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The Way Home

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Question/AnswerMake Oldest Up Sort by Ascending
  13:05:32  30 March 2012
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On forum: 09/02/2011
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That's definitely true - but Velvet does bad things in the interests of what she perceives to be the greater good, and Westmoreland does bad things based on his own whims and interests. (Though you could argue that Velvet is the same way.) Superficially, their actions are similar; Westmoreland kills a lot of people, Velvet kills a lot of people. But to distinguish who's good and who's bad, you have to consider their motivations.

There's a strong argument to be made that as the series progresses, Velvet starts to challenge her role as a good guy. She kills an unarmed man in cold blood in Crazy Ivan; that's not good guy behavior.

There's a lot of love for Westmoreland. I always thought people liked him because he was so outrageously evil, perhaps similar to the same reason people are drawn to characters like Freddy Kreuger or Albert Wesker - but more and more it seems like people are interpreting him differently.

Anyway, he's a weird and ambiguous character. He's not a good guy. There's absolutely no getting around that. But maybe he's not a bad guy either. There are a lot of things that are predetermined in these stories, but he's not one of them. I don't know where he's going to end up, only that there'll be stabbing when he gets there.
  08:49:28  29 March 2012
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sorry i forgot about this thread.

he's dangerous... and he does bad things... but velvet is dangerous and she does bad things and she's a good guy.
  16:59:07  14 February 2012
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Well, I'm still glad to hear that there are folks out there that like it.

Evil might not be the word for Westmoreland. Spiders aren't evil. Piranha aren't evil. Mutants aren't even evil. But you still don't want them around.

Rather than calling Westmoreland super evil, I'll call him super dangerous.

He's not, by any measure of the imagination, good.
  22:14:31  11 February 2012
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The Dane


On forum: 09/22/2007

Message edited by:
02/12/2012 14:06:06
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Dirge Danorum = Funeral song/Lament of the Danes. Intriguing name...

So Westmoreland is super evil. That's more evil than what I imagined. On the other hand I tend to look for the good in people...
  15:27:31  11 February 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 09/01/2009
Messages: 211
Atrophy has less traffic because it's updated less and has less content, that simple. It's still awesome though. I'm subscribed via RSS to both of the series, so I know when something new gets posted on either Atrophy or The Way Home/The Zone.
  03:35:56  11 February 2012
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Looks like she edited, and now I don't even get to know what was spoiled. But I'm glad somebody cares - the Atrophy blog gets so much less traffic than the Zone that sometimes I wonder. Anyway, I apologize on Kusanagi's behalf for whatever it was. I'll revoke her reading privileges on the new book. That'll put her in line.

Back on topic, Westmoreland is super evil. He was, until recently, definitely the most evil person in the whole Zone universe. And I'm pretty sure he still has the highest body count of anybody except possibly Biker. He definitely has a fondness for Velvet and Elizabeth. (Maybe just a soft spot for the ladies?) But that doesn't make him any less super evil.

Zone's going again, but since it's a direct continuation of Freedom, I don't think there's any need for a new thread. I'll be checking the Freedom one often.

And in advance, because people are already asking, for those three principle changes that were listed, here's the bottom line:

I brought Exile back because his death didn't sit right with a lot of readers, and because I killed him off for shameful reasons in the first place.

I brought Venge back because his death no longer worked, and because he was a fan favorite. And to be honest, I killed him for shameful reasons too.

I changed the Chapter 50/Stranger/Ever dynamic thing because I did it that way for shameful reasons. I like it better now.
  01:26:13  11 February 2012
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On forum: 09/01/2009
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Yeah, we all wanted you to spoil a part of the book we don't have access to yet. Why don't you tell us the ending as well? Maybe call us names, insult our mothers, or kick our dogs? Jesus, man. You've ruined a (obviously) significant part of the story.

Please, edit that post so you don't ruin it for everyone else.
  00:28:16  11 February 2012
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Message edited by:
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westmoreland slits up everybody not just bad guys

i warned you!
  11:03:08  9 February 2012
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The Dane


On forum: 09/22/2007
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Thanks Kusanagi
  01:50:38  9 February 2012
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On forum: 09/01/2009
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You know, I think if Ever knew how many times Westmoreland/The Ghost saved Stranger's ass, he'd probably not be hunting for him in Atrophy. I think of him as more of a vigilante than a psychotic killer. It seems like the bad guys all have a good side in this story.
  00:24:50  9 February 2012
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he's the guy that tries to kidnap stranger during the resident evil ruckus.
  21:45:21  8 February 2012
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The Dane


On forum: 09/22/2007
Messages: 2064


+ venge still alive
+ exile still alive
+ ever's partner still alive

did I miss any?

Don't think so.

Please remind me who Riet was? I ran into the same problem as the first time I read the story. When Westmoreland kills Riet at the end I have forgotten where Riet fits in and can't find him in the story. Only thing I'm pretty sure is Riet must be a bad guy in some way else the maniac Westmoreland wouldn't kill him.
  19:04:01  8 February 2012
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+ venge still alive
+ exile still alive
+ ever's partner still alive

did I miss any?
  18:32:22  3 February 2012
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On forum: 09/01/2009
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I like what you did with chapter 50. It's much more important than it was before, and it makes a lot more sense. I didn't not like it before, but I like it much more now.

Also: the edits give me something to do whilst being stricken with winter depression. Winter is a hell of a lot worse without snow, especially if you're surrounded on 3 sides by impenetrable dead forest.
  07:36:02  3 February 2012
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Yeah, speeding way up. For reasons that I won't bore you all with, I decided to go ahead and take on the HD Remix/Director's Cut full time until it was finished, so I'm working at a much faster pace. I'm trying update a full arc every day. Right now I've got the blog updated with Chapters 1 - 50, so that means that Kusanagi would have to paste 35 chapters into this thread to catch up. I think that would be excessive, so let's leave it at 15 chapters here, and anyone who wants to continue reading is more than welcome to do so at the blog.

The DC isn't really going according to plan; I'm making small changes to things that I expected to make big changes to, and I'm making big changes to things that I had no intention of changing - so these updates are actually turning pretty significant. In addition to the minor fixes and improvements I'm making, several major plot points have changed. Some material has been cut, and some has been added. And so on. Bottom line: this time around, not everything happens quite the way it did before. History is changing.

I'll go into more detail on this stuff in a big news post once I've fully edited through Chapter 100.
  20:51:59  1 February 2012
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13-15 (speeding up, eh?)

Part 1: Stranger
Chapter 13 (Wish)

The maintenance crawlspace wasn’t a comfortable place to be. Not because it was so low that you couldn’t stand properly, but because it was so open. If I shined my light in one direction, it would illuminate a stretch of floor, but there would still only be gloom beyond. This also made navigation a little tricky. It was hardest on the Biker and Ever, especially Ever. They were bigger than Venge and me, so the confines of the space worked against them even more – and it would be way too awkward to try to support Ever down here, so he had to move under his own power, which clearly wasn’t easy for him.

But in spite of these difficulties, it wasn’t so bad. Aside from dirt and spiders, we were alone down there. It was dead quiet, dry, and the Biker said the radiation was much more tolerable. He would occasionally pause and examine the panels above us, trying to find something to navigate by. After we’d traveled a couple hundred meters, the effect was somewhat like being at open sea, and unable to see land. When our lights could no longer find any walls, we were essentially lost in a large, low, room.

And then for the first time, the Biker proposed an alteration to our route. We had been traveling straight – and we knew it was straight, because of the supports that we’d been following, but now he wanted to take a small detour.

“Why?” I whispered. I wasn’t aware of any particular need to whisper, but in the cramped darkness, it was sort of like a library. I’d have felt foolish talking too loudly in there.

“Hotspot,” Venge whispered from behind me. “Radiation’s seeped through the floor these panels.”
And on we went, on track, but lost. We were obviously beneath one of the factory floors, because there wasn’t anywhere else that would warrant all of this access. But we had yet to find a way up. It couldn’t have been the same floor that we’d run into the military on, because that had been on ground level, and this was clearly two or three levels lower.

“What’s this?” The Biker halted, kneeling beside a rusted plate set in the floor. Painfully, Ever knelt at his side, reaching down to brush away silt.

“Some kind of access?”

“That’s what I’m thinking – but what could be under this?” Venge asked.

“Regulators, probably.”

“Yeah.” The Biker moved his Geiger counter into the light. “Radiation’s better,” he noted.

“That’s odd,” Ever admitted. “Think it’s worth a look?”

