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The Way Home

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  22:19:30  24 January 2012
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Strelok Holmes


On forum: 09/02/2009
Messages: 222
I'm rather confused here. Is this a re-writing of the Stranger/Elizabeth saga ? And if it is, where on your blog can I find it ?

  22:00:16  22 January 2012
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On forum: 06/22/2010

Message edited by:
01/22/2012 22:02:04
Messages: 97
edit: I know what you mean about up not down. on the blog i click 1 chapter at a time and that works with no confusion.

6 and 7

Chapter 6 (Wish)

For a moment, the bar felt less like a Ukrainian cellar than a saloon in the old West. I considered just waiting for the Biker, and decided against it. I picked my way carefully around the fallen man, whose frightening appearance was offset by his voice, and made my way to the actual bar. The man on the other side of the counter was heavyset, and the first person I’d seen wearing normal clothes inside the Zone. He’d probably already checked me out, because he greeted me unconcernedly.

“English?” I said uncertainly.

“What can I do for you, kid?”

I moved closer to the bar and leaned in. “I was told to ask if there was any work.” There didn’t seem to be a downside to honesty. He raised an eyebrow.

“Asked by whom?”

“The Biker.” He looked as though he wasn’t certain whether to believe me or not. He shrugged.

“Not much,” he told me frankly. “No good bounties to speak of, unless you want to go after the German,” he said this rather louder than he needed to. “You could ask around, but don’t get your hopes up. I think Duty’s got something, but I’d be surprised if someone hasn’t taken it by now.”

Well, that wasn’t very encouraging. I had the information, weak as it might be. Now I had to wait. But I had a question that couldn’t wait.

“What’s Duty?”


“I’m serious,” I said. I’d read up in advance, but I wanted it straight from a real local.

“Government subsidized faction,” said the barkeep, and shrugged. “They do what they can to, I suppose, contain the spread.”

“I thought the military was in charge of containment.”

“The military maintains the cordons – the cordons keep most things in, and most things out. Duty is more like the cop that keeps things in here from getting too far out of hand. All the stalkers defending themselves does a good job controlling the mutant population – Duty maintains the status quo.”

“They don’t sound so bad.”

“I’m not touching that one.”

“I see.”

“Don’t ask me,” said the barkeep. “If you really want to know, ask the Biker for his view.”

“Right,” I said. “Is it all right if I wait for him here?”

“All right.” And I did. So far, I was quite taken with the friendliness of the people here. Folks were generally civil – no, it wasn’t a normal place, yes, you could get killed with ease, but it wasn’t just some kind of meat grinder, like the propaganda would have you think. I seated myself at a table in a corner, and organized my pack. Then I put on my gun belt, and situated my FNP at my hip. I hadn’t been a police officer long enough that the gun felt like a new extremity, but under the circumstances it was a reassuring weight at my side.

It turned out that the bar had restrooms with actual running water. Not hot water, but water that moved, and if I had the guts to come to the Ukraine, I had what it took to deal with water that contained the occasional fleck of rust. There was no ladies room. It took some serious effort to hold back from washing my face, but I managed it. When I got back into the bar, the man in black was no longer on the floor. Now he was alone at a table, a bottle in front of him. Trying not to wonder about how he planned to drink wearing a gas mask, I decided to go back outside to wait in the open air. That turned out to be a bad idea, because that Duty propaganda got annoying fast – I was just about to go back down to the bar when the Biker appeared. He had his helmet off, and for the first time I could see his face. He needed a shave, but a couple days of stubble just helped him earn the rugged part of the ruggedly handsome that I had to hand him. He saw me staring, and I pulled myself together.

“What have you got?” he asked, and I told him. He scowled. “Slim. Recession in Rostov? I’ve seen everything. I got no courier stuff. Let’s talk to Duty – if it’s a job I can stomach, we can take it on, you can pay me, and maybe turn a little profit yourself.”

It sounded good to me. I was about to thank him for being so nice about all this, but that didn’t strike me as something a young man in the Ukraine would say. “All right,” I tried to sound gruff.

