| 02:49:53 26 August 2012
On forum: 09/02/2011
Message edited by:
Ah, but everything happens for a reason, and there is always an explanation. At first glance here, my mind might drift toward... |
edit: don't apologize, Dania. Never apologize. Nobody talks back to the Dane.
| 22:20:58 24 August 2012
On forum: 09/02/2011
Message edited by:
Glad you liked it; the Atrophy books tend to be short, so I like the low prices, but I don't have any control over them anyway, that's all on the publisher's end. |
Anyway, it's friday, so Speaker's starting up. And the obligatory link to the blog:
Speaker for the Zone
An especially loud raindrop struck the metal side of Freedom HQ at Yantar. That didn’t bother me; I wasn’t going anywhere today. The rain would just make it easier to go back to sleep, not that it would have been difficult. Russet was warm and soft in my arms, and her quiet, regular breathing was better than any lullaby.
Another raindrop hit the side, except this one left a hole that let in a beam of pale light, and a tendril of fog. I dragged Russet off the cot and covered her with my body as another half-dozen shots perforated my wall, and the real shooting started, all at once on both sides. It was deafening.
“Stay down,” I said into Russet’s ear, and I don’t think there was any danger of her getting up. She sensibly covered her head with both hands. I got up and stumbled into the corridor, snatching up Lunch Box as I did so.
The passage was abruptly packed with people, rushing in both directions. There was nothing to hear in the chaos. Bullets slammed through the metal walls, sending showers of sparks off the walls, and shrapnel flying.
I swung onto the main ladder and climbed to the roof. It was just a dull roar until I opened the hatch, letting in the real noise.
Velvet was there, and so were the others. I wore only loose fatigue trousers, but I didn’t even feel the pre-dawn cold.
Duty was here. It had taken them more months than anyone had predicted, but they had finally come.
A round snapped past my head, and I dropped down behind the sandbags with Velvet, who was shouting into a radio. There were snipers on the ridge, pinning down the entire compound as Duty crossed the bogs, an impossible – truly impossible number of them – all laying down suppressing fire as they advanced. They were only hazily visible, but their numbers were unmistakable.
Velvet risked a glance over the sandbags. “Now,” she said.
The ridge exploded as over a hundred pounds of C4 charges detonated in sequence, sending out a shower of earth and dust and enveloped the Duty force, even as it threw them to the ground. There would be nothing left of the snipers, but the landslide would only slow the main force down, not stop them.
“Go,” she said into the radio, and Freedom emerged. This was supposed to be the decisive counterattack, but I’d seen the size of the force out there.
“Who are they?” I shouted to Velvet, whose eyes were wide. Not fearful, but she had seen as well. She didn’t know. And there was no time for talking.
I vaulted over the sandbags, dropped the five meters to the ground, and ran for the nearest gate. There was Exile, waving the men forward. People were deploying smoke grenades now; redundant in the morning mist – but now we wouldn’t even have the dark outlines to go by. It would be close combat to the last man; we had to play to our strengths. Exile threw down his Weatherby and drew his Beretta.
I passed him as though he wasn’t moving at all, plunging into the tall grass.
An exoskeleton loomed out of nowhere, wielding a Browning M2. I jumped on the barrel, forcing it down, and pressed Lunch Box to his face mask before he could react. I pulled the trigger, and the booming shot was like a firecracker in the midst of the battle. More men came streaming out of the fog.
The blast of a grenade knocked me off my feet, and the shadows of men on either side surged past in both directions. A strong hand closed on my arm and pulled me up; the Biker, one arm extended, firing his Pernach on full auto into a cluster of Duty Men.
I was seeing double. I awkwardly pushed Lunch Box into his free hand, and pulled the knife off his vest before staggering off into the fray.
Jester’s back was exposed, but I managed to throw the knife into the wrist of the man about to shoot him. The scot turned and shot him three times before disappearing into the haze.
