Chapter 15

Sergei Knife stood before the operational map in the command tent of the mercenary outpost. Over the last two hours they’d been setting up their station in Limansk. Thanks to the quick work of their scout operatives they managed to find the location likely to hold the mysterious artifact. In perhaps a few hours time they would be in possession of it and raking in a huge payday. Sergei was quite curious to know what this artifact was to be worth so much effort. According to briefings by the mercenary company, no one did. All he was told was that someone was paying an astronomical amount for it and that it was his duty to carry out managing the operation. An excellent job I’ve made of it, he told himself.

            Sergei had about fifty men under his command during this operation. They were the first ones to the artifact’s location and secured it. A few Stalkers who’ve wandered too close to the place had been chased off, no decent excitement yet. They were just snooping around, they had no idea what was going on. The real challenge will be when Duty or Freedom show up, those factions will put up a real fight. They’re already aware that the factions are in possession of knowledge of the artifact. After all it was their spy network and their operative in Freedom that informed them. All in all he was confident that his mercenary team was going to be the ones to leave the Zone with the artifact.

            He again traced his finger around the chart of their immediate area. He was sure that he’d thought of every possible angle of entry into the building. Scratching his head, he had a feeling that he was missing something. If he had, it wasn’t coming to mind. He smoothed out the front of his blue camouflage fatigues. Everything was going according to plan. Suddenly his thoughts turned to coffee and wondered if his adjutant had made any yet. He looked around the khaki canvas command tent, finding no refreshments at all. He was told to do so over an hour ago. The new kid was slow on the uptake.

            He scrounged around his tent looking for the materials to make the coffee himself. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he didn’t have them. Sighing in frustration, he returned to the operational map. Again he had this nagging feeling that he’d forgotten something, and again he couldn’t think of anything. Perhaps a tour of the place will give me a clue, he thought. He turned around and picked his glasses up off the map table. They were perfect circular lenses that complimented his square Slavic face. By putting them on he went from hardened soldier to experienced senior officer. Unlike the rest of his team he didn’t wear a balaclava. He felt that the ranking official didn’t need to hide his identity. Secretly though, he wanted the recognition. Before he stepped out of his command tent, he smoothed the front of his blue camouflage fatigues again. He never saw the reason for the colour, they didn’t blend into anything. What was it they called it? Sky blue camo? He was pretty sure the company was just going for a distinctive look.

            Stepping out of the tent, he saw his adjutant standing right by the flap. He was leaning against one of the poles playing with a handheld game or something. Noticing him the young man snapped to attention right away. “Anything I can get you, sir?” he asked.

            “Yes,” Sergei said, “you can get my coffee an hour ago when I asked for it.” Even with the balaclava on him he could still see the shame on the kid’s face. Suddenly realizing his mistake the adjutant took off in search of caffeine. Sergei just shook his head.

            He began his tour by walking up to the main entrance of the building. It was formerly an apartment building. He found it odd that they should hide something this important in such an unsecure structure. Perhaps some anonymous genius thought it would be the last place anyone would look. Didn’t fool my team one bit, he thought. The building was only five stories of slab industrial grey. They’d really gone the distance to make sure no one would think of looking here. The bright lights they had trained on the building made it seem a bit cheery… in a sort of post-apocalyptic sort of way.

            Walking up the cracked concrete steps the men on guard saluted him. They seemed attentive and had their weapons held at the ready. Walking into the main floor, he was pleased to see that the whole place was fully lit. Almost no dark corners at all. Looking down, he saw the partially smashed blue and white tiles. They crunched underfoot as he walked on. He passed by various rooms looking in finding very little in the way of furniture or anything else. The walls were stained yellow with age. The trim was falling off the ceiling in places. It reminded Sergei of a haunted house fully lit under maintenance for customers. The odd mercenary passed him while patrolling, none forgetting to salute him.

            Overhead lights constructed with the place were smashed. Fluorescent light tubes lay broken on the ground. Continuing on he noticed scratches on the wall that didn’t quite look like they’d been made by human beings. He gave them only a moment’s thought. He was getting used to the horror movie scenery. He passed down a few halls checking some of the other positions that had men stationed with them. All the men seemed fit and ready for action. The whole place seemed locked up tight. The men he had been supplied with where professional and solid. Every point of entry was covered by at least one man with a radio.

