| 21:22:27 17 January 2012
On forum: 06/22/2010
The Way Home|
Three and counting! The classic returns! Hot off the blogorama! Do I sound like Wish yet? The life and times! She was a good stalker! Let's drink to her again!
Part 1: STRANGER
Chapter 1 (Wish)
I got mugged for the first time in my life two days after I resigned from the police. The fact that I couldn’t arrest the guys that did it didn’t bother me. What bothered me was that I didn’t see it coming. No, even that wasn’t the problem. The problem wasn’t even that I should have. The part that really bothered me was that I couldn’t see anything.
I heard tearing Velcro, and felt my Kevlar vest pull away from me. I was already on my hands and knees, elbow deep in stinking water. Someone kicked me, and I toppled in. Best not to fight that sort of thing. But I really wished I could’ve gotten a look at the guys. Tasting blood, I groped at my belt. My weapon, everything, gone. No Kevlar. My backpack was the first thing they grabbed. Of course, none of this mattered, because a moment later I heard what was unmistakably the sound of a round being chambered, possibly by my own pistol.
If it was going to be like this, they should have shot me first, then robbed me. This was going to be the shortest holiday I’d ever taken. There was a shout, but I was seeing too many stars to make out exactly what was said. Next, there were a couple of fuzzy booms that pretty much had to be gunshots. I tried to keep still. Splashing footsteps indicated some kind of retreat.
A beam of light fell on me, and for the first time, I could see a little of the tunnel around me. It was about what I’d expected – a nightmare. I could sort of make out a figure as I squinted into the light. I couldn’t see it, but there was probably a gun pointed at me.
“Thanks,” I choked out in my terrible Russian.
“Who told you of this route? There are always bandits,” someone said; my head was still ringing too much to be certain it was the guy behind the light. “…are you an idiot?”
“Apparently.” I accepted the gloved hand, and got unsteadily to my feet. Man, that rib would be worse in the morning. Two minutes inside, and I already wanted a cigarette. “I owe you,” I said in English.
“I’d have had to get past them anyway.” The light shifted to the rusted door that I’d entered – been pushed – through. “Are they out there?”
“As of a minute ago, yeah.”
“Good.” The light came back to me. I still hadn’t gotten a good look at the guy. “Robbed you blind, did they?”
“Pretty much.” I rubbed at my sore neck, where one of them had pistol whipped me. There was a pause, then the sound of fabric. The other man had unslung his pack, and was rummaging through it. He held something out, a sheathed combat knife. Worn, but solid.
“Take it,” he told me. “I’m not a clothes off my back guy.” The man spoke brusquely, like he had somewhere to be. He probably did.
“Thank you.” I accepted the knife. My belt was still on me; I had that much.
“If you follow this tunnel, and take the first right you come to, that will take you out. Good luck.”
“Got it. Can I ask you something?”
“The guys that robbed me – is there any way for me to find them?”
The silhouette of the man shrugged. “They’re bandits. They’re everywhere.”
“I mean these ones specifically.”
“Why? It’s not personal – they’ll steal from anybody.”
“They took something that I need back.”
“I don’t know, I really don’t.” He sounded genuinely apologetic. “But I’ll give you a tip – get some dirt on those clothes, or lose them – new clothes mean fresh meat. And be careful – it’s dark in these tunnels, those men probably couldn’t tell you were a woman – but if they’d known, they’d have acted differently.”
“I figured,” I said, trying not to let my surprise show through. In these clothes, my gender shouldn’t have been so obvious.
“Can I ask you something?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Sure.”
“What are you doing here?”
Staring into the glare of the flashlight, I answered. “I’m looking for someone.”
“I see.” A moment passed. “No matter what you’ve seen, or what you’ve read, this place is not what you think. It never is.” The light snapped from my face, and the man splashed off down the tunnel, toward the door.
He must have bought his way out the same way that I bought my way in. That’s why he was in a hurry – he must have a lot of money or anomalous material on him, not the safest stuff to be carrying. He was cashing out.
I turned away and began to feel my way down the tunnel, occasionally stepping on, or tripping over things that I was glad I couldn’t see. When I’d come through the door, I’d felt like I was ready for whatever might be here. I had my gun, I had some money. I had what I needed to make it. Now I had my belt, a knife, and a bruised rib. I’m not some stubborn idiot – I didn’t turn back because I couldn’t. The bandits had taken my backpack, and with it my money. A rusted knife couldn’t pay my way back out.