A Duty man blundered into me, and I snapped his neck before he could do anything, hooking his rifle and pulling it up to fire from the hip. The exoskeleton advancing on me soaked it up like paintballs. I dropped the empty rifle as the exoskeleton raised a weapon, but an indistinct figure leapt onto its back, and brown tendrils tore through the light armor over his throat. No surprise; of course they would be drawn to this bloodshed. I scooped up a fallen pistol and staggered forward.
Another one went down to a second drinker, but I had to shoot the third, which was making for a small figure that could only be Venge. My pistol went empty. There was the Merc, the RPK in his arms looking like a toy as he emotionlessly gunned down Duty foot soldiers by the dozen. At his side was the Biker, who fired my Desert Eagle and his own Pernach with such precision that it wasn’t clear which of the two men was the more devastating.
They weren’t just Duty men. I had seen that much from the roof. There were mercenaries mixed in, and not the local kind. They had to be PMCs brought in from the outside.
There was a familiar thin stalker wandering the battle, trailed by the same phantom I’d seen so many times. Here and gone in the blink of an eye, maybe not there at all. A contractor’s neck broke audibly under my arm, and I dropped the body. There was no end to them.
Velvet appeared with her rookie fire team, shouting, of course, and laying waste to anything that crossed the path of her formation. I’d barely picked up a Kalashnikov when it was blown apart by a shotgun blast from a contractor, who was in turn gunned down by Grigor, who met my gaze for only a moment as he reloaded his Tokarev before disappearing.
Velvet flung her empty rifle into the face of a Duty officer that surprised her, and drew her pistol to shoot him in the chest. The Biker relieved a merc of his combat hatchet and flung it into the spine of another enemy before breaking the first man’s back over his knee. Exile was hit, but doggedly fired his Beretta as Jester tried to drag him back toward the walls. I saw the Merc appear again, bleeding from a dozen wounds, looking no more bothered than if they were mosquito bites.
The sky overhead darkened substantially; as it became increasingly overcast, visibility worsened. The fog showed no signs of clearing off. As the body count rose, so did the number of drinkers that came to enjoy it. Two mercs got the drop on me, only to be taken by two shapes they couldn’t even see.
Venge slammed a fresh magazine into his MP7, only to be knocked aside by a passing exoskeleton that hadn’t even noticed him.
A bullet whizzed past me to kill a man who had been about to shoot me down. Sagaris materialized from the fog, bloody, but mobile.
“They’re pushing!” he shouted, throwing me one of his pistols. I scrambled out of the tall grass to join him, slipping into the mud. I fired from the ground, bringing down another merc. Sagaris pulled me up.
“We can’t win this!”
“I know,” I said.
“Where do we go?”
“Where can we go?”
We stood back to back, knee deep in the center of it all. The fog swirled around us, and the battle came and went. Duty bodies were all around us, like a dark green carpet on the floor of the valley.
But it couldn’t go on. Duty’s force was swelled by the PMCs, and no matter how bravely Freeom fought, our numbers couldn’t win. Velvet’s battle plan had been brilliant, but she could never have planned for an onslaught of this magnitude. She had been ready, but not ready enough. There was only one way for this to end; it was only a question of how long it would take. Three minutes had already passed since the first round punched through my wall.
I was down to one bullet. I could still feel Sagaris as my back.
“Go back to the gate,” I told him.
“What?” He fired four shots into a dark form in the fog, then turned back to me.
“Don’t make it easy.” Protect Russett. He understood.
“What about you?”
I looked down at my pistol. One bullet. “I’ll break through,” I said. “I’ll find their leader.”
Sagaris stared at me for a moment, then nodded. He turned and took off without looking. A Duty man with a shotgun was there. I flung out my arm and fired; my bullet took Slayer through the throat. He reeled back, clutching at the wound, which gushed like a fountain. His eyes met mine for a moment before he went down.
Then the shooting stopped.
| 20:40:31 21 August 2012
On forum: 09/02/2011
Message edited by:
Speaker for the Zone|
So with GSC in shambles, and Stalker 2 off the immediate menu, we come to a turning point. I have no doubt that the Stalker IP as we knew it in the games will turn up again at some point, but it could be a long time before it does. Three games is still a good run, and despite their plentiful flaws, they certainly did make an impression. This story, which bridges the gap between Dirge Danorum and Speaker for the Zone, is the metaphor for me pouring out a few measures of the good stuff in memory of the good times. Shoutouts to GSC and stalker.
