(Drunkard Kostia Fiodorov, “Professor”, Misfit Savva Koshnienko, “Golem”, Loner Oleg Voronin, “Growler”)

“Move, old man!” shouted a young, sandy-haired scavenger and banged on the table where Kostia Fiodorov was drinking. “It looks you’ve had enough vodka for today. How can you even afford it?” The scavenger’s companions laughed, and one grabbed Fiodorov’s shoulder.

“Hey!” a loud voice rang across the room. It was Wolf, and when Wolf spoke, everyone listened. The bar’s common room went quiet, everyone pretending to mind their business but eagerly listening. “Leave him be. That’s the Professor you’re talking to, you chainik.”

The newcomers around Kostia’s table exchanged uneasy looks. If you managed to reach the Roadhouse, you must have heard about Professor—the scavenger who supposedly made it to the Sarcophagus. That fat, red-faced, stinking man nursing a long-gone drink was one of Zona’s legends? One of the chainiks giggled and whispered:

“Guys, I think he’s joking, right?”

A door leading to one of the side rooms banged when someone inside kicked it close, the noise spurring the Roadhouse’s common room back to life. Conversations resumed, and Kostia’s rheumy eyes finally focused on the group around his table, the drunk mind catching up to the situation.

“Is good, Wolf, is good,” he flashed a grin of decaying teeth and waved in the general direction of the bar. Then, he tried getting up, failed, concentrated and stared at something on the table, apparently forgetting about the companions.

“You alright there, Professor?” the youngest scavenger asked. Kostia started as if waking from a nap.

“Huh? That you, Oleg? Ah, new companions in this corridor now?” he muttered. “Damn you!”

The group around the table looked around the room, but no-one was paying them any attention. A has-been like the drunkard had more respect this deep in Zona than a newcomer, even clad in the best gear. Kostia’s eyes found focus again, and he tapped the stained table with a finger.

“Come, sit down, boys and girls,” he rasped. “Didus Kostia will tell you a story, da? Wanna hear a story?”

“Sure, why not,” the group’s leader agreed, taking a chair, and the rest quickly followed his example. “We’ll even buy you a drink,” he added generously.

“Now we’re talking!” Kostia harrumphed theatrically and leaned towards the nearest companion, who instinctively m away. “After all, those of us walking the corridor must stick together, da?”

The scavenger shrugged and cast a helpless gaze to a friend across the table, the sandy-haired man, who pushed his own mug towards Professor. “Here’s your drink. Tell us a story! And make it a good one!”

Kostia took a long sip and sighed as if he was drinking ambrosia, not the swill Sknerovsky served at the Roadhouse. Then, he began:

“There were three of us that day. Me, Savva Koshnienko, whom they call ‘Golem’…”

“Why do they call him like that, Kostia?” one of the new scavengers interrupted.

“Because he looks like one, of course!” the group’s leader growled. “He wears an MER, that’s Mechanized Exo-armor Rig, something he probably appropriated in Zona.”

Kostia’s rheumy eyes focused on the speaker for a moment and he frowned. “Ah, I see at least one of you knows a thing or two… But interrupt again and story time is over, is good?”

The leader nodded and signaled Professor to carry on.

“So, me, Golem, and Oleg Voronin, also known as ‘Growler’…” Kostia glanced towards the scavenger who interrupted before, but the man—despite his apparent need to ask another question—kept quiet, and Kostia nodded, content, and continued:

“Oleg never liked company, and Savva, well, his people skills required an MER, too, so for that one expedition I became their leader. We agreed to cooperate because due to a series of accidents and coincidences, each of us had a part of an old map… A map that showed the way to the heart of Zona!”

The group’s leader rolled his eyes and took a sip from his intricately crafted mug made out of a spent large caliber shell. Kostia cleared his throat, shuffled his feet, and leaned towards the listeners.

“That’s right, believe me or not, but there we were, in the ruins of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Each of us had survived dangers you wouldn’t believe…”

“Well, I can believe quite a lot,” the group’s leader muttered, but the others quickly shushed him, and Kostia went on:

“I fought terrible mutants and went deep into the forbidden swamp. Oleg survived a crystal storm and then avoided a band of Pioneers, eager to take his part of the map. Growler can get out of any trouble! And Golem, that man is as stupid as a log, but with that contraption he wears, he can smash through mutants and anomalies like a tank! That’s what he probably did to get his fragment,” Kostia paused for a moment, then added. “Of course, each of us was also equipped to survive the deadly radiation in the area and we had several rare artifacts to improve our chances. I’m telling you, we were as ready as… as…” Kostia fumbled for words and decided to finish the sentence with a discreet burp.

“So, did you get inside? What was in there?” one of the listeners asked, and the group’s leader leaned on the table, nodding: “Da, did you?” Then, with a strange hollowness in his voice, repeated: “Did you? Or are you still walking the corridor?”

Kostia shuffled his feet and blinked.

The room was dark and empty. Only a single lightbulb flickered over this table, casting shadows on the walls. A chair creaked, and Kostia noticed that Oleg and Savva were there, too, sitting at the same table. Savva’s MER servomotors whined and grated when the man got up, his head disappearing in the darkness.

“Why did you leave us, you traitor?” he boomed from above.

“Exactly, you drunkard,” Oleg agreed softly and scratched his beard. “You were supposed to wait.”

“But I knew you wanted to betray me!” Kostia whined, sprang up from the chair, which clattered to the ground, and pushed his back against the wall. “I heard you talking! You think I’m useless! But I won, I returned!”

“Did you, Professor?” Oleg got up, too, the upper part of his face hidden in the shadows now. Golem’s heavy feet thudded on the floor when he moved, his steps carefully measured and timed. “Did you really return? Or are you still walking the corridor?”

Kostia screamed and ran headlong between them, straight into the darkness. He expected to crash into another table or chair, but the walls were so close now! He was in an endless corridor, lit with flickering glow lamps. Like a lazy cloud, darkness encroached him from behind. Kostia frowned. Shuffled his feet.

The noise of two dozen talking people assaulted his ears. A scavenger was playing “Cheburashka” on a guitar and someone, very close, kept repeating: “You all right, old man?”

“I… gotta go, khlopchyki. I think I’m still in the corridor!” he explained matter-of-factly, then frowned. “I think we got into the Sarcophagus. I found a shortcut and when Growler and Golem fought… something… I…”

He shuffled his feet. He was at the table with Growler and Golem.

A blink. He was in the endless corridor.

Professor screamed. He was at the table with the chainiks. They were getting up, one was shouting to Wolf for help, another was trying to pin Kostia to the wall. He threw them off and barged through the common room, noticing that every scavenger was either a Growler or a Golem. As one, they all turned towards him and pointed at the nearest door. Kostia opened it, closed his eyes, and entered.

He heard a soft, irritating buzzing of broken glow tubes, sighed and took a peek. In front of him, there was the endless corridor.

He took a shuffling step, then another.

“Cheburashka” was still playing in his mind.

He hummed the melody, softly first, then louder and louder.

And he walked…

Written by: Janek Sielicki.