Authors: Jamie Marks
“For once he is right,” Sergei said to his general.
* * *
The BMP-2’s back-to-back padded benches began to vibrate in tandem as the powerful three hundred horse powered diesel engine roared into life under their feet. Shapinkov and Konovo sat facing in the opposite direction from Sergei, who leaned forward and looked out from the firing slit directly in front of him. Outside he saw the returning soldiers of the transport flight slowly walk away in the heavy, cold rain.
, he thought. Sergei shook his head in disgust and said, “What about the men who are back from leave? Don’t they get a ride?”
Konovo turned toward Sergei. “What?”
The noise of the engine made talking difficult. “The men back from leave, do they get a ride?”
“I didn’t know you OMON lads were the caring types,” Captain Konovo replied.
Shapinkov cleared his throat as he pretended to search his greatcoat for a packet of cigarettes. Konovo, ever ready, was quick to offer three of his own, foreign-made. He handed one to the general, who thanked him.
“Captain.” He waved a cigarette at Sergei, who shook his head no, as the acting commander lit both the general’s and his own.
“Good man, these things will kill you,” Konovo said to Sergei. He then inhaled deeply as they departed from the airfield, leaving the trudging soldiers behind.
“This is just what I needed after such a long flight,” Shapinkov said as smoke trailed from his nostrils.
“Yes, I can imagine, General. The truth is, I’m trying my best to make this my last packet. My wife Karina doesn’t smoke and I don’t like going outside of the house every time I need one. They’re a sign of weakness she believes. My habits aside, I’m surprised that someone such as you has come all the way down here. The Complex is very near closure, and most of the eggheads have returned home,” Konovo said.
“You must also be looking forward to returning home to Mother Russia, Captain,” Shapinkov said. “Your work here has not gone unnoticed. I am sure big things await you back in Moscow.”
“I am hoping so, sir. Since the border war, things have not been the same in Georgia, but we were lucky even when surrounded. Thanks to some good luck, there wasn’t any fighting here. I believe this was due to our deep connections in the community. However, I know my wife is ready for a move to Moscow, though she is a Georgian citizen.”
“I imagine many of these village women would welcome a move to Moscow, Captain --- it’s a wild land south of the steppe, so I’ve been told. Are there many other men on the base who married local women?” Shapinkov asked. Shapinkov couldn’t help but imagine something akin to the Indian squaws of the Wild West.
“Quite a few of the men have, General. We have a fairly mixed bag here, Georgians and Armenians, also a sprinkle of Russian, Turkish and even German blood.”
“Germans?” Shapinkov said with some astonishment.
“The Germans arrived throughout the Great Patriotic War when the old Soviets used to work prisoners of war here; they used them as slave labor, building roads for working in the mines, and in the oilfields for reparations. Countless of them died, but many also made it back to Germany in 1955 --- but some decided to stay.” Konovo shook his head in mild disbelief and then continued, “And married local girls. I’ve even heard that one of them is still alive today, so don’t be too surprised if you see a few blue-eyed, blonde-haired Georgians running around.”
Both Shapinkov and Konovo laughed. “Anyhow, some of the prisoners were also used to build one of the Soviets’ first biological weapons’ research laboratories. That is why you’re here, it’s the laboratory?”
The general flicked his cigarette to the floor. “You got it in one, Captain.”
“Now I’m beginning to understand,” Konovo said, “but I’m surprised, nevertheless. I wouldn’t have thought that someone like you would be involved in such mundane duties. I mean no disrespect.”
“None taken, Captain. However, my duties don’t concern you,” Shapinkov said as the vehicle came to a stop.
Sergei got to his feet and opened the twin doors of the BMP-2. As he did so, another thunderclap bridged the silence.
“Captain Konovo, I need access to the laboratory facilities immediately,” Shapinkov said.
“Yes, General, I can take you there now, or we could wait for a stop in the rain. I have organized a light meal...”
“No, no, that’s fine, Captain, just have your men escort the way.”
“It is really no problem, General, I’ll escort you. I just thought that with the long flight and the weather we would...”