“Caught in a landslide…”
“No escape from – oh, we’re here.”
Sagaris and I emerged from the trees, cresting the ridge that overlooked the valley. Below lay Freedom HQ, as impressive as ever. A mere three months since Freedom’s resurrection, and already the valley at Yantar was as fortified and populous as Rostov. Maybe not Rostov in its glory days, before the Incursion, but still. Impressive. Though not as impressive as listening to Sagaris sing classic rock in his heavy accent. The Canadian-Ukrainian duet. Beautiful.
“What if that was our password?”
“To identify us as friendlies to the guards?”
I grinned. “Duty wouldn’t have it. Besides, we don’t need a password. Everybody here knows us.” We both launched into ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’ as we climbed down. The guards at the gate waved us in without question. There’s something to be said for knowing everybody.
There was Jester in the canteen, though it was only late afternoon, pounding glass after glass and telling jokes that had the stalkers around him roaring with laughter.
Venge and the Merc were there too, a large rifle lying disassembled on the table between them as they conversed in low tones, examining it.
Exile and some others were on the raised platform by the canteen, where the musicians usually played. There was a large television up there, and they were working doggedly on a big antenna. Sagaris waved and broke away to join Jester and the others for a drink and a bite to eat. There wasn’t any good reason he couldn’t make the report, but it looked like it was going to be my job.
Russett emerged from the lab, looking preoccupied, but she spotted me right away. I dropped my rifle and caught her by the waist to lift her up and spin her around. She screamed in surprise at first, but then put out her hands and laughed. Several rookies had to dodge to avoid being knocked flying. I set her down. “Any luck?”
“They’re still on it,” she said, nodding toward Exile and the others. “You?”
“Nothing cool going on out there.”
At that moment Velvet came jogging past, a mob of exhausted rookies behind her. “Five minutes,” she called to me, and disappeared around the side of the barracks. When was she going to learn not to try to train rookies in a tank top? Did she not notice how it made it impossible for anyone in the compound to concentrate on anything?
“How is she so smart, and so dumb?” Russett asked, shaking her head.
“Are you hungry?”
We went inside, and I got to eat before Velvet came in, skin shining with sweat. It wasn’t often she came outside to frolic around with the rookies personally; she was usually too busy. But it was an important thing for her to do once in a while. She sat down with us and helped herself to some of my food. “Well?”
I cleared my throat. “I think it is what it looks like. The second chopper’s gone. If it was coming back, it would be here by now.”
“I think Duty’s feeling serious cash flow problems.” I shrugged. “Maybe it was repossessed. You haven’t just hit them in their PR, you’ve hit them in the wallet. Duty’s lost the loner vote; the only money they bring in is with their own people, and the governments that fund them from the outside. I think it must be getting heated in there.”
She nodded, looking disturbed, but not surprised. As far as Duty was concerned, there were more variables than even Velvet could account for. The dice were still tumbling, and we tumbled with them until they came to rest.
“Fair enough. One down, one to go.”
“I can disable the chopper they’ve got left.”
She shook her head. “No. We can’t give them an excuse. We can’t give them anything. We’re here to be friends.”
“Works for me.” Evening was coming on. Velvet probably wouldn’t send me out again tonight; she was a slave driver, but she wasn’t a monster. She wanted me to have a night at HQ from time to time almost as much as I did. But I wasn’t kidding myself. In the morning I’d be off again.
My usual job was patrolling the road between HQ and Rostov. I was developing a reputation, and knowing that I traveled that road was a powerful deterrent to the bandits that wanted to prey on loners bringing artifacts to Freedom to sell. At Rostov, I could touch base with Slayer and Dixon, who were stationed there. They were clueless, but they were my friends, and through them, I could vaguely feel the vibrations in the Duty web. There wasn’t much to feel, though.
Sometimes I wondered if that connection had been made, and someone was using it deliberately. But that was peripheral; my main function at Rostov was to pick up drops from Velvet’s many spies.
