He didn’t remember letting go of the sun-baked door of the Rig. But suddenly the ground rushed up to meet him while he was still trying to breathe through the blood pouring from his nose and the grit kicking up from the edge of the approaching storm and the pure shock of it all.
A jolt of pain from knee to elbow to shoulder as he hit the sand. The spike-rimmed wheels of the Rig rushed past an arm’s length from his head.
GET OFF THE ROAD, instinct screamed. There was no road here, just a hard flat plain with not a scrap of cover in sight, but there was a war party behind them and a storm ahead and it would be a miracle if he didn’t get crushed by one or the other.
He rolled, the storm winds and the war music pounding in his ears, out of the path of the pursuit vehicles that had caught up with the Rig. Fumbled for the bit of scrap cloth in his pocket, cleaning rag and emergency bandage and sandstorm cover all in one. Wrapped it as gingerly as he could over his mouth and broken nose.
Cover. Find cover.
He staggered to his feet, knee and ankle screaming in protest. The first stinging waves of sand were already hitting him. In a minute he wouldn’t be able to see past the length of his arm.
He stumbled in the direction he thought the armada should be, but he could no longer hear Coma’s riffs over the howling of the wind. Probably taking shelter—there. A dark shape on the sand, twenty paces away. He made a beeline for it against gusts of wind hard enough to make him stagger.
It was a wreck, a firecar flipped upside down, the back half blackened. Crew must’ve run for it. He got to his knees and scrambled in through the driver’s side window just as a wind gust hit hard enough to rock the car back and forth on its roof.
Swirling orange grit enveloped the world. He tucked himself against the leeward back of the upside-down driver’s seat and tried to concentrate on breathing.
He woke up lying in a baking drift of sand in an even hotter car. Shifted and immediately winced at the aches and pains all down the left side of his body and the godawful throb in his head.
For a moment he couldn’t remember what had happened. Then—
Sandstorm. War party. Furiosa.
She had hit him. Well, he had grabbed her throat, but only because she needed to smegging stop before she drove into the storm with half their crew on top of the Rig—
Their crew. She had driven straight into the storm with at least four boys still up top. Into the winds strong enough to flip a bike with ease, where being on the outside of a moving vehicle was asking for death.
He unwrapped the dust-crusted cloth around his face gingerly, ran tentative fingers over the swollen, clotted cut where her pistol butt had connected with his nose. Winced. He slid his goggles carefully up onto his forehead and continued the exploration. Swelling under his eyes, skin caked with dried blood and sandstorm grit, lips already rough and dry from dehydration.
He reached for the canteen on his belt, only to find it not there, just half a broken carabiner probably damaged in the fall. Fuck.
Scrabbling around the upside-down mess of the truck, head throbbing, until he found the driver’s canteen tucked in a netted pocket on the door, blessedly almost full. He allowed himself three careful swallows. There was already a sick headache building behind his temples, from dehydration or being hit in the face with a PT99AF or probably a little of both.
What had she done?
The shock of it kept buzzing around his head, interrupting the logical thoughts he should be having about looking for more water and stripping supplies from the car and figuring out how to get back to the Citadel.
He kept playing the moment back over in his brain, the sudden realization that this was not a secret mission for the Immortan, as he’d first assumed when she wouldn’t tell him anything—wasn’t a mission for the Immortan at all—the sinking feeling as it hit him that the war party behind them wasn’t coming to their aid, but was chasing them.
His headache spiked again. He swallowed another mouthful of water and scrubbed a hand over his eyes, flinching when he brushed too close to his swollen nose. Right. Survive first. Think on shit later.
He extracted everything useful he could find in the car, made a neat little pile on the roof that was now the floor. He ate half a strip of the lizard jerky from the ration pack he found, hoping the salt and protein would have some impact on the blinding headache. Then he pushed aside enough of the drifted-up sand to crawl out the driver’s side window.
The sun on the hard-packed earth around him was a stab in the temple as soon as he left the car, but it was marginally cooler outside the metal box. He put his goggles back on and got experimentally to his feet. There was a long line of bruises and road rash down his left side where he’d hit the ground, his left elbow had been scraped bloody and his shoulder didn’t seem particularly happy, but other than his nose nothing seemed to be broken. His left knee wasn’t in too great a mood either, but he could walk.
