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Tiger's Spring

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  06:24:42  5 June 2015
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
 

Message edited by:
BobBQ
06/05/2015 7:09:25
Messages: 3336
I could have posted this six months ago if I'd been smart and just split the chapter in the first place. Second half will be up as soon as it's done.

***

“You still haven't decided?”

“It's a big decision,” Lena protests. “I want to be sure I'm making the right choice.”

Pavlina rolls her eyes. “You're picking out a souvenir for Raymond,” she grumbles, her long reddish-blond ponytail swishing. “How hard can it be? You know everything about him!”

Lena wishes she hadn't agreed to let her young neighbor tag along on this fine October day. Not that she doesn't like Pavlina, but the precocious adolescent is as eager to give romantic counsel as she is bad at it. “You'll understand when you have a boyfriend of your own,” asserts the older woman. “Look around, we must be close to the shop.”

Pavlina scans. “I don't see it. Are you sure this is the right street?”

While Lena won't pretend that living in Kiev for six weeks makes her any kind of expert, she's pretty confident in her ability to read directions. “Maybe it's further up,” she hedges, absently running a hand through her brunette curls. “Come on.”

Pavlina starts to reply, but suddenly Lena can only hear a shrill whine. A prickling heat crawls over her skin inside the jeans and sweater. She opens her mouth and a thunderclap hits and a freight train of pain comes roaring through Grand Cerebral Station. Lena staggers, teeters, falls sideways across the hood of a parked car. She screams and so does everyone else, a terrible noise punctuated by terrible noises. Tires screech. Metal crumples. Glass shatters. A baby howls.

ect 40-3 temp 896 power 103 object 40-4 offline object 40-5 temp 881 power 101 obje

A low thrumming fills Lena's head, a phantom sound with no source. With it, the pain eases. She looks about with blurred eyes, sees Pavlina facedown on the sidewalk. Lena calls out, barely aware of her own voice. Dense clouds blot out a sky that was clear and sunny a few seconds ago.

[13:04:26] Critical: connection lost to Object 40-4. Compensating...

Lena pauses, blinking as phantasmal information enters her mind. She closes her eyes. It's still there.

[13:04:29] Warning: Object 40 operating at 105 percent rated capacity.

“Get up!” A man's rough hand seizes her arm and pulls her to her feet. “Move it!”

[13:04:34] Warning: connection to node “Shelter” timed out. Retrying 1... Retrying 2... Retrying 3...

Thunder rumbles. A burning wind sweeps down from the north. The man drags Lena away from the car, bending down to grab Pavlina's jacket collar with his other hand.

[13:04:49] Critical: connection to node “Shelter” failed. Initiate evacuation protocol manually.

An air raid siren sounds in the distance. The clouds are turning a devilish red color.

Object 40-1 temp 920 power 110
Object 40-2 temp 918 power 107
Object 40-3 temp 923 power 112
Object 40-4 offline
Object 40-5 temp 919 power 108
Object 40-6 temp 921 power 111

More messages, meaningless to Lena. She stumbles after the rough man, trying to block out the intruding signals. Others are moving as well, running and shambling and crawling in every direction.

“What's going on?” cries Pavlina.

“It's a blowout!” the man answers. “We have to find cover!”

object 40-1 temp 929 power 114 object 40-2 temp 930 power 116 object 40-3 te

The pain seeps back in, muddying Lena's thoughts. She tries to push it away, feeling as though her head is about to burst.

[13:05:12] Critical: noosphere lens flux exceeding simulation boundaries.

“Tolstoy Square...” The rough man is fighting it too. “Metro station...”

[13:05:15] Critical: TOPOL-1A runtime unexpectedly terminated (reason: stack overflow). Transferring control to TOPOL-1B...

A sedan blocks the sidewalk, its front end crushed, its doors open. The man leads Lena and Pavlina around it.

[13:05:20] Warning: Object 40 operating at 132 percent rated capacity.

The siren's wail rises and falls. The red sky darkens.

[13:05:22] Critical: catastrophic failure of node “Circle” imminent. Transferring autonomous functions to node “Rainbow”...

