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The Virus

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    Life underground.

    It was disquieting. Often depressing. It could lead to mania - claustrophobia for some, an ever nagging sense of isolation for others. The walls could close in. The ceiling could. That part was the worst. The ceiling.

    SubTropolis was a long-ago gentrified limestone mine. Back in the nineteen-fifties, during and after the Eisenhower Public Works Project that saw the birth of the nation's Interstate Highway program, hundreds upon hundreds of limestone deposits had been sought after and exploited. Some of those deposits had been deep underground.

    Even though environmentalism had been in its infancy at the time, there were groups active and well established enough, even back then, to prevent the strip mining of the rock needed for highway construction in some areas. Unlike around the Chicago area, where a vast limestone-strip-mining operation had led to a colossal gouge in the ground, areas like Kansas City had approached the mining more environmentally friendly.

    They had gone underground to get the needed limestone.

    Deep underground.

    At its deepest points, SubTropolis was as deep as a hundred meters underground. For on about thirty years, limestone was mined. When it was all said and done, there were literally a hundred miles of vast tunnels spread across the mine.

    The mine then sat idle for over twenty years. Then, a real estate venture capitalist saw in the mine a marvelous new potential. Underground businesses.

    Once this real estate tycoon spent the millions it took to ready the mine for businesses to move in, there were a great many takers. Within the first five years, several tenants moved in. Chief among these were businesses that worked or traded in refrigerated goods.

    Kraft, US Cold Storage, Proctor & Gamble, Johnson and Johnson and many, many more. Most all of the business dealt in food products. Others medicinal products. There were even a couple of large computer firms - the advantage of vast server farms where vital air-conditioning was extremely cheap, was just too good a deal for some of these bigger firms, such as some of the nation's leading ISPs and telecommunication providers to pass up.

    And that was the genius behind SubTropolis. It was underground. The average mean temperature that far below ground is a nice and cool fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit or about thirteen degrees Celsius. Businesses like Kraft and US Cold Storage were able to save tens of thousands of dollars a year on electricity. With refrigeration chambers starting at fifty-five degrees, it wasn't that far to go to get to the temperatures that these businesses required.

    The mine hummed along for well over a hundred years.

    Then, The Virus happened.

    No one knows for sure where it came from. There was some reports on the news channels that it was believed to have started in Buenos Aires. A meteor from space was speculated to be the cause. Then, it was all rendered academic. The Virus spread across the globe with the speed of flock of birds flying over a field. The whole of the anthro race was wiped out in less than forty-eight hours. All seven billion people living and breathing on planet Earth. Gone. Just... gone.

    But not gone. Not quite.

    Transformed. Changed into something else.

    Mutated. Changed into something awful. Transformed into something nightmarish. Into something horrifying.

    The living dead. The dead animated. Zombies.

    But utterly unlike anything seen in any of the even most horrifying movies and vids. These weren't shambling nightmares that people could run from. They were fast. And they were savage. One doctor, before he too had been taken, had characterized their behavior as akin to an animal afflicted with Rabies. But in the case of the zombies, a very horrifying kind of Super Rabies.

    Their muscles had been transformed into something like steel. They were fast. Agile. They could climb and leap with the dexterity of primates. They were as fast as any of the non-sentient cats. If one spotted you, the only safety lied in locking yourself behind closed doors. Heavy doors. The zombies could break easily through doors. Through wood, brick and drywall. Little was a barrier to them once they were on a person's trail.

    In the year since it all began, a very fortunate very few, have been able to find safety. There were very few places which offered this, but because of its nature, SubTropolis was one of these places.

    Just over a hundred people were able to find refuge here. Of the people who found refuge in such places, those who found it in SubTropolis were among the exceptionally fortunate few.

    Food was beyond abundant. There was enough between Kraft and US Cold Storage to last that hundred or so souls well over five-hundred years. There were acres and acres of frozen foods. Just as many acres of stored canned goods. The medical supplies were equally abundant - enough to last the people in SubTropolis longer than the food.

    But SubTropolis had one flaw. One weakness. It was underground. Air had to be pumped into it. Lighting had to be powered.

    The nation's power grid failed within the first months of the outbreak. After that, SubTropolis ran on generators alone.

    For nine years the power lasted. There had been thousands of gallons of fuel in reserve.

    Just today, that reserve ran out.

