I decided to rewrite this chapter on the basis of it containing an excess of profanity compared to the later chapters, to make it more readable and less off turn off for more readers without compromising the overall grim atmosphere of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Also, I want to mention Nail Strafer and Portuguese Irish, as well as all of my reviewers, for their inspiring and heartwarming comments, which keep me motivated to continue writing this story, and remind me that it is the readers who make the writer; without them, my words are silent. Thank you again.

I also want to thank BobBQ (Tiger's Spring) and Hauuu (The Way Home). Yours were the first fan fictions I read and also the greatest, and both of you inspired me to write this story. It's because of you that I realized that fan fiction has real merit as artistry, and its my readers that make it worth double the effort.

Anyways, enjoy, leave a favorite or a follow if you like it, and a review if you're feeling especially altruistic. I'm now committing to approximately weekly updates with chapters of varying length, but generally from ~2,000 to 3,500 words in length, following Natasha's misadventures through the Zone, armed with only her (slow) wits, (unimpressive) reflexes, and her scant few friends.


Natasha woke up at the bottom of a storm shelter with a sore head and three hungry-eyed men in anoraks and charcoal filter masks watching her while eating stale bread, and it took her brain a minute to catch up with developments.

Meanwhile, her camera crew was hunched in the corner, playing last night's footage through headphones. From them the occasional muffled giggle was heard.

Natasha remained lying down in her sleeping bag, staring at the men with her eyes somewhere between paralyzed terror and baffled amusement. Moment by moment, fragments of last night returned. She saw a stack of tuna and tushonki cans in the corner by the stairs, six bottles of vodka, all empty and lined up the steps. She looked at the men, each of whose eyes revealed little except boredom and strong notes of starvation and obsession. Tolya, a little taller and darker, with terrible puns to boot. Grisha, who feared neither bottle nor the radiation inherent in Zone mushrooms. Pasha, who called his double barrel Irina and lubed her by hand, then licked the grease.

These were their guards.

Natasha quietly formed the cross on her chest, even though she had not attended service in at least a decade. Apparently the generation after communism didn't find church so attractive as their forbearers.

"Good morning," she hazarded.

"And you," they chorused back, a solemn dirge of moaning growls that every stalker seemed to speak in. A funny thing that was, an artifact of the late 80s, the early 90s as the East opened to the West. The rest of the world insisted stalkers were predators of young women and perverts. Natasha knew this definition, kept to it for her portion of the year spent in Britain and Ireland. Yet her old friends and family of Ukraine and Russia knew stalkers as the damned fools who traipsed into the Zone for kicks and giggles, and now, riches beyond a man's wildest dreams. Day trippers with Kalashnikovs and vodka shots— for the radiation, you see.

Last night, a stalker told her she needed at least a half liter for the radiation she'd already bumbled through. She told him that was nonsense, the roads were clean, and vodka didn't clean anything out except your skull. He'd returned her a crystal clear, extended explanation illustrated with profanity, vulgar gestures, and some very violent stick figure drawings, which she was looking at right now, and blushing hard. Right next to it, she saw a list of tally marks:

G: 1

T: 1

S: 1

Anglichane: 1/2

N: 2 1/2

She fixed on the last number for several seconds, until she realized N stood for Natasha. She felt her gut heave, and she bolted out of the sleeping bag, tumbled over the barrel fire and scrambled up the steps with her gut wrenching like a struggling pike and spilled herself out over the rough grass in time to upend the contents of her gut into the dirt for the next ten minutes.

At two minutes, a stalker walked up next to her and gently lifted her off the ground, holding her hair back as she grabbed his arm and held on for dear life, soiling everything in her field of view: boots, newspaper, pants, the soil— until from her intestines was purged two and a half liters of drain cleaner quality vodka.

"Bollocks me," she dribbled onto the ground, her mouth slick with digestive fluids. "Why. Why did I do that."

"Because you are a slav, and slavs never change," said the stalker. "Do not worry for your health. The Zone has a strange way of not caring. You can always get new clothes."

"I'll..." she felt another surge coming and doubled over, moaning involuntarily as her insides trembled.

"Swish," said the stalker, forcefully tilting her head back and pouring a packet of sandy powder into her mouth. "Then swallow."

Back in the Big Land, she would have questioned his instructions. Hell, she would still question the hell out of being given random drugs and told to swallow. But one: she was in no position to resist anyway, and two: of all the stupid things she'd done in the last twenty four hours, this seemed the least irrational. At the very least, this stalker didn't look too deformed of a human being, even if he still had the prototypical gaunt face and sunken eyes.

A minute later, the trembling in her gut subsided; almost like a miracle, her nausea slunk away like a tomcat, though the feeling that her insides had just been power-washed with acid did not change. "W-what did you just give me?"

"Beard's tea, concentrate. Not sure what he puts in it, but I don't think it rates organic." The stalker chuckled, patted her on the back, and walked over to the main bonfire of the Village, now quiet and as ashen as the morning sky. "Miss Palinchak, Tiptoe and I are ready to go whenever you are."

"Tiptoe?" she asked, biting her cheek as her stomach began to yearn for sustenance so shortly after ejecting it at high velocity.