There was something mostly buried in the sand not too far up ahead. When he reached it he saw it was a bike, the handlebars a little bent but otherwise looking relatively undamaged.
Two bodies lay nearby. War Boys, not part of their crew. Ace recognized their faces but realized with a slight twinge of shame he couldn’t recall either of their names. One twisted up and broken, his head at a stomach-churning angle that said snapped neck. The other didn’t look as injured, but there was a froth of orange foam around his open mouth. Half-life lungs outmatched by the toxic storm.
There were tracks all around them in the sand—the wide footprint of the war party roaring by. They hadn’t even stopped to scoop up the salvage.
A few minutes of blowing sand out of the engine and the bike started up. Ace loaded all the salvage he'd gathered into the bike's storage bags and mounted it, wincing a little when he bent his bruised knee to swing it over the seat. From here it would be an easy ride back to the Citadel. Inglorious, certainly, but simple enough.
So why wasn’t he going?
The bike was facing the right direction. He had enough water and guzz for the ride back. And yet for some strange reason he couldn’t seem to make himself actually go.
His brain kept replaying strange flashes of the moments before the storm, the look on her face the last time he’d leaned into the cab. She’d looked scared.
Strange that when his world had just been flipped upside down, all he seemed to be thinking about was her. ‘Specially when she was the one who’d done the flipping.
The tracks of the war party stretched out to the east, a giant arrow in the sand toward whatever direction she’d gone, for whatever unfathomable reason she hadn’t seen fit to explain to him.
Ace had been following orders for more days than he could count. He was good at following orders and not thinking too damn much about them. Part of how he’d survived this long.
But right here, right now, there was no one to tell him what to do.
He fired up the engine and headed east.
The sand past the wreck that had sheltered him had been churned up by the storm, drifted into heaps in some places and scraped raw in others. Ace skirted the biggest dunes, still wary about the reliability of the scavenged bike, following the wide path the armada had plowed flat ahead of him.
The whole smegging war party. It had been clear enough as he watched them race to meet the War Rig. Chasing her.
What on earth had she done?
He almost missed the small dark thing that caught the corner of his vision, made him stop and swerve around. But yes, it was exactly what his brain had told him it was from the flicker of his peripheral vision.
It was a boot, sticking out of a drift of sand. A boot he recognized.
He got off the bike and knelt to scoop some of the sand away, a sudden foul dry taste in his mouth. It didn’t take long for him to uncover enough of the body to be sure.
It was Dodge, his lean gangly form hideously broken, as if he’d fallen from a height far greater than the top of the Rig. His eyes were still open, staring and shocked.
Ace felt a punch of loss like a hit to the solar plexus. Dodge had been crew since before they’d gotten the War Rig.
The question clawed at the inside of his brain again, scratching at everything else he tried to think like sand in the gears. He’d been turning things over in his head ever since he’d crawled out of the wreck, and no matter how his brain tried to work it out, it made no Joe-damned sense.
If Furiosa had been planning to strike out on her own—why, he couldn’t imagine, when the Citadel was the safest place for kilometers in any direction—wouldn’t she have wanted them by her side? Her crew, who had spent hundreds of drill hours and dozens of runs learning how to defend the Rig perfectly? Wouldn’t she have at least asked them?
And if she’d been in some kind of trouble, some jam-up bad enough to make defying Joe seem like the least bad option—well, she should have smegging told him. Them. She should have told them. They would have helped her. What else was crew for?
He looked at the rolling sand around him. Tried to remember who had still been on the Rig when the butt of her pistol to his face had knocked him off. (Why, why? The question grinds again.)
Bracket and Ramrod and Zinc had still been up top for sure. Zinc. He’d just been promoted from blackthumb, the youngest of the crew. It had been his first run.
Ace tried to remember if anyone else had climbed up for advantage when the Buzzards attacked, but things seemed uncharacteristically hazy. He rubbed his temple where the headache still pounded unabated.
