“Going down,” Ricky said with a smile as the elevator left the ground floor.
The elevator vibrated as the decades old gears struggled to lower the four men into the basement. The clanking and shrieking noses of the elevator system made them nervous. Minor daydreams and visions of the elevator letting go entered their minds. Every time it lunched over one particular misaligned tooth in the gear there was a momentary freefall sensation. Combined with the eerie noises it made for one uncomfortable ride. The light in it blinked on and off in a random pattern. As they descended under the ground the sporadic sounds of gunfire between Duty and the mercenaries faded.
How long are they going to be distracted by their fight? Nadovev asked himself. Sooner or later they were going to discover that the elevator had been used. When that happened, one side or another was going to come down flooding looking for them. What Nadovev hoped for was as much of a head start as possible. He didn’t even want to think of how they were going to get out.
He looked over at Arkady, he had his SMG gripped tightly with sweaty hands. Even though his eyes showed signs of nervousness, he looked ready. It looked like he wanted the violence to start so that he could just get it over with. The waiting was always the worst. It’s terrible for a man at his wedding supper, and it was terrible out in the field waiting for the action to start. He wrung the forward grip of his SMG and met eyes with Nadovev. Arkady gave him a confident nod. It appeared that the zombie kill gave him a much needed boost of confidence. Nadovev gave him a solid nod back. It was good to see him ready.
The ride proceeded slowly without conversation. The silence magnified all the disturbing noises of the elevator’s system. At the end of the ride a small crash let them know their descent was over. The doors slowly opened with a terrible unnerving shrieking sound. Rust flakes fell from the doors as they struggled to open. Iosif coughed out of reflex at the dust.
When the doors finally opened, they stood in awe of the unbelievable disturbing atmosphere of the bunker. The lighting was poor, old light bulbs struggled to keep lit after decades of inactivity. They flicked on and off in odd patterns, like a lighter trying to ignite a cigarette in the wind. The floor was an awful dirty spread of white tiles, some of them broken and cracked in random places. They were very reminiscent of a kitchen of a horror movie. The first meter of the wall was an intuitional green. The rest of the way up, it was a filthy white. The walls had large stains on them, and were gouged in many places. Rust and cracks littered the ceiling. Their derelict nature made you suspicious they could collapse. Odd sound listed from the darkness, creaks, bangs, and moans of architecture.
Warily Nadovev stepped out first and trained his weapon around. The dark was making things difficult. He turned on his headlamp, but it did little. He had stepped out into a small hallway that went both left and right from his position. The rest of the squad stepped out weapons ready. Next to the elevator was a general map of the bunker. Nadovev pointed to it and Arkady tried to look it over. Much of it had faded from age and was hard to read. It took him a few moments to work out where they were. Tracing lines with his finer, he pointed to a small alcove in the wall and determined that they were in that location.
Nadovev followed Arkady’s dissection of the map. The bunker was laid out like a military installation, good money would bet on it. It was three floors deep, each floor laid out in a semi-triangular, partly interconnected design. It was confusing at first; it didn’t seem to make much sense. It wasn’t as compartmentalized as one would expect a military installation to be. It looked like someone with a flair for design was given the contract to design this place and had forgotten about the utility and remembered it at the last moment.
It seemed there were two main areas. This beginning point was where it broke off into those two main areas that had few connections between them. As the bunker descended there were fewer crossovers. Between Arkady and Nadovev they decided that splitting up into pairs was the best way to cover everything. They hadn’t figured out the location of what they were looking for, so they felt it was the right move. They all wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Nadovev turned back towards the group. “Listen up; we’re going to break up into two teams. Arkady, you’re with me. Iosif and Ricky you two will take the north side while we take the south side. We don’t know how reliable our PDA commun-ications will be,” he said, looking at them with a severe look on his face, “but if you get into any trouble and you can’t handle it, radio everyone else and let them know. We’ll all do what we can.” Nadovev put his fist out into the circle of them. They each joined in meeting his fist with their own, in a kind of group fist bump. “Do it right here, or die trying,” he said. The three men grunted their acknowledgement.
With that the two groups split off and began their search for the dammed artifact that was ruining their lives. This was it, they would do it right here or they’d die. Iosif and Nadovev pointed to each other as they walk away.
