T2000: W+36

You ever get the feeling that things are about to get worse?

As luck and dumb fate would have it, we weren’t able to escape the area as quickly as we hoped. A puncture on the UAZ and an alignment problem with the axle which Monk couldn’t explain in simple enough terms left us stranded about ten miles from our last camp. The Colonel put us to work immediately with getting some camp netting up and harvesting tree branches to make a proper hide.

Monk said he thought he could get the UAZ up and running but this was the last time. We were running on empty for gas and parts. So, we unloaded our patient and put him, Doc and Dal in there. Monk worked on the repairs and I prepped my weapon. I just knew the Colonel wasn’t going to sit and wait for us to be tracked.

And sadly, I wasn’t wrong.

We tracked back to our late night position, where the Colonel saw the hunters and not a word was said when we found where one had succumbed to the Colonel. Nothing but a damp patch of ground was left. The Colonel paced back and forward a little, biting on his thumbnail, and then he muttered something about there being no tracks. Which wasn’t uncommon for hunters of course, but the problem is that I could see plenty of tracks, but these were dogs or something.

When the sun was at its highest point, we started to track back to our new camp. Over a small ridge we came to a stone cottage, a single plume of smoke from its lonely chimney. Kneeling in the yard outside, grubbing around for roots was a white haired old lady with olive-brown skin and about two teeth in her head. The Colonel approached slowly, weapon on his shoulder, and the woman greeted him first in Polish and then in heavily accented German. It was all double dutch to me, I could barely keep up but she kept pointing at the direction we came and saying the same word again and again. The Doc later told me that it meant “werewolf”, which just goes to show that you shouldn’t listen to crazy old women in the middle of nowhere after the world has collapsed.

We gratefully accepted some eggs and turnips from her garden, freely offered, but the Colonel gave her his last cigarettes and a United States patch from his uniform which seemed to delight her. I was delighted with the thought of an omelette in the morning.

The walk back to the camp was slow, our return route was over much rougher terrain than the way there and it was dusk as we arrived back. I was starting to jog back, holding the eggs in my hand triumphantly when the Colonel again hissed at me to be quiet. He pointed out two shapes in the camp and I have to say, my blood froze. It was those damn hunters again.

As my eyes got used to the twilight light, I could see that they had Doc and Dal on the ground and were shouting something at the lone soldier. There was no sign of Monk. With the practiced grace of a man who’s gotten in and out of stickier situations, I could only watch as the Colonel crept forwards. He was about thirty yards from the hunters when one of them pulled out a large knife and plunged it into Dal’s chest. I couldn’t breathe, I didn’t think it was even happening. Dal crumpled like a scarecrow untied from a pole and then I saw the Colonel move; he rushed the first hunter and football tackled him into the dirt. The other one looked around and started to circle, looking for an opportunity to strike at the Colonel’s back. I heard a shout and the Colonel collapsed, the same blade that had ended Dal was now embedded in the Colonels leg. I scrambled with my weapon, fingers numbed by shock, trying to find the safety. The hunters rounded on the Colonel who was now shouting my name. I could barely move.

The first hunter pulled the knife out of the Colonels leg and licked the blade. I still couldn’t move. The Colonel cursed at me and I could do nothing. They killed him then. Just put the knife in and out until he stopped cursing me. And I felt grateful as I couldn’t bear to hear any more.

What shocked me from my terror was a staccato burst of gunfire and the two hunters went down. Monk had been hiding under the UAZ and witnessed everything. He’d had a machine pistol we’d salvaged earlier as his main sidearm and it made short work of the hunters. He ran to free the Doc and see what they could do for the Colonel and Dal, but it was too late for both of them. I plucked up the courage to come in from my hiding place and Monk didn’t say anything to me. I lied to the Doc that I’d been too far to do anything and she seemed to accept it.

Everything has changed now. Earlier we had leadership, direction. Now we are just three lost souls somewhere in Poland. And the lone soldier? Doc says he’s getting better, but he’s still no use to us.

