Chapter 20

“I don’t get why he has to think about this,” Iosif said. He was pacing back and forth worrying about the whole situation. “We’re supposed to hand the artifact over to the client and get the money we were promised. I don’t really see why it’s such a big deal.” Iosif began playing with his hands out of nervousness. He did to a degree understand why there might be a moral dilemma over such a powerful artifact. However, his primary concern was getting money to his impoverished family. They needed the money, and the world needed free abundant energy. In his eyes it was a win-win situation for everyone.

            “For once I agree with dumbo,” Ricky said, his wounded ego having apparently healed. “I’ll say it straight up: I took this job with you guys because of the promise of a good pay day. That client promised us a huge sum of money.  A part of that is mine; I’ve earned it by putting my ass on the line. There’s nothing for Nadovev to ‘think over’. What he needs to do is get me my damn money.” Ricky had stood up and become more animated. His temper was clearly rising at the prospect of not getting paid for the job. All he really wanted was his money and to kill Iosif, then go home. His intended victim took exception to the continued goading and had come face to face with him.

            Not wanting any kind of incident at a time like this, Camera stepped between the two of them and put his hands up trying to keep them apart. “I think it’s more complicated than that. Nadovev is considering the ramification of his actions. Think about what would happen if the artifact fell into the wrong hands. Imagine if a terrorist group got a hold of it. How much damage would that do? What if it came into the hands of an incompetent group of people who couldn’t handle it properly? The consequences would be devastating. This is the real problem Nadovev has. He’s worried about what will happen if he turns the artifact over to the wrong person.”

            Ricky took a step back from Iosif and wiped his mouth, “He needs to be worrying about what will happen if he doesn’t pay me.” Ricky pulled out his knife and started twirling it in his hands playing with it. It was a titanium butterfly knife that he’d gotten long ago, trusty and solid. Playing with it always helped calm him down. Both Camera and Iosif kept an eye on it, because it came off as a threatening gesture. Ricky eventually noticed them looking and put the knife away.

            “Look, right now we can only sit here and wait to see what Nadovev does. He’s in charge, he makes the call,” Camera told them.

            “So what? You have no interest in getting paid? What if he tells you that we’re not getting any money for the artifact?” Ricky replied.

            Camera took a deep breath, “I’ll deal with that if the time comes.”

Nadovev and Arkady had taken over a little supply room for privacy. They were surrounded by various cleaning materials, stationary, and all other manner of supplies. It was still fairly large and it afforded Nadovev enough room to pace back and forth. Akrady was worried, he’d never seen Nadovev in such a state. He’d been always calm, cool, and collected. He was the stoic solid leader that got people through the worst of situations. Now he stood full of doubt and confusion. He wondered what use he could be to Nadovev and his decision that had far reaching consequences.

            Nadovev suddenly stopped and turned to face Arkady, “I’ve asked you here to be a part of my decision because I know you’ve had some pretty decent education. I’m limited that way. This thing has a big moral question behind it that, frankly, I don’t think I’m qualified to make.”

            “Well, I mean I did take one credit course on ethics; but this is… Something far outside of anything I studied. This is monumental, this is going to change the course of human history. The only thing you do have is a duty to do the right thing. The torture in this decision is deciding what the right thing to do is. I don’t think there’s any question that you’ll do what you think is right.”

            “But what is right? I mean each course of action has consequences, both good and bad. Like am I supposed to pick the one that does the most good, or the least bad?” Nadovev was biting his fingernail, something he hadn’t done before. He pulled his hand away from his mouth when he realized what he was doing. This infuriated him; he’d always known what was going on and how to handle it. The mysteries of the Zone were a force he’d handled time and time again, even when they defied all logic and the laws of physics. But this, this was something that was beyond his grasp.

            Arkady held out both of his hands with the palms up, “now you’re asking a specific question. Which moral stance do you prefer? Utilitarianism says to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Negative utilitarianism is to act in a way that produces the least amount of harm, even though it doesn’t necessarily lead to what is good.”

            Nadovev just looked at him blankly, “what?”

            “Do you want to do the most good, or the least bad?”

            “I guess I want to do the most good,” Nadovev said sitting down on a crate.

            “Then you need to figure out what will accomplish that.”

            “Well, I have to give it to some kind of power, a government. A single person isn’t going to be able to use it. I guess the question is which one? As far as I can tell, none of them are reliable. I don’t trust any of them. No matter which country I give it to, they’re going to use it to their advantage. They’ll use it to gain power over another. That’s not what I want. I want this to help people. Even if I could give this to everyone, they’d still use it to try and control each other. They wouldn’t give this energy for free.”

