<-- Earlier | Cursed Earth | Later -->
I'd been on the road for almost ten hours since I departed what was left of Fargo, picking my way through old state highways to avoid the worst congregations of demons. Trouble was, this meant I was also far from anywhere that was likely to have any surviving civilization. At least, that's what I thought.
I'd just passed a sign that welcomed me to Dodgeville, and was wending my way through what might once have been a sleepy little town, when I saw something unexpected. There was a bobtail semi parked at an Exxon station up ahead, and its lights were on. Even more striking, the lights of the little convenience store there were also on. Intrigued, I pulled off the road just short of the gas station.
One thing I'd learned in my travels was that where you found power, you found people, fuel, and food. I was in need of fuel, and it would be nice to not have to dip into my food cache if I could avoid it. More than enough reason to check, I figured. Of course, the flipside is that with the world as hosed as at is, not everybody takes kindly to visitors. I figured it was worth the risk, though.
I was parked pretty far out of view, but just the same I killed the interior light, to be sure. I racked the slide on my Five-SeveN, putting it in condition one, and tucked it back into its holster, grabbed my darn dao from the passenger seat and clipped it on, then zipped my coat halfway up. I allowed myself a grin of anticipation as I sauntered off toward the gas station.
Despite my excitement, I stopped myself short of the gas station and looked around. Something seemed odd. I narrowed my eyes and peered down the hill into the little convenience store, and that's when I saw it. There was a man there, on the floor, dragging himself slowly toward the door as if hurt - not a good sign at all.
Thrusting my hand into my pocket, I fished around for the little cat's-eye agate ring, and slipped it over my pinky finger, visualizing myself with the speed and stealth of the lynx, and took off toward the gas station at a sprint, neither my footfalls nor my sword making any sound at all. As I neared the parking lot I glanced nervously around, looking for anything else amiss. Nothing.
Another few silent steps had me to the truck. Nothing obvious there, either. I snapped the Five-SeveN out and dashed around the other side, then up to the door of the store. No demons. Not as far as I could see, anyway. I pulled my coat tighter around me and held stock-still, letting myself fade into the shadows of the wall. When the shadows had drawn themselves about, I clutched my quartz pendant in one hand and reached out with my other senses, probing. Gammas, maybe?, I wondered. They could hide as well as anything that actually belonged in this world; maybe better. I kept probing as long as I dared, but I couldn't see anything but the man.
I slid forward, peering in the door. He was there, clawing his way across the floor. He didn't look good, but there was no blood. This just keeps getting weirder, I thought. No demons, no blood.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh?" I mumbled aloud as I stepped out of the convenient shadow and opened the door. I quickly swept the room, making sure there were no demons hidden near the ceiling, then lowered my gun. There were a few empty Twinkie boxes on the ground near the man, who was still trying to creep toward the door. I stepped nearer and took a closer look.
I recoiled in disgust at what I saw. He was wearing no shirt, and I could see that his skin was gray, mottled and covered with cracks and scaly patches all over. He had several ulcers on his back, and his left hand looked withered and necrotic. He stunk of vomit and moldy decay. Nevertheless, he was still trying to drag himself across the floor with his one good hand. Despite my revulsion, I bent down to help.
"No!" he cried out with a strained, failing voice. "Don't touch me! It... It's awful. Get help!"
"What kind of help do you need?"
"Doc... Doctor Jacobson. Can't save me but he knows about this..." He turned over his hand, desperately, as if to underscore exactly what he was referring to.
"Who's Doctor Jacobson? Is he here? Is he why you came here?"
"On radio, he said he's close. Ggggass...mask in truck... HeAAAAAAARGGGGGGGGug!" The man's voice trailed off into a strangled scream. He scrambled about on the floor, managing to get a foot under himself. He slowly, painfully raised himself up, then stared at me with a look of profound horror. "Get... Bbbbbaaack.."
I barely stepped back in time to avoid a poorly aimed, but clearly full-force haymaker. The man grabbed his head and moaned. "Augh... I can't help it... Want to hurt people, but I know it's not... not my thoughts. I'm sick, I'm dying, I'm psycho... Shoot me..."
Panic gripped me now. I had no idea what I was looking at, except that it was disgusting and horrifying. I never relished the idea of killing other humans, but the way this man was, I was starting to wonder if it would be an act of mercy.
"Just... Fff. Fucking... Kill... BLEUGH!" He suddenly retched and hunched over, barfing up a gutful of vile bloody glop. "Ugghhh... Want to... kill you. Kill ME!"