The hallway before Nadovev and Arkady was dark and empty. The darkness made it seem like everything had been soaked up by a black hole. The beams of light from their headlamps stabbed into the darkness trying to find a way. In the distance they could hear the empty ringing of Iosif’s and Ricky’s footsteps receding away. As they parted ways the silence grew greater. With the lack of human voices and footfalls, the small sounds began to magnify. The odd groan of a depilated building floated its way into their ears. For some reason they couldn’t hear their own footsteps.
The tension was building as ambient noise would come and go. Overheard a fluorescent light struggled to remain on in an elliptic fit. In another moment or so they approached a series of doorways. Three of them were on the right and three of them were on the left. Nadovev turned on the flashlight attached to his AK74 and scanned one of the rooms. Empty stainless steel tables lined the one of the walls. On another there was a pegboard with notes on it. All of them simple interoffice type stuff, nothing significant.
Arkady followed him in the room and began searching as well. A series of old computers lined the wall to his right. Multiple servers stacked next to each other and a few consoles lined up next to them. Arkady wished he had time to go through them and pick them apart; it would have been a treat. Old Soviet beasts calculating anything with their 16mb ram and powered by AMD microprocessors from the late 80s. Stacks of magnetic tapes lay on a rusting metal prefabricated shelf. A rotted clipboard lay on one of the consoles with directions on how to use the computer. Arkady picked it up and turned it over in his hand. On the back it had “Property of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic” etched into it.
It was clear that there wasn’t any artifact in that room. Nadovev huffed and went back into the hallway. Arkady quickly followed behind. This search was going to take forever. Nadovev was starting to get frustrated over the whole job. He crossed to the other side of the hall and walked into another room.
This one had the same white tile floor with matching green and white walls. The ceiling had white paint flaking off of it into piles on the floor. On one of the walls was an old Soviet propaganda poster which was yellowing with age. A top corner was ripped and drooping like it was exhausted with trying to stand. The poster showed a scientist holding up a beaker towards the sky. The text on the poster said, “A strong mind for the advancement of science for the revolution!” What a time to be alive, he thought.
The other walls were plain except for a few diagrams that were complicated beyond his understanding. It looked like a diagram of a machine of some sort. Whatever its purpose was, it was beyond Nadovev. On a table next to it lay a bunch of files and leather bound document case. He rifled through the files hoping something would stick out he could read. Nothing seemed legible. Arkady came over and flipped through the leather document case. He stopped on a few pages and read some of the work.
“Do you know what any of it means?” Nadovev asked.
Arkady scratched his head and furrowed his brow, “I can understand some of it, just a few pieces here and there. It has something to do with storing energy, but also moving it.”
“Like a battery?” Nadovev asked.
“Like a battery that also transfers energy at the same time, it’s weird. This doesn’t make sense, but I kind of get what’s trying to say…” he flipped through some more pages. “I think I’ll hold on to this.” Arkady took off his rucksack and slipped the document case inside. He had a feeling that the information contained within it could be valuable, if not useful.
Arkady pulled his rucksack back into place and followed Nadovev out of the room. To their right was a stairway. Nadovev cautiously stepped through the archway keeping his rifle mounted flashlight pointed at the stairs. The walls and stairs were concrete all chipped and broken. The demolition crew of time and neglect had been hard at work. The metal railing had collapsed halfway to the first landing. The balusters still jutted up from the stairs like crooked teeth. Rust coated the end of every piece of broken metal. Discarded sticks of shadows littered the stairs and walls from the ceiling light shorting out. Carefully they went step by step down the stairs to the next level.
Nadovev peered through the doorway to the second floor. It seemed as deserted as the first. The stairs lead into another empty hallway. It had the same standard green and white walls, and cracked white tile floor. There were no doors, only a five meter stretch of hallway. A rectangular light hung by a wire from the ceiling absolutely still. It blinked away in frustration. On the walls were various warning signs for some hazard or another. One suggested the presence of a high electrical current in the area. They still cautiously made their way through the claustrophobic hall.
The hallway ended at a four way junction. A giant pillar dominated the room covered in white tiles that were greying with age. The walls had changed to an industrial concrete with a blue lower section and a grey upper section. The floor was a mess of smashed tiles like a pack of wild elephants had stormed through. They were slippery to step on as Nadovev had to grab the wall for support twice. Two wooden crates were stacked in the corner. An old fuel can was haphazardly lying in the middle of the room. Looking around Arkady could see a map on the pillar which had faded to uselessness. He also saw that two of the four doorways had consistent light coming out of them. He was eager to investigate them.