The man doggedly marches on, and Lena follows blindly. Lightning flashes at the edge of her vision.

[13:05:27] Warning: connection to node “Rainbow” timed out. Retrying 1...

All is pain and redness. “Oh god... Oh god...”

[13:05:42] Critical: connection to node “Rainbow” failed.

“Here! Down the steps, hurry!”

40-2 offline object 40-3 temp 943 power 121 object 40-4 offline object 40-5 offline obj

Lena loses her footing and the rough man hauls her up by her elbow. The storm reaches its climax.

whoever lives
forgive us
a n grebenyuk
lead programmer

Everything goes black.

***

For a Few Moments More - First Half

“Lena, wake up... Wake up, it's over.”

Her head was throbbing, and the cold hard surface on which she lay didn't help. It was so dark she could barely make out Pavlina kneeling in front of her. “Where..?”

“We made it to the station. It's been quiet for a little while.”

There were other people huddled along the walls, but Lena couldn't find the one she needed. “That man...”

“He asked for coins,” the teenager told her. “I gave him a few and he went back outside.”

What was he going to do with money if the trains weren't running? Call a taxi? Trying to think about it down here made Lena claustrophobic. She forced herself to get up, keeping a hand on the wall as dizziness and nausea threatened to overwhelm her, and felt her way up the stairs to the street level vestibule. The sky outside wasn't red any more: it had changed to a roiling pall of charcoal gray, intermittently lit by flashes from within. Lifeless bodies and abandoned vehicles were strewn all over the pavement.

“Stay there!”

Lena turned, recognizing the rough man's voice. He was standing on the square's central island, next to a police car which had run up against the billboard pedestal there, and now she got her first clear sight of him. She guessed her rescuer was in his late thirties, with a wrinkled brow and a prominent widow's peak. He had a scar on one cheek and another at the edge of his forehead. For clothing he wore a workman's boots and green coveralls. “What happened?” she asked him, still trying to make sense of the horrific spectacle. “What is this?”

“I'd say the Zone just got bigger,” the man replied. Ducking into the car, he pulled out a carbine with a bright orange magazine. “It'll be like six years ago, but worse... Don't move, I'm coming back.”

He returned along a curving path. Noticing Lena's bafflement, her benefactor pointed to the part of the street he'd avoided. Now she saw it: a shimmer so faint she would have walked straight into it if she hadn't been shown where to look. “What's that?”

“Meatgrinder.” The man held up a coin. “Watch.”

He flicked it. The air rippled and the coin slowed suddenly, deflecting off at an angle. As Lena's eyes chased the metal disc, it stretched into a dully glowing red streak and disintegrated. Only then did the gravity of the situation truly sink in. “Oh my god...”

“We'll have to mark paths between them,” said the rough man with grim practicality. “The metro gives pretty good shelter. Maybe we can use the tunnels to get around.” He walked past Lena and started down the stairs into the station. “Our priorities will be finding food, water and ways to keep warm.”

A final question slipped through the closing jaws of panic. “Who are you?”

“Just call me Wolf.”

***

Kiev's people died slowly in the following days. Not all at once, nor all the same way.

After the blowout took the lion's share, the anomalies exacted their own toll from what remained. More perished for want of medicine or batteries. Others succumbed in darkness as November brought a vicious cold snap. Most who were able fled south, using whatever transport they could find or else going on foot. A few helicopters were heard on the first day, though no one knew what became of them.

Wolf stayed behind in the ghost city, saying it was safer to dig in and survive than rush blindly into unknown danger. A small number, Lena and Pavlina among them, put their trust in his experience and stayed as well. He led them north along the blue line to the station at Postal Square, nestled between Kiev's river port and a steep hill named for some saint or other. From this band he recruited a few brave and resourceful people to help provide for the fledgling camp, which he ran with a hard but fair hand.