I put a flash drive on the table, and Velvet took it. I’d just come back from Rostov, so Velvet would probably send me somewhere else tomorrow. Probably to take a message to someone. The Biker was no longer Velvet’s go-to courier; now he was more like her second in command. A job that probably could’ve been mine if I’d wanted it – in fact, I think the Biker very much would have liked to switch places with me. Well, maybe not. This way he got to spend a lot more time around Velvet.
Grigor came to drag Russett back to the lab, leaving me alone with Velvet.
Of course. She still didn’t know what had really happened to us in the anomalous ring around the valley. She didn’t know that I’d been inside her mind, and she’d been inside mine. She thought she still had secrets from me, but she didn’t.
It wasn’t a big lie. She was holding up pretty well. I didn’t need to worry about her, not yet. I’d never given her enough credit. Velvet was clueless about some things, yes, but inhumanly sharp about others. It hadn’t taken her long to realize I hadn’t simply left her for Russett; she knew perfectly well what I was doing, and why. The Twilight Shower had taken one weight from her, just so she could pick up another. There was only so much I could do for her.
I smiled. “You’ll miss this place when you’re gone.”
She groaned and worked her neck and shoulders. “Maybe.”
Exile appeared in the doorway, looking tired, but pleased. “We’re in business,” he said, and vanished.
“I didn’t think they could do it,” I said.
“They had it working before.”
“Yeah, before it got struck by lightning. It’s the last night, isn’t it?”
Velvet sighed and nodded.
She shook her head. “I have things to do.” That was not a lie. I left her with a little time to herself before she got to work. Outside, the crowd at the canteen was huge. The sun was down, and the night air was filled with sparks from torches and fireflies.
Of course the Olympics were on the television. I joined Exile and the Biker at the officers’ table. “Holy smokes. Did you invite the whole Zone?”
“Pretty much. No signal at Rostov, and Duty’s making everybody nervous. Where else can they go?”
Yes, the Olympics. Nationalism is an interesting subject in the Zone. By coming here, we’ve all renounced our home countries in a way, except for those who’ve come in their name. Exile, for example. He claims he’s no longer on her majesty’s payroll, but we all know it isn’t true. In fact, just about everybody’s got a man in the Zone. The Russians and the Americans have quite a few between them.
But a lot of people wouldn’t call those men stalkers. No matter what we are now, we all came from somewhere, and we never forget, even if some of us want to. There’s a Freedom sniper from Nigeria that can shoot almost as well as the Merc, who’s Russian. We’ve got a pair of French brothers who’ve managed to stay alive in the Zone for almost as long as Velvet has. Exile isn’t our only Englishman, and I’m not even the only Asian. There’s a Japanese guy who used to be with Duty, though he doesn’t speak much English or Russian. We’ve got a man from Montenegro, and an Indian who’s even better at wrangling rookies than Velvet is. We have a flamboyantly gay Italian who’s always getting into fights with our flamboyantly homophobic Serbian quartermaster. There’s a Danish pilot, and a Libyan cook.
I was born in Hong Kong, I hold Canadian citizenship, and I’ve spent my entire life in America. Velvet’s from Norway, though when she’s sober, she never talks about home. The Merc and the Biker are both about as Russian as people can possibly be, and despite the way he talks, Grigor is amazingly un-Russian. We’ve got Jester, our Scottish Freedom mascot, and over a dozen Americans, from deserters to PMC types to idiots like Venge, and of course, Russett.
Tonight, everybody was here. The Russian athletes got the loudest cheers, of course, by virtue of greater numbers. Nationalism put aside to come here was easily remembered when their countrymen were performing.
Russett appeared out of the dark to join us at the table, (“He was trying to teach me to clamp arteries,”) and Grigor showed up a little while later. We could smell Russian beer, and spiced chicken skewers on the grill. The crowd laughed at an advertisement.
You couldn’t blame the Russians; their country had never been an easy place to live; it had been plagued with every conceivable misfortune, and yet in the arts, sciences, and athletics, its people continued to excel. Of course they were proud.
There was plenty of betting going on, of course.