Duty’s outpost was a couple of buildings in marginally better condition than the others. But I got the impression that the buildings themselves weren’t supposed to set them apart. It was the Duty stalkers. Their equipment looked sophisticated compared to what I’d seen elsewhere, and they actually seemed sort of organized. If the other stalkers were held together by rust, Duty had real duct tape.

The guards let the Biker through without incident, though I sensed some tension as we passed through the checkpoint. Apparently this was only a small outpost, but I saw at least twenty Duty stalkers, and there had to be more. We made our way through the bare concrete structure to a Spartan office that seemed comfortable by the standards I’d seen so far.

“Ah,” said the man behind the desk, rising. “We meet again.” He was tall, and even in the office, encased in full armor. His helmet sat on the desk, beside the papers he’d been examining. He extended a hand, which the Biker didn’t move to take. The insignia on his uniform identified him as a Commander.

“I heard you had something.”

“No courier work, I’m afraid, surely Maksim already passed this on.”

“Not courier work, just work.”

The man’s eyebrows rose. “Oh? And who’s this?” Purely out of reflex, I clasped my hands behind my back and came to attention, but before I could say anything, the Biker clapped me heartily on the shoulder.

“This is Stranger – he was at Yantar,” he lied glibly.

“And he made it out alive?” The Commander gazed at me approvingly. “Impressive for someone your age, but don’t let it go to your head, boy. A long, mediocre life is considerably more desirable than a short, glorious one.”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.” The Biker looked at me disdainfully for a moment, then returned his attention to the Commander.

“We’re working together on this one. What’ve you got – if it’s something I can swallow, you know I’m good for it.”

“Indeed.” The Commander seated himself, tenting his fingers in front of him. “But I know of your feelings regarding us.”

“I don’t have to like you to take your money.”

He snorted. “Very well. As you know, there has been more infected activity of late.” He gestured vaguely at a map on the wall, where there were a great many hastily scrawled red circles. “So we’re a little shorthanded at the moment, with nearly everyone deployed toward the coast to crush the infections before they can spread.”

“So the Ministry really is bringing them in by boat now?” The Biker ran a hand through his hair.

“Yes. They can’t just kill them, and other quarantines don’t have a track record of great success. The Zone is the ideal place for hazardous waste, radioactive, biological, and otherwise. This is their rationale.”

“Right. Go on.”

“We were transferring some personnel to our foothold outside Yantar – but because of the shortage of men, I could only detail half a squad for escort. They never made it out of Rostov. They came under fire in the train yard.” He shrugged. “The men I have here on the base, I’m forming up to reinforce the garrison at the old Cordon, so I haven’t got anyone to spare – and if I sent any of my local force, it would be an invitation to the Garbage to try something. It’s a damned good thing Freedom’s got its hands full right now, or I would like them as suspects. If that blonde bitch keeps convincing every rookie in the territory to pledge to Freedom like she has been, I don’t know what we’ll do. She needs to die.” He shook his head and leaned back tiredly. “I want my men back, or at least, to find out what happened to them.”

“Was it a high priority target?”

“I wouldn’t think so, just our local gunsmith. He’s needed more at Yantar than here, but I can’t imagine anybody going out of their way to take him out.”

The Biker bit his lip. “Some kind of mishap, then.”

“Most likely.”

“That’ll happen out there. How long ago was this?”

“Early this morning. The train yard, that’s where I’m told they lost contact – but I expect you to follow the trail wherever it takes you. Get me some photos, PDAs, something.”

“Of course,” the Biker waved a hand dismissively. A long moment passed, as the Biker seemed to consider the proposition. It sounded like a reasonably good job to me, but that might’ve been because I used to be a police officer. Eventually, the Biker groaned. “All right, we’ll take a look.”

“Thank you.”

And the Biker left the room. I stared after him for a moment, glanced back to the Duty Commander, gave a quick salute, and hurried after him.

