“This is a stupid plan,” Hands said, solemnly. “Why did you even agree to it?”
“We’re just driving up the highway,” I said, firmly. “And the cape’s on the back of your car. If they take a shot at a B rank, they’re literally stupid, and we can cream their clocks.”
“And if they’re not stupid?” Hands asked.
I gave her a long look. “It’s not logical that they’d try and attack us. The only B ranks around are going to be more than happy to kill anyone who tries anything; if there are bandits, they’d be far better suited to stay out of our way so that we don’t find anything rather than risk calling down whatever armored presence is around.”
“It’s a bit of a point there,” Colton asked. “But you’re also forgetting something, Gale.”
“I am?” I asked, cocking my head to the side.
“If we don’t find the bandits, we need to figure out how to get supplies into Fairhope,” Colton said. “Or are we just going to leave them?”
“You never really did solve our problem with supplies…” Colton trailed off.
“We’ve been importing through Louisiana.” I said, weakly.
“Let’s leave it for now,” Hands said, cutting in. “We’re not in a bad situation, we just want to be in a better one.”
Colton shrugged. “Maybe there really aren’t any good ways to get supplies in here.”
“Maybe,” I said, agreeing. “Fairhope can probably go without gas for a bit longer, certainly. We can get food in, though.”
“We need to get food in,” Colton agreed. “Or things are going to go south pretty quick.”
“I believe,” Hand said, looking at Colton. “Your words are to worry about the future later, handle the present?”
“There’s nothing more present than the eminent threat of starving to death,” Colton said.
“We’ll figure something out, alright?” I said. “Even if we have to break the rules to do it.”
“Where’s your moral spine?” Colton asked quietly.
“This time I’m not afraid to do what’s right,” I said, just as quietly. “If only for the greater good.” then I laughed. “And maybe the path we figure out won’t piss off the national guard?”
Colton laughed weakly.
The radio played nothing but old country songs, blooming from a radio station far enough away that it crackled with static, and emergency broadcast warnings giving conflicting information on where to go. Fairhope was broadcasting that it was full up of refugees, but Montgomery and Birmingham both marked it as being a safe haven for anyone that needed to move to safety.
Occasionally a national guard broadcast would remind people that the quarantine was still in effect, and my teeth would grit and Hands’s grip on the steering wheel put dents in the leather.
But we were going north, so the country station solidified, while the fairhope signal weakened. Perhaps more problematic than even the food situation was the question of power. As the crisis got worse… got longer, the chances of there being serious disruptions to local power would just intensify. And any serious disruption to local power would cut our food supplies (buoyed by local bush meat and refrigeration systems) down to almost nothing, quicker than you could blink.
We could pretend to be on top of things, but we were hanging on by the tips of our fingers, and all it would take would be a single stop to plunge the lot of us into utter misery.
If I could just fix the port security issue…
The ships in and out of Mobile had dwindled down into almost nothing following the Cuban Patrol attack. It had made sense at the time to bar the port; there were militant ships out there.
But as the weeks had rolled by, and no more sightings had occured… it might be prudent to reopen the harbor. Mobile might be able to sustain itself by fishing, but… I had the distinct feeling it was already unsustainable; environmental damage had pervaded the place for decades.
The empty stretch of highway rolled off in front of us, covered in stretches of abandoned cars and vacant gas stations. Boarded up old towns that had been left behind in the flurry to leave. The occasional person walking around vacantly, peering through the empty streets, covered in trash from a party at the end of the world. Vacant farms, ruined from lack of care stared up at us as crops wilted in the fields.
“Alright, this is about where they should be disappearing,” I said, as we passed another vacant church. Holly Hills stretched before us, around a corner.
Or rather, there was miles of burnt out road and housing, buildings, stretched out as far as the eye could see. Structures had been utterly torched to the ground or incinerated.
Hands stopped the car and stared. “Do you smell that?”
Couldn’t make it out, or perhaps I didn’t want to make it out, but as we sat there with the car idling, Colton frowned. “That’s burning flesh.”
“Gale, that’s burning flesh!” Colton turned to look at me, his eyes wild. “There were people here, and they burned Gale!”
I undid the car door and stepped outside, my boots touching down on the crackle of warm ash. “Well,” I said, swallowing down the fear and the completely logical part of me that said to get the hell out of dodge. “Let’s go take a look at the situation, and then report back.”
Didn’t have to look far to see the burning had continued far up the road; smoke built up in the distance.
