Chapter 13

Radiochemical Company pushed themselves to the limit trying to put as much distance between themselves and Duty. They dashed through the streets at a good speed, but Ricky was lagging behind because of his injured leg and bullet wound. He’d been very lucky, the bullet had only penetrated a minute amount. Most of the energy of the impact had been absorbed by a metal buckle on his chest rig. A few millimetres or so and he’d would have had a deep wound. Combined with his bruised leg, he was lucky to be running right now. But then again, getting away from Duty was a great motivator for running.

            Camera had appeared right behind them. He’d already made his way to the back of the store by sneaking around Duty. It was his guess that they were going to make an escape out the back door, considering it was the only entrance left uncovered. He’d had a few close calls, Duty almost spotting him as he moved. But he put his hunting skills to the test once again, and was successful. There was little doubt in his mind that his father would have been proud of him. He could almost see his father in his bear fur coat he had hunted himself – smiling his approval to him.

            Nadovev tore around a corner trying to break line of sight with the department store. They kept running for about four blocks when their stamina began to wear down. They’d been doing a lot of running lately and it was beginning to take its toll on all of them. Especially Ricky and his banged up leg. He turned down a side street to a small dead-end residential street. Nadovev saw that it backed onto a main road behind the houses. He made off towards one of the abandoned houses. Running up the wooden steps with flaking white paint, he threw his shoulder into the door and burst it open.

            The squad stopped once inside and closed the door. Heavy breathing was shared all around. They’d really been pushing themselves ever since they gotten to Limansk. In the silence all they could hear was their breathing and creaking of the ancient floor boards. Looking around at their immediate area they determined that they were in a three bedroom home. Wallpaper was peeling off, stained like a decaying yellow tooth. Very little furniture remained. All of it a very dark wood from decades of abandonment and moisture. The darkness made it a bit spooky, but it was a far cry from being chased down by Duty. Nadovev decided that they needed some time to rest here.

            “All right,” he said, “we’re taking a breather here.” Confirmation grunts came from the rest of the squad.

            Nadovev walked past the stairs which were directly in front of the door. He walked down the hallway, passing the living room into the kitchen. He found the kitchen table intact with chairs. “Come over here,” he said, “I’ve got some seats here.” One by one the members of the squad made their way to the kitchen to sit down. With only four chairs, Ricky chose to sit on the kitchen counter. Iosif picked up an oil lamp from the stove and spent a few moments getting it lit. It was nice to have some real light for once in this town.

            Everyone was glad to be having a seat. The surrounding darkness which constantly carried a promise of a threat almost seemed inviting at this point. Sitting down at the table felt like an act of defiance to that promise. Finally getting to rest their legs – looking into the darkness was like a parent being told by their prepubescent child that they were going to run away. It carried no immediate sense of danger, but you never knew what danger the child could get itself into if they tried.

            As they sat at the table the water canteens came out pretty quickly. Room temperature, but fresh, clean water flowed down their throats.

            “Might as well eat now that we’ve got a chance,” Nadovev said, taking out his own diet sausage. Everyone followed his example. The squad ate in a silence broken only by Iosif forcing open a military canned ration with his knife. Using his knife to shovel bits of meat into his mouth, a thought occurred to him.

            “Why did you yell at me when I was trying to get you clear?’ he asked Ricky.

            Ricky sat in silence for a moment before he answered, “because I didn’t need any help,” he said, “I was fine, I could make it on my own. I didn’t need any pity.”

            Iosif put his hands up in confusion, “it wasn’t pity, I honestly thought you were injured and needed help.”

            “Yea, well I didn’t,” Ricky answered.

            Nadovev sat watching both of them full well knowing what was going to happen. He’d seen incidents and personalities conflict like this before.

            “Why? Why do you hate people all the time?” Iosif asked.

            “What do you mean? Because I didn’t need your help?”

            “No, because you constantly act as though you’re better than everyone else and you treat Arkady like an asshole. Why do you do that?”

            “You wanna know the truth?”

            “Yea.”

            “Because I despise weakness. There’s no room for it in this world. If you’re weak, you’re asking to be swallowed up by society like food. If you show, or have any weakness, life is going to take advantage of you and crush you. Kill or be killed, that’s my motto, because that’s how life is.”

            “What a horrible, inhuman way to look at life. Don’t you have any compassion for life at all?”

            “No, because I wouldn’t expect none in return. I never asked for no pity party from anybody.”

            “You realize all people need help at some point, right? Everyone need help now and again. No one is perfect.”

