This story is copyright © 1999 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author.
[Music I listened to: radio, plus Cathy Dennis "Into the Skyline" (twice?!), The Cranberries "To the Faithful Departed" (one and a half times) - yeah, um, I write a story about ravers/warehouse parties and then listen to pop and guitar music, go figure :), and then part of "Jungle Mania '94" (don't laugh, that one's actually good). And Moby "Play" while doing edits.]
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Eddie Burgess staggered into the kitchen, looking like six-foot-three of hell frozen over - black ice. He pulled back a chair and collapsed into it. Somebody pushed a mug of coffee across the table towards him.
"My fucking head," Eddie complained, taking a gulp of the drink. He dragged hard on his customary cigarette, held the smoke a few seconds before exhaling a huge cloud. "Shit."
"You still on for tonight?" Greg Cook asked. Otherwise, Eddie knew, the DJ would have to find another MC to make sure he'd rock the party, which was all Greg cared about. The small, intent black youth had a one-track mind, and you could bet it was a rare white label.
"Yeah, yeah," Eddie reassured, trailing smoke from his mouth after another prodigious inhale. He poured more coffee down his throat. Nicotine, caffeine: he already felt better. "'Course I'm up for it. It's fucking Saturday."
Six PM fucking Saturday, according to the stark LCD red of the clock-radio that balanced precariously on the fridge-freezer. Eddie realised he was starving, glanced at the oven - its power indicator glowed. "What's cooking, Stone?"
Steve Mason, standing proprietarily over the hob, said shortly, "One of Nicky's recipes. If the electricity stays on."
"Shit," Eddie said again, morosely. Just his luck, living with a vegetarian flatmate who worked in a fucking wholefood store. She was nice enough - and, he had to admit, she was the only one who ever bothered to buy food beyond takeaways - but, damn. Couldn't she have worked in a chip shop or an Indian or a butcher's or something?
He cheered himself up by pulling another cigarette from the pack, lighting it from the butt of his first. At that point the outside door clicked and Nicky Sherman - white, mid-height, long blonde hair, dungarees and a long-sleeved flower print T-shirt - stepped into the flat. She glanced disapprovingly at Eddie, nodded more positively at Stone's cooking, and fell into a chair, exhausted.
"Open the window, will you?"
Eddie was tempted to ignore the request, but she'd been out last night too, and then working all day, which was more than he could claim. So he pulled himself up and made his way around the table, towards the window.
"You see you had a letter this morning?" Nicky asked Stone.
The tall, scrawny white man nodded. "Yes." He hesitated. "Nothing that important."
"Sure," Nicky said. "Just checking-"
And then the air-raid sirens went off, screaming alarm and abruptly interrupting the discussion.
After a moment's pause, Eddie continued to the window. He peered out into the London evening, looking for explosions or anti-aircraft fire. Nothing yet - then, suddenly, there was an intense roar of bomber planes thundering overhead, seemingly right overhead.
Taken by surprise, he stepped back a few paces - then a shocking flash lit the room, an enormous sub-bass thump rolled through the building, and the window blew in, shattering into fragments that showered the kitchen. Cool autumn air gusted into the room, pulling away the remnants of cigarette smoke.
"Mission accomplished," Eddie reported, shaken. He leaned against the table to steady himself, took a fierce pull on his cigarette. "Window's open."
A pause. Then, "Fuck," Nicky said - half-shouted, against the suddenly increased shriek of air-raid sirens. "Eddie, you okay?"
She got to her feet, brushing fragments of window from her clothes, and circled the table to examine the MC.
"Shit, you got glass in your face. Don't move."
Nicky disappeared briefly, came back from the bathroom with their rudimentary first-aid kit. Reaching up to her taller patient, she plucked two shards of glass from his skin, breathing a sigh of relief as she found that the wounds were shallow. After a quick application of disinfectant - which hurt far more than the injuries had, although Eddie endured it without complaint - she pressed large sticking plasters over the cuts.
She was done. "You'll live."
"Yeah," Eddie retorted, "but I'll look fucking stupid tonight."
"Turn it into a feature," Nicky snapped. Some thanks! She glanced at Stone and Greg. "Anyone else?"
None of the others had been hurt beyond scratches.
"I'll clear up," Greg offered. He opened a cupboard, pulled out a dustpan and brush and began to sweep glass into a cardboard box.