    Over a hundred souls, in the dark. Scared. The air is running out. If someone doesn't do something soon, SubTropolis, so long a refuge for these fortunate few, will soon become their tomb.
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  • #2

    Kenny had been one of the original maintenance techs down here, when everything had gone straight to Hell in a handbasket. For almost an entire year now, he had almost single-handedly, been able to keep the generators running. Nobody else touched them. He wouldn't let them. The generators were too important.

    There were four of the goliath machines. They ran on diesel, one of the last few remaining artifacts that were permitted to run on that precious fuel. Kenny had always kept two running, keeping the other two on standby in case one of the two that were running broke down. Two were all that was required to keep the lights on, the air flowing, and to keep the facilitiy's massive refrigeration units up and online.

    Almost from the beginning, Kenny had insisted that the telecommunications equipment be kept mostly offline. They used far too much power. And with the world's Internet failing due to power losses everywhere else on the globe, there wasn't any point. Huge computer banks - all they would do is keep the generators running under greater load, consuming more diesel. He had allowed only a small bit of the equipment to remain online. It was the stuff that connected directly to the antennas above ground, great microwave dishes and analogue systems, in case someone else out there managed somehow, to get a signal out.

    No one had, not from anywhere, in over nine months. But Kenny permitted the stuff to remain online. But only that. The fuel had had to be preserved.

    For the last few weeks, though, despite his every effort at conservation, he'd known they were nearing the end. He'd started telling everyone to turn lights off when they weren't being used. To turn off the air-handling units in all but the most vital areas. To scavenge what fuel that could be scavenged from the numerous trucks that had been trapped underground. So many of those trucks were electric now, though - only a few owner-operators who had been grandfathered in, still had trucks that ran on diesel. There had only been two of those when they'd all been trapped down here. They had barely amounted to a hundred liters between the two.

    He wasn't the leader down here. Nobody was really. The manager for Kraft had been kind of one, but he'd died of a heart attack just three weeks in to the disaster. Everyone from then on had pretty much just run on autopilot, clinging to the hope that rescue would be coming soon.

    Or more like, to the fantasy. No rescue was coming. Everyone had come to know that it probably never would, either. Everyone had seen the news.

    Kenny had long since insisted all of the TVs be turned off, too. There was no news of any kind anymore. Wouldn't be, probably never again.

    Three weeks prior to the fuel running out, Kenny had started making noises about somebody needing to go out to see if anymore fuel could be found. "We're getting low," he'd told his listeners. A lot of people down here looked to him as a kind of leader. After a fashion, Kenny sort of guessed he was. But he was just a maintenance tech. But everyone had sat and listen to him, nodded their heads at him and at each other, the grim news sinking in as he told it to them.

    Nobody wanted to. Nobody in their right mind would even consider such an idea. Going outside was insane. All of Kansas City was dead. The few CCTV cameras that were operating around the mine's entrances had shown no signs of intelligent life since the outbreak had run its course.

    "But we need more diesel. If we don't get some, and soon, it is going to go dark down here."

    "Alright. Let's do this, then," one of them had said.

    "That Steelfang guy. He has that big tow truck."

    Adrain hadn't been at that meeting. He had been off fixing one of the refrigeration units over in US Cold Storage's facility.

    "We can provision that with supplies, maybe weld some armor onto it."

    Kenny had nodded.

    "It's bed is heavy duty. There's enough room on it to weld a couple of big fuel tanks, too. If any fuel is found, they can bring it directly back to us."

    "Good, we should make sure it's charged all the way up then, and a few of us will get to work on putting some armor on it. There's that big expansion they were working on over in the east quarter. There's some heavy duty steel plating there."

    "Hey, isn't Steelfang a blacksmith, too?" one of them asked.

    "Yeah."

    They all nodded.

    "We'll need to ask him anyway," another put in. "It is his truck."

    "I think we're all kind of past who's is whose here," another put in. "We all need this."

    Kenny had stood up at this point. "I'll ask him," he'd said. "Put the idea to him." He'd looked around at everybody. "We'll need whatever weapons anyone has, too."

    "I've got a pistol," one of them admitted. He'd handed over a .357 magnum the next day. Another one had had a shotgun in his office - it had been hung up as sort of a trophy display behind his desk.

    And so, that is how Adrian's truck had come to have its batteries charged all the way up, and some armor welded to its more vulnerable areas. A small collection of weapons had been pooled together too, along with a small pile of ammo. It wasn't much, but it had been all everybody had had. Which had been when the generators had finally failed and the mine had gone dark.

