Chapter 14

After what seemed like an eternity, they emerged from the woods into Limansk. Every single man was accounted for. Despite their laid back reputation, Freedom could pull together one hell of a fighting force. But now they were in the town, the hard part was about to begin. Commander Ubunto stood before his men staring up at the sky, wondering how it had become so black so quickly. First, they were in the woods, listing to a gunfight take place, the next they were out in the dark. He hadn’t even seen the sunset. He noted that he couldn’t see the moon either. It was as if the moon didn’t want anything to do with this darkness. It had a wholly unnatural feel to it.

            Commander Ubunto stood before the town, taking it all in with his eyes and ears. It was going to be one pain in the ass to find this artifact, which may or may not exist. He wished dearly that he had something to go on. The day had been interesting enough as it was. The shootout with the bandits was fun. He even saw that Camera fellow and his friends sneak past the bandits while they were doing all the hard work. He chuckled at the memory. Then there was the Duty squad in the woods shooting at ghosts. They’d heard one shot by some high powered rifle, then a whole bunch of wild shots in return. He wondered if that Camera had been the one to fire it. The shot did sound like it had come from a Dragonov. At least he was putting Noob’s rifle to good use. He imagined that was why the bandits were shooting at them.

            It made him think. Does that Camera fellow know what we’re looking for? Is he looking for it too? he wondered to himself. He seriously doubted that lone Stalkers would have heard about what was going on. They’d also be crazy to try and go up against all the factions for it, including mercenaries. The bandits seemed completely ignorant of it as well. But, they would be all lying dead in a construction site. They won’t be extorting anyone for tolls from now on, he laughed to himself.

            Coming back to the moment he realized he had no idea where to start. The upper echelon of the Freedom faction had suggested looking at government buildings first. It seemed like a reasonable idea. He pulled out his PDA and began looking through the maps to see where the best place to start was. His headlamp light reflected off the PDA making it hard to read properly. He and his number two decided that the six story building near their quadrant of the town. They packed the PDA up and set out on their march.

            “Good news boys,” Ubunto said, “we’re beginning the search,” he said with a laugh. Groans could be heard from the other members. Clearly they hadn’t been looking forward to a search for something that may or may not exist. They were clearly frustrated about it. “Oh don’t worry you guys,” Ubunto said, “I’m sure it will be in the first place we look.” He gave them all a cheeky smile. He always been thankful for his charisma, it made his job so much easier.

            His number two came to the front and began to lead the Freedom squad towards their destination. They made their way casually, walking at a good pace, but not taxing on the lungs. He had a bad feeling about this mission. The unnatural dark around them was putting him off a bit, and assumed the others were feeling it as well. He didn’t much care for the dark, he liked to see free and clear. Something about this dark was nagging at him. Like a weight trying to anchor his normally high spirit and charisma. Something about this place made him feel like it was hopeless. Now that’s not like me at all, he thought. He leaned in close to his number two for a private conversation.

            “Are you getting a bad feeling from this place?” he asked.

            “Yeah, I am. I have this awful feeling like we’re going to mess this all up for some reason,” his second in command answered.

            “Actually, that describes it perfectly,” Ubunto said, “it’s like we don’t have any chance at all of finding this thing.”

            Truth be told, this place was giving him a shiver. The whole place reeked of hidden dangers. The unusually heavy degree of darkness made everything seem all that much spookier. He could feel the fear in this place drain away his cheeriness. It felt like a black hole was right above them, sucking away all of his enthusiasm and confidence. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt this bad about a mission. It was all terribly wrong. He didn’t know what to do besides push on.

            The squad eventually crossed several blocks into the city. They remained in a loose formation ready to break off into a combat situation if need be. Ubunto looked down at his PDA and saw that they had to take a right hand turn at the next intersection. From there the administrative building was four blocks away. They turned down the street and continued their march.

            Looking ahead, he could swear he saw something move in the darkness of the street. He called the men to a halt and told them to stand ready. Ubunto took out his binoculars and tried to look ahead at the approaching shape. In the terrible darkness he couldn’t make out what the shape was. He told his men to stand ready in case it was an enemy contact. They waited as the shape moved closer. In a moment it was going to be right in front of them. As it inched its way towards the Freedom squad its shape became clear. It was humanoid, but small. Ubunto stroked his goatee wonder what the hell it was.

