Best stay out of the light.

Part of the Cold Relics Series - Previous Story: Signal Intercept, Next Story: A Hospital Visitor

The following are email excerpts between “Boris” and “Tyler”

Date: 12/11/20

From: Boris

To: Tyler

Subject: Ukraine Incident

Really, Ty? You still want to do this? I saw your post on the story website, which I’m honestly surprised is still up. Don’t you think it’s really, really time to let it all go so we can move on with our lives? Especially after all that’s happened since the event you called ‘Signal Intercept’. We’re all lucky just to be alive. Best chance to keep it that way is to shut up about it. The Cold War ended thirty years ago now, and I don’t think there’s much left to discover or talk about.

Date: 12/11/20

From: Tyler

To: Boris

Subject: RE: Ukraine Incident

Look, man, we already had our big fight about this back in, what, 2019? You wrote about what happened in Ukraine but never gave any of us the file. How are we supposed to move on unless the rest of us know what went down? Let’s at least get it out there for our readers. Or even just me. It took us two years to plan the trip, and not only did I not go—I also didn’t get anything from you to help me continue my research, regardless if the rest of you don’t care anymore.

Date: 12/16/20

From: Boris

To: Tyler

Subject: RE: Ukraine Incident

All right. Fine. Attached is my recount of the incident. You made me feel compelled to proof read it one more time and relive it, so “thanks.” I really hope enough time has passed, and we’ve all moved around enough since then that no one comes looking for us, if there’s anyone left who might try.

By the way, you’re wrong about me not sharing it with anyone. Kate’s read it. She was actually more demanding about reading it than you’ve been.

[Attached File]

I found myself on the third airplane of a strange trip, the smallest yet and the one that would get us to the closest airport near a tiny Ukrainian village in the height of summer. Sure, it would be hot and we’d be in the middle of nowhere, but I would’ve been thinking the same thing no matter the season.

Why was I doing this? Why had I been drawn into this story? Was I being pulled by some personal ambition, or was there something nefarious behind the scenes that was manipulating a group of aging millennials for their own goals?

This time, it was me and Jack—the guy who until recently, didn’t want to get involved with all of this. I was planning to go alone. I knew it was just going to complicate everything, and at least I knew a good deal of Russian and enough Ukrainian to get around and ask for directions to the bathroom.

He still hadn’t told me just why he wanted to go with me, so I couldn’t work around his intentions. What few reasons he gave me pretty much made it sound like he only wanted to visit for tourist-like reasons. I couldn’t recommend casually seeing the sights, personally. I had visited two years ago myself, not too long after Russia invaded Crimea. Tensions were still not great by then, and I doubted they had gotten much better. The annexation is a complicated political matter in one of the USSR’s former states, and there are even a fair number of local supporters who, for reasons I can’t totally understand, want to go back to the “glory days” of the Union. I warned Jack about the possible instability, among all my other arguments I brought out to dissuade him, but he never backed down.

It’s his money, I guess. I can’t really keep another adult from buying a plane ticket and following me around. The whole thing could be a bust, anyway, and I doubted the village we would be visiting had much in the way of entertainment.

We hadn’t really spoken too much since the flights first started around 36 hours ago, especially not about what we were hoping to find out here, but about an hour before we landed, he became a chatterbox. Summarizing and paraphrasing here, this is more or less how one of our bigger conversations went.

“You checked in with our guide before we left Kiev, right?” he asked me as he looked at the passing landscape outside his window.

I looked up from my laptop screen and told him, “Yeah, he’ll be there.” Jack snickered as he thought about something, for the third or fourth time, so I stared at him and inquired about just what he found so funny.

He looked at me and said, “Okay, I have to ask. Tyler helped set up a lot of this, right? When he first told you about the address of this warehouse, did he think it was in Chernobyl? Or Pripyat? I know Centralia was on his mind when things were happening in Pennsylvania.”

I sighed. “Of course, he did. The loser even typed out, ‘50,000 people used to live here, but then they played killer laser tag’ in an email. But it’s not really that close to those places. This warehouse he tracked down isn’t the same one where the VCR system manual was found, either.”

“Wait, really? I must’ve missed that email. I assumed it was that warehouse.”

“That one’s been picked clean already,” I explained. “This one supposedly has a link to the Belarus factory that might’ve created the laser guns.”

“Oh. I guess I was confused about that part.”

There it was again, more evidence that Jack was out of his element and underprepared for this trip. At that point, I still just had no idea why he wanted to come with me as much as he did.

“You never got your hands on one of those laser guns, right?” he asked me a few minutes later. “Or the vest? Because I have a theory.”

“No, I couldn’t find a set,” I told him. “Not that I looked as hard as I could’ve.”

“What if the guns themselves were mostly normal, but the vests had one of those exotic engine devices inside it, to make them… vaporize the wearer?”

It was obvious which of the “Cold Relic” stories interested Jack the most. But, honestly, I had the same thought many times. Even so, until we had some real proof that the laser tag story was real, and I had some hardware in my hands, there was only so much we could theorize about.

I remember having the thought that when I got home, I should get back to looking for a strange 80s-era laser gun set that had a lethal critical hit feature.

Right after we landed, Jack asked me, for the first time, about my personal family matters in Ukraine a couple years back. I politely declined to talk about it. It wasn’t like it had anything to do with our investigation.

There were only six other passengers on the small plane we flew in on, and we arrived at what was little more than an airstrip. Our guide and driver was waiting for us with his ride: a pale yellow VW Golf from around 1992, maybe one of the first cars sold out here after the wall fell. He was about my age, a few years older at most, and was a local of the place we would be going to. He had a good grasp of English based off the few times I had spoken to him on the phone, and seeing his cavalier and cool attitude told me right away that he saw himself as something of a Slavic hotshot. He also had all sorts of strange and expressive bumper stickers on the back of his car that showed off all the places he had visited across the country and its nearest neighbors. Even after all of those road trips, he always eventually came home to a village of about 400 people.

For the sake of the story, I’ll call him Lazlo. It’s actually not very fitting, but I’m not going to dwell on it. We crammed our suitcases into his small car and we went off down the many roads through the old country that led to the village. Sometimes they were paved and modern, other times, they were nothing but dirt and gravel. We stopped briefly at the last hostel before the village where I had arranged a room for up to three nights, we dropped off most of our luggage, and then we continued down the last ten or so miles of barren, rural roads. All the while, Romanian rock music played on two aging car speakers, as a clear day’s powerful summer sun hit my forehead. It made me almost long for that cold dark blizzard back in Buffalo, spending long nights alone in my old garage surrounded by tech. I should’ve taken some Dramamine.

Lazlo’s village was quaint but pleasant enough, and he attested to the quality of the bread at the only local bakery. We appeased him and bought some food, and I admit, it did satisfy. Of course, as expected, we barely had a cell phone signal out here, so Jack couldn’t give the place five stars no matter how much he tried.

I really didn’t want to waste any time, though, and if there was time for a tour of the village or a quick stop at Lazlo’s place, it could wait until after we learned whether or not the warehouse was worth the trip all the way out here. I liked the guy enough, but I needed a break from his jokes and stories.

Getting to the warehouse would take another fifteen-minute drive down some slow back roads, so the last leg of the trip gave him a chance to fill us in on what little he knew about it. Back in the early to maybe mid-80s, workers would come and go from the place, and it once had an expansive security fence that kept any prying eyes away. Within the last few years, what little was left of that fence had rusted or rotted away, or had been toppled by falling trees.

Jack asked for more specifics about the building itself. Was it still in one piece, or exposed to the elements? How big was it, and what might’ve been stored there? Were their fuel tanks outside of it, or was it serviced by powerlines? But, somewhat to my surprise, Lazlo deflected or played down each question. I think Jack took that as a sign that he was afraid to talk about the place, and the guy had been pretty talkative so far otherwise. But I picked up more of a “he’s hiding something” tone. He had solidly answered one question about the warehouse, though. When asked about its size, he replied by saying, “Big.”

That turned out to be an understatement.

This wasn’t just an ordinary, non-Amazon-sized warehouse. It was bigger than an aircraft hangar, and I think me and Jack were both reminded of the same place upon our arrival. Not all that far from here, a massive containment shed was nearly complete. It would be replacing—and covering the original “sarcophagus” that locked away the destroyed Chernobyl reactor. This building wasn’t as tall as that one, from what pictures I remembered, but it was about as wide.

It didn’t exactly tower over the surrounding trees, and the poor condition of its exterior siding suggested it was over thirty years old, roughly. Its arching roof was painted in greens to make it look like the tops of trees and disguise it, but that couldn’t account for it not appearing as an anomaly on satellite photos.

By the time we had parked as close as we could get to the overgrown gate entrance and gotten out, I had found the Google Maps screen cap I had taken of the area on my phone. None of the forests around the village had been blurred out, so it must’ve just been hidden away with some basic tree copy-pasting instead. That was another reminder that someone was still out there, monitoring locations and paying the bills to make them as invisible as possible in a connected world. But Lazlo grew up here, where the warehouse had always just been a part of the local lore. Not that it was the fun, light sort of urban legend.

As we studied the structure from a distance, Lazlo told us more and made that fact clear. The place still had power, and it emanated an ominous, low hum when the air was still and the trees were quiet enough. Most locals simply avoided the place or just pretended it didn’t exist, because among the few explorers that had gone inside, some never made it back out. Not Lazlo, though, risk-taker that he was. He had gone in several times, and put it out there shamelessly that he had taken scrap and old tech from the place for a small profit. He still wouldn’t tell us what was inside yet, only calling it the “strangest place in the world.”

Then he said something about the lights. There were always odd stories about the lights within the building. So, to be safe, he had never turned them on, instead relying on a flashlight for his ventures inside. He had gotten lost a couple of times, but had so far always found a way out. Me and Jack had come prepared and both had a couple of our own, and I was in no rush to flip any big breakers that would bring the place to life. Not that I had much experience, but that wouldn’t be something real urban explorers would do anyway, right?

