Rachel Wells – Super Monster Cards – Part 1 – June 23rd, 2256 – Carter, Arkansas – Dome Runner

Billy Radcheck draws “Death Vortex,” and destroys the Wood Elf Warriors on my side of the table, clearing the way for his zombies to attack me directly, knocking my health points down to zero and eliminating me from my tenth Super Battle Monsters tournament. 

“Maybe next time, Rachel,” says Billy.

My eye twitches and I slam my fist onto the metal table. 

“Next time, I’ve got you,” I say.

He stands up and strolls away, towards the tournament brackets displayed on a large dry erase board on the other side of the room. A few steps in, I hear him mutter “Whatever, loser,” under his breath.

I stand up from my chair, grab the apple core from my lunch tray, and hurl it at his back. It smashes against his blue cloth jacket and falls to the floor. Bits of apple stick to his shirt. 

He twists his head and looks at me with a smirk.

“You’ll never win,” he says. He continues walking, through the crowd of kids that came to watch the action. They all follow Billy to the next table in the tournament. 

I’m out of here.

I reform my deck of sixty cards, each in dark green protective sleeves. I shuffle the deck a couple of times and place them into my limited edition Forest Creatures card tin, clamp the lid shut, and shove it into my black burlap sack. 

Cheers erupt as Chelsea Pratcher is knocked out of the tournament. I look over and see Chelsea stand up, a foot taller than the fifty kids surrounding her table. She walks through the crowd with a business as usual look. A small kid with a little blue backpack and a red hat runs up to her, stretches a hand out, and waves a Super Monster Card in her face. It has a bright orange sleeve. With a blank expression, she pops the card from his hand, takes a marker from her pocket and signs her signature. The kid holds the card to the light with a dazed and excited look before darting through the sea of kids. She’s effortlessly cool. 

I swing my bag over my shoulder and walk out of the commons room where there are still forty active tournament games. I thought I would have made it much further. Last year, I finished ninth place with my mega turtles deck. I don’t know what happened this time. I have to do something drastic if I plan on winning next month’s tournament.

To most kids, being good at Super Monster Cards is the same as being good at life. If you can win a tournament, you gain massive amounts of respect from the other kids. You might as well not exist if you always lose. I’m one of those kids, but not for long.  

I exit the commons and walk down the corridor and into the kitchens. The aroma of roasted corn fills the air. I sit at one of the forty round metal tables spread across the room, one closest to the exit. Kids and adults wait in line holding gray metal trays, extending them out when its their turn to receive a scoop of meat surprise and two scoops of corn. The dome didn’t believe in wasting anything, including the conglomeration of meat scraps left over at the end of the week, so they shredded and combined it all together and called it meat surprise. Served every Wednesday. It was still edible, but just barely. I eat light on Wednesdays. 

I take off my bag and dump its contents onto the table in front of me. Four tins filled with Super Monster Cards slide out of the bag and clank on the table. I take out my cards and make neat rectangular piles sorted by category: monsters, traps, spells, magic items, and energy cards. 

I rack my brain, trying to come up with some combination of cards that might stand a chance next month. I’ve tried dinosaurs, death cultists, and a deck that combined wizards and fairies. I can’t think of anything new.

That leaves one option. I need new cards.

But I was broke. 

I spent the last of my allowance buying the cards I needed to complete my Wood Elf Warriors deck. I don’t get a refill for three and a half weeks. 

I’ll have to trade. 

I scan the room for a dealer, kids that carry thick black binders filled with Super Monster Cards ready to sell or trade. I spot Randy Danowits and his thick gold rimmed shades and bushy black hair, sitting at a table on the opposite side of the kitchens, flipping through the plastic sleeve pages of one of the thickest binders I’ve ever seen. He must have over a thousand cards. He’s inserting new cards into white sleeve protectors, then slides them into clear plastic pages. 

Dealers like Randy acquire their cards either by trading other kids in the dome, or buying them from dome runners. Dome runners are allowed in the wilds, delivering supplies between domes, but most search for items to bring back to the dome to sell. 

