One Year Later...

- Ghost Town

"Well, this is the spot," Kino double-checked the site, a crossroads just before their actual destination. She folded her map and put it away. Tall fir trees surrounded the road, and the cold spring wind hissed through.

"We're early," Hermes commented.

"Yeah, I wanted to set up camp first and make her feel comfortable. She's doing me a big favor." Kino set about digging a little pit for a campfire and filling it with logs. She stomped feeling back into her numb feet and toes.

"I'm looking forward to it," Hermes sounded excited. "A chance to really open up, and to play with that new turbocharger. But I dunno... a ghost town sounds kinda creepy."

"Not the first one we've seen. They're not scary; they're peaceful, quiet and a little sad. And we're not staying three days!" Kino added emphatically.

"How'd you find out about her?"

"Website," Kino answered. "Kiddofspeed-dot-com, all one word. Fascinating reading, and I just had to meet her." Satisfied that the campfire was well on its way, Kino set about boiling some coffee. "I'll put the fish on when she arrives."

"I think she just did." And Hermes was right, because the wind brought the sound of another motorcycle, rapidly approaching them from the intersecting road. Kino stood and waved, and soon a rider clad in vivid green riding gear rounded the corner and slowed to a stop at their fire.

The rider nimbly hopped off her modern silver-gray bike and popped off her helmet, releasing silky mahogany hair that brushed her shoulders. "Do my eyes deceive me? That is a Brough Superior!"

"Hah!" Hermes crowed. "A woman of education and taste. I like her, Kino."

Kino grinned. She'd grown used to being upstaged by her bike around aficionados. "It is, and you've a good eye. And I was just admiring yours." The language their new companion spoke was closely related to one of the first that Master had taught her, and she spoke it well. She'd need to translate most of it for Hermes, of course. He'd certainly caught "Brough Superior" easily enough.

She hid her reaction to the ID plate on the back of the newcomer's bike. "KIA," it read, and the first thing that came to Kino's mind was "killed in action." "Nothin' shabby about a Kawasaki Ninja," Kino offered with a smile.

"Thanks, but first thing's first," the woman said with a bleak tone. "Let's find out if you're dead or not."

"Huh?" Kino said, much alarmed.

Their guest simply answered by producing an electronic device from her pocket and aiming it at the fire.

"Good. You were lucky this time. You must always check the wood before you put it in the fire. The smoke could kill you otherwise."

Mortified, Kino decided the best answer would be to simply let her embarrassment show. She hid her face with both hands. "I really need you just to survive out here."

"It's alright. Just do as I tell you, and I promise you'll be safe." The woman gave a formal bow, after the fashion of Kino's people. Kino returned it, then offered a hand. The taller woman pulled off her riding glove and shook hands with a grin. "Kino, yes? Elena."

"Elena, I'm very much in your debt."

"Well, I usually don't come until later in the year. It's still too cold to be comfortable. But, anniversaries being what they are..."

Kino nodded. "I don't have anything to give you in return for your kindness, except a good breakfast. Will you let me cook for you?"

"Ah, always with the courtesies with your people. I wouldn't think of turning you down." With that, Elena curled her long legs under her at the campfire.

Kino cooked and served a generous breakfast, and the two shared small talk about riding and motorcycles until Hermes complained that they were boring him to tears with their hobbyist chatter. As breakfast wound down, Elena said, "if you're ready, I shall ask for your full attention, Kino. There are many things you must know if you want to survive this."

Kino nodded, her face equally grave.

"First, I'm sorry, but no racing. We can go fast in there, and that's why I love riding inside the zone. But today we must keep pace with each other very carefully, and no turning around. This is why I usually insist on riding alone. The dust we raise behind us is fatal. Don't you dare put dust on me."

Kino exhaled in a hiss. "This is gonna be harder than I thought."

"You go nowhere without me. I mean that, stay within three meters of me at all times. I in turn go nowhere until I check." Again, Elena raised her little electronic sensor.

"I promise," Kino answered with absolute gravity. She'd been accustomed to teaching other, less experienced travelers, for a while now. But today, with Elena, she was a student and a babe in the woods.

When Elena had finished the long laundry-list of precautions, and Kino had studiously repeated them from memory, the tall woman asked, "you're sure you want to go through with it?"

"It's something I have to do," Kino answered.

