wait,” Iosif interrupted Nadovev, “I think I got something.” A faint beeping could be heard from the detector. It was barely inaudible. Iosif only heard it because he had the device up to his ear. Several times he turned his head different directions with the device stuck to his head.

            Iosif pointed the detector directly in front of them and the beeping increased minutely. “It seems like the anomaly is directly in front of us, but the detector can’t actually see it properly.” Iosif shook the device in a vain attempt to increase its effectiveness.

            Nadovev looked keenly into the space in front of them. He saw nothing, he admitted to himself. But that feeling that something wasn’t right wouldn’t leave him. Slowly he reached into the thigh pouch of his olive drab fatigue pants and produced a bolt. He looked at the bolt for a moment. It was the size of pill bottle, and was absolutely indispensible for testing for anomalies. No Stalker went anywhere without his bolts. With a smooth practised motion he tossed the bolt into the space in front of them. The bolt suddenly became suspended in mid air and began glowing red hot. The other members of the squad look on in horrid fascination. Then, without warning the bolt sped off like a bullet in a direction ninety degrees from the direction Nadovev threw it.

            Stunned looks overcame their faces as the bolt smacked into the ground. A sharp hiss and steam rose from the bolt as it became submerged in the ankle deep waters of the tall grass. Nadovev and Iosif looked at each other with semi-frightened expressions. Nadovev’s heart began to pound. He realized how close he had just come to dying a miserable death. As a Stalker you know that kind of thing can happen, and some have witnessed it happen to a friend. Such a close passing of death had just taken place. Nadovev could swear he felt the bony fingers of Death on the back of his neck.

            The squad stood in shocked silence for several moments. Everyone was nervous and a bit frightened, and everyone knew it. Eventually Nadovev broke the silence by telling everyone to get out their bolts so that they could plot their way around the anomaly. Silently agreeing everyone got them out. It took about forty minutes of prodding with them to make their way around the deadly anomaly. While everyone was shaken up by the near death of their leader, Nadovev was shaken up even more. You’d think it was because of his near death in an anomaly, but that was only part of it. He was scared because he didn’t understand how he had known the nearly undetectable anomaly had been there.

            Everyone was relieved to be past that discomforting task. An hour later Arkady was still shaking from the event.

            The squad moved on from the unpleasant experience and made their way across the landscape. The grass started to become shorter and the ground became wetter. It took the better part of another hour for their boots to become fully soaked. Nothing much is worse than having your feet wet and trapped inside boots with many kilometers of walking still to go. Patches of water began to appear, almost as though the grassy field was struggling to become a swamp. It reminded some of the squad members of the swamps just off of the Cordon. Except this place wasn’t infected with Renegades. The odd tree broke up the flatness of the land. Skeletal like structures protruded up from the ground. Many of them dry like the husks of old corpses left open to the air for many years. Once in a while a breeze would pass them rustling the tall grass around them. A faint wet whisper could be heard as the blades collided with each other. The sound they made brought images of predators licking their lips in anticipation of pouncing upon prey. A weird eerie feeling permeated the place. It was only slightly different from the eerie feeling you got from the Zone in general.

            Eventually the impact of the near death event began to fade, and the squad began to pick up the pace. In not too much time the group came to an incline in the landscape. At twenty degrees the men started their way up it. It took a minute or two before they could see what was on top the incline. Drier land, less grass, and more trees littered the area. Some of the trees even had leaves on them. Not much, but some. After about twenty or so minutes of walking the land began to decline. From their vantage point they could see ahead quite a bit. Looking ahead they could see the land become drier before it turned into a forest. The grey clouds still blocked out a good deal of the sun, but there was certainly enough to see where they were going.

            Nadovev counted three more of these little inclines they had to cross before they made it to the wooded area. The woods meant they were close to reaching their objective. Just beyond them was Zanton, in which a medium sized population of Stalkers resided. They just had to get through that wood without being detected by bandits and they would be golden. They stopped a moment for a breather. Taking a swig from his water canteen he looked over at Iosif. The big brute of a man was shifting the weight of the PKM he was carrying. Nadovev could never understand how he could carry such a large gun over such long distances. He estimated that Iosif was six and a half feet tall, and must be around three hundred pounds. Still, carrying a seven and a half kilo gun was no easy task. Never mind adding on the considerable weight of ammunition.

            Nadovev became lost in thought as he stared at the PKM. He began taking in just how close to death he came from that anomaly. Even more troubling was his knowledge that it had been there. Breaking from his introspection he looked down at his watch and saw that their five minutes was up. He called out to the rest of the squad to get moving again.

