Author's note: longtime readers may notice that I've changed the story summary and added a cover image. The full picture, which goes with this side story, is linked from my profile.

For a Few Moments More – Third Quarter

They felt their way along the guide ropes to higher ground. It was now too dark to see clearly, but it seemed to Lena that the skyline didn't match any part of right-bank Kiev she knew. Instead of high-rises, she made out tall, thin trees and buildings of no more than a couple floors each. Had the river carried them all the way down to the outskirts?

"Stop! Who goes there?"

Lena started at the gruff bark. "Don't shoot!" she cried. "We're civilians! We escaped from New Order!"

"Okay, okay. Stay where you are." There was a long blast on a whistle and then two short ones. More people came running, boots falling hard on pavement.

"What have you got, Kostyan?"

"Two women, coming from the beach. They say they're civvies."

"Any other movement?"

"Nope. It's clear."

"Slava, use your lamp." A piercing white beam dazzled Lena's eyes. "How did you get here?"

"A man with a boat brought us," she stammered. "Told us you would help..."

"She said they got away from New Order," added Kostyan, somewhere behind the light.

"Yeah? Where from exactly?"

"Hydropark," answered Lena, struggling to stop her teeth chattering. "The boatman said it was Hydropark."

The interrogator didn't like her response. "How'd you get through the lock?"

"Lock? I don't understand, what lock?"

Her ignorance drew discontent. "I don't believe it," said the same man. "It's got to be a probe."

"A probe? Look at 'em, Petro, they're freezing. One's just a kid."

"So? Makes them perfect bait."

The argument swelled, only to be cut off by a woman's voice. "Quiet down, people. You there, tell me about the boatman. Did he give his name?"

"I asked." It was hard to focus through the cold and hurt and hunger, but the stranger's answer left a lasting impression. "He said... he said the Zone doesn't care about that." There was a name mentioned, however. "He asked us to find a girl, Zhenya."

Those words changed everything. "Fine," the other woman decided. "Come with me."

Petro tried to object. "But..."

A body moved, interrupting the spotlight. "When Gromyko gets here, tell him to swing by our place."

"Shouldn't we at least search them?" Kostyan suggested.

"On it." The woman halted. "Arms up. I'll make this quick."

She was true to her word: the pat-down was over almost before Lena knew it. Then she felt Pavlina flinch away from the brisk hands. "Wait," Lena pleaded. "She was – "

"I know," the searcher muttered. "They wouldn't keep you alive just to look at." She backed away, switching on a vest-mounted flashlight. "Let's go."

They followed her along a paved road for what seemed like several minutes, then the other woman made a sharp turn and Lena felt the tarmac change to flagstones. A latch clicked and hinges squealed. The refugees were sent in first, the door bolted behind them. The house wasn't lit, but it was warmer inside.

"Place just got renovated," the leader remarked. "Buyer never even moved in." She opened an inner door and an orange glow spilled out. "Here we are."

The living room had a fireplace, a real working one with a stack of split wood next to it. There was an armchair placed on either side and a wooden coffee table in between. The right hand chair was turned towards the table, the person sitting in it busy cleaning part of a dismantled assault rifle. Seeing this, Lena hesitated.

"Home sweet home." The leader's words had a wry touch as she shut the door and went into one of the far corners, coming back with a pair of simple wooden chairs. "Have a seat."

She took one of the plain chairs for herself while the second stranger moved to the other one, freeing both armchairs for the guests. Pavlina drifted towards the one on the left, leaving no choice for Lena. She sat on the right, feeling the previous occupant's warmth under her bottom. "Thank you," she mumbled self-consciously.

"Our pleasure." The brisk woman pulled off her fur hat and tossed it on the table. "I'm Rusalka. This girl is my partner, Butterfly. She doesn't say much, but she listens."

Rusalka looked about thirty years old, with bronzed skin and dark, narrow eyes. Her hair, also dark, was pulled into a stub of a ponytail. Her features seemed Central Asian to Lena, though she spoke the same as a native Ukrainian. She was dressed like a soldier, replete with straps and pouches, and had a pistol on her hip and a long-barreled rifle hanging off her shoulder.