This had never really been a holiday. But now it definitely wasn’t. I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to, and at the moment, wheezing, knee-deep in water that probably should have been able to light my way, I did sort of want to.
After what felt like a long time walking, I found the right turn the man had told me about, and took it. Ahead, I could see a point of light. It was abruptly very important to me that I no longer remain underground. I broke into a sore, lopsided jog, making for the light just as quickly as I could without crippling myself. It had been a long road getting here, and frankly, things weren’t off to a very good start – but I’d made it.
I nearly tripped over a step, and made it onto dry, flat concrete. The opening was so bright that I had to put up an arm against the glare, even though it would soon be dusk. Below lay a sprawling valley, heavily forested and verdant. In the distance, I could see the hazy shapes of structures. From here it didn’t look much like the pictures. In fact, it didn’t look like hell on earth at all – and the only thing I could hear was the wind in the trees.
Part 1: STRANGER
Chapter 2 (Wish)
As nice as the view was, I was exposed. I hurried into the open, taking cover in a clump of trees to the immediate right. The valley sloped steeply away from the tunnel mouth; getting down wouldn’t be too hard, but if I ever had to climb back up here, it’d take some work. I dropped from a crouch to my elbows, and crawled forward through some shrubbery for a better view.
To the north lay a sprawling complex I didn’t recognize. I’d tried to do my research before coming here, but there isn’t as much accurate information out there as you’d think. Probably because so few people ever manage to leave. There was some kind of roadway leading from the installation, and it crossed a small body of water before being lost in the trees. I didn’t see any people. In fact, nothing was really moving, except what the wind blew.
I had a good view from here; I hadn’t spent very much time talking to that stalker in there – if the bandits that had blindsided me had come out here, I should have been able to see them. That mean they hadn’t, and were still somewhere in the maze of tunnels behind me. I couldn’t go in after them; I wouldn’t stand a chance of finding anything without a light, and besides, it was their home territory. Without a gun, I’d have to approach quietly, and knee-high water isn’t terribly conducive to that.
But they’d have to come out sometime. I could see the tunnel mouth clearly from where I was, and I could stay concealed. Before I’d come here, I’d this place wouldn’t be all about clean linen and room service. Now I had to make good on it. I crawled to a position that offered better concealment, and waited.
Night fell. In the distance I could see what might have been light in a couple places. A small, flickering point in the direction of the installation to the North might have been a sliver of a campfire through a window. Lucky for me, the night was clear, with more stars than you’d ever see where I came from. It wasn’t quite like having a flashlight, but it was better than being in the tunnel without a light.
According to my wristwatch, it was nearly two hours before they came out. First, I saw their lights playing on the curving wall of the tunnel, then they emerged. I knew it was them, because they were wearing the long coats that I’d glimpsed through the waving light when they jumped me. Long, black coats, almost like cowls, complete with hoods. There were two of them, and they paused at the tunnel mouth, probably to be sure the coast was clear. I kept still. A moment later, they stepped onto the mountainside, and started down.
Maybe they were going back to wherever they spent their nights; nobody would be buying their way in, or out, in the middle of the night. I decided that when I left, I would do so by a different route. This one was obviously compromised.
For a moment I watched the two figures amble down the mountainside, then got to my hands and knees. I’d be able to track them by their flashlights from a long way off, and I didn’t want to follow too closely anyway. I let them get a little farther before I broke cover and started after them, keeping low. I hadn’t gotten a very good look, but only one of them had been wearing a pack. I hoped it was mine.
It was colder out there than I’d anticipated; I was wearing black cargoes, a black compression shirt, and a thick thermal sweater over that – even if I still had my Kevlar, I’d have been chilly. Chilly wouldn’t kill me, but if I didn’t have shelter, or better clothes, any kind of rain probably would. But tonight was clear. I had more important things to do.
The bandits were making for the road. In the distance, I heard the faint pop of a shot from a handgun. The bandits didn’t even twitch. I’d have to get used to gunshots if I was going to last long here.
They were on the road, now. I kept after them, moving from cover to cover. We seemed to be going south – toward the forest. I was pretty sure they were talking, but I was too far back even to hear snatches of the conversation. I was considering following a little closer, but a piercing howl went up from the tree line. Both bandits froze, and a couple of tense seconds passed.
A stream of bodies poured out of the trees, and the air filled with fierce barks – but they weren’t normal barks. I couldn’t tell what was off about them, but it was creepy. The bandits were shouting, and I heard the report of a small caliber handgun – then the other one fired both barrels of a shotgun. And then the flashlight went out. I threw myself down and kept rigid, trying to cover my ears. It hadn’t even taken five seconds.