They got a lucky break on the second day, when Wolf and the scouts found a semi-trailer full of dried vegetables. Combined with a water filter rigged by one of the station's refugees, it was enough to meet their immediate needs. Furniture out of a nearby hotel became their firewood, helped by dashes of gasoline siphoned from disabled cars. While the scavengers did their vital work, some courageous souls took it on themselves to gather the dead. Day by day they moved corpses out of the streets and into the church overlooking the square, until the unburied covered its floors.

Lena was a foreigner with no family here, nor many friends. Once the initial shock wore off, she felt uncomfortably detached from the crisis even as others grieved around her. She occupied herself with a numbing routine of menial tasks, but now and then she ran out of things to do and wondered how long it would be until she saw the sun again.

Things livened up a little on the sixth day, when the scouts met another group of survivors in the Old Town over the hill. These holdouts had subsisted on bottled water and canned corned beef, taken from a pair of delivery trucks which crashed one street apart, until dwindling reserves forced a migration towards the river. A deal was struck and the remaining quantity of preserved meat came down the funicular rails to Wolf's den.

More mouths to feed meant more work for Lena, and a welcome distraction from worrying about how the temperature kept falling, how the scavengers were going further and further out to find supplies, or how rescue was so slow in coming. She tried not to think about the prospect of having to stay in the Zone indefinitely, even as Wolf planned ahead for that outcome. Sooner or later the mutants of the old Zone would spread to Kiev, he warned, and then the station would have to be defended. He’d scrounged enough police pistols to arm a few deputies, but they needed much more.

On the eighth day, two important events took place. The first happened when Lena, feeling restless, volunteered for water duty: every morning a group of six to eight would gather the clean jugs and bottles, load them into hand carts, and roll those carts down the Borychiv descent to the river’s edge. It was the safest way to get out and stretch her legs, as long as she stayed on the path Wolf marked.

The surprising thing was that Pavlina volunteered too. She’d turned away from the only friend she had left, becoming aloof and withdrawn as she struggled to cope with the loss of her family. For her there was no more naive hope they might still be alive, not when she had witnessed so much death. Coming out of her shell after days of self-imposed isolation was a good sign, Lena thought. If only the teenager would speak more than just when spoken to...

The cloud cover hadn’t broken since the blowout, though it faded to a lighter shade of overcast. Today the weather was frigid but not windy, the river’s surface glasslike. The watering party made it to the embankment without trouble, and the first bottle-fillers went down the stairs to greet the Dnieper. Lena was at the top of the steps, wondering how grimy her reflection would be, when the second event happened.

“There’s a plane!” someone called behind her. “Look!”

Lena looked up and saw it coming down the river from the north. The machine skimmed barely above rooftop height, a sliver torpedo carried between long straight wings with four engines. She stood spellbound, the jug in her hand forgotten, picking out details as it came closer: a lattice of small windows in the nose, rivet lines on the fuselage, the propellers spinning. There was a bubble viewport in the side behind the wing, and she thought she glimpsed a face in it as the aircraft drew abreast of her. The last thing she noticed was a red star on the tail fin, and then the ghostly passerby was flying off into the distance.

The engines, she realized afterward, were impossibly quiet.

***

They called themselves New Order, and they carried more guns than Lena had ever seen up close before. She didn't know who they were, but most of them wore a mismatched camouflage medley with the odd scrap of a police or military uniform thrown in. She didn't know where they came from, except she had a vague idea they'd crossed one of the bridges from the far shore. What she did know was that they waited for Wolf and the scouts to leave, then rushed into the station, shot the guards and seized the exits.

“The terms are simple,” said their leader, a brutish giant in a balaclava. Reaching the end of the lantern lit metro platform, he turned and began to retrace his steps in front of the gathered survivors. “Those who work, eat. Those who don't, starve. Those who run, die. Our town, our rules, get it?” Silence. “Get it, swine!?”

Some of the others voiced compliance. Lena kept quiet, trying not to attract attention.

It didn't save her. “That one,” ordered the brute, and suddenly she was being pulled away from the crowd by two of the invaders. “That one too,” the leader added, pointing at Pavlina.

“You can't,” Lena protested. “Please, she's only fourteen – ”

A gloved hand struck her face and then the thugs dragged her bodily from the station. An hour later she was bent over a table in a stranger's apartment, her jeans around her knees and her sweater hiked up to her armpits. The first man in line was abusive, slapping and cursing her even as she gave him exactly what he wanted.