As he moved towards them Nadovev put a hand out to stop him. “Something’s not right here,” Nadovev said. He could feel something in the air, but had no idea what it was. It was a sensation that made him wary.
He continued to look around… On the far wall was a large pipe coming out of the ceiling reaching to the floor. The bolts were rusted into place, never to be moved again. A smaller L shaped pipe ran behind it from the wall to another point in it. Next to them was a large mass concrete wall that had fallen, exposing the red stained rebar behind it. Chunks of masonry lay strewn about the floor near it. Before them was a doorway which had had its door removed. It was washroom with green tiles on the walls and toilets in the floor. The old sink hung from the wall cracked in multiple places.
Nadovev popped his head in for a quick look. Nothing out of the ordinary was there. Yet, he still had that feeling. As he tried to leave, he caught his reflection in the cracked mirror. He was a bit taken aback by how dirty his face was. There were deep lines in his face. He couldn’t tell if they were from dirt, or the stress of the past few days. He scratched the stubble on his chin in thought. In the moment he began looking at himself wondering about what they were doing, and how they were going to survive this mess.
Unexpectedly an odd feeling came over Arkady. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He felt a presence behind him. Slowly he turned around anxiously. His eyes went wide open with shock and began to tremble. Behind him a few meters away was one of the wooden crates bobbing up and down suspended in the air. He tried to call to Nadovev. He opened his mouth, but found the words wouldn’t come out. Paralyzed with fear he watched the crate float in the air for a few moments.
Suddenly the crate moved quickly and covered the distance between them. As it crashed into Arkady knocked him down. Nadovev was broken from his introspection and rushed to him. He wasn’t hurt, just stunned from the impact. His shoulder was a bit sore from where he took the hit. He was rubbing it as Nadovev helped him up.
“The hell happened?” Nadovev asked him, looking at the broken crate on the floor, concern splayed across his face.
Still, Arkady struggled to speak. It took a moment more before he could finally get the words out. “That box, it just flew across the room and hit me… It was floating up in the air, and then it just hit me,” he struggled to say sucking in air. Nadovev looked at him oddly, as if he didn’t believe him.
“I swear,” Arkady said.
“Well, weird things happen in the Zone all the time. I could believe that happened,” he answered, patting him on the good shoulder. It was true, strange unexplained things happened in the Zone constantly. Often it was hard to tell if a Stalker was telling the truth, or if he was just exaggerating to boost his image.
“Come on, let’s keep moving,” Nadovev said. Arkady smiled.
Nadovev turned around only to be met with a hunk of concrete bobbing up and down floating in the air only a few meters away from him. His face didn’t express shock, so much as it expressed confusion about what was going on. Arkady was already ducking head using his arms as cover. The concrete flew towards Nadovev, but he was already prepared for it. Using the butt of his AK74 he swatted it away. It crashed to the floor and shattered into several pieces. He pulled Arkady back to his feet.
“All right,” Nadovev said, “we have to find the source of that nonsense.”
He reached back into his memory to see if he could find any instance where someone was describing something like this. It took him a moment, but he remembered it. It was a poltergeist, a psychic creature that did nothing but try to kill people. A Stalker he met once said that it looked like a cloud of electricity with a blue pulse in the middle. He said it glowed, so it should be easy enough to spot. He passed the information on to Arkady and they began their hunt for it.
Nadovev kept them moving quickly so as to minimize the possibility of them being struck by something thrown at them. They jogged down into one of the doorways trying to spot the creature. Below them pipes snaked their way across the floor under a metal grille. The odd pipe had a hand wheel on it painted red. They rushed through the room, their boots clanging off the metal grille. They looked left and right for any sign of the creature.
Nadovev dodged left into a room with thick corrugated plastic sheets surrounded by metal frames that served as partitions. If there had been better light one could possibly see through them a bit. Their pattern formed a kind of simple maze. The two Stalkers bobbed and weaved through the partitions trying to make their way through. Some of the walls formed small rooms where piles of junk lay on the floor. Keeping up with Nadovev was a challenge, but Arkady was managing it.
