Subaru had gone through the whole introductory routine with Sidorovich and the phone call once again. This time Subaru decided to try copying his first experience since it had gone far better then his second round. Once more Sidorovich had gotten pissed and sent him out, and once again Trout was taking him out for a quick look around and being at least cordially friendly.
"Okay. Comedy hours over. Stay near me, keep your voice down, don't walk anywhere I don't tell you to go, and don't touch anything. Got it?" Trout said once again.
"Got it." Subaru replied as he followed Trout out of the bunker and into the so called Zone.
Subaru actually stopped and took in in the view this time. And noticed many details he had missed on his last little excursion. The massive trees were sparsely leaved and sickly. The few clouds seemed to shimmer like a heat distortion over a paved road in spite of the cool air.
But it was the ambient silence that got to him most. He had grown up in a city so there was never a truly quiet moment. Even when he had gone camping with his father the trip was alive with birds and bugs calling. Here there was none of that.
"Is it always this quiet?" Subaru asked Trout.
"Eh?" Trout gave a confused expression to the boy. "I guess. Though when it gets really loud it's a sign you're in the wrong place." He replied.
Something seemed off about that answer but Subaru decided not to press him on it. Instead Trout led him down the hill towards the dilapidated village. As Subaru got closer he could see several individuals in the village. Some were dressed like Trout, green suits with gas masks and padded armour in varying stages of disrepair but most wore simple leather jackets or hoodies.
"Right this here is the Rookie village. Place where newer guys can set up shop with relative safety. Though in your case-"
Trout was interrupted as a black jacketed individual came out the gate to intercept them. He wore a balaclava that hid most of his face but just from looking at his eyes Subaru could tell he was pissed at something. To make matters more alarming for Subaru he had drawn a small pistol that, while not outright brandishing it, still scared the boy.
"The fuck are you doing Trout?" The stranger demanded angrily.
"Giving the brat a little orientation tour." Trout responded.
"But he's from the damn death truck!" The man responded. "You know all those stories don't you. That little shit is bad news."
"Look that's what I thought but he doesn't know shit about the zone. Frankly he doesn't seem so bad for now." Trout responded.
"Whatever" The man said, turning his attention to Subaru. "And just so we're clear, you try coming into this village without permission and your dead." He said, brandishing his pistol for good measure.
"O-Ok" Subaru Stuttered out.
"Alright moving on" Trout awkwardly said gesturing Subaru to follow him, turning him to the right. The strangers gaze followed them until they reached the base of the hill before he returned to the village.
"What was that all about?" Subaru asked Trout.
"Well the thing is, me and Red pulled you and the other guy out of a crashed Death Truck. It's got the rookies all jumpy. Frankly until I saw your conversation with Sidorovich and how out of your depth you are I wasn't so sure about you and I still want nothing to do with the other guy once he wakes up, but for now you don't seem too weird. It's not like you're reading my mind or summoning anomalies or some shit like that."
"Death Truck?" Subaru asked.
"Every now and then we find trucks driving out from the center of the zone. No one knows who operates them or why. They never interact with other Stalkers and just head straight to weird military checkpoints. The only thing they've ever been seen carrying are bodies, sometimes dozens of them. You and the other guy are the only survivors we've ever found. The fact that you guys were brought out from the goddamn center of the zone where people disappear or worse happens to them... Honestly if it weren't for how well Fatass was paying for Death Truck bodies and how badly I needed the cash I wouldn't have gone anywhere near it. I understand their scepticism. Frankly you might be allowed back in sooner or later" Trout responded.
Just great. Not only am I a stranger but I'm a stranger who basically came from enemy territory and dumped among a bunch of armed, paranoid delinquents . Subaru though.
"So what's the big deal about the center then?" Subaru asked.
"Just that no sane person has been there and back since before the second disaster. Look I'll answer but it kinda relates to another thing I'll show you later so just wait a bit." Trout answered.
A short silence later and Trout signalled Subaru to stop at the top of the hill.
