I-25, 210 Miles Outside of Foundry
Just Over the Colorado Border
Friday, February 24, 2051
The long ride on the dark, dusty highway has continued on into night. Overhead, the big high-speed rail lines continue to send trains barreling down the tracks every fifteen minutes, their lights the only ones that can be seen aside from the occasional fellow traveler. As the captured APC rises a crest, a few small lights dot the landscape below – the first real sign of civilization they’ve seen since the team left Foundry over seven hours ago.
Wormwood, who has pretty much claimed the front passenger seat since leaving Foundry, sits up straight. “Hey guys, we’ve found some life!” Mac’s head snaps upwards from where he had been playing at sleeping. “Life? Gnox herd, or are we talking people?” Pacoy glances up form his tinkering “But is it intelligent life?” Pitbull growls through the cigarette clenched between his lips as he drives the APC on through. “Just buildin’s. Some walkin’ people though. Nothin’ to worry ’bout.”
“Where the hell are we, anyway?” Wormwood wonders as he calls up a map on the APC’s computer. Mac shrugs from the back. “I’d tell you, but I haven’t got a paper map of this region.”
The APC’s computer displays a map of the United States, centered on Foundry, back where they ripped out its GPS. Over the map is a gray box with an error message: “No Response From GPS Satellites” “Dammit, we need to get this heap of junk fixed properly sometime. No GPS means no useful onboard maps.” Wormwood thumps the dashboard in frustration. “Still, if we keep on following the maglev lines we should hit Citadel eventually.” Mac looks at his empty hands. "If we had paper maps, we wouldn’t need to rely on an electronic GPS!’ “If any of us had bothered to download the route maps from the Amur we wouldn’t need a paper map” retorts Wormwood. "It’s not the APC’s fault on this one, Worm. The Citadel is kinda dead to most satellite maps….and, I was too busy saving essential gear and patching bullet wounds to bother with maps, I guess!” Pacoy retorts.
Pitbull nods at Wormwood’s words as he keeps the APC on course. His mind is preoccupied with his own future, rather than the road. Well, what next? The Sarge is dead, so… what now? He thinks to himself.
Wormwood points ahead, “Let’s see if there’s a terminal among those lights we can download some maps from- enough to stop us getting lost, at least. I can do dead-reckoning navigation, I bought a chip for it before we left.” Mac grumbles, throwing his hands up. “Sis, have you been here before?” Siri shrugs. “We’re at 37.145 by -104.52. My database hasn’t been updated in a long time, but we should be a few miles south of Trinidad, Colorado.” She looks out the window, frowning. “I haven’t been here before, though, and I don’t know what is currently down there. Maybe people.” Her remaining eyebrow climbs up as she smiles. “Maybe bears who have learned how to operate electricity!”
Mac laughs. “Maybe so, if there are some Texans who have moved up here.” He flicks open his pocketwatch disdainfully, twisting some dials around before unclipping it from his vest and setting it up front in the APC. “There, it’s not a paper map, but it’ll get us where we’re going.” Pacoy thinks of a quip about having that gizmo installed directly into Mac, but decides against sharing it.
“Excellent work, Mac. I forget other people have GPS as standard. I had the mode disabled on my implant a goodly while back. Too easy to hack back and reveal the computer’s location – which is no good in my line, y’know?” Wormwood grins like a fox. Mac grins back, “Exactly why I have mine on – makes verifying the charges I submit to my clients that much easier!” Pitbull shakes his head after hearing Wormwood. Hope he gets some legs soon. He’s doing less creepin’ and more chattin’ about creepin’ without them.
Mac looks at the display on his watch. “So, what’s the plan? We could bypass all this lot and keep on towards our destination.” “Naw, let’s go see if there’s anything worth stealing!” Wormwood says. “Or shootin’ at, eh Worm?” Pitbull adds with a dark chuckle. Mac pats Pitbull on the shoulder. “High ho Silver!” He then returns to his seat and straps himself in.
The APC rolls down from its look-out point at the crest of the hill, slowly approaching the dots of light that shine out in the night. Densely packed trees escort the ex-military vehicle on either side, the high-strength lights illuminating the area for hundreds of feet ahead of it. Inside the cockpit, Pitbull sees out both through the narrow front portal and with the aid of various screens showing real-time camera views, each with the option of showing in natural-color, night-vision, or infrared.
Wormwood peers at the screens too, trying to spot threats before they can surprise the party, or opportunities before they go by. “Not a big place,” Wormwood talks over his shoulder to the others, “but by the looks of it, it was bigger. We’re probably driving into a cannibal nest or a road-raider lair or somesuch. Hey Pits, did you ever install the machine gun up top?” “Nah man. I’ve been doin’ all the drivin’. We’ve been pretty solid in our trips.” Pitbull says as he leans back and rubs at his eyes.