Bracket, Ramrod, Zinc, Dodge. How many others lay scattered somewhere in the sand around him? Had there been anyone to witness them?
He looked down at Dodge. Laced his fingers together in a quick V8. He brushed the dead man’s eyes closed with his thumb, then stripped off the knife and canteen and tools from Dodge’s belt. His body was already too swollen with death to remove the boots.
He put the bike back in gear, questions still clawing and scratching inside his head. Skidded out of the soft patch of sand, following the war party’s tracks once again.
If there was an answer to be had, it lay to the east.
Ace was used to following orders, all right. (Her orders, which were clever and fair, effective but never needlessly cruel, and sometimes even made with his consultation). But it wasn’t like he was incapable of thinking for himself. So as he followed the tracks he tried to play out different scenarios in his head, working out what he would do.
Catching up to the war party. Offering to help hunt her. It made his stomach churn to think about, but it was probably the only way to assure them he hadn’t been in on…whatever the hell it was she was doing.
Catching up to the war party and finding her already dead. Or the far worse possibility, captured alive.
He shoved that one aside.
Somehow skirting the war party and catching up to her.
And here his brain froze up. Because he thought of Dodge and Bracket and Ramrod and Zinc and wanted to punch her. But then he thought of the tight, scared clench of her jaw and the way her eyes had been wet in a way he was sure wasn’t just from the dust, and the way he had heard the War Boy in the pursuit vehicle yell, “Out of the way!” and he hadn’t moved, he could have but he hadn’t, and—
It was all very smegging confusing, and more than anything, he just wanted to understand.
The afternoon sun was relentless on his back, and his head was still pounding fit to split open.
The tracks went into the narrow canyon pass through the mountains. It looked like the Citadel armada had been joined by reinforcements. A lot of reinforcements.
The canyon was Rock Rider territory. They normally kept everyone out, but it seemed clear that dozens of Citadel vehicles had gone in, so….
He still killed the engine and dismounted, walking the bike along quietly by his side, fingers near the ignition, ready for a quick getaway.
It was only when he got off the bike that he realized how appallingly hot it was in the canyon. The high walls blocked most of the wind and the sun was low enough now to blast straight into the narrow tunnel of rock.
The first stumble caught him off guard and he nearly dropped the bike. He stopped and drank a little more water, waiting for the dizziness to pass, well aware that he was near the end of the first canteen now and he’d probably drank far less than he should.
He kept moving.
The second stumble came with a wave of nausea. He managed to get the kickstand down before he was on his knees on the sand, fighting to keep down what little liquid he had in him while his stomach heaved.
His arms were covered with goosebumps, and when he touched his skin it was cool even though he could feel how much he was sweating, paint dripping off him in rivulets. Bad news.
He needed to get out of the heat, and he had to find more water. Forward seemed the only way to go.
His limbs were heavy and shaky when he got to his feet again. He kept trudging forward, away from the setting sun that was blasting full force into the canyon now, as the walls got higher and higher on either side of him.
The next time he did drop the bike, crumpling onto the sand as the world spun in slow sick loops beneath him. He held on as if he would slide right off the edge and closed his eyes, trying to breathe easy and shallow through his mouth.
Should’ve gone back to the Citadel, you fool. Why hadn’t he just gone home, where the worst fate that would have faced him would have been dishonor at not having seen that his Imperator was planning to go rogue?
He opened his eyes enough to watch a lizard skitter over a nearby rock and wondered if he was going to die here.
A lizard. The small mottled brown kind that had hardly any meat on their bones, but lived near water.
He shoved himself up onto his elbows as it skittered away behind the rock. Stumbled to his feet in time to see its tail whip out of sight between two craggy fingers of rock. He staggered after it, stumbling into the gap between the slices of rock. The sand between them was damp.
There was a cave, the entrance barely big enough for a man to squeeze into. It was dark inside but he could hear a trickle of water running down the rock.
Ace was not a man for grand gestures of devotion, but he pressed his forehead against the sand and offered a silent benediction to whatever Wasteland spirit had guided him here. Whatever half-formed mission he had set himself on, the desert didn’t want him to give up yet.
