Years ago, my father Vladimir Voyla grew up in the outer parts of Pripyat. Living there was likely a pleasant thing, but I know little of what life before the disaster must have been like. All I know is it was before my time. After the Chernobyl plant explosion, my father and everyone he ever knew was forced to evacuate, leaving behind whatever they couldn't carry. He used to tell me how he was looking forward to the new amusement park that was scheduled to open a few days after the disaster. Today, it remains one of the most heavily irradiated locations in the exclusion zone. Everything changed in a matter of days. My grandparents moved to Krasnodar, while my father went further north east following the love of his life and my future mother.

Her name was Éva. She was moving out to live with her aunt who made her home in some unnamed village with few modern commodities save for a handful of televisions, lights, plumbing, and a general store. There were no phones, no computers, and most of us had to rely on newspapers to know what was going on. Still, live didn't change much in that little village, disconnected from the rest of the world. There was a single Russian Orthodox Church in the town, where almost every resident of the village would gather for prayer and other ceremonies.

I was born in nineteen ninety two, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. While across the rest of Russia, some panicked, some cheered, life in this village never changed said my father. The Soviet Union fell to pieces, and barely anyone ever noticed where we were. Some of the village's oldest residents said that's how things were out there, and they viewed it as a blessing. The entire world could slip into chaos, and this place we called home would be forever frozen in time and prosperity.

Perhaps destiny would have it that it was up to me to destroy that little tranquility and make things more interesting. When I was three years old, I discovered how to open the gate in my back yard. My mother tried to frighten me with stories about wolves gobbling up children who misbehaved, but that only roused my curiosity. Much to her panic one day, I stumbled out the back gates and into the dark forest that surrounded my home.

I thought nothing of it. For me, those gates were a portal into a new and vastly greater world than the borders of my back yard. Before I realized it, I had apparently wandered over two miles from my house and into the wilderness. It is a day I will never forget as long as I live. Although I was born in nineteen ninety two, my life only truly began at that instance that I escaped my yard.

It was the middle of winter, and a clean fresh blanket of snow covered the ground between the numerous trees. I had never seen anything like it. I was so used to new snow being trampled into a brown, disgusting slurry by the busy life of the village and the various livestock that wandered it. Out here, instead of goat hooves and boot prints, the most I found were tiny tracks left by rabbits, wolves, reindeer, various birds, and much more. My own tracks were the only evidence of human presence in the area.

I followed a set of canine trails after a while until arriving at an icy river. Had I known better about the dangers of crossing frozen river water, I probably wouldn't have followed the tracks any further. However, the wolf tracks went straight across, so I went after them. I was intent on seeing these elusive beasts. The most of a wolf I had ever seen was a pelt my father had in front of the fireplace as a small rug.

After a few more hours of searching, my efforts soon paid off. I heard a howl in the distance. My heart began to race, not in fear, but in a thrill like I had never felt before—and never would again for many years. I still remember the scene as vivid as it was to me the morning after.

A set of wolf tracks converged onto a single path, and I spotted movement ahead. Using some bushes for cover, I ducked out of sight in an effort to stay hidden as I approached the source of the sound. Another series of howls rung out across the landscape, an eerie, indescribable sound that felt as if it penetrated my very soul. The way it echoed through the forest was like a melody after listening for a few moments. All else was silent save for the constant calls of the wild canines.

I steadied my breath and stayed put in the bush for a long time until I could feel the cold snow soaking through my booties, chilling my toes. The shrill wind had begun to penetrate my thick jacket, and my ears stung with the icy air. I pulled my hood over my head and tightened it over my face, and used my scarfs to cover everything but my eyes. Finally I sensed movement behind me.

I turned, and for the first and final time of my life, there stood a magnificent white wolfess, staring at me from only a few meters away. Her yellow eyes gazed upon me with as much curious wonder as I had for her, but neither of us dared to approach the other. She wasn't a pup, but she was still young, maybe only a year or two old or else I doubt she would have been very friendly toward me. Then again, perhaps it was because I was so young and small myself that she didn't view me as a threat.

