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    (( Hey guys, I just want to apologize for being so late with this. I totally missed the last two replies. I'm going to assume Mickey will find his way upstairs soon. Again, I'm really sorry for delaying things. ))

    The smell of fear, frustration and hopelessness permeated the room as Ember said his peace. The young wolf was in over his head, and he was finding it hard to cope. He slowly shook his head, wondering how exactly one was 'supposed' to cope when your entire world was turned completely upside down. Not just by events beyond your control, but events that also boggle the imagination.

    The can of Apples rolled along the floor and he picked it up and held it towards Tobias. "I think." the fox began, "That we are going to share a meal together," he said softly. His gaze went to Mickey, Adrian, then back to Ember, who sat in silence, looking miserable. "When it all catches up with you, it's hard." his tone is soft, "I spent a week holed up here not wanting to do anything. I just wanted to curl up and die I kept asking myself why I was the one that had to survive? Why couldn't I have just been turned and not care anymore?" the fox's eyes seemed to unfocus as he thought back on his own experiences.

    He stood over Ember, his ears drooping sideways in sympathy. His eyes open books. There was no judgement in them. Desperate people sometimes did things they regretted. He wasn't about to shun Ember because he spoke out of turn or harshly. Not when he could plainly see that Ember saw he'd made a mistake. People make mistakes, failure is just an opportunity to improve oneself. Ember did deserve that opportunity. Geoff offered his hand to help him up. Ember was more than capable of doing that on his own, but it was the gesture that counted. "Eventually I started to run out of supplies. Those monsters started to poke around nearby. I decided that it was pointless to try to ask why. I was still here, and I was going to do the best I could to stay that way. The only thing I wished was that I wasn't alone." he shivered then, the thought of having to manage alone, seeing himself regressing as things became more desperate. The lack of contact with other people eventually stripping away the layers of his vulpinity, until only an automaton remained.

    "You all have given me hope again." his hand beckoned Ember, "We're all survivors, but we're all different. I'd like to get to know you all. You don't have to face this alone. Won't you join us at Table?" he asked his inflection hopeful once again.

    This group, this ragtag group of people from all walks of life, thrown together by circumstances was going to be very important going forward. He could feel it. Each of them had their own traits, and he knew they would all be needed. Geoff just hoped that he could make himself useful. Maybe if they got Subtropolis running again they could bring his shop gear there and he could set up shop and get to work on things the people needed. For now, he was just going to try to keep these people together.
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    “Just when you think humanity has found the limits of stupid, they go and ratchet up the standard by another notch.” - Bob

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      ((Yikes, same here! I definitely didn't think it was 5 days since I last posted! Been a very busy time at work, all the days have melded into one!))

      Mickey heard Ember come into the room, and at first he didn't look up. He didn't want another chiding, so he just got on with his work and said nothing.

      "We got the cans for your horse friend, right?"

      Mickey paused for a moment in stacking the cans, then nodded and continued. Why was he down here? Surely he didn't just want to make idle conversation? If he did, he'd chosen the wrong participant. They all had. Subtropolis had. Mickey wasn't cut out for this. For any of it. He was just holding everyone ba-

      "I'm sorry about the way I spoke to you."

      The dog's hand paused as it reached for a can of carrots. His ear twitched a little, and he looked up to the soldier. He was almost expecting a trap - as though this were some kind of test, and he'd fail unless he brushed off the apology and insisted Ember had been right all along. But the soldier's face didn't show that kind of cruelty. And his eyes... his eyes looked sincere. Almost defeated.

      Almost like Mickey felt.

      When Ember extended his hand, Mickey hesitated only for a moment before shaking it. He nodded.

      "Mickey," he said, "and it's alright. I'm just not used to all of this, y'know? Closest I've come to a fight is ringside boxing seats or VR zombie shooters. It just... it's all hitting me harder than I'd expected it to. But you were right. I can't let myself fall apart like that. It's not helping anyone, especially Tobias."

      As Ember apologised again and turned to leave, Mickey added; "I'll try harder next time."

      He listened to the soldier's footsteps up the stairs, and when it seemed that Ember wasn't coming back down, Mickey turned to his cans again. He stacked a couple more before deciding the rest could wait. He felt better now, especially after Ember's apology. He could face them all now. Besides, he wanted to make sure Tobias was okay.

