Humanity Has Moved On
The Corporal was absolutely right. There were other survivors in Louisville, and they were not exactly the best crowd for learning about their experiences during the Fall. Oh sure, there were a lot of things I could glean just from context clues, but it was patently obvious that a full-blown conversation was not going to happen. I mean, I didn't get very much information from my stop at Fort Knox either, but at least the Corporal filled me in on what might be considered safe public information, and even gave me the Sun Beam for improved self-defense (I still can't believe he called it that, in honor of Elder Laylah or not). When I said at the start of the last chapter that these past two days were frustrating, I was including Fort Knox only a little tiny baby bit in that statement--it was much more related to Louisville.
Actually, to back away for a second, now that I think about it, I don't even know the Corporal's name. I don't remember him giving it to me at all. Now I feel kinda bad. He wasn't a bad guy at all, despite the scary first impression.
But back on track, my foray into Louisville was kind of a disaster. Not a major one, luckily--I didn't actually lose anything and the Raiders didn't manage to harm me at all--but considering this was one of my first big stops on my journey, the fact that it was a complete bust is extremely disheartening.
So after leaving the Kentucky State Military Shelter, I headed north, opting to take the route next to the Ohio River in order to get to Louisville. Evidently all the nearby shelters funnel their waste into someplace underground, because it was kind of astonishing how clear the river was. It was almost like watching liquid air. Which I'm sure is a thing that occurs somewhere out in the universe, but that's not important. What IS important is that I nearly swerved into the guard rail while staring at the river, so I was reluctantly forced to drive the Sun Rider sensibly once again. After a few miles, the road took me away from the river, sadly, and it was time to enter the suburbs of Louisville.
Earlier that morning/early afternoon, the sun wasn't sure if it wanted to stay out or hide behind cloud cover and threaten rain once more, but by 2:00 PM, it had firmly decided it was on display for good. Just like it was on Departure Day, the sky and the hills were truly a sight to behold, and, as I approached, so was the skyline. Sure, Louisville's modest few skyscrapers have seen better days, as I clearly saw in those coffee table books, but they still cast an impressive picture, gleaming somewhat dimly in the afternoon sun.
Unfortunately, this scenic view was my only nice experience with the city, because it turns out that the Raiders didn't seem to want to live underground anymore and were spread all over the city streets, seemingly just waiting for someone like me to show up.
While driving through a small township (and I wish I were joking) called "Penile," I saw an extremely shabby and apparently makeshift guard station, manned by a boy who was probably half my age. Just as soon as I noticed him and was contemplating stopping to greet him, the boy disappeared into the booth and triggered some kind of alarm. It must have been some repurposed fire alarm or severe weather alarm or something, because it was LOUD. Like, I have no doubt whatsoever that other guard shacks like this existed along the road and they would send the signal along. To my entirely flat surprise bordering on disappointment, that's exactly what happened. The alarm echoed strangely as a second, third, fourth, fifth, and eventually sixth air-piercing mechanical scream joined in the din.
Unfortunately, unless I wanted to take, like, an entire day-long detour, I was gonna have to bust through Louisville. The Ohio River splits the city in half, and its massive bridge was my only ticket across. Or, well, there were other bridges on the map, but to give away the game a little bit, those bridges no longer exist. It was the Memorial Bridge or nothin' at all.
For a few tense seconds, I let the Sun Rider keep itself balanced while I frantically searched the dashboard map for some kind of roundabout route to get to the bridge without going straight through the center. And I did find a route that went alongside a large wooded park, but unfortunately, if I wanted to maintain any kind of speed, I'd still need to barrel through Old Louisville, where it was almost certain that a battalion of Raider defenders would be waiting. I mean, come on, a bridge is an obvious chokepoint. What're they gonna do? NOT defend it? It's already plain as day that I'm not gonna be accepted peacefully here. I suppose it was naive to think that there wouldn't be survivors who were entirely selfish--who don't really care about reconnecting with the outside world and just want supplies to continue surviving--but geez, I was hoping it wouldn't be on one of my first stops!
After about 15 minutes, the cacophony of the alarms ended. This could either mean that nobody saw me and wrote off the initial signal or, I was hoping it wasn't the case, they totally saw me and are planning a barricade. Then as I approached what seemed to be an ancient race track, I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that it was the latter. About 80 people, of seemingly all ages and genders, were gathered on the road ahead. Two scuzzy-looking old men were either lucky enough or powerful enough in the community to have motorcycles, and they sat on each side of the road. The crowd was in alternate-route-blocking formation. I was barreling towards them at, I don't even remember, something like 55 miles per hour?
