| 10:40:14 11 March 2013
On forum: 03/09/2013
Message edited by:
“A Taste of The Zone, Part One”
Setting: The Cordon
Time: 08:45 [Ukrainian Time]
Jack fazed out of his parade of inhuman nightmares to awaken to the sound of some heavy industrial metal being played on an aged radio inside the storm cellar. It was vitalizing in sound, and it helped to lift the morning fog from his mind as well as shake off the images he had just seen. Still, he wasn't overly happy he had his sleep taken from him.
Shit asses! Can't fucking see someone's asleep here, eh?
Jack sat upright and pulled out his boots from under the blanket. He hid them there as he knew a pair of boots like his would mysteriously vanish to the shelf in the bunker at the back of the village otherwise.
After he slid on his socks better and tied his boots, Jack slid on his black leather gloves and dug out the boot knife from his bag. With some effort, the Swede was sure to solidly cinch it to his left boot. Jack then bloused his trousers to make the act of drawing his knife easier if the need arose.
Now armed and upright, he then slid the black hood off his head and glanced around the cellar he had slept in. The first thing he noticed besides the chill of the brick room was that Alexei was absent from the other bedroll, and the blanket was neatly folded and set back on the bed frame.
A few other male rookies wearing dark street clothes were relaxing in the den. The ages of the men ranged from mid twenties to late forties and all were chatting around a small wooden coffee table. They enjoyed a breakfast of something from old steel bowls and drank from pale red plastic cups filled with something that made the room smell faintly of strawberries.
Jack looked to his right and checked his bag and his person to see if anyone took anything, but the guys in the cellar hadn't cleaned him out like he thought. That was a blessing considering his bag was filled with three pairs of boot socks, three sets of boxers, three spare black t-shirts, deodorant and personal wipes. Essentials that, like his boots, would sell for money.
Satisfied that his possessions were still his, Jack grabbed up the bag and took himself upstairs to get a feel for the camp in the morning light. The man noticed the air was crisp like a chilled apple, and the sky was a clear, yet rich cerulean frost with a hint of pale gold from the approaching dawn.
Jack breathed easy as he walked over to a fire pit made from cut corrugated steel piping with busted up brick lining the exterior, and he spotted Alexei's camouflage suit as the man casually conversed with the others.
The people by the fire were a mix of metal heads, drifters and others low on the rungs of the social ladder based on their preferences in clothes. There were two women in their mid thirties, as well, and they were both wrapped in gray blankets, smoking cigarettes with a mildly content expression on their faces.
Jack noticed that most of the better armed and older individuals patrolling the village were wearing brown leather jackets of various shades and wore blue jeans and hiking boots. They had on plain olive rucksacks and occasionally had some sort of face-wrapping or balaclava obscuring their faces.
The Swede walked over and took a drab metal cup from off a card table by the man in the suit and served himself some fresh stew from a steel cooking pot that was now over the fire. He didn't have a spoon, but he carefully slurped it down once it cooled off. The stew itself was a rich, thick mess of peppered beef stock, canned vegetables and chewy chunks of some sort of pork-like meat.
After he finished with his cup, Jack then set it in the water basin filled with fresh suds before he walked over and firmly tapped Alexei on the shoulder.
Jack pulled out a cigarette pack from the left sleeve pocket on his camouflage jacket and motioned for the hill with it. His friend quickly nodded in agreement and followed him through the dewy, dead grass up to the main roadway.
The road they stood on was cracked and chipped, and looked like a typical road scarred from years of constant neglect. The banks were fairly steep along the sides at some points, and tall, narrow trees jutted upwards in contrast with the sky.
Birds began to chirp more frequently now, and the cawing of crows became far more evident than it did before. Jack could see that an aerial ballet was going on overhead, and he could tell the crow's silhouettes were massive in size.
Gravel chunks crackled with each step made as the two decided to walk after their smokes were lit. The two heard strange noises that they couldn't quite describe, and the bizarre sounds seemed to be coming from nowhere, yet everywhere at the same time. A slight mist loomed over the ground, adding to the eerie aura of the place.
The two steadily went twenty paces, and four ratty-looking dogs darted across the road to their left down into a gully. The men moved on with their weapons now drawn, and down the road Jack could see guardrails painted with faded black and white stripes.
Alexei pointed over to a rusted-out trailer that sat to their left. After clearing it, Alexei holstered his pistol and Jack took a seat on the plank floor by some old wooden crates. The floor was rather cold, and it certainly woke Jack the rest of the way as he sheathed his knife.
Silence filled the trailer for several moments, then the Swede slowly stood up and better slung his bag on his shoulder..
“Good luck,” Alexei called out, putting out his cigarette on the floor as Jack then walked out. The man cautiously checked his surroundings as he left the doorway of the trailer, then went left towards the field of knee-high weeds.