Chapter 7 (Wish)

The Biker halted just outside the Duty outpost, and I caught up. He sighed, looking up. It wasn’t gray enough up there to mean rain, but there were enough clouds to make what blue was visible look feeble.

“So taking a job here is quite a casual thing,” I said.

“There’s no paperwork, if that’s what you mean.”

“So we’re going to go find out what happened to those people?”

“Not yet. If you were a veteran, the two of us might be able to go out there, but as it is,” he paused, “…we’ll probably need another man. It’s not personal, but it just wouldn’t be good business to go with just a rookie shrimp watching my back. No offense.”

“None taken.”

“The sooner we get a move on, the better. The trail’s already cooling down. Come on.” He started away, and I followed.

“The Duty guy didn’t even tell you how much he’d pay,” I noted.

“Duty pays well,” the Biker said grudgingly. He led me back to the bar, and we went right down. He paused at the threshold, and returned the barkeep’s nod. He scanned the patrons briefly, then went to the counter.

“Biker,” the portly man greeted him.

“Lot of new faces,” the Biker looked over his shoulder at the customers again.

“What can I get you?”

“Got a job in the yard, I need another man.”

“Ah.” The barkeep looked understanding. The masked, hooded man who I’d watched get decked was still in his corner. “Duty’s taken more or less everybody to fight at the coast – not many loners left here. I don’t think there’s anyone you know, unless, you know…” he trailed off.

The Biker raised an eyebrow. “He’s here?”

The barkeep nodded. “In the corner.” They both turned to look conspiratorially.

The Biker snorted. “That’s his new look, huh? Guess I can’t blame him.”

“Yeah,” the barkeep nodded understanding.

“There’s no helping it.” I moved aside as he stepped away from the counter, and went to the hooded man’s table. The gas mask angled upward to regard the Biker unreadably.

“How’s your bike?” the mask asked amiably.

“How’s your liver?” The Biker pulled out a chair and seated himself, motioning for me to do likewise.
“Getting the job done.”

“I like the coat. Not sure about the mask.”

“I thought you liked masks.”

“I do, but they’re just not you.”

The masked man shrugged. “Who’s this?”

“Stranger – he owes me a little money, so we were thinking of taking a job together. He was at Yantar.” The Biker turned to me, and gestured toward the hooded man. “This is,” he trailed off, hesitating.

“Ever,” the man supplied.

“Ever,” the Biker finished lamely. “Anyway, Ever,” he put emphasis on the name, “…have you got time in your busy schedule for some work?”

“What kind of work?”

“Duty lost track of some people in the yard, wants us to see if we can find out what happened.”

“Why aren’t they doing it themselves?” Ever sounded suspicious.

“Too busy with the infection, I’m told.”

“True enough,” he nodded, picking up the bottle. And he took a drink, though the mask. Apparently he’d slit the filter so that the mouth of the bottle could be poked through. The Biker didn’t seem to find that odd at all.

“You in?”

“When are you planning to leave?”

“Soon as you agree. I’ve got some things to get done, but inside the hour, definitely,” the Biker told him. Because of the mask, I could only assume that Ever was deliberating. It was eerie the way it just stared, and the hood made it downright sinister.

Eventually, Ever shrugged. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been up there.”

“Where’ve you been?”

“Yantar, mostly.”

There was a lengthy, thoroughly awkward silence. “I’m a rookie,” I said at last.

“I can see that.”

“Sorry,” said the Biker. “Don’t let it get around.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Are we going?”

“Yeah. I’ll get about my business. Meet at the fence?”

Ever nodded. “I’ll look after this one.”

“Thanks.” The Biker got up and left. I stared after him for a moment, then looked back to Ever.

“Are you all right?” I asked after a moment.

“Why do you ask?” Talking to Ever was sort of like talking to a robot – I wasn’t sure if it was him, or the mask, but it was unnerving.

“That guy hit you pretty hard.”

“Oh, that. I’ve had worse.”

“Why are you wearing a mask in here?” I asked this before I could stop myself, and immediately expected some kind of admonishment for my nosiness.