We had two big questions. The first, was if he had ever found a laser tag set inside the place. Surprisingly, that was a no. Seemed whoever owned the land had been thorough and made any remaining evidence of their creation disappear. That meant, once again, that we still couldn’t be certain of that first story’s validity. We were disappointed at first, believing this was just another dead end… until Lazlo added that there used to be laser tech inside, long ago. That was a little more promising. I wondered if the site was once used to experiment with light and optical technology.

My second question was if he could get us inside. Sure, he told us, for a little extra money. But since the area still had running security cameras and was presumably monitored, it was safer to sneak in under cover of night. I was hesitant about taking things that far and was hoping to just find anything at all without trespassing and theft, but he convinced me after assuring us that he had gotten in over a dozen times.

After setting up our plans to be picked up at midnight, me and Jack were dropped off at the hostel, where we got some dinner, rested up, and talked.

I was still ready to forget all of this and head home, if he wanted to. But he insisted we go through with it. I asked him again why this was so important, when we could very well be in danger already, just by being here. He had a wife and a little kid at home. He liked a good Cold War-era James Bond movie, but he wasn’t into the tech or scientific aspects of the stories.

He mostly avoided the question and instead shared his fascination with the giant building we had just seen, remarking that it didn’t look like it had been built to simply house something, but rather, like its possible counterpart in Chernobyl, it was made to keep something inside. I just asked him to try and keep any theories realistic. We weren’t dealing with any supernatural monsters here.

Okay, so maybe the rabbit’s true form had come close, but it couldn’t exist outside of the mind, and could only roam free through electrical signals.

“Well,” Jack replied, “maybe the building is containing a signal.”

I was surprised he had thought of that before I did. Maybe I had misjudged him a bit.

I debated whether or not to take things up a notch later, when we were waiting for Lazlo to pick us up, but ultimately decided that there was nothing wrong with some extra safety when visiting a strange place, this one especially.

“And what is it that thing?” Jack asked me once I had taken out a rather unique device.

Unlike my tablet, phone, or laptop, all of which he found everyday ordinary, this last piece of tech had garnered his interest.

As I checked to make sure it still worked, I answered, “Dosimeter. I already had one and figured I’d take it, just in case.”

“That has something to do with radiation, right?”

“It tracks the dosage you’ve received.”

“But you didn’t bring me one…” He looked more disappointed than worried.

“I wasn’t even thinking about using it until you kept mentioning Chernobyl. We are in the path of the original fallout.” That got him a little worried, but I replied with a smirk, “I’m sure it’s safe by now. Still, who knows what they’ve got in that building, right? There could be x-ray machines, radioactive waste, maybe it even just sealed up some irradiated dust from the original reactor fire.”

He replied, sardonically, “Well… Lazlo says he’s been there plenty, and he hasn’t grown an extra arm yet.”

“If you really do have any concerns, just stay by me and it’ll cover the both of us,” I assured him and pocketed the ‘handy’ survival tool.

“I’m not some urban explorer,” Jack told me. “I would’ve stuck by you anyway.”

I realized that if I actually had any real worries about radioactive particles, I would’ve brought gloves and masks. I think I mostly just wanted to hear the dosimeter click a few times. I had bought it off eBay years ago and never really got a chance to try it out.

Lazlo picked us up at 11:30, brought us back through the village, and got us close to the massive building again—at least we assumed so, seeing as how it was a moonless, cloudy, dark night and the place had no exterior lights. Jack started having second thoughts after our guide got out of the car and lit up a footpath leading down an embankment.

Turned out he was more afraid of Lazlo mugging us, maybe with the rest of his “gang” at his side. I calmed him down a bit but told him to feel free to stay in the car. I was still going in, though, because I had already paid the guy a good chunk of change in advance for this very unique tour.

Jack’s hesitation didn’t last long, not that his trust issues weren’t unwarranted given where we were at this time of night. But Lazlo came through, slipping us past any security cameras and remaining fencing. The entrance he brought us to was the best, safest one that he had found, if not a little unconventional. Our way in was through a decrepit loading bay where trucks might have once delivered strange and exotic hardware. He pulled up a rusted old shutter rollup door and held it high enough for us to duck under. Our flashlights lit up an empty warehouse, its air cold and still. Lazlo crawled in and let the shutter drop behind him. Once he double-checked the backpack he had brought to carry away anything he might’ve considered valuable on his scavenger hunt, we set off deeper into the building. He had hyped up the place, so I assumed it had more to see than just a series of big storage rooms with nothing left to discover.

What actually made up most of the space was something I never would’ve expected, and I got why Lazlo couldn’t really say anything about it earlier. Down a long hallway and past two bulkhead doors, like those you would find on a ship, was an incredible time capsule, in size, scope, and detail.

It was pitch-black inside, other than our beams of light, and the first thing that they hit and illuminated was… asphalt. A street, with yellow stripes, flanked by sidewalks. Our guide swept his light across the area to show us more, and I was left speechless at first. It wasn’t as if this type of place didn’t exist elsewhere on Earth. I had seen the fake avenues and city façades of Disney World and Universal Studios back when I visited Florida.

But, here in rural Ukraine, within an enormous enclosure, was a replica of a small American town’s Main Street. It looked like a movie set, slightly too clean with too few imperfections. It even had a movie theater that looked straight out of Back to the Future’s Hill Valley, which we had come out near—the bulkhead door entrance was in a small alleyway between the fake cinema and a police station.

Lazlo looked like he was rather enjoying showing us Americans this bizarre place, while Jack kept as quiet as I was. But we weren’t so stupefied that we couldn’t at least move our lights about and take in this Faux-America giant set piece. The movie theater, which had glass doors but nothing but a solid black wall a few feet behind them, even had posters under its marquee, which was complete with inactive neon lights. Those posters let us in on the year this place was created.

The Empire Strikes Back, The Blue Brothers, Airplane!, Smokey and the Bandit II, Raging Bull, and the original Friday the 13th.

Jack nailed it a split second before I did and said out loud, “1980.”

“Aye, the classics, right?” Lazlo said with a laugh. “There’s mostly nothing inside the buildings, I’ve looked. Let’s walk. I’ll tell you what I know.”

It was at this point that I snapped out of my stupor and remembered that I had a dosimeter on me. Lazlo and Jack watched as I took it out of my pocket and clipped it onto one of my shirt pockets.

“I never thought of checking for radiation…” Lazlo mentioned.

“Well, it’s not clicking,” I observed. “So we should be okay.”

He seemed relieved about that, probably glad that he hadn’t repeatedly exposed himself to some rays throughout all of his scavving treks in here.

As we journeyed down the road, and I assumed to the other end to see all that there was to see and get the most out of my money, I made notes on my phone of the kinds of buildings I was seeing, the pixel screen glowing out into darkness pretty much the only thing reminding me of the actual decade.

Every style of building was made to look like it belonged in 1980, from a diner, to five mom and pops, a family restaurant, a TV news studio, and even a video arcade. A clothes store displayed era-appropriate outerwear in its window, in pristine condition, and a row of townhouses looked good enough for middle-class occupants. Me and Jack had a laugh when we saw a “Gentleman’s Club” next to a bar on the way as well, since it didn’t really fit in with the rest of family-friendly venues. But I suppose the builders were going for variety here. I knew it surely one-upped the fake Kiddie Land shadow box in Pennsylvania, back when it existed—not that I ever got a chance to see it. But were the two places connected in anyway?

My first guess about the purpose of this site, was that it felt like some sort of Soviet training ground, where soldiers of the USSR could go to live out invasion fantasies. Meaning Red Dawn might’ve been a little closer to reality after all.

The place was in such great shape that I was surprised to learn from Lazlo that it didn’t always used to be enclosed. He was older than us, born in ’78, and had some foggy, early childhood memories about seeing the site from a distance, back when the fake town was under the sun and trucks full of army guys and engineers went out here in the morning and came back at sunset. By 1983, those workers or recruits or whoever they were only took up a single truck each day, while the enclosure was being built. Once the Soviets sealed the town away, it must’ve started serving another purpose for different people, as by then only unlabeled black vans ever went to it. All traffic ceased by the time the wall fell in 1989 and everything changed in the region. Eventually, Ukraine’s new government took over the site, closed it down, and painted the fake canopy on the roof. Lazlo snuck in for the first time soon after, while most of the village put the place in the back of their mind and didn’t venture near it.

By the time an RBMK reactor farther south blew its lid, the fake town was well protected from the fallout, so it probably had only very minimal traces of radioactive dust. Wearing my dosimeter seemed even more pointless.

The street ran for maybe a quarter mile, and at the other end of the site, it ended at a city hall sort of building, complete with an unmoving American flag.

As much as Lazlo liked to explore the main attraction when he could, his scav runs were really just relegated to the surrounding smaller buildings, or storage bays, or the control room. That last one piqued my interest—but he said it wasn’t that special, and was little more than switches for the lights and a couple of antiquated computers, now gone. He pointed up to the second-floor windows of the town hall, explaining that behind them was the site’s control room.

That reminded me that I had brought one more piece of gear with me. The other two showed some patience as I took out a handheld radio and checked every AM and FM frequency. It was all just dead air. Whatever few stations were nearby couldn’t seem to breach the containment walls. Jack knew what I was looking for, but Lazlo just gave me curious looks. I didn’t bother to explain, but there was one more thing I was immediately still wondering about. This place had benches and even fake trees in front of its buildings, but the street lights were very… strange.

There were about a dozen of them down each side of the street, and while they looked like sidewalk lamps that normally wouldn’t have been too much taller than a person, these versions reached the same height as the sodium-vapor lights that typically lit up highways. They had long, lanky, solid black poles that held up multi-faceted crystal spheres maybe thirty or so feet in the air, which scattered out our flashlight beams like a prism. While everything else here was accurately and fittingly designed, the streetlights were unlike anything I had seen. Jack and Lazlo knew they stood out as well, with our guide stating that he had never seen them active.

“You hear things about the lights,” he emphasized a previous word of caution. “That’s why I’ve never turned them on, not once.”

If the lights really were somehow dangerous and responsible for the supposed disappearances of explorers, then just what were they emitting?

“Are you saying the lights, what, kill people?” Jack wondered. “But you’ve been in here plenty of times. Wouldn’t you have seen, you know… bodies?”