            Their trek continued for the next hour or so as they traversed the three inclined features of the terrain. Nadovev was beginning to lament ever coming this way. But then he reminded himself of how many anomalies they ready has to circumvent in order to get this far. He reminded himself that they were almost there. Just on the other side of the woods was Zanton. From there they only had to walk across the open land “The Barge” where they could rest and meet the client. They were all looking forward to it. It was one of the few places in Zone where someone could get a hot meal. If they were lucky, there’d be some empty spaces in the resting room where they sleep on actual mattresses. They were all looking forward to it. Scanning ahead, they could see that they were thirty meters from the woods. Nadovev had never been so glad to see a pile trees in his life.

            “Stop!” Arkady exclaimed suddenly. The squad dropped to their knees and scanned the area with their weapons.

            Nadovev frantically looked back and forth scanning for the source of Arkady’s alarm. He couldn’t detect anything at all. He turned back and looked the man in his nervous eyes. “What? What is it?” Arkady was leaning his head forward with his head cocked straining to hear something.

            “He didn’t hear anything chief, he’s just being a panicky idiot.” The fourth member of the group piped up mockingly. Ricky put his arm down and begun to give a frustrated laugh. He raised his Western-style designer shades above his eyes and looked at Arkady. “The chicken shit didn’t hear anything, he’s just being a coward.”

            “Shut up, asshole!” Nadovev snapped at the arrogant American. He was getting sick of his arrogant tone and insulting manner. “Did you hear anything or not, Arkady?”

            Arkady had a puzzled look on his face trying to concentrate. “I swear I heard voices coming out of the trees. I thought I heard people talking. But I’m not sure… I thought I was sure.” Arkady sighed out of frustration at himself.

            “You have to be sure. You can’t just be calling out at every single little sound.” Nadovev wiped the sweat off his face and spit on the ground. He stood up and internally groaned at the stiffness in his knees.”You can’t be making mistakes like that out here.” He really was looking forward to that rest.

            “Wait!” Exclaimed, Grigori, the fifth member of the group. He grabbed Nadovev’s tactical vest and pulled him to the ground.

            He put a vertical finger over his mouth to silence Nadovev’s protest. Rolling over to his right, he pointed that finger outward towards the woods. Nadovev followed his finger and looked at the woods. He didn’t see anything. Looking harder he though he saw some shapes moving a few meters back behind the tree line. Reaching into one of his pouches around his back, he pulled out a pair of binoculars. He trained them forward and took a survey of the area. That was when he spotted them.

            “Bandits,” he said, “about fifteen of them with pistols, shotguns, and a few SMGs.” The squad brought their weapons up to bear on the tree line. Arkady had heard something, the voices of bandits in idle chitchat as they skulked their way across the wooded area looking for victims. Nadovev noticed that the bandits had changed direction and were headed right towards them. It wouldn’t take long before they would be able to see them. If they did, they were screwed; being out numbed three-to-one.

            All five members of the squad had lined up on the edge of the hill with their weapons trained on the tree line. “Good ears Arkady, good eyes Camera. Now how do we do this? Because we don’t have much time until they notice us.”

            Nadovev considered his options for a moment, then he made a decision with a sly grin. He looked over at his squad and let them in on the plan. “Camera, I want you to pick off the leader first. Just figure out who it is,” he moved his head over to Iosif, “once the leader is down you spray them fast as you can.” Both men nodded and got into position.

            “The rest of us will open fire once the shooting has begun.” The remaining members moved up and trained their sights on the approaching group of bandits waiting to fire. Nadovev looked over his shoulder in the other direction and saw Arkady’s hand begin to shake around the trigger of his SMG. Inside, he cursed Arkady for being such a wreck. He promised himself that if Arkady messed up, he’d be taken out of the squad and sent home… no matter the consequences.

            Camera peered down the scope of his VSS Vintorez. He moved the rifle a smidgen to the left in order to rest it on the sweet spot on his left arm placed in front of it. Drawing in a slow breath, he trained the sight onto a random enemy face and tried to determine if he was the leader of the group. He saw no reason to think it was him and moved over to the man at his side. The bandit had a ski mask over his face that only revealed his eyes and mouth. Looking closely at his face, Camera noticed that the man had a wide grin with a cheap cigarette sticking out of it. As he blew out smoke, he laughed loudly at his compatriots. Such brash arrogance stuck out when the rest of the squad was quiet. Camera deduced that the loud mouth was probably the leader; given that no one was him telling him to shut up and maintain noise discipline.

            Camera took a breath and exhaled. He positioned the scope directly between the man’s eyes and concentrated. A muffled cracking sound burst out as the silencer attempted to suppress the noise of the shot. Camera looked down his scope to confirm the hit. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to compensate for the drop of the subsonic bullet and had struck the bandit in the neck. This was not his usual rifle.

