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The Zone
©1995 John Tynes

It is a year from now, and our world is dying. A terrible virus, previously unknown to medical science, has emerged from the ruins of Soviet Russia and spread across the globe. It has devastated entire nations, sparing none. The virus is airborne, resiliant, and seemingly ravenous in claiming life after life. No cure has been devised. Because of its virility and the speed of modern passenger transport it has moved like the wind. In some areas, casualties are as high as 80%; death is only a matter of days at most. In the most advanced nations, including the U.S., casualties are at 40%. Millions upon millions have died in the space of months. The resulting social devastation is incalculable. Martial law is in effect in many areas, and travel is strictly limited. Infected areas are closed off and patroled. The disease seems to kill at random. Many are untouched, despite contact with the infected. There seems to be no pattern to who survives and who dies. The virus is capricious, contagious, and poorly understood. Widespread but unfounded belief that the disease is the result of old Soviet biological weapons experiments---presumably released in the chaos of breakaway republics and underfunded containment projects---has led the public to call the virus glasnost. It is also referred to as "the Soviets' revenge," an appellation not taken kindly by the Russian government.

In short, the world is in a state of crisis. No government is equipped to deal with death and chaos on this scale, and at best the world's governments engage in strict military order and the abolition of many civil rights deemed hazardous in the face of the contagion; at worst, the result is death squads, mass executions of the infected, and scorched-earth bombings at the first sign of an outbreak.

Despite all claims to the contrary, the source of the contagion is, in fact, known to a handful in the governments of Russia and the United States. It has been traced back to an area in Siberia known as Tunguska; an area known during the Cold War and still today as the Zone.

The Zone
The Zone is an area about ten miles square. It is the site of the famous Tunguska Blast of 1908, in which a tremendous meteor crashed to earth leaving a large area of devastation. The site was studied extensively, beginning with a scientific expedition in 1928. This and other studies challenged old beliefs about the nature of meteors and meteoric impacts, but nothing truly anamolous was discovered. That was true until the 1950s, when something unusual was noticed by the local Soviet administrators.

It began with disappearances, and with deaths. Local people were turning up dead, horribly mutilated, as were livestock. Investigation led to the violent apprehension of a thing never before seen: a creature of claw and sinew, like no life form known on Earth. The thing died within days, and the subsequent dissection and analysis brought no real answers. It was a lifeform that, while clearly capable of surviving in our world, nonetheless seemed to have come from a different evolutionary track altogether.

Other strange phenomena occurred in the wake of the recently-halted killings. These ranged from lights in the sky to alleged temporal distortions to seemingly random cases of amnesia, blindness, and schizophrenia. Over the course of a year, the Soviets moved everyone out of the area and blocked off all access to it. The perimeter of the Zone, as it came to be called, was fenced, barricaded, and patroled.

The cause of this dramatic action was not the strange predator, nor was it the bizarre effects visited on the populace. Instead, it was something else. Soviet researchers looking into the situation had located a weird anomaly at the heart of the Zone---the very place that was the epicenter of the Tunguska blast. There, within a building built just a few years previously, the researchers found the source of the disturbances. It was an area about ten feet in diameter, shaped roughly like a globe, that displayed a variety of unusual phenomena although it was not visible to the naked eye. This space was mildly radioactive, and also produced anomalous electromagnetic readings. It seemed to swallow radio and sonar waves, and those working near it found gaps in their memory and strange sensations of time and space shifting in some fashion.

The Zone and its contents became a state secret, and remained so throughout the cold war. Periodic examinations revealed nothing new of significance except that the effects of the space grew stronger over the years, but the Zone remained quarantined and the area contained within it was allowed to deteriorate. Buildings crumbled, streets cracked, and wild growth sprouted up over the abandoned neighborhoods. Plant growth was unusual, showing both unusual speed and strange mutations of development. Some of this could be explained by the slowly-increasing radiation, but not everything was so readily understood.

Three events stand out from this period, however. They added little to scientists' understanding of the Zone, but they were remarkable.

