A bit of STALKER fiction:
A PRAYER TO ST. STRELOK.
The tourists were whining again.
Not even fifteen kilometers in and the eggheads are complaining: they are out of breath – their feet hurt – the packs are heavy – when is the next stop so we can rest?
Hadn’t he, Yuri Bonyev, always the thoughtful guide, urged them to purchase good boots? Hadn’t he already stopped to let them rest twice?
Here he was humping two extra canteens, two first-aid kits, and a box of those nasty chewy food bars, on top of his usual load-out. What the hell do they have to groan about? The three of them only had backpacks, water bottles, and those shitty little pistols Vanya had pawned off on them. Fucking things could barely kill a dog, but the scientists had acted like Spetsnaz strapping them on their thighs. Three hard men ready for the mission, yes?
And here Yuri thought this would be over before supper.
There he went, thinking again. It got him in trouble every time.
Yuri reminded himself to have his wife kick him the next time he mentioned playing nursemaid for a URAN field trip. No matter how much money those academics flashed, it wasn’t worth getting dead over.
Yuri frowned more at that thought than the pleas nagging at his ears.
Zone be merciful, he sighed.
With any luck the cruel bitch would be sated already today and not demand a toll from him and his tag-alongs.
St. Strelok, a shred of luck is all I ask, he prayed.
Yuri wiped his face with the back of his hand, turned back to the three URAN scientists. “That stand of trees on top of the hill. We’ll take five there.”
Their relief was palpable. Pathetic.
“And no guzzling this time,” he glared. “Hydrate, yes, but you drink all your water, you’ll be pissing maple syrup before this is over.”
The bald one, Artur, spoke up. “I thought you said there were streams. We can fill the canteens in them.”
The other two, the fat blubberer Suchek with his ugly comb-over and thick glasses, and the quiet, skeletal one, Iosif, nodded in agreement.
“You think the Zone has clean water for you?” Yuri scowled. “Fucking infants. You stuff a de-rad filtration kit in that little school bag of yours?”
Suchek and Iosif looked down ashamed, but Artur held his ground, not willing to lose face. “It’s been nearly two years. Rain falls, water flows.” He started lecturing as if Yuri were a child.”The water cycle will have carried off most of the contaminants–”
Yuri clapped his hand to his forehead in mock astonishment. “Ah, the water cycle. Right. I’m an unschooled peasant so what do I know?”
He stepped forward and stuck his face inches from Artur’s. “Very well then, Mr. Genius. You can raise the first glass. Knock back all that mutated bacteria, the rad-scorched run-off, and God knows what other microscopic shit the Zone has twisted up for you. It might give you super powers, you know. You’ll be Ukrainian Spider Man.”
A nasty smile split his lips. “Or you’ll be shitting blood by sundown. Who knows? Like you said, ‘Risk is the price of scientific advancement.’ So risk away, yes?
Artur looked like he was about to cry.
Yuri shrugged. “Ok then. Now let’s move.” With that, he spun on his heel and started up the hill.
After a moment, the three men trudged after him. Surly, little steps, pouting silently like children. They slowed him down, but at least there was fifteen minutes of blissful quiet.
Yuri cast his eyes to the leaden gray sky. “Thank you.”
Halfway up the hill, he checked his map again.
A largish green blotch indicated the dark tangle of the Chernya Woods. It was a mere eleven kilometers distant. Just down the slope on the other side of this hill and across the Wet Valley with all its little streams. The three eggheads insisted there was an old military bunker in the Chernya, its entrance cut in the side of a mound marked by three boulders they called the ‘Moirai’, after some Greek mythology ‘weavers of Fate’ bullshit.
Yuri had been in Chernya once before. The woods were on the western edge of the Deep Zone and cutting through saved half a day. More if you moved fast – which Yuri had. There was something about the place with its ugly black trees and creaky branches that hung down like broken arms that set his neck hair on edge.