"Yes, I understand." Elena said with sympathy. "Well, let's get to it, then." Together they buried the fire and tidied their campsite until it vanished as if it never existed. Then Elena mounted her bike, and Kino mounted hers exactly in sync, as much as to say, "yes, I'm serious about this game of follow-the-leader. You're in charge." The motorcycle engines fired up one just after the other, and they began their journey to the dead zone.

Kino brought Hermes to the left of Elena's Kawasaki, maintaining as closely as she could a distance of three meters. She'd learned that military personnel would fall in to the left of a superior. Kino's thoughts wandered to the woman who'd taught her such things. She forced herself instead to focus her attention absolutely upon the task at hand. She would never forgive herself if a moment's inattention or foolishness jeopardised her life or Elena's.

They soon found a military-style checkpoint and slowed to a halt. Elena deliberately chatted up the guards, with whom she was on a first-name basis. She introduced Kino, who produced all the identification, passports and permits she'd spent the past year negotiating and acquiring, sometimes with outright bribery.

Having placated the guardians, they took hold of their bikes' handlebars and crossed the threshold in lockstep. Elena nodded her approval before she donned her helmet. Kino put her own on, a white helmet with a black brim she'd acquired in a pawn shop after the area's police had ticketed her.

"My father was assigned here," Elena explained. "That's how I got the training that keeps me alive inside, and why I'm allowed. When we're clear of the checkpoint, there are no speed limits. How fast can your Hermes there go?"

"You've got about one-fifty under there, right? We've got a new turbocharger, so unless you've got some serious racing mods, Hermes can more than keep up." Kino answered proudly.

"Finest of its day. But no racing," Elena cautioned again.

"No racing," Kino affirmed, the very soul of crisp obedience. Again, Kino thought of the woman in her past. Yeah, I owe you Corina. You were still a bitch, though.

Elena twisted her throttle, and the whine of the Ninja's engine increased. Hermes' guttural rumble answered, and the pair carefully kept pace as they let their needles climb ever higher.

Kino felt her nervousness fall away, though she knew that every second they traveled, the invisible danger grew ever more dire. A glance in Hermes' rear-view mirror didn't show much of a dust cloud at all, but she was not about to argue the point.

Despite their rigid lockstep, they were able to push Hermes very near his top speed on the straight roads, and Elena knew the way so well they slowed to exactly the right speeds for the curves. The trees blurred past them, along with the occasional abandoned military or construction vehicle, and Kino allowed herself to enjoy the ride, while remaining ever alert to any signal from Elena. Hermes and Kia sang a duet, baritone and mezzo-soprano.

Then Kino realized why Elena was moving so fast - that device was beeping! Joy leeched away from her, and the fear in her gut returned. This trip was no joyride, it was a flirtation with a slow and painful death.

Finally, Elena slowed their pace until they stopped in the middle of the road. "Sorry about that," she offered. "It sometimes happens. We're fine, though."

Kino nodded, pulling off her helmet to match Elena. The silence hit her almost immediately. They were looking at a town, the ghost town, and even if Kino had not been expecting it, the unnerving silence would have told her all she needed to know.

"No birds?" she asked. Elena shook her head.

"Not here, not yet. So, there it is," Elena said softly.

"Pripyat," Kino affirmed solemnly.

"You should bring a poet sometime," Kino suggested, her tone muted by the surroundings. It seemed impossible, somehow, to shout here.

"Hmm?" Elena grunted as they strode through the tall grass, her device ever in the lead.

"Not like me," Kino continued. "I'm horrible at poetry. Somebody who could really capture this place."

"This I wanted to show you." They stopped at the windows of a square building. Most of the glass was gone. They peered into the dark room together. The ceiling was peeling off in tatters and dangled down in bizarre stalactites, but otherwise the room was recognizable.

"A school?" Kino asked, chilled anew.

Elena nodded. "You see all this happy bullshit there? They were preparing for a big state parade." She waved her hand dismissively. "How soon all that became irrelevant. The children were awakened very early the next morning, still dark, and everybody evacuated. They left almost everything behind. Looking into these windows, you can see perfect still-lifes of what life was like back then. But you can't ever go in.

"You?" Kino asked.

Elena nodded. "I was a schoolgirl at the time."

"We have a lot in common."

