GURPS After The End #10: “Deadly Races”
Suddenly ahead of me, across the mountainside
A gleaming alloy air-car shoots towards me, two lanes wide…– Rush, “Red Barchetta”
New growth. How to arrange for an ox-setter. Driver’s ed in the wasteland. Mysterious utterances of some oracle. Good old-fashioned spikey-haired cannibal raiders. A wild ride, sudden violence, then lunch. Dinner with goat-people who think the van is baaaad. A journey into “dangr”. Lucky that plants don’t breathe. Daring rescues by bicycle – whee! So, what’s a “President”?
- Doc Rizzo Von Frankenstein Van Helsing, Hardy Doc.
- Francisco, Fast Nomad.
- Nabisco, his horse.
- James Robert “Jimbob” Eternity, Blessed Trader.
- Spud, feral kid.
- Liberty Vargas, Pure Strain Human Tech.
- Rufus the Dog, Mutated Dog Hulk.
- Buck and Otto, big dogs.
- Vine, Sentient Plant Scavenger.
While Liberty was working day and night to get the van running, Vine was soaking up the off-color sunshine and spending a lot of time rooted. By the time our protagonists were getting ready to depart on their next mission, Vine had grown patches of protective bark and a single ominously-glowing berry.
Rufus and Doc Rizzo checked in, but decided to stay near Mindkeep for now. Something about Doc discovering a rare mushroom in the vibrating cactus on the hillside? It was hard to get the details straight, what with all the giggling.
Jimbob made a deal with Herman the Hermit, where Herman would take care of the ox and wagon, in exchange for their use and all the ox dung he cared to collect while they were gone. Herman solemnly and immediately agreed to these terms.
And so, our protagonists set out early in the morning. The plan was for Liberty to drive the van, with Jimbob riding shotgun and Vine sticking their head out the van’s skylight, while Francisco and Nabisco travelled alongside. This meant that they couldn’t travel as fast as the van possibly could, but that wasn’t much of a problem, considering that Liberty had never actually driven a motor vehicle before, and was operating from default.
As one might expect, they got off to a slow start. The van displayed a tendency to stall out if mishandled. The road down the hill was rough and rocky. Once they made it to the bottom of the hill and could get onto the highway of the Ancients, though, they were able to pick up the pace. They drove along the highway over rolling hills, passing to the south of the ruined city south of the valley containing Mt Hope and Newtown, which had been labeled “Beckley” on Mindkeep’s map of the Before Times.
For the most part, the highway was clear enough to pass, though they did occasionally need to detour around some ancient wreck, fallen tree, or huge misshapen skeleton. There were a few moments of excitement as Liberty learned about driving, like the first time they went down a steep grade and reached a breathtaking speed before she remembered how to work the brakes.
Late in the morning, several miles on, the surrounding terrain changed, as they descended into a wide flat area. It appeared fertile but entirely deserted. Suspicious, our protagonists checked the geiger counter, but found no troubling radiation. They continued along the highway, alert for danger.
They passed miles of flat grassland, seeing very few ruins, and those being poorly preserved. It looked like this had been farmland or something similar in the Before Times. From time to time, the highway changed, indicating that there had once been crossroads, but the crossing roads had decayed away. Apparently not all the Ancients’ roads were made of stuff as tough as the highway.
As they travelled, taking advantage of the open terrain, Jimbob picked up a radio broadcast coming from the south: “Oracle to Away Team Three: be advised of acid rain in your area, take cover. Oracle to Away Team Four: supplies will be delivered to the prearranged drop-off in three days…”
Jimbob explained that he knew of this oracle from the Before Times: a wise goddess with wheels instead of legs, who talked with bats, and knew all things.
Around midday, their path led them towards one of those ancient wide places in the road, where a handful of buildings had once stood. Now, they were just shells, with caved-in roofs and burnt-out walls. Possibly thanks to their state of heightened alertness, our protagonists noticed signs of a lurking ambush: a couple of fire lances accidentally poking up above the ruined walls, and a couple of big tires visible through gaps in the wall. Raiders, no doubt, with some kind of makeshift vehicle, lurking in hopes of ambushing passers-by!
(“Fire lances” being a bundle of flammable material on the end of a long stick. Like a combination of a long spear and a big torch. For whacking people and vehicles with a ball of fire. Height of cannibal raider technology, really.)
Forewarned and forearmed, our protagonists decided to ambush the ambushers. While the van proceeded at a slow pace and its passengers readied their weapons, Francisco peeled off to come up on the raiders from behind. He circled around, getting a better look at what they were dealing with. It was an oversized dune buggy contraption, obviously the work of some mad genius like Liberty, nearly twice as wide as the van, with raiders hanging off in all directions. Some had fire lances, others had knives. Most had mohawks and spiky hair, and none had much in the way of clothes aside from belts and loincloths. Many had collections of personal flamethrowers hanging from their belts.
