The pale exterior of the building stood out against the dark earth and shadowy trees, its sharp L-shape defying the organic flow of the forest. There was no sidewalk or road leading up to the structure, and a tree grew directly in front of a side-door, blocking access. It looked as if this building had fallen out of the sky, but the thick canopy of leaves above was undisturbed.
Ruby had seen no sign of civilization since leaving the decaying remnant of Washington Avenue. In the days since Ruby and her little band of survivors had set out into the woods, they'd faced impossible terrain, attacks from wolfboar packs, dysentery, and general despair. The colonel kept a commanding, confident air, but Ruby suspected it was an act. They were in a nowhere world with no one to help them. Unless something changed soon, they were all going to die here.
Ruby wandered far from camp, heedless of the constant warnings of danger she'd received. She had to get away from Dieter, the bushy-eyebrowed creep who enthusiastically discussed their immediate need to repopulate the Earth. Ruby hated the way he looked at her. His leering smiles across the campfire grew creepier every time he found an excuse to talk to her. An encounter with a mountain lion would be preferable to another minute under Dieter's lustful gaze.
Ruby wandered the woods with an armload of sticks for twenty minutes, cursing Dieter, cursing Dennis for not being there to stand up for her, cursing the cocoon that was somehow responsible for all her misery. As she rounded a thick copse of trees, she discovered the pale building. She stopped and stared. "What the...?"
Her first thought was to run back and tell the colonel. There might be dangers here. But Dieter was back at the camp, still preaching to anyone who would listen about minimum viable populations and genetic variability. She wanted to avoid that a little longer.
The front of the building faced a steep incline with only a few feet of clearance. Ruby pushed past through the thick vines to get a better look. It appeared to be a shop. A large bay door, a window, and a sign in crisp characters read Al's Machine Shop. How this building had ended up in this corner of nowhere, Ruby didn't know. It had probably suffered the same fate as her neighborhood.
The front door was unlocked. Within, Ruby found a clean front office. A sleek computer terminal with only a glass pane for a monitor sat in one corner. There was no power and when Ruby tried the phone, there was no dial tone. She found a stack of mail and checked the address on the top envelope.
Al's Machine Shop
227 West Lancaster Drive
Monston, FR 6.9333D
The address made sense until the last line. Monston, FR? Where was that? She thought of what Dieter had said about the colonel's conversations on the ham radio. He'd spoken to people who came from places that didn't exist—made up names from made up countries. Was this shop from one of those places?
An open door led back into the machine shop. Ruby thought she heard a squeak from within. She froze.
"Hello," Ruby called, fighting to keep the fear out of her voice. "Anyone here?"
A mechanic's shop lay beyond the door. Orderly tool shelves, a disassembled car, a rusty barrel... What caught Ruby's eye was a small box sitting on a chair inside the door. It looked like a small Barbie doll in its plastic packaging, a small post-it affixed to the front.
Despite her misgivings, Ruby stepped closer to get a better look. What was a doll doing in a mechanic's shop? A gift for the mechanic's daughter? Ruby moved to the doorway, not daring to get any closer. From here, she read the title on the clear plastic box. Fixie. The doll was smaller than a Barbie—closer to the size of a Star Wars action figure.
Ruby poked her head through the door and searched for any sign of danger. She appeared to be alone. She eased into the room and took the box from the chair. The doll within appeared to be a pixie dressed in the garb of a mechanic—an impish grin, welding goggles perched on her forehead, wings folded at her back, a leather-style coat and curled elfin shoes. The detail was stunning, not the quick molded plastic job she would have expected. The artist who made this doll took pride in their work.
Fixie - Generation 4.230 with Full Mechanical Expansions.
Ruby spent more than a minute studying the detail of the doll before her eyes fell on the post-it note:
"Hey Al. This is it man, the little blighter that's gonna replace us all. You might as well put it to work for you now. I promise, this thing will increase your output by 10X. Right up until everyone gets one of these dolls and you're out of a job. -K "
She only had a moment to ponder this strange message when another squeak interrupted her thoughts. It came from around the corner at the far end of the shop. Once again, Ruby considered turning and running. It was foolish to have come this far.
More squeaks. Timid little sounds. Ruby's fear didn't subside, but the noises sounded far from threatening. She pushed the doll into her jacket pocket and tiptoed towards the back of the shop.
The source became obvious. Something had chewed a jagged hole into the far wall, and a nest of twigs and vines lay not far from the opening. Tiny creatures stirred within the soft bed. Ruby moved in closer to investigate. There were half a dozen of them at least, tiny hairless pups, no bigger than her fist, their eyes closed, the bodies wriggling within their rustic bed.
Ruby found them both adorable and repulsive. What species were they? So tiny, their mother couldn't be too threatening, right? She crouched beside the nest to look closer. They weren't puppies. Their longish snout looked almost...
She had already turned to run when she heard a rustling in the brush outside the wall. When she reached the door to the office, a porcine growl echoed in the shop. She turned back long enough to spot the huge wolfboar charging after her.