The guardrails he noticed earlier were over a small bridge, and under it was a rusty Jeep as well as the dull yellow lighting of a small fire behind it. Jack could hear several men talking behind the military vehicle, but he opted out on meeting with them in case they weren't friendly.
Jack took thirty paces and suddenly realized that he was totally alone now, and rather poorly equipped. He knew a sour attitude wasn't going to make anything better, so he focused on what was ahead of him.
The man could hear the howling of wind at some points, and could see strange wisps of light flicker here and there in the field to his left. He saw leaves spiral around in the field as though there were mini cyclones whirling around in a small storm. Jack knew deep down to stay away, and he was glad he did.
A lone dog swiftly darted out in front of him from behind a bush as it bolted into the field. Several sudden explosions of pressurized air went off, and the dog let out a loud yelp before falling to the ground, limp.
Jack knew those were Anomalies from what his phone said the night before, and they didn't discriminate when they unleashed their elemental force on whatever set them off. The Swede stared with wide eyes, then took a deep breath and looked to the weathered white brick building ahead of him.
The building seemed to be some sort of storage barn or warehouse, but it had clearly been out of service for some time. Jack walked up to it with great care, and made his way to the far left past the building and crept along the gray brick wall.
With a quick peek he determined the area was safe to enter. Using all of his senses, he moved with purpose to the rusty staircase of a what appeared to be a concrete grain factory.
Another Anomaly was beneath the stairs to the right, and Jack could feel the wind sucking against his clothes as he approached it. He went towards it to inspect it further, but knew he needed to keep his distance lest he feel its effects.
As though to taunt him, a Stone Flower was bouncing erratically around behind the Anomaly, and Jack knew it would be a decent start for some cash to better fund his adventuring. There was an open door cut into the concrete wall nearby, and with care Jack stepped into the building.
The floor was filled with debris and covered with stray stalks of grain shafts, and a distinct crackle was made by Jack's boots as he moved along the rays of light poking in from holes in the corrugated roof.
Jack's view to his immediate right revealed a large rusted metal slide in the way of the room with the Artifact. Spotting a decent gap, he crouched next to it and made sure the slide wasn't going to move on him and pin his arm. It was solid, though, so he studied the bouncing golden object further.
The Stone Flower could be obtained from his observations, so Jack laid on the ground near the gap and made himself comfortable for what he was about to attempt.
He had to reach his hand in an awkward position to reach the Artifact, and Jack was extremely still in the rest of his body as he used his fingers to tease the orb over to him..Jack was very patient in his efforts, and he soon won out with the golden ball of light resting in his hands.
With great restraint he quickly dumped it into his bag as he stood upright. The act of inspecting it would come later once he was out of harm's way. Jack then decided to check his mobile device after he heard the faint growling and barking of dogs in the distance.
The sepia aerial map on the phone told him there was a military checkpoint at the buckled out bridge, and after checking the contacts, none of them were in a mood for chatting. Jack then looked up at the hill as he tucked the small sable smart phone with the screen facing towards him inside a cargo pocket on the exterior of his bag.
Jack had his Stone Flower, but he wasn't done exploring the area just yet. The stash Sidorovich marked for him was over the hill, in what looked like some old stables on the map.
With determination, Jack made his way to the concrete arch over a tunnel filled with some form of electrical Anomalies and studied the path he needed to take. There was enough of a variance in the hill that he could sneak to the bridge and crawl onto it without being seen from what he determined.
Sure of it, Jack began to move for the spot he needed to go. He noticed the mist had cleared mostly, and the sky was transitioning to a vibrant sunrise.
The burnt orange rays from the Sun washed over the hill, and Jack's Alpenflage jacket and black camouflage cargoes melted with the hillside. Jack found it comforting that the odd combination of patterns was as effective as it was, but knew once the midday Sun was overhead, he would have to rely on cover to better camouflage him.
After sixty paces in the breeze jostled brush, Jack made it to the weathered concrete ledge at the top of the hill. With stealth he climbed up onto the rusty support grating and using well-honed prowess vaulted over several stacked barrels. He sat still for a moment to be sure he was still undetected as gravel shifted loudly when his boots crashed down.
The guards were too busy talking loudly at each other to notice anything, though so he slowly rose to his feet and went to the other side of the disused tracks. Jack looked down the hill and moved left past the oddly placed bush towards a gray structure in the distance.
Out of nowhere, a heavily scarred tan lump with legs squealed loudly and ran along the field as Jack made his way downwards. It was the largest, ugliest thing he had ever seen.
The Swede shuddered, and knew it was a mutated pig species known as Flesh. They were apparently the most obvious example of how this place altered nature, according to their description in the smart phone's 'Notes of the Zone' app.
Once he reached the field of thick, tall grass, he noticed an indirect but safer route to the buildings that indeed were stables. Jack crouched behind a large rock, and waited for thirty seconds. The mutant had reappeared, but made its way back around to the opposite side of the building.