So I waited. If they came in this direction, I’d go down even faster than the bandits had. Oddly enough, getting beaten up hadn’t really awakened the seriousness of my situation to me. There’s knowing, then there’s knowing – if I wasn’t careful, and probably even if I was, this place would kill me. As a police officer I’d been a part of a system; rules could be bent and broken, but here there weren’t any, and I’d have to adapt. I’d never pointed a weapon at a living creature before. It didn’t look like I’d be leaving here with that record intact.
Eventually, the sounds from the road died down. After what I’d judged was an adequate safety period, I raised my head enough to look. The mass of furry bodies – whatever they’d been, some kind of dog, I guess – was gone. Back into the forest, most likely. I stayed flat, listening intently. Nothing. I slowly looked around; I couldn’t see far, but nothing seemed to be moving. Keeping my motions deliberate, I drew the combat knife, and began to crawl forward. It took some time, but with my nerves as frayed as they were, I wasn’t in a hurry.
It was a mess. I’d seen a handful of crime scenes, but never anything like this. It took a moment to fight down my nausea. A blood-slick Makarov lay on the pavement a meter away. I crawled to it and picked it up; a casing protruded dangerously from the breech. I jerked back on the slippery slide to clear it, and the whole thing came away in my hand. The thing must’ve been held together with screw-shaped filaments of rust. It was just as well; a pistol exploding in your hand probably isn’t that much better than being unarmed.
The lumpier of the two carcasses was probably the one with my pack; I made my way to it, and turned it over gingerly. Getting the backpack off was messy, but not difficult. I can’t even tell you how relieved I was when it turned out to actually be mine. That relief lasted about a five seconds. I was about to open it and check the contents, but a low hum reached my ears. An embarrassing moment passed before I realized it was the sound of an engine; a point of light appeared to the north.
Swearing silently, I lowered my face to the ground, and went still, one hand loosely gripping the strap of my pack. You laugh, but the movement it would have taken for me to get off the road and into the tall grass would’ve been plainly visible to the driver, whoever it was, and who knew what was watching from the forest? At the time I figured that playing dead would make me just one more roadside corpse, something that it was my understanding was not particularly rare in these parts. But still, just one more minute, and I’d have been out of there. It wasn’t fair.
Part 1: STRANGER
Chapter 3 (Wish)
I don’t care what anybody says; playing dead is legit. The light from the road resolved into a single point, brightening as it neared. It was a noisy engine, and going by the single headlight, I guessed it was some kind of motorcycle. Not exactly my area of expertise. I’m pretty good at keeping still, though.
The bike cleared the nearest rise, and the bodies and I were directly in the beam of the light. When I heard brakes, I opened my eyes just enough to see hazily – the rider was slowing down. For what it’s worth, prior to coming here, I’d never thought of myself as being particularly unlucky.
The bike came to a stop, and I was bathed in the opaque glare of the headlight. The rider dismounted, unslinging a weapon from his back. He switched on a light attached to the barrel, and swept it around briefly. The tall grass on either side of the road was still and quiet. The beam came back to the bodies. Presumably, my gun was in my pack, but getting to it was simply out of the question. From the rider’s point of view, I must have looked very different from the mangled bodies on the road, because he came straight for me. I had to close my eyes.
I heard him kneel beside me, there was a rustle of fabric, and a rough hand touched my throat. He was taking my pulse. Well, it’s not like I could hide it. I must have tensed unconsciously, because his hand withdrew quickly. A couple of seconds passed.
He said something in Russian that I didn’t catch. I hesitated, thinking fast.
“What are you doing?” he tried in English – perfect, American English, though his voice was still somewhat muffled by his helmet.
I briefly considered whether it was better to be awake or actually unconscious at this juncture. Maybe this query was intended to determine whether or not I was awake. I didn’t know.
“Trying not to die,” I told him honestly, then opened my eyes. “You aren’t going to kill me, are you?” The rider was wearing a jigsaw puzzle of body armor, like he’d hacked apart different vests and suits to form something that would work for riding.
“I wasn’t planning on it. Should I?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
The rider shrugged. “Okay.” The light was bad, and thanks to all my crawling around, I was covered with filth. Even without the Kevlar, I stood a good chance of passing as a male. I got to my hands and knees, and straightened as he did, throwing my pack over one shoulder. “You know these gentlemen?”
