Piotr took a deep breath as he sat down underneath a dying oak tree. The cool autumn breeze whipped past his skin and through what little hair he allowed himself to keep. His pack felt very heavy, but this was a good thing. A heavy pack would lead to a heavy wallet once he got back to the trader in the Cordon. Piotr was what residents of the zone called a “stalker:” someone who made their living from selling anomalous artifacts from dangerous places in the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. It was an acronym, really. Scavengers, trackers, adventurers, loners, killers, explorers and robbers…all could be found here.

While he was fishing out some canned food from his pack, Piotr heard a yelp coming from the shallow valley in front of him. He dropped the can and reached for his rifle. He flipped the safety off, and scanned the horizon. His pupils widened and he breathed deeper, trying to catch even a scent of what was out there. He spotted the offender thirty yards away: one of the many blind dogs who made the Exclusion Zone their home. He watched for a few minutes as the dog sauntered on, sniffing the wind. Piotr flipped the safety back to the “Safe” marker, and went back to opening his breakfast. He kept his eyes on the dog though. There was no telling whether or not he had a pack nearby.

The food was far from tasty, but it was certainly filling. He had decided he was happier not knowing what the actual source of protein was that these cans were filled with as he scooped another cracker into the thick paste. “Tourist’s Delight,” the local stalkers called it. Perhaps I could convince Sidorovich to barter for more palatable provisions, he thought as he took a swig out of his canteen. The water around here was still highly irradiated, but a few purification tablets went a long way. So did vodka. A quick chaser would finish off most of the microbes that the purification tabs didn’t kill.

He felt that this was a rare moment of peace in a very volatile area. The Ukraine had been through so much: the nuclear disaster in 1986, and the strange eruptions that happened in 2005 had brought much notoriety to the area. He was happy with the state of things though. Chaos always led to opportunity. It was that philosophy which had brought him here. The opportunity to escape his servitude to the Russian mob was far too enticing. There was nothing left for him in Kiev…his wife and child had been killed in a train wreck, and his skill set granted by the military focused on the application of violence. This made him a poor fit for what most people considered to be normal society. The chance for a peaceful meal brought him solace on more than one level.

As Piotr rose to his feet, he checked the radiation indicator on his left sleeve. It was still mostly white, with a few spots of charcoal black. Thankful that meant he was still in good shape, the man slung his rifle in front of him and trundled down the small hill in the direction of the Cordon – the entrance to the Zone.

The stalker’s Geiger counter ticked quietly and sporadically as Piotr made his way through an open field. More worrisome was the beeping sound emitting from his anomaly detector. Piotr had no idea how these devices were made, but he was incredibly grateful they had been. An audible beep would begin once the user was within 5 meters of any type of anomaly – a space in reality that defied the laws of physics. Lifting the meter in front of him, Piotr rummaged in one of his vest pockets for a spare bolt. He peered forward, and saw a slight shimmer above the tall grass in front of him. He nodded, and threw the bolt. As it started to fly over the strange area, it was pulled very forcefully to the ground – a gravity anomaly. If anything living got caught in there, they were usually crushed beyond recognition. He kept pulling bolts out and tossing them around, finding the edge of the anomaly. Moving around the first, he found himself in a field of the things. He barely dared to breathe as he tossed the bolts in front of him, making his way through the area.

Once on the other side of the field, Piotr let out a sigh of relief. There had been quite a few anomalies, but he was at last back on the road south out of what most called “the Garbage,” huge mounds of irradiated trash which acted like incubators for artifacts. He heard barking behind him, and turned. The blind dog was back, and had brought friends! As the pack made a bee-line for him, he shouldered his rifle. It wasn’t needed though, as the first two dogs ran into an anomaly and were crushed into a paste. The other dogs stopped short, and yelping and snarling as they backed up. It’s nice to know, Piotr thought, that even the animals have to think twice about their steps! Piotr knew he shouldn’t linger, these dogs had a funny knack for finding their way around or through such things. He turned and started jogging south, past the vehicle graveyard he had seen on his way in. As he passed a burned out troop transport, he felt the butt of a gun connect with the side of his head. He collapsed in pain.

“Guys, we got another one! Get out here!”

His head was spinning. He tried to get to his feet, but a firm boot came down in the middle of his chest to discourage the idea. Reinforcing the boot was the twin barrel of a shotgun.

“Good haul, stalker?” The man staring down at Piotr was wearing a dark leather coat and a balaclava over his face. Doubtless, these were some of the bandits that Sidorovich had warned him about setting up in the area.