Carefully, Jack studied the ground and paced each step he took, and pretended in his mind he didn't exist as he moved past a windstorm type Anomaly near a fallen, dead tree. For some reason, that perception, or lack of, was what allowed him to sneak as well as he did.
Back in Stockholm, Jack preferred an incognito approach to dealing with ruffians at the bar he worked, and would often get the element of surprise on them as he walked right behind them with no one seeming to notice. Even with six feet and broad shoulders.
Jack was now at the edge of the doorway leading into the center of the stables. Smoothly, he approached the doorway into the center of the building When Jack glanced inside, he immediately turned his head back.
Three of the mutants were inside, and with their hideously deformed faces they stared at each other, communicating in a series of constipated grunts and squeals.
Jack backed up and went to leave for the fallen tree nearby, but his plans were foiled as all three pigs swiftly filed out and sharply rebounded for where Jack stood. He was amazed at their speed and that they could run in a full gallop despite their ungainly build.
With only a few seconds or so before they reached him, Jack ran with all his might in a diagonal direction away from the creatures. Somewhere along the way behind an old cargo truck the unmistakable chatter of gunfire erupted, and Jack didn't stop running like a lunatic along the hill until he stumbled through the bushes onto the train tracks.
Breathing heavily as he staggered along, Jack looked frantically for a place to hide. He found a scarlet steel crate resting atop a coal car, and decided that was the best place to lay low. With his last bit of energy, Jack clambered onto it and exhaled as he slumped over inside the crate next to a large, rusty pipe elbow.
After half an hour of studying the Stone Flower and hiding from the guards, Jack came to and gathered himself. Interestingly enough, Jack found a red hand held device inside the metal pipe he sat beside while in the crate. It beeped loudly when he turned it on, and he was prompt in powering it down and tucking it into his bag.
With caution, Jack checked the hill from behind the opened door of the crate.
No one was on the tracks or the hill as far as he could tell, so he climbed out silently and surveyed the area further. The Sun was higher in the sky now, with vivid tones of fuchsia and pale yellow, and brisk, cool wind sailed along the train cars.
Jack knew it was irrational to want to go back down into the building, but the prospect of an AKM like the stash description promised nagged at him to do it. The fact the mutants laid dead along the hill made the impulse more appealing, and Jack decided to give in.
After some careful climbing, he made steady headway down the hill and took the same roundabout route as earlier. When he stopped, Jack was at the same side he as earlier. Pale gray bricks served as a barrier between him and the unknown, and after using his ears, he determined the place was deserted enough to continue.
Crouching, Jack crept along the walls until he reached the doorway. Jack stopped for a good moment, and took in the air of the place. It was eerily calm. With a deep breath, Jack moved into the entrance of the stable.
Within moments of entering, he found himself staring at a dead Flesh, its disfigured face glaring at him with burning hatred from the afterlife, or so it seemed. He then walked into the center and checked the area further, but he was the only living being inside.
There were two dead men wearing street clothes by a partially buried safe to the far back left of the disused stable. Jack had seen a corpse from before while on a trip to photograph street art in the abandoned industrial ghetto of Gent, Belgium two years prior. The sight made him vomit as the body had been there for some time, but fortunately the bodies in the stable had perished far more recently.
There wasn't anyone around, so Jack decided to stomach the sight and check the two to determine what happened to them. Their bodies looked freshly deceased, and no odors filled the stables beside the excrement of the mutant hogs. Upon further inspection, Jack could also tell both had been lined neatly along the wall, too. It was apparent someone came before him, and Jack had a feeling the guards at the checkpoint were the most likely party.
In addition, a single, bloody hole punched through the throats of the cadavers was present. Something other than the meat wads on legs was responsible for their deaths, and Jack didn't want to meet whatever it was.
Jack stepped up his pace and began to rifle through the pair of woodland camouflage rucksacks beside the bodies to see if there was anything of use in them. He found the act of perusing the bags to be less disturbing than he originally thought, and walked away with more than he anticipated.
After checking all the pouches and pockets he came up with a plain black balaclava, three packs of cigarettes, a partially used 24 hour ration kit, a pair of old drab military binoculars, a small black Mag-Lite type flashlight that was functional and an unopened pack of spearmint chewing gum.
Jack also collected an ink pen and a partially used notepad, a high quality first aid kit in a blue case, a partially full canteen in its pouch and a dirtied, dark olive nylon thigh holster. The holster was empty, but it clearly had survived a few beatings in the field.
That was good enough for Jack, and he took the finds and stuffed them into the nicer of the two backpacks. Jack did make sure to set the holster in his side bag for later, and smiled when he remembered he put his personal items in vacuum-sealed bags to keep them clean.
After he slung the backpack, Jack then boldly walked up to the metal safe that was the stash location and pulled out the phone to acquire the combination needed to open the safe.
13....17....21....19. Here we go. It better fucking be there.