            Arkady and Nadovev sat in silence intently watching the proceeding. Nadovev himself was wondering the same thing. He too wondered why Ricky acted they way he did. Arkady was interested in hearing the explanation as well, hoping it would explain why he was such an asshole to him when he’d been nothing but polite. Camera sat in silence as an impartial observer of the proceeding. It was always interesting when someone finally called someone else out and demanded an explanation for the way they behaved. It offered a glimpse into the mind of the person. To see how they think, why they act the way they do.

            “I don’t need help,” Ricky said.

            “Bullshit, once you got hit you needed to be dragged out of that store. I suspect you might have even been going into shock,” Iosif answered.

            “No, I would have been fine. I didn’t need any God damn help!”

            “Why do you do that? Why do you get so angry when you need help? It’s normal, everyone needs it once in a while.”

            “Because I find weakness revolting. It’s sickening, it’s not meant to survive.”

            “Kill or be killed, right? Survival of the fittest? And all that stuff?”

            “Yea, kind of like that, ‘survival of the fittest’ for a modern age.”

            “You know that’s Nazi bullshit right?”

            “No it’s not, its basic Darwinism. He laid out the science of survival and evolution quite well. The strong survive and multiply, the weak die off.”

            “That’s complete bullshit. Darwin never made such an argument.”

            “Oh come off it, I read ‘Origin of the Species’, that’s exactly what he said.”

            “No, false. Herbert Spencer coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’. He and other Social Darwinists used that as an attempt to use Darwin as a justification for racial supremacy. They also used it as a justification for oppressive social classes as well… Darwin never said or advocated ‘survival of the fittest’. He actually said the opposite, a kind of ‘survival of the kindest’. If you look at his books like ‘The Descent of Man’  and ‘Selection In Relation to Sex’, you would see that he argued for communities that had more caring and sympathetic people, had a better chance of raising children to the age of reproduction. Which is the whole point of evolution.”

            Ricky laugh out loud at the idea, “then why do we naturally act the opposite way?”

            “We don’t,” Ricky replied, “we have a system that forces us to behave that way. The whole economic and political system tells us and makes us compete with each other for resources. If you’re raised in that kind of environment, that’s the kind of person you’re going to be. That is the environment in which the individual exists. That so-called human nature wasn’t in hunter-gatherer societies. We act as a product of our economic relations.”

            “But that’s not how our system is. We have this one, we have capitalism, the ‘survival of the fittest’. If you can’t make it you live on minimum wage. If you don’t like it, go to school or something.”

            “You think the system is that simple do you? Someone has to do the minimum wage jobs no matter what. So just to hell with anyone who gets stuck with it? You know how many people want to go to school but can’t? The system makes people not want to go to, or can’t afford to go to school. It makes the assumption that somehow we all start from a level playing field, which is a lie. It’s nothing more than bullshit used to justify someone’s self-perceived superiority.”

            “That’s how the system works, you accept it or… you screw off or something.”

            “Ricky, I think there’s something wrong with you. You irrationally hate Arkady and you irrationally hate me. Did I ever do anything to you? Or do you simply hate me because I’m stronger than you?”

            Ricky stormed to his feet and got in Iosif’s face. Iosif remained seated and calm.

            “You’re stronger than me physically, there’s no doubt about that. But you can never be as strong as me. I am ruthless in a way that you can’t even comprehend! I can do whatever it takes to survive and you can’t! That is what makes you weaker than me!”

            Iosif slowly stood up to Ricky. Where Ricky’s eye’s once met his, they now met his collar bone. Nadovev started to get up, ready to intervene between the two if it came to blows. Iosif looked like he was about to bring a fist down upon Ricky. He didn’t like being called weak anymore than Ricky did. But for entirely different reasons. Camera sat by passively watching events unfold with an objective observer’s mind. He’d seen Iosif in a fist fight at the 100 Rads Bar last year. A single fist to the head from the hundred and forty five kilo Iosif had nearly killed the man.

            “I don’t find caring about those who aren’t as strong as you to be weak. I think caring about people makes me strong. I think being a good person takes strength… And you’re right, I couldn’t comprehend that kind of ruthlessness… I have a soul.”

            “I’m out for myself. If someone has to survive, it’s me.”

            Anger flared in both men’s eyes. Nadovev knew it was time to step in and placed himself between both men. “Look, enough of this right now,” he said, “we have to plan out our next move. This search is going to be very difficult. Everyone just wants to find this damn thing and go home.” He pointed to each man’s respective seat, “so everyone just sit down and cool off.”

            Nadovev was interested in what made Ricky tick. As Iosif began arguing with him, he found out more than he wanted. It was very clear that something was wrong with Ricky. He had all the traits of a sociopath. That wasn’t necessarily an uncommon thing in the Zone; but he’d never seen it to the degree that Ricky displayed it.

            The squad sat in silence for a few minutes while they resumed eating and resting. The friction between Ricky and Iosif had simmered down a bit. The occasional eye contact between them made it very clear it was not over between them.

