"This what we're looking for?"
"Probably." Velvet picked up her MPL and turned around, eying the fog. She was thinking more clearly than I was. Weapons ready, we backed toward the cottage – but the Demon had gone. Half a dozen large bullets to the knee had convinced it to bother someone else. At least for now. Not that there was anyone else out here.
Without looking, Velvet reached over her shoulder and knocked on the door. We didn't have to wait long until it was opened.
The man inside was older than both of us, much older. He was well muscled, but his beard was touched with gray and white. He wore green fatigue pants and a black t-shirt. His expression was one of surprise, but not displeasure.
"Come inside," he said in Russian, after only a short pause. He said something else that I didn't catch, but I later learned it was this: "It is not safe out there."
We didn't have to be asked twice. Velvet and I went in, and he closed the door firmly behind us, but did not lock it.
The cottage was a single room. There was a nice flame in the fireplace, and the space was very neat. There was a table of technical-looking stuff, a table of food and food preparation materials, a cot, another table, and four chairs.
Once we were inside, he stared at us, one corner of his mouth curved in a smile. "A woman," he said, in Russian. "And an oriental stalker." His smile widened. "Now I have seen everything." He finally switched to English. It was accented, but functional. "Sit down." He gestured to the table. I couldn't help but notice that he had no weapon, and that there were none in view.
"It may not be safe," I said, glancing out the window. "There's a creature out there – too much for us to handle."
"You are safe here."
Don't ask me why, but I believed him. He pulled out a chair for Velvet, and I joined her at the table.
"Please," Velvet said, after a brief hesitation. She set down her MPL, and laid down her pack. I did the same, but took the time to reload first.
The Hermit was pouring coffee. It smelled incredible. Velvet and I both watched him in silence. He brought back three mugs. "I have no sugar," he apologized.
"It's fine." Velvet took the mug he offered and stared at it with an expression I'd never seen before. A very faraway look. Later I would learn that it had been over three months since she'd had coffee to drink, and that she was, after all that had happened, feeling a little overcome.
"You are the first guests I have had in," he began, but trailed off. "…some time," he said finally. "You, young lady, I know." He held up a photograph. "I have heard of you. But you – you, young man, are new to me."
"Mist." I offered my hand, and he shook it warmly.
"My name is Grigor. What brings you here, Commander?"
"Fedir is dead."
"Before the Incursion, when Duty and the Military were collaborating, they assassinated several Freedom officers so that we would not be able to respond as strongly when they attacked. He was killed in his sleep."
Grigor nodded. "In keeping, I think, with how my brother expected to die. Tell me, Commander, was he a good leader?"
"And you came to tell me this?"
"No. I came to beg for your help. Freedom is destroyed."
"And you wish to rebuild it?"
"I will rebuild it."
"You have an excellent plan, I expect."
"Will you tell me?"
"Go on." He smiled at her.
"Duty will destroy anything it perceives as a threat. The old way of doing things is gone. Subterfuge is the only way."
I took a drink of coffee. It was bitter, but nice and hot, which was good after the chill of the fog. I knew better than to even think about speaking. I was not a participant in this discussion. I was just amazed at how Velvet had rallied. I knew she was barely keeping herself together, but right now – when it counted – she could do what she had to.
"I have secured an exchange route with the outside. I am prepared to offer stalkers more than double what Kevorich is paying."
So that was Velvet's silver bullet. That was what made her think she could rebuild Freedom, even in the face of all the opposition. It was brilliant, really. She had a way to fence artifacts that would pay more than what Kevorich was paying – every hunter in the Zone would come to her, begging to sell to her. She would make friends by the score. And it wouldn't be building a faction, per say – at least not at first. It would just be a business. Duty could hardly get bent out of shape over that. By the time they realized what she was doing… it would be too late. She would be too big. Freedom would be well on its way back.
"Then you will attract stalkers not to Freedom, but to yourself. In doing this you will not make an enemy of Duty, but what of Kevorich?"
"If it has to be one or the other, I'll fight Kevorich."
"And when will you reveal your identity?"
"When the time is right."
Grigor smiled. "Yes. Your generosity and charisma will bring you great strength, I have no doubt of that. But what will you build?"
"Freedom, like it was before, stone for stone – so much as the Zone will allow. Nothing stays the same forever."
I felt like this was a quiz Velvet had spent some time preparing for.
"Indeed. And you would have me as your puppet. Your figurehead, to pose as my late twin, because you fear no one will rally behind you. No one will follow a woman."
He nodded, and looked down at his coffee for a moment, then leaned back and took a drink. "Perhaps that is true."
"If I thought you'd be interested in leading – I would follow you without hesitation," Velvet said.
"Then you already know I will not."
"When my brother told you where to find me, did he also tell you why I never returned?"
"Mm." He took another drink. "Then you know of my work."
"Why do you wish to rebuild Freedom? Why not create something for yourself? Why not change with the changing Zone?"
"Because Freedom is not necessitated by the Zone. The Zone changes. We don't. Freedom is balance."
"Balance against Duty, you mean."
"Wrong. Duty is nothing. It is what Duty stands for that my brother fought against." Grigor leaned forward, looking deadly serious. "What is the Zone?"
Velvet shook her head. "A place where anything is possible."
