Chapter 5 of another tale from the Exclusion Zone
5. ZONE LEGENDS
The Zone run came together fast. There were palms to grease, papers to forge, patrol and drone schedules to get, but Oleg had it all done in forty-eight hours. He’d even managed to keep Major Yushinko from getting wind of it. Savak was almost impressed.
As to his end of the deal, he let cousin Petr stock up on gear. The greasy laska rummaged through Savak’s supply house like a bum at a free buffet, scurrying through the aisles with a wide, crooked-tooth grin, pawing everything with his dirty hands. Savak tallied every item he touched then added twenty percent on top for general aggravation. No way that punk would make more money than him. He’d see to that.
The morning of started well enough; bright sunrise in a pale sky. High clouds with a hint of warmth on the wind. The kind of dawn that whispered promises. Oleg had used Savak’s Cordon Security contacts to borrow a UAZ 469. He’d been assured no one would miss the jeep so long as it was back in the depot the following morning. Clean and new, it even had a Zone Enforcement emblem on the hood.
Petr wolf-whistled when he saw it. “Riding in style, eh? Good to be king, Mr. Tul.”
Savak shrugged and gave a knowing smile. He had to play nice – at least until he got his artifacts. And it was good to be king.
Well, almost king, anyway. The Turk was still a finger in his eye. The old bastard operated out of a fortified gas station in the southern Zone, backed up by some secret deal with the Institute and a platoon worth of ‘nephews’ for security. Savak made a mental note to do something about that when this was over.
If Oleg’s idea came together, things would definitely change around here.
The bouncer had insisted he would take care of everything, so Savak was sipping hot tea from a thermos, watching his very own ‘three stooges’ bumble through morning’s preparations.
Eager to be ‘boss-for-a-day’, Oleg had his cousin loading empty Pelican crates into the back of the jeep. A dozen of them, he obviously expected a miraculous haul of salvage from this mystery bunker. Savak had warned him about ‘counting chickens before they hatched’ but he obviously hadn’t listened.
Next, Oleg got to chew out Bort for arriving late. The no-neck arrived lugging a pair of huge red petrol cans filled to the brim, plus his own equipment. He strapped them on the side of the jeep then helped with the last of the crates, avoiding eye contact with Savak all the while.
Probably thinks I’ll fire him if he fucks up again. Well, he’s right.
Irritated, Savak fussed with the pistol on his belt for the hundredth time.
It was a brand-new Glock 17 and it came with a custom, low-profile Kydex holster. Supposedly the angle on the belt made all the difference on a quick-draw and Savak wanted it to look just right.
It wasn’t loud and intimidating like the stubby AK-47SU Oleg and the other two carried. But the Austrian pistols were rare in the Zone, reportedly in high demand. They advertised ‘success,’ and Savak liked that.
He also liked that it was lighter than the other handguns he sold. He’d made it clear that a sidearm and a canteen were the only things he should have to carry. He was fronting this expedition after all, and that was another perk of being management, not labor.
Still, Savak wished he’d got some range time in. It had been ages since he’d fired a weapon.
He drained the last of his tea. Ah well, too late now. That’s what the stooges are for.
The three men secured the last of the gear. The jeep was a smart choice; roomy enough for the four of them, small and common enough to be overlooked by any unscheduled aerial reconnaissance. Obviously, Petr and Bort would cram in the back. Oleg would drive. Savak would sit next to him up front, kitted out like just another Stalker: nice pistol, worn Sunrise suit. He’d have the hood up and a scarf, a pair of dark glasses… going for that hard, anonymous look.
But not too anonymous. It was important the gate guards recognized him. Word had to spread. And if he was spotted once, who could know for certain how many other times Savak Tul had walked the Exclusion Zone? Savak had read that leadership was all about cultivating an image.
“All set, boss,” Petr called out.
Oleg started the jeep. Savak climbed in.
Forty minutes later they went through the Cordon.