Lately, there’s been a steady stream of dome runners introducing new cards into the mix, ones people have never seen before. This influx has created new strategies, new deck combinations. This month, elves, vampires, zombies, have dominated. Next month, who knows?

Unable to think of a new theme, I scoop my cards back together, put them in my pack, and slink over to Randy. Hopefully he’ll have something new that I could build off of, a secret weapon in the next tournament. 

I approach Randy’s table and slide into one of the stainless steel chairs opposite from him. He doesn’t acknowledge me. I wait patiently, knowing better than to interrupt a dealer before a trade. I sit there for two minutes in silence as he finishes cataloging and packing a dozen cards into his binder. When he’s done, he looks up at me with a smile. The LED lights on the kitchen ceiling reflect off the black lenses of his gold rimmed shades. 

“Rachel Wells? You’re not playing in the tournament?” he says.

“I did. Billy Radcheck knocked me out. Zombies,” I say. “He opened with Death Vortex, wiped the field, and attacked me with everything he had. I didn’t stand a chance.”

“He paid well for that card.”

“You sold him Death Vortex?”

“I did. He came to me before the tournament and traded away most of his super rares for it. Must have been desperate.”

“I knew it. He wasn’t packing that much heat in the practice games.”

“What do you need, Rachel? I’m leaving soon to meet with a runner. Supposed to have something special for me.”

“Like what?”

“New cards. Never before seen.”

My heart skips a beat. This could be exactly what I need to gain the edge on the competition. I need to secure these cards before anyone else can.

“Are they for trade?”

“Could be. What are you offering?”

“I have some super rares. Wood Elf Warriors. I have a bunch of rare traps. Some rare spells.”

“Not interested.”

I start tapping my index finger on the metal table. 

“Then what do you want?”

He slides his open binder around to face me. He flips through the pages until he stops on one that only holds a single card in the center of the nine pockets. The card’s title reads “Construct of Time” and depicts an image of a warped wall clock floating in space. I read the card’s description and it has an ability to take multiple free turns, but requires other cards in the set to activate the ability. It’s an extremely powerful effect. 

“I need you,” he says.

“What?”

My cheeks glow bright red and I look down at the floor. 

“You just turned 16, right?”

“Yea, so what?”

“So you can leave the dome.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”

“My normal supplier, a dome runner named Carly Santos, has one more run before she’s worked off her assault charge. After that, she’s out of the game. She’d rather stay with her family, which I understand, but it puts me in a rough spot.”

“How so?”

“I can’t find another runner willing to source cards from the same set as the Construct of Time card. Nobody wants to risk their lives looking for cards. I need someone new.”

“You want me to help somehow?”

“I want you to go with her, out in the wild. Look for boxes with the Construct of Time theme, and bring them to me.”

“You’re seriously crazy. You know what’s out there. Are you trying to get me killed?”

“Don’t believe the propaganda. It’s not as bad out there as you think, just ask Carly. I’ve seen you take a punch. You can handle yourself. Just come with me to meet Carly and go over the plan. If you don’t like it, I can’t force you, but going out there is the only way you’re getting your hands on some new cards any time soon. The other deals will be forced to recycle the same cards over and over. No new inventory.”

“Where do you expect to find these card shops?”

“I have maps. I know where all the major card shops are across the country. I know where to look. I know exactly where to go and how to get there. That’s why I have the edge over the competition.”

He not only has a way outside of the dome, but knows where the card shops are too? Every kid dreams of visiting a card shop and looting them for treasures. Imagine all the undiscovered cards and deck combinations. 

“I’ll have to see Carly before I make any decision.”

Randy peels off his shades and looks at me with his big green eyes. He grows a smile from ear to ear.

“Rachel, you’re not going to regret this. I’ll take you to her,” he says.

Finally, my chance to claim the rarest Super Monster Cards that have ever existed, that ever will exist, and use them to dominate tournaments. I’m not naive, I know what’s out there. This opportunity may never come again. 

“Right behind you,” I say.

