Part 1: Act 1;

The Road to the Military Warehouses, Abandoned Village, 1900 H, June 7, 2013

A foul wind stirred the trees. The brush crackled and then gave way to bayonet and rifle butt as

Lance Corporal Mitay Duchenkov of Duty slashed his way through a clump of thorny bushes.

Taking care to avoid the spiky plants, Mitay picked his way out of his makeshift blind and emerged

into a grassy field.

Directly ahead an abandoned Soviet cooperative farm squatted above an irradiated river filled with

a black sludge—his hunting grounds for today. It had taken three hours to finally reach this

secluded valley, with frequent stops to avoid detection by the many wild boars that roamed the area.

Damn, he thought as he surveyed the numerous buildings, if only my squad wasn't out with the flu!

A routine Artefact-hunting mission was made all the more dangerous without one's team, and it only

got worse when one went hunting in an unmapped area like this. Anything could happen in the

Zone, and unfamiliar territory made it all the more dangerous. Still, untouched hunting grounds

always made up for it in plentiful Artifacts.

Checking the magazine on his G36 assault rifle, Mitay sighted downrange towards a particularly

dank house and squeezed off two shots in rapid succession. The boards blocking the front door of a

small cottage blasted violently off their fittings in a cloud of sawdust and wood chips. He flipped

his magazine out, fished two more bullets out of his right pocket and popped them in.

After replacing the magazine, Mitay walked cautiously towards the village, occasionally throwing

bolts ahead of him. Fields like this one were notorious for being gravity-traps; places congested

with Anomalous gravity fields, to the detriment of a careless Stalker. Reaching the dilapidated

porch of what was once a farmhouse without incident, he peered through the darkness that shrouded

the front hallway.

Checking his semi-transparent magazine again unnecessarily, he reached into his hip sack and

pulled out a particularly rusty bolt. From another pouch on the opposite side came a length of

elastic band scavenged from a pair of discarded socks, a scrap of crusty leather from an old boot,

and a small lump of homemade adhesive putty. Sticking two bits of putty along the barrel of his

rifle and using the last bit to glue the fabric to the string, he experimented with his new creation.

Putting a bolt in the 'glove' of his makeshift slingshot, he fired into the field.

The bolt landed a good twenty meters from where he stood, triggering a cluster of Springboard

anomalies. Pleased with his invention, he pulled out a another bolt—a 'lucky' red one that he always

remembered to recover later—kissed it reverently, and fired it down the hallway. It bounced once,

kicking up a cloud of dust, and then lay still.

Immediately a shrill chattering sounded form the back room as a swarm of Tushkanos—ravenous,

flesh-eating rodents the size of cats—came shooting out of the house, startled by Mitay's 'lucky'

bolt. Mitay barely had time to leap out of the way as the Tushkanos rushed blindly out of the house

and into the field, where they were pulled into the crushing gravity field and then discorporated

violently, slinging bits of flesh in all directions.

Mitay stood in amazement at his incredible good fortune and then went into the house. The dark

hallway, now well lit by his headlamp, betrayed its years of wear and tear. Abandoned sometime

after the Chernobyl incident, many houses still showed signs of habitation: an old wooden rocking

chair, a rotting loom, a small wooden bowl or an obscure tool, all lost and forgotten in the panic

after the Chernobyl disaster.

After exploring the house and recovering his 'lucky' bolt, he exited out the back door and walked to

the middle of the lane. The co-op was a collection of houses, outbuildings, and storage sheds

collected together in a small village. Back in the thirties, the farm's heyday, the villagers had both

lived and worked, working the low wetlands into golden sheaves of wheat. He counted the

buildings, fourteen in all, too many to explore alone foot, especially with the sun setting.

Sun setting! Reminded of the time, he whipped out his PDA and began to compose a report on his

progress while gathering his things and backing towards to woods. His CO would be livid. Out late

again, what was I thinking! Not thinking, he corrected himself. Just as he was about to hit Send, he

heard a sound. Not the low, guttural shorting made by boars or the deep growling of a wild dog or

even the animal roar produced by the Snork, but something worse. The sound every Stalker fears,

the one they each hear in their deepest nightmares, an evil, haunting, primordial sound. It was a low,

mucus-filled rasping, quickening in excitement and then climaxing in a blood-curdling roar. The

sound of a Bloodsucker on the hunt.

