Chapter 2 Where am I

I woke up suddenly and blinked.

I was in a Boulder strewn meadow, sitting with my back against a rock. I had a whanging headache,. I held a large shining marble in my hand. There were two men about twenty feet away.

" He's got a healing orb! Shoot him again! "

Well, THAT seemed somewhat hostile.

Some people might be frozen in fear...but I'm not some people.

I threw myself prone and instinctively pointed the weapon in my hand.

An AKMS.

Dafuq?

The two hostile were doing a "spray and pray" on full auto.

Full auto might seem badass but it's actual effect is more psychological. Especially with an AK-series weapon. The muzzle brake is crap, and, unless you're careful, you just wind up shooting air.

Me?

NOT my first Rodeo.

I've been in firefights on five reactions were all muscle memory.

I just laid the sights on the the left-hand man and stroked the trigger. Two rounds , center of mass, and as the muzzle climbed, one to the forehead.

I adjusted the weapon and did the same to the man in the right.

Both men crumpled to the ground.

In a fight, my mind always goes to warp speed. Everything seemingly moves in slow motion, but people tell me I move like a striking snake.

Now that the immediate threat was gone. I had the leisure to slow down and inventory my situation.

I realized I was wearing something like an Chemical warfare protective suit, and a full-face respirator.

I sighed.

Two explanations were possible.

Either I was hallucinating, or I'd been Isekaied , a Japanese term for "sent to another world". It was a cliche plot device in anime, manga and light novels.

It even had a counterpart in Western fiction - Jack London and Robert Heinlein had written stories with the concept, as had L. Sprague DeCamp. H. Bean Piper had done several books with that premise. I had read those stories as a teen. It had died out in Western Literature, but Japanese, Chinese and Korean writers had made it a staple plot device.

I tended to lean towards this all being a vivid hallucination while my body tried to heal the burns and fight the infection.

"Well what the hell?" I thought. I might as well enjoy this hallucination.

First things first.

I walked forward to The bodies and checked them over. They were wearing chemical protective suits, but in the Russian pattern. I know, to a civilian , camo looks alike, but to a soldier, U. is different from say, German, British or Italian camo.

They had Russian documents, and the packaged supplies and clothing were labeled in Russian.

The feel of this hallucination was very vivid, if it was a hallucination. The men stank of sweat, and their bowels had voided when they died. Flies had already gathered, feeding on the blood and splattered brains.

Their weapons were crap, but I took the ammo and food. They didn't need it anymore.

I left the bodies. Buzzards need to eat, don't they?

This area was marshlands, with ponds of open water. In Soviet times, a hydroelectric dam was built here, and a recreational site developed around the reservoir. Since the disaster, the dam had failed, and the reservoir returned to it's former condition.

.There was an urgent sounding beeping from a pouch on my chest. I pulled out a familiar device - a Perun detector. Named for a pagan Slavic god, it was a top-of-the-line device that could detect and measure radiation, glitches, toxic chemicals and glitches. It's screen could also plot the position of glitches and Gems.

Right now, it was detection of conditions for a plasma storm. This was a dangerous storm peculiar to the KEZ . It contained not just thunder and lighting, but an EMP effect that fried electronics and deadly and mysterious radiation that affected the brain.

If you were caught on the surface, you would die and then rise as a homicidal Zombie.

The only thing to do was to seek shelter underground or behind heavy concrete.

Luckily, from my knowledge of the game, I knew about the nearest shelter - I hoped. There was a pond between me and my destination.

The pond was supposed to be shallow, but I wasn't quite sure I wanted to trust that yet.

I ran along the shore line. If my game experience was right, I didn't have much time.

I ran under a bridge and moved through some cattails. The thunder started on schedule as I ran into a big culvert. The words appeared on my viewscreen "Seek shelter"

As I reached the center of the culvert, the words changed to "Remain in shelter"

While I was stuck in the culvert, I field stripped my AKMS and cleaned it. Yes, I know Mikhail Kalashnikov 's design philosophy is that "It should be able to be maintained by illiterate peasant in midst of howling blizzard." . But in my experience, stripping and cleaning your weapon at every opportunity was a good habit.