First, in 1965, it was discovered that there were occasional fluctuations in the power contained within the space at the heart of the Zone. Experimentation revealed that when these fluctuations occurred, matter that entered the space disappeared. Whether such matter disintegrated or was somehow moved elsewhere could not be determined. From that time forward, whenever a fluctuation began to occur scientists would put data-collecting instruments into the space. These included things such as sonar beacons and radio transmitters; the result was always the same. The device would disappear, and nothing more could be learned. Tranmission units ceased transmitting, beacons ceased emitting, or if they were still functioning, their signals could no longer be received. Opinion was split as to whether the devices were being destroyed or simply moved someplace else.

Second, in 1971, something came out of the space during one of the fluctuations. It was a human woman, on the brink of death. She was caucasian, appeared to be in her early thirties, and had suffered terrible wounds as if from an animal. She lived for perhaps fifteen minutes, delirious and bleeding. Although she cried and wailed constantly, she also spoke some intelligible words, in English, which were transcribed by the scientists at the site: "Don't send me back." Post-mortem analysis showed no particular differences between her and a 'normal' human female. Her body was preserved and studied sporadically as new advances in forensic science made such studies relevant again. Nothing new was learned.

Finally, in 1979, the scientists had concluded that the fluctuations were increasing in both duration and magnitude. They now occurred as often as twice a month. It was decided to send a small team of researchers and soldiers into the space, to learn what they could and see if they could return. Volunteers were recruited, and outfitted with a variety of supplies, scientific instruments, and (for the soldiers) weapons. They also took with them the scientists' best projections for when future fluctuations would occur so that they could attempt to return to the space at one such time and re-enter our world. It was reasoned that since two different living beings had entered our world from the space, it could be possible for humans from our world to both enter and return from whatever lay beyond. The team assembled, awaited the next fluctuation, and went through. They never returned.

Thus the Zone remained an enigma, and a state secret of the highest order, up through the fall of the Soviet empire and remaining so today.

The Plague
The Glasnost virus entered our world on March 6, 1996. The Zone had remained in the hands of the Russian government, and had also remained a secret. By this time there was no on-site staff other than the soldiers who still patroled the perimeter. A variety of monitoring devices were left on the scene, which would alert the scientists who had authority over the study of the Zone when needed. On this date, the alert was sent: something had come through the space from the other side and entered the Zone. Mobilization was reasonably swift, but it was too late. Video recorders captured the scene. From within the space at the heart of the Zone, a creature had emerged. It looked like a beast from a nightmare, similar to the thing that had come through fifty years earlier. The thing made its way out of the building and into the Zone, where it was encountered within the hour by a group of soldiers. They attempted to herd it into a nearby building where it could be contained, but the thing tore through them. Several soldiers died. The rest, unfortunately, had been infected with the virus which the thing carried.

Before long, the creature was captured (though it was wounded in the process) and the usual round of scientific examination began. But the virus---whose presence was, of course, unknown---spread amongst all of the researchers as well as their assistants, guards, and support personnel. From there it was a matter of a few quick leaps before the virus reached small population centers nearby the Zone, and from there it spread like wildfire.

Research into the Zone was, for the moment, forgotten as the Russian government attempted frantically to contain the disease. Underfunded and disorganized, they failed; on the other hand, it is doubtful that any government could have stopped a virus of such unprecedented virility and ease of transmission.

Shortly, the Russian government enlisted the aid of the best virologists and biologists in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere to study the creature which had come out of the Zone. It had lived for about four days, throughout which it grew increasingly listless and sickly. Whether this was due to the creature's own susceptibility to the virus, or to the creature's removal from its natural source of nutrition, or to something in our atmosphere that killed it, is unknown. Nothing in the creature's biology provided any meaningful data as to how to stop the virus.

The Mission
The plague brought new interest into the Zone, and while its existence was still kept a secret from the public it was soon the focus of intense scrutiny and analysis by scientists from around the world. The work was difficult, as it had to be performed in strict quarantine and with every effort made to protect the scientists and the staff from infection. Protective suits and constant checkups were the order of the day.

Agreeing that the cause of the plague lay beyond the zone, the scientists decided to send another team through to the other side, much as the Soviets had in 1979. The team was hurriedly assembled and outfitted, and was composed of both scientists and military specialists since what scant evidence there was of the world beyond the Zone suggested it was a harsh and violent place. Those who went had to have already demonstrated (apparent) immunity to the virus.