Mac, for once, grins at the bad news. “Well, at least I don’t have to worry if it’s cannibals. Right sis?” Pacoy quietly whistles Dueling Banjos while looking at the display. “Oh well, a bit of a pity,” Wormwood replies, “If someone shoots at us we can’t shoot back without opening up.” “Even if we’d put that gun on a pintle mount. We could probably ram anyone, anyway if we’re being realistic. This thing’s built for just that.” Pitbull chuckles again before letting off a yawn.
Mac shrugs at the two up front. “If need, I’ve still got my shotgun. I’m fairly mobile, so that should be a decent deterrent.” “Careful, Mac,” Pacoy chides “I just plugged the holes from last time!” Mac grins. “You done good, bo. Haven’t felt this alive in ages!” He pauses, then laughs.
The lights begin to get closer and closer, soon revealing themselves to be shining from the interior of a pre-Collapse building that’s been mostly unspoiled by the encroaching forest surrounding it that has already devoured the sisters and brothers around it. The building looks like an old diner, with a small motel built into the second story; across the street, in a parking lot, lies a big, modern RV with its own lights on. Nothing else in the town-that-was shows any sign of life.
Wormwood’s stomach gives a long, loud growl. No-one’s had anything much to eat since Foundry. Mac peeks forward from his seat. “That a warthog up there, Wormwood? You been holding out on me? I’m famished.” “I think that’s some kind of rest-stop, Mac. With a diner!” says Wormie, pointing at a screen. Mac grins. “Time for some take-out, yeah? I’d say we should eat in, but that thing doesn’t look like it’s handicap-accessible. …does anyone have some cash for food?” “Yeah, I can stump up for some food that isn’t Texan ready-to-barf.” Wormie replies.
Eris leans forward, past Mac and looking at Wormwood. She points her thumb at Pitbull. “The big guy here could just carry Randal in. Doesn’t look like this place has a drive-through, either.” “I’d rather Siri or you carried me,” Wormie replies, “Gotta look after my image.” Mac laughs, then works at opening the hatch after putting on his charred jacket. “What do you say, Eris, you game for carrying that handsome lug around?” He steps out onto the ground, stretching happily. “Handsome?” Pacoy Frowns “I thought she was talking about Worm?” Eris laughs at Pacoy’s joke as she holds up her still-bandaged arm in its blue cast. “I’m not going to be lifting even a hundred and ten pound dwarf like Randal around any time soon.”
Wormwood loosens both pistols in their holsters, but stows his big rifle by his seat, then levers himself up and over into his waiting wheelchair. “Lemme see if I can do this, before anyone has to carry me, ok?” Pitbull chuckles at Wormwood. “What? Don’t want a Pitty-back! Bahahaha! Aaaah- pun…” Pitbull trails off as he lights another smoke. Mac groans and rolls his eyes, heading over towards the structure, checking it out before Wormwood gets settled in for transport.
“I’m ignoring you, Pac” Wormie growls as he rolls down the ramp to join Mac. Pacoy activates a Buzz Bot, the 10” quadrotor whirring to life and cautiously exploring the area ahead. Mac heads up to the door before knocking on the frame and popping his head in. “Sorry we didn’t call ahead, but could we get a table for six? One of us is handicapped, so we’ll need a blank spot at the table.”
: “Umm, can someone give me and my chair a lift up the stairs, guys? I can manage the rest myself, though.” Wormwood looks unhappy at his inability to move. Mac turns around and gestures to Siri. "Mind helping me with the back of this, Sis? Don’t know if I can manage this guy by myself. " Mac grabs the arms of the wheelchair and helps Wormwood inside. “Thanks Mac, Siri. The chair maybe could’ve handled that, but better sure than flat on my back in the street.” Wormwood says quietly before rolling into the store.
A little bell jingles as the door opens to reveal a room that might be described as part sit-down restaurant (maybe even a little fancier than you’d expect from the diner exterior), part trophy room, and part one-stop-shopping experience for a party that would make Pitbull a very, very happy man. There are just three tables in one corner of the room – two boots, with a proper table in between, each with six places for eating. All around the room are what appear to be hunting trophies – a Gnox head on the wall here, a stuffed Lox in the corner there, two deers with the biggest damn rack of antlers you’ve ever seen directly over the bar that stretches across the room. Behind the bar is an assortment of weapons that would make any hunter proud, all displayed on the wall with conveniently-placed price tags and VR tags identifying what, exactly, they are. Rifles, pistols, ammunition, knives – they’re all there. Even fishing rods and other hiking expeditionary gear. Between the weapons is a little hole that leads into the back room, which looks part kitchen part taxidermy studio part storage room.
