<-- Earlier | Cursed Earth

I'd been driving in circles for two days now, trying to localize that beacon. After a lot of farting around, I thought I had finally found it, but not before spending a lot of time - and a few hundred rounds of ammunition - searching down blind, demon-infested alleys. Finally I had it. I was sure of it this time. "Any station this net, any station this net, this is alfa lima yankee niner foxtrot hotel papa, radio check, over," I said into the mic.

There was a crackle of static in return, then suddenly the speaker came to life. "Whoa, a newbie!" came the response. "HAM operator this net, this is Rat Bastard, I read you loud and clear. Where the hell did you come from, over?"

'Rat Bastard', eh? I thought. Well, it's definitely not the Army. I grinned ear-to-ear. All the blind alleys had finally paid off. "Rat Bastard, this is ALY9FHP - call me Wandering Nutcase," I responded. "I'm heading southbound on US-41 near..." I glanced over at my map, figuring my location by dead reckoning. "Somewhere near Racine, Wisconsin, I think. Been driving in circles, following the beacon on 24.1 megahertz. Where are you, over?"

"Me? Oh, just descending through angels zero-five right now, coming down to the deck to take a look, over," the voice answered. I pondered that for a moment. Was I really talking to some guy in a plane, or was this some kind of weird prank? I drove on for a few minutes, not sure if I wanted to respond or not, when suddenly I saw something in the sky ahead, coming toward me. At first I thought it was a delta demon, but then I heard the distinct drone of a propeller. The plane - a Piper PA-46, I could tell as it got closer - zoomed overhead, surprisingly low. A moment later I heard the drone getting closer again as the aircraft circled around, struck a course parallel to the road and rocked its wings. "Nice big rig, Nutcase," came the call over the radio.

I was still thunderstruck. "Well, I'll be damned," I managed to stammer out. "I guess I could say the same, Rat Bastard." Over the next few minutes, he relayed some instructions and information to me. I could scarcely believe it. While it wasn't the first time I'd found others, up to now they'd either been desperate hangers-on, left for dead, paranoid gun nuts bugged in so deep they'd never come out or wanderers like me, moving from safe-house to safe-house. Not these guys, though, if Rat Bastard was to be believed. For the first time since I started walking the Earth, there was something resembling a proper community.

I drove onward until I'd nearly reached what Rat Bastard had called the 'yellow line'. He said this was as far out as the patrols came, a statement that I found intriguing. If this band of survivors had enough resources to send out patrols, what else did they have?

I stopped in a battered Burger King parking lot in a safe-looking bit of suburbia to stretch my legs. The whole area was weed-choked and overgrown, and there were wrecked cars here and there, but the roads were clear and in better shape than I might have expected. Nearby, a bobcat perched on the top of a burned-out Volkswagen Beetle, licking its paw. A few birds perched along a nearby telephone wire. All in all, the place seemed nice enough for what it was. I had just finished whizzing and zipped my pants back up when I caught a flash of movement near the treeline beyond the parking lot. In my peripheral vision I could see the bobcat jump down and bound away - strangely, away from the trees - and the crows noisily took to the air. Shit, I thought. Rule number one of Cursed Earth is 'don't get complacent', and I had done exactly that.

I snapped my pistol out and turned just in time to see a pair of alpha demons spring at me from the treeline. I fired and spun aside, avoiding one, but the other caught me with a claw, ripping my jacket. I dispatched it with three rounds, and the second demon reared and began to rattle its tail, producing a strange buzz like a bag of furious wasps. Before I could react, a shadow passed over me and I was bowled over by a diving delta demon. The delta snagged me and pulled me partway off my feet, dragging me across the parking lot. A sidelong whack with its tail blade knocked the pistol from my grip and sent it skidding along the pavement. I went for my knife, but right as I got it free, the delta caught an updraft and jerked me off my feet, causing me to drop it. I was now skimming over the ground, slowly climbing. Panic rose up, threatening to take over, but I kept hold of myself and fished frantically through my pockets for anything useful. I took hold of a can of OC, brought it up and sprayed a long blast into the demon's face. I wasn't sure if the stuff even worked on demons, but anything was worth a shot.

