Chapter 2

It was not before long the men of Radiochemical Company stood before the icebreaker Skadovsk. It was an abandoned ship left behind when the river disappeared some time ago. It was a rusted out old beast, which managed to stay upright for the most part. Much of the metal of the aft section had been taken by scavengers. Probably much of it from back in the day, when people didn’t realize such metal was contained when it was sold to scrap metal companies. Other than the forward section, the ship was mostly a desiccated rusty skeleton jutting up from the swampy grounds.

            Looking up the squad could see several armed men standing on the deck of the ship with their weapons held at the ready. All of them were wearing olive drab fatigues. They each had matching matte black combat gear, chest rig and boots. All of them were holding AKS-74s that had odd red forward grips, rear grips and stocks; and they looked mean enough fire by themselves. The guards of the ship watched them intently as they approached the vessel.

            “Stop,” one of the guards yelled out to them, “this is the ice breaker Skadovsk. All weapons are to be kept in their holsters at all times. This vessel is neutral ground, not aligned with any faction. No violence will be tolerated. If you have grudges with anyone here, it must be dealt without side the ship. We will not hesitate to fire on anyone who disobeys the rules. Do I make myself clear?”

            Nadovev waved to the men with the seemingly itch trigger fingers and called out to them. “Yes, we understand the rules, we’re just here to meet a client and get some rest.” The guard who spoke to them nodded his acknowledgement.

            The squad climb onto the ship through the missing side. Ricky reached forward and pulled down on the handle on the door to the inside. With a loud ancient creaking noise the door slowly opened with effort. The men stepped in and stood for a moment soaking it all in, none of them had been there before. It was just as rusty on the inside as it was the outside. The support beams of the hull made the ship look like the inside of a whale. The light level was pretty low. There were only a few fluorescent tubes glowing on the ceiling. The sound of a generator could be faintly heard somewhere on this ship. The floor was grill work, with pipes and values underneath running every which way. A dozen makeshift tables were scattered around the floor, metal frames with wooden plank table tops. The place was full of Stalkers, dozens of them all milling around. Some were chatting, some were drinking and smoking. A group of stalkers was in the back talking loudly and laughing. Despite all the activity, there were a few dark corners where people were brooding.

            Nadovev scanned the room quickly with his eyes and saw no trace of the client. He had been told to expect a man in a dark suit with a green tie. No one here matched that description. He checked his watch and saw that it wasn’t exactly time yet, they still had about 10 minutes or so. He lead the squad over to a table and they sat down together. Nadovev said they still had a few minutes before the meeting was to take place, so if they wanted to go get something they should. A simple rumbling of Iosif’s stomach told them all they needed to know. The group broke out in a mild laughter.

            “Well, I guess I’m going over to the bar and getting something to eat.” With that Iosif got up and waded his huge bulk through the crowd towards the bar. His nose had picked up the scent of cooking pig flesh, and it was drawing him ever closer to the spit on which it turned. Field rations were okay, he guessed, but they were nothing compared to fresh roasted pork. Iosif reached the bar and looked behind the counter at the pig slowly turning over a fire. It was one of the mutant boars that inhabited the area. A big one too, must have been close to ninety kilos.

            Iosif looked the bar man in the face, then looked over at the pig and said, “I need me some of that.” The bar man laughed and said it would be 450₽. Without hesitation Iosif reached into one of his pockets and pulled out the cash. In exchange, he got a nice big lump of roast pig on a bun with BBQ sauce. He bit into it with gusto. Nothing smelled or tasted so good in a long time.

            “Oh my God, yes.” He said nearing ecstasy. Grease and BBQ sauce began to drip a bit from his mouth. The barman looked on with pride, he always enjoyed seeing his customers enjoy his food. Because he took a certain pride in it. No one had better food in the Zone than him. To hell with that bastard Barkeep over at 100 Rads Bar. His food was second rate pre-cooked garbage.

            “Your food is absolutely excellent.” Iosif’s compliment came straight from the heart.

            “I recognise almost all Stalkers, but I haven’t seen you around here before.” The barman said.

            Iosif wiped his mouth on his sleeve and stuck out his hand to shake. “The name’s Iosif ‘Ox’. Got the name on account of my size.”