As I worked, I realized I had memories of being Ivstan Mahona. Not just his flavor backstory in the game, but vivid memories of his youth. Growing up in a town near St. Petersburg. Being conscripted in to the Russian Army. Being an adventurer in the KEZ, smuggling Gems and using the proceeds to finance college.

Being caught by the Militsiya, and given the choice of being an FSB agent or going to those were just memories...It was like accessing a web page. I could remember being Ivstan, but I was still Carl.

Or maybe all this was the sputtering sparking of neurons as my brain faded into death?

I still wasn't sure yet.

Was this a hallucination or my new reality? I'd spent a lot of time playing this game after my retirement.

I decided to move as if this was real. No harm done if it was a vivid hallucination...but what if this was reality and I died? The "save" command wasn't accessible.

Would I die for real? I wasn't ready to test that question yet.

The storm was over, so I gathered my thoughts and walked out. I found two corpses in the weeds outside the culvert . Two people that had tried and failed to get to safety.

I scanned them and found two poorly equipped rookie Adventurers. I laid them by the side of the road. They didn't need their food, first aid kits or ammunition, so I helped myself.

I recorded their names in my PDA. While I was portraying myself as a mid-level adventurer, I was actually a member of the Federal Security Service. I'd make sure to report their deaths so the next of kin would eventually be notified.

I carefully shot each one in the head with my Makarov pistol. Didn't need them rising as zombies.

I heard gunfire and shouting in the direction of a nearby campsite. I snuck over there. If it was, say, bandits and Zombies, I'd let them kill each other and then kill the survivors.

Yes, call me callous, when people I don't like are fighting with other people I don't like, I don't get involved.

In this case, the Zombies were attacking some Adventurers. Of course, I didn't know any of them, but they're usually poor schmucks trying to make a living by risking their necks.

I'm no hero, mind you, but in this world, I was an FSB Rezident. My job is to aid Adventurers and kill dangerous creatures.

These kids were panicking and firing wild bursts on automatic.

Me? I make careful, aimed shots. Zombies respond best to head shots, and 5.45 x39 is sufficient for splattering brains. The AKMS is not my favorite rifle, but- five zombies, five meters, five double taps -, problem solved.

"Hey Mister!" Said one of them, "you're a lifesaver!"

"Eh." I replied. "Careful, aimed fire has carried me through a lot of firefights, lad. Spray-and-pray only works in movies."

In my first life, I was an American, a Navy Corpsman, technically a non-combatant, but the enemies I'd fought in my career were not observant of the Geneva Convention. A lot of sniper doctrines advise shooting anyone not carrying a rifle. They are usually higher value targets than the common soldier-so I made it a habit to carry a rifle or shotgun during my military career.

Being the guy my father raised, I made it a habit to learn to shoot and maintain every weapon I could get my hands on.

A magazine fed shotgun would be my preferred weapon here, but an AKMS was what I had right now.

"Let's field strip these zombies, boys." I suggested.

Now, I should mention, these guys were not the kind of zombies you run into in most stories. They were victims of the Plasma Storms, who were now just killing any humans they saw. Adventurers, soldiers, anybody caught out in the Storm would have their brains bent into killing machines.

These must have been a Militsiya Patrol. They had food, weapons, ammo and good protective gear.

"Can we take this stuff?" Asked the shorter guy.

I looked both of these rookies over. They were dressed like farm kids. Sturdy cotton duck jackets and pants, leather work boots and cloth face masks.

"You aren't registered adventurers are you?" I asked.

"Uh, no Sir." Answered the taller one, reluctantly. "Couldn't afford the registration fee. Hoped we could sneak in, nab a gem or two and then we could register and get some proper gear."

"Rookies." I sighed. "Kids all over think they can just sneak in, nab a gem or two, sneak out, sell it, then do a couple of quests and score big, right?"

