The inside of his gas mask smelled a little bit like burnt meat. Not in a weird ‘human flesh’ kind of way, but like somebody left a sausage on the stove too long. They had found the mask in a box with a bunch of other hazard supplies that was down in the basement, including some chemical torches and a small distress radio. The torches had been useful before they got the backup generator on the building working, but so far the radio had remained silent despite their many attempts to contact other survivors. The masks were a slightly older model than what you’d find in stores today… rather than having the gentle cloth strips that kept the filter stuck in place it had a big rubber hood, complete with thick goggles to keep smoke from your eyes and a small oval around the mouth and nose to ease breathing. Honestly, Grigori preferred having the older model. It made his head feel a little safer, and he liked to imagine it made him look more intimidating. Not that it was going to do much if one of those goo beasties smacked him up the side of his skull, but still! It made him feel… scary.
The rest of his outfit did a lot to diminish whatever intimidation the mask may have provided. That was mostly the fault of the General Hazard Suit. The GHS was pretty standard wear for emergency workers as well as the police force. It was a fluorescent yellow-orange color jumpsuit made to be used in many different crises. Fires, riots, extreme weather… anything that put a worker at considerable risk likely warranted the use of a GHS. Its main features were being temperature and flame resistant, as well as distributing any force across the surface of the suit to minimize pain to the one wearing it. For these reason it had turned out to be invaluable for Grigori. With it one he could take a punch from one of those humanoid monsters across the chest and stay standing, at least until after the fight was over. The particular suit he’d found was a little on the small side, but it did in a pinch… even if it looked a little ridiculous. Especially in the groin region. Whatever! It wasn’t the suits fault, really. The otter was a little too big for most articles of clothing. Besides, beggars don’t get to be choosers.
The rest of his ensemble wasn’t much better: Thick gloves to keep his hands from getting torn up sorting through and a big pair of rubber boots to tromp around in. In the belt of his GHS he kept a big hammer for busting down doors that he’d found in a toolbox in one of the abandoned homes, but he didn’t really try to use it as a weapon. No, when it came time to bump heads with some bad guy Grigori preferred to stick to his makeshift shield. On one of his earliest trips out of the shelter he’d managed to find a crashed Personal Trans with its windshield more or less intact. He’d spent a while popping the thing out to carry it back, where the others helped him fit it to his arm with some tape. Well, a ton of tape. They’d since found a bunch of thick rubber cables that held taut enough to cling to his arm, which had been handy. Really cut down on how much tape they went through every time he ventured out. It might not have looked impressive, but the thing was no joke! It was big enough to swat most of the monsters aside, and sturdy enough to take a pounding without showing any hints of cracking. He was convinced he could get hit by a train and his body would break before the shield did! It had saved his hide more than a few times, already.
When you pieced it all together it looked ridiculous, of course. A huge guy in some super tight bright suit with a gas mask straight out of a movie and a windshield strapped to his arm. Look out, evil! Grigori was in town, an- okay, you could probably go back to what you were doing. Still, in its own way the getup was nice. It certainly made it safe enough to walk around in, and when he put it on he felt… I don’t know. Heroic? Okay maybe not that, but something similar at least. It was a little like a superhero putting on his costume and going out to fight crime. Maybe he could get the others to call him Junk Man instead of Greg? Actually, if he asked nicely they’re probably call him the President, since he was the only one dumb enough to leave and go look for others. Somebody had to do it, though. Ever since the disaster had started their PETs didn’t seem to transmit far enough to reach anybody else, so trying to find other methods of communication was the only hope they had. Not to mention the pockets of people trapped here and there, unable to risk fighting any monsters.
“G here, I’m almost back home.” Once Grigori was within about two blocks he could usually get through on his PET. It fluctuated a bit, depending on the weather. He always tried to give them as much of a heads up as he could… the entire time he was gone all they could do was worry, and wonder if he was coming back.
“Roger! We’re ready for you. It’s been very quiet today.” The squeaky voice of his friend Claire responded over the PET, settling the otter’s nerves somewhat. They’d been lucky in avoiding detection this long, but it was impossible to say that they’d go unnoticed forever.
The streets WERE quiet today. Things had been a lot less noisy in general since the disaster started, but because of that you could hear what little sound there was echoing across the empty streets for blocks and blocks. Somehow even in the middle of the afternoon it was perfectly quiet, with only the soft sounds of the wind blowing between the tall buildings. It didn’t feel quite right. He was almost home, though. He just clenched his free hand into a fist and focused on the last few steps needed to make it into the café.
Good Vibrations was a pretty interesting place. It was a spot to get a bite, sure, but it specialized in something beyond just that. It had been opened with the idea of creating a safe haven, a place you could speak freely about your negative thoughts and feelings and still find acceptance. The staff was trained to avoid being judgmental and instead focus on a customer’s nicer points. Over time you could build up a rapport with your servers, and it grew to be a warm environment you could vent your daily stress in a healthy manner. Not too long ago he’d been a pretty frequent customer here. More recently he’d been an employee, but even that felt like years ago with all the chaos. It was hard to believe it hadn’t even been a whole week since everything broke down!
Once Grigori stepped past the door her took a moment to survey the small café’s interior. It was relatively unmolested despite the chaos outside. Some of the metal tables had been flipped around, breaking the glass top on a few of them, and many of the similarly constructed chairs had been thrown about and bent up. But the area behind the counter was still mostly fine, and it didn’t seem like anything had actually ventured into the kitchen. The shelter was actually down the hall that led to the restrooms, in a small supply closet in the wall opposite to them. It mostly held cleaning supplies used after everyone had left, but there was a secret that had discovered one bored evening while closing up. Beneath one of the shelves there was a small door that led into a sort of cellar that was no longer in use! Once the calamity had hit they had led everyone down there, pushing the shelf in front of the door when they were all inside. It was hardly perfect, but down beneath the ground they felt safe.
Whenever the otter left on his rounds he slid the shelf back over the hidden door, to try and keep it a secret from anything that might be wandering by. Naturally whenever he returned he had to started by tugging it aside and dragging it in front of the door, and today was no exception. With a healthy amount of grunting and sweating he’d lean the heavy piece of furniture against the only entrance, blocking it off. Only then did he turn to the secret door, stooping down to pull it gingerly open and start down the few steps towards the door that led into the extra room proper.
