It was maybe the third day, maybe the fourth, Max had lost all sense of time and space. There was a time when Max would have been more than happy to find bodies and salvage, but it felt depressing now, even though they'd been enemies.
Some of the bodies were clearly injured, and he wondered if there'd been a fight for the right of who got to ride on other vehicles when their car stalled, if these men were forced to stay behind under the merciless sun, waiting for death without water.
Austeyr had been an enemy, once. He wondered if one of these bodies could’ve been how Austeyr might have ended up, if he hadn’t found him trying to reach the Citadel. There’d been no water on the bike and no food on the war boy from what Max remembered tell. Maybe the war boy would’ve died, trying to get back to the Citadel, if Max hadn’t been heading in that direction; the Citadel’d been in no shape to send out scavenger parties.
In this direction no scavengers have been by yet, either, to pick the area clean.
He found himself restless around the bodies, slightly unnerved to take the loose items from the war boys, but gone ahead because he didn’t know if he’d be able to travel fast enough to get back before other scavengers moved in. He also placed small items he found in the cars on the buggy’s trailer; empty water containers and fuel tanks.
Some of the cars had already been relieved of their vital engine parts, presumably by the war party as it left them behind. They would need to come back here with tow vehicles
The land was mostly empty, nobody bothered him.
The worst was a cluster of two cars he’d found. There had been three warboys, now there were two, raving mad from the heat and dehydration, their mouths stained red with dried blood.
Or maybe they were mad from that.
One immediately attacked him, or tried to, weak though he was bulkier than Max, imprecise and screaming 'Valhalla'. He’d wrestled the guy to the ground, but was knocked off him by the other one, all elbows and teeth and desperate speed.
He tried telling them he was from the Citadel, but that just made them howl 'traitor!'— he supposed it didn't matter to them if he was from Furiosa or from Noxious, they'd been betrayed by both. The larger one was ponderously heaving himself to his feet, swaying.
Max knew he should have kept his distance as soon as he'd seen they were alive, but it was hard to forget Austeyr. Hard to forget that the Warboy had needed a chance, too.
He shook the inclinations away from himself and caught the slighter one by the neck, keeping snapping teeth away, and swung him around to crash against the other who was finally unsteadily upright. He ran to the buggy which had been idling and tore out of there.
Max watched from the rearview as they tried running after him until they stopped, bent over, breathing hard, pressing hands to knees.
He watched as one reached for the other, but not to help. Red bloomed.
Then he didn’t watch anymore.
"'ere, Kompass, can you take word to them upstairs?" Toolbox said, and Kompass stopped to hear what it was. The council members made a point to be accessible, to come down here regularly and to make it known that the crew leaders were welcome to come up to see them with concerns. So he wasn't sure what Toolbox would need him for.
"We's almost outta lead, you see, only the pipes to the barracks needs repairin'."
Kompass hid a grimace. Lead was something they'd need to trade for, and they weren't ready for a trade run to Bullet Farm.
"I'll tell 'em," he nodded, not thrilled to be the one who'd be delivering that news, but understanding why Toolbox hadn't wanted to be the one who brought attention to it. You had to be able to dodge and run when you delivered bad news in the Citadel.
And this was nothing he wanted to bother the Boss about, in her current state. This was different from how she was after she first came back, how she was when she was usually wounded, where she’d kept trying to leave her bed in some form or another and they had to find ways to keep her there. The Boss was finally staying put, and it should have let her heal faster but she seemed to only become more lethargic with the rest, her wounds seemingly healing somehow slower. It was troubling, especially since Kompass was newly her ace and was supposed to guard her against dangers.
But there was no danger he could see to fight. When the crew tried to make her feel better, it’d mostly seemed to make her more still, more numb, and eventually Kompass and Austeyr let themselves be herded out, just as Ace came back. When they told him of the situation, the older man just sighed and scratched at his brand then went to talk with the Vuvalini, shooing them away. Austeyr had gone off to the pup dens in a huff and Kompass had wandered down to the garages, wanting something to busy his hands.
Only to be handed this festy messenger task. It was a completely mediocre thing to be chewed out for, but he’d probably have a bit of immunity for being Furiosa’s.
