Exile's team of scouts returned the next morning. I emerged from my cramped little officer's quarters feeling pretty rested, despite not having done any actual sleeping. Exile and his men looked grim, but they were all whole. I couldn't even smell gunpowder on them, so it looked like whatever had them on edge hadn't been physical peril.
It was morning, and Freedom HQ was already bustling like a bazaar, which after a fashion, it was. Exile's team pushed their way through to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in to be heard. "Intel," he said.
"Go on in, I'll find the Biker."
The Biker refused the offer of one of HQ's small rooms, and slept in the loner barracks tent with the rest of the marauders. The rooms, though small and rusty, were a coveted luxury; private rooms in populated areas were hard to come by. But he didn't want one. He was still asleep, arms behind his head, feet crossed on the end of his cot. Empty bottle leaning against his chest. I shook him awake and brought him back to HQ, where Velvet was also entering our lounge/meeting room. Hey, it had a table. She was dressed, but damp, and toweling off her hair.
I watched the Biker. It wasn't like I hadn't noticed the way he looked at her. This was nothing new. But now I wondered if he wasn't just looking at her hair. I was starting to think that maybe he had a thing for blondes.
Still toweling, Velvet sat down at the table. Exile was the only one who seemed to be immune to her beauty, so he put down his rifle and pack, and started to talk. His men had been scouting to the north, keeping an eye on Duty.
He confirmed that they were bringing in both men and weapons, but Exile was convinced that something wasn't right. For one, they had more than enough equipment and manpower to assault Freedom HQ and win – they'd had it weeks ago, but still hadn't done it. He shared his suspicions that they had something else in mind for this gear. The details weren't very encouraging.
They had two Hinds, an entire fleet of jeeps, and were working on what appeared to be a home-made APC prototype. Duty was keeping busy. This was why there was so little said about them around the Zone right now; their attention was turned inward.
Velvet took all of that in. She wasn't particularly worried about the vehicles themselves; she had countermeasures for all of them. What bothered her was that Duty was suddenly much more well-funded than it had been previously. Her own excellent business plan had given her an edge, but she had been hoping for more. Freedom had come back strong, but Duty was also making changes. The gap was still narrowing, but not quickly enough. She wanted to know where Duty's eye was turned. If not on her, then where?
She had sent men back to the facility we had emerged into after our narrow escape our Lovecraftian subterranean friends, but the entrances had been sealed with explosives. The place was a caved-in tomb, now. So that couldn't be it – but that was one of things we were learning: the Zone wasn't a big place, but there were always things going on that we didn't know about, and that was something we just had to live with.
The meeting adjourned on a very gray note. The tension had eased for a while, when Duty failed to attack during our weakest moments, but things were still ambiguous. This little arms race put an unhealthy spin on the whole thing. Something dark was coming, something even Velvet couldn't foresee, and it had her worried.
I passed Russet in the corridor. She could sense our worry, but she was leaving the Zone tomorrow. Our worries weren't her worries. She and her sister had their own. I gave her an encouraging smile and touched her shoulder as I went by.
I went up to the roof and leaned on the sandbags, looking down at the compound. Men were singing in the canteen. There were two rookies by the fire at the east gate, roasting marshmallows. I could smell sizzling pork and fresh bread.
Overhead, crows flew in circles about Freedom HQ, something many stalkers considered an ill omen. No one seemed to notice it today. Time in the Zone is funny; underground, the minutes become hours, and the days become lifetimes. Up here, surrounded by friends, the days fly by like bullets. Almost before I knew it, the sun was going down, and everything slowed down with it.
Lights appeared on the road; pairs and trios of stalkers making their way to safe haven for the night. Freedom welcomed them gladly. The trader emptied out, and the canteen filled up. The fires were built higher.
In the distance, I saw a red light floating, far off. One of Duty's choppers flying into the murky night. Above, the stars shone down on a Zone that was new to everyone, especially those of us who were in it.
Lightning flashed and crackled on the horizon. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant hadn't changed. It stood at the heart of the darkness, a reminder of what the Zone had been, and a persistent harbinger of what was to come. The wind blew, and sparks flew from the fires below.
There was routine now, in the base. I knew it well. Shortly the band assembled and started to play. They played all sorts of things. Russian and Ukrainian songs I'd never heard of. Classics from Elvis and the Beatles, contemporary hits. Whatever they felt like. I could sit up here and listen to them for hours.
I heard a footstep behind me, and turned to see Russet.
"You're not supposed to be up here," I said.
"It's totally dark."