            Rounding another corner, he reached his final destination: the entrance to the underground research bunker. The two men guarding the elevator door saluted him sharply. After a quick professional search, they’d found the entrance hidden under a civilian elevator shaft. It was right out there in public. All a person had to know was where the hidden button was to access the research bunker. It was as simplistic as it was baffling. A wooden panel on the left side of the back wall of the elevator could be slid aside revealing the button. Unfortunately, at the moment the mechanical workings of the elevator were malfunctioning. They had to get them up and running again before they could descend into the bunker. All in good time, Sergei reminded himself. There were a few men up on the top floor working on the elevator at the moment.

            He stepped out of the elevator and looked down both ends of the hall. Everything was covered, all possibilities had been thought of.

            So why do I feel like I’m missing something?

“Alright,” Nadovev said, “how do we do this?” He reached behind him and scratched the back of his head trying to think. Everyone else was having just as hard a time. This would be no simple feat. That building was guarded by some serious fire power with some real experienced hands. They were a small squad of five men, one of whom was on their first job. The situation looked hopeless. He really began to wonder what they had gotten themselves into.

            “I think I have an idea,” Camera said, breaking the silence, “It’s a long shot but it’s all I can think of. How about we ambush one of those mercs and steal his uniform. Using the balaclava one of us could sneak into the place find a weak point and stealthily take out some of those guards. That would provide an opening for the rest of us. One of us could even stay back here and create a diversion. Maybe I could pick off one of the guards from a distance so one of you can swoop in and get their stuff.”

            Ricky looked at Camera skeptically, “what movie did you get that from?”

            “Shut up,” he answered, “got a better idea?” Ricky just shook his head.

            They really were in trouble, their best and only plan was basically the plot of an action movie. This moment was one of the very few moments in which Nadovev felt truly lost. He felt like he had led them all astray into a hopeless situation. It was his responsibility to get them out of it. Without any other plan coming to mind, he had to take Camera’s suggestion.

            “Okay, we’re following Camera’s plan,” he said, “Camera you see that one guy loafing around with the game in his hands? Take that guy out and we’ll drag him into the shadows and take his uniform. Then we’ll improvise according to your plan from there. Frankly, I can’t think of anything else.”

            “You got to be kidding me,” Ricky said.

            “In the mean time,” Nadovev said, ignoring Ricky’s response, “we need to move much closer before we launch this assault. Let’s get a few buildings closer.”

            With that Nadovev began to lead the way down the stairs of the building. The rest of them followed close behind. No one was keen on this plan, it seemed crazy to all of them. However, if they wanted to get this job done, they’d have to take the chance. No matter how bad it was. Jogging down the flights of stairs got them all warmed up for the coming assault. Once they reached the front entrance where they came in, they hesitated. No one had forgotten about that little girl whatever the hell that thing was. Nadovev didn’t take any chances checking both sides of the street the best he could before they took off into the darkness.

            Moving quickly down the middle of the street, they made their way a few buildings over closer to where the mercenaries were stationed. Arkady tried his hand at kicking open a door of an apartment building across the street from the mercenary set up. To his delight he was successful. Smiling, Camera lead the way up to the top floor. He avoided the roof because he wanted some kind of overhead cover. No sense making it easy for the mercenaries on the opposite roof to shoot back at him. This way he could stay farther back on the floor and shoot outward giving him excellent cover.

            Once up to the floor, they made their way over to a window facing the mercenary position. Keeping their heads low they all scanned the area. The mercenaries were tightly drilled and highly disciplined. They were professionals that had little in the way of weakness. However, one merc stood out to Nadovev as vulnerable. One of them was walking around with some kind of handheld video game. His mannerisms were off for a mercenary. He seemed lazy and inexperienced. Watching his movements he noticed that he kept slipping into a shadow for a few moments then walking back out. A wink of reflecting light caught Camera’s eye. The guy was walking around with a flask; he was drinking on the job. He pointed it out to Nadovev who made a silent prayer to himself that they’d be able to cut a weak one off the herd.

            “Okay, Camera,” Nadovev said, “wait until we get into a position near his favourite drinking spot there and we’ll give the signal to take him out. From there, if we’re lucky we’ll be able to steal his gear and sneak someone inside. The timing will be critical, and mostly impossible for us to achieve.”

            “Understood,” Camera answered.

            “The rest of us,” Nadovev continued, we have to find a place to lay low until that guy comes back looking for another drink. I can kind of see a small gardening shed across the way there. If we hold up in that spot long enough, Camera will be able to get a shot off. Once the tango is down, we’ll need to have someone run out there and scoop him up.”