"Get down and stay in the bush." Trout said, pointing to a scraggly plant. Subaru obliged and found Trout creeping in behind him. They were now both lying prone looking out over the other side of the hill trough the gap of dead branches at the base of the sickly pant. The view down the hill consisted of another field. A few large trees and crates were scattered around with a large drainage pipe in the slope to the right. To the left Subaru could see an old road that led to a large building complex built around the road with long strings of barbed wire coming out from either side.
"Right, that's the final military checkpoint before the Zone itself. Down that road are more patrols and checkpoints intended to keep people out. There are also mines all over near the barbed wire so don't get any ideas." Trout said. Subaru heard some shuffling beside him and turned to see Trout pulling out a pair of binoculars. Surveying the field he then spotted what he was looking for.
"Here" he said, handing the binoculars to Subaru. "Look at the road by the biggest tree over there." Subaru obliged. It took him a moment before he saw three men in camouflage uniforms with hard helmets, goggles, and AK rifles held in a loose ready position.
"Military" Trout said. "They will shoot at you on sight. Sidorovich bribes the commander to not send patrols around the village and a few other areas but other then that they can show up almost anywhere so be careful of them. Some might ignore you if you keep far enough away, some might hunt you to the ends of the earth."
As Subaru was watching them, they suddenly spring to attention looking at something off the side of the road. As Subaru moved to try and follow they opened fire on whatever had spooked them. Subaru then saw the targets. A pack of stray dogs. 4 lay dead and a couple were retreating deeper into The Zone.
"They just shot some dogs?" Subaru questioned.
Trout just shrugged "Dogs can be pretty nasty out here, thought for mutants they're not too bad. Anyway give me the binoculars and let's go, couple more things to show you."
Subaru obliged then crawled out from the bush. Trout came right behind him and gestured down the hill.
"Mutants?" Subaru asked as they descended the hill.
"Yep, with all the radiation out here alongside what I'm about to show you some really fucked up shit has hit the locals. Ranges from just being more aggressive and sickly then normal animals, like with those dogs, to some downright supernatural shit if the stories I've heard have any truth to them.
Subaru didn't know how to respond to that. Instead he just asked another question that had been bothering him for quite some time. "So you and Sidorovich mentioned a Second Disaster. What was that? The only one I know was the radiation one in the 80s."
Trout shrugged "You'd have to ask Sidorovich or an ecologist for the specifics. All I know about it is in 2006 another big explosion or something happened at the Nuclear Plant. Way bigger then the first one. Killed all of people present in the zone. Afterwards the old Exclusion Zone was abruptly doubled in size and put on a far stricter lockdown. For a while we heard nothing, then rumours of mutants, anomalies, and artifacts slowly started leaking out." Trout replied.
"Speaking of anomalies..." Trout gestured. They had gotten to the top of the hill Subaru had first climbed when he made his mad dash. "Right, remember that stuff about don't go anywhere or touch anything without asking me first. That is of utmost importance right now." Trout said.
Subaru, remembering his first death, only nodded.
Trout started down the hill slowly. Pulling something small out of yet another pocket. After a short time a device clipped to his belt suddenly started beeping.
"Stop" he said. Pulling the beeping device from his belt he began slowly sweeping it in front of him like a metal detector. As he moved it to the right the rate of beeping slightly increased.
"Okay found one" He said. "What we have here is an anomaly. See it?"
Subaru looked ahead of him bit didn't see anything overly unusual "Nothing."
"Well you'd better learn fast." Trout responded as he lightly tossed the small object he had first pulled out ahead of him.
Roughly 3 meters away from the man the object suddenly veered to the right before swirling violently. As it did so the familiar sound of rushing wind filled Subaru's ears. He could somehow still see the object, which turned out to be a large rusty machine bolt slowly levitating upward and spinning rapidly. Then with a sudden whoosh the bolt was crushed into dust as the strange phenomenon abruptly halted.
"What was that?" Subaru asked. This had to be the very same thing that had killed him the first time around.
"Anomaly, more specifically a vortex." Trout told him.
