Death in Stalker, Part 2

The biggest cowards in the Zone are the Ukrainian soldiers that try to police it. They don’t go anywhere without overwhelming numbers and high-tech equipment, and they usually have attack helicopters flying cover. You can expect to see them whenever you’ve uncovered anything of value, or if you and your comrades have managed to clear a dangerous area. Then the army will swoop in and kill everyone.

They’re also corrupt. Every time I had to go through an army checkpoint, they extracted a hefty bribe at gunpoint. Meanwhile, they’ve got every exit to the Exclusion Zone mined and guarded. Anyone who tries to leave gets shot down without warning.

So even though I decided I was through with contract killing, I made an exception where the army was concerned. I can only be hassled, extorted, and nearly gunned down in free-fire zones so many times before I start taking it a little personally.

Furthermore, my murder of that deserter had an interesting effect on my ethics. While it had seemed like a watershed moment of realization that would put me on the path to a more merciful journey through the Zone, it turned out to be more of a benchmark. My reasoning went like this: I might as well commit lesser evils, because I’d done worse. In for a penny and all that.

I took a job to get a tricked-out pistol from the army major who oversees a checkpoint in the Cordon. Basically, someone wanted a novelty gun and I was going to have to kill six people to get him his souveneir. But these six people were soldiers, and those guys are assholes.

I took the contract and headed down to the checkpoint, where the soldiers ripped me off for the usual fee and gave me the usual warning about shooting me if I didn’t behave myself. This time, however, I felt that “delicious coldness” that Michael Corleone felt when the police captain gave him a beating. As I forked over my cash, I knew these guys were already ghosts. I walked through the checkpoint, made a note of its layout, and headed over the nearby ridge.

The sun was going down fast and I decided to wait until it was dark to make my attack. Dusk and dawn are difficult times to operate, because neither normal eyesight nor nightvision really work. Your eyes can’t penetrate the shadows and your nightvision is blown by the fact that the sun is sitting on the horizon.

I got into position behind some shrubs and made final preparations. I loaded armor-piercing rounds into my sidearm, which I hoped I wouldn’t have to use. I had three grenades, which I would need if they rushed me or if I needed to flush them out of cover. My rifle was the weak link. I was being forced to use the AN-94 assault rifle, which is the successor to the Kalashnikov line of rifles. It’s marginally more accurate, but still not a sniper’s weapon. It puts maybe one round in five in the crosshairs, while the rest of the shots fall a few degrees off-center. This means that even with a clear shot, you have to pop off several rounds to make sure your target goes down. This exposes your position to everyone else, and gives enemies more time to find cover. Not exactly the way of the ninja.

As the shadows deepened, I moved out from behind the bushes and drew a bead on the Major. The last light bled from the sky and I flipped on my night vision goggles. Now I could see him perfectly, standing on the summit of his tiny little hill and surveying his miniscule kingdom.

The first shot missed high and he made a run for it, but in the wrong direction. I caught him at the bottom of the slope with a few rounds, then took a quick look around as some wild shots started coming from the checkpoint. Another trooper was at the base of my ridge trying to find me, but he’d come too close for me to miss with a headshot.

There were four of them left and they’d taken cover from my sniper fire. I flipped the gun back to automatic for the infighting that was about to begin, then moved down the hill toward their position. I saw a flash of movement next to a shipping container and loosed a volley of shots. No more movement, but I didn’t know if that meant I’d killed my target or if he’d just gotten back in cover.

I pulled out my grenades and started flinging them into the checkpoint, spread out so that running from one would take my victims into the blast from another. As they exploded, I dashed across the road to negate their cover. I only saw one soldier hiding in the middle of the checkpoint, and took him down with the better part of a clip.

I put in a fresh clip, but there was no more shooting. I checked out the scene through my scope and counted the bodies. The Major, Headshot, Movement (I must have hit him), Coward, and someone I’d never seen. Probably killed by a grenade. One unaccounted for. I crept into the checkpoint, but soon found his body next to a supply stockpile. One of the grenades must have gotten him.

I found the special sidearm on the Major’s corpse, which was just a modified version of a lousy Soviet pistol. A collector’s item, perhaps, but not worth getting killed over. The Major should have had less gaudy tastes.

It struck me that the Zone was a strange place. Not quite a Hobbesian warzone, but definitely tribal and vicious. My character had killed a man who had done no wrong, and it was murder. But taking money to kill six people for a bauble was just, because they had attacked my kind and stolen from me when they could.

The world that Stalker portrays is one in which there is no higher authority to which a man can appeal, and the stakes are almost always mortal. So morality gets sanded down until we arrive back at Polemarchus’ straight-from-the-shoulder formulation: “Do harm to your enemies and good to your friends.” To every man his due.

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