A wildfire should’ve been reported by someone. Didn’t make sense to have a town destroyed not far from civilization, not far from somewhere someone would care, and yet…
Without communications, with the system shaken, with people fleeing from this region, it might’ve been weeks before someone would notice this.
But I had the distinct feeling that this wasn’t a wildfire, and that there were far more sinister reasons for what was in front of me.
So I stepped off the road and into what had once been grass, ash crackling and parting before my boots. Colton joined me after a moment, and then Hands, adjusting her body armor as she stepped off.
“I don’t like this,” Hands whispered, her arms shaking slightly.
“I don’t like it either,” I said, looking at Colton. “Any ideas?”
“The entire place has just been… torched…” Colton said, looking off into the distance. Smoke roiled high into the sky, mixing into the grey clouds storming off of Mobile.
It was going to start raining soon back there.
Was that why the rain had stung so much, falling into my cuts and bruises? The burnt remnants of yet another almost forgotten town?
I stepped over to one of the structures that was barely standing, tugging my cape over my nose so I could breath, and opened up the door.
The gas station had wilted bags of chips on the shelves, half melted around their cargo. Things had moldered together, electrical wiring had burst, and oppressive heat had changed the paint into a deep black.
A skeleton was in the back, gleaming bones charred while laying across an almost clean layer of floor. His head was cracked open like an egg, and blood had pooled on the floor.
Dead before he was burnt.
I closed the door and swept past the station. “We’re not here to be voyeurs for the dead. Let’s find where the shipments went and…”
“Do you think we should just ignore them?” Colton asked.
“I mean…” Hands said, voice nervous. “It’s not like we’re… the proper authorities here?”
I shook my head. “We’ll get the Association to handle this when it’s the right time. I just…”
Staring across the ruined town, my nose was filled with the smell of burning flesh. Couldn’t figure it out; where had it all come from? There were bodies, yes, but not enough to make it the only scent, rising over wood and stone and char.
“What the fuck?!” Colton swore and backpedaled away from the center of town.
“What?” I asked, racing to his side.
The lip of a massive sinkhole stared at me, and I cocked my head to the side, peering at it.
“There’s a sink hole,”
“No, fuck fuck fuckety fuck fuck fuck,” Colton swore, his face turning whiter and whiter. “What the fuck?!”
His finger shook as he pointed down into the pit.
Carefully, I sidled towards it, wondering what would try to bite me.
Only to stare down at the skeletons nestled at the bottom of it, covered in ash and burnt blood. The smell was especially strong here.
I stared down at the bodies. “There we go. It’s intentional.”
“You know,” Hands said, stepping closer to me. “I wonder if something like this is where my dad vanished.”
“What?” I asked.
“He vanished. Never got a body or anything, in south America while on deployment,” Hands said. “Do you think he ended up in a pit like this?”
I shot her a concerned look as she took another step closer, and lifted up the half melted frame of a military rifle.
“Parents suck,” Colton said, flatly. “Don’t let it worry you, alright? Just… focus on the now, alright?”
“Did your dad tell that to you?” I asked.
“Shut the fuck up we’re not having a fucking parents talk over top of the dead like this, fuck off!” Colton hissed.
I shot him a concerned look as he took another step closer, and lifted up the half melted frame of a military rifle. National guard.
We stared at it for a long moment. Couldn’t really put together what it meant, but the cogs in my brain kept ticking even as I screamed at it to stop.
Then I slowly turned and stared up at where Montgomery was supposed to be, and despite not being particularly religious, gave the sign of the cross.
“This is fucked. This is so fucked,” Colton stammered, throwing out more and more swears as he looked around. “You can’t possibly mean that the guard did this?!”
My stomach sank down until it touched my pelvis. I wished my bones might turn into a grinder so I’d cease existing on the spot, choking in my own blood.
At least I’d have a better smell than the burnt flesh hanging in the air.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Hands said, looking at me. “They don’t just… murder towns like this.”
“No…” I said, looking around, crunching. “No, there’s not enough people here.”
“Not enough people?” Colton asked. “There’s like twenty dead bodies there.”
“Shut the fuck up and let me think,” I hissed at him.
Colton’s teeth clicked together, but his eyes flared angrily beneath his black hair.