That was true; there was no light to speak of on the roof. There were no snipers up here anymore, not since we finished the towers, which were much higher, and better in every way. She was perfectly hidden. I decided to let it slide, just this once. The sisters were always complaining about not being able to hear the band properly, though it looked like Tyrian was missing out.
Russet came over to sit on my lap, and I put my arms around her. This had never happened before, but it felt natural enough. In fact, I think it felt inevitable since the first time we'd seen each other in the Zone.
"Worried about your year?"
"I'm worried about mine."
"So am I."
There was some commotion below, and we both fell silent and looked down. Velvet was being pushed toward the band. Someone was waving one of her posters. I smiled. She put up her hands in a defensive gesture, and said some words I probably could have guessed, but it was no good.
"Oh, all right," she said finally, and a mighty cheer went up from every stalker in the camp. Velvet reluctantly joined the band, which immediately used their keyboard to play a piano intro that everyone recognized. Velvet clasped her hands behind her back, and began to sing Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner, a Freedom HQ favorite.
I held Russet, and we watched as they played. If you've never heard that song sung by a heavily-accented Norwegian female, with backup vocals by a Ukrainian, a Frenchman, and a Russian, then you're missing out. You really are.
On nights like this they could probably hear the cheering all the way at Duty HQ. These days, even on a slow night there were well over two hundred stalkers at Freedom.
"You'll call me when you're out, won't you?"
"Count on it," I said.
"You won't do anything dangerous, will you?"
"With you guys gone, I'll probably have to do real work. No more Jenga duty."
She sighed. "I wish we could stay."
"No, you don't. That's just Chernobyl getting into your head. You'll feel better once you're out." I wasn't sure that was true; I'd heard that people left the Ukraine, only to be irresistibly drawn back. I hoped that wouldn't be true of the sisters, and I wasn't too worried. They hadn't been here long enough, or seen the things that really sink the Zone's claws into a person. "You're just used to it. Wait until you've got things like private bathrooms, delivery pizza, and cable TV again. You won't want to come back."
She laughed. "Maybe you're right."
The stalkers were crying for an encore. A few were holding up lighters. Velvet agreed to do one more, but only after swearing up and down that this was it. There was another cheer, this one the loudest yet.
"She's got a beautiful voice," Russet said. I thought Velvet had a beautiful everything, but I wasn't going to think about that. Certainly not tonight. How appropriate; the band began to play A Change Is Gonna Come. We listened to Velvet sing that, and many more.
I woke with Russet in my arms. That surprised me less than the fact that I woke at all. I had been asleep, really asleep, and dreamless. I felt rested, a feeling I'd all but forgotten. I marveled at that for several moments, and even the rusted walls of my little room looked good in the pale morning sunlight that filtered through the slits high in the wall.
Russet stirred, and her eyes opened. Her face was very close to mine, and she saw me, then the light. "Oh no," she said, smiling in spite of herself. "I meant to sneak back into our room. She's going to kill me."
I tried not to laugh. "For all you know, she spent the night with Exile."
"Oh, please. You know he's gay."
I blinked. I hadn't known that. Actually – er, I felt very awkward now, thinking back on some of our interactions. Now it was her trying not to laugh. I got over it. And today she was leaving; I didn't want to let her go. There was some very unhurried kissing, but we finally got up and dressed. Russet headed back to her room for fresh clothes, and I went outside to find the Biker and discuss security for moving the sisters. I found him just outside the loner tent.
The scream was one more thing I'd never be able to make myself forget. The Biker and I rushed back into HQ, and Exile and Velvet both appeared, and so did everyone else, even some people who weren't supposed to be inside, like Sagaris, but no one cared that morning.
Russet was on her knees in the small room she shared with Tyrian. Her sister's body was on the bed. The walls were splattered with blood dried blood.
I dropped down and grabbed her, turning her away from the carnage. No one said anything. As I sat there holding her, thinking that this was probably what it felt like to be in shock. I wondered if they had waited until their last day on purpose, or if it had just played out this way.
The Dane had found a way.
Dirge Danorum – END
[Author: but of course the story isn't over, just this arc; it'll pick back up with SPEAKER FOR THE ZONE very soon, both here and on the Zone blog. If you're enjoying the story, leave a review or a comment, stop by the blog (pseudozone dot blogspot dot com), check out Atrophy, my site ( silverbaytimes dot com ), if you like Velvet and the Biker, consider checking out some of the stories about them outside the Zone, but most of all, let me know what you think. Thanks so much for reading; I hope you'll stick around. –Wish]