Her perfect white fur was interrupted only by a pink tint around her jaws. She was returning from a successful hunt. Maybe that was another possible reason she didn't bother to attack me. Either way, the encounter only lasted a few minutes until another howl reached us. Her ears perked, and finally her head lifted and quirked to stare off into the distance to my right. I looked over my shoulder to see what she was looking at, but when I turned to face her again she was gone. All that remained were a set of footprints that traveled away toward a hidden ditch. I figured she must have run through it avoiding my field of view. I never saw her again after that.

After that encounter, I decided I was done. I was starting to realize how far I had actually drifted, and it started to make me nervous about how angry my mother would be. Following the same trail I left in the first place, I started walking home.

When I reached the river again, I could hear search dogs barking, and people calling my name. I walked across the river again, but when I reached the other side to find my father, I was greeted by a firm smack across the back of the head, and a scolding for crossing the dangerous river. I started crying as he tried to explain how I could have fallen through the ice, but at the time I grew angry at him for being so upset over nothing. I was fine, so what was the matter? Of course today I understand his frustration. His irritation toward my actions was his way of showing how much he loved me and how he feared for me in my absence.

My mother was none too thrilled either when I came back home either. I received a long and painful spanking and my parents wouldn't let me out of their sight for almost a year afterward. It wasn't until I went off to school that my parents finally let me go for a little while, but the punishment did little to deter me from future adventures.

As the years went on, it wouldn't be the last time I escaped the back yard. By the time my mother demanded my father put a lock on the fence, I had found a way to climb over it. When my father went so far as to put barbed wire at the top of the fence, I dug a hole under it and wiggled through. When he filled the hole and locked up his shovel, I instead simply didn't return home from school on some days and went exploring instead.

After a while, my father finally started to give up in controlling me, and decided instead it was a perfectly healthy thing for a boy my age to do. My uncle on my father's side who was once a soldier in the Soviet military came over for my birthday and gave me a combat knife as a gift. It was in rough shape, but I sharpened it until it could split hairs and utilized it on every adventure since then. My father also ordered some hiking and winter gear through the mail and gave it to me the birthday afterward. By this time I was around fourteen years old.

My mother never got used to my adventures, and she always feared for my safety, but soon she too began to understand that it was impossible to contain my desire to explore. As the years went on, I started traveling further and further. By the time I reached eighteen, I had thoroughly explored a radius outside my village of over twenty miles. I had bought a Makarov pistol should I ever find the need to protect myself, though I never used it. I'd bring tents along for my longest journeys and spend the night, listening to the calls of the wolves in the middle of the night, sometimes hoping I'd see that white wolfess again, and returning home in the morning only to arrive back at my house by dusk. Inevitably though, I had reached the limits of my reach.

One night, the furthest I've ever traveled alone from my village on foot, I was camped out against a hillside on a snowy evening when a blizzard struck. The landscape was transformed overnight, and my tent was half-buried in over five feet of snow forcing me to dig my way out. This time I didn't make it home the same day. In fact, I actually got lost. For the first time in my life, I was afraid I wouldn't get back home. Fortunately I had some maps and a compass to navigate my way back home, but it took me two days to get back in the deep snow. By the time I did, I was hungry, shaken, and sopping wet. Yet, somehow I still made it back unscathed.

I learned upon the day of my return that two others who were out hunting that same night I left weren't so lucky. One of them was found a week later outside the village, suffering from hypothermia, and the other was just never seen again. They were experienced huntsmen as well. I think I was just lucky. Still, after that scare, I didn't stray far from the village, no further than I had during that snowstorm. I repeatedly visited familiar sights, finding things I had missed, but eventually it all just became boring, and finally my adventures ceased all together. I knew the forests better than the layout of my own house. There just wasn't anything interesting left.

I couldn't sit still in this little village though. I was done in school, so that summer I worked for the local farms and earned enough money to move away. Maybe then I'd have some new land to explore.

I moved to Krasnodar to live with my grandparents for a short while until I found a mundane job at the local train station. I was a coach cleaner for about two years, and then I quit. It was just too damned boring.

On my last week in work, I heard a rumor that there was a train coming through the region carrying tanks and helicopters on flatbeds, while food rations and munitions in box cars rode behind them, all bound for Ukraine. As it turns out, the train was destined for the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Surely enough, the train arrived days later with brand new military hardware on board.