            As the blood began spraying like a fountain of gore from the bandit’s destroyed neck, his compatriots scrambled in a panic. As they each took off, Iosif opened up with PKM spraying a mass of machine gun rounds towards the enemy group. In their confusion five of the bandits were gunned down by Iosif’s fire. Red holes the size of nickels exploded along their chests and legs. Their screams were drowned out by the sound of the automatic gun.

            Nadovev, Arkady, and Ricky opened up on the bandits as well, looking to take advantage of their confusion as well. The three men opened up on the bandits taking the head off two of them and an arm of another. Despite his violently vibrating hand, Arkady was keeping himself together. His aim was terrible, but he wasn’t running away in fear. In his own eyes that was an accomplishment in itself. At the very least he looked like he was doing well for himself. This great effort of concentration and control was not lost on Nadovev. There was a tinge of relief that the man wasn’t going to run off on them.

            The bandits began to regroup behind a few large thick evergreen trees. Dropping to their knees, the remaining professional thieves opened return fire with a few SMGs and pump action shotguns. In their mad dash to fire back their aim was well off. One bandit had his SMG jam and Ricky took the side of his head off with a round from his AKS-74U. He made a loud whooping sound in victory.

            Arkady struggled to control his breathing and focused. He squeezed the trigger. A burst of nine millimetre rounds left his gun and collided with the chest of a pale faced bandit that was reloading his double barrel shotgun. A swelling of pride flowed through Arkady’s chest. He shot up his first enemy and hadn’t disgraced himself. He allowed himself a little self-satisfied smile. About a meter and a half away Nadovev nodded his approval to him. He was relieved that the new guy, whom he doubted, was starting to get the hang of it.

            “Ricky, slither down the hill and flank them from the left.” Ricky got up off the prone position and slid down the hill towards the wooded area. Quickly he made his way around a large rock using it as cover. Nadovev leaned towards Iosif and yelled at him to give Ricky some cover fire. Adjusting his aim Iosif let lose some-odd thirty rounds at a pair of bandits near Ricky. Firing from cover Ricky let off a few shots. While the covering fire was continuing to be laid down, Ricky pulled out the empty magazine from his AKS-74U and slammed home a new fresh one.

            As Ricky began to rise over the rock to fire, a bandit came out of the woods to his right unexpectedly. He stopped suddenly at the sight of Ricky and took aim with his pump action shotgun. At the last moment Ricky turned his head and saw the bandit, meeting him directly in the eyes. Realizing he’d let his guard down, he braced for the impact of the bandit’s slug that would end his life. There was a faint cracking sound, then the bandit fell face first dead on the ground. Look behind his back towards the hill, Ricky saw the smiling face of Camera giving him the thumbs up. Ricky returned the gesture.

            Firing off more bursts from his machine gun, three more bandits fell. The rest of them knowing they were overwhelmed began to take off trying to save what they could. Iosif gave them a few parting shots as they took off deeper into the evergreen forest.

            The fire fight was over and they had won. The group got up and congratulated each other on their success. Camera swaggered over to Ricky with a big cocky grin going from ear-to-ear. Ricky knew what was coming and he knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant.

            “I guess you owe me one, Yankee.” Camera’s voice was dripping with mockery.

            Ricky bent down to pick up his designer shades that had fallen off his head during the fight. He’d done it now out of a desire to avoid eye contact with Camera. “Yeah, I guess I do, man.” He brushed the dirt off the shades and put them back on his face to avoid any possible further eye contact.

            “Come on, let’s go, we’re behind schedule. Ricky you take point.” Happy to be away from his gloating saviour, he took off at a brisk pace.

            As they fell in line and began to walk, Nadovev approached Arkady privately. He leaned in to kick off a private conversation.

            “You did good back there for a new guy. I know the first shoot out is always a hard on a man. But, despite all the nervousness and shaking, you manage to pull it off. Keep in mind that it can get easier from here on out, or it could get harder. It’s up to you which way it goes. I suggest you lay off any drugs or alcohol until you get the hang of firefights. Again, good work, you kept it together.”

            Arkady thanked him for the candor and the words of encouragement. The two continued to exchange words about combat as they walked for the next hour through the forest. Nadovev gave his best effort to build up Arkady confidence.

            It wasn’t long before they came out of the woods. When the grey sky was visible to them once again, they could see the wide open area of Zanton. Looking back and forth across the horizon the group took in the sight of the Zanton wetlands and hills. The men gathered around soaking up the glorious view. In the distance they could see the abandoned, washed up old rusted ships, the shipping yards that had been reduced to ankle deep waters, and hills which held abandoned buildings which have new tenants. Nadovev pulled the binoculars down from his eyes and pointed straight ahead into the distance.

            “That right there is our destination gentlemen, the Barge.”

            Nadovev guided his tiring men forward down the slope, and on towards their destination.