The goals of the team were threefold:
1) Learn all you can about what lies beyond in the shortest time possible.
2) Make contact with such intelligent life as exists and see what they know about the virus.
3) Come back.

As the team completed their briefing and were on their way to the Zone, disaster struck. A group of fanatical American extremists, having learned a little of the Zone's role in the plague, made the trek across the ocean and slipped into the Zone. Their plan was to seize control of the site and force the governments participating in the research at the Zone to reveal the truth to the world. This group---who called themselves "The Truth Brigade"---believed that the Zone was an active biological warfare site run by the U.N. to assist in its (alleged) plans for world domination, and that the plague was either an accidental or intentional release of bacterial agents originating within the Zone. The Truth Brigade was grossly misinformed, and they knew nothing of the Zone's origins or anamolous nature.

Arriving at the Zone, the Brigade's members---well-financed and well-equipped by years of fund-raising among sympathetic extremists---penetrated a remote area of the Zone's sizable perimeter and made their way to the center, guided by the lights and activity of the central research unit. There, they attacked the lightly-defended headquarters of the scientists and seized control of the center of the Zone.

The First Game
It is at this point that the player characters---who comprise the team of specialists bound for the world beyond the Zone---enter the picture. They arrive at the Zone's perimeter just before the Truth Brigade seize the HQ; in fact, they and those accompanying them are the first to learn what has really happened. The next fluctuation in the space at the heart of the Zone is due to happen in two hours; after that, it will probably be a full week before it occurs again. In that week, hundreds of thousands of people will die. Time is of the essence.

The first game session will consist of a briefing, character creation, the trip to the Zone, and the battle with the Truth Brigade. A number of expendable NPCs are present with the characters (these are the NPCs transporting the character there, briefing them, etc.) who can take the bullets from the Truth Brigade as needed. This first session will be mostly combat, and a desperate race to reach the heart of the Zone before the two hours are up.

Having gotten past the Truth Brigade and entering the heart of the Zone, the PCs step into the space and disappear.

The World Beyond
The characters' initial impressions of the world beyond the space will be confusing. They are standing within a massive walled courtyard, surrounded by several dozen humans. These people are all undergoing torture of various sorts, ranging from being roasted over a fire to crucifixion. The area seemes almost medieval in mood and appearance. Around the space they have emerged from there is an arcane circle, inlaid with metal into the stone floor. There are a number of guards present, armed with melee weapons and dressed in somewhat primitive fashion. A fight likely ensues, that ends with the PCs escaping from the weird temple-like place into the forest beyond.

The next couple of game sessions will consist of the PCs wandering around the countryside, trying to get a handle on this place. The area they're in is heavily forested, with scattered villages and farms. Technology seems to be at a pre-industrial stage. The inhabitants speak Russian, but they have many unfamiliar words and dialects. Few can read or write, but most are at least familiar with the concept and know of people who can.

In short order, the PCs will meet up with a survivor from the 1979 Soviet team that entered the portal. He's now in his fifties, and very ill. This man essentially briefs the PCs on just what's going on, which is as follows.

The portal, as near as he can figure, is a gateway through time. By his reckoning, it's about 200 years later---call it 2200 or so---but he really can't be sure. The plague of the 1990s left world population at a tiny fraction of its former size, and resulted in global chaos. You can fill in the rest: 200 years of humanity sliding back into a pre-industrial state of feudal warlords and short life expectancies. Cities have crumbled, social order lost, principles of government forgotten. This would seem, perhaps, overly extreme if it weren't for another factor at work besides the plague.

This other factor is the Zone. It has spread outwards from Siberia, and now covers the entire world---or at least as much of it as the ex-Soviet traveller has been able to learn about. He knows for certain that the Zone covers all of Asia and Japan, as well as Europe. He has no idea about Africa, the Americas, Australia, or Antarctica, but given that he hasn't once seen a plane flying overhead in the twenty years he's been here, he's willing to bet that the Zone is global and that almost the entire world is in a similar pre-industrial state.

