2. GROUND FLOOR OPPORTUNITY
Midnight on empty roads, the drive back to town was a tunnel of headlights and memories.
Savak had arrived right after the first Incident five years earlier. On the run from Bratva debt collectors and puking out the tail end of meth addiction, Anton had found him shivering and starved in an abandoned house. Big on plans but short on labor, the old goat had offered him a bowl of potato soup and a job. “The Zone is a place of new beginnings,” Anton had said. “Here’s your chance to start over.”
Years on the streets, Savak could tell the gaffer was blowing smoke. He knew it in his aching bones. But he had burned every bridge staying one step ahead of being shoved in a trash compactor, so when the sweats stopped, he took the surname from the empty house’s battered mail box, ‘Tul’, and reinvented himself out of the ashes of his old life. Same hustle, different streets, Savak the junkie became Savak the salesman.
Which was fitting given the entire region had undergone its own disturbing alchemy. That first explosion, the weird lights in the sky, reports of bizarre creatures… the area around the plant had transformed practically overnight into a vast petri dish for deep strangeness. Yes, the Institute responded quickly and brought the military with them, but for the first time in his life, Savak was at the front of the line.
It wasn’t long before civilians started returning as well. Different kinds, of course. The newly-established ‘Exclusion Zone’ was not the place for farmers, factories, and families anymore. These were like Savak; fugitives, malcontents, or just lost, and they became the very first Stalkers. Desperate, crazy, or just a new breed of cosmonaut, the lure of the forbidden called to them and they wanted to find out what was really going on inside the perimeter of barbed wire, watchtowers, and roving patrols.
Dozens snuck through the Cordon. Most of them never came back. But the few that did, came back changed.
If they were loud before, they turned quiet. If they were quiet before, they became damn near mute. Some limped, others had scars or burns. Each one had changed differently, weathered and worn down to their own hard center. But all of them had the habit of checking out at random.
The where and when didn’t matter; any time of day or night one of those who’d made it back would suddenly lapse into silence mid-conversation and stare into some alien middle distance while their beer sat untouched or a cigarette burned down between their fingers.
With careful prompting, stories would emerge: terrible, wonderful tales of landscapes turned inside out, mutated plants, and bizarre weather. Normally dour, they spoke in near-reverent tones about parking lots filled with pulsing air bubbles, buildings enveloped in banks of silent green fog, and trees twisted into leafy cathedrals that crackled with blue lightning. There were deserted villages, they said, where the dead muttered from the broken windows, and vast fields of wheat that sighed in the wind covering forgotten underground complexes filled with forbidden machines and dark secrets.
Hardened men shuddered at memories of blind dogs that could hear a heartbeat, or hunchback dwarfs that lurked in basements and broke bones with a thought. There were monsters out there, they said, mutated myths: invisible vampires, grunting, cannibal survivors, and savage, two-headed beasts.
Strange stories but even stranger were the souvenirs; the warped and shimmering baubles these stalkers dug out of their packs. Twisted Meat Chunks, gleaming Crystals, squat Batteries, fuzzy Koloboks… The first artifacts. That was when the Institute got involved and things really took off for Anton.
And Savak? Savak was right beside him.
Quarantine area or not, business is business. Even before the Zone was formally recognized, Anton had secured several valuable pieces of real estate right outside the Cordon, including the bar. Especially the bar. From there, he made connections – military, scientists, smugglers, and stalkers – all of which needed the usual comforts of home. The unusual ones too.
At first, Anton and Savak were bottom feeders. In the early days, the old man had him moving toilet paper, tinned meat, watered-down vodka, and guitar strings in exchange for any Zone scrap or oddity. Small items that fit easily behind a door panel or under a spare tire, those goods were in demand on both sides of the Cordon.
The supply runs became so regular, Anton started boasting he ran an ‘import/export business.’ They both knew it was the crumbs of the supply chain but the old man insisted it was a “ground floor opportunity.”
Which was a steaming pile of cow shit because to Savak it was more gutter than floor; he didn’t see so much as a kopek that first year. His ‘salary’ consisted of a cot in the bar’s back room, one meal a day, and whatever he could loot from the abandoned houses. Suspicion being Anton’s worldview, he watched Savak like a hawk. The old man triple-checked every shipment, confirmed every payment, and kept meticulous records of every bottle, tin, and box that went in or came out.
Any time Savak complained, Anton would start in with the ‘pennies make dollars’ speech and tell him to be patient. “Right place, right time. This is just the start. It will all pay off soon. You’ll see.”
Savak didn’t see and by year two, he’d had enough.
Bort, the byki at the garage, had reminded Savak of the first deal he did on his own. He went behind the old man’s back for a crate of Makarov pistols. Chinese knock-offs, Type 59s.
It was right before Christmas and the guns came with a tin of 9 x 18mm ammo, half of which was corroded. A trader named Vassily ‘Clownfeet’ Chenko bought it without blinking, then ordered another one. Then another and another. Guns were in demand. The wonder of exploring the mysterious Exclusion Zone had given way to the hard, mundane work of looting and killing. Before Savak knew it, he was climbing the arms dealer ladder one greasy cosmoline rung at a time – without Anton.
His lucky break came when he rescued a drunk corporal from an irate pole dancer with a switchblade. Sergei Dobroshtan, a Cordon Enforcement quartermaster’s assistant. After that, steady bribes with a dash of blackmail let Savak tap into the Zone security’s procurement pipeline. Just a trickle, but it was a trickle of AK-74s, RGD-5 grenades, and surplus Gorka suits. Slowly, steadily, Savak started working his way out from under Anton’s thumb.
The old man must have suspected something because he suddenly started paying him. Cash, never the same amount week to week, and always a tiny percent of what was rolling in, Anton would go on about how Savak was like a son to him and how he was happy to go without in order to reward him for all his hard work.
Savak would nod and blush and stash the bills in a tin under the cot in the back room. But it was too little, too late. He was making plans of his own.
Anton died soon after.
Savak tried to forget, wanted the memory to disappear in his rearview like roadkill on the highway. But the harder he tried, the more it popped up. It was a Tuesday, a “delivery day” when he and Anton drove into the Zone to do business with the Traders. Same day each week, same abandoned dairy farm twelve kilometers inside the Cordon. Even with the bribes, it took ages to get through the checkpoints, which meant hours in the cab with the old goat. Add heavy crates, bad roads, crap weather, the growing danger from bandits, the only good thing about it was money, and he only caught a slim and bitter glimpse of that.
It was always the same truck too, an ancient GAZ 66 old enough to have carted Stalin’s ass around the Urals. The gear box rattled like a load of gravel in a woodchipper. Its body was held together with tin patches and a thousand coats of army green paint. Beast had a top speed of 45 kph – downhill in a tailwind. So yes, Savak had loathed delivery days.
But the real reason Savak hated them was the Zone itself; he didn’t like it. Or rather, he had the sense it didn’t like him.
Which was stupid, he knew. Geography can’t disrespect a person. A place can’t be conscious or intentional. Even if it could, what was it to pass judgment on him? With its mutants and deaths and weird wounded landscape. No.
So when a Security patrol ambushed their meeting that day and started shooting, Savak ran and hid under a tractor then spent a long, gut-clenched night, flinching at every gust of wind or twig-snap. The next morning, he decided that had been enough. He walked to the Cordon, paid the Gate guards, and never went back. As heir to Anton’s grubby kingdom, Savak had people for that now.
If the Zone wanted to reject him, fine. Savak would despise it right back. And wring every last cent he could from the bitch.
To Be Continued