Even the most skilled cartographer didn’t have a chance of mapping the winding path conversation took in the cab of Xanadu--not that any had given any thought to try. Not that cartographers still existed either, really. But the point stood: topics wound in loops, crashing and wrapping around trees before launching in some other impossible direction, and by the time Dak spotted the exit for Salt Lake on the way to Technopolis, the rest of the crew’s attention was turned decidedly more eastward.
“You ever think about what’s left of DC?” Tech asked.
(And out of nowhere. Dak swore they’d just been in a deep dive over oldies pop, and the comment he’d queued up about E●MO●TION made its escape.)
“Not really.” Zenith sat up from the back and propped his head up on the corner of Tech’s seat. “It’s a post-nuke wasteland. What’s there to think about?”
“I don’t know… there used to be a lot there, y’know? And there aren’t exactly pictures of what’s there now. Like is it a crater, or--”
“I bet all the radiation turned that big obelisk into a giant tentacle,” Dak said.
“I’m not sure that’s how that works, dude,” Zenith sighed.
“Oooh, look at the nuclear physicist here!” A felled pine tree laid across their lane and Dak moved to avoid it--“swerved” was probably the right word, since Z tumbled down to get a faceful of Pox’s boots. “Whoops, sorry buddy.”
“Sure.” His head popped back up, this time on the corner of Dak’s seat. “But really, that’s not how that works.”
“Well, why don’t you hack into DC and prove it’s not a tentacle!”
“Again, not how that works--”
Z’s face pulled back from Dak’s peripheral vision as Pox pointedly yawned, a faint reflection in the windshield showing her spindly arms stretching innocuously and shoving him back in his seat. “Yeah, Z, just hack into DC,” she said. “Are we stopping soon? I’m hungry.”
And off the rails the conversation went again: Tech and Pox disagreeing over just how long a jumbo bag of Dum-Dums was supposed to last, Z bringing up the jelly compartment as if that was a logical comparison, and then Tech busting the whole cab wide open with the dear memory of Jelly the scorpion.
“I don’t care if you just ate enough to last for days! We are stopping! I need to get out of this fucking truck!”
“You had no problem digging around in rat guts…” Tech said slowly, “but a scorpion--”
“You don’t question Z about his thing with buffalo--”
Dak snuck a peak over his shoulder at the situation behind him--the whole crew had a lot of talents they never bothered to bring up explicitly, which was fine, because it meant every so often something would manage to surprise him, and the little flutter of affection for his friends that came with it was better than most of the highs of the open road.
Other times, though, he could only manage to be concerned. Keeping his eyes off the road longer than he should have been able to, he could only think about that old horror movie he and Tech had nicked from an abandoned house some time ago, Inherited or Hereditary or whatever, and how the main character had perched herself in the corner of the ceiling by the sheer power of her demonic will.
Dak was pretty sure Pox didn’t have that.
“Uh…” He cleared his throat. “You okay up there?”
“Dak,” Tech said. “The road--”
“I’m watchin’ it, I’m watchin’ it…” he sighed, turning back around.
Two rusted mile markers flew by without anyone saying another word, the usual percussion of Xanadu’s tires rolling over cracks and potholes in the neglected asphalt taking its opportunity for a solo very seriously indeed. The third marker appeared as a dot on the approaching hill as Tech slowly glanced back at Pox, still in the corner, the sweat collecting at his temples reflecting right into Dak’s eyes.
“How are you still doing that?”
“I don’t like scorpions!” she yelled.
Tech held up a hand like he had something else to say but apparently thought better of it, flopping back down into his seat. “Jelly’s gone the way of Beans, probably. You’re fine.”
“Totally,” Dak said, waiting a moment before loudly clicking his tongue and sending Tech flying so high out of his seat that he hit his head on the ceiling.
He smirked to himself, heart aflutter even as Tech cursed him out under his breath. Another hidden talent, Tech launching himself like that. What a gifted crew.
Vernal, Utah was probably never a booming town, but one of the run-down motels they passed after crossing the city limits did have a dinosaur out front, so it couldn’t have been all bad--or so Pox grumbled, the first thing she’d said at a sensible volume after Dak and Tech both promised that none of Jelly’s eggs were left anywhere in the truck.