            He took out a flashlight and turned the beam on the figure. It was a little girl with black hair covering her face. She was walking through the street in the dark, she was barefoot and was wearing a white nightgown. Lowering the beam he saw that she held a teddy bear in one of her hands. She was walking in an unusual way, she was shuffling along.

            The hair on the back of his neck shot right up. His heart began to race. There was something very wrong here. As she approached closer some of the men began to back off spooked by what was approaching them. Ubunto himself started backing away from her as well. There was something even stranger about her. Her figure seemed to have a blue tinge to it, like a blue light. It was seriously beginning to scare him now.

            “Hey, you,” Ubunto called out to the little girl, “what are you doing here? Where are your parents?” he asked.

            The girl didn’t answer, she just kept coming closer and closer. This whole situation was really beginning to unnerve Ubunto. She was now only a meter and a half away. He tried squinting to see her face. He still couldn’t see anything. Suddenly her hair whipped out of the way on its own. He stared into a face of evil. Where her eyes should have been, there were only empty dark sockets. She produced a twisted lipless smile filled with needle teeth.

            She let loose a horrifying inhuman scream at the top of her lungs!

            Ubunto screamed in fear of the little girl and began to run. The men opened up with their weapons out of terror and unleashed a storm of automatic fire into her. The men fired and fired until their magazines ran dry. All of their shots went right through her, she remained completely unharmed. One of the Freedom soldiers screamed as they all took off in the opposite direction. They ran and ran until they couldn’t see the girl anymore… Then they ran some more.

“Come on, let’s get to it,” Nadovev said, “we’re wasting too much time being scared.”

            Nadovev led the way into the rest of the building. The rest of the squad followed. They were nervous, as was Nadovev, but he was hiding it well. They were all on edge over those screams. His intent was to get their minds off of it as fast as possible. He wasn’t too keen on thinking about it either. Switching on the light for his AK 74 he led the way through the main lobby. The floor was old and all scuffed up. Dirt and leaves were everywhere. Furniture was overturned and broken. It appeared that scavengers had already been through the place some time ago. That was all well and good, so long as they were gone. No sense in running into some desperate poor people on the job.

            As they made their way through looking around, they came across different doorways. Any one of them would have been a good choice to begin searching. Off to the left was an office space that had been thrashed pretty well. Papers were everywhere, like a hurricane had come through and decided the place was too neat and orderly. The desks had been turned all about in every direction. Name plates lay on the floor, crushed and forgotten, like the work that once took place there. A few empty coffee cups were strewn about, smash on the floor. Few of them managed to remain intact. Some blinds drifted on the breeze. Its movement was distracting to the eye that watched for signs of life.

            To the right was a doorway to a small conference room. A large oval shaped wood table dominated the room with metal office chairs standing at attention around it. The blackboard at the front had a message on it written in a sloppy hurried Russian hand: “We hope to return soon.” Posters of data that once sat on an easel lay scattered on the floor. The easel rested smashed next to them. An old coffee pot sat in the corner of the room on a small cabinet. Decades old coffee had hardened into a solid in the pot. The scent of ancient coffee mixed with damp, rotting paper wafted through the air.

            “Might’ve been nice to work here at one time,” Arkady said, “the place seems like it would have been fairly pleasant… before the unpleasantness.” Being an office worker himself he could see the potential the place once had as a workspace.

            The squad moved on to the next doorway. A metal door remained close that had the words “stairs” engraved into the name plate. Nadovev tried the doorknob, but didn’t want to move. Iosif threw a foot into it and it flew right open. He nodded to Nadovev and led the way up the stairs with Arkady and Camera following behind. Nadovev and Ricky moved off to check the rest of the floor. The team had begun to split up to really get their search going.

            Nadovev and Ricky made their way into another office space. This one had fewer desks, but larger ones. Most likely they were for people in higher positions. Nice looking pens we haphazardly throw on them, some broken. Across the walls were pictures of pleasant pictures sunsets and images of the city. A single picture of Vladimir Lenin was on the wall at the front of the room. Nadovev looked at it for a moment from across the room and wondered what it would have been like to work in an office just like this. He sometimes wondered how different his life would have been had he not chosen to go to the Zone. But he knew himself, he knew he wouldn’t have been able to tolerate being stuck at a desk all day, every day being squawked at by some donkey of a manager.

