“Bob and Eddie from Everest. Lawrence and Dina from Alpha Team.” Jim listed the fallen, gravity increasing with every name.
“Oscar,” Nick said.
“And Oscar.” Jim was addressing a council made up of representatives from each of his teams, along with Vera and her friends, seated around a conference table in the law office of Flemming and Mauser. “Doc can’t say whether or not Myra is gonna keep the baby.”
Victor, a middle-aged Insurance Agent from Beta Team, spoke up. “But we’re secure again? Oriental Express is blocked off?”
“For now,” Jim said. “But listen – Fred said that those worm things burned down through the ceiling.”
“I thought they hated fire?” Alpha Team’s Vietnam vet Joe Rigorsio asked.
“Some kinda acid, we think.” Jim punched his palm. “I thought it was weird they had that third form they couldn’t attack in. Perfect for breaching though. You know what that means?”
Everest’s housewife Mona Brown’s voice was filled with dread. “It means they can burn their way in anywhere they want, anytime they want.”
“Like in Aliens,” Josh said.
“Just like in Aliens,” Jim said.
“As compelling as your pop culture references are,” Ms Slavens, the corporate executive from Cracker Team said, “How much do we actually know about this acid? How strong is it? How long did it take them to burn their way in?”
Juan Rodrigez, Donkey Team’s plumber, was incredulous. “Do you think that matters? They could be all over the roof, burning their way into the generator room. Into the theater with all the kids.”
“Oh god, and we wouldn’t know it until they fell in on them,” Mona said. “We have to get the children out of there!”
“And put them where?” Joe asked. “There’s no choke points anymore. They can go anywhere at any time.”
“We don’t have to hold out for long,” Victor said. “Just until help arrives.”
“Didn’t you hear me?” Joe asked.
“I heard you. They take another room, we seal it off. We don’t have to last forever, just until the National Guard gets here.”
Vera spoke up. “The armory by the airport was on fire.”
“Shit,” Jim said. “I was thinkin’ of making an expedition out there to stock up on explosives.”
“And we got on the radio with the cops,” Josh said. After seeing all the wounded come in, the boy had wisely figured out that it was unlikely that the doctor was going to get around to seeing him anytime soon. Ashly, however, had stayed in the cinema to assist. “No response on any of the channels.”
“When was the last time you tried?” Ms. Slavens asked. “Have you tried recently?”
“That’s why the best plan is an all out assault,” Joe said, talking over her.
“Christ, not this again,” Victor said, leaning back in his chair and fiddling with his necktie.
Joe swiveled to face him. “We can’t turtle up. We need to wipe ’em out.”
Victor gestured towards the wall. “You’ve seen how many there are out there, right? You want to… to blow all our ammo on a suicide rush.”
“I’m in,” Juan raised a hand.
Joe slapped him on the back. “See? That’s two, who else is in?”
“I’d prefer we not vote until all the facts are in,” Ms. Slavern said. “No need to be hasty.”
“Fuck are you talking about facts?” Victor asked. “Facts are those things can get in here. Facts are they can get in anywhere, given enough time. That facts enough for ya?”
“Don’t you talk to me like that!” She scowled.
Jim clapped his hands. “We’re just going around in circles now. And time is one thing we ain’t got. What we do have are two plans – one, a holding action, while we wait for relief. Two, we rush the parking lot, try to wipe ’em out.” He turned to Marco and Vera. “What do you guys think?”
Do they have an alternative plan?
1: No, and they don’t favor either option in particular.
“I think you just about have the options covered,” Marco said. “But neither of them seems like a great plan. There’s no indication that any help’s coming soon, or that we have enough ammo to rout the mass in the parking lot.”
“We gotta do something, though,” Jim said. “Let’s have that vote. All in favor of holding room to room?”
Victor raised his hand, followed after a moment’s hesitation by Mona.
“In favor of making an assault?”
Joe and Juan raised their hands.
All eyes turned to Ms. Slavens.
Victor favors waiting, so does Mona. Joe wants to rush the parking lot. Juan agrees.
Mrs. Slavens gets the deciding vote. Does she want to side with Victor and Mona?
5: Yes, but she has conditions.
Victor buried his face in his hands. “I swear to god, Tricia…”
“I just have concerns, that’s all.” Ms. Slavens sounded defensive. “I don’t like the idea of us cowering here without any kind of agency, waiting for help that may never arrive.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Joe grinned.
“But at the same time we can’t just throw all of our ammunition away in a desperate bid. Not without knowing more about what we’re up against!”
“We only have two options, Tricia,” Victor said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
“What if we sent out someone for help?” Slavens suggested. “We hold out here, send out an… an investigative committee.”
Jim rubbed his chin. “An expeditionary force.”
“Yeah, sure,” she replied. “So we’re not just doing nothing to try and save ourselves.”
“I don’t think we can spare anyone,” Victor said.
