| 06:14:36 29 August 2012
On forum: 09/02/2011
Glad you liked it. I'm sure she was very meek when she went back. |
New Zone should be Thursday instead of Friday this week, I'll be travelling.
| 18:43:41 30 August 2012
On forum: 09/02/2011
And we're back a day early; I'm back in town (and back to the internet) on Tuesday, Sep. 4 - in the meantime; the Zone!|
Speaker for the Zone
It couldn’t have ended any other way. The fog cleared, and the sun came out. The lab was still burning, the thick pillar of acrid black smoke trailing off to the east, high above. The Duty man with his knee jammed in my spine, and his sidearm pressed to my head didn’t say anything. In fact, there wasn’t much to hear except for the helicopters, and the sounds of the wounded. Duty was only treating its own, naturally. They weren’t executing Freedom’s wounded, but leaving them to bleed wasn’t much better.
A Duty officer struck a match and lit the pile of Freedom dead. Soon there were two pillars of smoke.
There were barely enough Duty and mercs left alive to keep us all under control – but there were enough. I didn’t struggle; there wasn’t any strength left to struggle with. It had all left me the moment Slayer’s body hit the ground.
The valley stank of blood and death, and there was no wind to carry it away. A Freedom man snarled something at one of the guards, who executed him without hesitation.
There was only one way this could have worked. Velvet’s plans had been airtight. She hadn’t planned for these numbers, but our perimeter security had been breached like it wasn’t even there. Someone had turned. Duty couldn’t have gotten the intel they needed to mount this operation without eyes on the inside.
And to bring in outsiders to do it for them… Velvet had never dreamed they would risk such shame – but they had, and apparently gladly. There had been a time when Duty had been a pure and noble ideal. Then there had been a time when it had still been noble, but misguided. Now it was just a tool for men who wanted the Zone to themselves, plain and simple. Duty was gone; now there was just this dictatorship instead.
Freedom was gone too. I could smell it burning behind me. Duty hadn’t killed us yet, but they would. If they hadn’t hesitated to do any of this, they couldn’t leave us alive.
We had known this was a changing Zone, a whole new world. None of us ever thought it would be a world without factions. There had been nothing wrong with Velvet’s plan; she had simply been too late to turn the tide.
As the past six months turned to ash behind us, I watched the Duty officers deliberating over Russett. They didn’t know who she was, or what to make of her. Dressed in Freedom fatigues, she was clearly no stalker. Her refusal to leave the Zone had surprised no one. If they killed her, it was my fault. I should have left with her then, after Tyrian’s death. But I couldn’t leave, and it no longer had anything to do with my promise to Velvet. I’d begun to see how meaningless that had been.
But this had not been inevitable. I’d had a choice, and I’d made the wrong one. The officer pointed, and the soldier knelt her beside some of the disarmed rookies. It wouldn’t be any better even if they didn’t kill her. This wasn’t the same Duty that had once been out to protect people from the evil of the Zone.
Another officer led Grigor out and forced him to his knees. The old man was gray and bloody. Crows circled overhead, and in the distance there was another helicopter approaching.
“When I killed your brother, I never imagined I’d be killing you too,” the Colonel said. He took out his Makarov, pressed it to Grigor’s head, and shot him. His body slumped over in the mud as the shot echoed around the valley.
He put the pistol away and motioned forward the two men holding Velvet. “The same for you,” he said. “I never imagined you would be this foolish.”
“I never imagined it would take you this long to work up the nerve,” she replied, meeting his eyes. The man behind her struck her with the stock of his rifle, and she fell. The Colonel kicked her savagely until she vomited blood and lay motionless. No, not motionless. She wanted her postcard, which had fallen to the ground, and lay out of reach. The Colonel slammed his boot down on her hand.
“You should have run when you had the chance,” he said, pressing down and twisting. Everyone in the valley could hear the bones in her hand breaking.
The Biker was passed out from blood loss. Sagaris had been tied up. Six men were holding down the Merc. I couldn’t see anyone else.
“This doesn’t hurt,” Velvet said, coughing up more blood. “This doesn’t hurt at all.”
“Enough.” He drew his Makarov again, but had to put up his arm against the sudden wind from the chopper overhead. It sank down, and a familiar figure in white leapt out, though Ever’s fatigues weren’t nearly as white as his face. The chopper lifted off, but Ever didn’t move. His eyes slipped from Grigor’s body to Velvet, to the prisoners, to the mound of burning dead, to the bonfires that represented our tents, buildings, and fortifications, lovingly built from the ground up over the last six months.
“Oh, what are you doing here?” The Colonel didn’t sound pleased.
Ever didn’t say anything, he just stared.
“Your plan worked,” the Colonel added. Ever looked over so sharply that the older man actually flinched.
“I warned you,” Ever said.