            The barman laughed. “Yeah, figured as much. The name’s ‘Beard’, on account of my beard.” They both had a good chuckle. Beard was a thick man, heavy set, balding. He was still a few inches shorter than Iosif. He had narrow but kind eyes. Beard had an unusually friendly attitude for someone who lived in the Zone. But then again, being behind the bar not risking your life everyday like the Stalkers would make anyone feel a bit more comfortable.

            “Do you get any radio broadcasts this deep in the zone?” Asked Iosif, as he was shoved down the last of the pork sandwich.

            “Yes, we get a few Ukrainian stations and a few Russian ones.” He answered.

            “Any update on the Ukrainian civil war?” Iosif asked, it had been a few days since he’d heard any news. Their PDAs didn’t pick up regular commercial radio frequencies. Beard scratched his chin and reached back into his memory, thinking about it.

            “Yeah, I think I remember hearing about the Ukrainian military sending more forces into Novorossiya. I think they were reinforcing Gorlovka from the West end. This whole civil war has been pretty good on us Stalkers here. The government seems to have lost sight of us for now. Some Stalkers have said they’ve seen less soldiers at checkpoints, and doing less patrols. Which is good, the less soldiers there are in here the freer we are.”

            “Well, I hope everything is going good for the Novorossiyaians. I have a brother fighting around Enakievo, which is nearby. I just worry about him you know.” Iosif said reverently, he was genuinely concerned for his brother’s safety. The civil war had been pretty brutal thus far. Neither the pro-American, nor the pro-Russian side showed any signs of giving up. His brother had been so proud to volunteer for duty. He’d always had a great respect for their Russian heritage. He, like his brother, was also a communist. That made up his mind which side he was on. There was no question in his mind that he was going to support Donetsk People’s Republic.

            Sensing Iosif’s introspection and concern for his brother, Beard spoke up to break the silence. “Me, I’m rather neutral in the whole affair. I’ve spent so many years in the Zone, I pretty much consider this my country, and this ice breaker my home.”

            “Yea, I can understand that,” Iosif said respectfully. He pulled a last bit of pork from the corner of his mouth and ate it.

            “That’s the thing about the Zone. It’s always changing with each Emission, but it remains untouched by the rest of the world. No matter what happens in politics, or in war, the Zone always remains the Zone. No matter who wins that conflict, Russia or Ukraine, the Zone will remain the Zone. That’s one of the reasons why I like it here, we’re separated from the politics.” Beard stroked his chin thoughtfully.

            Ricky sauntered up to the bar peeking his eyes over the top of his designer shades. “What ‘r you guys talkin’ about?”

            Iosif looked over at him with a skeptical eye. “We’re talkin’ about the civil war in Ukraine,” he motioned to Beard, “I need a drink.” Beard turned around and went to grab a shot of vodka.

            “Yeah, those commie bastards in Russia are invading Ukraine. Now we have to send troops over there in order to keep them out. If Putin just kept his mind on his own business and stopped trying to steal other people’s countries we wouldn’t have this problem.” Ricky was being completely unironic.

            Iosif turned to him with his eyes wide and blinked twice in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me right? The country was pro-Russian until U.S. backed Nazis overthrew the government. All of a sudden this pro-U.S. temporary government pops into place and starts taking weapons and aid from them? Meanwhile the non-Nazis were looking to Russia to help them keep the Nazis for taking over. You’ve got to be kidding me right? You’re actually claiming that Russia is the bad guy here?”

            Ricky was quick to retort.”Oh, right, Nazis. You mean the people fighting the Russian invasion of Ukraine? So what, they’re like Nazis just because you don’t like them? Bullshit.”

            “No, I call them Nazis because they’re literally running around with Nazi symbols. They’re killing non-Whites, and screaming about Jews running Russia as a conspiracy against ‘Slava Ukraine’. So essentially you think Russia just up and decided to invade Ukraine one day when they were already on good economic and political terms? That doesn’t even make any sense. Ukraine is having a hard time like everyone else, and then fascist forces got organized and began attacking the pro-Russian government. They got aid from the U.S. because it would undermine Russian influence in the region. Russia responded by arming forces to defend people from the Nazis that were going around killing people.”

            “Oh please, Russia literally stole a part of the country next to it, that’s why there’s a civil war.”