Listening, Arkady could hear a cracking sound. He told Nadovev to wait up. The two stood in silence next to a plastic divider. It took a moment, but Nadovev started to hear it as well. There was a crackling that appeared to be… moving? Listening for a few more moments he managed to determine where the sound was coming from. He took off right as a one of the pieces of junk smacked into a plastic partition causing Arkady to jump.
Charging on Nadovev kicked over a few chairs. He was close, he could feel it. That damned poltergeist was just around another corner or so. He could almost feel the energy of the creature on his skin, making it turn into goose bumps. He moved the best he could with so much darkness. They came to an intersection and saw the creature ahead, about six meters. They raced down the corridor after it. Arkady behind, struggled to see it. Nadovev was getting closer, the poltergeist was moving quickly.
He could see it clearly now: it was like a ball of blue electricity constantly crackling and sparking. It was about a meter in diameter, give or take a few centimetres as it fluctuated. The center of it was like a cloud of blue mist. In the middle of it was a pulsing blue light, like a lighthouse on the coast. No, it was more like a heartbeat pounding away. It pulsed on and off, lub dub in a constant motion. It was a beautiful sight to behold, a creature of psychic energy, here in our world. Its splendour distracted you from its malicious and deadly nature.
Nadovev suddenly had a thought, I have no idea how to kill this thing.
Devoid of any plan, Nadovev raise his rifle and fired a few shots into the creature hoping it would hit something solid. A few sparks flew out of it as well as a non-verbal shriek, a scream that could only be heard in the mind, not the ears. The sound was terribly upsetting, as if the creature was projecting its own pain into their minds. It continued to move at the same quick pace, trying to evade its pursuers. Having managed to wound the creature Nadovev ran faster. In merely a moment he caught up to it and let loose a volley of 7.62 rounds. Sparks and energy streamed out of it and a hideous shriek caused both Nadovev and Arkady to cover their ears out of instinct. Seconds later the psychic attacker blinked into nothing, as if it just popped out of existence.
They both breathed a sigh of relief and lowered their guns. It was a new experience for both of them.
“This place really is insane,” Arkady said, “I had no idea it was going to be like this… Is this what being a Stalker is like, Nadovev? Constantly supernatural things were trying to kill you, or bad business partners trying to kill you, or bad deals that might kill you?”
“Well,” Nadovev answered, “this whole job has been out of the ordinary for the most part. I haven’t encountered that many supernatural creatures. Some things I can’t explain, sure. But nothing like what just happened there.”
With the creature dead, they resumed their search for the artifact. Despite the anxious atmosphere they experienced before, it was gone now, having faced down the poltergeist. All the odd noises, creaks and bangs, didn’t seem so scary anymore by comparison.
They entered what looked like a storage facility. Scattered throughout were shipping crates, big metal rectangles. Many of them were dented in places as if they’d be banged about. They had a fading reddish paint job like dried blood. Empty oil drums were sloppily stacked in the corner of the warehouse. Mini black holes of dried oil were scattered on the floor. Breathing in the room was a bit difficult; the air was stale and tasted of chemicals. A few of the giant lights worked in the room, which made it brighter than most. Alcoves were built into the green cinder block walls. Containers of various sizes were shoved into them. A moaning catwalk lead to a lit room. The stairs to it were out of sight.
“Why do you do this, Nadovev?” Arkady asked.
He thought for a moment, “I figured out that I can’t function in the regular world. Something about it makes me feel uncomfortable, restrained, as if I wasn’t in control of my own life… My mind, just can’t handle working a day-to-day job. I guess it doesn’t work that way. You know what I mean? As if I don’t belong in that world and me being there is an intrusion… The world is like a human body. If a foreign object is in it, the body tries to push it out. I’m the foreign body… That’s the best way I can describe it anyway. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. I can’t do the nine-to-five thing. It drives me nuts… It’s hard to explain.”
Arkady scratched his chin in thought. “Yes, I think I know how you feel. I imagine it’s quite like how I feel being here. Totally out of my element, in a threatening environment. Very much as though I don’t belong here. This whole Stalker lifestyle is not who I am, just as the nine-to-five thing is not who you are. We both function in different ways, we belong in two different worlds… It’s just sad for me to see a member of my family in so much danger all the time. It’s going to be worse when I get back to the real world because now I’ll know how dangerous it really is. I couldn’t imagine living in such a hostile environment.”
Nadovev let out a little laugh, “we’re very different people, in very different worlds.”
“Do you think you’ll ever be coming out of the Zone?” Arkady asked.