"Uh. Yeah." Said the taller guy. "

In this world, The catastrophic meltdown of the RBMK reactor at Kursk had been a major nail in the coffin of the Soviet Union.

The successor state, the Russian Federation was , in many ways, a downsized Soviet Union. The Kursk Exclusion Zone, was set up around the town of Kurchatov, basically following the radioactive plume from the failed Kursk-2 reactor. About 1000 square kilometers are sequestered. No one is allowed to live there. Temporary workers operated the three other reactors, until the 2012 disaster.

You see, Russians in general, are very smart people. In my opinion, that leads to making spectacular and legendary mistakes. The RBMK reactor is a brilliant design, and the experts were convinced it could not melt down. They were so sure about that idea that, they didn't bother going to the expense of building a containment structure.

Thus, when it did melt down, it released a radioactive plume that circled the globe. Most of the lightweight stuff was isotopes with short half lives. But, the heavier isotopes settled out quickly, and they had half lives of the thousand year variety.

The area that was judged too dangerous to live in was dubbed the Zone of Alienation, or more commonly, the Kursk Exclusion Zone.

Somebody decided that the newly cleared Zone of Alienation would be a great place for super-secret weapons research. That led to the 2012 disaster- the cause of which nobody outside a small, select, top level part of the Russian hierarchy knows much about.

American Intelligence Analysis theorizes that Black hole or Quantum Space research opened a dimensional rift.

What we do know is, strange creatures -called "Beasts" - appear in the KEZ, as well as strange objects, called "Gems". These "Gems" have strange properties, but can cause some valuable near-magical effects.

For that reason, adventurers from all over the world journey to Kursk to seek fortunes, much like prospectors searched the American West for valuable minerals.

The KEZ was a "Wild West" sort of situation. Government patrols, government expeditions, corporate expeditions-and a bunch-a-ton of poorly equipped, impoverished rookies, flying "under the radar" hoping to sneak in, make a big score and sneak out.

At least, that was the fanciful hope. In truth, dozens of these guys died every day in the KEZ.

Then there were guys like me. More correctly, guys like Ivstan Mahona. I had my memories of being Carl Belair, a Japanese-American orphan adopted by an American family. I also had memories of being Ivstan Mahona, a Russian Army soldier who'd spent some time as an Adventurer in the KEZ, then gone to college and been recruited into the Russian Security Services - the Federal'naya Sluzbha Beosozpasnosti (FSB).

Was this what People with Multiple Personality Disorder felt like?

"Sir?"

I shook my head to clear the cobwebs. Wool gathering in the KEZ was a good way to die.

"Look kid, these guys don't need this gear. Burying it would be a waste...leaving it here would mean zombies would get it. It's salvage, and our tax dollars paid for it. Might as well get some use of it."

"Makes sense." Agreed the short kid.

We searched the bodies of the former Militsiya patrol. I took their ID cards and personal effects and bagged them. I also traded my AKMS for an AK-74M I don't like close quarters combat , so the longer barrel meant I could engage from further out. I'd probably get a Maverick-88 or an MP5 for CQB situations. Russian Special Forces like axes and knives for close in work. Ivstan was carrying a hatchet for close work.

Me? I generally like a .45 pistol with a suppressor for quiet killing. I don't really care for up close and personal stuff. "Mokrie Dela" (wet work) assassination isn't my style. However all I had was a Makorov PMM. I'm not a fan of 9x18, but this was a Special Edition, meant for the KGB and now carried by the FIS and FSS.

We split the food and medical supplies evenly. My current protective suit was as good or better than the Militsiya suits, but I had the kids, Piotr and Ivan, scavenge the Militsiya gear.

"Well, Good luck to you guys." I said as I turned to leave.

"Uh..." said Piotr.

"Sir..." Ivan said tentatively.

I looked back. "What?"

"Could we travel with you for awhile?"

"Hmm.." I considered.

"A couple of newbies with me might slow me down "

"We can keep up." Said Piotr.