“Yeah.” They set about loosening the handholds, which had rusted down long ago.

“You’d better do it,” Ever told Venge, moving gingerly aside.

“Right.” The smaller man positioned himself opposite the Biker, gripping the handles.

“On three,” said the Biker. “Three.” They heaved the panel aside, revealing an inky black opening. I moved up and held my light over the opening. A ladder of bent rebar set directly into the concrete led down perhaps fifteen feet, into a horribly cramped, barren corridor that gave no indication as to where it might lead.

“What is it?”

“Sublevel access, maybe.”

“Maybe an emergency exit.”

“Not this far in.”

Again, the Biker reached down and checked the readout on his wrist. “It’s healthier down there,” he said.

“So?” Venge twitched an eyebrow.

“Why not?” The Biker reached into his armor and pulled out a bolt. He dropped it unceremoniously into the corridor. It fell heavily to the concrete, and stayed there. We all watched it for several moments. Silence reigned. “Let’s go,” he said, and climbed onto the ladder. Ever followed, then I went, and Venge came down last. We left the cover off the hole in case we needed to come back. The corridor terminated after five meters in a staircase which led down two brief flights, and into another featureless corridor, which ended in a door. It was another of those strange hatch-types, and it took both the Biker and Venge to get it open. Once it was unsealed, they pulled it open a couple of inches and peered cautiously through.

“Can’t see much,” the Biker said, eyes flat. “Give me your light.” I handed it over; the one mounted on the shotgun was a little unwieldy. I couldn’t help but notice that he’d been much more talkative when it was just the two of us. Lately he was being downright monosyllabic.

He shone it through briefly, immediately covering it. He turned back to us. “I think this is the part of the Pripyat underground.”

“The trains to Chernobyl?” Venge asked. “I didn’t even know it was real.”

“It is – question is, is this it?”

“It’s possible,” Ever confirmed. “If it went to the border, the train yard would be right on the main line. It would actually make a lot of sense. Explains what a lot of those buildings up there are for.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s camouflage,” he explained. “The Pripyat underground was a supposed route for supplying all of the illegal projects in the Chernobyl ring – but there’s no way to get a train into the ring without the government coming down on you. So you take it as far as the frontier – well, what used to be the frontier – and you transfer your supplies to the underground. The government can’t touch you down here.”

“Could be a way out,” said the Biker.

“Definitely,” Ever confirmed.

“Then we should go.” Venge sounded very sure of himself.

“Well.” Ever frowned. “Big, open tunnels like this – it’s asking for trouble. We’re not very well armed. What do you think?” This was directed at the Biker.

He scowled. “Maybe twenty shells. Couple more mags.”

Venge held up his P99. “Thirteen rounds.” He glanced at me.

“Fourteen.” I touched the FNP9 at my hip. “Two mags.”

“Could be worse,” said Ever. I hadn’t noticed before, but he had been carrying a pistol. It was holstered just behind his back on the left side, at about a nine o’clock angle, though gun was so long that the holster was just a sophisticated loop that gripped the slide and trigger guard. The back of his belt was lined with magazine pouches.

The Biker handed back my flashlight. “Let’s see where it goes.” We filed out into the tunnel. It was surprisingly big, especially after the crawlspace. The arched ceiling was easily five meters above us, and it was just as wide. Two sets of tracks ran with plenty of room. Lots of space, not nearly enough light. Ever, now leaning on me again, produced a flashlight similar to mine. Venge pulled out his PDA, and dialed up the screen so that it was nearly as bright as the Biker’s light.

“Which way?” he asked.

“Flip a coin,” Ever said, shrugging, then wincing. The Biker held up his Geiger counter, took a few steps, then moved in the opposite direction. “This way,” he said, putting it away.

And so we set off, the Biker to our left, and Venge on our right. It was quiet down here. Real quiet. I don’t think I’d ever been anywhere so quiet before coming to the Ukraine. The soft crunch of gravel as we walked seemed noisy. The going was slow, on account of my pace supporting Ever – but still a lot faster than we’d been going in the crawlspace.

“How long have you been here?” Venge asked me.

“This is day two, I guess.”

He let out a low whistle. “How do you like it so far? That’s a joke, by the way.”

“What’s going on outside?” Ever asked. It took me a moment to realize he meant the world outside, as in, the real world.

“What? Like, politically?”

“Whatever you like,” he said. The Biker sighed.

“Biker doesn’t like the real world,” Venge whispered.

“Well,” I said, thinking. “The infection’s more or less over with. Turns out some corporation manufactured it, planning to step in with the cure – but somebody exposed it, and now everybody’s getting indicted. Most everybody else has the vaccine now.”

We occasionally passed doors similar to the one we’d entered the tunnel through. After some discussion, we decided not to bother with them until we’d covered some ground – the tunnel was easy going, and the doors would just take us back into the labyrinthine factory sublevels, which our previous luck notwithstanding, the Biker seemed to believe was a deathtrap. I took him at his word.

So we walked, and talked. It wasn’t exactly strolling the mall with my friends, but it was hard to believe this was a place with death around every corner. The Biker, of course, didn’t say much. We had traveled perhaps two miles before it happened. It was so faint at first, that in our conversation, we didn’t even notice it. There was a faint, echo in the distance.

“What’s that?” Venge asked, calling a halt.

“What’s what?”


It was a faint chittering. The Biker and Venge readied their weapons as the darkness ahead started to move.

They broke into our light like a wave; there were literally so many that they blacked out the ground beneath our feet.

“Don’t fire,” the Biker hissed. “Keep still.” They weren’t quite rats – but then, I wasn’t sure what else to call them. They tore by at what for them must have been top speed, flowing around our ankles like surf on a beach. It took all of my self control not to completely break down.

“The hell’s this?” Venge demanded in a whisper – he wasn’t doing much better than I was.

“Something’s got them scared,” Ever said. He sounded relaxed, but to me, he felt tense.

“Yeah, but what?” The Biker had his shotgun raised. “What are they running from? I’ve seen these things swarm stuff a lot bigger than us.”

“Infected?” Venge almost had to shout over the noise of the rodents as they poured past.

“They wouldn’t be scared of infected,” the Biker countered. The torrent began to slacken, and after another minute, they were gone. Thirty seconds later, we couldn’t even hear them anymore. For a moment, it was quiet.

“That was creepy,” said Venge. An inhuman wail, like – like in The Thing, when everybody runs outside, and their friend is there, but it’s not him, he’s like half turned – and he makes that noise – it was a noise like that. And it was scary.

Chapter 14 (Wish)

The cry echoed through the tunnel; it was impossible to tell how far away the source was. The four of us stood in a line, lights shining forward.

“How far back was that last door?” Ever asked, his eyes never leaving the blackness ahead.

“Two,” said Venge, “…maybe three hundred meters.”

“Let’s go.” And then we were running; I wasn’t even sure how it happened. Ever, who had a moment ago been leaning heavily on me, was leading me by the hand. Our lights waved frantically across the tunnel as we fled.

“You ever heard anything like that?” Venge shouted back.

“Hell no,” replied the Biker, throwing a hurried glance over his shoulder. “You all right?”

“I’ll make it.” That was Ever. I looked back; nothing but dark.

Another piercing shriek rang out, this one much louder. Presumably much closer. The alcove with the door came into view, and the Biker sprinted ahead. Maybe this was a weaker seal, or it was just adrenaline, but he had it open in one heave. Once we were through, he slammed it shut and re-sealed it. For a few seconds we just stood in the dark, panting. We were in a short corridor, and the door at the other end was closed.

The Biker was the first to speak. “Better go,” he said. Nobody protested. Beyond the door, another passage stretched off in either direction. It was lined with pipes similar to those in the service tunnel we’d entered below the factory, but was wide enough that we didn’t have to walk single file. “Can anybody get a reading in here?”

Venge produced his PDA. “Nothing,” he said. “Hotspots up top are killing the GPS, and you can forget about the compass.”

“Same here. Which way? Flip a coin?” I asked.

“Left,” said Ever. They looked at him.


“I’m left handed,” he said.

Venge and the Biker exchanged glances, then shrugged. We set off.

“Wish I’d gotten a look at that thing,” I said.

“You probably don’t,” Ever told me.

“Grue, you think?” Venge looked back briefly. “I’ve heard you get those deep underground, where it’s dark.”

“They don’t sound like that,” said the Biker.

“You’ve seen one?”

He didn’t reply.

“Then how do you know what sort of sound it makes?”

“I know what it doesn’t make. Maybe it was a Blood Demon.”