            “This is crazy,” Iosif said, wiping his face downward with his right hand.

            “Yes, I know,” Nadovev answered, “but we need you to stick back at a window or something close to our location in case we need some suppression fire.” Iosif nodded in the affirmative.

            “We all know this is a crazy plan that very likely isn’t going to work, but we need to try something and this is all we have. I’m sorry to pull some action movie nonsense here, but… you know.” Nadovev had his hands up in a kind of apologetic gesture. He looked at Arkady and could see the fear on his face. He definitely was not ready for something this outrageous. He could see the man playing with the Star Loop around his wrist.

            “Let’s go,” Nadovev said. The team made their way back down to the main floor and snuck across the street to another building. Using it as cover, they dashed quickly to the gardening shed. Iosif broke off to the left and hauled himself up through a window. He took a moment to absorb his surroundings. Concrete floor and moulding wall paper. He set up his machine gun on the window sill and kept his head down. This is it, do it right or die here, he told himself.

            Camera was still on the top floor of the adjacent building with his crosshairs trained on the mercenary target. Slowly he followed him as he made his round until he went out of sight into a canvas tent. Damn. A few moments later he came out with his game still dangling in his hand. He looked around then slowly started to make his way back toward the shadow he liked to drink in. Camera brought the crosshairs back upon the man’s head and carefully watched him go. In a few moments’ time he was back under the shadow of the building and taking out his flask.

            “Now,” Nadovev said into his PDA to Camera.

A gigantic blazing beacon shone in the distance. The Duty Captain was willing to bet his entire career that the artifact was contained within that building. Which it might actually be at this point, he told himself. He moved his binoculars away from his eyes and took a deep breath. Some good news finally, he thought. Given the impressive lighting display it had to be mercenaries who occupied the building. Freedom or lone Stalkers wouldn’t be capable of pulling that off, it required tremendous resources. Which means it was going to be trouble. Mercenaries are particularly feared in the Zone, almost as much as the Ukrainian military itself. More so out here because mercs know how to operate in the Zone. This was going to be a challenge, but he was confident that they could pull it off.

            The Captain called up his junior to his side. “Tell the men to get ready to move out soon. I’m fairly confident that the ‘guiding light’ ahead is our target,” he told him. The subordinate ran off and began collecting the men up for action. He put his binoculars away in a leather bag and moved back to the rest of the squad. They had all gathered around awaiting the Captain’s instructions. He stood before them exuding as much confidence as he could, even given the situation. He suspected that some of them were perhaps losing confidence in him.

            “Listen up, ladies. We’ve got a pile of mercs covering our objective. Truth be told, we’re going to have to go in there and fight them. These guys are pros, they know what they’re doing, and they know how to fight back. No ridiculous Freedom losers here. What we have is a duty to protect the world from the Zone. There’s an artifact in that building which may be more dangerous than anything we’ve seen before. It may be the biggest threat the world has ever faced from the Zone. We and we alone are capable of protecting the innocent from its dangers.

            “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to break up and surround the building. When I give the order, we open fire from all sides at once and overwhelm them. We storm in and take this place over in the name of Duty! Understood?”

            The men voiced their comprehension with loud grunts. With that the Captain turned around and led the way forward. Each member took off into the shadows, making their way around the mercenary position. Expertly the Duty men got their prey surrounded. Two men stood in front of the gardening shed that Radiochemical Company was hiding it. Nadovev motioned for them to get down, and put a finger over his mouth to keep them quiet, once he saw the Duty members blocking his view. Being spotted now would be a disaster. He’d already given his signal to Camera to fire. The plan had just been foiled by Duty getting in the way by accident.

            Camera’s shot rang out dropping the adjutant to the ground, his video game smashing on the pavement. Frightened by the shot, the two Duty members in front of them opened fire on the building. The sound of Camera’s shot fooled Duty into thinking the battle had begun. In a moment of surprise, both sides began firing at each other. Mercenaries ran to the windows and aimed their gun muzzles out. Duty concentrated their fire power on the guards at the entrance and the closest windows. Nadovev ordered everyone to hold fire while the two sides declared war on each other.  His hope was that they could swoop in afterward and take out who was left. This might actually work.

Sergei was making his way out the front entrance when the first shot was fired. He dropped to the ground immediately looking around for the source of the gunshot. To his left, he saw his adjutant lying face first on the ground, a puddle of blood slowly growing from his head. Next to his hand lay a stainless steel flask, its contents pouring out onto the ground. In a moment or two, the fluids would begin mixing. He cursed under his breath and scrambled back into the building taking cover. Ducking just under the windowsill he took out his radio and called everyone to arms. He pulled out his Sig Sauer p320 side arm and hunter for a target. So it begins, he said to himself.