On the one hand, I didn't wanna run anybody over and hurt them. We're all survivors, in this crisis together after all.
But on the other hand, those motorcycle guys were holding what looked like long black clubs, so they weren't about to extend me any kind of courtesy.
Straight on through it was, then! I still don't wanna hurt anybody, but it's a tough world out here, and I've gotta be tough to live in it! I'm not just a little boy living at Home anymore!
Much to the horror of the crowd, I cranked that accelerator (or whatever it is tough biker guys say, remind myself to ask someone later what tough biker guys say when they speed up) and aimed straight for the middle of their human barricade! People were comically diving wildly out of the way once I got close enough. A particularly gangly-looking man jumped to the side a full 3 seconds after everyone else did, and I unfortunately ran over his foot as I passed. Feels bad, but he was gonna beat me and steal my stuff, so screw that guy!
After scaring the barricade aside, I heard the two motorcycles roar to life and so apparently the chase was on. I snuck a peek behind me, and there they were, great clouds of smoke billowing from the rear of their bikes as they gained ground on me. Soon would come the sharp left turn I needed to make in order to make it to the bridge. Perhaps these old, bearded farts weren't adept enough on their bikes to keep up? Hopefully? Too bad for me, they were. In my left mirror, I saw them tilt dangerously close to the road during their turn--"Surely they're gonna wipe out, they have to!" I thought to myself--but they executed the sharp left turn expertly. This had me worried--it was now just a straight-shot to the bridge, and these guys were clearly not gonna be shaken off. Looks like it was finally time to give one of the Sun Rider's functionalities a test drive.
I barely had any time to register any of the sights I was passing by. I was vaguely aware that some scattered residents looked shocked to see me pass by, and I could see that many old businesses were being retrofitted into houses (as I'm pretty sure nobody just names their house "Magnolia Bar" and puts big letters up to say so, so all those window-gawkers were occupying houses made from old businesses). The road ahead seemed clear enough, so I began setting up the Sun Rider's auto-pilot feature. It was pretty aggravating trying to set a course to the bridge, since for whatever nonsensical reason it wanted me to obey traffic laws and observe one-way streets. Ugh. But once it was activated, I was able to turn in my seat and face down those bikers.
Turns out I didn't really have any time to spare, because one of them was right on my tail and he was raising his black club, ready to strike. Acting without thinking, I reached for the Sun Staff on my belt, extended it to its full length, and shoved it in the guy's face before pressing the zap button. Really shouldn't have been my first self-defense option, but it did the trick--with a jolt and a shudder, the club fell from his hand and he stayed weirdly upright as his bike began to jitter back and forth, losing control until both the man and his bike rolled over sideways and tumbled rapidly. I realized that I should be using the Sun Beam for this kind of situation, so I quickly swapped weapons and got ready for the next assault. Unsurprisingly, the second biker skillfully swerved around his fallen friend and seemed to be reaching for his belt, too. But he wasn't pulling out a gun.
It was a hand grenade. Very, very bad news, indeed. He must have gotten it from the Military Shelter during an earlier raid, I found myself thinking, like some kind of moron who had time to think idle thoughts while a 240-pound bearded biker guy was closing the distance and readying to pull a pin off of a freaking hand grenade!
Time was running out. The Sun Rider politely let me know this by stating that, in 1000 feet, we will begin crossing the George something something Memorial Bridge, keep ahold of my stuff, yada yada yada. Point is, I had to take care of this hand grenade situation, and fast. I felt like a big damn genius in the moment, but having the luxury to look back on it all now, it was rather a supremely obvious solution: Point the gun at the grenade and shoot the hell out of it. It make da big boom.
Or at least, that was the idea. It turns out hand grenades don't work like that? When I fired at the hand grenade with the Sun Beam's laser, it just burned a hole through it...as well as the biker guy's hand that was holding it, causing him to react in pain and horror, dropping the grenade, clutching his hand, losing control of his bike, toppling over, and rolling several times like his counterpart. I saw a little spurt of smoke from the road behind him, which must have been the grenade exploding. Probably on a timer or something. But who cares? It seems the main Raider force has been neutralized for now!
On the other side of the bridge--entering into the state of Indiana, as the Sun Rider was kind enough to inform me--I resumed manual control of the vehicle and decided to just write the rest of the city off as more of the same. Sure, there were some residents milling about, there were some guys in pots-and-pans or trash-can armor (likely more Raiders), but no organized force standing ready to stop me. I guess they really played their full hand back at the race track. Or maybe there's some internal strife and the Raiders are unpopular within their community and are being phased out and/or rebelled against by the population as they seek to become a more peaceful settlement since only the people high up in the hierarchy are making any kind of decent living so their low numbers was evidence of a consistent low level of mutiny...but eh, who can say, really?
