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The American Zone

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  09:03:47  29 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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On forum: 10/06/2011
 

Message edited by:
Eternal Newbie
10/29/2012 18:06:02
Messages: 16
The American Zone

I have been inspired and felt like writing a S.T.A.L.K.ER story. Since they say write what you know, I decided to go with this Americanized version. I think I should say up-front that I do not have any sort of over-reaching plot arc and slammed this out inside two hours with scarcely any planning or foresight. No promises on any updates or anything of the sort. Let me know what you think.

Allergy Alert: may contain nuts or nut products. Consult doctor before use in high altitude climates.



Many know the beginning of this story. In the early 2000s experiments near Chernobyl in the Ukraine resulted in something no-one outside of those experimenting could possibly imagined: The creation of “The Zone”, a place where the laws of physics could be bent and broken in anomalies, mutated animals and men roamed the land, artifacts gave strange and poorly understood powers, and chaos reigned.

Naturally, despite Ukrainian efforts to hide this event and the results, word got out to the governments of many nations throughout the world. Hearing of the benefits to be found in the artifacts and research of anomalies, it was only a matter of time before someone else tried to duplicate the Ukrainian experiments, thinking they could do better, they could control the effects where the previous researchers had failed.

The United States of America was the first to “succeed.” This “success” changed half of the continent to a Zone every bit as alien as the one around Chernobyl. There were many differences, due to the different climate, the differences in how the experiment had been recreated, and who knew how many other little factors. There could be found a greater variety of anomalies and artifacts, both good and bad, radiation was found to be less prevalent, and more of the wildlife and people had survived, albeit mutated, but it was a new Zone nonetheless.

Our present story takes place almost a year after the Zone was created, the event everyone now calls “The Change.” The surviving government has been bogged down in dealing with suddenly becoming a third world country overnight and has been too busy trying to protect its now almost defenseless borders, and thus the common man has been left to fend for himself. Many have never seen anything to show the government’s existence save for the occasional fly over by military planes. It is a different world.


**********


It was a nice day out, and Steve found the breeze of early fall to be relaxing despite the chilling bite of winter’s approach. Still, he eyed the trees and brush warily.

He was hunting squirrels with his trusty Ruger 10/22 Takedown. The squirrels had grown a bit with the creation of the Zone, and specimens over twenty pounds had been encountered, but they still didn’t fare so well against CCI Stinger rounds if applied judicially.

Naturally for more serious prey and predators alike he also had a 1911 on his hip and an AK-47 slung on his back, but for his present purposes the 10/22 worked just fine and saved his more costly ammo.

At any rate, he had to stay alert with or without a friend to watch his back. Even if no other animal or danger lurked, the squirrels sometimes turned on the hunter now. Nine times out of ten or so they would flee like they had before he Change, but now and again one of them would suddenly attack, particularly if wounded, and in rarer incidences that Steve had yet to see personally, packs of them were known to attack as a group. Rumor had it some wild packs had developed a taste for meat, but nobody could reliably say they had ever seen such a thing, so Steve figured that last was total bull.

Unfortunately, no harsh barking and tail waving displays had broken the silence of the last two hours of the hunt, and Steve knew he was going home without any extra weight on his shoulders.

He rounded a tree, looked down and stopped dead, slowly turning to check every direction and quickly reaching down for his 1911 with one hand. Another look and he relaxed a little.

What he had seen was no cause for alarm before the Change, but now had a different portent. It was, in the plain vernacular, a cow patty. Of course, real cows were now on the rare side so to speak. What many of them had become were now referred to as Minotaurs, large muscled beasts with oddly bent and twisted limbs and hair-trigger tempers. Though again they were still herbivores like the squirrels, they had grow far more violent and likely to charge if anything even seemed threatening to them. Bulls were particularly nasty, whereas the females were likely to simply make threat displays unless their young were involved, but either way Steve wasn’t exactly eager to try his luck.

However, in this particular case, a second look revealed that the patty was, if Steve was any judge, at least a week old, with no recent tracks anywhere to be seen. Though he wasn’t safe, never safe in the Zone, it seemed he wasn’t going to have to try to climb a tree in the immediate future.

Easing his hand off the 1911 and back onto the 10/22’s stock, he returned to his slow trek towards home. He had passed through here mere hours before and found no trouble, but those who wanted to stay alive in the Zone always took care whenever possible.

The wilderness remained as he had seen though, typical North American woods, fields, and muddy streams here and there. Much of the area had been farmland before the Change, and he walked past a couple of broken down houses and barns, snaking his way through gaps in the occasional fence, keeping to cover as much as possible, insofar as he didn’t have to crawl to do it.

After an hour or so he picked up his pace a little. Soon it would grow dark, and unlike others in his settlement he lacked any sort of night-vision gear and didn’t fancy running around with a flashlight in the dark. Even if nothing bothered him, he hadn’t planned on staying out overnight and the light fleece jacket he wore wouldn’t be enough to keep him comfortable when the temperature dropped.

He hopped across a small creek, avoiding an area where it looked like an invisible boulder sat in the middle of the stream diverting the water around it. He had no idea what kind of anomaly it was, but considering more than half of the known anomalies were dangerous it wasn’t something to mess with.