Butterfly, conversely, was in her early twenties, a little younger than Lena herself. She had a soft yet handsome face, accented by a dark bar painted under each eye. Her brown hair was clipped short, such that Lena might have questioned her sex if Rusalka didn't specify it. The junior of the two wore a gray cap with a bill and a red star pin on the front, and was equipped with the same kind of military gear as her companion. She had a distant, forlorn air about her.

"Well?" Rusalka prompted. "What do we call you?"

Pavlina recited her name listlessly. "Nikishina, Pavlina Andreyevna."

Nobody at Postal Square knew who Lena was. After what she'd experienced, she would rather keep it that way. "I, um... I'm Lena."

Her wish was undone by Butterfly. "Lena... Korzeniowska. Singer... Lublin."

Being recognized should have made her proud, not left her feeling vulnerable. "That's right."

"You have... a nice voice." The girl in the cap had a slow, faltering speech. She sounded like a fellow foreigner, though Lena couldn't place her dialect. "Are... you hungry?"

"I... Yes."

"Our selection is pretty limited," said Rusalka, getting up from her chair. "Won't be able to cook until tomorrow." She went into the corner again and rummaged around for a minute. "Maybe I shouldn't have traded away those sardines..."

Instead of sardines, Lena got hard biscuits, dry fruit, and one half of a large spiced sausage. It was more variety than she'd tasted since the crisis began, and for that she was grateful. Pavlina felt the same, judging by the way she tore into her share with only brief interruptions to gulp water from a canteen.

Rusalka stretched out her legs, settling down for good. "So to recap, you escaped from New Order at Hydropark and a man in a boat brought you up here. You asked his name, but he said the Zone doesn't care. He also asked you to find a girl called Zhenya. That right?"

Lena nodded, her mouth being full at the moment. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Butterfly perk up a little.

"Where were you before Hydropark?"

Lena swallowed. "...Postal Square. A man called Wolf made a camp in the station."

"Wolf?" Rusalka sounded surprised, but not in a bad way. "Should have said that sooner."

"You know him?"

"Everybody knows Wolf. He'll be glad to hear someone else made it out."

"Is he here?"

"In the neighborhood. When New Order showed up, he did the smart thing and left to get help." Rusalka drummed her fingers on her knee. "Pure bad luck that a boar found him before we did. He'll live, but he's out of action."

It wasn't exactly good news, though it brought a tiding of hope. "Are you fighting New Order?"

"Trying," the other woman replied candidly. "Don't have enough people to attack head on. We're hoping the depot can even the odds."

"Depot..." Lena had a belated realization. "Where are we?"

"You're in scenic Lyutizh, site of a key bridgehead in the war against fascism. More importantly, it borders a former complex of the Kiev military signals institute. That used to be a big deal, you know. Trained people from all over the Warsaw Pact, Vietnam, Mongolia... A couple of years ago, the army turned it into a staging point for operations inside the Zone. It's got enough rations and ammo to live on for a while."

Lena saw light at the end of the tunnel. "How long until we're rescued, do you think?"

"We're not going to be rescued. Sorry, but that's how it is."

The light went out. "But... someone must know we're here..."

"I guess you haven't heard how bad things are." Rusalka folded her arms. "The Zone's about six hundred klicks wide and we're eighty klicks from the center. The Russians have taken half of what's left of the country."

"Russians... what?"

"Made a real slick land grab. Clever sons of bitches must have had a whole plan drawn up in advance." Her voice carried grudging respect, but not much. "That's someone else's problem."

Despair began to crush Lena little by little. It was hard to find her voice. "What are we going to do?"

"Stay alive and keep fighting. We have to knock out New Order before the shit at our backs catches up with us. It'd be easier if... Hold on, someone's at the door."

Rusalka left the room. There was a conversation Lena couldn't make out, and then her host returned with a man in a black and red uniform. He had a haggard, flattened-looking face and sparse hair, and walked with a visible limp in his right leg. "This is Sergeant Gromyko of Duty," explained Rusalka. "He needs to ask a few questions."

Gromyko nodded. "I understand you've had a rough time, so I'll keep it short. Does New Order know we're here?"