“They jumped me.”
“You new? What are you, sixteen?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Never admit to that,” he told me. His shotgun – a taped-up pump-action with both the barrel and stock sawed off – was still pointed vaguely in my direction. “You get your stuff back?” he asked.
With my pack over my shoulder, I couldn’t exactly lie. “Yeah.”
“Good for you.” He shone his light on the bloody mess in the road. “Doesn’t look like there’s much worth salvaging,” he muttered, then the helmet turned to face me again. “Dogs?”
“I think so.”
The rider’s helmet turned toward the trees; he appeared to be thinking. “You going south?” He spoke without looking at me.
“I’m not sure,” I said, feeling a bit stupid. Again, the helmet turned in response. The goggles stared. “Where am I?”
Another awkward moment passed, with the light from the headlight shining off the goggles. “These are the badlands,” he said flatly.
“Then that’s the plant?” I pointed past him, at the structures looming beyond the hills.
“It’s a plant,” he confirmed. “Underneath is an X-lab.”
“Okay.” I brought my fist into my open palm. “So we’re on the eastern side.” The goggles peered down at me. “Sir, I’m looking for someone – where I can I go to get information?”
“Rostov.” The Rider glanced over his shoulder. “No use going south tonight.” He paused. “You’re light enough. Come on.”
I blinked. “What do you mean?” He was already heading back to his bike. “Where are you going?” He climbed on, and started the engine. It was some kind of Honda dirt bike, but like I said, motorbikes aren’t my thing.
I looked around at the darkness; it suddenly seemed awfully lonely. I swore quietly, hefted my pack on my shoulders, and climbed on behind him, certain that I would regret it. The fact that he hadn’t killed me was certainly a point in his favor, but this was the Ukraine – if anything, getting onto motorbikes with strange men was more dangerous here than it was in the outside world. At least he was wearing enough armor that he wouldn’t be able to tell I was a woman.
The rider wheeled the bike around, and we took off northward along the road. I thought he actually rode pretty slowly; it’s not like there was any traffic – but I suppose that in these parts, there’s no telling what’s going to jump into the road. It wasn’t a long trip – the rider pulled to the side of the road as we neared the plant. The installation itself was still a good hundred yards away, but a raised skywalk protruded from one of the buildings, running all the way to the top of this very hill. It appeared to have collapsed in the middle, but both sides were intact.
“We’re here,” said the rider, and we both climbed off.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing a trembling finger.
“Anomaly. Don’t walk into it.” Illuminated by the dirt bike’s headlight was, I guess, a globe of air, undulating slowly. I’d seen photos of things like this. The rider dragged the bike from view into the underbrush. He emerged a moment later. “We can wait until dawn here.”
“Yes. I don’t blame you if you don’t want to follow a stranger,” he said. “But you don’t want to spend the night down here, either. Do what you want.” He went to the final pillar supporting the raised corridor, and reached for a handhold. Ten or fifteen seconds later, he was climbing through one of the dozens of uniformly open windows. Then he reappeared, reaching down to me. Finally, something I could handle. With a running start, I leapt to the pillar, boosted myself from the base, grabbed the lip of the walkway and pulled myself up. The rider barely managed to get out the way as I swung in.
He didn’t comment. I wasn’t fishing for compliments or anything, but that had been some clean Parkour. Tough room.
We were at the very end of the corridor, and it terminated in a blank wall. The hall stretched perhaps a hundred meters before being blocked by the collapse. Raised off the ground, you could shoot from the windows – it wasn’t perfect, but it beat sleeping in a tree. The rider seemed to know the place pretty well. He sank tiredly into a corner without taking off his helmet. He raised a gloved finger, pointing past me. “Rostov is northwest of here, but that’s a lot of wild country. You might be better off cutting straight west, to the Garbage, and then taking the road north. It won’t take much longer, and it might not be any safer – but at least you’ll know what you’re up against.”
I settled down in the corner opposite him.
Actually, I wouldn’t. I didn’t know anything, as I was being reminded with every passing second. Research that I had considered extensive had yet to tell me anything useful. As long as I was a stupid rookie, it was best if I was on my own as little as possible. The rider had apparently directed me to shelter purely out of the goodness of his heart – I didn’t want to impose further, but he didn’t seem to mind talking.
“Could you take me there? I can pay you.” This struck me as a place where the direct approach was okay. The rider didn’t reply immediately; he appeared to be considering what I’d said – but it was hard to say, because he still hadn’t taken off that helmet.