Soon the light level began to drop and the air noticeably chilled. Fortunately home was in sight. Home in this case was a small, relatively speaking, set of farmhouses, barns, and outbuildings everyone called the Fort. Back before the Change, a group of “prepper” families had decided to purchase the land and fortify the buildings. They had built several extra outbuildings and facilities, but more importantly had put up a twelve foot high ferro-cement fence around the property and dug several bunkers. When the Change had hit and many other less well-equipped homes and settlements fell, they had graciously allowed refugees like Steve to join their little group provided they chipped in and helped out. There were now over two hundred people in the settlement, such that many had to live outside the original walls in crudely assembled shelters and buildings, cannibalized from farmhouses and barns like Steve had passed earlier.

Fortunately for Steve, he had arrived early and proven more useful than others, so he was permitted a storage locker inside a shed and permitted to rest his head wherever he felt like inside the fence. In the warmer part of the year he hadn’t been too picky, but now with the growing cold he had chosen to roost in the rafters in one of the better weather sealed barns along with several others. True, the animals below stunk, and they had to be careful with fires, but he hadn’t been proven to be THAT useful, and there were plenty of better hunters than he.

Approaching the North entrance, where no make-shift buildings nestled against the fence, he was greeted by the guards.

“Well, look who made it back in one piece,” Todd remarked, waving his hand in a vague sort of hello.

Todd Demoss was usually called Toddy since there had been a surprising number of Todds in the settlement. He had been a teacher in his past life and never handled anything bigger than a BB gun when he had come to the Fort, thus he was armed with perhaps the most common weapon the Fort had to offer to its soldiers, the cheap Mosin Nagant the original families had bought in bulk for exactly this sort of situation. Unlike some others, he had taken well to it, and was an excellent shot. That with his keen eye and ability to cheerfully stand around in the same spot for hours without complaint had earned him a permanent posting as guard. Some said he hadn’t gone more than thirty feet from his post since they had put him there, though Steve had seen him running errands and picking up food from the mess hall and knew it to be a lie.

Steve passed through the man-door and into the cobbled together guard post inside. The families had not counted on needing to place guards at the doors on a permanent basis and thus had needed to construct the guard houses after the fact. Like the others this one had a several bunks and the usual table with board games and such, though someone had pilfered a small wood stove from a nearby farmhouse and attached it to a pipe in the wall, making this guard house the envy of the others who were forced to use burn barrels and the like.

Two men were presently hunched over a chess board, but Toddy and his cohort were watching the door and surrounding environs. Steve didn’t care much for Toddy’s companion. Johnny Q. was quite frankly every redneck stereotype Steve could think of, but his skill with guns and hunting prowess went a long way in the new life.

He stalked over to the woodstove, lightly burning to take the chill off the air. Toddy quietly closed the man-door behind him, leaving open a slot to keep an idle lookout.

“What’s the news?” Steve asked, leaning his 10/22 carefully against the wall.

“Same old, same old,” Toddy responded in his usual cheerful manner.

“Don’t go near theh damn water-tower,” Johnny added through what few crooked teeth remained in his mouth as he fiddled with his.30-06’s action. “Sum Shockers popped up on one end, knocked some numbnuts on his ass when he leaned against theh other.”

“Really? He get hurt bad?” Shockers weren’t usually that bad, as far as anomalies went, but sometimes they could cause serious harm or even kill.

“Naw, just scared the shit out of ‘im. Wish I was there to see it, prob’y funny ‘s hell.” He then changed the subject in an abrupt manner that suggested to Steve a long history of drug use. “You didn’t catch nuttin’?”

“Nope, nuttin’ to catch,” Steve responded, knowing his little dig would pass over Johnny’s head.

“Too bad, I was wantin’ some skurrerel fer suppah.”

Toddy leaned back against the wall, swinging his Mosin around to his front. “Better than venison.”

“Eh, venison is still theh best meat God ever made, even if theh Change screwed theh taste up sum.”

“Then we agree to disagree, mate.”

“City boys, all theh same, don’t know what good food is.”

Steve straightened and grabbed his 10/22. “Welp, I’d better be going. Haven’t got anything to contribute to mess, but my stomach says I’d damn well better take something from it soon. Haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast and some jerky earlier on the trail.”

“See you man.”
“Yah, take it easy.”


**********
  13:24:40  29 October 2012
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blackwolfLT
A lone stalker with ak 74m...
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 06/18/2011
Messages: 629
havent read it, but do whatever you are good at - maybe this will turn into awesome story
  19:44:01  29 October 2012
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
Messages: 3336
That's a decent start, though I'd prefer it to be a little more specific as to when and where the story is taking place (thank you for not making it New York City).

One thing that stood out to me: I'm guessing the AK-47 mentioned is not supposed to be literally a 1950s gun brought back from Vietnam before the '68 ban (there are a few of them out there, so you could write some family backstory around that idea if you wanted). If it's a WASR or Saiga garage-modded to run full auto, or somebody in China/Russia is exporting crates of AKs to the American Zone, mentioning that is a good way to fill out your setting - more so after the highlighting of Steve's 10/22 and Stingers.

Nitpicking aside, I think it's got potential. I would, however, recommend working out the bigger picture before continuing (don't put it off until chapter seven like I did).
  20:31:43  29 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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On forum: 10/06/2011
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---QUOTATION---
That's a decent start, though I'd prefer it to be a little more specific as to when and where the story is taking place (thank you for not making it New York City).