I wondered why a train with so much equipment would be heading to a land so devoid of any life that I knew of at the time. Why on earth would they need such powerful weapons for a place like that? So I did a little homework. Come to find out, in the years that I had been living in the village, there had been a second disaster at Chernobyl, expanding "The Zone" as people had come to call it.

Where the rest of the world saw a radioactive hell hole, and I saw an adventure at hand. I happened to know from my work at the station that the train would be there overnight refueling while the crew slept in bunk homes outside the property. I hastily grabbed what I could, including my old Makarov and my uncle's combat knife, plus some basic medical supplies and some money. In addition I bought a Geiger counter and a new PDA at the last minute from a local electronics store. I made sure the PDA had both GPS and satellite internet access. Just in case something went wrong, I figured people would be able to find me.

That night, around two in the morning, I snuck through a hole in the fence that I knew of so as to avoid the gates. I slipped past a few sleepy guards and once I was on the property, I just acted like I was part of the station staff again. I remember, I was dressed in a green jacket with a hood over my head because it was starting to drizzle that morning, and I didn't want to get too cold.

Eventually I found my way to the yard where the military train was parked. At first I was stopped by a couple of soldiers, but I told them I was with the station and I was cleaning coaches. I still had my ID, so I used it to convince them I was telling the truth. It helps that neither of them appeared very sober, or else I might not have gotten away with it.

After they accepted my story and left, I traveled along the tracks until I found a steel box car with the food rations. I reached up to the cold door handles which were dripping with condensed moisture from the misty weather. To my surprise, they had neglected to lock the car. I figured, who was going to steal from a food car? I decided that's why nobody bothered to secure this part of the train. With a strong push, I slid the door wide open and carried myself on board. All I had to do now was get comfortable and wait until the train left at dawn. In the mean time, I took my sleeping bag and laid it out across the floor and went to rest.

By the time I woke up, I could feel vibrations of the rails through the bottom of the car. I sat up and opened the door just enough to see outside, and I found myself cruising past the Ukrainian countryside. At this rate, I knew I'd be in The Zone before dark. My newest adventure had begun.

During my time on the train, I used my knife to cut open some cans of rations to feed myself and to tear open some plastic packages full of water jugs. After consuming my fill, I kept some of it for myself and stuffed it into my backpack for later, should the need arise. To pass the time, I just fiddled with my PDA browsing the web, searching for anything useful I might need to know about The Zone.

From anomalies to mutants, I studied whatever I could. However, I soon found that I did not want to be on this train when it reached its final destination. Obviously, being a stowaway I knew would land me in some hot water, but earlier I figured the worst I'd get is a hefty fine, or at worst a short time in prison if I was caught. Turns out, they were more likely to just shoot me on the spot.

I decided to open the doors and jump, but as I slid the steel passage open, in front of me all I could see was a long barbed wire fence zipping by. If I bailed out at those speeds, I'd have been gored by the wires without a hospital for miles—and that's assuming anyone found me at all.

I backed off from the door, trying to decide what to do, when all of a sudden I heard what I believed to be an explosion from the engine far ahead. Soon after, my ears were filled with the sounds of grinding metal, and I found myself thrown forward against the front wall and into the boxes of food.

The good news was the train was slowing down. The problem was I didn't know why. Little did I know, the train had been derailed, and that supposed explosion was the sound of several hundred thousand kilos of steel smashing onto its side.

We continued for another hundred meters or so until finally it stopped. I jumped out the side of the train and soon heard soldiers barking orders as they evacuated the twisted passenger cars at the front. I used this time to whip out my knife and use a wire cutting tool notched into it to break the wires. Once through, I made a run for it and sprinted down the incline against the railway.

I put a good distance between myself and the rails. For sheer sake of curiosity, I walked a ways ahead to see what happened to the train. I soon found the first dozen cars or so toppled and twisted in a mess of mangled metal. However, the locomotive its self was completely totaled. From where I stood, I could see the entire vehicle thrown down the hillside, bent at a forty-five degree angle sideways. I tried to wrap my mind around how such a thing could happen to such a massive hunk of steel, but there was no evidence of anything it could have struck. Nothing but a warp in the light above the tracks where the tracks had been forced into the dirt like a crater. The rails had embedded themselves in the ground, preventing the train from riding over them, which I assumed was the cause of the crash. However, that did nothing to explain why the train was so badly damaged.

