The men of Radiochemical Company found their heads swimming. Whatever had just happened, they were still alive. Aside from being disorientated and bruised, they were none the worse for the wear. They were breathing and that was good enough for them. Nadovev struggled to his feet feeling a bit lightheaded. He ran his hands over his body checking to see if all his parts were intact. He found them all to be in their proper places. Iosif slowly got up to his feet bleeding from the head. During the fall his machine gun had struck his forehead, leaving a minor gouge. He waved off Nadovev who attempted to check on him. Camera, Arkady, and Ricky struggled to their feet, astounded to be alive. The wonder on Arkady’s face pretty much said it all. Ricky seemed more confused than anything.
“Is everyone okay?” Nadovev asked. He got a bunch of grunts and groans in response. He took it as a good sign.
After getting the okay from everyone, he surveyed their surroundings. They stood in the middle of a grassy field. Off in the distance were steep grassy hills. It was rather calm, the breeze was gentle. The sun was blocked for the most part by the overcast, but visibility was good. An abandoned car lay upside down a few meters away. It wasn’t until they turned around that they got an eyeful. A big building sat about 200 meters away. It was surrounded by high red brick walls. The building itself was more like a complex. Smaller brick and steel structures surrounded the main one. Old style large factory windows could be seen above the wall. Large pipes came out of the building and into the ground, or into another smaller structure. A mini radio mast stuck up from the high point of the building. Next to it was an industrial chimney all red brick. It was all quite a sight.
A hundred meters or so away from the building was a smaller structure. It was trapezoid in shape, wider at the bottom than it was at the top. From its points came what looked like yellow reinforced steel triangles on hinges. From the design you could tell that they were intended to be folded up. Why? They had no idea. The top of it had a flat roof that had camouflage netting that covered several men who held automatic weapons in their hands. On the front of the trapezoid was a big heavy door that clearly was intended to serve as a barrier. It was surrounded by a high corrugated steel wall that was topped with barbed wire. There was at least one opening they could see.
They had truly been dropped into another world. One far removed from the town of mercenaries, zombies, and Bloodsuckers. It was a welcome sight. Nadovev knew what they had passed through was a wormhole anomaly. They were a scientific curiosity and a rarity in the Zone. They serve as a “tunnel” between two points in time space. In effect, they passed from one point in the Zone to another by passing through a distorted piece of space. Nadovev once heard Arkady describe it with a piece of paper. Instead of drawing a line between two points, the paper is folded until the two points were touching. Nadovev couldn’t recall ever having passed through one before. The prospect of it frightened him. Nevertheless, he was glad to be away from Freedom who was trying to kill them and take the artifact.
“That was a wormhole anomaly!” Arkady exclaimed. He brought his fists up in excitement. He seemed as giddy as a child in a toy store. Apparently the significance was not lost on him. Or rather, he appreciated it in a way the others who had less education could not.
“A what?” Iosif asked.
Arkady’s movements had become animated with excitement. The prospect of actually experiencing such phenomena should have scared him. It seemed however to do the opposite. Nadovev had never seen him act so… alive. The experience had breathed new life into him. It flowed through his body like an overload of caffeine.
“It’s a shortcut connecting two different points in space-time. Even though scientists have never seen one, the equations of the theory of general relativity show that they can exist. And now we’ve just passed through one!”
Arkady’s hands were moving in jerky excited movements as he described it. It was pleasure for Nadovev to see Arkady act in such a positive way. Seeing his brother-in-law behave in such a manner, made him happy for him. Out of curiosity, he looked over at Ricky who was still brushing the excess dirt off his fatigue pants. He had a sour look on his face as he watched Arkady speak and move. Seeing him act in such a happy way was actually angering him. It was the same way a schoolyard bully didn’t like seeing one of his victims happy. Nadovev just shook his head at Ricky’s behaviour.
As Arkady went on about wormholes, Camera took out his PDA and tried to determine their location. It dawned on him that the trapezoid structure was a mobile science laboratory. If that was the case, then the building next to it would be the X-16 laboratory. That meant they had landed in Yantar, just off of the Wild Territory. A quick scan through his maps confirmed his hypothesis; they had indeed traveled half way across the Zone. The realization of this fact made his heart jump. It was a bit disturbing to accept how far they had actually travelled.
“We’re in Yantar,” Camera blurted out.
Nadovev looked at him in disbelief, “are you serious?” he asked. Camera just nodded.
All of this was really beginning to play on Nadovev’s nerves. This damned artifact was as frustrating as it was mysterious. The trip through the wormhole, and his dreams coming true twice, finally pushed him too far. He had to know what this thing was and how it seemingly had the power to affect his dreams. He’d always had a good sense of direction, and always knew where he was. That had been thrashed by the trip through the wormhole. It infuriated him to be so disorientated. The situation was intolerable. He was used to being at the mercy of the Zone’s whims, but something about this whole job really irked him. It was as if this was totally different, even if he didn’t know how or why. The best thing he could think of was to head over to the mobile laboratory and ask the scientists what the artifact was… if they could even figure it out.
