Chapter 17

Having finished searching the second floor, Nadovev and Arkady descended down to the third floor. They were going to find it here or they were wasting their time. The stairs were the same as the last: falling handrails, poor lighting, and cracked concrete walls. Each time they went down a few steps it seemed to get darker. The darkness crowded in from the lines in the walls, like slowly spreading molasses. Once or twice they had to stop to let their eyes adjust to the new lower level of light. The placed seemed increasingly hollow. Their footfalls echoed off the walls louder than before. Or were they? Nadovev asked himself. In any case, the atmosphere was raising some anxiety inside of him.

            Arakdy’s anxiety was rising as well. As the darkness grew his mind returned to images of the poltergeist hurling objects at him. That stunned feeling he got when he saw the creature explode out of existence. He also remembered the nail-on-a-chalkboard feeling in his head when it screamed out its death. He didn’t want any more of that. He wanted to go home. Anywhere but here, anywhere but here, please, he thought. His hands were beginning to sweat.

            They reached the bottom landing of the stairs at the lowest level the building went. The darkness seemed more menacing than before. Their headlamp’s light was sucked up by the darkness like a drink. Nadovev would have given his left leg for a pair of night vision goggles. The bunker just seemed to get worse and worse. An unending stream of unease that only lifted once you were far, far away.

            The two men edged their way into the main hub of the floor that lead off in several directions. The lights blinked overhead in the same shorting out manner. One of the lights managed to stay on consistently at least. Along the green and white walls were warning signs alerting passersby about various dangers.  Again, they came across the same metal plate warning of high electrical currents. Arkady was getting the idea that some kind of energy research had been taking place there.

            Under their feet were dark grey tiles, a few of them smashed. Over to their right was an ugly orange couch up against the wall. It was surrounded by several other orange fabric covered chairs. A mahogany wooden table sat in between them all with decades old coffee stain rings on it. Nadovev took a moment to note the decor. He hoped the only monster that dwelled down here was the one who decorated the place.

            “Well, which way should we go?” Nadovev asked Arkady.

            Arkady took his headlamp and shined it around the hub. He thought for a moment and looked at a couple of the walls and passageways. One of them had additional warnings of high electrical currents and a yellow and black hazard pattern painted on the floor. The way had already been marked for them.

            “I’m going to take a shot in the dark and say we should head in this direction,” he finally said. His arm pointed towards it with a gesture for Nadovev to lead the way. Rifle up, Nadovev did just that.

            Taking their time Nadovev crossed the hazard line hoping that he didn’t just make a mistake. If there was something significant to be found down here it was probably going to be in a dangerous area. So the odds were good that they were going to find something. After all, this was the last floor; there was nowhere else to search after this. This area was going to be dangerous, those painted hazard lines weren’t there for no reason.

            Moving ahead, they were crossing into an experimental area. A large steel door that slid open and closed from both sides was stuck open. At one time it made a formidable barrier. The floor and walls there were significantly more cracked and damaged than in the hub. Large cables snaked along the ceiling. Some pipes were with them bolted on. The odd one was cut and hanging down like a jungle vine. They avoided them, not knowing which ones had a live current running through them.

            As they proceeded, windows began to appear on the walls. They were viewing windows into sealed off rooms. Doors leading to those rooms appeared a moment later. Arkady put a hand up to one of the windows and tried to look inside. It was completely black, he couldn’t see anything. Their vision was restricted to the first two dozen centimetres where the weak light came through the glass. He struggled, but still couldn’t see anything. He squinted and strained his eyes, but nothing was coming through.

            Nadovev reached out and grabbed a hold of the handle to the door. He slowly pulled it open keeping his assault rifle raised. Arkady held the door for him as he entered. Nadovev pointed the rifle left and right scanning the room. It was agonizingly difficult to see. Their headlamps were not able to do justice. Nadovev’s foot kicked something glass and it skittered across the floor making Arkady jump. He was in the room now too. There appeared to be counters spaced throughout the room. He looked over at them and saw that they had black vinyl tops with wooden bases.

