Chapter 1: The Valkyrie
“You're worried about the initiation, aren't you?”
“I can't help it.” Tired, Furiosa leaned against Coil's shoulder; now was the season that sunlight faded from the sky sooner and the nights were growing bitter, when crewmates and rivals alike huddled together closer in their nests for warmth.
“It's nothing like the Lancer initiation; it's not as fun and loud as when the entire warren turns out to see you ride high. The Driver initiation is very solemn, very quiet, to help you focus your thoughts on the engine.”
“What was it like, Coil? When you went through the initiation.”
“Don't tell me you're getting cold feet, Driver. I know you're ready for this. You know you're ready for this. The initiation's nothing to be afraid of. Just something that everyone who drives goes through, to know the machine as well as their own beating hearts. But you want to know a secret?”
“Hmm?” Turning, she smiled a little to herself, liking the look of his thoughtful face in profile, so unlike his usual cheerful demeanor; the strong falcon nose, his high cheekbones and dark-drawn brow, the careless smudge of black on his forehead that he had put on to signify he was taking up the lance again.
“Any Driver you ask, almost everyone says the same thing. A long time ago, Win, my Driver, told me that when he went through it, he became the machine. When folks ask me, that's what I say too; it's hard to explain it otherwise. But that's not the truth. When I did it, it wasn't the drive I saw, it was Valhalla.”
“Valhalla?” Furiosa gave him a skeptical look, her feet swinging off the metal deck of the maintenance walk high above the central shop.
“I went in with my hands on the wheel, holding tight the image of the wheel in my mind. Back then it was still our wheel, that is, Win and mine's, the one we built together. Though I knew it would change once I paired up with my own Lancer.”
“What did it look like?”
“Stretched locks of blue-black hair, and a central piece from a fertility face, like the wheelsign, the old-fashioned one with the Immorta. Sand-colored leather-bound grip.”
“Not like ours at all, then. But I meant Valhalla.”
“No, not particularly like ours. I didn't want to be reminded.” Coil sighed. “Right, Valhalla. So when I put the guzzoline in my tank and the nitrous in my intake...suddenly, everything around me seemed to pause. The Imperator and the psychopomp seemed to melt away, as if they weren't there anymore, and when I looked up at the airshaft...” He gestured, lifting his outstretched hand toward the open sky just outside the rim of stone. “The wheel I imagined so clearly seemed to lift up light in my hand, as if I were carrying nothing. I caught a glimpse of the Immorta's face, with her flame hair at the center of the wheel, but it was too bright and I had to look away. That's when I realized that Win was holding up the other side.”
“What did he look like?”
“Just like he did in life. Nine and nine-tenths hands tall, angular face, sharp cheekbones. He was built light, not much heavier than you, strong and quick. Dark eyes, so dark they were almost black, and he held up the wheel between us, tugging me up onto my feet. How strong he was in Valhalla! It embarrassed me to be so weak; he held me up between ourselves, as lightly as though I weighed nothing.”
“What happened then?”
“Then he gave me a tug and I was lifted out of myself, floating out of the Citadel into a strange and beautiful country where the sky ran from horizon to horizon to horizon, massive and unknowable. I could have floated forever on an updraft breeze, looking down at the green and blue earth that was bluer than even the sky, but then he called to me.
“'Coil,' he says. 'Coil. You can't stay. This is Valhalla, for the heroes of all time.'
“'Don't I get a say in what I get?'
“'Someday, but not today. Now's too early, too soon. Crew, you haven't finished half your deeds.'”
Furiosa silently slipped her arm around him hearing the tremor, the break in his voice, and Coil leaned close, resting his head on her shoulder. A shame that the growing fuzz meant he was due for a shearing, she thought, and she moved her hand over his head, liking the soft prickle of dark hair underneath her palm.
“But he didn't tell me to go right away. We were together for what felt like a long time, just floating, before I woke up,” Coil drew her close, his hand cupped around the ball of her shoulder, careful as always not to touch the bare skin of her arm if he could help it. “At least he didn't kick me out of Valhalla immediately.” He managed a smile, trying to joke it off. “So try not to mess up like I did. Don't think about the wheel; fix your mind on the engine. You want to be one with the engine, the machine, not the wheel. Sometimes, I worry...it's supposed to be such an important step to becoming a Driver, but here I am, mucking it all up with a vision of the wrong thing. Can't be helped, I guess. Never know what the turn of the wheel will throw you, good or bad, eh?”
“I thought you were supposed to be trying to make me feel better.”
“Ah, see, I've mucked that all up too. No, you'll be fine. You've been a great Lancer and you'll be a great Driver. I'm sure you'll have a vision of the engine.”
Furiosa sighed. “If you think so.”
Furiosa met the Ace outside the shop. Coil was already inside, checking over the car as was his right as its previous master. It was late; most everyone was huddled in their nests by now. Despite the hour, there was no serious concern for missed sleep; the initiation was short, no more than a few minutes. Putting on and taking off the ceremonial vestments was the most time-consuming element of the ceremony.
“Ace. How was live training today?”
“Good, good. Lancers are doing a fine job, can't complain.”
“Do all your boys have permanent rides yet?”
“Not quite,” the Ace shrugged awkwardly. “Morsov's been trying out some offers, but Slit...”
“Still? I thought he was one of the best Lancers ever seen on the Fury Road.”
“Not just one of the best. Maybe the best, I ever seen; fastest, most accurate... But he is who he is.” The Ace waved it off. “Today ain't about them, it's about you.” He clasped her shoulder firmly. “You're ready for this, right?”
“Of course.” Furiosa said lightly, and she slid her arm around his shoulder, drawing him close. The Ace leaned down, briefly pressing his darkened forehead to hers, leaving a faint smudge on her white. “With you and Coil by my side, there isn't much I can't do. Thank you, Ace.”
“For agreeing to stand psychopomp for me.”
“Ah, I would have been disappointed if you chose otherwise.” He kissed her on both cheeks, one after another, dry lips brushing her face.
“What's that for?” Furiosa blushed.
“Luck. For my War Boy, my Furiosa, best of the best. Wouldn't be surprised if you were driving front escort in a hundred days after this.”
“Let's not get ahead of ourselves...I'm not behind the wheel yet.”
“Well, let's get you settled in then.”
The Ace slipped the coarse-woven hood over her head, and then came the helmet; it was ancient, an artifact from times past, and inside the crumbling black lining, she caught the scent of high-octane driving from ages past, sweat and guzzoline, smoke and burning rubber.
The helmet gripped her head as though a pair of hands cupping her face.
A War Pup stood at the ready; he was holding the bucket, in case the guzzoline turned her stomach. Light-headed from hunger and thirst, she was hoping she wouldn't need it; the fasting was already hard enough.
The Ace handed her the gloves and she pulled them on. These too were from another time; the supple leather was worn paper-thin.
The faded red jumpsuit fit over her clothes. That it was neither too long nor too short reminded her that they had always said she was the perfect height for a Lancer, ten hands tall exactly. She touched the faded emblems on the chest; on the right, the rising golden sun and the shield; and on the left, the rearing black beast.
“Whenever you're ready,” The Ace said softly, glancing back at Imperator Acosta who watched the proceedings gravely.
Furiosa placed herself in the Driver's seat, and Coil handed her the wheel, giving her a wink. Reverently, she mounted it, and the sound of it clicking into place seemed to echo in the empty shop.
“By her deeds, and by the flame wheel of the sun and the turning wheel of the moon, we stand in honor of the engine that gives all life, the Engine of the World.” Imperator Acosta began to work, unhurried, drawing guzzoline from the tank, filling a tiny glass vessel with less than a centa of liquid, which he handed to the Ace. The Ace set a copper tube into it, and brought it up to her lips.
Metal and the implied taste of blood, and then the guzzoline hit her and even though it burned all the way down, she drank it down in one long sip.
She coughed, and for a moment, the War Pup tensed, bucket at the ready, but then relaxed as it was obvious that she had kept it down. Furiosa breathed hard against the nausea; the headiness of the fumes were already making her head spin.
The guzzoline left a slick, oily taste in her mouth.
“By her works, we will be lifted up; by her life, we will be granted anew. Let her Witness the one that takes the wheel, and let her be praised among War Boys as the eternal Driver, the turner of the wheels of the sky, keeper of the World Engine's mysteries.” The Imperator drew the nitrous now, and the gas filled the vessel, stretching the rubber taut.
“Immorta, we ask that you grant this War Boy entry into the mystery of the engine. Let this pilot see the nitro-boosted, fuel-injected heart of the machine. Immorta, to you we pray.” Pinching off the vessel, the Imperator handed it to the Ace, who took it carefully.
“By the Immorta's name,” the Ace said, his harsh voice a contrast to the deep, velvety tones of the Imperator. He brought the vessel to Furiosa's lips.
“By the Immorta's name,” Furiosa murmured, exhaling and then she inhaled, through her mouth, and the metallic taste of gas was cold and almost sweet against her lips and one more breath and another and
Sparks. Like the falling stars of the arc welder in the dim hazy light of the shop – but no, these were not golden but silver, icy white – certainly they must be stars, and then she saw nothing but the stars burning in the darkness and it was as though the stars were falling all around her, furious tracks of flaming light singeing across the night sky.
Plants rippled in the wind, like a vast sea of life around them and as they walked the dusty path between the fields they heard the singing song of crickets, a discrete chorus of individuals lending their voices to a haphazard whole.
White feathers. Hands cupped her face, and when she looked up, Furiosa caught a glimpse of long curling flame hair that licked the sides of the woman's face, and the lambent, golden glow of inhuman eyes.
“I know you.”
“Yes. I've come to you before, once. A long time ago.”
“You are the Valkyrie.” Her voice was husky to her own ears, and she realized she was trembling with emotion. “The Immortal Night Rider. Dreamer of the Earth, Giver and Taker.”
“I have many names and many faces.” Briefly her face changed and her voice as well, and Furiosa could hear once again her Initiate Mother's words:
“I know you're ready for this, Furiosa. We all are so proud of you. Our Furiosa, of the Vuvalini, the Warrior Wing of the Many Mothers. Ready to ride the night sky higher than a crow in flight, ready to learn how to ride the salt across the land with nothing more than the stars as your guide. Giving savor to life, making life possible.”
“Is it hard? The Initation?” Her own words echoed back to her through the distance of time.
“Oh, everything worth doing is hard.” The Valkyrie, not the human that acted as her stand-in, but the real one, the eternal rider, tossed back her flaming locks and offered her hands to Furiosa. She swung Furiosa up onto her shoulders as though Furiosa were weightless, and her burning hair was cold beneath Furiosa's hands. From her high perch, raised high above, Furiosa reached out to the sky as if to catch a burning speck of celestial light, as if it could fall into her hand, and she could hold a bright spark of the night sky in her palm just like that, as simply as holding a pebble or a seed. “But with difficulty comes reward; often the hard thing to do is the right thing to do.”
“How will I know what to do? How will I know what's right??”
“Ask yourself, ask your heart. Pray to the Mothers that have gone before and will come again; pray for guidance and ask if it is the right time. Only then shall you know.”
“But I'm supposed to be a Driver. Coil, he gave up his drive for me. He's my Lancer now, and the Ace, the Ace said I was supposed to have a vision of the machine and...”
“Are they reliable? Ask yourself.”
“I don't know? I don't understand what you're...”
“Are you reliable?”
Furiosa turned around, and it was the Citadel again, the stone walls of the shop and the falling sparks were merely the golden stars falling off the arc welder, and the Valkyrie drew her down, swinging her off her shoulders. She looked up; the Valkyrie was so tall, and she could never be so tall, so strong...
“You can't stay. You're not allowed in here unless you're a War Boy,” Furiosa looked around, confused, but there was no uproar as they walked through the shops together, War Boys hard at work. In the shadows, War Pups lurked, their eyes glittering in darkened sockets, but she could not catch a clear image of any of the children.
“It's time for you to go back, Furiosa.”
“No, not here. I want to go back with you. Back to the green place.”
“I can't stay. You said it yourself. This place is only for War Boys.” The Valkyrie's hand closed curiously on the frame of the car, and where her fingers closed around the metal, the crow skulls of her gauntlets left four parallel marks on the rough-polished steel.
“Please don't leave me here.” Her eyes filled with tears and the vision of the Valkyrie blurred, fractured. “We were home. I saw it. I saw the green. Please, I want to go home.”
“Far away, through the canyon? It's too far for you, Furiosa. It can't be walked. The only way to do it is to run, but the best way to to do it is to fly. Isn't this your home now? Your life now? The life that you chose to be yours.” The Valkyrie ran her hand over the frame of the car and too late Furiosa remembered she was supposed to fix her mind on the machine and its engine.
“No, wait.” She reached for the Valkyrie, but the Valkyrie was too far away already. “Please don't leave me. Please! I want to go home...”
“I'm sorry, Furiosa.”
Hands cupped her face, a thumb stroked her cheek.
“Home. In a canyon.” Furiosa muttered, dizzy. All around her was a flurry of movement, some fumbling, hurried business that she had no interest in; she looked for the sparks but they were already receding, disappearing, and she felt her head being tilted up.
“Good, the color's come back into her lips.”
“All right, all right. There you go. You're safe with us now.”
Coil drew her up, and the Ace helped prop her up to a sitting position.
“Hey. Furiosa,” someone said gently.
“Home...” Furiosa's eyes fluttered open, and her eyes met Coil's blue eyes. She was no longer in the car; they had pulled her out from behind the unmounted wheel. The helmet and the gloves were off, and Coil brushed off a bit of crumbling black lining that stuck to her cheek.
“Thank goodness,” Coil blinked back the tears in his eyes. “Ah, thank the V8.” He caught her in a tight embrace, his hand cradling her head and when she looked up over his shoulder, the Imperator Acosta loomed over them, looking down the length of his hatchet nose at her and nodding gravely to himself.
“What happened?” Furiosa fumbled, pushing Coil away, her voice rasping and she coughed a little, feeling sick. The attending War Pup handed her a bottle of Aqua-Cola; she drank it down in one long pull.
“We counted the time, Driver, but you didn't wake up. So the Imperator checked under the visor, and your mouth was blue...”
“Pulled you out from the car, checked to make sure your air intake was still good, that you were still breathing,” the Ace explained. “Every fifty, sixty Drivers, maybe one or two dies from the initiation. Just being careful, that's all.”
“Good work then, everyone. I'll see you on the road, Driver.” The Imperator left.
Furiosa sank into the comfort of strong arms, and she traced her fingertip over the carved flames on the cool skin of the Ace's bicep.
Flames, glowing cold pressed against her palms and-
“So did you see it?” Coil asked, stroking her smooth scalp soothingly. “The machine.”
“I...” Remembering, Furiosa struggled away, pulling free from Coil and the Ace. She stood up and ran to the car, to touch the frame.
“Right here...” She ran her fingers over the rough-polished steel, and there were four little parallel marks, almost no more than a faint scratch on the silvery finish...
“What's to look at?” The Ace straightened up, dusting himself off as he stood. “You saw the car? The engine?”
“I--” Furiosa looked at the Ace, at Coil, at their expectant faces. She realized there was no way to explain to them what she saw; a War Boy's mysteries were nothing like the mysteries of the Many Mothers, and she was afraid they would make light of it, would scorn her ways. She was afraid that they could not, would not understand.
She drew a slow breath, trying to calm her clamoring heart.
“Yes. I saw...I had a vision of...the machine. Of the engine.” She managed a smile, even as the sensation of the Valkyrie's icy touch slowly left her and she was left alone in herself, a deep emptiness that made even her bones feel hollow.
“Good work, Furiosa. Nice job.”
“I knew you'd see it! Come on, let's get you some supper, Driver. You must be starved.”
And truly she was empty, though the hunger that she felt, the thirst, was not merely physical. Closing her eyes briefly as they left the shop, she tried to remember the cool brush of white feathers of the Immorta's armour against her shoulder, but the memory of that sensation was gone, replaced with the very real warmth of Coil's arm around her.
Chapter 2: The Engine
Mechanically, Nux went through the motions of rebuilding the engine. It was moderately enjoyable work, more enjoyable than a lot of other work lately he had been doing, but it was fundamentally tedious; nothing he hadn't done a dozen times or more already. As a minor challenge, he did it all using his right hand; but truth be told, he would have do it right-wheeled, blindfolded, and fighting off a battalion of kamicrazy War Pups for it to approach anything like actual difficulty.
There was a minor commotion at the doorway of the shop; he glanced up from under the edge of the open hood and realized it was Imperator Acosta's crew lead and another Half-life Noble.
“That him?” The crew lead stood in the doorway, lean arms crossed over a tautly muscled chest. Nux looked down, pretending not to hear, his grease-blackened hands busy pulling the starter out of the engine, handing individual screws off to a War Pup.
“Yeah Moki, that's him all right.”
“Shame; he was doing real good in live training. But slouching don't cover the fact that ten and nine-tenths is just too tall.”
“He'll probably be eleven in less than a hundred days. Why not let him try? Maybe he'll surprise everyone.”
“Normally the Imperator might say yes and let 'em try his luck on the road.” Moki pointed. “But this one, he got a knack for the engine. Best of the Blackthumbs, by a long stretch. Better keep him shop-bound. He's too valuable to waste on the Fury Road; once they cross ten and three quarters, they start dropping like flies. Most get Witnessed on their first run or two. Never seen one make it past five. Just too tall to be balanced proper for the road and it's like their heads are made for catching bullets. Waste of a good Blackthumb.”
“Guess there ain't much that can be done?”
“Not everyone's cut out to make Lancer, even if they got what it takes. Turn of the wheel, crew. That's what the road gives you. Wheel gives 'n takes. Sometimes it just ain't fair.” Moki met Nux's eyes briefly. “Good work there, Blackthumb,” he raised his voice, but Nux knew that the message was for him entirely. They had been kind and had broken it soft, without making him face it directly.
