--- thread 2 ---

I return to continue Susie's journey through the Zone. The destination has been decided and I have the necessary areas prepared. >Susie decided to hold onto the jellyfish. The zone was filled with radiation and this would save her paying money for stuff to get rid of it. >Finding a place to sleep was her next goal, and one that took a lot longer than she had hoped. >The train station was not built for comfort, and after an hour of poking around for anything soft, she ended up using her backpack as a makeshift pillow and spending the night in a dark, out of the way corner. >When she finally got to sleep, her dreams were anything but comforting. >She had flashes of a large, metal bunker door built into the side of a hill. >Then she was walking through ruined, crumbling streets behind a tall figure clad in a metal exoskeleton suit. >A bright flash blinded her vision in the dream, and then she found herself crouched behind a large chunk of concrete rubble, popping every now and again to take quick, precise shots at men in gas masks and grey and green ballistic vests. >Gunfire rang in her ears, alongside loud shouts of “Kill the Enemy of the Monolith!” >The very earth suddenly seemed to rumble and shake, and clouds inexplicably thickened in the sky above as rain began to pour down on her >As the shaking intensified, the sky started to turn an unnatural shade of red. >The last thing she heard was a distant voice muffled by a gas mask breaking through the gunfire and thunder. >”Susie, get inside! They’re releasing an-” >Before the voice could finish, a loud ringing in her ears deafened her, also serving to shake her awake from the dream. >The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was someone in a STALKER suit standing over her. >Instinctually, she grabbed for her makarov and had it pointed at the STALKER’s head within seconds. >She quickly lowered it when she saw that the STALKER was only Kris. >”Geez, freak! How long have you been standing there?” >”Since I woke up.” >And how long ago was that?” >”Don’t remember.” >”Geez louise, freak…” Susie grumbled, rising to her feet and shouldering her backpack. >”... That’s really weird, you know?” >Kris simply shrugged. >”You decided where you want to go yet?” >Susie pulled open her PDA and gave the map of the zone one more look before making her final choice. >”Freedom sounds like a chill bunch, and you said your dad might be there so it seems like a good first stop. I want to avoid duty for now though. No telling if the soldiers have some kind of bounty on my head or whatever.” >Kris looked thoughtful for a minute before responding. >”Fair. We can go up north through the Darkwoods and get to freedom territory through the mutant breeding grounds, though the second part might be a bit rough. We should be fine if we just stay on the path and keep alert though.” >”Sure, just one question: What’s your policy on anomaly fields?” >”Eh?” Susie scratched her head. She didn’t quite get what he meant by that. >”I mean, are we going out of our way to grab artefacts or now? Some anomalies neither of us will be able to enter because of a lack of gear, but if you want I can point out what anomalies we can traverse. It’ll just mean going out of our way sometimes, and I don’t imagine we’d be artefact hunting in the Breeding Grounds.” >All Susie knew about artefacts was that they were valuable and useful. Though to what extent she didn’t know. >Using time to go hunting for them would be time she wasn’t using to find out about her past. >She did need money though, and Kris would be expecting loot. One last bookeeping question before they set off now. How frequently should Susie stray from the path to search anomaly fields? And poll tie is broken, so I shall continue. >”Once per area.” Susie said firmly. “Should satisfy both our wallets just fine.” >”Gotcha.” Kris nodded, before starting to walk towards the exit of the train station, beckoning Susie to follow after him. >”We’d better get started, it’ll be a full day’s journey if we’re quick.” >She followed after him without a word, still kind of groggy from her less than peaceful slumber. >The few groups of other STALKERS huddled around makeshift campfires in the station gave them some curious looks as they left, but nobody bothered them. >The pair put on their gasmasks as they exited the station, bidding goodbye to its strangely comforting interior. >The sun was shining outside, though the temperature was just barely warmer than the previous day. At least they would have more light to see mutants and other STALKERs by. >Susie pondered the events of the previous day as she trudged along the decrepit road next to Kris, her MP5 at the ready. >”So, freak, what happened to that truck I fell off of?” >”Ran into an anomaly.” Kris said matter-of-factly. “You got thrown off right as it ran into a vortex. Good thing you were in the back, too. The driver didn’t make it.” >”Any idea where it came from? I’d like to know who shoved me in the back of a truck like a sack of potatoes.” >”It came down the road from the wreckage. Beyond that I don’t have a clue. I didn’t get a good look at the driver before he got turned to mush.” >”Any markings on the truck?” >Kris shook his head. >”Not a single one. Which means it definitely wasn’t the military, at least.” >Now they reached a crossroads in the path. At the crumbling bus stop, a dirt path on the left led away from the concrete road. >It looked relatively well traveled, and it was down this path that Kris and Susie now turned. >It looked relatively well traveled, and it was down this path that Kris and Susie now turned. >There was some measure of serenity to the whole thing. It was just the two of them on the road, and the surrounding wilderness was all but quiet. >”It wouldn’t be so bad to live here.” Susie thought as she watched the untamed grass sway in the gentle breeze. “If the only mutants around are the dogs, I could get used to that.” >Of course, she knew she likely wouldn’t be staying in the zone. She had a life, or must have had a life outside the zone before she lost her memory and she really would prefer to get back to that if it was at all possible. >Eventually the dirt path brought the pair to a long barbed wire fence, where it basses through a single opening in the barrier and into a dense forest. >The trees were all covered with stunning, vibrant red leaves, though they were packed