            On one of them was a steel box with some dead wires hanging out of it. Arakady reached over to take a look at it, but a hand grabbed his wrist! It was cold and clammy, and fairly strong. “SHIT!” Arkady yelled out. Pulling hard enough, he managed to break its grip, and knocked over a bunch of items on the counter in the process.

            Nadovev whipped around to check on Arkady. Arkady pulled away bringing up his weapon. A moment later a zombie Stalker lifted its head and torso into view. With outstretched arms reaching for Arkady’s throat it let out a hateful moan. He looked directly into its milky white dead eyes and felt as if he wanted to vomit. Its clothing was all torn, it was impossible to know what they had once been. Arkady opened fire with his SMG planting two rounds in its chest, and one in its head. It staggered back for a moment and fell onto the floor with a wheezing defeated moan.

            Arkady lowered his weapon, “God damn it, it scared me.” His heart was going a mile a minute from the sudden action. His breathing was heavy, but it was slowing down.

            “Nice shooting,” Nadovev said, “your reaction time is getting better.”

            “Thanks,” Arkady replied. He paused for a moment. Nadovev’s face had suddenly gone serious. He walked over to the door and opened it. A stream of moans could be heard coming from somewhere.

            “Shit,” Nadovev said, “there’s always more of them, and it sounds like a lot. We gotta get outta of here!”

            Nadovev started rushing out the door with Arkady close behind. Looking back towards the hub they came from, they saw what appeared to be about two dozen zombie Stalkers making their way towards them. They took off in the opposite direction with no knowledge of where they were going. How the hell did they even get down here? Nadovev asked himself. It didn’t really matter now, the important thing was that they kept running.

            After a dozen meters or so they came to a dead end with a door on each side. Both men came to an abrupt halt colliding with the wall. They quickly looked around for an escape route. On one side was another little laboratory room like the one they had just left. On the other was a steel door with danger written on it. The zombies were getting closer. They hadn’t run that far from them. They were still closing in. Nadovev would have picked the door to the lab, but he knew it was going to be a dead end. Immediately he began trying to force the door to the “danger” room open.

            “Hurry up, they’re getting closer,” Arkady said, panic starting to sink in. The zombies were now close enough to smell. Their rancid old body odor had as much striking power as their grasping claws. As they growled on, Arkady noticed something. The zombies weren’t Stalkers. They had civilian clothes on. Many of them had suits, ties, and lab coats… They were people that worked here! They were the original scientists working on whatever was going on in the bunker.

            Arkady snapped out of it when he realized they were just two meters away, their hands coming precariously close. Nadovev’s hand reached out and grabbed Arkady by his fatigues and pulled him through the door. Quickly they both pushed with all their might forcing it closed just as the zombies had gotten to it. With a satisfying metallic thud, their attackers had been denied their prize. They were safe from the mindless hoard outside.

            With the zombie threat neutralized, they caught their breath, leaning their backs against the door. Taking deep heavy relieved breaths they surveyed their surroundings. Wherever they were it was dark. Some light was coming down, but most of the ceiling lights were inoperative. There was, however, a yellow warning light spinning around attached to the walls. It looked somewhat like a testing area. A large machine stood prominently in the center of the warehouse sized room. Suspended from the ceiling was a gigantic device that looked like an oblong energy projector. It resembled a laser cutter, a particle emitter, or some kind of sci-fi-type device. Underneath it was a circular platform with raise points around it. They were painted the hazard yellow and black. A huge thick black cable came out of it and went into the floor about a meter away. Whatever it was, it looked dangerous.

            Both Nadovev and Arkady circled around the machine trying to determine its function. Nothing immediately came to mind. Nadovev looked to Arkady as if he expected the man to know what it was. He just looked back at him and shrugged his shoulders. It was a marvelous looking machine, but it was a total mystery.

            To his left Arkady saw a steel staircase leading to a catwalk that went across the room and a heavy door. Nadovev came over and stood next to him. They both stood in the quiet for a moment; the only sound the zombies pounding away at the entrance. Nadovev seriously doubted that they could break through given the thickness. The door had a sign attached to it: Caution Experimental product inside. The words drove to Nadovev’s bones like cancer invading the marrow. His gut ached with the instinct that this is what they were looking for.

