(Danila Morozov “Shadow”)

The first massive drops of rain started to beat against the window, and a tremendous crash of thunder rolled over the wetlands. Seconds later a deluge began, connecting the land and the sky with a uniform sheet of gray water, which triggered a local gravitational anomaly that made the rain in the area fall up, then down again—Zona’s electrocardiogram drawn in the air.

Olga sighed, turned away from the window and checked on Kuznetsov and his spy, Danila Morozov. They were still talking in the other room, hunching in a cloud of thick cigarette smoke over dozens of photos and blueprints. Olga considered her options, picked up her automatic rifle and went outside, slowly circling the old house Kuznetsov had found for this clandestine meeting. She preferred the rain to the endless debates between those two.

A gust of cold, damp air stirred the documents on the table, making Morozov look up from a file he was reading.

– Spokojnie, Daniła, to tylko ochroniarz demonstruje swoje niezadowolenie – powiedział Kuzniecow.

“Relax, Danila,” Kuznetsov said. “My bodyguard shows her annoyance.”

“She’s a good bodyguard, then,” Morozov acknowledged. “You shouldn’t come here. It’s dangerous for me, even more dangerous for you. She… she can survive, though.”

“It’s been months, Shadow,” Kuznetsov highlighted the spy’s nickname with a touch of irony. “Emissions are getting worse, and no-one has managed to get into the Sarcophagus.”

“A few got close,” Morozov replied. “Can’t you just send in the army? I’m starting to suspect you actually want to blow up this country. Or flood it with monsters and stuff. Or whatever happens when the final emission comes. Hey, maybe you’re just morbidly curious, eh?”

“Not funny, Morozov,” Kuznetsov stood up, picked up two glasses from a cabinet and poured vodka to each. “Let’s go back to square one, clear our minds. The Party wants to keep everything quiet. The Secretary said ‘No international incidents, tovarish.’”

“The Secretary, eh?” Danila smirked. “I guess I should get a raise.”

“Horosho,” Morozov nodded towards the bottle. “We don’t get good stuff like that here. All right, what do you, or the Party, wants here?”

Kuznetsov swept all the documents and photos from the table onto the floor, then cursed and from the pile fished out an aerial photo of the Sarcophagus, placing it on the now empty table.

“Oh? I thought you wanted to save the country, turn out emissions?” Danila teased.

“I don’t believe those objectives are mutually exclusive,” Kuznetsov said and lit a cigarette.

Morozov rummaged at the document pile—meanwhile, the KGB agent managed to smoke half of his cigarette—then put nine folders on the table, each with a photo of a person pinned to the cover.

“This is what we have,” he spread the folders with a flourish. “Those and other scavengers, who stalk Zona searching for artifacts and the meaning of life.”

“Good vodka makes you bitter,” Kuznetsov observed. “We also have the resources I’ve been pouring into Zona.”

“Ah, yes. I suspected it was your doing. All those new people, all with good gear, weapons and ammo smugglers bring in…” Morozov paused. “You think no-one here will realize what’s going on? Some of them are pretty bright.”

“I don’t think they care,” Kuznetsov said.

“Fair enough. So, they’re bright, have different skill sets, we, on the other hand, have ex-mil operators, scientists, gearheads, hunters. After a few months here, they’re also survival experts, which also means they have a rough idea of the crazy stuff that goes on here,” Danilov said. “Of course, a lot of them die in the process.”

“Can they work together?” he asked.

“Haven’t you read my reports?” Morozov scoffed. “They’re an unruly bunch. Yes, they can work together, especially if faced with Zona’s many dangers. But the moment things go truly south, when an opportunity arises for a personal gain, they turn on each other.”

He thought for a moment. Noticed that it stopped raining.

“I think they come here not only to find the mythical riches and treasure. It’s the only place in the glorious USSR where they can be truly free.”

“Careful now, Morozov,” Kuznetsov frowned. “You know I have to report our meetings.”

“I don’t care, boss,” Danila shrugged. “I’ll worry about that when I get out of here. And I’m not sure I want to.”

A shot rang out outside, then another. Something shrieked in the distance. Kuznetsov walked to a window and looked outside. Olga, still aiming at something in the mists, signaled that everything was okay. Kuznetsov leaned against the wall and still looking out, asked:

“What about a leader? One of their own?”

“Maybe, in time?” Danila got up and joined the KGB agent at the window. “There are already groups here, the Pioneers, Rust Wolves, the eggheads at the lab. The Roadhouse is a nice hub. But one leader, who could mount a successful expedition there?” he motioned with his head towards the table. “It’ll take years, I think.”

“I agree,” said Kuznetsov. “But we can hasten the process. Give them something that will unify them on a fundamental level. Something of their own. A symbol.”

Morozov hmmed, then sauntered towards the document pile. He fished out a photo and triumphantly placed it on the table, below the photo of the Sarcophagus. The new image had been taken in a dark room lit only with a strange orange glow. It presented a stylized Greek Delta letter made of small glittering objects.

It was Kuznetsov’s turn to hmm. He sat down at the table, Morozov looming at his side. “This could work,” he admitted. “Especially because, as it seems, it has already started.”

“Do you know the symbol’s origin?” Morozov asked.

“Da. It’s nothing special. The power plant’s reactors were marked according to the first four letters of the Greek alphabet. It was the Delta that exploded. In the 1980s and 1990s, the symbol was occasionally used to mark documents and research concerning Zona, but it never became anything official,” Kuznetsov explained.

“So, what do you want me to do, boss?” Morozov asked quietly, seeing that Kuznetsov was pondering about something, scanning the table’s contents with a frown: a row of scavenger files, the photo of the Sarcophagus in the center, the photo of the Delta in the third row.

“I want you,” Kuznetsov started slowly, “to put that symbol in the safe havens. Scratch it on the walls first, spray on buildings in the village. Then, we’ll add it to the weapons and ammo we send in via smugglers. It’ll mark better quality equipment.”

“They’re a superstitious bunch,” Morozov said. “They’ll think it brings luck.”

“Exactly. It’ll be theirs, as I said. Organize a group or maybe get to your contacts in the Pioneers. Suggest they’ll need a badge, like real soldiers. A badge with a lucky symbol! Use the Delta to mark anomaly zones or mutant lairs. We can’t overdo it… It should also be a symbol of danger. A universal sign,” as Kuznetsov talked, he became more and more excited. “And then they’ll work together and eventually, hopefully soon, they’ll get into the heart of Zona!”

“We gotta go, boss,” she said. “Eye in the sky reports movement, a group of scavengers is heading this way.”

“Horosho, I’m going,” Kuznetsov turned towards Morozov, motioning towards the files. “Burn everything. And get to work. I’ll contact you through the usual channels.”

“Come, friends,” Morozov smiled. “Have a drink, rest a little. It’s safe here, look,” he pointed at the building’s wall, where the Greek Delta has been scratched on the old plaster.

Written by: Janek Sielicki.