Vera drove down the residential streets surrounding the airport, past single-family homes, small parks and baseball fields, and what might have been an elementary school. To be truthful it wasn’t so different from her family’s neighborhood in Belgrade, despite the difference in architectural styles. For Austin, this was probably an older part of the city; by Serbian standards it was very young.
She brushed the thought away. Serbia was a lifetime ago. This was a whole different nightmare. At least the streetlights were still on. Going was slow, navigating the large SUV around cars that had seemingly been abandoned in the middle of the street. Whatever had happened in the airport was part of something much larger. Maybe the city. Maybe the world.
She caught Professor Poropat’s eyes in the rear view mirror. “Did you make any progress with that guy in the bar?”
“What guy?” Adams asked.
“Guy in the lounge getting shitfaced,” Josh said. “Said he had a vision.”
“Oh, right, I was going to tell you.” The professor was wedged in between Nick and Adams. “After about an hour of calm discussion I helped him to recall that he had in fact been hypnotized.”
“Hypnotized?” Nick’s jaw dropped.
“As you will recall my initial theory was one of mass hysteria,” the Professor said. “And Toni’s story of what happened at the hospital seemed to confirm that. But what Mr. Beacon told me – the “vision” he’d had was a hodge-podge of mythologies’ eschatonic prophecy – Christian, Muslim, Hindi, Olmec – dozens of identifiable source elements. Which meant that either he was a highly educated cultural anthropologist having a psychotic break…”
“Or someone had hypnotized him,” Vera said.
“Turn left here,” Josh said, holding the map to the window, reading it by streetlight.
“There were other cues as well. Ways he’d repeat certain phrases. Someone had hypnotized him into thinking he’d had a vision.”
“Hypnotism can do that?” Oscar asked.
“Hypnotism is…” the Professor paused. “Forget what you’ve seen on TV or in movies. All a hypnotist does is help the subject enter a suggestive hypnagogic state. Like the moments before you fall asleep, or after you wake up but don’t realize it yet. In truth, you cannot be hypnotized, you can only hypnotize yourself, and the hypnotist is there to guide you through it.” He took off his glasses and wiped them on the hem of his shirt. “Most of the time. But what Mr. Beacon remembered – a sterile metal room, dark figures looming over him, an IV drip… there are drugs that can make the transition easier.”
“He was kidnapped?” Nick asked.
“By someone with the apparatus and means to take him, brainwash him, and return him to his normal life.”
“Those kids were not hypnosis,” Vera said. “Their fucking fangs were not hypnosis.”
“Whatever’s happening here, gentlemen, is on a scale that-”
Vera let out an involuntary scream as something massive flew right across the car’s hood. She swerved, then spun the wheel, overcorrecting, and smashed the SUV into the back of a parked van. The air bag’s explosion rocked her in the face, bruising her lip as her head bounced back against the seat.
Vera needs to make a Drive roll. She is at -1 because the SUV is difficult to handle, and -2 because she’s Unfamiliar with it. Familiarity is granted after 8 hours’ practice with a new make or model of technology. Her net skill is 7.
12: Failure. And since this is higher than the SUV’s Handling of 4, it indicates a crash.
The SUV takes 43 damage and is now down to 26/68. It passes its HT roll and avoids significant impairment.
Everyone takes 4d6 damage, though between the airbags and seatbelts everyone (except Amanda) gets a DR of 15. Amanda only gets a 5.
- Vera: 15 damage, 0 after Damage Resistance. Still 5/11 hp.
- Josh: 22 damage, 7 after Damage Resistance. Now 4/11.
- Nick: 20 damage, 5 after Damage Resistance. Now 5/10.
- Ashly: 8 damage, 0 after Damage Resistance.
- Marco: 19 damage, 4 after Damage Resistance. Now 6/10.
- Oscar: 17 damage, 2 after Damage Resistance. Now 8/10.
- Amanda: 14 damage, 9 after Damage Resistance. Now 1/10.
- Professor: 16 damage, 1 after Damage Resistance. Now 9/10.
- Adams: 19 damage, 4 after Damage Resistance. Now 6/10.
“What the fuck?” Josh’s voice was muffled by his airbag, which deflated after a few seconds.
“Jesus what happened?” Vera asked.
“I don’t know, something big flew in front of the car,” Vera said. “Is anybody hurt?”
Rolling Perception to see how much Vera caught before the crash.
12: Not much.
“Fug,” Amanda’s voice came weekly from the back. “Fugging el.”
“Oh shit.” Vera turned around looking over the back seat. “She’s pretty banged up. I’ve got that crash kit from the cop car, but I’ll need space – it’s too crowded in here.”
“Whatever flew in front of us. Was big.” Vera peered out into the night.
“Please, she’s really hurt and I only need a few minutes.”
“Alright.” Adams grunted and pushed the SUV’s side door open, gun in hand. “Roll out. And eyes open for… for whatever that was.”