“No bodies,” Lazlo said in a serious tone. “They were experimenting with light, optic tech, sure, but I don’t know the extent of it, or why they constructed this urban setting. Whatever they do to people, nothing’s left behind.”

I took that as our queue to leave. Fascinating as the place was, I believed I had seen everything it had to offer, and I wasn’t interested in getting lost in its confines with dying flashlights. My plan was to go to Lazlo’s place, have a chat, learn whatever there was left to learn about the compound—and ask about any documents or shipping manifests he might’ve scrounged up or found that might point us to a next step, and then leave in the morning.

But, nothing could ever be simple. Lazlo told us that there no exits on this end, so we’d have to go all the way back to where we started to get out. Right after we turned our backs on the town hall to start that trek, we all heard a subtle sound reverberate throughout the containment unit. It was similar to the dull poof noise emitted by a camera flash, or powerful stadium lights being turned on. We probably wouldn’t have heard it if the place wasn’t already dead quiet.

“Crap,” was the first thing Lazlo uttered. He followed up with a few stronger words once he looked up, high above us.

We could suddenly see the ceiling, about a hundred feet up, made of segments of metal panels. Lights were warming up, pointing at the arching ceiling to diffuse and spread out the already dim illumination which left the town below in darkness. Our guide did not look at all pleased, and he backed up and turned his eyes to the control room beyond the town hall’s second floor windows.

“There’s someone in there,” he told us. “It’s the only place where you can turn on the lights.”

“Authorities?” Jack fretted. “Or security?”

“Never seen anyone like that here. Only other explorers.” Lazlo seemed to weigh the options in his head for just a moment, before waving his arms and calling up to the window. “Hey!” he shouted, “Turn them off!”

There was no response. Maybe whoever was up there, if we really weren’t alone, couldn’t even hear us. Lazlo quickly gave up on attracting attention and looked at us with a nervous gaze.

“We have to leave, right now. Come on. Hurry.”

“Are the lights really that dangerous?” Jack asked him.

“We’ll be okay,” our guide replied and started walking. “As long as the streetlights don’t…”

No such luck. No sooner had we taken a few steps had the entire town begun to come to life, like someone had just flipped the main breaker for a carnival—only minus the creepy carousel music. Every light up and down the road quickly warmed up, in a variety of warm iridescent and multi-colored neon. Every window lit up into a yellow square, while the glow of the storefronts poured onto the street. Far off, at the other end of the road, the fake theater even had blinking chaser lights. But the street lamps… They were something else entirely.

Almost hypnotizing at first, actually.

The crystal orbs at the top of every post were luminous, and produced strange pink and purple halos on the eye when they hit at just the right angle. Their light didn’t touch everything; the posts were all separated enough to leave some darkness between them. But what was there wavered and had a sort of unsteadiness, and a gradually dimming radiance until the area of influence suddenly terminated at a sharp outer edge, which had a thin sheen of more pink and purple, like the chromatic aberrations you see in photos. In other words, the lights looked like bright bubbles that had trapped their illumination. That light hit the sidewalk and streets, but only barely touched the sides of buildings, meaning most of the dim ambience in the place came from windows and neon signage. I was fascinated, but Lazlo only let out a few more expletives.

“It’s the streetlights we have to avoid,” he grumbled, from the apparent safety of the shadows we had yet to leave. “Some idiots must be out here, messing with hardware they don’t know anything about.”

“If the lights are so dangerous, maybe we should just wait until they go off?” Jack suggested. “Whoever else is here can’t stick around forever.”

It wasn’t the worst idea, but Jack wasn’t asking the obvious question. I checked that my dosimeter was still on, and was prepared to get close to one of the “bubbles” to see how much radiation it was putting out. If it sounded bad, I’d step away immediately, of course—I wasn’t looking to get myself cooked.

“The lights aren’t ionizing,” Lazlo said, like he was either reading my mind or just very observant. “That isn’t what’s wrong with them.”

He clearly knew a lot more than he had let on. But I was willing to give him a shot at guiding us out of here before trying to wrestle anything else out of him concerning this place’s history.

The strange light bubbles all merged into each other in the middle of the street, like the overlapping areas of a Venn diagram. If we went right down the center of the road, we could get past each pair of lights with a single good running leap, but we’d also get a double exposure to the glow. Would that still be a better option than going through a single orb’s light, but needing another second or two to get across the wider affected area?

I asked Lazlo which was the better option. He gave me a third one.

“No, we’re avoiding the lights entirely. We need to get on top of the buildings, or go through them if we have to.”

“But I thought you said you’ve never seen the lights on before,” Jack questioned. “How do you know for sure how dangerous they are?”

Lazlo looked like he really did not want to answer that, and after struggling to find a good response, he only told us, “Just trust me. Don’t go through them.”

So, great. We would have to traverse over the fake buildings. That meant that we’d first need to climb up onto the nearest one, and then we’d have to leap over the alleys between the rest. All while surrounded by near total darkness, since none of the lamps really lit up anything other than Main Street. I looked around and spotted the shape of a dumpster by the pool hall on the right.

But if getting out of here safely would really take so much effort, I at least wanted to get a closer look at the strange light, to maybe get some idea just how it was being produced, or why it wasn’t safe. Not wanting to waste time with anymore arguing, I cautiously walked up to the edge of one of the bubbles, and Jack was close behind me—much to the disdain of Lazlo, of course. My repeated assurances that I wouldn’t go into the sphere did nothing to assuage the guy. He was starting to sound damn well terrified about the idea of even just getting close to the lamps.

The glow had a bleaching effect on anything it touched, draining most of the color from the side of the building walls and the yellowed, rotting 1980 newspapers in the vending machines—which must’ve been imported from America. Any object or structure past the glow also appeared desaturated as the photons that bounced off of their surfaces reached our eyes. This effect became more intense the closer we go to the lights; from a distance, the colors had barely changed. This technology was something else, otherworldly.

“How do you think they work?” Jack asked me.

“No idea…” I muttered back and took a knee to get a closer look at something. “You see that?” I said, pointing to some damage in the sidewalk under the light—and making sure my hand didn’t go through the bubble.

There were huge, lengthy claw marks in the concrete, like a really strong bear had tried to dig and tear its way into it.

“Were those… always there?” Jack wondered.

It was a peculiar immediate response, but he did actually have a point. The three of us had swept over pretty much everything with our flashlights on our way in, and I couldn’t remember seeing any claw marks. I figured we would’ve stopped to investigate if damage like that had stood out in an otherwise pristine place.

“Boris…” Jack spoke up again after a few seconds. “Your… radiation thing…”

I hadn’t even noticed. My dosimeter was clicking. It was slow and steady, so I wasn’t too concerned about my exposure just yet, but it was the first time it had picked up anything. Of course, I just assumed it was the light that I was so close to, putting out some weak alpha or beta rays.

Then I realized something else. It had been difficult to see in the monochrome light, but there was a thin layer of dust or dirt on top of the street and sidewalk—and, for some reason, its coverage only extended as far as the glow did. Just outside the outer pink layer of the bubble, there was no dust at all.

“I keep telling you, the lights are dangerous!” Lazlo said angrily after coming up behind us. “You shouldn’t even come this close to them. Now, let’s go.”

It looked like us two Americans had satisfied enough of our curiosity for the moment, so we backed off and started on our escape route. Not that I couldn’t think about much of anything else other than what those lamps were made out of, and how they produced their light.

I got one more good look around before we started on what must’ve been the craziest way out of the imitation town. But it wasn’t that far. Maybe a thousand feet, across a strange space. I had seen mall corridors longer than that.

Lazlo didn’t seem at all relieved when the two of us joined him at the dumpster—he must’ve still been too worried about getting out. Despite his anxiety, and me trying to not be a total asshole to our guide, I couldn’t keep myself from opening the dumpster lid and giving it a peek inside. Just in case there were any remaining halves of manuals to killer laser tag sets or haunted VCR game systems.

“What are you doing?” Lazlo asked me, in a justifiably angry tone. “Stop messing around! We have a long way to go.”

“I just wanted…” I trailed off, since there was really no point in even bringing up my personal obsession with finding a next clue. I looked back at the town hall’s second story window and put out a suggestion. “Any chance we can just climb up there and get into the control room?”

“No, and the window’s bullet proof. Can you start trusting me?”

Well, not completely. Even so, I gave him a nod, and we began taking turns climbing up onto the roof of the pool hall, which involved getting on top of the dumpster, reaching to one of the second floor’s windowsills, pulling ourselves up, then standing on that sill and doing the same thing to get onto the roof, all without falling off backwards and risking a broken bone.

Lazlo went first and had no problems, as he was in good shape. Jack went next, and he managed to do it with some effort. I’m not in peak physical fitness, and only just recently quit smoking—sort of; I still had one a day sometimes. I did manage to get up onto the roof without embarrassing myself, though I had my concerns about jumping the first gap to get to the next building.

“Good,” Lazlo huffed. “But we can’t stop. The sooner we get out, the better.”

“You make it sound like… something’s going to come after us,” Jack said, as a way to not-so-subtly ask if that was actually the case.

He didn’t even bother to respond. He got on top of the roof’s parapet, checked to make sure he had good balance, and without hesitating, picked up some speed and made the five-foot-long jump to the top of the neighboring tavern. He made it look easy.

Jack gave himself a bit of a personal pep talk, and after a deep breath, did his own running leap across the buildings. It was clumsy compared to Lazlo’s stab at it, but if Jack could pull it off without losing his balance, falling into the light below, and cracking his skull, then I knew I had a chance. Once he landed and cleared the way, I went through with my attempt. As I ran across the parapet, I glanced over to my left to see that I was just inches from the spherical glow, while the top of the lamp itself was still some ten feet higher than all of these rooftops. If only we could turn them off.

I made my jump and planted my feet solidly on the next building, with room to spare. Like Jack, I needed a moment on top of the tavern to recover, and I took the chance to glance around again. From the roof, I could more easily see that the buildings had little depth to them, only going about half as far back as they would if they were the real thing. It was like they were all bisected by the tall metal barrier which surrounded the town.

And as I looked behind me, at the containment walls, I noticed a dark shape in the back corner of the tavern roof. Some sort of misshapen lump. I wandered over and used my phone screen’s light to make it out. It was a lab coat. I couldn’t find an ID card attached, or in any of its pockets, but when I held it up, my heart just about started beating out of my chest.

