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Dust and Ashes by Raphael van Lierop

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Dust and Ashes by Raphael van Lierop

We had been there for two days, staring across the Trench at a ragtag band of Crazies and Sun Kissed.

When the haze broke on the third day, I could see a half-dozen figures scurrying under jerry-rigged shelters of corroded tin and pale rubble. Moments later, a violent wash of acid-laden droplets hissed on the ground, gradually eating through the clothing of the corpses littering the Trench.

I concentrated on the sniper Crazy, the one furthest from our makeshift bunker. Sometimes, if I stared hard enough, I could see things that other people couldn't see. In this case, the Crazy seemed closer than he really was. Somehow, he'd managed to get his hands on a Pre-C rifle; military grade I'd say, the way its bullets tore through a man. I'd fight for it when this was all over. A reliable rifle was worth a lot of fresh water out here in the Zone. Thing was, I still had to find my way over there to collect. And then there was the matter of its owner, unlikely to give it up willingly.

The rain was both blessing and curse. Because of it, nobody could sneak up on us, but we were pretty much limited to sitting in the bunker and waiting it out. I could have probably survived a few minutes exposed, plenty of time to cross the Trench and get the rifle, but I wasn't about to risk my good hide to the rain or the Crazies.

Then there were the Sun Kissed. They had even less to lose than the Crazies, and were only half as smart. The Sun Kissed were usually just normals who'd wandered in the Zone and soaked up too many rads. Way too many. „Its kiss will kill“, somebody used to say, but I don't remember who. Maybe we'd get lucky and they would kill themselves off before too long. If my employers wanted what was in that old building badly enough to send me out there alone, they would have to pay up in advance.

I don't remember too much of the before. Or of the when or what. The worst part is the who, because without the who you don't have much of anything. Merc jobs came easily and went quickly, paid enough to keep me going, and I seemed to have a knack for them. Some things you just didn't question too closely, because you might not like what you find.

This gang was one of the saddest bunch I'd come across yet. I guess I'd impressed them by getting by their slobbering watchmen. They kept their distance, which was just as well. People tended to become a little shy with the hospitality when they got a good look at what they were dealing with. Wandering through this wretched town, I hadn't hoped for much but some decent scavenging. Maybe some Rad-free canned rations, and some water I could drink without getting too sick. I had seen an encampment, more of a shanty town really, from a klick away. Small fires burning brought out perfect silhouettes. The Eyes were working real well that night. Had to fight down the urge to prowl.

After I'd been sitting at their campfire for a few minutes without anyone noticing, I made my presence known, like a bolt of lightning right in their midst. Scampering and falling all over themselves, I assured them my intentions were fair. After they put their guns away we got to talking. It became clear they had much bigger problems than strange wanderers entering their camp, unseen.

They had an ancient Lombardi water purifier, the kind you used to find in most frontier towns. That was before a trader came across a stash of the wind-powered filtration pumps and flooded the local market. Since then, it had become more and more difficult to keep the Lombardi running — not enough tinkerers to retool the machines, and not enough machinists to tinker new tools. It was the same old story.

This bunch said they knew of a cache of pumps on the other side of town. But they didn't have the manpower, or the firepower, to head out there alone. The cache was being hoarded by some Crazies. You see, that's where I come in.

Like I said, I'm a bit of a Merc. It's not that I love the work, but I'm good at it. I have these special skills, from the before, and the Eyes give me certain advantages. Usually I can see further than most, and in the dark. Usually. Sometimes they don't work any better than my old eyes probably did, but it's impossible to know for sure, because, like I said, I don't remember much of the before. Or the since. Just the now, mostly.

Sometimes it's like having a ripcord in your brain, except you're not the one on the way down, pulling for dear life. There were times where the only thing I could remember of the Eyes was a flash of bright light, and waking up with my face kissing dirt, and acid in my mouth. With the Eyes, you never knew who was in control. Sometimes it was me. Other times it was them. Mostly, it was them.

After a bit of hasty haggling, I agreed to take them to this cache of filtration pumps. The deal was simple: I get them into the building, I get as much Rad-free water as I can carry (and I can carry a lot) and my pick of whatever loot we come across on our way there.

That was two days ago.

We got started the next morning, six of them packing up whatever bits of arms and armor they could patch together, and some supplies for a quick trip. Seems like they didn't travel much. Leader said they had wandered for weeks in the Zone before they came across this old town. Not much left of it, but they managed to salvage some scraps of aluminum roofing and some synthetic canisters that served as pylons. It was enough to keep them out of the rain and Rads, he said. I thought the place pretty much looked like shit, but I kept it to myself.

We got there after walking for a couple of hours, picking our way slowly and deliberately through a wasteland of shattered plastic pre-fabs and rebar-reinforced concrete. The leader hissed at me and moved his hand in a way I took to mean, „get down“. Apparently the Crazies were just over the ridge. Seemed to me they'd been here before, the way they knew how to get around the various obstacles along our path. From that point on, we crawled on our bellies.