"Up here bright eyes." She looked up to the left and saw Tiptoe sitting on the roof of the barn where most of the rookie stalkers shared bunks, his Baikal sawed-off shotgun laid across his thighs, twirling his Makarov on his finger and eying her with insufferable cockiness. "Morning hot stuff. Enjoy the party?"

"Like my birthday." She gave him a painted smile, rolling her eyes. Some Ukrainian gop with racing stripe tattoos running down his shaved head to his ass cheeks and an ego bigger than the Russian president's imperial ambitions. And somehow he was the other senior guide.

"Hey, Washer; she trying to put me down? I'm not sure I understand all this 'irony' bull this tourist's trying to pull on me."

"Shut up Tiptoe, she's paying us 30,000 rubles a day. Unless you jizz rubles, I suggest you put a cork in your clever box and let the lady have her way."

"I'll have my way," Tiptoe muttered, flaring his lip and spitting a lump of spittle and tobacco to the wind. "When do we set out?"

"Whenever the pizdets feels like." Washer picked up his Kalashnikov-74 and began disassembling it on the floor of the barn, just visible from where Natasha stood. "Pardon my French," he added as she stood there outside the storm shelter, wet with green-gray puke. "I suggest we move soon though. The Zone is a fickle mistress."

Getting changed into clean clothes took some time. After being repeatedly warned against radiation by her British camera crew and told that vodka solves everything by the rookies, she shooed all five of them out of the storm shelter, hoped to God no one walked in on her, and changed as fast as she could into new jeans, a white under and a blue denim shirt, buttoned up with a leather jacket and a fisherman's cap, with an American issue window-style rebreather mask slung around her neck. She wiped her knee boots off as best she could with an old sardine tin wrapper and hoped her camera man didn't pan down. There was no mirror to check her face, so she used the ancient 1970s soviet television sitting on the table beneath the tally board. Her breath would still smell like vodka, but for now, technology could not transmit smell. Hopefully that day would never come.

When she came outside with her satchel bag, her watch said 8:45 AM, and the sky said, "Forget that, I'm feeling broody."

Her camera man, Jake, nudged Alex on the microphone; both rolled their eyes and grinned. She thought of snarking at them, and decided she felt too hung over to produce any more wit than was strictly necessary. She had a documentary to film.

"Are we ready to go…" Before she had even finished the question, Washer began walking up the village road to the highway, Tiptoe on his 3 o'clock and the other rookies taking up the flanks and rear. The stalkers hadn't said a word.

"Alright. I guess we go. Jake, are we rolling? Okay, good, good." She took a deep breath.

"This is Natasha Palinchak, reporting for BBC Documentary, from about half a mile inside the much rumored Zone of Alienation. Radiation, cloudy skies, and broody Ukrainians; vodka, gas masks and Kalashnikovs. It's a dangerous mix, for dangerous men…"

The first hour was accompanied both by Natasha's running reel of scenery and wordspinning as well as the crackling squawk of the southern checkpoint loudspeaker, accusing stalkers of every sin from petty theft to terrorism and jaywalking. Only twenty minutes had past, and Tiptoe's patience was already as worn as the skin of his trigger finger.

"Washer... this is worth 30,000 rubles a day, right?"

"You want to go diving in a Whirligig? Your anti-gravity grave, my friend."

"I signed up for stupid, Washer. Dumbassery got me in here. Dumbassery got me the best friend I ever ever had too, eh?"

"You're a leeching suck-up you little hookworm. Stupidity got all your tourist friends killed, almost got you melted by Deathmoss and chum for dogs."

Tiptoe shrugged casually, as if the five bros and one broette meant nothing. "Look who's talking. The way you yarn, sounds like you live here."

"I do. Not a day I don't wish I'd just up and go home. Difference is, I know why I don't. You think you do, nod your head when I call you a damn fool and add parasitic moron too."

"Heh. A thousand and one things better to do, and here we are, taking in the rays, eating expired tuna and diving into Satan's cheese graters for radioactive gold. I'm doing it because it's amazing. You ain't told me what you do it for."

"I have. You're just thicker than a pseudogiant's skull."

Tiptoe shrugged, rubbing the knob of buttstock into his itchy armpit. "I hear they wash their clothes in the Big Land. With detergent. Is that why she smells so bad?"

"That's why she doesn't smell of vodka."

They came to the bridge. Somehow, Washer knew to stop, just at the other side. A moment later, he realized Natasha had stopped talking. "Miss Palinchak?" he called out, slinging his AK around to the front, finger resting over the trigger guard.

"Oh my God," she whispered, covering her mouth and pointing with her other hand. "Is that…"

Washer followed her finger, and breathed a little sigh of relief. For a moment he thought it was a mutant she saw. No, it was just a body down in the clearing left of the bridge, downslope of the trailer. More accurately, chunks of one, scattered over a fifteen meter radius: skin, fingers, cloth scraps, entrails and pulp, the grass smeared red under a hazy, shifting corona of non-light.

"Grisha, Anatoly, on me," said Washer, slinging his AK over his shoulder and rummaging in his coat pockets. "Check the perimeter for gear and ammo. Use your bolts and drop if you feel a tug." He pulled out a yellow-painted dented metal box about the size of those new iPhone 6's, thick as four of them. A single large diode light was set in the top of the screen, and four dials beneath it. After a moment, she recognized it as an Echo Detector, a first generation 'anomaly probe'. She'd been issued her own, but in bright blue and with a manual in six languages, including Tagalog.