Nux shut his eyes hard against the tears, but he kept working, undoing the last of the screws with his eyes closed.
That night he had another coughing fit, and Slit dragged him close.
“You haven't come down with the Revhead's disease, have you?” He gave Nux a sharp shake, and Nux felt a shiver of fear thinking that perhaps Slit had found out somehow.
In the darkness, he couldn't see Slit's expression, and he was glad that Slit couldn't see his.
“N-no, 'course not, Slit. Why'd I do that?” He tried to laugh it off. “It's just cold tonight.”
“Fine. It better be the cold, because if I catching you getting into the nitrous...” Shifting in the sand, Slit turned Nux around and embraced him, arms tight across Nux's chest. “There, better?”
Nux stifled a cough and settled in closer to Slit.
“Yeah, a little.”
“Go to sleep,” Slit growled, resting his chin against Nux's shoulder.
“Mmm.” Nux closed his eyes and thought of that perfect, perfect moment when the nitrous filled his breath and he could just about see...
“Ah...” It was easy to draw a little nitrous; there were so many tanks for so many cars and he never took so much that anyone would miss it. With each tank, each individual car yielded its secrets to him, every engine a little different; every engine with its own story, its own life, its own make and model. He sat behind the unwheeled steering column of the War Rig in its empty shop, and inhaled sharply and inhaled again and again and
Pounding pistons, the spark of the ignition, and he was off; the life of the machine filled him with a euphoria that he had never known until the nitrous. The War Rig's power was different from the other vehicles; with both engines working in muscular tandem, they were like two beating hearts in glorious unison. He was balanced between the two churning engines, pressed between them as though wedged between two ideal crewmates in the warmth and safety of the nest, and the perfection, the absolute acceptance flowed through him and
“Ow. Ow, ow...” Nux came to in a daze; a hard, calloused hand was striking him across the face, over and over. He raised his arms weakly to fend it off. “Ow!”
Slit dragged him out. Nux almost fell, but then Slit caught him with his strong arms and shoved him against the side of the rig.
“What have you been doing?” Slit slammed him against the rig, hard enough to bruise.
“Ow! Slit, stop that! Nothing! I was just resting...”
“Don't lie to me, Nux. I can tell. I could tell when you were coughing, and now you're sneaking out in the middle of the night. You've been in the nitrous, haven't you?” Slit snarled.
“No, of course not. That's silly.”
“What kind of fool do you think I am?” Slit let him go with a shove. “You want me to believe that you're just taking a nap behind the wheel of the War Rig? Where the Imperator sits? That this isn't what it looks like?” Slit threw down the empty rubber vessel; it slapped deflated against the stone floor of the shop and Nux's eyes widened; that meant Slit knew. “You don't even work on the War Rig, not unless someone asks for you specific. So why don't you just tell me what you've really been doing?”
Dazed, Nux could feel the power of the engine leaving him. “I don't have to explain anything to you. Like you could understand!”
“Huh?” Surprised, Slit looked at him askance.
“You're a Lancer. You get to ride high. I'm gonna be stuck in the shop forever; they'll never let me ride...”
“Heard it myself today for sure, straight from the crew lead. I'm too tall now to ever be a Lancer and I'm still growing. Shop-bound for good.”
“This is the only way I can get close to the engine.”
“You couldn't understand. I don't have anything else.”
“Nux.” Slit's voice was surprisingly gentle, and it caught Nux's attention. His dark blue eyes met Nux's eyes. “Haven't you noticed you've been getting shakes?”
“Your hands. They used to be steady, but you're picking up the shakes.”
“No, that's silly...” But Nux looked at his hands, and half-straightening his fingers, realized there were minute, tiny tremors that he didn't have before. When did that start?
“And you've been coughing. A lot.” Slit looked away.
“I'm fine. I don't do very much. Once or twice a day, no more. It's under control.”
“Maybe you don't think it's a problem, and maybe it's not a problem when they do it once for the Driver's initiation, but they don't call it the Revhead's disease for nothing. Starts with coughing and shakes, turns into fits and getting trashed. If I can tell, sooner or later someone else is going to notice, and you're going to be shop-bound for good.” Slit shook his head, disgusted.
“I'm already shop-bound.”
“No, you're shop-bound for now. Not forever.”
“So? What's the difference? I'll never make Lancer, and that means I'll never make Driver or Half-life Noble or anything high.”
There was a long silence as Slit pondered the meaning of his words.
“If you want to die so badly, don't die soft.”
“Huh? What's that supposed to mean?”
“You're so smart, you figure it out,” Slit snapped. He glared at Nux. “Next time you go running off in the middle of the night to intake, don't wake me up.” Muttering to himself, Slit turned on his heel and left.
When Nux got back to the nest, Slit was not in their usual place; it was obvious that he had gone off to another nest. Nux settled down near Morsov, careful not to wake him, and wondered where Slit had gone.
Nux found that Slit had eyes on him as sharp as a hungry crow, and when Slit couldn't do it himself, it seemed that he was paying a War Pup in food bars to keep eyes on the rest of the time. Nux had no time to call his own; after that first night, Slit had returned to their nest and slept with his arm draped over Nux every night, even though Slit preferred to sleep with his back turned to Nux. Sometimes when Nux ate with his fellow Revheads, he could see Slit from across the room with the other Lancers, dark blue eyes fixed on him thoughtfully.
What was the meaning of Slit's cryptic words? So most Lancers and Drivers generally didn't do the nitrous, so what? They didn't know what it was like to live in wretched, agonizing boredom, the soft life of the shop-bound, the life of works and days. They had done their few years of Revhead service like everyone else, but they hadn't been asked to do more than what was necessary. They were riding high-octane, even those on the daily patrol, while he spun his wheels fixing another leaky intake manifold, matching the marks on yet another timing belt.
Being part of a works crew was exciting for the first few hundred days as he shot up through the ranks, but then it slowed down into grinding rules and regulations; petty arguments over engine builds, Drivers who didn't like listening to what he had to offer, fellow Revheads who were lazy and less than competent, terrible crewmates who didn't mind if Nux picked up all the slack. There were days of aching frustration when he could do no more than put his head down and work to try to staunch the irritation that went down into his bones; he had mastered everything and then perfected it until the challenge was no longer there.
What he lived for were the days when someone brought him a problem that couldn't be puzzled out straightforward; something strangely wrong with the engine that no amount of coaxing by others could fix. It was a rare engine that escaped his abilities; even if he couldn't immediately fix it, often he'd sleep on it and the solution would come to him as a vision in his dreams.
But those days were rare and he was finding the passion for fixing was leaving him; there was no outlet for his desires. He had dreams of beautiful cars, long swooping lines of aerodynamic geometry, engine builds that no one would dare implement, gear ratios that perhaps could not be possible but in dreams, and he could find no one who would listen. Drivers shrugged off his ideas as odd thoughts or foolishness, thinking that it would be a waste of parts and labor to even try, and no Revhead, not even a Blackthumb, no matter how talented, had the standing to argue with a Driver.
It was unfair and now doubly so, with Slit's eyes on no matter what he did.
Nux bided his time.
“Not gonna finish your food?”
“Nah, not feeling it today, Morsov.”
“You really ought to, Little Nux.” Morsov gestured to the half-eaten mush, and Nux felt a sharp stab of anger, of resentment at that old nickname. Until he started growing, until it was so fast that his bones ached from the effort his body was exerting, he had agonized that he wouldn't be tall enough to ride Lancer, and now he was too tall. The mere fact of Morsov's existence poisoned Nux with jealousy; everyone said Morsov was the perfect height-weight balance for a Lancer; he had more offers of rides than anyone Nux knew and could pick and choose as he pleased. Everyone knew that the top two or three unpaired Drivers had all been courting Morsov seriously, hoping he'd settle down with one of them. Already he had three branded tires on his chest, showing the individual kills he had made on the daily patrol.
”You feeling sick?”
“No, of course not. Just not very hungry today...”
Morsov looked at him askance from across the table, and again Nux wondered why Morsov was here; shouldn't he be eating with the other Lancers? Was this something that Slit had arranged? Maybe, maybe not. Morsov might not listen to Slit's noise; he was his own War Boy...
But ultimately it wasn't worth puzzling out, not when the nitrous was waiting for him, perfect and pure.
Nux shoved the bowl aside and moved to stand. Everyone was busy with supper. If he had timed it right, no one would notice him slipping out, not even Slit. The siren call of the nitrous was sweet, and he could just about feel the beauty of it moving through his lungs, his heart, his bones and blood and body.
Just as he moved, Slit sat down beside him, one hand gripping his steaming bowl and the other tight on Nux's shoulder.
“Revhead, aren't you going to finish your supper?”
“Eat up, if you don't want to be weak.”
Nux shot him a glare, sat back down, and dug into his mush. Food had lost its savor; the hunger he felt was not a hunger for greens and beans, for seeds and squash.
“Maybe I'm not that hungry right now.”
“You're already skinny enough. You ought to put some more meat on those bones.”
“Slit, I'm fine.”
“Too skinny, no one's going to ask you to ride high.”
“No one's going to ask me that anyway!” A breath later, Nux flinched, realizing he had been shouting.
“Nux?” Morsov stared at him, shocked. The silence that fell in the mess hall was palpable, and Nux felt himself grow hot under his white.
“Oh, it's just Slit again, messing with a Revhead. Don't mind him.”
“Slit's not happy unless someone else is miserable,” a wag said too loudly, meaning for it to be heard, and everyone laughed, returning to their food, conversations picking up again.
Slit's jaw clenched, and he set his spoon to his food.
“Come on, Nux. You can't do war on an empty belly.”
Bitterly, Nux dug into his mush, the savor of food dead on his tongue, Slit's heavy, oppressive hand on his shoulder.
Instead of heading toward the nests, Nux caught Slit by the hand and dragged him aside, taking the long corridor away from the nests toward the bridges. Slit arched an eyebrow at him, but said nothing, letting Nux lead the way.
The Lancer's workshop was empty, just as Nux knew it would be, and to his eye there was a desolation to the cold moonlight streaming in, a terse emptiness to the shop in the way the electricals were hung and lit the room with harsh sodium vapor light.
“What's the meaning of all this?” Nux snapped.
“What's the meaning of what?” Slit paced the room slowly with that easy, sway-hipped Lancer's gait, and Nux was filled with a petty jealousy that he could neither articulate nor control.
“You. Following me everywhere. Paying that War Pup, sending Morsov-”
“Morsov?” Slit laughed. “Morsov went on his own. Haven't said a thing to him. You don't know, do you?”
“Know how strange you've been lately. Everyone's noticed.”
“Strange? Me? What are you talking about?”
“You're not acting like yourself.”
“If I'm not myself, who have I been like? You?” Nux snarled, and Slit's eyes narrowed in irritation, his fists curling reflexively. Slit shook out his hands, making a visible effort to relax.
“Yesterday you yelled at a crewmate. And the other day, you yelled at a War Pup.”
“Fine. You were stern with them. Too stern. And today-”
“So? They messed up.” Nux interjected, before Slit could remind him of debacle at the mess hall.
“You keep that up, you'll get a reputation.”
“You mean like yours?” Nux jabbed, and Slit glared at him but didn't rise to the bait.
“Nux.” Slit's breath came hard. Deliberately, he slowed his breathing down after a few sharp breaths. “Came cuz I wanted to ask you if you felt better.”
“No. I don't. Not with you looming over my shoulder. Why can't you leave me alone?”
“You don't cough as much. Let me see your hands.”
Exasperated, Nux held up his hands for Slit to examine.
“See? I'm utterly proper in every way. Balanced and aligned all around. My shocks are fine and I'm fully stabilized. So why don't you leave me alone?”
“That's because you haven't been intaking.”
“I'd be happier if I was.” Nux ventured, emboldened by the confrontation.
“Maybe. But not if you end up trashed.” Slit crossed his arms, looking away. He turned, and Nux could see only his left side, his good side where the jagged scar didn't meander over the smooth-shaved plane of his cheek.
“Please, I wouldn't be trashed,” Nux chuckled. “That's ridiculous.”
“Last Revhead that came down with the disease had a fit and got trashed. They didn't even tell his crew or his mates until he was down below and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it.”
“So? I'm not stupid; I wouldn't intake more than a little...”
“Maybe, maybe not. But the cough, the shakes...”
“They weren't that bad. No one noticed.”
“I noticed. Morsov noticed something...”
Quickly, Nux changed the topic, unwilling to accept that Slit might be right. “I still want to know what you meant when you said I'm not shop-bound forever.”
“It means you're only shop-bound for as long as you want to be.”
Nux laughed, a bitter, harsh sound to his own ears. “Cryptic.”
“You mean you haven't figured it out?”
“Tell me, if it's so obvious to you.”
“Maybe I should.” Slit turned slowly to face Nux. “You remember the Initiation? And not the one for Drivers or the one for Lancers.”
“You mean like Imperator Acosta? The wasteland Initiation?” Immediately, Nux thought of the War Rig Imperator's lips, scarred from the sewing, and how so many War Boys imitated it with stripes of black. There were even a handful of cocky individuals who cut their upper or lower lips in imitation, though no one dared copy it exactly. Nux gestured to his own chest, haphazardly tracing the pattern of the V8 on the smooth, bare skin there, imagining how it looked on Imperator Acosta. “So?”
“So do it. I'm daring you.”
“To take the Initiation? Don't most people die doing it?”
“What's it worth to you, Nux? Dying soft as a shop-bound Revhead, waiting for a chance to maybe ride the Hauler someday, or dying historic trying for something you want?”
“You're right. I'll die if I do it.” Nux met his eyes. “Is that what you want? To see me dead?”
Slit shrugged off the bitter words. “Maybe the way you are now, you'd die. But if you trained for it, you could do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Get stronger. Eat more. Put on some flesh. Work for something other than the shop. For yourself.” Slit spit out the words but hesitated, frustrated, snagged up and tangled in the words like a belt loop on a spike.
“You mean, make myself better.”
“That's what I said.”
“I don't know how to do that.”
“I'll help,” Slit muttered and he looked away. “I'll ask Morsov too. He'll understand.”
Nux thought it through. Slit was right; if he wanted to do something better than being shop-bound, he was going to have to do something that no one could ignore, something that would guarantee him a spot higher up the line.
Silently, he offered Slit his hand, and Slit caught it with a fierce grip.
At that, Nux knew that he had been forgiven, though he didn't quite know what he had done to need Slit's forgiveness.
Morsov stood in close conversation with the taller, older Driver whose white, unblackened forehead and darkened eyesockets were suggestive of his rank. Nux and Slit kept themselves out of their direct line of sight, politely waiting for them to finish.
“You sure you can handle a machine gun?” The Driver had a firm grip on Morsov's bicep, and a strong hand gave the Lancer a shake. “You were trained by the Ace weren't you? Ain't he a purist?”
“We handled guns too, boss. Not just lances.”
“Ever fire a mounted gun?”
“No, but I know the principles. Controlled burst, save the bullets. Only fire when certain of a hit. Can disassemble, clean, and time any machine gun.”
“You'll be doing that daily, even if we're off the road. Don't think that you can get away with slacking off, just because you're on my crew.”
“Then maybe this'll work. Ride with me on the next run.” The tall Driver let go of Morsov and stalked off into the warren.
Slit gave Nux a look; Nux shrugged and whispered a name to Slit as the Driver left: “Elvis.” Slit rolled his eyes; it was not as though he didn't know who the tall, full-life Driver was. But before they could move to intercept Morsov, the Ace came by.
Nux thought that the Ace must have also been waiting for Morsov, given the timing.
“Ace! What's going on?” Morsov absently rubbed his arm, and white came off his skin in a little crumble of powder.
The Ace glanced at the rising hint of a bruise on Morsov's arm. “You...sure you want to crew up with Elvis?”
“Sure, I'm sure. Why wouldn't I be?”
“You know he's got a reputation for bein a hard War Boy. Wouldn't you be happier with someone else? How bout Drift? Stonker? Either one would be a good crewmate for you.”
“No, I'm sure.” Morsov managed a smile.
“Elvis is good, one of the best at what he does. Got a fast ride and all but...” The Ace shrugged. “He's turned off a lot of Lancers already, and just as many left him after a few runs. He ain't got much kindness for any of 'em, on or off the road.”
“Probably won't with me,” Morsov replied, confident. “Gonna be real good at it, better than the rest.”
“Just don't forget to call him 'boss'. He likes his crew to do as he says and no mouthin off neither. Suppose you should be fine if you do what you're told and don't argue.”
“Sure thing, Ace. I can do that.”
“Well, if you're sure...” Frowning to himself, the Ace wandered off.
Quickly, before Morsov could leave, Slit moved forward to intercept him.
Morsov turned, surprised as Nux lightly caught his elbow.
“Glory me, Morsov,” Nux smiled. “You're popular today. We've been waiting for you too.”
“Oh. Then you heard...?”
“Yeah.” Slit said, and Nux could tell Slit was feigning casual disinterest as Slit's hands absently balled into fists. “Most of it.”
Without making much of it, Nux set one hand lightly over Slit's fist, catching his eye. Realizing what he was doing, Slit forced himself to relax.
“Didn't you ride with Elvis for a run or two, Slit?” Morsov kept his expression schooled, but there was more than a hint of satisfaction in his tone of voice.
“What was it like?”
“Elvis is the boss, and he doesn't like anyone else having any ideas.” Slit shrugged. “And he only carries lances on board because it's tradition; he doesn't want you using them, even if it's a better situation than the gun.”
“What's that mean?”
“Can't always hit accurate with the gun; sometimes if a Buzzard's in the gap and you don't want to hit the other car, you gotta use the lance, even if it's slower. But he doesn't want any of that.” Slit's eyes narrowed. “We didn't agree.”
“Well, I think I can manage that Driver,” Morsov grinned, cockily. “I'm getting a permanent ride soon, on a real fast car. We'll be riding escort for the War Rig too.”
“You're welcome to him.” Slit waved Morsov off. “Holdin out for better myself.”