Lena wished she could give him a real answer. "I'm not sure. They talked about stalkers coming from the north, but I don't remember any specific places... I did hear some men talk about how to defend their side of the river. They wanted to blow up the bridges."

"Are they planning any offensives? Any movement outside their territory?"

"Just raiding for food. They're always complaining about not having enough to eat."

"I heard you escaped from Hydropark. Is that their base of operations?"

Lena shook her head. "They have a camp at Rusa... Rusam..?"

"Rusanivka," said Pavlina dully.

"I see." Gromyko's eyes flicked from one to the other as he considered their replies. "I'll save the rest for tomorrow. Where are you staying?"

"They'll be here," Rusalka told him. "What's new in the north? Old School back in the air yet?"

"Not yet." The man turned away. "I'll see myself out. Keep me posted."

He closed the door behind him. Looking around, Lena realized that Pavlina had finished eating. She bit into a dried apple ring, wondering if Gromyko believed their story. "Don't take it personally," advised Rusalka, easing back into her seat. "He's mourning his best friends."

"What happened?"

Rusalka unslung her rifle and stood it on end between her knees. "Duty sent his team into some uncleared bunkers to look for a Monolith supply dump, following intel from a source they knew wasn't trustworthy. The squad got swarmed by mutants and only Gromyko and one other guy came back. Then the other guy ate a bullet and they pushed Gromyko down here... He's working himself to the bone trying to help us, but he can't do enough on his own."

Lena was sure she'd heard that name before. Maybe Wolf mentioned it. "Duty is a... faction?"

"Right. The police of the Zone, or they try to be... Not too popular with the independent stalkers. They've always been kind of pushy, and the scandals hurt their reputation pretty bad."

"Scandals?"

"An elite squad went rogue and joined the mercenaries. Then one of the quartermasters got caught selling to bandits. Plus it turned out their heroic founder was a sleazebag looking to get rich. Now rumor has it the Duty leader caught some nasty sickness and every man's jockeying to be next in line. That's why they're not giving us the support we need... Gromyko's okay, though. Just not a people person."

"I see..." Lena tore off a chunk of sausage, gnawing it as if she feared she might never taste meat again, and chased it down with water and some raisins. Too late she remembered her manners. "...Sorry."

"Never mind it," said Rusalka. "I was saying we need to beat New Order quickly. Would be easier if we didn't have to evacuate the old Zone at the same time."

"Evacuate?"

"The eruption stirred up a bunch of nasty stuff, shit we hadn't seen before. Monsters came pouring out of the badlands and up from the tunnels under our feet. They overran most of our outlying positions before we even knew what was happening." Rusalka traced a finger up the length of her weapon's barrel. "Took us six years to reach the center of the Zone. We gave it up in six days."

The food's flavor turned to ashes in Lena's mouth. "Those things are coming here?"

"Don't know yet. The worst came from underground, and we saw less of those once the temperature dropped. Maybe they can't stay on the surface too long... I think we can handle the regular mutants as long as rad levels keep holding steady."

"What about Pavlina and me? Where will we go?"

"You can bunk here with us. Might not have much choice after word of your miraculous escape gets around."

There it was again. "Why won't anyone believe it?" Lena pleaded. "Why don't they trust us?"

Rusalka regarded her intently for a few seconds, then clamped her gun between her thighs and detached a rectangular leather case from her belt. Opening the top flap, she pulled out a paper chart. "Okay, look... This is Postal Square, where Wolf's camp was."

Lena and Pavlina both leaned forward for a better view. Rusalka's finger pointed to the outer bank of a westward bend in the river near the middle of Kiev. The neighboring funicular track and river port were plainly marked.

Next Rusalka pointed out a wedge-shaped island on the east side of the Dnieper, some distance downstream. Bridges ran across at the top and bottom. "This is Hydropark." Facing it over a narrow tributary channel lay a blunted triangle bordered on the other sides by a canal. "And that's Rusanivka."

Lena began to understand why New Order occupied these places. Hydropark and Rusanivka were both isolated by water, with only a few paths in and out. However... "Why wouldn't they hide in the Metro like we did? See, it runs right by there."

"All the red line stations on the left bank are above ground. They'd have to cross over to Dnipro to get into the tunnels, or else go south to the green line."