"Jake, on me," she whispered, shoving her hand into her satchel and swatting around for her detector. "Alright—" she looked straight at the camera. "This is an Anomaly. We don't know what type yet, but we're going in for a closer look."

Washer's detector emitted a single beep as he got within ten meters of the epicenter of the meat splat. He palmed a few bolts from his satchel, and chucked them in front at angles. The middle hit the anomaly where he expected it, froze for a blink of a second, and shot off over his shoulder, smashing into the dirt next to Mike's foot and eliciting an appropriate "Jaysus Christ!"

The second skipped off Anatoly's head and bounced into the bushes. The rookie turned around slowly, scowling, then went back to his work, scraping the grass for any loose ammo or junk the poor bloody sod might have been carrying.

The third, off his left, flew just as Natasha entered Washer's view, whizzed over her shoulder as she scrambled forward and froze mid-air in front of her face.

Natasha squealed as Washer tackled her to the ground as the bolt shot out right where her head had been, blowing past Jake's ear at three times the speed of sound. "Let me go— what the hell—"

"Stand back," he snarled, lifting her up and shoving her back towards the hillside. "Tolya, Grisha, any good shit?"

"Peashooter," said Tolya, holding up a muddy Makarov. "Snickers and batteries."

"Short radio, Soviet," said Grisha. "Wallet, ruble notes and a chick pic. Found his face." Grisha held up a flap of bloody skin, torn at the edges with holes at the nose, eyes and mouth.

Natasha retched and puked. Jake and Mike both turned away, holding their arms over their mouths.

"Alright. We're done here. Let the animals clean him up."

They moved to regroup back on the bridge, Washer half-dragging Natasha up the slope as she dry-heaved. He waited a couple moments for her to stand up, then smouldered at her for another minute.

"Damn tourist," he muttered, shaking his head. He grabbed the Echo Detector out of her hand, turned the dials she still didn't understand, and tested the switch, then shoved it back at her. "Replace the batteries and stay out of our way. Grisha, Pasha, take the right and watch for tracksuits. We're going to the car park, see what's good with Yurik and company."

As Washer and Tiptoe led the group down the sort-of-extant dirt path to the car park, Tiptoe felt a certain simmering from Washer, a familiar aura of bridled frustration.

"What's up Wash?"

"Why didn't you stop her?"

"Her choice, not mine."

"Her choice which is going to cost you 30,000 rubles a day if you don't curb it. Damn it man, were you always this thick?"

"She had her detector out. How am I supposed to know it didn't have batteries?"

"You're not, you're supposed to assume she's an idiot and stop her! If I didn't know you as a clueless prick, I'd think you let your friends get chewed up by that anomaly field."

Tiptoe said nothing. Washer glanced over and shook his head, eyeing the foliage on the left, thirty meters out. "What is it, little man?"

"I still hear her sometimes. In the dreams. In the howls of the pseudodogs. Or in the shelter during an emission, wailing with all the other voices…"

"You were lucky to survive yourself. Such is the Zone."

"I know—"

"Then stop talking about it. Go and explain that fish-eyed look off her face. I can sense it drilling through my skull."

"What was—" she began.

"A gravitational anomaly," said Tiptoe, walking beside her. "Springboard. It attracts, then on contact, ejects."

"On contact with what? How does it work?"

"Who knows? Center of it, I guess. You can't really see it, only the distortion behind it."

"But— why? Why did that- man -how did he... die?"

"Such is the Zone." He gestured broadly at the car park for emphasis. "You scrape an anomaly, you die. If you're unlucky, you're just amputated, and the mutants finish you off."

"Mutants?" her eyes may as well have been those of a sockeye salmon they were so large.

"Animals and other... things. Lots of different types. Dogs, rats, crows, boars and worse. Long story short, they want to eat you, and they're not so scared of humans anymore." He punctuated that with a knowing chuckle, savoring her unsettled sounding breaths. "Don't worry. Nothing says 'scat' better than two barrels of buckshot." He grinned again, looking around and ahead, tapping the trigger of his shotgun.

"What about hard techno?" she asked as they walked through the long-since corroded gate, now half-buried in the gravel beneath their feet.

"Eh, music doesn't seem to affect— huh?" Tiptoe stopped, staring at the mechanic shop where indeed was thumping a really catchy, terribly familiar beat.

"I hear really, really obnoxious Russian techno," said Natasha, catching up with Washer and shivering involuntarily. "The kind of crap gopniks listen to around their barrel fires."

"We're going to have to bleep that out. All of that," Mike whispered.

Washer and his two rookies were already at the mechanic shop door when Tiptoe connected the techno and the lack of Yurik's wheezing harmonica. "Bandit—"

Washer opened the door and said, "Yurik, how's it go—" when he realized all the men around the campfire were in imitation Adidas tracksuits, staring at him with cards and ruble notes in their hands while Russian techno blasted through their ears.