            With everyone calmed down and focusing on the job at hand, Nadovev set to the task of figuring out which location they should search. Him and Camera started pouring over maps they had saved on their PDAs trying to figure out which place they thought had the best chance of being their target. There weren’t that many government buildings considering the town was so small. It was helpful to remember that this town had been built to house the people who worked on the secret projects. Their target had to be here somewhere. It was only a matter of pinning it down.

            Never during Nadovev’s time in the Zone had searching for something been this difficult. It was utter madness to be searching for something when you hardly had an idea where to start. It was almost like throwing darts at a map and then taking a chance. It was awful.

            “How about this building here? What is this?” Nadovev asked.

            “It’s a hospital from the look of it,” Camera said, “we might find an experiment there, but we don’t know what kind of experiment it is… or if it’s even an experiment, at all.”

            “If we just had a God damn idea what we were looking for, this would be so much easier,” Nadovev said, “in fact it would make sense.”

            As the two continued to discuss their options, Iosif and Ricky continued to stare at each other intently. The incident between the was clearly far from over. There would be a reckoning soon. One of them would not be walking away from that altercation alive… and they both knew it.

            “Okay,” said Camera, “the closest thing to search would be an administrative building a few blocks from here. Something might be found there. I’d say do it and give us an easy one for now. We can do it quickly and get a cool down at the same time.”

            Nadovev nodded his head a few times, “agreed, let’s do that… Alright, move out.”

            The squad got up from their respective seats. They checked their weapons and began the next leg of their journey. This time Camera led the way to the next location. He led them through the backyard of the house and across the back lawns of a few more.  He stopped at a gate that led out into the street and cautiously opened it. A slow metal creak greeted the squad as it gave way to a view of the street. It was desolate and lonely. Dark with sinister intent lurking in the shadows. The vast emptiness of the street shrouded in darkness made for a restless feeling. Anything could be out there. A bloody tank command could be rolling down the street and they wouldn’t even see it.

            Apprehensively Camera stepped onto the sidewalk, looking both ways for movement. Having seen none, he led the squad out into the street. In the back of his mind he was thinking of where Duty had ended up. They’d already encountered them twice already. Who knew if there were going to see them again. Camera felt like they probably were. This town literally wasn’t big enough for the both of them… and whoever the hell else was lurking out here. The Freedom squad would have made it here by now. He hoped that the two ran into each other. If luck was on their side, both Duty and Freedom would be eliminated from the equation.

            Please let Iosif and Ricky keep their shit together until the mission is over, he willed.

            Coming close to the edge of the road, Camera took off quickly crossing it. The rest of the squad followed. He brought them to a wall of a building and laid his back against it. Using his rifle, he did the best he could to scout the direction they were to travel next. He hated this, he couldn’t see anything clearly. Their headlamps had such poor coverage. Camera slowly snuck his head around the corner of the brick wall and looked down the side street. Just darkness, every time it was just darkness. He could barely see the buildings on each side of the street in front of him. This unnatural inky blackness covered everything like dripping evil. Moving through it was unnerving, blackness parted the way for them as they moved as if it was pulling them into some kind of death trap.

            Camera took them down another block where they stopped against a wall at an intersection. Once again Camera stuck his head around the corner to see if anything was coming, or if anything was watching. Once again, because of the darkness he was unable to see anything. All around them the buildings couldn’t be seen properly in the thick darkness. All they could make out where their silhouettes. They were surrounded by giant solid black obelisks. The lack of noise seemed a bit strange to him, he could only hear a little bit of wind. A tiny little howl passed by their ears.

            He put one foot out into the street when he stopped suddenly. He heard a noise. He darted back against the wall out of sight with the rest of the squad. He froze in the silence, listening for it again. What had he heard? The sound was odd. Like a soft plop and dragging sound. They held still listening to the silence to see if they could hear it again. After a moment or so a Camera could make out a shape moving in the darkness, in the middle of the street. He pulled up his Dragonov to see if he could get a better look, but it was too dark to make a difference. He told the rest of the squad to wait with a hand signal. They each looked up to see what Camera had spotted. They too only saw a shape moving in the blackness. Nadovev order them to turn off their headlamps in case it was enemy contact.

            Slowly the shape began to move closer. It wasn’t walking towards them, it was following the street right down the middle, intersecting their path. As it came closer they could see it was a figure, a humanoid figure, but it was small. Bit by bit it came closer to them. They could now see that the figure was wearing white. Like a white gown, or suit, or something. Then it came fully into view. It was a child, a little girl in a  nightgown. Her black hair was covering her face as she walked with a shuffling gait barefoot. Her arms hung loosely at her sides, a teddy bear in one hand.