“Are you deaf, Captain?” Shapinkov said, raising his voice. “Have your men escort me immediately and inform the necessary people of my arrival. I also require Captain Bragin’s overview of the security data logs concerning the last six months --- is that understood?”
“It’s purely precautionary, I assure you, but very important and to your benefit. Now organize my escort, and get to work,” Shapinkov ordered.
* * *
The Laboratory Complex was deep under the ground. The sole exception being a three-meter, high air filtration tower and the elevator housing, with two large paint-flaked metal doors being the single entry point. In the darkness and heavy rain, it was barely noticeable at all.
Inside, two ancient cameras were positioned in opposite corners of the room, leaving the general under no doubts that someone was watching him, if they even worked, he thought.
Then from below, he could feel the shifting of gears and leavers as a bright red, metal blast door several inches thick begin to sink down slowly, deep into the ground.
Behind the red blast door, two elevator doors were opening.
THE RIDE DOWN
When the elevator doors opened, Shapinkov saw a lone man wearing a stark, white, lab coat, which covered his olive military uniform. He was a young man in his thirties with close-cropped hair and a clean-shaven face. He held a red clipboard tightly to his chest with one hand while the other hand was deeply lodged within his pocket, so deep he could have scratched his knee.
“This is an unexpected visit, General,” he said immediately after the elevator door opened. “I’m Doctor Vatutan, the assistant to the Laboratory Complexes director. Captain Konovo, that imbecile on the top deck,” he pointed toward the ceiling and rolled his eyes, “hasn’t been clear why you’ve decided to travel all this way from Moscow to visit our laboratory. Mind you, Captain Konovo’s few attempts at communication and coordination with this project have been far from adequate. I can only conclude the captain believes there may be some security issue. I for one can vouch that there has been no security breach which I am aware of, why should there be? The project is ultra-secret and nearly at a close.”
“I don’t know about any of that, Doctor. I’ve only just met the man myself and have no wish to concern myself with any of your internal misgivings,” Shapinkov replied.
“It’s just that the doctor was very surprised on hearing that we were receiving a visitor from the FSB and at such short notice prior to our closure and departure. I don’t wish to harp on about it, but with only the doctor and me on staff, we’re busy and time poor when it comes to visitors. I find this an unwarranted distraction,” Vatutan said.
“Well, Doctor, it shouldn’t concern you about why I am here, and nor do I care whether you find my presence a distraction. I have not flown from Moscow to deal with you or your petty grievances; have I made my position clear to you, young man?”
“Yes, of course, General, my apologies, I’m very sorry --- I didn’t mean to refer to you as a distraction. I’m just used to dealing with that halfwit above. The man is infuriating.”
Shapinkov cleared his throat.
“Sorry again,” Vatutan said. “We’ll head on down.”
“It won’t take too long, General,” Vatutan said as they began to descend.
The two men stood silently at each other’s side while Vatutan searched for something to say.
“As you may well have noticed, the elevator has no control mechanism of its own due to safety protocols, meaning access to the lower level is reliant on the security office. So even if we wished to, we couldn’t leave the laboratory without base security permitting it. It’s an extra precaution; for if the lower complex is ---” How can I say this without sounding to melodramatic, he thought, “Contaminated. Even though as scientists we know we couldn’t leave a contaminated facility, the basic human desire to survive overrides even the bravest man’s most rational senses. The cameras themselves,” Vatutan pointed to the cameras, “are only found on the upper levels for higher security purposes and do not send any sound. The reason being, in case of an emergency you cannot bargain your way out.”
Shapinkov listened to the young man politely and nodded at what seemed the proper times. He even went so far as to raise his eyebrows on occasion to express some simulated surprise --- but all the while, he watched a camera which was looking down on them both.
The elevator came to a bumpy halt and opened its doors. The two men stepped into a bright, white, passageway, permeated with the smell of chemicals.
A hospital! It smells like a damn hospital, the old general thought as he considered how much he detested that aroma. It brought back memories of when he last saw his wife alive a few months before. The floors were lined with white linoleum that climbed the walls, stopping only a foot from the ceiling. It looked sparse and cold --- devoid of a human touch. The stark whiteness and the feeling of being far down below gave the general chills, and the smell, that smell.