“As if you could-”
“Um.” Nux interrupted; years later, and the rivalry that began at the line seemed unabated. “We, I mean, I had a favor to ask, Morsov.”
“Yeah? What's that?”
“I'm training for the Initiation.”
“You don't need any kind of training for the Lancer initiation...”
“Mediocre,” Slit muttered to himself. “No, not that initiation, the Initation. The one out in the waste, the long run home.”
“Nux...” Morsov tilted his head, giving Nux a quizzical look. “I thought you weren't stupid.”
“Come on. I can do it.” Nux smiled, though he felt as though it were mere foolish bravado and no more. “I know I can. But I need help.”
“Need extra food bars, to build up reserves.” Slit ticked the various points off on his fingers. “Training partners, to build strength. Can't be there all the time, so someone else has to take over sometimes. And I got some other ideas on getting Nux ready that'll take two people.”
Morsov nodded. “Yeah, yeah. I can do that. I got extra that I didn't have plans for. Only if you promise me one thing, Little Nux.”
“What's that?” Nux wondered.
“That you come back alive.” Morsov met Nux's eyes gravely. “Promise me that and I'll do whatever you need.”
“Course I will. I promise.” Nux offered Morsov his hand, but instead Morsov drew him down for a firm embrace, his hand cupping the back of Nux's head. “Only if you promise me one thing.”
“Stop calling me 'Little Nux.'”
“Fine. Then I'll call you what Slit calls you.”
“No! Nux-y Wux-y is much worse!”
Training began in earnest and filled up all their time in the early mornings and in the evenings after work.
“Tell Slit, 'Very funny.'”
“This isn't funny, Morsov.”
“Neither was him calling me a lazy, incompetent road warrior trash dump. That doesn't even make any sense. Just a bunch of words he put together to try to sound bad. Trash dumps can't be lazy or incompetent; they're just trash dumps.” Morsov crossed his arms, leaning back against the stone wall. “So go tell him that.”
“Don't you have more to say?” Bent over, Nux panted; it was a long run between the far end of the War Tower and the far end of the Third Tower, from the lower warren in the War Tower to the upper warren of the Third.
“Probably. I'll have to think about it. I'll tell you when you come back. Don't forget your form and your breathing, Li- I mean, Nux-y. And don't forget the message.”
“Oh, I won't forget...” Nux gritted his teeth and headed for the stairs.
“Morsov said, 'Very funny.'”
“Tell him, 'Haha.'”
“Slit! Seriously? Is that all?”
“I'm not running that over to the Third Tower. You run it yourself.”
“Nux, this is good training.”
“This is stupid training.”
“No, it's good. I'm timing you; you've been shaving off seconds every run. Here, take these with you.” Slit had been at it again, this time crafting things out of discarded and broken belts. Carefully, he strapped a series of weighted belts to Nux's arms and legs, adjusting each one minutely until it sat the way Slit had envisioned.
Suddenly the prospect of running over to the Third Tower went from daunting to harrowing.
“You'll need the weight for strengthening, to temper your muscles. Probably would be better for you to run in sand, but no one's going to be happy if you mess up the nests. Besides, they're not big enough to run in.”
“Ugh, these are heavy. What's in these things?”
“Mostly sand. Some pieces of scrap lead to balance things out.”
“Are you trying to kill me?”
“You promised not to complain. You said you didn't mind if it was hard.”
“I say a lot of things, apparently,” Nux said icily. “All right, all right! I'm off.”
As he jogged away, he heard Slit shouting at him, his harsh voice echoing through the carved stone chamber. “Form, Nux! Form! And keep your mouth shut! You're losing water!”
“I know, I know!”
Pausing on his path through the shops, he glanced at an unsupervised car with a faint stab of desire; the nitrous was waiting, so cold and sweet and it wouldn't take more than a minute or two...
“Nux?” A War Pup, a boy from the cohort, one that worked the shops, and what was his name again? Tin? Tinny? Timmy...? Exhausted, Nux panted, trying to catch his breath, sweating his white off from exertion of the added weight.
“Slit told me to tell you that you gotta keep moving. And that he's got eyes on everywhere.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“Dunno,” the War Pup shrugged, and Nux noticed that the pup's pants already too short for him. Absently Nux wondered who the trainer was these days; the Ace would have never let that sort of detail slide. “Just told to give you the message, that's all.”
Nux made a sound that was horrible to his own ears, a sound of frustration that rattled straight down to the soles of his booted feet.
The War Pup stared at him.
Nux stared back.
Helplessly, the War Pup began to laugh, even though he tried to stifle it with both hands.
Nux found himself giggling as well, and when the giggles turned into outright laughter, he had to sit down in the long corridor, weighted arms curled around his sore muscles as he nearly hurt himself laughing.
“Uh...you okay?” The War Pup nudged Nux's sore side with the tip of his boot. “Are you crazy now?”
“Okay, okay. I'm okay.” Nux gasped, choking back the rest of his laughter and getting up to his feet. “I got a message to run to the Third Tower.”
“If you're such a good Blackthumb, why d'ya have to run messages around the towers like a War Pup? Do they really make you do that when you're a Blackthumb?” The War Pup stared at him with curious, brilliant eyes.
“No, it's complicated. You'll understand better when you're out of your puppy teeth,” Nux managed a smile, reaching down to pat the War Pup's head. “Sometimes you gotta do weird stuff because your cohort...well, more like your best mate, knows what's best.”
“Okay.” Uncomprehending, the War Pup waved Nux on his way.
Nux grit his teeth and turning down the long corridor, clomped up the stairs toward the central warren.
“So that's what Slit said? That's all?”
“Tell him 'ha' for me.”
Time passed and every day was a struggle, though that struggle eased as training continued. Nux found the run, even with additional weights, not nearly as difficult as it was initially, though it was many, many days, easily over a hundred, before he began to notice the changes in himself.
Extra food bars helped him pack on muscle; often new Lancers were lean, rangy creatures, just bone and sinew compared to long-standing Lancers. But with his newly upgraded bodywork, Nux was beginning to attract attention; at eleven hands, he couldn't quite quit the habit of slouching to appear shorter than he was, but even that did not deter admirers. Nux was starting to think that perhaps Slit had it right to put on a fresh coat of white every day; it would keep off admiring hands that wanted to feel his newly built-up strength, the girt armour of muscle that he had welded onto his chassis.
Word had spread quickly that Nux was training for the Initiation. Often as he trained, Drivers and Lancers would cheer him on as he ran through the long, winding corridors of the War Tower, and it gave him a measure of strength, a profound sense of confidence to realize they were cheering for him, wanting him to succeed. He couldn't let them down; he couldn't let Slit and Morsov down; the best mates of his cohort had put in all their extra food bars to building him up to strength and he wasn't about to fail them.
Nux often imagined what it would be like, making the run out in the waste. He envisioned the run, how he would keep form, how he would place every step and measure every breath. He had been out far from the Citadel just once before when he was first made a War Boy, a Revhead, when the Ace had taken him out for a driving lesson. It was merely to learn some basics; usually a Half-life Noble piled a bunch of young Revheads into a practice car and made them take turns tooling around the training grounds, but back then the Ace had let him push a good car to its limits.
Perhaps that was a good sign, that he was meant for greater things. That maybe though he wasn't meant to be a Lancer, he wasn't meant to be shop-bound either. Maybe even then, years ago, he was meant to bypass that job entirely and start as a Driver.
So that's what Slit meant, when he said Nux wasn't shop-bound forever...
Nux thought it terribly clever of Slit to think of the one thing that would force the hand of the War Rig Imperator into giving anyone a better, higher position on the line.
“Nux. Been talking to the others.” Another hundred days of training had passed when the Ace caught him after supper while he was still at the table. Morsov and Slit shared a knowing look; there was only a certain number of 'others' it could be when it came from a Half-life Noble.
“Y-yeah?” And Nux found himself suddenly nervous, heart pounding as he turned to look up at the Ace.
The Ace pitched his voice to carry, loud enough for the whole mess to hear. “Imperator Acosta's noticed you been workin hard. Says he'll approve your Initiation, let you put your hand to it. On one condition.”
The Ace's gray eyes shone with pride. “The Imperator wants me standing in as your Initiate Lead.”
Before he could steady himself, Nux let out a whoop of excitement, jumping out of his seat and all around, War Boys shouted the V8, cheering him on.
“Nux-y!” Morsov shouted. “You did it!”
“Finally.” Slit's voice was almost lost to the clamor but Nux had heard him anyway. He leaned down to plant a kiss on Slit's cheek, giddy with excitement.
“We'll sort out the details, Initiate.” The Ace shouted over the commotion. “Maybe next full moon, you'll make your long run.”
Nux leapt out from behind the bench and embraced the Ace, tears blurring his vision.
“Thank you! Thank you...”
The Ace embraced him firmly.
Slit held his left hand firmly. Nux's eyes watered from the pain, tears running rivulets through the black, but he didn't cry out, not once.
“Right-o.” So focused on the task at hand that he was drooling from the lax corner of his mouth, the Organic Mechanic made one final incision, neat and clean, dabbing at the blood as he drew out the last piece of twine, tossing it onto a metal tray that a War Pup held aloft. “That all there is to that.” Wadding a handful of clean bandage into Nux's hand, he gestured for Nux to hold it tight against his bleeding lips.
“You'll want to keep that clean.” The Organic Mechanic grinned, wiping his drool off on his sleeve, leaving a translucent trickle of gummy saliva on the dirty, blood-spattered cloth. “Don't want it to go septic on ya; can't well cut yer face off if it goes black.”
“He'll be fine.” Slit dragged Nux up onto his feet and led him away, unsteady, to a far bench near the Wheel Shrine, away from the Organic Mechanic and his Redthumbs.
Slowly, Nux managed to let go of Slit's hand, and Slit shook his fingers out, bruised from Nux's tight grip. Drawing the exhausted Nux down against his shoulder, Slit plucked the red-damp bandage from Nux's lax hand and held it himself against Nux's lips, applying pressure.
When Nux woke from his fitful doze, his mouth tasted of blood and his lips were stiff with dried blood, but he was no longer bleeding. It took him a moment to open his mouth; his lips were gummed up with dried blood.
“Slit?” Nux said carefully, trying not to move his lips.
“Yeah?” Slit's fingertips ran lightly, thoughtfully over Nux's head, over the fuzz of soft hair that had come up during the long run, and it sent a stranger shiver through Nux that he could feel down into his toes.
“Wanted to tell you something.”
“Hmm?” Slit shifted a little, stretching, and Nux realized Slit must have been sitting very still this entire time so as not to wake him.
“When I was making that run. The long run through the waste.”
“I know what run you made.” Slit yawned, and when Nux looked up, Slit looked worn out, in a way Nux had never seen before, and it made him wonder if Slit had lost sleep while he had been gone.
“Out there, I figured out how you knew.”
“Knew how to make the Imperator change his mind. You were going to do the Initiation yourself, weren't you?”
“You were. That way you'd be raised up. Someone would give you a drive. You'd have your own car. Maybe even be a Half-life Noble some day.”
Slit shrugged. “So? I didn't do it.”
“Why not? Why me? Why'd you help me do it instead?”
“Couldn't do it without training, and couldn't do that without extra food bars. And it's not like you could have helped with that on your wages, Revhead. Even with two Lancers chipping in, all of us still owe future work for the extra.”
“It's all right, Nux. Morsov doesn't mind. I don't mind. You needed it. More than him or me. Besides. They want War Boys to be perfect when they make the run.” Slit touched his jagged old scar absently, and Nux was surprised to be reminded of it; he hadn't even noticed that it was a defining feature of Slit. To Nux, it was no different from the shape of Slit's ears, or the curve of his lips, just another part of what made Slit, Slit. “No point in offering the Immorta flawed goods; gotta be prime or nothing. No options.”
Nux put his arms around Slit, resting his head against the crook of Slit's shoulder, and was briefly surprised when Slit didn't pull away.
“Just glad you're back,” Slit muttered, and his strong arms tightened their grip on Nux before slowly growing lax.
Nux smiled when he realized that Slit had fallen asleep.
“Thank you, Slit.” He said it very softly, and wondered if Slit could hear.
Nights were growing cold again. Carefully, Nux drew a blanket around their shoulders, closing his eyes. In the icy moonlit wasteland of the infirmary, they slept, drawn close together.
Chapter 3: The Immorta
Warnings for forced marriage, implied rape/molestation, and a referenced miscarriage.
Alone on her cold bed of stone and unable to sleep, Capable stared at the ceiling, obscured despite the bright light of the full moon peeping its way over the sill of the high, narrow window, leaving the long black imprint of bars over the floor.
It had been a long time since she slept by Angharad's side; those days were further and further away each day, and sometimes she wondered if she had merely dreamt it; a sweet memory of a time long past. Instead, new girls had come to take Angharad's place, but it could never be the same.
The Dag no longer stayed by her side; she had taken another girl under her wing, the youngest and most frightened of them. The other, Toast, scorned the need for comfort.
And so Capable closed her eyes. If she couldn't sleep, at least she could dream.
Out far away from the Citadel, over the mountains and beyond the dunes, over the vast horizon of the world itself, there was a place that they had built together.
Ten stories tall, full of books and plants and flowers, and the pictures that hung on the wall showed them an ancient past that was long forgotten, the princesses of coal and iron, the kingdoms of sunlight and water, and knights in their black armour who dug out the seams of the world, building castles of stone that floated upon clouds...
And there, in that imaginary place, Angharad waited for her.
When her turn came, Capable accepted it stoically. Whatever would come her way would come; there was no use in fighting. She left the Dag in tears, but there was nothing she could do about it. She had no words of comfort for either the Dag nor Cheedo. Even the usually stoic Toast was distraught, but in the end, it was not as though anyone could change the situation, not even herself. Capable walked out as Angharad did, with dignity, holding her head up high to hide the fear thudding in her ribcage like a trapped bird, hands clasped together demurely to hide their tremor.
The Imperators guided her without laying their hands on her, and for this she was glad; they were cruel men, even by the look of their eyes, and she flinched to think of their hands on her skin.
Capable was to be married. A pang ran through her; whatever she imagined to be her future was never to be; the only world that she was allowed was the world of the Citadel, a world of stone and steel, of narrow windows and fitted iron bars.
So it was a surprise when she was brought to a lovely, well-lit chamber; opulent in its austerity, real cloth hanging a little curtain in the room, an actual wooden chair set before a real table and a mirror.
The mirror before her showed a stranger; did she really look like this? Capable tried to remember the last time she had seen her own reflection and could not remember.
A woman came to help her into her new clothes and dress her hair; the woman was much older, her heavy body sagged with weight, and there were little lines of wrinkles about her mouth, her eyes. A filmy veil draped around her head, her shoulders, covering her dark hair.
Her eyes were golden, and they seemed inquisitive, thoughtful.
Capable didn't know what to say; strong fingers combed through her hair deftly, snagging gently on curls, and as the woman worked, she hummed to herself, a sweet little ditty that coiled in on itself in its repetition.
“Um. May I? That is...” Capable took a deep breath. “I'm Capable. And you are...”
“Shams.” The woman said softly. “Though we shouldn't speak. There are ears everywhere.”
A young boy came in, bearing a tray of metal hair pins, and counting them out carefully, handed them one at a time to the woman, watching with sharp eyes to ascertain that none were palmed or stolen.
Her red hair was pinned up so that the curls twined around her head like a halo; lots of little metal pins that held it in place, and Capable touched her hair lightly; it seemed as though it were armour-clad, and the weight of it on her head felt unnatural.
“Word of advice.” Shams leaned in to affix the veil, her voice barely a whisper in Capable's ear. “Eat more or eat less; either way, there are ways to get out of his bed.”
Speechless, Capable stared straight ahead at the mirror as the woman finished pinning the veil to her hair.
Anointed and painted, the skin of her face felt oddly stiff with cosmetics, as if she had donned a mask of powder. The cloying sweetness of perfume clung to her nose and she sneezed more than once. The color upon her lips left a strange chemical taste to her mouth.
Capable waited in the chamber for the ceremony to begin. An Imperator waited with her, as did a few boys; they ranged in age from little ones to youths who were almost men. Whatever they thought of this, no one would say; there was merely the silence of attendants inured to waiting.
Before long, the other Imperator came, the one with the crust of gray-speckled beard on his stern jaw, and he bore a steaming cup, which he handed to her without ceremony.
“Drink,” he said simply, and she took the cup carefully so as not to accidentally touch his calloused fingers.
It was a spicy, bitter brew, but merely holding the cup warmed her cold fingers and she drank it down, feeling the comforting heat of it, stirring the dregs into the last few sips. The taste lingered in her mouth, the bitterness clinging to her tongue, but Capable supposed that one could get used to anything with time.
The touch of her lips left a livid red mark upon rim of the cup.
The Immortan Joe came in, and a light-headed giddiness overcame her as she was guided to her feet and brought to him, the bearded Imperator's hand on her elbow. His expression was unreadable behind his black gas mask and his breaths came loud and mechanical, but there was no fear inside of her as he took her hand. Shockingly blue eyes met hers over his mask; the Immortan Joe's broad hand closed firmly around hers, and she stared at their entwined fingers, at the way her slender hand disappeared into his grip, completely subsumed.
Striding forth to the balcony, he showed her to the people; the cheering was loud, overwhelming. Dazed, she looked down at the massive crowd, only to then look across to the far tower of stone that she remembered from her first day. There, whitened figures stood in rows, their hands raised in obeisance.
The Immortan pushed back the veil from her hair, and suddenly the commotion grew even louder, and there began the chant of the V8, thudding rhythmic through her head.
Capable gasped, filled with a euphoria she had never known before, an ecstasy that transcended her very being. Dizzy, she found herself repeating the prompted words into the proffered microphone, her voice amplified loud amidst the buzz and crackle of static. She found herself vowing loyalty and subservience and obedience; the words were distant to her and meant nothing, but she did as she was meant to.
