“He goes by Wicker,” Piotr said, speaking with one of the rookie stalkers in the burnt-out village outside of Sidorovich’s bunker. “Have you heard of him?”

The rookie looked as though he was weighing his options. “Maybe I have, Fox, maybe I haven’t. What’s it worth to you?” The man didn’t seem to realize who he was dealing with.

“Bigger men than you have tried to shake me down before, Roach. Don’t make your way off of my ‘nice’ list,” Piotr growled.

Chyort, ok, ok. I’ll tell you for a spot of breakfast,” the young man said. Piotr saw desperation in the green eyes that stared back. Glaring, Piotr reached into a side pocket on his pack and produced a hunk of bread and a can of sausages. Roach reached out and took the meal, grateful that he had another one.

“Wicker often spends time at the abandoned car park, but I’ve seen him go elsewhere to hide his goods. The collapsed tunnel to the east of the car park, the derailed locomotive to the north, and out by the old farmhouse north of the tracks. I’ve heard he has some local haunts in the Garbage and the science research facility west of that, but I’ve never been to either. If I was to look for clues as to his whereabouts, I’d start there.”

“Good. Who are his friends?” Piotr was going to need as many details as he could get if he was going to track the man down.

“He hasn’t made many. The only one I know who has been able to stand him for much time is Rust. He headed out to the park a few days ago and hasn’t been seen since. I’m a little worried about him, Fox. He has a propensity for getting into trouble.”

Piotr nodded. “I’ll relay your concerns should I see him.”

“Fox,” the rookie said, “is there any way I could go with you if you’re headed to the car park? I want to make sure Rust has not done anything foolish.”

The veteran stalker stiffened. “I work better on my own,” he said tersely.

“Please, Fox. He’s my friend.”

Piotr sighed. “Ok. Gear up. But I expect you to do exactly as I say when I say, and I get first pick on any good finds, got it? Senior privileges and all that.”

Roach nodded. “Let me just grab my pack and my pistol,” the young man said. Piotr was uneasy about this. The rookie was poorly equipped, but if worst came to worse he could always be used as a distraction. Besides, there was no way these greenhorns were going to learn unless they were shown how to survive in the zone.

* * * * * * *

 

The car park sat about a kilometer away from the Rookie Village, as it had come to be known. It sat in a depression off to the right side of the main road leading towards Chernobyl, and had a bus stop that used to run there back when this area was a thriving area of the Ukraine. Now the paint was flaking off in large chunks, and the roads showed obvious signs of distress. Gravity anomalies dotted the landscape. All of this Fox and Roach surveyed from the top of a hill overlooking the park, peeking out gingerly from behind a gnarled oak tree.

“No sign of movement,” Fox murmured as he scanned the area with his binoculars. That was particularly odd for this area. Bandits and other malcontents usually stopped in here for a respite, but there was no sign of cooking fires, sleeping bags, or drunken carousing. There didn’t even appear to be any guards set on watch. Piotr lowered the binoculars and ducked back behind the tree.

“Ok Roach. Here is what we are going to do. You see that truck over there by the close corner?”

The rookie nodded. “Yes. That is where you want me to go?”

Fox grunted and gave a slight nod. “Keep your pistol out. I will cover you. There are no anomalies between here and there. On my signal.” Swinging back around to cover the area in front of him, Piotr raised his AK-74. “Go.”

Roach cautiously darted out from behind the tree, bending slightly at the waist and looking left and right. The kid has some smarts about him, Piotr let himself admit. Roach knelt down beside the cab of the destroyed truck, and peered around the corner with pistol in hand. He looked back, and made an “all clear” sign with his free hand. Fox nodded, then jogged over to join the rookie.

Patting Roach on the shoulder, the two started communicating with hand signals. If there were someone waiting in ambush, the veteran stalker didn’t want to give them any advance notice of the pair’s plans. Fox pointed at his eyes and his ears, then motioned between the two of them, indicating Roach should follow him. The rookie acknowledged, and the pair moved out carefully from behind the truck and into a crumbling brick building in front of them. They swept the corners, and found no signs of recent activity. There was a fire-pit in one corner of the L-shaped building, but its ashes were cold. There was a ladder leading up to a landing. Fox snapped to get Roaches attention, then pointed upwards with his left hand. The rookie clambered up the ladder, then reappeared a second later, shaking his head.

No dice there, Piotr mused as the rookie rejoined him on the ground. They moved to the next building, one that had once been a repair station. The main door was slightly ajar. Weapons at the ready, the pair pushed in.