The Pump Room was largely empty, with only Janey and one of the new women - the one with the bone-white spiral hair - chatting quietly on the balcony.
"Kompass," Janey greeted. "What brings you?"
He noticed they both had their rifles in easy reach, though it was hard to tell if that was habit or a leftover concern from the siege, when they'd sat in strategic high places and picked climbers off the sheer rock walls of the Citadel . He'd learned they were deadly shots even from this height. He shifted uneasily, because he knew they'd certainly have no trouble downing him if they didn't like his news.
"Lead. The Repair crew needs - we're out."
"Hmm. Is that a trade good? Haven't come across it much in the books," Janey said. "What is it used for?"
"Aqua Cola pipes."
The other woman, Gilly, gave Janey a look Kompass couldn't decipher.
"Water pipes. They use lead for... water pipes."
He nodded, because yes, that's what he'd said, what was so strange about that? He couldn't tell if she was angry about the news that they'd need to scramble to trade, but there was something about her tone that worried him.
"Can't they use something else?"
"Don't know, just delivering a message for Toolbox," Kompass hedged uneasily.
Janey got to her feet. Gilly shouldered her rifle - they never went anywhere without, not even Miss Gale, but that didn't make Kompass feel any more at ease.
"Well, we got some questions. Take us to him."
“...and here,” Austeyr pointed at one of the carvings on the barrack walls, checking the pups for comprehension, finding some comfort in the familiarity of the teaching, of being able to do something, of being able to say something and have pups be happy at him. “This is one of the formations we use most often on Imperator Furiosa’s produce runs. Notice the positions of the outriders and the coverages; if there is an attack from any area the bikes can move quickly to—”
“What are you doing?” Deka interrupted him, dark face made darker by her expression.
“Teaching the pups,” he said with some confusion, not sure why she was being so rude about it, although feeling a little like an intruder anyway from how these barracks were given over to the Wretched. It wasn't like he could go over this material in any other location.
“Does this normally take place in the barracks, we have people who are resting.” She waved over at the sleeping ledges where there were Wretched still lazing about during midday.
“But the sun is up.” Austeyr said, “There’s no time to sleep and they’d need to learn this quick. We’ve found this is the fastest way.”
“This is the perfect time to sleep,” the woman argued, “during the hottest part of the day, it’s better to move about at night when it gets cold.”
“But the pups are awake anyway, could we just do it quiet?” He noticed some of the Wretched kids were edging up to his little group of warpups. “Our notes are all here, on the walls.”
“They don’t exist elseplace?”
“Not this set, no,” Austeyr found himself irritated that even this wasn’t working out like he’d wanted, “we can’t just move the carvings and haven’t had time to carve the new quarters, plus there’s not so much wall in the Citadel as we should repeat it.”
The woman seemed to pause in thought and Austeyr took the chance to return to his lesson.
"Okay, pay attention here— you too, little ones," he nodded at the small Wretched kids, trying to include them. They looked fascinated. "You wanna be a warpup? You can, but you'll hafta know all this stuff."
"No! They're not gonna be warpups," Deka said sharply.
Austeyr stared at her, stung. "Why not? You get stuff from going on raids, extra food, Aqua Cola... 's better than down here."
"We've got enough for them, now. We don't have to give them up anymore."
"I'm glad I got given the chance," Austeyr said, feeling vaguely offended. "Got to grow strong, learned war. Done chrome things." It sure seemed better to him than whatever the ragged people down here did with their time. Sleep, mostly, it seemed like. "Better than down here."
Deka gave him a look he couldn't decipher, something angry-sad, and lead the little Wretched kids away.
"What if they want to be war pups?" he said to her back.
"They don't know any better," she snapped.
And while Austeyr was trying to find a response she asked the child by her side, "You want to forget who your mother is?" The young one hurriedly shook his head. "Good."