Evidently it did because the demon let go, dropping me into a bank of raspberry bushes. I shook my head, trying to find my focus, when I saw another delta demon diving at me from out of the sun, its blade leading the way. I fought to free myself from the thorns so I could dodge, but to no avail. Suddenly, I saw two people pop out from behind an air conditioner on the roof of the Burger King, one holding a length of PVC pipe and the other a boxy wooden gadget of some kind. The two - who looked for all the world to be barely teenagers - raised the devices to their shoulders and took aim as the demon continued barreling down on me. A rocket streaked from the first boy's tube, but it rapidly destabilized and fell off its tail, the trail of smoke describing squirrely patterns in the sky before the rocket thudded into the parking lot, exploding with a puff of flame and dirty smoke. The second rocket, though, flew truer and caught the demon under the right wing, exploding with a surprisingly bright flash. The demon's wing was hit by the blast and caught fire like dry kindling, sending the thing careening to the ground, the flames spreading all over its body as it fell.

About then I finally managed to extricate myself from my thorny predicament, and I ran back toward the parking lot to retrieve my weapons. As I searched for the dropped pistol, two big zeta demons appeared from out of the woods. I rapidly took cover behind the Beetle as several envenomed spines glanced off its frame. Time to get the heavy artillery, I thought. Retrieving the pistol would have to wait. Carefully, I watched the two zetas, waiting for an opportunity, but by then, another zeta and two alpha primes had appeared. "Fuck me," I swore aloud, and then I saw another demon, this one a gamma, appear from around the side of my truck. "Fuck me sideways with a slinky!!"

Right as I was wondering what cockamamie scheme I could cook up to get out of this one, I saw an object arc down from the roof of the Burger King, tumbling end-over-end and trailing smoke, to land in front of the zetas. A pipe bomb, I realized, an instant before it exploded, showering the two demons with shrapnel. I took off, making a mad dash for the truck. The gamma moved to cut me off but I shoulder-checked it out of the way and continued, tearing the door open and leaping inside. I couldn't get the door closed again before the gamma caught up, so I snaked around behind the driver's seat as it slipped into the cab after me. Bad news - you never want to face a gamma demon in close quarters. Of course, these were my close quarters. Blind, but knowing the inside of my truck by heart, I reached behind me and brought the ten-gauge double-barrel around and discharged two loads of triple-aught buck directly in the fiend's face. I winced at the combination of recoil and flying demon pieces, then wiped off my face and grinned triumphantly.

I heard another pipe bomb go off outside - apparently the fight was still raging - so I grabbed my AK-47 and jumped out to assist. One of the alpha primes was scaling the wall trying to get at the two boys. I shot it in the back and it fell to the ground heavily. I spied the zeta near the Beetle, arching its tail to fling spikes, so I spun on it, flipped the AK to full auto and fired a long burst into the demon. It teetered and fell to the ground in a puddle of yellow blood. I scanned the parking lot, but saw no more demons. One of the boys threw a rope ladder over the side of the roof and shimmied down, followed closely by the other.

"Good shootin', dude!" the first boy yelled.

"Hey, thanks!" I shouted back. "Damn fine work yourself, too. Thanks for the save."

The teen chuckled. "That was a close one, these rockets kinda suck."

"Bah," the other said. "They're not half bad for something that's, you know, homemade. I think it's a miracle Kate got the things to fly straight at all."

"They don't," the first retorted. "Or weren't you watching?"

"Well, mine did," the second said, sticking his tongue out. "Maybe you just konked it too hard getting up there!"

"Oh, bite me," the first snickered, then turned to regard me. "So anyway, you're the guy Rat Bastard said was coming, right?"

"That's me," I said, grinning. Did that flying madman seriously send these kids out to escort me? If so, I was in for a weirder time than I thought. "How'd you two get here anyway?"

"Easy, we biked," the second teen said.

Bikes? I thought incredulously. I had to respect any kid who had the guts to ride into a demon-infested area on a bike, armed with pipe bombs, makeshift rockets and what looked like cobbled-together fighting knives. "Please don't tell me that's all the armament you brought," I said.

"Oh no," answered the first, flipping open his coat to reveal a pair of Beretta U22 Neos .22 pistols and another pipe bomb. "And Luke here has even more!" With that, the second teen pulled back his duster to reveal an FN P90 hanging at his side and a Colt 1911 pistol in an inner pocket. I just shook my head.

"Well," I said. "Let me find my knife and gun, and let's head back. You guys lead the way, I'll follow." I had a feeling that by the end of the day, not much would amaze me anymore.

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