The hell with morals, I thought. This is some serious fucking horror-show shit. I raised the pistol, aimed right between his eyes and double-tapped. The high-velocity slugs struck home, his head snapping back with each impact. To my amazement and utter horror he didn't go down right away. He lurched toward me, blood sluicing down his face and dripping onto the floor, eerily moaning as he came. I fired again. He managed one more half-hearted step before collapsing to the ground with an icky thump.
"Oh shit what the fuck was that!" I yelled. "Oh, ick! Ick ick ick ick ick!"
I ran back out of the store and collected my thoughts. That had to be some kind of infection, or maybe a parasite. I had to have some kind of protection. I reached into my bag, pulled out a small pewter caduceus and held it to my forehead, visualizing a shell of pure blue energy around me, hedging out germs, then I tucked the focus back away and headed for my car. The ward would buy me some protection, but there was mundane protection back in my first-aid kit, and that would help too. Gloves, hand sanitizer and a dust mask, and the last of a bottle of isopropyl alcohol, what little I hadn't used to start a cooking fire a few days back. And the man had mentioned a gas mask in his truck. I hoped - and prayed - that would be enough.
After getting protection I went back to the truck and rifled through. There had pretty clearly been two people in there, one of them a woman based on the suitcase full of girls' clothes, but nobody was there now. There was puke on one of the seats, but I just tried to avoid it. I found a lighter, a map, two LED flashlights, a box of 9mm rounds and the gas mask that the man mentioned, plus a portable CB radio. I grabbed the stuff and got out of there, not wanting to be exposed to whatever had done that to someone any longer than I had to be, protected or not.
On the way back to the car, the radio crackled to life. "Roger? Denise? Are you there? This is Fred, are you there?"
I almost didn't respond, but then I figured that if there was someone else here, I should make contact. "Fred, I'm here. This is not Roger. My name's Logan."
"Logan? Who the hell are you? Where's Roger? Where's Denise?"
"I'm not entirely sure. I found this radio in an abandoned truck. A man was not far away, something terrible had happened to him." I shuddered at the thought.
"Something terrible? Denise said Roger was sick..."
"Well, the man I met - I'm going to assume that was Roger, unless you tell me otherwise - told me to ask for a Dr. Jacobson. He said that Dr. Jacobson knew something about what was happening to him."
"Yes! Yes, he knows! He's not here right now. Where are you, and where's Denise?"
"I didn't see anyone else," I said. "I'm down near the Exxon station on... Hell, what is this road, anyway?"
"Oh, we're only about a mile away. We'll turn on a spotlight, but come to us fast, we don't want to attract demons!"
I ran the rest of the way back to the car. No sooner had I started the engine than I saw a pillar of light spear up into the sky, not too far away. I drove off into the night, toward the light.
After a few minutes, I found it, a somewhat dilapidated high school building, with a few motor homes and trucks in the parking lot. A few people were standing around a big military-style spotlight - complete with Canadian Forces markings - in the parking lot, some of them with shotguns. I turned into the lot and parked, then got out cautiously. Although I could see just fine, I flipped on one of the LED flashlights, just to make sure they could see me, and waggled it a bit, signaling to the nearest of them.
The spotlight abruptly shut off, and the nearest person, a tall, vaguely Hispanic-looking fellow in gray overalls, motioned for me to come closer. He never turned the muzzle of his shotgun away, though. Good, I thought. They're wary, but not paranoid. This is promising. I advanced, quickly but carefully, hands at my sides but not hidden, both flashlights on now.
"Howdy, stranger," the shotgun-wielder said to me, affecting a mock Texas drawl. He didn't look nearly as hayseed as he was making himself sound.
"Are you Fred?" I asked, although I was pretty sure he wasn't. "I talked to someone named Fred on the radio."
By now the rest of the crowd had started to wander back toward the school. The tall fellow motioned toward the door with his weapon. I took the hint and marched on, letting him follow along behind me. I clearly wasn't a prisoner here, but he didn't fully trust me either. I didn't blame him - I'd had enough run-ins with bandits myself to be a bit leery of strangers.
The door led into what had been the gymnasium, now converted into a sort of makeshift open-bay barracks. Here and there were a number of other men and women and some teenagers, but no young children. As I crossed the room, avoiding the various piles of personal effects and other kipple scattered about, I took stock of my surroundings more closely. For the most part, the people seemed healthy, despite a handful who were clearly wounded. Even they had new bandages and splints and looked well cared-for. I nodded approvingly.
The man who had met me outside intercepted me near the far door. He still had the gun, though it was held over his shoulder now.