Randy carefully packs his binder in a gilded red cloth backpack. An embroidered badge of a meteorite with jagged crystal shards stamps the front pocket. The crystals glow bright purple, symbolizing the alien power source that created all Super Monsters when it collided with earth. That’s the lore, at least. The boy has style. I want a backpack just like that. 

I follow Randy out the other side of the kitchens and into the hallway that leads to the elevators a couple hundred feet away. Dozens of kids stand scattered in small groups down the length of the hallway. We pass a group and I see a young girl with blonde braided hair trading 12 chips for 2 cards, half the chips I get in my allowance for an entire month. I wonder which cards she bought?

“We’re here,” says Randy. We stop in front of the two brass elevator doors. He reaches over and presses a button to call the elevator. It glows yellow. A display at the top lights up with the number forty-six. The numbers start counting up until it reaches the number ninety-seven a minute later. There’s a ding and the brass doors slide open.

We step inside and the doors close behind us.

Randy presses the button with the letter S, for surface, and we rise to the top, my excitement with it.

Fanny Belle – Chef’s Dream – Part 1 – January 3rd, 2256 – Cyprus, Kansas- Dome Runner

Glass crunches under my black and white sneakers. I look down and see the worn label of “Sippy’s Cola” bandaging the glass shards of a crushed soda bottle. I turn to face him. The light of the midday sun highlights his curly red hair, which is extra bushy in the dry January air. He’s pointing to something ahead of us.

I follow his hand, now pointing towards one of the dozen buildings that line the main road into Cyprus, Kansas, a town with a single gas station, home to nothing but ghosts and the occasional mutant, like most towns these days. Behind one of these buildings is the key to my my freedom, to Syd’s freedom, a working food truck where we can cook quality meals, unlike the gruel served in the Silo kitchens, or the poison from Paddy’s. Poison that killed three of my friends.

“Is that the place?” he says.

“You tell me. You have the map,” I say.

“You said a bowling alley, right? That has to be the place. About time too, my feet are killing me.”

“Just look at the map.”

“Fine.”

Syd sets down the bright red 5 gallon gas container and reaches for the back of his jeans. A small rectangular indentation, white and worn, protrudes from the blue denim pocket where he keeps his Zippo lighter. He produces a worn and folded map and unfolds it. His finger traces the roads we walked from the Silo, to our current location, and then to the bowling alley, our destination. A ten mile journey, all on foot by highway across the vast Kansas plains. 

“Lucky Strike Bowling Alley. Fourth building on the left between 3rd street and Jackson,” he says. 

He looks up at the cluster of retail stores a quarter mile up the street. One of the small brick buildings is a bakery. My heart lights up and I can almost smell puff pastries filled with fruit and hear the crunch of freshly baked bread. I’ll make both one day. 

I narrow my vision and study the bowling alley for any signs of movement. We can’t get too close. Mutants prefer to congregate in population centers, because buildings make great nesting locations. I hope we don’t run into trouble, because things will get ugly, fast. We left in a hurry and only brought what we could fit in our backpacks. That, and enough fuel to get us somewhere safe.

I make out the shape of six bowling pins mashed together to form a sign that stands forty feet tall on the far side of the building, peeking between the canopies of two dead oak trees. The letters faded long ago, but I know we’ve arrived. The food truck is here somewhere. The first step in our plan. 

“That’s the place. The truck is parked in an alley on the back side of the building,” I say. “There’s a grocery store right behind it. Looted, likely.”

“You ever wonder if Paddy knows we took his map?” he says. 

“He’ll find out soon enough. Speaking of, we need to look for weapons. We’re not getting ripped apart on our first day out here.”

“What about our chef knives?”

“It’s bad luck to taint a blade with mutant blood. Besides, we need those for cooking. Especially if we have to run back to the safety of the Silo.”

“But we’re going to make it on our own, right?”

“We’ll try. We might go back for trading or selling meals, but that’s it. Now look around for something to swing, there has to be something.”

“A shotgun would be nice.”

“We’ll get you one. First we have to get this truck. Everything else comes after.”

“You’re a good friend, Fanny.”

Syd’s face grows into a wide grin. He tucks away the map, reaches up, and brushes my head, over the 4 inch scar he gave me one year ago when a knife slipped out of his hands on the line. We’ve been friends ever since.