One thing that stood out to me: I'm guessing the AK-47 mentioned is not supposed to be literally a 1950s gun brought back from Vietnam before the '68 ban (there are a few of them out there, so you could write some family backstory around that idea if you wanted). If it's a WASR or Saiga garage-modded to run full auto, or somebody in China/Russia is exporting crates of AKs to the American Zone, mentioning that is a good way to fill out your setting - more so after the highlighting of Steve's 10/22 and Stingers.

Nitpicking aside, I think it's got potential. I would, however, recommend working out the bigger picture before continuing (don't put it off until chapter seven like I did).
---END QUOTATION---




Ah, I basically didn't feel like pinning it down to a specific place, so I didn't even try. Ummmm... Would IL/IN suit you? I grew up there and that's what I think of when anyone says woods.

As for the AK47, I was thinking civilian semi-auto from Dunham Sports or something. The big boys get the illegal full auto stuff, Steve gets whatever he bought before everything went down and maybe whatever he gets his hands on after. (And although it isn't mentioned yet, I did some looking online. The original GI 1911s don't cycle hollowpoints so well, but the modern ones apparently can, so don't call me out on it later. ;D)
  20:32:32  29 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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On forum: 10/06/2011
 

Message edited by:
Eternal Newbie
10/29/2012 20:34:20
Messages: 16
He left the guard-post, passing two Hardcores on the way. The Hardcores, also called the Cavalry, the Marines, the Troops, and other less savory nick-names, were largely culled from the Wilsons and the Johnsons, the two prepper families with ties to the military. As a result of their military roots, they went all out when it came to weapons and fighting gear, and these two were no exception. Steve had at one point been rewarded by one of the Wilsons with a Kevlar vest, but that was nothing compared to the full tactical body armor these two had from head to toe. One was carrying a M4 and had a pair of night-vision goggles hanging around his neck, while the other had a gas mask for some reason and a night-vision scope of some kind on his AR-15. They were headed straight for the gate and likely had a dusk patrol along the outside of the fence. Steve gave them no second glances, there were more than thirty or so of them (Grandpa Wilson had been a “prolific” fellow with his three marriages) making up the backbone of the Fort’s small army, and they weren’t anything special at this point.

The chill was getting to him, so Steve hustled his way to the mess hall. The mess hall was basically a large pole barn that served as a place for gatherings, religious functions, and of course, eating. Someone had dragged a beat-up old vender truck into a corner and supplemented it with a variety of grills and other food service equipment at the far end, while a stage had been set up at the front, and many folding chairs and tables occupied the middle. At the moment some children were putting on some sort of play on stage, something to do with Aesop’s Fables, which was for some reason oddly popular with said children. Steve ignored it and headed past several tables filled with various people eating and idly watching the play.

The truck’s engine was running, powering the lights, while a pipe vented the exhaust outside. Several familiar faces manned it for the evening meal. As they knew him and had a vague idea of his level of credit, there was no question whether or not he deserved a free meal. Andre spooned out a bowl of slop, largely corn and bits of mystery meat. Steve would have preferred squirrel, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, as his father used to say.

He planted himself at the end of a nearly empty table by a burn barrel for warmth. The slop was about as tasty as he expected, but hunger compelled him to choke it down anyway. As everyone was watching the play, nobody engaged him in conversation, which was fine by Steve. Though the community was small enough everyone had seen each other before and could usually put a name to the face, no-one nearby was anything resembling a friend and Steve didn’t feel like small talk with random nobodies at the moment.

Finishing, he placed the bowl and spoon on the “Dirty” table, and then took off before anyone drafted him for dish-washing.

Dusk had well and truly fallen, and the evening air was more fun than ever. He decided it was time to break out his winter gear. The wind cut through his fleece like it wasn’t even there. He trudged over to the Bank, a low, half-buried building that looked more or less like it should have pigs living in it.

Inside he came across Ellen, sitting behind a make shift desk, a 20 gauge break-action at her side, and Jake lounging nearby with another M4 resting in his lap. The families were careful with the items available here.

Ellen had been reading a book and apparently cutting some shells, but stopped when Steve came in. Jake was a sour old man and not well liked by anyone, but Ellen was pretty much the opposite and Steve focused on her.

“Howdy ho Hunter, catch anything?”

Steve smirked. “Nope.”

Ellen consulted a clipboard. “Then I guess you owe me a clip full of Stingers.”

“Yep, I do. I also wanted to grab a shower and need to stow my shit here for a little bit. I’ll be back for my guns and cold-weather gear in twenty minutes.”

The Fort was run on the simple rule that you contributed to the whole if you wanted to get anything in return. One of the perks if you were in good standing was that the community resources were yours to borrow and use within reason. In this case, Steve made frequent use of the ammo lending service. As long as he brought back a dead animal or the rounds themselves, he was allowed to take out whatever he needed. This enabled him to save his own ammo for the future, which was presently stored in the back of the Bank on a shelf with his other assorted possessions. This was extra good in the case of his .22 because he had no fancy Stinger rounds and they were more effective than his cheap crap.

Ellen went to the back and got the bag for the .22 while Steve unloaded it and took it apart, in addition to a towel, a change of clothes and his usual shower gear. Then he handed over everything but his clothing and 1911. It was best not to go unarmed, but also best not to leave tempting targets for thieves while otherwise occupied at the shower house. Admittedly, in the one incident Steve knew of the thief had been caught while trying to convince the gate house guards that the gun wasn’t in fact the same one they had seen earlier with a different man, but no sense in taking chances.