“No, no, this town had to have close to a thousand people in here. They didn’t carve up this town,” I said, stepping around the pit. “They gave out an evacuation warning,”
Hadn’t been paying close enough attention to the emergency radio, but when had this part gone under it? There’d been travel warnings, but…
At least a week ago, this had happened. No supplies, no contact. But why hadn’t anyone… told anyone else? Why didn’t anyone know?
“So these are the people who stayed behind?” Colton asked, his voice frail, weak. “These are the people the guard didn’t protect?”
“No,” I said, cutting in. “This was a mercy killing.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and I slowly turned, craning the horizon. Could hear, distantly, since everything here was dead, the bubbling of the river styx, winding next to the town.
Bizarrely, over all of that, I could hear the lapping of the ocean.
“We’re missing information,” I decided, standing up straight. “Come on, we need to figure out more…”
“Well, I know one thing,” Hands said. “We’re not getting supplies out of here.”
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Faraday (Zackary Varabage)
Place of Origin: Owensboro Kentucky
Powers: Energy Transmutation*
History: Found after translation of coded Fourthist emails led Association members to conclude that a Destroyer Level Weird was about to be born. Father taken into custody after demise of mother during birth. Father (Taylor Varabage) proved to have unnatural knowledge of energies; genetic tested proved negative for anomalous genetic strains. Father allowed to assist in help, citing strange dreams of great machines when he thought of his son.
Taylor Varabage (Deceased)
Inventor of the RMC (Reality Modulating Carapace) and implicit in developing a governing theory for baseline reality modulation. Designs proved impractical for all but the Destroyer Levels, though research has been done to solve the efficiency loss when splitting [REDACTED] along the [REDACTED] axis in order to not violate the Kellog-Briand Pact, no real progress has been made since [REDACTED] in [REDACTED].
Hands coughed as she stepped over the next ridge, staring pointedly ahead. The smoke was thicker in the air here, and the acrid burn of flesh against my lungs made my eyes water and my head fuzzy.
The map on my comm was marking the entire place as being well within the quarantine zone. We blipped in and out of it, visibly inside. My hands shook until I put it away. “Be careful…” I warned.
“It’s… so big…” Hands whispered, staring ahead.
She was on top of a half crushed house, peering over the rising bridge covered in cars and scorch marks, looking over the desecrated bayou and forests and.
Something moved inside of it.
I could hear the ocean, how curious, but there was something moving in the depths of the forest, like silvery tendrils. It nudged around, smelling the air (I did not know how I knew it was smelling the air, but I was attached to the air, and knew I was being smelled) and all at once I had the sinking suspicion that it knew we were here.
But then it occured to me that it was not peering out of the water, but rather from on top of the water, from the cloudy skim fluid floating on top of the water. Now that I knew what to look at, that strange pattern, I could see it stretching deeper and darker into the groves of burnt exposed trees. Miles of it wound across the forest. Miles of it wound across the road beyond the burnt out town, eerily flexing and straining. Tendrils of it touched the ground around it and licked and make strange noises, greyish pale pink.
Then it struck me that I could see hairs growing out of the firmer bits of it.
We were looking at nothing else other than skin. Twitching, questing skin.
A plane flew overhead and I heard the whistle of a bomb.
“Fuck,” I said, blankly, staring at the projectile. The rest of the words didn’t come out so much as they were obliterated or taken away by the sound the bomb made.
Hands threw me to the ground and Colton joined us in cowered. Halfway down to the ground it erupted into hot searing torrents of flame and fire. Some strange chemical compound that hurt to look at and burned like the sun touched down on top of the burnt bayou, and the water boiled with charring flesh, cooked, fried, boiled, ruined.
“…Fuck,” I said, looking at Colton. No more words, only the steady click of my brain breaking in my head. Thought I could taste blood.
“Fuuuuuck.” Colton said, looking at back at me.
“Shut the fuck up,” Hands whispered, murderously, peering through the cracked window of the car we were cowering behind. “And what the fuck is that.”
“I don’t… I don’t…”
“We’re in the quarantine zone?!” I hissed. “Oh, oh my god. No wonder there’s not been any supplies. No wonder there’s not been anyone to help us.”
I quivered, knees knocking together.
“Fuck fuck fuck,” I whispered.
Colton grit his teeth and closed his nose so the billowing acrid cloud of burning flesh couldn’t touch him, his eyes watering from the strange compounds released. “Fuck.”
“Okay, okay,” I whispered, peering up over the edge of the car.
The fire had settled down, and while the water was murky and covered, it wasn’t moving. Ash flew up into the air in a great torrent of burning flames and the thick skim. “Okay, it’s fine.”