The back of the lab coat had been torn to shreds, and the damage to the cloth was surrounded by dried blood. Even despite my rising concern, I remember thinking about being disappointed that it lacked any identification for whatever scientist or engineer it belonged to. Something like that really could’ve given us a solid lead on who these people or organizations were.

With the discovery, I was ready to confront Lazlo about just what might be lurking in the place, but he and Jack were already making the leap to the pawn shop next door. I dropped the coat, got up on the next parapet, and made my second jump before they could begin yelling at me for falling behind.

“Good,” Lazlo said after I got back to them. “We just keep doing this until we get to the exit. I know that this is insane, but it is the only safe way out.”

“All right, enough, man…” I spoke over him and tried to keep my temper under control. “I just found a lab coat on the other roof that looked like the result of a starving grizzly bear attack. And the damn thing must have claws made of metal, because we both saw what it did to the pavement down there, too.”

Lazlo stared at the two of us, but still looked like he had no intention of telling us anything. I took a step towards him and took on a pissed expression, although I wasn’t used to intimidating people. I could tell that I was making Jack worry, but he wasn’t about to try and get answers, so I had to be the aggressive one here. By this point, I knew our lives were on the line.

“This is working for us,” Lazlo told me after a few stressful seconds. “When we’re safe, I’ll tell you everything, I promise.”

It didn’t occur to me until I had a moment to think, but I realized that the dosimeter had let out a few clicks when I was holding up the lab coat. It must’ve also gotten a light dusting of radioactivity.

Right about then, I went into a heightened state, like entering survival mode, and I can remember the two thoughts I had as the adrenaline started flowing.

Where the hell were we, and what’s trapped in here with us?

But, fine, we’d do it Lazlo’s way and focus on getting out first. I went ahead and got ready for another jump with the others. The next building was a book store, and it was a bit higher than the first two, which would make it harder to get onto. I could picture myself not quite making it and being forced to hang onto the side, where I’d flail about while trying to climb over.

“Wait, hold on,” Jack suddenly whispered to us from the corner of the roof, where he was looking down at the street, one hand raised in the air. “Get down.”

“Is someone coming in?” Lazlo asked, and then heard the same distant footsteps I did. “Damn it. Hide. Could be anyone.”

We did so, taking cover behind the parapet. We could be sharing the space with someone dangerous for all we knew. Security, police, armed drunks looking to cause some mayhem or loot the place. We had better odds just staying out of their way. And I still felt like we had never really been alone in here.

We waited until we saw two guys come in, not much older than me and Jack. They had ratty clothing, but must’ve spent any money they earned on their nice sneakers and the GoPros that were strapped to their shoulders. They looked like amateur urban explorers, and my guess was that they had never been here before. I was also fairly certain that they had a few drinks or got hopped up on something before coming out here late at night, based on the way they were stumbling about and laughing at each other’s stupid jokes.

When they got a little closer, I could make out that they were speaking German; by chance, we weren’t the only tourists here tonight, but unlike this pair, we had done the smart thing and hired a guide. Regardless of how they had heard about the warehouse, if that’s what I could even call it anymore, they might’ve now been a threat to our own lives what with their bumbling around.

“Idiots…” Lazlo growled as we watched them strut right down the middle of the street, and through the lights.

They must’ve noticed the strange lamps, as they pointed up at them and stared, but they were more interested in filming one another and laughing than taking a second to consider how abnormal all of this had to be.

“They’re walking in the lights,” Jack said. “What’s going to happen?”

“Nothing good,” Lazlo told us. “Keep your heads down.”

Jack looked at the two hapless adventurers who had no idea where they were, then back at Lazlo and replied, “We can’t just sit here and watch.”

“You want to get us killed? They’re on their own.”

Jack glared at him for just a moment before standing up and waving with both of his arms to attract the attention of the tourists.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Get out of the light!”

I watched as they came to a stop right in the middle of one of the glowing spheres, no doubt the worst place to be. They looked around in a stupor and quickly spotted Jack. Their reaction to finding another explorer among them was to point up, laugh, and tell another joke to each other.

“Stay away from the lights!” Jack continued, but it was clearly futile.

They shouted back up in German and fiddled with their cameras, maybe trying to get them to zoom in on the “stupid American.” Lazlo was staying low, like he still felt compelled to hide—that was another clue to me that there really was something else in here, some sixth entity.

Since Jack wasn’t getting anywhere, I got to my feet, went to his side, and yelled down using what little German I knew. I was fairly certain that I had at least gotten my message across about the lights, and to avoid them, and that they should leave this place right away. It didn’t come to any surprise that they didn’t want to listen to me, either. One of them even lit a cigarette as they got back to walking, filming, and mindlessly chattering. It looked like they had gotten bored of our warnings and were ready to completely ignore us.

Maybe if Lazlo had been open with us and just told us one single reason the lights were so dangerous… If there was something specific I could’ve shouted to them… Ah, hell. They were never going to listen to us, anyway… Right?

I gave up on shouting some sense into the two as they left the glow, seemingly without harm. They then passed by a second, and then third pair of the lamps like it was nothing, and kept walking, making a few stops on the way to film the buildings. They were getting closer to us, and I was beginning to expect that they’d walk right under and by us, laughing all the way and making us feel like a bunch of lunatics.

I turned to Lazlo and exclaimed, “What the hell, man? They’re fine; nothing’s happening. What are we even doing up here?”

Lazlo shook his head, opened his mouth to speak, but then instead walked over and joined us at the edge of the roof, although he still kept his head down. The Germans were only a few street lights away from the pair near us, and I figured we were about to end up in their coming YouTube video under a caption calling us the drunk explorers that they ran into on the way.

“Maybe…” I heard Lazlo murmur. “Maybe it’s not…”

Something moved in the corner of my eye, near the first set of lights not far from the movie theater and entrance. A dark shape, which moved so quickly that is was gone by the time I had looked over. It had passed through the glow of the lamps, which rendered it colorless, if it had any colors to begin with. But I couldn’t even be sure that I had really seen it at first, and didn’t say anything.

“No…” Lazlo said, and I noticed that he was staring in the same direction. “It is…”

“What are you talking about?” Jack exclaimed. “What’s in here?”

The object, or creature, hit my peripheral again, and I looked away from Lazlo—just barely missing my chance to see it running through a light a second time.

But, wait—if it was sprinting right down the street… then why couldn’t I see it? Did it have some sort of optical camouflage that let it blend in with the darkness between the lights? Was it even really there, physically?

I only had a second or two to even think about it, before I saw it again in the light, this time getting a chance to burn its shape into my mind as it ran in a full stride like a predator going for the kill. I didn’t get enough time to see it in good detail, but it actually did take the shape of a great cat, and was no smaller than a fully-grown Siberian tiger. It must’ve been running at fifty miles an hour, at least. And as it got closer to us, I could feel its rhythmic, heavy impacts on the asphalt getting heavier. Equally strange: the sound and tremors of its feet also completely disappeared when it was in the space between the lights.

“Run!” Jack shouted to the two down below, showing no concern for our own safety.

“Too late…” Lazlo said to himself, just above a whisper.

The tourists barely even have a chance to turn around and look back at the beast bearing right down on them. By the time they faced it, it had already covered the remaining distance between them. It was now no wonder that Lazlo was so afraid of what lurked in here, if it turned out he had actually seen it before. It would be impossible to out-run on foot.

But the beast actually came to a sudden stop, just a few feet from the two explorers. It was in the light, and they were in the nearby darkness. Was it that it couldn’t exist when it wasn’t being bathed in that strange glow? It wasn’t that it was just invisible without it… It was more like it was somewhere else entirely. It was the light itself that gave it form and made it real.

The two froze in place and briefly studied the creature as a look of befuddled terror spread across their faces. It stared back at them, almost without a sound—only some sort of metal creaking emanated from its body.

Yes, metal. As it patiently stood still in a hunting position under one of the lights that also touched the edge of our building’s roof, we all got a good look at the thing from above. It was not at all organic, and was designed to emulate an actual great predator in only the most basic of ways. Still, it really did have a cat-like posture, and looked closer to a tiger than anything else. A robotic war machine, with sharp, serrated claws and jagged plates of solid steel armor, their edges jutting out in strange, oblong angles. I couldn’t see its eyes from up above it, but I had seen enough to make it obvious to me that nothing like the mechanical monster should exist. No government had reason or means to build it—at least, not yet. It was too advanced, too many moving parts…

It was like… it didn’t even belong in this world. Much less in an enclosed fake town in rural Ukraine. Could human hands actually manufacture such a thing?

“S-stay out of the light!” Jack shouted down to the two, as he did his best to keep his own eyes off of the beast, I think to keep himself from breaking down in fear. “U-um… Licht. Nein licht!

Unfortunately… Despite Jack’s efforts, his pleas were ignored.

As sharp metal teeth bore down on them, our fellow explorers cried out and split up—they must’ve had different ideas in mind for their attempts at getting to safety. The taller of the two, in a brown jacket, took off in the opposite direction, towards the town hall. His friend, who was carrying a backpack that must’ve held their gear, instead stayed in the darkness and ran to the side of our building, maybe looking for a place to hide.

The mass of lethal metal turned its head towards the backpacker for a moment, but then decided to pursue the one straight ahead, running straight through the lights and in a panic to get away. It crouched down, some hydraulics shifted, and after a sound similar to an air brake went off, it leapt out of the glowing sphere and vanished into the darkness.

Less than a full second later, we saw it running full-stride through the next light, and then the next. Its target had no chance. As he was sprinting through the lights only several lamp posts away from the town hall, he looked back… just in time to see a mechanical nightmare lunging at him, emerging and taking shape from nothing but thin, dark air.

The beast opened its jaws, crunched down on its victim’s shoulder, and carried him out of the light. Jack was frozen in place and I was in shock, but I couldn’t move my eyes away, and I fully expected to see the monster pass through the following lights, with a flailing body in its mouth. But it didn’t show up. Somewhere between the lamps, it had turned sharply, or somehow, simply… chosen to go elsewhere, and take its prey with it. God knows where he was taken. Poor bastard.