He hid the bike behind a boulder, stripped off the most valuable stuff to take with him. Moving careful and slow, still a bit dizzy, but with some hope now.
It was a tight squeeze into the cave, rock scraping against his already-bruised skin, but once inside he found a crevice tall enough to sit up and wide enough to lie down if he curled his feet in. A thin sheet of blessedly cool water sluiced down one side of the rock into a narrow channel that ran out into the sand outside.
He made sure the water was sweet and clear—it was, although a bit mineraly—before draining the second canteen. He forced down a bit more of the lizard jerky, set both canteens carefully against the wall so water would drip into them, and then lay down on the stone floor, so wonderfully cool against his bare skin he actually let out a groan that echoed in the narrow space.
He’d lie here for a little while until the sun went down and he felt less like his head was going to split open like a corpse in the sun. Then he’d keep following the tracks, looking for Furiosa.
He closed his eyes.
Special thanks to SingleWhiteCatLady for medical advice relevant to this chapter. Any remaining suspension of disbelief is entirely mine.
The war party was chasing them.
Ace clung to the outside of the Rig as it flew over the sand, faster than they’d ever gone before. He had somehow slipped from his normal perch, slid back toward the end of the cab. He needed to get up front, to talk to Furiosa, but whenever he moved the cab got longer and longer, growing more extensions like some strange metal tumor, and every time he got close to the driver’s side window the piece of metal he grabbed broke off in his hand and he was pushed back by the slipstream.
He had to get up front, to reach her, to warn her, but he couldn’t do it and the war music kept getting louder and louder—
Ace woke with a jolt. He scrambled to his feet in the second before he remembered he was in a tiny cave, smacking his head and scraping a shoulder raw. He swore and sat back down, forcing his heartbeat and breathing to return to normal.
It was daylight outside. Fuck. He’d slept through until the next morning. Who the hell knew where she was now?
His legs seemed very stiff, he noticed as he stretched them out into the sun outside the entrance of the cave. And…the ache in his belly felt like much more than a missed supper. And gods, he was thirsty.
He looked over at his canteens. Water trickled out of the full mouths of both of them. He picked one up carefully and drank, long cool swallows until it was half-empty, then he licked the moisture off the sides and replaced it by the wall to fill up again. Wet his scarf in the rivulet of water running out into the sand and scrubbed the dried blood off his face. His nose still felt puffy and swollen but the piercing headache had receded to a dull throb.
He investigated his scraped elbow. It was scabbed over and already starting to heal. The bruises on his side had progressed to bright purple.
Was it possible he’d slept through more than one night?
He knew that happened sometimes, the body giving an order that all resources were to be used for healing. But if that was true, he’d probably lost any chance of catching up to her…
He shook his head, trying to force himself to think clearly through the memories of the dream that had woken him. It had been so vivid. It was almost as if he could still hear the war music in his head…
The music wasn’t in his head, he realized when he listened carefully. It was in the canyon. And it was getting closer.
He wormed his way out of the cave, into the sunlight that seemed to be midday-ish. Yes, the music was definitely real, Coma’s amplified guitar echoing shrill and insistent down the length of the canyon. He couldn’t hear clearly enough to make out what command he was playing, but it was definitely an attack chord.
He peered out into the canyon, but it twisted too much up ahead for him to see very far.
He was debating whether to risk getting on the bike to investigate when he heard the almighty metallic crash, shrieking and squealing and crunching and echoing through the canyon.
He froze. Coma’s guitar had gone silent. Minutes ticked by in which he seemed unable to decide what to do. The crash had sounded horrible, multiple vehicles for sure, every driver’s nightmare.
There was an engine, low and powerful, echoing in the canyon from somewhere up ahead. Getting closer, fast.
It was an unknown quantity. Instinct made him slip behind the boulder where he’d hid the bike. He peered over the top of the rock and watched the Gigahorse fly by, banners fluttering. His fingers laced together into the V8 without conscious thought, a reflex.
He waited for the rest of the war party to be behind it. No one came. Not a single car or bike.
He loaded up the bike as quickly as he could and headed for the center of the canyon.