The door flung open with gusto, and Jack glanced inside. A lovely looking stack of empty potted meat cans was stashed inside, and Jack quietly closed it with a sigh as he shook his head. He wasn't surprised, but he was certainly let down.
He was happy with what he found, regardless, and knew Lady Luck's smile would soon flicker back to cold apathy if he didn't leave right then. Jack felt as though he was being watched, too, but only saw two small slivers of sunlight at face level on the shadow-covered wall beside the door as he stepped out into the courtyard.
Slow is smooth, Smooth is fast. - Unknown
| 02:28:52 10 March 2013
On forum: 03/09/2013
Message edited by:
Setting: The Cordon
Time: 23:49 [Ukrainian Time]
“Ha! Just where I left it!”
Happily, Alexei pulled out a beaten black duffel bag from under a rock pile somewhere in a field of thick brush. The man grinned when he heard the clanking of items inside, and began to inspect them with his light. He looked up a Jack, who was still amazed the two had survived the encounter at the fence.
“I still can't believe you did that.” Jack said with a shake of his head in disbelief. “I thought we were dead for sure.”
Alexei smiled as he lifted a brown leather pistol belt from the bag ans strapped it to his waist.
“Nah, Brother, the guards have to do a lot of explaining if they actually shoot someone. Doesn't mean it doesn't happen, though, as it quite often does. We were lucky they were in the mood for a chat, or that could have very well been the end.”
Jack nodded slowly. His friend had paid the guards a 'toll fee,' and the soldiers turned a blind eye to their passage in. That didn't bother Alexei too badly, though, as he had his stash of gear from his last trip to start with. Various items were taken from the black bag and placed into Alexei's ruck, and the Ukrainian then retrieved a small, sheathed boot knife from the duffel.
“It's the best I can do for right now, Brother.” Alexei sighed as he handed it over.
“We could have afforded a lot more had we not been caught. I spent a week of non-stop scavenging to get that cash. At least I have five hundred rubles here to get some extra things.”
“It's alright,” Jack gratefully replied. “This is better than nothing. We're alive, and they didn't take anything out of our bags that we needed.”
Alexei nodded at the statement before he crouched down and stuffed the bag back under the rock pile. With Jack's help he moved a stone back in front of the opening.
Now with some gear, the two left the field for the road. They made their way across the disused road and down the dirt path into the small, ramshackle village of vacant houses and trash-lined streets.
As the two passed through the amber-washed village, Jack couldn't help but notice that no one was out in the street, but he reasoned that everyone was out for the night in the various houses around him. There were a couple people in street clothes by the fire, and Jack sat down without a word.
A tall, muscular man in a dark drab rubberized suit with a buzz cut and grayed goatee was standing nearby with an AK-74SU as some sort of group leader. Jack noticed he had on a unusual-looking Kevlar vest, too. The man's expression was calm, and he gazed at the others with a watchful eye.
Alexei went up to him, and they started casually talking as though to catch up on the news. Jack pulled out the half of the cigarillo from earlier, and began to smoke. One of the men around the fire grabbed up a seven string acoustic guitar, and with great skill played a pleasantly intricate folk song for the others.
Just as Jack was beginning to take a liking to his seat, Alexei tapped him on the shoulder and motioned toward the opposite side if the town. He stood up and followed beside Alexei as they walked down the path further until they walked over to the entrance of a weathered bomb shelter nestled in the hill.
Two large, masked men wearing subdued urban camouflage suits holding worn MP5k's were standing guard. By their laid back posture it was obvious these guys did this day in and day out.
Jack knew from his job as a bouncer to be calm and attentive, as he himself preferred to work with compliant patrons over those with a chip on their shoulder. Troublemakers were more fun, but paperwork wasn't.
“Weapons check.” the guard to their right said firmly in Russian. “We'll take any firearms or explosives you have, and any blades better be sheathed while down in the bunker or of course, you'll be ventilated.”
After a brief but skilled frisking, the guards removed Alexei's pistol, which was a Makarov PM with a chrome slide. As promised, the men stood aside from the stairwell, and the two entered without further ado.
After a couple turns down the dimly lit tunnels they found themselves at a large, rust coated blast door. A security camera was aimed at them, and after a few seconds the massive door swung open. The two found immediately themselves inside what looked like an admission gate into the bunker itself.
A piano track that sounded like Evanescence was on the heavily outdated radio Jack glanced into the center of the bunker and couldn't miss who had let them inside. It wasn't who he expected given the music.
A rather portly, grumpy-looking man wearing a white striped shirt, dark brown vest and jeans was behind an unfinished wooden counter. The man surprisingly paid full attention the screen of his laptop instead of his customers. No doubt the ambient lighting and the liquor in the cabinet to his left helped his apparent stupor.
“Hello, Sidorovich!” Alexei called out in English to get his attention.
After a few seconds, he looked up with bloodshot eyes as the door shut behind the two. He sounded as grumpy as he looked, with a thick, gravelly Ukrainian accent he replied.
