"It's a long way to go, but hope is the fuel to fire his heart."



Outside, fires raged. Guns rumbled. Storms, both manmade and natural, washed over the face of the Earth, a bloody tumult.

Inside, the dying groaned with the burden of death. While the living watched those that would perish and wailed or whispered or sat slack eyed when the end finally came, individually wishing such reprieve should soon be granted for them all. An acidic, radioactive rain dripped through cracked floors and ceilings, from level to level of their refuge, a tidal flow of slow death to bind them, survivors all, as brothers and sisters in a mutual grave. A barrage of shells burst nearby. Or maybe it was thunder. In its aftermath, a dull moan of fear and abandonment swept through the rooms, born softly on the still, poisoned air as a billowing front of debris exhaled from a distant, unseen explosion.

Eight year old Allele cradled his dead sister in the crooked pillow of his lap and wept without shedding tears. Potable water was precious, and not to be wasted on silly emotional displays. Still, she had been a good sister to him, a worthy person, a memorable person. Someone should mourn her passing in some manner, however obscure the person, however pathetic the manner. So Allele's shoulders rose and fell. His head was bowed. His face flushed with blood, and he made tiny, shrill noises of sorrow and surrender far back in the soft tissues of his throat. It was the best he could do. Crying was an unpracticed art to him. He hadn't cried since their parents had been requisitioned by the Interim Government, never to be seen again.

What was the point of crying? Lots of people cried, were crying now, but what good would it do them? Would it return them their murdered sons? Would it free their enslaved daughters? Would it make whole maimed fathers and ravished mothers? Could crying reanimate Allele's poor, dead twin sibling? No. So why cry? He didn't know why, he just was. He cried for a long, long time it seemed to him, without shedding tears.

When he was finished, he rolled Sugar's head gently off his legs and stood tall and straight. He tossed back his head, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply of the reek. These were his last hours in hell. He could live here no longer.

He and Sugar had made a pact to cross the Badlands from the Damaged Zone, and together find a safe passage to the green havens of New Liberty. As soon as they had gathered enough supplies to do so. During the months that had followed their parents' arrests, he and she had horded and scavenged and scrounged and begged from people they knew and didn't know to fill their haversacks. They knew the I.G. would never return their mother and father to them, alive or dead, so nothing had remained save each other to bind them to the Ghettoes of the Zone. Now Sugar was gone.

They hadn't had enough to make the trip between two of them. But now . . . now, being one and alone in the world, Allele had enough to make a decent go of it. He hoped.

He hoped not only for his sake, but for his sister's. Hers had been the driving force of their determination; hers the will that had led him to forebear his grumbling stomach; hers the strength that had coached him to overcome his fears and shames, to sacrifice the last shreds of his humanity in the name of the cause . . . the cause of freedom. In the name of a longing to be free.

Allele had never felt it much, really. The Zone was all he deemed he deserved from the world, it was all he knew. He had no real, firm vision in his head of any place other than the god forsaken ruins of his childhood home. But Sugar had known differently. She had learned from others, learned to teach herself. Sugar had known where to find the answers to all the nagging questions inherent in their way of life. Why were things the way they were? Why was there so much pain and suffering? So much heartbreak? Is it necessary that our existence be what it is? Are there better ways? Were there ever better days? What is 'FREEDOM'? And does it exist anywhere in the world?

Her dream had always been the green fields of New Liberty. She had dreamed of its starry night skies and evergreen forests, of its mountains of stone, of its absence of concrete and steel, of its animals, large and small, that actually lived right out in the open, free from the poisonous rains that plagued them in the Zone. There, she had claimed, FREEDOM could be found. Absolute personal freedom, and plenty of space to live and grow and prosper.

Nobody prospered in the Zone, or could be said to be prosperous. Not even the warlords. Constant battle ate away at whatever resources or wealth they managed to wrest from the land and its poor inhabitants, so not even the top of the food chain could be said to be fit or happy or comfortable here. Life was a bloody, dangerous thing in the Damaged Zone, and it was only getting harder, day by day.

Still, nobody was in a hurry to leave the Cities. Few made exodus beyond the Zone's defensive barriers, and not many of those that did were thought to have survived their experiences. Few traveled in that terror land called the Badlands and survived to remember it.

What could be so deterring? What could be worse than a City Shelter? What could be worse than living amid the filth and carnage of these unreasonably morbid bunker tombs? The answer to that, as every Zoner knew, was simple; not living at all.

Death reigned in those wastelands that gathered about the Zone's massive gates, death that was savage and efficient, even as it was sanguine and excruciatingly slow. It was a certain death of disease and genetic deterioration, and a less certain death at the hands of starving scarecrows that were unashamed to be cannibals and murderers of infants. The Badlands were uncharted territory. No organized expedition had journeyed into them for one hundred and fifty years, and the last that had was never seen again. There were no maps of its brutal, misshapen terrain, of its pitfalls or hot sites. No lore was known that could divine water from its deserts, or edible sustenance from its ravaged soils. Nothing and no one could long resist its corrosive weather or its wasting diseases. Machines were rendered to scrap by its abuses. Men were reduced to skeletons in its draining embrace. Memories of the Badlands' histories were all forgotten, save one; that it was a place of much bloodshed and dying, and that its dead haunted it still.

But the 'lands were not content to lie about uselessly, a mere deterrent to wayward spirits. More, it was a source of eternal hardship to the Zone's inmates, a source of furious rogue weather patterns and hot, undying winds. It was a breeding ground for hungry animals and savage men that stormed the Cities' walls from time to time, armed to utter lethality with claw and relic weaponry, ravenous for the taste of flesh of any kind.

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