Exile held up his rifle. “I’ll meet that wager. Weatherby Mark Five. Finest rifle ever made.”
“This is finest rifle,” a Russian said, holding up a Kalashnikov.
“Rem 700,” some American called out.
“Well, not the 700 – but the militarized version, like the M24…” Venge was saying, but no one was listening to him.
“Winchester Model 70!”
“10/30!” And so on.
The Englishman took the gold, and Exile found himself with an extra rifle. He immediately began to use it as a walking stick, affecting an obnoxiously aristocratic drawl. “Hmm, old sport? Oh, yes. Indubitably. Capital.” Someone threw a bottle at him, and he swung the rifle like a cricket bat. “Oh, edge.”
The cheering and noise did their work; Velvet couldn’t stay away. Not even she could distract the troops from the action onscreen, though. The female beach volleyball and gymnastic events were particularly popular, though I couldn’t help but notice how none of the Russians made any comments about the sculpted bodies of the Russian competitors, though they didn’t hesitate to mercilessly objectify women of all other nationalities. We should have watched fencing or something, not this – but the men weren’t thinking straight. You can’t be a stalker without being a bit of a masochist first.
There was a Ukrainian weightlifter who was apparently a former stalker. The ignorant and vapid remarks from the commentators on the subject of the Zone brought various sounds of derision from the crowd, but the marks on the man’s legs where he must have been scoured by a drinker’s tendrils confirmed his background. He ended up with silver, and everyone cheered for him, not just the Ukrainians.
Grigor told us a fascinating story about the 1960 Winter Games, where because of the state of the Cold War, it had been hotly debated whether or not certain countries could attend. This led to a unique and lengthy discussion at our table of the cold war that involved two former spies, two former socialites, a retired physicist, and one still-practicing assassin. Unsurprisingly, Grigor seemed to know the most. Then it came around to his memories of the 1952 Games, which we were all amazed he’d been alive for.
Exile convinced Velvet to talk about the 1994 Games, which she had attended as a girl with her family, including the infamous climactic shootout between Canada and Sweden. The Merc finally confessed that he had won a spot on Russia’s Olympic weightlifting team for the Games in Sydney, but had been unable to go because of his commitment to GRU at the time. He sounded quite morose about it.
I had my arm around Russett, who was being a bit subdued. She would later tell me how she and Tyrian, along with their parents had been avid spectators in Atlanta in 1996. She had come a long way in the three months since her sister’s murder, but there was still a long way to go.
Velvet, quite tipsy by now, bemoaned the classless barbarism of the summer games, assuring us all that it wasn’t that Norway couldn’t be dominant, but Norway just couldn’t be bothered. More important things to do, and all that. When questioned about what those things were, she just pounded more vodka.
Exile told us how he and a special NATO counterintelligence team had prevented several bombings in Beijing during the summer games, recalling that the Chinese government had been very upset afterward. Despite the fact that their own intelligence services had been completely oblivious to the threat, they were aghast that they had not been allowed to deal with their own problems. Or in this case, get blown up, along with dozens of international athletes in an incident that would’ve made the Munich massacre look like a trifling scuffle.
Speaking of scuffles, I got up to kick the chair from underneath a guy getting to his feet to throw a punch, short-circuiting the fight before it could get going. I sat back down and had another drink, knowing full well I couldn’t stop every fight that could break out in this melee of suddenly nationalistic stalkers. Grigor and the Merc discussed the charms of a place called Sochi, and Velvet and the Biker argued about someone called Bjorn Daehlie, who unless I was mistaken, Velvet must have at one time fancied.
For a while I worried this could turn into quite the brawl, but I was wrong. It wouldn’t. If anything, this was more unity than we usually saw. It wasn’t just that we all wanted to watch the games; of course we did, but there was more to it. This was the world stage; everything we saw, the rest of the world saw as well. Just for tonight, we were like everybody else. We weren’t just connected with each other, we were connected with the outside. Just for now, the people here didn’t have to be loners and rejects and outcasts.