“So, Claw, you are here to shop around?”
“That I am.” Alexei replied confidently.
The man took a gulp of his vodka and continued. Jack could tell something was troubling him by his expression, but he wasn't going to talk about it. He sighed, then turned to Jack.
“I haven't seen you before.” The man started. “And I am Sidorovich like your friend said. As as you can tell by what is behind me, I sell things. Things of use to people like you.”
He yawned and stretched, then continued. The song transitioned out, and some proper Evanescence came on the air. Jack wondered if there was an actual radio station in the Zone or if it was simply a cassette the man purchased at a bargain shop to help pass the time.
“First things first. Cough up your mobile phones, Stalkers.” The man stated quickly. “There's a new update going on. I need to recalibrate the-”
“I don't have one.” Jack blurted.
The man looked at him for a moment and laughed at him.
“Ha! No phone? You are of no use to the people who loot corpses. Here, let me change that.”
Sidorovich smirked as he took a small, sleek black hand held device out from under the counter and plugged it into his laptop. Thirty seconds went by and the fat man chuckled. Jack paid no attention to him, though, and instead studied the interior of the bunker to get a feel for the place.
Stacks of wooden boxes and several cabinets were present in the back of the cluttered space, and to the far back was a decked-out bull-pup assault rifle of some kind on a work bench clamp. There was a metal door to the very far back left, and Jack could tell the place was a lot bigger than what he could see.
Wanting to get things going now that he was finished tinkering, Sidorovich cleared his throat and set the phone on the counter firmly to get Jack's attention.
“Firstly, I've uploaded information for you to read tonight on the Zone. If you are wise, you would read it before you wander off and get yourself killed.”
Sidorovich coughed into his arm, then continued. “In fact, I insist you read that information before the morning. Clear?”
Jack nodded. “Like crystal.”
“Good!” Sidorovich replied, happy to get his point across. '”Also, before you go, you will need a call sign for out here, a Zone name. You yourself cannot pick it out, it must be given to you. Maybe your friend can help.”
Alexei thought hard for a few moments, then nodded. Alexei knew the name of Jack's favorite band, and knew the meaning of the word was more than fitting for a name in the Zone.
Sidorovich gave him an odd look.
“How do you spell that kind of name? I don't speak whatever that comes from.”
Jack spelled it out for him and added.
“It's a band from Sweden, they took the name from-”
“I don't give a shit!” Sidorovich snapped. “Now here, shut up and let me see if anyone else has that name....I doubt it.”
Sidorovich furled his brow as he took back the phone and plugged it in. A few clicks on the PC and his expression stayed the same as he looked back at Jack.
“No one has that name, and it's not surprising. It's yours now, Stalker. Along with the mobile device and one free stash marked out for you.”
The man then smiled meanly towards Jack.
“However, that's only to see if you have what it takes to even last one day out here. This in my hand here is all you get from me as well, apart from paid merchandise. Take it.”
Sidorovich then handed him his new phone before he turned to Alexei.
“Anyway Claw, how about buying something from me?”
Alexei retrieved a small wad of yellowed money from under his over suit, and Sidorovich gave him a weird look as he pulled out the money from his pants.
“Here's five hundred.” Alexei stated quietly.
Sidorovich stretched before he walked over to a loaded cardboard box and moved it to the counter. In less than a minute the wooden counter was covered by a thick red sheet and loaded with various trinkets and basic supplies sorted out by price.
“It's all in operable, edible or sterile-Hell, man, you already know this stuff.” Sidorovich shrugged. “Take a look and let me know what you want.”
Alexei looked at the spread and thought about what he wanted. Hard. Most of it was out of his range, but there were several boxes of 9x18mm ammunition that were priced right. The fat man grinned as he handed off two forty-count boxes of ammo to Alexei. He also bought two cans of potted meat, a pack of cigarettes and had a canteen he pulled out of his bag filled with fresh water.
The door flung open after due payment, and Sidorovich wiped off his hands with a towelette before he pulled out a loaded pumpernickel sandwich from under the counter. Jack guessed he kept a cooler or mini refrigerator under there.
He stopped for a second, and looked at the two, clearly tired from his day of loafing in a bunker.
“Now, goodnight, and scram!” Sidorovich stated plainly before he took a heaping bite.
Alexei slung his bag and left the bunker with Jack. With the steel door slammed shut and Alexei reunited with his Makarov, the two then wandered down into a storm cellar to the far left.
There wasn't anyone inside the dimly lit interior, so Jack and Alexei sat down on dry rotted bedrolls laid over wooden pallets. Alexei took the closest bedroll and slowly sat down. He then slid off his bag and set it on his lap as Jack grabbed two gray woolen blankets from off an old steel bed frame near where he was.
“Well, this is it.” Alexei replied with a fatigued tone. Jack set the blankets beside him on the bedroll and looked to his left at his friend. Alexei had a can he purchased on the floor between his boots and took out a combat knife from his bag. He unsheathed it and swiftly stabbed into the can top with the blade. Carefully, he pried the lid off and began to use his knife as a fork.