“What does that have anything to do with being a war pup,” Austeyr followed, asking heatedly and feeling vaguely squirmy about his insides, “What does that have anything to do with learning how to make War? We've talked it over already with the breeders, we're not taking them away. We've worked out a schedule—" he glanced around, trying to find one that looked like hers to gesture to, "Look, your pups—”
“These aren't— I can't have any more,” Deka interrupted, not looking back. Her voice sounded strange. "These, they can decide for themselves when they’re older if they want to learn. We're not so desperate anymore that we have to give up our children just to give them a chance to survive."
“But by then it’s too late, you gotta teach ‘em this stuff early!”
“They have time now. With water, food.” Deka insisted, reaching the doorway and pausing, “So long as they live past 3,000 days they’ll end up living longer than most War boys.”
“That. That’s not true.”
“Haven’t you ever looked at each other, how old y’all usually are? Why’s there never older ones?”
“Ace is older,” he said defensively.
“That’s one out of how many war boys?”
“But the nightfevers get us,” Austeyr protested, “and the tumors. We just make sure we go out chrome before they kill us.”
“Hah, us Wretched gets tumors too,” She turned finally, and pulled at her collar to reveal a mass of distended skin on her shoulder and clavicle before letting the cloth fall, “and how old do you think I am?”
Deka was clearly older than he was, but that didn’t mean…
“I will probably outlast you, one way or another,” the woman said quietly, with a strange sort of grief, “like as not by you tearing yourself apart or throwing yourselves into what’ll wreck you.”
Austeyr found himself completely confused by her words; taken aback, feeling defensive, and uncertain how to read this.
“Ah, what do I care, you’re lucky to be alive, as a war boy. Isn’t that right?” her tone was stilted. Austeyr couldn’t parse her phrasing or meaning at all, and she suddenly whipped around walking quickly away, leaving a scattering of confused Wretched children behind her, her desert-dark skin and desert-dark clothes fading quickly into the shadows.
There were stretches of trail where there was nothing, just a winding path around dunes that made everything too quiet.
(It made it seem like his name was on the wind.)
Max shook his head again, and almost looked forward to the next bend of road that might bring him to a sprawl of vehicles he could mark on his map. They’re coming now in groups, rigs that he didn’t recognize at all from their running fight to the canyon, and that should have been pristine except for whatever sand and dust the Wasteland left on them.
Instead, they looked like they’d been in battles. Newly dented from where the paint chipped, newly charred from how the ash stained, bodies left behind carelessly and faces twisted up in betrayal.
Max picked up what he could and marked down what he found. This was an unnaturally quiet stretch of land, despite the wrecks, and he thought that it's probably because when the war party came through it’d scoured through the area like a windstorm, devouring everything and licking the land clean.
But it was a windstorm that tore at itself, Max thought, as he found more teethmarks on bodies bled dry, as increasingly he’d found beltless and shoeless war boys. He might’ve thought some other scavengers had come through but there was white fingerprints at the belt loops and around the ankles that told its own story.
Toolbox blanched when Kompass lead the two women into the Repair Cave, and gave him a murderous look.
Janey ambled up to Toolbox, and Kompass had seen her command Warboys, had himself jumped to her orders without a moment of thought, but she did not look like that now; simply looked like she was interested.
"I'll be happy to take your issue to the council, but I need to understand it a little better first," she said amiably. "Can you tell us 'bout what needs repairs?"
Gilly hung back a little, but listened with an increasingly blank expression as Toolbox nervously explained about the pipes that led Aqua Cola to the barracks.
"The Immortan granted us the tap special, and ain't none of us addicted, Miss, we's always real careful to take no more than our ration," Toolbox indicated the water skin on his belt. "Often less, we're strong, we can resist it."
"Why are these pipes made of lead? The pipes further up in the mountain are copper," Janey asked curiously.
"Like I said, Miss, the Immortan gave em to us special. Said to build a special pipe system for us, said only the best for his half-life Warboys."
Next to Kompass Gilly made a choked-off little noise, and he looked at her. Her eyes had gone cold and hard, the hand he could see clenched into a fist. Was she angry that the Warboys had been granted special Aqua Cola? Were these women about to take it away?
"An' he gave us lead to repair 'em, but I've clean run out." Toolbox looked twitchy, apologetic. Kompass could understand that; he'd fucked up and they all knew it.