      He stepped back into the room after Ember had dropped his rifle, and at first he didn't realise what was happening - leaning around to give Tobias a nod as if to say "Alright bud?". Then Geoff began to speak, and Mickey could truthfully say that it was exactly what he needed. By the time the fox had finished, Mickey was practically smiling.

      "Finding you lot has given me hope as well. Hope that more of us are out there. Hope that..." he paused, and gulped down what was threatening to be a sob, but he rallied and continued, "hope that friends and family might have... might have made it through. I'd be honoured to join you all for a meal."

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        Adrian frowned as Mickey meekly left the room. Ember had just triggered something, though the dragon wasn't completely sure what.

        The dragon nonetheless accepted his visor back.

        "Thanks," he said, pulling the eyewear back on, though he didn't cover his eyes, then took the shotgun when it was offered.

        "Ah... hangs?" he asked, "I'm not sure what you mean."

        He racked the slide open to check the weapon over, instinctively catching the unfired shell as it came out, He was notably careful to not point it at anyone.

        When Ember came back up, causing Tobias to perk up, he relaxed slightly. The stallion was looking much better than he had when he'd left.

        Then he stiffened again when Ember admitted to losing his men, wincing.

        "Damn," he muttered, sighing.

        He'd been afraid something like that might happen; hoping against it with all that he had, but afraid it would happen regardless.

        The dragon listened as Geoff and Mickey also shared their stories.

        "Like Mickey, I'd all but given up hope that there would be survivors above ground," he admitted, "Finding Tobias changed that... and then we found Akio... then you two," he continued, "It showed me that there were probably more survivors than I dared to dream. People smart enough and tough enough to evade the infected."

        He took a breath.

        "It gave me hope that my family survived... hope that we can find more survivors... hope for the future," he said softly, his hand curling into a fist in front of him, "Hope that... my ideas for building anew, might just work."
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          Ember nodded. He took the shotgun back from Adrian.

          "Mossberg 835," he said. "It's about the cheapest pump-action made."

          He racked the slide. He did it three times in quick succession. On the third racking of the slide, it stuck for the blink of an eye, before Ember was able to complete it.

          "These things are known for this. If you're firing and racking as fast as you can shoot, they do what's called a 'Shell-Pinch'. In a scenario like we were just in, something like that could spell the difference between life or death."

          Ember was being a touch melodramatic, as youths were wont to be, but he also certainly knew his weaponry.

          "This thing almost did it to me while we were escaping. It was why I almost missed the last one. I had to give the slide a quick twist to keep it from pinching the shell. It threw my aim off a little."

          Suddenly, Ember became aware that everyone was watching him. It made his ears falter outward in embarrassment. He handed the shotgun back to Adrian. Then he jammed his hands down into his pockets and kicked his toe out a little. He gave a little bit of a shrug, too. "I just know weapons," he said, looking down a little sheepishly.

          Knew his weapons? The kid had been in his element when describing the problem with the shotgun to Adrian. Also, if Adrian had been paying attention, he would have taken note that Ember hadn't missed a single shot. All four rounds he had fired had killed one of the creatures, three of those shots taking their heads right off, and that was with the truck moving, and moving frantically under Adrian's expert but panicked driving to get them away.

          He then looked up and smiled kind of half crookedly at Mickey. "Where you were good in the VR world, I'm good in the real one."

          It wasn't a challenge to Mickey's video-game experience. It was more of a brotherly thing. Ember was trying to reach common ground with the dog.

          Also, showing that Ember was as observant as he was knowledgeable about weapons, he said, "And that drone..."

          He looked at Geoff. "Yours, right?"

          When Geoff said that it was, Ember nodded again.

          "Good. When me and my Lieutenant were ambushed by the monsters, we were trying to make our way to a gun range, slash, gun store we saw from the highway."

          He looked at everybody.

          "I'm only a Corporal in the United States Army Rangers. But I would ask that you all accept me as your military leader, at least until we get some weapons."

          He unslung his assault rifle.

          "This is the Colt LE6920. It fires point-223 caliber ammunition. It is one of the easiest assault weapons in the world to use. And they're sold in almost every high end gun store, and the ammunition is plentiful. However..."

          Click image for larger version  Name:	colt-le6920-socom-223-rem-556.jpg Views:	1 Size:	11.9 KB ID:	57733

          He cycled the weapon's chamber. He caught the cartridge the weapon ejected in mid-flight, catching it neatly in his gloved hand. He then fingered the round in his hand until he was holding its pointed end upright.

          "This is why my lieutenant and I lost against the monsters."