Like the motel, most of the single-family homes had boards across the windows and overgrown weeds sprouting up wherever any bit of manicured grass had once grown. The streets, too, seemed abandoned, aside from a raccoon skittering down the sidewalk that Pox watched from the cab with great interest.
“Not even a gang presence, huh?” Zenith said as Dak brought Xanadu to stop at what appeared to be the biggest intersection at the center of town. “That’s weird.”
“You’d think someone would’ve at least wanted to claim the dinosaur,” Pox said.
Dak nodded. “That is an excellent point.”
“Z, that’s enough party-pooping from you for today.” Dak squinted at the shuttered businesses beyond the intersection for any signs of life, inching Xanadu forward until he could see down the cross-street. “There! Look--”
To their left, one establishment had its lights on--neon lights, and probably too many of them by the standards of most people’s tastes, but to Dak, it shone like the light of heaven, a heaven of stretching one’s legs, booze, and relieving the cabin fever thickening the air around them with every passing second.
“That’s kind of weird too, though,” Tech said, scratching at his beard. “What if it’s a trap?”
“You ever seen a trap with neon lights--wait.”
“Milwaukee, I know,” Dak sighed. “Don’t remind me.”
“What happened in Milwaukee?” Pox asked.
“What part of ‘don’t remind me’--anyway, see there, it’s fine.” He pointed back down the street where a couple of drunk dwarves stumbled out onto the sidewalk, one hanging onto the other’s shoulder for dear life before hiccupping and losing their grip. They fell to the concrete with a dull splat and burst into giggles that shook their entire frame. Their companion looked like they could hardly make sense of it.
“That’s a great sign,” Dak continued. “This bar is clearly loved by all. And Z, now you can have a place to hack into DC that isn’t going ninety miles an hour!”
“Dak--” Zenith started, but he cut himself off, pinching the bridge of his nose. Smart move. “Fine, whatever.”
They left the truck where it stood in the middle of the intersection--“What traffic is it going to back up, the fuckin’ tumbleweed?”--and stepped past the threshold of the grimy wooden front door into a bar with the generic flavor specific to the kind of establishments just off the highway and the average citizen’s radar. Dark wood paneling and dim lighting cast the whole room into a permanent early evening despite the high-noon sun outside.
Before Dak could open his mouth, the others split off--Tech to the bar mumbling about needing a drink, Pox to the pool table circled by a group of biker orks, and Z to an empty booth where he could eye the antique pinball machine flickering in the corner.
“I thought you said you were hungry,” Dak said, sidling up next to Pox--or trying to, at least, because the ork on that side of her was apparently bolted to the floor. “Hey there, hot stuff, do you mind scooching o--”
The ork looked down the bridge of his nose at him. “Thank you, but I’ve been happily married for twenty-seven years.” As he stepped to the side, he held up his hand to Dak’s face where he wore a silver ring engraved with HOT STUFF along the center surrounded by dots of inlaid onyx. “And also how did you know my name? Did Madam Chovie send you? ‘Cause you can tell her--”
“Whoa, whoa, big guy! Whoa!” Dak held both of his hands up, and in the tight space, they ended up on Hot Stuff’s pecs. “I don’t know any Madam Chovie, and I didn’t know that was your name! I just wanted to stand next to my good friend here--”
“As I said before, I’m married.” He glanced down at his chest.
“Right.” Dak stuck his arms straight out to either side. “This is all a misunderstanding.”
It wasn’t the longest five seconds of Dak’s life but it was in the running for at least the last week--Hot Stuff looked him over, squinted at Pox and whatever she was up to squirming about behind him, and then sighed. “You don’t look like one of her goons.”
“Dak Rambo is nobody’s goon!”
“Good for you.”
The line between Hot Stuff’s sincerity and sarcasm was starting to blur and a seat at the bar looked far more enticing than it did a few moments ago. Dak slid out from the pool table crowd and hopped up on the stool two down from where Tech held his chin in both hands. His robes and hat drooped at deeper angles than normal, the sleeves pooling helplessly at his elbows and the tip of the hat nearly reaching the brim. When Tech sighed, Dak swore the moons and stars glowed brighter with the heave of his shoulders.
Probably a trick of the light, the neons filtering in from the grunge on the window.
Tech sighed again. For a nowhere town, they had quite the selection of liquor along the back wall. “No idea.”
