Amidst the tranquil embrace of nature, Yuri Andreyev’s steely blue eyes cut through the peaceful scene ahead as sharp as a blade. With each calculated breath, he knew he stood on the precipice of destiny, his five years of military preparation converging into this singular moment. As he gazed past the break in the trees towards the village ahead, the goal of his mission confronted him. This was his purpose. The bugles and drums had called, and he had answered. Failure he dared not entertain.
Through the break in the trees from the brush-lined trail , Yuri gazed ahead, studying what lay before him while, beside him, his guide waited on his horse for Yuri to proceed.
Below him, a stream ran through the valley. Yuri could see women chatting there as they did their wash. On the slope behind them was his objective for the night. A small village of white huts with thatched roofs and stucco siding beneath a clear sky overlooked the stream. Its rustic setting remained untouched by progress, devoid of power poles, and the closest thing to a vehicle was a horse-drawn cart on old, bicycle spoke wheels. Barnyard animals wandered free—cows, pigs, dogs, and even goats roamed between the structures. Children played, laughter echoed, and men worked the fields.
From his saddle, Yuri examined the pleasant serenity of the place as his horse picked at the trail’s foliage. With an eye for detail, his gaze remained rock steady, never wavering. Feeling the cool spring air on his face, he let the magnificent animal finish cropping the vegetation. Speed here was all important—he needed a fast set of getaway hooves beneath him to prevent his capture should anyone discover his mission. So, the stallion should have its fill.
Yet he hadn't stopped here for his horse's benefit. One never hurried into what could be danger ahead. To be captured now when this close to reaching his objective was unthinkable. This was not a time to make a mistake. He hadn’t been chosen for this mission over a hundred and thirty other volunteers to make one now.
It was a peaceful scene, but his trained eye ignored that. He was looking for anything looking back or out of place. The greatest dangers are always unseen, such as a security camera hidden in a fake bird’s nest, yet given away by the nest being too low for birds to use. A person masquerading as a washerwoman might be concealing a weapon, but Yuri knew their eyes would betray them—always watching, not washing.
It is always best to discover the enemy from a safe distance rather than from up close and personal. Only when his horse finished, did he prod it ahead down the trail leading towards the villagers at the stream.
His guide and host, Garn Asgaroth, resumed leading the way down to the creek, unaware and unsuspecting of Yuri's mission. The village below was his. “New France” he called it. Although on the map in Yuri Andreyev’s saddlebag, it was known simply as “Village Seventeen”.
Beneath his hooded cloak, Andreyev keenly assessed the lack of village defenses. The end here would come swiftly. It would happen in the blink of an eye. That fast. And not even one of those below had a clue what was coming. Nor could they stop it even if they knew.
Yet death was not new here. It had come before. The village below was part of what was called the Mutant Colony, so named for its part in a war fought two hundred years ago. The War of the Great Conflagration had taken its toll here. Although Andreyev wasn’t exactly sure which side started the war—the Twin Alliance or the Union of the Great Republics—both sides finished it, burying each other in mutual suicide beneath tons of radioactive rubble still hot today.
The survivors of the nuked cities had been brought here by the thousands to escape the radiation. Yet their escape had been brief. When others realized the radioactive fallout of the cities had to be cleaned up—and those who did it would die from doing so—they made those already too sick to live remove the fallout.
The people that had been sent here to escape the radiation had been sent back, the sickest first. Of the tens of thousands sent to places like this, thousands and thousands were sent back again until there were almost none left to send. It was a desperate but logical choice—survival of the fittest. The others were dying anyway, and someone had to haul the radioactive waste out of the cities for burying.
They didn’t send everyone back. The healthiest remained. The people in the village were the descendants of those remaining survivors. Yet they carried the damaged genes of their ancestors, resulting in deformities and mutations. Siamese twins, disfigurements, and other abnormalities were the norm here.
The Mutant Colony lay between the Empire to the east and the Federation to west. Border security by both sides made certain these people and their contaminated genes stayed here. No one was allowed to leave. Their isolation was a cruel reality, deemed necessary to maintain the genetic purity of their neighbors. Every person in this province carried some sort of defective gene in their bodies through inbreeding.
You could be shot trying to escape. Keeping them confined insured both the Federation and the Empire their polluted genes would not contaminate their own citizens. The two neighboring countries intended to remain genetically pure. Those here were denied electricity, doctors, and even food. What they needed, they provided for themselves. The plan was to simply let them die off from their own cancers and defects.
Yet plans change. The Mutant Colony had suddenly become of military value. It represented the only means by which one side could reach the other in order to wage war. With the end of the rainy season, summer would bring the military conquest that would wipe these people off the face of the earth. It was inevitable, as certain as the rising sun. One might just as well write it in the history books now as wait for the actual outcome. Indeed! It was his duty to see it happen or personally be held accountable if it didn’t.
This was Yuri's mission, to find a way through here for the Empire to attack the Federation. As such, he was a spy. No doubt, the same idea had occurred the Federation and they had sent their spies in here too. They might meet. That's what he was on the watch for now.
The voice who asked the question was Garn Asgaroth, dressed in woodsman's clothes and a green hat, who waited on his own horse beside him.
"Yes. Let's go."