“Blood Demons aren’t real,” Venge said, waving a hand.

“Just because nobody’s ever gotten a picture of one doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Ever countered. “People have trouble getting good shots of drinkers, too, but we all believe in them.”

“Let’s just be glad those rodents were too spooked to be hungry.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Ever.

We emerged into a small antechamber. It was roughly octagonal, with a large pillar in the center, and four doors leading off into the dark. We paused at the mouth of the chamber.

“Which way?” Venge shifted uneasily. Ever and the Biker didn’t look too thrilled with the choices.

“Keep on straight?” I proposed, glancing at the Biker, who didn’t respond. He just stood there, looking straight ahead. Venge noticed, and waved a hand in front of his face.

“You okay?”

“What is it?” Ever asked.

“Biker,” said Venge. I turned so that Ever could see.

“Oh, dear.”


“Quiet. Don’t move.” He gently disengaged his arm from around my shoulder, straightening painfully. His flashlight was at his side, pointed at the floor. He drew the combat knife mounted on his vest. I held my breath as Ever silently scanned the darkness around us. Venge didn’t seem to have any more idea what was going on than I did.

Ever abruptly brought up his light, illuminating a vaguely man-shaped figure. It had been a man, once – but now it was dark, lumpy, horribly hunched and misshapen. It had been standing not two meters from Ever and me, hidden in shadow. Even lit, it just stood there, staring fixedly at the Biker. It took everything I had not to scream like a girl, not for the first time since getting here. It was ugly, yes, but it was ugly and it had been so close without our knowledge – that was what made it terrifying. The seconds were tense. Ever took a quiet step to its right. And another. I couldn’t take my eyes from the creature’s face. Ever slammed the blade into the base of the thing’s skull, and it fell instantly and heavily without making a sound.

The Biker dropped to his knees, gasping things too vile to repeat.

Ever slumped against the wall, then sank down beside the fallen creature.

Venge stood, dumbstruck. The Biker spat blood onto the floor, then looked over at Ever.

“Is that what I think it is?” he gasped.

“Probably,” the other man replied, wiping his knife on the monster’s trousers. He sheathed it. “Never seen one up close before,” he said lightly.

“Wow,” Venge breathed. “I thought they’d all been killed.”

“How could anybody know that?” the Biker asked, disgusted. “Idiot. I’m fine,” he snapped when I moved to check on him. He levered himself to his feet using the shotgun. Venge was examining the dead thing, whether out of scientific interest or morbid curiosity, I couldn’t guess. A minute later I had Ever back on his feet, and we were on the move again.

We found a plaque on a wall that might’ve been an emergency diagram, and after scrubbing away the silt, made an educated guess on which way to go.

“We’ve got to be outside the yard by now,” said Venge as we made our way through the sublevel. “Unless we’ve gone in a circle.”

“We covered enough ground straight in the tunnel,” Ever said.

“Then what is this place? There’s nothing in Rostov outside the yard that’s got anyplace like this.”

“There’s a lot of stuff to the southwest, no telling how deep some of those installations go, between Rostov and Yantar. We could theoretically be around there – the distance is right.” He paused. “But the underground wouldn’t run that way – so we can’t be over there. Logically, it’d have to be running south to north, so that’s where we made most of our time.”

“That’s the middle of nowhere,” said the Biker.

“Indeed,” Ever agreed. “North or south, there’s nothing on the map.”

“So what is this place?”

“Let’s not burden ourselves with unnecessary speculation.”

Venge turned and briefly shined the light from his PDA into the corridor behind us, then resumed walking. “Maybe it’s a lab.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

A portion of the corridor ahead was collapsed, and we had to climb past the rubble one at a time. A little ways past that, I began to spot the occasional casing on the floor. The deeper we went, the more common they became. The Biker called a halt at a T-junction, holding up a fist for silence.

There was a sound from around the corner, strangely regular. Cautiously, the Biker leaned out to check. “Clear,” he said, and we moved out. The noise was caused by a ventilation cover, dangling from a single bolt in the center on the corridor. It had once covered a vent in the ceiling, but something had broken it free. The Biker shined his light into it.

“Somebody had a good fight here,” Ever said, letting go of me to kneel. He held up an enormous casing. “Fifty GI, seven of them. What can’t you kill with seven of these?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, there’d be a corpse.” The corridor was clear, save for some suspicious, ancient-looking smears on the walls. “Oh,” said Ever, looking past us. “How attractive.” We turned to look at the opposite wall.

I looked at the letters for a moment. “Last one to turn,” I read aloud.

“…turn out the lights,” finished Venge. There was a pause. “That look like blood to you?”
“Probably just pasta sauce,” said Ever.

Chapter 15 (Wish)

“Don’t let it get to you,” Ever got to his feet. “Whatever happened here happened a long time ago.”

“Yeah,” said Venge, though probably more to himself than me. I glanced at the words, then back to the Biker.

“Let’s go.” He turned, lighting up the passage ahead.

“Best get to it,” said Ever tiredly. I quickly began to support him again, and we started moving. It might’ve been my imagination, but it seemed like the Biker was setting a brisker pace. Ever and I had to struggle to keep up. Maybe he was just in a hurry, or maybe he was edgy because of the writing on the wall. Or maybe he knew something the rest of us didn’t. Eventually we ran out of options on the level we were moving through, and had to descend to avoid radiation yet again. I didn’t even want to think about how far underground we were by now; probably farther down than I’d ever been in my life.

Moving downward through the complex, air that had once been stale turned steadily toward the rancid. A little ways ahead, we found a body. Well, not so much a body as a skeleton. It was little more than bones and cloth, with some rotted, unidentifiable organic material. It made my flesh crawl. And it was getting damp down here.

But we were making good progress; there was no telling if we were moving in the right direction, or even a useful one, but we were covering ground. We found a second emergency schematic on a wall outside what had once been some kind of break room. Venge and the Biker examined it at length.

“If we can get to sanitation, there’ll have to be some kind of way to the surface,” Venge said.

“Water’s trouble,” Ever cautioned.

“Can’t stay down here forever.” Venge traced the lines on the plaque with his finger. “If only that other block wasn’t closed off, there’s an express elevator there.”

“No way it’s in service,” I said.

“We could still climb up the shaft.”


“Better than staying here.”

“It doesn’t matter – there’s no way through.”

“Any workarounds?”

“Not that I can see. Just the warehouse and the corridor entrance. If we could get into maintenance, maybe.”

“I’ve had enough of maintenance.”


Ultimately, we went for stairs that would hopefully take us down – yes, down – to somewhere less deteriorated. The Biker’s guess that sanitation would almost certainly offer an exit was enough to mobilize us for whatever might stand in between. Down here there was nothing but our footsteps, and occasionally dripping water. It was almost peaceful. Or it would have been, if we didn’t keep finding broken glass, mysterious stains, and expended cartridges. There was even a door that appeared to have been welded shut from the inside.

We made our way through the lab quarter into a block of storage, and through to some kind of undercroft. For lack of a better idea, we moved through, and into an area that was anything but scientific. Heavy lifting equipment – probably some kind of warehouse, but our flashlights could only light up so much. We hurried through.

“Shit,” said the Biker. A door leading off the corridor – presumably toward the sanitation plant – was already open. On the other side, calm, black water.

“This is the annex,” said Venge.

“It’s impassible,” said the Biker. Perhaps thirty feet away, our lights showed stairs emerging from the water, leading to another door. I glanced down – yes, there were stairs on our side, too. It was probably one of the main valves – at least ten, maybe fifteen feet down. The water wasn’t shallow, but I didn’t see what their problem with it was. Since coming this far down, we’d scarcely encountered any radiation to speak of.

“It’s the only way through,” said Ever, his eyes fixed on the far side.

“Watch out!” I cried. The Biker looked down, and jumped back in shock. The arm that had been reaching for his boot snaked back into the water without even a ripple. We stared at the water for several seconds.

“Charming,” said Ever, one eyebrow arched.

After a pause, Venge spoke. “What was that?”

“Looked like an arm.”

I glanced back into the corridor. It might have been my imagination, but the air seemed to be changing.

“Yeah, but whose?”

“Hell should I know?”

“Guys,” I said.

“Some kind of infected?”

“Guys,” I said again, this time more loudly. Venge and the Biker shut up. I looked back out across the water. It wasn’t that far. “I don’t think we have a lot of time.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s something out there,” I said, nodding toward the corridor. “We should go.”


“Grenade,” said the Biker. “That’ll clear it up.”