“Probably not, Stalkers tend not to be very long lived,” He answered. “I want you to promise me something Arkady.” Nadovev’s face turned serious.
“Once this job is over, you leave the Zone and never come back, okay?”
Arkady nodded his head, “sure… I really don’t want to come back,” he let out a little laugh.
Together they continued their search.
“Let’s get this shit over with,” Ricky said as he began walking down the corridor. Iosif caught up to him, and walked beside him matching pace.
Both of them weren’t happy about getting stuck together. Their personalities conflicted like oil and water, and tended to be just as damaging to those around them. Iosif reminded himself that it was better that he be here than Arkady. God only knows what kind of “accident” he might have. He was a lot safer with Nadovev than he was with Ricky. The thought of Ricky bullying Arkady made him grip his machine gun tighter.
“I’m pretty sure we’re near the end of this search. Let’s just get it done and get the hell out of here,” Iosif said.
Together they walked the length of the corridor with the sparking light overhead. The passage was just barely big enough for both of them to walk side by side. Just close enough to make it uncomfortable. They rounded a corner and ended up in what looked like a file room. File cabinets were linked the walls. They also dominated the center of the room, arraigned in a simple geometric pattern. A good deal of them were arraigned by alphabetical order, some numerically. Ricky dragged his hand through the dust on one of the light blue cabinets. He made a swirling cloud of dust in the nearby air. To Iosif it looked like he had blown smoke from a cigarette.
Iosif began opening cabinets at random rifling through them looking for anything attention-grabbing. All he could find were countless documents talking about this or that mundane thing of no particular interest. After going through the fourth cabinet, he was beginning to lose any desire to search the room. It was a large archive of files that didn’t seem to say anything important. They could have been interoffice memos for all he knew. He didn’t particularly feel like wasting time on them.
“Screw this place, it’s not here,” Iosif said.
Ricky came closer to him managing a cocky stride, his designer sunglasses perched above his brow on his head. “Not enjoying my company are you?” He asked.
Iosif lowered his eyes down to Ricky’s level, “not really, no,” he answered.
Ricky smiled with shark’s teeth, “that’s okay; I’m not fond of you either.” He circled around Iosif swaggering his way towards the door, the predatory smile still stretched across his face. It took Iosif a moment to follow behind him.
Entering the next room they found what looked like a laboratory. Steel console tables linked the walls were next to diagnostic looking computers. Their lights were dead, their lives terminated long ago. The ceiling had many lights, some of them managed to stay on consistently without shorting. The odd scientific tool lay on some of the tables. Their designed intentions were beyond the knowledge of both of them. Ricky picked up what looked like a light saber from Star Wars, only it had a pincer on the end. He turned it over in his hand a few times inspecting it, and then dropped it back on the table. Iosif’s eyes scanned a series of cylindrical glass beakers on a shelf. Some of them were still full with unknown liquids. Others were open, their contents having evaporated decades ago.
“You really don’t like me do you?” asked Ricky. Iosif turned around and looked at him stone faced, “no, I don’t.”
“Why?” Arkady asked.
“I don’t like what you represent. I think you’re a greedy self-important bastard… and a bully.”
“Oh please, you’re such a hypocrite. Like you’re not here in the Zone for the same reason I am, to get paid. You’re here for the money, pure profit motive, pure and simple.”
Iosif snorted his disagreement, “I’m here because my family doesn’t have any money. I’m just trying to keep them alive. With you it’s different. You want more, more, more, never having enough. I can tell from the way you talk that you came from at least a middle-class family. In my neighbourhood, it was rare anyone had a car.”
“Yeah, you’re right, I don’t come from a poor family. We’re fairly well off. But we’ve always worked hard and worked smart. Maybe your family didn’t try that.”
“We’ve always been hard workers. You have to be in order to survive.”
“Well, maybe not smart.”
“Ah, I see, you’re looking for a fight. Okay, Okay, we can have that. Look, we need to swing a fist, that’s obvious, so let’s get this job done, get paid, and then we can settle things. Okay?”
Arkady and Iosif stared each other in the eyes intently; the situation was close to exploding. It was clear that the tension between their personalities was headed for a showdown. Both men had their fists balled up ready to strike.
“You’re right, we’ve got a job to do, and I wanna get paid.”
With that both men continued walking on side by side ready to take on whatever came their way.