"All right," Janey said, with what sounded to Kompass like an effort to sound normal. "Thank you for telling me about this. We'll bring it to the council."
"In the meantime," Gilly spoke up for the first time, "If the pipes are leaking we shouldn't be using them. What's the nearest water point that's on the copper pipes?"
Toolbox looked uncertain, but Kompass supplied, "Up by the food distro."
"Very well," Janey nodded. "Until we have this fixed, close off the lead pipes completely. Everybody can fill their canteen when they come up for their morning grub, all right?"
They couldn't very well object to a measure to stop Aqua Cola from spilling, so they nodded uneasily.
As Max continued up the trail he couldn’t help noticing that the war boys he’d been finding were thinner, smaller, than those he found on the first day.
The ones who’d been left behind first. The damage and the wounds weren’t consistent, some of them had unbroken skin except for large tumors, looking dried out. Others clearly fell in battle.
There was one slight war boy still stuck on a harpoon, and Max couldn’t help flashing to the memory of turning around and finding Rachet similarly wounded, in a place where he might’ve stood if not for the war boy.
Did this nameless war boy shove someone else away, to take the damage on their own body?
It was so very rare to find people willing to sacrifice for others, in this Wasteland, that Max spent some time wondering about it. Especially rare to find so many people in one place willing to fight and die like this, despite the wildness around the eyes of those still living war boys he’d found, screaming, ‘betrayal!’ It’d suddenly hit him how tenuous the situation with Furiosa’s crew had been even more than he’d ever known, how she’d betrayed them and how it might have so easily tipped into violence had some factor or other been different.
Max remembered how he’d let down his guard around her within hours, changed from fighting against her to fighting with her in the space of one breath. One shout.
What must it have been like, to be around her for more than just three days, but for thousands? How could that betrayal feel? And how did it weigh, loyalty to her versus the loyalty to their ‘Redeemer’? He’d remembered the conflict that occasionally flickered on Nux’s face at the Vuvalini camp and as they were racing back to the canyon, but he didn’t remember any such expressed by Furiosa’s crew towards Joe. Was it because the man was already dead, by that point? Or that they were simply too busy trying to process… her?
He’d known of their story, through snatches. Bits told second hand by the girls and some bits more by Austeyr during their walk. And most recently by Rachet who’d been keeping himself distracted while the woman called Feng worked on his arm. The war boy talked about how giant the sandstorm looked from the War Rig, and Max could only hum in shared confusion at his being tossed off it.
Rachet had talked, quietly, about how it was hard for him to know things, how he didn't always understood people as well as the others, and he was kinda new on the crew anyway but how he liked having a place on it. A role, even if for a short while he’d thought Furiosa found other crew to replace him, shiny prized crew that knew more than he could ever know.
Even as he was being stitched up, he’d hurriedly rushed to explain to Max (when he’d caught his expression) that Furiosa explained some, apologized even, and that her actions was just the situation they all found themselves in. Like being matched up in the Pits.
Was it so simple as that? Max wondered, coming up on yet more wreckage, war boys being mangled by each other.
He was not sure that he could imagine Rachet as one of those he’d found who tore at the war boys around him, but he’s not sure if it was some quality in the war boy himself or if it’s only that Max hesitated to see Rachet in all this death.
Then again, Furiosa's crew obviously hadn't been a random group of war boys. From what Max could tell it had been the result of careful selection, testing and teaching. Furiosa had taught them there was value in their lives, not merely in their passing.
He hoped Rachet was healing well.
"So you'll convince the others to trade for the lead?" he asked during the long trek up the steps. Gilly hurt her knee in the siege, so they were taking their time. Kompass felt strangely compelled to stay with them, make sure they get back safely; the conversation with Toolbox could have gone far worse. He wasn't sure why, but he felt like he owed them.
"Kompass, do you remember when Gale told you to stop using the white paint?"
He nodded, puzzled what that had to do with anything.
"Why was that?"