            “Jesus you know nothing. The Crimean region has always been a Russian ethnic area. So when you see a bunch of Nazis overthrow your government, what do you do? You turn to your closest ally for help. Crimea was actually a territory given to Ukraine by Russia anyway. What’s Russia supposed to do, just stand there and let the Nazis kill people and rob the land? Come on.”

            “Russia invaded Ukraine, and these guys you claim are Nazis, are just defending themselves. They built a replacement government after the one there fell and are building a friendship with America. And America don’t support dictatorships. We’re about democracy and freedom.”

            Iosif literally face palmed and wiped the anger sweat from his face in frustration.

            “Russia snatched up traditionally Russian territory with Russian people in it to protect them from the God damned Nazis that were destroying the place. Like  a month later Pro-Russian separatists seized parts of eastern Donetsk and Luhansk areas on the Russian border. The reactionary pro-Nazi government then launches military attacks on them. Donetsk and Luhansk end up declaring their own independent states.”

            “Yeah, whatever man, you’re just kissing up to Putin because you’re Russian and hate America.”

            “You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

            Ricky stood up straight and took off his sunglasses. He took a step closer to Iosif trying to get into his face. It didn’t really work because he was seven inches shorter than him. Ricky raised his voice and raised his finger to Iosif’s chest poking it.

            “Listen here you big dummy, you can make a hero out of Putin all you want. America is the good guy, we fight for freedom, we fight for democracy! That commie Putin wouldn’t know what freedom is! We Americans don’t stand for that kind of nonsense. So you better watch your God damn mouth!” Ricky grabbed Iosif’s collar and leaned close. “You got it?”

            Iosif eyes went wide with offense and grabbed Ricky’s collar… with much more force. He pulled him even closer to his face and took some of the weight off Ricky’s feet. “No, you listen to me asshole. If you wanna make this physical, then we can go and do that.”

            Beard, finally noticing the standoff taking place abandoned the customer he was talking to and ran over to the two men who were starting to draw a small crowd of onlookers. Both Ricky and Iosif had each other by their collars and were ready to start throwing punches. “Hey fellas look, take this outside okay, there’s no violence allowed in here. This is neutral territory. I won’t have rivalries ruing my business. Got it?”

            Beard’s words were punctuated by four of his guards in the olive drab uniforms beginning to circle the two squad mates.

            Nadovev caught the growing incident out of the corner of his eye and quickly moved in to prevent any further escalation of the situation. He squeezed his way between the two men and began pushing them apart. It became apparent that he was going to have to assert his authority. Pulling the two rivals from each other the guards came to a halt, but kept watch over the situation. Nadovev pushed Ricky away because he wasn’t able to move Iosif. His intervention already seemed to be calming the two of them down.

            “What the hell is wrong with you two? Do you want us to get kicked out?!” Nadovev got in both their faces angrily.

            “The client is here and he’s sitting over there watching all of this bullshit. Get yourselves together!” He motioned over to a corner table where a man in a black suit and a green tie sat watching intently. Nadovev got the men together and took them over to see the mysterious client.

            Sitting down at the table Nadovev gave him a look over trying to get the measure of the man. True to his word he was wearing an expensive looking black suit with a silk green tie. He was clean shaven with a long aristocratic looking face. His eyes were hidden behind a pair nondescript sunglass that looked like they may have been prescription. The man had a very strong and confident demeanor, like someone who wasn’t bothered by the dangers of his surroundings, as if they were no threat to him. He sat there with his hands folded in front of him on the table. His fingernails appeared to be manicured. It occurred to him that he had no idea how such a man could get into the Zone. Nor, how he could get to Skadovsk without any dirt on him. Something was very strange about this man that put Nadovev on guard.

            “Okay Mr. Client, lay it on us. What do you want us to do.” He asked.

            The client raised his head a bit and looked Nadovev directly in the eyes from behind his shades. His voice was dripping with self-importance and authority. “I represent someone with a good deal of money. He would like to obtain a rare artifact.”

            “Well, at least the job is nothing new.” Nadovev replied.

            “Yes, well, this artifact is rather different. We don’t know what it looks like, we’re not sure what it does, and we’re not sure where it’s located.”

            The squad sat in silence for a few seconds. Then Nadovev broke the silence. “Okay.”