          The end of the round was copper in color and it came to a smooth point. Those familiar would recognize the cartridge as a full-metal-jacket round of ammunition.

          "We were all loaded out with these. They just punch neat holes. They're required by the Geneva Conventions, though. We need to get some hollow points. And for those of us less skilled with weapons, we need to get shotguns."

          With what seemed like he was doing a magic trick, Ember released his weapon's magazine, pressed the round back into it, one-handed and with just his thumb, reinserted the magazine and then slung the weapon back onto his back. It was all done in about three heartbeats.

          Ember then looked at Mickey again.

          "You're our drone guy, right?"

          Ember nodded.

          "Tomorrow, we're going to that gun store."

          Ember looked at everyone, then, taking them all in by turns.

          "Adrian, you're our driver. Mickey, you're aerial recon. Geoff, you are our tech guy, and for right now, Tobias' nurse."

          Ember's previous episode of nearly coming apart was over. Adrian's and Geoff's words had seemed to instill a purpose in him. He gave everyone firm nods. He was still scared, but he was now also determined.

          "Let's eat," he said then. He turned to Adrian. "You knew the tiger the best, didn't you?" Ember thought he had taken note of a special familiarity between Adrian and the tiger. He nodded. "All I knew him as, was 'Akio'. Since you knew him best, why don't you say some words for him over dinner?" He nodded again. "He bought us this chance to have this meal, and maybe a new hope for maybe making a fresh start, too."
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            It was embarrassing enough that he'd been found in a blind panic on the floor, and even more so when those words finally sank in, that feeling that he'd made a fool of himself, even as unhealthy both in mind and body as he was. It....stung, to say the very least.

            It took most of his willpower just to sit back up, but food is a strange motivator.

            Once he'd managed to hoist himself up to join the others, his personality began to shine through on a strange scale. A lot of his childhood and upbringing was more plainly laid out upfront. Even as starving and shriveled as the poor horse was, he still tried to sit upright and keep his hands to himself, waiting to be presented with food rather than reaching out and trying to take it like a feral beast. It was clear that he was the type who put manners before even his own health. Why that would be, the world might never know.

            He sat in silence for a few moments while everyone spoke, but eventually his voice croaked out, breaking that silence. "Akio, he...he...just wanted to help us. To help me find food. I didn't...I didn't mean for this to happen."

            His eyes appeared more sunken than before as he finished his little statement, his back still up straight and proper in betrayal to his despair.

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              Mickey couldn't help but be impressed by Ember's knowledge and his experience with firearms. Some he knew by name and sight - those which had appeared in his games - but even those weapons he knew very little about actually using. Things like reloading often happened off-screen, or with the most basic of hand gestures. He would need to take in as much of Ember's experience as he could. It might save his life one day.

              Then he heard Tobias mention Akio's death, and he moved over to sit next to the horse, putting a hand on his shoulder.

              "He went out for all of us," the dog said, his lip shaking a little with the rawness of it all. He managed to keep it together and continue, "This isn't on you. If we didn't go out for food, you wouldn't have made it. The choice was your certain death or the unknown risk of the supply run."

              Mickey looked around to the others in the room.

              "Even knowing what we know now, I think it was the right choice. And for as short a time as I knew him, I think Akio would want us to live on, survive and thrive in his memory."

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                Adrian sighed when Ember pointed out the downsides of the shotgun.

                "Crap," he muttered, "We'll need to find something more reliable."

                He chuckled at Ember's embarrassment.

                "You do indeed," he agreed, "I've got enough gun knowledge to identify some common weapons and ammunition. You, on the other hand, can identify guns, tell us their strengths and weaknesses. That's going to be important. Plus, you're an amazing shot."

                He had indeed been paying attention to Ember's shooting, despite being in panic mode at the time. Like he'd noted before, he was handling the stress of the situation with an ease that baffled him.

                "You're the one most familiar with military operations," he agreed when the wolf brought up leadership, "I've played tactical games, so I know a bit, but you've been drilled for tactics."

                "5.56 NATO, fuil metal jacket," he muttered on seeing the round in Ember's hand, "Standard military cartridge. Good for fighting wars... useless for the infected."

                He nodded when Ember mentioned hollow-points.

                "Hollow-point rounds will help," he agreed, "Melee weapons will be even better. I'm thinking of affixing bayonettes to our firearms," he continued, "Akio had the right idea with that ashandarei; the infected are fast, but they're not smart."