The shower house had in fact been some sort of meat processing facility, which made it convenient with drains and all. Cold as hell, with luke-warm water heated with solar power but Steve wasn’t going to bed dirty.

He stashed his clothing on a shelf where he could see it from his shower, 1911 tucked inside the bundle where it was hidden from casual inspection, and did his business as quickly as possible with gritted teeth. Many others were also using the “hot” water and it was barely warm. Whoever was in charge refused to heat the place unless necessary, and so that meant there would probably have to be snow on the ground and frozen water in the drains before they would use that kind of power.

That done, he ran back to the Bank, shivering a bit as he went. The evening was winding down and few people were on the “streets”, all taking shelter in various buildings.

Ellen and Jake were still where he had last seen them, now with company. Steve recognized the man, a jolly old guy who called himself Santa Claus. To be fair, the slightly unhinged fellow looked the part, though his manner and sense of humor were a tad cruder than most mothers wanted around their children. He was finishing some sort of sales pitch when Steve entered.

“And I have brought you a nice little present,” he dug into a burlap bag he probably fancied fit his name-sake. “Candy Corn!”

He had removed a fist-sized artifact. It was roughly tear-dropped shaped, with a base made of multiple tendrils and spokes. The color and shape had vaguely reminded someone of Candy Corn once upon a time, hence the name.

“Uh, that’s radioactive honey,” Ellen was reaching for a home-made lead-lined box on the shelf beside her.

Santa wasn’t fazed. “Not to worry, I masturbate with my other hand.”

Jake snorted. “TMI.”

Steve waited patiently while Ellen marked down the “sale.” Santa may have required meds in the past and still did now, but he was rather good at procuring his presents and had a fair amount of credit for whatever he wanted. That usually meant moonshine and more ammo for his 12 gauge. The man went through both at an alarming rate, though many were annoyed at the fact that he never bothered to bring back anything he killed with the shotgun. If pressed he complained he was too old to be carrying around dead animals.

After Santa had left, Steve exchanged his shower gear for his army jacket, glove, hat, vest, sleeping bag, and AK-47. He then headed out to the barn where he and several others slept in the low space between rafters and roof.

Upon arrival he found the guys were all hunched next to a large pot they’d started a fire in and were playing cards. He declined an offer to join them and unrolled his sleeping bag in the loose pile of hay at the far end. It was time to hit the sack.

**********
  20:48:11  29 October 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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On forum: 10/06/2011
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And before anyone asks, the Candy Corn is a Night Star, as per the SOC appearance and stats. Word may have gotten around about the Zone in Cheronbyl, but people obviously won't be calling things by the same name.
  22:29:25  30 October 2012
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ZeroDead
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On forum: 12/07/2008
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I like what you are attempting to do--taking the premise and twisting it into something distinct, yet recognizable. Looking amazing so far!
  22:01:05  6 November 2012
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BobBQ
2007-2017
(Resident)

 

 
On forum: 07/30/2007
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---QUOTATION---
Candy Corn
---END QUOTATION---




Any more in the works?
  21:15:10  7 November 2012
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Eternal Newbie
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On forum: 10/06/2011
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---QUOTATION---
Candy Corn


Any more in the works?
---END QUOTATION---




I have some ideas and am kicking around some sort of plot arc in my head, but class and work are interfering a little and I am a little busy getting some estimates for repairs from attempting to insert my car's front end under an SUV right now.

In other words, I will get back to it when I get back to it, probably some time next week. No promises.
  09:38:56  29 July 2013
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Eternal Newbie
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Message edited by:
Eternal Newbie
07/29/2013 21:29:53
Messages: 16
Ok, so maybe a week or two is incorrect. Anyway, I am back, bearing gifts. I have a plot now. I'll be the first to admit it's not very complicated or amazing, but it's a fan-fic, nobody expects to see award winning work here, right? Right?


Anyway, fire in the hole:



Steve opened his eyes. Even during the day it was relatively dark inside the attic, though enough light filtered through small windows at either end to tell him that it was in fact daytime. Soft snoring issuing from a few sleeping lumps nearby suggested he had awakened more or less at his usual time, early in the morning.

It was funny that. Without artificial lighting, everyone tended to go to bed and wake up far earlier than any of them would have back in civilization. It was better for everyone all the way around to be honest, natural and restful.

He shifted. Apparently he had rolled into a depression in the hay during the night and his arm had gone to sleep being pressed against the floor.

There was no sense in putting it off; he would have to crawl out of the warm sleeping bag and into the cold air sooner or later, preferably sooner according to his bladder.

Since he had taken off most of his clothing and carefully placed it under his bag where it could help insulate him, stay somewhat warm, and wouldn’t get damp from sweat, he began his morning routine of shifting around inside the bag to get dressed. Anyone watching would probably have thought he was having a massive ten minute seizure, but the practice wasn’t uncommon and nobody even woke up anyway. Unfortunately he had a cheap sleeping bag and would need to burrow into the hay pile when it got colder, but it was better than some others had.

He quietly went down the ladder into the main aisle below. Several cows and a couple of horses eyed him from the stalls on either side, but had already been fed for the morning and didn’t really get worked up.

Settling his olive green jacket around his shoulders, he buttoned up the front (the zipper had long since broken) and headed to the nearest latrine.

The Fort was beginning to stir when he came out, the daily routine firing up. Several Hardcores came out of the mess hall as he approached, heading toward the wall, probably patrolling again. That was all they ever really did, protect the settlement. The fields weren’t growing enough crops yet to support the settlement and they had to play soldier, so it was up to hunters like Steve to actually venture out into the world to bring back game and whatever else they could find to make up the difference.