Later, alone with her tears, she wondered what exactly was in that cup.
In the Vault, Capable slept in her own bed on the second floor; there were little cells of rooms, just big enough for a narrow bed and a chest to keep one's things in. There were no doors, but a thick curtain draped the doorway for privacy, insulating the little rooms from the cold air of the Vault. She didn't have much in the way of things yet, but he had given her dresses, lovely clothes, some for the cold seasons, some for the warmer seasons, and while beautiful, even the long-sleeved clothes didn't do much to keep one warm; the Vault was a large, empty, and cold place, colder than her little sun-lit prison. Often she missed those days of confinement precisely because of how much warmer that rock-hewn room was.
The first morning, she had come down with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders; another one of the wives pointed out her error, laughing behind a coyly upturned hand. That was apparently a faux pas; one had to adjust to the Vault and be attired so as to please the Immortan Joe, should he come to look in on them. So she worked on learning how to bear it, though at first she stayed huddled up in bed with her blankets much of the time.
The Immortan himself slept downstairs; there was a bed for him and his chosen wife of the evening, though these days, from what Capable had been told, it seemed that he asked for the girls less and less. On that account there seemed to be a scrimmage around the nights he chose; gossip, speculation, petty jealousy, wondering who he would choose and when.
Capable hoped that it wouldn't be her.
It had been a few days, but she hadn't seen Angharad yet. The Vault was a small, insular world, and she had met the others; older women who had seen days of childbearing, whose bodies were slowly starting to sag from wear. She wondered how soon they would be sent away. When that happened, would that mean that girls like the Dag and Cheedo, like Toast would be joining them? But then there were rumors that as a whole the younger ones had been bought originally for the Immortan's son, and some of the older wives seemed to hold her in scorn because of that.
“You weren't originally chosen for the Immortan Joe like I was. You're only here because Rictus shoots nothing but blanks and now the Immortan Joe has to start all over.”
Capable shrugged it off; the words meant nothing to her. For all their venom, they might as well have been speaking a foreign language to her, meaningless words of pettiness.
But the animosity gave her a measure of anxiety; was it impossible to make friends in this world?
But no, she had Anghard; she knew Angharad was here. Capable had heard someone speak her name.
She wondered what kept Angharad away, and her thoughts were full of worry, wondering if Angharad had been hurt or was being punished somehow, kept confined.
The Immortan Joe came in the evenings, and there was always a flurry and fluster of attention surrounding him. Capable was starting to get a feeling for the indicators of status; women like her, who were not ascertained to be bearing, were locked up most of the time with that hateful belt, for which only the Immortan had the key. A few others were free, and that meant that they were carrying children; one of the women was even far enough along to be showing, and that meant status.
So here, the belt-girt women hurried to his side, to help him out of his boots, to take the moist and saliva-slicked mask that he wore whenever he was outside of the Vault.
Beneath, was a strong and muscular body that was turning to fat with idleness, which was showing in the bulging seams of his clothing.
“Ah, Capable. Come, show daddy your new veil.” The Immortan gestured for her.
She didn't bother smiling; that was never her way even before her captivity, but she walked over deliberately from the other side of the Vault, where she had been doodling on the chalkboard.
She wiped her chalk-dusted fingertips on the edge of her dress, crumpling the linen, and the white disappeared into the pale fabric.
“Such a pretty face. You should smile more.” The Immortan's hand patted her cheek, and she blinked, unsure of what he wanted. The other women watched, and she could feel so many sets of jealous eyes on her.
“Oh, of course I didn't forget. How could I? A real life Engineer; how lucky am I to have such a capable wife?” The Immortan chuckled at his own joke and internally flinching, Capable remembered how much she had told him that first day, how the words came spilling out when he had asked, and how strange and distant she had felt from herself. The man had a kind of power that was undeniable, a charisma that baked off of him despite his coarsening looks and graying hair, his cold, reptilian eyes.
“Here, here. I haven't forgotten you at all, my pet. Take this.” Reaching into his black coat, he drew out a thick, black-bound tome.
“What's...” And her eyes widened seeing the worn, golden lettering; it was a genuine Urquhart. She had seen these before; her mother owned one that had been passed down through the generations, though this copy of the Handbook was almost untouched, unworn by generations of curious fingers.
She opened to the first page, and there on the inside of cover, was a neatly printed name:
G. Miliotis, 1945
There was a black smudge of a thumbprint obscuring most of the given name, but she held the book up to her nose, taking in the scent of dust and age, the sweet scent of an old library.
“There's that smile I was looking for. Come and give daddy a kiss,” Immortan Joe gestured, and clutching the Urquhart protectively to her heart, she let him kiss her.
When she first saw Angharad, it took Capable a moment to recognize her. Angharad's face had fined out with maturity; gone was the plump and rounded face of childhood, and the tiny freckles that had dotted her cheeks seemed to have disappeared. The old scars, of course, were still there (but were there more now? It was hard to say).
But this, this was undoubtedly her Angharad.
Angharad saw her from a distance and paused, before coming down to sit in one of the little wooden chairs before the chalkboard, the chair on the far right. Curious, Capable came to sit by her side, and soon the other wives joined them, some fussing in their seats. Days into this, Capable was still not accustomed to the belt and it seemed as though no one really was ever accustomed to it.
“Angharad? Is it really...” Capable felt over-tall for the little seat; her knees jutted up awkwardly.
Mildly, Angharad brought her finger to her lips. “Shh.”
An old woman came, bearing a book, and Capable wondered what this ritual meant.
“Say, are we-”
“If you have a question, you must first raise your hand,” Angharad whispered, loud enough to be heard by all, and the other wives tittered.
“All right, class. It's time for school. For the benefit of those of us just joining, that means that this is for the education and edification of all,” the old woman said sternly, and Capable recalled her name: Miss Giddy. Capable had briefly met her when she was first introduced to the Vault; the woman had a room on the second floor like they did, but away from the wives in general on the other side of the curving stairs.
But then she gave Capable a wink, and Capable realized that the sternness was merely a facade as behind her, she could hear the slow treading footsteps of one of the attendants.
“Picking up from where we last left off...” Miss Giddy said, as she opened the book to the right page and began to read in a clear, strong voice.
But there are two sorts of madness, the one that which the revengeful Furies send privily from hell, as often as they let loose their snakes and put into men's breasts either the desire of war, or an insatiate thirst after gold, or some dishonest love...
Capable stifled a yawn as she slowly lost track of the reader's words and her own thoughts grew convoluted, thinking of Angharad. It was hard sitting so close to Angharad without saying something, without reaching for her hand. She had too much to say; so many things she wanted to tell Angharad, so many things she wanted to ask Angharad. What had life been like? Was she all right? Was she hurt? What had happened since they were separated? The questions swirled in her head and--
“What do you think the author means here?” Miss Giddy asked, and coming to herself, Capable guiltily realized she was supposed to have been paying attention.
“The author thinks madness is a good thing,” one of the wives smirked. “It's in praise of madness. So obvious.”
The other women nodded, murmuring in agreement. Capable glanced to Angharad and noticed that Angharad's mouth was pursed in the tiniest of frowns.
“What about you, Capable?”
“Me?” Capable blinked, surprised to be called out.
“What do you think it means?”
“I don't...um. I don't know, really. I think we'd need more context...”
“Uneducated,” that particular wife who had answered initially whispered to another, very loudly so that Capable knew that it was meant to be heard, and together they giggled.
Capable stared at her hands, fingers gripped together tightly, and she could feel her ears turning hot, flushed with shame.
“I think,” Angharad said deliberately, “That in the context of the words, it's a satire. Obviously not meant to be taken seriously. Especially in the context of the time and place. Erasmus, right? A name like that means that he's one of the classics, from the very old days when religion and piety were taken very seriously.”
“Pfft, how do you know?”
“One need not have much background or education to distinguish insincerity from verity,” Angharad said icily. “It is utter foolishness to take words at face value. Often there are layers of meaning behind even the simplest statement.”
There was a long silence as the woman glared at Angharad, who ignored her with quiet dignity.
“All right then,” Miss Giddy broke the silent impasse. “Good discussion. But Angharad is right; this entire work is meant to be satire.”
“Excuse me,” Capable interjected, but then remembering the etiquette, she raised her hand.
“Yes? Capable?” Miss Giddy pointed to her.
“I'd like a definition of satire, please. Is it insincerity? Or is there more to it?”
The women giggled and whispered amongst themselves.
Capable endeavored to focus on Miss Giddy, to ignore the mockery and spite. She caught a glimpse of a line of text along Miss Giddy's left hand:
All Gaul is divided into three parts.
“Good question. It brings up an excellent point,” Miss Giddy said, rapping her knuckles against the chalkboard to get the attention of the chattering wives. “Definitions are very important to our understanding. Without clear definitions we cannot hope to understand anything properly. Who here can define satire?”
There was a pause, and Angharad looked down the line of wives mildly, before clearing her throat and speaking.
And at that moment, Capable felt that Angharad was still protecting her, still by her side, a secret ally and friend until class was dismissed; while Miss Giddy beckoned for her to stay to discuss some points about what she knew and how she had been previously educated, Angharad disappeared upstairs before Capable could stop her.
The next day was a busy one; the Immortan Joe took Capable out with him to inspect the farm up above, and she spent the day amongst the green, her eyes and her heart quietly singing joyously with the beauty of the dusty farm and the golden waste beyond, despite the corpse-like War Boys that haunted the terraces, weeding and watering, doing the quiet work that kept the Citadel alive.
A few days later, Angharad made her way down the stairs from the second floor. She looked irritable and exhausted, and her eyes were puffy, red from crying.
And she wasn't wearing a belt anymore.
“Angharad...” Capable felt a tremor move through her like a deep ocean current and her eyes filled with tears, her vision blurring.
Angharad swept past her in her diaphanous veil, as though she didn't recognize Capable.
Capable caught her by her trailing sleeve.
“Anghard, it's me. Capable...”
“Like I didn't know.” Angharad jerked her sleeve out of Capable's grip. “You're the reason why he doesn't like me anymore.”
“Interloper. You'll never take my place. I'm the one he calls Splendid.” Turning on her heel, Angharad disappeared back upstairs.
“Angharad?” But Capable noted which room Angharad retreated to, and she followed.
“Are you all right?” Capable stood outside the closed curtain, and stared at the thick, roughly woven fabric.
“Interloper. Thief. Go away.” Angharad's voice was muffled. As Capable worked on gathering her thoughts, a War Pup appeared, bearing a tray of food, each dish covered with a chipped ceramic plate to keep it warm. The boy folded back the edge of the curtain and set the food inside the room, taking away a tray with emptied and dirty dishes.
“It's you. You're going to make a mess of things.”
“Me?” Capable leaned against the rough-hewn stone. The cold seeped through the flimsy fabric of her clothing.
“I was the favorite, and now...”
“I don't understand.”
“You couldn't.” When she could hear Angharad's sobbing, Capable knew she couldn't stay away.
Carefully, she slipped past the curtain, gingerly stepping over the tray.
“No, go away.”
“I'm sorry.” She offered Angharad her hand, but Angharad only flinched away.
“You shouldn't be in here. It's not polite.”
“No, it's not.”
“Then why aren't you leaving?”
“Because I wanted to apologize.”
“For what?” Angharad sat up in her bed, and in the dim and hazy light that filtered through the curtain, her face was streaked with tears.
Capable sat down beside her, careful not to touch her.
“For being away so long. For leaving you alone...I couldn't help it.”
“I know. I know you couldn't help it. It wasn't your fault, but I was waiting so long, alone by myself...”
“You don't have to wait anymore.” Cautiously, Capable set her hand on Angharad's and she caught a glimpse of Angharad's panicked eyes, but Angharad did not take her hand away.
They sat silent for a long time, and eventually, Capable put her arms around those familiar shoulders, even though to her eyes Angharad was still a stranger, so much older now that the past seemed almost but a dream.
“Let me tell you about our world, Angharad. There are some new people that live with us now in our home. Their names are Cheedo and Toast. In the upstairs on the top floor, we've moved some of the books so that we have a space for music. And all the extinct and dead instruments that can no longer be played anymore, well, they've been restored. We'll learn how to play them. Some you play with your breath and others with just your hands and fingers. No one knows how they work anymore, but I know that together we can figure it out. Oh, you should choose one that you like; I've already chosen mine. Remind me to give you a detailed list and description soon. There are so many. I know it wasn't very fair of us to pick without you, but there are so many that I think you'll have plenty of choices and besides, even were we to both play the same instrument, it wouldn't be a problem.
“Then, once we know how to play the instruments and make music, all of us, even Toast and Cheedo, we will dance...”
It wasn't the same. They couldn't return to their world the same way as before. Their world had been colored with new knowledge, changes that shivered just beyond the horizon of their grand home of imagination like an earthquake beneath their feet, rattling the clear panes of glass and threatening to crack the foundation.
Years of petty, jealous rivalry had left Angharad poisoned. While they were now on speaking terms, there was a certain way that Angharad would look at her, bitter, that made Capable wonder what she had been through, what kind of harrowing loneliness she had suffered in these long years apart, long enough to be nearly a lifetime to them.
Capable knew it down to the day, how long she had been apart from Angharad, and every day that she added to the new tally, the time of their reunion, it seemed that the distance between them yawned ferocious, a distance that she had only briefly bridged.
Eventually she saw the pattern of it; it was obvious. The Immortan Joe's very existence destabilized the world of the Vault, and his little games made it so much the worse. Capable found herself being loaded with privileges; outings, thoughtful gifts that represented what he thought she would like, and then he would shift his favor to someone else, meant to leave her wondering what she had done wrong to displease him.
When in fact, it was nothing in particular but the whims of the master of the Citadel.
She wondered why no one else could see it, could see the pattern of favoritism, the self-satisfied gleam in the Immortan Joe's eyes when he watched as two of the girls glared at each other or whispered nasty things to each other, wholeheartedly enjoying the friction that he caused.
So she decided that she would be utterly indifferent, one way or the other; it was a poisoned cup she would rather not drink from, wanting his eyes on her.
And it was easy to hold steadfast to that resolve, until he started taking her out more and more, and she realized that he was courting her in his own way, with the one fabulously expensive gift that no one else in their entire world could match: freedom, or at least the facsimile of it, something that every parched and weary soul could not help but desire.
Capable could not refuse the bitter brew; the Prime Imperator watched with sharp eyes as she drank it down obediently. It made her wonder what was to happen, but eventually whatever was in the drink kicked in and she stopped caring, stopped worrying, stopped wondering.
The world suddenly seemed like a beautiful place.
The Imperator drew her veil over her head for her, covering her hair and handed her the air mask, which she held to her face as he carried the purification canister.
Following the Immortan Joe's retinue, guarded before and behind by two pairs of Imperators, they made the long walk to War Tower, crossing the swaying bridges. In the War Tower, obedient to his will, ghostly War Boys darted out of their path, making way for them.
Imperators helped her up into the Gigahorse after the Immortan Joe; she sat beside the Immortan and absently, he fondled and caressed her as they went down the lift. It didn't trouble her in the slightest; after all, there was so much to see. The great metal heart of the central shop, the massive mechanical wheels that turned the world of the War Boys, the miserable lot of Wretched that ran the mills works. She wondered what the gear ratio was; it was hard to tell from this angle.
The Gigahorse was set down with a shudder. When Immortan Joe started it up, the rumble of the twin V8 engines could be felt in her very bones, and it was a pure, unadulterated power that coursed through the whole of her body.
Capable shivered with the feeling; it was lovely, the perfect tandem of the massive engines, and the pleasure of it went straight down from the top of her scalp into her toes.
They tore off past the crowds of Wretched pressed against the invisible boundary between the road and the land, and Capable laughed as the force of the vehicle pushed her back in her seat. Sitting behind her, the Prime Imperator steadied her shoulders so she wouldn't be tossed about as the Gigahorse roared into the waste, flags flapping violently in its turbulent wake.
The rest of the day was spent in a pleasant blur watching vehicles and their War Boys try to outdo each other in mock battle. The Gigahorse was parked on a bit of high ground overlooking a great plain, the hard-packed soil kicking up clouds of dust as the cars fought. Cheers went up whenever a car was symbolically killed with splotches of wet white; many of the Citadel's War Boys were assembled to watch the proceedings. As well were vehicles and War Boys from Gastown and the Bulletfarm; this was apparently a seasonal spectacle, a festival day with little work and mostly play. War Boys perched up high on their vehicles to watch. A few were even suspended in midair on tall poles, watching and cheering.
Curious to see where the other Imperators went when they left, she leaned over to peer out the window. Capable caught glimpses of the bare heads of the lower-ranked Imperators and when they strode a little further from the shadow of the hulking vehicle, she could see that they were armed to the teeth, keeping a perimeter around the Gigahorse, defying the curious eyes of those who wished to come closer.
As he did when they first assembled on the plain, Immortan Joe presently made his way out of the back door of the Gigahorse. She stayed where she was; as before, he was probably going to give some kind of a speech to close out the festivities. But then Immortan Joe gestured. Uncomprehending, she stared at him, unsure of what he wanted; did he want her to follow? When she didn't move, the Prime Imperator picked up the air canister and by necessity, she followed, holding the air mask to her face.
The wind surprised her; it swept her veil off her head and tugged at her hair, tangling it with unseen fingers, pulling it free from its shroud of white.
“Immorta! It's the Immorta! And Immortan Joe!”
“Morsov! That's just a girl with red hair. The Immorta wouldn't need an air mask.”
But the harsh voice that had cut through the throng was drowned out by the shouting of men, War Boys lifting their hands in the V8 in abject adulation. Overcome by the sudden, intense scrutiny, Capable felt Immortan Joe's rough hand clasping her shoulder tight, steadying her as she swayed, knees weak.
Her hand went lax. The mask briefly slipped from her face.