“I’m coming in!” He warned the others a full thirty seconds before he turned the door’s handle, very slowly pushing it open. As it swung out to reveal the room beyond he was greeted by the same familiar faces he’d gotten used to over the past five days: His pack mates Claire and Joseph, a petite, skinny grey sheep with big glasses and a pudgy white rat with very thick hair that ran down into his eyes respectively. Mr. and Mrs. Relgun, the burly black bear who owned the café above them and his wife. Penny Gottheim, a sandy brown squirrel from the cheerleading squad he would’ve never talked to before the disaster. And finally the Curtis’, a family of two tigers and their son that were the most recent arrivals to the shelter. With the exception of his pack mate s and Mr. Relgun, Grigori had brought everyone else back to the shelter during one of his ventures outside. They’d all become quite close with only each other to rely on... which is what made these arrivals so difficult.
Each member of the small group of survivors had armed themselves with some manner of bludgeon, and stood poised to wallop the hell out of the otter if he made one wrong move. They had to, of course. One mistake and one of those blobs from outside might ride him inside and catch them all off their guard. But it didn’t make the fear in their eyes when they looked at him any easier to deal with!
“You know the deal, Greg. Take the suit off slowly, so we can see.” It was Joseph who managed to speak up first, clutching a broken chair leg from above in his hands as he ordered the larger boy around. Grigori just nodded in response, reaching up to his chest to undo the zipper on his GHS. It came off pretty easy, but then again it was made to be yanked off quickly. Never know when you might get splashed with some kind of acid. The otter was such an enormous young man that when he pulled off the GHS it would look almost like a lizard bursting out of a skin that had grown too small for it, thanks to the suit’s somewhat inadequate size. The group around him tensed a bit as he got to the gas mask, as it would be the real indication of whether or not he’d been taken. It was tugged off slowly to keep the rubber from hurting his face too much. But, once it was off he’d pull it to the side and drop it, revealing the boy’s somewhat nervous smile.
“Hi, guys.” Grigori was on the cusp of becoming a hell of a man. The chocolate brown otter had a strong frame that was betrayed a bit by his still somewhat boyish face, still in the process of growing to match his size. His hair, which had been cut quite short and was starting to grow out a bit after waiting too long to see the barber, was a deep reddish brown color that really contrasted against the bright green of his eyes. Those colors were more important than you might think… that they weren’t turned to a washed out grey meant that, at least for now, the boy was still in control of his own body. Everyone around him let out a sigh of relief once they saw their friend was alright. And for good reason, too! He was a huge guy, and they were dreading the idea of having to try and fend him off if he ever came back controlled.
“Oh thank goodness, you’re back!”
“You scared us half to death, boy!”
“Oh, honey, stop it! Don’t mind him sweetheart he was just worried about you…” The entire group all surged in around him, showering him with hugs and welcomes now that they were certain he wasn’t about to turn on them at a moment’s notice. The otter couldn’t help smile as he waited for everyone to get the two or three hugs and handshakes they’d need before they could all settle back down. Even then everyone hung nearby, silently waiting until he was ready to talk about what he had seen outside. Without their PETs working, Grigori was the only news they were going to get about the city they all lived in.
“I’m kinda hungry.” The teen sheepishly admitted, which had everyone laughing. It was a nice sound... one they didn’t get to do as much as he would have liked. Especially since he knew they never got to when they were watching the door waiting for him to come back.
“Well, why don’t we make a little something and you can tell us what you saw out there?” Sarah Curtis was the first to answer, giving him an affectionate pat on his shoulder before she turned away to sort through the small refrigerator they had in the shelter. It was only then that he realized he was still only in his understicker after taking off the GHS! The suit was tight enough on him already without trying to fit normal clothes underneath it! On top of that, with its heavy insulation, it would likely make him overheat while he was running around. Right now, the only thing that was keeping the teen any kind of decent was his understicker.
Grigori was rather big boy. Not just that, but a big BOY. It was nothing to be all that embarrassed about, but it did mean you ran the risk of outgrowing your sticker a tad. He’d done so somewhere last year, turning his nice red rhombus into a bloated, unhappy oval. He was definitely due for a replacement, but you know how it is. It wasn’t a huge priority compared to new clothes and supplies for school, and then you were saving up to try and go on a trip with your pack, and so on and so forth until you’d put off getting a new sticker until it looked like you were smuggling something. Fortunately, Joseph saved him from feeling too awkward by dragging a blanket over to wrap it around his big friend. They exchanged a nod, but before the rat had a chance to slip away Greg would hoist him up and set him in his lap, prompting Claire to come join them.
If you had to describe the otter’s pack in one word, it’d be ‘reject’. And, it was true. Originally, when they had first met, they had all been a little too weird for anybody else to want to deal with. Claire was a terrible chatterbox, something that had only changed since the disaster started and the others had been forced to holler at her for fear of being driven crazy by her nervous energy. And Joseph? He wasn’t exactly a prime pick for friend back then, either. He had a hard time controlling his emotions when he was younger, and was prone to swinging between shouting and laughing himself sick. But, like most kids, as they got older a lot of their eccentricities got ironed out, leaving a trio of relatively normal teens behind. It had just left them a little closer than most, on account of that memory of being the only ones that would care when nobody else had wanted them.
“You guys okay?” Grigori put off his story time just a bit longer to make sure that his friends were doing okay. Jo gave him a quick nod, and while Claire hugged into the larger boy’s chest. She was awfully tiny, especially compared to him!
“Much better, now. We heard some things go tearing through the street not that long after you left, and we were worried they might’ve gotten to you!” Claire always spoke just a little too fast, like the words were just welling up in her stomach and if she didn’t make room in a hurry she was just going to explode. “Did you see anything out there?”
“Not this time. It was really, really quiet, like you said before I left.” The otter paused, thinking to himself. Okay, no more putting it off. “I made my way down Geinz st. today. I wanted to try and make it to the police station again. I mean, there weren’t any people there this time either, but I remembered I didn’t try to use any of the communicators in the Official Trans that were stuck inside the build’s garage. No luck, though.” Grigori made sure to add the last bit before anybody had a chance to get their hopes up. They were all desperate to hear from anybody else. So far their only hope was that either their PETs would come back online, or one of their frequent attempts on that old radio would finally reach somebody. If he didn’t periodically bring home people they might have thought they were the only people left in the city.