There were rumors too – the Zone birthed them like puppies – rumors that a lot of men had disappeared around here in the last year. Good men. Now whether their disappearance had anything to do with this place didn’t really matter; the men were gone and the rumors had solidified into one of those ‘facts’ that circulated in the bars and trading posts: the Wet Valley and the Chernya Woods were poisoned ground.
That was why most STALKERs took the South or East roads now. They were longer, yes. Subject to Army patrols and helicopter over flights, but they were straight shots, well-travelled. Considered easy. Safe. And Yuri always played it safe – until now.
Yuri would never claim to be faithful, but when he strayed he was always careful. The Zone was fascinating and forbidden. She tempted you with luscious prizes and every date left you spent and breathless. But for all that smoldering sexiness, she was a treacherous bitch. You never, ever took your eyes off her, not for one instant.
He double-checked the map. Eleven kilometers. Add a handful more wandering the woods looking for these three rocks, then – if the bunker was real and accessible – help these schoolboys find whatever it was they were after, then slip back to civilization world before sundown. It could still happen – if only these guys would man up and put their peckers into it.
At the top of the hill, Yuri dug out three ration bars and passed them out. The scientists tore onto them, slobbering and chewing like starving dogs.
“Pick up the wrappers,” Yuri cautioned. “And take only small sips to wash it down.”
The ration bars devoured, Suchek mopped his sweaty face with a bright red handkerchief. Artur made a show of rubbing his calves and groaning. Only skinny Iosif remained stoic, sitting ramrod straight and breathing slowly through his nose. Composing himself, conserving energy.
That one listens at least, Yuri thought. I can worry about him a fraction less.
Yuri turned and studied the horizon. The dark smudge of the Chernya beckoned from the far side of the valley. Between it and them, lay a patchy carpet of tall grass rippling in the wind. Silver veins peeked though the undulating green-brown reeds, the sunlight glinting off the slick watercourses and streams that threaded the ground. From this distance, it would have made a pretty picture. Yuri shook his head: the Zone was smiling, winking, trying to draw him closer.
Down there in those reeds you could hardly see five meters in any direction. The water turned the black earth into boot sucking mud and pooled into fetid sinks that bred mosquito swarms as loud and vicious as Hind gunships.
Vanya had marked a trail on his map, a dotted line in grease pencil. It was good ground, firm ground, he claimed. The last time anyone checked, at least.
“For a hundred rubles, it better be good,” Yuri had snapped.
The little weasel had knocked back the last of his vodka with a shrug. “Hey, you get lost, I’ll give you a full refund.”
Yuri looked back at his three charges. The Zone was always risky but this run was doubly so. No matter how much money they were paying him, he was the boss here and the scientists would have to do exactly what he said the instant he said it. He wasn’t going to get killed over their whingeing. There would be no stopping in the Wet Valley.
Yuri fished out a handful of cheap plastic market bags out of his leg pack and held them out. “Take off your boots and put these on your feet. They’ll keep your socks dry.”
“But why?” Suckek sulked. “I thought you said there was a path.”
Yuri grit his teeth. “It’s a swamp is why, and swamps are wet. We’ll use the path but I’m not going to stop because one of you delicate flowers gets soggy socks. Now put them on and be sure to lace up tight after. Got me?”
More grumping but the scientists did as they were told.
“You’re welcome,” Yuri said when they were done. “I gave you another five minutes to rest. Now we’re going to cross the Wet Valley. I’ll take the lead but you will keep your mouths shut, stay on my ass, and keep moving.” He racked the charging handle on his AK, chambering a round for emphasis. “Got me?”
Artur’s hand drifted to the pistol at this thigh. “What’s down there? Is it dangerous?”
“What did I just say about shutting up?” Yuri asked.
“I just want to know in case—“
“In case what? You get spooked?”
Artur’s shuffled his feet but his hand still rested on the pistol butt.
Yuri sniffed, his voice deadly quiet. “You will not pull that shooter out of its holster unless I say. Got me, druzhishe? I will handle any special case.”
Artur nodded. The others as well.
Yuri smiled as if they were about to walk through a park on a sunny day. “Good. Now follow me and we’ll go find your bunker.”
End of Part 1.