Troy is wandering around camp. Maude is not quite giving him the silent treatment, but she is very subtly finding excuses to avoid him. He notices the remainder of Greaser’s gang hanging around, and they’re actually quite subdued. He approaches them cautiously. Troy is expecting Dale to be obviously in charge, but he is surprised to notice Fingers as a possible contender for the #2 spot. He’s the only one of the group that moves to acknowledge Troy as he approaches.
Troy greets them, and offers up a joint he’s rolled. Dale offers him a spot on one of the benches. The joint is passed around, and Troy can see that something’s a bit off with the group. Normally, in Greaser’s absence, they start getting antsy really quick, but right now, they’re somewhat hollow. He guesses that after the confrontation with Chromer and Greaser expelling the dead weight, the rest of them are feeling a bit empty, and are waiting to be given a purpose again. Troy is worried that if Greaser doesn’t take care of this right away, someone else will.
Joseph asks Troy what’s next. Troy says the plan is still to head west through Texas. Joseph asks who’s really calling the shots, and Troy says that Gremlin’s trying to make his way, and he’s leaning on everyone else’s experience, but in the end, they should all defer to him. Joseph says that he heard George talking about a prison up north, and he thinks maybe there’s some good loot. Troy can’t say for sure, but he agrees it might be worth checking out. Joseph asks about Maude, and Troy says that after they find what she’s looking for in Texas, she might go her own way, or might stay on. Joseph is worried that whatever is waiting for them in Texas, it’s likely to be trouble.
Dale expresses his appreciation for Troy being straight with them. When Dale asks why he’s with the group, Troy says he generally likes to keep on the move; if he stays in one place too long, eventually he rubs everyone the wrong way. Dale asks Troy what his purpose is, and Troy says he hasn’t found it yet. When Dale brings up Alpha, Troy says they’re too concerned with owning people if they think there might be valuable skills.
They discuss being in need, and Dale mentions there’s a big nothing out in the middle of the country, where you have to travel for days on end before you can find any settlements.
One of them brings up Gremlin’s condition. Troy admits it’s true, and tells them a bit about what they’ve learned from Dr. Kumar. When Fingers says that Greaser threw off the infection like it was nothing, Troy warns that he’s in danger of catching it again, but that Gremlin, like Amy and her girls, fought it off before it got to their brains, so they’re not going to get any worse.
Troy asks the group “why Beauty?” Fingers says that’s what Greaser told them when he found each of them: that he had a path, a better way. He asks Troy how George is doing. Troy says that they’re doing fine, but he doesn’t see the messiah that they do, all he sees is a dumb kid. Fingers marvels at the fact that George is pure, and the fact that they’ve managed to move through this world untouched is special. Troy remains unconvinced, but says that he likes George as a person, which the bikers recognize as high praise coming from him.
The conversation turns to Maude. Troy says that she’s no nonsense. She doesn’t talk much, but when she does, there’s no bullshit. The bikers remained unconvinced that Maude is not more trouble than she’s worth.
When the conversation winds down, he takes his leave, and he has succeeded in buying himself a little goodwill among them. He heads back over to the vehicles to find Maude lounging outside on a sleeping bag. He checks on the bike, and she’s done a fairly good job of welding on some really solid armor on the front to deflect incoming fire away from the gas tank. She’s also taken the radio off, now that the encryption is no good anymore. He compliments her on the job. She asks if he’s decided what to do with the coffee table. She says that if they make it to Texas with it, she might be able to trade it to Ada, and she’d be free. Troy expresses concern that Ada would decide that it wants more. Maude doesn’t trust it, but figures it’s a machine (and thus is not human enough to truly treacherous).
Maude admits she doesn’t understand anything about AIs. She speculates that they might have been the cause of the Big Day (which is actually a prevailing theory among those who survived the event, but no one has any evidence of it).
Troy says that if she wants to bring the thing to Ada, he’ll back her play, but he doesn’t want her going into this without any kind of precautions, as he doesn’t trust Ada either. She advises that he learn more about it, so they can maintain control of the situation.