The canyon floor was littered with rocks, and as he got further in, what were clearly the wrecks of vehicles taken down by Rock Rider fire. Some looked thousands of days old. He couldn’t move very quickly, but that seemed good, because he had the distinct feeling that whatever was happening was strange and unprecedented.
He could hear yelling up ahead. Thought he recognized a couple Imperators’ voices, but he wasn’t close enough to be sure.
Then he rounded a bend and his heart stopped.
The War Rig was crashed up ahead, the great black beast lying broken on its side and surrounded by debris.
He sped toward it, no longer caring to look for obstacles, then he was off the bike and running, and as he got closer he could see a body on the sand, blood on the shattered windshield and a pale arm lying motionless—
It wasn’t her. The relief that washed over him was strong enough to make his knees weak.
It was a War Boy. He’d gone through the windshield, and either the blunt force of the impact with the heavy glass or a lethal shard had ended things quickly. There was a lot of blood and a little bit of brain on the sand by his head, and his face was painted scarlet. Ace thought he recognized the chest scars. Nux, he was pretty sure the boy’s name had been. A driver. A good one.
Well, at least he’d gone out driving the chromest rig the Citadel ever saw. If there was a Valhalla, he was probably smiling down from it now.
There was another body, slumped halfway out of the broken passenger side window. For a shocking second he thought it was the History Woman who lived in the Vault. It wasn’t. But it was an old woman, the oldest he’d seen in ages, dressed in strange wrapped woven fabrics and leathers. She looked healthier and cleaner than any Wretched he’d ever seen, aside from the fact that she was dead.
The Rig was a mangled wreck. The cab had separated from the tanker, flipped upside down and continued rolling, from the looks of the smashed roof. Most of the debris was from the Doof Wagon, which had crashed into the cab from behind, along with three or four other vehicles behind it from what he could see.
None of this made any sense at all.
How had this War Boy come to be driving the Rig with a mystery woman in the passenger seat? Why had they crashed? And where the hell was Furiosa?
Now that the immediate shock had worn off, he paid more attention to the yelling on the other side of the wreck. He couldn’t identify all the voices, but there was arguing, and then the thud of a punch being thrown. A roar of noise as a messy-sounding fight started.
He found himself not at all interested in getting involved.
In fact…he wasn’t remotely sure what he was supposed to be doing now. He could go back to the Citadel, he supposed. And do what? His entire world felt unmoored. He had no crew, no Imperator, no Rig. What sounded like most of the armada was trapped on the other side of the tangle of metal blocking the canyon, apparently slugging it out for some unknown reason, and he realized he didn’t intend to intervene, or even particularly care.
When had his loyalty shifted so decisively from them to her? All he knew was that without her by his side he felt lost in unfamiliar territory.
He settled down against the rock wall in the narrow shadow cast by the corpse of the War Rig and did nothing.
Valkyrie opened her eyes to blinding sun and blood in her mouth and pain everywhere.
She was lying face down in the sand. It hurt to breathe. Trying to raise her head off the ground caused an unbearable spike of agony down her spine.
There had been a road battle, and she’d been shooting at the man in charge, the man who’d taken Furiosa, and then there’d been the roar of an engine and blinding pain in her leg and her back and then blackness—
Maadi’s Rossi was lying nearby. She tried to reach her hand out for it, but any movement at all was like hot knives in her back.
She swallowed against a sandpapery tongue. “Maadi?” Her voice was a breathless croak. “Maadi?”
Gritting her teeth, she curled herself back enough to see her left foot twisted at an unnatural angle. She tried moving her leg and—
She was lying face up, staring into the sun. A silhouette crouched over her, doing something with her leg.
“Need a tourniquet, love.” It was Maadi. She felt something tighten around her left leg just below the knee. With what felt like a titanic effort, she raised her head enough to look down at her leg.
She’d felt her foot twist under the wheel in the split second before everything went black, but it was still a dull shock to see the white glint of bone peeking through her leathers.
A break like that meant amputation in the best conditions. She couldn’t imagine how she’d live long enough for that to be a possibility.