“To hell with this crap,” Nadovev announced, “we’re going over to that lab and see if those scientists can tell us what this thing is.” He threw the artifact bag back onto his should and began walking toward the lab. The other members of the squad scrambled to catch up to his sudden movement away from them.
Nadovev marched his way over to the mobile lab. The guards on top and on the group watched intently as the group of five Stalkers approached. One of them stopped him and asked him what his business was. Nadovev told him that he had an artifact he needed the scientists to look at. It was enough to let them pass; the scientists were always looking for something new.
After entering through the door and stepping inside, they had to wait for the door to close and another to open. In between they were sprayed with some kind of white gas that left an odd taste in their mouths. A sign on the wall said that anyone entering the lab had to be decontaminated. For whatever the reason, the scientists were concerned about something from the outside getting in.
The second door opened, granting them access. The inside was a bit dark, as though there wasn’t enough power for the yellowing lights. The walls were an orangeish red corrugated steel that ran horizontal. The corners were held up with metal beams, the same ones ran in an X-pattern along each wall. The whole structure seemed larger from the outside. The air felt chilled, as though there was an air conditioner on for some special reason. It was a welcome change. A scientist in an orange environmental suit walked past them heading towards the exit, seemingly without noticing them. Nadovev lead the way forward rounding a corner seeking out someone to talk to. A rumbling noise of voices vibrated through the modular walls. The voices held a vibration of knowledge that flowed through the air akin to radio waves. He could only guess at their meaning.
Within a moment they reached what looked like a counter intended to serve customers at a kiosk. Behind the glassless window an older man stood looking at a monitor. He was clearly balding, a crown of hair ran around the back of his head, it was nearly a pure white. It matched his goatee. His face had deep crevices that only came with age. His eyes had very dark circles under them that only came with stress. Around his neck was a light blue collared shirt and black tie. Light blue eyes that matched his green-blue lab coat turned towards the visitors. A friendly but wise smile on a round face accompanied them.
“Hello, hello, how may I help you?” he asked in a grand-fatherly voice.
Nadovev stepped forward and put his hands on the ledge. “Hi, my names Nadovev and we’re a group of Stalkers that have found a very interesting artifact. We’d like you to take a look and tell us what it is, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m sorry I should’ve introduced myself,” he apologized, “I’m Professor Sakharov, head scientist of the Yantar research team,” he said. “I’d be very interested to see anything you have. One of my personal joys in life is finding new artifacts to study.”
“Then you’re going to love this,” Nadovev said sarcastically, taking the artifact bag off his shoulder. Sakharov watched on in curiosity as he struggled to open the bag. Pulling the drawstring bag, the scientist’s eyes went wide at the glowing orange light that beamed out. In front of his eyes was what looked like a glowing ball of orange energy. It was spectacular to behold. Reflexively, his hands twitched in anticipation of touching it.
Nadovev handed the artifact to the scientist. He took it greedily, excited to delve into an investigation.
“You are welcome to stay here while I investigate this artifact,” Sakharov said only half paying attention, “please make yourselves comfortable.”
“Actually,” Nadovev said, stretching his arms, “I was wondering if you had any beds we could borrow. We’ve been awake over a day trying to get that thing and badly need some rest.”
“Yes of course,” Sakharov said not taking his eyes off the artifact, “We have some extra bunk beds for the guards we employ. You’re welcome to them.”
With that Sakharov walked away with the artifact in hand to begin his investigation.
“Sleep time boys,” Nadovev told the rest of the squad. Each one of them was glad to hear it. They wasted no time going down a small hallway before entering the sleeping quarters and crashing on the nearest empty bed.
Nadovev sat on one with his hands together deep in thought. A lot of unexplained things were happening here, things that were causing him to be apprehensive. First and foremost he wanted to know what the artifact was. His gut was full of bad feelings over the thing. He didn’t want to take it to the client until he knew what he was dealing with. The whole situation made him tense, and he knew something wasn’t right. He laid down on the bed, closing his eyes, hoping that he’d be able to fall asleep. Despite his racing mind, it only took a few minutes.
Nadovev’s dreams were wild and chaotic. They swirled with images of violence and pain. Nothing had a distinct meaning to it. Things appeared as if out of nowhere and then just faded away. Images of death and violence flowed into his troubled mind. Burning red eyes of zombie Stalkers chased him in the dark. Nadovev ran as hard as his legs would allow, but they were not fast enough. An orange flash burst before him, wiping the zombies away. Without warning his AK74 appeared in his hands, but it didn’t have any ammunition. He turned to find some, but only found his sister staring back at him in front of a white light. His rifle was suddenly gone. Arkady appeared next to his sister holding her hand. His mouth tried to speak, but no words came out. It looked like he was saying “thank you.” When he tried to respond, the world started shaking. A terrible quake tossed his body, and he was suddenly filled with the idea that he was going to die.