"Said it were makin' us sick," he shrugged. It was hard to believe, but it was true that Warboys had always seemed to get lumps earlier and get sick faster than the breeders or even the Wretched. He didn't know what to believe. He missed the feeling of the paint on his skin, the ritual of applying it.
"The thing that is in the white paint that makes you sick?" said Janey carefully, "that's lead."
Kompass stopped in his tracks, watching the two women climb the steps ahead of him. He shook himself and started moving again, though he didn't try to catch up, needed the space around him. Because if the paint… if the Aqua Cola— Had the Immortan known?
No. That didn't make sense.
"Janey," he said, barely loud enough for her to hear, but she stopped immediately, turned to him. "How do you know— what does it—" he growled at his own incoherence, his thoughts tumbling.
"Have you been drinking the water further up, since you got back to the Citadel?"
"How does your head feel?"
"...fine?" he said eventually, knowing as he said it that that was new.
"Did you used to have more headaches? Sleep worse?"
He had the sensation of something sitting on his lungs, of not being able to breathe deep enough, remembering all those stories they grew up on, listening to, at the altar of their Redeemer.
"That was from water addiction," he finally said. "You get that if you drink your full share."
Gilly made a sound in her throat, and Janey shushed her.
“I guess that makes sense,” Janey nodded, and they continued up the steps.
Kompass nodded to himself and followed them. Of course it was water addiction.
Although... he didn't think he'd been drinking less than before, these past weeks. With all the water bottles they'd kept in the Boss' quarters to make sure she drank enough... it was hard to tell how much he'd been drinking, but he had been to the latrine to piss almost every day. If you weren't addicted to water you didn't need to do that. He decided to watch his intake more closely to make sure he wasn't becoming addicted.
But how was it possible that he had no headaches if he were becoming addicted?
He continued up the steps, hearing a soft conversation drift back from the two women.
“...can't let them continue...”
“...long way to go.”
'Can't let them continue? Did they want to take the Aqua Cola away from the Warboys? Kompass felt his hands clench into involuntary fists. He knew that the old women, the one that came from the place the Boss was from, didn't much like Warboys. Even Janey, who was friendly and asked them questions and actually listened to them when they answered, sometimes looked at them with an expression of... Kompass couldn't place it. As if she'd just eaten an unusually bitter bug.
He and the others had tried hard to work with the women, because they were Furiosa's new crew and it clearly made the Boss happy to see them cooperate. But if they were planning to take away the Aqua Cola, he suspected there might be some trouble.
He needed to talk to the Boss. She'd understand, and she'd talk to these women. Tell them what a bad idea they'd gotten into their heads.
Except that the Boss was… not well, right this moment. She'd been asleep, or at least in bed, for four days. Miss Gale said at one point that she was 'heartsick' and that it wasn't something she could mend from the outside.
No, the Boss should not be bothered with something like this. It fell to Kompass to make sure these women didn't take away the Warboy's special Aqua Cola and started a riot.
Kompass and Ace, at least. Thank V8 that the older man had been promoted, recognised by everybody as the representative of the warboys. He could help Kompass make these women see sense.
Ace was with Furiosa right now. Kompass couldn't take him from there, so he turned back around and then hesitated. Normally he would seek out Miss Gale to explain medical matters to him; she always seemed pleased to teach things, as if knowledge was something to share, like music, rather than something to hoard, like food or aqua-cola.
He was pretty sure that Gale would agree with the other women. She was not the right person to ask.
Kompass sighed and headed for the infirmary. It was the last place he wanted to be, and speaking with he Soundless was the last thing he wanted to do, but he couldn't think of anybody who would speak to him plainly.
The injured from the siege had mostly cleared out, and there were only a few people on the ledges. It had nothing of the smell of sick and old blood it used to have, the moans and whimpers of those dying soft. There was a Mill Rat sleeping and a pup looking feverish, and there was one black-clad woman bathing the festering leg wound of one of the warboys who had come with the war party.
"Are you sick?" she asked him.
Kompass shook his head a little harder than necessary. "No. Come to ask a question."
"Archive and Miss Giddy are inside," she nodded her head toward the cutting room. "Knock first."