"There it is." They had finally reached their destination. "No closer," Elena commanded flatly. She peered through a set of binoculars, then handed them to Kino. "The concrete sarcophagus was built in haste. Everyone involved died. It's... falling apart. We need to put another one over it someday soon."

Kino stared through the 'scopes. Like everything else here, the building was gray and sad and desolate, but it didn't look dangerous. It didn't look like it could condemn you to a horrible death. Yet walking any nearer would be certain suicide. She returned the binoculars to Elena.

Kino whispered its name, the dreaded name... at last giving a name to the demon that haunted these woods, but quietly, lest it hear.


"It means 'wormwood,'" Elena added. "Scares the religious folk around here silly."

"It's huge!"

"The sarcophagus is twenty four stories tall. Over there, see? Construction is beginning for the new confinement facility."

"You mean the crane?"

"No, that's where another reactor was being built, before this one exploded. They never finished and left the crane behind."

Kino felt the blood drain from her face. It was all her imagination, of course, but standing here so near the ruin made her feel dizzy.

"And over there is the Red Forest, so named because the trees glowed red from the radiation. We should go now, if you want children someday."

"The party of Lenin will lead us to a Communist victory," Kino read aloud a faded, peeling mural painted on the side of a deserted apartment building.

"Think the party of Lenin'll be leading us to victory anytime soon?" Hermes snarked as they puttered along.

"About as soon as any other party," Kino answered.

"Unfortunately, we can not count the alpha and beta particles that we inhale," Elena explained. "It is the major risk. With breathing of radiactive dust, they get inside of a human body, lodge there and in a few years explode with the cancer cells. In first years after disaster it would be suicide to ride here on open vehicle, but things changed since. Now radiation went in soil and live in cucumbers and mushrooms. If we travel in autumn, the fruit trees will bend low asking us to treat ourselves to those big apples and pears, but we don't take them."

"What is that?" Hermes sounded alarmed. So without answering Elena steered gently to the right, with Kino matching her course as always, until they had reached the site and halted.

"A carnival?" Hermes managed to choke out. Kino couldn't remember the last time she'd heard her friend sound so upset.

"The star of our show. It was set up for the parade," Elena explained. They stared at the ruins... bumper-cars and a ferris wheel. The wind whistled desolately through the wheel's bare metal bars, pushing its bright yellow dangling cars. They squeaked mournfully on rusted joints. "Now we call it the Pripyat Eye, or the Devil's Wheel."

They stood in silence for a long time.

"Can we go closer?" Hermes asked, but Elena shook her head no.

"Hermes, are you alright?" Kino asked.

"Those machines... forgive me, I'm being sentimental and silly, I know. But those machines were made to entertain children. That gives them... well, a certain kind of a soul. And they've been abandoned like this for so long, with no children. I think... speaking from a machine's point of view, this is the most heartbreaking sight I've ever seen. They're so... alone!"

Kino heard inside her head the sad echo of a calliope, and she shivered. It was, she had to admit, the most devastating and desolate sight in the entire trip. She patted Hermes' handlebar, and said with as reassuring a voice as she could muster, "don't be embarrassed, Hermes. They make me feel exactly the same way."

They had finally reached the other side, and within sight of the opposite checkpoint Kino and Elena stopped for a final scan with the Geiger counter, and a chat before the end of their journey together.

"Looks like you're fine. You did very well, Kino. I appreciate you're taking all my precautions seriously."

Kino smiled, pleased and relieved. "Thanks again. I'm surprised how much life is inside a 'dead zone.'"

"Turns out the whole place has become a good nature preserve. There have been some reports of terrible mutations, but the pressure of humankind is much greater than the pressure of radioactive contamination. That's saying something, no?"

"How long?" Kino asked. "How long until people can come back here?"

"Well, I'm optimistic," Elena answered. "I think it could be three hundred years. But my dad says as long as nine."

"Almost a thousand years...!" Kino husked.

"Actually, the area nearest the reactor... that's plutonium. Twenty four thousand years, give or take. Kino, I am sorry. We have all the land in the world here. Colder than a witch's tit, but still. The very last thing an overcrowded island needed was a fifteen-hundred square kilometer exclusion zone."

Kino winced, then nodded. The riders clasped gloved hands again, with real gusto this time, each seeing in the other a kindred spirit. And after they passed through the checkpoint, they solemnly parted ways without another word.

Sangatsu, Heisei 24

March, 2012