Capable caught the briefest breath of the air outside, dusty, bitterly laced with harsh exhaust fumes from the cars, but somehow beyond that, the emptiness of the waste, the faint herbal scent of parched, sun-baked scrub and clean dust and the great open sky beyond where no birds flew and the mountains that rose massive and
Standing by her side, the Prime Imperator carefully pressed the mask to her face tighter and the scents of the outside world were gone, replaced by bland, filtered air.
“It's not fair. That should be me going to see the War Games.” Angharad's weeping would not cease, and it made her briefly, vaguely fear for the life inside of her; she had lost one already, unable to bring it fully to term. But that she could, that was what was important, so she would keep trying, not for herself but for him.
She remembered the first time she had gone to see the War Games, years ago, and it was a wonderful day, exciting, doted upon by all, the darling of the Citadel, cheered on by War Boys and Imperators alike, raised up high on the Gigahorse.
“Shh.” Miss Giddy stroked Angharad's fair hair, limp and wilted from her confinement. She sat perched on the edge of the stone bed. “Mustn't be so upset; you'll make yourself ill.”
“It's not fair. I'm the one he holds most valuable. I'm the favorite. Not her. He calls me Splendid. She's just Capable. Just because she's younger and prettier...”
“Ah, for all your cleverness, you didn't know?”
Miss Giddy paused, waiting for her to look up, waiting for Angharad to meet her steady gaze.
“Angharad. There is always a girl called The Splendid.”
Angharad's eyes closed, and she pressed her face to the tear-dampened tangle of blankets caught in her arms.
“And it was so splendid, so lovely! I didn't know there were so many War Boys! I even saw Bullet Boys and Flamers and Polecats. Oh, there was just so much to see! I think the gear ratio might be 1:1 direct drive. I mean, for the lifts that bring up the cars. There are so many people that power it that it seems like 1:1 would make sense. I wish there was someone I could ask.” Capable managed a smile. “But now I have a little bit of a headache, and it must have been from the wind...”
“Capable. Come; sit with me. There's a place I want to show you.” And Angharad took her hand, and they went down the stairs into the trough of stone that girt the Vault, where just beyond the glass panes the dying light of the sun melted the sky crimson.
“Where are we going?”
“Our world.” Angharad winked, and drawing Capable along, they ducked in amongst the green plants, growing strong and vigorous in their heavy earthenware pots, speckled with droplets of water that clung to their sleeves.
“I thought that was imaginary.”
“It goes wherever we go. Come on.” Angharad led her around to the end, and there was a little nook, hidden in the corner, where they could sit on a lip of carved stone, smooth-chipped and chiseled, though rough around the edges where the builders had not finished it off entirely. Pipes ran along the curve of the trough here, hidden around the bend of stone from sight, the quiet mechanical work of the Citadel that went on without their knowing, like the almost inaudible hum of the scrubbers that purified the air, and the electrical buzz of the lights that seemed to always be on.
“Look. Here it is again. Just like when we were children.” And Angharad pointed between the pipes; again the builder's mark, the turned A hidden in the deep shadow of the fitted pipes.
“Following us wherever we go.” Capable touched it, and remembered the past.
“It reminds me of when we were children,” Angharad sighed, and she took a lock of Capable's hair. “Didn't we used to say that when we grew up, we would be married to each other?”
“Yes.” Afraid to know what this meant now, now that everything was different, whether this presaged fond memories or mockery, Capable looked out of the distorted glass, seeing the War Tower and the waste beyond, and she steeled herself for the worst. “I remember.”
“Why not now?” Angharad twined the end of a long, curling crimson lock around her slender finger. “With rings of gold upon our hands...”
“Why not?” With a sigh, Capable rested her aching head against Angharad's shoulder, their hair tangled red and gold, and she closed her eyes.
It was dark when Capable woke, and a faint amber light seeped into their safe little nook from somewhere above their heads. All around them was the damp, green scent of plants. Soft, questing leaves stroked against their bare legs, and bright moonlight glowed through the glass windows, leaching color out of everything it touched, leaving them as white as War Boys.
“It's our world, isn't it? We're in our world...you and me.”
“Yes. As long as we can make it ours.”
“Good.” Drowsy, she closed her eyes again. “I'm glad.”
“Listen. I brought you here because I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry. About earlier. About everything. I've been thinking about it. I was in the wrong. Terribly so.”
“No. Don't be.” Capable drew closer, and as she woke more fully, she remembered the darkness around them, the the bite of the unforgiving belt chained against her hips, the weight of the stone around them, the prison of the Citadel. “There's nothing to forgive.”
“I'm sorry, but I must disagree.”
“Angharad. Whatever's happened to you...whatever you've suffered since we were separated. Know that I'll always love you.” Capable said very quietly, saying the words she had never dared speak aloud when she was a child. “No matter what.”
For words that were so heavy, she knew that it would take time to sink in, and so Capable waited in silence until they did. Capable knew that the words had soaked into the parched soil of the world around them when Angharad sighed.
“No matter what?” But the way Angharad said it, it was as though she were testing the words on her tongue, as if to taste the words for the assurance of truth, more so than a question.
“No matter what.” Capable drew her close, to press a kiss to Angharad's pale cheek. Cradled in familiar arms, they stayed together in moonlit darkness, speaking quietly to each other about all the things they had missed over the years, until his booming voice reminded them that they could not hide away forever.
Chapter 4: The Wheel
Warnings for implied rape and abuse.
They ran a barebones outfit for the night patrol, just one support truck, one car, and one Moto-Lancer. Every turn of the full moon, two small patrols were sent out to make sure that Bandits and Buzzards didn't get any fresh ideas about setting up ambushes for the Citadel convoys; they ran from moonrise to moonset, scouting for intruders.
In the moonlit darkness, the barren ground of the waste was white-painted, stippled with blue-black shadows, and it seemed that the ghostly moon stripped all the world of color.
Looking up at the scarred white moon, two slivers shy of full, Slit felt something of a kinship.
He leaned against the supporting strut of the Lancer's basket, sharp eyes on the road, but his right hand moved absently, fingertips tracing figures through the dust that caked the top of the car.
As he drew, the images disappeared almost as quickly as he could make them, obscured by new layers of dust kicked up by the night patrol.
The trailing end of the cold season marked the beginning of the season of war, and Slit woke early for the War Games, to wash, shave, and touch up his white before everyone else did.
Slipping out from under Nux's lax arm, he dusted himself off in a corner and strode into the warren.
There was a pleasing silence to the Citadel at this hour, so early that it was still fully dark. He went to the wastewater catchment. By the heat of the expelled flames from the forges, he stripped down and washed off, scrubbing himself quickly with the cold water.
Footsteps and Slit tensed, but it was only Morsov.
Morsov stood on the other side of the catchment, his reflection thrown warped onto the rippling water.
“How come you're all smudged? You been fightin?” Slit asked, even though he knew the answer.
“No, I'm fine.” Morsov seemed to move a little slow; fatigue perhaps or something else. But then when he stripped down hesitantly, half-hidden in shadow, Slit could see the bruises on his bare thighs, and when Morsov scrubbed off the white, there were livid, dark marks encircling his wrists.
Slit's jaw tightened.
“Get a new Driver. You don't have to put up with it. Even if he's a Driver, he doesn't have the right to treat you like trash.”
“No, I'm fine. It's not that bad. Just don't tell anyone. Especially don't...don't tell Nux.”
“Look. It's not that I care.” Slit met Morsov's eyes over the distance, across from the water, and Morsov's eyes shone with the reflected flames of the forges. “It's that Nux'll be mad when he finds out that I knew and I didn't tell him. So you better just leave your Driver. Ride with Stonker. You'd have a good time with him; he thinks you're more chrome than chrome itself. Asks after you all the time, like I know anything about what you're doing with yourself.”
“Stay out of it, Slit.”
“You gonna put up with it, or you gonna walk back to the Buzzards this time? Cuz ain't another Citadel for you to walk to with War Boys to eat you up.”
Slit could hear Morsov cursing harshly as he rinsed himself off, but to his surprise, Morsov didn't cross the water to come and fight him.
It made sense; the water separating them was deep and very cold.
Black for the Citadel, red for Bulletfarm, and yellow for Gastown. The flares marked the opening of the War Games, and the drums pounded their beat, the Imperator on board giving the drummers the cue and the Doof Warrior following the changing beat of the drummers, adjusting his yowling song seamlessly, functioning as one perfectly synchronized unit.
Slit stood with the unmatched Lancers for his third War Games, the oldest and most experienced of the group. Everyone was decked out in their finest coats of fresh white, dabbed lightest over carved marks so that the pink of new scars would show through. All around, black engine grease had been touched up artfully; Slit saw more than one War Boy helping another with their black.
The younger, newer Lancers chatted cheerfully amongst themselves, wondering who they'd ride with, who they'd have for their crew. Would it be on a support truck with a handful of other mates? Riding Moto-Lancer? Plow? Caltrops? A pursuit car? There was talk this year about using some of the unpaired Lancers as supplemental Lancers for the War Rig, but that was a rumor that had been going around for some time now without any sign of it coming to pass.
“Oi! Slit! What's the best way to get a Driver?” A cocky young Lancer asked, and by the glint of malice in his eyes, Slit could tell that he had been put up to this, a dare or a bet.
“To not be you,” Slit said lightly, and the Lancer's mates laughed. When the Lancer came at him, fists flying, Slit sidestepped him without a word. A Half-life Noble darted over to break it up, dragging the young Lancer away with some sharp words, and that was the end of that.
Slit took a deep breath and forced his hands to unclench.
“Slit.” Nux stopped by sometime later, hands black from working the engines. “What's going on? I heard there was a fight.”
“Good. I was afraid it was you.”
Slit shrugged and showed Nux his knuckles. “Not a scrape.”
Nux nodded, glancing around at the other Lancers briefly, seeing the pointed looks at Slit. “FDK needs a quick toe and camber adjustment. I want you to come and gauge the balance for me. You've got the best eye for this sort of thing.”
Slit nodded, and followed along. As he walked away, he saw another Lancer dry heaving. Disgusted, he looked away; some people got sick from the anticipation of riding up top, but he never had anything close to that.
It was just another day to him.
“Don't let it get you down.” The Ace patted Coil's back firmly. “Everyone changes when they get behind the wheel. It's the extra responsibility, all the work. Probably you were different too when you made Driver.”
Coil shook his head. “Ever since the initiation, things have been different. Can't quite put my finger on it, but it's like she's not really here anymore...”
“Ain't anything a body can do about it but wait it out. Give her time to adjust; you'll see. She's always been the serious type, the kind that minds her responsibilities. If she's short with you, it's because she's under a lot of pressure to perform. Gotta do you justice; if she ain't better 'n you, people'll talk, make it sound like she stole your ride from you.”
“Yeah but...” Coil shook his head. “When was the last time she talked to you?”
The Ace tilted his head thoughtfully. “Dunno, been a while, I guess? Been busy, but everyone's been busy gettin ready for this.”
“And what?” The Ace turned to meet Coil's eyes.
“Almost done with the adjustment, Lancer. Two minutes!” Furiosa called out, straightening up from beside the FDK.
Coil sighed. “It's nothing. I just miss her, that's all.” He pulled down his goggles and drew up the black dustwrap around his face. Raising his voice, Coil waved to Furiosa. “Ready!”
Quickly, he headed back to the car. A Blackthumb gave him the thumbs up, the crew moving away from the vehicle as he stepped into the basket, his hands light on the grips.
Coil looked to her from the open top door, at the back of her smooth, whitened head, wondering what her thoughts were, wondering if she would ask him about his talk with the Ace, but she said nothing, just settled deeper into her seat as she started the car and put it in gear.
Soon enough, the rush of wind around his ears reminded him of the task at hand and there could be no further time for reflection.
“Polecats make better scouts than fighters,” Slit said as they watched the games, perched on the cab of the support truck.
“Better not let any of them hear you say that,” Nux nudged Slit with his elbow. “I'm not dragging you out of a fight if that happens.”
“I'd be fine. They're not much for hand-to-hand,” Slit said, his eyes on the polecat in the distance as the War Boy tried to stick a landing on a half-rig. “They're only good for landing on big rigs, and how many big rigs are out there in the waste? Just us 'n Gastown. It's not practical.”
“Maybe not, but maybe it'll come in handy one day. At least, the skills are useful. I heard they can pluck a captive straight out of a car if they want to.”
“Assuming they can keep pace? Assuming the top door's open? Assuming no one's shooting? See, that's why I think Lancers are superior to- bah! Mediocre!”
“Pace, pace!” Nux shouted, shaking his fist as in the distance, the metronome fell half a second behind the half-rig.
“If that Polecat had been a few feet lower, he would have been dragged under the wheels. Impractical.” Slit pointed. “That's why the whole concept is stupid.”
“That's why it's War Games, Slit. For practice.”
“Practice doesn't matter if you're doing it wrong.” Slit scowled. “Gotta practice right if you want any good out of it.”
“Maybe but-” Nux sighed, exasperated. “Slit, you gotta go get ready. I'll be watching when you're riding.”
“I'm not riding this time,” Slit surprised himself by saying the words aloud, and then he scowled, staring at his clenched hands.
“I don't know! I just don't want to do it anymore.”
“Maybe I'm tired of trying to find a Driver. I don't care if I ride daily patrol forever.” Slit vaulted off the support truck. “It's nothing great, but it's still riding. I'm tired of putting on this show. If a Driver really wants me, he'll come and ask. I'm not doing anything extra.”
“You can't break a ride with the Ace.”
Slit paused and then spat on the ground, turning to give the support truck's tire a series of vicious kicks, one after the other, and then he took a long, shuddering breath.
“I'll be watching you when you're riding.”
“Yeah.” Angry, Slit stalked back toward the Lancer pool. They would be going through their paces soon, but he took his time, walking back deliberately.
“Oi! There he is!”
“Slit, dummy. Pay attention.”
“That's Slit all right. What's he have that he's gotta be so proud? Everyone knows he let that Driver die.”
“Didn't even try to shield the poor War Boy.”
“Tsk. Would have died from shame if it was me. Don't know how he can show his face around here.”
“Why wasn't he busted down to Revhead?”
“Oh, he's got the Ace at his back and everyone knows that War Boy's in good with the Imperator. That's what you get when you get raised up from a pup; head of the line in everything and a big head to go with it. Rest of us, we had to work hard to make Lancer. Must be nice.”
“Huh? What's going on?”
“You didn't hear about it? You must be really new to this. That's the guy who let his Driver die. It was on the daily patrol, one of the new Drivers got shot out from under him the first time they went out together. That was maybe what, three hundred days ago?”
“No, longer than that. Probably closer to five, six hundred.”
“Even if it wasn't my Driver, I would take the bullet for any Driver. It's just what you're supposed to do.”
“It's not just what you're supposed to do; it's the right thing to do. Can't believe someone would not understand it. Basic principle of the road! Drivers are more valuable than Lancers!”
“That's true, but be fair. Can't blame him because no one knows for sure what happened. Sometimes the bullet's just too fast for the Lancer, even if they got eyes on. If you're not on the perch or up top, all it takes is a road warrior with a fast draw and a good eye. All sorts of strange things happen on the road. Could tell you stories overheard from past crew that'd make your toes curl.”
“No listen, get this; I heard that Slit tried to argue that he deserved taking the wheel. Like you can inherit from someone you're not even crewed with. And a car from the patrol pool too. No one owns those. That's why they don't got names, just numbers.”
“Is that a lot of guts or a lot of stupidity?”
“Some boys'll do whatever they think it takes to drive. Me, I'm not worried about that. I'd rather just ride. Nothing wrong with being a Lancer.”
“Nope. Almost the same wages as a Driver without all the hassle of worrying about setups and crews and getting parts. Gotta mate who's a Driver; he says it's like fighting an uphill fight sometimes just trying to get better tires. Don't even ask what happens if their engine gets trashed. That happened to him once and it was a real bad time getting a new one.”
“So he's bad? Um, Slit.”
“No, he's good on the car. Just ain't never gonna get a drive with that reputation.”
“Oh, don't forget; he also gets into fights with Drivers. You heard about him and Elvis?”
“Ha! Have I heard about Slit and Elvis? I was actually there to see it.”
“Slit rode with Elvis provisionally once. They got into a huge row over orders. Elvis thrashed him.”
“It was epic, mate. You should have been there. The Imperator had to break it up.”
“That's just ridiculous. Lancers are supposed to follow Driver orders, no backchat. That's why you're called crew and not boss.”
“Oh, wow. Can't imagine fighting the Driver. They're...they're in charge. Why would you do that? It's their drive; you're the one getting a ride...”
“Right? I can't believe that someone would-- Oh, shh. He's coming over.”
“Heads up, fool. It's Slit.”
Slit ignored the buzz of conversation and walked up to the practice car, stepping lightly into the Lancer's basket, feeling the springiness of the platform beneath his feet. Too flat, he thought; it could be improved by tilting the angle of the basket in by about a tenth of a rad, and the suspension on the practice car was all mush.
“Ready, Slit?” The Ace called out from behind the wheel, his commanding voice easily cutting through the thrum and roar of engines. That was the Ace's way. Slit was late mounting up; he knew it, he knew the Ace knew it, and he knew that the Ace wouldn't dress him down until later, after the fight.
The thoughtfulness set Slit's teeth on edge.
Slit glanced over at the other two practice cars; crew lead Moki was driving one, and in the third, he couldn't see the other Half-life Noble, but he had his guesses as to who was driving.
Slit gave the lances a cursory rattle, banged the top of the car twice, and they took off.
Typical for Half-life Nobles, the Ace lacked finesse, but he got the job done. The cornering wasn't as tight as a practiced Driver, and the occasional handbrake turn was done with such crudeness and violence that were Slit a weaker Lancer, he would have easily been thrown off, but whatever the case, the positioning was always good, or at least good enough to work with.
They remounted between battles; he picked up new practice lances every time, knowing he never needed more than two, and often only needed one, letting one car kill the other, and picking off the survivor.