Vera put the car into park but left the engine running, afraid that if she shut it off the battered SUV wouldn’t start up again. She slid sideways out of the vehicle, eyes on the sky for whatever had flown past her.
A cold thought touched her heart – had it even been real? Or was she just having stress-related hallucinations? Seeing things? Had she crashed into the truck in front of them for no fault but her own?
“Eyes up,” Adams was saying, pistol out, one arm across his abdomen.
Josh had his mop handle out, gripped tightly, watching the skies and seemingly oblivious to the blood trickling down his face.
There was something… just on the edge of hearing. Flapping wings, maybe? Or was that her heartbeat in her ears?
Adams pivoted slowly in place, gun pointed at the unseen. “Make it quick, Ashly!”
“I just need a minute!” Her voice came from the back of the SUV.
There was a sudden blur, and an oily black shape descended from the dark sky above, larger than any flying bird that Vera had ever seen, almost like a gigantic bat but lacking any features. There was a head that came to a wicked beak or point, and a body that was a gross undulating flexing wing, and she could see some kind of bone structure beneath it, but her mind rebelled at the sheer alien nature of what she was trying to comprehend.
It flew past Oscar, wicked peak ripping across his chest, tearing a line in his shirt and leaving a line of red blood in its wake.
Oscar was screaming, staring down at his wound in confused incomprehension as she ran to his side, joined by Marco.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Nick take a clumsy swipe at the creature as it started to ascend again, but the knife slipped out of his hand and went clattering onto the pavement.
“What the fucking shit is that?” Marco demanded.
She turned and spotted Adams. The old veteran was staring, jaw agape, at the spot where the creature had been.
“Shoot it!” She yelled.
Josh gave a cry as the creature flew out of the darkness again, falling into a crouch as it narrowly missed his face, not making any sensible sounds in his terror.
Vera ran to Adams. “Shoot it! What are you doing?”
Adams stared at her in mute incomprehension, his mind blanking from trying to cope with the creature it’d seen.
She grabbed the gun from his hand and turned to see the flapping monstrosity headed their way. Without time to get the weapon ready to fire she simply snapped out a kick at it with her Doc Martins.
The shifting membranous creature seemed almost to slide around the kick to slice open a long laceration through Adams’ drab t-shirt before hitting the ground. Instead of bouncing, though, it rolled up, the stiffer bones within it shifting and changing, its amorphous surface sprouting legs and a form that was sort of, but not quite, like that of a large dog.
Vera could only watch in terror as the beak rounded, then split into a large mouth filled with sharp white teeth. It seemed almost to grin at her, to smile, to promise that she’d be next.
And then Nick and Marco were upon it, knives out, stabbing and slashing.
Vera watched as its oily skin snapped and parted under their blades, less like flesh, more like a rubbery oily residue. The fear slowly departed, leaving only the faint disgust at the creature’s very existence, like filth given manifest.
Flapping thing executes a strafing run, attacking (randomly) Oscar. He fails his dodge, takes 2 impaling damage to the chest. (6/10)
Everyone needs a fright check: Josh fails by 1 and is stunned 11 seconds, Oscar by 4 and is stunned for 10, Adams by 2 and is stunned for 6.
Vera runs to Oscar
Nick makes a Move and Attack to try and stab the flapper. His default Knife skill is 6, Move and Attack gives him a -4, so he’d only succeed on a 3. He gets a 14, a critical failure, and drops the knife.
Marco runs to Oscar
The Flapper flies up for another strafing run
Vera checks on Oscar, and calls to Adams who is still stunned
Marco readies a Wait action to attack if it gets close
Nick picks up his knife
Josh has 10 rounds of stun, Oscar 9, Adams 5.
The Flapper flies down to strafe Josh’s face. It misses.
Vera runs over to Adams.
Marco Waits again
Nick readies his knife
Josh has 9 rounds of stun, Oscar 8, Adams 4
The Flapper flies up to prepare another run.
Vera takes the gun from Adams
Nick waits near Oscar
Marco moves over to Josh
Josh has 8 rounds of stun, Oscar 7, Adams 3
The Flapper strafes Adams’ chest, doing 2 damage (now 4/10)
Vera hasn’t readied the gun, so she kicks but the creature dodges
Josh has 7 rounds of stun, Oscar 6, Adams 2
The Flapper transforms into its Romper form
This elicits another Fright Check, at -3. Vera fails by 3 and is stunned for 5 seconds, and acquires a new quirk: an intolerance for people who are useless in a crisis. The others pass.
Nick runs over.
Marco runs over.
Josh has 6 rounds of stun, Oscar 5, Adams 1.
The Flapper continues to transform.
Nick makes an All out Attack (+4 to hit) to try and stab it. He misses.
Marco does the same, but his attack is telegraphic for an additional +4. He hits, killing it.
“What the fuck was that?” Oscar managed, hand over the long cut across his chest.