            “I’d bet my bottom ruble that this is it,” Nadovev said. Arkady smiled, looking at him. “I’d rather not take that bet. So far you’ve been right on every one of them.” Nadovev let out a small deep throated chuckle.

            “Let’s do it,” Nadovev said, trying to pry the door open. He didn’t have much success, it was quite heavy. For all his efforts, he achieved was a bunch of pained grunts and groans.

            “Let me check this out,” Arkady said. He turned towards the stairs and jogged up them. His boots made a hollow ringing noise as he made his way across the catwalk. He approached what looked like a control room high above everything in the room.

            Inside, he found three gigantic windows that gave him a perfect view of everything in the place. One of them was broken, the glass lay on the floor below. He was surrounded by burnt out old computers that he doubted had any life left in them. An array of fat monitors lined one of the walls, all of them stacked in a five by five display set up. He scanned the area looking for anything that might have been useful. Old folders and documents lay scattered on a nearby table, leaning from damage. Moving over to a console he found a blue plastic card with a magnetic stripe. He picked it up and turned it over in his hand a few times.

            Arkady walked over to the broken window and tried to get Nadovev’s attention. “Hey, do you see a card reader next to the door?” he asked. Nadovev took a step back and looked.

            “Yeah, about a meter off to the side,” he replied.

            Gripping the card Arkady left the room and made his way back to the door where Nadovev was. He held up the magnetic stripe card and went over to the reader. He swiped the card from top to bottom. Waiting for a moment, nothing happened. Arkady stared at it in frustration and swiped the card from the bottom to the top. Again, nothing happened. He sighed in frustration. Nadovev came up to the reader and looked at it. After some decision making he held up his assault rifle and struck it.

            Arkady jumped back in surprise, “what are you doing!?” he asked.

            “Making it work, try it now,” Nadovev answered.

            Skeptically Arkady stepped forward and swiped the card. After a moment a green indicator light lit up. Nadovev gave him a cocky smile and waved him forward with an open hand. Arkady stepped forward and tried to wrench the door open, but it was still stuck. Nadovev threw his muscle power into it. Slowly but surely the door came open screaming its rusted resistance at the top of its lungs. Sore arms aside, they’d managed to make their way into the room.

            Their eyes went wide at the sight of what was before them.

Camera continued to keep his eye in the scope of his Dragonov. He remained in the apartment, but he found a mouldy old chair to sit in. It smelled bad, but it was better than standing for God knows how long it would be. It was nerve wracking to be stuck there not knowing what was going on. He doubted that any signals from their PDAs would be able to penetrate the ground of the bunker. Most of these facilities had been designed that way. His squad mates were down there in some mess and there was nothing he could do about it. He had to remain there and watch for any changes in the activity of Duty and the mercenaries.

            He couldn’t really see them, but he could see any members that passed in front of a window within his field of vision. He had some sense of what was going on. He could tell that the stalemate was still going on.

            For the most part the two sides had entered into an uncomfortable standoff. If anyone tried to make their way to the other side, they got shot up pretty good. Neither one could do anything about the other, without risking too much. So far Radiochemical Company had been lucky that neither side had descended down into the bunker. It was a luck that wasn’t going to last forever. Sooner or later this standoff was going to be over, and they would be making their way down as well. He just hoped the two sides would remain occupied as long as possible.

            A sudden explosion came from the building. Camera guessed that it had been a grenade, but it was too loud to have been one… unless it had been several grenades going off at the same time? He trained his sight around trying to get a view of what had happened. Camera noticed some smoke pouring out of a windowing rising up into the air from the first floor. Waiting a few moments he saw Duty members making a tactical retreat out the front of the building. Several of them were firing shots back into the building. On the whole Duty was retreating with certainly less members than it had before.

            It meant the mercenaries were on their way down. Camera picked up his PDA and tried contacting Nadovev, “Nadovev are you there? Nadovev? Is anyone there? Can anyone hear me? The mercenaries have broken the Duty squad and will begin making their way down at any moment. Respond. Do you read me?”