Maude admits that Troy is the only person she’s afraid of, because he’s figured her out. Troy admits that he keeps moving because he can’t stand most people, and she’s the only one he’s happy to be around. He tells her to feel free to give him a punch in the mouth if she thinks he’s got it coming. She says that if she’s being stupid, he should stop her. Troy doesn’t come out and say it, but he basically admits that she has significant influence over him. He says that the coffee table is hers if she needs it.
Having reached an understanding, Maude heads onto the bus for a nap, and Troy goes back to work. The night passes uneventfully. In the morning, Troy is awakened by one of Amy’s girls who says that they’re planning on breaking camp and leaving around noon, and Amy wants the crew to stick around because she has some going away presents.
After hanging out at the cantina, Samson goes shopping. All he knows is that the Bible supposedly has healing spells in it, and he’s feeling pretty banged up, so he’s willing to try just about anything.
He finds all manner of things for sale all across the hardhold. Finally, he gets to a unit filled with strange artifacts that look like something you’d find in a hocus’ lair, including ornately decorated skulls. He also finds a relatively large collection of books in varying conditions. The place is presided over by a woman who looks to be older than anyone Samson has ever seen before, and also guarded by an incredibly nasty looking dog that’s missing patches of fur, and in some places, skin.
He has no idea what he’s supposed to be looking for, but he got a look at Robin’s copy, and it had the symbol of a cross on the front, so he looks for that. He finds a large book, with a leather cover that was white once upon a time. On the front is a gold cross, and no words at all. The pages are impossibly thin and delicate, and the words are packed densely together, and there are occasional passages in bright red.
He addresses the woman, and while it’s clear that she understands him, her answers make no sense. She manages to indicate a price of 2 Barter. When he asks why it’s so valuable, she answers “Mi abuelo.” He offers her one of the child skulls he picked up, which she finds acceptable.
[And so Samson walks out of the place with a Spanish Bible. So, that’ll be fun.]
As he wanders the hardhold afterward, he comes across beggars here and there. He hands out shards of the electronics he smashed up before, so they at least have something they can defend themselves, and they have the option of hunting for food.
Gremlin wakes up bright and early and heads back to Betty’s office to see if there’s more work. She brings him out to one of the units that has a large 4×4 truck. She wants him to add some armor plating, and run an additional electrical line out to the back, so she can mount some lights or a weapon on it. He’s very happy to oblige, and she leaves him to it. He spends upwards of six hours in the garage with all the power tools he could want.
Samson hopes to make himself useful in helping to mend the fence, but before he can get there he can hear the sound of the crank siren, and someone calls out “dust storm!”, and everyone scatters. He heads for the closest cover he can find, which is the ice cream shop. Everyone who ducks in there for refuge is told that if they want to stay, they have to buy something. Samson has ice cream for the first time in his life. He’s not entirely certain what to make of it. The Asian twins that were hitting on George the other day start showering him with attention. Before too long it’s apparent that they want him to come with them, to a city in the north. He makes it clear that’s not going to happen, but if they want to mate, he can accommodate them. After confirming that he’s clean, they agree.
The dust storm takes about three hours to clear. Fortunately, there are no casualties, except for a stray dog. The twins lead Samson out of the ice cream shop. They pass by Gremlin as he’s taking a smoke break. Samson asks when they’re leaving, and Gremlin says he’s got a little work left on the truck.
When Samson and the twins arrive at another unit, there’s a man who seems to be of the same ethnicity, carrying an SMG and standing guard outside. The twins converse with him in an incomprehensible language in what sound like angry tones, but he nonetheless waves them in.
Inside the unit, the walls are completely covered by a collage of images from the Day Before. There’s a mattress behind a dirty shower curtain. On a small table next to it, Samson places the Bible, and the two remaining child skulls on top of it. Once the gate is rolled down, the girls begin stripping down, and then they turn their attention to his clothes. Samson opens his brain, and it does not go well. When the girls have gotten him to lie down on the mattress and begin to do what they need to do, he looks over at the skulls, and instead he sees two children, a boy and a girl, wearing backpacks he retrieved from the bus.