Useless. Just like me.

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T2000: W+35

I still have my shopping list. We didn’t make it to Prague.

The forests here are a little threadbare. I think they might have taken some shelling but everything just looked unhealthy. Along an old road weaving through a forest clearing, we bumped into a soldier with a torn uniform heading the opposite direction. As we drew nearer, we could see his face was caked with blood and he was talking to himself. Doc insisted we stop and so the UAZ was stopped and the Doc administered to him while the rest of us covered him with our rifles. The Colonel was silent and kept watching the tree edges for an ambush. I could feel his tension.

Between Doc and Dal, they managed to get a few sentences out of the soldier – something about a local warlord ahead and his entire unit being massacred. Again, we didn’t have the ammunition or the numbers for a conflict so Colonel got out the map and compass and we routed a path which would avoid anything looking like a settlement or a crossroads.

It would add a day to our journey but what’s a day compared with the rest of your life.

The soldier was heaped in the cramped back of the UAZ and I ended up on top, presenting a very tempting target for sniper fire. I guess God was with me that day as I made it through the first day without dying. Small achievement I know.

As night fell, we made camp and the Colonel took first watch. I had closed my eyes for what felt like ten seconds when the Colonel was rousing me. He had Monk on watch and he pushed a weapon into my hands and hissed at me to be quiet. And then, under the baleful moon, we headed out of the camp and into the wilderness.

I was still half asleep as I tramped through the forest but the Colonel woke me from my dazed stroll with an elbow to the ribs. He made signals to look ahead and that’s when I saw them. Two burly figures dressed in deer skins, making their way towards the camp. I readied my weapon but the Colonel froze me with a steely stare – his eyes were focused behind me though. I felt the hot breath of something close, a stink of offal and the Colonel lunged, blade in hand and plunged it into the heart of whatever monster was behind me. He stabbed it a dozen times as it swore at him, before resting and then, bloodied and panting, grabbed me by the arm and made for the camp. I looked back and it was a hunter, like the two before, but this one a bloody steaming mess in the night, the moonlight glistening off the blood pooling on his wounds. He’d barely had time to make a cry before the Colonel had ended him.

We ran. We ran until our lungs were aflame and Monk was there, looking terrified as we burst into camp. Colonel roused everyone and everyone was issued a weapon, even Dal. We established the perimeter and Colonel was in the centre, making sure everyone stayed frosty. The only noise I could hear was the faint moaning and chattering of the soldier in the back of the UAZ. There wasn’t a mouse or a barn owl that was fit to entertain us.

A stillness descended on the camp and the moon burned round black holes into our night vision. We watched and waited for something to approach. I don’t know how long it was, but I know that I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.

As the dawn broke, the Colonel got us all moving again. The tension of the night before evident in the drawn faces and red eyes of everyone. Doc made sure the lone soldier was comfortable and we got the UAZ cranked up. We were still going to make the detour but I thought that was a bad night. I was sadly mistaken. We’d pissed off some pretty horrible people and we weren’t going to be rid of them easily.

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T2000: W+27

According to the Colonel, strong sergeants make strong soldiers.

I can believe that. Our CSM was a soldiers soldier. You cut him open and he bled red, white and blue. He was just as you read about – moral, principled, heroic, stoic, and a role model for folks like me. During the Fall I saw a different side to him. As the shells burst around us, he was like the rest of us, cowering and screaming. Knowing that this was within him, that he was only human, was somewhat inspiring. It meant that I could be as good as him one day. He was only human so what’s my excuse?

The Colonel is a guy like that. Larger than life but ultimately human. I’ve never met a commander like him – and I probably never will again. He’s got the right kind of authority; the sort that makes you want to please him. Like every shitty task he’s telling you to do is him placing trust in you that you’ll do it right. It would break my heart to see him cowering in a foxhole.

