It was dark. If she could still rely on her inner clock, it was also nighttime, but that wasn't relevant. The underground tunnels they called 'home' had never been kissed by the sun. Iskra missed its kind touch on her face, but she certainly didn't miss it enough to wander to surface without her protective suit. Besides, the sun had lost its appeal ages ago. The golden crown which used to rule the heaven had hidden behind the ever-present smoke screen the day fire started raining from the sky and hadn't emerged since. Unlike some individuals suffering from chronic optimism, Iskra was educated enough to know it wouldn't re-appear again, at least not during her lifetime. It was gone just like the rest of her old world. Gone and out of her reach. The only source of light in the dim cave was a small fire, and it seemed to attract them like moths; they were all sitting in a circle around it, letting the flames paint with shadows on their faces. Their faces covered in dirt and bruises, faces scarred by fatigue no amount of sleep could ever erase. For once, Iskra was glad that she couldn't enjoy the fruits of the civilization anymore and check her appearance in the mirror. Not having to see her own decay felt comforting. Sure, it was the toxic kind of comfort one got from avoiding reality, but she refused to feel guilty for choosing to swallow the blue pill just this once. They were sitting in an overwhelming silence that was interrupted only by occasional munching. Experience had cured them out of talking during meals; it made no sense to waste time with idle chatter when they could be forced to leave any time. No, they needed to re-charge the precious energy as fast as possible. Well, as much as we can from portions that would probably feel insulting even to a Leningrad soldier, Iskra thought as she opened her can of lunch-meat. Label 'toxic waste' would have been more accurate given percentage of the actual meat present in the product, but it didn't matter. It wasn't like she would live long enough to see the results of her chemistry-packed diet. Iskra almost regretted she had been such a little goody two shoes in the past; had she trusted the loonies who predicted apocalypse was coming, she would have drugged herself into oblivion instead of trying to be a responsible adult. The substance in her mouth felt suspiciously similar to ashes, but Iskra was glad she had something - anything - to silence her stomach with. There were days they simply didn't find enough food to feed everyone in which case they chose not to eat at all out of solidarity. It happened with increasing frequency and she couldn't help but wonder when would they cross the last sacred border and resort to human meat. Some sources claimed it was supposed to taste like pork. Hmmm, pork... She hadn't had pork in ages. Cannibalism had never sounded so appealing. "We can not go on like this," Artyom suddenly exclaimed, breaking their unwritten rule about no discussions during meals. He was a tall guy, once muscular and threatening, now a shadow of his former self. "Well, what do you propose then? Maybe a bullet between our eyes to end the suffering?" Iskra asked after it became apparent nobody else intended to voice their opinion. Artyom was the closest thing she had to a brother and the feeling of affection definitely wasn't one-sided, but somehow, the two always ended up in the metaphorical arena fighting for dominance. "You know very well what I mean, Iskra," Artyom retorted. Oh my god, not the nonsense about the green zone again. Of course she knew what he meant; talking about the seductive Manchester green zone located basically just behind the corner had become a tradition for them. A masochistic tradition, at least by Iskra's standards. "How many times do we have to go through this? The place is full, Artyom. F-U-L-L. In case you want a definition of that word, it means it has reached its maximum capacity. No more refugees. We may as well forget it even exists and focus on realistic goals, like... I don't know, finding food for the next day." "So that's your grand plan? Don't get me wrong, it sounds great and all, but I don't believe it can be described as 'realistic'. Not with how difficult it's been lately. Or do you think something will actually grow on this soil? Something not glowing with radiation?" Well, that may have been true, but Iskra was having none of this. Visibly agitated, the girl stood up, her hands balling into fists. "Let me tell you one thing, pal. Even this highly unlikely scenario is still more likely than those bastards giving up on their beloved regulations." From a purely rational standpoint, their merciless politic geared towards preventing over-population made sense. They couldn't afford to cut down the branch that was holding collective weight of them all in name of false humanity. Demands of the majority overrode demands of the minority. Iskra knew and respected it. That couldn't stop her from hating them with passion, though. "Who said anything about asking for their permission?" Artyom asked with his eyebrow raised. The impact of his words hit them all with strength of an average bulldozer and even Iskra was left speechless. For a moment. "You can't be serious. Do you know what will happen when they catch us?" "If," her friend corrected her. "That's an important distinction. I've explored the