“Not down here, too dangerous,” Ever countered. I shined my light upward, illuminating the ceiling.

“Pipes,” I said.


“Give me a second.” I followed them with my eyes. There. There. There, I committed them to memory. There were plenty of them. The Biker looked uneasily back at the water.

“He’s got a point,” he said, glancing over his shoulder. “Something’s coming.”

I turned off my flashlight. They looked at me in surprise as I holstered it. “Make hay while the sun shines.”

“That’s my job,” said Ever, letting go of me. I didn’t know if he meant making bad jokes or being the diversion, but it didn’t matter.

“Not this time.” I punched him lightly on the chest; he winced. “I got it. Swim fast.” I took a step back. And one more. Then ran forward, leapt from the railing, and caught a pipe. I swung forward, grabbed another, and made my way out over the water, my feet dangling about a meter from its surface. I grabbed another pipe, then another, moving out into the center of the chamber, but away from the straight shot that the boys would need to reach the far side. Another meter out, I stopped, hanging with both hands.

“Go,” I called. The Biker looked down, hesitated, then knelt and got into the water with as little of a splash as he could manage. He began to swim. Ever followed, then Venge.

The thing erupted from the water, wrapping both arms around my leg. I kicked it back in, released the pipe with one hand, drew my FNP and fired five shots down, the reports like cannon fire in the chamber.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t what I’d got. Ideally, the freak would have just been distracted. But I didn’t think he’d go all Free Willy.

The shots were still echoing when Venge was dragged under. Ever immediately turned and dived after him. This was going to hell real fast. I fumbled the pistol back into its holster and swung for another pipe, which promptly gave in a shower of rust and cockroaches. I dropped into pitch-black water, flailing wildly. Underwater, the thing hit me from behind, making a grab for my throat with what felt horribly like claws. I jerked out the FNP9 again, shoved it backward and fired into its gut. I squeezed the trigger for a second shot, but I didn’t really expect the pistol to fire. It didn’t matter; the thing’s grip loosened, and I kicked it away, then clawed my way to the surface.

With my head above water, I saw light, and that had to be the direction of the far side. I struck out for it as fast as I could. Moments later, I was being hauled out by the Biker, who immediately turned to help Ever, who held Venge’s vest in one fist, and his knife in the other.

The Biker heaved them out, and they sprawled onto the ground, Ever gasping and Venge spluttering. An arm burst from the water and made a grab for Ever, but he caught it, pulled the freak out of the water, snapped its neck, and rolled it back in, then fell back panting. “Water’s trouble,” he said. “Water’s always trouble. You ever see anything like that?” he gasped at the Biker, who shook his head.

I hauled myself into a sitting position against the wall, watching the calm black surface warily. The Biker drew his Pernach, cleared the chamber, and began to blow into the breech. I did the same with my FNP9. Venge rolled over, coughed up some more water, and got unsteadily to his feet. Both he and Ever had been severely clawed. The entire right arm of Ever’s gray thermal was now a deep crimson, and Venge was bleeding badly from his leg and side.

“How much farther?” he asked.

“Not far,” said the Biker, pulling off his helmet to wipe water from his eyes. “Shouldn’t be far.” I crawled to Ever and checked the wound on his arm. Long, hideous – but not seriously deep. Nowhere near the artery. Soaking wet gloves aren’t much to work with, but I put pressure on it.

There was a sound from the far side of the water, and I looked up. The Biker reflexively pointed his light at the noise, but just as he illuminated the doorway, something moved away.

“Wonder what that was,” he murmured.

“Close call,” I said, staring out across the calm water.
  01:07:23  31 January 2012
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On forum: 06/22/2010
Messages: 97
Behind? Ha! 10-12!

Chapter 10 (Wish)

That’s one way to start a conversation. Ever went down in a heap as the sharp reports echoed through the factory. Before I could even think about reacting, the Biker stepped into the open, racked the 870 noisily, and blasted the stalker in the face. In hindsight, I’m glad the light in the factory was so bad. It wasn’t something I wanted to see in detail. As the headless body began to collapse, the Biker flung himself over the next wall as someone opened fire. Rounds struck the equipment I sheltered behind, ricocheting wildly.

A bullet struck the armor over the Biker’s knee and he buckled, then went down. There was shouting now; three, four voices – maybe more. On the floor, the Biker pumped the shotgun and rolled onto his back, extending it in one hand. Something moved on the level above, and he fired, causing a terrible scream. I heard footsteps nearby, and scrambled cover near the Biker’s, where he was struggling to his feet. The glare of a flashlight appeared at the corner, and he shoved me out of the way to fire again, this time destroying a perfectly good section of wall.

“Time to go,” he took me by the collar, dragging me to my feet. I think he meant to get me out the way we’d come, but he never got a chance. A man slid into the row ahead on his knees, firing from the hip. The Biker had no choice but to shove me away as hard as he could to keep us both from being cut in half. “Go!” he shouted after me, and I didn’t blame him. We were obviously outnumbered, and he definitely wouldn’t have a chance if he had to look after me. I stumbled into the next row, gripping Ever’s shotgun. I might not be able to turn this around, but I didn’t need to drag the Biker down with me.

I took off at full speed. I vaulted over a wall, darting into next section. Someone fired on me, and I rolled over a workbench, going flat on the other side. It figured that I’d get shot at the minute I wasn’t wearing body armor. Prone, I crawled under the bench, continuing underneath a monolithic cube of machinery. Someone rattled off another burst, but nowhere near me. A shotgun answered promptly. This was louder than any firing range I’d ever been on.

The machinery ended, and I came swiftly to my feet, scanning the area. More firing from the far side of the manufacturing equipment. Another shotgun blast. Whoever these people were, they were converging on the Biker. I’d slipped past their line. If I couldn’t fight them, I could at least distract them. I started to look at things in another way. There – workbench, equipment, pipes. I flew forward, leapt the table, took a step from the pipes and boosted off the metal grating atop a gargantuan mixer. In free fall, I flung the shotgun and caught the second-level railing. Ever’s over-under clattered heavily onto the metal grating as I heaved myself over the rail. There was a shout, and a bullet buried itself in the mortar above me.

Sadly, the catwalk offered virtually nowhere to go. I’d never been shot at before, so I blame adrenaline for the decision to grab the shotgun and roll to my feet. At that point, all I could do was hope that the rusted metal wouldn’t give out beneath me as I ran. Below, I could see the factory floor in detail. Five armored figures were moving purposefully through the rows – and there was the Biker, crouched behind a stack of crates – with a sixth stalker poised on the other side, combat knife raised. I skidded to a stop, raised the shotgun and discharged both barrels. The crates dissolved in a storm of shards, and a stunned heartbeat went by.

The stalker made a hurried slash, and the Biker blocked with the haft of his shotgun, closing the distance between them. To close for the gun, he slammed the stalker full in the face with his helmet, then flung him away bodily. There was a blue flash as the hapless stalker landed, and violent arcs of electricity exploded from him, along with shrieks so horrible that the explosion of gunfire that followed was a blessing. Invisible electrical anomalies. You had to be kidding me. Then I realized that no, they weren’t kidding me, and there were also bullets coming in this direction. With no alternative, I took the shotgun in one hand and jumped the railing. Twenty feet to the floor, but I got it right and rolled out. The Biker was thumbing shells into the 870.

“How many?” he shouted. Sparks flew from the pipes between us and the stalkers.

“Five, maybe,” I had to shout back.

“Too many.” He looked past me, then over his shoulder. Across the aisle stood a pair of rusted metal doors. “That way.”

I pushed off from the pipes as he spun into the open, whipping a Pernach from his belt and firing a protracted burst in the direction of the enemy. Someone my size can’t do much with a heel, and even less with a shoulder. I drop kicked the doors, and they burst open with enough rust in dust form to give ten people black lung. I tumbled into the corridor, and the Biker, pistol and shotgun in hand, slid in after me. And we were so dead. One of the stalkers had been coming this way, possibly making for these very doors – and he was recovering from the shock of our flashy entrance. Neither of us were in a position to do anything about it but stare at his submachine gun. Game point.

There was a flicker of red, and a shot rang out, the round burying itself in the wall behind the stalker. Another struck him in the leg. That was all the Biker needed; he brought the Pernach across his torso and shot him down.

Another stalker emerged from the shadows, a laser-mounted pistol raised in a two-hand grip. He was slender, garbed in light tactical gear, and probably not much taller than I was. He returned the P99 to a drop-leg holster, and picked up the fallen stalker’s submachine gun.