“I’ve had better,” Piotr lied. The fact of the matter was he needed this haul to pay off. He had tracked a number of rare artifacts through a sewer and had to use a lot of his anti-radiation meds to do it, and replacing those wouldn’t be cheap — impossible if these clowns stole what he had rightfully found.

“Too bad for you, then,” Piotr’s attacker said as two more bandits joined him. “We could use a resupply. You look like a man who keeps food on him. Drop your pack, your gun, empty your pockets and get out of here. You’ve got 10 seconds.”

Chyort! Goblin, we’ve got company!” The other bandit’s warning sounded frantic. The sound of rustling grass and baying howls was unnervingly close, and a pack of five dogs burst out upon them. As the bandits turned to deal with the charging monsters, the stalker took the opportunity to free his knife and stab viciously up into his attacker’s gut. The bandit who had attacked him fell over, clutching his wounded belly as Piotr kicked the shotgun away and landed more strikes to finish him off. He turned to face the other bandits. One was on the ground, flailing wildly as he was bitten by the dogs. The other was firing madly into the pack, downing several of them. As the bandit leveled his rifle to rescue his friend, Piotr saw his opportunity and opened fire with his Kalashnikov. He clambered up on a deserted car, gaining distance between himself and the last two dogs of the pack. He quickly realized he needn’t have bothered. Both of the canines seemed too preoccupied with getting a good meal. “Man’s best friend indeed,” he thought to himself, backing up slowly from the maddened beasts with his rifle at the ready. This haul had better be worth the trouble.

*****************************************************

“Not bad,” Sidorovich the trader remarked from behind the safety cage of his underground bunker. “Not bad at all. I’ve actually got a client on the outside who’s looking for this particular artifact. That one alone will be worth 3,000 rubles…it looks like all told you’re sitting on a stash worth 9000 rubles. That’s the good news.”

“What’s the bad news?” Piotr asked. He got the feeling he wasn’t going to like this.

“The bad news is that one of my connections stiffed me. He’s behind on his debt, so I can’t pay you immediately.” Sidorovich took a long draw from his cigarette, and some ashes came to rest atop his rotund midsection. “So here’s the deal. We can start doing things the bloated way, like on the outside, where we have a whole bunch of credit for things changing hands but no one actually handles the cash. The problem with that is that doesn’t get us supplies into the Zone as a general rule. The security teams can’t be bribed on credit. Or we can take the second option, and demand that gentlemen’s agreements be honored even if it means the use of force.” Sidorovich set his cigarette down in an ash tray and took a hard look at Piotr. “Do you think you’re up for such a thing, or do you simply want me to buy what I can afford right now?”

The stalker rubbed his chin as he weighed his options. “What other sort of negative implications would there be to letting this guy off the hook?”

Sidorovich fixed Piotr with a sour look. “What do you think? People start stiffing me, they’ll never stop! I’m one of the only independent traders in here, and I’m the only one with good contacts on the outside. If I go under, we all go under. If you take care of this little problem for me, you’ll not just be helping out yourself, you’ll be helping out all those greenhorns in the village who are trying to scrape together some sort of life here. I’m telling you, Fox, it’s a win-win.”

It still took some getting used to having a code-name like Fox. It seems everyone in here did though. Piotr wasn’t interested in having some mob crony recognize his name and try to end his life — he had enough of that as it was. Coming back out of his distracted thoughts, Piotr asked, “Ok. Where is he?”

A smile crept over Sidorovich’s frog-like face. “I knew I could count on you, Fox! This slime ball was last seen out near the car park here in the Cordon, but I’d imagine he has several different hiding spots and stashes scattered about. Here, since you’re helping me, I’ll help you.” The aging trader got up, and grabbed some cans of food and two doses of anti-radiation medicine from a shelf, placed them in a secure drawer in front of him, and then pushed the drawer to the other side so Piotr could retrieve them.

“Consider this to be a sign of good faith on my part. I won’t take the cost out of your total haul once you come back victorious. But there’s one thing I need from you as proof. He has a flash drive on him. I need it. Plus, bring back all the money you find on him and after my accounts with him have been settled, we’ll settle the one between us. You can keep any useful equipment he had other than that flash drive. Deal?”

The stalker was hesitant at first. Killing a man for a debt seemed like a step back into a life that he tried to leave behind, but he reminded himself of what brought him here in the first place. Chaos breeds opportunity. 

Piotr reached forward to take Sidorovich’s gifts. “Deal,” he said. “I’ll see you once the job’s done.”

To be continued

 

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