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The Virus

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    As Ember finished his story, for the first time since heading up to the roof, Mickey allowed himself a smile. It wasn't much. Just a weak, tired lift of his cheek. Barely visible.

    But real.

    "Thank you," he said, "That means a lot to me."

    The dog paused and looked out over the horizon. It looked different with his real eyes compared to the drone. Brighter, somehow.

    "I'd like you to teach me. How to be a real soldier. I mean... if you'll have me."

    Here, Mickey stood to look Ember in the eyes. He even flashed a quick grin.

    "Would you hit me again if I saluted?"

    When Tobias called up, Mickey was quick to respond, pleased to hear his new friend regaining a bit of vigour. He jogged to the ladder and stuck his head over the top, looking down.

    "I'll be right down, buddy! You might need to explain it a bit slowly, though. I'm... heh, I'm learning."

    With a last nod to Ember, Mickey made his way down to Tobias and sat on the bed, ready for the horse's pitch.

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      "Good point," Adrian commented, nodding in understanding, "This place can't handle much more than the... five of us."

      Shaking his head and sighing at reminding himself of Akio's sacrifice, he turned at the beeping.

      "Agh..." he muttered when Geoff explained, annoyed with himself, "I should have figured... My truck's got a long range, even with a load. You need big batteries for that."

      The exact figure still surprised him somewhat. Six times that of a long-haul semi?

      Though to be fair, it was designed to tow those...

      Adrian turned back to Geoff when the fox spoke of another dragon, one he'd taught.

      "Huh. We'll need to keep an eye out," he noted, "If he learned much from you, then there's every chance he's still alive."
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      Insatiable Curiosity

      Major Leon Stormstrider

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        Ember relaxed immediately. His weight went akimbo, his shoulder slumping to one side, a grin pulling his ears forward. A kid bullshitting with a good friend.

        "Mayyybe," he said. "But maybe just on the shoulder. K?"

        Then the wolf was following the dog downstairs.

        How long had it been since he'd had this? There was his squadmates in the Army, sure. But that was always on some kind of quasi professional level. Here, it was different somehow. He'd just made a connection, a real one. Ember felt something giddy rise up inside him. Were they becoming a family?

        Either way, Ember made his way over to the table and snagged a chair. Turning it around he plopped down into it.

        "Yeah. We're all ears," he said. "Let's hear it."
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          Tobias perked his ears up as the two of them joined him at the table, holding that ragged scrap of paper in his hands. It was absolutely covered in drawings, but they were far from random.

          "This...I figure could be helpful to us when we finally get to the station. I used to work there, and I remember what the place looked like when I saw it last. To keep us from needing to make a lot of stupid mistakes, I figured I could draw up a map.

          With that, the horse dropped the paper on the table and ran his fingers across it, pointing out several specific placements. "This here is where we're going to come in from. It'll be right up front, but we have a lot of cars to navigate through. The main control box is what we need, and that's over here.

          He slid his finger past what appeared to be at least seven rows of containers. "Once we get in here, we can move the tracks and get to the actual transport. Everything I need should be in this room, and then we just need to get to the main car and start hooking up. We're going to need to do this as bright and early as we can to make sure we don't get ourselves killed."

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            Mickey leant in and stared at the paper, trying to take in as much of Tobias' explanation as he could. Yet he couldn't help but get distracted by the mention of cars and the image of the containers. He squirmed a little where he stood.

            "I don't like the idea of walking between a bunch of cars," he admitted, "those creatures could be hiding in any of them. Or under them!"

            A subconscious glance under the table.

            "And what about those containers. What are they, old trains or shipping containers or something? I don't want to be a coward, but wouldn't that be a prime hiding spot?"

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              Geoff gave the truck's batteries a few more minutes of charge before he pulled the charging cable. They'd only managed to raise the truck's battery level by 5%, but it was just over 70% before, so range wouldn't be an issue.

              As he wound the cord back onto the charging loom, he glanced over to Adrian, pondering. He had a slightly far off look. His earshad gone flat as he seemed to be mulling something over.