This time the mess hall was crowded and Steve found himself at a table with several others. The nearest hailed him as he approached.

“You going huntin’ again today?”

The question was a bit foolish, but so was the person asking. Zed was what everyone called the kid, or alternatively Mall Ninja, Dumbass, and Shithead. He was a sixteen year old orphan, or so he claimed. Whereas anybody who really meant business carried guns with a bit of a kick to them, he only had a Ruger 10/22 that he had put an Archangel kit on to make it look like a HK G36, complete with a red dot sight on top, a laser sight on the bottom, and a suppressor on the end. He also carried a Hi Point C-9 and a cheap Musashi katana, the latter of which was often joked to be the more useful weapon.

His ninja obsession was the only reason the kid was still alive, the fact that he had actually worked hard to learn how to be stealthy, and was smart enough to avoid any confrontation with anything bigger than a rat. He also claimed to have studied ninjutsu, which while plainly bullshit, seemed to have actually involved some sort of martial arts training. The little shit did Parkour too and could climb any tree in the woods. To his credit, in the time that had passed since the Change, he had managed to get in enough practice to become a decent shot and cut up enough straw “men” that he actually was dangerous with the katana. His Hi Point had also been well broken in and rarely jammed anymore.

Steve slumped down and studied his plate. It was some sort of slop resembling oatmeal and some eggs on the side. Shaking his head he lifted his fork and responded to Zed.

“Yep, it’s what we hunters do. Not exactly a lot of other professions out there.”

“You should hunt for artifacts. Those are cool. I want a Crystal Ball so I can run forever and climb stuff without getting out of breath.”

“It’s not as simple as all that. There are a lot of people from the Fort hunting for artifacts and you’d have to move about ten-fifteen miles before there’s much to look for.”

“More dangerous out there,” added a table mate. “The mutants to the north are pretty nasty and to the south we got those assholes in the airport shooting anything that moves. To the east you got the lake and the marshes, and to the west the city where everything wants to kill you, man or mutant.”

Zed rubbed his peach fuzz and nodded, probably in an attempt to look sober and thoughtful. “Someone has to go there this winter. We don’t have enough food.”

“What, the city? Everything there is probably looted.”

“Still, has to be something overlooked or held by bad guys.”

Steve nodded. “We do know there are some big assholes lording it over their territories like dictators in the city.”

One of the women further down the table sneered. “I used to live in the city. Almost got killed by a bunch of methheads holding the courthouse. Wonder if the jackasses are still there.”

“They can still make meth I bet. A lot of chemicals and shit are useless to most people.”

Apparently bored with talk of the city, Zed addressed Steve directly. “Can I come with you today?”

Steve bit back his knee-jerk response of “No.” The kid was relatively harmless to be honest and Steve had been part of groups with him before. He could be trusted to keep his mouth shut if they were stalking game and could also help carry things back, though often talked an earful otherwise.

“Sure, but you gotta help carry any game back to base.”

“I can do that.”

The deal struck, Zed waited impatiently for Steve to slowly finish his meal, after which they headed on over to the Bank to fetch Steve’s equipment. Zed made some inane comments about Steve’s lack of tactical gear, comparing it to his own vest with all the straps and pockets, the add-ons all over his 10/22, etc, but Steve took it in stride, having expected it from the moment he agreed to Zed tagging along.

Several of the people living outside the walls eyed them as they left, some staring at their weapons with a bit of resentment. The people living on the outside of the walls were the have-nots of the Fort’s little community. They were mostly those who had no real skill or experience useful in the new world, surviving by clinging to those who did inside the walls. They were always useful to the Families as labor, and were slowly learning to become like those they relied on, but generally were a drain on resources, as people were needed to guard their little shanty town and provide them with food.

“No matter what changes, everything’s still the same,” Steve muttered.

Zed looked up. “What?”

“Nothing. I’m just being a Conservative asshole thinking evil thoughts.”

**********


The morning passed uneventfully. The sky was overcast and the breeze light, though as usual, what felt nice and cool while standing around talking became rather hot when actually walking about, so Steve soon found himself sweating a little, with the front of his coat unbuttoned.

The two of them had moved out to a field a couple of miles away from the Fort, which took a fair amount of time since they found a lot of Dust Devil anomalies in their path. Their chosen hunting ground had probably been a cornfield or something back in the day, but now was overgrown with up to two foot saplings and even higher brush. The odd open spots where anomalies had cropped up and then disappeared provided good hunting spots for rabbits.

The basic plan was simple enough. One of them would try to sneak up on any suspected tangles of brush where the twenty plus pound “little” monsters might be hiding, while the other hung back, ready to shoot if a rabbit noticed the intruder and bolted out into the open. Zed was particularly good at the sneaking part of the job, but only once managed to successfully sneak up and deliver a kill shot without being spotted. Between the two of them they managed to bag five mutated rabbits inside an hour and a half, though when Steve ran his cheap Geiger counter over one of them it showed a level of radiation far too high for his liking and they had to toss it back into the brush it had come out of.

“That’s probably good for now,” he told Zed. “Let’s field dress ‘em and get the weight down.”

The two of them dragged their unlucky victims over to a car hood that had strangely found its way out to the field long ago. Nobody questioned how it had gotten there or where the actual car was, but took full advantage of it as an impromptu table for exactly what they were about to do.