Before the evacuating soldiers spotted me, I quickly to escaped the area. An hour later, just before sun-down, I reached The Cordon. Finally I also began to find people, but I did my best to keep to myself. I loosely followed one group of folks until we arrived at a village owned by a faction called Freedom. There was a bar inside the town walls, run by a man I'd later learn to be by the nickname of 'CC'.

I went inside and quietly ordered myself a bottle of water. New to The Zone, instead of going out to explore, for some reason I decided it was better to sit tight and see what I could overhear from the locals. Maybe pick up on a few names, or overhear some useful rumors.

I sat quietly at the corner of the bar, sipping at my bottled water when I realized I had also forgotten my sleeping bag. I abandoned my position so hastily, I never brought it along! Where was I going to sleep? At the time, I was quite pissed about probably needing to waste some rubles for a bunk to spend the night in, but in hind sight it probably saved my life in a funny way. I hadn't yet realized the dangers of The Zone and the things that go bump in the night.

After getting over the perceived inconvenience of losing my sleeping bag, I watched out of the corner of my eye and listened for anything interesting. Suddenly, I heard some woman selling firearms to the local STALKERs. I decide to get up and browse. I told her straight out of the gate that I probably can't afford anything she's selling, but all of a sudden one of the more experienced STALKERs taps me on the shoulder.

"Hey rookie, let me get you a real gun," he told me. Suddenly he pulled my wrist in front of me and swatted down a thousand rubles right into my palm. I looked at the money and toward the generous stranger, then back toward the woman selling guns.

"What can I get for this?" I asked with the money. I had my eye on an AKS-74u, which is a carbine version of the famous Kalashnikov. This more experienced STALKER was dressed in a pale green full body combat hazmat suit called a Sunrise. He commented to the woman, "And don't rip the rookie off, ok?"

She humphed and asked what I was interested in. I pointed to the AKS and she handed it over, plus several boxes of ammo and magazines for me, all for a thousand rubles. She said the ammo came free with the gun. I loaded one clip in and stuffed the rest into my pockets. I also purchased a mounted flashlight to go under the barrel.

I turned to ask the man his name. He told me, "Alex Chorei." I told him my own name, and we began chatting a bit about whatever came to mind. However, as darkness fell, I told him I should go find a place to stay. The bar keep said they weren't renting out rooms that evening, so I had to find somewhere else. Alex mentioned there was another base near by run by another faction called Duty. He said they'd have some buildings open to STALKERs for us to bunk in.

I asked Alex if he was coming. Alex shook his head and told me, "No, I'll be out hunting mutants, but if you need me just text me." He gave me his PDA information and I gave him mine. As I'd later find out, it was very common (and in fact a necessity) to have a PDA with GPS in The Zone.

I bid farewell to the generous STALKER and ordered us both a bottle of vodka—but I drank little of mine and saved the rest for later so I'd have something to help put me to sleep. After that I left out into the darkness of The Zone, following the dimly lit roads until I passed under a small tunnel going under a hill.

Now, the night was getting dark, but it wasn't quite yet pitched black. It wasn't until I was passing into the tunnel that I really needed more light. I unslung my rifle and flicked on my flashlight, but then I noticed a shadow from my peripheral vision.

I turned around and spotted two STALKERs walking behind me. One of them was in a green Sunrise hazmat suit with a gasmask, similar to Alex, but he was much taller. The other was in a black trenchcoat and hood with a skimask on. I turned briefly, holding my new AK idle, "I'd appreciate if you didn't follow me." I wondered if they saw me purchase the gun.

The STALKER in black smiled at me. "We're not following you. Chill out." He was lying and I knew it. I backed away from them, exiting the tunnel, when both of them started taking steps forward. The one in black stepped toward me. This time I raised my weapon and stated firmly. "Don't follow me!"

I backed away from the two of them slowly until I stepped off the road and behind a boulder. From there I turned and ran toward a small warehouse complex I spotted on the way.

I entered through the back gates and soon heard footsteps behind me. Knowing I had to hide, I ran for a two-story office building near the entrance and pushed open the door. Inside it was pitched black and many doors and all the windows were boarded up. I ran into the shadows and hid behind inside a short corridor. Meanwhile I drew out my PDA. I sent a brief, panicked message to Alex, hoping he'd be able to assist me.