“I’m not going straight there,” he said.
“I’m heading to a village just inside the Cordon – I’ve got a delivery for a trader there. After that, I’m going to Rostov, though it’d still be faster than going on foot. Especially for a rookie.”
“It’s okay with me.”
“Hmm.” He leaned back against the wall. He named a figure for the ride, and another figure if anything happened. “Half at the village, and the rest at Rostov.”
I pulled my backpack into my lap, and opened it. Someone had poked through it, but it looked okay. Or maybe it just felt that way, since my pistol, holster, and ammunition were on top. That was a relief. When I resigned from the police force, I actually had to give back my gun, so I’d had to buy this one when I finalized my plans for coming here. It’s an FNP9 in 9mm, with a nickel slide. It seemed all-purpose enough to be appropriate in these parts. I’d never even fired it. But I was glad I had it back. I’ll bet in the two or three seconds before he had his throat torn out, that bandit really regretted not putting it on instead of his lousy Makarov.
I’d miss my Kevlar, but with a gun, at least I wasn’t completely naked. I touched the grip briefly, then set my bag aside, and leaned back.
“You got a name?” the rider asked.
I blinked. “Nikolai,” I said, for lack of a better idea, and sounding like a total liar.
“You’re not even Russian.”
“How do you know what I am?”
“I don’t. I know what you’re not.”
“Sorry. It’s not personal.”
“Suit yourself, stranger.”
“What about you?”
“I’m the guy with the bike.” He shrugged. “Most stalkers just call me Biker.”
the problem is that at the end of an udpadated chapter i want to read the next one but i can't because you haven't updated it yet
why the new name?
| 08:48:34 18 January 2012
On forum: 09/02/2011
Message edited by:
I don't know about 'the classic.'|
The new name is because The Zone was turning into a blanket term - like, it could refer to Elizabeth stuff or Mist stuff, and people were even using it for Atrophy. Atrophy is related to the Zone, but it's not Zone. Besides, The Zone isn't very creative or memorable, and just getting to this thread, I saw like two others with The Zone in the title. Elizabeth deserves better - and at the end of the day, none of my stories are really about the Zone. The Zone is just the setting. I write about characters. The Way Home fits. Mostly. I'm pretty sure that way back in 09 or whatever I picked The Zone for its minimalist simplicity.
So people will never stop referring to my general body of Stalker fiction as 'The Zone' but at least we can try to tell different bits of it apart this way.
Yeah, I'm surprised at how much fun I'm having editing the chapters. It's been so long - 3 years! - that I barely remember any of this old stuff; a couple of times I've caught myself wondering what happens next. The inconsistencies are worse than I expected, but the writing isn't quite as awful as I feared, which is a relief. Even so, every chapter I've looked at has needed a fair amount of work.
The part I dread is the whole Dieter/Johan thing. That's a ways off, so I'm not freaking out over it - but it's probably going to demand some real work. (Like writing new content.) We'll see how it goes. It's an adventure. I may cop out.
I have to say, with the events of some of the more recent stuff in mind, the Biker is turning into a very complex character.
| 21:49:05 18 January 2012
On forum: 06/22/2010
THE ZONE |
Part 1: STRANGER
Chapter 4 (Wish)
Even a rough, freezing, brick corner can be a great place to sleep if you’re tired enough. I’d been walking through tunnels for hours before I got inside the cordon, which meant that I was probably pushing twenty hours awake when the Biker brought me to his hideout at the plant. Only that kind of exhaustion could have made me actually reluctant to get up from that wretched corner. In the grainy predawn light, I came pretty close to the obligatory request for five more minutes. The Biker shook me awake, and was already on the ground before I could see clearly.
Blearily, I dragged my pack to the window and dropped down. The Biker stood a short distance away, his helmet under one arm, chewing on some dried meat. Breakfast in the Ukraine isn’t fancy, I guess. It figured that he’d have his back to me – but it wouldn’t have felt right trying to get a glimpse of his face when I was so interested in hiding my own. I bolted down a calorie bar, drank some water, and chewed a sanitation tablet whole, because the Biker probably would have left me behind if I tried to brush my teeth. Barely five minutes later we were on the road. The Biker rode considerably faster in the daylight, and I finally got my first real look at the place. Rolling hills, deep and distant forests, even more distant cliffs – this far south, the usual desolate aesthetic was almost entirely absent. We passed the occasional derelict automobile, and sometimes I could see far-off homesteads that had seen better days.