The Trench was a ten-foot wide gap between two rows of ruined buildings. My employers treated it with a kind of reverence, as though it marked some invisible line between civilization and the wilderness. It all looked like wilderness to me, but then I've seen more than most.

The first day, two shots of my pistol had taken out one Sun Soaked who thought he could charge us from across the Trench. I hated wasting ammo like that, but until things came down to hand-to-hand solutions it was all I could do. By the end of the day, my gang, I didn't ask names because I didn't want to know, had lost two and things weren't looking good. Paired off in fire teams, we were left with four of us against at least as many Crazies. Once this rain let up and the haze kicked in, the Crazies would try to take us out.

„How do you see, with those goggles on!“ I had been unfortunate enough to be stuck with the chattiest guy of the lot. I'd secretly hoped the Crazies would shoot him, but he'd managed to escape his bad karma. He stared at me stupidly, blinking widely while he awaited my response. I imagined cross-hairs right between his eyes.

„They're not goggles!“ That was pretty much the only thing I ever said to people, those bold or stupid enough to ask about my Eyes. I wore a hooded cloak, partly to keep the sun off and partly to avoid these kinds of questions, but there is always one who doesn't take a hint. „They're my eyes!“ I'd had just about enough of this. For two days with these goons, I'd better get that rifle.

Sleepy continued to blink dully as I stood and swept my cloak around me. The rain was slowing and it was time to act. Looking at their leader, I could see the first signs of a Rad-induced madness creeping on. They sure needed that purifier. The bad water was killing them.

„You stay here!“ I didn't like an audience. Some muffled protest behind my back, but they probably figured if I was insane enough to go in solo then I might just be able to pull it off. And if I didn't, they could always cut their losses and crawl back to camp like they crawled here — on their bellies.

Back in the before, when I first had the Eyes, I would black out so often I'd learned to function half-blind. Now I could use the Eyes as much as they used me. Well, almost. Something tickled at the back of my head, and I could feel my heartbeat rising. As I walked into the middle of the Trench, broken acid-washed bodies smoldering slowly in the fresh rain, it was like one end of a rip-cord was lodged in my cerebral cortex with someone about to yank it for dear life. I could see the Crazies scatter, searching for discarded weapons, and others crouched around a small dirty fire looking up with horror in their eyes. As the first barrels were raised to salute me, the rip-cord pulled taut to the breaking point, and snap, I was in.

Looking through the Eyes was like being something else, something not entirely human. I only knew this because I saw their faces when I Turned. Sometimes coming down was so harsh that I lost consciousness, but my curse was that I could see the rage when it happened, and that I loved the way it felt. Projectiles whizzed past me, aimed and fired at a location I'd long since abandoned. I was too fast for them; it was like the world was sleep-walking, but here I was juiced and ready to rock. Heartbeats later, four Crazies and the two remaining Sun Soaked were a shattered memory for a broken world.

Coming down was hard on the system, but the chems usually helped. A hypo of neuralizer straight to the back of the head seemed to do the trick on all but the worst rages. Besides, I had no choice. I was a Merc, but I was no murderer, and killing my clients would be bad for business if word got around. Somehow, it always did. Five minutes later, when the rage had died and I could stand again, I signaled to the group that they could advance. „Should have done this days ago“, I thought to myself, but the truth was, I avoided the Eyes like they could kill me. And I wasn't entirely convinced they wouldn't.

They scurried over the Trench, carefully looting the bodies as they went, and deposited a motley collection of detritus and partly useable hardware. When a weasel-faced weakling stared longingly at the Crazy's rifle, I made sure to check the bolt for damage and reload it in such a way as to clarify ownership. Pry this from my cold dead hands, if you dare. Some barely discernible scratches on the side of the barrel said ‘Kalyshnik', and the rest was worn too much to be legible. Kalyshnik the Crazy had left 12 rounds in the clip, more than enough for my next heavy encounter, so I wrapped its canvas strap around my left hand and stepped further into the crumbling building.

Why the Crazies had fought so hard to defend this area was beyond me, but I suspect it had something to do with the stubborn of the stupid, and someone being determined to take it from them. The building was a decaying mass of Pre-C ferro-concrete and melting polymers, ostensibly the favourite building materials of the day. Ancient electrical panels, some corroded beyond recognition, were like pox on the walls, at least the walls that remained standing. The centre of the square building's floor was dominated by a pile of refuse that spoke of shoddy human inhabitance, and a bit of Rad-rat thrown in for flavour. I'd seen worse, but not much worse. Unceremoniously kicking through the pile of refuse, my employers uncovered a heavy iron disk. It seemed this was just an outer-building for some underground haunt. I'd come across my fair share of Gypsy camps before, underground dwellings where those who feared the day as much as the night chose to stay below the surface rather than risk adventure, but this was something entirely different.

I glanced outside the building. Without us knowing, dusk has approached and twilight was at hand. The sun, when you could see it, had a funny way of disappearing when you weren't looking, and if you weren't careful you could be left out in the frigid night, exposed and alone. I didn't fear for myself, but I began to wonder what darker secret these seemingly helpless vultures had masked from me.