“He’s right,” Joe agreed. “If it does go to shit we’ll need every able bodied adult ready to go.”
“Excuse me,” Marco spoke up. “We’re going to need to keep moving anyway – looking for medical facilities for the injured we got back at the airport.”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “If we find any help we’ll definitely tell them about you guys.”
“Especially since Amanda’s in no shape to travel,” Vera said.
“In that case I’m voting with Victor,” Ms. Slavens said.
“Come on!” Joe whined.
“That’s settled,” Jim said. “We send these kids out for help, hunker down, and wait for evac. Everybody got that?” He made eye contact with each of his team leaders, lingering on Joe until the Vietnam Vet gave him a quick nod and looked away.
“Good. Let’s get it in gear, people. We got children to keep safe.”
Vera, Marco, Josh, Nick, and Ashly gathered by the doors in the back room of the hardware store, each having been given a bag with what supplies the Mall people could spare. What they couldn’t spare, of course, were any weapons or ammunition, but Vera and Marco had their razors, Nick had the kitchen knife he’d taken from the airport lounge, and Josh had his mop handle. Vera did, of course, still have the Tec-9, but there were only three rounds remaining. She’d have to save them for emergencies.
They had, however, changed into clothes snagged from Sears, a welcome reprieve for those who’d been soaked with their own blood. Vera and Ashly had changed into high-waisted stonewashed jeans, Nick was in baggy cargo pants and a light jacket, Marco stiff boot-cut Levi’s, and Josh was wearing green and olive camouflage overalls and a cowboy hat. “Now I can blend in physically and socially!”
Each character has gathered what they can based on a Scrounge roll and what they think they might need going forward.
Vera: Roll failed. She has an extra outfit and a day’s worth of Chinese leftovers, handcuffs, and one of the walkie-talkies.
Nick: Roll failed. He has an extra outfit and a day’s worth of leftovers.
Ashly: Roll failed. She has the crash kit from the police car, an extra outfit, more sensible shoes, and a day’s worth of leftovers.
Marco: Roll passed. He has an extra outfit, extra socks and underwear, a day’s worth of food, toiletries, a butane lighter, bottled water, a nylon rope, and the other walkie-talkie.
Josh: Roll passed. He has an extra outfit, a day’s worth of leftovers, additional candy bars from the theater, toiletries, a bic lighter, a few cans of soda, and a swiss army knife.
“Sad to say the creatures did a number on your car. Afraid you guys will have to hoof it on out of here until you can requisition another vehicle.”
“On foot?” Josh was incredulous. “They’ll tear us apart?”
“We’ll cover you,” Jim said. “Remember my secret weapon? Exploding paint cans can be quite… distracting. We’ll fire them at the group clustered around the door, while you guys take off west, out through the back of the hardware store.”
“I’m going to dig in here and help these fine folk defend the kids,” Adam said. “No offense, but I’d only slow you down at this point.”
Ashly put a hand on his arm. “We understand. They need you more here.” She turned to Professor Poropat. “You going to stay behind too?”
“No,” the Professor said. “I think that if there are any answers to be had, I’ll find them if I keep on the move with you kids. Youngsters, sorry.”
Marco turned to Josh and Nick. “You guys up for this? Dash across the lot, across the highway, then into cover on the other side?”
Josh’s round face hardened. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Marco’s eyes widened. “Hey, it wasn’t a fat joke, I swear. You guys are just the most banged up, is all.”
“It’s fine,” Nick said. “I’m still… I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah.” Josh raised his mop handle to eye height, peering along its length like it was a pool cue. “Let’s just go.”
Jim gave Josh a clap on the shoulder. “Good man, you got this. Don’t let nobody tell you what you can handle, kid.”
“I got this,” Josh nodded.
Jim let out a long sigh. “Wish I had some other help I could give you. Wish you could take some of the kids with you, get ’em out. But… we go to war with what we got, right?” He pointed towards the doors. “Keep going south, past the golf course, you’ll hit the University and the Capitol building. Ain’t the best part of town, but it’s a good place for people to hole up, maybe you can resupply, maybe find where people are organizing.”
“Got it,” Marco said.
Jim started walking backwards, towards the hardware store’s sales floor. “Okay. Wait for the signal. When you hear it, start to run.”
“What signal?” Nick asked.
Jim chuckled. “Big ass explosions, man. Big. Ass. Explosions.” He turned and jogged out of the back room.
“That guy’s a badass,” Josh said, huge grin on his face.
“This keeps getting worse and worse,” Ashly said after he’d disappeared from view, rubbing her arms.
Josh had cracked the door open and was peering out across the parking lot. “If they do their job we should be able to make it.”
“No, I mean this situation. The city. First the Captain has a heart attack, then the airport is abandoned, and we hear Toni’s story, and those little…”
“Monsters,” Vera said. They were monsters.
“And now these shapeshifting things. Fucks. Whatever you want to call them.”
“Whatever they are,” Marco said.