“You’re here for me, aren’t you?” Youthful voice. Good English. Unliker the Biker, I thought this fellow might actually be American, instead of just sounding like one.

“Venge?” the Biker groaned.

“Yeah.” He glanced at the open doors; the stalkers would be coming. “We should go.” I picked myself up, and Venge helped the Biker to his feet. “This way.” He didn’t need to tell us twice; we took off at a fast trot, turning right, then left, and left again – turning at every corner we found.

“Who are those guys?” the Biker gasped.

“Military. They followed me in.”

“What happened?”

Venge ducked through a doorway, and we followed him into pitch black. The Biker and I produced our lights. “Hold up here,” he said. “I don’t know what they were doing here – I haven’t heard of any helicopters going down. I think they’re looking for someone.” The chamber was some kind of storeroom, lined with bare shelves. I closed the door behind us.

“Looking for someone with Duty?”

“Impossible. But you know how twitchy the military gets when they’re inside the cordon – they’ll shoot at anything that moves.”

“I know, but that doesn’t explain why they’d come in here after you,” said the Biker, thumbing more shells into his 870, then slung it over his shoulder to reload the Pernach.

“I don’t know,” Venge said, sounding exhausted. I supposed that for someone who wasn’t normally a combatant, he’d been through a lot. So had I, come to think of it. He pulled the magazine from the MP5, scowled, and tossed the weapon aside. “Can you get me out?” he asked.

“Depends. How many of them are there? And are they going to stick around, or take off?” The Biker returned his pistol to its holster, hefting the 870.

“The guys got a few of them outside,” said Venge. “How many did you two get?”

“Three, maybe four,” said the Biker. “Five, if you count the one out there.” He looked at me.

“None,” I said, feeling a little sheepish.

“That still leaves a few. There were a bunch.”

“But do they care about us, or we just in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“I can’t think of a reason that they would, but I just don’t know.”

The Biker swore. “Any other ways out?”

“This building annexes the hangar at the south end of the yard – if we can make it past both atriums, there should be something.”

“The hangar?” The Biker closed his eyes, obviously considering some kind of inner map. “That’s a long road,” he said at last.

“It gets better,” Venge began, but I cut him off.

“Does anyone else hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Shh.” I held up a hand. Sort of like a distant… rattling. But close by. I swept the beam of my flashlight around the room. It lit up a rusted railing; there was a spiral staircase set into the floor. Puzzled, I walked over to it and shone my flashlight down. It illuminated a mass of frenzied movement not more than thirty feet down. Suddenly the noise was a lot louder, the clanking of dozens of feet climbing ancient metal stairs, and guttural gasping that I would later learn to identify exclusively with the infected.

Chapter 11 (Wish)

Venge took one look down and pulled me away. “We have to go,” he said, motioning the Biker toward the door. “Right now.”

The three of us scrambled into the corridor as the first infected spilled from the top of the stairwell. The Biker slammed the door, and I slid Ever’s empty shotgun through the handles to brace it.

The Biker grimaced, watching the door shudder under repeated impacts. I just stared.

“Unless someone’s got a better idea, we can go east, try to make it to the other side of the compound,” gasped Venge.

“Why can’t we go south?”

“I tried. There’s a drinker out there. I saw the drained bodies.”

The Biker nodded. “No choice.” He flipped on the light on his shotgun. There was a heavy step, and we whirled as a figure lurched around the corner. I’ve never done any real shooting before, but it almost felt like instinct. I brought up my FNP9, aimed for the center of mass and fired, as did Venge in the same instant. The figure jerked and slumped heavily against the opposite wall. Then the Biker’s light fell on him, and I felt sick. I dropped my gun.

The Biker swore, brushing past me.

“You’re a real team player, “ Ever groaned, sinking down a little further before closing his eyes and slumping over.

“Well, damn.” Venge let his pistol drop to his side. “He’s with you guys?” I fell to my knees, covering my mouth in horror.

“They heard those shots,” Venge countered. “We have to go.” Something slammed into the door again, shaking dust from the ceiling.

“Vest got all of it,” the Biker reported, ignoring him. “No penetration.” That helped me snap out of it a bit; I hurried to Ever’s side.

“Why’s he unconscious?”

“You’ve never been shot, have you?”

“Can we move him?”

Even wearing a helmet, the Biker looked conflicted. I knew what he was thinking, and helped him make up his mind by pulling one of Ever’s arms around my shoulders. But there was a problem; he weighed about eighty pounds more than I did. I got upright, faltered, and Venge took the weight on the other side.

“Now can we go?” He sounded impatient. I forgave him. A light flickered in the next hall over.

“Definitely.” The Biker moved past us and started down the hall quickly, but not too quickly. Venge and I tried to keep up. We put a few turns between ourselves and where we assumed the military to be before the Biker called a halt. He and Venge convened briefly, considering their route. The corridors and offices in this part of the structure were like a maze, and it was clear that we were in trouble. We knew how to get out he way we’d come, but that was where the military was. We also knew that there were infected here, and our only choice was to continue deeper into the building, and the place was vast.

“We’ve got to get off this floor,” said the Biker. “When that door goes down, this whole place is going to be flooded with them.”

“You think they’ll find us in this?” Venge didn’t sound convinced.

“I don’t want to risk it – haven’t got the ammo.”

“There is that.” A patter of hurried footsteps began to echo through the hallways. They were coming. The Biker swore.

“This isn’t going to work,” he said.

“There were stairs back there,” Venge nodded shortly toward the junction we’d come through.

“Going down,” I pointed out.

“We don’t have a choice,” Venge said sharply.

“We won’t last long down there,” sighed the Biker.

“Longer than if we stay here.”

“Great.” He moved past us, bringing up his 870 and leading the way back. The stairs were concrete – that was nice. They only went down one flight; it was some kind of sublevel. The first thing the Biker’s light fell on in the corridor below was a huge, rust-brown arterial spray all over the wall. I struggled to keep my breathing under control. Shots echoed from the level above; the military had met the citizens that their government had pawned off on the Ukraine.

Noisy footsteps rang out behind us, and the air began to fill with the gasps and snarls of infected.

“Are they onto us?”

“If they aren’t, they will be.” Venge pulled toward a nearby doorway, and we dragged Ever through. Swearing – quietly – the Biker followed us in. The room had more of an iron hatch than a door, which was apparently why Venge had chosen it. We pulled it shut and latched it swiftly. No sooner had the bolt fallen into place than I heard movement in the corridor outside. The Biker checked the room. It was small and rectangular, with a large pile of junk that appeared to have been stacked hurriedly in one corner. Venge made as though to steer us toward a wall to sit Ever down.

“Lay him out,” I whispered. We did so, and I unstrapped his vest and pushed up his shirt. Even in the weak glow of the Biker’s flashlight, it didn’t look good. Enormous black impacts marked where Venge and I had shot him, but it was higher up that was the problem. Rifle rounds are a little harder to deal with than 9mm ones. This wasn’t heavy armor – the only reason it had stopped the first two bullets at all was they were probably cut and softened for use against mutants and infected – but their muzzle energy hadn’t been anything to sneeze at. Probing tenderly, I couldn’t find any broken ribs, but they were probably all bruised. His sternum couldn’t be shattered, which was good, but it might well be fractured. What he needed was a hospital, and he wasn’t going to get one. “We should get him sitting up,” I told Venge quietly, and we moved him against the wall.

I straightened, moving to listen at the door. They were still out there – but they weren’t banging on our door. That was worth something. I turned around. Venge held out my FNP9. I remembered dropping it.
“Thanks.” I took the gun, and looked at it. Then at Ever. It didn’t feel great; I holstered it with a bitter taste in my mouth.

“You got a name?”

I hesitated. “Stranger.”

“Venge.” He extended a hand, and I shook it as firmly as I could. It was good to see that there were males my size here; it meant I’d stick out just a little less. “How long are they going to hang around out there?” I asked.

“Until something attracts their attention,” the Biker replied. “Which is only a matter of time in here.”

“We haven’t seen anything,” I pointed out.

“We’ve been lucky.”

“So we wait?”

“For now.”

I got out my flashlight and started to look around.

“How far do you think these sublevels go?” Venge asked the Biker.

“No idea - they obviously serve a purpose, this isn’t maintenance.” They began to examine a horribly corroded control box on the far wall.

“I heard one of the earliest labs was actually under the train yard.”

“Don’t even joke about that.”

“No joke, heard it from a loner from up north. Ex-Monolith, or so he said. Wanted me to check out his Mini-14. Piece of junk.” They continued to tinker. Men.