    Everybody thought they understood what dark was. Many of them had learned that they had had little idea. Darkness underground isn't only dark, it's black - so absolutely devoid of light, that seeing one's hand in front of their faces is impossible. Everyone had flashlights. All phones had them. But it wouldn't be long before those were all gone out, too.
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    • #3

      Adrian was even more difficult to spot in the darkness of the unpowered Subtropolis than the others as he prepared to head out onto the surface, his violently blue mane the only thing that could readily be made out even with the flashlights, as he held his wings close to his body in discomfort, not used to the cold of the facility even after an entire year.

      The heat of his makeshift forge, powered by propane, had long been a blessing for him, though he’d been very careful to use it sparingly. Their supply of propane was finite, however, meaning he’d needed to cut back on his hobby, to his annoyance.

      The dragon wasn’t actually an American citizen like the rest of the survivors in Subtropolis; he was Australian, and the chain of events that had led to him working in America, and present at the gentrified limestone mine with his tow-truck at that, on the day that everything had gone to hell was complicated, and he hadn’t spoken much of it.

      Like Kenny, he’d known that the fuel wouldn’t last forever. He’d listened when the maintenance tech had informed them they were running low.

      He’d agreed immediately to sending out his truck, and to the modifications. He’d then proceeded to surprise Kenny by volunteering to join the expedition.

      “With the power out, the areas nearest the surface are the best ventilated,” he stated to Kenny, pulling on a modified motorcycle jacket, with slits for his wings and metal plates riveted on for additional protection, “It’s why I put together my forge so close to the door. Everyone will probably want to stay there until we get back.”

      He adjusted his belt, checking that he could easily reach the pouches he had strapped to it, and to his tail. He also checked his knife; it was his single best work to date, made of pattern-welded steel (something he had only managed to get right in the years since the Virus), which he’d put in a sheath on his right hip.

      “We might get lucky and find solar panels,” he added, “With those, and some batteries, we’d be set for at least a decade. Otherwise… We can bring back one, maybe two truck-loads of diesel if we find an intact tanker. That won’t last long.”

      He sighed, then turned to Kenny.

      “I’ll also see about scavenging building supplies,” he said quietly, “I know it seems suicide to move above-ground, but eventually we’re not going to have a choice; we have plenty of food down here - I think enough to last through my entire life - but even if we make regular scavenging trips for fuel, we will run out eventually. We’ll want fortifications ready for when that happens.”

      He clapped Kenny on the shoulder, grabbed his visor, then started moving to his truck, climbing up into the cab and putting on his seatbelt.
      Last edited by Arratra; 2 weeks ago.
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      • #4

        ((Rick, could we have a quick clarification about the time since the virus outbreak? I think it was meant to be about a year, but your first post mentions 9 years?))

        Mickey used to dream about being a zombie outbreak survivor. He was a huge fan of VR gaming, and had made quite a name for himself in certain online communities for high scores gained by blowing up thousands of digital abominations. His dad had always told him he was wasting his life on those games, but Mickey had reassured himself that he was - on some level at least - training himself for the apocalypse. He would be a wandering zombie hunter. A badass who saved ladies in distress. Someone who the other survivors rallied around, just as those in the past had rallied around his father.

        He had thought it would be just like in his games.

        He had thought wrong.

        Mickey had struggled and suffered more than most since society collapsed. He was used to the finer things in life. He had few practical skills, and little worldly knowledge. In fact, he had heard other survivors mutter more than once that he was useless. Worse, when he tried to help, he often ended up causing more of a problem than he solved. He could see in the way that the others looked at him how little he was respected.

        Mr Mackarcy - his father - had strong feelings about respect. One night, when the old dog had been drunk and Mickey was the only other one home, he had reeled off an uncharacteristically open explanation of how the world worked.

        'Respect isn't given,' Mr Mackarcy had slurred, sunken in his chair after beckoning Mickey closer, 'It's taken. If you ask people to respect you, they won't give you a shred of it. But if you demand it, you will be respected until the day you die.'

        At the time, Mickey hadn't understood. How could you take respect from someone?

        Now? Now he finally felt that he understood. If you wanted to take something that another person had, you waited until they let their guard down. You did something they weren't expecting.

        Perhaps you had to take respect in the same way. Do something they weren't expecting. Something they would have no choice but to respect.

        "I'm coming too," he practically shouted to Adrian, as the dragon was clambering in to his armoured truck. No one had wanted to go above ground. But if he made it up there and back, and brought the fuel they all desperately needed, perhaps his vision of his apocalyptic self would come true after all.
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        • #5

          There were a few surprised looks, yes, but there were also several smirks. Several obviously expected the dragon to reject the dog on the spot.

