Piotr turned over on his side, shivering and convulsing. What little thought flitted through his mind was screaming that he was in deep trouble. He could feel the wound in his side, the hot blood pulsing out with every heart beat. Kit, he thought, wracked with another wave of pain. How had it come to this?
* * * * * *
The train tunnels and sewers below them by the science station were no place to take tourists. Everyone knew that. Even dogs and the smarter bandits kept away from them. But that was where all the evidence had been leading Piotr, and he was finally willing to admit he was scared. He had nimbly worked his way through a whole field of electricity anomalies while being surrounded by those unfortunates who hadn’t. It had been a shame on more than one level, some of those who were lost had some good equipment on them, but it would be a fool’s errand to try and retrieve any of it.
Piotr let out a sigh of relief as he moved past some of the abandoned rail cars in the tunnel, knocked askew years ago, and found the door to the maintenance tunnel. It was unlocked and slightly ajar. Curious, the stalker thought, I suppose all the electricity fried the circuits. He pushed the door open further with his boot and enter the room with his AK raised. The tunnel was dark and musty, and up ahead a pipe coughed out clouds of brown gas. Piotr wasted no time and slid his gas-mask into place, ensuring there was a tight seal. The heat and compression of the mask’s rubber covering could quickly become unbearable, but he’d rather be uncomfortable than dead.
The tunnel snaked on and on, eventually leading downward into what looked like a parts storage facility. The path led out onto a catwalk which descended into a dimly lit room with row upon row of shelves and a set of heavy doors on either end of the room. He descended the staircase, sweeping his weapon from side to side. Satisfied at the bottom that there were no immediate threats, he removed his gas-mask. He could hear his footsteps echo in the large room, and stopped immediately as he heard a growl. He slowly turned his head to the left, and saw a human foot disappear behind a row of shelves.
“Chyort!” Of all the things that could be in here, it had to be snorks, those poor souls who had gone into the immediate disaster zone and been foolish enough to have their gas-masks improperly sealed. No one knew how, but they had been twisted so they could no longer stand properly, but could leap like cougars. His headlamp swept the room as he sought the creature. He turned around as a blood-curdling screech filled the air, just in time to see a pair of rotting teeth peeking out from underneath a ruined mask. Claws raked across his face and chest, and his rifle was pinned down against him. Piotr tried to cover his head as a rain of blows came down upon him, seeking to tear out his eyes. He screamed as he felt warm blood escaping from jagged cuts in his face and felt a new, deeper wound in his side. Getting purchase on the monster’s face and pushing, the stalker pulled his rifle free just enough to blast the creature in the chest. With a moan, the snork fell on top of the stalker and gave its death rattle. Pushing the beast off, Piotr sought to rise. He fell back with a cry. He reached over and felt the handle of a knife. The creature must have remembered some of its former life, because the stalker recognized the handle as his own. With agony he pulled out the blade and turned towards his unwounded side. He fumbled with a medical kit, removing a packet of sulfa drugs and tearing it open with his teeth. He had to hurry. Everything was…going…bla…
Piotr awoke later lying on a bed, his gear removed and wounds bound. He was in a small concrete room with metal shelves lining the walls covered in supplies. A clock ticked impassively on the wall opposite him, and a man sat sideways at a desk underneath that clock. The man was reading through what Piotr knew was the assignment that Sidorovich had given to find Wicker. Piotr cleared his throat.
“Ah, you are awake my friend,” the man said with a smile. “I’m glad to see you pulled through. I was worried for you there. It’s not often I get visitors. My unwitting guards make sure of that.”
“You are Wicker,” Piotr said. It wasn’t a question.
“I am. And you are Fox.”
“Why did you help me?”
Wicker smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t understand. Fox, this is my chance. My chance to disappear again. I have some new adventures planned, but they will be easier if people believe me to be dead. Angering Sidorovich seemed like a good way to ensure that a death of mine would be publicized.”
Fox shook his head in an attempt to clear the headache he awoke with. “So, you wanted me to hunt you?”
Wicker laughed. “Well, not you specifically, but yes, I wanted to be hunted. I want to disappear, Fox. Surely you know what that’s like. You may not remember me from the outside, but I remember you. We used to work for the same people. I think we can help each other, you and I. You need money and a flash drive.”
Wicker opened a drawer of the desk and pulled out a large wad of roubles and a data stick. “Here you go. This is all you need to get your payment from Sidorovich and rub the name of Wicker from the history books. Your reputation as a ‘good stalker’ will undoubtedly go up. You will be looked kindly upon for this. As for me, I’ll disappear. I’m never going back to the Cordon or the Garbage. I’ve better plans.”
Fox nodded. “Why are you trusting me with this, Aleksei? You thought I wouldn’t remember you, but I do. You’re a good man, but I know you don’t like loose ends.”
Wicker leaned forward. “Because I know you have a conscience. You are in no condition to kill me, but I am in perfect condition to kill you. Neither of us want that. Help me, Piotr, help yourself.”
Piotr thought to himself for a minute. “Ok. You have a deal.”
* * * * * *
Fox went on to claim Sidorovich’s bounty, secure in the knowledge that he had not only helped himself but someone he once knew. He hoped that Aleksei – once known as Wicker – would find what he was looking for. For as far as everyone else was concerned, Wicker was now a ghost, and Sidorovich was happy. Well, relatively. The conversation they had kept going back and forth.
“Are you sure this was the only flash drive Wicker had on him?” the grumpy merchant kept asking.
“Yes, Sidorovich. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“And you didn’t take anything off of it?”
“Sidorovich, I have no means to do so.”
Once Sidorovich was satisfied with his money and his disappointment in what he was looking for being missing, Fox went on his way. New gear and new adventures awaited him, all thanks to his “dead” friend saving his life. Fox resolved that as far as he could, in the future, he was going to do for others what Wicker had done for him.