              "You know..." he began, "I wonder if there are species that the virus just doesn't effect."

              He made his way back to Adrian, then gestured to the stairs. "If he wasn't turned, then he'll probably have figured out how to survive. There's no way of knowing, now, though. Anyway, let's get upstairs. We're all ready here, and we've got an early start tomorrow.
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                Adrian finished securing his truck as Geoff retracted the cable.

                He looked up when the fox spoke again.

                "Not sure," he replied, straightening, "Some species out there have some unusual biologies, but... as far as i know, the Virus attacked everything sapient equally."

                Which actually brought up quite a few questions about how it actually worked, especially since it seemed to have left regular wildlife alone.

                He nodded when Geoff suggested going upstairs.

                "Right. We need our rest," he agreed.

                Besides which, he was indeed tired; a lot had happened in the time since he'd driven out of Subtropolis.

                Had it really only been one day? It felt like longer.

                Turning, Adrian led the way up the stairs.
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                  Ember looked at Mickey. He shared the sentiment. He turned back to Tobias.

                  "I've never been to any rail yards," he said. "I have no idea what to expect. Well..."

                  He shrugged.

                  "Other than that there are a lot of trains at them, usually."

                  He nodded.

                  "But you're right. Our primary concern will be staying away from close-in areas and out of dark ones."

                  He turned to Mickey.

                  "Your drone is going to be of vital importance. Make sure its batteries are charged, and ask Geoff for as many backup packs he might have. Make sure they're all fully charged."

                  He nodded again, sharing glances between Mickey and Tobias.

                  "The drone can fly over rows of cars, look down in between them, so we can get some warning if there are some of those things hiding. It's not perfect, but we can use any edge we can get."

                  Ember then turned to Tobias.

                  "Try to get some sleep. But if you can't, try to get as much detail into this map you can remember. The more we have, the less guesswork we'll be forced to do. But I do want you getting some sleep. Understood?"

                  He then rose. And yawned, his body suddenly straining toward a mighty stretch, too. After it was over, he looked down at the two.

                  "I'm going to go check on the other two, then I'm going to be getting me some rack time, too."

                  He shared looks between Tobias and Mickey again.

                  "We've all had long days. But now we're safe. Geoff's been living in this building of his for a year. Alone. If that isn't safe, I don't know what safe is. Which means, take deep breaths, try to forget about today and try to get some sleep. We'll all be glad of a good night's rest tomorrow."

                  With that, Ember was headed back down to the garage.

                  As to Geoff's and Adrian's questions, there was just no way to know. There just simply wasn't anyone alive who could study the Turned in hopes of finding answers. Or if there were, none of this group had ever encountered any of them.
                  *****


                  The next morning found Ember up, and he'd found Geoff's stash of coffee. If the smell of that brewing hadn't woken everyone up, or the smells of bacon frying in a pan on the stove, then the sound of the blender suddenly coming on certainly would. When the rest of the group started filing into the kitchen, in their various states of wakefulness, they found Ember busily making breakfast for everyone. There was a big skillet of scrambled eggs sitting on the table, and plates laid out. Toast, too, and Ember was just serving bacon from a skillet on the stove onto a paper-towel-covered plate.

                  His ears perked up as everyone started coming in, his tail wagging. He was even wearing one of Geoff's aprons.

                  "Sorry," he said, grinning. "My grandma used to let me mess around in her kitchen. I can make a mean breakfast now, as a result. Pull up chairs."

                  Turning back to the counter, Ember took the decanter out of the blender and poured a large glass. Turning again, he extended the glass toward Tobias.

                  "An egg, a whole carrot. An apple, milk and spinach leaves. I added some salt for flavoring. Drink up."

                  Once Tobias had taken the glass, Ember joined everyone at the table.