The two shared the can as well as Alexei's canteen, and for Jack, the taste of potted meat had never been as good as it was then. Once they finished, Alexei took the can upstairs and came back down with his smart phone out. Jack decided to slide his out, too, after he took off his boots and handed Alexei one of the blankets.
As Jack laid down for the night on the battered bedroll, he began to read the mobile device to get a better idea of the place. That, and to help him ease into sleep as he rested his hooded head on his bag.
Slow is smooth, Smooth is fast. - Unknown
| 10:54:30 9 March 2013
On forum: 03/09/2013
Message edited by:
After countless hours of playing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and having a halfway decent grasp of English, I decided to write this. Hope you enjoy it.
Setting: Apartment building, Odessa, Ukraine
Time: 10:43 [Ukrainian Time]
Damn. I forgot this place is noisy as Hell! I can hear the ships from all the way in here.
Jack smiled to himself, then studied his appearance in the bathroom mirror with field gray eyes as he adjusted a steel hoop earring in his left ear.
The man was a twenty four year old Swede that was six feet tall and clean shaven bald. His face was well-defined and wore a dirty blond beard with tattoo sleeves running up and down his toned arms.
On his left wrist was a thick, black leather wristband with a steel-rimmed watch fitted to it. His choice in attire was a black muscle t-shirt and a pair of plain black work pants with a pair of broken-in skateboarding shoes he wore everyday.
He then adjusted his dog tags and stepped out of the off-white bathroom, only to see his Ukrainian friend, Alexei, in the cramped kitchen. His friend was in his mid twenties as well with short, spiked brown hair and a neatly trimmed goatee to match. He was half a foot shorter than him, though, and was free of piercings or tattoos.
The man in front of Jack wore similar attire, except his t-shirt was crimson and he wore dark drab cargo pants with running shoes. Also, he had a lit cigarette dangling out of his mouth. The two nodded at each other, and after handing Jack a smoke, they walked into the living room to sit on the sofa.
“So, how has Odessa been for you, Brother?” Alexei asked with a fairly quiet voice. His enunciation was clear and free of a thick accent, and it bore a subtle confidence in pacing and pronunciation.
Jack glanced around the living room of the apartment as he slid on a black short sleeve work shirt from off a kitchen chair. The decor was rather modest, with outdated wallpaper, well-used furniture and drab shag carpet. The sage curtains were drawn, but the ambient light through them was more than enough.
Jack cleared his throat and looked at the Ukrainian.
“The place here has always been the same to me. A welcome change of pace.” Jack replied with a pleasant, yet slightly reserved tone that bore a lack of familiarity in using English, It could be noted that his pronunciation of the word 'the' sounded like 'day,' and 'of' was more like 'off,' as well.
Alexei nodded and quietly went back into the kitchen as Jack took a seat on the old brown leather sofa. After a few moments, the Ukrainian picked up a small remote and pressed the play button, and the sound of Ukrainian melodic death metal filled the room.
A minute passed while the two conversed about their lives and enjoyed the music. Jack was all about chilling with good company, and felt at ease. Just as he was wondering why Alexei hadn't taken a seat, the Ukrainian retrieved a key dangling on a chain from around his neck.
The man went over to his wall safe that was hidden behind a small rosewood finished wooden desk in a corner to their right. Alexei paused after moving the desk, and then checked the locks on the front door and returned to the safe.
Jack knew this was going to be something serious, so he woke himself up and adjusted the collar of his shirt. Alexei turned to face Jack, and held a ball-like object wrapped in thick purple cloth.
“This is beautiful beyond all words...” Alexei trailed off as his words bore a mystified tone.
He slowly unwrapped the ball and rays of golden light brightly illuminated the room. Jack felt the hair on his neck raise as he examined the object in Alexei's hands. It was as though two golden spheres had been merged by thin tendrils and were encased in glittering flakes from the Heavens themselves. Alexei saw the look on Jack's face and explained the origin of the object.
“In my hands, Brother, is an Artifact. You can only find them in the Zone.”
The two were avid urban explorers and good friends, and traveled together to abandoned factories and other derelict locales in Europe to take photos and enjoy the thrill of breaking and entering. This last trip was taken only by Alexei, though, and Jack had wondered why his friend was so insistent on going alone. The orb in his hands shed some light on the answer.
“Yes, Brother.” Alexei replied as he saw the amazed look on Jack's face. “That's where I've been. I wanted to be sure the place was even accessible, the first time. After that I've been going once every two months to collect these to pay for my education as well as my cousin's business in town.”
He studied the object himself, then looked back to Jack.
“There are others who actually live in the Zone, surprisingly. They are like us, people who love to adventure and break the rules.”
The Ukrainian then tightly wrapped up the orb and returned it to the safe. After he pushed the desk back, Alexei looked at Jack directly.