Dropping his PDA into his pocket, he swept his head around, looking for the source of the rasping.

A horrible slurping noise, like crossed between sucking through a pierced straw and sniffling back a

nose full of snot followed the roar. Peeking around the corner of a house, he saw it: more than two

meters tall, covered in a beige mottled hide that was somewhere between scales and skin. Flaky

radiation burns and scars covered the naked creature from head to foot.

Its long, clawed arms and webbed feet strained against invisible bonds in vain, and its tautly

muscled form coiled and loosened in time with its roars of protest. It was impossible to discern

gender, as it was both bald-headed and flat-chested, and their reproductive organs, if these creatures

had such things, were not properly located for a creature so human-like.

The most foul part of the creature was its mouth. It had no jaw, merely had a hole where its throat

was, surrounded by long, blood-red tentacles for sucking blood. These hung loose know, useless

tools against a foe that would neither show itself nor stand and fight. The natural hunter had been

beaten at his own game. Mitay watched in amazement as the evil beast's breathing slowed and

finally stopped, its upper body slumping over into what must be a restful state for it.

Well, thought Mitay, I guess they sleep standing up. It was an incredibly useless and thoroughly

wasteful observation, as he should have grabbed his pack and made a run for it. Unfortunately,

Mitay's inquisitive nature got the better of him and he moved toward the slumbering beast instead

of away from it.

Mitay, unfortunately, was never very careful when he was exited about something, and an incurable

klutz when under pressure. That was why, he recounted later, he tripped over himself on perfectly

level ground . Fortunately for him, instead of getting a face full of dirt, he found himself trapped,

mid-fall, in an invisible viscous substance. It was an incredible sensation, like being caught in a

wall warm honey. His feet, still twisted up around each other, were free of the stuff.

Intrigued as he was, the sight of the collapsed Bloodsucker took priority, and he made an effort to

free himself. He couldn't move. His kicked his legs but he made no head way. The more he fought,

the more fatigued he became, and the sweat clung to him instead of falling off like it should. After a

moment of panicking, Mitay found he could move a little as long as he careful to keep his gestures

slow and deliberate, something his fellow captive had neglected to do.

Pulling his feet in after him, he half-walked, half-swam to a nearby porch. He found he could not

sit, but that he was quite comfortable standing. He would remark later that it was like laying down

upright, totally supported on all sides by warm, comfortable, nothingness. In fact, he was feeling so

comfortable he felt like a nap. With great effort he closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep. His mind

was blurring and the world was slowly spinning to a stop, like the last ride of the carnival merry-goround

from his distant childhood.

He began to sprawl, letting his weapon float gently a few centimeters away. His open thigh sack

spewed torrents of useful doo-dads: bits of metal, string, his bottle of putty, and several spent shell

casings he had been shaping into a letter opener slowly drifted out.

Finally, the last thing to go was his Artefact. An odd-shaped fist-sized lump the color of old asphalt,

the Jellyfish Artefact was a minor-class Artefact that, when held close to a body, would absorb and

eliminate radioactive particles, thus reducing the effects of radiation on that body. While the

Artefact was common enough, it was still expensive to purchase and rare enough to make replacing

it difficult.

He reached for it, but missed and hit his head on a rain gutter that had fallen partway down from its

fastenings on the roof. Pain exploded behind his eyelids. Moaning, he drifted, a current now

sweeping the field of invisible amber, slowly bearing him and hi varied equipment toward a grain

silo at the far end of the row of houses. I always liked silos, he thought dreamily.

A part of him knew then that something was wrong, and struggled helplessly to get him back to

consciousness. With supreme effort he cracked his eyes open, only to be blinded by a brilliant white

light and finally sink back into unconsciousness.