          He was useless. He'd be more like to get the pair of them killed, than he was to be of any use on the expedition.

          "Be better off to skin him and use his hide as seat covers," one of the crowd that had gathered muttered. "Yeah," another one agreed, voice low and sullen. "Lay you odds if he does prove to be any use, it'll be as Addy's toe-claw polisher. He won't be useful as anything else out there, that's for certain."

          "Now there'll be none of that," said a voice, a figure coming forward out of the crowd.

          It was Ralph Tuttle. He was an aging bighorn ram. He had been one of the warehouse managers prior to the collapse and had gone on to serve as SubTropolis' food manager. And moral support, after a fashion. He was a big man, but had a disposition as sweet as homechurned butter. Unless that was, he being a ram, you crossed him. A few had done that. They hadn't done it a second time.

          He came up to Adrian and Mickey.

          "Coming from all of us, we wish you all the best of luck," he said, his voice as always, a deep and mellow caring tone. "Here," he said then, handing something over to Mickey.

          It was a 40 caliber semi-automatic pistol.

          "It's got eight rounds in it," Tuttle told the pair. "Sorry. It was all it had when all this happened. Used to keep it in my car. I figure you'll probably be able to find more out there."

          He gestured uncomfortably toward the big double doors that separated the inhabitants from what lay outside.

          He then looked at Adrian and Mickey a moment.

          "None of us know what awaits you out there, but our hopes go with you."

          He laid a large but gentle hand on Mickey's shoulder.

          He then turned to the sea of waiting faces.

          "Not many of you know Mister Mackarcy like I've come to know him. He's a well-intentioned lad and he's got a decent heart. He tries. Maybe out there, he'll show all of us what he's made of."

          The sullen voices that had quieted, now muttered quiet murmurs of "Good luck" and "Come back to us alive." They were joined by more murmurs of support and well wishes. There were a lot of shuffling feet and downcast eyes.

          Tuttle patted Mickey's shoulder. He also looked at Adrian.

          "You'll not find much in the immediate area," he told the pair of them. "When you go out, just head south to the main road. That'll be route 210. Head toward town. When you get to the 435 bypass, head south. There was a big shopping complex that way before all this happened. Had a Super Walmart, a Lowes and a bunch of specialty shops in it. I also managed to scrounge this."

          He took a folded sheaf of paper from his vest's inner pocket. He handed it over to Adrian. It turned out to be a map. Which was astonishing. Maps had been a thing of the long past, even before the Virus happened. Everybody just used the Datanet and their smart devices to get where they were going. What was more, the publish date on the map was just six months prior to the outbreak. Adrian held in his hands an extreme rarity.

          "I've marked where all of the oil refineries are," Tuttle said. "They're all over on the Kansas side, down in the West Bottoms. There aren't many. The only reason the area had any at all, was because of the railroads. Kansas City used to be a major hub for the entire midwest. Either way, they're likely to have only diesel in them. The railroads might be a place to look too. Damn shame about Norfolk Southern. They used to have a railyard not five clicks from here. But they got bought out by BNSF and their operations were all moved down to Edgerton. Fifty miles south and west of here. But Union Pacific is a good bet. They had at least eight switching locomotives on their yard. If you think getting down to the bottoms is too dangerous, try there. I've marked it on the map, with directions on how to get there from here, and from the shopping complex. Thankfully it isn't far - just south of downtown about six clicks."

          With that, the big ram offered to shake both Mickey's and Adrian's hands and then moved to step back into the crowd.

          "All of us go with you," he said.

          Kenny came forward. He hefted the duffel bag that had all of the weapons in it that everybody had gathered. The barrel of the shotgun, a 12-guage pump, stuck up out of the bag's top. The bag made a heavy clink when Kenny hoisted it up into the truck's bed.

          "Good luck," he said quietly, his voice rough with emotion. He was a short man, a beaver, just over half Adrian's height. He too offered to shake Adrian's and Mickey's hands.

          Then Denise came forward. A camel, tall and lanky, she had long been making surreptitious eyes at Adrian, but had been too shy to come forward. Far from pretty, she had a load of self-confidence issues, but she was sweet and sincere any time Adrian had encountered her.

          "I made these for you," she said, and handed over a cloth-covered basket. Adrian's sensitive nose could smell the scent of raspberries coming from under the cloth. "They're from a pre-packaged recipe," she admitted shyly. "But I hope you like them." Then she leaned forward in a quick flurry of nerves and kissed Adrian's cheek, then was shuffling quickly back into the crowd in her odd, long-legged gait.