But it was time to stop gawking--it was clear that the road ahead was going to be more of the same rolling hills and blue skies. They were a sight to behold, but I've got a job to do, and I've already beheld them. So boosting my speed to about 110 miles per hour, everything went by in a vaguely-distinguishable blur. Abandoned cars. Old churches. Neglected fields. Battered houses. A...rusted-out earth-mover? Okay, I had to stop for that last one, since in all my travel so far, I've not seen one of these things in real life. It sure looked big and powerful, alright. Too bad its scooping arm had rusted completely off and laid sadly beside the cab. Welp, I came and I saw, so it was back to the open road for me. To conquer...the journey, or...something.
Along the long and lonely Interstate 65, I realized that I was absolutely starving. There was a small town called Franklin coming up, and so I decided, sure, I'll stop here for the day. Maybe take a day off after all that excitement and forage the area for some supplies--I mean, I've still got plenty, but you never know! Right outside the town itself was an abandoned hotel whose name had rotted away at some point ("Ba_m_t by W___am Fran__n" was all that was legible), which seemed like a perfect place to hide out for a day or two. No broken windows, no signs of life--by all appearances, nobody has been inside this building for 50 years. And it was true! I'm inside the place, writing this right now! I kinda did a rude thing and drove the Sun Rider right through its front door, though, but I'm sure the owners will understand. If they care at all anymore, that is. Heh! End-of-the-world joke. Gotta love it.
It's actually shocking how nice the interior of this hotel is, though! I mean, the wallpaper's peeling and the rugs are all dried out and ratty, but there's hardly any dirt! No animal damage, no intense decay, no nothin'! And absolutely incredibly, their food storage area was fully stocked! The feeble grunting of a dying generator was a sign that the cooling systems were still working, too! Not for long, but that's just incredible! Seems like the hotel was running on what was once a state-of-the-art solar generator, drawing power from solar cells on the roof, and it still remained in (shaky) working order 50 years later! Just...just...how?!
Never mind that, though! The food storage area contained some goods that were still perfectly usable, from canned fruits to instant coffee, maple syrup to instant potatoes, ramen noodles, powdered milk--they even have ghee in here! I've never even seen ghee before! And here was an entire shelf of it! Still as good as it was 50 years ago! In. Freaking. Credible.
I was gonna need some additional storage space for all this new food, though. Fortunately, a store across the street just so happened to be a clothing store, and upon my investigation therein, it just so happened to have a selection of backpacks! A rather small selection in the clearance section (the Sino-African War came to an end in the spring, so I guess that's not when kids were going back to school back then?), but it would have to do. I brought a few backpacks back to the Bamt by Wam Frann and stuffed them silly with my new treasures. I then found the least degraded chair in the hotel's lobby and prepared myself some dinner with great satisfaction. Using up the crappy nutri-blocks first, of course. I wouldn't be able to return to them once I've had a taste of the good stuff, so best to get them out of the way now. Then we'll dine like the upper crust once did. Man, I can't believe they just had a whole shelf of ghee! I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but I'm going to do all of it!
And so, I set up the Cube inside the hotel lobby, right in front of what probably used to be the service desk, and prepared for a night indoors. That hotel generator wasn't going to last much longer anyway, so I studied the nearby thermostat and set it to something comfortable for the nights ahead. Might as well live it up, I say! Who's gonna stop me? Who's gonna even care? It's a long, rough road ahead. I've already faced some of its troubles, and no doubt there will be more. I've gotta latch onto any creature comforts I can find.
All that excitement happened yesterday. Yesterday was a great, horrible, marvelous, terrifying, frustrating, worthwhile day.
Today sucked. The rain came back (Seriously, weather, make up your mind already!), I found nothing else really useful while searching other local businesses, there was flash flooding which basically eliminated the possibility of finding anything foraging in the wild, and the flooding caused the first floor of the Bamt by Wam Frann to get all wet and swampy. Serves me right for driving right through the front door, I guess. I mean, it's not gonna damage the Sun Rider at all, and the Cube entryway is elevated enough to avoid the flooding, but I was basically either wet as a...uhhh, something that's habitually wet, or I was confined to the Cube like some kind of prisoner. I'll be glad when today's over. What a total waste.
And with that, I'm going to bed. I know I'll end up waking up in the middle of the night, but if it stops raining by then, I don't care. I'll travel at night if I have to! I have the Sun Light! The Sun Rider has lights! I'll be fine...right?