The mother – wretched, filthy – clasped her child close to her withered breast. The child clung back, tight as a rivet. Her child, her horribly flawless child. Two arms, two legs, two seeing eyes. Fingers and toes, count them – neither too few or too many. No lumps or bumps except for where bones pressed hungrily against the skin. Freshly shorn head shining pale as paint.
A gaggle of pups, returning from an early scavenge, were slowly being herded towards the gaping maw of the citadel, all elbows and knees and ungainly feet. The boys pushed and shoved and puffed out their skinny chests whenever the war boy in charge cast his eyes towards them. The mother knew that many of those boys would not survive to see Valhalla, would die unwitnessed deaths down in the tunnels. Her heart clenched at the thought of her child wasting away down there from infection or starvation. But the same perils resided aboveground as well, and there were rumors of Aqua Cola flowing fresh and free within the Citadel, and no Wretched had ever gained the Immortan’s favor.
As the pups drew nearer, the mother found herself paralyzed. She could not let go. She could not hold on. Sensing the mother’s anguish, the child looked up, parched lip wobbling. Let go! the sensible part of the mother screamed. She had a lock of the child’s golden hair back in her tent. It would be enough. It had to be enough. Still, she could not resist whispering a last farewell before pushing the child into the crowd of pups.
“Be strong. Be brave. Let no one between your legs. My beloved.”
At first, life as a pup was no better than life among the Wretched. The elder war boys ate first, leaving the youngest to fight over tough, stringy scraps. The tunnels were bitter cold, far from the heat of the sun and sand, and the coveted reserves of Aqua Cola were fiercely guarded. More than one pup had met his death trying to sneak a sip. Scavenged goods were to be handed over to the superiors, or they would be taken after a sound thrashing.
But the child (boy) learned. Be twice as strong, twice as loud, twice as bold; these were the ways of the War Boy. His ways. He wormed his fingers into every engine he could touch, punched back harder than he was hit, grew wily at sneaking odds and ends past the other scavengers. He applied his paint with pride, imagining the feel of Imperator black on his forehead and the taste of chrome on his teeth. At night, curled in piles with the other pups for warmth, he dreamed of the War Rig, and the spit of bullets, and the Immortan’s booming Voice leading him to an afterlife of fire and glory.
The years passed and the pups gained muscle, scars, and names. His grew out of a fight.
Working for the Ace was an honor most pups could only dream of. He was a legend, second only to the Immortan Himself in the eyes of many. There were rumors of an up-and-coming one-armed champion, but she (!) was years away from reaching Ace’s glory. So when the Ace had allowed the boy and another pup to attend while he worked on the engine of an old flamer, the two literally jumped at the chance. And when he called for a wrench, they pounced as though it meant their lives. There was a scrabble of fists and feet and teeth. The older war boys in the room cheered them on, yelling encouragement and insults in turn while Ace rolled his eyes underneath the car. For a heart stopping moment, the boy feared he would lose. The other pup was bigger, and he used it to his advantage. But accepting defeat in front of the Ace was not an option; might as well die soft right here and now. So, pinned by the heavier pup, the boy dug his nails into his opponent’s cheek, leaving ragged red lines in his wake. The other pup yowled, loosening his grip enough for the boy to wiggle free and deliver a swift knee to the gut on his way. Victorious, he grabbed the wench and gave the loser a smack on the ribs for good measure before delivering it proudly to the Ace.
“You see that?” one of the older war boys wheezed, half from laughter and half from the scarring on his throat.
“Scratched ‘im like a little girl, ‘e did!” whooped another. The defeated pup flamed with embarrassment beneath his war paint. He picked himself up and beat a hasty retreat.
“Better run faster!” the first war boy called after him. “’Fore Scratch gets another one in!”
“You’ve got fire in you, kid,” the Ace said solemnly as he took the wrench from Scratch’s hands. “Best hold on to that.”
Scratch wasn’t the last in his circle of friends to be scarred, but neither was he the first. That honor went to Pike, a brash, tough-talking boy with a remarkable affinity for lances. He was practically strutting when he walked into the sleeping cavern that night, peeling back the bandage to show off the flaming skull carved into his chest.
“Got it done by Blitzer hisself!” he bragged, naming one of the top gunners in the Citadel.
“Like hell you did!” snarled another war boy. Pike turned on him with a murderous glare, bloody wound thrust forward like a battle banner.
“Did it hurt?” a fresh pup asked timidly, interrupting the brewing fight before it began.
