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The Way Home

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  15:39:44  18 January 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
I was going to bitch and moan about the new name, but then I remembered the ending a bit more clearly. It's actually a very clever name, a metaphor.
  08:48:34  18 January 2012
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On forum: 09/02/2011

Message edited by:
01/18/2012 8:49:31
Messages: 97
I don't know about 'the classic.'

The new name is because The Zone was turning into a blanket term - like, it could refer to Elizabeth stuff or Mist stuff, and people were even using it for Atrophy. Atrophy is related to the Zone, but it's not Zone. Besides, The Zone isn't very creative or memorable, and just getting to this thread, I saw like two others with The Zone in the title. Elizabeth deserves better - and at the end of the day, none of my stories are really about the Zone. The Zone is just the setting. I write about characters. The Way Home fits. Mostly. I'm pretty sure that way back in 09 or whatever I picked The Zone for its minimalist simplicity.

So people will never stop referring to my general body of Stalker fiction as 'The Zone' but at least we can try to tell different bits of it apart this way.

Yeah, I'm surprised at how much fun I'm having editing the chapters. It's been so long - 3 years! - that I barely remember any of this old stuff; a couple of times I've caught myself wondering what happens next. The inconsistencies are worse than I expected, but the writing isn't quite as awful as I feared, which is a relief. Even so, every chapter I've looked at has needed a fair amount of work.

The part I dread is the whole Dieter/Johan thing. That's a ways off, so I'm not freaking out over it - but it's probably going to demand some real work. (Like writing new content.) We'll see how it goes. It's an adventure. I may cop out.

I have to say, with the events of some of the more recent stuff in mind, the Biker is turning into a very complex character.
  21:22:27  17 January 2012
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On forum: 06/22/2010
Messages: 97
The Way Home

Three and counting! The classic returns! Hot off the blogorama! Do I sound like Wish yet? The life and times! She was a good stalker! Let's drink to her again!

Chapter 1 (Wish)

I got mugged for the first time in my life two days after I resigned from the police. The fact that I couldn’t arrest the guys that did it didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that I didn’t see it coming. No, even that wasn’t the problem. The problem wasn’t even that I should have. The part that really bothered me was that I couldn’t see anything.

I heard tearing Velcro, and felt my Kevlar vest pull away from me. I was already on my hands and knees, elbow deep in stinking water. Someone kicked me, and I toppled in. Best not to fight that sort of thing. But I really wished I could’ve gotten a look at the guys. Tasting blood, I groped at my belt. My weapon, everything, gone. No Kevlar. My backpack was the first thing they grabbed. Of course, none of this mattered, because a moment later I heard what was unmistakably the sound of a round being chambered, possibly by my own pistol.

If it was going to be like this, they should have shot me first, then robbed me. This was going to be the shortest holiday I’d ever taken. There was a shout, but I was seeing too many stars to make out exactly what was said. Next, there were a couple of fuzzy booms that pretty much had to be gunshots. I tried to keep still. Splashing footsteps indicated some kind of retreat.

A beam of light fell on me, and for the first time, I could see a little of the tunnel around me. It was about what I’d expected – a nightmare. I could sort of make out a figure as I squinted into the light. I couldn’t see it, but there was probably a gun pointed at me.

“Thanks,” I choked out in my terrible Russian.

“Who told you of this route? There are always bandits,” someone said; my head was still ringing too much to be certain it was the guy behind the light. “…are you an idiot?”

“Apparently.” I accepted the gloved hand, and got unsteadily to my feet. Man, that rib would be worse in the morning. Two minutes inside, and I already wanted a cigarette. “I owe you,” I said in English.

“I’d have had to get past them anyway.” The light shifted to the rusted door that I’d entered – been pushed – through. “Are they out there?”

“As of a minute ago, yeah.”

“Good.” The light came back to me. I still hadn’t gotten a good look at the guy. “Robbed you blind, did they?”

“Pretty much.” I rubbed at my sore neck, where one of them had pistol whipped me. There was a pause, then the sound of fabric. The other man had unslung his pack, and was rummaging through it. He held something out, a sheathed combat knife. Worn, but solid.

“Take it,” he told me. “I’m not a clothes off my back guy.” The man spoke brusquely, like he had somewhere to be. He probably did.