"Hey stranger," he said. "Fred's a couple of rooms up, he's got radio watch tonight. I'll take you to him if you want, but you probably want to talk to our leaders."
"You're probably right. My name's Logan, by the way."
"Logan, eh? Call me Javier." He looked to his right. "Follow me."
I followed, out the door and down the hall, past a few classrooms that had been converted into everything from sleeping quarters to food storage to tool sheds. He led me downstairs and through a set of double doors. One of them was welded shut, the other secured with a makeshift heavy steel bolt. Past the door, a few people were milling around in the hall, looking at a bunch of maps pinned to corkboards on the wall. Around a corner, the hall branched in two directions. One way, though, was barred by a roll-down metal gate, with a heavy smoke curtain hanging behind it. Javier led me down the un-barred branch and into the administration office. There was a woman at the desk inside wearing Air Force camouflage fatigues; she nodded to Javier as we entered but kept working on whatever she was looking at. We then proceeded into the office, up to the open door of the principal's office. Someone was seated at the desk inside, typing.
That caught me off guard for a moment - what was he typing on? - but then I spied the red Silicon Graphics Fuel workstation on the end of the desk. My brain instantly filed that in the "that's weird" file. Working computers were rare enough anywhere, and this was an odd one by any standard.
"Mike, you've got a visitor," Javier announced. I straightened my jacket almost involuntarily. This was a little odd.
The figure at the keyboard spun around in his chair. I caught a glimpse of a revolver sitting by the keyboard as he turned. "You aren't Logan, are you?"
"That'd be me," I replied laconically. I resisted the temptation to call him "sir", even though he pretty clearly seemed to be a person of some power here. I figured I'd keep playing the outsider angle for as long as I thought it'd give me an advantage.
"Good, good, excellent even," he said. "Fred mentioned you, said you might know something about Roger and Denise?"
Mike stood now and picked up a small amethyst sphere from a nearby bookshelf. "Javier, go back up and help 'em get that moose into the freezer. I want to talk to Logan a bit longer."
"Sure thing, boss," he said. He hesitated for a moment, seemingly uneasy at leaving his boss alone with a stranger, then spun on his heel and left. Mike walked over and closed the door.
"Tell me what you know," Mike said.
"Well, I'm not really sure what I know," I said. For now I figured honesty was the best policy. If they didn't know about whatever it was that did in Roger, then they needed to. If they did know, then I needed to learn whatever I could. "What happened there was... It was pretty damn scary, is what it was. Also confusing. If the man I was forced to shoot was Roger, then I know where he is. But I don't know anything about Denise. There wasn't anyone else in the truck, or the store. There were some girls' clothes in the truck - hers maybe? The whole thing's pretty weird and I walked in right in the middle of it. Roger - if that's who was there - mentioned a Doctor Jacobson. Is he here?"
Mike considered all this for a moment, then drew in a deep breath and blew it out noisily. "Alright. Perhaps I should start at the beginning. We still have some cars and trucks that work, so we send out scouts from time to time, hoping to link up with other survivors, or just find us supplies. Well, a few weeks ago, we found some." He slid to the side a bit, grabbed the mouse and pulled up a map, then zoomed in. "It's an old map, but it's close enough. Up here - " He pointed with the mouse again. "We found a few trailers full of stuff, a shipment to a Wal-Mart that never made it. I figured there'd be food, or clothes or ammo or maybe just furniture, but any way you look at it, useful stuff. In the worst case the trailers themselves would be handy."
He turned the sphere over in his fingers a few times. "So anyway, Denise had a big-rig, so we sent her, and her husband Roger up to go fetch one of the trailers. Problem was, they hit into a broken bridge and couldn't find a reasonable way around, so they turned back, and stopped for the night in a little burg north of here. We got a few radio transmissions from them that night, but we couldn't make sense of 'em. The next time we heard from them, a few hours later, Denise told us that Roger was sick and she was on her way back. We got another downright spooky one last night, and that's the last we heard, until you found their radio."
"He was sick alright," I said, the hideous way he died still fresh in my mind. "I've never seen anything like that. What the hell was that?"
"That's what we want to know."
Something in the way he said that told me that I hadn't heard the full story yet.
"It almost sounds like you've heard of it before," I ventured. I was going out on a bit of a limb here, but at this point, I wanted information as badly as it sounded like Mike did.
He shifted uncomfortably. "You... might say that. I think we'd better go talk to Doctor Jacobson."
I had a bad feeling about this. I straightened my coat again. This was shaping up to be one hell of a long night.