Nadovev’s eyes suddenly popped open taking in the image of Sakharov shaking him. He blinked once or twice to wipe the images from his immediate senses. Sakharov was trying to ask him something. Nadovev pulled himself together.
“What? What’s going on?” he asked, confused with sleep. He tried to haul himself up into a sitting position, but his body was inflamed with pain from a hundred places at once.
Sakharov had a worried look on his face. It seemed he was having difficulty waking him up.
“You were really out of it there, trapped in a distressing dream. But that’s not why I woke you up. I need to ask you some questions about the artifact you found. Where exactly did you find it?” Sakharov asked.
Nadovev managed to shake out his head and struggle to sit up straight. Before he answered he noticed that Arkady was awake and rubbing his leg. Nadovev waved him over to join the conversation. Arkady got onto his sore legs and did the best he could join them.
“Well,” Nadovev said, “we were hired by someone to find this artifact. They didn’t even know what it was. Then we found out all these factions were also looking for it. Freedom, Duty, mercenaries, etc. It was one hell of a fight to actually get a hold of the thing. Nearly everyone has tried to kill us to get it. Eventually we found a hidden laboratory, or something, under an apartment building. No one seems to know what it is.”
“I see,” Sakharov said, rubbing his chin, “can you tell me anything more about the artifact itself?”
“I may be able. We found documents detailing a machine that has something to do with the artifact,” Nadovev said as Arkady sat down next to him. “Hand him the documents you found,” he said to Arkady. He reached into his rucksack and took them out. He handed them over to Sakharov, who took them with great interest.
Sakharov’s eyebrow rose a few centimetres when he read the cover. “This should prove to be quite interesting indeed,” he said returning to his work.
Camera came and sat down next to them. He looked like he had a few questions on his mind. He scratched his chin thoughtfully as he tried to find the words to express himself. Nadovev and Arkady looked at him expectantly.
Finally Camera spoke, “this whole job has been… I don’t know… strange, I guess.” Nadovev and Arkady nodded their heads in agreement. “Some things aren’t adding up,” Camera said, “where the hell did those zombies come from? How could have an emission reached them that far underground? Wasn’t it awfully convent that that wormhole was there to save us at the last minute? A wormhole that just happened to drop us in the exact right place to figure this thing out? It was like it knew to put us in Yantar.”
Nadovev thought to himself, he’d noticed the same thing too. This whole job seemed like it had a destiny written all over it. Everything had occurred in just the right way for them to survive this job in which they should have died multiple times. Add on top of it, the fact he had witnessed certain events ahead of time in his dreams. Nadovev got the definite sense that there was a powerful force at work.
“Look,” Nadovev said, “there’s no doubt that some scary stuff is going on. It’s worrying me, too many coincidences are lining up. I have no idea what to think of it. All I know is that we’re in this situation and we have to find a way out.”
Arkady and Camera nodded their heads in agreement. There was nothing they could do at the moment. They had to wait to find out what the artifact was. It worried them what the consequences with the client were going to be. They would be expecting them back soon. If they didn’t show up, who knew what they might do. They definitely had the sense that this was all going to get worse before it got any better.
“What’s really going to tell us,” Arkady piped in, “is those documents I found. I’m pretty sure the scientists can get some information out of them. I got a general idea of what they meant, but these men should be able to figure it out. I’m actually pretty excited to see what it is… Do you guys normally feel this way when you find something new?”
Camera shook his head, “I’ve never found something new.”
An hour or so later Ricky and Iosif also woke up. The scientists were still working away trying to decipher the nature of the artifact. After having a diet sausage, Iosif decided to have a look around. The laboratory had several artifacts on display inside of glass cases. Each one had a chart of data about it just under the viewing window. He took a short tour taking a close look at each one. He’d never seen this many artifacts all together at once. There were Pins, Jellyfish, Batteries, Mamas Beads, Moonlight, even a rare Pellicle. It was particularly interesting to see the Pellicle. A couple of times in the past he could have used one. He noted to himself that there must be tens of thousands of rubles worth of artifacts in there.
Iosif quickly spun around sensing someone behind him. Ricky was standing there with a shark smile on his face. He had clearly intended to startle Iosif. Both of them remembered the discussion they’d had back in the bunker. They were going to settle things between each other when the job got done. Eyes locked in mutual acknowledgement. A shared disgust of each other beamed out of their eyes at each other. If looks could kill, then a mass murder was taking place.