                  "Alright," he said, taking some food onto his plate. "Let's plan this. First we do the gun-store raid. If that's successful, and there's still time left in the day, we try to hit the train yard today, too." He bit into a piece of bacon and gestured with the remainder. "No idea is too dumb to get out. But we aren't leaving here until we have a solid plan. So let's sound off, everybody. Let's come up with a plan."
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                    For Mickey, the night dragged. He found himself restless and uneasy, and couldn't fully explain why. Yes, he had witnessed the creatures up close today, but he'd always known they were out there, and he'd slept well enough in Subtropolis. As Ember pointed out, this was the next safest place. And yes, Ember had called him out in front of everyone, but they'd worked it out on the roof. They had safety. They had company. They had a plan. Everything should have been fine.

                    But it wasn't.

                    Mickey paced back and forth for half the night, trying not to wake anyone. He tried to work out what exactly was troubling him, but nothing came. So then he tried clearing his mind to let the tiredness wash over him. But tiredness didn't come.

                    After some hours of this, Mickey lay back down and forced himself to lie still. He forced himself to let sleep wash over him. And, eventually, it must have done, for he lost track of the time and woke with a start to the sound of a blender whizzing downstairs. He can't have slept well. His head was pounding and his mouth was dry, and - whether a dream or otherwise - we was sure he had seen someone standing over him just for a moment.

                    Akio.

                    With glassy, vacant eyes.

                    Mickey groaned and rubbed a hand through his headfur. Stumbling into the kitchen, he took a seat and accepted the breakfast that was offered to him with a grunt that was intended to serve as thanks. Then, taking his seat, he leaned his chin on one paw as his second poked food into his mouth, while his eyes sank closed like a newborn pup.

                    It was evidently going to be some time before he would be contributing to the plan.

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                      Geoff was woken up by the smell of the cooking food. He loved bacon and eggs, and it seemed like someone had found them in the fridge.

                      He made his way down, noting Ember busily working in the kitchen. He raised an eyebrow, waggling his ears to let the wolf know there was no derision there, just curiosity. When Ember explained, he nodded. That made sense.

                      "Smells really good, doesn't it?" he asked, a grin on his muzzle.

                      Of course, if anyone asked where he had acquired fresh bacon and eggs, the answer wouldn't be withheld. Geoff liked to share information, that's what he had built this space for.

                      He took his plate from Ember and sat at the table to tuck into it. At about that time, Mickey stumbled his way into the kitchen. "Boy," Geoff thought, "the kid had a really rough night, it seems."

                      "Morning." he greeted but saw that Mickey was still half asleep. Once the meal and coffee were done, then there would be time to talk.

                      As everyone sat down and made progress on their breakfast, Geoff finally spoke up.

                      "The train yard should be easy enough to deal with. Use your noses, and avoid any cars that smell bad. That's where you'll likely find the turned hanging out." he said, his ears flattening in thought, "You know if you're going to go to the gun store, though, would you mind grabbing a bow and arrows for me? I am terrible with a gun, but I was captain of my College Archery team."

                      Geoff shrugged, "It's a high-end place. So maybe it stocked a bow or two. By your explanation, Ember, it sounds like Guns aren't the only thing one can find there, so if you'd check for me, that'd be much appreciated."

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                        Adrian's rest was also troubled. He woke with a start in the middle of the night, disturbed by a dream of what had happened to Akio, and spent almost an hour trying to get back to sleep while his imagination showed him images of others in Subtropolis sharing that fate.

                        He only managed to fall asleep again when he shoved the images to the side and focussed on something else.

                        The dragon was thus rather groggy come morning, when he was wakened again, this time by the smells coming from the kitchen. He blinked blearily at the wolf, before rubbing at his face and yawning hugely.

                        "Sorry," he mumbled, moving to the sink to splash cold water on his face.

                        That woke him most of the rest of the way up, and he moved to the table to sit down.

                        "Geoff's got a point there," he commented, "I'm fair with a bow; not good enough to be comfortable with using one in combat, but I'm familiar enough to get by. And our guns aren't going to last forever."

                        He paused for a moment in thought.

                        "We should check if the gun store stocks bayonets. They'll be a useful backup for if we run out of ammunition or one of the infected gets too close."
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