so densely together that the sun was nearly unable to cast its light on the forest floor beneath. >Here Kris stopped for a moment and produced a combat knife and flashlight from his backpack. >”I almost forgot. You’re going to want these.” >The human handed Susie both items, which she slowly took while giving him a suspicious look from behind her gasmask. >”Why do you keep giving me shit, freak? I mean, sure these are handy and all, but...” >”I can’t have my money printer dying on me, now can I?” Kris chuckled as he took a step over the threshold of the forest. “That would make all the time I spent dragging you to the station kind of a waste, and I don’t waste anything.” >”Besides.” He added, turning on his head-mounted flashlight as Susie followed him into the Darkwoods. “If I’m going to have to look at someone a lot, it might as well be you.” >The comment took Susie aback for a moment. Was that an attempt to flirt or just a commentary on the usual STALKER’s appearance? >”You gettin’ cute with me, freak? We’re both in gas masks, you can’t even see my face!” >”I can see enough. Not like you’ve got any bulky armor on.” Despite not being able to see his face, Susie could tell that he was smirking behind that gas mask. >She was about to give him a piece of her mind when the distant howl of something that sounded like a wolf reminded them where they were. >They freezed in their tracks and took a while to scan the area, only continuing when they were sure that no mutants were about to jump them. >”The two anomalies nearby, ‘smokey’ and the ‘brackish waters’ are ones we don’t have the gear for yet.” Kris said when they started moving again. “You need something like an SSP-9 or a SEVA to avoid getting melted by the fire or acid respectively.” >”Where would I get one of those, exactly?” >”The eggheads.” Kris replied, barely in a whisper now for fear of attracting mutants. “But they’re pricey. ‘Hydroshock’ is as safe as an anomaly field gets though. You won’t die just standing near it.” >”Good to know.” She replied in an equally hushed tone. “We’ll check it out when we get up there.” >Now slightly unnerved, they continued in silence along the dirt path, turning right at a fork and eventually passing by a small, armored bunker sitting on the shores of a dark, murky lake. >The structure was barely visible through the trees between it and the path, but Susie guessed it must be the mobile lab that was marked on her map. >Of course, they had no time to stop there. Susie didn’t figure they knew much about her, and she’d rather spend her time making progress towards freedom territory. >Just as she was finishing that thought, a rustling in the foliage to their right made both her and Kris tense up and point their weapons toward the source of the disturbance. >”Hey, Kris! It’s just me!” A nervous, feminine voice called from behind a tree. “You and your friend can put the guns away!” >A short figure in what looked like an orange hazmat suit with a harness over it walked out from behind the tree. A pair of antlers protruded from the top of the suit’s head, and as the stranger got closer, Susie could see through the suit’s screen helmet that the newcomer had a pair of very prominent buckteeth. >”What are you doing out here, Noelle?” Kris asked with a relieved sigh. “You never leave the bunker unless it’s with my brother.” >”This one of the eggheads, freak?” Susie asked, smirking behind her mask. If anyone made her immediately think “nerd”, it was this girl. >”THE egghead.” Kris replied. “Somehow she’s in charge of their operation out here.” >”Who’s your… uh, friend, Kris?” Noelle asked with an anxious glance at Susie. >”Name’s S-” Susie just managed to stop herself before remembering that she was supposed to be using a codename.”Drake. Name’s Drake.” >”You didn’t answer my question.” Kris reminded the doe before she could pry and further into Susie’s affairs. >“Ral’s missing.” Noelle said with a heavy sigh. “He went up north toward the mutant Breeding Grounds to get some readings from the weird psy field up there but he missed his last scheduled communication.” >Kris nodded along as she spoke. “Sounds rough. Sucks to be Ral, I guess, but we’ve got places to be.” >”Well, when I saw you… I was… kind of h-hoping you could help…” Noelle muttered, sounding both desperate and scared. >”Time’s money, Noelle.” Kris yawned, doing his best to seem uninterested, “How much is ours worth to you?” >”G-geez, Kris...someone’s life is at stake here!” >”Yeah, and my life’s at stake if I’ve got no money when I’m hungry.” As callous as it sounded, Susie knew he was right. The zone was a harsh place and doing something for nothing wasn’t the way to survive. >Noelle seemed to think about it for a while before hesitantly answering. “Well… our budget allows me to offer you five thousand for the job, but we’ve got some other stuff lying around that might make you more… inclined to help.” >”Hurry up and tell us.” Susie growled. “We don’t have all day.” >”R-right!” Noelle yelped. “We… uh, have a spas-12 lying around somewhere, I think. There’s also a night star artefact that we’re not using for anything and a spare SSP-99 that nobody’s used in a while.” >”No SEVA?” Kris asked with some disappointment. “SSP-99’s are good for anomalies and all, but I don’t want to be wearing the equivalent of pajamas when it comes to bullets and mutant claws.” >”We don’t have any spare SEVAs, Kris! You know those are expensive and we’re on a tight budget!” >Kris turned his attention to Susie now. >”What do you think, partner? This is a pretty good deal she’s offering, if I’m being honest. You could use a shotgun and even an SSP-99 would be better protection than that busted up jacket you’ve got.” >The human then dropped his voice to a whisper and leaned closer to Susie. >”We could probably demand a SEVA if you want, but that might piss off the eggheads in the long-term. As for whether to actually do it or not, Ral’s a nice guy but I’ll understand if you’d rather not go out of our way. There’s only so much time until nightfall, after all.” >Noelle looked at the two expectantly, with obvious fear in her eyes. Whether it was for her missing friend or for the possibility of Susie making further demands, neither of the pair could tell. Now for two questions: First is whether to accept the task of looking for Ralsei and the second is what to take as a reward if Susie does choose to look for him