(It is a curious thing about the Ancients, that they kept such a wide variety of disposable personal flamethrowers on hand. They came in cans of all shapes and sizes. Some burned better than others. Among the best were the ones marked with the incantation “WDX-40” and saying something confusing about catching water in a net. Sometimes scavengers think they’ve found a flamethrower, but it’s actually full of cheese. Kinda. The Ancients were weird, that’s all.)
Francisco almost got the drop on them, but one raider in a tailgunner position spotted him and raised the alarm. Bracing his rifle on his saddlehorn, Francisco shot the tattletale, who fell back out of sight into the buggy. The driver fired up the raider buggy’s engine. Their ambush spoiled, the raiders opted for the chase, roaring out onto the highway heading towards the van.
Liberty was a novice driver, but smart, while the raider leader had more experience, less brains. They were surprisingly evenly matched, as they jockeyed for position with the van in the lead. Jimbob struggled to get a clear shot. On the other hand, Francisco, in the back of the pack, had ample targets. He shot one of the lancers, whose flaming weapon fell inside the raider buggy’s crew compartment. There was chaos in the buggy’s rear row of seats as raiders tried to get away from the bundle of burning rags.
Luckily, Jimbob spotted the side road that they were supposed to take, which led up into a narrow cut up into the surrounding mountains. If they could make it that far, the raiders wouldn’t be able to follow! Liberty took the turn at speed, skidding and throwing gravel. Vine, who had been cradling a black powder grenade and aiming, took the opportunity to lob the grenade into the raider buggy’s driver’s lap. Thus distracted, the raider driver did not take the turn so well, and spun out.
As Liberty sped off and Francisco veered away, some raiders struggled to find the grenade and throw it out, while others struggled to escape the vehicle before it even came to a stop. To no avail; this grenade turned out to have a short fuse. It exploded, triggering the raider buggy’s questionable fuel source to also explode. The wreck slid to a halt, on fire, with the loss of all aboard – including one older fellow with wild grey hair, goggles, and a wrech, who Vine had spotted working on the buggy while they were depositing the grenade. The genius gadgeteer, no doubt.
Our protagonists turned back to check the wreck for loot, taking advantage of the time to also have a bit of lunch. Vine crawled through the wreckage, coming out with several surviving personal flamethrowers and a well-cooked raider foot. There was an inconclusive discussion about whether it was really cannibalism if a sentient plant ate a mutant human. In the end, Vine decided it was too stringy anyway.
After lunch and a stretch, our protagonists carried on, heading back into mountainous terrain. This time, the hills were steep ridgelines crossing directly across their path. There was a lot of up and down, but they were steadily gaining altitude. The Ancients who had built the highway had cut directly through many of the mountains, so they found themselves passing through several narrow valleys.
Finally, they came to a ridge where someone had blocked entirely width of the highway. It wasn’t much of a barrier, really: mostly sawhorses and crude signs painted with skulls and warnings of “DANGR”. Liberty cautiously stopped the van a distance from the barrier, and they pondered their next move.
Outside the van, Francisco noticed that they were being observed. A goat-man wearing overalls and a straw hat, carrying a shepherd’s staff, was on the hillside next to the highway, staring at them with mouth agape. Francisco pointed out this local to the others. Jimbob exited the van, and he and Francisco approached the goat-man to parlay.
The goat-man was skittish at first. His people were good folk who didn’t believe in “tricity” or the other evil workings of “Al Ectric”. Furthermore, they held with neither “infernal combustion” nor “eternal combustion”, and our protagonists’ vehicle was clearly using one of those. Were they devils?
Jimbob assured him they were not. They were good folk who had been forced to use a sinful machine to escape a great devastation.
This seemed to calm the goat-man somewhat. He invited them to come back to his village and talk with an elder over dinner. Jimbob and Francisco agreed, leaving Liberty and Vine with the van. Each group had a radio, with Jimbob keeping one on his belt with an open channel, broadcasting.
Francisco and Jimbob followed the goat-man to his home. This turned out to be a primitive village of a few families of goat-people, who kept sheep for their companionship and wool. Dinner was roast vegetables of unspecified origin. The goat-man introduced them to an elder, who introduced them to an even elder elder. Jimbob mentioned how glad he was to meet them and find out they weren’t as gruff as reputation would suggest.
While many of the goat-people stood in awe of Nabisco – “Where did you find such a big sheep? How did its legs get so long?” – Jimbob conversed with the elders, gathering local knowledge.
The goat-people were a simple folk who kept to themselves in the highlands and never travelled. One road led to death, the other road led to cannibals and death, and the smallest road led to the hilltop home of the evil Al Ectric. Best to stay put and tend the sheep.