"What does that mean?" Subaru replied, a little impatient.
Trout just shrugged "Again, ask an ecologist if you want the details. All you really need to know is that anomalies are locations that give science the middle finger and destroy whatever blunders into them. This specific anomaly was a vortex, big gravity anomaly. But there are plenty of other types. Burners basically turn into giant blowtorches when tripped, acid anomalies will dissolve almost anything that falls in. There are plenty more different types of anomalies but in general they are all very bad for your health."
Trout then gestured to the vortex. "Look closely. Even if you don't have a detector you can still see that they are kinda visible without being tripped. If you see something suspicious grab a bit of scrap metal or a coin or something and toss it forward. If it goes through safely it's fine to follow."
As Trout spoke Subaru watched the anomaly as instructed. Sure enough after a few moments he could see a faint swirling distortion in the air. Running around out here would be suicide. Subaru thought.
"As for your earlier question about the center of The Zone. The further in you go the more frequently anomalies occur. Some areas are outright impassable because of them. To date no one has found a path to the center of the zone and come back to tell of it."
"But the Trucks-" Subaru started.
"Don't make any contact whatsoever. There are some who have gotten past the anomalies but they seem content to keep their secrets, Aggressively so." As he spoke Trout unclipped the detector from his belt and opened a face on the front. It immediately started beeping but in a higher pitch tone then earlier.
"Opa, lucky us. There's an artifact in there." Trout said, his face lighting up.
"Artifact?" Subaru asked.
"Just wait a moment. Keep watch." Trout said as he turned towards the pile of material in the dump.
Trout moved very slowly and carefully into the landfill, once again waving the detector like a metal detector. As he moved in the beeping got louder. Every now and then he would stop and throw a bolt. If it didn't trigger an anomaly he would dart up to the bolt and retrieve it, otherwise he would carefully maneuver around the sudden impact of smaller anomalies or the occasional roiling tempest of a vortex. Eventually he reached what appeared to be the center of the landfill and reached out towards a dented piece of ventilation.
With a sudden flash a strange object materialized before him. From this distance it appeared to be a smooth, amber coloured material the size of a fist with iridescent yellow spikes emanating from it. Opening his backpack he took out a large metal container roughly the size of a small birdhouse and adorned with the symbol for radiation. Dropping the strange object into the container he reassembled his gear and scrambled on top of a section of pipe leading to the fence. After throwing a bolt up along the pipe to verify that the way forward was safe he walked along the pipe until he reached the end, which dangled over 10 feet over the edge of the fencing. Trout simply gripped the edge of the pipe, dangled himself over the edge, and dropped to the ground on the "safe" side of the fence away from the bulk of the anomalies.
Subaru almost ran over to him before he held up his hand, gesturing Subaru to stay still. He slowly got up and walked in an crescent around an unseen anomaly to Subaru, picking up the last bolt as he went.
"What was all of that about?" Subaru asked.
"The reason people risk everything to come to this place." Trout said with a gleam in his eye. Come on. Lets get back to Sidorovich. I'm getting hungry."
As Subaru took a few steps towards the hill an earsplitting shriek caught the attention of Subaru and Trout.
"Shit." Trout muttered as he quickly shouldered his AK.
Turning Subaru came face to face with arguably the ugliest thing he had ever laid his eyes on. It was a large, grotesque orb of flesh with four disjointed limbs ending in hoofs. Its face appeared flattened into its neck with misshapen holes for ear and a mangled snout. Its 3 eyes were heavily lopsided and seemed almost tacked on as an afterthought and it's mouth was a wide, lipless sneer.
Before Subaru could react Trout had fired a couple shots into the creature. It gave a humanlike shriek and abruptly turned to run.
Right into the vortex anomaly.
The howling winds returned, and the creature was lifted far into the air. The creature screamed in an almost human pitch as it started to spiral around.
"Your in the splash zone." Trout called out from a fair distance away.
Realizing what he meant Subaru broke his gaze on the suffering mutant to back off just in time for the corpse to explode in a veritable wave of gore.