He murmured his thanks and forced himself to approach, to knock even though all he wanted was to be not here. He owed it to his fellow warboys, to his crew, to find out about the water.
"Now what could you have come for," said the old lady, Feng.
Kompass stood uneasily under her gaze, unsure if he'd been asked a question or not. Another old woman appeared behind Feng; Miss Giddy the history woman.
"Well?" Feng demanded.
"I— the others, they say—" Kompass rallied. "Lead. What does it do to a body when it's in the water?"
"Builds up in your body, makes you sick," she answered without hesitation. "Belly aches, tired, weak," she raised an eyebrow at him, and he wondered if she was waiting for a reaction, and what kind. "Short of breath. Makes it hard to go to the dunny. Bad sleep, headaches. Dizziness, your legs feeling strange…"
"That's— that's night fevers," Kompass blurted, his mind spinning. This couldn't be right.
"Hah! Yes, that's what you warboys call it, isn't it?"
"Night fevers come from…?" he had to pause to turn the thought over, because it had so many implications.
"From lead," the old woman nodded. "The lead you've been drinking and smearing on your skin."
"But the Immortan— but Joe gave these things to us."
"Yes. He did."
Kompass stood frozen for long moments, because that could not be right. The Immortan had given them things that made them sick? Had he not known? No, the lead pipe system had been given to them with such ceremony, and much celebration of the Immortan's generosity - though in hindsight it had been more declaration of that generosity. Perhaps Joe had known but had given these things to the people who could stand them best, his half-lives, so he didn't have to waste the water but wouldn't risk poisoning others.
"Lead also makes you irritable. Aggressive," Feng said. There was vicious scorn in her voice. ”Kama-krazee."
Kompass couldn't find stable ground to stand on.
"So it made us better warboys?" Except that the Boss had never liked 'kama-crazee' and had always said she wanted them sharp and present and thinking.
Kompass ignored the stares of the two women as he tried to make sense of this.
"Perhaps he figured we were half-lives anyway, might as well make us better warboys for the time that we have?" he suggested haltingly. "Encourage us to die with honour?"
"Kompass," said Miss Giddy, and he startled to realise she knew his name. "The lead is what makes you half-lives. Without the lead you'd all live much longer." She sounded kind, sympathetic in a way that felt like a tight band around his chest, that made everything different suddenly, that made him understand she was giving him bad news.
"W-what?" he stumbled.
“Haven’t you noticed that those you call Wretched are generally older than the War Boys?”
“But—” his mind was whirling.
"He poisoned you, on purpose," Feng said bluntly. "He made you all sicker than you would’ve been and then offered you a story about Valhalla so that you would be eager to die for him."
Miss Giddy gave her a sharp quelling glance.
"But…" Kompass subconsciously brushed his hands over the lumps that had started appearing in his side.
"Benign, for most of you. You don't die of those alone."
Kompass thought about how the appearance of lumps got warboys in a hurry to find their way to Valhalla. And about how Ace had carried his lumps around for many thousand days.
"Of course, now the lead is in your system, stopping the intake won't suddenly make you live long lives, but it should be longer, less sick."
"But why?" he said helplessly. "Why would he…."
"Because the disgusting schlanger needed people who would die for him, and would never think to threaten his position. He made you sick so he could be a god to you. So that you would be perfect, eager, battle fodder." Feng said this with authority, but also as if saying so made her feel better, with relish. “I’m fairly sure the Organic Mechanic kept records, if you want to dig through that foulness.”
Kompass clenched his hand around his opposite wrist, nodded at the two women in acknowledgement, and turned on his heel.
Max saw something in the distance, something red, and something moving; but the movement looked strange. When he approached, crows and other vermin scattered.
Wasteland scavengers alarmed by the vibrations his buggy caused.
There was a bloody circle on the ground, some wrecks nearby, and maybe fifteen war boys laid in it with slit throats and their skin scraped of paint. A dead Imperator was thrown across the top with the word ‘traitor’ drawn across his chest, the grease clearly palmed off his head.
An Imperator and his crew, Max guessed, with some strange feeling welling in his chest.