"Oh..."

"If the boatman picked you up where you said, this is how far you've come." The pointing finger followed the river upward until it came to the bottom of the Kiev reservoir, and then further north to a point on the artificial lake's western shore. "Through the lock at the hydroelectric dam and right to our doorstep. That's about thirty kilometers in a straight line."

"That can't be right," Lena said weakly. "We never saw a lock... Did we?"

"No," Pavlina confirmed. "Just fog."

"Fog on the river?" Rusalka sounded as if she expected that. "Pretty thick, right?"

Lena nodded. "You saw it too?"

"Nope. We had clear waters all day." Rusalka put away the map. "But I believe you. I wasn't kidding when I called it a miracle... Surprised? What if I told you you're speaking with the dead right now?"

"Huh?" Lena stared at her, at Butterfly, and then at Rusalka again. If this was a joke, they weren't letting it show. "The dead?"

"We've been sent back to atone for our sins. Mine was greed, killing people for money."

She said it with such candor that Lena didn't know how to react. In the midst of her bewilderment, she had a sudden inference about the name. "Rusalka means... you drowned?"

"Froze, actually. I don't recommend it."

"And Butterfly?"

The ponytailed woman glanced at her partner, who was following the discussion without comment. "She hanged herself and an angel cut her down. For the sin of wanting to die, she was condemned to stay with the living."

There was real history here, if only Lena could winnow it out from riddle and metaphor. "An angel."

"Right," said Rusalka. "Like your boatman."

"I don't understand."

"You don't have to. The Zone works by its own rules, for its own reasons. You'll see and hear a lot of things that don't make sense." Rusalka paused as Pavlina put up a hand. "Yes?"

"I need to use the toilet."

"No problem. Butterfly can show you where it is."

The quiet one nodded and rose from her chair. Pavlina followed her out and shut the door, leaving Rusalka and Lena together alone. Rusalka laid her weapon against the chair's arm and picked up a poker.

"I need you to do something for me." No words of whimsy now, just plain talk as she stirred the coals and added more wood. "We have one sleeping bag, two blankets and four people. I want you to double up with Butterfly."

"I can share with Pavlina – "

"No. I hate to drop this on you, but there's no one else." The older woman retook her seat. "Butterfly gets bad nightmares. If she wakes up alone, they turn into panic attacks. I can't guarantee I'll always be around to deal with it, so she needs to get used to sleeping with someone different."

"I can't. I mean, I have a fiance – "

"Here?"

"In Switzerland – "

Rusalka cut her off a third time. "Then I don't give a damn. That girl's our second best sniper. We need her and she needs you."

The burning logs popped and crackled. Shadows danced on pale walls. "Why me?"

"She likes you." The stalker crossed her arms again. "Butterfly has trouble speaking. Never seen her try so hard for someone she just met."

Lena knew she shouldn't feel flattered, but she did. "Really?"

"Really." Golden fire shimmered in Rusalka's eyes. "I'm not asking you to fall in love with her. All you need to do is give her a hug and tell her it'll be okay. If you're good, she might even believe you."

The way she said it sent a shiver up Lena's back. "Why is she like that?"

"Don't ask. If she wants you to know, she'll tell you." Clearly this was not open to argument. "So what's it gonna be?"

Lena looked down at her last scraps of food. More than anything, she wanted to be left alone. More than anything, she didn't want to be alone. She heard the door open but didn't look up. Listened as Butterfly and Pavlina sat in their chairs. Waited for someone, anyone, to make the choice for her.

Finally she couldn't take it any more. "Butterfly..."

"Hm?"

Her eyes were green, Lena noticed. "Rusalka said you don't like to be alone at night. She said I should, um..."

Though she couldn't finish, Butterfly understood. "You and... me?"

Lena nodded.

"You... want to?"

"I don't know." She closed her eyes, wishing she did. Someone put their arms around her. At first she shied away from the contact, but slowly she was overcome by a calm feeling. A feeling that someone wanted to protect her. Someone wanted to make sure she was never hurt again.

Someone who wasn't there.