“Thank you.” I accepted the knife. My belt was still on me; I had that much.

“If you follow this tunnel, and take the first right you come to, that will take you out. Good luck.”

“Got it. Can I ask you something?”


“The guys that robbed me – is there any way for me to find them?”

The silhouette of the man shrugged. “They’re bandits. They’re everywhere.”

“I mean these ones specifically.”

“Why? It’s not personal – they’ll steal from anybody.”

“They took something that I need back.”

“I don’t know, I really don’t.” He sounded genuinely apologetic. “But I’ll give you a tip – get some dirt on those clothes, or lose them – new clothes mean fresh meat. And be careful – it’s dark in these tunnels, those men probably couldn’t tell you were a woman – but if they’d known, they’d have acted differently.”

“I figured,” I said, trying not to let my surprise show through. In these clothes, my gender shouldn’t have been so obvious.

“Can I ask you something?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Sure.”

“What are you doing here?”

Staring into the glare of the flashlight, I answered. “I’m looking for someone.”

“I see.” A moment passed. “No matter what you’ve seen, or what you’ve read, this place is not what you think. It never is.” The light snapped from my face, and the man splashed off down the tunnel, toward the door.

He must have bought his way out the same way that I bought my way in. That’s why he was in a hurry – he must have a lot of money or anomalous material on him, not the safest stuff to be carrying. He was cashing out.

I turned away and began to feel my way down the tunnel, occasionally stepping on, or tripping over things that I was glad I couldn’t see. When I’d come through the door, I’d felt like I was ready for whatever might be here. I had my gun, I had some money. I had what I needed to make it. Now I had my belt, a knife, and a bruised rib. I’m not some stubborn idiot – I didn’t turn back because I couldn’t. The bandits had taken my backpack, and with it my money. A rusted knife couldn’t pay my way back out.

This had never really been a holiday. But now it definitely wasn’t. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, and at the moment, wheezing, knee-deep in water that probably should have been able to light my way, I did sort of want to.

After what felt like a long time walking, I found the right turn the man had told me about, and took it. Ahead, I could see a point of light. It was abruptly very important to me that I no longer remain underground. I broke into a sore, lopsided jog, making for the light just as quickly as I could without crippling myself. It had been a long road getting here, and frankly, things weren’t off to a very good start – but I’d made it.

I nearly tripped over a step, and made it onto dry, flat concrete. The opening was so bright that I had to put up an arm against the glare, even though it would soon be dusk. Below lay a sprawling valley, heavily forested and verdant. In the distance, I could see the hazy shapes of structures. From here it didn’t look much like the pictures. In fact, it didn’t look like hell on earth at all – and the only thing I could hear was the wind in the trees.

Chapter 2 (Wish)

As nice as the view was, I was exposed. I hurried into the open, taking cover in a clump of trees to the immediate right. The valley sloped steeply away from the tunnel mouth; getting down wouldn’t be too hard, but if I ever had to climb back up here, it’d take some work. I dropped from a crouch to my elbows, and crawled forward through some shrubbery for a better view.

To the north lay a sprawling complex I didn’t recognize. I’d tried to do my research before coming here, but there isn’t as much accurate information out there as you’d think. Probably because so few people ever manage to leave. There was some kind of roadway leading from the installation, and it crossed a small body of water before being lost in the trees. I didn’t see any people. In fact, nothing was really moving, except what the wind blew.

I had a good view from here; I hadn’t spent very much time talking to that stalker in there – if the bandits that had blindsided me had come out here, I should have been able to see them. That mean they hadn’t, and were still somewhere in the maze of tunnels behind me. I couldn’t go in after them; I wouldn’t stand a chance of finding anything without a light, and besides, it was their home territory. Without a gun, I’d have to approach quietly, and knee-high water isn’t terribly conducive to that.

But they’d have to come out sometime. I could see the tunnel mouth clearly from where I was, and I could stay concealed. Before I’d come here, I’d this place wouldn’t be all about clean linen and room service. Now I had to make good on it. I crawled to a position that offered better concealment, and waited.

Night fell. In the distance I could see what might have been light in a couple places. A small, flickering point in the direction of the installation to the North might have been a sliver of a campfire through a window. Lucky for me, the night was clear, with more stars than you’d ever see where I came from. It wasn’t quite like having a flashlight, but it was better than being in the tunnel without a light.

