Follow the edge of the Swamp until you reach the twisted tree, the Three-Quarters Man had told me. He’d also told me I’d know it when I saw it.
Well, he was right about that.
“Right,” I murmured to myself, looking up at the gaunt, distorted mass that spiralled into the air for what seemed like hundreds of metres, casting its misshapen shadow out over the seething quagmire of the Swamp and the parched hardpan of the Wasteland alike, “from the tree, out into the sand until I reach the red paint.”
Giving my provisions a final check, and nodding to Yool, the oddly buff Christmas tree who has been here the whole time, I started out across the emptiness. It was a long and boring trudge, but there’s this to be said about boredom. It beats excitement hands down, especially the sort of excitement you’re likely to encounter in the Wasteland. Anyway, it was little more than a solid morning’s walk until I got to the first crumbly edge of the red-marked land. Oh yes, I’m quite capable of putting in the hard effort where it proves to be worthwhile. Although a vehicle of some kind wouldn’t have gone astray, such machines as work in the Wasteland don’t do so for a long or dependable amount of time, and often turn out to be more trouble than they’re worth. Something … gets into them. Gremlins in the sand, Creepy says. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’ll do for an explanation.
I don’t know what agency went around putting things in the middle of nowhere and then painting the ground red around them, but they must have had a brother-in-law who was a red paint salesman or something. The packed, parched soil, the scattered rocks, even the sand was painted. I scuffed a bit as I walked, leaving an uneven trail of clean ground behind me, but for the most part the red was uniform and untouched, as if even the wind and rain and desert critters didn’t make themselves known here. When I passed the first rank of signs – bold-but-battered biohazard and radiation signs on this occasion – I began to understand maybe why this was the case. Shrugging, I continued on.
The second rank of signs, visibly part of a large ring this time, curving in around whatever lay in the centre of this zone, were slightly more personal and spoke in several languages of the deadly, sticky consequences of continuing to trespass on ‘intra-military territory and testing grounds’. Fines were not mentioned. They were accompanied by the remains of a chain-link fence with twists of barbed wire, but where the elements had not touched the ground, they had torn up whole stretches of the fence and scattered it like ribbon across the red grit.
The third rank of signs was composed of totems, bones and skins and skulls, pierced through with great rusted iron pylons like star pickets as though to hold them in place and prevent them from escaping. The skulls were all upside-down, and had black stones in their eye sockets. I passed them by. There were no more signs, although a couple of times I saw mounds in the distance, dark against the red, desiccated bodies heaped in jumbled masses or staked to the ground in a final warning.
I stepped through into the dead heart, knowing the moment I crossed the threshold. It’s fairly common to feel like an intruder, be it socially, culturally, or in terms of species or gender. But to feel like an intruder by simple dint of being alive – that’s a feeling you experience seldom. If you’re lucky.
There are usually buildings, or at least constructions or apparatus, in the centre of the forbidden areas. This one contained only bleached, powdery nothing, Wasteland concentrated to its purest and most exotically entropic state. It was slightly sunken, a listless crater, and the red paint faded to a sort of powdery bubble gum pink before giving up entirely. There was no moisture, no bugs, no plants or seeds or bacteria. The entire area was hermetically cleansed of anything remotely organic.
What you find there will bring you closer to what you seek.
In the middle of the powdery dish, limp and stringy and coloured in three shades of faded blue, was a doll. I stood over it for a long moment, feeling deeply unsettled and remembering that, when I’d mentioned to the Three-Quarters Man that the red zones tended to be laid down around something nasty, dangerous or contagious, the Three-Quarters Man had said This one is no exception. I bent, and picked up the brittle, horribly weightless little thing.
Not a doll.