All these long days he’d been finding evidence of war boys turning on each other, but the sheer waste of discarding these sixteen people (in their sleep judging by the lack of defensive wounds on most of them) still staggered him. Even Wastelanders protected those they considered ‘theirs’. He wondered how much of this disregard for life was directly from Joe’s influence, the man who’d discarded his War boys carelessly, like he’d seemed to discard anyone who was not himself. How it was so easy for them to count a war boy as not-’theirs’. How this surfaced in the bodies he’d been finding on the road, in the ways they turned on each other, and in this bloody circle in front of him.
Fifteen war boys, and their Imperator, and they hadn’t been able to defend in time. Possibly because they hadn’t been looking out for each other. Or not enough men had been in a position to help.
Max, Glory called, and turned back the way he came. She was running as if being run down, as if being hunted, as if wearing all the faces of all the people that he—
Sometimes betrayal is simply not being where you're supposed to be, Max thought.
The trailer was almost full anyway.
He headed back to the Citadel.
Kompass ended up on one of the small gardening ledges, looking out over the Wasteland. Unsure why, of all the changes and new information, this was the hardest to process. He'd already known the Immortan was not a good person, with the way he'd treated the Boss, had treated the wiv— Tribunes.
Kompass found the idea that Joe hadn't been good to the Warboys either much harder to swallow. The Immortan had praised and encouraged them with one hand, and fed them poison with the other, and Kompass could not fit his brain around that. Didn't he always say they would ride with him on the highways of Valhalla? McFeast with him? Didn’t he lift them from the Wasteland and provide them food and shelter and aqua-cola?
He told them he was their Redeemer. That he cared.
Austeyr dropped down next to him heavily and Kompass startled badly from how little he saw it coming.
"I wasn't that quiet," Austeyr pointed out, looking him over. "Got a lot on your mind?"
Kompass decided that the last thing they needed was more secrets.
“There’s something I just found out.” He breathed carefully and crushed his hands against his eyes for a second to help him think, “Keep it between crew for now.”
They sat together on a green ledge, staring out into the wastes, fingers occasionally straying to their lumps.
"And you're sure?" Austeyr asked, a quiet sort of numb hitting his mind. He couldn't wrap his head around it, especially not with the conversation he had earlier with that Wretched woman. He’d thought… he’d thought he’d be lucky to go out chrome soon. Had been almost a little disappointed that the siege with the war parties hadn’t resulted in a worthy enough situation to be Witnessed for because if his tumors were large enough to mess up his aim so badly for lancing then surely they were large enough to end him soft. He’d thought maybe three hundred days, six hundred at most, before they took him; maybe a hundred days where he’d be able to help out before the nightfevers started rusting him down into uselessness.
He hadn’t been sure that the new Tribunes were so adverse to softness that they’d let Furiosa make sure he'd go out chrome, like she'd made sure with Afterburn. If she'd even be willing to.
"Don't think that woman Feng has any reason to lie to us," Kompass said, staring into the distance. “The Soundless have a base now, in the infirmary, and they answer to the Tribunes if only to save face.”
If only to be more legitimate, Austeyr knew.
And from Kompass’ words Gilly had seemed so angry with the thought of the lead. Not angry with the warboys, Austeyr knew. Not angry because they got something extra. Angry on their behalf.
"We did all seem to sleep better in the Boss' quarters."
"I thought that was just…you know."
"But, thinking about it, no night fevers either."
"No." Austeyr didn’t understand what his voice was doing, if 'no' meant agreeing with Kompass or if 'no' meant denying the situation. What would it mean that night fevers would have never hit? That in her room they were only… sleeping off the dregs of lead still in their systems, and so the nights passed more smooth? Was the comfort to be found with Furiosa only because it didn’t make them more sick? Was her crew’s strength nothing more than that found in the absence of poison?
But that can’t be right, either. Did Furiosa know about the lead? Did Joe know just how bad the lead was?
You’re lucky to be alive as a war boy, he remembered the words. Did everyone but them know that to be war boy was to be made sick, ailing? Except Austeyr thought he wasn't remembering the phrasing...