His friend began to have a panic attack, but it looked like he now understood the danger of the lights. He scrambled into the darkness and safety of the nearby alleyway. With Jack still in a petrified state and Lazlo unwilling to do much of anything, I ran over to the side of the building and tried to help the survivor. There was a metal trash can that he could get on top of, and if I could reach down with my arms, I thought I might be able to pull him up.

I got his attention, leaned over the parapet, and dangled my arms down as he got onto the metal lid, his desperation causing him to nearly lose his balance on the can that wobbled under him. But our hands were a good three or four feet apart. I looked back and asked for help from the other two, but only Jack snapped out of it and responded.

He came over, saw what we were trying to do, and quickly suggested that the guy remove his backpack and hold it over his head—if I could grab onto its straps, I might be able to pull him up, while Jack held on and kept me from going over. He managed to pass on the message to the person we were trying to save with just another two basic German words, and it was starting to look like we’d actually have a chance to pull him up once he took off his pack, held it above his head, and began jumping, all while keeping the trash can from falling over; an impressive feat considering that he had come in here inebriated.

On his fourth jump, I managed to grab onto the strap and got him into the air, although it was only the adrenaline—and Jack holding me back that gave me the strength to begin pulling him up. Slowly, the guy and his backpack got closer to the roof. I really thought that it was going to work.

Until… that metal creature emerged from the shadows again, stepping into the nearest light like a cat on the prowl. As much as it frightened me, I figured it wouldn’t be able to do anything to us as long as we stayed in the darkness.

The problem was, the thing possessed some form of intelligence, and was especially aggressive, or territorial. It turned its gaze towards us, took a few seconds to think about its next move, and proceeded to ram its entire body into the lamp post. The impact was strong enough to rip two of its industrial rivets off of the ground, and the pole began to lean—but its light didn’t even flicker.

It was quickly obvious what it was trying to do, and upon realizing it himself, the tourist we were trying hard to rescue began to panic even more. I tried to pull him all the way up, I really did, but… Damn it. I just didn’t have enough time.

That machine bashed into the pole a second time, and it toppled over, bringing its glow with it and filling the alleyway with light. It crashed into the side of the next building, and was so heavy that it took out much of its wall—which was little more than plywood. As the roof partially collapsed as well, the explorer lost his balance, let go of the backpack, and fell to the ground.

He didn’t even have a chance to recover before the machine had leapt onto the pile of broken wood, then lunged at him and dragged him away by his legs. He kicked, cried out, and tried to free himself, but there was nothing he could do against the tons of force crushing his shins. In a matter of seconds, he had been dragged away into the darkness, leaving only his backpack behind.

Before I could fully process what had just happened, I got yanked backward by Lazlo, who had also grabbed Jack in the same motion. He pulled us out of the light that was now spreading across half of the rooftop—I hadn’t even really realized that it had been bathing me. It caused a tingling sensation on my skin and was making my dosimeter go off, but otherwise didn’t feel too strange.

The three of us had the expected argument, I tossed around the word “coward” a few times in Lazlo’s direction, he told us that we tried our best but that the two were probably dead the moment they came inside with the lights on, and that we had to focus on our own survival. After we had a few minutes to cool off and try to get past what we had just witnessed, we got back to working on an escape plan.

As fast as that thing was, we figured that we’d at least be able to jump onto a part of the next roof that wasn’t damaged and not get grabbed in midair. There was no telling where it was lurking in the shadows, but as long as we were running and jumping at full speed, high above the ground… we should be safe.

We were making Lazlo go first again. The two of us didn’t say it, but it was the least he could do after not even trying to help save someone else’s life.

We moved to the back of the building, right up against the containment wall and at the end of the alley, giving us some needed distance from where the mechanical beast might be lurking. We knew that if it was actually waiting on the roof of the building we were jumping onto, at least one of us would probably be screwed.

Laz ran and leapt across and over the alley, passing through the toppled light’s glow for a few dangerous feet. He landed on the book store’s rear corner on the other side, safely. Jack hesitated more than he had on the previous two jumps and looked around for any sign of the monster, before also making the hop over. Thinking we were okay, I didn’t expect that my own jump would go badly.

I ran across the back parapet, flush against the containment wall, and only saw the danger a split second before I took to the air, when it was already too late to stop or change course. The beast was charging down the alley, and jumped when I did. I could see its jaws and its bright red eyes, glaring at me like a sinister pair of car tail lights. I felt a surge of fear and icy adrenaline mid-air, and it was like time froze for a moment as I stared at the thing. Its calculations seemed dead on, and it looked like it would slam right into me, then drag me off into the other place by teeth or claw.

But Jack was there for me, at the edge of the broken roof of the bookstore. He had outstretched his arms, and I noticed at the last possible moment of my jump and managed to grab onto them. Risking his own life, he yanked and pulled me forward, upping my momentum just enough. The jaws of the beast brushed at my back, and in the following seconds, it had rammed its head into the containment wall, dropping to the ground like a ton of bricks, and then began thrashing around in the narrow alleyway in its efforts to right itself.

We didn’t fare much better. Maybe it was the combined weight of all three of us, or my hard, messy landing, or both, but the flimsy bookstore roof really couldn’t take any more punishment, and about half of what remained of it collapsed under our feet. Surrounded by debris, which included styrofoam of all material—I think it was padding between two thin sheets of plywood that made up the roof—we fell on our asses down onto the second floor. And we didn’t even really get a chance to see it, since the also-damaged floor also broke below us.

We hit the lowest level, and I landed right on top of the remnants of the collapsed wall. The drop was painful enough, but to make it even worse, it felt like a big splinter had just punctured my leg, and it pretty much immobilized me. Just feet away was the machine, still trying to get off its back as it tossed about, its claws flailing wildly and looking like they could cut my head right off if they made impact. The toppled light’s glow filled up half the fake bookstore, and I had maybe only seconds to get out of it and to safety.

I couldn’t count on Lazlo again, though—he had already saved himself by crawling away, out of the light and into the dark other side of the room.

Jack, though, was still on his A-game, and having emerged mostly unscathed from a pile of not-so-deadly broken foam, he got over to me and helped me get my leg up. It hurt worse than I expected, because it turned out that I had been impaled by a long, ugly nail, sticking out from a wooden beam.

At least I got a shot for that recently, I remember vapidly thinking.

I endured the pain until I was freed, at which point I noticed that the light actually pierced straight through walls. Even if most of the bookstore’s siding hadn’t fallen apart, we’d still be in danger from the street lamp now resting on its side in the alley. Another streetlight in front of the store had its glow pass right through the front’s windows, wall, and door, meaning our only safe spot was the back corner of the place, maybe ten square feet of shadow.

The beast flipped over on its back, just as Jack pulled me away and out of the light. I then caught my breath while slumped against the intact wall opposite the exposed alleyway. With its servos and hydraulics groaning in the sounds of deep, industrial menace, the thing slunk over until it was just feet away, and unable to walk into the shadow beyond the glow. I got the best look at it yet, with its bright red eye-lights nearly blinding me. I noticed the nicks and small dents in its multi-layered face—possibly the ineffectual scars left over from its victims who managed to get a knife strike or gunshot in before being dragged away.

My dosimeter, pointing right at the creature, was also going crazy, which Jack also noticed. “Must be radioactive,” he remarked between deep breaths. “Think it’s nuclear powered?”

“Whatever it is… It was designed to kill…” I panted back.

It turned and left us alone after a few more seconds, crushing foam and wood underfoot as it turned into the alley and disappeared. Feeling safe for a moment, I tore off a long piece of my plain under shirt and wrapped it around my leg to cover my nasty injury. As I did so, I realized that there weren’t actually any books or shelves in the place; only wallpaper with a picture of bookshelves.

After seeing the hunter knock down a streetlight, I was worried that it would do the same to the one outside the store, which produced a glow that removed escaping through the windows as an option. If that pole came crashing into the store, we were probably done for, so I didn’t want to stick around.

Even though the pain in my leg was starting to get to me, I stood back up, felt the nearby wall, and with no better ideas, began to ram myself into it, shoulder first. The wood had some give to it, so I was hoping I’d eventually break through it or at least dislodge the nails keeping it in place.

“That’s not a good idea,” Lazlo huffed. “Noise attracts its attention…”

“So, you have seen that thing before,” I said as I kept at it.

“Just once… That’s why I was so concerned about the lights. We would be out of here by now, and safe, if those two hadn’t come in and turned them on.”

“Sure,” I told him, and now that he had sufficiently pissed me off, I added, “For all I know, you might’ve been luring people in here to ‘feed’ them to that thing.”

“Boris, come on,” Jack tried to calm me down. “There’s no point in trying to rile anyone up. Survival comes first… Should I help with that?”

I didn’t say no, so Jack got up and added his weight to the wrecking ball, hitting in sync with myself. Once again, Lazlo didn’t look ready to help at all.

“Hey, why don’t you make yourself useful and get that guy’s backpack?” I asked him after several minutes. “Maybe there’s something in it we could use. Like a weapon, if we’re really lucky.”

Of course, he was reluctant to do so. But I insisted until he eventually got down on his knees and quietly crawled against the part of the wall that was still intact. Once he reached the exposed portion and the debris pile, he peeked into the alley, took a deep breath, and reached out to pull at the dust-covered backpack. He tossed it at us and scrambled back into the shadow before the predator could take notice of him.

Me and Jack got in a few more bashes before checking out the pack. The wall was starting to bend outward, but we’d need a break before smashing through.

“All right…” Jack said, his fingers on the backpack’s zipper. “If we were in a movie, there’d be something in the bag that would help get us out of here.”

Too bad we were only stuck in a real-world survival situation, and only some German energy bars and water bottles were inside, along with a few useless brochures on local spots. Those two seemed underprepared for explorers. Any sort of metal tool would have been useful for the wall. A crowbar would’ve been perfect, but I’d have settled for a piece of climbing gear or something.

Still, we weren’t going to waste what we did have, so we all slumped down to the floor and began unwrapping the bars and unscrewing bottle tops.

“Lazlo, seriously, how long have you known about that thing?” Jack asked in a demanding voice.