            Duty and the mercenaries furiously exchanged fire. Both sides had excellent cover, so neither one moved an inch. Nadovev was trying to quickly come up with a plan to deal with the situation. If they opened fire from both sides, they would wipe them out. If they stayed put they would lose out on the opportunity to get the artifact. He radioed to the rest of his squad for ideas. Camera suggested he remain put and help take down the mercenaries, they were more difficult than Duty to deal with. Nadovev agreed and give him permission to fire. Within a few minutes Camera had taken down four mercenaries, including one sniper.

            With the scale tipping towards Duty the Captain ordered the squad to storm the building itself. Grenades flew through windows causing the mercs to keep their heads down. Duty made it into the building losing only one man who had taken a round from an enemy on a higher floor. The Captain bravely led from the front, forcing his way in against the onslaught of mercenaries. Overwhelmed by their sudden losses, Sergei ordered his men to fall back to the second floor and hold position there. Sergei himself got up from his cover firing at the approaching Duty members with his Sig Sauer p320. He scored two hits, but not enough to bring anyone down. He realized that must be wearing some good armour.

            Slowly the mercenaries backed away towards the stairs against the assault by Duty. They leapt from doorway-to-doorway, covering each other as they made their strategic retreat. Once they were all on the second floor, all they had to do was cover the stairways.  It would put them in markedly superior position. It would be nearly impossible for Duty to fight them then. The Captain was no fool he knew exactly what the mercs were planning. At the moment he couldn’t do anything, they had the cover they needed to make it work. His only hope was that his side didn’t need the second floor to find the artifact.

            Within two minutes all the mercenaries had made their way to the second floor and had their guns trained on the stairwells. The entirety of the Duty squad was now in the building covering those same stairwells. Nadovev decided that their only chance was to sneak in behind them. Ordering them up Nadovev lead them slowly into the building. Iosif was ordered out of cover to follow.

            On the top floor of the building the mercenaries with mechanical skill were still plugging away at repairing the elevator. They had with them a portable diesel generator that was feeding electricity into the elevator’s system. The noise was distracting, but they had managed to get the job done. The elevator was now up and running. Access to the research bunker was now possible. The problem now was that Duty was holding the entrance, and they were stuck on the second floor. It was a formidable position, but it kept them from their objective. Sergei cursed at the timing of their accomplishment. This was supposed to be a quick in and out job. But these Duty freaks were making things a lot harder than they had to be. Their objective now was to get the Duty soldiers away from covering the stairs.

            Nadovev led his men into the building attempting to sneak up on the Duty squad. They crept along the walls and peeked around corners for activity. The odd shot could still be heard coming from somewhere. The place was excellently lit up from the efforts of the mercenaries. After about a minute they reached what looked like an elevator. Peering in Ricky could see that it was functional. He called over to Nadovev to stop so they could investigate. Iosif stood outside the open doors with his machine gun aimed down the hallway in case any mercenaries or Duty came around. Inside the elevator a wooden panel had been pushed aside, revealing a button which had a ruined name plate. Nadovev strained to read it, but it was too damaged to make out.

            Ricky looked up at Nadovev with a twinkle in his eye and said, “this is it, we’re here.”

            “I do believe you’re right,” Nadovev replied. “Iosif, get in here, we’ve found it.” Iosif walked towards the elevator, keeping his machine gun aimed down the hallway.

            Nadovev took out his PDA and called to Camera. “We’re in the building standing in front of the entrance to, what we hope, is the artifact. We’re going to be going underground so prepare to lose radio contact with us. Your orders are to remain there and cause any distraction you think is necessary. I have no idea how long we’ll be. If we’re not back in a day or so, then you are to return to Skadovsk and meet the client if possible. Understood?”

            Camera spoke back into his PDA, “Don’t like the sound of it, but, yes I understand. Good hunting my friends.” He was nervous, as was everyone.  Being separated from his squad in a situation like this was dangerous. Being out here alone with Duty, Mercenaries, Freedom, and whatever the hell that little girl thing was, made him apprehensive. He’d have no back up in an emergency.

            “You too,” Nadovev replied.

            With his last commands settled, Nadovev hit the hidden button behind the wood paneling beginning their descent into the research bunker.