“I didn’t run into any signs of critters, either. I think they may have rustled up everything they think they can get here, and moved on to someplace else. It see- Jeez, Claire.” Grigori let out a low laugh as he looked down at the girl, who looked like she was getting ready to pop. “You’ve been real good, lately. Go ahead and let it all out.”
“Oh my god! ItfeltlikeyouweregoneforeverandIamsotiredof eatingleftovermeatandit’sstuffyandhotandthisplacesucksandeveryonehatesitandthedumbPETsstillaren’tworkingandIjustreallywanttogohome!” The little sheep began spewing words so fast it was hard for anybody else in the room to even try and keep up, just bursting with nervous energy and a thousand different negative thoughts from being locked up for five days. The otter patted her on the back as she continued on in a similar vein for a while longer as she purged herself. Talking a mile a minute soon tired her out, though, and after a few minutes of venting the verbal barrage tapered off, only to end in a long sigh.
“…Yeah. Thanks, Greg.”
“And what about you?” The otter wrapped his arm loosely around the rat’s neck, tugging him back against him to forcefully snuggle the other boy into Claire. Jo squirmed and grunted as he was forced to shift positions, but after a moment he gave up and let out a little sigh. He’d come a long way since being an emotional little kid, but he still wasn’t exactly what most folks would call social. Grigori took it upon himself to help his friend out, forcing him to do just a bit more than he was comfortable with to try and help him along. After all, the otter had gotten some help himself, it only felt right to pass it on.
“ ‘M okay.” Joseph half mumbled, looking a little embarrassed at being put on the spot in front of everyone else. A gentle look from Greg, however, was enough to get him to let out just a little more. “Nobody likes this. But… being all locked up feels bad. I keep feeling like I should wake up and be back in my bed, an’ when it doesn’t happen I… I feel mad. Powerless. Maybe scared, too. I hope everyone is okay.” The teen’s words changed the tone in the room, spoiling some of that happiness at having their explorer back. These sullen thoughts were all they had when he was gone. The otter wasn’t going to let them frown while he was still there, though.
“Don’t worry about it, guys. I mean, we’ll keep looking, for more people and ways to try and communicate. If there’s a way, we’re going to find it.” Of course, everyone else would think that ‘we’ really just meant Grigori. The large boy really did think of this as a team effort, though. Without them cheering him on when he got back he wouldn’t have the heart to keep going out! “It’s still real early today. After I eat and rest a spell, I’ll go back out there and look one last time before dark and see if I can’t find anything to help us out. Alright?” The group looked a little nervous, but they would all nod in agreement with the plan. As much as they hated seeing their friend go everyone needed to hold onto that glimmer of hope that they’d find somebody or something that could connect them to other survivors. “Alright, then. Man, Mrs. Curtis, that smells delicious. Is it almost ready?
As everyone settled in around him to eat Greg felt a small twinge of guilt in his gut. Playing big brother for everyone when he got back wasn’t exactly a selfless act. Truth was, getting everyone to calm down a bit and smile was a really good distraction from the turbulent thoughts roiling around in the otter’s head. Worries about the city, his parents… Mandy. Erf! Best not to get started thinking on the panda, at a time like this. He had to keep positive in front of everyone else. For now, all he could do was give them a few hours of smiling.
More than anything, staying in their little hidey-hole made Grigori desperately want to leave. It wasn’t like he got all fed up with them, or anything. It was just sort of heart-breaking, seeing them so wound up stuck down in the small room. They were making the best of it, but he could tell it was taking something out of them. They weren’t going to complain about it, with him putting himself in danger so often, but he saw it anyways and it left his stomach feeling like it’d been tied into knots. So, he went out. As many times as he could in a day, until the fatigue and stress got to him and he needed a break. Or, on the good days, until it got dark enough he felt like it wasn’t safe anymore. The otter wasn’t sure he wanted to be caught away from everyone during the night. So, after an hour and a half of listening to the others talk, the gnawing knotted feeling in his gut drove him to get geared up again. Everyone gave him a hug, except Claire who gave him two, and he tromped back outside. With the heavy shelf in front of the door once more, he headed outside of the café and walked up into the street.
It was later in the afternoon, but he still had a few hours until the sun really started setting. More than enough time, from his experiences these past four days. Unless he had to duck out someplace and hide from a wandering Grey Grump he could move around town pretty fast. So far the Grumps (the name he’d given to the other citizens who sort of looked like somebody sucked out their color) were the only thing he’d seen much of. Occasionally you had one of those gooey guys with all the wiggly arms, the Ticklers, and then you had the kind of chufty-looking humanoid things with the weird sort of things in their throats… the Ballnecks. Highly technical terms, of course! It was pretty weird, not really having a name for anything. So he just started making them up, to make it easier to tell the others about them. Describing it put worse images in their heads anyways, and at least with nicknames they weren’t too freaked out by it all. It was certainly pretty scary when you were facing one of them down! Okay… maybe not the ticklers.
After taking a nice deep breath the teen started to wander down towards one of the main roads, still trying to decide where to go. He had a few rules for the places he chose to search. First, he picked places that had obvious ways to try and reach others. Second, he picked places he thought people would be likely to try and hide in. And finally, he avoided places with too many random corners for creatures to be hiding in. Apartment complexes and the like? Right out. It’d take him hours to look through one, and each room might have a Ballneck waiting to slug him. Day five into his searching, though, he was running out of places nearby he could look. Wandering across the entire city just wasn’t an option… he had to get back by dark, and if he got hurt he needed to be able to get back on his own. If he completely exhausted his options, he might need to think about relocating the shelter someplace a bit further out, so he could begin searching a different radius of buildings. But that would be awfully hard on his friends, so he was saving it as more of a last resort if they still didn’t have any word from anybody else in a week or so. If it came to that, he’d drive them closer to the supermarket… the café had a good amount of food left in its kitchen, but it wasn’t going to hold out forever!
By the time he stepped onto Orlin St. a sudden realization would smack right into Grigori. Roland’s Rollercade! Thinking the name just brought back fond memories for the boy, of eating greasy pizza and wasting an afternoon dying at the same boss over and over again at those ancient cabinets. It’d been ages since he’d last been there… shoot, he must’ve been twelve or so! Not that it had stopped being fun, your priorities just shift a little when you hit puberty. It didn’t have the best prospects for reaching out to others, unless some kids lost their PETs there or something, but it was a prime spot to try and find some people hiding out. And, who knows? He might get lucky with some of the equipment, and bring something back Joseph could use to fiddle with to increase their signal. Either way, it allowed him to stave off figuring where he’d relocate everyone to for another day.