“Yeah. Me neither.”
Some part of Dak wanted to be the kind of guy people could talk to about their problems--he could be the crew’s dad, or their theoretical mother’s brother, and he could safely get them where they needed to go not only physically, in Xanadu, but emotionally. Or something like that. The part that wanted this moved around a lot and Dak could rarely pin it down long enough to get to the bottom of it.
Something odd was going on with each member of this weird little family of his, and only Pox’s had anything concrete to tackle; even then, that one still felt impossible.
But Dak didn’t say any of that. He just sucked the back of his teeth, squinting at the most colorful label on the bottom shelf bottles. “Barkeep! Can I get two of whatever the most popular drink is with that stuff?”
The bartender set down the glass he was polishing and gave him a hesitant salute.
“Do you even know what that is?” Tech said.
“Not a clue.”
“So why did you pick it?”
“Tech...Tech, Tech, Tech…” He swiveled on the stool until he was facing him. “What’s life without a little adventure, my man?”
“Couldn’t tell ya.”
He had a point, not that Dak was going to admit as much. He waved away the comment just as the bartender tossed them two sweating glasses with cocktail napkins clinging to the undersides--the napkins and the drinks were both the same shade of deep crimson and his nose stung with the scent of cinnamon.
“The, uh…” the bartender said quietly, wincing slightly at Dak’s cocked eyebrow. “The--uh--the Dragon’s Ember is quite popular around--well, people tend to just pass through here. But all sorts seem to, um--well, they seem to enjoy it.” He pushed his glasses up his nose and looked over to Tech, where his gaze lingered half a second too long to go unnoticed before he hopped back to polishing his glass.
Just over his own shoulder, Dak pictured a couple lines of glowing green text--MISSION: GET TECH LAID. That was something concrete he could do--can’t fix a pair of tragic pasts, can’t find a missing sister, but hell if he couldn’t play wingman.
“I feel like this is burning my nose hairs,” Tech mumbled.
“That means it’s working!”
“I thought you said you didn’t know what--”
It wasn’t in a shot glass. It was far from a shot glass but Dak downed it like it was anyway, and maybe this was what it felt like to be an adept who tended toward the elemental, or one of those dragons trying to melt them into the side of a mountain, or--
No, it just felt like the inside of his throat was being peeled raw.
“Perfect,” he croaked. He offered a thumbs up to Tech, who carefully sipped at his own drink through the double set of stirring straws.
“I think my friend here needs some water,” Tech said.
The bartender flushed pink filling up the glass, spilling a few ice cubes at his feet.
And Tech wasn’t even paying attention. Sure, he had that thing with Lala back at the Electric Cowboy Lasso Swingin’ Doogie Wrasslin’ Party Zone Grill and Microbrewery, but that was ages ago. It was--what, entire weeks ago by now, probably, not to mention hundreds of miles away. This bartender, he was in the here and now, pokable as hell if you had a yardstick in hand.
“Say, barkeep, what’s your name?” Dak said, chin in hand.
“Oh, um…” He tugged at his collar. “I’m Oswald.”
“Nice to meet ya. I’m Dak Rambo, and this”--he nodded to Tech--“is my good buddy Tech Wizard.”
The pink in Oswald’s cheeks descended further into magenta territory, not that Tech would’ve picked up on it given he was staring at Dak like he’d just grown another head.
“What’s…” Dak started. “What’s up?”
“That’s the shortest I’ve ever heard you say your name introducing yourself.”
“See, okay--” Tech turned to Oswald, leaning in conspiratorially. “Dak likes to stretch out that ‘a’ in his first name like he’s winding up for something, and at this point it sounds weird without it. We’ve had a long couple days--or… weeks, really. So.” He looked back at Dak pointedly, and then back to poor Oswald who looked like he was ready to vibrate out of the bar. “My reaction was not over the top. I… are you always this red?”
As the grin spread across Tech’s face, a mirror stuttered onto Oswald’s while he tried to answer, backspacing over a couple tries before a sensible string of words came together--excellent, Dak thought to himself. A plan set in motion, a friend in need helped indeed and all that jazz.