He carries on a conversation with them (the girl speaks a language he can’t understand, so the boy translates) about what he’s doing with the girls. He explains it in as simple a manner as he can manage. They ask when they can go back to school, he doesn’t know what that is. The children are upset that he took them off the bus, because now they can’t get home. He tells them that they were never going to get home on the bus. The boy starts speaking lines that are obviously from the adults in the room, talking about how heavy he is, they’ll need help to move him. It becomes obvious to him that he’s been drugged, and he finds his limbs sluggish and heavy. He’s vaguely aware of the man with the SMG entering the unit. He manages to yell out Gremlin’s name before he collapses.
Gremlin has just finished up with his work on the truck when he hears Samson call for help. He dashes in the direction of the yell, sees one of the Asian girls frantically trying to pull the gate back down. He bowls past her and runs inside, sees the man with the SMG. He wings the large wrench he was carrying at the guy’s head, but the man deftly ducks below it and returns fire. Gremlin takes one in the shoulder, and in the confusion the girl at the gate has come up behind him and latched onto him, trying to choke him out. Gremlin does his best to put her between him and the SMG as he brings his 9mm up to her face and pulls the trigger. His shot hits home, but unfortunately, so does the SMG. Gremlin is shot in the back of the head just before he and the now lifeless girl collapse on the floor.
Samson retrieves his sledgehammer, sees the remaining girl with a gun to Gremlin’s head as the guy jumps in the driver’s seat of a small hatchback. Samson steps forward, and in full view of the guy in the car, he swings his hammer and caves in the girl’s skull. The guy abandons all previous plans and just peels out, running over several people on the way. Samson retrieves the gun and fires after the retreating car, but fails to connect.
He drops the gun and runs after the car. It has stopped at the front entrance to the hardhold, because Betty’s two remaining sons have fired shotguns at the guy as he attempted to break through the barricade, and he is now very dead. This doesn’t stop Samson from running up on to the hood of the car, and as Betty’s sons nervously swing their shotguns in his direction, he punches into the broken windshield, grabs what’s left of the driver and yells “you made me break my promise!!”
Once he calms down, realizes he’s naked, he surrenders to Betty’s sons. For their part, they’ve figured out that he’s likely not an immediate danger to them, but they very nervously maintain a grip on their shotguns.
Gremlin wakes up to feel a dog licking his face. It turns out to be Janus. George and Robin are standing over him. He tells George that Samson is in trouble, and George runs off to find him after grabbing his machete, with Janus bounding after them.
Robin tells him not to move as he’s been shot in the head. She begins to rummage through all the stuff in the storage unit, using the butt of her gun to break open the locks on two steamer trunks. Gremlin tells her as much as he knows of what happened. After she’s made an assessment of the available loot, she begins treating Gremlin’s wounds.
George comes up abruptly on the scene by the front gate, and there’s a tense moment as they turn their guns on George. Samson gives them a look that gets them to lower their shotguns. George says that Samson is their bodyguard, and he’s a good man. They bark orders at Betty’s sons to go get an angel RIGHT NOW. No one is more surprised at this than Betty’s sons, who immediately hop to.
Samson and George return to the unit to find Robin tending to Gremlin. He retrieves his hammer, followed by his clothes and the rest of his stuff. He can see the contents of the trunks. In addition to the angel kit that Robin is using on Gremlin, there are bundles wrapped in blue paper with foreign writing on them, a couple of books, a large gun. When he reaches toward the trunk, she tells him it’s hers now. She opens one of the bundles and shows him uncooked rice.
Betty shows up with the town’s doctor. He gets Gremlin talking while he works on his head wound. She pays him for the work on the truck, and Gremlin in turn uses most of what he earned to compensate the doctor. In the end, he’s patched up and able to walk around.
Samson explains to Betty what happened here. The doctor examines him as well. When Samson says that he was drugged, they tell him to sit down, as he’s likely to be dizzy for a while. The doctor gives him a small bottle of something to drink that makes him puke, which does make him feel better.
Samson convinces Robin to give him a cut of the stuff she’s looted from the unit. Then Betty haggles with Robin for her cut. The bodies are dragged out, and a hose is brought in to start cleaning up the unit.