Raising his head high and straightening his shoulders proudly, Slit knew his car was unmatched.
They went out again and again.
Slit slowly worked his way through the field, killing car after car with numb, mechanical disinterest. It became no more than a dull chore after the first four or five; after a while he was tempted to fail just to stop so he could get a drink of water and rest, he knew he couldn't, not when he was so close to perfection.
Last year he was one shy of perfect, and the first year he was two.
If only it were a challenge, he thought. He began making up new rules for this game; see if he could lance the other car from further and further away, see how well he'd do left-handed. He started making some mistakes in the process, sloppy errors, but they were still legal hits.
“Slit! Stop fooling around up there,” the Ace shouted, after he was more than half a second behind on the placement, daring the other Lancer to try throwing first, but then throwing before the other Lancer could raise his weapon.
“Yeah, yeah.” Slit muttered and made the next hit without hesitation, his eye sure and his arm fast.
It was over. Slit hopped out of the Lancer's basket before the car came to a complete stop. While the Lancers were lined up to be seen so that unpaired Drivers could make their acquaintance and make their choices, Slit slipped off into the crowds gathered round to watch.
“Black car, third skirmish. Who was riding?”
“Stow! Right here!”
“Silver! Fifth round. Tell me who that Lancer was; I have to know.”
“Should be Bucket but he went off for a crap. He'll be back soon enough. Say, did you see the Lancer on the rust-red?”
Slit strode off purposefully. He knew better than to hope for a place.
Slit continued walking; it was unlikely that anyone that he didn't know would be calling for him.
A hand clasped down firmly on his shoulder, and Slit twisted around, pushing the strange hand off, his heart pounding.
Mouth dry, Slit shoved his hands into his pockets to cover the shakes.
“Hey.” A War Boy in overalls smiled. Gastown from the looks and smells of it, Slit thought, and he took a deep breath, one after another, trying to calm his pounding heart.
“Me 'n my mate, we're Anchor Boys.” The Gastown War Boy pointed back to the car; his partner was leaning against the engine block at the base of the Polecat's perch and the partner waved when he noticed he was being pointed out. “Saw you on the practice runs. The rust-red, right?”
“Yeah. That was me.”
“Thought you did real good up there, and looked good doing it. Why don't you come and make friends with us? We thought you might look even better between us, up on the pole.”
Slit narrowed his eyes; the War Boy seemed enthusiastic, even sincere, but he knew it wasn't to be trusted. Slit searched the War Boy's face for signs of mockery, contempt.
“Come on, Citadel Boy. We'll have fun together, the three of us. You're a good-looking Lancer. We're not bad ourselves. Why don't you climb our pole, see how it feels?”
“All right. Fine.” Slit's mouth moved into a parody of a smile. If they wanted to play at this sort of game, he would gladly comply.
Deliberately misunderstanding, Slit strode briskly over to the Polecat's perch and stepped up onto the engine block base. Before the other Anchor Boy could say anything, Slit started climbing up the pole, one hand at a time, gripping it with the inner curve of his boots and propelling himself upward with his legs.
“Wait, not--” The Anchor Boy scrambled back to his position, shooting his partner a nervous look.
“H-hey! Lancer! You're not supposed to be up there! Get back down before our Polecat sees!”
Slit hauled himself hand over hand. There was something gratifying to be even half-way up; he could see the entire field from here, even into the Gigahorse.
His breath caught; the Immortan was in there, and Slit could see him clearly, though the Immortan was looking away, toward the waste.
There was a girl in the Gigahorse with the Immortan; she had red hair, and their eyes met briefly over the distance.
She pointed to him in excitement.
Slit glanced away, hiding the scarred right side of his face from her, even though it meant he couldn't look into the Gigahorse anymore. So he climbed up to the top perch where he could no longer see her and she could no longer see him, and he shouted down to the Anchor Boys.
“Unhitch the block. Wanna try how this pole feels when it's swinging.”
Exasperated, the Anchor Boys shook their heads at each other and tried to coax Slit down.
In the lull between games, all clustered on the practice field; War Boys from all the settlements mingling. They traded tools, services, or training; traded gossip, swapped stories. Coil watched a Bullet Boy chant the V8 against pain; all the War Boys in line and the Bullet Boy's mates joined in as the red-hot edge of a knife sliced along the Bullet Boy's chest, carving the flames in deep. Coil stood amidst the throng of War Boys watching; others were waiting for their turn with the talented Revhead that was doing the work, gifting in kind with tools or food bars.
“Coil! Is that you?” A hand clasped Coil's shoulder firmly.
“Huh?” Coil turned and looking down, caught a glimpse of bright eyes shadowed behind a familiar mask. “Hey! Kelly! Kellydrive!”
Laughing, the Polecat raised himself up on his toes and embraced Coil fondly, the bottom edge of his moulded mask digging against Coil's shoulder. “Been a long time! It's always too long between War Games.”
“Yeah. You've grown, haven't you?” Coil smiled, and glanced around; Furiosa was nowhere in sight. Secretly, he was relieved.
“Just another finger. Don't think I'll get much taller, not on my rations. Coil, did you miss me?”
“Always. Every turn of the moon.” Coil put his arm around the little Polecat, liking the warmth of the Polecat's darkly tanned skin, black-stained from the refineries of Gastown. He stroked his hand lightly along the Polecat's back, feeling shifting muscles beneath the Polecat's loose shirt.
“What's happened with you since last War Games? Thought you were a Driver? But I saw you riding Lancer today, on a silver buggy. With long pipes spitting flames on the hard throttles.”
“That was me,” Coil managed a smile. “Once a Lancer, always a Lancer.”
“What's with the black? Don't remember you wearing that last time.” Kelly gestured, pointing to Coil's forehead. “Oh, oh! A Lancer! Yes, Citadel Boys do that. Did you get demoted?”
“Of course not. Gave up my ride for my Lancer.”
“Ah, your Furiosa, the one you called fearless.” Arm in arm, they strolled deliberately away from the crowd, and Coil could feel a stirring anticipation. “Your crewmate. You gave him your drive? You must really like him.”
“No, no, it's not like that. Furiosa's just a better driver than me. Can't say I'm a better Lancer, but I manage.”
“If I had a mate like that, I would never leave his side. Am I stealing you from him?” Kelly's bright eyes widened. “Tell me I'm not, because I wouldn't want to shunt a crew.”
“You're no shunter, Kels.” Coil sighed. “You ask this every time and...you know that we don't--ah. That is. It's not like that between us.”
“That's just too bad for him,” Kelly pushed off his helmet and winked, and Coil smiled to see the deep smears of black around the Polecat's eyes, his black-painted mouth, and the paler tawny skin of his face where it was untouched by sunlight, protected by the mask. “Come on, let's go to your car...”
“Can't. It's not mine anymore.”
“No? Oh, right. Then does that mean we can't...?” Kelly looked at him expectantly, and there was a note of disappointment in his voice.
“Thought ahead.” Coil winked and tapped his blackened forehead. “Come on; I borrowed a ride for the afternoon.”
“Will they mind?”
“Tran's a good friend. He said as long as we clean up, he won't mind. He's close enough to his Lancer that they don't make new friends from outside the Citadel.”
“Too bad for them. Or maybe I should say lucky for them. And lucky for me.” Kelly clung to his arm, resting his head against Coil's shoulder briefly. Coil tightened his grip around the Polecat's shoulders.
Clambering into the confines of the car, Coil threw down a blanket on the narrow length of empty floor beside the driver's seat, tugging it smooth. Eagerly, the Polecat followed, closing the door behind him, the heavy tools in his trousers jingling as he stumbled into the car by Coil's side.
A swinging spanner clanged against Coil's knee, but the twinge of pain only made him smile; he could feel his heart pounding with anticipation.
Tossing off his mask, the Polecat leaned down for a kiss with black-painted lips, but Coil hesitated, drawing away.
Green eyes. He hadn't noticed before; nothing about the Polecat was like her in any way, but his eyes were almost the same shade as Furiosa's.
”Nothing. Aren't...aren't you uh. Worried about smearing your black?”
“Nah, I just put more on. Keeps my lips from drying out. We don't get as much water as you Citadel boys, so the grease helps, though it doesn't help much with the thirst. Besides, we're not supposed to show skin through our helmets, so anything that might show has to be blacked. But it would look bad if you were smeared black, wouldn't it?” Grinning, Kelly wiped his mouth off on the edge of his shirt. “Better?”
Coil paused, and then closing his eyes, drew the Polecat down for a lingering kiss, tasting petroleum jelly. He slid his hands under the Polecat's shirt, tugging it off to reveal the smooth skin below, surprisingly clean for a Polecat; they must have all scrubbed off for the War Games, but he couldn't help but think of her, imagining his hands running over her pale, slender shoulders, her bare breasts covered only with a thin coat of the white as he eased off that ragged bodice...
Coil's breath caught at the sharp surge of desire, and he twisted them around, briefly pinning the little Polecat to the musty blanket before getting a hold of himself.
“Coil!” The Polecat laughed, and he twined his arms around Coil's neck, pulling him close.
“Don't know what I was thinking.” Leaning on his elbow, Coil ran his fingertips down the Polecat's chest, tracing the Polecat's scars, the pock-marked scars from accidents and the slick marks of splattered burns, trying to stay focused on the Polecat's body so as not think of her.
“As long as you were thinking of me, the rest doesn't matter.” Kelly kissed him, exploring Coil's mouth with that clever, inquisitive tongue, and soon all thoughts were gone as it became a mad scramble, fumbling each other's trousers off in the dusty guzzoline-scented warmth of the car, bare legs tangled together as they explored each other with hands and mouths.
Afterwards, Coil lay back catching his breath, the Polecat nestled against the crook of his shoulder. Kelly ran a finger over a spiraled spring on Coil's chest, the small one over his heart.
“You always cry after.” Coil brushed off a tear with his thumb, and the black ran rivulets down the Polecat's cheeks, leaving dabs of gray on Coil's chest. “Why is that?”
“Happiness,” Kelly sniffled, and Coil ran his hand down the Polecat's arm, his hand smudging black along the Polecat's bicep.
“Happy to see you again. Happy to be here.”
“Mmm.” And Coil wished he could say the same, as honestly and sincerely as the Polecat, but again he thought of Furiosa. What it would be like to be in the FDK with her by his side, her drowsy head resting heavy against his chest the way Kelly's was...
Guilt gripped him; he was just glad she didn't know about this. This was his fourth War Games with Kellydrive, and there were two other Polecats before this one; a brief dalliance with a dark-eyed one who had a passing resemblance to Win the season after Win's death, and another whose name he had forgotten, long since witnessed, or at least that was what he had heard.
Banishing the thought, Coil closed his eyes, meaning to doze lightly for a few minutes. War Games were fleeting times to seek out a little pleasure and a little fun, without the restraints of the daily grind of runs and raids. Perhaps she would understand, but it was probably better that she didn't know...
“Si est dolor...” Kelly sang under his breath as Coil dozed off.
Furiosa asked around, but her Lancer was nowhere to be seen. His long black dustwrap was twined around her wrist; she had picked it up after he had carelessly left it dangling from the Lancer's perch.
It was still faintly damp from his sweat.
“Oh, last I saw, he was heading toward Tran's car,” someone mentioned. “Chatting with a little Polecat.”
The black buggy sat alone, away from the crowd of cars lined up for the Games. As she made her way over, dust kicked up in tiny puffs around her boots with each trudging step.
Furiosa wondered where he was.
As she drew closer to the car, there was a little sound; perhaps a muffled moan, and she slowed her approach, stepping forward lightly, cautiously, as though afraid, though of what she could not say.
Soon she was close enough to see into the window.
Coil's eyes were closed. There was an expression on his face she had never seen before. It took her a moment to identify it as pleasure.
The strange War Boy's mouth moved over him and Coil shuddered, hard enough to creak the suspension. The long fingers of his left hand gripped the frame of the open window tightly and she could hear his breaths coming fast and jagged and then he
Mortified, Furiosa flinched back with a choked gasp, hands pressed to her mouth. Torn between conflicting emotions, the desire to slake her curiosity, ambivalence, and outright anger, Furiosa stumbled away, fingers gripped tight on Coil's dustwrap, breathing in his scent as she ran.
Nux said nothing, but he put his arm around Morsov's shoulders, though gently as though he knew. Morsov wondered; had Slit already said something? Or was Slit waiting until after the Games, so that Nux could focus on the task at hand? All day, Nux had been running a crew of Revheads, marking the practice field, sending War Boys off to collect loose practice lances, filling containers with wet white to mark the kills, As a Driver in training, Nux was even entrusted to drive a support truck from the Citadel.
The new responsibilities seemed to sit well on Nux, as much as the newly-carved V8 on his chest, still pink and tender as though only carved yesterday, though it had been fifty days or more.
Slit on the other hand had come back with a souvenir; an Anchor Boy's thin black dustwrap, which he wore around his neck like a badge of honor. How he had acquired it, he wouldn't say.
Nux drew Slit close, draping his free arm around Slit, resting his head against Slit's shoulder.
“Almost done with the official work. Once the Immortan leaves, we'll be a little more free to enjoy ourselves.”
“Can't wait.” Morsov grinned. “Someone said there's a War Boy who can make belts fit better; I have one that rides up sometimes and I wanna get that fixed. And there's a Flamer I met earlier today; he's supposed to show me his ride. Never been in a Gastown car; you think it goes as fast as a Citadel car? And I heard there's a Bullet Boy who makes tiny cast iron wheels, with the Immorta at the center. I want to trade for one and sew it onto my bullet pocket. That'd be so shine. Oh, and I want to see if a Polecat'll let me up the perch. It's so high up. What do you think it's like?”
“Already did it,” Slit said, with an air of self-satisfaction. “It's all right, if you're into stuff like that.”
“Lucky! How'd you manage that?” But then there was a stir around the Gigahorse, and Immortan Joe stepped out, followed by the Prime Imperator and a veiled wife.
Just as the wind kicked up, the Immortan's hand moved; Nux didn't quite catch the swift motion, but he saw the outcome. Perhaps it was the wind, perhaps it was the Immortan, but whatever the case, pale, gauzy veil was torn free from her head, revealing her to the world.
Her hand went lax, and the air mask briefly dropped from her face.
Nux's breath caught. He remembered the last time he had seen her; she was just a girl then. But now she was grown, and she seemed so different, the face of a stranger.
There was a strange pang of pain at the flash of memory, but from what he did not know.
I'm Nux. A War Pup. The only voice he could recall in his memory was his own, speaking softly to a locked metal door, his shoulder cold against steel...
“Immorta! It's the Immorta! And Immortan Joe!”
“Morsov! That's just a girl with red hair. The Immorta wouldn't need an air mask.”
But all around, the call came. War Boys dropped to their knees in adulation, their hands raised high-octane in the V8. A few wept, tears smearing their cheeks gray.
For a moment, Nux felt dizzy and then realized he was holding his breath. He let it out and breathed deeply, wanting to believe that this was not merely a woman but the woman in the wheel, the Immorta, awesome in her majesty, enthroned in the sky above, she who became death, destroyer of worlds. Maker and mother of the new world, her flame hair tangling high about her head, the turning wheel of the sun and moon lighting a halo about her face. The moment passed quickly as an Imperator pressed the air mask back to her face.
The Immortan gestured for quiet, said a few stirring words, and retreated into the Gigahorse.
The three War Boys stayed together like that for a little longer, arms linked, talking of what they had seen. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, Slit drew away from Nux and went to Morsov's side, putting his arm firmly around Morsov's shoulder. Flanking Morsov on either side made Nux notice how much shorter Morsov was than either of them; they both towered over Morsov by almost an entire hand each.
Nux understood why Slit moved a moment later.
“Morsov!” Elvis' harsh voice cut through the crowd. “Time to go. We're heading back to the Citadel.”
“But I wanted to--”
“He's not going with you.” Slit said insolently, tightening his grip on Morsov's shoulder, his arm pressed against Nux's. “He's got business to take care of before going back. War Games aren't over til moonset, and it ain't even sundown.”
“The Immortan Joe hasn't even left yet,” Nux said reasonably. “Why not stay longer? That way we can all enjoy our time here. Why don't you join us, Driver? Heard there's an auto painting demo; we should all go to watch.”
Ignoring Nux, Elvis fixed hard, slate-blue eyes on Morsov.
“You've been avoiding me all day, Lancer. Where have you been? You been running around on me with a filthy Bullet Boy? A nasty little Gastown War Boy?” Elvis demanded, and before Morsov could reply, Slit stepped in.
“Go away. He's with us now.”
“You come back right now crew, or you're off my car.”
Morsov hesitated, but then Elvis darted forward to grab Morsov by the wrist.
Slit stepped between them, batting Elvis' hand away.
“Get out of my face, War Boy.” Slit's breaths were coming fast and harsh, and his hands curled up into white-knuckled fists.
“Ain't none your business, crew. Thrashed you once before, and I'll do it again.”
“Been looking for an excuse all day,” Slit snarled, and he punched at Elvis, twisting sharply to put the full weight of his body behind it.
“Fight! Fight!” War Boys shouted, cheering, and the Imperators around the Gigahorse peered over, curious. Later, there were stories circulating that even the Immortan Joe was watching, and that would have explained a lot as to what happened.
It was fast and brutal. Stronger, as fast as Slit and heavier built though not as tall, Elvis had Slit on the ground in seconds. Were it not for the combined interference of three nearby Half-life Nobles including the Ace, it would have been a lot uglier. As it was, Slit was lucky to get off without any broken bones or lost teeth.
Elvis struggled with the Half-life Nobles briefly, but then an Imperator stepped in, the Tertius, and drew the Driver aside for some words.
Nux offered Slit his hand, but Slit dragged himself up unsteadily out of the dust, bleeding from a split lip, bruises rising on his face.
“That was stupid,” Nux said. “You can't win against him.”
