THE ZONE

Part 1: STRANGER

Chapter 1 (Wish)

I got mugged for the first time in my life two days after I resigned from the police. The fact that I couldn't arrest the guys that did it didn't bother me. What bothered me was that I didn't see it coming. No, even that wasn't the problem. The problem wasn't even that I should have. The part that really bothered me was that I couldn't see anything.

I heard tearing Velcro, and felt my Kevlar vest pull away from me. I was already on my hands and knees, elbow deep in stinking water. Someone kicked me, and I toppled in. Best not to fight that sort of thing. But I really wished I could've gotten a look at the guys. Tasting blood, I groped at my belt. My weapon, everything, gone. No Kevlar. My backpack was the first thing they grabbed. Of course, none of this mattered, because a moment later I heard what was unmistakably the sound of a round being chambered, possibly by my own pistol.

If it was going to be like this, they should have shot me first, then robbed me. This was going to be the shortest holiday I'd ever taken. There was a shout, but I was seeing too many stars to make out exactly what was said. Next, there were a couple of fuzzy booms that pretty much had to be gunshots. I tried to keep still. Splashing footsteps indicated some kind of retreat.

A beam of light fell on me, and for the first time, I could see a little of the tunnel around me. It was about what I'd expected – a nightmare. I could sort of make out a figure as I squinted into the light. I couldn't see it, but there was probably a gun pointed at me.

"Thanks," I choked out in my terrible Russian.

"Who told you of this route? There are always bandits," someone said; my head was still ringing too much to be certain it was the guy behind the light. "…are you an idiot?"

"Apparently." I accepted the gloved hand, and got unsteadily to my feet. Man, that rib would be worse in the morning. Two minutes inside, and I already wanted a cigarette. "I owe you," I said in English.

"I'd have had to get past them anyway." The light shifted to the rusted door that I'd entered – been pushed – through. "Are they out there?"

"As of a minute ago, yeah."

"Good." The light came back to me. I still hadn't gotten a good look at the guy. "Robbed you blind, did they?"

"Pretty much." I rubbed at my sore neck, where one of them had pistol whipped me. There was a pause, then the sound of fabric. The other man had unslung his pack, and was rummaging through it. He held something out, a sheathed combat knife. Worn, but solid.

"Take it," he told me. "I'm not a clothes off my back guy." The man spoke brusquely, like he had somewhere to be. He probably did.

"Thank you." I accepted the knife. My belt was still on me; I had that much.

"If you follow this tunnel, and take the first right you come to, that will take you out. Good luck."

"Got it. Can I ask you something?"

"Yeah."

"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.