Then they brought in Pavlina and she couldn't hold back her tears any longer.

***

Lena ran faster than she'd ever run in her life. Icy air stung her lungs, vapor hissing between her clenched teeth. Pain flared between her hips with every bounce and jolt. She kept a death grip on Pavlina's wrist, not daring to let the younger girl fall behind. Something flickered among the trees to the right and she veered away instinctively.

Two days of New Order's hospitality made her willing to risk all for a chance to escape. She'd grabbed Pavlina and bolted at the first opportunity, not knowing where she was or where she was going. Unfortunately the pair didn't make a clean getaway, and now Lena could hear the shouting of pursuers hot on their trail. The day would end soon, putting a hard limit on the time they had left to shake off their tormentors and find a way out of these woods.

God, please, she begged silently. Don't let them catch us.

Lena saw light between the bare trunks ahead. The ground sloped gently under her aching feet and then the forest ended and she and Pavlina were stumbling onto a small sandy beach, facing a river blanketed in dense mist. As Lena finally stopped, her heart running full throttle, she became aware that the two of them were no longer alone.

There was a wooden boat lying at the water's edge, a simple craft without a cabin or an engine. In front of it stood a man wearing a black longcoat, his face hidden beneath a cavernous hood. For a moment he and the runaways simply stared at one another, and then the fastest of the hunting pack burst from the woods. Lena looked behind herself, saw the bloodlust on their faces, and prayed for a miracle.

“End of the line, bit – ”

Blue light and heat seared the side of her face. A concussive force blasted her eardrums. She screamed, letting go of Pavlina to cover her own head. The smell of ozone filled her nose. Through the ringing in her ears, she dimly heard a voice cursing. Then the lightning struck twice. When Lena opened her eyes, all that remained of her would-be assailants were a pair of legs, an arm clutching an automatic rifle, and pieces of red pulp scattered over the sand.

“We should go before more come,” said the hooded man, dropping his gun into the boat. His words carried soft authority. “Get in.”

The boat had two wide seats across the middle with oarlocks on either side, though only the forward set had oars in place. At the stern there were lengthwise boards on either side of a steering tiller. A boy of perhaps eight sat there, in a miniature facsimile of the boatman's coat. He showed no interest at all in what was happening.

The young women climbed aboard awkwardly, not having much in the way of sea legs. Lena put herself down on the aft center seat, facing forwards, and Pavlina settled across from the boy at the helm. The boatman pushed off, jumping aboard as the humble vessel drifted out into the fog. Taking the rower's position, he picked up the oars and pulled until New Order was only a bunch of impotent noise far away.

“That's the last we'll see of them,” he told his passengers, laying up the oars and reaching for his weapon. It looked like an over-under shotgun of the kind used by some New Order thugs, except its barrels were encrusted with a metallic crystal growth. “Where do you want to go?”

Lena hadn't thought that far. “I don't know,” she fumbled, pulling someone else's too-big jacket tighter around herself. “Somewhere safe.”

“All right.” Her guide unlocked the breech, ejecting a pair of crimson shells into the bilge. He loaded fresh ammunition, snapped the action shut and laid the strange gun at his side, freeing his hands to row again. “There's a stalker camp on the other side. They'll help you.”

Stalkers. Lena had heard stories about them, seen reports in the news of trespassers caught bringing contraband from the Zone. Vicious brigands and cutthroats, according to the government... But Wolf was a stalker, and the boatman seemed to be one as well. “Who are you?” she asked impulsively.

“The Zone doesn't care who I am. You needn't either.” He said it without the slightest hint of reproach or malice, as if he were telling her the day was chilly. “You weren't the first to come out of Hydropark. Did you escape from there or from Rusanivka?”

“I don't know. I never went to that part of the city before.”

The boy at the stern spoke abruptly. “They make their camp in Rusanivka,” he intoned. His speech was flat, lacking any nuance or emotion. “Dregs behind a moat will be dirt soon.”

