It was awfully loud in the Hind. After all, the machine wasn’t built for comfort – it was an instrument of death, as many Afghan rebels once learned. Of course, Mikhail Kuznetsov knew that, but as he endured the noise and constant rattling, he realized how he had grown accustomed to comfort. Soviet Russia had been good to him. Until now, that is.

An alarm went off on the comms and warning lights bathed the cargo hold crimson.

“Probably air defense’s radar lock. Maybe even a fighter jet’s warning,” Mikhail thought. Not far, now. The massive helicopter banked left and turned south, away from the Zone.

“Sir, we’re being ordered to land at the base,” the pilot informed Mikhail. “They’re saying they can’t let us in today. Heavy anomaly interference.”

Kuznetsov sighed and stared at heavily redacted KGB files on his lap. “Can’t avoid reading that now,” he thought. “Can’t avoid remembering all the things I was told to forget.”

***

“Tovarish, I was told you would brief me. In full,” the young woman repeated, ignoring Kuznetsov’s scowl. She had the air of confidence around her, clever, inquisitive, dark eyes and looked as if she’d spent a lot of time in a gym. Probably had a collection of black belts, too. She was also very persistent.

“I’m your assigned Ninth Directorate agent, sir. To protect you, I need to know what to expect. Look,” she shuffled her documents and showed Mikhail another stamped piece of paper. “This says here…”

“Da. Yes, yes, I get it,” Kuznetsov waved the papers away and took out a cigarette, ignoring the look of distaste on the woman’s face. “Olga, was it?”

“Yes, sir. Olga Lebedev. I’ll protect you while you’re performing your duties in Chernobyl.”

“Zona.”

“Excuse me?”

“We call it Zona here. The Zone,” Kuznetsov walked to the window. The room they were in was quite high and in the distance he could see the tall masts of the defunct Moscow Eye radar system. The night was almost upon them and they wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. He turned towards the woman.“Might as well then. What do you know, about?” he gestured towards the view outside and exhaled a cloud of noxious smoke.

Olga straightened slightly, as if she was before her teacher, and said:

“Just what everybody knows, sir. On 26 April 1986 a nuclear accident occurred at the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the city of Pripyat in the north of the Ukrainian SSR,” she started to quote the documents she probably knew by heart, then saw the sour look Mikhail was giving her and finished meekly: “The worst nuclear disaster to date. Everyone, including the whole population of the town of Pripyat, was evacuated, the reactor was sealed under tons and tons of concrete.”

“And?”

She shrugged..

“And nothing, sir. The military closed the entire area down. 19 miles radius is a no-go zone.”

“And they lived happily ever after?” Kuznetsov smiled and sat down at the table. From the pile of folders, each marked with a stylized Delta letter of the Greek alphabet, he fished out the one he brought with him and pushed it towards Olga.

“I don’t think so, sir,” she admitted. “During my time in…”

“Classified locations,” muttered Kuznetsov and signaled her to continue.

“Yes, tovarish. I’ve heard stories. Of secret underground labs in Zona. Deformed animals and well… mutants like in books. But real. Experiments gone wrong… And well, the guys called it magic.”

Kuznetsov actually laughed.

“Ah, this young generation and their stories and computers,” he lit another cigarette. “It’s not magic. They’re called anomalies. Localized effects, often bound to a single object which we call ‘artifact.’”

“But what do they do?”

“Bend the laws of physics,” Kuznetsov patted the still closed file. “Or ignore them altogether. Some help you see in the dark, other re-knit torn flesh, some absorb radiation. Anomalies are just death traps that reverse gravity, produce lightning storms or teleport you into the wall…” He stopped seeing how she grinned. “Okay, that does sound like magic.”

“Also sounds… valuable,” she noted, opened the folder and flipped through heavily redacted documents until she found some photos.

“A single artefact, if you can manage to take it out of Zona, can set you up for the rest of your life,” Mikhail admitted. He stood up and circled the table, but kept the hand with the cigarette away from Olga. “Despite all the labs, after 20 years no-one could really understand the disaster, anomalies or artifacts. The money ran out, the country is not what it was and the first civilians managed to get into Zona.”

“Or were allowed in,” nodded Olga.

“Da. Those Scavengers, as they call themselves, and with pride, mind you, filter in, and mostly die. But some make it out with artefacts or biosamples that sell for a small fortune on the black market. Fast forward ten years and you have factions in Zona, a small village even.”

“Ok, I get it. The smuggling continues, the brave and the stupid come in, die or get rich…”

“The former, mostly,” Kuznetsov cut in. “Ex-military, scientists, and those profiting indirectly by providing food, equipment, and shelter. The hopeful and the desperate. Of course, in the 30 years, Zona has developed its own legends that further fueled the imagination.”

“Oh?” Olga turned away from the window.

The old KGB officer picked up a photo and turned it towards the woman, so she could see it from where she was standing. It showed the Sarcophagus – the place where the nuclear reactor no. 4 once stood, now buried under a hemispherical concrete structure.

“There are… stories,” Mikhail started, remembering. He glanced at Olga, took a long drag of his cigarette and continued. “Supposedly no-one has reached the Sarcophagus yet. The area is full of anomalies, mutated creatures and plants, and of course, it is heavily irradiated. Still, some Scavengers say that the real treasure, the true secret of Zona is hidden somewhere inside that tomb. The ultimate artifact – whose nature depends on the storyteller.”

Olga smiled. “Soldiers always tell legends. It’s how you pass time.”

“True,” Kuznetsov nodded and smiled back. “But at the root of each story, there is always a kernel of truth. In 2017 a military scientist escaped Zona. A group of Scavengers helped him do that and in exchange, he told them that the ultimate artifact, something he called the Golden Orb, was real. Is real. An artifact so powerful it could make any wish come true.”

Olga laughed, then realized it wasn’t a joke and thought. “Literally, or because if you sold it, you’d be rich as an oligarch?”

“Does it matter?” Kuznetsov countered. Lebedev nodded. It didn’t. The man continued: “That’s not all. The rogue scientist’s revelation came with a warning. The Orb is highly unstable and the emissions…

“Emissions, sir?”

“Yes… From time to time, usually at the least opportune moment, the supposedly defunct reactor releases a powerful wave of radiation. You’re safe if you’re underground, you’re dead, or worse, if you aren’t. Scavengers know how to read the signs and typically hole down when an emission is coming.”

“That doesn’t make sense. It’s not how radiation works!” Lebedev exclaimed.

“In Zona, most things don’t make sense. It’s a different world, a place to which we bring our science and tools, we try to measure and quantify the unknowable, desperate to gain insight into something new.” Kuznetsov caught himself staring into the distance.

“What are we doing here, sir?” Olga asked quietly. Kuznetsov lit another cigarette and crumpled the now empty pack, adding it to the papers on the table.

“We are sure that in a few days, or weeks, or months,” he shrugged, realizing how imprecise it sounded, “the Orb, or whatever lies in the Sarcophagus, is going to destabilize, which will result in an emission on the scale several orders of magnitude larger than anything we’ve seen so far. And we,” he pointed the cigarette at Olga and then at himself, shedding ash over the floor, “we are here to stop it.”

Written by: Janek Sielicki