            “In fact, many countries need their oil and gas exports in order to have any kind of national revenue. Putting this out would bankrupt those countries. It would destroy entire economies. A lot of global political power is based on fuel and energy. When they did, other countries would come in and try to take them over financially. They’d be at the mercy of more powerful nations. It very likely could start wars.”

            “So, I have to give it to someone who can use it properly. Or it needs to be used in a way that would be beneficial for everyone. I need a system that will use this thing to people’s benefit, and not for their own benefit.”

            “Yes.”

            Nadovev sat back down on the crate and dug deep into his mind. All his thoughts lead to dead ends; none of them had a path to the goal he desired. What was he going to do? He couldn’t use it himself so he had to give it to someone… He had to give it to someone… The choices were before him in his hand. He went through them again and again, hoping they’d change, like a poker player who’d been given a bad hand.

            Time seemed to pass excruciatingly slow for Arkady. He couldn’t even imagine being in the position Nadovev was at the moment. The future of mankind rested on his shoulders. Minutes turned into an hour. The weight of his decision was monumental. It could easily have been Mount Tai. It was unfortunate that any man would be stuck with such a burden. Even he himself couldn’t think of anyone they could give the artifact to that could be trusted. What can you do when you trust no one? If you’re in such a situation where you don’t know what to do, can you even trust yourself? Everyone suffers from self-doubt once in a while; but on this decision it would be overwhelming.

            Too many questions are left unanswered. What happens if you’re wrong? If you are wrong, how do you deal with it? Can you live with the consequences of making the wrong decision? Given his overstressed state of mind, would he be able to trust himself? Was he in any condition to be making this decision? Maybe there was someone more qualified to decide. Where would such a person be? Sakharov had seemed certain that Nadovev was the one who had to make the choice.

            Why burden him? It was as if the Zone wanted him to make the decision. After everything they’d been through the last few days, it seemed like it was destiny. Nadovev didn’t believe in destiny, but he did believe that the Zone worked in mysterious ways. Some things were a choice you made; others were things that happened to you. Did the Zone manipulate events in his favour? It seemed like that’s what had happened. There had been too many close calls that they shouldn’t have been able to survive. Solutions to problems appeared as if out of nowhere. Despite that, it took his skill and leadership to get the job done. So what was this all about? Was he making a choice or not?

            It took forever, but eventually Nadovev made up his mind.

Camera, Ricky, and Iosif were sitting or lying on a bed when Nadovev emerged with a serious look on his face. No one could resist the temptation to try and guess his decision by it. None of them could tell for certain. He stood there solemnly looking down at his feet. This would be a difficult thing to do, because he knew that no matter what, someone wouldn’t be happy about it. Arkady stood by his side with a pleased look on his face. Like a parent who’d witnessed their child do something noble. It was genuine pride he had for his brother-in-law.

            The three of them sat there with bated breath. What Nadovev was about to say, was going to affect their lives, and the entire world. Even Sakharov stood in the doorway with his arms folded across his chest, his eyes full of worry. Now was the moment.

            Nadovev took a deep breath, “this is never an easy thing to say, so I’ll just come out and say it. I’ve deci-“

            “Stalkers, this is the Ukrainian State Security Service. We have the lab surrounded. Come out and surrender peacefully, or we will be forced to take action.” A loud booming voice coming from outside penetrating in startled them.

            Sakharov dashed from the group back into the lab. He almost skidded to a halt before a row of monitors. What he saw chilled him to the bone. At least forty Special Forces soldiers from the Ukrainian government had surrounded their compound. The Stalkers serving as guards were rushing to close the corrugated steel walls that served as a defensive barrier. Huge brutes with heavy body armour and assault rifles held at the ready stood in squad formations. A transport helicopter sat about two hundred meters back, its blades slowing down. Two more attack helicopters continued to hover overhead. Sakharov could almost feel their guns trained on him.

            Sakharov’s hands began to tremble with stress induced palsy.  Camouflaged menacing soldiers stood still silently waiting to attack like Terracotta warriors. Sakharov was frightened because he’d never been on the business end of the military’s rifles. The scientists worked for the Ukrainian government, which meant they were on the same side.

            He reached over and picked up a hand held radio. “This is Professor Sakharov, head scientist of the Ukrainian Zone Exploration and Research Team, number six. To whom am I addressing?”

            After a moment of silence a voice came back over the radio, “this is Colonel Kilmkin, permanent observer of the Zone for the USS. Inside your lab is a team of Stalkers who have an artifact that is being confiscated by the military. Send them out immediately with it.”

            “I am an employee of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources. You have no right to be threatening me colonel. Any acts of aggression will be reported directly to the Minister of Defense.” Sakharov’s voice was beginning to tremble a bit from fear and stress.