territory a bit and it doesn't seem as well-guarded as one would think. There are definitely some serious security breaches we could use to our advantage. I've seen few unprotected spots. It's possible to get in," he exclaimed with a spark in his eye. "What? Have you heard of anyone who managed it? Have you got some proof? We're not going anywhere, Artyom. At least not without further inspection. Over my dead body, can you hear me?" *** Well, I guess it should have been obvious to me that uttering phrase like 'over my dead body' was just tempting the fate, Iskra thought as she was marching with her little group of friends towards the bright new future. Bright new future in shackles, but I guess that's just a small, unimportant detail. Common sense warned her this could only end in tears, but democracy had proved to be an inherently flawed system once again since they friends had outvoted her. Should have established dictatorship instead. God, I can't believe we're actually doing it. Do they have a death wish or what? Maybe they had, albeit on an unconscious level. Back in happier days, Iskra had been a firm supporter of euthanasia. Human life was sacred and should be treasured, but everyone deserved the right to throw in the towel before their existence devolved into its pitiful parody. Perhaps they simply saw similarities in their predicament and decided to end the suffering. It would certainly explain the lack of forethought in this so-called 'plan.' The weather was nice, which in post-apocalyptic dictionary meant sharp wind wasn't trying to steal oxygen from their lungs. The air was still dry and every breath scraped her throat a little, but she had grown accustomed to it already. Those who couldn't adapt quickly quickly generally didn't last long. The one thing Iskra still couldn't accept was the world writhing in a mortal agony. If she hadn't witnessed the transformation with her own eyes, nobody and nothing could convince her this sad planet was actually Earth. It seemed as if some malevolent force had sucked out all color out of the land, and it broke her heart every time. Lush forests, crystal clear ponds and blossoming gardens had been replaced by endless plains of ashes. "Are you angry?" asked Anna, the only one of their group who didn't keep their distance from her. "No. I just don't have a reason to be happy because I know it's not going to work." Artyom may have seen 'unsecured spots,' but it was pure madness they could get to them unnoticed. A lone wanderer was something entirely different from a party of six people. One person could slip under the radar, but so many of them in this terrain? It didn't take a genius to estimate how low their chances were. Astronomically low, to be exact. "Why are you going with us, then?" Iskra had to smile a little despite their circumstances. "What would I do without you?" Sound of growling engines suddenly filled the air, vehicles appeared in the horizon and Iskra knew they lost. Strangely enough, the feeling growing in her stomach wasn't dread. It was relief. Running away wouldn't do at this point, so the only thing they could do was to entrust their fate into their hands. Passing the responsibility onto someone else, even if that someone else hardly had their best interest at heart, felt almost refreshing. This sentiment seemed to be prevalent among the group. Faces of her friends were calm if somewhat sheepish. Soldiers began trickling from the vans in surprisingly large quantities; one would have thought they had arrived to subdue a local terrorist group, not a bunch of exhausted refugees. Those that held big, scary looking guns Iskra couldn't identify stayed behind, apparently ready to shoot in the unlikely event they tried something funny. One of them - probably their leader, judging from the fancy uniform - approached the party. "Alright, lot, I'm afraid we can't have you roaming so close to the green zone. You've been warned before. We can do this peacefully, which means you will state your name, age and occupation to the officer here who will record it and then you will get inside the car, or we can do it my way." He didn't describe the second variant, but Iskra's imagination could fill in the gaps quite well. None of them were feeling especially rebellious, so there was no need to make things harder for themselves by refusing to cooperate. Artyom Vladimirovich Berezin, 29, a gardener. Anna Policzna, 24, a cook. Jan Polinsky, 38, hairdresser. "Iskra Nikolaevna Martova, 27, an engineer," the brunette recited automatically when her turn came up and got ready to board the car, but the soldier stopped her with his arm. "No, wait for a second." What? Another man rushed to him, they exchanged a few words Iskra didn't catch and then nodded in agreement. "You're not going there, Miss Martova. Get on here," her guide pointed to another car, his lips stretched in a tiny smile. "What? Why?!" Iskra had counted with being captured, but separation from her friends didn't sit well with her. The soldiers, however, didn't intend to explain themselves. Before she could truly begin to protest, two men grabbed her each by one arm, threw her inside the van and locked her there. She banged on the door angrily, but the driver ignored her and the vehicle drove off. Terrified beyond imagination, Iskra slid down on her knees. Just what was going to happen to her?