                He paused, his eyebrows shooting up, as Ember put the round back in the magazine. It was an impressive bit of dexterity, though definitely not something soldiers normally trained for.

                He then nodded in understanding when Ember designated him as the driver. He knew his truck better than any of the others here (probably better than anyone still alive, especially since he had done repairs and service of it himself, along with helping attach the armour plates), and as he had proved at the Walmart, he was quite good at driving it.

                He nodded again at the mention of eating, and was moving to retrieve some food when Ember mentioned Akio and the connection he'd felt.

                "I didn't know him any longer than the others did," he said after a moment, turning to Ember, "Thing is... that weapon he was using? I made that blade. Right before the insanity started."

                He shrugged.

                "We just kind of... clicked. There was a mutual respect between us. I think, if there had been time, he and I would have become good friends. I'm... sad that we didn't get that time."

                He sighed, before turning at Tobias spoke up, followed by Mickey trying to comfort the stallion.

                "Mickey is right,' he added, "Akio went with us to the Walmart for everyone at Subrtopolis. They need that diesel. And you're our best chance to get that."

                ___

                As they settled in for the meal, Adrian set his visor to one side, and stood.

                "Nakamura Akio," he stated, "We3 knew him for such a short time, that we know very little about him... but he was a family man, trying to make his way back to Japan, where he desperately hoped that his family had made it through the insanity of the last twelve months... And yet he gave his life, for the people currently sheltering in Subtropolis. If I can help it, his sacrifice will not be in vain."

                It was short as eulogies went, but Adrian didn't know what else to add, and to add empty words just felt... wrong.
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                  As they all made their way to the dining area next to the kitchen to settle down for the meal, Geoff couldn't help but feel a sort of kinship with these people. Not simply because they were the first ones who hadn't tried to kill him since this whole mess started, but he felt as if they were all just like him. They were in over their heads and just trying to make their way through all of this chaos. There was little he could say about Akio, so he instead just remained silent and gave the dead a good long moment of respectful quiet. What he was about to prepare had been bought with blood. He hoped he could make it the best meal they'd had in a long time. He nodded to Ember, acknowledging the Wolf's suggestion for his role. Tech guy didn't seem like such a bad thing to be doing. He would get to build and fix things for them. He genuinely enjoyed doing that. He would stay back with Tobias and help the horse get his strength back. It wasn't a glamorous role, but he could see the importance. Tobias had knowledge on how to get at diesel fuel from the railyard. There were many people who were counting on that fuel. Geoff and his pipe would make sure nothing happened to the horse, should the worst happen. As he passed the horse, he gave him a determined nod. Nothing would get at Tobias, not while Geoff was alive. He made his way then into the kitchen and got to work on the party's meal.

                  He uncanned the veggies drained them and then added herbs he'd picked from his rooftop garden. He went about sauteing the vegetables, then retrieved a package of rabbit meat he had intended to keep for tomorrow's supper. He'd have to go and check on his livestock in the next day or so to make sure they hadn't been pilfered. For now, though, he got to frying some rabbit steaks. The smell of cooking meat wafted out of the kitchen towards the others. The veggies would be a good site for the others, and likely a main for Tobias. He also fried up some potatoes as sides for everyone. Finally, he prepared the candied apples as a dessert for Tobias, sprinkling a little bit of honey on top of them for a bit of extra flavour.

                  He hoped that it would be enough.

                  He brought the plates out to everyone and served them before returning to the kitchen with a bottle of mineral water and half a dozen glasses on a tray. He served four glasses to the others, the fifth to himself, and he poured a sixth for Akio. "A glass poured out for a fallen friend." he said, a note of solemnity in his voice. There wouldn't be any wasting of the water as the ritual usually required. He didn't think Akio would begrudge them making use of their limited resources in the best way possible.
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                  “Just when you think humanity has found the limits of stupid, they go and ratchet up the standard by another notch.” - Bob

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                    Mickey was quiet as the meal was prepared, and as Adrian spoke his eulogy, the dog clasped his hands together and closed his eyes. He wasn't the religious type, so it didn't mean as much as it might, but it felt like the kind of respect Akio deserved.

                    Once Adrian finished and silence fell, Mickey opened his eyes and looked around.

                    "Do I... just stand up then?" he asked the room, before awkwardly shuffling back his chair and raising his glass.

                    "Erm... I haven't ever done one of these before, but... here goes. Akio was a cool guy. He had survived for so long out here, and maybe if he'd been on his own he'd have survived for a bit longer. And I know that sounds grim and everything, but..."