Our guide shook his head and still looked reluctant to tell us. After a few bites of food, he gave in and answered, “My father worked in this place. He didn’t keep any notes about what went on here, or ever tell me anything. He never came home shortly before they enclosed it—he disappeared. We weren’t told why.”

I suddenly felt a little less indignant toward him. Just like the guy who sold me the “engines” back in the states, he had a dad that worked for these people—or at least their Soviet counterparts.

“And you started sneaking in here to look for him…” Jack assumed.

“When I was ten or eleven, yes. The first time. It was right after the Russian military pulled out of the area and only the fence and cameras were left to guard the place. My older brother and one of his friends, who had been in here once before, snuck me in with them late at night. He hadn’t found our father, but was already doing what I have been for years… You know. Scavenging. My stupid young mind thought I could still find our dad here, if I could just look around. I think my brother only agreed to bring me so I could find some sort of closure.”

“So what happened?”

Lazlo said after a sigh, “They turned the lights on. They were walking ahead of me down the street, while I was looking at all of these strange buildings made in the style of a country I knew little about. My brother… He turns around and tells me to catch up, and the next thing I see, he is taken away by a shadow, moving so fast I can barely see it. His friend let out a scream and ran, in the wrong direction, towards the other lights. I never saw what happened to him. I just stood there, lost track of time, waiting for them to come back—until I eventually left on my own. My mother demanded to know what happened, and even today, I still don’t know what to tell her. I almost buried that whole night into the back of my mind, like I pretended it wasn’t real…”

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” I told him, and realized that such trauma could explain why he had been freezing up. “But when did you come back?”

“Not until I was in my twenties, and had heard all the rumors about the lights in the place from other explorers. Like I said, my brother was trying to help and give me closure… But I didn’t really find any until I returned, to try and end the nightmares I still had about this town. I never turned the lights on, but exploring every corner at least made me feel like I didn’t have to be scared of this… this giant thing looming just outside the village.”

“I don’t get why it hasn’t just been torn down yet,” Jack wondered. “Or why it seems to be so easy to sneak into. Why isn’t there any security response?”

“That creature only seems to ‘exist’ in the light,” I noted. “What if it could run rampant in daylight, too? It does seem to be contained here.”

“Our country’s other sarcophagus…” Lazlo muttered.

We finished our food and water, and it was obvious to the others that I had something on my mind, now that I had a moment to think about this place.

“I was… in this country not too long ago,” I told them. “Right around the time Russia was invading Crimea. I knew it was a bad idea, but my uncle…”

“You don’t have to—” Jack said, but I cut him off.

“It’s fine. I can talk about it. Being here sort of, I don’t know, makes it relevant. See, he had survived cancer three times before, but it was too much for him the last time. He was a tough old bastard, in the best of ways. Lived in a town not far from the conflict. Thought I was risking my life just to say goodbye to him.”

I tapped my dosimeter and continued, trying to keep it brief, “His stories always fascinated me as a kid, and they taught me about technology, power, and, yeah, radiation. Was a nerd when I was young because of him. Still am, in some ways.”

“Your uncle…” Lazlo spoke up. “Did he work at…”

I shook my head. “He didn’t work there, but he was brought in as a liquidator and shoveled irradiated rubble off the reactor roof. Always claimed he tossed off a giant piece of granite all by himself, increased the size of it every time he told me the tale. It cost him, though. Did a number on his DNA.”

“I still remember when that happened. Our village was evacuated, but we were allowed to go back eventually. Your uncle was among heroes.”

“Do you think that machine is nuclear powered?” Jack wondered. “And that it’s leaking?”

“Suppose it’s possible. Doesn’t explain the dust in the lights, though.”

“And what about you?” Lazlo tiredly asked Jack. “You got a story?”

Jack shrugged, but after staring off into space for a few seconds, he answered, “There’s something I can’t stop thinking about. It’s not an obsession, but more like… a calling that almost feels like a mental infection. I got a wife and kid back home, and I don’t know how good a dad I can be until I at least try to deal with my… personal issues.”

I hadn’t realized that he felt that way, since I could never really get a word out of him about his reasons for wanting to come to Ukraine. Of course, Lazlo knew even less about what he might’ve been feeling.

“You two aren’t like the others I’ve brought in here,” Lazlo said. “You don’t seem like tourists. Were you always just… looking for something in this place?”

I hesitated to bring someone else into our strange web of stories and secret Cold War projects, but I figured if there was anything left that he hadn’t told us, doing so might spark some forgotten memory from his journeys into this place, or highlight some menial detail that he thought wasn’t important.

So, I gave him a brief, abridged version of the events and mysteries we had collected so far. The deadly toy laser guns, the memory device in Florida, an organic computer once in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal, and a video game rabbit brought to life by a circuit board of murky origin. He listened to every word and was definitely intrigued, though I don’t think he believed everything— which wasn’t surprising. He didn’t have anything new to say about the fake town, the lights, or the machine, but he did have one small theory about Jack.

“Let’s say all of this is real, and that this… thing in Florida did something to your mind. Maybe it did leave a sort of virus, you know? Or reprogrammed your brain? Put thoughts in your head you can’t let go of. Could be the same way with this one friend of yours who is still sleeping in a hospital.”

Jack rubbed his forehead and mumbled, “Yeah, maybe… Hey. Is there any chance we could just wait out the lights? Maybe there’s a generator that’ll run out of fuel eventually?”

Lazlo shot that down, “There are high-voltage power lines that keep this place running several kilometers from the village—they go underground the rest of the way. I’ve never been able to find out who pays for all this, but like I said before, I’ve never seen an actual security response. It only has the cameras.”

“All right, so it’s back to getting out on our own,” I said and stood up.

I started bashing myself against the wall again. Jack rejoined me, and after several minutes, even Lazlo worked up the nerve to help. With the three of us, it didn’t take long until nails popped out, the section of the wall had collapsed, and we could see the next alleyway on the other side.

But it was bad news for us. The building opposite the bookstore, a bank, was made of actual brick, with no way to climb up to the roof. There were no windows to break through, and no hope of tearing a hole in such a wall.

To our left was the outer edge of one of the dangerous lights, but we’d be able to narrowly avoid touching it if we slid up against the brick wall. The buildings on the other side of the street looked more promising. Alongside a small hotel were fire escape stairs we’d be able to easily use to get on top of its second-story roof. From there, if we could just jump across another five buildings, we’d be back at the cinema and basically home-free.

The only problem was that the alleys on the other side of the street weren’t aligned the same way as they were on our side. To get to the fire escape, we’d have to run right through the widest part of one of the light spheres. But it beat running down the street and through half a dozen glowing death traps. With the plan worked out, we hugged the brick wall and headed single-file towards the road. The light’s hard edge was only inches from us as we moved.

Just as I got to the halfway point in the alley, where the curvature of the light came within millimeters of my chest and I had to hold my breath and suck in my gut just to avoid it, our pursuer leapt down from a roof and made impact just by the bookstore wall. We froze in place as it paced back and forth, studying us and waiting for any of us to enter the light even just slightly. I was running out of good air and wanted to keep moving, but Lazlo, at my right, was frozen stiff.

After a moment, Jack, to my left, had some sort of nervous twitch, and a few of his fingers went into the light. The metal beast’s reaction time was insanely fast, and it had twisted its body around and slashed at his hand in less than a second. Jack only barely pulled his fingers back in time to keep from losing any, and the sharp claws vanished as they swiped into the darkness. I used the momentary distraction to shove Lazlo away and out over onto the sidewalk, then side-stepped away to safety, where I could gulp in some air.

Jack stood there for a few seconds more, staring into the two red lights and unwilling to move. The machine soon lost interest, then turned and walked out of the light. He took a deep breath and, carefully, slid against the wall and joined us out in the middle of the street. It didn’t feel quite safe out there, even though the lights ahead and behind us were a good distance away.

We knew that thing was stalking us—it could probably hear, see, or maybe even smell us even when it wasn’t sharing space with us. The thought of it somehow looking right at us from… somewhere else, while we were out in the open, only added to my anxiety. There was every chance it could lunge out from the shadows and attack any of us the moment we touched a light.

This was the tough part. To get to that fire escape, our salvation, we’d have to run through a light. I estimated that we’d be exposed to it for maybe a second and a half. If we got some space to work up to a full sprint, maybe we could take that down to a second. Problem was, a nail was just in my leg, and my limp was going to slow me down. And though I didn’t like thinking about it, I knew we couldn’t go in one at a time and give that thing a means to pick us off. If all three of us stayed together, then at worst… maybe only one of us would be in trouble.

We agreed on the plan, and backed up as much as we could so we could get a better running start. It was such a small space to cross. We’d make it, I told myself. I had to tell myself that, or I’d never work up the nerve to try.

We breathed out, breathed in and held it, and being careful not to bump into each other, took off, our feet hitting the asphalt hard.

I didn’t know what to expect when I went into the light, knowingly this time. Looking back, I remember feeling that tingle on my skin again, and seeing desaturated color from inside the light, and the sound of a thick layer of dust crunching under my feet, almost like snow.

The very atmosphere in the light also felt different, as if reality itself had been muffled in some way. It was like I had crossed the vacuum of space for a brief moment in time. I made it through first, despite my injury, and nearly ran into a wall as I slowed down. Jack crossed the chasm just behind me, and I had enough time to turn around and watch Lazlo pass through as well.

He was almost there, so close that I could see the strain and fear in his eyes as he went through the same light that cost him his brother long ago.

But then the machine burst out from the shadow, its jaws already opened. Most of Lazlo got through the light and to safety—but not his left arm. The beast crunched down on his hand and pulled him away, back into the light. Jack reacted in time, managing to grab Lazlo’s right hand in an attempt to save him. Of course, we were like rabbits to a wolf against such a machine, and Jack was easily dragged into the light right with Boris. I grabbed onto Jack, then worked my way up to Lazlo’s free arm. With our combined strength, we slowed the beast’s efforts to take him away, just long enough to make the difference.

The creature responded by yanking, harder, and I heard something let out a sickening snap. We fell backwards into the alleyway with Lazlo, and the beast took off into the shadows with blood on its jaws and something in its teeth.