Most of the garbage piled against the wall was what it looked like – garbage. A couple of empty ammunition boxes, wooden crates, a file cabinet. I began to systematically pull things down and check them.

“How’d you know my name, by the way?”

“You fixed my Pernach a couple months back.”

“That’s right, that’s right. Biker. How’s she holding up?”

“The bike?”

“No, the gun.”

I found a roll of moldy old bandages. If you tried to use them to treat someone, you’d do more harm than good. I tossed them aside and continued to search. I pulled out a couple of old food tins, revealing a gap. I shone my light through; there was rust on the other side. Intrigued, I reached in to examine further, but was startled as the Biker swore loudly. Too loudly. The footsteps outside grew louder, and there was a bang on the door.

I turned around, shocked. “We can’t stay here,” the Biker told Venge, and turned to me. “We’ve got to go – now.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“This room’s irradiated. Probably the whole level.”

“Where can we go?” The pounding on the door intensified.

“We can try to fight our way out,” said the Biker helplessly. “It’s that, or cook in here. Eventually that door’ll give.” Venge drew his P99.

“Last mag,” he said.

“Guys,” I said quickly. They looked at me. “I think there’s a door behind this.”

“Where’s it go?”

“How should I know?” Venge and the Biker exchanged glances.

“What are our odds shooting our way out?” Venge asked.

“Even if we had gear, not good. Maybe if we knew the way.”

“Then what have we got to lose?”

Chapter 12 (Wish)

We set about uncovering the door, but it was heavy work. Even empty ammunition crates weigh a ton, and the file cabinets were filled with damp, moldering documents. It might have been my imagination, but the shrieks of the rusted latch on the door under assault seemed to be getting louder. It didn’t help that the Biker kept glancing at the Geiger countered mounted on his wrist. He was making me twitchy. We heaved aside another piece of ancient, heavy aluminum furniture. The door began to take shape behind the junk. Like the one at the other end of the room, it was less a door than a hatch. A rotary seal protruded from the center, beneath a small window that was opaque with grime.

And something else was bothering me. All of this junk, all this heavy stuff piled up on this side of the door – it might have just been me, but it seemed awfully similar to what I’d think of as a barricade. At least it was clearly ancient – whatever they’d been trying to hold back was hopefully long gone by now. We toppled another file cabinet, and there was enough space to open it.

“Get Ever,” the Biker said, kneeling to check the mechanism. As Venge and I heaved the injured man upright, the Biker grasped both handles of the seal and twisted. For a moment, nothing happened, and he stood, bent against the door. Then the rust screamed free, and the seal groaned. The hatch swung ponderously open. The Biker readied his shotgun, shining his light through. “Go,” he said. We made our way through awkwardly, and he closed and sealed the door behind us.

With one arm supporting Ever, I had to choose between flashlight and handgun. I went with the flashlight. We were in a narrow, rectangular chamber. The right wall was covered in what had once been monitors and computer equipment. A toppled chair lay in one corner, and old, corroded binders were scattered across the floor.

“I don’t get it,” Venge said from the other side of Ever. “Where’s it go?”

“Nowhere,” I said, shining my light on the far wall. It was just a wall. Metal grating rattled beneath our feet.

The Biker was looking over the equipment. “This was a surveillance room,” he said.

“How’s the radiation?”

“Better, but not good enough.”

“There’s nowhere to go.”

He didn’t reply. Instead, he knelt, pointing his light straight down. The door in the room behind us gave with a wail of tortured metal. A heartbeat later, pounding began on the hatch. “It’ll take them a little longer to get through that,” said the Venge. “If we go now, we might be able to put enough distance between us to lose them.”

“Go where, though?” I asked.


“Are you out of your mind?”

“He’s right.” The Biker set down his shotgun. “Light,” he told me. I did so, and he began to feel along the grating with gloved fingers. A bolt in the hatch had vibrated loose. It clattered to the grating, and fell through.

“What’s down there?” Venge asked nervously.

“Let’s see.” The Biker’s fingers threaded through the grating, and he pulled away a rectangular section of floor. He picked up the shotgun and shone the light down.

“Thought so – maintenance tunnel,” Venge observed. The Biker lowered his wrist through, peering at the Geiger counter. “It’s better down there. We should go. It might not lead anywhere, but it’s worth a shot.”
The Biker nodded. Getting to his feet, he shouldered the 870. “Go, I’ll lower him.”

Venge and I let the Biker take Ever’s weight, and I dropped lightly down, shining my light both ways. The tunnel was extremely narrow, and thickly covered in pipes and panels. Ever and the Biker would have to walk sideways down here. Venge landed awkwardly beside me, stepping out of the way. Getting Ever down was a ginger affair, but we managed, and the Biker lowered himself last. He climbed onto the pipes to pull the grating back into place.

“Think they can figure out how to get through that?” Venge asked.

“Don’t care,” said the Biker.

“It’s pretty narrow – we might be able to hold them here.”

“Depending on what’s in these pipes, that could be a bad idea.”

Venge didn’t have anything to say to that. He and I went back to supporting Ever, and the Biker took the lead. Down here it was utterly black. Not dim black, not moonless night black, it was pitch black. The Biker’s light was a soft yellow glow; my LED was harsh and white. It was slow going, due to the cramped nature of the service corridor. Venge and I didn’t have to worry, but the Biker’s helmet would frequently clip low-hanging pipes. It would have been even worse if Ever had been walking upright.

“I’ll bet nobody’s been down here in at least a decade,” Venge said, awestruck.

“Maybe,” the Biker grunted.

My shoe crunched on something; I didn’t look down. We were forced to be in single file, and I didn’t like being at the back. I kept shining my light behind us. The industrial nature of the corridor was a little sinister. At least if the infected got through, we’d definitely hear them coming – and they’d only come one at a time.

“This place is for the factory, right?” Venge asked after a little while.


“I’ve heard that a lot of the labs had their surface access points camouflaged – the local government didn’t officially endorse what went on in them, so they’d sometimes be made to look like something else.”

“I’m pretty sure this isn’t a lab,” said the Biker.

“I know, but do you think there’s really one down here?”

“No idea.”

“What’s a lab?” I asked.

“Hidden government laboratories. Extremely illegal – they were dangerous even before the disasters,” the Biker said from the front of the line. “As far as I know, we only have the locations of four of them – but their numbers indicate that there could be as many as eighteen, and people say there’s a nineteenth.”

“They’re affected more potently than the outside,” said Venge. “Sometimes you can find things nobody’s seen before – that’s why people keep going in, and searching for the others. But the best stuff always come with the worst mutants – so it’s a gamble. Best to go with a large, experienced team, or not at all.”

“So a lot of people like to go hunting for this anomalous material?”

“It’s one way to get bread.”

“I see.”

“You’re always talking about mutants, but I’ve never even seen one. What do you mean by it?” I asked. Some silt fell away from a tangle of nearby pipes, revealing sagging cobwebs.

“Lots of things,” said Venge. “Dogs, mostly. If you’re lucky, they’re all you’ll ever have to worry about if you don’t go looking for trouble.”

The Biker paused, and played his light over the ceiling. Then he resumed walking, and Venge started to talk again. “And infected,” he added. “Sooner or later you’re bound to run into them. Aren’t there people who collect pictures and things out there? Surely you’ve seen things.”

“Well, there’s a pretty famous one that’s of sort of a boar-looking thing, but it’s pretty blurry. They’re all pretty blurry, actually,” I said. “They’ve also got pictures of some really long centipedes.”

“Hate those,” said Venge. “So you really are a rookie, huh?”

“I guess.”

“Why’d you come here?”

“Oh,” I hesitated. “You know, stuff to do.”


“What about you?”

“Me? I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to try something new. I’m not cut out for all the fighting, but I pull my weight. I look out for Duty’s weapons, they look out for me. It all works out, I guess.”

Eventually, the service corridor ended in a concrete wall.

“Well, damn.”

“We’ll have to go back,” I said, my heart sinking. “It went in the other direction, too – we could try that.”

“That’ll take us past the infected,” said Venge. “They haven’t gotten down here yet, but if anything is going to make them try, it’ll be us going by. The radiation isn’t so good here, though. We can’t hold up.”

“Could try the crawlspace,” Ever suggested. It took a moment for it to sink in. He’d regained consciousness.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Probably not,” he told me frankly. “But I can move, and unless you guys brought a lot of radiation meds, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Venge knelt by the large hatched-steel cover on the right seed of the corridor. “How do we know this is going to lead anywhere?” he asked.