We covered a lot of ground before the first sliver of the actual sun was visible. I caught a glimpse of a herd of something strange off in the hills, but we went by too quickly for me to get a good look. The Biker would occasionally swerve for no discernable reason, and it took some time for me to realize that he was avoiding anomalies; I wasn’t even seeing them at this speed – but then again, I didn’t have any goggles. On that note, I’d have to do something about my appearance. I can pass for a scrawny guy in poor light, and that morning I was filthy and disheveled enough that it would pretty much be a sure thing – but I’d still have to figure something out. I’d read somewhere that there was something like one woman to every eighty men in the Zone – and those numbers included the prostitutes at Kevorich. I was confident that I could pass as a boy, but I wasn’t sure that would be much better. Anyway, there was nothing I could do at fifty miles per hour.
In daylight, and going by very quickly, the landscape wasn’t nearly as scary as it was on foot at night. In fact, even tired and sore, this kind of traveling was actually sort of pleasant. So I should have figured it wasn’t going to last. The Biker swore suddenly, loudly enough that I heard him over the engine and wind.
“What is it?” I shouted.
“Over there.” And I saw – in the hills to the southeast. A figure crested one at a dead run, then another. They were too far away to identify.
“Who are they?” I asked. The Biker didn’t answer, he only accelerated. The road curved toward the hills, threading through them – and the two figures had become a small group. What was more, it looked to me like they were angling to intercept us. They were just blotches in the distance, but I wasn’t getting a friendly vibe from them. More appeared, sprinting over the hilltops like they were in some kind of Olympic race. Originally I’d assumed they must have been running away from something, but it seemed off. Something wasn’t right.
I glanced to our right; it was a steep, heavily forested slope that led down into the valley. The Biker pushed the bike harder, and the road curved into the hills. There was a flash, and for a moment, a red mist hung in the air on the hillside as one of the runners stumbled into an anomaly, but they kept coming, now visibly converging on us.
And then they were on the road ahead, coming head on. The Biker swore again, and angled sharply right.
The bike dropped off the cracked pavement into the loam, where it scrambled for purchase, then took off, propelled more by gravity than the engine. I’ve never been the type to scream on roller coasters, and I didn’t scream then, but if the Biker hadn’t been wearing body armor, I’d probably have broken all his ribs with how hard I squeezing him. He dodged trees and boulders by margins that would’ve made Japanese drift racers sweat. The ride down can’t have taken more than a minute, but it felt like more. We burst onto the valley floor, and the Biker didn’t decelerate a bit, rocketing us into the prairie like he had an appointment to keep.
Now on flat ground, I looked back at the wall of the valley. It was impossible to see anything through the trees, but now I knew that the runners would be there, stumbling awkwardly down, tripping, falling, and picking themselves up to sprint on. I’d heard rumors that the Russian Ministry of Health and Sanitation dumped infected people who hadn’t begun to manifest symptoms in the Ukraine – but I’d never believed them – and that they were doing this in Ukraine had to mean one of two things: scabbard rattling, or some kind of arrangement.
Neither prospect was pretty. And as the cordoned-off exclusion area continued to grow, I realized that it was only getting easier for them. I’d never seen the infection up close; it was something reserved for underdeveloped countries, you saw it on television – but not anymore, now that everyone had their shots.
The Biker kept the speed up, even after we were out of the valley. We passed into hilly territory, which eventually leveled out a little. Three years ago, this had been the southernmost frontier. That was no longer the case, and from what I’d read, the expansion was only accelerating – it had already grown to the extent that it had reached the southern coast. The cordon itself was forced to run into the sea, and now boat patrols were responsible for keeping the wrong things in, and the right ones out. We soon reached a road, and started northward. In the distance behind us, I could see an old military installation, abandoned as the anomalous land crept onward and outward.
The village was a tiny one; the Biker pulled off the road, and we bumpily rolled down a steep hill onto a main path made of packed dirt. There were armored men with guns, but they didn’t even twitch at our entrance. A few of them waved. The Biker didn’t wave back, instead bringing us to a sharp stop and dismounting hurriedly.
“You!” he shouted. An armored man stepped into view, a rifle slung over his shoulder, and raised a hand in greeting. The Biker ignored it. “You’ve got a horde inbound – not more than an hour out.” I couldn’t help but note that these people weren’t big on pleasantries, because this guy just turned away and began shouting orders without even acknowledging my companion, who turned immediately back to me. “Wait here.” He pulled something from his saddlebags, and took off down the road at a fast jog.