                    The dog paused as his mouth went dry, and took a small sip of his water before carrying on.

                    "But I feel like I knew the kind of guy he was. And he wouldn't have wanted to just survive. He wanted to live, you know. He wanted to help people and to see his family again and... and... all of that stuff. And he would never have managed that just surviving on his own. So he took a risk and he lost everything. But I think if he were here, he'd tell us it was okay. Because to lose everything, you have to gamble everything, and if you gamble everything... I guess that means you believe in what you're betting on a whole lot."

                    Mickey lowered his glass and stared into it for a moment.

                    "And I think he'd want us to believe in one another as well. He'd want us to gamble everything so that maybe, one of us can win everything. Restart society. And see our families again. And that's why Akio was such a cool guy."

                    He scratched an ear, bit his lip, and sat back down.

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                      Mickey would, in the next moment, find Ember's hand on his shoulder. The youth then took the seat at the table next to him.

                      "Good words," he said in a quiet voice, glancing up at Mickey then looking down again. "I think he would have liked to have heard them."

                      Ember fell silent then, just looking down at the empty place on the table in front of him. Everyone finding their seats and the sounds of the cooking were the only backdrop for the moment.

                      "I think he knew," Ember said finally. He looked up then, and around at everybody. His ears still back and the youth's eyes still miserable, he added, "I think he knew what we were trying to do. The people back at your place depending on us, what it all could mean if we succeeded." He looked down again. "And that it was something worth dying for."

                      A small shrug.

                      "And you know the Japanese. Dying for a cause greater than themselves is viewed as a privilege. He knew he was giving up his life so something greater could have a chance. If it means anything, I think he died happy. He satisfied his honor in a way no other way could."

                      Ember had looked down again. He now looked up again.

                      "He's given us something to live up to. We should ask ourselves what getting this fuel back to your people mean to us." He motioned his head up toward Geoff, who was still cooking. "Would we die for him, because of what he can bring to the people?" He looked at Tobias. "For him?"

                      Ember shrugged a little again. "It is what I signed up for. I am a soldier. It is my duty to defend and protect. If I die in that protecting and defending, then I've done my duty."

                      He cleared his throat. He looked up at Adrian. "We should try to find bayonets, too," he agreed. "But only for tight pinches. Ideally, I'd rather us had more of what Akio had, or swords. Things that can cut body parts off quickly and with swipes. If you get caught up in a melee with just people with bayonets, you have a chance. With these creatures..."

                      He shook his head. "They'd only kill you while you tried to kill them." Another shake of his head, a small one this time, a haunted look coming into the youth's eyes. "As Akio proved." A nod, a small one. "We need to out think them. Fight them at a distance wherever possible." He glanced at Geoff. "Like he's done, but get more active with it. We need to draw them out of places where we need to go and set traps for them, and lure them into the traps."

                      Ember looked at Adrian again.

                      "Our top priorities tomorrow need to be hollow-point ammo and as many automatic weapons as we can find. And explosives. Grenades and Claymores. Primer cord, C4, anything like that we can get our paws on." Another nod. "We're fighting monsters here, not people. We need to alter our tactics for wins against what we're fighting."

                      A flash of anger shown in the youth's eyes. He slapped a fist into the palm of his other hand.

                      "We need to lure the bastards into traps and blow them straight to hell is what we need to do."
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                        In the midst of everyone talking, Tobias' attentions were taken away from him with the smell of an actual honest-to-goodness meal being made. It almost reminded him of home.

                        The faint, enjoyable sting of apples. The full, hearty scent of vegetables. The poor horse's eyes were welling up in the corners, his spirits going from sunken and lost to a faint ember of hope that the horse was dead-set of keeping burning this time. He was finally easing up.

                        He could hear them all more clearly now, the group talking. He didn't feel like he was in a cloud that kept his thoughts a jumble. Talk of how to stop these monsters. What steps to take next. His ears flicked toward Ember, head tilting a bit. "We can use old traincars to keep them from escaping, if that's the case. Just the ones meant for transport. If we can get everything at the yard cleaned up, at least. Would be a good place to lure them to...but then again, if it fails, we're stuck with them having nested in our fuel source."

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                          Adrian nodded solemnly to Geoff, before turning to each of the others in turn as they spoke. He gave Mickey a nod when he spoke up.

                          He had a point. Akio had given his life, on the hope that they could help the people of Subtropolis build something new.