The Colonel’s face hardened. “You don’t warn me,” he said.
“No,” Ever said quietly, eyes distant. “Evidently not.” The Colonel didn’t seem to pick up on it. No surprise. He held out the Makarov.
“You want to do it?”
“May as well. It’s not my first time.” Ever took it and shot him in the face.
For a moment, no one knew what to do. The Colonel’s body crashed to the ground. Another officer started to shout something, but Ever kicked him onto the burning pile of bodies, and shot him when he tried get off it. The third officer wisely didn’t say anything, but that didn’t stop a foolish Duty soldier from shooting Ever in the back.
He didn’t even seem to feel it. He touched his chest where the round had punched through, looked at the blood on his fingers, and turned to give the Duty man a flat look. That was it. Until that moment, anything could have happened.
Very calmly, Ever made a few suggestions to the remaining officer, who wasted no time passing them on. Things started to move fast. Ever was doing a good job holding it together for a guy who’d just been shot in the chest, but it wouldn’t last. It obviously wasn’t a mortal wound, but Ever isn’t the machine he wants people to think he is.
“Let me up,” I said to the man holding me down. His focus was gone; I could’ve taken him out in a heartbeat if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to. Reluctantly, he got off, and I went to Velvet. She was hurt worse than I thought.
The mercs cleared off right away. Without them, the remains of the Duty assault force were even more pitiful. At Ever’s extremely frightening request, they left behind what supplies they could. But before the wounded could be treated, there was a general scramble to keep people from doing anything stupid. Freedom didn’t want to let Duty walk, but they didn’t see that it was the only way. A lot of Duty people weren’t buying that they should walk away from what was clearly a victory, especially one so costly. And there were a lot of Freedom people that wanted to snatch up a gun with Ever in mind. We’d all heard what the Colonel said.
Many of the wounded died. We were in the open, without even tents, much less supplies. Ever had pushed his luck just to back Duty off; there would be no asking them for help.
Ever collapsed. Velvet lost consciousness, leaving only myself and Sagaris to take charge. We did our best, and with the Merc’s incredible calm, somehow, we saved most of the wounded that could be saved. With Grigor gone, Russett was now the most experienced medic, and today justified the time she’d spent learning from him.
The Morton stalker and the stalker that had been accompanying him lately were there, but I had never been less interested.
Even the mutants knew to keep away from the valley now. In fact, I suspected it would stay clear for a very long time. Eventually, the fires went out.
| 01:59:20 6 September 2012
On forum: 09/02/2011
Speaker for the Zone|
Word traveled quickly.
By nightfall, there were enough loners at the ruins of Freedom HQ to make Duty’s horde look like a little mob. Even Clear Sky coughed up some medics and sent them over. The whole Zone had mobilized to help Freedom in its time of need.
That couldn’t change the fact that Velvet’s numbers had been decimated. She probably had nothing to fear from Duty anymore. In fact, nobody did. Duty was finished, now. They would be even more vilified than Bandits. Duty would regroup, and grow strong again – but they no longer had a future. The smart ones would leave the Zone or change sides. Another similar organization would probably turn up, but Duty was through. It was now only a matter of time.
Ever had deliberately stayed behind when the Duty men pulled out. That was his way of saying that it was time for him and his faction to part ways. His plan, the Colonel had said. Not exactly.
Ever had known that Duty would never allow Freedom to grow unchallenged. His first plan had been to delay the attack, to give Velvet time to dig in and gain strength, in the hopes that when he could stall them no longer, Duty would see that such a fight would be ill-advised.
That plan had failed. Ever had underestimated the hatred for Freedom harbored by Duty’s top men. He’d also overestimated their intelligence and moral fiber. “The last time I ever give anyone the benefit of the doubt,” he groaned, when he came around in the medical tent as men from Clear Sky pulled bits of lead from his chest.
No, Duty was dead set on driving Freedom out. And Ever hadn’t seen a way to stop it – but he had seen a way to prevent bloodshed. Freedom was richer than it had ever been, but it would still never match Duty’s resources, because a good business plan just wasn’t as good as being backed by numerous governments. Ever proposed a show of overwhelming force. Even if he overestimated Duty’s men, he knew Velvet was no fool. If Ever showed her a losing battle, she would have no choice but to fold.
He didn’t want to see Freedom die, but it was better than having the bloodiest showdown since the battle for Chernobyl. But that was exactly what we’d gotten. If they were going to go to the trouble to hire a few hundred mercs, why not use them?
Ever wasn’t as bad off as he should’ve been. Russett wouldn’t let him walk around, but he was calm and lucid as soon as he came around. I don’t know how it happened, but with Velvet out of commission, he was suddenly in charge. Not in any official capacity, but the Biker listened to him, and the Biker was Velvet’s second in command.
