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The stalker

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On forum: 07/31/2003
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The stalker

Part 1: Introduction

Ian had only been two and his sister a baby when their parents had vanished in the disaster at Chernobyl. Then, they had lived with their grandmother until the zone grew, and the army forced them to evacuate. There were no jobs and little money. Everything was the zone now. The army, scientists, stalkers, and dealers, everything centered on the zone. The zone owed them. The zone was Ian’s only chance to make a better life for himself and for his sister. He had spoken to Ivor, who had dealings with the scientists and the stalkers, about his determination to go into the zone. They had given him the bare necessities, probably thinking he would never come back, but he was going to prove them wrong. He had slipped passed the army patrol, and now, he was there in the zone, in the place of both his dreams and nightmares.

The first couple of hours were deceptively calm. He watched the early morning mist climb up the hills and clear, as the sun burned it away. But, he noticed there was no bird song and it was unnaturally silent. He had been walking downhill without realizing it, just because it was easier. He decided it might be smarter to stick to higher ground and began climbing up the nearest hill. He could see farther, and it felt better to be looking down at things, rather than wondering what might be looking down at him.

From up on the hill, he noticed a wave of movement in the tall grass in the field at the end of the valley. As Ian watched, a swarm of thousands of rats moved silently through the grass and emerged down in the hollow. They were mottled brown, scruffy, and diseased looking. Many of them were bigger than cats. His skin crawled at the thought of encountering them at close range. Suddenly, the air was filled with squeaks from the throats of hundreds of rodents, and the swarm veered sharply away from the direction of their original path. He grabbed his binoculars to see what was happening. The rats on the inside edge of the swarm were exploding into small lumps of bloody flesh. An anomaly, he thought. As he watched the swarm skirting the area of the disturbance, he saw that the rats on the inside, forced inward by the pressure of the rats on the outside, were continually being pushed over the edge of the boundary and torn apart by the force of the anomaly. Looking up at the opposing hill, he noticed a large circular indentation carved out of the hillside that extended down to where the rats were passing. A weathered old building seemed to be at the center of the disturbance. Looking at his watch, he decided to wait ten minutes to make sure that the rats were far, far away, before he went down.

At the bottom of the hill, he crossed the beaten down path left by the rats but stopped well before the bloody boundary of the anomaly. He studied the broken down building on the hillside. Through his binoculars he could see pipes twisted up like pretzels. Debris had slid down far to the right of where the rats had passed and, he could see the glint of metal in the sunlight. Climbing up through the tree line to the right of the debris slide, he wondered how far out the anomaly extended. There must be a way to tell. Would there be any warning if he got too close, a feeling in the air, anything? He picked up a small stone and flung it in the direction of the anomaly. The stone traveled about fifteen feet and suddenly veered off to the right accelerating like a shot. His heart was beating like a hammer. Thank God, it had not come back at him. It would have been like a bullet.

The gleam of metal lured him on, and he slowly crept out to the edge of the tree line. He wiped away the sweat pouring into his eyes. He dared go no closer. Looking around he found a long, skinny, dead branch. Stretching out slowly, his hands shaking, the branch reached the edge of the debris. Nothing happened, and so, he began trying to draw the debris towards him, but it was slow work. He spotted what appeared to once have been a fork, now stretched into a circular pattern. He hooked it with the end of his branch and brought it in. Some things appeared unaffected, nails, a large bolt. He didn’t know if it made a difference. Unsure if it was safe to handle anything, he put on his gloves and stored it all in one of the containers they had given him. He hadn’t found anything special, but they had to be worth something, if only as curiosities.

Ian suddenly realized that he had lost track of time. It was late afternoon, and there was not enough time to get out of the zone before dark. He had to find shelter.. At the top of the hill, he could see the rapidly sinking sun and the gathering of dark clouds. In the distance, lightening streaked across the sky. The air felt charged with the energy of an oncoming storm. He had less time than he had thought. Looking around, he saw a dirt road that ran down the back of the hill and into a paved highway. About a half a mile down the paved road he saw what looked like a vehicle. Looking through his binoculars, he saw an abandoned car that had been armored. Its owners must have left quickly because the doors were opened.

There was no time for caution. Ian, grasping his weapon tightly, took off, jogging down the road. When he got near to the vehicle he fired a shot prepared for anything that might emerge, but nothing did. Nonetheless, he approached slowly, anxiously peering into the vehicle. A sudden blast of thunder spurred him into the car. He slammed the doors and punched the locks down. There was a crack of lightening and rain began to pelt the car. Relieved, he studied the interior. Someone had put a lot of work into making the car over into a secure vehicle. He would be safe here for the night. There was even a metal shade to pull down behind the windshield. No one or no thing could get in. There was no key. The car had been set up with a toggle switch for ignition. The gas gauge was on empty, which explained why they had left it. Too exhausted to even think about eating, he curled up on the back seat and fell asleep to the sounds of the storm raging outside.