            Breaking from his reverie Nadovev started checking the inside wall. He felt along looking for any signs of a hidden passage or something. He checked corners and folds in the wall. He saw Ricky across the room doing the same thing. He was checking a few of the desks as well. It looked like he was just feeling under them for a switch or something. The search of this building had already begun to aggravate him. He decided to break the silence by starting a conversation with Ricky.

            “Hey Ricky,” Nadovev said while feeling his way across a wall, “mind if I ask you something?” he asked.

             “Yeah, what is it?” Ricky answered.

            “Why do you treat Arkady so poorly? I’ve seen you bullying him; don’t pretend you haven’t done it. I’m genuinely wondering why you risk breaking squad unity just to get some kicks.”

            “I didn’t do anything like that.”

            They both kept checking the place for any hidden secrets. They spoke without facing each other.

            “I saw you aiming your M16 at the back of Arkady’s head in the garage back in Polomyia. You came dangerously close to killing one of your own squad members. If you hadn’t put the weapon down, I would have shot you. – Again, I ask you why.”

            “I… I don’t know why I did it. I just felt the urge; something about him just pisses me off so much.”

            “Like what? What did Arkady ever do to you?”

            “I don’t know. Just something about the man makes me sick.”

            “You don’t like his weakness and inexperience.”

            “Yea, maybe something like that.”

            Nadovev stopped searching and looked directly at Ricky causing him to stop as well.

            “Arkady is not Stalker material. That much is clear. But I brought you along on this job for a reason. That reason was to get the job done. Not threaten the lives of my squad by disrupting unity and threatening murder. Pull a stunt like that again and I will kill you myself. I will not tolerate that kind of nonsense in my squad. Arkady is only here for one job and it just happened to be this one. Once it’s over, he’s going home. He has no intention of staying in the Zone.”

            “Well, let me ask you something, what’s so special about this guy if you know he’s no good?”

            “He’s my brother-in-law, and I’m going to watch out for him.”

            Ricky laughed at the revelation.

            “Whatever your problem with him is, it ends right here right now. I won’t have any nonsense ruining my squad, harming our team work. The only problem here is you. Everyone else gets along just fine. When this job is over I suggest you go back to the real world and have yourself a psych-evaluation. There’s something wrong with you and I think you know it.”

            “Whatever… sir,” Ricky said in an angry sarcastic tone.

            Nadovev resumed his searching, after a moment Ricky did as well.

Iosif slowly lead the way up the stairs, his headlamp lighting the way. Holding his machine gun at the ready, barrel aimed up towards the stairs, he took it step by step. Both Arkady and Camera were right behind him, weapons raised. Taking their time, they rounded the corner of the stairwell. A few moments later they were at the entrance to the second floor.

            “All right,” Camera said, “see you in a bit.” He slapped Iosif on the back and headed up the rest of the stairs.

            Arkady walked onto the floor trying to take the lead for once. Iosif decided to let him have it. After a few moments they walked down the hall together side-by-side a bit at ease. The hallway was long and hollow, no furniture in it at all. The distance was long out of the reach of their headlamps. The walls were covered in white square tiles from the floor to a meter and a half up; then green paint the rest. It had a very cold, sterile feeling to it, a very military-ish office building kind of feel. The floor was vinyl chip, off white with black spots. It was very reminiscent of the hall flooring in a school. You got the sense that maybe office workers for some type of military project used to work there.

            Much more at ease the two men passed by room after room filled with offices of some sort or another. One particularly stood out to Iosif, for what reason he did not know. Once they were inside they could see large tables that sat multiple people each, as if they were for bunches of people working on a single project. Rusted metal shelves on wheels lined the outside wall. On them were office supplies of various kinds. Pens, pencils, paper pads, staplers, all kinds of stuff were stocked. His expertise kicking in, Arkady noticed how old and outdated they all were. No modern office would be caught dead with any of this stationary.

            Arkady’s thoughts found their way to his old life. Well, the life that was waiting for him when he got home. He thought about his workplace, the office where he was respected for his hard work. His title was ‘senior representative for the accountings division’. He had a few people who worked under him, but not many. Fresh coffee was available in the kitchen at any time. Here he’d rarely seen any coffee. He missed being able to sit down and think a problem out; fix an accounting sheet that someone else had made an error on. He missed being able to go home to his wife after five o’clock. Polina, he really missed her most of all. He missed the smell of her hair. It dawned on him that this is the first time they’d been apart for any extended period since they were married. Admitting that it was a mistake to come to the Zone was hard for him. He really wanted to prove himself to his in-laws. He was beginning to think Nadovev was right, he didn’t have anything to prove. He already was a good husband. That thought at least, made him smile. Now all he had to do was survive being here; which took the smile away.