The Rollercade really wasn’t all that far from Good Vibrations. He actually walked by it on his way to work! It wasn’t all that far from the school, either, so a lot of kids liked to head there and hang out. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was much closer than the mall, either. Still, it felt like the otter had to walk three times the usual distance before he got there. The streets were just so empty, and the city was terrifyingly quiet. It made every little noise that did occur feel like it was twenty decibels louder with nothing around to filter it. By the time he looked upon the building’s familiar entrance, big red lettering and all, it felt like stumbling onto an oasis. Even with how frequently he was out and about this way, there was a certain… naked feeling, to being out alone on the streets. It was always better when he got inside. At least then he didn’t feel like any creepy crawly within three miles of them were gonna converge on him if he made so much as a sound.
Roland’s Rollercade was a pretty sizable place. Of course, the one-story building DID managed to squeeze in a roller rink, an arcade, a dining area, AND a Holocade. It was big enough that Grigori remembered being afraid of getting lost in it as a kid, which led to him spending his first visit sitting in a booth with his mom just eating pizza instead of playing any games. It didn’t look quite so hot now, though, with its big metal double doors all pounded up like something ran a truck into it, and its roof looking like it wanted to buckle under the weight of what looked like the back half of a tanker on top of it. If he hadn’t known there were monsters in town, the otter would’ve said it looked like a tornado had come through. As it was, though? It made him worried about what lived nearby. Maybe taking the others across town was a bad idea…
Of course, that didn’t let him weasel out of checking the place. He’d already made the trip, and if anybody was inside he didn’t like the idea of leaving them to whatever was tearing up vehicles and tossing them around. So, with a huge deep breath, Greg took the step forward and wrapped his gloved fingers around one of the door’s handles. After steeling himself to see whatever might be inside, his makeshift shield gripped tightly in his other hand, he yanked the door open to peer int- wait, no. Actually, the door was stuck. Like, holy shit. REALLY stuck! As strong as he was Greg couldn’t even budge it! Was it too damaged, maybe? It didn’t look too dented, but maybe it was pushing the doors together enough that he couldn’t open it. He might need to look around for a back entrance, to see if he could… “Wait.” He mumbled to himself, shifting to tug at the other handle. And, by virtue of it being the side that wasn’t locked, it opened. “I’m really glad nobody else saw that…”
When you first walked into the Rollercade you were in the dining area. Specifically, you were in a small hallway that led to the front counter with a low wall on one side that allowed you to look out over the booths where people were eating. More importantly, though, was that you could see past all the people eating to spot the exciting stuff! Immediately past all the tables and booths was the roller rink, though as a kid Greg’s eyes were always drawn to the flashing arcade games not far from it. The entire place seemed perfectly set up so that you could look over it all when you came in, to give you the proper time to get excited and try to figure out what you wanted to do first. It was a popular spot for kids of all ages to hang out, and the fun atmosphere meant it saw a lot of birthday parties. The Rollercade held a lot of bittersweet memories for Grigori… he’d had a lot of lonely birthdays that were only saved by having way too many tokens to spend.
Currently, though? Well… it’d seen better days. Whatever had rampaged through the area and punched on the door had evidently found a way inside. The dining area had been hit the hardest, with several tables tossed all about and the remains of several shattered chairs scattered across the floor. Greg actually had to hop over the wall to avoid a pile of wooden debris that had been left in the entrance walkway. The roller rink wasn’t doing much better. Several large chunks of ceiling had fallen down onto it, leaving its surface cracked and uneven. All that weight on the roof was probably going to make the whole thing collapse eventually, but at least for now it didn’t seem like he was going to be caught in a cave-in. The arcade was actually relatively unharmed! A few of the machines had been tipped over, and one had a shard of table stuck into the screen, but otherwise they were all in good condition and operational. Actually… that didn’t seem right! How did they still have power, whenever everything else for blocks was still dark? Did it also have a generator, like Good Vibrations?
“Hold it right there, jerk!” Before the otter had time to react to the voice he felt something firm press into the small of his back. It was quite thin, like a tube or a pole, but with the bulky GHS on he couldn’t get a good feel for what material it was made out of. “Put your hands up where I can see them! And, if you try anything funny, I’ll blow you right to kingdom come!” The voice was young and feminine, but the sound of that object against his back cocking was intimidating enough for the both of them. Rather than risk her being serious, Greg slowly put both hands straight up in the air, holding his shield aloft.
“Whoa! I don’t… uh, I’m not here to hurt anybody. I’m just looking around for survivors. Me and some friends are holed up near this place. If you want, I could take you there, and you’d be safe!”
“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea! I’m gonna just let some strange guy walking around in a weird outfit that hides his whole body lead me someplace to get eaten! What’s your name, you dork?”
“Grigori.” He let out a small huff along with his answer. It was hard to fault her for being suspicious, she had a good point. With the gask mask on, there was no easy way to tell if some monster had changed him.
“Girgori? That sounds like some kind of monster name!” The girl paused, letting out a small ‘mhm’ sound a few moments later. Was there somebody else here..? “Do you have a last name?”
“I’m not a monster. I, uh, I promise. My name’s Grigori Wallak. A lot of people call me Greg, though. Ever since I transferred in, really. What’s your name?”
“I don’t tell my name to monsters! But… well. Okay, Grigori. Go ahead and take your mask off, and turn around so I can see you. If you’re not on the level, though, I’ll make you pay for it!” The object pulled away from his spine, giving him the okay to do as instructed. It’d be pretty simple to just turn around and grab her. Honestly, she probably just had a tazer or something, and the GHS would protect him from that. Still, there was no harm in proving he could be trusted. Very slowly he would use his free hand to grab the back of his mask, tugging it off and letting his arm drop down to his side. Then, after waiting a few moments, he’d slowly turn and face the girl.