George and Janus come careening around the corner to see Betty leading everyone out of the unit. Betty retrieves the machete from George and hands it back to Samson, telling him not to let them get involved with that. Gremlin hands the wrench back to Betty, and she and Otis waddle off to other business.
Gremlin, Samson, George, and Janus head back to the van. They radio ahead to tell Troy that they’re running a little late.
Troy takes some quiet time in the morning to open his brain and experiment with the Maelstrom a bit. He’s looking out at the Everglades off to the north, and not too far off one of Amy’s girls puts on some music. Unconsciously, he starts tapping his foot, and after a minute or so he realizes too late that he’s been idly kicking the coffee table, and it shifts, and the blue light comes on.
All around the camp, Amy’s girls all look up, like they heard something. After a moment, they shake it off and go back to what they were doing.
Troy can hear a voice, repeating “your interface peripheral was not detected, please connect your peripheral to commence interface…” endlessly.
Paris comes strolling by with a cup of coffee and asks if he needs anything. She absently offers him the coffee, and he can see that her eyes aren’t red. Her speech turns fragmented and menacing. “Weak… trapped… can’t get out…” When Troy mentions Ada, Paris hisses sharply. Troy realizes that he’s talking to the disease now. He asks how he can help, her response is “Love me.”
The coffee table continues to repeat its warning.
Some of the other girls make their way over with concerned looks on their faces. When he focuses on their eyes, he sees the red go away. He asks the disease if they’re individuals or a collective, one of the girls answers, “Yes.” Another girl repeats, “Love me.” When he asks what he should call it, they answer “Your end.” He realizes that the disease is less coherent than what he spoke to back in Alpha because the girls fought off the infection before it took over their brains, and what’s left in their blood is barely sentient.
Once he figures he’s gotten all he can from the thing, the girls collectively breathe a sigh of relief, and their eyes go red again. The coffee table is no longer speaking. Paris looks down, and sees that she’s handed Troy the coffee. She says they’re looking to get out of here soon. Troy says that Gremlin radioed ahead earlier in the day, said they’re on their way. She asks if he’s said anything about her, she doesn’t want things to be weird when they say goodbye.
When he reaches down and turns off the coffee table, Paris notices it and comments on it. She asks him where he got it, he says she wouldn’t believe it if he told her. He asks her about Ada, she’s never heard of it. He asks her about AI, and she says it was in the theoretical stage in the Day Before.
He asks about interface peripherals, and she tells him about a museum back in the Day Before where you could plug in your smart phone and put on AR glasses and the whole room would present various interactive scenes from history, assisted by weak AI.
She comes back in a bit with a plastic rectangle with purple trim, and a cable that matches. She asks him what he wants it for, he says he wants to talk to the coffee table. She warns him about whatever encryption on the thing, the device is almost certainly government or law enforcement. She explains about the 256bit encryption on the smart phone, and then says that whatever is in the coffee table is 10 times more hardcore.
After Paris wanders off, the van pulls up and Gremlin, Samson, and George pile out. George loses the spring in their step when they approach Troy, but they tell him they got him a present. They give him a box that looks similar to the smart phone, but they explain that the box has entire worlds inside it, and you view them with the glasses that come with it. Then they ask how he knew, and Gremlin and Samson politely excuse themselves to go work on the bus.
Troy explains as best he can the things he sees. He relates the events of the particular vision he had of them in the room with the metal walls and the lights. George starts crying. Troy says he doesn’t have any control over what he sees. He also tells George that he knows they’re not as innocent as they let on, citing the incident with Greaser and Dr. Lee. George doesn’t deny it.
Troy tells them that if he put his mind to it, there’s nothing they could do to stop him from learning anything he wanted about them. He also warns them not to pry about what he sees regarding anyone else (such as Maude), because they wouldn’t want him sharing what he knows about them with anyone else. Eventually they come to an agreement to not pry any further into each other’s secrets.
Troy goes to find Samson and Gremlin and uses healing touch. He heals Samson, but opens his brain. He attempts to heal Gremlin, but it does not go well.# ontheroad