Steve cast a familiar eye at the hood and noted the dried blood on it. It had rained a few days back and someone had plainly used the hood as a butcher block since then, but no entrails or body parts could be seen to suggest the source of the blood. It didn’t matter anyway.

Soon the air was filled with the quiet slicing of knives and the rustling of plastic as they efficiently dressed the game and wrapped it up.

“Should we save the hides?” Zed asked.

Steve looked them over. “Nah, these guys are pretty badly scaled. Barely any fur on ‘em. Not worth it.”

Zed nodded. “I saw a rabbit Johnny brought in once that was even furrier than they used to be back before the Change. ‘Course, that thing was like sixty pounds, so it was one hell of a rabbit skin. I think he gave it to Katie and she fucked him for it. She’s a whore you know.”

Steve grunted, his eyes on his current problem. His last rabbit had parasites, of an intestinal variety. Like the rabbits, they gotten larger with the effect of the Change. Relatively harmless, as long as the meat was properly cooked and direct contamination with the gut contents was avoided, but they still creeped him out.

A loud and presumably large caliber gunshot echoed in the woods. They both froze and looked about.

“Shit, that was close.”

“No,” Steve said, his dislike of worms as big around as his fingers momentarily of no consequence. “It wasn’t that close. Hurry up. Less talking, more cutting.”

“If it wasn’t close, then why hurry?”

“People move, Zed. Probably nothing to worry about, but let’s be on our way in case it is and they come this way.” He finished with his rabbit and started cleaning up.

“It was just one shot…” Zed muttered, as he bent to his own work.

They hustled away, making it back toward the Fort without incidence, where they were greeted with more enthusiasm than Steve had received the day before. As anyone living at the Fort could have predicted, Zed behaved as though he was solely responsible for everything, describing his one kill in great detail to everyone in earshot.

“Not a bad day,” Zed remarked, as they left the mess hall, having experienced the best the Fort could offer in the cooking of rabbit. “It’s only, what? 1 o’clock? 2? We done good.”

Steve pondered his next course of action. As Zed had pointed out, the day was far from over. That was the problem with being a hunter. If you were good at it and got lucky right away, then you had extra time to kill. His dilemma was provided with a quick release.

“Hey Steve.” He glanced back into the face of a young woman named Jessica.

Every straight man in the Fort could always make time to talk to Jessica. Prior to the Change she had been a relentless fitness nut, doing Cross-Fit, Yoga, Kick-Boxing, Zumba, and whatever else her gym had offered. As a result of that and her continued fitness efforts, the tall brunette had quite the body. At the moment she was also accompanied by her friend Sabrina, a shorter blonde, but cut from a similar mold, although she had a tighter face and a slightly too skinny vibe due to the diet she had been forced on the last year.

Zed had gone quiet, due to his shyness around attractive women. Steve readily stepped into the role as chief conversationalist. “What’s up?”

Jessica eyed Zed for a moment, while he for his part avoided eye contact. “They’re quietly looking for some volunteers at the Office. I hear it’s a good deal, you might wanna check it out.”

“What kind of deal?”

Sabrina hefted her Garand. “The kind where you almost die and then they treat you like royalty for the next week.”

They fell into step together. Zed, though nobody had asked him to come along, dropped to the back of the group to follow and no doubt stare at the female asses as though they didn’t know what he was doing.

“Sounds like fun,” Steve said, a little more cavalier than he might have been talking to anyone but a good looking woman. “Let me guess, they want to go check out the city or maybe run over to Coaltown to see if the slaves have managed to dig up enough worth trading for?”

Coaltown was a large settlement based in a small town to the north. It wasn’t like the Fort. The Fort was largely composed of people who had been preppers and gun-nuts before the Change, whereas Coaltown was almost completely made up of random people who had no idea how to survive in the new world. Some people who were better prepared had set up something of a ruling class and organized work groups of the less fortunate to dig up nearby coal deposits in the hills to trade with settlements like the Fort. Steve’s remark about “slaves” was an exaggeration, but not much of one. Without the skills needed in the new world, most residents of Coaltown had to stick to digging in the mud to stay alive, depending on their overlords to provide food and protection. Many of these rulers did in fact have good intentions, but didn’t have the ability to provide the best and their care was less than desired.

“Close. Bobby said they want to send a party to the city to see if they can scrounge more gas.”

Steve frowned, chewing his lip. “Gasoline degrades over time and it’s been about a year. It’s starting to get to the point where I doubt any gas left would be worth grabbing.”

Jessica shrugged. “They don’t care, they need some.”

Sabrina chipped in her two cents. “The gas we have here still works.”

“Yeah, but they put a cocktail of additives in everything we got here.”

The conversation died off as they came up to the “Office.” The Office was the living room of one of the farmhouses, repurposed as a command post of sorts. The real planning the Families did took place in one of the bunkers, a secure area nobody but the privileged went, but the Office was the place for addressing the rank and file so to speak. A number of different people were already present. Steve recognized most of them, including Johnny Q.

They all stepped inside the main room. Present were two Hardcores, dressed in full body armor and looking pretty much the same except for the name tags on their chests reading Johnson and Wilson.

The man with the name tag Wilson leaned over the table, looking over the group spreading out across various implements of seating, ranging from two worn couches to folding chairs.

“Alright people, listen up. I’m Thomas Wilson and this here is Damon Johnson. We’re going to be in charge of this little sortie.”