“Any idea, Professor?” Vera asked.
Professor Poropat shook his head. “Whatever they are is far beyond my expertise. They’re physical – biological. Genetic mutations? Bio-weapons? Aliens? Your guess is honestly as good as mine.”
“They’re bullshit is what they are,” Vera said, hand on the razor in her pocket. Too much talking, not enough action, too much waiting, too much anticipation. “Get ready.”
The muffled boom came moments later, almost a whooshing sound, distant, from the other side of the mall.
“Go!” Marco shouted, pushing the doors open, running off into the night.
Vera is fastest. Does she slow down to let the others keep up?
1: No, and she doesn’t look back.
Vera followed, quickly overtaking him, Ashly not far behind. She didn’t need to look over her shoulder to know that Nick and Josh were trailing behind, but this was no time to slow down, to let them catch up. There was no time for thought – only time for running.
Her eyes remain fixed on the expanse of parking lot ahead of her, the empty highway beyond, and the darkness of the houses past that, streets lit only by intermittent lamps. Over the blood hammering in her ears and the measured sound of her own breathing she could hear another distant explosion, hear the distant cry of the Fucks as they were presumably blown to smithereens, and could only hope that the battle was enough to keep them distracted.
GURPS: Dexterity roll to clear the concrete barrier in the middle of the freeway
Vera reached the end of the parking lot and kept going, across the highway. It was eerie, it being so empty, without even an abandoned car, as unsettling in its own way as the empty airport had been. There was a term for these places, the highway and the airport – Liminal Spaces, her mind provided – places of transition, never meant for habitation, rarely seen empty. Without the cover of nearby buildings she felt as exposed as she had in the parking lot, maybe even more-so.
She shut the random thoughts out of her mind as she reached the concrete barrier in the middle of the highway’s six lanes, half-leapt and half-flipped herself over it, landed on the other side, and kept going, across the shoulder, over the barrier on the other side, and up a small lawn to a shabby ranch-style house. She ducked into its open garage, crouching next to a pick-up truck, and watched her friends as they approached.
Ashly came next, veering to join her, collapsing with great gasping breaths just inside the garage. Marco was a bit behind her, the Professor, Josh and Nick neck-and-neck-and-neck further back, just reaching the highway. Vera didn’t see any of the creatures following them from the mall, but she did see a growing number of Flying Fucks circling overhead.
They were not yet safe. Honestly, Vera didn’t know if she’d ever feel safe again.
She tossed hers and Ashly’s bags into the back of the pickup before sliding into the driver’s seat.
Are the keys in the car?
2: No, but they can try hot-wiring it.
She checked the ignition, checked under both sun-visors, didn’t find any keys, but she did find a soda can full of tobacco juice in the center console between the seats. She grimaced and threw it out the window, then ducked under the steering column. “Shit.”
Ashly opened the passenger side door. “Keys?”
“No.” She stepped out, gazing at the garage’s walls, heading over to a plywood frame holding several tools. “You know how to hot-wire?”
“No,” Ashly said. “I can pick locks and siphon gas, but it was always… someone else who took care of that.”
Vera didn’t press, instead grabbing a Phillip’s’ screwdriver hanging between two nails and returning to the driver’s seat. She looked up, saw that the last of her friends had made it to the garage, and nodded. “Fortunately I know how.” She tapped the steering column with the screwdriver, then ducked underneath it. “This is an ’89 Dodge Shelby. Gear selector not too hard to override, little danger of damage to the shift.” She began unscrewing the column and removed the access plate.
“What’s the plan?” Marco said.
Vera gazed into the mass of wires within the column, reaching for the central bundle. “If I can get us started, we head downtown, like Jim said.”
“Man, we should just get on the freeway and get the fuck out of here,” Josh said.
“Too many people depending on us to even think about it,” Ashly snapped. “Everybody at the plane, everyone at the mall-“
“Yo, fuck them!” Josh shouted, startling Vera so much that she bumped her head on the underside of the dash. “I don’t know them. We don’t owe them shit – if they’re even still alive. You think they’ll last five minutes against those flying fucks, building full of glass like that?”
Vera grunted and pulled out her razor, using its blade to strip the coating from the battery wires. “Doesn’t matter.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?” She could imagine Josh’s red faced pout well enough that she didn’t feel compelled to look to see it.
Marco’s voice was cold. “It means that doesn’t matter. They’re depending on us. We agreed to help. We help.”
“What do you think we can even do?” Josh demanded.
Vera twisted the battery wires together with the ignition wire, then stripped a half-inch from the starter wire and brought it just close enough to spark against the others. There was a brief flare up, but the smell of melting plastic filled her nostrils. “Shit.”
“What’s that mean?” Ashly asked.
Vera sighed. “Means we have to walk.”
GURPS: Hot-wiring the engine isn’t even unusual for a mechanic, so Vera can try a straight up Mechanic (Automobile) roll to start the truck.
15: She fails