A heartbeat later, the air was filled with the sound of racking bolts and clicking safeties, more than a dozen guns in the air between the two groups. Natasha blinked, staring down the barrel of a double barrel shotgun not more than three meters from her face.

In the back of the group, someone clicked off the stereo.

"How ya doin'?" said Washer, keeping his AK trained on the middle one, a shortish guy with a gold-plated Makarov and a dirty mouth speckled with gold teeth, like wild corn. "Just thought we'd say hi."

"Just knocking down cards to some sick beats," the bandit returned, licking his lips. "So, how you boys kicking?"

"Just out for a stroll. Taking in the sights. Seen any friends of ours, friend?"

"Maybe. What's it to you?"

"A five round burst through your face. Where are they?"

"Still kicking somewhere. We fleeced'em. Fired some shots. We patched up their leaks, no worries. Say, that mug's familiar; I know you, friend?"

"Maybe. What's it to you?"

"A cap in your ass and my dick in the broad if I don't get an answer."

"Washer. Of Rashkomov's boys."

The bandit squinted for a moment— then all of a sudden lowered his gun and extended his left hand palm up, smiling brightly. "I remember you. Goddamn, has it been a long time."

Washer took his rifle in his left hand and shook the bandit's hand firmly, returning a thin grimace. "Not long enough, Leech. You telling me the truth?"

"Come on man, you know I never liked killing much." Leech shrugged for emphasis, taking a step back. "Yurik and the lads will be fine. Maybe a little bruised, a little indignified, but they'll come around to their new position. So what's your story now? What's with the broad?"

"It's a job, that's all. Tourist work."

"Tourist work, eh? How well she paying?"

Both sides still had their guns up. Washer didn't let his eyes move. "Well enough."

Leech turned his gaze on Natasha. She shuddered as their eyes locked, and she saw not a trace of humanity, just a milky haze with a slight darkening where his pupils should be. Those were not the eyes of a man who gave a damn for the wellbeing of his fellows.

"Well…" Leech turned back to Washer, sucking air through his teeth. "In that case, why don't we—"

"Here, Mister…" Natasha rummaged through her satchel, "—Leech, so, soo sorry for interrupting your, uh, shindig—" and pulled out a fat bundle of 100 ruble notes and shoved them at him. "Please, take this for your trouble, and we'll be on our way."

Washer bit his tongue. Leech gently cupped her wrist with one hand and lifted out the stack of money, thumbing through it and smiling.

"It's 10,000 rubles," Natasha nearly shouted, biting her lip as Leech massaged her palm with his rough, leathery thumb.

"What a nice housewarmer." Leech grinned, and let go of her hand. "Well, it was good to see you again, Washer. May we meet again." He motioned for his men to lower their guns, which they did, hesitantly.

"Same," Washer growled, gesturing for everyone to exeunt hard right, and dragging Natasha while Grisha and Pasha shoved the film crew onward, keeping the group's rear covered with their shotguns until they were about a hundred meters out from the car park.

Natasha gasped as Washer shoved her onto the ground, his eyes nearly white. "What in God's name were you thinking woman?! I had it under control, now he knows you have hard cash! He's probably already calling up all his mates, painting a big fat target on our backs in exchange for a cut of your satchel— how much fucking cash do you have in there?"

"I-I-I—"

"What, you think money can buy you your life? Maybe out in the Big Land, where they'd rather take pocket cash than tango with the cops. There are no cops in the Zone. No one's looking out for you but you, and us because we still have a shred of humanity left and your bosses are going to make us rich as oligarchs. God's truth, if you being intact weren't a strict necessity, Grisha and Tolya would've banged you while you were lurching around like an ape last night— and they've only been here a month. They don't know what it's really like, to go years without seeing a woman— and a porn mag maybe once in a month."

Natasha gulped, too terrified to cry. Quirky as the stalkers were, she hadn't yet understood the hungry looks in their eyes. Or she had, but they'd seemed too normal otherwise to— oh God. What had she got herself into now?

"Get up." He grabbed her upper arm and yanked her to her feet, pushing her off towards her film crew, standing petrified between Grisha and Pasha. "Cut that out or leave it in, doesn't matter to me. We're going to the railroad embankment. Tiptoe, watch the rear. Miss Palinchak, until we're past the railroad, it would be fantastic if you could keep your commentary to a minimum."

Washer led in front with his detector out and the sound off, trusting the blinking light to navigate them around the practically invisible anomalies, disguised by the dim daylight and the dark, dense foliage. Vulnerable as it was, hitting an anomaly would be worse, so they were progressing in a rough, staggered column, chucking bolts whenever Washer stopped until the safe path was found. The air hummed with static motion, an unnatural vibration that made Natasha's ears ring and her skin itch; at every step she felt her body hairs being tugged in every which direction, her skin stretching slightly with it.

"I'm sorry," Natasha muttered as she fell in back with Tiptoe, staring at the ground.

"He cares," said Tiptoe, occasionally glancing behind to make sure he was still with the group, while keeping his front faced east towards the car park. "And hey, at least he cares about your money, and's smart enough to know keeping you alive reaps the bigger harvest."

"But what if I fall out of contact with my bosses? What if I go missing, they declare me dead and that money dries right up?"