“Hurt? Ha!” Pike barked out a laugh. “Only if you’re soft!” He pounded a fist again his chest for emphasis. Scratch was the only one close enough to see Pike wince, but he kept his mouth shut. It was an unspoken rule that you didn’t make your brothers look fool in front of the fresh meat.
Pike was itchy and scabbing when approached Scratch a couple weeks later, knife in hand.
“People’ll think you’re a fresh pup with all that baby skin, Scratch,” he said. “Not afraid of a little knife, are ya?”
“Like hell!” Scratch scoffed. “I just don’t wanna go in on it with some half-revved idea like that dumb fool who slit his face in half.” Both boys laughed, remembering the gory mess the lancer’s face had been as his driver and another war boy dragged him towards the Organic Mechanic’s cavern.
“Well, you gotta have some scratch, Scratch.” Pike tapped the knife against his chin thoughtfully. “How ‘bout the ribs?” Scratch considered, then shook his head.
“The face.” Pike looked at him doubtfully.
“What’s that you jus’ said about half-revved fools?”
“I didn’t say cut it in half, schlanger! I just want it to be the first thing those Buzzards see before pissing themselves and the last thing they see before they die.”
“You’re damn crazy, ya know?”
“C’moooooon!” Scratch turned his cheek towards Pike and smacked a palm against it. “Now who’s scared?”
Pike shook his head and made the first cut.
They added the cross-web pattern to Scratch’s cheek and forehead (“looks too much like a accident if ya just got one”). Each line burned like fire, but Scratch felt ready to take on the world by the end of it. He may not be battle-tested, but he was surely a real war boy now, with oil for blood and an engine heart.
“I am awaited,” he murmured, running his grease-stained fingers over the marks. “Awaited in Valhalla.”
The sickness started in his chest, a tender ache that soon swelled and grew deeper. Scratch had seen other war boys with lumps, seen the coughing and the night fevers. He felt as though someone had scooped him hollow. Disappointment rose in his throat, dark and bitter as bile. How could this be his destiny, reaching the end of his half-life before his first real taste of war, left to die soft in some forgotten corner while his lungs choked on themselves?
He was a war boy, damn it! The Ace himself said he had fire. He would ride the War Rig, lead a raid, go out in a blaze of glory so bright even the Immortan would remember his name. He would show them all how Kamicrazy he could be! He tied the lumps as flat as possible with rags and scrounged a shirt in a vicious scuffle that nearly cost him several teeth. When Pike and the others questioned his new attire, he snarled and puffed his aching chest and shot out with any flaming retort he could muster.
And it worked, for a bit. The lumps still grew but the ache stayed the same. Except for the tightness of the rags and his own dread, his breath still came easy. He ran his tongue around his mouth after each experimental cough and tasted no more blood than usual.
Then came the real pain.
It started as a dull jab in his lower abdomen, like someone tightening a fist. Easy to ignore at first; how many punches had he taken to the gut, how many nights spent hungry? But the pain grew stronger, and sharper, and within a day he was nearly crippled by it. Each throb left him gasping and made his eyes prick with tears. Hobbling down a tunnel like one of the Wretched, one arm clutching his gut, he felt a wetness on his thighs. He shoved a hand between his legs, and drew it back covered in blood. The world tilted violently.
“Oi! What’re ya doin’ creepin’ back here?” Scratch thought his heart would burst out of his chest, so hard was it beating. They should let me drum on the Doof Wagon. He almost laughed, then mentally slapped himself. Fool! Not the time for jokes. He opened his mouth to reply, but another wave of pain sent his stomach into a tailspin and he vomited on the floor.
“Shite!” One of the war boys behind him swore, sounding half-impressed. “He’s real bad ain’t ‘e.”
“’S that blood?” asked another. “Should take ‘im to see Organic before he spills all ‘is guts on the floor.” Scratch tried to protest as rough hands pulled at his arms. He could only groan.
The Organic Mechanic was not known to be quiet or secretive. He ordinarily took an almost gleeful enjoyment in pronouncing death sentences over the broken bodies or war boys. With Scratch on the table, however, he was all three.
Organic had been hunched over a lump of V8-knows-what when the two war boys had dragged Scratch in by the armpits and dumped him on a metal table like a sack of parts. Scratch’s world had narrowed sickeningly down until it revolved around the molten exhaust in his gut, though some small part of his brain registered that the Mechanic had ordered the other war boys out immediately. He felt hands on his chest, his legs, shifting clothing, but he was too focused on trying not to cry like a pup to push the man away. Someone else was called in and bits of conversation pushed through the fuzz.
“…hiding in plain sight…”
“…pretty enough once the bruises go down…”
“The Immortan’ll like this one.”