Stone wandered over to the broken window, peered out. "The bastards hit the mail sorting office down the street. There's not a lot of it left. Took a chunk out of the next block of flats, too... here comes the first ambulance."
He looked back into the room, glared at Nicky. "Still think they're right to bomb us?"
"I never said they were." She jerked a finger at the window. "Who the fuck wants to be bombed? I just said they were less bad than our lot. At least they try to hit military targets instead of civilians."
Stone laughed briefly, sarcastically. "Post Office started employing soldiers since last time I visited?"
"You know what I mean," Nicky shot back. "The Americans and Germans aren't forcing us out of the country at gunpoint, shooting us, torturing us, shit like that, like the army's doing over in Ireland."
He curled his lip. "Believe all the propaganda on fucking CNN, do you?"
"More than I believe the crap we get on the BBC!" She did an imitation prissy-announcer-voice. " 'This is the BBC. In today's news, Prime Minister Thatcher has once again made clear that the United Kingdom will never cave in to unjustified aggression. Our superb defences have taken their toll on enemy aircraft once again, but their evil bombs have still killed thousands of nurses and primary school children. Refugees continue to flee from Ireland in fear of the US/EU bombardment.' The same every fucking day."
"Okay," Stone held out his hands in mock defeat. "You win. The enemy propaganda is true. They should bomb us even more than they already do. In fact, why don't we stand out on the roof waving a 'Target' flag?"
"I did not say they were fucking right to bomb us!" Nicky screamed, losing her temper. "Two wrongs do not make a fucking-"
"Shut it!" Greg stepped between the arguing pair. Nicky stopped, and for a moment there was relative quiet, only the constant background wail of sirens. The DJ continued more quietly. "I've had enough of this argument every other day. It does my head in. When you're Prime Minister, argue about that shit. Until then, concentrate on what's your business. Like the party tonight."
"Yeah," Eddie said, from the other side of the room. "I'll put the radio on."
He faded the speakers in to static, and quickly flipped through half-a-dozen presets until ragged jungle beats filled the air, the pirate DJ midway through a slightly dodgy mix (Greg winced). As the volume increased, a synthesised bass line tore through the room, blotting out the noise of wind and insistent sirens.
Nicky suddenly gestured at Stone. She shouted something in his direction over the music - Eddie didn't quite catch it, but it might have been "lasagne". Hurriedly, the other man busied himself at the oven, retrieving their meal before it burnt.
Eddie got to his feet and went over to Nicky. "Lasagne?" he asked, speaking close to her ear against the din of snarling drum breaks. She nodded, and a thrill of startled anticipation coursed through his taste buds.
But she crushed his hopes a moment later, grinning - he thought - cruelly. "Mixed bean lasagne."
With a crunch of missed gears, the beat-up Metro pulled away from the kerb. Eddie was driving - badly - and Greg occupied the passenger seat.
"I'm glad this thing has rear seatbelts," Nicky observed tartly. She and Stone sat in the back of the car, completing their group and filling the small vehicle to capacity.
"If you don't like it, learn to fucking drive yourself," Eddie said mildly, speaking around the cigarette that dangled from his lips. He reached down to the radio-cassette and flicked the play button to drown out any further disturbance. Hard trance blasted from the car's tinny stereo speakers, repetitive analogue bass lines modulating above a four-four kick drum beat. The open window allowed in hissing wind-noise, a gentler backdrop to the mechanised assault.
Eventually they reached the M25 London orbital motorway. It was just getting dark and rain began to fall, rattling gently on the roof in chaotic accompaniment to the music, as Eddie took the car up to its maximum safe speed. There was little other traffic; petrol was expensive these days, with a blockade in place so that only the North Sea oilfields could supply fuel for the country. With a growing proportion of the population unemployed and poor in any case, people restricted their travel to the minimum necessary.
A roadsign flashed by, warning of an upcoming interchange. Eddie began to slow down, signalling left.
"That's not our junction," Greg said, surprised.
"Yeah," Eddie said. "Sorry. I got this hunch... we'll do the rest on minor roads."
"We'll be late," the DJ complained. "Come on, don't mess around."
"I ain't messing around," Eddie insisted, taking the cigarette from his mouth to talk. "Last time we nearly got stopped by the cops. This time, I dunno..."