Steve stepped around Zed, who had inconveniently stood in front of him, placing his backwards baseball cap reading SWAT on it directly in-between him and the table.

“As you may know, we are in need of gasoline. Desperate need actually. We’ve not made this information public, but we are running very low. That’s what we aim to fix.”

A tall skinny man leaned forward, his badly trimmed beard lending him a vaguely wild and sinister appearance. Steve knew him as Jeremiah.

“Where do you intend to find gas? Everything there is not only a year old, but has been picked over by everyone and his brother.”

Wilson grinned, adding a touch of humanity to his otherwise grim shaven military appearance. “You all know about the Timewarp on the north end of the city, right?”

Zed raised a hand before everyone could nod or say yes. “It’s an anomaly that does strange things with time and space. This one is huge, covering blocks, and really powerful, sending people back and forth through time and preventing anyone from getting in, but also throws people trying to leave out randomly.”

Wilson frowned. “It was a rhetorical question. Anyway, it WAS powerful, but not anymore. We’ve received Intel that says it collapsed two days ago.”

There was a beat as everyone considered this new information.

Johnson spoke up and spelled it out. “More importantly, it seems to have acted as a stasis field, having kept the entire area perfectly preserved. Everything, including four gas stations, is exactly the same as it was a year ago, with the exception of the people. We know that most of the people there seemed to have tried to leave the bubble and were dumped out randomly, often unprepared and quickly attended to by the locals…”

Wilson smoothly took back over. “In other words, we have reason to believe that much of the gas is still there, but only for the moment. As soon as someone notices it’s gone, it will be gone.”

Johnny gestured with an over-sized bowie knife to emphasize his point. “’Ow are they gonna know it’s gone? It ain’t like it’s a light bulb. It’s invisible and somebody’s gotta walk into it to realize it ain’t there no more.”

“True, with a casual glance people might not notice, but even though everyone in the city knows to stay away from the edge, someone sooner or later will notice the wind carrying things across the barrier, notice that animals and things pass through without disappearing.”

A man named Nicolas grunted. Aside from the battered M60 he carried, he fit the big manly Russian stereotype wonderfully, right down to a slight accent he still held despite being third or fourth generation in the United States. “So… we are racing against time and hoping nobody gets there first. What forces do we have?”

The two men in charge straightened in response. “Six of us soldiers, and however many of you want to go along.”

“Six?” Sabrina sounded disbelieving. “That’s not many for an assault on the city.”

Wilson responded in a condescending tone. “That’s why we’re recruiting people like you, little missy.”

Steve decided he didn’t like Wilson. “She has a point. Why so few real soldiers?” He put an emphasis on the part about the real soldiers in the hopes that Wilson would consider it a compliment of sorts and react more favorably, but the man didn’t even seem to notice.

Wilson put on a slightly petulant expression. “Our superiors felt they could not spare more men to this little exercise.” The emphasis in his statement was not meant as a compliment.

Johnson flicked a piece of lint off his sleeve and spoke in a less whiny tone. “They believe the likelihood of us being very successful in this endeavor to be low. In their defense, it is not improbable that we will show up only to find the gas stations surrounded by some faction or another, with no way of seizing it short of sending all of our men and leaving the Fort unprotected.”

Zed excitedly raised his hand again. “Well, I’m in.”

Nickolas narrowed his eyes. “So now we’re at the decision making part of this? I want to hear more about your plan before I agree.”

“Fair enough.” Johnson leaned over a map and pointed to a road running to the city. “This road here runs directly to the city, but is not as open as the highway, making it better for a stealthy approach. We will be taking three of the trucks, with troops and fuel containers evenly spread throughout, so even if one truck should be taken out by… unforeseen circumstances, the other two will still be able to return to base with sufficient gas to make this all worthwhile.”

Jessica spoke for the first time. “What about anomalies?”

Even Wilson couldn’t response badly to her. “We sent out scouting parties to several major routes as soon as we got the Intel. This one is presently the least infested with dangerous anomalies.”

He moved his finger up to a point about two thirds to the city. “The only real exception is here, where a patch of Betties blocks the road. Fortunately the ditch is crossable and the surrounding land flat enough to drive on. Travel would not have taken long back in the day, but we will obviously be going slowly so we have time to stop if our detectors go crazy. It therefore will take the rest of today. We’ll move out to here-” He gestured. “This place used to be a truck stop, with gas station, diner, etc, and our latest report is that it is deserted. We’ll hold up there during the night, doing our best to make our trucks look like they fit in with the abandoned vehicles there, and proceed to the city in the morning.”

Jeremiah frowned. “Where’d you get your Intel?”

“A fellow came in babbling about how he suddenly found himself in a destroyed city after walking out to get the paper. Apparently he then ended up fleeing what sounds like zombies into the country and got picked up by some hunters headed here. He’s a bit shaken up by all this, but one point he was very clear on when questioned was that before fleeing he went back into the area the Timewarp has been covering to try and find his neighbors.”

Nickolas nodded. “So that’s the plan. Sounds dangerous, especially if the Timewarp comes back. I think I can help with this.” He slapped his M60’s foreguard in a meaningful way.

Johnny slammed his bowie knife into its scabbard with a little more force than needed. “Hay, I’m getting’ stir-crazed ‘round ‘ere anyhow. I’m in.”

Jeremiah tapped his lips thoughtfully. “It’ll be good for the community. I’m in.”