According to my wristwatch, it was nearly two hours before they came out. First, I saw their lights playing on the curving wall of the tunnel, then they emerged. I knew it was them, because they were wearing the long coats that I’d glimpsed through the waving light when they jumped me. Long, black coats, almost like cowls, complete with hoods. There were two of them, and they paused at the tunnel mouth, probably to be sure the coast was clear. I kept still. A moment later, they stepped onto the mountainside, and started down.

Maybe they were going back to wherever they spent their nights; nobody would be buying their way in, or out, in the middle of the night. I decided that when I left, I would do so by a different route. This one was obviously compromised.

For a moment I watched the two figures amble down the mountainside, then got to my hands and knees. I’d be able to track them by their flashlights from a long way off, and I didn’t want to follow too closely anyway. I let them get a little farther before I broke cover and started after them, keeping low. I hadn’t gotten a very good look, but only one of them had been wearing a pack. I hoped it was mine.

It was colder out there than I’d anticipated; I was wearing black cargoes, a black compression shirt, and a thick thermal sweater over that – even if I still had my Kevlar, I’d have been chilly. Chilly wouldn’t kill me, but if I didn’t have shelter, or better clothes, any kind of rain probably would. But tonight was clear. I had more important things to do.

The bandits were making for the road. In the distance, I heard the faint pop of a shot from a handgun. The bandits didn’t even twitch. I’d have to get used to gunshots if I was going to last long here.

They were on the road, now. I kept after them, moving from cover to cover. We seemed to be going south – toward the forest. I was pretty sure they were talking, but I was too far back even to hear snatches of the conversation. I was considering following a little closer, but a piercing howl went up from the tree line. Both bandits froze, and a couple of tense seconds passed.

A stream of bodies poured out of the trees, and the air filled with fierce barks – but they weren’t normal barks. I couldn’t tell what was off about them, but it was creepy. The bandits were shouting, and I heard the report of a small caliber handgun – then the other one fired both barrels of a shotgun. And then the flashlight went out. I threw myself down and kept rigid, trying to cover my ears. It hadn’t even taken five seconds.

So I waited. If they came in this direction, I’d go down even faster than the bandits had. Oddly enough, getting beaten up hadn’t really awakened the seriousness of my situation to me. There’s knowing, then there’s knowing – if I wasn’t careful, and probably even if I was, this place would kill me. As a police officer I’d been a part of a system; rules could be bent and broken, but here there weren’t any, and I’d have to adapt. I’d never pointed a weapon at a living creature before. It didn’t look like I’d be leaving here with that record intact.

Eventually, the sounds from the road died down. After what I’d judged was an adequate safety period, I raised my head enough to look. The mass of furry bodies – whatever they’d been, some kind of dog, I guess – was gone. Back into the forest, most likely. I stayed flat, listening intently. Nothing. I slowly looked around; I couldn’t see far, but nothing seemed to be moving. Keeping my motions deliberate, I drew the combat knife, and began to crawl forward. It took some time, but with my nerves as frayed as they were, I wasn’t in a hurry.

It was a mess. I’d seen a handful of crime scenes, but never anything like this. It took a moment to fight down my nausea. A blood-slick Makarov lay on the pavement a meter away. I crawled to it and picked it up; a casing protruded dangerously from the breech. I jerked back on the slippery slide to clear it, and the whole thing came away in my hand. The thing must’ve been held together with screw-shaped filaments of rust. It was just as well; a pistol exploding in your hand probably isn’t that much better than being unarmed.

The lumpier of the two carcasses was probably the one with my pack; I made my way to it, and turned it over gingerly. Getting the backpack off was messy, but not difficult. I can’t even tell you how relieved I was when it turned out to actually be mine. That relief lasted about a five seconds. I was about to open it and check the contents, but a low hum reached my ears. An embarrassing moment passed before I realized it was the sound of an engine; a point of light appeared to the north.