“At least I tried,” Slit licked his lips, and Morsov offered Slit his clean shop cloth.
The blood soaked into the black, leaving a darker stain.
“I think I lost my ride.” Numbly, Morsov glanced cautiously over at Elvis.
“Good. That filth of a Driver can go under the wheels for all I care,” Slit spat, and it was mostly blood.
Just as he said that, there was a minor commotion around the Gigahorse; Elvis was climbing up the side, getting onto the elevated platform on the back, his white standing in stark contrast to the darkly-tanned Imperators around him.
“Well.” Nux blinked. “Guess you did lose your ride. Does this mean you inherited a drive, Morsov?”
Morsov looked up at the great hulk of the Gigahorse as the engines growled to life. War Boys parted quickly to give it space. “He'll probably handpick his successor, even if the car is supposed to go back into the pool. Actually, what are the rules when your Driver makes Imperator?”
“Dunno. Never seen it happen before.” Nux sighed, watching the Gigahorse tearing off into the waste, heading back to the Citadel. He gauged the angle of the sun; it was still a few hours before dusk. Nux wondered what it would be like to be lifted up like that, to go from ordinary War Boy to living the high life in the Immortan's Tower, serving at the redeemer's side, all in less than the span of a day. What it would be like to be so close to that girl at the Immortan's side...
“Yeah.” Wincing, Slit rubbed at a rising bruise on his chin.
“Probably too late this season to get another ride. Any Driver that was looking probably already has a Lancer picked out after today. Guess it's back to the daily patrol.”
“Bad timing. But a lot can happen between this season and the next,” Nux suggested. “Maybe you'll get a ride before then.”
“Maybe. I actually miss riding patrol with you, Slit. It's actually more fun on the road when you're there.”
“Eh.” Slit shrugged, looking away awkwardly.
“Thanks, by the way.” Morsov reached over to Slit, but Slit sidestepped him, avoiding contact.
“It wasn't for you.” Slit glanced at Morsov, and then briefly fixed his eyes on Nux before retreating into the crowd.
By the time Coil came back to the car, Furiosa had had enough time to compose herself, to dry off the senseless, angry tears that had sprung up unexpectedly. She knew she shouldn't be angry. He had his own needs. Everyone knew what the War Games were good for; how could she not have thought that he might not want something for himself too?
But she had thought Coil was different. Furiosa decided that that must have been why she was so upset; that was what had made it hurt. That in the years she knew him, she had thought he was above all the nonsense, above the scrimmage of flirtation and dalliances, above the need to be chasing handsome War Boys from neighboring settlements. She had heard the stories and gotten an eyeful once or twice; some of those War Boys had offers left and right, a couple friends from the Citadel every War Game.
Again, she wondered who the other War Boy was; she never caught a good look at him. All she knew was that he was probably a Polecat, but not much more.
“Driver.” Coil came back whistling a tune she hadn't heard before; there was something lighter in his step and he smiled, putting his arm around her shoulder companionably.
She realized it had been some time since she had seen him so cheerful. Lately, she realized, he had been troubled, quieter than usual. Probably the stress of readjusting to Lancer life, she thought, to losing his ride and his place in the line. Guilt stirred inside of her; she felt as though she had no right to be angry with him when he was just blowing off some steam like any War Boy.
After all, their relationship wasn't like that. He had never asked for anything she couldn't give. It was a good setup they had, and she didn't want anything about it to change.
Coil's skin smelled faintly of unrefined petroleum.
“Lancer. Where've you been? I was looking for you.” Furiosa hesitated, but then patted his back.
“Catching up on gossip,” Coil said, with forced casualness, and he gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Sorry, I thought I had some free time.”
“No worries, Lancer. You're not on the clock. You just forgot your dustwrap,” Furoisa said, untangling the black fabric from around her neck, handing it to Coil.
“Oh, sorry. Wait, this one is yours,” Coil said, but Furiosa waved it off.
“They're almost identical. Does it matter, one or the other? We share everything anyway.” She noticed he had touched up his white here and there, but he had missed a few dark smudges on his chest, just below his collarbone.
She imagined a Polecat's black-painted lips on his skin there, but then the dustwrap hid the marks from view.
“You're right,” he said, fingering the edge, and she saw his fingers trace the embroidered letters of her name. F-U-R-I-O-S-A.
“Where's your water bottle, Lancer?” Furiosa wondered; he spent most evenings before bedding down embroidering the soft leather case and now it was gone, replaced with a plain bottle made of dented steel.
“Oh, swapped it out with an old friend from Gastown. Say, I hear Acosta's putting on a Botany Bay contest later. Should we put our names in the pool? First prize is a crossbow. Second and third get something else. I can't remember what, but it's still pretty good.”
Furioa stared at him, wanting to ask him if that Polecat had his water bottle now, but she couldn't work up the courage to ask.
He gave her an expectant look, and she realized she had not yet answered him.
“Ah...sure. Of course. We can do that if you like. Just don't think I can carry you.”
Coil laughed. “No, we'll do it like the old days, Driver. You can be Lancer for a day. Er, an hour.”
She smiled at him, her arm companionably around his waist, but even this close together Furiosa could sense the distance between them, too deep a chasm to cross. He had his own life and his own secrets, and there were things about him that she would never know. Like what Win really was to him, or who the mysterious Gastown War Boy was.
Is he reliable? The words of the Valkyrie irritated like a grain of sand itching beneath her skin, and Furiosa realized now that it was a question she couldn't answer. Was Coil reliable? Before she would have said yes entirely, but after today...
Yes and no, both at once.
Furiosa considered looking for his embroidered water bottle among the crowds, to see if she could identify the Gastown War Boy she had seen him with, but then she realized there was nothing to be done. Let him have his little mysteries; Coil was his own War Boy and didn't need her interference in his affairs. If he wanted to have trysts on the side, so be it; it was not as though she would begrudge him his needs.
But something ached deep inside of her, when she realized how happy he looked, how cheerful and relaxed he seemed now, and she wondered if there was something that she could do to for him to make him as happy.
No, those were foolish thoughts. However she felt, that would be a mistake and a terrible one. She couldn't risk their partnership and friendship over something as petty as desire.
And besides, she couldn't think of his hands on her like that. Furiosa knew it didn't have to be bad. After all, there were those men of her childhood that she remembered, men who pleased the women she knew; her mother, her aunts, her sisters. But all she had for herself were memories of shame and disgust, of fear and pain.
But maybe it could be different with Coil. After all, this was the crewmate she had known for years, almost half her entire life now; Coil who was always so unfailingly gentle and careful with her, whose clever hands did such neat work even under the hood...
Furiosa shook her head, banishing the thoughts. She couldn't think like this, not if she wanted to be a serious Driver.
At least she could do this little thing for him; he liked Botany Bay and they were good at it, so why not? Maybe if they won it might make him feel better, might help keep him cheerful through the coming season of war, if they went to war this year. At least this was something she knew she could do reliably with him, something they could both enjoy.
Something safe, something that didn't involve unwelcome feelings and foolish needs.
“All right. Come on, Lancer. Let's go put our names in.”
After the last of the Flamers doused their flamethrowers, ending the official celebrations, the War Games began to settle into quiet.
There were still a few hours to go before moonfall. Lanterns were lit, one after another, despite the bright light of the full moon; it gave a festive air to the night, and War Boys huddled in clumps over the meager flames, warming their fingertips as the temperature dropped.
As Coil dug the lantern out of the car, footsteps crunched behind him and he turned, surprised to see the Polecat again.
Shyly, Kelly spoke, his voice muffled slightly by his helmet. “I have some free time right now, Coil. Do you want...?”
Desire rose in him, and it would be so easy to take a little bit more when he could, but Coil shook his head; Furiosa was waiting for him.
“Sorry. Not now. My Driver's waiting.”
“Then I have to wait so many moons.” Kelly sighed. “So many turns of the wheel before I see you again.”
Coil set the heavy lantern down. He shook his head. “Whatever you think this is...” Coil paused, considering his words. “Sorry I misled you. From now on I'll miss you. But what you want won't be from me.”
“Find someone else,” Coil said firmly. “Someone...who thinks about you more than once a turn of the wheel moon. Find someone who thinks of you every turn of the sun, every turn of the moon...every turn of every wheel. You deserve more than once a War Games.”
“Don't feel the same. Wish I could have more for you. For anyone. But...”
“It's your Win, isn't it? Your old Driver.”
Coil looked away, trying to catch his breath, the pain of the old wound slicing through him as sharply as if it were still fresh. “How-”
“I asked around. I wanted to know who you were, why you wanted me,” Kelly shrugged, pushing up his helmet to wipe his eyes with the backs of his hands, the black running muddy down his cheeks, dripping onto his blackened lips.
“How long have you known?”
“Since the first time.”
“That was a long time ago.” Coil tried to shrug it off, but even now he knew exactly how many days it was, and how every day was another day further apart from Win.
“Is that why you looked for us Polecats? For me. There were others, weren't there? They told me...”
“Yes. Someone suggested it. After my Driver died.” And even now, years later, Coil could feel the tears prickling his eyes; he had not been there to Witness. Win had died alone; unseen by the daily patrol Lancer who had failed Win in the most profound, most important way.
Coil knew his vision of Win in Valhalla was nothing more than illusion; foolish thoughts that came to him from the stupor of nitrous; there was no Valhalla for the un-Witnessed. There was nothing. Win might as well have never been.
Wherever Win was now, it was not Valhalla.
“Fun while it lasted, right?” Kelly managed a smile.
“Yeah.” Coil smiled sadly.
“You should have your water bottle back.”
“No, it's all right. Keep it, if you like.”
“It's pretty, but too small, doesn't hold enough water. We don't get too many refills and I get thirsty up on the perch. We're up there for hours sometimes, baking in the sun,” Kelly said, and unfastening the bottles, they traded them back, their stained fingers brushing against each other.
“Didn't mean for it to go like this...”
“No. You're right. Will find a War Boy who will think of me always. Not just sometimes. A best mate.”
“It won't be hard for you. Just wish...”
“Nothing.” Coil leaned down and kissed the little Polecat lightly.
Coil sat down with Furiosa on the rocky outcrop, setting the lantern between them. Together they lit it, and it sparked to life, glowing golden between them.
“Lancer, you've got something on your mouth.”
“Hmm?” And Coil wiped at his lips, tasting engine grease and remembering the Polecat. “Oh.”
“Earlier...” Furiosa couldn't help the words; they tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them. “Earlier I saw you in Tran's car. With a Polecat.”
“Oh.” Coil sighed, shaking his head. “No excuses, Driver.”
“No. Would rather not hear any.”
“It's just War Games.” Coil stared at the flames.
“Don't want to hear about it.”
“Don't be. You have your life, your business. And it's none of mine.”
“Furiosa. It's been going on for a long time.” Coil offered her his hand, but she ignored him, so he dropped his hand back to his side. “Back after Win died, the Imperator suggested it. He thought it'd do me good.”
“Maybe. For a while. Til now.”
“Now.” Furiosa counted off the Games on her hands since they started riding together and it took two hands to do it. “Every time?”
“Why didn't you tell me?”
“Some things aren't things that can be said,” Coil sighed. “Didn't want you thinking that...that I wanted anything more. Telling you might as well be telling you that I'm disappointed in you, that because you don't got more for me I gotta go somewhere else to find it, and that's not it at all.”
“No. It's not. Furiosa, I don't want more from you. Really. What we have is fine. You're already the best crewmate a War Boy could have. The rest...once a War Games is enough for me. I'm sorry, I can't explain this well.”
“Then don't.” Furiosa stared at the moon; some people said it was a man's face on it, and some people said it was a rabbit. But she knew better; it was the turned shoulder of the Valkyrie, looking away from the world.
“Furiosa, are we still friends?”
“Dunno.” Furiosa sank into the comfort of her own arms, hugging herself tightly. Eyes absently wandering, she noticed that Coil had his water bottle back.
So it was like that.
Moonlight bleached the stars off the fabric of the sky. Lying on rough stone, Morsov cradled his head in his arms, staring up.
Someone somewhere nearby was singing, a slow mournful song, and he could hear the words clearly, though he could not understand their meaning:
“Attendite, universi populi. Et videte dolorem meum...”
“You okay, Morsov?” Nux fiddled with the lantern, adjusting it minutely until the flame glowed bright and steady, unwavering.
“Yeah, I guess.” Morsov sighed; as the excitement of the War Games abated, he started realizing the gravity of losing his Driver, of losing his permanent ride.
“Better alone than trapped,” Slit muttered.
“Yeah. It's just...” Morsov turned his head. “Hey, is that the Ace?”
The Ace's swaying shadow preceded him as he walked over, carrying his lantern.
“Want a word with you, Morsov.” The Ace sat down beside Morsov with a huff of breath.
“Sure.” Morsov sat up. Nux turned his back politely, and Slit did as well, though a beat slower, angling his head slightly to the left, looking down.
“Heard about your Driver.”
“And about the fight.”
“Guess it couldn't be helped. When he's involved...” Morsov shrugged.
“Don't hold it against Slit.” The Ace said. “He's your cohortmate; he's supposed have your back.”
“If I hadn't fought with the Driver, I would have inherited. Maybe.” Morsov sighed.
“Elvis got raised up on account of the fight. Not because of what you did or didn't do.” The Ace scoffed. “Maybe you pups don't know, but anyone who's done enough Games knows that that's just a smart way to get raised up. Be a full-life or at least look like one,” The Ace ticked it off on his fingers. “Start a fight with a strong War Boy in front of the Immortan's retinue. Show no mercy. Win.”
Morsov stared. “Really?”
“Why'd you think Elvis put off finding you? Not like you were tryin to avoid him; saw him skulking around you all day. Could have come any time, but waited for the right time.”
“Oh Immorta,” Morsov breathed. “Really?”
“Yeah. So don't go blaming yourself for things you can't control. Sometimes it's just luck of the draw, good or bad, but sometimes it's planned mischief.”
Morsov stared at the beneath his booted feet, and he placed his palms lightly down on the rough surface, still faintly warm from the heat of the sun. “Dunno why you care so much, Ace.”
“Morsov. You know why I got my eyes on you even now?”
“No. Wait, I think I know. Isn't it because it's a matter of standing?”
“Well, sure. It's that first. A matter of pride. Course it is. When you pups do good, it reflects on me. But it ain't just that.”
The Ace sighed, collecting his thoughts. “Dunno if I ever told you this Morsov, but ain't no one likes bringin kids back from Bartertown.”
Slit tensed, and Nux slid his arm around Slit's shoulder.
Slit shook him off.
“No, never heard this,” Morsov blinked, surprised.
The Ace nodded and continued: “Bringin kids back from there, back from War Parties... Been doing it a long time now and it don't get easier, knowing that every one of them kids belonged to someone else first. But when we bring 'em back to the Citadel, the way their eyes light up when they find out no one's gonna hurt 'em or make 'em do anything awful for their food and water, that they can sleep safe without bein afraid... I never get over that and I never will. Always want you boys to be secure, because there ain't much of that in this world.
“The life we got here, that's the only one we got. It's the best around, better 'n all the others, so we'll do whatever it takes to protect it, even if it's hard on you boys in the beginning. Guess I'm tryin to say is, I just want you boys to have a better time at it than people like us did. I wanna know you got a place you like and mates you like.”
“Been wantin you to ride high, but not just to ride high. Havin the best Driver ain't worth it if you ain't feelin secure, if you're getting hurt. It ain't my business, so I didn't say anything, but now thinkin on what I've heard, and maybe that wasn't the right thing to do.”
“I made my own decisions,” Morsov said, resting his chin on his folded hands.
“Everyone does the best they can, but sometimes...” The Ace sighed. “Well, next time you pick someone who'll treat you right, got it? Someone who won't make you do nothin you don't want 'em doing.”
In the silence that followed, the Ace hauled himself up onto his feet, dusting himself off. Without another word, he picked up his lantern and left, his shadow swinging jagged.
Slit jerked up onto his feet and stormed off into the darkness, footsteps pounding the dusty ground.
Somewhere nearby, a War Boy started singing and soon, his voice was joined by many others, rising in unison above the waste.
The wheel moon was finishing its course across the arc of the sky, lighting the revelry, and now it was slowly easing its way down toward the waste.
It meant another hour of moonlight, at most, and Nux hurried to get his crew rounded up and going.
“Where's your ride?”
“They left already.” Slit shrugged.
“Dunno.” Slit's eyes tracked the full moon hanging low on the horizon. “Guess they forgot.”
“That happened last year too, didn't it?”
Slit fingered his new dustwrap, and thought of the way the waste looked from high above on the Polecat's perch, solitary and alone, and he wondered if that was what the moon saw as well.
“It's okay. Plenty of rides still. I'll go back on the Hauler if I have to.”
“Don't do that. Ride with me.”
“Don't you got your crew?”
“They prefer the bed. Ride with me in the cab, Lancer.” Nux smiled.
The truck bumped along the waste before turning onto the smooth-pounded road between Bulletfarm and the Citadel. The rattling of the loose metal poles of the practice lances was loud, and from here Slit could hear the Revheads in the cab chattering, gossiping and boasting about their day.
“Slit. Remember when we were little? And I said I want you as my Lancer, if I were ever a Driver?”
“Well, I want you as my Lancer.”
“Keep dreaming, Revhead. No one's just going to give you a drive.” Slit glared out the window at the waste, at the long shadows left by the moon, dragging across the vast emptiness.
“It's just a matter of time. You know I'm getting training, right?”
“I haven't told anyone yet, but I'm going to make Driver soon. Less than three hundred days is what the Ace said. And when that happens, I want you riding with me.” Putting the car in third, Nux let go of the gearshift and took Slit's hand. Oddly, Slit not only didn't pull away, he twined his long fingers with Nux's, gripping Nux's hand thoughtfully.
Slit's other hand closed over Nux's, and the tip of his right index finger traced shapes over the back of Nux's hand, tracing a pattern through the black engine grease.