          For the rest, it was a sea of nervous, afraid but hopeful faces standing to watch Mickey and Adrian's departure. Kenny gave the pair a brusque nod, ever the stalwart type, but there were glimmers of tears in his eyes.

          "Good luck," he repeated, his voice rougher now. He tried for some of his more usual rough bravado. "We'll try to keep the place together till you come back to us."
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          • #6

            Adrian gave the hecklers a (sadly diffcult to make out) disapproving look and irate growl when they started at Mickey.

            While the behaviour was understandable, it could very quickly turn extremely toxic if not controlled; this was amply demonstrated by video-games and internet forums, in spite of moderators’ best efforts to eliminate such behaviour.

            “You sure about this, Mickey?” he asked, “This won’t be like a VR game.”

            He gave Ralph a grateful look when he intervened, then a raised eyebrow as he handed over the pistol.

            “Thanks, Ralph,” he said after a moment, “Eight rounds isn’t much, but we probably will find more ammo, and we’ll be using the guns sparingly anyway, given how noisy they are. We don’t want to attract undue attention.”

            As he spoke, his gaze strayed to his thigh, where the 357 Magnum rested in a holster he’d cobbled together.

            He turned his gaze back to Mickey.

            “If you want to come, hop in,” he said, reaching across and opening the passenger-side door, before straightening as Ralph continued.

            “The Super Walmart, got it,” Adrian said, accepting the paper, only for his eyes to widen when he saw what he was holding.

            A physical map. The last time he’d held a hard-copy map had been an atlas he’d idly perused more than twenty years prior, back when he’d still been a teenager.
            And this map was up to date… or as close to is as it possibly could be given the Virus.

            “This is a godsend, Ralph,” he said seriously, “Thank you.”

            He paused when Denise came up and handed him the basket.

            “Oh, thank-” he started, only to break off, flustered, when the camel kissed his cheek.

            While he was normally fine around females, and had in fact picked up on Denise’s attraction for him (though he was wary of returning it due to the draconic lifespan, and low birthrate), physical affection from anyone bar family was unfamiliar to the dragon.

            Clearing his throat, he nodded to Kenny.

            “Thanks, Kenny,” he said softly, before taking a deep breath and hovering a finger over the starter button of the truck, glancing over to make sure Mickey was buckled up.

            “All right. Open the doors.”
            Last edited by Arratra; 2 weeks ago. Reason: Formatting and adjustments
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            • #7

              Mickey flushed red beneath his fur when he heard the muttered comments about him from the crowd. No one would ever have dared speak to his father like that. And if he had known they were speaking about his son that way...

              The Labrador clenched his fists and blinked back tears of shame.

              "I can do this," he growled back to Adrian, "Let me prove to you that I can."

              Just then was when Ralph interrupted, and Mickey was utterly grateful. The old ram was the kind of person Mickey's father would have tolerated for the purpose of business, but looked down upon in private. A man who had spent his life on the warehouse floor, with little ambition beyond doing what he did and doing it well, and not treading over others to get higher than his station. He was, in Mr Mackarcy's words, "the kind who'll be fine while all is well, but doesn't have the heart for a crisis". It wasn't Mickey's place to question his father's judgement, but part of him knew that Ralph had proved the old dog wrong, and as much as he'd never admit it to anyone - not least to Ralph himself - Mickey had started to see him as a sort of father figure in this place.

              "Thanks," he muttered, not able to look the ram in the face in case he saw the tears in the corners of Mickey's eyes. He took the gun that was offered to him. It was heavy in his hands.

              The first real gun he had ever held.

              Once their goodbyes were over, Mickey clambered inside the vehicle, and - seeing that Adrian was strapped in - buckled himself up, resting the pistol in his lap, cold against his legs.

              "Okay," he breathed, "you can do this. It's going to be fine. You can do this."

              He wasn't saying it to Adrian.
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              • #8

                Coming out of the underground protection of SubTropolis after so long, had a feeling to it not unlike being born.

                A feeling of cold. The understanding that one wasn't protected anymore.

                Their protection was dying. If some of them didn't do something, all of them would be forced to abandon what had been their home. And there might not be another place to turn to.

                Adrian drove out of the great underground mine from its south entrance. Lay spread about before them in the morning light, was a scene right out of an old Charleston Heston movie. Grass grew up through the asphalt in patches, where it growing, telling cracks starting to widen and spread. Ivy grew up telephone poles, up fences, the latter almost completely obscured by the growth. Fields that had once been mown, now resembled wild prairie and glades.