Swearing silently, I lowered my face to the ground, and went still, one hand loosely gripping the strap of my pack. You laugh, but the movement it would have taken for me to get off the road and into the tall grass would’ve been plainly visible to the driver, whoever it was, and who knew what was watching from the forest? At the time I figured that playing dead would make me just one more roadside corpse, something that it was my understanding was not particularly rare in these parts. But still, just one more minute, and I’d have been out of there. It wasn’t fair.

Chapter 3 (Wish)

I don’t care what anybody says; playing dead is legit. The light from the road resolved into a single point, brightening as it neared. It was a noisy engine, and going by the single headlight, I guessed it was some kind of motorcycle. Not exactly my area of expertise. I’m pretty good at keeping still, though.

The bike cleared the nearest rise, and the bodies and I were directly in the beam of the light. When I heard brakes, I opened my eyes just enough to see hazily – the rider was slowing down. For what it’s worth, prior to coming here, I’d never thought of myself as being particularly unlucky.

The bike came to a stop, and I was bathed in the opaque glare of the headlight. The rider dismounted, unslinging a weapon from his back. He switched on a light attached to the barrel, and swept it around briefly. The tall grass on either side of the road was still and quiet. The beam came back to the bodies. Presumably, my gun was in my pack, but getting to it was simply out of the question. From the rider’s point of view, I must have looked very different from the mangled bodies on the road, because he came straight for me. I had to close my eyes.

I heard him kneel beside me, there was a rustle of fabric, and a rough hand touched my throat. He was taking my pulse. Well, it’s not like I could hide it. I must have tensed unconsciously, because his hand withdrew quickly. A couple of seconds passed.

He said something in Russian that I didn’t catch. I hesitated, thinking fast.

“What are you doing?” he tried in English – perfect, American English, though his voice was still somewhat muffled by his helmet.

I briefly considered whether it was better to be awake or actually unconscious at this juncture. Maybe this query was intended to determine whether or not I was awake. I didn’t know.

“Trying not to die,” I told him honestly, then opened my eyes. “You aren’t going to kill me, are you?” The rider was wearing a jigsaw puzzle of body armor, like he’d hacked apart different vests and suits to form something that would work for riding.

“I wasn’t planning on it. Should I?”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

The rider shrugged. “Okay.” The light was bad, and thanks to all my crawling around, I was covered with filth. Even without the Kevlar, I stood a good chance of passing as a male. I got to my hands and knees, and straightened as he did, throwing my pack over one shoulder. “You know these gentlemen?”

“They jumped me.”

“You new? What are you, sixteen?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“Never admit to that,” he told me. His shotgun – a taped-up pump-action with both the barrel and stock sawed off – was still pointed vaguely in my direction. “You get your stuff back?” he asked.

With my pack over my shoulder, I couldn’t exactly lie. “Yeah.”

“Good for you.” He shone his light on the bloody mess in the road. “Doesn’t look like there’s much worth salvaging,” he muttered, then the helmet turned to face me again. “Dogs?”

“I think so.”

The rider’s helmet turned toward the trees; he appeared to be thinking. “You going south?” He spoke without looking at me.

“I’m not sure,” I said, feeling a bit stupid. Again, the helmet turned in response. The goggles stared. “Where am I?”

Another awkward moment passed, with the light from the headlight shining off the goggles. “These are the badlands,” he said flatly.

“Then that’s the plant?” I pointed past him, at the structures looming beyond the hills.

“It’s a plant,” he confirmed. “Underneath is an X-lab.”

“Okay.” I brought my fist into my open palm. “So we’re on the eastern side.” The goggles peered down at me. “Sir, I’m looking for someone – where I can I go to get information?”

“Rostov.” The Rider glanced over his shoulder. “No use going south tonight.” He paused. “You’re light enough. Come on.”

I blinked. “What do you mean?” He was already heading back to his bike. “Where are you going?” He climbed on, and started the engine. It was some kind of Honda dirt bike, but like I said, motorbikes aren’t my thing.

I looked around at the darkness; it suddenly seemed awfully lonely. I swore quietly, hefted my pack on my shoulders, and climbed on behind him, certain that I would regret it. The fact that he hadn’t killed me was certainly a point in his favor, but this was the Ukraine – if anything, getting onto motorbikes with strange men was more dangerous here than it was in the outside world. At least he was wearing enough armor that he wouldn’t be able to tell I was a woman.