Tiptoe shrugged. "Well, assuming you don't trip over an anomaly or get lost without a gun and antirad, the worst that'll happen is a lifetime of sexual slavery."

Natasha sighed and palmed her forehead, biting her cheeks. "That's just great. Fantastic. Nothing to worry about."

"You're too valuable to just kill. There's not a lot of ways to escape in the Zone. Video games take too much power, distract you too much. Cards only do so much when you're playing for the same sandy tobacco and moldy meat. No one in their right mind bets Artifacts— except in the Casino, and I think that's a load of bull. Books are heavy, take up space for useful shit, like bullets and morphine. Sports? Who's got the energy to play football after running six miles while being chased by dogs? Some play chess, but it's too much thinking for me. Porn mags are like gold, but the imagination's only so good. You're the first woman I've met in nearly three months, after my… after Vika… Alright, it's been awhile, okay? You happy?"

Natasha didn't need to look at him to hear that familiar note of loneliness and loss. She put out her hand and touched his shoulder, squeezing it lightly. "I'm sorry."

"Not your pissing fault." He smiled, and squeezed her wrist, lifting it off his shoulder and returning it to her side. "When we've some time, maybe I can school you in some shooting. If you can shoot straight and carry a gun, Washer might not give you such a barrowful of salt with every screwup."

"We're out of the woods," Washer called out. "Masks on, we're near the cement factory."

"Masks?" asked Natasha.

"Not everything in the Zone kills you quickly," said Tiptoe, slinging his shotgun and pulling his PB-01 mask down over his face. "Rads and toxins aren't so good for the lungs."

Natasha nodded quickly and strapped her mask on, forcing herself to breathe deeply and slowly. Even so, the polycarbonate visor started fogging up, obscuring her lower field of vision. "Uh, any anti-fogging tips?"

"What?" Tiptoe shouted, his voice muffled by the mask. "Can't hear!"

"It's too foggy! I can't see!" she shouted back.

"Quit talking, it'll warm up eventually."

They were in front of the factory gates now, rusted to pieces and impeding the movement of only ants. All eight of them were in gas masks, only Natasha and her film crew struggling to breathe in them.

Grisha sidled up to Washer, tapping him on the shoulder while holding his shotgun in a death grip. "Boss, what's the plan?"

"We'll do a sweep of the factory. Make sure you've got plenty of bolts. Give the garage a scan, but don't look too hard; not a lot of hiding places, too much radiation. But the workshed might still have random useful crap."

"But what for? We got plenty of ammo, matches and sundry crap in our rucks."

"I'm trying to teach you something you nutskull. Check the garage out with Tolya, and try to figure out if you can use any of the crap in there for something. Go." Grisha tapped Tolya on the shoulder and motioned him forward across the open yard, and both moved as a pair, holding pistols in one hand and bolts in the other.

"Pasha! Climb up the catwalk stairs, get to the roof and check out that little alcove. Sometimes sneaky devils hide their swag there. Stay up there with your Mosin and keep an eye out till I say."

As Pasha set off for the catwalk, Washer turned and waved Tiptoe forward. Natasha took that to mean her as well, and followed behind, her film crew dawdling behind, Jake sweeping the buildings. "This is a cement factory— we don't know the age of it yet, but it was probably here when the Sarcophagus was built, to mix the materials for the dome— which explains why so much of it looks adhoc, rebar and tin walls without any plaster or fittings—"

Washer glanced at Natasha narrating muffledly to the camera and shook his head, turning back to Tiptoe. "Follow me up; I'll check our east and the railroad embankment, then we'll see—"

"T'fu BLYAAAAT!" Grisha shouted from inside the garage, accompanied by clanging metal and more muffled swears.

"Go upstairs and don't be stupid." Washer jogged to the garage with his handgun and detector out, stepping inside to the sound of a loud "$&#!*#$ &**#$^ &#$#-ING RATS!"

Natasha blinked. "Uh, alright then. I guess we'll censor that. Eventually. Hey, Tiptoe— where are you going?"

"Upstairs. Not much room," said Tiptoe, clambering up the metal stairs.

Natasha paused for a moment. "Jake, Mike, go in through the ground floor. You have any bolts?"

"Picked up a couple on the way," said Mike.

"Alright. Do it like they do it. Don't get... discombobulated, I guess. I'm going up top. Film some crap on the inside; I'll shout if I need you."

With that, Natasha scrambled up after Tiptoe, her mask fogging up nearly instantly. She stumbled in through the door at the top, took three steps, and felt a hard yank right before she fell right on her ass.

"Ow! What— why'd you do that?!" Gingerly, she stood back up, rubbing her butt and letting her mask clear.

Tiptoe clapped a hand on her shoulder and pointed down into what looked like a cement mixing funnel, just wide enough at the mouth to fit a human. "Anomaly. Gorgon's Bath. You slipped in there, you'd be dead."

She squinted, trying to see what he was pointing at. "I... don't see anything."

"But your detector does. You hear it?"

She held her breath for a moment, and heard the frantic beeping of her detector, muffled by her satchel. A bit sheepish, she reached into her bag and pulled out the detector: and saw the diode was actually two; a blinking green light for the anomaly, and a steady red for... something.

"Umm, it's red. What's that mean?"

