Chapter 4 of another tale from the Exclusion Zone
4. A NORTH KOREAN HAND GRENADE
Oleg’s idea was simple: Savak needed an artifact.
A real one. Not one of the irradiated railroad ties they bent and magnetized to sell to tourists or reporters. This had to be a genuine specimen, something exotic to display behind the bar. That would shut down the rumors – or at least make them ring hollow. An Exclusion Zone certificate of authenticity.
He couldn’t buy it second-hand either; word would get out. No, he had to go get it himself.
But Savak didn’t know the Zone, didn’t have time to learn her ways and woo that prize. Savak Tul, shrewd businessman? Yes. A stalker? No.
That was okay because Oleg’s cousin, Petr, was.
Savak had met Petr when he first arrived and remembered being unimpressed. Lanky, with bad teeth and a hungry look, Petr was just another punk who’d managed to get his hands on a Kalashnikov and come to the Zone to make his bones. Technically “unaffiliated”, that kind hired themselves out to anyone who paid. They were called voron – crows – because they flocked and squabbled over scraps. Most of them ended up in a shallow grave before too long. Truth be told, Savak was surprised to hear Petr was still above ground.
He was, Oleg noted with some pride. In fact, Petr did regular work for crazy Steck and had a dozen Zone runs under his belt.
The important bit for Savak was that Petr had been on one of Steck’s errands two weeks back, in the Zone, hiding from an aerial drone, when he found an access hatch in the ground. The hatch was set in a concrete slab in a stand of old birch trees. If Petr hadn’t tucked himself under a pile of deadfall, he never would have found it.
After the drone left, Petr managed to open the hatch and found a passage that led deeper underground. He didn’t have the time or the gear to explore, Oleg explained, but there’d been a body at the foot of the ladder just inside, a civilian with a pistol and a briefcase. The pistol had rusted into a useless hunk of metal, but the briefcase yielded papers with lots of numbers and diagrams and charts.
Petr couldn’t make heads or tails of them but the date on them caught his eye: the day of the very first Incident. There was a signature too – Professor V.M. Chubko.
Savak frowned. “Chubko? Wasn’t he the head of–”
“The Group,” Oleg nodded, solemnly. “The ones who started all this.”
Savak pondered this a moment then burst out laughing. “You’re suggesting your mush-head cousin found a secret Group bunker, still sealed from the day of the Incident? That’s like Forrest Gump finding the Holy Grail.”
The bouncer’s face darkened but he persisted. “I believe him, Mr. Tul. Petr couldn’t make up something like that.”
Savak smirked. Oleg’s thug cousin barely had enough brain power to talk in complete sentences. He could have found a bunker, a bomb shelter, or a sewage pipe. There was no telling which. “Did you actually see any of these papers?” he asked.
Oleg pulled out his phone and brought up the blurry photo of a sheaf of water-stained pages sitting in a battered case. There was writing on them, yes, but it was a crap picture.
“What is this?” Savak asked, dismissively. “That proves nothing.”
Oleg hung his head and went to put his phone away. Savak stopped him. “What does that have to do with me getting an artifact?” he demanded.
The bouncer brightened. “Petr said the hatch was near a field full of Springboard anomalies. Anomalies mean artifacts, right? We could get one there.”
Savak Tul blinked. “Don’t bullshit me.”
If something is too good to be true, it usually is. Savak’s old street instincts were screaming at him to walk away. But curiosity was clawing at the back of his mind. Curiosity and need.
As much as he didn’t want to admit it, getting an artifact was a good idea. And that photo of old papers and a briefcase… perhaps Oleg’s cousin had found something. The kid was an idiot, but he might be a useful one.
Savak eyed Oleg skeptically. “And what? You think I’m going to stroll into a field of Springboards and yank out a Jelly Fish? A whole bouquet of Stone Flowers?”
“No, no, no sir,” Oleg said. “Petr will do that. He’ll get one for you.”
Savak shook his head. “And how much must I pay for this service?”
Oleg grinned. “That’s the beauty of it, Mr. Tul. Petr needs gear to go back and explore. When he came to me with this, I thought maybe you could kit him out. He goes down the hatch to see what’s what. Recovers anything valuable. After, he would search the Springboards for you and give you the first pick of any artifacts he finds. Win-win, no?”
“Maybe.” Savak tasted an opportunity. “And what, I just give him gear and trust he’s not going to bail on me?”
“Of course not. You’ll be with us, boss. In person. Petr, me, Bort, and you. A four-man crew, a quick Zone run, in and out. We come back with salvage and artifacts, no one can talk shit anymore.”
The thought of returning to the Zone made Savak’s stomach tighten. The memory of that day, the shooting, that long night under the tractor… “How far is this stand of birch trees?”
“Deep. But not too deep,” Oleg said. “No one will say you stayed in the shallows.”
Savak paused, hid his hesitation by reaching for another cigarette. “So why didn’t your cousin go to Steck with this? Why you?” he asked. “Why come to me?”
Oleg flushed, looked distraught for a split second. “Erm, he wants to be his own man, you know? Take his shot. This could be his big break. ‘Go big or go home’, right?”
“Don’t we all?” Savak mused, and lit up.
He inhaled deeply and started to think. Oleg wanted to say more but Savak held up a hand for silence.
A secret bunker near a field of anomalies. The chance at a real artifact. But going back into the Zone? With scrawny Petr of all people? Oleg’s proposal sat in his mind like a surplus North Korean hand-grenade: it could work as advertised, it could be a dud, it could blow up in his face.
He inspected it from different angles, weighed odds and possibilities, a dozen options rattling in his head. Savak was aware Oleg watched him anxiously. He knew the answer the big man wanted.
Finally, Savak exhaled and shook his head; Petr wasn’t a good bet on any day. No. Hard pass on this.
He was about to disappoint Oleg when the memory of Pavlo’s smirking face surfaced in his mind. ‘A little man’, the kid had said. ‘Snake’.
Savak shoved his reluctance aside. Call yourself Scarecrow? Well, I’ll light your scrawny ass on fire. “I want a percentage of whatever Petr finds,” he said angrily. “And two artifacts. I need to recover expenses on the gear and ammunition for this field trip.”
Oleg grinned, obviously relieved. “Done. I’ll tell Petr. I’m sure he’ll understand. After all, no one goes into business to break even, right?”
Savak nodded, half-listening. The big man kept talking, something about transportation and patrol schedules, but Savak was imagining his artifact display. Dead center behind the bar. High up but not too high so everyone could see it clearly. A steel box with a tempered glass front. Back-lit, maybe. Yes, that would work.
Savak Tul would have one of the Zone’s treasures all for himself – whether it liked him or not – and no one would call him a coward to his face ever again.