She let her head drop back onto the sand, biting her lip and breathing through her nose to keep the sudden wave of tears and nausea at bay. Hell of a time to be wasting water, Val. Still. It was one thing to know your luck wouldn’t last forever and quite another to be staring right at the end of it, in the form of a ragged inch of shinbone poking through your trousers.
“Here, love.” Maadi was holding a canteen to her parched lips. When her body blocked the sun Val could make out a little of her face, one eye covered with a bloody bandage and the other swollen almost shut.
She trickled a little bit of water into Val’s mouth. Val coughed and it sent what felt like an army of knife blades into her back—
She was still face up under the sun, and she was moving.
Her back was resting against something hard and warm that she seemed to be attached to. She moved her fingers and felt the edge of a car door, belts and the tie from Maadi’s bedroll holding her in place.
Her feet dragged, the left one flopping limply. The tourniquet had been wound tight with the bent spoke of a bike wheel.
She craned her head back behind her—a horrid spike of pain—and saw Maadi. Dragging her across the sand, a blanket across her hips attached at either end to the car door.
She must have made some noise, because Maadi turned and smiled down at her, garish against the blood and bruises forming on her face. “Come on, love. Whole tanker full of water and food waiting for us in the canyon.”
Maadi, who had organized the runs to trade firewood when the trees died, who had joked gleefully about crow stew and crow pies when the crows came, who had coaxed the last feeble millet crop out of the souring earth and then packed everything onto the bikes without so much as a backward glance.
Life’s just survivin’ ‘til your dead, she had said with a shrug the first night they camped away from the Green Place, as she passed around roasted crow skewers.
“Nearly there,” Maadi said in a voice that sounded almost cheerful, despite that fact that that was quite obviously a lie. They’d fallen kilometers away from the canyon (ten? fifteen? twenty? she wasn’t even sure) and her leg would be no less broken when they got there. If they got there.
“Just you rest easy now,” said Maadi quietly, continuing her trek through the sand, and it was too painful to keep her neck craned back at her, so Valkyrie turned back to look up at the blazing sun. It made her head ache. She’d just close her eyes for a little—
She woke to Maadi’s knees hitting the ground, registered somewhere between sound and feeling. A jolt of pain as her makeshift stretcher landed flat on the sand.
The sun was low—shockingly low by the long shadows she could see. They were somewhere inside the canyon, rock walls stretching high on either side of them.
Maadi crawled into her frame of vision. She eased herself to lie down on the sand next to Val, and for the first time Val saw the scarf wrapped around her stomach, soaked dark with blood.
Maadi waved a hand dismissively. “Missed the Gatling gun on the back of one of ‘em rigs, apparently.” Her fingers worked at the ropes and belts holding Val to the car door. “Gonna have to do the rest of it yourself, love.”
“Maadi—” She should have told her; they could have stopped; they could have rested. Why had she let herself drift off for all those hours?
“Almost there. ‘S a klick to the pass. Maybe two.” She loosened the last belt and lay back on the sand with a shaky breath.
“Maadi…” Val felt tears pricking her eyes, and it was stupid to waste water like that but she was too tired to care.
“Shush.” The corner of Maadi’s mouth twitched. “I’m old. I don’t mind going. You have to live though.” She said it as if it was simple. “There should be wrecks up ahead, where they blocked the pass. Supplies.” If they'd blocked the pass, Val thought but did not say, if the plan had worked, if Furiosa hadn’t been struck down by one of the hundred enemies that had been all around them…
Maadi slid the rifle off her shoulder and laid it across Val’s chest. “Gonna have to take care of that leg,” she rasped. “Sharp knife and a flare to cauterize should do it. Bit of guzz if you can’t find anything else.”
“Maadi…no…” She gritted her teeth and leaned over enough to touch Maadi’s cheek.
“Said shush.” Maadi smiled a little, but her eyes are bright too. “Promise you’ll try to get to the tanker.”
“I-I promise,” Val found herself stuttering, even though it felt like promising to go to the moon.
“She’ll need your help, defending the Citadel once she’s taken it.” Maadi was taking things off her belt, canteen and compass and her ancient revolver. “Make sure you get there.”
“I will.” The tears were falling freely now.
Maadi sighed, her eyes drifting closed. “Don’t wait for me to go. Keep moving. Be dark soon.”