Pitbull walks in and whistles before muttering “Damn” in a breathless tone at the taxidermy. He sticks his smoke back into his mouth idly as he stares the waist-high stuffed black Dhoggie right in the eyes. He smirks, patting his Reaper hanging from his shoulder as he moves his eyes across the veritable arsenal behind the bar. Suddenly, the weapon that he brought in for ‘insurance’ doesn’t seem so out of place. Mac whistles. “Hot damn, Pitbull, did we walk into your hunting lodge?” “Shit, maybe my grampa’s. You might know ’im? Brock Sampson?” Pitbull chuckles again, ashing his cigarette in one of the ash trays at the bar.
A woman stands behind the counter, slowly polishing a shotgun. Her hair is curly and brown, falling down across her shoulder in waves. She’s a big girl – not fat, just large, easily standing over six feet tall, and she’s all proportional. She looks down at Wormwood’s tiny frame in his wheelchair, her chestnut eyes smiling at him as she addresses the group. “Welcome to the Lodge! Feel free to seat yourself at one of the tables. You boys looking for the finest in exotic dining tonight, or were you interested in something else here? Maybe wanted to sign up for one of the hunts, or buy a new rifle?”
Mac raises his hand to tip his hat to the woman before he realizes he’s not wearing it, but commits to the gesture anyway. “Pleasure to meet you, ma’am. I for one am looking for some chow, and I’ve heard this place has got the best. Might I say it’s a beautiful establishment you’ve got yourself here?” Wormwood smiles back at the woman, “We’re looking for dinner first and foremost, ma’am, and I hope the food is as delicious as the host, if I may be so bold.” Pacoy simply recalls the exotic fare at the last few road-side stops and frowns at what this place must be serving.
Pitbull walks up to the hostess and looks down at her shotgun. “Is that an Armatech ‘HDF’ 18.5mm?” He growls, a confident smile playing across his mug. A sly grin slides across Mac’s mug as he leads Eris and Seranya over towards a table, seating them first before making sure Wormwood has a spot at the table. The Lodge’s hostess smiles at Pitbull, sizing him up first before sizing up his rifle. “Sure is, with an aftermarket Mensa choke modification. Installed it myself. That Reaper of yours is a fine piece of hardware, if I may say so myself, though a bit much for hunting a little game.” She leans forwards, a bit of cleavage showing through over her collared shirt. “I usually prefer a bit more of a… challenge in my hunts.”
Pitbull’s smile broadens as he leans in a little to her. “To be fair, I haven’t hunted game in a while. This thing over here is for hunting. But for people. I prefer that same piece you got there for game. MAUL’s stuff is a bit too buggy for me. Armatech and Tiberius Arms have yet to do me wrong, hun.” The hostess smiles as she puts the shotgun down on the countertop between herself and Pitbull. “Doesn’t take much to take out even that kind of game. Are you the kind of man who likes everything to go down easy… or do you like a challenge?”
Wormwood, overhearing, sends the team a text. “I know what big game she wants to be hunting, you betcha. Texan longhorn.” Mac starts chuckling under his breath, sending a text back, “Not sure about big, Worm. The only question I have is, is this tub soundproof, and are we getting our dinner first, or am I going to lose my appetite?” Wormie chuckles, and replies by text, “Is that even possible, Mac? I’ve seen you eat an MRE packaging and all.” Mac locks eyes with Wormwood, then jerks his head towards Pitbull, then starts grinning like a maniac. “I was just going to suggest that you take a look and not lose your appetite, but your appetite is a bit more… varied than mine. I must admit, her mastery of innuendo is admirable – do you think she gets much practice?” Wormwood grins, “Same as Pits, in front of a mirror.”
“When I’m goin’ professional, I like it quick and clean. Objectives, less collateral, and all that. But when there’s room for fun, or for sport-” Pitbull yanks out his Urban Fox, ejects the clip, spins the pistol in his hand like a cowboy, dry-fires it with an audible clack, cowboy-spins it again in the opposite direction, and then sets it on the counter in a single confident motion. “- it’s always fun to drop into a challenge.” Pitbull says as he stubs out his cigarette in the ashtray on his right.
Wormwood, overhearing, mimes slamming his own head into the tabletop. Pacoy smiles at Wormwoods antics and sends a silent text “ever seen a man try so hard to cock-block himself? Luckily Sheena of the Forest over here doesn’t seem to picky!”
The hostess smiles broad as she stands up straight. “That’s what I like to hear.” She comes around the counter, a pistol at her hip – looks like a Suburban Fox, the Urban Fox’s slightly smaller cousin made for packing as a weapon secondary to a longarm or for hunting. She grabs some menus from a holder at the end of the counter and approaches the table the Lazarus team has chosen. “I’m Annebelle, and I’d like to welcome you to the Lodge. We’ve got fresh-caught and butchered lox, hellpig, gnox – even some montauk that sashayed into our area. Nothing frozen or preserved, and all cooked to order.”