            “Professor, I am here on the orders of Minister Poltorak. You are hereby ordered to cease all defensive measures and send out the Stalkers known as ‘Radiochemical Company’. Failure to comply with my orders will result in an assault upon your laboratory. I don’t wish to do that professor, make it easy on yourself.”

            Sakharov put the radio down and wiped the sweat from his brow. He knew he stood no chance in a firefight with the military. Attempting to remain calm he walked back to where Radiochemical Company was waiting. A serious tension was in the air. He explained the situation to them and told them that they had to hand over the artifact. Nadovev knew that there was no chance they could fight their way out of this situation.

            “How did they find us?” Ricky asked.

            Nadovev reached into one of his utility pouches and pulled out the GPS locator that the client had given them back in Skadovsk. Realization swept across everyone’s faces. In a fit of rage that caused him to lose his self-control, he crushed it in his hand. Iosif had been right, the client had been military. He cursed himself for his ignorance. Now they really were trapped. Thinking quickly he came up with a plan to buy them some time.

            “Give me the radio professor,” he said. Reluctantly Sakharov handed over the radio.

            “Colonel Kilmkin, I am the leader of Radiochemical Company. We are not in the possession of any rare or significant artifact. You have the wrong group of Stalkers.” It was a long shot, but it might work.

            “Flashlight Nadovev, we know who you are. The man who offered you the job to find the artifact was an employee of the ministry of defense. Hand over the artifact immediately or we will be forced to take it from you.”

            “Well, shit, that didn’t work,” Ricky chimed in.

            Nadovev stared at the radio in his hand lost in deep thought. He couldn’t hand it over to the military. He had already figured out what he had to do with it. They couldn’t escape from this situation. He didn’t have a choice, he had to give it to the colonel or a bunch of innocent people were probably going to die. He closed his eyes and concentrated. If you’ve got something to help me out Zone, now would be a good time to use it. Hoping against hope he willed the Zone to help him escape this situation. He stood in silence for another few moments.

            “This is your last warning, hand over the artifact immediately. Failure to-“

            A literally earth shaking boom stopped the colonel in mid speech. Everything not bolted down had shaken violently. A rumbling like thunder broke out in the sky.

            “THEY’RE ATTACKING!” yelled Arkady picking up his rifle, hands shaking.

            The ground began to tremble. Lightning crashed across the sky with ear splitting noise and blinding light. It was as though the heavens themselves were firing upon them. A bleep came over everyone’s PDA followed by a voice: “Attention, an emission is approaching. I repeat, an emission is approaching. Find shelter immediately.” The blow out warning system had been activated. It wasn’t the military attacking; it was an emission from the center of the Zone. Pent up energy from the noosphere was about to be released causing devastation.

            Arkady went into panic mode. “We’re safe inside the lab,” Sakharov said, “it was built to withstand the strongest of recorded emissions…”

            “But the military out there has no shelter,” Iosif finished.

            Nadovev picked up the radio and pushed the talk button, “enjoy being a zombie you asshole.” The colonel responded with a sting of insults and empty threats. Nadovev released his pent up anger and stress by bursting out in laughter.

            Thunder and lightning increased outside. They panicked screams of soldiers could be heard all around. As the emission approached, the sky fluctuated between red and purple warping around in all manner of kaleidoscope waves. The skies became a torrent of malign energies playing off each other. The crack in the noosphere bleed out hateful psychic energy that tore through the minds of any soul trapped without any shelter. Clouds swirled in vortices of flashing light that arced through the sky. Daylight began to fade away, only to return in flashes, and then fade away again. Those inside the lab kept themselves on the floor as the ground continued to quake… Two minutes later it was all over.

            Everyone in the lab slowly rose to their feet with their heads pounding. Sakharov made his way over to the monitors showing the outside. The sky was clear and back to normal. The ground was littered with unconscious soldiers who’d had their minds destroyed by the emission. In about an hour’s time they would be rising back to their feet as zombies. The Stalkers who worked for the scientists cautiously made their way back out to resume their positions.

            Sakharov reached over and grabbed a clipboard and looked at it. His eyebrows went up with interest. “The next emission wasn’t set to occur for another week and a half. That’s a very strange coincidence,” he said. Nadovev smiled to himself certain that it was no coincidence at all. The Zone truly was helping them. Stranger things had happened out there. He couldn’t help but chuckle.

            Everyone had found a place to sit down. After a minute or so everyone had gotten their bearings back.