"Just think man. Next time it could be you." Trout said. "Anyway be extremely careful around anomalies. Always carry something to trigger them and try to do so anytime the area you want to travel looks suspicious."
It already was me earlier Subaru thought grimly. But he still had to know "What was that thing." Subaru asked.
"Mutant pig. We call them fleshes. ugly little fuckers but they're not too dangerous. Give them space and they'll ignore you. Or just walk up to them, shoot em a few times and they'll either die or run away."
"Ugh" Subaru groaned, staring at the massive bloodstain.
"Pity it died like that. I could've gone for pork and beans tonight."
Subaru simply stared at Trout, mouth agape. "You eat those things?" Just looking at the twisted creature had made Subaru want to vomit.
"They're not my first choice but it's cheaper per pound then Sidorovich's extortionate prices for likely expired MRE's. Not half bad either if you have some vodka to go with them. Anyway let's go. Were burning daylight" With that Trout simply turned to return to the Bunker with Subaru in tow.
Sidorovich was just finishing up with some contracts when the sound of the large door creaking open distracted him.
"Oi. Got something for you." Trout announced as he opened the vault door to Sidorovich's quarters.
"Oh really. Sidorovich stated, noting that Subaru had followed him in.
Trout said nothing. He simply put his backpack down and retrieved the large container from his backpack. Opening hit he pulled out the artifact.
"You never really told me what that thing was." Subaru stated
"Because it's not a good idea to blab about finding these things in public. Attracts the wrong type of attention." Trout replied.
"Especially with one of these. How the fuck did you get a Night Star this far out?" Sidorovich said.
"Found it in the landfill while I was showing the kid anomalies." Trout said.
"Lucky guy." Sidorovich said taking some tongs to manipulate the artifact on his desk to check it out. "150,000 Rubles"
"Done" Trout said, beaming. Sidorovich quickly placed the strange artifact into his own container before transferring the funds to Trout's account.
"What's that in American dollars?" Subaru asked.
Around $2000.00" Sidorovich replied.
"That much for a weird rock." Subaru was dumbfounded. In a couple hours, most of which was holding his hand, Trout had managed to make well over a month's pay of part time work doing almost nothing. Maybe it would be possible to get out quickly after all
"You didn't tell him about artifacts?" Sidorovich asked.
"Didn't want to draw attention, even if it was just outside. Besides I don't really understand them anyway." Trout said.
Sidorovich grunted in understanding before looking to Subaru. "Artifacts sometimes form from matter interacting with anomalies. They also get unusual properties defying scientific laws as we know them. The scientific community are dying to analyze them in detail back in their labs. Take the Night Star Trout just brought in, for example. It has been recorded to both toughen skin, making it more akin to cured leather in durability, but also lightly manipulate the mass of nearby objects. Some scientists think that it could be the gateway to anti gravity or some other science fiction stuff. There are also plenty of individuals who are more then happy to fork over big bucks for some of these things. With the limited number that the government approved teams are bringing out, let alone giving to other countries and the pay for these things is very good, though to get them you've got to get very close to anomalies. If you take up artifact hunting you could make a fair bit of money pretty fast if you get lucky." Sidorovich said.
"I'll have to consider it" Subaru replied. "Sounds like I'll need to find something I can do. Any other jobs I'd be able to take up seeing as I'm stuck here for the foreseeable future?"
Sidorovich thought for a moment. "I have a few big jobs coming up but I don't need the help quite yet. There are a few odds and ends I could use a hand with around here but they will barely cover food expenses. There are also the hits. They pay well but there's no way you could handle those right now so I won't even bother."
Hits. That made Subaru's blood run cold. He had almost forgotten he was dealing with criminals.
"Speaking of which. You don't know shit about guns, right?" Trout stated.
"If you mean have I ever used them then no." The boy replied
"Well there's tomorrows lesson. In the meantime lets eat, drink, and chat. Hey Sidorovich, you mind If we use this space for now. Kid's not welcome in the village yet.
Sidorovich huffed in exasperation. "Fine but just because your still new around here Subaru.