Once we had a chance to recover and realize that we were still alive, I checked Lazlo’s injuries. It quickly became obvious why he was wailing and in so much pain. His left arm, from the elbow down, was gone, with his sleeves ripped to shreds. It was worse than I expected, and if we couldn’t stop the bleeding, I knew he wouldn’t survive. Now we really had limited time to get out of here.

“Boris, I have a bit of medical training,” Jack told me. “Let me help him. There’s no point in both of us trying to reach the control room.”

I was used to living a solitary life, but right now, being alone was the last thing I wanted.

“Are you sure?” I asked Jack. “If I don’t make it, you both are screwed, too.”

“I might be able to keep him from bleeding out. Boris, go—get these lights off.”

I nodded, knowing that he was right. I turned to leave, but Lazlo grabbed my arm. He looked desperate to pass on a message, though it was hard to tell how coherent he was at the moment, considering the pain he must’ve felt.

“Control room… not real,” he muttered, before letting go and passing out.

I didn’t actually really even absorb what he told me. With his life on the line, I pulled myself up onto the fire escape and onto the roof. I looked at the buildings and lights ahead of me. The cinema and my exit were so close. There was just a little bit of space left to cover, as ominous as that space felt. There was something lurking out there that I couldn’t see, hunting me diligently. I would never be able to outrun it, but as long as I avoided the lights, I had a chance.

I took a deep breath, studied the distance to the next building, and made a running leap across the alley. As I jumped, I looked at the light to my right.

It was just standing there, in the middle of the glowing sphere, watching me as I briefly flew in the air, its eyes and head tracking my movement. I landed on the roof of a townhouse, but didn’t give myself anytime to recover before sprinting to the next building. I jumped without giving it much thought, and again, saw the machine glaring at me from the next light, in the exact same pose as before. I landed on the next townhouse hard, with aching legs and feet. Still, I was surprising myself tonight. I almost felt like I could take up parkour.

I made it across the next building, and then the next. I still couldn’t quite believe it. It looked like I would make it. The adrenaline pumping through me pretty much let me shrug off my injury caused by the nail.

But I got a little ahead of myself or overly confident. The last building on this side of the street was the 80s arcade, and unlike most every other structure, it only had a single floor. I screwed up my landing, crashed hard onto its roof, and rolled around in pain for a few moments. It didn’t feel like I had broken anything. A twisted or sprained ankle, probably, but no breakage.

It cost me—and Lazlo precious minutes, but I stood up as soon as I could and put some weight on my right leg. It hurt, but it was bearable. I dropped onto the dumpster on the side of the building and hit the street. I was past all the lights. The machine stood in the glow of the nearest lamp, glaring at me without emotion. It had no way of getting to me anymore. I worked up the confidence to flick it off before heading towards the exit. It didn’t react to that, either.

I found the bulkhead-like door by the cinema, left open by the two hapless tourists, and went on through. Just to be extra safe, I closed the door behind me, but made sure it didn’t lock in anyway, so I wouldn’t trap Laz and Jack in.

I stepped back into the long, quiet, and mostly empty warehouse, which felt like a different world on the opposite side of a time capsule. It seemed brighter than I remembered, but of course, my eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the town.

With my right leg practically dragging across the floor by this point, I moved forward, my destination somewhere on the opposite side of the entire structure.

I felt a tingling on my skin as I walked. I ignored it at first and went a little further. Then it hit me. I had felt that sensation twice already. I looked up.

When we went through here before, every other fluorescent light on the ceiling was on. Now they all were. For some inexplicable reason, or as another twisted part of whatever experiment all of this was supposed to be, these new lights put out the same glow as the street lamps. They even sounded the same as normal fluorescents, adding their electrical buzz to the collective hum that filled the lengthy hallway. Their glow filled every space among the empty shelves, all the way down to the concrete below. There was no way to avoid them.

My dosimeter was going nuts. With the lights on, the utilitarian Cold War-era corridor must’ve been full of that radioactive dust. For all I knew, it could be floating around in the air as well. Breathing any of it in could be a death sentence given enough time, so I did what I could to mitigate things by taking off my outer, long-sleeved shirt, wrapping it around by mouth and nose, and taking in a deep breath to hold for as long as I could.

The Germans came through here and made it to the town, I told myself. The door is closed. You’re fine. You’ll make it.

It was a long hallway, ominously empty, filled with light and the sound of electrical humming. Strange how such a place could instill so much fear. Maybe it was the banality of it in contrast to the monster still stalking us.

The good air in my lungs wouldn’t stick around for long, so I started walking as fast as I could with a bum leg. The damn fluorescent buzzing was already pissing me off by the time I was halfway down the hall and going past one empty metal shelf after the next.

As I was looking up at the emergency lights on the way and wondering if they could produce the weird glow as well, I heard the worst sound possible—which was anything at all, really. Somewhere behind me, some piece of metal equipment hit the floor, with its clanking echoing throughout the hallway.

I froze in place, but knew I had to turn around. I did so, and at first didn’t see anything. I walked backwards a few feet, waiting for something to appear.

I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I first saw it, like I was having some sort of paranoid delusion after being hunted. Maybe just a hundred feet away, metal claws were protruding from the wall itself. Just, simply… coming right out of the cinder blocks of the town’s containment barrier. A leg emerged, and then another, and then the creature’s head.

There was no sort of “blending” element between its body and the wall as it phased straight through it. No Hollywood special effect glow, no distortion of space, no damage done to the wall itself. Just the atoms of one material seamlessly giving way to another. I had seen some of the most bizarre things in my life tonight, but the latest sight topped everything else so far.

Once both of its front legs were out, the machine leapt out and hit the warehouse floor, sending tremors throughout the building and rattling the shelves. It turned and stared me down. I very clearly remember exhaling and wasting some breath to blurt out an appropriate response.

“You’ve got to be shitting me.”

It bore down on the floor into a pouncing position, and produced sounds like it was revving up servos and charging up pistons. I already knew it was going to charge at me in a full-speed sprint, and close the distance in seconds.

I turned and ran, doing my best to endure the pain in my legs. I saw a chance up ahead, probably my only one. There was a fire axe in a wall-mounted case. Not far past that, another small box and my only hope of survival.

A couple seconds after I started dragging my aching legs down the hall, rapid heavy thuds began following me. It was closing in.

Having no idea how any of the creature’s physics worked, I grabbed onto a tall metal shelf and pulled it down as I ran. I looked back to see that it hit the other wall, which kept it from toppling over completely. The heavy-duty shelf rested at an angle, and it should slow down the hunter, if only for a moment. As long as it didn’t simply pass right through it like a ghost.

Not that I could explain why, but the shelf really did stop it in its tracks. It couldn’t squeeze through below or above it, so it began to slice into it instead. Each impact of its claws tore the metal into ribbons, and it took maybe four or five seconds for it to weaken the shelf enough to be able to snap it in half with a bite of its teeth. It knocked the two destroyed halves to the side, thrashed its way through what remained, and began to pick up its speed again. I hadn’t delayed it for long, but maybe it was enough.

I stopped at the fire axe box, bashed into the glass with my bare fist and cut up my hand in the process, and yanked out the potential weapon. A part of me wanted to slam it into the beast’s face as revenge, even if it likely wouldn’t cut into its stainless-steel armor. This wouldn’t be the kind of monster story where it actually got destroyed at the end. I didn’t have that kind of firepower—only a fire axe. Hardly a defense at all.

It was the fuse box I would be running by that gave me a chance. My goal was obvious: risk electrocution by planting the axe’s blade firmly into it, hopefully shutting off the lights.

I twisted around as I reached it. The hunter had just scrunched down its body, preparing to jump. With all the strength I could muster, which was never as much as I wanted, I swung about my right arm and the axe it held like a whip.

The blade punctured right through the box’s cover, and planted itself deep into the circuitry. It shot out sparks, and for a brief moment, the lights flickered, and the creature’s existence right along with them. It took to the air, its jaws open, ready to take my head clean off. I closed my eyes and accepted that if anything, this introverted tech nerd had tried his damned hardest.

And then I opened my eyes to the darkness of the corridor, right as the dim emergency lights flipped on. There was a shadow on my right vaguely in the shape of the monster’s gaping maw, giving me my tenth or so heart attack of the night. I steadied myself, got my breathing under control, and listened to the silence of the long hallway. My dosimeter wasn’t complaining anymore, either.

I turned around and resumed my walk to the door at the end. On the way, I took out the one emergency cigarette I always still carried on me. With a trembling hand, I lit it with a match, contributing a little more natural, regular old light to the hall. It was all I had to calm my nerves, bad as the things were for me.

The door had been broken into. A lock rested on the ground, looking like it had been pried off by the Germans. I assumed that Lazlo had put it there in an attempt to keep anyone from turning the lights on again. Just our luck that a pair of determined urban explorers decided to intrude on our tour that night.

Just to be safe, I went back, retrieved the axe, went up two flights of stairs in near total darkness, then turned a corner at the top into the control room. It was smaller than I expected, and its only window really was the town hall façade’s second floor middle window. It gave me a good view of the model Main Street, all the way back to the cinema’s marquee at the other end.

Lazlo’s last words to me were accurate. This could barely qualify as a control room. The only thing I could do was pull the almost comically oversized lever stuck in a metal console by the glass. I used both hands to do so, since the thing was partially stuck or rusted and required extra force to move. Once I cut off the flow of power into the town and all of the lights shut off, I leaned in closer to the window for any signs of life.

A single flashlight turned on from one of the town’s alleys, its beam the only moving thing I could see in that sea of darkness. Several seconds later, a second beam joined it. They were both alive. I had never really saved anyone’s life before. Truth be told, I didn’t even know how to feel about that in the moment. It was my dumbass motivations that got them here in the first place.

As the two shambled towards the exit, I got a look around at this so-called control room. It had its own power, but only had a few dim wall-mounted lights that didn’t give the place much illumination. Lazlo called the room fake, and I could see why. All it had was a giant lever, with one function. It would easily tempt anyone into turning on the lights that would end up killing them.

I figured that, unless someone in charge came by here on a scheduled basis to flip the lever and reset everything, then it eventually reset on its own to deactivate the lights. Or maybe Lazlo just kept an eye on it. This all screamed “still-active” experiment to me. There had to be more to find in here.