“I’m hideously ugly,” he replied.

I stared. “Really?”

“Oh, yes.”

He was lying. He was definitely lying. But I didn’t ask any further. “You and the Biker know each other?”

“We’ve crossed paths before.” Ever got up. “Come on, let’s go. I’ve been here long enough.”

“All right.” I also got to my feet. On the way out, the barkeep produced a long, over-under shotgun from behind the counter.

Ever accepted it, and shook the barkeep’s hand. “Give him your pack,” he told me. I did so. It was clear the man could be trusted. “Take it easy,” he said.

“You, too.” The barkeep nodded to us.

I followed Ever northward, through the compound. Outdoors, his coat blew about his ankles in the wind, making him look like some kind of grim reaper – that is, if the reaper wore a gas mask. We passed through the northern Duty checkpoint, stepping into a road. Ahead, a bent piece of corrugated metal represented a hole in the stone wall that surrounded the compound. To the right, the road led off, winding into the hills. It was quiet here, on the edge of the settlement. The checkpoint was well out of earshot, and all I could hear was the breeze.

After a moment, Ever reached into his coat, and produced a piece of black fabric. He held it out to me. Puzzled, I accepted it. It was a facemask made of neoprene.

“Put it on,” he instructed. “And do something about the way you walk.” I looked at him in stunned horror.

“What gave me away?”

He ignored my question. “It would take more than me and Biker to protect you if it got out, so do as I say. Has he noticed?”

“No.” I hastily strapped on the mask, which covered my mouth and nose. “Thank you,” I added.

“Once we’re out there you’ll have to follow our orders very closely, no questions.” He held up a gloved fist. “This means stop, and if somebody says down, you can’t stop to think about it.”

“All right.”

There was a footstep behind us, and I turned to see the Biker approaching, his stripped-down 870 slung over one shoulder. He drew even with us, looking ahead toward the hole in the wall.

“I thought you didn’t like working for Duty,” said Ever, looking straight ahead.

“If this is the guy I think it is, getting him back alive won’t be doing them a favor. And they’re probably all dead anyway.”

“I see.” Ever broke open his shotgun, inserting a rifled slug into the top barrel, and buckshot into the lower one.

“May as well use the daylight while we’ve got it,” said the Biker.

Ever snapped the shotgun closed. “May as well,” he agreed. And for the first time, I didn’t think I was out of my depth – I knew I was.

“Is the yard really so bad?” I asked nervously.

“Hard to say,” the Biker shrugged. “We’d have a better idea if someone came back alive once in a while.”

“He’s joking,” said Ever.
  20:10:43  21 January 2012
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Jet Odessa
Zone Cat Owner and Zombie Hunter Extraordinaire


On forum: 08/03/2011
Messages: 704

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.

Just read it and I like it very much. read some on your blog too, but it will take me ages!

a kindle 'edition' would be great, simply because it would be much easier to read, especially considering is already finished in your blog, and my kindle is where I store all my fanfic.

in regards of where is esier to read, apart from kindle, I would say here, since chapters go 'down page' and not 'up page' like in the blogs. does it make any sense?

really like it.
  19:13:33  21 January 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
I also prefer to read it at the blog. This forum is all bright and pretty, Chernobyl, and your fanfic of doom are not.
  13:50:52  21 January 2012
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The Dane


On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 2052
Have just read chapter 6, looks good.

I appreciate that Kusanagi posts it here but must say I for some unknown reason prefer reading it at the blog. Maybe it feels more 'at home' there, dunno.
  07:38:21  21 January 2012
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On forum: 09/02/2011
Messages: 97
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.
  05:27:37  20 January 2012
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On forum: 06/22/2010
Messages: 97
chapter 5!

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.
  22:05:14  19 January 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 09/01/2009
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  21:20:06  19 January 2012
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Strelok Holmes


On forum: 09/02/2009
Messages: 222
Link to this please
  21:49:05  18 January 2012
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On forum: 06/22/2010
Messages: 97
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.


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