As Yuri followed Garn, he saw himself as separated from these peasants by his privileged upbringing and so above their fate. These villagers were but pawns in the Empire’s, path to reach the Federation's borders. Yet their plight was his avenue to his personal reward and happiness. He understood the price these people had paid, and would continue to pay, but he had volunteered for this mission for his good, not theirs.. If he hadn't, someone else in the Empire would have. He wouldn’t let these people's circumstances stand in the way of his aspirations. If he did, it would be bad for him.
The trees began to thin out as they approached the stream. First the women, then the children themselves, gave them notice. Curious. They watched the two riders draw near. The villagers knew at once there was something different about him. It was his horse.
Yuri Andreyev’s Empire had no horses as livestock. They existed only as racehorses and polo ponies. Thus, when his commanders sent him here as a spy, they had only show horses for him to pick from to ride. Deciding to outfit himself with the quickest means of escape possible, Andreyev rode Strider, the fastest horse in the Empire and winner of the Triple Crown. In a land of broken-down nags, he was riding a creature of unsurpassed perfection. Heads were turning around in wonder to peer at the big, speedy stallion with its fine, shiny coat, powerful, surging, grain-fed muscles, and noble, tossing head. Windows were being opened to witness the sight.
And that, of course, produced interest in its rider. Anyone wearing a hood in the province did so to hide some hideous deformity and so many wondered what it was or how he could afford such a fine horse. But Yuri wore a hood only in disguise. Had he come riding in displaying his handsome Aryan features, piercing blue eyes, and close-cut, military blond hair, he would be recognized at once as a soldier of the Empire. And, while that wasn’t a problem here in itself, if the Empire could openly send its spies here, then so could the Federation. Spies must be able to hide from each other and, for Yuri, dressed all in black, a hooded cloak was the best means to do so. He had selected black to match his horse in case of the need for a nighttime escape.
To Andreyev, even though those ahead were the lucky ones to still be alive, he felt as if he was entering a leper colony. These were the survivors. The unclean. The unwanted. Garn, his guide riding ahead, bore the legacy of a genetic catastrophe—four arms. It was a condition known as ishiopagus. It was the same for most of those who lived here. While Garn had four arms, there was likely someone else below with none. This was a genetic disaster pool. Even the least affected were born with defects affecting their hair, eyes, and skin in negative ways. The walking dead, there was nothing that could be done for them except, of course, put them out of their misery—and that day was coming fast. And then the world could finally move on, forgetting their former existence and the genetic burden they carried. The cycle of history would continue—yes—but without them. The scars and reminders of the past war would finally disappear.
From beneath his hood, he returned the villagers’ gazes, looking to see if anyone produced any armaments as his horse splashed across the stream. No one did. A single adobe brick wall was the closest thing to a line of defense—easy pickings for a LAS gun—and the thatched roofs and stucco sidings would easily burn. Without any opposing weapons, the Empirical Storm Troopers (*) would pass through here in minutes. There was nothing to stop them. In fact, the depravity of their living conditions compared to his own standards was deplorable. Simply abominable. The smell of barnyard manure greeted him.
The people themselves were not quite what he expected. He had ridden through seven villages so far to get here since leaving the Empire’s borders and he had seen none of the three-headed horrors and crippled wrecks of humanity the Empire had prepared him for. Yet they weren’t what they should have been either. A little girl standing in his path had pointed ears and a curly pink tail. He counted six fingers on each hand as he rode by, her eyes looking up at him in silent wonder.
As they rode up the hill, he spotted a young boy, perhaps three or four years old, his hair growing in red, spotty patches all over his body. A woman stepped out of a doorway to rescue him from his horse, scooping the child up. She was totally hairless with scaly, reptilian skin, virtually a human lizard. When she pulled the child to safety, he stared at her, wondering just exactly what he had seen.
An albino male stood watching him in passing with white hair and red eyes. About one in every three persons had visible abnormalities that could be easily spotted. In this case, the albino was staring at him suspiciously, not for his horse, but to spot his deformity of which the others here were hardly lacking. One fat, laughing woman who was watching him from her open upstairs window had one undersized breast and yet the other was simply enormous. She took enjoyment in his noticing her and even called to him, inviting him up.
Yet he had other things to do of much greater importance than her in mind. He was just two days away from reaching his mission objective. Maybe he’d call on her on his way back.
For now, no mistakes could be made, no hesitation allowed. Yuri’s focus remained unyielding as he rode further into the village, his intentions hidden behind his hood.
The burden of his duty and the outcome might have weighed heavy upon a lesser man, for the future for these people was sterilization and enslavement. Yet there was no room in him for regrets or personal attachments. He had answered the call of the bugles and drums, pledged his allegiance to the Empire, and now he must fulfill his role. The future was now, and it held no room for loved ones to miss or be missed by. The path of a spy is a solitary one, devoid of regret. Yuri was prepared to carry out his mission, to ensure the success of the Empire, regardless of the sacrifices demanded.
The albino male was still watching him, taking Yuri in with his eyes.
Stay steady. Stay focused. This was his purpose, his destiny. And nothing would stand in his way.
The path of a spy was paved with sacrifice, but Yuri knew that in this forgotten enclave, his actions would shape a future few could fathom. It would include not only their future but his own. The die was cast, the threads of fate woven with the choices he was about to make. And in the future of the mutant colony, a new chapter was set to unfold, like the turning of a page in an ancient book, holding secrets that only time would reveal.
* Note these are not the Storm Troopers of Star Wars. A Storm Trooper is a soldier especially trained in making lightning fast attacks. Hence the name “Storm”.