The petite black pig that looked up at him had a strong face to her, but he could see the fear in her blue eyes. She was young… maybe only eleven or twelve, if he had to guess. Way too young to be trying to shake down anybody! Her ‘weapon’ turned out to be a plastic super soaker, the kind with the backpack used for the sort of extended water fights that only seemed to take place in commercials. She was wearing a heavy white winter coat and a pair of green pants that looked a little too big for her, both of them absolutely covered in dirt and scratches. If that wasn’t enough of a sign, her frizzy and unkempt blonde hair that looked like it’d just been in a wind tunnel was a sure sign she’d been busy these last five days.
“See? Not going to eat you, I promise. Can you tell me your name now? Or, do I have to get soaked first?”
“Laugh all you want! I’ve got some cleaning supplies from the back room in here. It won’t kill you, but I’ll put a few games of Combat Commando down that it’ll blind you! But… you seem alright. I’m Emma. Do you...” The porcine girl paused, letting the barrel of her gun drop slightly as her expression softened towards Greg. Without her brave face she just looked very tired. Had she been alone the entire time? If so, it was hard to imagine her getting any good chances to sleep. At least, not safely. “Do you you really know someplace nearby with other people?”
“Yeah. Me and my pack are there, and a few other folks I’ve found since this all started. I mean… that’s why I’m out here. I’m trying to get everyone together, so there’s less danger, and so when the rescue operations start we get rounded up easier.” The otter was having a hard time figuring out to do with his arms while he spoke. One had the big windshield strapped to it, and the other was still holding his gas mask. He didn’t really want to put it back on, since it was kind o hard to talk through and took a while, so he was just left holding it a little awkwardly. Luckily, she didn’t seem to notice this struggle, instead pondering over his words. “Are you here all alone?”
“Hey, come check this out!” Emma wasn’t subtle about ignoring his question. She was even less subtle about waving off his attempts to point that out, instead grabbing the teen by his wrist and dragging him over to one of the nearby machines. Like most of the rollercade’s games it was fitted to look like an older cabinet model. It was the crisp nature of its title lettering and the lack of marks and dings on it that really betrayed it as being new. On the bright screen a demo was rolling of a tiny pixilated bear man dressed up like a knight swinging a giant axe around. After a few moments he smashed his weapon down into a goblin’s head, causing blood to splash out and form the game’s title in big, red letters: King Krusade. It seemed to be trying extra hard to look retro, like a few of the actual antique games on display. “Pretty cool, huh? It only got put in, like, a week ago! Wanna play it with me?”
“I don’t know if that’s really safe! I mean, it looks like something has already been through here, I wouldn’t want to get cau- oof. Hey!” It was a sharp elbow to his stomach that interrupted Grigori, though the girl’s gleeful giggle was what really disarmed him.
“Relax! I found it this way when I got here, and that was like three days ago. Nothing has come around since. Well, except you, Mr. Monster. We’re safe!” No wonder she’d been on edge when he’d shown up… she probably thought he was whatever had wrecked the place to begin with! “So, play with me. Just one game? I promise I won’t beat you TOO badly.”
“Well… okay. Just one, though. Alright?” Greg’s submission came with a deep sigh. Already he was imagining the things lurking around near the building that might try and creep up on them while they were playing. Probably some nasty thing with like six arms, and at least five rows of teeth. But, he could tell Emma was uneasy. If she’d really been alone for three days, she probably wasn’t too keen on trusting him to take her anyplace safe after only a few minutes. After they played he’d try and push the issue a bit more.
King Krusade was an odd sort of game! Greg didn’t pretend he was any sort of well-versed in games in general, or even good at them. Most of his experience was in Skyships of Conquest, and that… well, it was a different sort of game from the kind that you found at Roland’s place! And honestly, he’d only even stuck with that one because Mandy had taken him under her wing. And under her- you know what, nevermind! Just thinking about her already had his cheeks and neck feeling kind of warm, the last thing he wanted to do was embarrass himself in front of this kid by getting all wistful. These past five days had been full of trying not to think of the panda, really. He already had too much to worry about, without bringing in the emotional web that was their friendship! Better to focus on the game for now, which he was starting to lose.
People several centuries ago would describe it as being co-operative Ghosts and Goblins. Two little knights, one a big burly bear and the other a more slender falcon, teamed up to kill hordes of standard fantasy monsters. In the process they’d break tons of pots and open chests to find different weapons and armors, ultimately to traverse to the bowels of Hell and kill King Mega Devil. All Grigori knew was that it was -hard-! Only two hits killed you and trying to juggle the right power-ups left him falling way behind the snickering girl playing beside him. While both players were on the same team, and indeed had a vested interest in keeping each other alive, they WERE scored separately! And, boy… Greg wasn’t even close.
Emma, on the other hand, was on fire! She already seemed to know the location of all the secrets in the first few levels and generally tore through monsters with the sort of confident ease as somebody who’d been playing it for years. I guess it made sense. What else was a kid trapped in an arcade supposed to do? It actually made the otter feel a little better about the whole thing. If she’d just been holed up and playing video games for three or four days, maybe this place really was safe! At least safer than his poor virtual avatar, which was currently being chewed on by gremlins. Emma laughed so hard she’d snort as he perished, her little snout wiggling in the process.
“You’re terrible at this!” She chided him while pounding furious at the fire button. It was true! Not only was he down a hundred-thousand points, but he’d also used up two of his three lives while she was still on her first.
“Dang. You definitely have me beat, at this one.” Greg had been defeated so soundly he couldn’t even really be mad about it! And she was just so happy to be playing with somebody, even if they were total dead weight. Leaving could wait just a little while longer… it was worth it to see her unwind a bit, playing for an audience. Even though he’d just met her it was obvious how relieved she was to have something to genuinely laugh about again.
“Aww, man.” Eventually, though, even she was no match for King Krusade. It was a merciless token-taker, after all. “I’ll beat it one of these days. So, what do you want to play next?”
“Next?” Greg frowned, giving her a quick shake of his head. “Sorry, little lady. I don’t think it’s smart to hang out here any longer than we have to. Why don’t you follow me, though? It’s not far from here, and I promise you’ll be safe. There are already a lot of people there, who would love to meet you!” Along with his suggestion he’d offer out his hand to her, mask still gripped between his fingers.
“No?” Grigori could only blink in response.
“Yeah, I’m not going. Thanks, Grigori, but I’ll be fine here.” Emma kept her focus on the game’s screen, refusing to look at him as she spoke. The joy drained right out of her features, leaving the little pig looking very tired once more. And, that’s when she turned into an alien.