Towards dawn Ian was awakened by the sound of something clawing at the outside of the vehicle. He heard snarls and doglike whines. He didn’t know what dogs looked like here, but he was sure they did not have smiley dog faces and wagging tails. Eventually, they gave up and left. He was not worried. He had survived his first day in the zone, and who knew what he might find tomorrow.

Part 2
At the top of the hill, Ian could see for miles. There were patches of red and dark smoky looking areas. He was about to take out his binoculars for a better look when he had a sudden attack of dizziness, and then he became aware of the sound of someone crying in the woods behind him. Walking towards the sound, he came out into another opening. He was amazed to see his sister. She sat with her back against a tree sobbing into her hands. Her long blonde hair hid her face. She must have followed me, he thought. He stepped towards her, softly calling her name, so as not to frighten her, but she sprang up at him. It was not his sister at all. It was not even human. He was frozen with shock when a booming shot rang out, hitting the strange man like creature in the side of head.

A huge man, dressed in the green of a stalker, stepped out of the brush. He gave the boy a cold smile that never reached up through the hard planes of his face to his flinty eyes. “What are you doing here, boy? Don’t you know better than to trust anything you see in the zone? That was a controller. They get inside your head and take over. I have been tracking him for days. If he hadn’t been worn out from running, he could have taken both of us.”

“I thought it was my sister,” he stammered. The man was right, I should have known better. But Ian did not like the look of the man. He had a calculating look in his eyes, as if he were sizing Ian up to see if he could be of any use to him. This man is not to be trusted, Ian judged. He thinks me a fool, and I had better play the part. That should not be hard he thought. I have only just started, and already I have almost been killed, and now, I have become entangled with a dangerous man who I do not want at my back.

“No one should work alone in the zone, “the man said. “Are you by yourself?”

There was no point in lying. The truth was too easy to see, Ian thought.

“Yes, I am. I came to make my fortune,” he said, playing the fool.

“Well, you’re in luck I know just the place to go, and I need a new partner. My old one met with a …mishap.” Pointing down the hill at a low, squat, white building, he said, “That building is an old laboratory. There’s always a lot of valuable stuff in them, but it’s too dangerous for someone alone. You need one person to look and one to guard. There’s enough stuff there to make us both rich. Sometimes you can find artifacts just lying around on the ground outside. We can do it together. You lead looking out for stuff on the ground, and I’ll cover you.”

Ian knew it was not a question. He felt the older man watching his face to see if he took the bait. He tried to play along and sound enthused, “Great, I can’t wait to see what we find!”

“Good,” the man said, “Let’s get going.”

Ian started forward pushing his way through the brush. He felt a prickle in the middle of his back imagining the man’s gun pointed there. He scanned the area in front of him, hoping for something to help him escape, but there was nothing. Part way down the slope, he saw a pair legs sticking out of the brush. “I think there’s a body down here,” he hollered up to the man.

“Wait a minute, I’ll be right there,” the man hollered back.

Ian was staring at the body, which looked and smelled like burnt meat. Its face was gone, burned through to the bone in places. “What happened to him?” Ian asked, as the stalker approached.

“Anomaly, acid fog,” he said. Turning the body over, the man went through the dead man’s pack. He noticed Ian staring at him in disgust as he scavenged through the dead man’s belongings. “Don’t look at me like that, kid. In the zone, a man has to do what a man has to do. You’ll find that out, if you live long enough.” Removing the containers from the man’s pack, he opened them one at a time, briefly glancing at the contents. He threw the first two away, but his eyes went wide at the contents of the third. Hiding his surprise, he said to Ian, “Nothing special, but we might as well keep it. Let’s get going.”

Ian knew he was lying but kept silent. Again, the man fell back letting him take the lead. Ian kept looking, searching the ground, and waiting for a chance to get away.

He glanced back at the man following him down the hillside gauging the distance between them and was shocked to see a heavy gray cloud of mist flowing down over the top of the hill, descending soundlessly towards the stalker.

“Don’t look at me kid. Look at ground,” the man shouted.

Ian steeled himself to silence and walked a little faster, pretending to scan the ground in front of him. When he heard the first scream, he began to run. It was several minutes before he even dared to look behind him to see if the fog was still coming. Seeing nothing behind him, he slowed looking for some shelter. There was a small shed, an outbuilding of the laboratory. He ducked into it and shut the rickety door behind him. Sliding to the floor, his back against the wall, he rested. He needed to feel safe for just a few minutes.

He thought about the stalker who had so suddenly run out of luck. He had been right about one thing. The zone was no place for a man alone. He had to get in with a good group, but to do that he had to find some good stuff and make a name for himself. He realized what he had to do. Leaving the shed he back tracked to the hillside he had so recently fled.

There was no sign of the acid cloud. The man’s scorched and blackened body was sprawled on the hillside, his mouth stretched wide in the rictus of a silent scream. “You were right,” Ian said to the lifeless body, “A man has to do what a man has to do.” Pulling the tattered backpack from beneath the corpse he removed the containers and placed them in his own pack. Watching for any sign of the deadly fog, he began to make his way out of the zone.
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