This is some fanfiction slightly embellishing about 10 minutes of gameplay in STALKER: Clear Sky. The game comes out of the Ukraine, and the term "Stalker" here is used in the sense of a hunter. The game is incredibly immersive, and the below should give you a taste. Comment/PM me if you want to hear me fan rant.
I'm scrambling up the muddy edges of a swamp that used to be a lake. At the top are the group of so-called Stalkers the Professor has sent me to meet. Lefty, the leader of the heavily-armed band, scrutinizes me as I approach, then says something into his radio in Ukrainian.
"Merc," he calls me. Everyone does. It's pretty obvious: The professional bearing, the accent to my Russian... the Rock River LAR-15 dangling in front of me on a three point sling. I miss my Diemaco... "I received information from Sakharov," he goes on. "Boy, what a mess. See that breach in the wall? That's our path - the shortest way to the machine. You follow me and don't jump ahead - my boys and I are a tight team, so you'd just get in the way. We clear?"
I look him up and down briefly. "Your men are well-armed, but you're carrying a Krinkov with a broken stock. We aren't clear at all."
Lefty starts to say, "My men come first, Merc," but one of his men--Yashka, I learn later--interrupts and blurts out, "Lefty lost his lost his beloved 'Katya' to a Whirligig while he was taking a piss!" The others laugh, but behind the jovial tones I can hear two things: Good-natured ribbing, and pre-battle jitters.
"You can't let your guard down for a moment in the Zone," Lefty nods, then rolling his eyes adds, "especially around these idiots."
I hold up my hands to show they're empty, then let the AK-74 slip down off my shoulder nice and slow. Even so, I can hear a pistol carefully clearing leather off to my side. Good, they are paying attention. "The man I got this off didn't need it anymore. Maybe you could find a use for it."
I hold the rifle out in present-arms, but one of his men takes it from me instead and gives the weapon a thorough inspection. I do the same of him. The shotgun hanging from his shoulder is a Mossberg like mine, and so well-maintained I have a hard time believing he's a local. He's looking in all the places they told us in Afghanistan to expect explosive 'surprises' from the locals first, and a few more I hadn't thought of. Then he takes his time looking over the works.
So much time in fact that Lefty prompts him with a cough. "Vasko?"
"It's clean." Vasko hands the rifle over to his boss, then turns to me and reaches into his kit for some rubles. Amazing what the Zone has done for the value of Russian currency. "Very clean, who did the work?"
"Aydar, with Orest's people in the Agroprom." Hearing this, Vasko hands me a few more folded rubles.
The sound of Lefty swapping magazines is interrupted by the chirp of his radio. He holds up a hand for silence while turning up the volume so everyone can hear Professor Sakharov. "Lefty, the psy-field emission level is currently at its lowest. Please begin the operation! All our hopes and prayers are with you! Good luck!"
I follow Lefty up the ramp of debris and take post at the top of the wall as he and his team descend the other side and into the alley between the perimeter wall of the factory compound and a warehouse building. As if that weren't bad enough, it is a maze of storage containers and discarded industrial equipment. Zombies are nasty in close quarters like this. That's why I took the high ground.
The suppressor on my LAR-15 keeps the sound of each burst down to a wh-ICK-ICK-ICK racket that's hard enough to pinpoint for regular people, much less braindead zombies. Vasko, the armorer, takes point with his shotgun, but everywhere he turns I've already taken down the zombies lurking there. He must be getting used to it: Halfway down the alley he passes a storage container with barely a twitch of his head.
I don't have an angle on anything under six feet that far out. I'm lowering my LAR when I see the yellow strobe illuminating a nook just below my line of sight and hear the balloon popping sound of a Makarov. Vasko's back erupts in a spray of vodka and tools as the bullets shred his pack. As soon as my feet hit the ground I'm sprinting down the alley, but the distinct "Kalashnikov cough" tells me the boys have it under control. I can see Vasko pointing his shotgun at the ground and pumping round after round angrily into the zombie...
... but the AKs continue chuffing, and another shotgun joins in the cacophony. I hear the thump-and-yelp of rounds impacting someone to my left. I reach out to grab his arm as I pass, yanking the fellow with me as we slam into the cover of a shipping crate. "Are you good?!" I shout while waving my hand past the container. Sure enough I'm greeted by the deafening sound of bullets hammering against the steel sides. I can't hear my new companion, but when I look at him he is smiling and pointing to the frays in his body armor: The white ducking beneath is exposed, but not stained with blood.
The boys make short work of the dozen zombies remaining once the initial shock wears off. "We're almost there," Lefty reminds us as we reload and catch our breath. "I repeat: our objective is to fix the 2 valves in position and restart the cooling station." We gain access to the factory yard proper through another brick wall. There are at least a half-dozen zombies in the yard... and that's just what we can see around either corner of the hangar in front of us. Across the wide delivery drive from the hangar is the factory building with the coolant system exhaust valve.
