Note – this story takes place after the events of THE ZONE, the first twenty or so chapters of which are available at , and the whole 100 chapters are at pseudozone dot blogspot dot com

FREEDOM is a direct continuation of THE ZONE.

There is also ATROPHY, an all-original (not fanfiction) story revolving around several surviving cast members from THE ZONE and FREEDOM – it's available at pseudoatrophy dot blogspot dot com.

I can be reached through comments on any of the blogs, or at thepseudozone at gmail dot com. By all means comment, email, whatever – this stuff is all feedback-driven. Thanks for reading.

-Wish

Freedom

By Wish

Chapter 1

The pilots were dutifully playing Little Richard, but the cabin wasn't bathed in red light. The music almost drowned out the thudding of the chopper's rotors. I wasn't sure if that was in good taste or not, but I didn't want to think about it. I wanted to relax; I didn't know when I'd get another chance.

Someone prodded my shoulder, and I opened one eye. There were two other men in the rear of the chopper with me – two men, and one large, cloth-wrapped object that I couldn't identify. These guys had been talking for the entire ride, but I hadn't been able to hear them over the music. They were both white, and both wore identical gear, so I assumed they were together. One was brown-haired and brown-eyed. I would forget what he looked like the minute I turned away. The other had overly bright red hair, and a build like he was made of chopsticks. He wore a pair of goggles, which I had a feeling were prescription. He was the one poking me.

"Yeah?"

"Where you from?"

I considered that. "Hong Kong," I replied. It wasn't a lie. I could tell from his looks and his voice that he was American. West coast, I decided.

"You got a name?"

"Yeah," I said. I was being a jerk, but at least I was doing it for a reason – I didn't want anything to do with these guys. Why? Look at them. This one had arms like noodles. It couldn't have been more than two or three years ago he was president of the chess club. He was probably wearing a pocket protector. I'm not even thirty, but this guy was hardly more than a kid. Or maybe he just came off as young. He and his friend were probably around my age – but they didn't seem like it. Maybe my expectations were unreasonable.

Anyway, I'd concluded that these men were idiots an hour ago, just by looking at them. Forget their air of childish excitement – look at their gear. The thin guy had a high-capacity Benelli. Sensible enough, but his companion was bringing an AR chambered in .50 Beowulf. It was actually a pretty solid choice of weapon for where we were going, I thought – but they weren't thinking ahead. If they lived long enough to use up whatever ammunition they'd brought, they'd be left with a thirty-five hundred dollar paperweight. On top of that, the ammo was big and heavy, so they couldn't possibly be carrying very much.

The same went for their Belgian Five-seveN pistols, which they both wore on their tactical vests. Good guns, but not thinking ahead.

The guns aren't the point – the point is that their choice of weaponry hinted at a staggering shallowness of thought. If bullets are going to fly, you don't want guys like that at your back. No, sir – I was not making friends with these guys.

They'd obviously done their research before coming, but they hadn't made good decisions with the information. These guys weren't going to live long, and I didn't want to be there when reality decided to put them in their place.

"My name's Slayer," the geeky one said, pointing to himself. Yeah, I thought. I'll bet it is. He jerked his thumb at his friend. "He's Dixon."

At least they were dressed right. Gray fatigues and tac vests over Kevlar. Not fancy, but at least there wasn't anything blatantly stupid about it. "Hey, man – I really dig this." He tapped my shoulder. I was wearing motorcycle armor custom-lined with Dragonskin. He couldn't see the Dragonskin, but the armor did look pretty cool.

"Thanks." I closed my eyes. "You guys have had a lot of baggage." I couldn't help myself; they did.

"Gear for the blog."

"The what?"

"The blog. The world's first Zone blog."

He seemed to sense the effect those words had on me, and went back to his seat. I hoped the two of them had taken the time to learn a little Russian, or at least brought along a phrasebook or something. I understood that English was widely spoken in the Zone, but a little local lingo might help these morons come off less like the dumb Americans they were. At least Dixon looked mildly fit.

'Long Tall Sally' started to play, and I grimaced. We were probably getting close. All the meditation technique in the world won't keep away some trepidation at this point. I opened my eyes and pulled on my gloves. Dixon looked up when the song came on.

"Oh, hell yeah," he said.