            “To be more specific we have an idea where it is. But we’re not entirely sure. I have the coordinates for its location for you. However, I won’t be handing that information over to you unless you accept the deal. The job pays two million rubles.” The squad look at each other with concern.

            “You’re asking us to take a lot on faith there. We don’t even get to know where we’re going, or what we’re trying to get.” Nadovev answers.

            “It’s up to you gentlemen. You either accept or you don’t. Take a moment to think about it.”

            “Alright…” Nadovev stood up and nodded to the rest of his squad to follow him. They walked away from the table to a more private space divorced from the client. They each had their own looks on their faces. Nadovev knew they had questions, but questions that didn’t have answers forthcoming. This was going to be one hard decision to make, but they had to make it.

            “This is shady as Hell. But that’s some serious money. I don’t think we can turn that down.” Ricky blurted it out real honestly.

            Nadovev looked at Iosif waiting for his input. “This is sketchy, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t like this at all. If he’s not giving us the information ahead of time he’s covering something bad up. If it wasn’t that bad, or at least significant, he’d be telling us straight up. The money is astronomical for a Stalker gig. This is another red flag for me. If the consensus is to go along with it, then I’ll have your backs as always.”

            Nadovev looked over at Arkady looking for his two cents. He just shrugged his shoulders. “I’m the new guy here I’m just learning the whole trade.”

            “Well,” Camera piped in, “there’s no denying that that’s a lot of money. Money that we really need right now. We’ve been going through a dry spell. Our cash reserves are dwindling quickly. As much as I hate to admit this… yeah, we need the money.” Camera was almost shaking his head in disappoint-ment.

            Nadovev looked each man in the eye and  took a deep breath. “I guess that settles it. Our financial situation has made the decision for us.  If we want to keep operating in the Zone we’re going to have to take this job even if it is ridiculously suspicious.”

            Leading the way, Nadovev  brought the men back to the client and sat down at the table. He looked him right in his shaded eyes and said, ‘”We accept the job. What can you tell us about it?”

            The client unfolded his hands and placed them palms down on the table. “There is an artifact of great importance, we only have theories as to its nature. We do know that there are others who have the same theory and also want their hands on it. Given the great demand for it, we assume the theory to be true. There are other parties interested in getting their hands on it. My employer is in a sensitive situation and must remain free of any connection to the collection of said artifact, for political reasons.

            “You should be prepared to deal with others trying to obtain it. Most likely you’ll be running into mercenaries. We chose your five man squad because it would be a lot easier to slip into a place and exit undetected. I’m not going to lie, this will be extremely dangerous. My employer expects factions within the Zone to be looking for this artifact as well. You should exercise extreme caution.”

            Iosif made eye contact with Nadovev and gave him an I-told-you-so look.

            The client continued, “We’ve learned of a location that may contain the artifact. The information is not specific at all. It’s hidden under an apartment building in a small town outside Limansk to the East. We’re not sure what the location is. Could be an abandoned research facility, laboratory, bunker, or archive. As I said, we’re not even sure that it’s there. Our intelligence and the intelligence of other groups say that it is. None of us know for sure.”

            Nadovev breathed deeply, “That’s a hell of a lot of territory to cross, and a hell of a lot of dangers to face. That area is swarming with Bandits, and my memory tells me that the town is swarming with mutants. The last I remember of that area East of Limansk, there were too many mutants to deal with. With some luck we might be able to hook up with some Duty patrols that might assist us getting to the town.”

            “I would recommend that you don’t trust Duty. They’re very likely in search of the same artifact as you. The intelligence that we have, came from a fallen Duty member who had already broadcast it back to his headquarters. They’ll be competing with you to obtain it.”

            Camera shook his head in frustration wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

            The client continued, “All I can do is offer you this job which you’ve already accepted. This artifact is of great importance, not just to my employer, but to many people around the world. Those who have the same intelligence as we do are as equally eager to get a hold of it. This is why you were offered so much money… Now hand me your PDA and I’ll program the coordinates into it.”

            Nadovev took his PDA out of a tactical pouch and handed it skeptically to the client. After a few button clicks the coordinates had been entered and handed back.

            “There’s one more thing,” the client added, “due to the sensitivity and importance of the job you’re being sent on, we want you to carry this GPS locator on you. If anything happens we’ll know where to find you.”