Lena's eyes shot wide open. There was nobody in front of her. All the others were still in their places. She recoiled with a gasp, upsetting her canteen. The invisible hands vanished.

Rusalka and Pavlina looked at her. "What's wrong?" the stalker asked.

"Something touched me..." As Lena spoke, she realized a change had come over Butterfly. The handsome girl's eyes were downcast and her hands lay clenched on her knees. At last her face showed a strong emotion – fear.

Rusalka saw it as well. "It's all right," she said firmly. "It's all right! She won't hurt you."

Lena's pulse had quickened, but the brunette singer was too weary to get much more worked up. "That was Butterfly?"

"That's right," Rusalka replied. "We call it the ghost touch. A gift from the Zone." She sounded like she had been through this before. "Sometimes it comes out when she doesn't mean it. I was going to tell you after you'd gotten some rest, but... Look, never mind what I asked you to do. I'll put her in my bed."

So it was over. The pressure was off. Lena slumped against the armchair's soft back, tired and confused and unhappy. The adrenaline had spoiled her appetite and she could feel a wet patch where the canteen spilled on her thigh. She didn't know how to even start trying to make sense of the strangeness around her... Or the miracle which brought herself and Pavlina to this place.

She used to believe miracles were things that happened to other people, to those more devout or more deserving than her. Now that she and her young friend were counted among the worthy few, she wasn't sure what to think. Rusalka behaved as if the impossible was hardly unusual. Rather than gods or saints, she seemed to attribute these happenings to the Zone itself. And then there was Butterfly...

Lena's gaze drifted to the left and found Butterfly watching the fire. The quiet girl's impassive countenance was betrayed by the glistening trails on her cheeks. Lena felt a pang of guilt. It was only natural to be frightened by an unseen phenomenon, but a clearer head let her see that Butterfly meant no harm. Actually, wasn't it the other way around? Wasn't it hurtful to let Rusalka have the last word when Lena should be speaking for herself?

The more she considered it, the more her dissatisfaction grew. Whatever she wanted, this was not it. Whatever the boatman saved her for, this was not it. Newfound conviction spurred Lena to act. She placed the canteen and her unfinished morsels on the table and stood up, overcoming the selfish instinct to stay put. All eyes were on her as she stepped over to Butterfly's chair. Lena searched those tearful eyes for any hint of duplicity, persuading her reluctant self that no monster lurked behind the mask.

Then she held out her hand. "Can you do it again?"

Slowly, meekly, Butterfly nodded. After a moment, Lena felt the ghost return. She could make out the shape of the palm and fingers lying over her own, but the apparition lacked weight and texture. Trying to squeeze it dispelled the effect. It was an illusion without substance.

"I'm sarr – " Butterfly stumbled, stopped, and tried again. The look on her face would break anyone's heart. "I'm sorry... I won't... any more..."

"It's okay." Although Lena hadn't fully shaken off her apprehension, there was a genuine feeling of warmth welling up inside her. She leaned forward and took Butterfly's hands in her own. "Here."

A gentle pull brought the short-haired girl to her feet and face to face with Lena, carrying scents of oil and old canvas. Butterfly hesitated, seeming unsure of her intent, and Lena realized she wasn't entirely sure herself. She didn't want to turn back, but she was acting without a plan. An awkward feeling crept between the pair as she tried to work out her next move.

Butterfly unexpectedly broke the stalemate. Parting from Lena's grasp, she spread her arms in a gesture that couldn't be mistaken. "Hug..?"

"Ah..." Lena could definitely use one. "Okay."

Their arms went around each other in a mutual embrace. A minute passed without words, a minute in which Lena held Butterfly, was held by her, and found her courage renewed.

"Butterfly?"

"Mm?"

"If you still want me to stay with you, I... I'll try it tonight and see how it goes. Okay?"

"Mm." Butterfly sounded happy. "Thank you..."

The warmth in Lena's heart grew stronger. Though she might struggle to put it into words, she had a sense that she was doing a good thing. That she and this enigmatic soul needed one another. That her choice was just for the two of them, not Rusalka or anyone else. Maybe her mother had been right to say she was strongest when others depended on her. Maybe the boatman had seen that strength as well.

She could scarcely imagine her real journey was only beginning.