Sunlight drifted lazily in through holes in the ceiling, accentuating the thick dust which hung in the air. The pair were about in the middle of the room when they heard a creaking noise from the floor above. Fox called a quick halt, then motioned for the rookie to take cover behind some crates on the left side of the room. Carefully and quietly, the veteran moved towards the right side of the room and set up behind a supporting wall. There they stood, weapons readied for a few seconds which were pregnant with tension. Roach slowly eased out. “Fox,” he whispered, “I think it’s all…”

The rookie was cut off by the sounds of heavy breathing. A pair of glowing yellow eyes materialized right in front of him. Screaming, Roach fired. The creature was on him in a flash, appearing from the shadows the way a lizard would change colors. The beast was the same height and build as a man, but whatever humanity may have once resided within it was long gone. It had long, sharp talons and a mouth that had mutated to be like four arms of an octopus, only covered in teeth. The small rounds of Roach’s pistol only seemed to infuriate the monster, who lashed out at him with razor-like claws. The rookie stumbled backward, and his pistol was knocked away into the vehicle crew pit. The young man was sure he was going to die, when the aggressive belching of Fox’s Kalashnikov spewed forth a hail of bullets, shredding the beast’s upper chest and neck. Howling and bleeding, the monster tried to limp away as another burst from Fox put it down for good.

Roach swore as he held onto his freely bleeding shoulder. “Let me see,” Piotr said as he knelt beside his wounded comrade. “Hmmm…this won’t be too bad,” he said as he fished in his pack for a medical kit. “It’s deep in the muscle, but there’s no major blood vessels where he hit.”

Forcing a few swigs of vodka down Roach’s throat, Fox poured sulfa drugs over the lacerations. “This will sting,” he warned, pulling out a suture set and addressing the wound. Fifteen minutes, a few sutures, bandages, and a painkiller later, Roach was back on his feet.

“What was that thing?” the rookie asked, staring at the body.

“The locals call that a bloodsucker, and for good reason. It hunts solely to drink the blood of its prey. They prefer the neck and head region of young stalkers, but they’ll get any blood they can: human, pig, dog, anything. I think that was the reason we didn’t see any fresh camps here.”

Roach nodded, wincing through the stinging pain. “That makes sense. We should check upstairs, where the beast came from.”

A few minutes later, and both of them wished they hadn’t checked. Corpses of various beasts lay strewn about. Towards the back of the room was one stalker Roach recognized.

“That’s Rust,” he said, voice trembling. Fox nodded, and went to the corpse. He began checking through the dead man’s pockets.

“What are you doing?” Roach said. “You can’t just steal from the dead!”

“First of all rookie, I’m looking for clues about where to find Wicker. Second of all,” the veteran said, lifting up Rust’s head to expose the teeth marks and other gouges, “Does this look like the face of a man who will be able to use any of this equipment? Come on, he’s got some useable stuff still on him.”

Roach hesitated, then slowly walked over to where Fox was rummaging. “I still feel bad about this,” the rookie said. “We should give him a proper burial.”

Fox nodded in agreement. “True. This is no way to leave a friend.” Piotr pulled a PDA out of the dead stalker’s backpack. He removed the memory card and inserted it into his own. Scrolling through, he found some interesting data – dates and times of dead-drops, as well as a map marking suspected stash locations. It looked like the trail to Wicker hadn’t yet gone cold after all. Fox looked back up at Roach, who looked like he was going to be ill.

“Ok. Quick, grab anything of his that you need. It looks like he still had some spare ammunition, food, and medicine. That’s yours. The data’s mine. Now quick, let’s get the poor sod downstairs and dig him a place to rest before the dogs get to him.”

* * * * * * *

After a few hours’ work, Rust was laid to rest, with the top of a crate to mark the site. Roach carved the Orthodox cross into the headboard, as well as the man’s name. The pair stood in silence for a while.

“Do you intend to follow me further into the zone?” Piotr asked.

After a few seconds silence, Roach answered “No. At least not now. It’s apparent that I still have a lot to learn, and that bloodsucker scared the life out of me. I need to go back to the village and rest a bit.” Roach fished a cigarette out of his pocket, held it up to his lips with trembling hands, and lit it. “I’m not sure I’ll be up to snuff for a few days.”

Fox nodded. “I understand. But don’t fret, rookie. This gets easier.” The veteran stalker turned and began to walk away north, the afternoon sun trickling down through the trees outside the car park.

“That’s kind of what I’m afraid of,” said Roach to no one in particular. After a few more puffs, the rookie made the sign of the cross over his chest and walked away, his heart heavy.

Photo taken by mrtoby from oblivionstate.com. Though no direct copyright was contained in his forum post which included this photo, it is assumed that all rights to the photo are reserved to him. Photo is used for atmospheric purposes only and not for profit.

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