            Nadovev gave the man a skeptical look as Ricky shook his head. Nadovev held out his hand to take the device. He admittedly just wanted this conversation over with as quickly as possible before he had a chance to change his mind.

            “Fine.”

            The client stood up from the table and said, “I’ll meet you back here at this location once you have a hold of the artifact.”

            Saying nothing else the man walked away from their table, leaving the Skadovsk. Turning away from his own thoughts, he noticed that the crowd in the ship had been watching the meeting take place. The men of Radiochemical Company sudden became aware of all the eyes that had been on them. This gave Arkady a very creepy feeling that things were not going to go well.

            “Come on, let’s go get some rest”, Nadovev said, “we’ve got a long march ahead of us tomorrow”.

            The group got up under the eyes of the patrons of the bar and were watched as they climbed the metal staircase to the sleeping room. Nadovev grabbed a mattress on the floor while the other four climbed into surplus military bunk beds. The men were quiet, even Ricky had nothing to say. To say the least the meeting had spooked all of them. Something was not right about this whole arrangement. Nadovev knew in his heart that he wouldn’t have taken the job if they hadn’t been so hurt for money. He had a terrible feeling that this was going to end badly. All he could do was do was what he always did: keep the squad together, and try his damnedest to get everyone through it alive.

After an hour of trying, it became clear to Nadovev that he wasn’t going to be able to sleep anytime soon. As he lay there in the dark, staring up at the ceiling, he wondered if he had made the right choice by taking the job. Every fibre of his being told him that this was a bad idea. His conscience was screaming at him, that he’d lead his men into danger… possibly their deaths. He reminded himself that this was the price of the leadership position, being responsible for the outcome of any job. He had a sick feeling that the events of the next few days were going to weigh on his mind for a long time to come.

            He heard a creaking springs and saw Iosif on the bottom bunk roll over and look at him.

            “You awake?”, he asked whispering.

            “Yeah, got this job on my mind. Doesn’t seem to want to let me sleep at all,” Nadovev replied.

            “That guy today, I think he was military. Russian or Ukrainian, I’m not sure. He was far too comfortable sitting there all alone, surrounded by Stalkers dressed like that. It’s as if he knew he wasn’t in any danger or anything.” Iosif paused to let out a yawn. “I’ve heard rumors of militaries hiring Stalkers to carry out work for them in the Zone in order to distance their government from their actions. Plausible deniability and all that.”

            It was never made official, but it was recognised off the record that Iosif was second in command of the squad. When it was deemed necessary, he looked to Iosif for advice. He had the second most experience in the Zone behind Nadovev, and he had a pretty solid head on his shoulders. Even if he was emotional from time to time. He was reliable, and he was quite knowledgeable, that’s what counted when it came down to it. The two had been together for about five years, which is an eternity in the Zone. They knew each other pretty well. He could tell his superior was greatly troubled.

            “Economic necessity,” Nadovev replied, “has been the driving force behind almost everyone’s trips into the Zone. The economy is so bad right now that we’re seeing an increase in Stalkers by the week. A lot of new people are getting wiped out by anomalies, or robbed and killed by bandits. A lot of people trying to escape poverty are ending up dead. The whole thing is so sad. We Stalkers are a breed, we do what no one else can do. This is no place for people simply looking to get by.”

            “We understand the circumstances here,” Iosif continued, “I think we all recognise that this is going to be bad. We just have to keep focused and try our best to get out of this one alive. We took this job because we needed the money, pure and simple. We’re forced into this situation out of the economic structure of the world around us. You and I both know that we can’t go back to the world and go get regular everyday jobs, we know we can’t function in them. We’re here because this is the best place for us to function, even if it is ridiculously dangerous. This is practically our home.”

            “I know,” Nadovev said, “I just don’t want this to be my grave. One of my worries is that this situation might be over our heads. If it’s over our heads, then how is Arkady going to handle it? This is his first time out. Just today he shot a man for the first time. I’m really worried how he’s going to take this.”

            “There’s only one way to find out,” Isoif replied.

            Arkady laid in silence on the top bunk listening to the conversation. He too was worried if he was going to be able to handle it. He didn’t want to let anyone down.