It reminded us of who we used to be, and what it felt like to be normal. Stalkers aren’t all solitary, but we are all isolated, not from each other, but from the rest of the species. Not tonight, though. I think that played a big part in minimizing the bloodshed.
A rookie punched someone he’d been arguing with, and looked very proud of himself until he saw Velvet standing there, quite pink in the face. It looked like she was about to blow off his head, or at least his eardrums. Velvet’s singing voice was legendary, but so was her talent for raw volume. In the words of one American rookie: “Man, that blonde chick’s got some pipes.”
Instead of shouting, she gave a small hiccup, tripped backward, and fell into the Biker’s lap. The rookie fled. The Merc looked at the Biker as though he’d planned this. Velvet looked at the rookie that had been knocked down; he was only stunned. She sniffled, then burst into tears.
At least there was no danger of her remembering any of this, though the Biker would. The tears stopped as abruptly as they’d started, and she absently pulled the Biker’s arms around herself for warmth before going back to watching, the rookies forgotten completely. I wasn’t worried; Velvet can handle at least as much drink as a grown man. I think it’s her Viking heritage.
The Biker wasn’t worried about the look on the Merc’s face; he was more concerned with the way Velvet was wiggling around his lap, trying to get comfortable. I hoped she wouldn’t do something like blow her nose on his sleeve. Fortunately, no one was paying the officers’ table the slightest bit of attention, and Velvet’s highly unprofessional behavior and the Biker’s new status as an armchair were going largely unnoticed.
I didn’t begrudge Velvet any of it; she worked harder than anyone in the Zone, and carried enough weight for ten people. If she wanted to take the night off and get smashed, I was all for it. The Merc moved away to find a drink. Brave man.
Events came and went; medals were won and lost. The crowd cheered and groaned. It was fascinating to watch who they would support when there were no Russians involved. I felt like I was getting the inside track on the national prejudices of another culture.
Stalkers are as eclectic and diverse as anything in this world, but there are also common factors that tie us all together. No one just wakes up in the morning and decides it’s time to go to the Zone. We all came here for a reason. Some of them are noble, like Exile – he came here because it was his duty. Some reasons are stupid, like mine – I came because I had something to prove. True, I found a real reason to stay – but that doesn’t change anything.
I think most of the reasons boil down to cowardice. The Zone is a frontier. It’s a Mecca for many things, but above all, it’s a haven from accountability. We’re all running from something. By coming here to prove something to myself, I admitted that I couldn’t face life as it was. I had to try to master the Zone because I couldn’t master myself. And what about Velvet and the Biker? They had both come here hoping to die. Ironic, because neither would die here.
Many stalkers are running toward something, but every real stalker is running away from something. Here, tonight, watching the Olympics, which brought us all closer together, and closer to the outside, we couldn’t help but be reminded that the world was still out there.
Stalkers are keenly aware of what the Zone offers, and its ability to tantalize is beyond question. But every stalker also knows that the things that really matter aren’t in here, they’re out there, with the rest of our species. It is precisely the Zone’s nature as a place not intended for us that draws us in, and lets so few of us go – and it can’t be said that coming here is always a mistake.
Without their experiences here to strengthen and shape them, Velvet and the Biker wouldn’t have had a prayer in the crises that waited for them after their time here was up.
Yet with this powerful connection to the outside, none of us could help but be reminded that yes, it was still out there, and yes, ultimately we could either die, or face it again. You don’t meet a lot of old timers in the Zone. Velvet was an old timer, and she wasn’t even thirty. Having spent nearly a decade here, she had far outlasted even the most optimistic estimates for a woman in this part of the world.
A stalker can stay and die, or he can go back outside, and face down whatever chased him here in the first place. With this in front of us, no one could forget it. I know some of us tried.
Adrien and Alain hugged and cheered as a Frenchman took a gold medal. The Merc picked Venge up by the scruff of his neck and held him out of reach of two Russians he’d offended. Velvet snuggled closer to the Biker, who wore an expression more like contentment than anything I’d ever seen on him. Russett snickered into my shoulder so no one would see.
Outsiders are always asking stalkers what could possibly compel them to come to a place like the Zone, but that’s a waste of time. A better question would be what could possibly compel them to leave. But there’s no point explaining these things to outsiders; they never understand.