The end of the passage was a large, white, metal door with a biohazard symbol emblazoned across it. “Beyond this door is a totally secret domain, there are no prying eyes here, no more cameras. So for your own and our safety, follow every instruction I give you to the last detail, no matter how trivial it may seem. Safety here is premium. With one mistake, we could stay down here forever, buried under the earth,” said Vatutan.
Shapinkov nodded, and then while Vatutan passed through the door, the general tapped his watch and looked up at the last security camera.
THE SECURITY OFFICE
Sergei watched Vatutan and Shapinkov on a split screen monitor. Next to it were another half a dozen more, each displaying a dual or quad format revealing different areas of the facility --- the motor pool, recreation areas and a myriad of others.
None of the monitors revealed what was behind the white Biohazard door Sergei discerned.
“From this location we can see every square inch of the Complex, Captain, except for the lower levels. Nothing transpires aboveground without me knowing about it, and that’s a guarantee,” Konovo said. “Nothing escapes me,” he added as he continued to watch General Shapinkov and Doctor Vatutan.
“But what happens behind that Bio-door is beyond even my authority, not to say I haven’t tried to gain access; I have – but the old bastard who runs the laboratory complex down in the cellar won’t have anyone peering over his shoulder,” he said. It was a matter that frustrated Konovo to no end.
Konovo glanced at Sergei for a moment. “On a different matter though, and feel free to correct me if I am wrong, Captain, but you don’t seem to like me, do you? Try not to take this too personally, but I get a bad feeling from you. The funny thing is, I swear I’ve seen you before. I can’t put my finger on it. Chechnya maybe? Did you serve there, Captain? If we had met there, or anywhere, I’ll remember, don’t doubt me.”
“I don’t doubt anything you say, Konovo,” answered Sergei as he saw Shapinkov signal him.
The general couldn’t have timed it better. “I need a cigarette.”
“I thought you didn’t smoke.”
“The need comes and goes.”
Sergei walked out of the security office, shutting the door behind him.
On a monitor, Konovo saw Sergei step out into the cold night air and call one of his men to him and motion for a cigarette.
Konovo observed the two men talk for a moment and then closed his eyes; he tried to imagine under what circumstance, or where he would have met a man --- like Captain Bragin, an OMON killer --- no doubt. He considered Chechnya once more, but he had never served with any OMON unit while he was there, not directly anyhow, or by knowledge, he thought.
Konovo opened his eyes once again and was surprised not to see Sergei on-screen. He’d vanished from all of his monitors, along with his men --- where the hell were they? He considered looking outside for them, but then...
“Sir,” said a young conscript, “this has just been sent through. It’s an alert!”
The conscript handed Konovo a fax printed on a yellow sheet of paper. “Thank you,” Konovo said as he began to read.
Sergei was standing out of view of the cameras with his eyes closed. Relax and breathe --- he felt his Bizon weighing against his chest. This was the moment. Reaching into his trouser pocket, he felt for the cold steel of his suppressor.
He fingered the screw-in attachment with his fingertip for a moment and then gripped the suppressor firmly in his hand, while with the other he unclasped his holster and in a fluid moment slid his seventeen shot Yarygin pistol out, and held the synthetic wrap-around grip loosely.
Sergei then delicately screwed the suppressor on. With the Yarygin primed, he opened his eyes.
Captain Yerik Konovo was standing at the center of the security office, facing the door. In his hands, he held a yellow sheet of paper, the facsimile that had appeared only moments before. Sergei saw him change his focus from the facsimile as he entered the room. Konovo’s eyes frantically danced between the pistol in Sergei’s hand, and the pitiless expression displayed on the OMON killer's face.
The yellow fax then slipped from his unsteady fingers and gracefully glided across the floor, finishing at Sergei’s feet, touching the tip of his boot.
“I do know you,” Konovo said having read the alert. “Surely you don’t still blame me for what happened? It wasn’t my fault; I was only a junior officer. It wasn’t my idea to call off the search, but it had been a week; it was using too many resources.”