Feeling a little self-conscious, I stayed near the bike, and kept a hand over my mouth, as though pondering something. Some of the men were moving now. A group of four had already assembled and begun to troop up the hill. They scarcely glanced at me.
“We’ll form up at the mill – Lupus, you’re in charge here. You, with me.” The stalker motioned another group toward the road, and they obediently took off. Rolling into town, I’d seen perhaps a dozen men, some on watch, others sitting around a fire – but at this man’s orders, they had appeared from the twin rows of dilapidated houses, tripling their numbers. Another squad departed. Some wore full armor, but others were clad only in trousers and parkas – I looked underfed and underdressed, even compared to the worst of them. And I should have gotten gray clothes, or green, not black. None of these guys were wearing black.
And then they were gone; only the guards remained. The village hadn’t seemed loud before, but it seemed quiet now. I pulled off my pack, and opened it. We were here; I figured I’d better get the Biker’s money. My pistol, magazines, holster, a box of 9mm rounds. A first aid kit. Calorie bars, a few small ration parcels. Spare bandages. Sanitation tablets, a couple of folded garments. Other useful odds and ends – I reached through it all, to the small hidden compartment that I’d sewn in the bottom of the leather pack to hide the tightly bundled cash that I’d brought along – and felt a sudden nausea wash over me. I’d been certain that even if I did lose the pack, nobody would find the money. I’d gravely underestimated the bandits of the Ukraine.
I see what you're doing wish >.>
| 05:27:37 20 January 2012
On forum: 06/22/2010
Part 1: STRANGER
Chapter 5 (Wish)
I came here of my own free will. I’m not some kind of hero, but I’m not a coward either. I was a police officer for almost two years, and I can hold myself together. This wasn’t a good situation, but it wouldn’t be terminal. I collected myself as the Biker approached. Even if they were tightfisted jerks here, my pistol would be worth a little money. Assuming all went well, that would at least keep me on his good side. I’d be weaponless, but that’d be better than making an enemy of the one person in the Ukraine with wheels. I’d also have to be straight with him.
“Hey,” I began, planning to explain the situation, but he cut me off.
“We gotta get out of here,” he said, brushing past me and heading briskly for the bike.
“What’s wrong?” I hurried to keep up with him.
“That’s two hordes in two weeks,” he said grimly. “We are not going to be around when they get here.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means things are going to get worse before they get better.” He reached the bike and climbed on, apparently having forgotten that he’d wanted payment at this stop. I climbed on behind him, and we were off. He gunned it up the hill and pulled left, taking us northward on the road.
“I’ll need to see a shop, or a trader before I can pay you,” I shouted over the wind.
“I thought you were loaded,” he called back.
“So did I, but the bandits got it.”
“That sucks.” Well, at least he was understanding. At the time, I don’t think I really appreciated how easygoing the Biker was. As we started away from the village, I could hear what sounded like distant rifle fire, but it faded quickly. He must have felt me turn to look, because the Biker spoke.
“Taking them on is touch and go – the infection can turn a settlement into a deathtrap in about twenty minutes. Even if they’re ready for it.”
“Right,” I said, dazed. And on we went, zipping up the road at high speed. We passed a group of what were either bandits, or the scruffiest stalkers I’d seen yet, but they didn’t pay us any attention. “Isn’t it dangerous to ride around on the open road?” I asked.
“You get less trouble from mutants in the daylight, and most people leave me alone. Everyone knows me, or at least of me. If someone stole my bike, I’d kill them, and if they killed me and took it, then everyone would know they’re a jerk. And I don’t let my enemies live long enough to accumulate.”
“Aren’t you afraid that some rookie will do something stupid?”
“It happens.” He didn’t sound particularly concerned. I guessed that it had been tried. We reached the wreckage of a sizeable bridge spanning the road, and had to stop and pay a small toll before picking our way through the rubble, and taking off again on the other side. After another kilometer, the Biker took us off the road, and into the meadows.
“The roads through the Garbage are an unnecessary risk,” he explained. After taking a wide berth around a significant amount of territory, we got back on the road and carried on north. The sun was getting pretty high in the sky as we reached Rostov. It had once been some kind of industrial complex, but now served as one of the primary stalker settlements. I’d done my reading. As we approached, I could hear a distant, tinny voice. I followed the Biker as he walked the bike toward the checkpoint ahead.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Duty,” he said, speaking as though the word were something foul. The armored men behind the sandbags waved us through.
“Is there someone here that I can sell my gun to?”