He turned off the motorway, ignoring Greg's exaggerated sigh. At the roundabout, they turned along a minor road which ran alongside the motorway for a time. Eddie knew this area well, he'd been born round here.
A few minutes later, Nicky gave an exclamation. She pointed out of the right-hand window. A flashing blue light was moving rapidly along the motorway, and a siren could faintly be heard against the music that filled the car.
"See?" Eddie said, satisfied. "Fucking blue lights." He sucked in smoke, breathed a huge cloud at the windscreen.
Greg sighed. "Okay - good guess. We're still going to be late."
"Seems the cops've got nothing better to do than look for people heading out to have a good time," Nicky said, voice tinged with irony. "Someone should tell them there's a war on."
Eddie continued to drive them along minor roads, cutting through endless Home Counties scenery - town after town after town, with occasional gaps between for a few fields, a business park, a run-down industrial estate. Somehow the surroundings seemed desolate, the economic downturn as tangible in the air as tobacco smoke.
Eventually they reached their destination, a large industrial zone. Massive, featureless warehouses and factories dotted the estate, clad in dull metal. Paint was peeling from the walls and the "24 hour security" signs that dotted the surrounding wire-mesh fence were a bad joke, a long-forgotten memory after three years of economic sanctions had destroyed the UK's international trade and ruined the companies that had once operated here.
Greg was examining a badly-reproduced flier. "I think we're on second... here, DJ Blindside and Strong - eleven PM, supposed to be." The clock in the dash read 23:06. "Hurry up and park."
The car swung in through a large metal gate, designed to allow huge juggernauts to pass, which stood open. Eddie took them into the centre of the complex and found a space in the car park, which normally stood empty but was filled with hundreds of cars tonight. They crunched to a halt and Eddie pulled the keys from the ignition, killing the engine and abruptly cutting off the music. Greg got out of the car, hurrying round to the back to retrieve his record box.
The others left more slowly. Eddie pulled a fresh packet of cigarettes from the glove compartment, then locked both doors. He looked around the area - the car park was centrally placed, to service the whole site, and buildings surrounded them. In one direction, an access road led between two enormous warehouses, and music could be heard from the left-hand of the pair. They set off towards it, Greg carrying his record box with the loving care that might more normally be extended to precious china.
Peeling cream paint coated the metal frame of the warehouse, which towered eight metres high. It was a rectangular building and they entered at one end - almost the entire end was a door, made of slatted metal that could be slid away, but it was only open enough to allow access. Inside, the concrete expanse was half-filled with ravers, some wearing plain jeans-and-t-shirt and some in multi-coloured outfits that they'd made themselves. A few stalls were set out along one wall, selling drinks, and the end opposite the door had been turned into a makeshift stage, with room for a pair of decks, the DJ and an MC. Speaker stacks bordered the stage, pumping out the decibels. The music for this early set was jazz-funk influenced jungle, mellow enough that as many were wandering around and chatting as actually dancing.
The pace would grow more intense later - or sooner, if Greg had his way. DJ Blindside, followed by Eddie and a trail of cigarette smoke, made his way around the crowd to the stage, determined to tear the place down.
Midnight, almost an hour into the set. Stone danced with the same fierce sense of purpose he applied to everything: rigidly, concentrating intensely on the music to alter his pattern at precisely the right times, ignoring those around except insofar as to avoid their feet. But he still tired like everyone else, and when Greg began to mix in a record he didn't particularly care for, he took the opportunity for a break.
He made his way carefully through the sweating, pulsing crowd to the back of the building, near the partly-open door of the warehouse. Unscrewing the cap of his water-bottle, he took a few sips. He sat on the concrete and leaned against the wall, looking at the floor, trying to relax and cool off as he resisted the call of the fierce, pounding rhythms that filled the building.
Somebody touched his shoulder and he looked to his right to see Nicky, her elfin face flushed, skin glistening with energy from the dance. Her blue eyes were clear, though, and intense: she never took artificial stimulants, refused even to drink caffeine.
She sat down beside him, the man who was also as invariably sober as his nickname suggested, and looked his way. "I hoped I'd catch you."
It was easy enough to talk this far from the speaker stacks, if you were close together. "What for?" Stone asked, staring again at the concrete. He'd lost the detachment that dancing provided, and the outside world was beginning to intrude.