“Emma!” A bizarre voice seemed to well up from deep inside of the girl, only seconds before a viscous dark blue sludge began to ooze out of the corners of her eyes. It poured down her cheeks at first, but more alarming were the thin tendrils that wrapped up over the top of her head, consuming it until only the otherworldly mask remained around her features. “Staying here won’t accomplish anything. He is our best hope.” The voice that came out of the pig’s mouth was… alarming. It sounded like it was coming through a puddle, and though it mimicked the girl’s perky tone it was utterly alien and androgynous. Grigori reflexively reached for the hammer tucked into his belt, dropping his gas mask onto the ground. Even if it didn’t seem openly hostile… well, it looked a little too similar to some of those critters outside to trust!
“Shut UP, Trasmun!” The girl’s voice sounded like it was distant, and partially underwater. Even so, there was no denying it was still Emma. “I’m fine. I’ve been doing fine for days, now! I’m gonna stay here, and wait.” To make it absolutely clear how serious she was, she stamped her foot on the ground while letting out an irritated huff. It might’ve been cute, if not for the alien still clutching her skull!
“Is that thing…?” Greg tried to interject, still staring at the gooey surface that was now extending almost down to the girl’s shoulders.
“We’ve been lucky.” The goop along her face formed into a deep frown, though it was a little unclear who exactly was responsible for it. “Her agents are still running around the city. Eventually somebody is going to find us, and I don’t know if I can protect you.” There was a pained tone to the alien’s voice, an aching sadness as it tried to express emotions it was struggling with.
“No!” Before Greg could even interject to try and agree with the goo monster Emma would fold her arms across her middle to give them both the most indignant pout they’d ever seen. “We’re gonna wait here for them! This place is already trashed, they went over it already. Nobody is going to come looking here again!”
“Nobody, like Grigori?” The alien’s jab left the teen feeling a little defensive, even though it wasn’t aimed at him.
“He’s different. I mean… augh!” With too many valid points facing her down Emma tossed her hands up into the air. The gel had started rolling down onto her chest and arms, threatening to continue and swallow her up if she let it go on. Not that she really seemed to mind, as Greg was starting to understand. For better or for worse, she was very friendly with this alien. “We’ll be fine! There’s lots of places to hide, plenty of food, and nobody can tell we’re in here. This place is safe!”
Emma was fully prepared to continue on arguing, until a horrible screeching sound filled the room. There were a few seconds of terrifying panic as the sound overwhelmed them, so loud it was hard to tell where it was coming from. It wasn’t until they heard the sounds of scraping metal and crumbling building that they realized with horror that it was the ceiling! With one last shuddering groan the roof of Roland’s Rollercade buckled, dropping the tanker directly into the middle of the skating rink. The sheer force of its impact was enough to send tremors through the room and throw them both to the ground. One of the heavy arcade cabinets was jolted forward, tipping down towards the prone otter! He only just managed to roll out of the way, with the heavy case landing on the sleeve of his GHS.
“Grigori! Get up!” Emma quickly scrambled to her feet, which were rapidly being swallowed up by her gooey companion. “Are you okay? Did you bump your head?” Both of her little hands settled on the front of Grigori’s suit, grabbing up big handfuls of material to try and shake him with. The teen jerked back up with a start, tearing away a large strip of his sleeve and leaving it trapped under the heavy machine. In her excitement the small girl would wrap her arms around him, giving him a fierce hug. “Oh, thank goodness… I’m glad you are okay!”
“’M alright…” Greg grumbled, scrunching up his nose as that sticky goop rubbed into his fur. It was a little unnerving, but at least it wasn’t burning his flesh or anything like that. “Are you okay?” A quick, silent nod came back in response. “Alright. We need to get out of here, Emma. The sound of that crash is probably going to have things coming from blocks around to check it out. Get anything really important and we’ll hea-“ Greg froze mid-syllable as he noticed movement coming from the hole in the roof, as something rather large dropped down into the Rollercade with them.
In the last five days the otter had seen a lot a weird creatures. Some vaguely human, some more gooey and glob-y… This one, though? This one was new. It was massive, a good head taller than Greg himself. More intimidating were the massive arms the beast used to help lumber around. It looked like it had actual tree trunks for limbs! Getting hit by one of those would knock you somewhere into the next calendar year. In a way it reminded Grigori of the other goo creatures, almost as if somebody had poured several into a mold and let them harden into this hulking thing. As it was, it looked a little insectoid, like some sort of… bug-bear. Wait, no, I think that’s taken.
“Get back!” Grigori pushed himself up onto his feet, surging past Emma to give the thing a distraction. The bulky teenager led with his shield out, putting his shoulder into it and throwing all of his weight at the Bearsect. Any of the smaller critters in town would’ve been splattered against the wall by such a move, and yet it only served to throw the massive monster off of its balance, reeling backwards for only a second. After that second was up it let out a grunting sound, heaving one of those thick arms at the armored boy and thudding against his windshield. The sheer power of it forced Greg to nearly trip backwards over his feet, but thankfully the shield held. “Get to the entrance! I’ll follow you!” He hollered back to the younger girl, swinging his free arm around to sock the Bearsect in the stomach. It was only mid-swing that he realized he’d dropped his hammer, giving his attack a little less weight. He might as well have slapped the thing for all his gloved fingers did to it. With a much louder bellow it came at him again, this time jerking both arms up to bring them crashing down onto Greg.
Even pure reflex didn’t give him the time to back away from the swing, only to wince his eyes shut in preparation for the mighty blow. The windshield took the majority of the force, giving it a wide surface to break over. Even so, the pressure that shot through his core and down to his legs made his body feel like jelly, almost causing him to fall to the floor right then and there. It was then that the goop-ified Emma shot forward, running in behind the Bearsect to swipe at its legs. “Emma!” Greg hollered, lifting his barrier up to smash it into the monster once more. This time, though, something different happened! When he knocked it back, it stumbled, feet digging deep into the floor. What the hell? Its legs had sunk down into the hard plastic like it was mud. The Bearsect looked just as surprised by the development, but not nearly as shocked as it became when the space around its feet became hard again once more. That’s when Greg realized… Emma hadn’t actually hit the monster, at all! Somehow she’d just mucked up the ground instead.