                          The world would likely never be the same again... but that didn't mean that they couldn't build anew.

                          "We'll need to get them close to the explosives," Adrian said after thinking for a moment, "The train-yard... Your idea has some merit, Tobias, though you're right about the risks. And the train cars aren't just a source of fuel. If we break them down into plates... we could find a trailer and transport them to Subtropolis, build a fortification at the door."

                          He paused in thought.

                          "The Pilot station would be perfect bait; we stripped the place of anything useful already, and the freezer room is... well."

                          He shrugged.

                          "Though it's also on the route too and from Subtropolis," he continued, "so I'm not sure about using it..."

                          He tapped his snout in thought.

                          "Are there any small convenience stores around here?" he asked Geoff, "One that would have a walk-in freezer?"

                          He paused as the fox answered, before looking down at the shotgun.

                          "Either way, Ember's right," he said, "Right now, we've got one unreliable shotgun, one service rifle, one revolver, and... two semi-automatic pistols. With barely any ammunition for any of them. We need to be better armed before we try for the rail-yard."

                          He paused for a second.

                          "But we also can't afford to wait," he added, "Subtropolis is already out of power, and that means the ventilation isn't working. Come tomorrow morning, we'll need to work fast."
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                            (Sorry for the small post! Couldn't think how to string out Mickey's question to the others!)

                            Mickey listened attentively to the plans, and was pleased to hear Tobias chipping in. It seemed the horse was fully on the road to recovery now. That made the dog feel more comfortable about digging in to the meal before them, and there was no doubt that the food warmed him - body and spirit. His tail even began to wag a little.

                            "Where would we even look for stuff like that?" he asked Adrian and Ember through a mouth full of food, "and do we really want to take the fight to them? I can understand if we want to clear out a specific area, but surely if we just set out to get rid of some of these monsters, it'd be like chipping away at a mountain, or draining the ocean with a bucket?"

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                              Geoff nodded to Adrian as he himself tucked into his meal. It was rather well done if he said so himself. Then again, any fresh food these days was a treat.

                              "There are plenty of convenience stores and the like around. I'm inclined to agree with you though, Adrian. The fuel needs to be the priority over exacting any sort of vengeance." he motioned around the table with his fork, "See, the power at Subtropolis is out, and that also means the fridges and freezers no longer work."

                              The fox flicked his ears in thought.

                              "Which means, whatever stores of food you have down there will start going bad. They'll start to rot... and smell." he paused there to let that sink in.

                              "These turned are attracted to rot. Very few things seem to get them moving, but that's a sure way of getting one to chase or attack. The amount of food Subtropolis has, well that's likely to draw every one of them in a substantial radius if it starts going bad."

                              He looked over to Ember, who still looked like he wanted to chew nails.

                              "We've got to prioritize gettig Subtropolis' generators started again. If we do that, that will open up a lot of options for us, as I can use the generators to power the tools I've got here. I can build us gear with stuff we salvage, and I think if we're careful we can harvest solar panels from the charging stations and batteries from dormant cars and set them up outside Subtropolis. Before any of that, though, we have to get it stabilized."
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                                Ember gave Mickey a nod.

                                "What I meant was," he said, then, as if thinking the idea of trying to take on all of the Infected was as preposterous as Mickey, himself thought it was, "we don't go skulking into places like that Walmart anymore."

                                He snarled.

                                "We go in, lure them out, and right into traps we've set for them."

                                He shook his head.

                                "If we'd thought of that before, if I'd have thought of it, then Akio needn't have died."

                                Ember was taking Akio's death as a personal responsibility. It should have been him, not Akio, who should have died getting the supplies out.

                                Ember looked from Mickey to Adrian, then, he also glancing at Tobias.

                                "No," he said. "We don't engage them unless we absolutely have to. Otherwise, we skirt around them and steer clear of them. Mickey is right. It would be foolhardy to try to take the fight to them. It's their world. We need to concentrate on rebuilding. Once we have a good start on that, though..."

                                Another snarl.

                                "Then we discuss taking the fight to them. But after we have a good foothold on what is going to be done about getting a new civilization going again. After that, we can organize and strategize. Maybe a weakness can be discovered, some way for us to kill them in mass numbers. For now, we concentrate on arming ourselves and then getting the fuel back to SubTropolis."

                                Ember gave everyone a moment to let that sink in, he taking a couple of bites of his food in the meanwhile.

                                After he swallowed his last bite, he looked at Adrian.