Tiptoe grinned beneath his mask and clapped her on the shoulder. "It means, one, I'm going to eat well tonight. Two, your viewers are going to see some real cool shit."

"Jake! Get the camera!"

"We can see you from down here!" Jake yelled back, training the camera on Tiptoe and Natasha. "What is it?"

"Some, anomaly- anomaly called Gorgon's Bath, and an artifact inside!"

Natasha turned back, and Tiptoe was clambering up on the railing, his weapon and vest piled on the catwalk. For a moment, she thought this was possibly the worst idea she'd seen in action. In the next moment, she knew this was a bad idea.

"Tiptoe!"

"I'm okay!" he shouted, his feet hooked around the edge of the funnel. "I can see it! It— it's beautiful! I've almost—"

The sound she heard next was something like ripping bark and sizzling fat with a broken glass falsetto, an awful sound and the sight of billowing smoke. The next time she had a coherent thought, Tiptoe was writhing on the catwalk, his jacket arms fusing to his skin, his hands charring and glowing as they clutched around a contorted glowing glass balloon, his mask pluming smoke and amplifying his screams as she dragged him to the catwalk, hollering herself as her mask fogged up again.

She ripped her mask off, grabbed his jacket sleeves and ripped them off, chucking them to the side as they began to liquify in her hands. She thrust her hand in her satchel and pulled out a half liter of vodka and emptied it over his forearms, hoping for the best— she saw his fingers turning to ash, saw bone, clutched around the artifact, and tore it out of his grasp— then screamed so hard she coughed up blood as her hands began to burn and fuse to its shell. She threw it behind her as hard as she could, taking patches of her palm skin with it, and forced herself to keep working, grabbing at Tiptoe's jacket and tearing away the layers, the cloth peeling away with the liquefying flesh stretching and breaking off from his body with a rubbery snap.

"Oh, oh God— what the..." Natasha turned to scream for a proper medkit and found Jake and Mike on the stairs, filming her.

"GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY FACE!"

"V-V-Vik-ka…" Tiptoe stammered, reaching out for her face, his eyes open wide, the flesh around the orbs peeling away, ashen and crumbly. "H-help me..."

She patted down his legs, ripped open pockets until she found an injector, hoped it was morphine, and slammed it down where she thought the heart was, emptying the syringe and tossing it aside. As his shivering slowed down and his screams subsided into low, rumbling moans, she continued to empty the vodka over the burns until the bottle ran dry and the burns slowly stopped smoking, leaving only the massive muscular bleeding that was soaking his chest.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, and trembled, staring at Tiptoe's half-skeletal face, the skin seared and jaw muscles quivering, glistening in the dim daylight. She heard no intelligible word from him, only chokes and burbled nonsense words as he shivered, bleeding.

"Go. Tolya will take care of you."

"I caused this," she whispered, her gut a yawning pit. "I should've stayed out of the way."

Washer shook his head, and cocked his rifle. "Such is the Zone." He took aim at Tiptoe's head, and squeezed the trigger.

"What are you doing!?" Natasha screamed as she grabbed the rifle and wrenched it upwards, sending the round skating through the thin grate floor. "He's still alive!"

"Natalya, look at him! He has no skin."

"He's breathing! He's still alive!"

"He's going to die. There's no way he'll survive out here. If we were in a city, where there are hospitals, yes, he might make it. But he's lying on a factory catwalk at least forty kilometers from the nearest medical center, with nothing but cheap vodka and rusty needles for a surgeon's tools!"

"You can't just kill a man," Natasha cried, hugging Washer as he tried to wrestle his rifle out of her grip. "Not like this. He deserves to live!"

'No he doesn't,' thought Washer. 'Not by the Zone's rules. Life is earned, not given.'

He looked back behind him, at the camera man, Jake, filming every second of the drama. He shook his head. Who cared if the public watched while he killed a man? They wouldn't know his face, and after the programme, wouldn't care to.

He looked at Tiptoe, and cursed himself.

Pasha, come down here and help me carry Tiptoe. Grisha, find that artifact, put it in the lead box. Don't touch it with your hands, use the tongs. Natalya, go to Tolya. Your hands are burned and you've been sucking in rads with that mask off."

Natasha nodded, barely able to see anyway, and shuffled down the stairs, allowing herself to be led out to a clear patch by Tolya, and her hands cleaned off and bandaged, and an anti-rad needle injected into her arm. "Don't eat anything for four hours, it'll just come right back out."

She looked at Tiptoe coming down the stairs, felt her stomach all up in knots. "I don't think I'll have a problem with that."

Tolya nodded and left to help Grisha track down the fallen artifact. Natasha wiped her eyes and replaced her mask, listening to her own breathing as the sun briefly broke the clouds to shine on them. A couple minutes later, Pasha and Tolya had Tiptoe slung between their shoulders, Grisha taking the rear with the camera crew and Natasha up at the front with Washer.

The railroad embankment was another hour's walk. Natasha tried to make some brief commentary on the strange, twisted rails above them, and broke down crying in front of the camera. The stalkers did not stand around her, but filled their bags with metal scrap from the collapsed train cars and their cargo, took off their masks and briefly ate and drank a shot of vodka. Then, ten minutes later, they got up again, just as wordlessly, and they walked on, bearing their comrade without complaint.