"Yeah, yeah." I said. "I'm a conservative guy, so keeping up is not a problem. "

I snorted in derision.

"Going too fast is what gets rookies killed, boys" I looked them in their eyes. "They step into Glitches, they step on mines, they draw the attention of monster hordes."

"See, that's the sort of stuff we need to learn." Said Ivan."it's not like there's a school for this."

I smiled sourly and chuckled. The boys looked at me strangely.

"Back in ancient times, experienced warriors would take on an apprentice or two, to teach them the ways of war." I waved my hand at them and snorted. "Looks like I'm going to revive that tradition."

"Follow me, lads." I called with a snort of self derision.

This part of the KEZ is a glacial valley. In the Ice Age, glaciers cut deep furrows. When the glaciers melted, a vast lake was formed. Eventually, the River Seym cut through the mountains to the south, draining the lake and leaving an alluvial plain. In the Stalinist days, the valley we were in had a hydroelectric dam built and the valley was reflooded.

A few years After the 1986 disaster at the KNPP, the dam failed, leaving behind this stinking marsh.

Hills that became islands were once again hills. I led the boys across the marsh. At the base of the hill, I checked my landmarks and dug at the base of a Boulder. I dug up a plastic footlocker.

"What's that?" Asked Piotr.

I pulled out a heavily modified MP5 submachine gun.

I grinned at the boys. "Story time boys. I've made several trips to the KEZ, probably made enough money to buy the Tsar's Winter Palace by now."

I wiped off the SMG and attached the suppressor. "My weakness is women and booze. Several times, I've come back to the KEZ with a worn out suit and a crappy gun." I laughed. "So now, when times are good, I cache weapons and supplies in the area."

"What if someone steals your stuff?" Asked Ivan.

"Heh" I said. "I'm not the only guy that does this. Adventurer etiquette is that if you use someone's cache when you're needing it, you put something back when you can."

I shrugged. " Also, this is not my only cache. I keep stuff cached all over the KEZ. Stuff happens, you know? There's not always a merchant around to supply your needs. "

"Why an SMG? Wouldn't a shotgun be better?" Asked Piotr.

"Zone Math" I replied. "Each buckshot is the same size as a 9mm bullet. Three pieces of buckshot in a shotgun round. Six rounds in the Maverick 88 pump, means you put the equivalent of 18 of the 9mm rounds in the air. But it's slow to reload." I held up the 40 round stick magazines and started putting rounds in them. "Thing is, you ever deal with zercees?"

"Only seen pictures of them."

"Zeecees , or "zone chihuahuas" are ugly, evil little beasts. They have both razor sharp teeth and claws like knives. Individually, one pistol round will kill a ZC, but they can attack in swarms of fifty or more." I said, "Do the math."

"Oh," said Ivan, "the equivalent of 18 rounds of 9mm and a slow reload, or forty rounds and and a fast reload, not to mention a suppressor."

"Also good on Hounds." I added. "People talk about wyrms, manticores, and rusalka, but hounds and zeecees kill more adventurers than anything else." I grunted. " That said, my preference is for a magazine-fed shotgun -faster reload than a tube fed shotgun, and you can switch to slugs for medium range targets or megaBeasts. "

I led my apprentices along the shoreline of the marsh.

This area had been the site of an immense battle in The Great Patriotic War. Remnants of both Nazi and Soviet bunkers and fortifications littered the area. Later, in the time of "Holodyna Vodnya" - The Cold War- SAM sites and Interceptor bases became part of the scenery.

We were at the base of a hill when I heard gunfire and shouting, as well as a familiar roar.

"Bogg anhoud " I cursed. "A rusalka"

Now, in Russian legends, a rusalka is an undead creature in the body of a drowned maiden.

In the KEZ, a "rusalka " is a name given to a humanoid monster with pale white skin and blood sucking tentacles on its head that resemble braided hair. It is very strong, and can soak up bullets like a sponge.

I looked at the hill."Yes!" I exclaimed. A small crack in the hill, and I could see the tell tale distortion of a graviton glitch.