Jessica and Sabrina were conferring in whispers, then Sabrina announced “We’ll go for it too.”

Steve inwardly sighed. Peer pressure was fun. “I suppose I’m in as well.”

The only person not to have spoken up yet was a tall imposing black woman named Sasha. A quiet and somewhat shadowy unknown, the only thing anyone really knew about her was that she had served in the military and was an amazing shot with her FAL. Rumor had it she had been Special Ops of some kind, but she was rather tight lipped about her service and generally didn’t mingle with others. Steve was slightly surprised to see her present. She looked the group over and then said in a flat tone “I’m in.”

“Alright then.” Wilson was quick now that a decision had been reached. We leave at 1500 hours. Be ready and at the main gate fifteen minutes prior to. Dismissed.”

Everyone milled about and filed out the door, scattering in different directions to get their gear set up.

“Crap,” Steve muttered to himself. “I need to do a bug-out bag ASAP.” He moved into step with those headed toward the Bank.

Jessica and Sabrina were discussing what they needed to pack, but Steve already had a list planned out and mentally went over it again on the way there.

Once there he made his request of the guards while the others were still discussing what they should bring. His choices were simple enough, canteen, water purifying tablets, some MREs he had managed to squirrel away, a change of clothing, what ammo he had apparently been allowed to take on this little journey, a somewhat smaller bowie knife than Johnny liked to wave around, as well as a much smaller Old Timer pocket knife, some odds and ends such as a small first aid kit, a compass, a small pair of binoculars, his sleeping bag, and of course the backpack required to carry it all. He turned in his 10/22, but retained his 1911 and AK-47. Lastly he took out his Kevlar vest.

He checked the time. They still had a good half hour. With nothing better to do he hung around offering unsolicited advice to the others. The two women seemed to be somewhat interested in his opinion, but Zed kept butting in (without directly looking at the women) with his typical mall ninja advice that seemed to revolve around carrying three times one’s own body weight in equipment that wasn’t all that likely to be needed. Steve silently wished he’d trip on his own gear and fall on his face, possibly shutting him up for a moment.

Finally everyone was more or less ready, though Zed lingered on, trying to decide if he should bring all three of his tantos, “just in case.” Steve decided he was tired of it and simply told him flat out he was being stupid and couldn’t carry all that crap anyway, so with a hurt expression Zed only took his favorite. That at least seemed to shut him up for a time.

The group assembled at the main gate. It was buzzing with activity, the Fort’s conscripts having prepared the trucks already.

Steve took the opportunity to size the group up

Jessica, perhaps the poorest equipped of the group, stood nearby with her Mosin Nagant. It was actually not hers, at least originally. It, like much of her equipment, from tactical vest to Glock, had been her boyfriend’s, but when the Change hit he had met an unfortunate end and thus she wound up using his equipment. In what Steve considered a statement of bad taste, said boyfriend had put an Archangel stock on the Mosin and Jessica refused to change it back. On the other hand, it allowed her to quickly reload via magazine and her boyfriend had purchased several of Archangel’s ten round magazines, so there was that. He knew she was still only a mediocre shot though, and had a tendency to flinch when firing.

Sabrina standing next to her was an entirely different story. She had been shooting all her life and the Garand she carried was one that had served her well in numerous competitions. She was a crack shot, able to hit things with iron sights that others needed a scope for. He had heard she had installed an adjustable gas system so she could use modern rounds as well. Like Steve, she had procured a bullet resistant vest at some point, a typical civilian model only really useful against pistol rounds and the like, but better than nothing. At her hip was a customized Colt Defender in .45 ACP, with which she was also noted to be skilled with. Steve did not want to be on her bad side.

Next to them was Zed, still pouting from Steve’s remark. Steve ignored him and switched his attention to Jeremiah. Jeremiah had some experience in the National Guard or some such, but the Change had hit somewhere in the middle of his training and all he carried were the kind of things one could get as a civilian. A scoped semi-auto RPK in 7.62x39 was his long arm, with a Berretta 92 as his sidearm. He did wear a military vest though, complete with rifle plates. One extra point of interest was the set of night vision goggles hanging in some sort of improvised case off his backpack.

Then there was Nickolas. Nickolas, as everyone knew, was a great big hairy bear of a man, fond of drinking, women, and fighting. He wore no armor, considering it somewhat unmanly to do so, but was the only “civilian” among them to carry a fully automatic weapon, his M60. It clearly dated from the Vietnam era and was “gently used”, as anyone could tell from the duct tape, zip ties, and baling wire. His sidearm was a Tokarev TT-33, passed down through the family, although it had obviously received tender loving care and looked much better than its companion. A machete, a long coat, and a fleece hat completed the “Insane Russian” look.

Johnny was next, and was the only other one in the running for worse armed of the group. His scoped Remington 750 was semi-auto as opposed to Jessica’s bolt action Mosin, but only held 5 rounds, if you put one in the chamber, which Johnny avoided doing, claiming it would jam. On the other hand, he also carried a sawed off Remington 870 shotgun and a Glock 17 he had gotten someone to do a little work on the sear pin so as to render it full auto. He called it a “her”, and said her name was Vera.

Lastly, there was Sasha, off to the side. She wore typical military body armor, but for some reason was carrying a FAL of some semi-auto denomination or another with a red dot mounted. Her sidearm was a 1911 like Steve’s but was blackened and looked customized. She too carried night vision goggles.
 
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