                The first artifact of civilization they came to was a small truck stop. It was on their left. Its sign had mostly fallen apart, leaving only a couple of letters, but Adrian remembered it as a Pilot. It had been, prior to the virus, part of the single largest truck stop chain in the nation.

                Its diesel islands had long since been replaced with hyper charging stations. A truck could pull into one of them, the management system would hook up the high-voltage leads, and the truck would be brought up to full charge by the time the driver had used the facilities, gotten something to eat and drink and come back out again. Adrian had used the station many times, himself.

                The charge islands were now dilapidated and no longer usable. Their power cables were badly sun bleached, their cabinets and signs warped and bleached as well. But it was erosion and sun-damage only. There had been no vandalism, no dismantling and theft. But there wouldn't be. There was no one left to do it. That was the most chilling thing of all about the station's condition. It spoke volumes of how alone they were.

                Adrian's truck was quiet, the only sounds it making, the hum of its powerful drive motors, the soft whir of the battery pack cooling fans, and the grind of its tires on badly sun-bleached asphalt. They rumbled quietly over the old Norfolk Southern rail lines, they coming to the truck stop on their left. Route 210 lay just before them, not three hundred meters ahead. Its signal lights were on the ground, their cables and lines apparently damaged by a storm. There had been no one to come repair them.

                There was absolutely no movement. The leaves on the trees fluttered a bit, taken by whatever breezes of the warm morning, but there was nothing else. Absolutely... nothing.

                Then it was Mickey who spotted it.

                Sun-bleached bones, Mickey's eyes catching on a skeletal foot as they drew nearer to the truck stop. The foot slowly resolved into a leg, then a pelvis, and finally ribs and spine. It lay alone in the truck stop car-parking area, a few meters from where a few cars were parked, bleached utterly white by the sun. Significantly, there were no other bones. Something had apparently taken the skeleton apart and taken parts of it with it. Or parts of the corpse more like, and carried it off after they had killed it.

                Just then, movement flickered within the truck stop's shadows. It came from inside. Suddenly, a pack of feral dogs exploded from within the building, racing from its parking lot to race right in front of Adrian's truck, forcing him to brake to avoid running over any of them. A few of them shot glances up at the front of the truck, but none of them made a sound. Only the thumps of their paws and clicks of their claws ensured the occupants of the truck their presence wasn't illusory.

                They raced across the street, vanishing into the tall grass of the field to their right.
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                • #9

                  As the doors were opened, Adrian hit the starter button and used his other hand to pull on his visor, seating the tinted eye cover firmly on his face. He glanced at Mickey when he spoke, before turning his attention back to what he was doing. His heart went out to the poor labrador; the young man had had a hard time of it since the Virus.

                  He accelerated smoothly out of the complex, his driving skills not lost despite not having had a chance to practice them in a year. He did, however, revert to what he had originally learned, and drove on the left side of the road.

                  As he drove, he kept a wary eye out; while the cabin of the truck was nearly silent, he knew that the flow of air over the chassis and the tires on the road surface would be producing a rushing sound.

                  As they approached the Pilot station, Adrian frowned, eyeing it. The state of the place, with its degradation yet lack of vandalism - rammed home just how alone they were here… but…

                  The place looked a bit too dilapidated; like it had worn down more over the course of the year they had been underground than it should have. He hadn’t expected to be able to recharge his truck here, of course – with the power grid gone, that would have been impossible even if the charging stations had been intact – but they had degraded much more than he’d anticipated.

                  He was already in the process of slowing when the movement caught his eye. His foot tensed, ready to stamp on the accelerator, before his eyes widened as it proved to be a pack of dogs, and he instead hit the brakes.

                  He stared after them for a moment, before meeting Mickey’s eye.

                  “That was… strange,” he said after a moment, his eyes narrowed behind his visor, “They were quiet. Almost like they were afraid to make a sound...”
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                  • #10

                    Mickey watched the surroundings in silence as they emerged from what had been their home and refuge for the last year of their lives. It was unusual being out on the surface again. It felt exposed. Naked. Vulnerable. Mickey gripped the pistol tightly in his hands. Adrian may have noticed, though, that the young dog wasn't holding it ready to use, hand on the grip or finger on the trigger. Instead, he clutched it as one might hold a safety blanket, both hands along the top of the barrel, pressing the cold metal into his lap as if he were just grateful to have something to hold on to.