                                "I'm not from around this area. I grew up in South Dakota. But there is one thing that will remain constant."

                                He looked around at everyone again, using the pause to shovel another forkful of the food into his mouth. It was good food. He was hungry, and it had been how long since he'd had a good, home-cooked meal again?

                                "Gun stores, at least ones as large as the one me and my Lieutenant saw, will almost always have high-end explosives - grenades, Claymores, everything we need. Stores like that stock that kind of stuff for its A-Licensed customers. Automatic weapons, too. AK-47s, the kind of rifle I have and more. They'll have ammunition for all of them, too. Buckets of it. A lot of it will be military surplus, meaning a lot of it will be the same kind of ammo I have now, but they'll probably have a backroom full of the kind of A-List ammo we need. Hell, it wouldn't surprise me even, if they didn't have a mountable machine gun."

                                A grin.

                                "The kind of stuff that'll take out a whole building front. They might even have a minigun. If they do, we snag it."

                                Ember turned to Geoff.

                                "I saw a big pickup truck in the Walmart parking lot. It has a camper shell on it and everything. Do you think you could break into its drive array and get it going?"

                                He looked at everyone again.

                                "We're going out to it after supper. Me, Geoff and Adrian. Mickey, you stay here with Tobias. Me and you," this latter to Adrian, "are going to provide backup for Geoff. Geoff, you bring everything you need. If you can jailbreak that pickup and get it going, it will be perfect for the gun-store raid. If not, we can still use Adrian's truck, but from what I saw of it, it wasn't meant for hauling. It might limit what we can carry from the gun store."

                                Ember looked around at everybody again.

                                "And we are going to make a haul from that store if we can. What we don't need ourselves for the next stage of our operation, getting the fuel, can be brought back to SubTropolis."

                                Ember looked at everybody in turn again, his expression grim.

                                "And make no mistake. We are going to need it."

                                His expression darkened.

                                "I for one, am not content to hunker down in some underground bunker waiting for the world to end. Once we get SubTropolis back up on its feet, I intend to make a run out to Fort Riley. There might still be people alive there. But even if there isn't, there's enough military hardware there for us to be able to make a start on making a difference."

                                Ember nodded slowly, looking at everyone again, this time, slowly and by turns, as if to add weight to his words.

                                "We are in a fight for our survival. If we organize ourselves and do this right, we will be able to liberate other pockets of survivors. The more we liberate, the more people we have to start rebuilding with. And the more we rebuild, the more we will have to push the monsters back with. And in the mean time, we might find a way to kill them en mass. And who knows, there might be other people out there trying to organize, too. If we find them, so much the better. But in the mean time, we need to act like we're the only ones. Our survival depends on us. We need to act as though it does, and to do everything we can to make sure we do survive."
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                                  Geoff's ears perked up at the wolf's words. He seemed a little startled by the prospect of going out at night. "I don't think that's a great idea." he said, clearing his throat, "There are some things to know about these turned that you ought to know."

                                  The fox took a bite of his steak, rather enjoying the flavour. He was quite pleased with how it had turned out, given the meagre ingredients that he had had to work with.

                                  "The night is when they come out and go hunting. They go looking for rotten things, that's what they seem to be attracted to. I've noticed they don't bother any of the animals that are out and about. Otherwise, you'd see their carcasses everywhere." That was one thing, but there was something else that was equally important.

                                  "Another thing, they don't see very well. At least not in the visible light spectrum. I think they have heat vision, though. So if we're going to go out at night, our body heat is going to light us up like Christmas trees. I found that a wetsuit does help a little bit, but it doesn't completely conceal you. Finally, quick motions will get them to chase. I've found that out first hand." the fox flattened his ears as he recalled that incident.

                                  He shook his head, "At night, or indoors these things are dangerous. During the day in fair weather, less so. I don't like the idea of going out there at night, but Subtropolis has a time limit in play now. You guys keep them off of me, and I'll get that truck going."

                                  He paused to take a long drink, draining Akio's glass for luck. He'd need it.

                                  "Getting that truck running again may be a challenge. The drive array isn't what I'm worried about. Those are built to revert o manual control if the central control system has collapsed. The designers didn't want a bunch of bricks cluttering up the roads if that happened. I have the codes to get manual mode engaged."