"Mercy for the son of a widow!" I told the boys.

"Drop your packs and armor!" I shouted. "We need to get inside!"

"That's a graviton!" Said Ivan, "It will tear us apart!"

"No, look , lad." I said, pointing at the entrance. " We dug a trench under the glitch awhile back. Belly down and don't touch the event horizon. Keep your mask, there's chemicals inside, but do as I say and we'll be fine. "

The boys were good, they shucked their gear and crawled under the graviton.

The rusalka finished with the group on top of the hill and caught wind of us. It was still hungry.

I squirmed through the trench, frantic with worry.

As I crossed into the cave, a tentacle wrapped around my leg.

I screamed and rolled over. The beast was crawling through the trench behind me. "Clever girl" I muttered through gritted teeth. I had held onto my hand axe, and I chopped at the tentacle.

The beast roared in pain, reared up... and entered the graviton's event horizon.

There was no time for it to utter a sound of protest. With a loud "crack!", it was immediately pulled into the graviton, where the intense tidal forces of the gravity waves tore it apart. There was just a brief flash of red meat vapor as the creature disappeared into the gravity well.

I wrinkled my nose at the bitter smell of the toxic chemicals. There were chemical glitches in this cave, emitting dangerous fumes. I ,donned my mask. I pulled the straps over my head and exhaled to blow out the contaminated air.

Ivan and Piotr were sitting with the knees drawn up to their chests. I could see their wide eyes behind the lenses of their masks.

"Great Day in the morning lads!" I laughed. "Nothing like a little danger to start out the day!"

"Bojemoi!" Said Piotr. "You can laugh? We could have died there!"

"Aye lad." I grinned. "But we're alive and it's dead. I count that as a Win."

Indeed, I was shivering myself with the post-event adrenaline let down, but... we were still alive.

"You shouldn't enter the KEZ if you want to die in bed, my boys."

"We just got put out of the orphanage last week." Said Ivan. "We figured we'd make some money, get some Gems and materials, and get out."

I chuckled. "Do you know how many rookies crawl through the Cordon and vanish?"

"Sure some come in and strike it rich." I thumped my chest."Me?" I said. "I've made enough money to buy the Czar's Winter Palace - but every time, I piss it away on women and booze...then I'm crawling through the wire in beat-up castaway gear, trying to make yet another score."

They both shook their heads.

"I was in the Army in 2012, guarding the KEZ, when the Second Explosion happened."

"Mother of Christ." Breathed Ivan.

"I was down in the bunker when it happened, and most of my unit was wiped out. " I continued.

I laughed sardonically. " The senior sergeant sent me into the bunker to get toilet paper." I roared with laughter. "That's got to be God's being a jokester. The reason why I lived was a couple rolls of toilet paper!"

My laughter was brittle, and I think the boys thought I was losing it.

The story was somewhat true. In fact, I'd been a Lieutenant, but I kept some soft toilet paper in a locker in the bunker. So, I survived while my platoon was wiped out because of my decadent desire for soft toilet paper.

It was kind of maddening, if you thought about it too much.

Some of my men were torn apart by the blast...many crawled out of the wreckage as mindless, homicidal zombies.

I killed them, salvaged gear, and hiked to a secondary rally point.

But the boys didn't need to know that part.

My public identity as Ivstan the adventurer was of a former soldier, who came into the KEZ, made some money, and disappeared until he needed some more.

Major Ivstan Mahona, FSB operative of the Ninth directorate...was not an identity these folks needed to know about.

We "ate" while we waited. The Militsiya patrol had carried tubes of food paste. There were tubes on the OM10 mask to let you consume food paste or water while wearing the mask.

I looked at my watch. "OKAY lads, it's been two hours. Let's go retrieve our gear and get to a safe point for the night."

"Is it safe?"

"Son, if you wanted safe, you should have stayed in Vorozneh." I bellied down in the trench and crawled out.

Our gear was fine. We donned it and I directed my little party to an old regimental SAM site about three kilometers away.