Before even a day had passed since the battle, he was already trying to figure out what Freedom was going to do. They had all the help they needed to get back on their feet, but Yantar was no longer such a desirable piece of real estate. They were going to have to find somewhere to go, and a way to move the wounded.
Yantar was just a graveyard now. Already some of the able-bodied well wishers were digging graves. Few of the burned corpses were recognizable, but at the very least they could have their own graves and markers, even if there were no names. A small forest of wooden crosses had already gone up, and the job was only half-done.
The Biker shouldn’t have been on his feet, but someone had to be the executor of Ever’s decisions. Sagaris did his best to back him up.
It was a mess. None of us would ever be able to get rid of the stench of burned flesh. They were trying to get people fed after dark when I found myself a little way off, looking at the stars. Russett found me. We hadn’t spoken all day; we’d both been too busy. She’d brought me a shirt; I don’t know where she got it. I pulled it on.
She looked tired, and a little blank. Our generators had all been destroyed; there was nothing but firelight for us now. Russett and I were well outside it, standing in shadow, apart from the others. She smelled vaguely of the alcohol wipes she’d used to clean her hands, though her fatigues were still sodden with the blood of the people she’d been trying to help.
“And the Biker?”
“Not if he doesn’t slow down. Between him and that English guy, they seem to have it under control.”
“He’s German,” I said absently, putting my arm around her.
“I saw that guy.”
“I wish I had.”
“It was him or Sagaris. You aren’t coming back this time, are you?” She found my right hand and rubbed it gently.
“I’m not making the script here.”
“I guess not. What’s going to happen?”
“One way or another, they’ll rebuild. They have to. If they don’t, there’ll be a vacuum, and Duty will capitalize on it, and this will have been for nothing. Ever knows it. Even if Velvet doesn’t…”
I nodded. “He’ll still do it. And the Biker will back him up. He won’t let Duty win. And the Merc will stay with Velvet.”
“That big guy isn’t very upfront with his feelings, is he?” It was not at all strange that we were talking like this after the events of the day. What were we supposed to talk about? The slaughter?
“He’s complicated,” I said.
“Good thing him and the Biker haven’t figured each other out yet. There’ll be trouble when they do. Sagaris found this.” She held out Lunch Box. It was muddy, but still in one piece. A good cleaning and it would probably be all right. It took it and hefted it. The gun felt depressingly heavy. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I handed it back. She looked vaguely surprised. Neither one of us had enough left after the day to muster up much more than this.
“I don’t plan to do any more shooting anytime soon,” I said. “I’ve had enough.”
“Should we go?”
“You can’t, though.”
“I think I can. Now.”
“But you shouldn’t.”
“I want to stay with Velvet.” Russett really did. Anything was better than facing the outside world without her sister, even the Zone. What was actually best for her – well, I’d stopped having opinions on things like that quite a few bodies ago. There was always work for a good medic in the Zone. Keeping busy helping people kept Russett going. I understood that. I also understood she wouldn’t be any safer anywhere else. The Dane was still out there, and he’d been paid for two sisters, not one.
“Next few weeks,” she said, looking over her shoulder at the makeshift camp. “There wasn’t going to be much time for us anyway.”
She was right about that. If it was a mess now, that was nothing compared to what it would be tomorrow, and the day after. Would Bandits show up with funny ideas? Would Duty try to pull something together to finish the job, and Ever with it? Was there a way for the local mercs to benefit from this situation? The military? Any outside governments?
The actual body count was nothing compared to the battle for Chernobyl, but it was still too high. The stalker population still hadn’t gotten back to normal, and now Duty, which did most of the heavy lifting in terms of keeping the Zone in check, would be down to a skeleton crew.
Things would get worse before they got better. The battle for Chernobyl had strengthened the Zone, and so had the recent changes. I was ready to bet the rate of expansion had doubled in the last twenty four hours.
“Do you at least know where you’re going this time?”
“Figures.” I pulled her a little closer. It was cold out, and she was warm. For all I knew, the last warmth I was going to feel for a long time. “You remember how mad Velvet was last time? This time it’s going to be a lot worse.”
“No helping it.”
“I guess not.” At least there was someone who understood. That was worth something to me.
“Wait a minute,” she said, pulling away. “You aren’t – you mean you’re going now?”
“I think so.”
“You’re not even going to take a gun?”
She sighed and hugged me. “Then this is it.”
“You can come if you like.”
“Velvet needs me more than you do.”
“How long have we been here?”
She meant the Ukraine.
A few minutes ago I’d have been able to tell her. Months or years, it didn’t matter. Time was different in the Zone. “I don’t remember.”
It was tempting to let the hug just go on and on. Letting go is the hardest part, but I did it. This was not a tearful parting. We both understood the situation, in our own ways. I was very grateful for that, and I expect Russett was too.