An hour and a half passed, occasionally marked with beeps of the anomaly detector and bouts of bolt throwing to find a path, and backtracking when one trail led them into a nest of contorted gravity. Natasha had hardly spoken nor noticed the time when they suddenly stopped in front of a small cottage with only half its walls and one room, the outer portion being a ripped up wood deck with a small gas drum fireplace set by thoughtful first stalkers.

"Tolya, Grisha, find some branches to burn. You got a hatchet?"

Grisha nodded.

"Get some wood too. Don't cut us down any Death Moss or we'll all be dead of fumes morning come."

"Got it boss."

"And don't go far. If you can't find any wood, we'll just deal with the cold. Try not to bring back any dogs."

Grisha and Tolya set off with shotguns and hatchets, while Pasha and Natasha carried Tiptoe into the back room and set him on the floor, covering him over with a tarpaulin from the cement factory.

"Pasha, you should rest," said Natasha, averting her gaze from the reedy looking stalker.

"Not my call—

"Drop and snooze," Washer interrupted. "Don't worry, I'll keep you up later. Miss Palinchak, keep me company, would'ya?"

She glanced at Pasha, who had already slumped against the wall, head cradled in his knees. Tiptoe had nothing to say, only mutters in his fevered sleep. She sighed, and walked out, standing beside Washer as he squatted on the ground, rifle across his feet.

They said nothing for a while. Just watched the scene before them. Almost idyllic, in a grey skies and exhausting trauma sort of way. The trees were healthy and green in spite of the Zone's terrors, the grass thick and full, and the occasional squirrel and smaller animals flitting about. Birds circled overhead, some crows, colorful songbirds too.

"I'm sorry," Natasha pre-empted, looking away, her throat dry and tense.

Washer sighed and patted her rear. "Look, sit down, would'ya? I feel like I'm talking to your vagina right now, and I want to talk to your face."

Natasha blushed and sat down on the splintered floor, legs held together extra tightly.

"You did alright," he began, wrinkling his mouth as he realized he hadn't thought of anything to follow that with.

"Alright?" Natasha gulped and looked away again, breathing deeply as her eyes threatened to water up again. "I almost got a man killed— hell, he's probably just a dead man walking anyway, like you said. If I hadn't been tag teaming him like that, he'd—

"Be a pile of liquid bone going up in smoke and we'd be short an artifact too. Because you were on his ass, he might actually live. The Flea Market in Rostok is the place to find every sort of weird shit imaginable. Guns, gear, artifacts— they're more than just glowy radioactive trinkets, you know. I know there's one that can fix him up, I've seen it before. Matter of fact, I'm pretty sure I know who's got it."

Natasha stared at him. Washer shrugged. He'd gotten used to her blank stares by this point. "Look, you're still a green as hell crotch wad. But you're smarter than the average knuckledragger that comes through the Cordon. You knew to use alcohol for the chemical burns from that anomaly. You got him out of his jacket before it melted him. You injected him with the coagulant to slow the bleeding in his muscles— even if you did have to pat him down for it."

Natasha gulped. "I thought that was morphine."

Washer palmed his forehead. "First thing to learn: when to shut up. Someone says something nice about you, just take it. It's the Zone, take your happiness where you can find it, and don't spoil nobody else's mood if you can help it (unless they're wearing tracksuits.)"

Natasha smiled and leaned against his shoulder. "Thank you, Washer."

The stalker nodded, and gently rested his arm across her shoulders. "Er... okay. I guess."

When he looked over at her, she was asleep, her face a thing of beauty the likes of which he'd been long deprived. He found himself content to watch her, occasionally glancing up to check his surroundings.

This is great footage. Great footage.

But— we're filming a documentary.

Romantic sideplot. Look at the production value!

Shut up and keep filming.

An hour later, Grisha and Tolya returned with firewood, saw Natasha sleeping against Washer's shoulder, and couldn't help but mouth off.

"Aww, aren't you just the cutest ladykiller?" cooed Grisha.

"I'll hang your intestines on a tree for Christmas lights," Washer snapped, pulling his combat knife out for emphasis. "Feed your dick to a pseudodog and call it Betty White."

Tolya snickered, and the two fed and started the fire and started warming some tushonka cans over it while Grisha drummed his fingers on the lid of the artifact container.

"So what'd we get?" said Washer, his voice low.

"Big old green glowing thing. Maybe a Bubble?"

"Too rare, too rare. Must be something else."

"Why don't we pop open the box and take a look?"

"Already burned two sets of hands today. No need to get cataracts today."

"Suit yourself." After their spartan dinner, Grisha dropped inside to take a nap, and Tolya sat out with Washer for the next couple hours. Around 9pm, 3 hours later, they changed watches, swapping out Tolya for Pasha. Seeing Washer asleep there with Natasha, the two sleeping upright against each other, they left them alone, and the other stalkers divided the watches among themselves, ignoring the camera crew who had fallen asleep by the corner room door.