At Jimbob’s request, one of the elders drew a picture of Al Ectric from the murals on Al’s house. Jimbob had to admit, he had devil horns.
The goat-people had placed the barriers on the road, long ago, as a warning to travellers. On the other side of the ridgeline, there was a rich land, but anyone who went there died. How did they know that? Because folks had stood on the top of the ridge and watched them. The brave fools walked down the road into the valley on the far side. At some point, they showed signs of distress. Some turned back. All would stagger, and cough, and fall down, and never move again. Furthermore, the elders pointed out, no animal lived in the valley, despite thick plant growth.
The elders speculated that whatever miasma cursed the valley, it likely originated at Al Ectric’s house. None of the goat-people would approach that building any closer than it took to see it. It was taboo.
Jimbob made a pointed comment with a concealed message for the others, back at the van: “If only I were at Liberty to tie a geiger counter to a Vine and lower it down into that valley….”
Meanwhile, back at the van, the two most absent-minded members of the gang had drifted off into their own pursuits. Liberty was hip-deep in the van’s engine, tinkering. Vine was on top of the van, closely observing this cool shiny beetle they had found.
Luckily, when Vine heard their name, it caught their attention. They were able to relay the message to Liberty, who made sense of it. They taped the geiger counter to Vine’s hubcap helmet, and Vine slithered under the barricade and walked down the road, while Liberty watched from safety.
It was a tense walk, but nothing really happened. The geiger counter stayed quiet, or at least as quiet as it usually was in the wastelands. Vine felt no ill effects. They did notice a bit of a metallic haze in the air, but it was barely noticeable.
Proceeding further, they were able to see a ruined village at the foot of the hill, in a large valley between ridges. The village, while ruined, seemed to have only suffered from age and weather, not looting and gang warfare. In the center of the valley stood a hill with a commanding view of the entire village. On the hill was a big, beautiful building, with columns and wings and a big (dry) fountain in the front, surrounded by immaculately tended lawns and topiaries.
Excited at the thought of being the first to scavenge a place, Vine trotted to the foot of the hill and entered the nearest building. Shortly, they returned, dragging a bag of junk. Mostly it was a pile of the funny colorful paper that the Ancient kept in drawers. Vine remembered that his mammal friends sometimes liked to take papers like these when they went for their private time and figured it would make a nice surprise.
Meanwhile, once Vine went out of sight, Liberty got bored and went back to the van. There, she stumbled onto a goat-person kid, carrying a knife and messing around with one of the van’s tires. “Hey!” she shouted. With a scream of pure panic, the kid ran away. With a shrug, Liberty went back to tinkering with her baby, the van, until Vine returned.
Back at the goat village, Francisco and Jimbob were being introduced to the only entertainment offered by the goat people culture: moonshine. While Francisco and Nabisco sampled the beverage, Jimbob blew the villagers’ minds with storytelling, an art they were not familiar with.
Unfortunately, this idyllic scene was shattered when a screaming goat-kid ran up to the campfire. Emotions ran high. The goat-people elders demanded an answer to the real question: While one can’t blame a creature for taking any way out of a deadly situation, no matter how sinful, they were now in a place of peace and safety, so how soon could they burn the abomination that had brought them here?
Burning the van wasn’t on anybody’s “to do” list, of course. Lifting his tin cup of moonshine, Jimbob stood as if to give a speech, then cast the liquid into the campfire to produce a flaring distraction while he fled. Francisco drained his tin cup and threw it into the fire as well. Nabisco finished their cup and followed suit, while Jimbob climbed aboard. Closely pursued by angry goat people with torches and pitchforks, our protagonists fled, calling on the radio for Liberty to get the van started.
By this time, Vine had returned, and the two were listening to all the hubbub on the radio. Liberty struggled to get the van running, but killed the engine. She was forced to duck under the console and make a quick repair. She was barely able to get the van started by the time Francisco dropped Jimbob at the side of the van and rode off. Jimbob threw himself into the van, shouting “Drive! Drive!” They tore away, barely ahead of the angry goat-mob.
By then it was dark, but the goat-people had given them excellent directions while advising them where to stay away from. The wastelanders drove up the hill, found the side road, and drove up to Al Ectric’s house.
The road led past the tattered remains of a chain link and barbed wire fence, with a small building next to the road, just big enough for our protagonists to make camp. Across the remains of a parking lot, they could see the bigger building with Al’s picture still visible on the side. Given the late hour, they decided to get some rest, camping in the small building. It had been well-looted, stripped to the bare walls, and had no doors, but it offered both safety and security.