                    The lack of noise as they drove was almost eerie. Mickey was used to having music blasting out as he cruised along highways in flashy cars, or drowning out the thrum of helicopter blades with some wireless earpieces and a VR headset. He wanted to make some conversation just to alleviate the weight of the silence, but he couldn't think of a single thing to say.

                    That is, until he saw the bones.

                    Mickey's tongue flashed out along his lips, which had become incredibly dry in the first stretch of their journey.

                    "Erm... Adrian..." he croaked, pointing to the bones, but finding himself unable to say anything more.

                    Before he got any further, the dog pack burst from the station, and Mickey yelled out and jumped in his seat. His heart was thumping in his chest harder than he would care to admit.

                    He shared Adrian's gaze after they had gone.

                    "You... don't think they were..." Mickey started, before lowering his voice and peering into the building, "running from something?"
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                    • #11

                      Adrian did indeed note the way Mickey held the pistol. He himself found the revolver strapped to his thigh both comforting and unsettling.

                      “Hold that thing like you would a gun in your VR games,” he said, “You’ll want to have it ready. Just don’t point it anywhere near my direction. I’ll give you more instruction on how to use it safely once we’re stopped.”

                      Mickey speaking up about the bones was part of what caused the dragon to slow prior to the dogs emerging.

                      He brought the truck to a complete halt as Mickey spoke, applying the parking brake.

                      “Possibly,” he said after a moment, “We might have spooked them, but if it’s not us, then whatever caused it is likely still inside.”

                      He then leaned to one side to get a better look at the bones, and his eyes narrowed.

                      “Hmm…” he muttered, looking a tad disturbed but not letting it stop him from analysing what he was seeing, “One leg, both arms, the tail and the head all missing… the body’s completely skeletonised; it’s been here for a long while.”

                      He glanced at Mickey again.

                      “I don’t like the picture that paints to me,” he said after a moment, “I’d need to take a closer look to get a better idea of what actually happened… And the truck stop might have something useful inside.”

                      He bit his lip.

                      “What do you think?” he asked, “Do we investigate?”
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                      • #12

                        Like a VR game? That was something Mickey could understand. He closed his eyes and tried to picture one of the more realistic games he'd played - Medal of Duty: Urban Warfare - letting his hands go through the motions he remembered so well. It felt strange for something physical to respond to his fingertips, but soon he had the gun resting in his palm with a steady finger on the trigger.

                        That definitely felt better. He found himself pleased that the dragon was here to guide him.

                        "I'm not sure about heading towards whatever they were running from," he said, "but is there any chance there'll be supplies in there? I mean... we've got to get out of the truck at some point, don't we...?"

                        There was an edge to his voice that suggested he wanted a different answer to the one he expected.
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                        • #13

                          Adrian frowned at the fact that Mickey had his finger inside the trigger guard.

                          “Keep that finger outside the trigger guard while you’re in here,” he advised, “Otherwise you risk pulling the trigger without meaning to. I’d normally advise keeping your finger off the trigger at all times unless you’re preparing to fire, but...”

                          He was silent for a moment.

                          “We need diesel more than anything,” he said in response to Mickey’s question, “Pilot stations like this don’t… didn’t sell that anymore; not from the islands. There just weren’t enough diesel vehicles on the road to make it viable to sell it as anything but a speciality item; it’s mostly used as generator fuel these days.”

                          He tapped the steering wheel in thought.

                          “There might be some in the station, but it’s doubtful. However...”

                          He looked at Mickey.

                          “There’s a chance we might find something else of use. The proprietor might have had a firearm. And that would mean ammunition.”

                          He reached for the door, his other hand resting on the revolver on his thigh.

                          “I’ll lead the way,” he said, “You watch my back, all right? There’s a shotgun in the duffle; use that.”
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                          • #14

                            Mickey's heart started beating faster and harder when Adrian reached for the door. He hadn't realised how unsettled he was about the prospect of stepping outdoors for the first time in a year. Sure, they had already left the safety of the underground, but that was in an armoured vehicle. They were about to be exposed, on foot, and with no quick way of getting home if things got rough.

                            The Labrador licked his lips nervously.

                            "Sure. Sure, I can do that," he said, "but... shotguns have a bit of a kick, don't they? I mean, I've never actually used one, but I've seen... you know... films and stuff. I don't know if a pistol might be more my..."

                            The young dog blushed under his fur.

                            "More my level..." he muttered.
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                            • #15

                              Adrian had to hide a wince as he realised that Mickey seemed to be experiencing agoraphobia.