"Good" Trout said. "And while your at it a couple cans of stew, some water, and a bottle of Cossacks please."
"Good, we've got dinner sorted out." Trout replied.
After some finagling about using Sidorovich's stove, which ultimately resulting in approval as long as Subaru cleaned the dishes after the three men sat down to their meals. Subaru was quickly introduced to the Cossacks bottle, what Trout called an inescapable and welcome companion to any Stalker.
It turned out to be a particularly cheap vodka that Subaru found he was surprisingly resistant to.
"Hah, given your asian I thought a sip would've floored ya. Yer better then I thought. We can make a Stalker out of you yet." Trout slurred, already having drank a third of the bottle.
"Um , thanks?" Subaru replied as he tentatively sipped his second glass. "By the way what's with calling everyone Stalkers around here?"
"Eh, some brothers named Strugatsky wrote a book about an alien location with weird shit happening in it. The guys who breached the government cordon were called Stalkers. A Filmmaker called Tarkovsky later made a movie based on it called Stalker that turned into one of the best Soviet made films for some reason. The name seemed to fit well enough so why not?" Trout replied.
"Get used to it. Subaru. Your still a total novice but given what's happened so far the only choice you have to get out of here is to become a Stalker." Sidorovich replied. "By the way, have you considered an alias yet?"
"Balls" Trout exclaimed, cutting off Subaru. "He's gonna be a real pain in the balls I say, so why not.
"Don't I get a say in this?" Subaru asked.
"Not till your worth something you cunt" Trout retorted. "Anyway tomorrow you get to learn about the joys of firearms and radiation. Then you're on your own.
"Wait, what? I can't do this on my own yet!"
"Well I'm taking a couple days off after I'm done with you tomorrow then I'm heading to greener pastures. That Night star was a damn fluke. Nothing that worthwhile's gonna pop up out here anytime soon."
Subaru realized what that meant for his potential income. Turning to Sidorovich he asked "Is that true?"
"Yep" The fat man belched before continuing. "Not many artifacts out this far and they're mostly pretty common ones like Sparklers or Meat Chunks. Only worth around 8000 Rubles, 100 dollars each typically. if you want the real money you've gotta go deeper into the zone, but that has it's own issues."
"Unscrupulous individuals, mutants, more radiation."
"Which is exactly why your gunna learn to shoot tomorrow." Trout interrupted. "Love to do it now but It's getting late.
Subaru glanced at the clock "Late? its barely 7:00"
Trout laughed. "Believe me, there is no reason to be out at dark. Anomalies are harder to spot, mutants are much more active. and there's no light out there whatsoever on a bad night. No Sir'ee night is for drinking and sleeping. Speaking of sleeping..."
Trout awkwardly stood up and dragged his backpack to a corner near the lockers. Setting It against the wall as a makeshift rest he leaned back against it and promptly fell asleep, still clutching the bottle.
Sidorovich sneered at the drunk before turning to Subaru. "If you want to do something productive I'll give you some cheap gear if you clean up these masks." he said, gesturing to a bunch of gas masks in various states of filth. "Cleaner is in the blue tote under the workbench and so are the rags."
"Sounds good." Subaru said, grabbing the first mask and getting to work. It was slow and tedious. every now and then Sidorovich would come over to check on how well it was going. A few times he forced Subaru to redo a mask for not doing the job properly but for the most part he was left to his own devices.
A few hours later Sidorovich examined the boys handiwork.
"Eh, good enough. Here's your gear. He said as he laid out an old brown leather jacket full of pockets that was a little big for Subaru, a backpack with several large patches sewn in to clearly fix holes, a knife with several flecks of rust marring the blade alongside a cracked handle, and three cans of food.
Subaru was somewhat disappointed. This was clearly junk that Sidorovich was unlikely to be able to sell to anyone. But then again he supposed he had to start somewhere and this was better then the thin tracksuit and his hands in the chill of the zone. He moved to the back room and laid out on the couch. he was surprised at how tired he was as he quickly fell asleep.