The rider wheeled the bike around, and we took off northward along the road. I thought he actually rode pretty slowly; it’s not like there was any traffic – but I suppose that in these parts, there’s no telling what’s going to jump into the road. It wasn’t a long trip – the rider pulled to the side of the road as we neared the plant. The installation itself was still a good hundred yards away, but a raised skywalk protruded from one of the buildings, running all the way to the top of this very hill. It appeared to have collapsed in the middle, but both sides were intact.

“We’re here,” said the rider, and we both climbed off.

“What is that?” I asked, pointing a trembling finger.

“Anomaly. Don’t walk into it.” Illuminated by the dirt bike’s headlight was, I guess, a globe of air, undulating slowly. I’d seen photos of things like this. The rider dragged the bike from view into the underbrush. He emerged a moment later. “We can wait until dawn here.”

“Up there?”

“Yes. I don’t blame you if you don’t want to follow a stranger,” he said. “But you don’t want to spend the night down here, either. Do what you want.” He went to the final pillar supporting the raised corridor, and reached for a handhold. Ten or fifteen seconds later, he was climbing through one of the dozens of uniformly open windows. Then he reappeared, reaching down to me. Finally, something I could handle. With a running start, I leapt to the pillar, boosted myself from the base, grabbed the lip of the walkway and pulled myself up. The rider barely managed to get out the way as I swung in.

He didn’t comment. I wasn’t fishing for compliments or anything, but that had been some clean Parkour. Tough room.

We were at the very end of the corridor, and it terminated in a blank wall. The hall stretched perhaps a hundred meters before being blocked by the collapse. Raised off the ground, you could shoot from the windows – it wasn’t perfect, but it beat sleeping in a tree. The rider seemed to know the place pretty well. He sank tiredly into a corner without taking off his helmet. He raised a gloved finger, pointing past me. “Rostov is northwest of here, but that’s a lot of wild country. You might be better off cutting straight west, to the Garbage, and then taking the road north. It won’t take much longer, and it might not be any safer – but at least you’ll know what you’re up against.”

I settled down in the corner opposite him.

Actually, I wouldn’t. I didn’t know anything, as I was being reminded with every passing second. Research that I had considered extensive had yet to tell me anything useful. As long as I was a stupid rookie, it was best if I was on my own as little as possible. The rider had apparently directed me to shelter purely out of the goodness of his heart – I didn’t want to impose further, but he didn’t seem to mind talking.

“Could you take me there? I can pay you.” This struck me as a place where the direct approach was okay. The rider didn’t reply immediately; he appeared to be considering what I’d said – but it was hard to say, because he still hadn’t taken off that helmet.

“I’m not going straight there,” he said.

“Where, then?”

“I’m heading to a village just inside the Cordon – I’ve got a delivery for a trader there. After that, I’m going to Rostov, though it’d still be faster than going on foot. Especially for a rookie.”

“It’s okay with me.”

“Hmm.” He leaned back against the wall. He named a figure for the ride, and another figure if anything happened. “Half at the village, and the rest at Rostov.”


I pulled my backpack into my lap, and opened it. Someone had poked through it, but it looked okay. Or maybe it just felt that way, since my pistol, holster, and ammunition were on top. That was a relief. When I resigned from the police force, I actually had to give back my gun, so I’d had to buy this one when I finalized my plans for coming here. It’s an FNP9 in 9mm, with a nickel slide. It seemed all-purpose enough to be appropriate in these parts. I’d never even fired it. But I was glad I had it back. I’ll bet in the two or three seconds before he had his throat torn out, that bandit really regretted not putting it on instead of his lousy Makarov.

I’d miss my Kevlar, but with a gun, at least I wasn’t completely naked. I touched the grip briefly, then set my bag aside, and leaned back.

“You got a name?” the rider asked.

I blinked. “Nikolai,” I said, for lack of a better idea, and sounding like a total liar.

“You’re not even Russian.”

“How do you know what I am?”

“I don’t. I know what you’re not.”

“Sorry. It’s not personal.”

“Suit yourself, stranger.”

“What about you?”

“I’m the guy with the bike.” He shrugged. “Most stalkers just call me Biker.”

the problem is that at the end of an udpadated chapter i want to read the next one but i can't because you haven't updated it yet

why the new name?
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