I searched the room’s walls, looked under its ugly yellow rug, tried to pry apart the console, checked behind a hanging painting of the sun, and then studied the walls again. The second time I did, my fingers felt out a groove of some sort in the floral wallpaper. I had found a hidden door, its outer edge running along the seam where two segments of the wallpaper met.

I wondered if Lazlo had found it already. I used the axe like a crowbar to pry it open, revealing a tiny Cold War-era bunker-like room on the other side. A grid of CCTV monitors lined the wall, but they were all covered in dust and likely burnt out. In a cabinet beneath them were VCRs, but no tapes inside the units or boxed up on the shelves. A big metal cabinet was lined with dials and dusty meters, but I had no idea what they once controlled. There was an opened safe, any documents it might’ve held long gone. I looked through the drawers of the room’s desk, and checked the spaces between the furniture and the walls. I found nothing. I had hoped for any small clue about the laser guns, or what this place was, or info about the optical and light technology they were researching here, but the room gave me no clues other than the fact that at some point, there were cameras here to record experiments.

Apparently, that experiment had gone on for countless years without anyone around to watch. Flies falling into a honeypot and dropping off the face of the Earth when they encountered the mechanical menace waiting for them. I wanted to burn the place to the ground, and then walk away from the inferno while metaphorical “trapped spirits” were finally granted freedom and rest.

But I didn’t have so much as a gas can on me.

Even so, I did what I could. When I left that room, I took the axe to the control room console. I think I fed the destruction with my rage. I thought it was the fear violently leaving my body back then, but now I see it as taking out my frustration about this whole mystery around secret projects of a war that ended when I was a kid, that I had always thought was just about espionage.

Another place, more risks taken, and still no answers. I had become just as obsessed with a shadow world and its history as Jack, Kate, and their friend were. It was hard to let go and give up, knowing all that had happened, and the lives destroyed or lost to some sinister echo reaching out from the past.

I hacked away, eventually breaking the console open, and kept hitting until the big metal box was in pieces and its wires were split into a bundle of spaghetti. The axe blade chipped away, and my last few strikes were blunt force impacts more than anything. When a few sparks shot out, smoldered, and started a small fire in the room, I finally felt at least a little satisfied, and confident that the lights would never turn on again. The wooden axe handle had also started to splinter. A couple more impacts, and it would’ve broken in half.

With my body at its physical limits, I tossed the axe away and dragged myself back down to the hallway, just as Jack was passing by with Lazlo on his arm. Our guide was in bad shape, but Jack had managed to create a tourniquet and slow his bleeding.

We finally got out of the warehouse sometime around three in the morning, and once we had a phone signal again, we called the village doctor and got him to open up the clinic for a late-night visit. He fixed me up a bit and stabilized Lazlo’s condition, though he’d have to go to the nearest town for proper treatment. Jack offered to drive, and by sunrise, we had arrived at a proper hospital. It wasn’t until me and Jack were seated together in the otherwise empty waiting room at seven in the morning, eating breakfast hash, did we finally have a time to really catch our breath and think about all that had just happened.

I don’t even really remember what we talked about, though. I’m sure it wasn’t important and we were just grateful to be alive, while also sharing our disbelief about all that had just happened. The big question was if any of it was worth it.

When Lazlo was discharged and we brought him back home, he seemed to be in high spirits, considering. Missing a hand and half an arm barely fazed the guy. He was going to use some of the cash he got from raiding the warehouse to buy a “badass” prosthetic. Then he thanked us for saving his life, of course.

Me and Jack spent the next day cooped up in our hostel, resting and trying to get our heads back on straight. The next day, Lazlo wanted to meet with us one last time before we started heading home. He led us to a wall safe in his small yet eclectic house, loaded with enough tech and pop culture artifacts to make even me jealous. It turned out he had actually lied to us about something else earlier—he really did have some knowledge about certain things, and found a few relics on his scavenging runs.

But we understood his own need for secrecy. He knew he either needed to keep his findings to himself for all time, or pass them onto someone he could fully trust. He didn’t want his discoveries to be traced back to him and get himself tracked down.

In a file folder were the following: Research papers on light and laser technology. Schedules for “urban combat training” in the town. A list of radio frequencies, though it lacked context. A draft for a research paper that made multiple references to string theory, quantum superposition, and Schrödinger. There was absolutely nothing about the machine that stalked us, but maybe it really did force a sudden evacuation before anything could be written about it on site. And, finally, the real find: written in Cyrillic, a technical manual for a full laser tag “toy” set, complete with cross-sections of a gun and vest.

My hands shook as I held that 30-page booklet that mentioned powerful plutonium batteries and the “engine.” Because, well, there it was. In our world and reality, some company or governmental organization had created a device that could turn its users into ash. That had happened. Like I said in an email that showed up on the Signal Intercept story: Damn. The implications.

I treated the findings as precious cargo, wrapping them up tightly in my carry-on luggage. The next morning, the three of us got together for breakfast at the bakery, and then Lazlo was nice enough to take us all the way down to Kiev. We said our goodbyes and he drove off into the proverbial sunset. Me and Jack, though, weren’t quite ready to head home.

My dosimeter got a bit angry at our clothes, with the soles of our shoes the worst offenders—mine especially. I knew it would be best to ditch everything we had worn in the warehouse, to keep from setting off any radiological alarms in the airports we’d be passing through. To celebrate being alive, and out of necessity, we both picked up some new nice leather shoes, and buried our lightly contaminated duds in a field outside the city.

Except for my old pair of shoes. It occurred to me that I needed to have them professionally looked at, thinking that there was a chance that the source of the irradiated material stuck on their bottoms could be tracked back to a source, even if it couldn’t be explained why said material was able to leave the exotic lights of the warehouse. On our last day in the city, I found a freelance chemist of sorts who assured me he’d keep any findings on the down-low. And anyway, this was probably one of the few countries in the world where having someone find radioactivity on your person wouldn’t instantly raise suspicion that you’re illegally handling fissile material, given that people go on tour in Pripyat all the time. The enthusiast did let me know it could take a while to know the test results, though. Fine by me. I was just looking forward to getting home.

After a layover in Lisbon, the two of us got back to the States in the middle of the night, had a parting dinner at the airport, and went our separate ways. I remember thinking about how strange it was that a large, busy airport could exist in the same world as an enclosed artificial town outside a small Ukrainian village. And then, at long last, early in the morning, I arrived at my home in Buffalo, with a few treasures to add to my lockbox.

As you know, Tyler, I’ve still been pouring through those documents every night and trying to find leads. I assume you’re still doing the same with the scans I sent you a while ago.

And, no, I still don’t know who built that machine or where it came from. All I can tell you is that it was an efficient hunter, built to destroy. God knows who it was originally made to target. Now let me get back to being a vigilant shut-in.

Date: 12/18/20

From: Tyler

To: Boris

Subject: RE: Ukraine Incident

Freaking hell, Boris. I had no idea it all went down like that. I got more questions, but I’ll keep them just between us and not post them on the website.

I’m still trying to make sense of your experience, but I think I have a good title for the story, that doesn’t really give away the surprise of its main “villain.”

How does ‘The Liminal Warehouse’ sound?

Date: 12/19/20

From: Boris

To: Tyler

Subject: RE: Ukraine Incident

Call it whatever you want, Ty.

But I guess I am a little curious about that. I’ve heard that word before, but never really looked it up or anything. Is it like ‘superluminal’? Because of the lights?

Date: 12/19/20

From: Tyler

To: Boris

Subject: RE: Ukraine Incident

Nah, man. Liminal space. It’s kind of a concept right now on the internet, mostly pictures of places that feel too empty and a little ominous or threatening. Like a long hallway in a dead mall, that makes you feel vulnerable as you pass through it. Just Google it, you’ll see. In that fake town, you getting ready to ‘cross the threshold,’ as they call it, really fits the title.

I’ll read the story a few more times, whip up some of my crappy art, and get it on the site by the end of next month.

Date: 12/25/20

From: Boris

To: Tyler

Subject: Update

Hey, Ty. Happy holidays, Merry Christmas, etc. Just wanted to tell you that I’m working on something big over here with a couple of new avenues I’ve dug up. Can’t say anything yet, and it could be a while before it all leads up to anything.

Gotta ask, though. Are you planning to put together the recordings our friend made, and finish writing the story of what happened to him? I know you wanted to give it some time, but it’s been a while now. You said you’d handle it a year ago.

Damn. Crazy how time goes by. He woke up two years ago today. I know what happened to him isn’t exactly a story about lost Cold War history and relics, but if you’re going to keep up your “creepypasta” library no matter what happens to us, then you might as well work on it. I think it would fit it on the website.

Date: 12/25/20

From: Tyler

To: Boris

Subject: RE: Update

All right, fine, you inspired me to finish his story. Guess it’ll be the next one that goes up. By the way, I forgot to ask in my last email. Did you ever get the results of that lab test on your shoes?

Date: 12/26/20

From: Boris

To: Tyler

Subject: RE: Update

Yeah, a few months later he emailed me his findings. Not that he understood what he was looking at. Probably needed extra time to attempt to verify the composition of the hot material.

I’ll summarize our discussion. Was the dust from Chernobyl? No, it wasn’t. How about any other known nuclear accident? Still no. In fact, it had signatures of nuclear detonations, with traces of neptunium, a rare element that nukes leave behind. So, I figured the Soviets must’ve run some tests in the area way back. Short of a nuclear war we’ve all somehow forgotten about, that seemed to be the last and only logical explanation.

My chemist had doubts about that. He knew of no nuclear tests that would have left concentrated fallout in the area. Want to know what’s really strange and unsettling? Soviet and American bombs both leave behind unique mixes of isotopes. A skilled chemist with the knowledge of those signatures would be able to tell what country detonated a bomb long after the fires had gone out.

The dust in the warehouse contained an abundance of elements that bombs from both countries would have left behind. Both of them.

Indicating a nuclear conflict. Just not one we know about or remember. I can’t explain that. Of course, there were many other things in that building I can’t explain, either.

Sometimes, I still see its glowing eyes in my dreams.

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