"You've been quiet," Nicky said. She looked intently at him - Stone knew she was watching, could feel her gaze even though his eyes were elsewhere. "I mean, more than usual. It wasn't the fight earlier, we always fight. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Stone said unconvincingly.
Nicky was silent for a moment. Stone heard instead the fierce staccato drumbeat, a pulsating, throbbing bass sound, and Eddie's voice over the PA, exhorting people to get up and dance with quick, pithy rhyme-pairs. He didn't look at the girl, already knew what was on her face: the gentle, you-know-you'll-tell-me-and-feel-much-better, why-not-do-it-now expression that she wore so well. It wasn't possible to keep any troubles from Nicky, but he stubbornly matched her silence anyway.
Eventually she said, "What was in that letter?"
She'd guessed, then. He sighed, gave in, and actually turned to face her. "They want me to join the army in Ireland. After the telephone exchange was blown up last week, they know I don't have a job, so..."
She didn't lecture him, didn't describe all the terrible things the British military was - according to her - involved in. Instead she said, "Will you go?"
Until that moment, he hadn't known. But now, as he looked across the makeshift dance floor, seeing the packed crowd moving in unison, watching them raise arms into the air in response to the ecstatic peak of the current record, bathing deeply in the shared energy even though he was sitting out, he knew the answer.
"It's not worth dying for." Admitting that, especially to her, hurt. "If the rest of the world takes Ireland... in principle, that's wrong. In practice, it's not so important. It's not worth being blown up, or driven into poverty so that we can hardly afford to go out."
"People are happy here," Nicky said softly, indicating the crowd. "They'd be happy whether Britain ran Ireland or not, and it isn't just the drugs. It's the music, the scene. Politics aren't near as important as the politicians think."
He didn't disagree.
She leant still closer, kissed him gently on the cheek. "You belong here." With that, she got to her feet. "I'm getting some fresh air." She slipped through the partly-open sliding door, treading light-footed into the darkness of night.
Stone sat for a few minutes more, sipping lukewarm water. Gradually, his energy returned, fuelled by the repetitive beats that flooded the air. His mood, too, was lightened - he did feel better for having made a decision, having told Nicky.
Then the current record span down to a low-pitched halt, and the sound of a helicopter filled the air. It was another track, a new one that had already gained near-cult status despite (or because?) of the threat from genuine enemy aircraft. As the helicopter faded out to be replaced by a distinctive, pulsing beat, Stone could no longer resist the urge to dance. He got back to his feet, began to make his way closer to the speaker stacks.
And suddenly, the noise of aircraft could once more be heard, planes this time, briefly louder than the music, and then a shattering roar swept through the building, with a sub-bass pulse far more powerful than the sound system could manage. The warehouse shook, but seemed stable. Quiet suddenly settled over the building - though the shockwave had done little damage, the needle had jumped off the record, landing in the centre groove and silence, with only a small periodic click.
For a moment Stone had thought they were under attack - he laughed at his stupidity. Of course, this building hadn't been bombed, but another on the industrial estate must have been hit. Why on earth the enemy would want to bother was beyond him - no factory on this site remained working - but perhaps they had out-of-date maps or intelligence information, perhaps something here would once have been a target...
...and then Stone suddenly realised that Nicky had been outside. Probably she was okay, but he should check. He turned to make his way through the doors, joining a small curious crowd that had gone to see what was happening...
...and heard a call of alarm from someone nearer the front. Suddenly, without real reason, a stroke of alarm shot through him and he pushed his way through the crowd, hurrying outside. Just before he left the building, he remembered the two on-stage, and turned to gesture at Eddie and Greg. They seemed to notice him, but he didn't wait to see whether they were following.
The warehouse directly opposite this one had been hit, destroyed. Flames towered high into the sky - whatever had been inside was burning fiercely - and the building itself was a steel-girdered skeleton of its former shape. Fragments of the metal plates that had formed its walls still clung to the beams, but the walls had mostly been blown out by the force of the explosion. Debris, loose plates and jagged shards from the walls or from the warehouse's contents, dotted the tarmac.
One large fragment of steel, a rough triangle two metres in length, lay on top of a body. Stone could recognise Nicky from here. He shoved through the crowd, which parted before him. The spreading pool of blood made him quicken his pace, the stranger kneeling over his friend made him speed up further, and he skidded to a halt by Nicky's body. He looked down at the unknown man, presumably the first to reach her.