            Holy mother of God! Camera thought to himself. The sound had been her walking.

            As the rest of the squad began to see her, they all became visibly disturbed by her presence. They all ducked themselves deeper into the shadow they were hiding in. Panic came across everyone’s face, except Nadovev who seemed to be in more of a shocked state. It took a minute or so for her to pass in front of them. When she did, Camera noticed that she had a blue tinge to her. It was an unnatural light occurrence. She just kept shuffling past them, staying in the middle of the road. They remained frozen in the shadows, unable to more. Not that they wanted to.

            Nadovev looked over and saw Ricky slowly bringing his M16 up to fire at the child. He watchfully reached out with his hand and lowered the aim of the rifle shaking his head. Ricky understood his message and put the weapon down. Iosif stood absolutely frozen like a statue.  He looked behind him at Arkady. The man had his eyes tightly closed. He had his hands together in prayer. His mouth spoke the words without a single sound: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven… He was praying for deliverance from this mind torturing hell.

            It took about five minutes for the little girl to pass them and disappear into the darkness again. She was swallowed whole by the blackness. All the while her shuffle never changed, her course never altered. It was one of the most nerve wracking experiences they’d ever had. Arkady had never been so happy to have the Star Loop around his wrist. They waited a few more minutes to pass before they resumed their course. No one wanted to make the mistake of getting the girl’s attention… or whatever that was.

            “What the hell was that?” Ricky asked, “because there’s no way in hell that was a little girl walking by herself at night in an abandoned town. That had to have been a  ghost.”

            “I don’t know what that was,” Nadovev answered, “but I’ve seen weirder things… Not scarier, but weirder.”

            Camera was fairly pale, and that was really something coming from him. “Look,” he said, “let’s just get the hell out of here.”

            “Agreed,” said Iosif. He shifted the weight of his machine gun back into the proper position showing himself ready to go. He started waving in the direction they had been going. “Alright, move it,” he said.

            Once again Camera led the way towards the administration building. As they stepped out into the street, they were all looking to the left where the girl had gone. In no time at all they had made it across the street. Once again, they leaned against a building for cover in the shadows. Nadovev had to remind them to turn their headlamps back on. Although, they didn’t seem too keen on the idea. Eventually they obeyed and started to get their nerves back together. At a steady pace they made their way down the block towards the administrative building.

            It was right across the street from them now. It loomed before them, a gigantic black slab in the dark. Shining their headlamps up they estimated that there were six floors and a roof. It was a lot of floors to search, but most likely if it was there it could be found on the first floor. It bothered Camera that he couldn’t see into any of the windows, it would have been helpful to do so. They quickly made their way up the front steps past the old rusted hammer and sickle art display in front of the building. They stopped at the entrance to discuss their search plan.

            “Hey, Nadovev,” Camera said, “do you mind if I snap a picture of that art work there?” he asked pointing to the big hammer and sickle.

            “Make it fast,” Nadovev answered.

            Camera put down his rucksack and dug out his expensive high-end camera. He turned it on and began looking for the right angle to take the picture. He changed his spot around it a few times, adjusted the angle, then finally took the shot. Then another one for good measure. He came back up the steps and packed his camera way.

            “So how do we do this?” he asked as he pulled his rucksack back on.

            Nadovev pulled out his PDA and looked at the map. There wasn’t any information on it actually. They’d already guessed it to be about six stories tall. He thought about it for a moment, then spoke.

            “Okay, Ricky and I will take the main floor and see if we can find anything. Iosif and Arkady, you take the second floor, there might be something there. Camera, you head all the way to the roof and see if you can get a look at anything. Maybe get us some recent information on the layout of this town. It’s likely to be the tallest building around. Do we understand?”

            They all answered in the affirmative. Nadovev walked to the front of the group to begin leading the way. He took a step forward-

            A scream pierced the silence!

            It was a female child’s scream, echoing off the buildings. It was followed by an adult male scream.

            All at once the members of Radiochemical Company charged the building out of panic. They burst through the doors, knocking them down. Inside they dived behind the windows covering themselves. A massive amount of gunfire can be heard going off in the distance. Maybe about twenty shooters all at once. The noise was monstrous in the dark. The whole squad was frightened out of their minds. Only Camera and Nadovev pulled themselves together to look out the windows for anything. But as the gunfire continued in the distance, they could see nothing. Another male scream broke out among the noise.

            The whole squad stood frozen for a minute or so until the gunfire died down. Fear driven sweat poured down their faces. Hands were shaking. Minds were numb. Only after that minute, were they able to get back to their feet and begin their search.

            “I can’t take much more of this, man,” Ricky said as he struggled to keep his legs still, “I think someone ran into that ghost girl.”

            No one really wanted to think about it.