I slap his hand away and grab his shoulder.

“Okay, mushy. Time to get serious,” I say.

His smile fades.

I grab onto his left arm and drag him along, keeping him close as we venture onwards.

We pass dozens of resting cars. Most have busted windows and popped trunks. All of them have flat tires. 

We approach the front of the Lucky Strike Bowling Alley, but stop before entering the front parking lot. There’s a dozen cars scattered about, some tipped over. The front of a lifted red Ford truck is t-boned into an older model yellow Cadillac sedan parked closest to the road. A mass of green leaves and vines creep through the cracked asphalt parking lot and up the sides of both vehicles.

The bowling alley is a single story brick building with a dull yellow overhang.  The interior is pitch black through the entrance, a pair of glass double doors in the front. There’s a black sign with bold red letters stuck to the other side of the front doors that reads “Open.”

“Clear so far. Let’s check the alley.”

We round the corner, between the bowling alley and a hardware store to our left. We reach the alley, but it’s barricaded with a thick metal chain link fence secured with sheet metal on the other side, obscuring our vision. Thick barbed wire protects the top.

Syd walks up and kicks the fence. It rattles. 

“What now?” he says.

“Hop up on my shoulders. See what’s on the other side,” I say.

“You’re not that strong,” he says.

“Stronger than you, twerp. Now hop on.”

I position myself in front of the fence, squat down, and secure my feet. Syd hops on my shoulders. He’s not much thicker than a skeleton, but I’m caught off by the momentum of the added weight from his pack. I struggle to keep from toppling forward as he secures his legs on my shoulders. I clench the tops of his knees and slowly rise. I wobble for a moment before finding my balance. 

“Hey, careful down there,” he says.

“I got it. What do you see?” I say.

He turns to face the alley. 

“Shit, there it is. Paddy had it right.”

My heart jumps. “What’s it look like? Do you see a way inside?” I say.

“There it is. It’s actually there, I can’t believe it. Looks like the tires are flat. The other side is blocked like this one, but the back door to the bowling alley is open.”

This truck is the first step in opening our mobile restaurant. We need this truck if we want to have any chance of competing with that slime ball, Paddy, and his goon squad of masked cooks. He’s secured a monopoly on the mobile food business over the last five years, but it’s time for a change. He has no respect for food. We’ll run him out of business. Soon he’ll have served his last mutant meat burger. But first we’re going to secure this truck. Then we’ll fill it with equipment, and eventually fresh ingredients. Paddy, that clown, doesn’t stand a chance against what we’re going to serve. Food made with love and fresh ingredients.

“Hey wait. I see something,” says Syd. “Something’s moving around in there. Wait, there it goes!”

There’s a crash followed by a scurrying of feet and some sliding. 

“Little sucker went into the bowling alley.”

“What was it?”

“It was black and white but I didn’t get a good look with you wobbling around.”

I bend down and Syd hops off. 

“Well, hopefully it’s nothing,” I say. “We can’t risk getting cut up so we’re going inside. Let’s see if we can find that back door.”

“I don’t like it.”

I wander over to the front of the hardware store on the other side of us, a dozen feet away, and search the ground. Among the broken glass from the windows, and dead weeds, I find a hammer. It’s completely rusted with a black rubber grip. I yank it out, walk over, and hand it to Syd. 

He snatches it from my hand.

“It’s no shotgun, but I’ll make it work,” he says. “What about you?”

“I’ll find something.”

We walk around and stand in front of the two glass doors leading into the bowling alley. Light trickles inside, and I can make out a red and white checkered floor, covered in dead leaves. I can’t see anything beyond that. I try to listen for movement, but there’s nothing. I hear something rustling, but look behind me and see it’s a pile of leaves shifting in the wind.

I grasp the metal handle and push. It slides a couple of inches and grinds to a halt. I force it the rest of the way open. 

I step inside.

Syd follows.

As we pin the doors open with some stones, feet scurry through leaves just ahead of us. I look over and see Syd clinching his hammer.

I might have to sully my knife after all.