The stranger gestured helplessly. "She's dead. Must have been standing close by that building when it blew. There's a dozen small fragments of metal in her, then that plate must have fallen on top..."
Stone wasn't listening any more, and the stranger's voice trailed off. There was an awkward pause, then the man backed away and melted into the crowd.
Behind, there was a disturbance, somebody else making their way to the scene. Stone didn't turn to see. He looked at Nicky's face, protruding from under the chunk of metal, blood still trickling from a gash in her forehead. Her skin was pale as ever. It seemed white in the monochromatic firelight; her lifeblood, black. He stared at the contrast, noting the shapes of her face - triangles, diamonds, curves, shining brightly between the shadows and the blood.
"Fuck..." Greg breathed, from behind his right ear.
Stone glanced around. Eddie stood to his left, staring also. The MC, so voluble, had been struck silent. He let his half-smoked cigarette drop to the floor.
For a moment, they stayed like that.
Then, Stone's practical nature took a tentative hold. "What do we do... with her?" He gestured helplessly at Nicky's body. The growing ring of onlookers peered closely, captivated by the sight - the small, lithe young woman, trapped beneath a heavy steel plate, eyes staring and mouth frozen in perpetual surprise.
"How am I supposed to fucking know?" Eddie asked, with a kind of savage bitterness. A few of the onlookers burst into tears then, probably some strange combination of whatever drugs they'd taken and the unpleasant situation. The fiercely-burning warehouse threw sparks and flickering red-orange light across the scene.
"I've got an idea," Greg said quietly.
"You?" Stone exclaimed, then flushed and went quiet. He'd been about to say that the DJ didn't care about anything except music, what would he know? - but in truth Greg seemed as affected as the rest by their flatmate's death.
"Open that door all the way-" he gestured at the enormous sliding entrance to their own warehouse - "and turn off the lights, so everyone can see the fire. Then throw-" his voice caught - "throw Nicky's body into the flames... a funeral pyre."
Stone considered it, felt himself caught by the intensity in Greg's voice. He nodded and went over to the giant door, calling for volunteers to help him shove it open.
Eddie went over to the dead woman again, knelt down, grabbed hold of the ragged-edged steel plate that covered her body. Straining his impressive muscles, he levered the plate up a few centimetres, enough for Greg to drag out the corpse.
Together they lifted Nicky's body, carrying her by the shoulders and waist. Then, walking slowly in step, they crossed the few metres to the burning warehouse, treading over the debris that littered the ground. The crowd watched in silence, all eyes on the pair and their burden.
Greg and Eddie stepped into the gap between the still-standing framework of the building, went close to the fire, closer still. Items on the floor beneath their feet were burning, but neither stopped. They continued until the heat become impassable.
As one, they swung Nicky's body back, and then vigorously forward, releasing their surprisingly light burden. Sparks showered from the inferno as it accepted the offering.
Steadily, not hurrying, the pair turned and made their way back to safety. Their faces were now flushed red, flecked with tiny burns from the sparks. In places, their clothes were blackened and burnt. Nobody said a word as they continued, progressing through the crowd and back into the other building, back to their positions on the stage.
Greg stood behind his decks, pulled a record from his box and slipped it onto one turntable, set it spinning. He quirked an eyebrow at Eddie, questioning.
The MC nodded and Greg dropped the needle on the record. He missed the cue point, the first time he'd made that mistake for years, but it didn't matter. The track began to play - whichever it was, that didn't matter either. Gradually the atmosphere lightened, people began to dance, jerkily moving their bodies any way they knew how. The flickering flames lit everything in a strange, primal red, somehow fuelled the intensity of the moment, made it seem like some pagan ritual.
Eddie stared over the mass of writhing bodies into the blaze, some way distant from the stage. He thought of the young woman - she'd been generous, kind, fiercely idealistic. She'd died for nothing but, like the rest of them in the flat, she'd lived for music.
Carefully he raised the open mike to his lips.
"This one-" he had to stop. He cleared his throat, gripped the mike tighter in his sweat-slick palm, readied the rough, forceful voice that made him MC Strong, paused for the right gap in the music. "This one's for Nicky."
Whole, unbroken, the beat played on.
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(Disclaimer: As should be obvious, this story is based on the Kosovo conflict, but it isn't supposed to be an exact parallel and I'm not really trying to make any points about that, really, well, beyond the blindingly obvious...)