Prepping for the Journey

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A cement wall surrounds Refuge, blocking the rising sun from the hovels below. The suns beams catch drifting spores, casting them in red-orange light as they undulate like sparks from a fire. Within the wall, squat and sprawling buildings are coated in spores like a layer of fresh snow, jutting from the blanket of tan like irregular boulders.

In the city center the first glimpses of human activity begins. There are no buildings here, just a circular void coated in white. A vent hums to life, a burst of air followed by another and another. Large fans billow, controlled from circuitry roughly one-hundred feet below. The spores burst into the air, billowing outward in all directions like a cotton explosion. They roar until a great metal bay door is cleared.

Refuge, south side, daybreak. Through a window on the second floor of a slightly slanted taxidermy shop, James passes one way then the other. He busy's himself, eagerly packing as the morning matures into day.

The room isn't a normal living quarters. It's an amalgamation of office, bedroom, kitchen, library and lavatory. It does many things and none of them well. Once a shop attic, James still lives among synthesized animal cast offs. Crows, badgers and coyotes pile in corners, their stitched gold eyes gleaming.

The metal shelves house messes of paraphernalia: etchings, prints, vials of flaky veil residue, strange bones with curious deformities — all things James collected over his illustrious career. It's a disconcerting collection of grim curio, but these macabre trinkets and doodads comfort him, lending to his poor life a sense of purpose, a drive to do more than simply survive the last days.

He pauses when he hears the thumping of feet from the floor below.

"Bernie," James yells hoarsely down the stairs. "I'm going out for a while. Log my messages, will you?"

"What?" Bernie, proprietor and resident artist, yells back, his voice deep like a man speaking from a well. Heavy, creaking footsteps near the stairs. "You leaving? Got a job? How long'll you be gone?"

"Yup, yup, and not sure," says James. Bernie thumps carefully up the stairs. "Maybe a couple weeks." James grabs a backpack from against a wall and boots and storm suit next to it.

"You get a contract?" Bernie's shiny head appears in the stairwell followed by scraggly brown beard and massive torso. He's half giant in girth, stocky like a street fighter doubled in width.

"Contract? Sort of."

"You getting paid this time?"

James hesitates. "Don't know, nothing's certain." James maneuvers past piles of stiff synth animals, around the messy desk where Allie the computer sleeps, and stuffs clothing in his bag to cushion gear. He lifts the storm suit and gives it a once over. The full body suit is heavy, uncomfortable, covered in patches and necessary for any prolonged trek outdoors.

James frowns at a fraying seam on the suit sleeve. "Do you have any really good tape?"

Bernie raises an eyebrow a fraction. "Tough tape's downstairs. Why don't you know if you're getting paid or not?"

"Because I don't have a client yet, but I'll get one, don't you worry about that."

Bernie's a 'gene-kid', a dying breed. Gene-kids were all the rage before James' time. Their genes were altered at conception in enumerable ways — wealthy parents from Zone 2 thought it would give them massive advantages in life.

His altered genes gave him, among other things, accelerated muscle growth. A big mistake. The 'enhancement' forced him to constantly monitor his muscle stimulation. Too much and his body could swell, his own muscles cutting off the vital functions of his organs.

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