Wormwood looks over the menu. “Roast Hellpig shank in loganberry glaze, fries and a cough, splutter beer, please.” He mock-glares at Pacoy. Mac looks around the table, grinning. “Who’s paying and what’s my limit? Although a beer does sound mighty fine.” “Don’t wander off with the hostess until we get fed, Pit!” Pacoy messages the entire team. “I’m getting this, Mac. Eat up!” says Wormie, smiling. Mac grins, and looks at the menu briefly before setting it down. “I’ll have whatever they are having.” He gestures to Wormwood and Pacoy. With a slight hesitation at the choices, Pacoy goes for the Hell-Chops and homefries.
Pitbull, oblivious to his awkwardness in flirting, continues smiling as he takes his seat. “Well, beauty, that montauk, medium well, sounds pretty good ‘bout now. I’ll take that with a side of mashed potatoes and cream gravy and a beer if y’got it.” Pitbull says, with an almost imperceptible inflection on the fact that he wants the grilled steak of a cat. Annabelle smiles as she tells everyone a little about their order. With Pitbull, she leans down over hid back, pushing her chest into his shoulder as she speaks right into his ear. “I’ll make sure you get the king of the litter; he was a big boy like you, taken down by a hunter who stayed with us all last week. They came up from New Mexico way, out from the badlands into our little forested heaven, chasing a herd of those goats. City slicker took the king down with an electric shock from an electrolaser – no messy burns, no spoiled meat, and he had to get up close for it to be lethal. A hunt I think we could all enjoy.”
Big, bad Pitbull himself blushes only half a shade, as his ears take in her seductive description of his meal. “That’s the best way. Up close. Personal. And in arms length, where the danger is only half the fun.” He says, almost whispering in his usual growl, a smile creeping its way up his face.
Mac pulls a mug at Seranya, sending her a string of binary reading, ‘Help me!’ He looks at Wormwood and smiles. Wormwood mimes putting his fingers down his throat behind Pits back.
Annebelle continues going around the table, giving much the same detail to the other Lazarus members – but without quite as much flirting or physical contact. As she finishes taking orders, she heads off to the bar, but returns shortly with the ordered drinks, which she places at everyone’s place. She gives Pitbull’s shoulder a little squeeze as she heads off into the room behind the weapons display, apparently to deliver the order to the chef – or perhaps to cook it up herself.
Mac takes his drink up and offers it up in salute. “Been a wonderful trip ladies and gentlemen!” “It’s sucked, Mac. But I’ll drink to us anyway!” says Wormwood as he hoists his own glass.
After Annebelle walks into the kitchen, he puts the clip back in his Urban Fox as he smirks to the team. “Ladies and gentlemen, I think she’s a prize. If I said I were more’n a bit smitten, I’d be under-sellin’.” Pitbull growls quietly, still smirking as he reholsters the Fox. “No, really Pits? You played it so cool!” says Wormie with an almost entirely straight face. Mac’s face takes on an almost eerie level of stillness. “Indeed. Will your ladylove be joining us on our way back home, you stud, you?”
“Eh shaddap, Worm. Shit’s been lookin’ up for me after I turned the Sarge into a hangin’ jaw. Don’t shoot me down yet.” Pitbull laughs as he looks back to Worm. Wormwood’s composure breaks and he starts laughing. “Okay, big guy, whatever you say!”
About thirty minutes after taking the orders, and fifteen after delivering the appetizers, Annabelle is back with the entrees. She places them around the table, along with another pitcher of beer. She slowly pours Pitbull another full mug, being sure to press her chest into his back as she does so. Pitbull eats with an unusually reserved manner, as though not to appear to be the barely cultured swine that he is. No longer is stuffing his cheeks like a chipmunk with huge chunks of food, rather he actually carves bite sized chunks off of the montauk steak and lazily pulls it off of his fork like a large predatory cat savoring his kill.
About twenty minutes into the main meat of the meal, a scream comes from the kitchen. Well, more of a yell than a scream, as a scream would imply some kind of femininity to it, like when Wormwood cried out in pain after being shot. No, this was more of a very loud utterance of ‘Oh fuck!’ Pitbull abruptly stands, Reaper clenched in his fists in a ready to fire position. “What the fuck was that?” Pitbull growls as his Reaper sympathetically racks itself.
As the team members look up from their meal – well, some of them; others, such as Mac, are too engrossed in stuffing their face to take notice of something so dire – they notice that the play of the light in the Lodge has changed. There’s a bit more red to the cast, and it’s flickering a bit more than before. Those of you with infrared sensors notice a bit of an uptick in temperature. As they look out the window in unison, the occasional flickers of fire passing through the dense forest morph into a veritable wall of flame, still seen mainly through the trees but much more steadily now, as the wildfire begins to descend upon this little isolated oasis of civilization in the woods.