“Hey, buddy. How you doin’?” Ricky asked. The smug viper’s smile on his face was infuriating Iosif, who could only sneer back at him.
“I’m jazzed to be settling our score soon. This whole side trip here is making us wait. Annoying, eh?” Iosif answered.
“Yeah, I can’t wait until we get out of here and get our money. Then you and me can go toe-to-toe outside the icebreaker and settle things. Really looking forward to sticking you with my knife.”
At this point it was obvious that Ricky was trying to get him going. Iosif was tempted to punch the guy’s head off right here and now. Unfortunately, that would be unprofessional, piss off Nadovev whom he respected too much, and God only knows how the guards of the scientists would react. For the moment he had to grin and bear it until they had a chance to get at one another fair and square, in their own business. He felt like a caged animal, his anger confined in a prison he couldn’t taste, touch, or smell. A force that held him back from expressing one of the most base of human emotions, hate. Then, he got an idea.
“Well, I’ve always enjoyed crushing bullies. But you, I get to crush one that’s also a coward. I’m wondering if it’s worth getting your blood on my boots.”
Ricky’s face lost its arrogant smile. Iosif had touched a nerve. Being called a coward was something Ricky couldn’t stand for. The mockery was gone from his eyes; it was replaced with boiling hate. A temper barely kept under control. Iosif had finally managed to crack his cocky shell of a personality. The jerk was no more invulnerable to insults and taunting than anyone else was. His facade of superiority had been broken. A part of Ricky’s self-image had just been kicked in the genitals.
“We’ll see ya big dummy, we’ll see, soon enough.” Ricky tried to say calmly as he walked away.
Not today, Iosif thought. You won’t be getting your daily dose of ego boost from me.
Nadovev came into the sample room where the two Stalkers had been ready to face off. “The scientists want to talk to us, get in here,” he said. Iosif and Ricky followed Nadovev into the sleeping quarters.
Sakharov waited until all the members of Radiochemical Company were seated before him. The look on his face gave the definite impression that he was about to say something serious. The prospect of which made the squad members a bit apprehensive. To Arkady, the man’s face read like a parent who had to explain something complicated to their child which they knew they weren’t going to understand. It made Arkady think about parents who were about to tell their children that they were getting a divorce. His parents never had one, but he knew a friend that went through it. It had that kind of feel all over it.
The scientist licked his dry lips in preparation for his news. “There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come out and say it.” That feeling Arkady had got stronger. We’ve been mostly able to determine what the purpose of the artifact is. After extensive testing with the limited equipment we have here, and with the help of the documents, we’ve been able to determine that the artifact has the ability to harness zero point energy. This artifact is the first one we’ve ever seen that partially exists on a quantum level. We can’t prove this one hundred percent conclusively, but all our studying thus far suggests that it’s true. What this artifact can do, theoretically, is harness infinite energy.
“In quantum theory, zero-point energy is a minimum energy below which a thermodynamic system can never go. Thus, none of this energy can be withdrawn without altering the system to a different form in which the system has a lower zero-point energy. One of the hypotheses that claims that zero-point energy is infinite is stochastic electrodynamics. In it, the zero-point field is viewed as simply a classical background isotropic noise wave field which excites all systems present in the vacuum and thus is responsible for their minimum-energy or “ground” states. The requirement of Lorentz invariance at a statistical level then implies that the energy density spectrum must increase with the third power of frequency, implying infinite energy density when integrated over all frequencies.
“I’m a bit lost here professor,” Nadovev said. The rest of the squad seemed as equally confused. Even Arkady had a confused look on his face.
Sakharov stroked his goatee taking a moment to come up with a simpler explanation. “Okay, image you have a bank. You have an account there and you’re taking out money. But, no one at the bank is watching how much money you’re taking out. So you just keep taking more and more out and there’s no one to stop you. Effectively, you can just keep taking more out infinitely. Except it’s energy, not money… That machine you found was most likely designed to harness that energy.”
The squad slowly began to understand what Sakharov was saying. He was telling them they had found an artifact that was capable of drawing an infinite amount of energy from the universe. The implications of such an object were mind blowing. The world would be forever changed by this discovery.
Sakharov walked back to his lab and returned with the artifact. He handed it to Nadovev with a concerned look on his face. “By all rights gentlemen, this artifact belongs to you, because you found it. I ask that you be wise in your decision what to do with it.”
Nadovev took the artifact and placed it back in the drawstring bag. He drummed his fingers on the bag in deep thought about what to do about it.
Eventually he stood up and said, “I need some time to think this over. Arkady will you help me?” Nadovev then took off to find a place where they could talk alone. Everyone else was still just sitting there stunned by the news they had been given.
I know what you need to do with it, hand it over to the client and get our money, Ricky thought to himself. One way or another he was going to get his cut of the job’s pay.