The next morning, our protagonists got up early to see what they could see. Now, in what passes for daylight in the wastelands, they could look down into the valley and get a good look at the bright white structure in the middle of town. Trading the binoculars back and forth, they all satisfied themselves that there was something in the air in the valley. Whatever it was, it seemed to be heavier than air, filling the bottom of the valley to a depth of perhaps a hundred feet. Thus, both the surrounding hills and the hill with the building stood free of the miasma.
Just at dawn, the radio squawked to life! “Mayday, mayday,” a bored voice said. “This is President Herbert Walker of the Hue Nighted States of Meriga, requesting assistance and rescue.”
Startled, Jimbob grabbed for the radio and responded respectfully, while the others asked each other if anybody knew what a “president” was. They didn’t know anything about any states, but they had heard of “Meriga”: it was a word some of the old-timers used to mean “this land” or “the world” or “this thing called life”.
In conversation over the radio, the president described his situation. He was trapped inside the “Green Briar Hotel”, on the hill in the middle of town – the big white building, apparently. (Also, the wastelanders realized, the location that they were trying to reach.) He requested safe transport for himself and his luggage. Jimbob assured him, they would do everything in their power to rescue him, and arranged to talk again in a couple of hours, after they had time to prepare.
After breakfast, our protagonists turned their attention to Al’s house, taking an hour or so to scavenge around. There were many entrances, even some tall enough for Francisco to ride inside and scavenge from horseback. The building turned out to be some kind of industrial site. It had been looted in the past; someone had been scavenging copper wires from some of the machinery. There were corroded drums of ancient chemicals.
The big find, though, was a stash that Jimbob uncovered. Hidden under a file cabinet drawer, he found a tank of compressed air with a face mask! Just what they needed!
Liberty cannibalized Vine’s old bike to build a trailer for Vine’s new and improved racing bike. They strapped the air tank to the trailer. Vine rode the bike down the hill (“Whee!”), across town, and up the driveway to the big white building.
There, Vine met President Herbert Walker on the porch: a Pure Strain Human of middle age wearing a fine suit with a wide red tie, accompanied by a pair of big suitcases. Vine loaded the cases and the man into the trailer. With the mask secured on the president’s face, Vine pedalled them down the Green Briar hill (“Whee!”), across town, then up (“Puff-puff-pant”) the hill to Al’s house, where the others had been observing through the binoculars. The air tank lasted just long enough for the trip.
President Walker was very appreciative of his escape. He was more than ready to share his tale, even if his audience didn’t understand some of the words.
Long ago, he explained, his great-great-grandfather had been the last “elected” President of the Hue Nighted States. (Must be some kind of blessing, from context.) When the big war broke out during the End Times, he and a bunch of his gang had retreated to a bunker under the Green Briar Hotel to wait it out. Walker claimed the war started when two gangs called the “Russians” and the “Cubans” had invaded some town called “Nebraska” from the air.
Then, due to enemy action, the valley was poisoned. Walker didn’t understand the details, but the effects were clear enough: the air killed anything that breathed it. So, the president’s gang stayed at the hotel. There were robots and broadcast power and ample supplies, so it was no hardship, aside from the isolation. Over the years, the office of president had been handed down from father to son, but the size of the settlement had dwindled until finally only Walker himself was left. He had been alone for years, with nothing but ancient documentaries about the Before Times for entertainment.
At the mention of broadcast power, our protagonists asked if Walker had even seen the machine they had come to find. Absolutely, yes, he agreed. There was one back at the hotel.
This was our first in-person session in… well, a long, long time. We were a little out of practice. Some of us forgot that we needed physical dice. All my old map-drawing gear and nearly all my minis were packed up, so we made do with Theatre Of The Mind. It worked out.
Doc Rizzo and Rufus couldn’t make it, and so were left to their own amusements in the vibrating cactus.
Having invested heavily in mutations, Vine’s player has formed a theory: Vine was originally some kind of leftover science experiments from the Before Times, with an innate power of directed evolution. They were just an ooze for an unknown time before finally evolving sentience and a single eyeball. From that point on, whenever they would observe some interesting property of their surroundings, there was a chance they would unconsciously evolve that same property in themselves – starting with mobility and a skeleton. Over time, they grew in capability, made friends, learned about the world, and became the skilled scavenger and would-be mad bomber that we all now know.
Vine’s glowing berry is explosive, like a short-range grenade that grows back every day.
I think everybody had forgotten that Vine doesn’t have lungs. By coincidence, it came up in conversation before the session even really got started, while we were printing character sheets.
Standard award was 3 points. (No, freeing Walker wasn’t a quest goal.) Cool Point was awarded to Vine, for one decisive grenade, for not needing to breathe when breathing was unwise, and for just generally taking care of business. In-person gaming is truly a better environment for Vine’s player… dare I say, we saw Vine blossom?