Nux wondered what he was drawing.
“Fine.” Tired, Slit didn't feel like arguing the point. Holding Nux's hand close, he focused his eyes on the waste beyond.
There, the scarred moon at last began to dip below the horizon, and Slit closed his eyes.
Chapter 5: End Notes
One more story after this, tentatively titled Ecstasia, which follows Fortuna and chronicles the beginning of Furiosa's career as Imperator, and the beginning of the push toward Fury Road.
Chapter 1: The Valkyrie
Most of the drug research for this story was done at erowid.org, with help from a good friend S who answered many of my questions.
In our times, Win's name would be spelled Nguyen.
The 'fertility face' is a doll's head. Dolls are fertility symbols in this world.
The Immorta is straight from the movie subtitles, when Nux says, “I should be walking with the Immorta, McFeasting with the heroes of all time.” Here it's interpreted as a central figure to the V8 cult, which is distinct from the cult of the Immortan, the way the religion of the hearth and home is different from the cult of the Emperor in ancient Roman times.
The idea was that the original V8 cult worships the engine as a symbol of the world, with elements of sun/moon worship. This in turn is derived from an older religion that is now lost; whatever that was, it merged with the belief system of Engineers and formed the cult of the V8. The key idea of this older faith is that the sun symbolizes life, the moon symbolizes fate, and the Immorta, at the center of the wheel (which is both sun and moon) is a personification of the atomic bomb, giver and taker. Giver of a new, distorted world, taker of the old, beautiful world.
The Immorta has taken on other meanings since then, and the current image at the wheel shrine is a distorted memory, as so many deaths in the long run led to a crisis in faith and a turning to death imagery. For example, the white clay, originally used in Rota for sprinkling on the dead at funerals is now worn by all, or the sewing up of a corpse's lips is now done to real living people (as in L'Arbre du Ténéré ) in a symbolic death.
I think that even for War Boys, the paradise of a green place full of water is still an important ideal, much like the Medieval Land of Cockaigne. It is the oral tradition of the world long lost.
'Don't I get a say in what I get?' This line was pure sleep writing, but it worked, so I kept it.
Win calling Coil 'Crew' here is done as an affectionate nickname. I imagined that it can be used affectionately, or as a way to pull rank from Driver to Lancer, and that it depended on context and the individual using it.
Coil is not telling Furiosa the whole story here.
Most people actually don't have visions of the engine. Most of them remember lost loved ones.
The Ace is being uncharacteristically affectionate because he is genuinely afraid for Furiosa. As he says later, a certain percentage of Drivers die during the initiation, and he was trying to tell her that he cared for her, in case she did die and he was unable to show her how proud he was of her. Of course, he doesn't show it, because it's both unseemly to show grief before battle, and he doesn't want to worry her.
The way Furiosa is being attired is like a rough facsimile of a Formula 1 driver, with a handwoven hood standing in for the fireproof hood. The jumpsuit is copy of a Ferrari jumpsuit, based off the ones worn by Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. The shield is a UPS logo, the rising sun the Shell Gas logo, and of course, the rearing black beast is the Ferrari logo. None of these have any meaning anymore.
The Valkyrie is very similar in iconography to the Immorta, which suggests a common cultural ancestry to both the War Boys and the Vuvalini, though it has probably been some generations since they had anything in common.
“The Immortal Night Rider” is a reference to the first Mad Max movie.
The religions both have a cyclic aspect to them: “...the Mothers that have gone before and will come again.”
Reliability is important in both engines and in people. But this is a deeper question; does Furiosa truly trust Coil or the Ace? Could she count on them no matter what?
The Valkyrie being tall is a blurring of the spiritual image and the human Valkyrie that Furiosa knows.
The movie doesn't give subtitles to the words she's saying, but I think that's what Furiosa is muttering when Max draws her up to hear her better. Some of the dialogue here is pulled from Max and Capable on the Gigahorse at the end of the movie.
This moment with the Ace, along with the closeness Furiosa has become to Coil, shows in the years since the end of Vulnera, she's grown to trust her friends more and is comfortable and safe in her position as a War Boy. But her vision reminds her that she is perhaps not meant to live this way, that deep down she is unhappy.
Though her friends are good friends, there are things about Furiosa that neither will ever understand. Coil for example has no parents that he remembers, so he has no idea what it means to Furiosa to have lost a parent the way she has.
Chapter 2: The Engine
Nux has been a Revhead for about two years now, which puts this about 5 years after the end of Vulnera. This means he's had 8-9 years shop experience, two of them as a full Revhead. So by now he's seen and done most everything there is to do inside a car.
Moki is a gender-neutral name that means cloudy. It comes from one of the original languages of Australia. Crew lead is the job that the Ace later has.
Nux ends up at 11 hands tall, which corresponds to about 6'4” or ~193 cm. Slit is just under that, at exactly 10.75 hands tall, ~6'2” or 188 cm, which puts Slit at the very top end of height for a Lancer. Past that and one is disqualified on grounds of being too tall.
Geoduck suggested it also be called “The Revhead's Complaint”. The working title for Euphoria is “revheads disease”. The danger is that nitrous abuse causes vitamin B-12 depletion, which can be deadly, even with a little nitrous abuse. Vitamin B-12 is mainly found in meat and animal products. In a necessarily vegetarian/vegan world, where the only sources of B-12 are coming from fermented foods and occasional excess mother's milk mixed into the common pot, this makes nitrous abuse dangerous.
Ironically, while so many Drivers that undergo initiation struggle to see the engine, Nux inadvertently sees it and sees it regularly, individually for each vehicle, and every single time he huffs.
Observant, Slit has noticed something wrong with Nux even before Nux noticed it himself.
In this series, Morsov is 10 hands tall, same as Max and Furiosa. By Fury Road, Morsov's kill rate is so successful that he's stopped bothering to mark himself with a tire each for every vehicle he's taken down.
The first unattributed line is spoken by Coil, trying to defuse the situation. The second is spoken by an unknown War Boy
I always felt that “If you can't stand up, you can't do war” was one of the most reasonable and rational lines in the movie, so Slit tends to be very reasonable. Except when he's not.
As Nux is his only true friend and staunch ally, Slit is terrified to lose Nux. He would never admit this to anyone, not even himself.
I wrote about the Wasteland Initiation in L'Arbre du Ténéré which was my first MM:FR story. Since it was written, I have a better idea of the characters, relationships, and the world, so some of the details may not be exactly similar, but I have tried to reconcile the stories as much as possible.
Shop-bound Revheads get to ride the Hauler during War Parties, as they need extra mechanics to salvage vehicles and backup War Boys to fill in for fallen Lancers.
Elvis will eventually be promoted to the Secundus Imperator, aka the Composite Imperator (the non-bearded Imperator seen with Immortan Joe during the balcony speech, and who is creepily cozy when giving oxygen to Miss Giddy on the Gigahorse). The reason the car retains his name is due to his promotion; the vehicle kept his name as an honorific. So the Driver we see in the movie driving the Elvis car is someone else (Stonker?).
Nux has only an inkling of how much power he has over Slit, in terms of being a good influence and keeping Slit out of trouble.
Part of the reason Morsov chose to accept the ride with Elvis was because of his rivalry with Slit.
This particular War Pup grows up to be the War Rig Lancer popularly known as “Timmy O’Shorty.”
War Pups often run messages, which is why they have full access to all parts of the Citadel, including the farms and the Immortan's Tower.
The Ace times his message so that it would have the biggest impact in front of the largest audience, for both Nux's sake and his own.
Like Furiosa having an Initiate Mother, Nux has an Initiate 'Father' (Initiate Lead). Perhaps the parallel here is that the wasteland initiation is rarely taken on and extremely deadly, whereas the Vuvalini initiation is perhaps more commonly taken on and much more nurturing despite its difficulty.
Slit holding Nux's hand while the Organic Mechanic works is a parallel to Nux holding Slit's hand when Slit was branded in Vulnera.
Slit doesn't mind touching people as long as he initiates it. He's not so accepting of the other way around.
Prime and option are a reference to Formula 1 tires.
Chapter 3: The Immorta
In contrast to Nux and Slit, Capable sleeps alone.
Vulnera has more on the girls and their imaginary world.
The Prime and the Secundus Imperator are the ones who come for Capable, the same way that they came for Angharad in the past.
There is a significance to the milking mother Shams, which will probably be explained further in Gloria once I get back around to it. There is a hint as to what her significance is in the description of her actions.
Reasons why the milking mothers might put on weight include producing more milk, but with some, it may have been a defense mechanism against Immortan Joe's advances. I thought of it as a way for some wives to game the system; having agency over oneself despite having a life of so many restrictions and restraints.
The bitter tea is made from opium poppies. Once it kicks in, Capable no longer cares about being touched by the Prime Imperator. As an extension of Immortan Joe, the Prime is allowed to lightly handle the wives, to do the work that Immortan Joe doesn't care to do. However the Prime is not trusted with them, as there are always others around observing if he is with one of the wives. However, that is only for current wives; some of the children born to various milking mothers are fathered by the Prime, others by the Secundus or other Imperators. Coil for example, is the product of that sort of relationship.
I decided that the bedroom with the two single beds is Immortan Joe's bedroom because it didn't make sense for him to sleep outside the Vault, as that seems like the nicest part of the Immortan's Tower. I think that the twin beds are a reference to the 1930 Hayes Code, a moral code for television and movies that did not allow men and women to be seen together on the same bed (think Brady Bunch for example). It's definitely by far the nicest bedroom in the Vault, as all the wives are sleeping on stone benches in their individual cells.
Geoduck said that here, Capable is very much like “a farm girl in the middle of harem intrigue.”
I imagined Capable's drawing as very geometric.
Immortan Joe is dressed differently, in black, something more utilitarian and closer to the kind of clothing he wore earlier on in his life. Everybody changes over time, and I wanted that to reflect in the clothes worn and the scars that accumulate.
The Urquhart is a Civil Engineering Handbook by Leonard Church Urquhart. The second edition was printed in 1940. The name in the book of course, is George Miller, with his date of birth.
The reason that Angharad and Capable were separated for so long was on account of time of puberty; in the case of Angharad, it was around 13 or 14, and in Capable's case, it was closer to 18. For Capable, I used the average age of puberty from about the mid-19th century (about 17.5 years old from what I recall reading).
Miss Giddy is teaching from the Great Books series, though probably not the ones about democracy. She quotes from The Praise of Folly by Erasmus, written circa 1509.
The quote on Miss Giddy's hand is from the opening line of Julius Caesar's The Gallic Wars.
Vegetables seen in the War Rig during the movie suggest that it may be late spring when Furiosa makes her run. So in the movie, the wives are wearing clothing more appropriate for the warmer season. Here, they're in long-sleeved dresses on account of it being winter.
Angharad in Vulnera was the one to first reach out to Capable and the Dag. Here, Capable has taken Angharad's early lesson to heart and is reaching out to Angharad. I like the idea that perhaps innately Capable may not be so affectionate or open with her feelings, but that she learned how to reach out to others from Angharad's example.
As the other girls join their little tribe, their interests are incorporated into the imaginary world that Angharad and Capable initially created.
The musical instruments in their world was introduced by Toast. I haven't written much about her yet, but in my development notes, Toast's father collected and repaired musical instruments. Extinct ones include woodwinds, which can't function in a world without the reeds that are used to play them with.
Cheedo dances, but only for herself (no dancing slave girl Cheedo here). Only the other girls know about it, and she's taught them a little, as it was something they could do silently in the confines of their cell to pass the time. But in their imaginary world, they are free to have music playing for them to dance to.
Favorites are chosen at whim by Joe and are to keep the Wives as a unit destabilized amongst themselves from envy/petty internal politics. They are allowed certain freedoms that the other wives do not receive.
1:1 direct drive is also a reference to Rota.
The idea for the bottled/purified air was that it was like bottled water; the air and the dust is actually not nearly as toxic as it's thought to be.
The upside-down A is the Ace's builder's mark, from the years he cut stone and set pipe as a laborer in the days of the early Citadel. The builder's mark is referenced in Vulnera and described further at the beginning of chapter 11 of Gloria.
The line, “with rings of gold upon our hands” was first spoken by Capable in chapter 9 of Vulnera.
Chapter 4: The Wheel
As the chapter ending with Capable and Angharad ends with moonlight and intimacy, the chapter beginning with Slit starts with moonlight and loneliness.
Slit is something of an artist, but he hasn't found his medium yet.
Morsov's bruises are from his Driver, Elvis. It is heavily implied that Elvis abuses him both physically and sexually. Thematically this goes back to the idea that some characters cannot help but return to situations of abuse. In Vulnera it is revealed that Morsov walked away from the Buzzards because of similar abuse, and now as an adult, he finds himself back in a similar situation.
Morsov is cursing in Russian.
The idea of the Lancers gathered to show off at the War Games comes from various traditional festivals where men adorn themselves and dance to show off and try to catch the eye of a woman, such as the Wodaabe. This whole chapter came from an idea where other War Boys are gossiping about Slit's unreliability and live training with Lancers, and morphed into a Lancer Festival, which then became the War Games once I realized I should include War Boys from the other settlements.
Slit and Nux have changed positions in terms of rank; as a future Driver, Nux already outranks Slit and can give him orders.
I decided that the FDK kept its old name over the course of a few Drivers. In this format, it's not quite the same as we see in the movie; it's not set up for flamethrowers with external fuel tanks, and the rear is not cut off; it's more like a standard VW Bug set up more along the lines of Nux's car with the lancer's basket in the back and the lancer's perch up front. This is the same car that the Ace borrows in L'Arbre du Ténéré, which means that the Ace borrowed it from Furiosa.
Geoduck pointed out that without Furiosa, there is something intrinsic missing in the conversation between Coil and the Ace. The two actually don't know each other that well; they only know each other through Furiosa.
Again, some of the War Boys here are named after friends' pets.
These guys chatting Slit up are Kelly's Anchor Boys.
The Revhead doing the branding is the one who also branded Nux. It's not actually cutting through skin, just using the knifepoint as a brand.
A Kelly drive is a mechanism used on oil rigs for drilling.
As in Vulnera, Furiosa is referenced using masculine pronouns by people who don't know her, as male has become the default gender in a society with almost no women.
In auto racing, a shunt is a crash.
Tran and Dart were Coil and Furiosa's training rivals in Vulnera. They're Coil's friends.
Tfuriosa asked if Coil just happened to hook up with a series of Polecats or if Polecats had a reputation for sexual openness. The answer is yes. In part it has to do with standing; a Driver would generally look for someone closer to his own rank (as Nux says in Vulnera, 'the best deserve the best'). In Gastown, Polecats would fall under the umbrella term of Lancer, but at the very top end. There is also something of a suggestiveness in Driver-Lancer relationships that would send a Driver off to find another Lancer or Lancer analog. As well, Gastown War Boys in general have a reputation for lasciviousness. Bullet Boys, not so much. This is a very distorted Athens-Sparta-Corinth analogy for Citadel-Bulletfarm-Gastown.
In terms of the War Games, it allows War Boys to have sexual relationships with people from other settlements without complication or commitment as things can get too awkward with someone in the same settlement (jealousy, anger, fighting, falling out). Many people that don't have a 'best mate' in that sense slake their desires once a year at the War Games. Of course there are those that stay out of it completely (like the Ace), and there are those already in close relationships that don't want more (like Tran and Dart).
The song referenced is O Vos Omnes by de Victoria.
Bullet Boys are known for their metalworking. The Flamer who offers Morsov a look at his car is actually hitting on Morsov, though Morsov is too naïve to realize this.
Nux has seen Capable once before, in Vulnera.
“She who became death, destroyer of worlds” is a reference to a famous quote by Robert Oppenheimer, in itself a reference to the Bhagavad Gita.
Furiosa completely misunderstands why she is upset and why Coil has been uncharacteristically somber.
The sisters Furiosa refers to here are not necessarily related by blood.
'Here comes a young War Boy from Botany Bay' was a game introduced at the very end of Vulnera. Of course Furiosa and Coil win. The crossbow is later used by Coil in Fortuna.
There have been about 7 or 8 War Games since Furiosa started riding with Coil as Coil's Lancer.
Contrast the way that Furiosa speaks to Coil now with how she speaks to him at the beginning of chapter 1. The distance between them only grows.
Coil switches to War Boy talk when he tries to explain what he can't fully explain, to give himself some emotional distance from his words.
East Asian and Mesoamerican people traditionally believe that the dark marks on the moon are in the shape of a celestial rabbit.
Whereas in chapter 1, Furiosa is comforted by her friends, here, she has only herself. This falling out with Coil leads to her deep isolation in Fortuna.
Kelly continues singing from the same song.
An initial idea was that now that the War Games were officially over, as people started settling down, some War Boys might take little walks with their friends, carrying their lanterns. So they would be strolling and mixing together, swapping strolling/conversation partners. It worked out better that the characters were static, however, so this idea was dropped.
In a world of close quarters and little privacy, sometimes the best War Boys can do is turn their backs to give others the illusion of privacy. The Ace meant to have Slit overhear his talk with Morsov; his words are directed at both of them. Maybe Nux too, but Nux doesn't need telling, Slit wouldn't accept being told directly, and that leaves only Morsov to talk to.
As the Ace talks, he stops calling the children “pups” and slips into referring to them as “kids” and “boys”.
I like to think that the song the War Boys are singing at the end of this scene is something like this.
Slit's ride totally ditched him on purpose.
While Slit doesn't keep anything from Nux, Nux keeps things from Slit. In a way it shows how Slit needs Nux far more than Nux needs Slit. It occurred to me while writing that Nux made his decision about taking Slit on as a Lancer after watching his performance during the exhibition, because of how firmly and repeatedly Nux tells Slit that he'd be watching him ride. So that he actually hadn't been set on having Slit as his Lancer.
Slit doesn't believe Nux will get a drive, just as Slit doesn't believe he'll ever have a permanent ride.