“It’ll have to come up at least one other place,” said Ever. “You can’t have only one way out of something like that.”

“You might be giving Ukrainian engineering too much credit,” I said.

“Only a suggestion,” he replied mildly.

The Biker worked his knife behind the cover, and levered it out of the wall. It clanged to the ground loudly, echoing through the corridor. He shone the light through. “We can try it,” he said at last.
  07:52:27  30 January 2012
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On forum: 09/02/2011
Messages: 97
Bit of a goof there - maybe I forgot for a second that rifle rounds would go through Ever's kevlar. There were a million ways to fix that, and I chose the most convoluted one possible.

In other news, the blog is updated through 11. (You're behind, Kusanagi!)

And as of Chapter 12, which will be updated on the blog soon, and the following chapters, I've begun making some more serious changes to the text.
  18:42:37  26 January 2012
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On forum: 06/22/2010
Messages: 97
8 and 9

Chapter 8 (Wish)

We set off around midday. The Biker had left his dirt bike in the care of someone at the bar, and Ever didn’t seem to have much in the way of worldly belongings. He carried his shotgun over one shoulder, not so much walking as flowing beneath his voluminous black coat.

Ducking through the corrugated metal sheeting, we made our way through a low tunnel, and out into an expansive courtyard. It was impressive what fifty yards could do; once on the other side, the sounds of Rostov were hardly audible. Ever and the Biker seemed pretty relaxed, so I supposed we weren’t in any danger. Walls held the courtyard on either side, and perhaps two hundred yards down, a three-story building formed the fourth end. The Biker was eying it suspiciously.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He adjusted his grip on the strap of his shotgun and kept walking.

“Mercs wouldn’t attack a Duty patrol – not even a small one,” said Ever.

“Probably not. Sometimes there are really serious bandits out there.”

“Sometimes.” He didn’t sound convinced. “It couldn’t have been Freedom, could it?”

“I hope not. Anywhere else, maybe, but I’ve never heard of them maintaining a presence out here. Sure as hell not poaching random Duty stuff.”

“That’s what I figured,” Ever sighed. “Rogues, then?”


As I listened, I watched an anomaly throb in a corner of the courtyard. Neither of the guys paid it any mind. A little ways away, I saw a lump that looked suspiciously like the corpse of some kind of boar.

Behind us, several bursts of automatic fire echoed. I turned back worriedly, but the Biker steered me forward without breaking step.

“Just dogs,” Ever reassured me.

“Duty has to shoot them down whenever they get brave enough to charge one of the checkpoints.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Remember when people would try to set up shop in there to nail people going west?” the Biker asked, looking at the building ahead.

“Yeah, geniuses. As if Duty would let that fly so close to home.”

“I heard Duty didn’t shut them down, it was just one stalker.”

“I heard that, too. Not sure I believe it. Ancient history either way.”


We reached the building, and held up outside a crumbling hole that appeared to be the entrance. “All right,” said the Biker. “I’ll take point. You get the rear.”


He brought up his 870, flicking on the flashlight taped to the barrel. I followed him through the hole, and Ever followed me with scarcely a rustle. The floor was dirt and gravel; the walls were ancient brick. The structure was entirely bare, save for a liberal sprinkling of casings on the ground. We clinked through at a cautious pace, the Biker’s flashlight illuminating the corridor ahead. This was it – this was what it was like to stalk in the Ukraine. I glanced back at Ever, and couldn’t even see him in the gloom.

The hallway terminated in another broken wall, and the Biker flattened himself against the bricks by the gap, switching off his light. Gray daylight spilled into the corridor ahead. Ever materialized out of the darkness at my side.

“How’s it look?”

“Looks clear.” The Biker shouldered his shotgun, and drew out a pair of digital rangefinders. He leaned out, scanning. “I got nothing,” he said. “Go.”

I stepped aside as Ever moved quietly past me, his over-under pointed at the ground. The Biker stepped back, and Ever took his place by the gap. He leaned into the light briefly, then moved out, bringing his weapon to his shoulder. I hastened to follow, emerging blinking into the light. It wasn’t so much a train yard as a train graveyard.

We rushed across a patch of open ground to take cover behind a concrete barrier. Ever and the Biker listened intently. I wasn’t sure what they were expecting; all I could hear was the groan of decaying metal in the breeze. There were wind chimes out there somewhere. Ever peered over the barrier, then ducked back.

“So if Duty’s coming through here, chaps mind their own business, they’d probably come in the open, right?” he asked.

“You’d think so, but it was only half a squad – maybe they didn’t want to try their luck,” the Biker countered.

“Let’s start with the north side.”


And we were on the move again, Ever and the Biker seamlessly falling into a simple one-two cover. Moving happens to be my specialty, so I didn’t feel like baggage, but there have been times in my life that I’ve been more useful than I was then. Gargantuan, industrial structures ringed the yard on all sides, anywhere from six to ten stories high. I noticed that the guys seemed to keep to the northern side of most cover.

“What’s down there?” I whispered, jerking a thumb in the direction that they were clearly avoiding.

“There’s a parking garage – sometimes mercs will get up there with rifles and take stalkers out, just for loot.” The Biker leaned out to check the next stretch. “They generally don’t shoot at Duty, though.”

“Well, we’re working for Duty.”

“How would they know that?”

I suddenly felt quite naked without my Kevlar. I drew my FNP and checked the magazine. All fifteen were there; I chambered one, locked it, and holstered the gun, then moved again. The Biker ducked into the corridor formed by two train cars, and Ever and I followed him in. He dropped to the ground, looking out below the cars.

“There,” he hissed, pointing. Ever and I got down to see. Past the car, in an open expanse of concrete lay several bodies. The Biker got out his binoculars again, and handed them to Ever. “What do you think?”

“They’ve already been looted.”

“Well, they have been here for nearly eight hours,” said the Biker.

“Yeah. I count four that could be Duty, about a dozen more bodies on the far side.” He passed the binoculars back.

“Gave good account of themselves,” the Biker admitted grudgingly.

“I can’t identify the others, though. Their gear’s all gone.”


“What do you reckon? The other ones shot first, the Duty guys took cover behind that pipe, there.”

“Looks right. Bad guys tried to flank – didn’t work.”

“Yes.” Ever took the binoculars again. I squinted at the scene. It just looked like a lot of dead people to me. I swallowed.

“No crows,” Ever noted.


“What’s that mean?” I asked quietly.

“It means they’d prefer starving to coming down here.” Ever looked back down the corridor, then in the other direction. “Keep watch,” he told me. I rose to a crouch to do so. “If you see anything – anything at all, say so.”

“Got it,” I said.

Ever turned back to the Biker. “Four men, that’s the escort.”

“None of the bodies are small enough to be the guy.”

“If there’s a drinker in the area, that could explain it.”

“Yeah. Looks safe enough, let’s get a closer look. Come on, Stranger.” I turned back to see them both crawling beneath the train.

Up close, the scene wasn’t pretty. Everyone had been killed with multiple gunshot wounds, most to the chest, but some to the head. I looked away.

“These guys were definitely Duty,” said the Biker, kneeling beside a corpse. Ever was looking at the other bodies, on the other side of the pavement. The trains behind us blocked the line of sight from the garage that the guys seemed to get so twitchy about. On the other end of the yard, one of the enormous buildings loomed. To the west, I could see more train tracks, and what looked like some kind of factory.

“Look,” said Ever, making his way back over to us. He held up a pair of dog tags. “Military.”

“What the hell are they doing this far in?” the Biker demanded.

“Excellent question.”

“And why would they fire on Duty?”

“Perhaps Duty fired on them.”

“No chance.” The Biker shook his head. The expended cartridges on the ground caught my eye. Behind the cover that Duty had apparently used lay mostly 5.45x39 shells, but there was something else. I got down to my hands and knees, poking through them.

“Maybe a merc took a shot, and everyone got the wrong idea?”

“That is a definite possibility.”

Ah – found it. Among the rifle shells, there were also a couple of 9x19 casings. I held one up to the light, then scanned the ground nearby. Brass gleamed in the undergrowth a few yards away.

“Twelve’s an awfully strange number for the military – probably not all of them. Maybe the survivors took the gunsmith with them.”

“You know the fellow?”

“We’ve met, wouldn’t say I know him,” said the Biker.