"It is the unknown. Man has been pursuing the unknown since the dawn of time. My brother, and Freedom, his creation, protect the infinite and undeniable right and dignity of man to pursue the unknown however he sees fit. He did not fight Duty's regulation. He did not dispute Duty's belief that the advance of the Zone must be slowed to protect those unprepared for it. He did not advocate freedom so that the unscrupulous and evil could do as they wished with impunity – but a place with no sovereignty, the last bastion of the unknown for mankind can have no laws. This permits the wrongs of evil men, but it is a sacrifice that must be made, because with man there can be no perfection. The Zone is our past and our present and our future. It cannot be defined or ruled, it cannot be owned, and there is a destiny here for every man and for every woman. Those who would deny those men and women that destiny must be fought and beaten. The Zone and all its wonders – and dangers – cannot be restricted in any way. That is what my brother believed, and what you must believe if you are to succeed."
"I do. And I will leave the Zone at the end of this year, regardless of what happens. I want no power for myself."
"Then I will help you. I will leave this place and take a new one at the head of Freedom, where I will follow you until you choose a successor."
He smiled. "But only when my conditions are met."
The tension that had been building left the air, and I realized I'd been holding my breath. I shook my head, took a drink of coffee, and looked at Grigor in wonder. He'd really had me in thrall there.
"I'm listening," Velvet said.
"The key to your success will indeed be the – the business plan, which you intend to use to establish your initial following. I must be permitted access to every artifact that passes through your hands, before you pass them to your contact. Those which demand my study will not be sold. Be assured, the vast majority of them will be of no interest to me – this condition will affect your revenue stream only minimally."
"Who controls the facilities at Yantar?"
Velvet blinked, then frowned, rubbing her chin. "I honestly don't know," she said, looking troubled. "The military took it back during the Incursion, but they've all pulled out. For all we know, there might not be anyone there."
"You will re-take Yantar as soon as it is feasible, and it will become Freedom's base of operations. I require the facilities there to continue my work."
Velvet took a deep breath, then nodded. "Done. The location is sound and defendable, and I'll have clear routes to the west for supplies and exports. I accept."
"Then there is only one more thing I require from you."
"A show of… intent. Of good faith. I require that you make clear your determination on this matter."
"There is something my brother had that you do not."
Velvet stiffened at that. I saw her swallow. "Is it necessary?"
"You are afraid? Why?"
"I am not afraid."
"Yes, you are. But as a leader you are right to lie. Will you prove your commitment?"
She was breathing more quickly now. Her jaw clenched. "Yes."
"Then let us consummate our agreement."
They both got to their feet. I got up too. "Wait a minute," I cut in. "What are you talking about – why are you afraid?" Grigor reached out a hand, but I had the Desert Eagle out and pointed at him in a heartbeat. I pulled back the hammer. "If you want to hurt her – you are dead."
He returned my stare, very coolly. "This is the most important place in this world, boy. A man – or woman – does not alter the course of its history lightly."
Velvet reached out and pushed the gun down. Her eyes were wide – terrified – but she shook her head at me.
I watched helplessly as she walked to the hearth. Grigor went to his other table, taking out a small metal box. Velvet undid the top of her fatigues and left it fall. She pulled her t-shirt over her head and threw it aside. She reached back and unfastened her brassiere, pulling it off as well. It joined the garments on the floor, and she leaned forward, putting her hands on the mantle.
Grigor crossed the room with a bottle of ink and a needle. He gazed at her exposed back for a moment, then he began. I watched him holding the needle in the flame. I watched him lift Velvet's blonde hair over her shoulder, brush away a few strands, and go to work.
I stood and watched her knuckles grow whiter with every passing second. I saw her tremble, and listened to her gasp and whimper. It took time. Seconds turned to hours. And every hour for me was a lifetime for her. Perspiration dripped from her, but Grigor never stopped, and never slowed down. When he ran out of ink, he just opened another bottle. He didn't stop when he punctured her too deeply, and he didn't stop when he made a mistake. Maybe that was for the best.
I never moved from where I stood by the table, where I'd risen from my chair. I never stopped looking. Maybe I never even blinked.
"Did you make it?" The Morton Stalker asked. I didn't even turn to look at him.
"To the other side of that gap you were trying to jump."
"Yeah," I said without hesitation, my eyes fixed on Velvet. When I turned to look, he was gone. I wasn't surprised. A part of me had known what he was – and what he wasn't – all along. I opened and closed my right hand a couple of times, but I just didn't care.
When it was finally over, Grigor stepped back, face grim. I rushed forward and caught Velvet just in time. She didn't protest, because she was passed out, limp in my arms. I sank to the floor, pulling her close and hugging her tightly. I'm not a big man, but that night she felt very small.
I looked up at Grigor, who was returning his tattooing tools to their box. He had no concept of what he'd done, what this had been to her. He probably thought this was a sign of cowardice, of weakness. I hoped I wasn't giving him enough credit.
So ended my first week in the Zone.
Firelight danced on Velvet's bare back, slick and glistening with sweat. It flickered over the letters printed in stark black on her perfect skin.
Author's Note – great job making it to the end - that's it for this arc, but the madness continues, inside the Zone and out. You know the drill – stop by pseudozone at blogspot dot com for the latest – and thanks for reading. Feel free to leave some feedback - I love to hear what folks think of the story.