Food has been particularly scarce in the last week. We have rations but we are doing our best to conserve them. Eating the perishables before they perish is obviously sensible. So today we had apples. The Doc knew how many apples we had and she said she noticed the Colonel wasn’t eating. She finds him exasperating – when she confronted him, he said he was saving them until he found some really nice pasty crust. Some sugar. A little cinnamon.

We’d need an oven too. Or a fryer. I prefer fried pies but Monk thinks I’m crazy. Beside’s he says we only have engine oil to fry them in.

Tomorrow we should be near Prague. And I have a shopping list.

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T2000: W+26

Monk is a strange fish. He doesn’t talk much, isn’t prone to fits of emotion but it’s plain to me that he’s suffering, you can see it in his eyes. When I think about it; we are all a bit cold. I think that you have to be cold or detached from things to cope with what’s happening. We’ve been on the road for nearly four weeks since the Fall and I’ve not seen a single American other than the ones we brought with us. Where did they all go? Did we miss the extraction?

Yesterday we hooked up with a French NATO outfit on their way westwards. They’re all heading home and they’re a damn sight closer than the rest of us. The Colonel scrounged some gas from them and tried to get some ammunition but they weren’t about to give it up. I think we were very lucky they were so nice – they had superior numbers and firepower. On the other hand, we don’t have much they can loot so maybe that’s why we are still breathing. The Doc managed to get a bag of apples the French had pilfered from a orchard a few days earlier. She speaks fluent French, surprise surprise. The French commander saluted all of us as they pulled out this morning. He shouted Bon Chance as they rounded the corner and then we just could hear their engines in the distance and we felt even more alone.

His full name is Malcolm Clarence Onkel. When he was in Basic at Fort Leonard Wood, he was given a sticky name badge with his first initial and surname and from there the nickname stuck. He says he was involved in electrical stuff but we have him fixing up an old Russian off-roader. He carries around this tool kit wrapped in cloth that must weigh about forty pounds which has been put together from anything and everything he could lay his hands on. The way he treasures the tools makes me think he’d save them first from a burning building.

Monk says the first thing we will need to build is new tools. With new tools we can build just about anything. Cell phones, electric guitars, toaster ovens. We just need the right tools. I’m glad we have him with us to fix the UAZ. I’ve never felt more glad that we have an Army Engineer on the team.

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T2000: W+24

Progress has been slow.

Monk warned us that running two vehicles was guzzling our gas so with great reluctance we siphoned off everything from the tank in “Dale” and filled up “Chip”. We covered Dale with branches and dirt and hid him in a ditch. Monk then buried a a 2 litre bottle filled with gas 10 paces north of Dales ditch – just in case we had to come back, just in case something happened to Chip. I can’t think of anything worse than having to backtrack to pick up a jeep that we just filled with dirt and branches in a ditch but I guess it’s “to be sure, to be sure”. Monk claims to be part Irish so I guess that’s funny.

Fitting all five of us into Chip, plus gear and stores was a pain in the ass and we can’t drive fast or something will fall off. Our bungee cords are so stretched as to make them worthless so I’m tying things in knots and wishing I’d paid more attention to which knots to tie. It would be more comfortable if someone would ride on top, but we’ve heard a couple of light rounds being shot off in the last couple of days and sitting up top and presenting a tempting target is not that inviting.

Early in the morning we rolled into Lawalde, into a vineyard called Kekila. The fields were already blackened and there wasn’t anyone around but we stopped on the hunt for fuel and, heck, maybe a bottle of wine but it seemed the fires got there before we did.

The Doc and the Colonel are talking about putting together a still, which they’ll get Monk to build. Monk thinks he can get the UAZ to run on alcohol, but I’m thinking that I’d rather drink it and stay right here. I’ve never been a drinker but a night of booze-induced oblivion would be welcome.

What spooks me about here is that there’s no-one around. No villagers, no militia, no refugees, no stragglers or deserters. We are definitely on our own and it’s creeping me out.