The bizarre effects recorded by the Soviets in the original Zone---random blindness, schizophrenia, and disappearances---are now commonplace. The following is a list of the changes and effects wrought by the global Zone in which humanity now dwells.

Background radiation has increased to the point that human life expectancy is now in the mid-30s. Cancer---which people mistakenly call "the plague" out of old legends from the disaster---kills two out of every three people or thereabouts. The increased radiation has also dropped the birth rate dramatically; many pregnancies now end in miscarriage, or in birth defects too extreme for prolonged survival. The birth of a healthy child is a rare event in most villages, and many people have minor birth defects. Legends say this is a curse from God.

Spatial anomalies are commonplace. Portions of the landscape change frequently, though some portions change in a predictable fashion. Entire mountain ranges appear and disappear, playing havoc with weather patterns and the ecosystem; on a smaller scale, it's easy to lose one's way when landmarks shift and change. This makes travel and trade difficult and unreliable. This has entered the realm of religion, with varying explanations for why the land can no longer be trusted.

Temporal anomalies are also frequent. Most adults expect that, perhaps once a year or so, they will find themselves with "missing time" ranging from an hour to several weeks. Those affected disappear, and reappear at the same spot some random time later, recalling nothing of the intervening time. On rare occasions, someone will be moving through the vanishing spot when the person reappears; death is the usual result, as both bodies are merged together in a hideous fashion. As a result, it is now a custom to carry a pouch of chalk (or other substance) with you at all times. When someone is taken away, you make a circle on the ground around that spot to warn others to keep out. This has become a ritual; some shaman-types are retained to etch elaborate circles around the vanishing point of loved ones to allegedly increase their chance of return. Stepping in a circle is taboo until the person returns, when the circle is wiped away.

Mutations are common, ranging from the simple birth defects mentioned above to more dramatic examples. On the outer edge of the dramatic spectrum is the emergence of minor psychic abilities among as much as 40% of the populace. Every village has people who can move objects or start fires with a thought and so on. More importantly, psychics are relied on to do the 'work' once performed by animals or machines: planting seed, milling grain, building houses, and so on. Psychics are the nearest to a craftsman's guild there is. They are the ones who know how to make things work, and because they rely on their abilities, they have little to teach non-psychics. The most vital psychics are those who can take the energy that comes from the emotional friction within a village and channel it into work; simply having a group of people together produces harnessable energy, at no harm to the populace. This is one major reason for the rise of the warlords, who want to accumulate as many subjects as possible for their psychics to draw usable energy from. The discovery that extremes of emotion (especially pain) produce dramatically more energy has led some to set up 'torture farms' where victims are kept in constant pain to drive the gears that make the flour and so forth.

Freak weather is a fact of life. "Zone Storms" are often accompanied by temporal or spatial anomalies, not to mention weirder effects. One of the weirdest is the sky-born, grotesque beings who appear during Zone Storms and are left behind when the storm passes. These creatures range widely in physiology, ability, intelligence, and temperment. Most, however, are monstrous-looking predators like the ones that the locals pitched through the portal back to the 20th century. They are feared, and fables are created about the ones that live long enough. Some are decades old, and are intelligent enough to rule their own little strongholds.

Spirits of the dead are also encountered throughout the Zone, but very rarely. They tend to congregate around spatial anomalies for some reason; this makes them both easy and hard to find. Whether or not they are, in fact, spirits of the dead is open to interpretation; the locals think so, but an important consideration is that no known spirits of the dead have been encountered. No one's dead wife, mother, etc. has ever been sighted. The spirits are always strangers. Most are simply wispy phantoms, others are howling voices, and a rare few have almost-solid bodies. None communicate with humans, although some people with psychic abilities claim they can talk to them; other psychics have even claimed that they could capture spirits in bottles.

The above effects of the global Zone have brought about a change that is perhaps even more significant than the plague itself: the return of widespread and primitive superstition and supernatural awe to humanity. The world around us is now quite malevolent and randomly hurtful. You can't trust time, you can't trust space, you can't trust anything. There is no stability when a Zone storm might take away your father and leave a hideous thing behind, when the landmarks your people use to travel through a wasteland move at random, when hardly anyone lives long enough to see their children out of adolescence. Belief in magic, ghosts, and every other variety of superstition has come back in spades, and have provided one more impediment to humanity's efforts to rebuild. It's easy for warlords to instill fear in the populace---the very land around you is a traitor. Finally, the rise of psychic powers has mitigated the need for another industrial revolution---as if the dramatically decreased and decentralized population wasn't enough.