„So, the filtration units are down there!“, I asked innocently. The leader peered nervously at me, and grunted. That was his way of affirming, but I knew that he detected the doubt in my voice. Two others took their long metal staves, which I had assumed were weapons but now recognized as pry-bars, and began to scratch at the edges of the disk, searching for purchase. The disk finally gave, and with much sweating and grunting the men were able to slide it aside.

The disk hid a dark shaft, lined on one side by a corrugated metal ladder. Their leader clicked on a magnesium torch and aimed it into the hole. Light reflected off the shiny ladder rungs, glittering like old chrome. The disk's underbelly was scored with hundreds of small scratches, like some steel-fingered insect had fought to raise it.

„Here, take the mag. It's dark as hell down there!“ The leader extended the torch to me in a shaking hand, but I ignored it. The Eyes were relentless, and darkness did not slow them. Nodding his head at me, I knew it was again time for me to earn my fee. Pointing Kalyshnik's rifle below me, I began to descend the ladder.

It took me until I got about half way down the ladder to put it all together. I looked upward at a rapidly winking eye as the disk was slowly shuffled over the whole. The metallic thud of concrete on metal told me they had piled some rubble onto the disk. So, this would be my crypt would it?

This was a pit for the lost travelers, gullible or weak enough to be tricked or scared into coming down here. For me, they played the helpless frontier settlers trying to eke out an existence in the waste, down on their luck and going mad on bad water. For someone else, they played the rough and tumble gang of baddies ready to put a move on the Crazies and steal their priceless treasure of water and arms. The names changed but the rules, and roles, stayed the same. My employers were just another team in the game of survival, no less ruthless than the Crazies and just about as cruel. I had just made myself a pawn in their mortal game of who controlled more than who.

At the bottom of the ladder, I could barely make out the wet floor of what appeared to be a large tunnel. An exit had been deliberately blocked by fallen rubble, piled in front of welded steel plates. I counted six, maybe seven complete humanoid skeletons and several partials. Aside from some torn rags here and there, there wasn't much of value in the tunnel; the Crazies had made sure of that.

I could still hear the distant thud of rock landing on metal, so it didn't seem likely I'd be able to move that disk. And then there would be a team of frightened scavengers waiting for me above. They hadn't seen the rage first-hand, but they were smart enough to put two and two together — I was a killing machine, and the best they could hope for now was that I'd die in this foul pit.

I started on the north doorway. The rubble was piled man-high, but in a few hours I had cleared the way. The steel plates were another story. An improvised crow-bar managed to loosen them some, but ultimately I submitted to the rage. I awoke hours later, fingers sore and bleeding. A nasty gash along my forearm was already showing signs of healing. A bio-chemical engine, turbo-charged by a million years of evolution and some military-grade gene splicing, burned in my brain. The metal plates were scattered around the tunnel.

About fifty meters in, I began to see evidence of previous habitation. A thick layer of dust told me nobody had walked here since probably before Chernobly spewed forth its poisonous kiss, meaning the steel plates had been put in place not by the scavs but by some previous warden. The hallway was littered with skeletons, and I passed by remnants of a long-forgotten edifice. This tunnel had, at one point, offered access to some kind of maintenance hatch, but maintenance for what?

I entered a small room at the end of the tunnel and the realization struck me that I was likely the first person to walk this hallway in decades. I blew a thick cloud of dust from a fuse-box. What untold treasures was this ancient tomb hiding? Weapons from the before? A secret cache of preserved food, or power cells? What had the witless scavs been sitting on top of for incestuous generation after generation, without even realizing it? A smooth steel door was my only answer.

I pulled the knife-lever on the circuit-breaker, and was answered by the miraculous hum of tired batteries. A tiny fissure appeared in the shining steel doors, which parted to reveal a well-lit chamber with mirrored walls. Hoisting the rifle before me, I entered the room. The doors met and I was left staring at a reflection of myself.

A row of numbered buttons lined a panel on one wall. I pressed the first, hoping the doors would open to let me out. After being struck by a slight feeling of vertigo, the doors opened and I beheld a site without compare before or since that day.

Massive hallways were lined by shelf upon shelf of cracking, dusty tomes. A quick study of the nearest shelf showed me that there was little here that had escaped the ravages of time. I don't know how I was able to make sense of the complex machine-printed text within the covers, but I knew the figures as well as I knew the myriad ways to kill a man or beast. I walked through the halls solemnly, feeling the weight of knowledge pressing against me. This was not my place. But I would stay here for a while.

I guess the scavs had gotten tired of waiting, and to their credit most quarry would have given up and died long before two weeks were up. When they crawled down the ladder, I was there, and in one potent flash of hell-fire they joined their sometime prey. For their whole miserable lives they had existed above a vault of the most valuable riches imaginable — knowledge of the Hows and Whats of the before, the distant time forgotten to memory. Think of what culture, what learning, they could have recovered. Think of all the good they could have accomplished with the secrets held within those austere treasures.

I sealed the tomb with flame, forever. Better that such knowledge never fall into such hands.

Yet the rage still burns, and the Eyes have ways of knowing.
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