Savak was surprised to see Dobroshtan himself waving them on. The wincing corporal he’d found with his pants down around his ankles two years ago was a master sergeant now.
Dobroshtan didn’t bother to check their papers, just nodded at Oleg and motioned for the gate to be lifted. He stared as they wove through the checkpoint barriers. Savak took off his sunglasses and stared back until the sergeant looked away.
Long way from Sweaty Sveta’s lap dances, aren’t you? Savak smirked. Don’t you forget it.
“Getting the red carpet treatment today,” Petr crowed. “Not too shabby.”
“I’d better,” Savak said. “All the money I’ve made him the last two years, he should escort us there and back.”
Petr brayed like a donkey as if that was the best joke he’d heard all year. He leaned forward between the seats. “Good thing he isn’t. Know why?” he asked in a stage whisper.
Savak could care less. “Do tell,” he said instead.
“A hundred rubles says I found a Yellow Gypsy.”
Savak shook his head. Oleg’s cousin was more gullible than he thought.
Oleg glared at Petr but he pressed on. “Think about it: big ground hatch hidden in a stand of trees. Heavy, blast-proof, over a deep ladder to a long tunnel. Could be maintenance access, sure. But what if it’s an emergency exit? A back door out of some creepy lab so the eggheads could escape when their experiments went Frankenstein.”
“Gypsies…” Savak sighed. “They aren’t real.”
“They might be. How do you know?” Petr countered. “Those papers –”
“Those papers could be anything,” Savak interrupted. “And secret government facilities… really? Vaults loaded with military weapons and gold bars? Laboratories stocked with miracle drugs and caged mutants? Do you believe in Santa Claus, too?”
“Well, nobody believed in artifacts until they came out of the Zone. The stories started somewhere.”
Savak turned in his seat to face Petr. “They started at the bottom of a bottle of Stolichnaya. Red, green, yellow… Gypsies are bullshit. Big score fantasies losers tell themselves to keep going. They’re Zone legends.”
Undeterred, Petr clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, I’ve got a nose for these things and I say this here…” He waggled a finger to indicate the jeep’s interior. “This is a game-changer. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be Zone legends when this is over, right Oleg?”
The bouncer gave an uneasy smile and concentrated on the road ahead. In the back, Bort stayed quiet.
Savak turned to face the front and fished for his stinky English mulch sticks. “See? Even they don’t buy it.”
Three cigarettes later, the weather had soured along with Savak’s mood. What began as a fine day turned dark, as if the Zone changed its mind when it learned he had come. That’s as stupid as believing in Gypsies, he told himself.
But a cliff of gray clouds filled the northern sky and was moving steadily their way. Crazed with veins of lightning, its thunder rumbled like approaching artillery. The ragged, overgrown fields stretching beside the road were churned by strange winds.
“No roadside picnic today, Mr. Tul,” Petr said. “The Zone is in a mood.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Oleg said quickly. “We’re almost there.”
Savak kept his hands from lighting a fourth cigarette and adjusted the pistol holster instead. “About fucking time,” he snarled.
The grip he’d kept on his emotions was slipping. Jagged memories sawed at his nerves and the deeper they drove, the more Savak felt watched. Disapproved of.
This trip needs to be over already.
There was a sharp rise in the road then suddenly an abandoned factory appeared on their left. The hollow geometry of gutted architecture loomed against the darkening skyline. A company name, VOLTECH, was stenciled on an end wall in faded yellow and blue.
Petr lunged forward between the seats and pointed at the building like an eager bird dog. “See? Maskirovka. If that isn’t perfect cover for an underground lab, I don’t know what is.”
Abruptly, Oleg swerved off the road. The jeep shook and jounced as it settled onto a dirt track arcing behind the factory.
“What the f—” Savak snapped, then stopped short. There, not a hundred meters away, stood a dense break of white birch trees beside a small brown meadow. The air over the tall shaggy grass was pulsing with what looked like a crop of giant soap bubbles.
Springboard anomalies. Two dozen, at least.
“I’ll be damned,” he breathed.