(Potential dream / memory scene)

It was Grisha's three hours on watch, somewhere between the ass crack and buttcheek of the morning when he shuddered back into wakefulness, his ears ringing with silence. He looked left, and realized the fire was out; there was nothing before him but inky blackness under a new moon, with scant but stars to cast shadows through the tree canopy.

He spent several seconds digging through his bag, eventually pulling out a hardy steel-cased maglite. His thumb moved to the on switch, when his nerves froze and instinct told him to wait. His ears thrummed with the sheer silence of the night; not even the trees swayed, not a single noise.

Then he heard it. The soft pad of a predator through the grass— and several more, slow and patient, the steps of a beast who knows the prey is all but in its jaws. A beast that not only fears no man, but prefers him as prey.

Grisha had never seen a pseudodog. He'd heard them on the wind, their human word howls, calling death and savagery in a wolf's savage trill. He'd seen their teeth on necklaces sold at Sidorovich's bunker, more steel than bone. And he knew the stories, of their horrible human faces filled with angler-fish teeth long enough to pierce your arm through and through.

He didn't dare move. If he twitched, they would kill him. If he shouted, they would kill him. If he waited another minute more, his pounding heart would kill him too, beat itself right out of his chest. If he didn't act, then everyone would die.

He flicked on the light.

The beam fell upon a near skeletal head, more draped with skin than covered over with flesh- a very much dog-shaped skull, with a pair of milky white eyes that did not move as the beam fell on its face. A blind dog. Just a normal dog, more or less.

"Dogs—!"

Washer sat upright and lifted his gun with one motion, firing at movement before he even saw it, his body moving purely on instinct. Tolya and Pasha jerked awake and scrambled out with their guns and lights and fired into the darkness, the night a cacophany of howling and gunfire.

Natasha awoke dazed and deafened, vaguely heard a question and began to mouth an answer when something sharp bit into her ankle and dragged her through the grass. She kicked at it, blind and weak, flailing like a stunned infant as the night lit up with flashes and she screamed and screamed, unable to hear herself or see her attacker—

When it suddenly simply dropped her, leaving her half in a bush, the black night spinning before her eyes and shooting pain through her leg, her calf wet with blood. She cried out, yelled and yelled until her hearing returned and something else grabbed her around the shoulders and heaved her onto her feet.

"You okay?" someone shouted in her ear.

"Yes! Ow, ow, my foot, oh God, what, what's going on—"

"Dogs. Where did it bite you? Can you walk?"

"Foot. I think so."

"Then let's go." Natasha hobbled onward as Washer dragged her behind, forging back to the cottage.

"Hey Pasha! Since when do dogs run away from a fight they're winning?"

"Shut up Tolya! And reload your damn weapon!"

"Where's Grisha? Grisha? You alive?"

"Yeah— blind mongrel bit my left nut. Kurwa pizdeca."

"Stalkers! Where's the film crew?"

"Pissing themselves in the corner with Tiptoe," Grisha muttered. "My left nut..."

"Oh shut up, he bit you on the thigh, not the balls. No one takes that like a man. Now bandage yourself up, reload and let's—"

Wash stopped suddenly, looking straight over the half-roof of the house. Natasha opened her mouth to ask, followed his gaze, and froze.

"Boss? You were saying? Boss? Boss…"

Grisha stared at Washer and Natasha as the two of them and everything around them became suffused with a red glow, like falling embers laid over the world like a carpet. Hesitantly, he stepped outside and looked up.

"Oh God. I hope there's a heaven."

Natasha swallowed. "I guess we run."

As the claxons roared distantly at the village, and the air filled with a thundering drone like a million charging horses, Washer nodded, squeezing her hand tightly. "Yeah. We run."

Washer dragged her off through the foliage, gun in one hand and her wrist in the other. He yelled for the others to follow and didn't look back for them. They could hear bones creaking and muscles tearing, their lungs on fire as they pitched on through the crimson night, thunder splitting the sky like belching giants, lightning shearing the trees, black shadows curling above the cloud layer as a great tide of dust and debris six miles high roared out from the Zone's heart, Chernobyl, visible from every angle, a mass of radiation and death, the murderous breath of the living, breathing, merciless Zone. Long after their lungs had caught fire, their throats baked and cracked from the hail of dust and burning air, a mixture of fire and hellish brimstone, blood trailed from their lips and came up with their heaving breaths as the Zone's fiery breath burned at their clothes, lashed their backs with dust and lightning, whipped them on and on and on.

Washer threw her inside the door of the building and crashed to the floor, deaf and bleeding and burning. Natasha wheeled around and lurched to the door, saw Grisha running through the maelstrom, shouted for him to hurry— felt herself grabbed and hurled to the ground, the door slammed shut as the fury of the Zone swept through the Cordon, bathing it in radiation and psychic energy, killing every thinking being not hidden behind concrete or iron or sixteen feet of cold dirt.

She trembled where she lay, passing in and out of consciousness so fluidly that she could not distinguish her sleep from wakefulness, alternating between dreaming of Tiptoe's inhuman screams of agony and hearing the screams of a million damned souls carried on a radioactive hellstorm.

Washer simply sat with his back to the door, licked the copper-tasting blood off his lips, and made sure he had a fresh magazine in his Kalashnikov. Then, with nothing else to do, he rested his head against the cellar stairs and took a nap for the night.