I felt a little sad when the final event came around. Of course the night couldn’t go on forever, but that wouldn’t stop us from wishing it could. In the morning there would be a cold fog. There would be no warmth, no firelight, none of this. Some of us would have to leave these walls, and not all of us would come back. Even the hardest stalker has an appreciation for safety and warmth, and just for tonight, that was everyone. Tomorrow, eventually the hangovers would go away – but the memories wouldn’t.
Perhaps inevitably, it came down to Russia, Norway, and China. China hadn’t gotten a very warm reception from the people of Freedom. I thought maybe I should be offended by that, but I wasn’t. Obviously everyone but Velvet was holding their breath for Russia, and it might’ve been just me, but they were less worried about seeing Russia lose than the possibility of seeing China win.
Freedom HQ was quieter than I’d ever heard it. Even a small measure of focus had returned to Velvet, and she gazed keenly at the screen. Duty could have attacked right then and no one would have noticed.
“If they don’t get this,” Russett whispered. “We’ll have a hundred men dead of liver failure before morning.”
“Shh. Don’t ruin the moment.”
She snorted. I grinned. Exile continued to drum his fingers on the stock of his new rifle. With Velvet on his lap the Biker wouldn’t have noticed a nuclear explosion five feet away, much less a television screen. But apart from them, everyone else was rapt.
Norway took it. The Russians erupted with cheers, not because they’d gotten silver, but because China hadn’t. Velvet whipped around to straddle the Biker and kissed him. You could have heard the roar of the crowd from the Valley to the Cordon. The Biker is the perfect soldier; he knows how to seize the moment. So he seized Velvet and pulled her to him, and she didn’t let him go until he was a heartbeat away from passing out from lack of air.
The broadcast went off, and the band started to play one of my favorite songs. Venge ducked under a table and disappeared into the crowd to avoid the angry Serbian, to whom I was pretty sure he’d just lost a bet. Jester was leading a toast with big mugs of beer, and Exile was getting to his feet with his two rifles, looking tired. Russett was finishing her beer, and I was hoping the Merc wouldn’t happen to see Velvet passed out in the Biker’s lap.
The band continued to play. Russett and I decided to do the right thing, and frankly, the Biker looked relieved. We took Velvet inside, put her to bed, and went back outside. I hoped I wasn’t around when this thing between the Biker and the Merc came to a head; neither one of them was noted for taking prisoners, and I liked them both, so I didn’t see how it could end well. It was good that Velvet hadn’t noticed; the knowledge couldn’t possibly make her life easier. The longer she stayed oblivious, the better. It was a race now, but I was probably the only one that knew it.
The party wasn’t even close to winding down. Freedom never closes, but I had a feeling that tonight we’d stay especially open. Hand in hand, Russett and I walked the perimeter. I figured someone ought to keep an eye on the guards; this couldn’t be an easy night to stay focused.
The lights on the walls could only light the valley so far. It was dead black out there, except for where we could see the faint flashes on the horizon, perpetual lightning forever marking Chernobyl’s location.
I was getting well traveled in my old age. The Zone is big, and bigger now, since we’ve lost satellite coverage. I still haven’t seen half of it, but in three months you can walk a lot of roads.
The road to Chernobyl hadn’t been one of them. I needed no reminding; there was an inevitability here, too. Everything else could change, but the Center never would. No matter what happened out here, Chernobyl would stay the same. I wasn’t kidding anyone. I wouldn’t be able to stay away forever. I knew with absolute certainty. Chernoby was where all of this had begun, and that was where it was going to end. There would always be one more long walk. Even the Dane couldn’t change that.
“Everything’s so different here.”
I thought about the way every man in camp had rallied in outrage when a Korean fencer had been robbed of a medal. “Maybe not quite as different as you think.”
“I don’t ever want to leave,” Russett sighed.
(of course the story picks back up in Chapter 181 - I'll post at least the first few chapters of Speaker in here) Also, the Freedom thread already turned into the Freedom and Dirge thread, so let's let it go to bed.