            It was no good, the bunker was too thick to receive his broadcast. There was nothing he could do. He had to sit there and wait to find out the fate of his comrades. Waiting was going to be the mind killer. He was a sniper, he was used to waiting long periods of time, but this was different. This was his squad mates in danger and he could do nothing about it. Not even warn them, he thought.

Sergei had had his mercenaries barricaded on the second floor for a few hours now. He was kneeling by the stairs behind a wall. There was nothing he could do. Every time they tried to send a man down the stairs he was shot. The same happened if someone came the other way. They were deadlocked and he knew it. They both would be sitting here until they ran out of ammo and began throwing bayonets at each other. This was a waste of time that they didn’t have. They needed to get into the bunker and get out with the client’s artifact.

            He heard a commotion behind him and found a soldier running up to him. It was one of the men he’d sent up to the top floor to begin repairing the elevator. The mercenary caught up with Sergei and threw up a quick salute.

            “Sir,” the man said, “we’ve managed to repair the elevator. But someone has already used it. At first we thought it was just the mechanism warming up, but it turns out someone already descended into the underground facility.”

            “Damn it,” Sergei said. While they’d been distracted by the confrontation, Duty had sent men down into the bunker. Now they had a head start on them. He slammed his fist into a nearby wall. He looked back at the mercenary and said, “thank you, return to your post and hold that elevator.”

            With that, the man ran off back to the top floor to carry out his order. Bad news, some Dutyers were already down there looking for the prize. At least with the elevator locked in place they couldn’t leave with it. Right now they had to break this deadlock But how? he thought. They’d already tried throwing grenades down the stairs. Dutyers just kept taking cover behind a wall shielding themselves from the blast. There was no chance of getting down there with a gun, they’d already tried that. They needed something bigger.

            Sergei got up and turned around to his men, “is anyone carrying a satchel charge?” he asked. One man threw up his hand in the affirmative. Sergei motioned for him to come over. Sergei had an idea. If he was able to time a throw properly, they’d be able to get the satchel charge down the stairs and around the corner enough by swinging it. It they timed it properly, they would be able to swing it around the corner and have it land right in their midst. It was going to be a tricky shot, but it was possible.

            He reached up and took the satchel from the mercenary under his command. Stealthily he worked his way through the railing of the stairs, keeping as quiet as possible. If Duty caught him now he’d be dead meat. He struggled to get as much of his torso through the balusters as possible. His right hand was now only an inch away from where the wall met the ceiling. Using his other hand, he dropped the satchel into the grip of his hanging left hand. There wasn’t much room to move his arm so he was going to need at least two swings to get enough momentum. He held the satchel close to the wall using it as a support. He pulled det cord, gave it two swings, and let go.

            He let go just in time. He heard a few panicked curse words from Duty, then a nice fat, satisfying explosion, followed up by the screams of dying men.

            “Charge forward”, he yelled to his troops.

            The mercenaries charged down the stairs, firing away at anything that moved. The remaining Duty members were carrying out a running fire fight trying to escape. Only a few of them managed to survive the blast, and those men were determined to make a retreat while still alive.

            When the smoke and bullets were clear Sergei made his way down the stairs to survey the damage. The wall where the explosion took place was finished, it looked like it was going to come down soon under its own weight. There were dead Duty members scattered around the floor, as well as their dismembered limbs. One unfortunate man must have had the satchel go off at his feet. Sergei was satisfied with the damage meted out. He turned his thoughts back to the men who had already climbed inside the elevator attempting to take his prize.

Ricky and Iosif continued to walk side by side through the bunker. Neither one was willing to let the other get behind him. Their search was half-hearted at best. The way they were going they weren’t going to find anything. Every time one of them checked something, their eyes immediately went to watching their backs. Whenever Iosif opened a door, he kept Ricky within his line of sight. When Ricky looked into something, he would pull his head back and watch for Iosif. Between them it had been dead silence since their last words agreeing to fight, and very possibly kill each other. Iosif was no fool, he knew Ricky couldn’t beat him in a stand up fair fight. He expected a few rounds in his back once Ricky got his money… Assuming he didn’t try to kill him here and cover it up.