            Iosif looked among some of the other shelves. They had tons of documents and papers. He picked one at random and flipped through it. It looked like a collection of registrations for automobiles. He smiled with communist Russian pride when he saw how many Ladas were listed. He loved the old fashion Ladas. He left one with his parent when came to the Zone. It brought back happy memories of the last summer he spent with his brother trying to get the old clunker to start. They’d been so proud when they finally got it going. They’d acted like such donkeys showing off, driving that thing around their impoverished neighbourhood. It was quite a thing for anyone to have a car there. He suddenly felt sorrow enter his heart thinking about his brother. He had no idea if he was alive or dead in a field somewhere in Donbass. A small tear formed in the corner of his eye. He wiped it away before Arkady had a chance to see it. He dearly missed his brother, they’d been so close.

            “Hey, Arkady,” Iosif called out while continuing to search, “you okay?”

            “Yeah, sure, why?”

            “Just that this is all new to you, the Zone and all.”

            “Well yeah, it’s been pretty rough for me to adjust. But I think I’m handling it okay.”

            “I kind of meant Ricky. He’s been really hard on you for no good reason.”

            “What is his problem anyway? Like, I know I’m not very good at being a Stalker, and I know that I don’t want to live this life. But the guy is just cruel.”

            “I know what you mean. There’s something wrong with him, seriously wrong with him. I’d bet my bottom ruble he’s a sociopath.”

            “I agree, that’s what I’ve been thinking. For the traits, he’s just missing the addictive personality. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if he had a drug or alcohol problem.”

            “Drug addiction is pretty rare in the Zone, it’s next to impossible to get a regular supply of drugs. At most you could probably get some weed from someone in Freedom.”

            “Still, I wouldn’t be surprised… Hey, thanks for sticking up for me back there in that house. Calling him out on his anti-social behaviour. Tell you the truth, I’m afraid of him. Sometimes I think he might kill me for fun. And Nadovev can’t be watching all the time.”

            Iosif thought about that moment in Polomyia when Ricky had the M16 aimed at his head. He was divided on whether or not to tell him about it. The knowledge might push him over the edge and cause him to act irrationally. If he started acting weaker around Ricky, he’d likely get even harder on him. Nadovev knew and he knew, that was enough to keep Arkady’s back covered, for now at least.

            “No problem, man. I believe in looking out for the people in your squad. Everyone has to have each other’s backs or someone is going to get killed. Also, if you don’t have each other’s backs, why would you be a squad to begin with?”

            “No, I mean it, thank you.”

            “As I said, no problem.”

            Arkady was eternally thankful for the assistance he was getting from Nadovev and Iosif. He feared that he’d be dead by now if they hadn’t been watching Ricky, that psycho. He wondered if it was going to be necessary in the near future to kill the man himself. Would he have to? Would he be able to? Shooting a bandit out of fear and adrenaline was one thing. Shooting one of your own was quite another. He was going to be leaving the Zone as soon as the job was over.  Would Ricky make a move on him before then? Why didn’t he just leave him alone? He didn’t do anything to him. It was all so stupid. I’d like to be anywhere but here, he thought.

            “Just…” Iosif said, “I got your back man… If he tries anything… I’ll take him out.”

            “Thanks.”

            They continued to search other rooms for any sign of a secret passage. So far there was nothing. All they managed to do was pocket a few rubles that people had left in desks. Iosif enjoyed snatching up old Soviet coins and notes to add to his collection. Each room was just empty desk after empty desk. They were hollow reminders of careers that had probably been extinguished by the disaster. Arkady wondered how many people’s lives were affected by this place. Driver’s licences, fishing licences, passes, maybe military IDs, all kinds of paperwork about people’s lives passed through this building. It was sad to think about how this place had once been so full of life.

            They moved onto the next room. It was large; there were cubicle-like structures around all the desks. Most likely sensitive materials were passed through here. Some computers sat in the dust at the back of the room. They split up and each took a side of the vast room. Arkady was eager to see what kind of computer they had been using. It was quiet, they could hear each other’s feet on the floor. The desks in the room had much nicer chairs. They looked downright comfortable. The desks looked expensive too, nice oak jobs that were heavy and solid.