He surveyed the rest of the bar, or tried to. Hot Stuff’s ork crew was still crowded around the pool table and more had appeared with his back turned at the bar. He couldn’t see over their heads to whatever Z was up to (hacking, hopefully), especially not with one of Hot Stuff’s friends towering an extra foot and a half from the elf riding her shoulders.
Pox wielded the pool cue like an extension of her arm, gesturing wildly and even prodding an ork across the table in the nose after they said something displeasing. So he assumed. She could have just felt like it, which was honestly more likely.
“Five in the right pocket, come on!” Her voice rose above the rest, the orks a low rumbling beneath her, and her legs squeezed around the neck of her ride as he took the pool cue from her, aiming as carefully as his thick fingers would allow--
The balls cracked against each other. A chorus of mixed cheers and groans overtook the softer thuds of the table resolving itself for the next shot. “It’s basic geometry,” she whined over the noise, and Dak gingerly sidestepped around Hot Stuff and the three orks tucking themselves into his side until he could tug on the corner of her coat.
“I’m busy,” Pox hissed.
“This guy bothering you?” The ork she was riding looked up his own forehead towards her, offering a meaty finger for her own hand to grip if she wanted it, though both her and Dak couldn’t quite get why. “I can--”
“It’s okay, Sweet Tits,” she said. “He’s actually a friend.”
Sweet Tits nodded to himself, turning back to the pool table and the others trying to analyze the latest developments. They squinted and gestured at the setup of the balls like they were in the middle of a trigonometry exam, like they were in a retro-style school and their entire permanent record depended on how well they could use an imaginary protractor.
“So…” Dak said. He could feel Pox glaring at him, but it was such a familiar feeling, being glared at, that he hardly gave it any pause. “You’re Sweet Tits, he’s Hot Stuff… pretty rad nicknames, huh? How’d you earn them?”
Sweet Tits squinted into the middle distance for a moment before training his sights on Dak--even in the dim lighting, his pupils were pinpricks, the sickly yellow-green of the rest of his eyes digging deep into the pit of his stomach. “My tits are fucking sweet, that’s how.”
He wasn’t wrong. Sweet Tits was tall enough that his chest was just above Dak’s eye level, and at his close distance he could see the tank top strain to contain them.
The other team made their shot, calling the twelve ball for one of the center pockets--it rocketed toward the pocket in question, bounced back from the the cut-outs pointed edge, and knocked right back into the eight ball. The crowd collapsed into a hush. A couple of the orks on the opposite side of the table bent down to watch the eight ball slowly roll across the felt, their noses steaming against the lacquered wood in a panic.
Dak stole a glance up at Pox--she was gripping the sides of Sweet Tits’ head and trying to keep her feet from wiggling in anticipation of the other team’s untimely demise, though the trying wasn’t accomplishing much. Her heels bopped against the titular sweet tits in an erratic rhythm, but her ork friend was too enthralled by the scene to care.
After a tense moment of teetering on the edge, the eight ball plopped into the hole, and the entire bar erupted in shouting--the head of the other team halfway climbed on the table, and Pox was prodding him back down with her pool cue digging into his cheekbone, and a couple punches were exchanged without landing, and maybe that was all well and good. Pox had it under control, right? Her grin was close to splitting her face open, the sharps of her canines glinting bright under the buzzing bulbs overhead, and watching her unwrap a piece of strawberry candy one-handed in the midst of all the chaos to place it perfectly on the tip of her tongue--that was something like pride Dak was feeling.
Whatever it was, he didn’t need to stick around.
He looked over his shoulder. Zenith was the only patron on that half of the bar; even the lights on his side were dimmer than the others, and the glows from his cybernetic eye and the pinball machine glared brighter in the vacuum.
Zenith was undoubtedly still annoyed with him, so of course that meant hopping next to him in the booth--not across from him, no, of course not. This was a matter that required butting up against the borders of personal space.
“”How’s it goin’, buddy?”
Zenith sighed. “In general, or are you still keen on getting me to, what--”
“Hack into DC? Yeah, I was getting there,” Dak said. “But I want to check on the Z-man himself first!” He threw an arm around his shoulder, brought him in for a nougie and swiftly reconsidered when Z’s entire body tensed up. He could rest here though, in the space that was almost a hug but not quite.
Dak physically bit his tongue to leave room for Z to say something. He was focused on the other end of the establishment, at the bar where Dak had left Tech and Oswald to their promising conversation. “You all right with all that?” Zenith said after a moment.