“So, I'll cut to the chase. I'd like to offer you the opportunity to ride with me and head in for a few days. Get a taste of the Zone, if you will.”
Jack thought it over. More so, he already knew the answer.
If he survived it, I can, too. Helps I came somewhat prepared.
“I have some clothes packed with me in case we decided to explore that one factory you told me about over in Belarus.” Jack replied.
“Good.” Alexei replied, pleased his friend listened. The Ukrainian then shut off the boombox and flipped on the television before he moved into the kitchen to pour vodka shots for him and his friend.
The sky was clear, and the early Fall coastal air was a mellow warm as he and Alexei walked a few blocks to the nearby bar and grill.
The two quickly stopped by a bustling bazaar to grab some low priced smokes, then eventually reached their destination after walking and talking their way there through the daily hustle. Jack smiled inside and out at the hole in the wall restaurant as it came into view.
Random band posters covered the streaked glass while black permanent marker scribbles adorned the poorly laid red brick exterior. To top it off, a dim red neon sign that read Arkady's in Cyrillic hung over the aged screen doorway, and a small black awning was perched over the door to complement.
The two casually entered, and immediately were struck by the aroma of delicious food, cigarette smoke and cheap perfume. The clanking of dishes and laughter were a sure sign the rather spacious interior was quite lively, too.
A Russian rap song was on, and some of the more drunk patrons were attempting to emcee to it in the corner around a small, makeshift DJ booth. The walls were crimson with black accent wall to their right, behind the bar, and the fluorescent lighting was bright against the dirty slate tile floor.
Jack followed Alexei's lead and waited for a moment beside him at the bar, and the Swede defaulted to unwrapping a wine-flavored cigarillo and lighting up with his Zippo to save him from looking out of place. A man who looked similar to Alexei walked over in street clothes and a dirty black work apron, and he enthusiastically greeted the Ukrainian.
After a few sentences back and forth at the nicely polished oak counter, Jack turned around to look for a seat. There was a mostly occupied row of booths past the crowded wooden tables in front of him, but a single open space was available near the door. Jack nonchalantly walked over and slid into the booth to his left.
The polished booth table Jack chose was covered with personalized graffiti of prior patrons who had some colorful insight about Life. Jacked slid a dark purple plastic ash tray over to him, and flicked some ash with one solid snap of his fingers.
The air of the place was pleasant, and Jack was the kind of guy who was at home in a bar. After the hip-hop faded out, some Russian pop began to play loudly. A few of the women there cheered for the song and clapped their hands, happy to hear what must have been a local favorite.
The exchange over at the bar went back and forth for a few more moments until Alexei returned with two opened pints of a locally-brewed lager in a dark brown bottle. The Ukrainian took a seat across from Jack, and the bald man wondered what the news was.
“So what's going on?” Jack asked casually as he was handed a pint.
“We'll be getting some onion smothered steaks,” he answered back after sipping the beer. “The bartender who works here is the cousin I mentioned earlier, so I had to catch up on some things.”
Jack nodded, then sniffed the beer and and took a sip of it. The brew was smooth, and had a very grainy flavor to it. A hint of lemon could be found somewhere in there, too.
Alexei suddenly received a phone call from someone, and he promptly excused himself. The Ukrainian disappeared out the front door, leaving Jack alone with his trusty bottle to keep him company.
The bald man returned his attention to a certain Gothic-looking rocker chick that caught his eye as soon as he saw the open booth. The two had been passing smiles back and forth from behind Alexei's head, and Jack studied her appearance as he pretended to read a menu.
Long, straight obsidian hair with bangs contrasted with a pale white complexion while pierced ears and a form-fitting black t-shirt with a blood red pentagram gave her definite style points in Jack's eyes.
Jack noticed she was fairly tall, and she fit nicely into a pair of dark washed jeans as she turned to look towards the bar. Jack noted that she wore dirty, military issue combat boots, too, and she adjusted her fish-net arm warmers as she watched an outdated television on a shelf behind the bar.
Goth girl seemed to notice Jack was admiring her after a moment, and returned to her drink with a small smile. She brushed a jet black lock away from her pale blue eyes and sipped on her purple cocktail with a lime green loop straw. The Swede could tell she was enjoying the subtle attention he sent her way, and after a moment she gave him a direct, expectant look that caught Jack off guard.
Jack remembered that the southern half of the country used Russian, and could plainly see that he had a clear shot at talking to her as he knew Russian rather well. Sure of himself after a second, he moved in to seize the moment.
Just as he was getting up out of his seat, a short, curvy redhead in a black turtleneck, a dark red plaid skirt and calf high boots walked past Jack and swooped into the booth.
“Come on,” the woman briskly nagged in Russian. “I've been looking everywhere for you. We need to get going!”
The girl in the booth rolled her eyes, then sipped her drink for more than a moment. The drink ran dry on her, though, and Goth girl slid into a black hoody before she left the booth with her friend and started for the door.