Colonel wants to make it to Leipzig or south to Nuremberg by the end of the week but I know and Monk knows we don’t have the fuel for it. So, for the next couple of days we are going to sit tight while Monk, Dal and I go hunting for gas.

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T2000: W+22

The little things in life make a big difference.

We’d just crossed into Germany and pulled into a town called Görlitz. It’s beautiful, even now with the smoke blackened towers and the burning fields. We were flagged down by a cheery Herr Emmerich, landlord of a Gastehaus that survived most of the fire. He babbled at us in German but luckily the Doc was able to get some sense out of him. Yes, she knows German too. He was offering us bed and breakfast and hot showers.

We all looked at each other in disbelief. The Colonel, Doc, Monk, the Czech boy.

Showering with hot water and soap was something I’d almost forgotten.

Waking in a proper bed with crisp white sheets was something I never imagined would happen again.

Eating a cooked breakfast with a white napkin on my knee was … well, it was ok.

After breakfast, Herr Emmerich, sat down with us, poured some wine and regaled us with tales of what happened in the town. And the problem he had. There was a gang of militia in the town that were causing problems for the civilians. And he was asking for our help.

The Colonel listened intently.

And then we packed up and left. Emmerich was very unhappy, turns out he knew a lot of English too. I understood. We just weren’t equipped for a fight. I don’t like to think of it as running away, but we weren’t the US Army rolling into Paris to liberate it from the Germans. We were just looking for a bed and a hot shower. So, we rolled out of there and we weren’t happy about it either. But it wasn’t worth getting killed over.

As for our Czech friend, turns out his name is Dalek. After I stopped laughing he was really funny with me for ages even after I tried to explain. I’ve told him that we will all call him Dal, to tell no-one his full name and that he’ll thank me for it. I’d love to show him what I mean but finding a tape and a VCR would be tricky in this place.

Asking us to get rid of some armed thugs wasn’t a small thing. It would have made a small difference. This world is broken. There would just be another bully picking up a gun. And we’d be dead.

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T2000: W+12

I remember just after I finished Basic, I was late for Guard duty and the SM thought I should work it off in the kitchens. I spent days peeling potatoes, mopping floors and washing dishes. My hands were constantly wet so my skin started to slough off – which was pretty gross for anyone who was getting them for lunch. I was up from 4:30 am and worked solid until 9 pm. I thought I was tired. I really did.

I’ve spent the last two days doing laundry. Scrubbing makeshift bandages and rinsing liquified skin from dressings literally from sunrise to sunset. Again I thought I was tired.

The fireburst caused hundreds of casualties. That’s about a thousand injured. The Colonel is off doing his own thing investigating what happened as he reckons it was unexposed munitions that someone set off. While we’re all happy to have him out of the way, I know he’s scared there’s more than one of these incendiary fireburst monstrosities out there.

Doc is a machine.

I don’t know much about her, no-one does. She is never without her headscarf. I know she speaks great English, probably better than me. I know she’s lived in loads of countries or been to them at least. She rhymes off places she’s been to like I rhyme off baseball players. I’d barely even heard of Poland before I was shipped out here – which I know is a damning indictment of our education system back home. I knew that some people were “Polish” or “Polacks” but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I didn’t associate it with a place or a people. Just a term to describe kids we didn’t like.

But back to the Doc. She’s up before the rest of us, and stays up later than the rest of us. She has time to pray, she has time to wash and she has time and endless compassion for her patients. I’ve never heard her speak with a raised voice but I’ve seen her glare at the Colonel when he’s having one of his moments. She talks about how we have to pull together, we are all humans now. The Colonel still thinks the war is on.

I don’t know how the Doc ended up here, in this hellhole. But I’d damn glad she ended up with us.

This afternoon, I brought her coffee, some of the last in our stores, and we sat and cried together. Just a few moments of humanity before we got back to the grind.

While I’ve been washing bandages, Monk has been tinkering with the vehicles. I think it’s his way of avoiding work he just doesn’t want to do. When something is going on, he just fades into the background or makes an excuse and disappears. You’ll find him under the engine of something later. Talk about avoidance issues.