“What are you talking about?”
“Tech and the bartender.”
“Wh--c’mon, man! I helped orchestrate that, first of all--”
“--and second of all, I don’t know why you’d think I’d be bothered by it.”
It was hard to talk to Zenith when he was like this. Dak pulled his arm back from around his shoulder and propped his head up in it, squinting across the bar and trying to get a glimpse of anything past the shifting throng of orks around the pool table. Finally, after a couple long minutes, Tech appeared at the far end of the bar, leaving an empty drink on the corner, and striding unusually confidently to the side where Oswald slid out from his post. Their hands clasped together until Oswald brought their faces together, his glasses going crooked against the brim of Tech’s hat. The stars all along Tech’s hat and robe glowed brighter than Dak had ever seen, undeniably, another burst lighting it up as Oswald walked him back into the wall.
Before too long, they disappeared into a storage room, and Zenith turned to stare at Dak.
Why, Dak couldn’t say. It wasn’t like he found himself fisting a handful of his jeans under the table, or a lead weight in his stomach, or that pervading sense of melancholy woven into his very being crested into something intense and beyond explanation.
No. His self-assigned mission was to get Tech laid, and by god, he managed it. That bartender was in for a treat with that robohog.
“You meant for that to happen?” Zenith asked flatly.
“Of course I did!”
“You seem off.”
“Based on what?” he sighed. “Since when have any of us been ‘on’?”
Z nodded like he’d made a point, and they sat in silence for a few minutes--long enough for the orks to have finally calmed down enough to start a second game, for Pox to take note of the noises coming from the storage room and kick some life into the dusty jukebox.
It was one of those really retro outfits, and within a couple seconds Journey’s “Separate Ways” blared out through the ceiling’s speakers. The dour turn of the minor key spread through the room, into the wood soft with age and alcohol, a collection of ears ninety years late to their particular party, and Zenith bobbed his head along like he knew the song. For all Dak knew, he did. It didn’t sound like that techno-noise he played in Xanadu, but people were complicated. His little family, especially. Z, also especially.
“You’ve been giving that pinball machine the once-over since we got here,” Dak said once the song faded out into something unrecognizable. “Go check it--”
“Nah, it’s one of those mid-thirties models that needs an internet connection and something to stick into it,” he said, digging a finger into the wood of the table. “No security system to speak of. Not worth it.”
And still the pinball machine with all its baubles and lights winked at them, themed around the thirtieth anniversary of one of those comic book movie franchises and all the more smug for it. Dak couldn’t recognize a single one of the featured characters aside from the one with the knives sticking out of his hands.
“How could you say no to Wolverade?”
“Like this,” Zenith sighed, holding his middle finger up to the game.
Silence persisted until the song changed again, and this time Dak at least recognized the melody even if he couldn’t place anything else about it. He let his fingers tap against the table, held up an image of something with the four of them and all their loved ones in some cozy homestead in Chicago or Los Angeles or any other hub not decimated by fire and fallout. It was cold enough to be a real winter there, wherever they were, and they all wore the ugliest sweaters as they got popped off spiced apple cider, and all their lingered questions had been answered. No one was out to get them.
“What are you looking for, Z?” he asked, and so suddenly it took half a second for him to realize he’d actually said it out loud.
Zenith ran a hand through his hair, mussing it up more than it already was. The song on the jukebox changed again, this time to something Dak was able to recognize as Frank Zappa thanks to Shirley Guzman’s eclectic music library. “I don’t think it’s any different than the rest of us,” he said. “Not really.”
He motioned his head like he needed to get out of the booth, and Dak shifted out reluctantly, watching him shuffle past Pox and the orks, past the storage room where Tech was likely boning down just like Dak had planned, and onto whatever nightmare of a bathroom this place offered.
And again, just like that, Dak was alone. A hollow in his chest clawed at his insides for some kind of action but he just sat and watched it all from the booth. There was so little he could do but keep driving Xanadu forward; and there was so little they seemed to be able to do but ride along in Xanadu with him, and maybe LA was going to be the skeleton key that unlocked everything.
He could only hope. Vernal, Utah only had that in stock, a resupply when everything seemed spiraling out of control. It was better than nothing. It was better than facing it all alone.