“Come on!” The goop girl shouted, grabbing onto the otter’s wrist to tug him along. “We can lose it in the Holocade! There’s a maintenance door we can use to get outside!” Grigori nodded as he tried to run with her, his legs still a little shaky after that tussel. The pair was too afraid to look back at the creature, instead hauling across the deeply cracked wood floor of the roller rink as quickly as they could. Behind them the sound of splitting plastics followed, almost like somebody had tossed a tray of ice cubes onto the floor that shattered into thousands of shards. “Grigori, get inside! Trasmun, we have to slow him down!” As the pair of them reached the Holocade’s doors the large purple letters lit up over it, spelling out ‘Mazes of Madness!’ Greg didn’t stop running, instead barreling through the double doors as the pig tarried behind him. He turned back just in time to see her hefting a shard of broken floor, lifting it with alarming ease and carrying it through the door with her. Once they swung shut Emma forced the wooden material into the door, fusing all the materials together in one solid barricade.
“How in the-“
“It would take too long to explain!” Trasmun’s bizarre voice forced itself out of the girl as they took Greg’s arm once more. “The door will not hold long. We need to gain ground!” In the chaos of the moment the alien had shed some of the girl’s mannerisms, sounding a little more… robotic? No, empty. It made Grigori think of it for a second like a suit Emma had put on, rather than an entity with its own identity. “We must try to find the exit, quickly.”
The Holocade was really just a big empty room with a special projector that put up holographic images. Only, these images had weight to them. They were basically solid, so you could interact with them more like a virtual reality. The plus side was you didn’t need special goggles to use it, and you could change the sort of things you made it display. The Rollercade cycled through several different Holocade games, but the Maze of Madness was by far the most popular one. It placed up to six friends inside of an fantasy dungeon, complete with fake swords and spells, and they had to battle monsters and solve riddles to progress. It took true teamwork to try and survive, but this made it one of the most engaging things packmates could do to tighten their bond. Even if it was just a game, having a friend’s virtual life on the life felt important. The thing that really made the Maze of Madness special, though, was that it was random. No two sessions were alike.
“Darnit…” Greg ‘s brow furrowed even as the game loaded a display around him, turning him into a knight in heavy armor. It was hard to say if Trasmun’s skin was messing with the scanner or if it had decided he was a Slime, but either way Emma was left untouched. Shortly after it finished loading a few words popped up before the otter: ‘Welcome back, Sir Grigori!’ “Uhhh. I’ve… gone here, once or twice with a friend.” The boy’s face flushed with hot embarrassment at being revealed for the nerd he was.
“Good! You can lead us!” Emma tried to laugh, but the sound just came out as haggard breaths. Trasmun’s power took a lot out of her, and she was already feeling the burn of doing so much so quickly. After a few moment of jogging through the virtual halls Grigori scooped the little pig up with unburdened arm, lifting her up to rest on his shoulders. “H-hey! Oof.” The surprise of being mounted atop a big knight was almost jarring enough to send her toppling down! But, after a few seconds she managed to get a good grip onto him and settle down. “Umm… thanks.”
Greg recognized a few of the rooms they headed through, though it told him very little. The newt fountain could connect to completely different spots from session to session, and so he might as well have been flying blind. What did help, though, was his avatar’s massive stats! He effortlessly swiped monsters into oblivion with quick motions from his arm, not even having to slow down as they passed from corridor to corridor. “You make this look pretty easy, Gori!” Emma laughed from atop her mount as he splatted a goblin against a wall. “How often do you play this thing?”
Just as it seemed like they might be in for an easy trip, though, the sound of a bellowing Bearsect would come blasting into the room. It had finally torn through the fortified door, and begun smashing through the virtual halls after them. The Holocade wasn’t some matter generation device… it used the same principles as a force containment field. It created objects that were filled with force, but they weren’t real. If you forced one enough it would break, and the game would call you a cheater. Greg had done it once on accident by giving a Dragon too much oomph with a tackle. And now the Bearsect was trying to sequence break by smashing through the maze’s walls like they were made out of butter!
“Oh, shit!” Well, it was inevitable he accidentally curse in front of Emma with so much going on. If they both lived he’d give her a dollar to put in a swear jar later. For now, he was stuck trying to guess at the quickest route to the exit while the dungeon was starting to collapse around them! Actually.. wait, that might’ve been the answer! “Hang on! We might have to cheat a little!” Two could play at this particular game. As his rider hung tightly onto his head Grigori lifted his windshield, charging forward with all of his might into an open wall of the dungeon. At first it felt solid, like he had just run straight into flat concrete. But, after a second the hologram yielded to the actual matter, letting Greg surge though it like it was wet paper.
“WARNING! FOUL PLAY DETECTED!” Mazes of Madness had systems built in to prevent you from just glitching through the game and easily leveling your avatar up. One of the things it monitored was player entering rooms in ways other than the defined doors. The Bearsect had coming charging through so quickly it was still not counted as a player. It would be able to get a lot closer before the Holocade realized the problem! Grigori, though, was already in a character. It might do some damage to his record, but he could bring the game crashing down in a matter of instants. Already the creature was gaining ground on them, following the virtual sounds of monsters attacking Grigori. It plunged through one of the walls behind them just as the otter smashed into another wall, forcing his way deep into the game’s inner sactum. “CHEATERS NEVER PROSPER IN THE MAZE OF MADNESS! TRY AGAIN!”
For a brief moment, they were inside of the dark pit the evil lich Elhazar resided in. The next, the into simulated area rapidly started to vanish, giving them a clear idea where they were in the large room. Unfortunately they had only managed to get a little less than half-way through, leaving a little more than the distance of a basketball court to run to reach the back door. Worse yet, the Bearsect noticed them again in an instant and quickly resumed its frantic chase. Greg tried to beat feet and outpace it, but even without Emma on his shoulders it was faster than him.
“Sorry!” He shouted an apology, reaching up to grab the girl and fling her from his back. She landed with an ungraceful thud, landing on her stomach with her hands bracing her face. Even with Trasmun’s flesh bracing her it was going to leave her sore. Grigori spun around as soon as he he saw she was clear, whirling to face the creature charge straight back into it. It was almost surprised by his sudden bravery, slowing down for a moment before clawing its way forward with even more enthusiasm. The two large figures met once more, crashing into each other with as much force as they could possibly muster. This time, though… this time Grigori aimed a little higher. His windshield smashed into the Bearsect’s head, filling the room with a disgusting, wet smacking sound. The impact was so strong his shield shattered, sending shards of glass flying in every direction. Several deep cuts tore through Greg’s GHS, digging into his flesh and sending little flecks of blood splashing down onto the room’s light grey floor. The Bearsect got much worse. If the impact hadn’t broken something in its skull, the shards of glass stabbing into its face certainly had it reeling!