            Ricky’s eyes were full of pent up anticipation. “So, what was your decision?” he asked. Everyone looked at him oddly. “What? I wanna know,” he replied, giving them all a nasty look. Nadovev shook out his neck and stretched his back.

            “I decided not to give it to anyone.” Ricky’s eyes went wide. “I’m going to destroy it instead.” Ricky’s eyes then turned to murder. “I can’t trust anyone with it.”

            “Wait,” Iosif said, putting his hand up, “you can’t do that. I get that you don’t want to give it to anyone because you can’t trust anyone with it. But that thing has the potential to change everyone in the world. By not giving it out in some way, you’re siding with the status quo. You’re basically siding with the very thing that makes you not want to give it out.” Iosif’s eyes were almost pleading with him.

            Nadovev waved him off, “yes, I know that. It is siding with the status quo. But anyone I give it to will make things worse. No good can actually come out of it.”

            “Possibly, but it has the potential to do so much good,” Iosif answered.

            “No, it doesn’t, not right now. Listen… When science has solved a major problem, it has unveiled a new one. Cure a disease and you have a fight over who owns the cure and how it can be given out. Atomic energy was created, only to be turned into a weapon that everyone had to have in case someone else used it first. We got more abundant energy, but then we got the prospect of nuclear war.”

            “So?” Iosif replied almost angrily, “we still need the energy from that thing.”

            “Yes, but at what cost? It took a long time, but I figured out what the problem is. The development of technology has outpaced social development. We’ve created all these new technologies, but our social society can’t use them in a way that won’t turn them into something bad. We need to evolve as a people before we can use this thing in a beneficial way. Our technological development has outpaced our social develop-ment.”

            “Okay,” Iosif said, “I think I get it. The social relations are a product of our productive relations. Since everything is created for private use, and private distribution, there will always be conflict over use and distribution. Always a fight over money and control of that money.”

            Nadovev nodded, “that sounds about right.” Arkady slapped Nadovev on the shoulder with pride.

            “Well,” Iosif said, “I guess I can’t really argue against that. But I need money. I’m here because my family needs it. But, it is what it is.”

            “No! To hell with that,” Ricky said, holding a pistol to Nadovev’s head. Surprise overtook the squad who froze on the spot. Ricky had gotten the drop on them. No one could reach their weapons before he could fire. Sakharov was standing behind Ricky and slowly slipped away. “I came here to get paid! No amount of moral bullshit is going to keep me from it! Now hand over that artifact!” Camera, Arkady, Iosif, and Nadovev put their hands up in surrender.

            Nadovev had a look of utter contempt on his face. Slowly without breaking eye contact with Ricky, he picked up the drawstring bag and handed it to him. Ricky took it cautiously without taking his eyes off Nadovev. The situation was tense. Ricky’s greed and selfishness finally overwhelmed him, forcing him to act irrationally. Nadovev believed from the bottom of his heart that Ricky would shoot them over money. Slowly Ricky began to back away from the rest of the squad, keeping his gun trained on Nadovev’s head.

            “After all that searching and getting shot at, you’d really just destroy this thing wouldn’t you? You’d actually rob us all of this big payday just because your pathetic conscience told you too?” Ricky asked.

            Nadovev with his hands up said, “yeah, sometimes things are more important than you.”

            “Not that you’d understand,” Arkady added in an uncharac-teristic moment of boldness.

            Ricky just sneered at Arkady… and then shot him in the middle of the chest. Arkady fell to the ground clutching at his sternum, blood pumping out of it. His eyes were wide and white with fear. His breathing accelerated as he began to panic. Nadovev dropped down to Arkady’s side trying to help him. He took out a military field dressing and put it to his chest, applying pressure. Arkady began to moan with fearful pain. “Son of a bitch, we gave you the artifact! Why’d you do that!?!”

            For a moment Ricky’s eyes went wide with shock over what he’d just done. But then he gained composure and got angry again. “That’s what you get! When you mess with me, you get messed up! Little shit was always pushing my buttons,” he answered. He began to back away from the squad.

            He saw Camera reaching for his gun and fired a shot at him. He missed and Camera dodged behind a bed. Quickly he pistol whipped Iosif and laid him out across the floor. He scrambled over to catch Camera before he could fire back. Reaching over the bed, Ricky got the pistol aimed directly at Camera’s face.  “Bad move you little asshole,” Ricky said. Camera put his hands up as Ricky cocked the hammer. “I already killed one man today, why not another?” He aimed the gun, then there was the sound of a gun firing.

            Ricky’s eyes rolled back as he fell to the floor with a wet red hole in the side of his head. A meter away Arkady held his side arm aimed at Ricky, gun powder smoke coming out of it. He smiled, then his face went blank and he passed out from blood loss.