            The silence had gone on long enough. Ricky knew he had finally gotten under Iosif’s skin for real. Now was the moment to take advantage and try to throw him off balance with some provoking words and ideas.

            He looked up at Iosif making sure he saw him watching. “It’s too bad you don’t get it Iosif. You’re a good Stalker. We could have made tons of money together. Unfortunately, you don’t get that this is all about the money. Greed is what makes the world go ’round my friend. Without it people would just be lounging around all day doing nothing. No one would do anything productive and society would just fall apart,” he said.

            “You actually believe that?” Iosif said, continuing to search but still answering.

            “Yes, people won’t do anything unless they get something out of it. That’s why socialism doesn’t work. It just stagnates and doesn’t develop anything.”

            “Says the guy standing in a bunker dedicated to scientific advancement.”

            “Okay, okay,” Ricky said, “you got a point there. But overall it’s still true. People are only motivated by money.”

            “Is that so? Then please explain to me how societies that didn’t have money functioned? There was no money to give anyone, yet all the needs of society were met. Tribal people didn’t go around, refusing to share some food because they weren’t getting paid for it. Everyone contributed to the social product and took only what they needed. It worked quite well actually. Primitive, but well.”

            “Then why did we stop doing it? Why did we go on to have capitalism if tribal society was so great? Because people wanted more stuff. They wanted more out of life than just giving. They wanted to control the product of their labour. Not have it taken by others.”

            “If you’re opposed to people taking the product of other’s labour, why do you support capitalism? Besides, people left tribal society for a reason. Society evolved out of it because the productive forces evolved. Once we were able to produce more than we needed, there became a question of who owned and controlled that surplus. This is what led to trading. From there we began the early ideas of private property. The same with farming, which turned into feudalism, the private property of land.”

            “Yea, people knew what they had, and decided to enrich themselves.”

            “They had no idea what kind of impact private property was going to have on their societies. No one really saw how the problem was going to unfold. They didn’t know what the social consequences were. No one knew anything like that back then. If they were aware of how production and ownership of commodities would lead to new social relations, they might have done something about it.”

            “So, yes, they were greedy.”

            “Greedy and ignorant. Just because someone can be greedy, that doesn’t mean we’re inherently genetically programmed that way.”

            “Look around you, greed is everywhere, that’s how things work. How can you say greed isn’t human nature when we see so much of it? Do you deny the reality before your eyes?”

            Iosif laughed, “we have system that perpetuates greed. A system that can’t function without it. The system creates it, makes people act that way in order to survive. Then you claim it’s natural and just happens,” Iosif laughed again, “greed, a self justifying idea.”

            “Whatever man, socialism doesn’t work,” Ricky retorted.

            Iosif laughed because he knew he had defeated him. Instead of getting Iosif angry, he had gotten himself frustrated. He hated Iosif even more now. He thought about knifing Iosif right here in a dark room and leaving him here. He slowly began to reach toward the knife on his belt. All he needed was for the man to turn his back…

            Iosif shot his head up in shocked alert. For a moment Ricky thought he had read his mind seeing his murderous intention. Instead, Iosif turned his head towards the door of the room, listening. Almost sighing his relief, Ricky listened in too. A few moments went by and they began to hear footsteps. They were heavy boots slamming into the floor, a lot of them. Both of them realized that one of the factions must have made in down into the bunker and were on their way.

            “Screw it, run,” Ricky said, picking himself up and beginning to run.

            The two of them ran almost side by side down the corridor towards the stairs that would lead down. They couldn’t go back, because whoever was pursuing was blocking the way. Ricky kicked open the door to the stairwell and looked around. Seeing their only choice was to go down, he took the steps two at a time. Iosif right behind him wasn’t able to navigate the stairs as well as Ricky had due to his size. He knew that Ricky would leave him behind in a heartbeat to save his own skin.

            Making their way through the second floor, they ran past doors and windows. In the darkness they almost tripped on various clutter. At any moment one of them was going to trip and fall. Whoever did, would be the one to die.

            “Our only chance is to link up with Nadovev and Arkady,” Iosif belted out behind Ricky.