“Some kind of monster,” Nick said. “Or an alien.”
“It’s corruption,” Vera said. “Like those kids in the airport. Jesus Christ.”
“I’m sorry, I-” Adams began, looking down at his own injury.
Josh ambled over. “No time for that now. There might be more of them.”
Vera shook her head. “Nick, let’s go get some disinfectant and bandages from Ash. We need to take care of this so we can get out of here faster.”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “Yeah.”
Ashly is attempting First Aid on Amanda, Nick on Oscar (at his default of 8), Vera on Adams (at her default of 7). Unfortunately, they all fail – the bandages and such don’t much help, and nobody heals any injuries.
The group piled back into the car. “We need to get Amanda to that clinic,” Ashly said. “She’s not doing very well.”
“None of us are.” Vera pulled away from the truck, gratified that the SUV was still running. “But there might be more of those… things… around. So I go careful, yes?” Down the suburban streets she drove, eyes on the SUV’s gauges. There’d been some superficial damage to the body, but she’d have to take a look under the hood to make sure the engine was fine – and for that they’d need a place of relative safety, and ideally, sufficient tools.
“I see more of them.” Nick had his forehead pressed against the window, tilted back.
Vera angled her neck and peered up at the sky. There – darker flapping shapes against clouds lit by soft moonlight. Dozens of them, moving in flocks. “Jebem ti život,” she cursed. “Keep an eye on them.”
“What the fuck are they?” Ashly asked, looking up from Amanda.
“They look like bags of leather filled with bones.” Vera did her best to keep her eyes on the road, trusting her passengers to watch out for more of their winged adversaries. “And the one that landed… it changed. Was turning into something else before you guys cut it up.” Her lips curled back in disgust. “Vile things, whatever they are.”
“Some kind of mutant?” Nick asked.
“Maybe more of a tremors thing?” Josh suggested. “Some oil prick digging too greedy, too deep, releases like, a giant prehistoric parasite?”
“What?” Adams asked.
“Ignore him,” Marco said. “But… I don’t know, man. Aliens or some fucked up shit.”
“How much further is the mall?” Vera asked.
“What?” Josh started, then looked down at the map on the floor of the car. “Oh right, let me see.”
Grunting, he doubled over to try and pick it up, struggling against his own ponderous belly.
Vera stopped at the next intersection and grabbed it from him. “You had one job, asshole.” Looking up at the street sign, she did a quick mental calculation, then turned left.
“Sorry, I’m under a lot of stress here-” Josh began.
Vera held up a hand. “Shut the fuck up. If you’re not going to help, then just stay out of the way.”
She didn’t look at him, but could hear the hurt in his voice. “Christ, Vera, I’m sorry I… I’ll do better, I swear.”
It was the same old shit with Josh. Never pulling his own weight, and that wasn’t a fat joke. He was lazy. Cowardly. Selfish. A prick. Normally she could ignore it, tolerate his dumb bullshit, ignore when he stared at her tits, but this was a crisis. She had no time for his bullshit, no time for any bullshit. This was life and death. She kept it to herself, though – blowing up at Josh would only make him more useless than normal as he sulked and maybe did something stupid to prove his bravery. “Whatever, man, just watch out for those flying fucks.”
The silence that filled the car afterwards gave her slight regrets for snapping at him, but only slight regrets. She didn’t want to bully him, but she couldn’t baby him. She hated that she had to distract herself with this, babying him. She wasn’t his girlfriend, or his mother. Marco was usually the one who handled him – when it was necessary – but that was while playing a game, and there was a lot going on.
The game. They all had their typical roles, similar to but not exactly like what they were doing now. Vera got shit done. Marco kept it together. Nick came up with ideas. Ashly, new to the game, kept up as she could and tried to be useful. Josh made everybody’s job more difficult, picking fights he shouldn’t, intentionally fucking up their plans because “it’s what his character would do.”
Okay, it wasn’t that bad. He was trying. Maybe she was being unfair, judging him based on in-game actions, but those were the only crisis situations she had to judge him by – any of them by. Marco, at least, had grown up on the streets, he knew crisis, he knew hardship… but Nick, her best friend, he was soft. Ashly at least seemed to have seen some shit as a child star, as a young actor in that environment – but Nick?
But why was she being soft on Nick, and hard on Josh? If she cared, shouldn’t it be the other way around? She didn’t have an answer. Right now, she didn’t even want an answer. Just more bullshit distractions.
“I think that’s it up ahead!” Josh pointed.
Up ahead, on the right, she could see a lone dark structure in the middle of a parking lot, like an island in a sea studded with light-post buoys.
“Okay,” Marco said. “When we get there, Me, Josh, and Nick will run in, see if the clinic is any use. Vera, you keep the engine running. Ash, you stay and keep an eye on Amanda, and Oscar and Sergeant Adams watch out for more flying… fucks. Okay? Got it?”
Of course, the way it actually went down was completely different.