Alex gave a prompt reply, and I described my location to him as best I could. However, I could already hear footsteps again. I put down the PDA and turned off the light, and pointed my weapon at the door around the corner while lying flat on my stomach.

The handle turned and clicked. From the light of the doorway, I could see that damn STALKER in black again, this time holding a pump action hunting shotgun. He was following me. I shot at the door, spraying a short, startling burst of fire until he ducked out of the way. A brief skirmish ensued. He popped out of hiding to fire a few shots blindly into the darkness, while I winced to see down the barrel of my weapon which was just a silhouette from my perspective.

After three shots, he'd pause to reload, and then I'd hear him chamber in a new round and continue firing for another three shots. When he went to reload a second time, I shot at the base of the plaster wall in a horizontal sweep. Bullets punched through the barrier and one found its mark. It struck him in his left leg. He fell into the doorway, swearing, and I jumped up to go stand over him.

I pointed the weapon down at his face. He was still clutching the shotgun in one hand, but his arms were outstretched beside him. Somehow he found the ability to smile and laugh at me despite the obvious pain in his expression. "You got me," he said up to me. He then threw the shotgun away to his side.

Just then I heard yelling. "Voyla!" It was Alex running through the gates, jogging with an LR-300 assault rifle. When he saw me standing over the wounded bandit, he lowered his gun. "Oh. Guess you didn't need me after all."

"What do I do now?" I asked Alex while keeping my sights trained on the bandit in case he made any sudden moves. "I can't just let him go..." Then again, I didn't want to kill him either.

Alex took over from there and pulled the bandit to his feet. Meanwhile, I picked up the shotgun. I wouldn't let the bandit only get up to shoot me after all that. I believed that Alex would handle disarming the bandit of anything else.

When he was done, he took us both to Duty base near by. We went down to the bar, which was relatively deserted despite the time of night. There was only one other STALKER there, a highly experienced mercenary wearing a black military-like full body armor called a SKAT. His helmet was off, and he was enjoying a bit of beer from the looks of it. He paid no attention to us as we entered at first. He was too busy with some paperwork and his drink. Meanwhile, a soft tune played from the radio in the background.

Alex sat me and the bandit down on the other side of the bar and tried to even get us chatting. To say the least, we weren't exactly in a talkative mood. "You two going to behave?" Alex spoke to us like the bandit and I were children. Mere quarreling siblings. I was a bit offended at how trivial he made a firefight sound. Still, I nodded in reply. I think Alex just wanted to avoid us dueling it out in Duty base. After my response, he told us, "Good. Now I'll be right back with a medkit." He stepped out of the bar and went to a nearby locker room where he had rented storage.

Meanwhile, the mercenary across the room had been observing us. He finally spoke up, amused by the situation as a whole. "So that's it? You're going to be best buddies now?" he mocked.

I hesitated at first. It did sound very stupid. I reluctantly replied, "Well I wouldn't say that... but... I guess we're on speaking terms?"

I took my eyes off that damn bandit only for one moment and that's all it took. I don't know where he got it, but all of a sudden he pulled a small pistol out of his coat. He spun me by the shoulder so I was facing him and unloaded on me at point blank range.

All of a sudden I could feel hot pieces of metal ripping through my flesh. Somehow I didn't feel the pain of the shots right away, but I knew I was being shot. No, I was being killed. A couple rounds hit me in the upper chest. Others went through my shoulders and some through my stomach and right arm. He just spun his arm in a circular motion while firing to make sure he shot every part of me he could. Next thing I know I'm slumped against the wall, gasping for air.

I heard an explosion from my left side, in the direction of the mercenary, then the bandit's head popped like a water balloon. His body dropped straight to the floor. I glanced over to see the smoking barrel of a .50 caliber Desert Eagle held up by the mercenary. He calmly put the hand cannon back down onto the table and stepped over to look at us both. He noticed I was still alive, and knelt down in front of me.