The Immortan? Liking a sick war boy? Maybe Scratch had gotten it wrong. Maybe this wasn’t a sickness, but some kind of sign sent from Valhalla? Triumph, survive, and you will surely be awaited. Earn your place. Maybe the one-armed Imperator had gone through the same thing. Maybe this wasn’t the end. Maybe it was just the start.
Scratch couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. The pain in his gut had faded, and the blood had stopped. Organic kept him cloistered like a precious thing while it lasted, gave him leafy green foods and mothers’ milk and let him sleep on an actual cot. Once the blood had passed, several pups had bathed him – bathed him! In fresh Aqua Cola! – and reapplied his war paint with a silent reverence. It was enough luxury to make anyone’s head spin. But the clothes were all wrong; the lumps were bound but not pressed flat, and the pants could barely be called such. There were no pockets, no belts, no holsters, and the fabric itself was cleaner than anything Scratch had seen before. It was not a battle outfit, and he felt soft and exposed.
The Immortan’s chamber was guarded by an enormous metal door with a handle like a wheel. Despite its size, it swung open with only a tug. The room was carved out of the rock, like everything else in the Citadel, but had large openings in the walls that let in golden sunlight. Sheets of patterned fabric whose purpose Scratch could not discern lay across the floor. A rectangle of thin, black stone hung on one wall, covered in strange, white markings. A smaller side room contained several luxuriously soft-looking cots with raised metal frames.
Scratch was so awestruck by the opulence of the room that he didn’t hear the door shut behind him.
It was some time before it opened again. Scratch turned, expecting to see another attendant and filled with questions.
Instead, he was faced with a god.
The Immortan stood in the doorway, framed by the glare of the sun and every bit as magnificent as he looked from the top of the Citadel. Scratch could only take in bits and pieces at a time: long hair, flowing fabric, elaborately crafted belt, the ferocious grin of his mask, and his eyes… the Immortan’s eyes, looking right at him! Him! A mere untested war boy! Scratch felt that gaze all the way down to his bones.
“I-Immortan!” he stammered. “It’s an honor, truly, an honor…” Scratch dropped to his knees, making the holy sign of the V8 and trying to ignore how the white fabric bunched uncomfortably around his thighs. The Immortan stood silent for a moment, then walked forward, slowly. Not trusting his composure, Scratch kept his eyes focused on the Immortan’s boots as they drew closer. His heart thundered like an engine waiting to be set loose. His fingers trembled as he held his salute.
But something about the Immortan’s gait seemed… off. Strained. Like the wrinkled elders he’d seen among the Wretched, or the Milking Mothers with their rolls of soft fat. That couldn’t be right, could it? Gods didn’t age. They didn’t stumble or strain. They walked proud and tall, a beacon for all to see. It must be the shortness of his breaths making his head swim and see things.
The boots stopped directly in front of him, and still the Immortan did not speak. Scratch dared to let his eyes wander a little higher, over the Immortan’s legs (were they bowed?) to the belt with his symbol in immutable metal, flanked by two pistols. The Immortan’s hand brushed the handle of one of the guns… then continued upward until it
He could’ve been sent to Valhalla right then and there and not have known the difference. Surely even the Ace had not known the touch of the Immortan’s hand. Scratch had been chosen, hand-picked out of every war boy in the Citadel to receive this gift. Every nerve sang as the Immortan’s fingers (what god had fingers so crooked?) ghosted over the scars on his cheek, his forehead, before dipping down to cup his chin and tilt the boy’s face up to meet his (wrinkled, red-rimmed) eyes. At last, the Immortan spoke.
Then he reached for the fabric around Scratch’s chest, and everything went suffocating.
Scratch (Splendid) curled painfully on one of the cots and gave in to the tears. The Immortan was a man. Not a god. Just a man. The betrayal itself hurt nearly as much as the pain and blood the Immortan (no god, just Joe) had brought back to his (her?) gut. The thought of his wheezing breath, the lumps on his back, no different than any war boy, made him (her!) want to gag. It was all so wrong, so wrong, and yet he had seemed so happy, so pleased with (her) and a part of Scratch-Splendid’s war boy heart was elated with that knowledge.
Too much. Too much to handle, to even think about thinking about. The great metal door had shut, and the sun faded until the room was cold rock like any other cavern. Splendid wrapped her (his?) arms around her (yes, her) legs, lips barely moving as she repeated a mantra whispered so long ago it was barely an ago of a memory.
“Be strong. Be brave. My beloved. My Angharad.”