"We need two of you at the valve and two of you with me! Merc, you get on the hangar roof and cover both squads." Lefty and another Stalker start hurrying across the street, while Vasko and his second prepare to enter the hangar. Taking a knee, I dispatch a few of the closer zombies for Lefty's team, then check around the other corner as Vasko enters the hangar.
There's a rattle above me and one of Lefty's men with a scoped rifle snaps, "Quit wasting time, merc. Follow me!" as he finishes shoving a concrete slab against the wall, then sprints up the makeshift ramp and jumps onto the rusty maintenance rungs, the bottom eight feet of which had already been torn off. I ditch my pack and join him on the roof.
I wish I hadn't. Scores of zombies dot the yard ambling about so mindlessly that two are shuffling against each other. The sight makes me giggle like a schoolgirl, but for the first time I wonder if maybe Sakharov is right. The only way to the riches in the centre of the Zone is through this factory. If there really is such thing as a 'psy-emitter,' that would explain the horde of Duty paramilitaries, Freedom narco-adventurers, Stalkers and bandits loitering around instead of killing each other.
Looking down through the wrecked roof of the hangar, I see Vasko working with his teammate to turn a rusted steel wheel like you'd see on a ship's hatch. The clanging rouses some of the nearer zombies, whose groans of alertness begin to rouse their neighbors. I hear a muffled "Cyka" from the Stalker working across the roof from me, who then starts firing at the nearest zombies.
Across the drive I already hear a shotgun thundering. Peering through the ACOG on my rifle I can see Lefty hanging one-armed from the roof access ladder, firing his pistol. Below him a teammate is frantically jamming the shells from his sidesaddle bandolier into the tube while four zombies reload their assortment of arms. Neither of them hears the rattle of my rifle, but they both hear the wet crack of a zombified stalker's head exploding. I take aim and squeeze another burst. The impact spins the next zombie; the burst it had intended for Lefty instead riddles a third walking corpse in the side. A blast of buckshot takes down the fourth, and Lefty helps his man onto the access ladder. I take down two more 'zed-heads' firing wild shotgun blasts at them before the bolt-hold-open of my rifle reminds me that the world is much larger than what's in my scope.
I just drop the spent magazine--I can retrieve it later, I think as it skitters off the edge of the roof. The sound it makes falling into the bushes is just wrong. A split second later, as the edge of the hangar explodes in shards of brick and shotgun pellets I realize there must have been a reanimated corpse below me. "Vasko!" I shout in warning, slapping a fresh mag home and working the charging handle. "You got company in fifteen seconds!" I can't spend any time helping: Lefty is about to come over the top of the factory roof and alert the trio of well-armed zombies there. With movement below, the two are trapped on the catwalk.
Looking through my scope I realize that the three zombies on the roof are all wearing the same military-grade armor that Sakharov is to 'lose' from his supplies if you wave sack full of Artifacts under his nose. Somehow, I doubt Lefty's squad is the first he's sent to fix the cooling station. My vision blurs up, causing my shots to go wide. I blink, but the effect doesn't go away. Lefty's second is squeezing his temples briefly, and it dawns on me: Sakharov said the psy-field emissions were at their lowest, not gone... and here we are at the centre of the psy-field. The one that creates zombies out of men.
Hell. We're running out of time!
I fight my bucking rifle as I unload an entire magazine on the armored zombie nearest the ladder. As I change magazines again I hear a great whine from below, then a shuddering from the pipes that run into the valve. Vasko lets out a triumphant cheer that turns into a shrieking solo of anguish when gunfire erupts from the other side of the hangar. "Get down!" I shout into the hangar, yanking a grenade from my web gear and lobbing it through the dilapidated roof at the doorway. The explosion draws my fellow marksman's attention, and we focus on the zombies close by while Yashka desperately wraps bandages around Vasko's head. What he does next is the sort of story I always discounted until I took my first contract in the Zone.
From a sachet hanging off his armor Yashka pulls an Artifact of the Zone's anomalous energy and places it over Vasko's face. It looks like a long piece of jerkey from here, but I have one just like it: Like a double-helix of scabbed blood beads the size of your forearm--they call it 'Mama's Beads.' The red stains stop staining the bandages any further. Another Artifact is drawn out, this one a dull blue marble the size of your fist and surrounded by a diffuse yellow cloud of light. Inside the great marble is a pure white glow. Some say it is formless, some say the glow is shaped like a dove. I see an unborn infant of glowing ice. Yashka holds this in both hands gingerly while circling it around his injured comrade's fractured skull.