By now I was beginning to go into shock. I clutched my chest, and I could feel a hole in my flesh. My clothes were becoming sticky and wet with my own blood. I nervously looked down to find myself sitting in a pool of crimson liquid. This is the state that Alex returned to find me in. The mercenary briefly explained what happened, and they pulled me up onto the table and cut my clothes open.

I was certain I was going to die right there in the middle of a bar in this God forsaken wasteland. For some reason I thought back to the hunters who disappeared so many years ago. Would anyone even know how I died? Would I just disappear, never to be heard of by my family again? I realized I never actually told anyone about my plans to enter The Zone. My adventure started as they so often did—an unexpected spark of curiosity. Now it all was about to end, because of a spark of gunpowder.

That's what was going through my mind anyway. Obviously, had this been the actual case, you the reader would not have the pleasure of reading about my adventures now would you? Fortunately for you and I, the mercenary happened to be an ex-medic in a foreign military, and he carried a reasonable amount of aid.

Without disinfectant, they used vodka. Without tweezers and medical razors, they used a pair of sharp knives. Without anesthetic, they put a hunk of wood in my mouth and told me to bite. Without letting me have the fortune of passing out, they began to extract some bullets left inside while Alex held me down.

That's the last thing I remember. Alex later told me that I cried like a baby, not that I find that particularly amusing, but whatever they did it worked. The next day I woke, overwhelmed with a throbbing pain throughout my torso. I was laying down on a sleeping bag, still in the same clothes although now ripped, dry, and stained with crusty blood. I looked down at my chest to find myself covered in bandages wrapped all around my torso.

"Sleeping beauty," I heard. Alex smiled at me from the doorway of the shabby abandoned warehouse I was sleeping in. There were other STALKERs there as well, some awake, some asleep, one playing a guitar, and another even had a trash barrel with a warm fire going inside. All were rookies like me except for Alex in his green sunrise. "Can you walk?" Alex asked.

I wasn't sure. I sat up a little, but it's like I could feel a thousand nails digging into every part of my chest and stomach, plus my right arm where I'd also been hit. I groaned and rolled onto my side to push myself off the floor instead of pulling up. Alex came over and helped get me to my feet.

Soon as he was confident I could stand, he eased off and let me recover my balance. "How do you feel?" I looked at him like he was an idiot for asking the question. He smiled and laughed at me. "Just take it easy for a while. You got my PDA info, and you should be safe here for a while."

I took a deep breath, but doing so put another wave of pain through my front. I let out a sharp cough and held my chest again. When I regained my ability to speak, I asked him, "How long do you think I'll be like this?"

"Eh, anywhere from three to six months and you'll be good as new," he patted my shoulder.

"Six months?" I exclaimed. "What the fuck am I supposed to do until then?" I went into a coughing fit again. Oddly, the injuries themselves didn't concern me. I just didn't want to be stuck sitting around doing nothing for half a year. When I was nine years old, I hurt my arm in one of my adventures. I was out rock climbing on the side of a small waterfall outside my village. When I slipped on some of the rocks and fell on my arm, I sprained and dislocated it. I got back to my parents, and they took me to the only doctor's office in town and the doctor gave me some pain killers and put me in a sling. Days later, despite my parent's orders to stay inside until I healed, I went back to the waterfall—still in a sling—and explored until I found a safer path to climb it.

"Don't worry," Alex assured me. "You'll be able to leave in a few days. I'd suggest hanging out for at least a couple of weeks though, just so you can breathe without popping holes in yourself." He patted my chest and snickered.

"Well I'm happy you find this all amusing," I remarked.

"You're pretty lucky you know," Alex tells me. "We shouldn't be having this conversation."

"What's so lucky about it? I get attacked by some asshole who tries to murder me, and now I'm stuck here for two weeks."

"Yea, but you're alive!" Alex smiled. "You live to fight another day, and that's all that matters. Hey, word of advice from a veteran. Keep yourself out of trouble. Don't get tangled in Military, Duty, or Freedom. Stay away from bandits, too. The less people you risk pissing off, the better off you'll be. Now what do you say we go get a drink?"

I went quiet for a minute, then decided he was right. "I'm keeping his shotgun as a trophy." Who knows? Maybe it was a lucky charm? I began to smile. "Alright, let's go."

We went off to the bar soon after to chill out for a while, and I spent the next four days in Duty base. Thus began my life in the Zone.