Lena felt an urge to turn so she wasn't exposing her back to the boy. “Don't mind him,” said the boatman calmly. “Just a bored necromancer along for the ride.”

That wasn't comforting. She needed to change the subject, talk about something else. “You said there were others before us?”

“Others who ran away from New Order. Not many made it.”

“Oh...” Lena hadn't seen anyone she recognized after she was torn from Wolf's haven. She was scared to ask what became of Postal Square's remaining inhabitants. “How... How have you not been caught?”

“If you understand the Zone, you can hide in it. If you respect the Zone, you can live in it.” A note of distaste came into the boatman's voice. “New Order doesn't grasp that. They won't survive the winter.”

“You're sure?”

“Pretty sure.” The oars bit deep into water. “You two will, though. You're strong.”

Lena gaped at him. All she'd done was drift with the current, carried along by the kindness and cruelty of strangers and her own animal drive to keep living just a little longer. What kind of strength did she have when she felt like one more push might turn her into a sobbing wreck? And how could he be so sure about Pavlina, who hadn't said a word since they met him?

“I'm not saying it to make you feel better,” declared the guide, his modest confidence never wavering. “I'm saying it so you don't give up after coming this far. Too many have already done that.”

Lena shifted on her seat, rocking the boat a little. “What else can we do?”

“You'll know when the time comes. Until then, live and learn.” The boatman pulled with one oar and held the other in place, effecting a course change. “We're almost there. Better be quiet now.”

Night was falling fast, leaving Lena unable to see or hear anything through the mist. She could only trust the captain of the craft really knew where they were. Minutes passed, metered by the steady splash of the oars. Then a shape loomed out of the fog on the left: a low breakwater made from loosely piled chunks of stone. The fog itself ended a moment later, revealing a dark mass of land dead ahead. Coming up alongside the breakwater, the boat ran aground with a soft grinding noise.

The boatman quickly stowed the oars and disembarked at the bow, hooking his fingers over the gunwales. He kept the boat steady as Lena and Pavlina climbed out onto a beach much like the one they were picked up at. “There you go,” said the man. “Just follow the path.”

Lena could scarcely see it in the dying light, but there actually was a path. It ran right to the water's edge, marked with lengths of cord tied to stakes planted in the sand. Numerous footprints on both sides attested to frequent use. She looked inland, searching in vain for lights or movement, then back at the boatman. “You're not coming?”

“I can't. I'm needed elsewhere.”

The last thing she wanted was for them to be dropped off alone, left to fend for themselves. “Please...”

“Don't be afraid. Stay on the path until you find a sentry and tell him you're civilians fleeing from New Order. You won't be turned away.”

He spoke with such assurance that Lena couldn't help wanting to believe him. She was trying to think of something proper to say when Pavlina spoke for the first time in hours. “Thank you,” the teenager murmured.

“Yes,” echoed Lena. Even if they parted like this, she couldn't deny what a service he'd done them. “Thank you so much. I wish I had a way to repay you.”

“I don't need payment,” the boatman replied. “But you can do me a favor. There should be a girl called Zhenya among the stalkers. It would be a big help if you could make sure she's all right.”

His request sounded simple enough. “I'll try,” Lena offered. “How will I find you?”

“I'll be around.” Her peculiar savior made ready to cast off. “Good luck to you both.”

He launched and boarded his vessel, and was soon swallowed up by the fog. With him gone, Lena became acutely aware of just how cold the air was. Somehow she hadn't felt it so badly aboard the boat. “Come on,” she said, taking Pavlina by the hand as her body began to shiver with a vengeance. “We have to keep going.”
  14:22:50  5 June 2015
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PCDania
The Dane
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 1535
Finally, the long wait was worth it
  21:25:06  22 June 2015
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
Six years and 120,000 hits later, I look back and think Why?
  22:25:11  7 May 2016
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
It's the big seven! I should say something clever but I'm too tired. Have a picture: http://yuyuyoumu.tumblr.com/post/121040495474/another-piece-of-fanart-for-my-friend-bob-this

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.
 
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