The creature shrieked. The hellish sound filled the entire room, making Grigori feel like his ear drums were going to pop. It swiped wildly with those thick arms to try and catch him, but the otter managed to scramble out of its way. Too much glass had gotten into its eyes, and it was effectively blind now. It couldn’t even follow after the teenager as he rushed over to Emma’s side, helping scoop her up. “Now’s our chance!” The boy panted to her, offering his good arm for her to grab onto. While the Bearsect continued to howl and bellow behind them they managed to weakly run to the back exit, forcing the door open to let them push out into the cool evening air.
It was several blocks before either of them managed to catch their breaths enough to speak. Even then, they stayed quiet, rushing through the empty streets away from the collecting cacophony near the Rollercade. Everything within miles had heard the tanker falling, and within moments it would be swarming with any and every nasty critter in the area. This was actually sort of to their benefit… very little was moving in the direction of Good Vibrations. The one Ballneck they did spot actually didn’t even notice them in its frantic shuffle out of the nearby Laundromat. After a while things would even quiet back down, as they began to get far enough away from Roland’s Only then could either of them work up the nerve to speak up.
“Are… Is your arm okay?” Trasmun had begun to recede from the pig’s body, leaving the dark porcine on display once more. She looked worn out, now… like she was going to collapse at Greg’s feet at any moment. She was fighting it, though, not willing to let him see her at her limit. Those powers must have really drained her!
“It’ll be okay.” Grigori had no idea how bad his cuts really were. The adrenaline had kicked in, and he was only just now even starting to feel it. But, they were close enough to the others that he could get patched up. He just hoped he hadn’t hurt it too badly! “Are you… I mean, I’m real sorry I had to toss you.”
“It’s okay. I mean, it really hurt! But, you got him at least. That was really crazy, the way you fought him. Um. How did you…? I mean, wasn’t it scary?” It was such a genuine question, it gave the otter pause. One look into her slightly awed eyes told the whole story: She’d been hiding for days, doing everything she could to avoid the invaders. And Greg had gone after it like it was a a training dummy at the gym! He must’ve seemed insane.
“…Yeah. It was actually real scary. But, I didn’t want to let you down after I told you I could take you someplace safe.” The big otter placed a hand on her shoulder, smiling down wearily at her as they marched onto the last block between them and rest. It was only then he remembered something she’d said, a worrying last little detail. “Oh! You’re probably worried… I can go back. I mean, not now. But maybe tomorrow. To find your friends that you were supposed to meet.” He could feel her tense against his fingers, a little soft ‘ah’ forcing itself out of her. He peered down at her, but didn’t press the issue. He’d stepped on a touchy subject.
“They’re not coming.” It took until the café was in sight before she spoke back up. By then big tears had already welled up in the girl’s eyes, which she was struggling to keep from falling. “When this… this all started.” Greg stopped in the café’s doorway, giving her time to get it out. She spoke very slowly, trying to keep her voice steady so she wouldn’t accidentally sob in front of him. “My building. Where I… It collapsed. M-my birthday… It’s…. I-It’s, It’s in a few weeks. We were supposed to go to the Rollercade, together. I know they… I know they’re not coming. But I was really hoping, if I waited there I might see them.”
It had been a very long day. Greg had walked miles, climbed through building, and fought a big alien. But this… this was too much for him. Finally, it was just a little too much. Even though she had started first, the first tear rolled down Grigori’s cheek.
“Aww, hell…” He half-muttered, his voice cracking. The large teen dropped down onto one knee, giving the tired, frail looking girl the hug it felt like she needed. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. They stayed there a while, with only soft sniffling to break the uneasy silence. Eventually, though, she pulled away to wipe her eyes. “I… It’ll be okay, Emma. I’ll take care of you for now. Until we find them. My pack will take good care of you. Okay?” She just nodded, not trusting voice just yet.
It was weird the things you thought about coming home after a long, tiring day. As Grigori half-limped into the supply closet one thing kept coming back to him. That girl he’d been trying so hard to forget about this entire time, so he wouldn’t worry so much about. Somewhere in the back of his head, he didn’t want to even consider the possibility that he wouldn’t see her again. “Guys! I have one more. I’m coming in!” As he hollered to his friends and started to tug the shelf free his thoughts finally found cohesion. He WAS gonna see her, after this. Even if it took weeks to get through the city, he’d have to. He still had stuff he needed to say!
When the door swung open, the pair was immediately greeted by an ecstatic Claire. The little sheep was nearly bouncing off of the walls, throwing herself up into her friend’s arms. He let out a soft grunting sound as she brushed against one of his cuts, but in her excitement she didn’t even notice it.
“Claire. Claire! Jeez, calm down a second.” The ewe looked a little bashful at being scolded, even so gently. The others quickly gathered around as well, all rushing to give him the usual greetings. The otter simply rasied his voice, talking over them until they got the message. “Guys! GUYS! This is Emma, she’d going to stay with us for a bit. Mrs. Relgun, would you mind making sure she’s okay? We got in a real scuff. “
“Greg!” Claire tried to interrupt once more, only to be waived down.
“In a minute! I want tell you and Joseph something real important. I… I decided, I’m not gonna be afraid any more. With all this stuff that’s been going on, I don’t wanna wait and hope any longer. If… I mean, when things get better, and I cand see Mandy again… I’m gonna ask her to be my girlfriend.”
“Greg, would you listen for a minute!?” Joseph groaned, looking like he was ready to tug his ears out. “We got that emergency radio working! We managed to contact other survivors!” The rat thrust the black communicator forward at him, leaving him hold it in one hand. After a moment it crackled, and the voice of a familiar girl came out sounding a bit embarrassed.
“Um. H-hi, Grigori!”
“Hi. Uh, Hi Mandy.” Grigori released the button on the radio, slumping down to sit on the floor of the doorway as Emma rolled her eyes.
It had been a very long day.