"I don't understand.” He shifted, frustrated. Resettled himself when his motion knocked down some small rocks from the ledge. "Why would he do something to harm us! He Raised us Up. Said we would Ride with him. He was our Redeemer!"
"Feng said he needed us to be willing to die for him."
"We were! There was no need to—"
"If we'd be eager to get to Valhalla, eager to go out chrome because we thought we'd die soft soon, none of us would think about taking power from the Immortan."
His mouth clicked shut. And Austeyr nodded slowly, willing to accept the latter part because he couldn’t really think about… about being ‘eager to go out chrome’. Because he would have, he’d just hadn't succeeded. Because he was, eager. (Had been. Was, still.) Didn’t know how to think about how going out chrome might be just as meaningless, if the tumors were a lie.
It was all he'd ever known to aspire to. Serve the Immortan. Go out good enough that Furiosa would be proud. Make his belts be one of the ones she would sometimes take out to look at and sigh, or even wear.
"So he wanted us to be strong… not for too long. Just long enough to serve him?"
"I think... so." Kompass said slowly, looking away as if scouting the horizon, but face so conflicted that Austeyr could see it even in profile.
"We should tell the others."
"Think they'll believe us?"
They stared into the distance for a while.
"There must be…” Austeyr muttered after a long while of staring blankly, “Must be... diagrams somewhere. Notes. Something more than just old women sayin' it's true."
Kompass searched through his memories again, feeling it cycle helplessly through certain words and avoiding others, but he vaguely recalled, "Feng said the Organic Mechanic must've kept notes. That we could come look at them."
They glanced at each other. They'd never gone looking for proof before, they'd just always had to take the Imperators at their word. The idea that they would go snooping through paper…
Except it wouldn't be snooping if they had permission, right? And even if they didn't, maybe this was important enough to… to make sure they had confirmation? The entire idea sat wrong. During a run, to waste time questioning orders meant that something would go wrong, someone going out mediocre because you weren’t already in place and doing your job.
"Think we should?"
But in this situation, they didn’t have orders. Didn’t have a set job or a place or a role. And Furiosa always said she wanted them to use their heads.
"The Tribunes don’t have any fondness for Joe. I think they'd let us search.” Even as he’d said this firmly, Kompass found his fingers straying to his lumps again. He still couldn't wrap his mind around the idea that they might just sit there. That they might not be killing him. He'd been so busy to make something of his remaining time, to be as useful as he could before he ended, that the idea that he might get to see the Citadel become the place Furiosa wanted it to be, that he might even see Rett grow enough to be welcomed on the crew, was startling.
Sprocket had been Rett's mentor, and after Sprocket had gone out all shine, Kompass had stepped in, making sure the training he’d gotten before didn’t go to waste. He missed Sprocket sometimes too, and it was a nice thought that the war boy’s plan for Rett was still carryin' out, and that Kompass might continue to carry it out far beyond expectation.
Warboys sometimes made pacts between them. To finish something the other had started; things like overhauling a salvaged car, looking out for a specific pup, taking care of a gardening ledge they'd spent a lot of effort on.
There was even a project that Kompass suspected had been going since they'd first taken residence in the Citadel; each new warboy told the plan and expected to carry it forward. The warboys had hacked out the barracks for themselves, and they were still always working on it, widening tunnels, making new rooms according to the plan sketched out in stone by the first warboys, designed to give maximum space while minding the integrity of the foundations. Except now the Wretched were in the ground level barracks. He was pleased with the new space the warboys had been allotted, but it was regretful that something so long-running had to be abandoned.
There was one agreement between Furiosa's crew members that any new recruit got taught first off. You take care of the Boss. You don't leave her alone in a jam unless you're certain your death fixes the situation. If you can do nothing else, you can at least Witness her.
Kompass suddenly realised he was her Ace now. It would fall to him to impress this on new crew members. To lead by example.
"Yeah. Let's go find proof."
Being ace now, it was his place to move into position even before the Boss said a word, his job to anticipate problems. This was a problem that would come down hard on the War boys, and thus on Furiosa, if there was any such a problem.
He needed to quit being so mediocre about all this and find out one way or another. And either find them a path out or a path through.