I stood at the top of a concrete ramp, leading down to a horribly rusted shutter. It was raised no more than two feet from the ground, revealing an ominous rectangle of darkness. At the bottom of the ramp, three more casings. It was probably some kind of loading dock. I looked up at the building; it was huge, with relatively few windows. I couldn’t even guess what its purpose was from here, just a six-story block, stained with rust and sickly ivy. You could have fit my entire police precinct inside it with ease, and I couldn’t even see how far back it stretched.

“Guys,” I said, looking over my shoulder. They turned to face me. “I think he went in here.”

Chapter 9 (Wish)

I knelt at the gap and clicked on my flashlight, leaning down to check out the gloom on the other side. Ever and the Biker made their way over, and I turned and held out one of the 9mm casings. “Fired today,” I said. “The guy with the 9mm was the only one over here – fight goes bad, he ducks in here.”

“Would’ve had to be pretty bad,” said the Biker dubiously.


“Because nobody knows what’s in any of these buildings. The mercs only use the garage because daylight can get in. I’d go toe to toe with the military before I’d take my chances in a place like this – especially alone.”

Ever accepted the casing, examining it thoughtfully. He looked back at the expanse of pavement, surveying the carnage. “It fits the dynamic,” he said at last. “Duty would have ordered their charge to cover if things looked bad – he couldn’t cut south on his own without putting himself in the mercs’ line of fire.”

“See anything in there?” The Biker asked.

“Not really.” I rose to a crouch. “Some kind of loading dock.”

He looked up, checking out the building the same way I had. “The place is huge,” he said. “He could be anywhere in there, if he’s even still alive.”

“He’ll probably keep to the outside, where he can stay near windows – and make for the upper floors. He knows Duty will come looking for him – but that’s the problem, he’s going to be expecting Duty, not us.”

“If it’s the guy I’m thinking of,” said the Biker, “…then he’s not much of a fighter.”

“And he’s only armed with a 9mm,” I added.

“He won’t last long, then. This area is a confirmed mutant hotspot. Nobody on their own could last the night out here.” Ever said this very simply, like he was passing on cricket scores.

“Then it’s time sensitive,” I cut in. I wasn’t sure what these guys were so afraid of. Ancient, crumbling buildings are dangerous in their own way, but they were a lot safer than the open. Or so I had read. “It’s our only lead, we have to check it out.”

They stared. “Enthusiastic, isn’t he?” Ever’s tone was mild. I was half afraid that he’d say she, but he didn’t. “Well, now we’ve got to go.”

The Biker groaned. “Your funerals,” he said. “I can run away while they’re eating you.” He produced his PDA and took a few shots of the aftermath of the firefight. Then he scanned the sky. “Maybe four hours of good light left,” he said. “We’ll look, but we pull out before nightfall with enough time to get back, got it?”

“Fair enough.” I shrugged.

Ever leaned his shotgun against the shutter, and pulled off his coat. He was remarkably normal beneath; black cargo trousers, a gray thermal, and a simple Kevlar vest. “This won’t do me any good in there,” he said, pulling on a pair of fingerless gloves, and rolling up his sleeves. “…so I’ll just have to trust you.” He stowed the coat behind a nearby transformer box, then removed his gas mask.

His face was ordinary, too. The hair was a little shaggy, but at least he was clean shaven. He wasn’t bad-looking, either. He didn’t have the chiseled thing that the Biker had going, but you could show him to your parents. He looked a little older than I was, but slightly younger than the Biker. Thirty, maybe, give or take.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“He’s got a bounty on his head,” said the Biker from behind me. I turned to him, then back to Ever. He knelt to stash the gas mask as well. I blinked.

“Your shoes,” I said.

“Rockports,” he said, getting back up. “Better than your fancy Feiyues, and they cost less.”

“Why is there a bounty on you?”

“We’re losing light.” Ever picked up his shotgun. “Ready?”

I looked at him for a moment, then at the Biker, who looked back impassively. At this end of the yard, you couldn’t even hear the wind chimes. “All right.” I drew my flashlight and pistol, dropped, and rolled under the shutter, coming up in a shooting stance. The patches of the loading dock illuminated by my light were dilapidated, but bare. A second beam joined mine; the Biker and Ever were inside.

Outside, with only the wind as soundtrack, the yard was quiet. In here, it was silent. It didn’t take long to find fresh tracks in the silt that covered the floor, and we began to follow them. If I thought it had been tense moving through the yard, it had nothing on this building. Every casing, every piece of gravel crunched underfoot; combined with the rustling of fabric, it was impossible to be as stealthy as we wanted to be. A short corridor led into a cavernous chamber, which it quickly became apparent, was a factory floor. A distant, gaping hole in the roof allowed enough gray light into the place to give it a sort of grainy ambience.

“Should be a way up in here,” Ever said, turning a full circle.

“Don’t risk these stairs.” The Biker pointed with the light on his shotgun. “They won’t hold. But he should have seen us coming in – maybe he’ll come to us.”

“Perhaps he already has,” Ever said, taking in the upper levels.

“But he hasn’t got any way to know we’re on his side.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” The Biker shifted uncomfortably, playing his light over some nearby factory equipment. “We’re exposed here, aren’t we?”

“The place actually seems rather laid back,” said Ever. “Perhaps he really is still alive.”

“It would take a long time to search this place from top to bottom,” said the Biker speculatively. “If he saw us coming in, then he should be watching us now, right?”

“I would be,” Ever shrugged, still watching the upper tiers, which lay in heavy shadow. They acted in the same instant, Ever dragging me to the ground, and the Biker flinging himself behind a low wall and dousing his light. Ever’s gloved hand was already over my mouth, his other switching off my flashlight. A tense moment passed, and the Biker gave some kind of signal. Ever pulled me to a crouch, and we moved to shelter behind a kiosk. He leaned out slightly, looking toward the Biker’s position.

And then I heard it, a distinct footstep – a boot on concrete. An armored figure rounded a corner past the Biker, a rifle at his shoulder, his light on the ground ahead of him. He advanced slowly, making very little noise. The Biker seemed to hear him coming, and painstakingly peered into the 870’s breach. My fingers instinctively tightened on my FNP, but Ever’s hand fell on my shoulder reassuringly. He held out his over-under to me, and with some puzzlement, I holstered my sidearm and accepted it. That done, he crept silently past me and straightened at the corner. Then with his hands raised, he stepped into the open.

“Gentlemen,” he said.

The man snapped up his rifle and shot him twice in the chest.
  07:45:54  25 January 2012
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On forum: 09/02/2011
Messages: 97
Re-writing would be too strong a word. It's explained in the latest newspost on the blog. Basically, I'm going back through original 100 chapters of Zone and editing them to make them

a) better
b) consistent with current events (Freedom/Atrophy)
c) more complete

At the moment, the changes I'm making are small. As we reach more important things - like the introduction of Westmoreland, I'll make more serious edits.

I'll also add some new content - at the very least I'll re-do (maybe even from scratch) chapter 50, and flesh it out significantly. There will also be some changes to the ending.

Kusanagi is posting all the edited chapters here. (I guess.)
A log of the latest chapter to be edited is on the blog - it's on the left part of the screen. Right now it says this:

Latest Chapter Updated - ch.008

The edited chapters are still in their original locations, so if you want to read the HD Remix of chapter 8, you'd go down to the archive, click 2009, February, Chapter 8.

I know, the layout is lame, but it's blogger, it's free and it works. And I know how to use it, which is important to me.

I will announce, either here, or on the blog somewhere, when I do something big. Like adding a new chapter or short story, or new content of any kind. And there will be some, because it seems like people really like Elizabeth a lot, so I'm happy to show her some love.

And then I'm also obligated to remind folks who like Elizabeth not to miss out on the upcoming Atrophy books. WINK WINK NUDGE NUDGE

Hope that alleviates some of the confusion.

Doing this is interesting to me, because I've been so steeped in Atrophy - at this point, the characters of the Biker, Ever, and Elizabeth are so different from what they are later. Over the years they developed a lot. It'll be fun to retrace those steps.
  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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On forum: 09/01/2009
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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: 2064
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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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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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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  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.


I see what you're doing wish >.>
  15:39:44  18 January 2012
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Senior Resident

On forum: 09/01/2009
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I was going to bitch and moan about the new name, but then I remembered the ending a bit more clearly. It's actually a very clever name, a metaphor.
  08:48:34  18 January 2012
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Message edited by:
01/18/2012 8:49:31
Messages: 97
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.
  21:22:27  17 January 2012
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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!

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.

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.

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.”

“Up there?”

“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.

“Where, then?”

“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?
Each word should be at least 3 characters long.
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