“In what world is that fine?!” Colton hissed. “There was mile of it! Miles of skin?!”
“And the national guard has a handle on it,” I hissed. “Trust me, they’re not going to run out of firebombs, there’s a supply yard up north, probably out of Anniston.”
“How do you know that?!” Colton hissed.
“It’s a military base!” I returned. “How do you not know where they are in your state?!”
“I’m from Florida just like you!”
Hands smacked our heads together.
Which, admittedly, might’ve been the only thing that saved us, because the car’s windshield, cracked, warped from fire damage, exploded as a sniper round burst through it, scattering glass around us.
“Fuck we’re in the quarantine that means they can kill us,” I whispered. “We gotta get out of here!”
Hands nodded. “Just get to cover, there’s plenty of it everywhere.”
Colton quivered. “What the hell kind of villain can make that much skin? Why skin?”
“Don’t think about it,” I hissed at him. “Just keep moving.”
Then I dove out of cover. Though I could feel the bead of the sniper aiming at us, but I heard the whistle of another plane overhead and hoped to god that it wasn’t coming down on my position. Hoped to god that it wasn’t, because I didn’t want to die in an unmarked grave with only used bullets to give to Charon.
The pavement, charred, covered in dead burnt skin (and now the smell made sense, didn’t it) exploded as another round erupted forth. Hot shards of asphault bounced off of my armor, but the impact startled me and sent me tripping.
The bomb exploded in the distance, which probably saved me, as no bullet came to take advantage of the fact I fell flat on the ground.
An invisible hand grabbed me as Hands dove past and tossed me behind another car.
Colton stood up, flashing the distance a massive middle finger, his eyes glinting with anger, and the next bullet collided with a sheer of metal I could almost recognize as the crude approximation of a broad sword, and while the sword dented, the bullet fell to the ground instead of hitting him.
“Colton!?” I hissed. “How many times can you do that?!”
“No idea, that hurt like a bitch,”
“Then get down!” Hands said, slamming him against the pavement with her hand and then tugging him back into cover.
“Move move move!” I hissed, gesturing at the crumbling gas station. On the other side of it was the car, waiting for us, but there was more than one sniper, and the air was filling with hot lead.
Were they taking shots at us because we knew, or because there was a chance of infection?
I didn’t want to know which was worse, but we couldn’t afford to die here. Couldn’t afford to not think about the crawling miles of skin.
Couldn’t afford to not think about the burnt smell rising in the air.
Hands dove into the car as soon as she can and fumbled with the lock to let us back in. “Get in, get in,” She hissed.
“Take the back, Colton,” I said, slamming the front door.
“What?” Colton asked. “I-”
“Block bullets,” I hissed.
“I don’t know if,”
I grabbed his head and pushed his nose against mine. “There is literally no doubt in my damn mind that you can do it.”
“It might hurt someone if…”
“I trust you,” I said, staring at him.
“Hands, start driving,” I barked.
The car started up, but now everything was sinister. The shades of smoke, once a tragedy, now ringed of not being enough. How many people had died trying to escape here? How many were trapped in Fairhope without supplies?
How many bullets did it take to secure the south?
The car engine roared as Hands gunned as, bouncing us as we nailed a speed bump on the way out.
There was a crack in the distance, but the bullet already shattered against Colton’s hands, his body shaking from the effort.
“Does that hurt?”
“Hurts more than fire,” Colton hissed between clenched teeth. “Hurts more than death.”
“You’re not dead,” I said, trying to remain calm while my heart thumped against my chest. “And we’re getting out of here, alright?”
The speedometer roared into the artificial limiter placed on the aging car.
One more shot taken against us, and it shattered the right rear view mirror.
The air smelt like sweat, nervous tension, and burning flesh.
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Osteor (Rebecca Hawkins)
Place of Origin: Unknown
Powers: Cellular Generation
History: Suspicious activity at Florida State University revealed a pervasive belief that one Rebecca Hawkins had been a teacher for one of the teachers at the university, who was just now reaching retirement. As Rebecca Hawkins was an intern at the time, suspicion was granted until photographic evidence revealed that Rebecca had been hopping from college to college since at least the mid 80s, inserting herself into biology and later genetic programs whilst never growing beyond the age of 30. Association assets confronted her about her duplicity, where she asked if she was to be given a lab if she joined up.
A few negotiations later, and she joined the Association’s genetics teams.