I don't have to watch this very closely, I've seen it before. By the time I reload, Vasko is sitting up and removing the bandages from his head. The man's hair is matted with blood, but only rapidly fading scars remain on his face. Just in time, too: From Yashka's radio in a lull I can hear Lefty's crackling cry for help. "Zombies are coming from all sides!" I swing my rifle around just as a wave of blurred vision and tinnitus hits worse than ever before. My vision yellows out briefly like an old sepiatone photograph. The ringing in my ears seems to form words... or a word echoed over and over. Like a dream upon waking I can almost make out what it is. If I just listen, just for one second, maybe--
"How many of them are there? They're everywhere! Aaaaa!!" Lefty's panicked screams wake me back up.
"Damn Sakharov," I shout, shouldering my rifle, "this is impossible!" I squeeze the trigger, barely aiming. There's no need to, the zombies are so thick on the roof of the factory that I can't miss. The shouting of my own voice seems to keep the sibilant ringing in my ears at bay. "Machines don't cause psy-fields!" Another empty magazine skitters down the roof. I've emptied its replacement almost before it hits the ground. "Anomalies cause psy-fields! Anomalies!" Lefty and his pal have finally made it to the roof valve, but that one was never protected by a roof like the one in the hangar. Lefty pries at it with his broken Krinkov, then starts banging away in anger like the monkeys in that movie with the big black obelisk. "Damn the zombies! Damn that Sakharov! Damn the anomalies, damn the Zone!!"
A wave of zombies flowing from the factory proper keep Yashka and Vasko from fighting up onto the roof to help. My mag pouch is nearly empty. All I have after that is my 1911. I flick the selector to semi-auto and start aiming at the zombies closest to Lefty. "Who cares if Anomalies make Artifacts?" wh-ICK! "So what if Artifacts can bring you back from a coma?" wh-ICK! "I don't want firefighters using Artifacts to walk into a burning building unharmed!" wh-ICK! wh-ICK! wh-ICK! "Artifacts come from the Zone and I!"
wh-ICKety wh-ICK wh-ICK-ICK-ICK-whICK-whICK clack!!
I pull the trigger twice more to no avail; as soon as I tilt the rifle I see why: a spent casing sticking out of the chamber like a stovepipe. "I hate the Zone and Eugene Stoner, gYAGH!!" I'm rattling the stupid forward assist and charging lever, trying to get the crimped round free. When the jam finally clears, I watch for a clean round slam into the chamber and take aim again.
"Valve fixed in position!" Lefty's ragged voice crackles over the discarded radio. Through the scope I can see he's used no fewer than three rifles from the zombies to leverage the valve into position. The roof is a carpet of bodies, some still and some clawing forward in various states of kinetic dismemberment to try and stop the process. "Activate initiation!" A burst from my rifle sends a zombie to one side of Lefty off the edge of the roof, while the man himself uses a metal panel to beat one back on his other side. He reaches into an exposed electrical panel and starts working the manual electric starter--a handle like the great big breaker on the outside of stores you just want to grab and throw for fun.
Suddenly the roof chimney lets out a deafening steam whistle that drowns out not just the chittering voice from the anomaly but the gunfire as well. On the down-side, zombies start streaming out of even upper floor windows of the factory complex, attracted to the initial pressure shriek. On the up-side, the blurred vision is gone. "Great! The cooling station is working again," Lefty calls out. "The psy-field is stable. It's time for us to get out of here..." He uses a pair of zombies' shotguns to clear the roof ledge, then dangles down and drops the last ten feet.
I empty my magazine clearing a path for him to join Yashka and Vasko before running over to my fellow marksman. "How do you say 'didi mau' in Ukraine?" I shout, slapping him on the shoulder as I pass to signal him to follow. He lobs a grenade high and far first. It doesn't land anywhere near the zed-heads, but it does draw their attention away. The six of us pick our way back through the breaches and storage alley as quietly as we can.
"You did it!" We are almost given up when Sakharov comes over the radio. Lefty cranks the volume down, but not so low that we can't hear. After what we've been through, it wouldn't be right to make us wait. "My sensors show tht psy-emission levels are falling! That means the cooling station is stable. I very much hope that Yantar will become a quieter place from here on in!"
I don't waste time hanging around with Lefty after that. I don't even want to visit Sakharov, but I've got to. I need magazines and ammo badly, and he buys them off any Stalker crazy enough to pick them off of dead zombies. Here at Yantar there are always plenty of both.
"Thank you, merc," he tells me. I could almost swear his is the backmasked voice in the tinnitus during the emmission... but maybe that's just my mind playing tricks on me. Before I have to ask he adds, "By the way, I'm getting a decent signal from Strelok. It looks like he's not far from you, heading straight for the Red Forest."
Strelok, aka 'The Shooter.' The only man to have ever made it to the centre of the Zone. That feat didn't just turn the Zone into a chaotic mess just when we had mapped it all out. Worse than that, the blowout he triggered caught me in its wake and put a countdown on my lifespan.
Oh yes. I'm going to find the Shooter, and then we're going to have a little chat...