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I looked bemusedly around the back of the pickup truck. Whoever Mark was, he was certainly ready for just about anything. There were a few toolboxes, but what was in front of them was even more remarkable - two makeshift mortars, and between those, what looked for all the world like the unholy union between a potato gun and the mother of all science fair projects. On top of the cab was a machine gun in some kind of motor-operated turret, obviously cobbled onto the truck's frame with some quick and dirty thermite welds. Who has time to do that, I thought.
"Who the hell is this guy anyway?" Jess asked, echoing my own thoughts.
I didn't answer right away, caught up in the odd sight of the makeshift armament around me. At length I replied. "If I knew that I'd be rich."
A few minutes later, the truck pulled into the parking lot of what had at one time been a high school. The place had obviously been slightly modified since then — the lower windows were either boarded or barred, there were guns in some of the upper ones, and most oddly of all, an array of antennas had been mounted on the roof. As the truck turned into the garage, I wondered just how much time had been sunk into fortifying this place.
Mark hopped out of the truck and walked around to the back. He held his submachine gun at the ready, aimed in my general direction. I noted that the gun wasn't actually pointed at me or Jess, though, and I resisted the temptation to aim my rifle back at the stranger. He was probably just being justifiably paranoid. Nevertheless, I locked my gaze on the man, watching him intently. I never did like having guns pointed at me, no matter how good the reason.
It was Jess who finally broke the standoff. "Thanks for the save back there. We were about to be demon chow!"
"Don't mention it," Mark replied. "What the hell were you doing out there anyway? C'mon, get down, come on inside." He put the safety back on his SMG.
"Heading to Chicago," Jess said, seeing no harm in telling the truth. I figure she was thinking that if Mark had meant to kill or rob us, he'd have already done it. "But we ran out of gas."
"I guess it's lucky I found you, then," Mark said as the three of them headed into the school-cum-fortress. "Not just demons, around here. There's some kind of spider-things around too. Lucky you didn't run into those."
"Oh, we did," I said, shuddering a bit at the memory. "That's why we were so desperate to find fuel."
"So you were headed to Chicago, eh?" Mark said, opening a door into a large classroom. "I might have known. You weren't the first, and I think I know why." With that he gestured around the room, at the banks of radios, televisions and other unidentifiable kit mounted everywhere.
I looked around, trying to make sense of all the electronic gadgetry filling the room. My gut feeling said it had something to do with why this overweight eccentric was still alive in all this devastation. "You alone out here?" I asked him.
"More or less," Mark replied. "There used to be a few others, but they all went on to Chicago. I got left for dead. Of course, it's not that easy to kill me." He laughed a bit uneasily. "But living alone left me lots of time to think. And what's there to think about but demons? You watch 'em long enough, you get to know how they work."
I nodded. Knowing how demons worked was a large part of why Jess and I were still alive. So this guy had some kind of clue. Probably.
"But that's not all. One day I was playing with a TV, trying to tune in that signal again, when I noticed that you'd get a whole bunch of weird patterns when demons were near. That was the breakthrough that saved my skin, I think." Mark looked around, as if to imply that the equipment could tell the rest of the tale. "But anyway, to make a long story short, eventually I figured out how to see 'em coming from a long way off. It's still a little hazy, and none of this is perfect," and with that he spun around a chair and sat down, pulling himself up to a keyboard and mouse. "Buuut, it's not half bad."
"That's nice," Jess said. "But what's the point?"
As he moved the mouse, the monitor in front of him lit up revealing a bewildering array of windows. He hit a few keys and the entire display spun like a cube, showing another array of windows. "That brings me to Chicago," he said. "A few months ago I started getting stuff from that direction, mostly radio broadcasts, so I started listening more closely." He spun back around and leaned in toward me, as if to tell a secret. "You know what? Somebody's alive up there. A lot of somebodies, I think. You wanna go?"
I thought about it for a moment. We were going there anyway, and there was safety in numbers, but can I trust this weirdo? Is he competent enough to survive on the road, or would he just drag us down? "Let's think on it, and see what you've got here. Jess and I will sleep on it, and let you know what we think."
"It's a deal!" Mark said exuberantly. "In the meantime, let me show you what's here!"