I can’t say much about the Colonel. Colonel Alexander Harland. He’s a gung-ho stereotype. I swear he bleeds red, white and blue. Despite everything he’s well turned out, always clean shaven and I know his weapons are as clean as a whistle. But for all of that gruffness and military precision, he’s also the best scrounger I’ve ever met. Doesn’t matter if he needs to get 30 ft of copper wire or requisitioning an APC, the Colonel can talk anyone out of anything. A real mix of charm and authority.

I suppose I should mention our new hanger-on. For the last two days, we have had a young Czech lad helping out. I think he was a refugee here and when the fireburst hit, he was homeless again. He’s helping Doc with anything she asks. Nice lad, kind. Who knows if he will stay with us.

That’s our crew. We aren’t anything more than survivors. We’re not a force to be reckoned with – we’re just trying to get to somewhere beyond the bombs and bad guys. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like a couple of heavy hitters join us, but those folks are scary as fuck. How can we trust someone like that?

There aren’t many people I’d take a bullet for. Until two days it was my mom and my little brother. I’d take a bullet for the Doc. No question about it.

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T2000: W+10

W+10

No. That is not the sunrise.

We’d been near the town of Luban, not far drom the German border for a few days and was beginning to feel a little more human. The people of the town had given us a couple of buildings to settle in while we repaired the UAZ and calmed our own nerves. We’d been on the run for ages and Doc was still treating everyone for burns in the firebombing a few days ago. But it was easier. While Monk was making himself useful repairing a tractor, the Colonel was helping the town salvage supplies. He was actually doing it; not just detailing us grunts.

Anyway.

I’d woken that morning, started to brush my teeth and was looking North to the town. The light dazzled me at first but my surprise was fleeting as I stumbled back shouting for the Doc.

The town was a few clicks away but by the size of the fireball I knew we would be busy that day with the crying wounded and the walking dead. There just wouldn’t be enough medicine or time to help everyone. Doc would know what to do, even though she’d barely slept in days.

Maybe we’d have to move on sooner.

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T2000: W+9

After the fire raged through, we took the UAZ through a small town land on the outskirts of Warsaw. The bushes and trees and grass were still burning. I saw a dog, it’s back on fire, screaming as it ran down the road. The metal of our vehicles began to heat and I wondered whether or not I survived the initial blast and maybe I was in hell like my pastor said I would be. We poured water on our ammunition, afraid it might ignite. But, eventually we made it past the fires and I’m thankful that our tires didn’t melt. Fuck that pastor.

(Inspired by scenes of the fires in California. And in my impatience for the new edition. I said to my gaming group I want to play in a game where the spirit of Saving Private Ryan lives. A group which cannot be sundered is fighting to get home in a world that is completely sundered, and righting a few wrongs on the way)

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T2000: W+8

I woke at 7 am and padded into the shower.
Hot water. Soap. Clean towel.
Breakfast. Coffee.

I heard a voice calling me. I knew it was the Colonel. And I was back to my foxhole.

So, again, woke. It’s 5 am. I’m cold. There’s no shower. I shave in cold water out of a mug that I brush my teeth in. Everyone else is up. Monk glares at me with his sunken eyes. I don’t think I did anything wrong. The Doc is silent; the woman speaks at least four languages and she’s got nothing to say.

I pull my blanket around me and I stumble towards the UAZ and then all hell breaks loose. The ground erupts in a shower of dirt and panic. I see Monk scramble into a foxhole and the Doc hits the ground. I hear treebursts around me and I’m showered with splinters that embed themselves in my blanket.

Monk is screaming. The Doc is screaming. I think I’m screaming. And then I’m hauled to my feet by the Colonel. He shoves me against the UAZ and then goes to get Doc and Monk. Minutes later we’re all moving and I see why he was rushing us. A wall of fire is behind us and coming this way.

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