            Iosif heard a grunting sound and looked over at Arkady, “what?” he called out, “what did you say?”

            “What?” asked Arkady, “I thought you said something.”

            A deep moan and a shuffling of feet came from the front of the room they hadn’t reached yet. A zombified Stalker shuffled into view and wailed at them. Its hands were a peeling grey wrenched mess. The skin was falling off it like decades old cheap wallpaper. Its eyes were milky fluid cataracts that reflected the light of their headlamps giving them a frightening glow. Arkady had never seen a zombified Stalker up close before. It left him like prey frozen before a bright light. Those disgusting hands also held an AKS-74U. With another inhuman rasp of a ruined voice it raised the gun to fire.

            “Get down!” Iosif yelled.

            As both men dropped to the floor, the zombie opened fire. Poorly aimed shots flew over their heads. Zombies were terrible shots; they only fired from the hip without actually aiming. They sort of just fire in a general direction. Arkady stuck his head up and let loose two shots into the zombie’s chest. It wobbled from the impact, but didn’t slow it down at all. He dropped back into cover as a moan and some more rounds flew over his position.

            “What do we do?” Arkady called out.

            “Aim for the head! Their bodies can take a lot of hits, but the brain only a few!”

            “What’s going on!?” Nadovev said over his PDA, “Who’s made contact!?”

            Iosif pulled up from behind his office cubicle cover and unleashed a few rounds from his PKM. A few of the bullets tore through the zombie’s rotted clothing. But at least one went through its head dropping it to the floor. It gave out one last pained moan before it went still.

            “I got it chief,” Iosif said into his PDA, “zombie on the second floor. It’s dead now.”

            Arkady and Iosif went over to check on the zombie. It wore the remains of a tattered Stalker suit. The oxygen tanks had already fallen off and the hoses were damaged. Its skin was a sickly grey dry, flaking paint kind of texture. The mouth hung open, loosely, it was missing some teeth. It was a disgusting dead thing. Iosif bent down and took some magazines off the body. “Nadovev will be able to use these, same model,” he said. He stuffed the magazines into one of his thigh pouches. “Yep, that’s one dead zombie,” he added.

            Another sickly moan came from outside the door, causing both of them to turn towards it. Raising up their weapons they saw two more zombified Stalkers shuffle into the room. Their skin was peeled and grey. One of them was missing an eye. They let out hungry growls upon seeing the two men of Radiochemical Company, and raised their weapons. Arkady fired his SMG twice butting both bullets in the zombie’s head. It rocked back and forth a bit before it collapsed on the ground. Iosif pulled out his side arm and put one good shot into the socket of the missing eye. The zombie hit the floor with a defeated moan. The two men smiled at each other.

            “That wasn’t so bad,” Arkady said, “I think I’m starting to get the hang of this.” They both had a little laugh at the situation. Arkady reached down to the zombie he shot and pulled the weapon out of its hand. It was an old Makarov pistol. “I think I’ll keep this as a souvenir,” he said.

            Nadovev’s voice came out of the PDA, “someone want to report what’s going on up there?”

            “Nothing’s wrong. There were two more we didn’t see. But, Arkady bagged his first zombie,” Iosif answered.

            “Good work,” Nadovev answered.

            Arkady was feeling pretty good about himself. Without the constant threat of Ricky over his shoulder, he was starting to get the hang of this whole Stalker thing. In fact, taking out that zombie was downright fun.

            “Everyone, come up to the roof now,” said Camera’s voice over the PDA, “you need to see this now.”

            The team took off and began jogging up the stairs to the roof. Leading the way out into the night air Nadovev came up beside Camera and asked him what was going on. He merely nodded, pointing out into the distance. Several blocks away a building was all light up. Lights were coming out of every floor, some on the ground pointing up to the building itself. Taking out his binoculars Nadovev took a closer look. On the roof he could see masked men holding expensive looking assault rifles. Around the ground of the building he saw more. They wore blue camouflage fatigues with black tactical vests and balaclavas – the trademark outfit of a mercenary.

            Nadovev put down the binoculars and looked at Camera.

            “How much do you want to bet the artifact is in there?” Camera asked.