Still, the girl in black flashed one last smile and brushed her hand across Jack's shoulder, and he knocked out his beer, smitten. Alexei soon returned, and he had an amazed look on his face as well.
“Did you see that redhead?” Alexei asked, looking out the window. “Stunning!”
“I was looking at the brunette, actually.” Jack replied as he glanced out the window himself. The two were gone, and he felt his spirits sink some.
“Eh.” Alexei disagreed as he shook his head. He then shrugged. “You do like those odd ones, though. Now, how about another odd beer?”
With a lunch of good booze, interrupted flirting and delicious T-bone steak now over, Alexei informed Jack back at the apartment that if he wanted to back out, he was to do so there and then. The two would part ways for this trip, and that's how it would end. Otherwise, he was to join Alexei in tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Not one to pass up the chance of a lifetime, Jack took the front passenger seat of Alexei's white Lada and buckled himself in for the long haul. Well, if the buckle in the passenger seat had worked, that is. After fighting traffic with violent swearing and cutting people off, the small white sedan was out of the city and off to Kiev.
The ride itself from Odessa to the capital was seven hours of cruising to heavy metal CD's and unbridled fits of Ukrainian road rage. Thanks to Alexei's lead foot and surprisingly skillful driving, the ride was slightly shorter, but a bit more more chaotic than expected.
An entire day of beautiful weather was the backdrop on the roadway, and Jack enjoyed every hectic second of it. The ride through Kiev was stunning, as the Sun bled fuchsia as it descended into the horizon.
Finally, the sedan finally pulled off a dirt road into an unpainted barn on the outskirts of town. Carefully, Alexei stopped in front of a large stable inside the rickety structure.
“Help me get the stable door open. We have to hide my car in there in case anyone comes snooping around.”
“Let's do it.” Jack replied as he cracked his knuckles.
They quickly hopped out and had to use their combined strength to open the door. Jack could see why Alexei wanted to hide the car in there. A lone investigator would be outright unable to open the door.
Alexei quickly pulled the sedan in by himself, and barely had enough room to squeeze out of it. Alexei dropped their bags and helped close off the stable door, and Alexei locked it up with a large, cut-proof lock.
“Grab your bag and let's head to that farm house. We'll change in there and get going.”
“Right.” Jack nodded.
In the light of dusk, Jack and Alexei walked into the front door of the nearby farmhouse that had been treated to a coat of white paint back in the sixties. The interior was fairly clean, and Alexei turned on an oil lamp in the kitchen before Jack set his olive messenger bag on the dusty wooden kitchen table.
The windows were blacked out, and Jack could tell Alexei had been here before to make the place more suitable for personal preparations.
“Brother, switch your clothes and make it quick.” Alexei instructed Jack quickly as he walked over to a nearby closet. “We'll keep our clothes in that cabinet there for when we get back.”
“Got it.” Jack replied, and he opened the side bag he brought with him. Inside was his prized Mushroomhead 'Splatter' hoody as well as a lightweight Swiss Alpine camouflage jacket, his black camouflage trousers, a thick drab grommet belt already woven through the trouser loops and a pair of well-loved black leather combat boots.
In moments he redressed himself. Jack was sure to slide the camouflage jacket over his hoody, and flipped the hood over his head once he was finished.
Jack felt as ready as he was going to be for this, and looked over to his friend.
Alexei had conversely retrieved a woodland camouflage backpack from the closet, and was now wearing a Russian 'KLMK' over-suit with black and drab jungle boots. The man stood there for a moment and slid on a pair of black leather fingerless gloves used for rappelling, and Jack retrieved his own pair from his hoody.
The Ukrainian then took his other clothes and side bag and stuffed them into a nearby cabinet, and Jack followed suit as he wrapped his work outfit around the skate shoes. With a flick of his wrist, Alexei then shut off the oil lamp and clicked on an old dark blue flashlight he had in his bag. With his light held low to the ground he moved for the front door.
Jack grabbed his own bag off the table and breathed deeply as he followed Alexei out into the front yard. A full moon was on the rise, and it was bright enough to let the two travel without the use of additional light. They moved along the front of the farmhouse and ducked into a cornfield towards the general area they needed to go.
Eventually, the two reached a sparse thicket of After half an hour or so of navigating through the woods, they approached a large, rusty cyclone fence.
A man-sized portion of wire had been neatly removed near a rusted-out support pole. Alexei studied the area for a moment with the flashlight, and then quickly crawled through. Once he was in, Jack took a deep breath and ducked in after him.
“Well,” Alexei yawned quietly. “It's looks like it's quiet here. We-”
Five men in full military gear and Kalashnikovs swiftly popped up from the bushes surrounding the opening. They had been waiting in ambush, and Jack felt his Life flash before his eyes as a rifle barrel stared into his.
Slow is smooth, Smooth is fast. - Unknown