I just shook my head and checked my slim pack. Everything was in order. I checked the buckles on my armor, my bandolier, pouches, holster. I checked my boots, and made sure my knife was tight to my shoulder.

We were descending. I grabbed the handle over my seat and held on as the Americans scrambled not to tumble around the cabin. The landing was surprisingly gentle – and I was surprised. I'd figured they wouldn't even land, just get us a meter off the ground and tell us to get out. I wasn't complaining. The rotors didn't stop; the pilots didn't intend to stay long. I unstrapped myself, and the copilot wrenched open the side door. I'd expected some light, but didn't get any.

What I did get was a shattering crash of thunder, and a rush of icy water. It was storming out there like a hurricane, and the wind was blowing it all right into the chopper. Shielding my eyes, I grabbed my pack and my AK-105 and jumped out. The air crackled, and the rain pounded on the chassis of the chopper like bullets, clearly audible even over the thunder and the rotors.

Chain lightning broke the sky, making my ears buzz. We were in a field of tall grass, which whipped around in the storm. The sky overhead was dark, but to the east it was even darker.

The Americans were getting down behind me. I pulled on my pack and attached the lead from my carbine to my armor, stepping away from the chopper. The pilots had the rear hatch open now, and were wheeling the cloth-wrapped object down the ramp.

Something wasn't right. I didn't know if it was fear or paranoia, or my actual instincts – but I wasn't comfortable. You're not supposed to be comfortable in the Zone, but this went beyond that. I watched the Americans struggle with their baggage for a moment, then turned to scan the grass around us, holding up an arm against the rain and wind. I didn't see anything, but that wasn't surprising in these conditions.

The pilot and copilot seemed to be in a pretty big hurry, but that didn't surprise me either. They got the package off the chopper and closed the hatch. Without a word, they were getting back in. I took a few more steps back, and the Americans struggled to move out of the way as the chopper rose into the air.

I watched it go for several long seconds, oblivious to the rain. A streak of lightning crackled not far away, and the chopper banked smoothly, fading into the dark. Its running lights started to grow faint. If I was ever getting out of here, I'd have to make new arrangements, or do it myself. But I'd known that coming in. I pulled up my hood and turned around, only to find myself at gunpoint.

The man was almost invisible. He had on a long, hooded coat in a very authentic camouflage pattern. I could see frayed, fingerless gloves that had once been white, and dark, calloused hands. The rest of him was a blur in the rain, though he was barely ten feet away – but I could see the shotgun just fine.

My carbine hung from my vest; my hand wasn't anywhere near it. My Glock 34 was in my drop leg, held there securely by a nylon button snap. But even if I'd had a gun in hand, it wouldn't have been any good. He had me dead to rights. It was only a pistol-grip 12 gauge, but even in the dark the muzzle looked about a mile wide. My armor would stop buckshot, but he wasn't aiming at my chest.

Weeks ago, when I'd been planning this out, I'd considered a ballistic facemask. I could have had one made. But in the end, I decided I valued situational awareness over being bulletproof. After all, bullets weren't the only things I had to be afraid of. Maybe that hadn't been such a hot decision.

I shifted my stance, moving my eyes to check the Americans. Another guy had them covered. His coat was black, but that made him even harder to see than his partner. Was there another man in the grass? I didn't want to move too much or too suddenly. What would set these guys off, I wasn't sure, but I didn't need to find out. To their credit, the Americans hadn't stupidly gone for their weapons and gotten us all killed. No, they were paralyzed. Their inner monologues probably read something like: Oh, this place really is dangerous. Oh dear.

If these people had been approaching as we were getting off the chopper, I would have seen them, even in this mess. They'd popped up just a little too suddenly, and I decided that meant they'd been here from the start, lying in the grass.

And they hadn't fired yet. The one in front of me moved forward. They hadn't just gunned us down. Why? Because they knew who I was. There was no other explanation. The pilots must have sold me out.

These guys knew who I was, but they didn't know me. I wouldn't be taken.

My hand moved toward my drop leg. One flick and that snap would be undone. If I drew and evaded at the same time, the first shot would miss. Could I beat the second? Yes. Yes I could. The Americans were on their own; they'd known the risks when they decided to come here. I doubt they'd have lasted long anyway.

This had to be some kind of record. Two minutes in the Zone and already people were going to die.

Then there was shooting.