Miscellaneous Notes
Oppressive monarchy that rules the land. Extremes of violence and sadism. Or independent warlord?

Three of the 1979 team members are still alive. One rules the land; the others are either allied with or against him, or are off on their own being weird. Finding each of them and interacting with them will be major campaign goals.

Histories of the past two centuries are scant at best. The world has both devolved and progressed. The virus is present, of course, but the vast majority of the inhabitants are inherently resistant to it. No cure is known. With the exception of a handful of people (mostly the 1979 team) no one knows a thing about the portal, the origins of the plague, or anything else.

Their technology is a weird mix of familiar Earth tech and a strange psychic science that harnesses emotional energy.

Wide variety of psychic powers, ranging from traditional stuff to dreamweaving and other fanciful things.

A disorganized resistance movement is fighting to overthrow the monarch.

All of this is set in Siberia. Deal with the natural resources. Lots of inuit heritage. What lies beyond the borders? Beats me.

The PCs have no real hope of stopping the disease back in our time, unless they can somehow alter the portal to take them back to an earlier date. This could be a long-term campaign goal. Otherwise, it's up to them to make the best of a bad world.

Another long-term goal: destroy the Zone. Its pernicious influence is slowly destroying the world, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other horrible disasters.

Time paradox: the time-traveling creature brought the virus from the future to infect the past, thus creating the future it came from. How to deal with this?

Truth Brigade soldiers come through the portal also?

No firearms present, the technology has been lost. Well-designed but primitive weapons are the norm, plus psychic powers and other special abilities. Keep track of your ammo!

Lots of great special effects created by the Zone; lights in the sky, all kinds of freaked-out weirdness. Zone Storms! Other cool things that the populace take for granted.

Religion. Some will think the rapture came and we're now in hell. Other religions will have mututed, new ones started. References to "God" are probably still prevalent, though the context may have changed dramatically. Superstition and folkways (such as the chalk circles) will vary from place to place.

The portal functions both ways, but to come out the other end, the other 'space' in our world must be in one of its fluctuation periods. On the Zone end, it's in constant flux; on the Earth end, it's every week or so. The problem is predicting just when the Earth end is open, since you can't tell from this side. In other words, you just aren't going to get back home because you don't know when the other gate is in flux. You could calculate it, but you don't know what year it is in the Zone world. Your calculations would have to be accurate to within a half-hour or so (the amount of time which the Earth portal is open), across a stretch of 200+ years. Ain't gonna happen. You're stuck.

Where do people go when they enter the Zone portal and don't come out in our Earth? Who knows?

The space acts as an EMP pulse, fusing circuitry?

The Zone covers the whole world, or so it seems. Did this happen gradually, or all at once? Who knows?

People from plague-era Earth can come through the gate anytime we want them to; even whole batallions of troops might pop out!

Explain how and why the two creatures and the woman came through the gate into Russia.

Story Ideas
Conflict. Feudal warring and stuff.

Mysteries. Sky-born rulers with hidden knowledge about the Zone.

Restoration. Locating pre-plague tech and knowledge ala Gamma World.

Plague-era Earth NPCs (or PCs) are always available. We could coordinate some major arrivals, such as a huge chunk of the Red Army or somesuch to change the balance of power in the Zone.

Exploration. Initially we're dealing with the Siberia setting, which has lots of potential on its own. But what's beyond there? What's happened in Moscow? Berlin? Tokyo? Japan had tremendous urban development; what state is it in today? How about America? Armed enclaves of fully-aware humans that have persisted since the plague and know everything that's happened?

Conquest. Become an enlightened warlord and lead a free enclave to prosperity.

Salvation. Find a way to go back in time and stop the plague from ever happening.

Escape. Find a way to leave the Zone and step into other dimensions. Where do the sky-born come from? They know, but those who could tell, don't.

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