“Your gun? Oh – right, you got robbed. You should have checked on that last night.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “Look – being unarmed is like stranding yourself. You do realize that you literally can’t leave here without a weapon?”
“You haven’t had to shoot anything, and we’ve come a long way,” I said.
“Believe me, if we’d been on foot, I would’ve had to shoot something. Actually, we wouldn’t even be here, because there’s no way we’d have gotten away from that horde. We’ll work something out.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. We passed into what I guess you could call the town proper. There were stalkers everywhere, almost all of them fully armored, and many of them masked. Several waved to the Biker, who waved back absently.
“Look, I’ve got some things to do. You owe me a thousand, which I will collect, but it’s not urgent.” He pointed at a crude corrugated metal sign. “Go down and see the barman, see if you can get yourself some work.”
“All right.” I blinked. I was stuck with no money. Obviously paying back the Biker had to come before I even thought about doing anything else. There was nothing to do but what he said.
He turned and made as if to go, but turned back. “And don’t piss anybody off,” he added.
I stood in the middle of an open square, and stared after him for a moment. I wasn’t sure I liked where this was going, but any plan that let me keep my gun couldn’t be all bad. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the shards of dirty glass that remained in a nearby window. At least for the moment, I didn’t need to worry about being exposed as a woman. I looked awful. Before coming to the Zone, I’d purposefully cut my own hair, using a knife and no mirror. It had worked. Not only that, but more or less everyone else I could see was at least as filthy as I was. It was the beating I’d taken, and that filthy water in the tunnels – they’d turned me into something that didn’t seem too likely to be taken for a female.
I shuddered. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d gone this long without a shower. Sacrifices.
I gathered myself, and made for the doorway the Biker had indicated. It led me into a peculiar, bare room, which I followed out into what might have been a very narrow alley – this led to another door, through which stairs led downward into a stone-walled passage. I could hear music below. This had to be it; I started down, and rounded a corner, coming into view of the bar.
It was remarkably ordinary – a little bedraggled, but you might’ve found a similar place in a normal town. I stared for a moment, then realized I was being addressed.
“Pardon?” I said, focusing on the man on the other side of the small counter.
“I said come in, don’t stand there,” he told me, and jerked his chin toward the doorway.
“Right.” I stepped out of the corridor and into the chamber, where my attention went immediately to the two men who rose simultaneously from their table. One made as though to throw a punch, but a third figure was between them in an instant. He wore the sort of long, flowing coat that I’d seen on the bandits in the road, and an intimidating gas mask. The effect, with the hood up, was truly terrifying.
“Wait, wait – hang on,” he said, his voice shockingly youthful for coming from such an ominous figure, and even more shocking for being crisp and British. One of the burly men pushed forward, but the hooded figure held him back. “If you fight, he’ll win.” He pointed to the other man. “And then you’ll shoot him in the back outside, and then Duty will shoot you, and you’ll both be dead. And nobody wins.” He held up his hands in an amiable manner. “Why don’t we just have a drink and get on with our lives?”
The bar had gone rather quiet. The two men stared at the hooded figure for several long moments. Then the first man punched him in his masked face as hard as he possibly could. The hooded figure wavered, straightened, and then crashed over backward to lie sprawled on the wooden floor. There was an awkward quiet. I noticed someone had turned down the music.
The two men glared at each other, and the one nearer to me turned on his heel and, no pun intended, stalked out. The other sat back down and poured himself another drink. The man in black lay still on the floor. The music came back, and the bar reverted immediately to the state it had been in. I couldn’t help but get a vague Mos Eisley feeling from the incident. I could see what the Biker meant about not pissing people off. I should’ve belted on my pistol before coming down here.
| 07:38:21 21 January 2012
On forum: 09/02/2011
So far there hasn't been much for me to do except change names and locations, smooth dialogue, and add little details about the characters that were not, three years ago, in existence. The main challenge is definitely going to be the Johan/Dieter thing. I really put myself in a box with that one. It's not going to be easy to smooth out. |
Anyway, 006 is up in case anyone really is following along with the updated versions. I guess Kusanagi will post it here. Do you guys care where you read it? Is it easier to read it here than at the blog? I'm just curious. I know it's not ideal to read onscreen at all, but print versions of this stuff really isn't an option.
But now that I think about it, I could format Zone/Way Home/Freedom content for Kindle. It wouldn't be in any way official, of course - still free, still just fan fiction, but in Kindle format. If enough people requested that, I could probably do it. Just throwing it out there.