                                  He pondered what else may be a problem, "The batteries will be flat by now. LIPO cells will eventually drain with the car's standby mode. It's not a big drain, but it has been a year, I'd be very surprised if there was any charge left. So, let's see, I've got batteries charged downstairs, we'll bring those. I've got my computer to program the drive array... Mickey's drone has a night vision mode on its camera, so he can keep an eye out for those things for us."

                                  He shook his head, "Essentially this is going to be the world's fastest EV battery swap. But... yeah, I'd better bring wrenches and hammers too. It's possible those motors may have seized up with exposure to the elements. I doubt it, but it's better to be prepared." he said, letting everyone watch the fox's thought process.

                                  He finished off the last few bites of his meal before picking up the plates and rinsing them off in the sink. No time to thoroughly wash them. He emerged a couple of minutes later and headed for the stairs, "Right, let's get everything together."
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                                    Ember nodded.

                                    "We have about a half an hour of sunlight left. Then it will be another fourty-five minutes or so of twilight. That gives us just over an hour. Even if you aren't able to get the truck going in that time, it will let you assess what it needs and give us a head start on it tomorrow."

                                    Ember nodded at Geoff again, then again at everybody else.

                                    "I mean for us to be in that gun shop and ransacking it not more than two hours after sun up, then on our way to the railyard. If we're lucky, we should be able to get the locomotives hooked up and be on our way with them to SubTropolis before the end of day. By noon tomorrow at the very latest."

                                    By then, Ember only had a few bites of his food left. He took another.

                                    "Finish your suppers, then we're moving with a purpose."
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                                      With all this talk of conducting their raid for equipment and weaponry, Tobias was getting a little pumped (not fully pumped mind you, or he'd be right back on the floor). He was back to speaking, and that empty pit in his gut was gone, so even as weak as he was, he no longer was in pain, nor fear of starvation.

                                      "I can't promise that I'll be of much physical use for...well...a long time, really, given what I can actually eat...but I can walk you through the levers and steps we need once we get there. I'm not an engineer, but I've been around them long enough to know what they do."

                                      He was bluffing a bit on that front, and it was hard to hide that while he DID know how to operate them, it was all second-hand knowledge he picked up on his own. His eyes flickered back to the sunken appearance for just a moment, his mind flooded with flashes of the nightmare he was having. He didn't want to be useless. He didn't want to die.

                                      "Once we get them up and running, well...we won't ever have to worry about power in Subtropolis. I promise you that."

                                      There wasn't even juice left on his plate. It was lucky there was a plate there anymore.

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                                        Mickey wolfed down the rest of his food after Ember and Geoff had worked out their plans together. He shovelled more into his mouth than he likely should have done, and ended up dribbling a little down his lips and swallowing hard to get it all down. Then he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and stood up.

                                        "Right, so are we doing this thing now?" he asked, looking eagerly between Ember and Adrian, the de facto leaders of the group in Mickey's eyes. "I don't really know much about trucks, but if you give the orders, I'll try to follow them!"

                                        Then he turned to Geoff.

                                        "Unless I should be on drone duty again, be on the look-out while you lot work. How well does that thing see in the dark?"

                                        By the time he'd finished his question, he was already at the foot of the stairs, ready to hop up and grab the drone controller. He gave off the air of an eager-to-please schoolboy.

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                                          Adrian gave Mickey a nod when he mentioned the problem of the number of infected.

                                          "I didn't mean to sound like I was planning to wipe them out," he replied once Ember had had his say, "That wasn't my intention."

                                          He paused as Geoff spoke up. "A good point," he agreed, "That's also part of why we need to move quickly. While I doubt the infected are smart enough to get in through the ventilation, I'd rather not risk it."

                                          He dug into his meal at this point, listening to Ember's plan.

                                          "Agreed," he interjected when Ember mentioned not wanting to sit and wait around, "That's part of why I want to build fortifications at the entrance. It'll be a start to something more. Like growing food when the stores inside Subtropolis finally run out."

                                          He chewed his lip on the mention of thermal. That might help explain why Akio's cooking grease trick worked so well, eliminating scent and mitigating heat emission.

                                          He nodded when Ember told them to prepare to move out, and started eating more quickly.

                                          "You'll do fine, Tobias," he reassured the stallion as he got to his feet, having finished, before retrieving the shotgun and starting to load shells into it, "You just need time to recover. And once we get back to Subtropolis, you'll have that."

                                          Finished loading shells, he quickly checked his revolver, then drew his knife to inspect it quickly. Assured that he was prepared, he gave Ember a nod.

                                          "Ready to go, Ember," he informed the wolf.
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