                              It wasn’t too unexpected for someone who lived underground to develop the phobia, but Adrian hadn’t been expecting it after a mere twelve months. He was nervous himself, but also eager to be out beneath an open sky again.

                              Then Mickey surprised the dragon by forcing himself to focus.

                              “All guns have a kick to them,” Adrian corrected, “Even pistols.”

                              He drew the revolver, holding it up to show Mickey how he held it; his wrist was stiff, his finger resting on the trigger guard rather than the trigger itself.

                              “You need to hold it stiff and let the recoil transfer into your forearm,” he said, “Limp-wristing, as its called, can cause a pistol to malfunction; what’s called a “stovepipe” jam. As for shotguns...”

                              He tapped himself on the front of the shoulder.

                              “Brace the gun here. Make sure the stock’s in contact with your shoulder. That’s the way to handle the recoil. If you don’t do that, it’ll whack you.”

                              He paused.

                              "If you still insist," he said, "I'll take it, but we'll need to trade pistols. We only have one magazine for that one, and I want both of us to be armed effectively."

                              He reached for the door again.

                              “Ready?”
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                              • #16

                                Whatever it was Adrian and Mickey decided between them, once they started nearing the Pilot, they knew that investigating it had been the right decision.

                                Very little was known about how the virus had run its course, after those who had taken refuge in SubTropolis had locked themselves inside. There had been very little in the way of news broadcasts, even less on the radio stations. People, even newscasters, had been more interested in running and finding places to hide and ways to escape, than remaining behind to tell the world what was going on. Information had been sparse in the beginning, it quickly dwindling away to nothing within the first few days. After day four, for all they knew, those in SubTropolis were alone in the world.

                                The Pilot, for all of it being rundown and quite badly weathered, was fully intact. The windows were whole, the shelves inside all standing in their original positions. Many of the shelves even had product on them still. Both Adrian and Mickey remembered the station's interior layout; it had been a popular stopping place for almost everyone who worked at SubTropolis. The station made good breakfast sandwiches and the coffee was quite good.

                                The place had a stink, though. Both recognized the smell, however. It was meat and dairy that had long since gone bad. The floor underfoot was covered in grime, but it was only the grime of wind blowing stuff in through doors that swung during some of the more potent storms. Kansas City was noted for having some of the worst thunderstorms in the nation, the storms forming over the Missouri river, to blow their way south and east, often dropping more than three inches of rain within an hour, and with winds gusting upwards to a hundred and thirty kilometers per hour.

                                Dog tracks marred the grime on the floor. Adrian spotted a wasp nest up in one of the station's far corners. Stuff laid strew about, but for all of that, the station was pretty much intact. It wasn't significantly damaged in any way. In fact, the station's condition spoke volumes of something. It tickled at the back of the brain like an epiphany waiting to happen.

                                And then it would click.

                                There had been no looting.

                                Historically, in nearly every crisis, there were always mobs of people trying to take advantage of whatever was happening, to try to get away with as much loot as they could. Nothing was safe. Electronics shops, liquor stores, gun shops, clothing stores and on and on. A place like this Pilot should have been an obvious target. There was ready food. The shelves should have been ransacked. The problem of looting was such a predictable phenomenon, and a huge problem, that governments, in nearly any crisis, assigned national guard and militia units to help curtail it. But this Pilot had escaped it. And apparently entirely.

                                But then, people had been too scared. They had been keen only in running. They had been interested only in keeping on living. Looting would have meant stopping. Everybody had known that stopping, for anything, meant certain death. Greed and easy-gotten gains had been no match for the fear that had run rampant when it had all started happening.

                                In any case, one of the first obvious places to look for anything useful in the station, would have been its small food court.

                                In the station's south end was what had been a full service cafeteria. Servicing it was a fully equipped kitchen. Moreover, when the cafeteria laid food out for its patrons, it was in large aluminum pans. Traditionally shaped pans with handles, not just steam-counter rectangular drop-in pans, but actual pans. They could be useful for cooking while Adrian and Mickey were out on their expedition. There would be likely to be other useful hardware back there, too. Also, since the shelves out in the store still had product on them - bags of chips, cookies, candy - the kitchen might still have coffee in it. Coffee was something neither of them had tasted in nearly a year.

                                Whatever Adrian and Mickey decided to do, however, the place was quiet. It was so quiet that both Adrian and Mickey would know, that if they spoke, theirs would be the first voices the walls of this station would have heard since... all of this began.
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