Val disobeyed that instruction, though. She stayed with her hand on the soft papery skin of Maadi’s cheek until the last breath shuddered out of her, and then lay staring at the purple-red sky with her hands clamped over her mouth to muffle the broken sounds that came out of her, even though they made her chest feel full of glass, even though she didn’t know whether foes lingered in the canyon to hear them.
The sky had gone the color of a deep bruise when she managed to sling the Rossi over her shoulder, teeth gritted against the pain. She strapped Maadi’s canteen and compass to her belt with shaky fingers, then reached over and fumbled the ammunition bag off Maadi’s belt.
Five rounds for the Rossi. The revolver was fully loaded, but there was nothing to spare.
She bit down on her lip and eased herself off the car door. A kilometer, Maadi had said. Maybe two. That seemed fucking impossible, but the woman had used the last of her strength to get her here and damned if she was going to waste that by not even trying.
If the plan had worked and the tanker was really there, at least dehydration wouldn’t be the thing that killed her. And if not…well, she had ten rounds for anyone unlucky enough to cross her path, and one left over for herself.
Rolling onto her stomach made her vision gray at the edges. She rested her cheek against the sand and breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth and willed herself not to throw up.
When the nausea went down she tucked the revolver into the side of her belt. Swung an elbow forward, clenched her teeth and started crawling.
Valkyrie crawled. Toward the last bit of color streaking the sky between the canyon walls. On her elbows, the way she’d learned to crawl through the low grass at the edge of the Green Place if attackers ever made it that far and she needed to flank them.
Every movement was pain. She could push a little with her right leg, none at all with her left. She bit her lip to keep from sobbing, and then she sobbed anyway, raw sounds that hurt just as much as moving, until her throat was too dry and only wheezing gasps came out.
She started counting in her head, each movement of her arms. Up to a hundred, then starting over again.
Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Twenty-six.
The tanker would be there. She relentlessly pushed away every other idea—Furiosa dead in a crashed Rig; the tanker set on fire or cracked open, its precious water spilled into the sand; enemies more than she had bullets for.
The tanker would be there.
Ninety-seven. Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine. One hundred.
One. Two. Three.
The western sky turned from red to purple to deep blue. She thought she saw a dark mass up ahead in the narrow canyon, but she couldn’t be sure. She’d lost track of where the pain was coming from, how far she’d crawled, anything but the raw scrape of sand under her hands and elbows and belly and hips.
Sixty-five. Sixty-six. Sixty-seven. Sixty-eight.
Her hand hit something cool, metallic. She squinted at it in the growing gloom, ran her fingers over it to be sure.
It was a hubcap.
She set her jaw and lifted her sand- and blood-crusted face off the ground.
Not ten meters away, the perfect black cylinder of the rig’s tanker lay fetched up on its side on the sand, spiky appendages poking up in to the velvet blue of the evening sky, the first divine island of the archipelago of twisted metal that had jammed the pass shut.
Some kind of hoarse barking sounds were coming out of her, and she didn’t know if they were laughs or sobs or coughs, and maybe the pain had simply shorted out her entire nervous system but she was suddenly swamped by a dizzying wave of pure euphoria so intense she thought she would burst.
She crawled for the tanker, not even feeling the pain anymore, vaguely aware that she was grinning while all kinds of mad weird sounds left her throat.
As she got closer she saw that it had tipped up on its side so the taps were high out of reach. But there was a hose—she saw it coiled up against the undercarriage—that had to be attached to water, right?
The undercarriage of the tanker was full of handholds. She reached it and hauled herself up, wheezing at the agony that it sent up and down her back, holding herself barely upright on her right knee, until a scrabbling hand hooked around the nozzle of the hose and uncoiled it one, two, three loops, enough to reach the ground.
As she sunk back down to sit against the tanker she noticed her palms were scraped bloody. The pain hadn’t even registered.
She opened the nozzle and lukewarm water drenched her face. She drank, coughed, moaned, pulled herself together and drank again, not caring that she was soaking her clothes and the ground around her.
After a moment she had the sense to shut off the hose. She panted shallowly, resting against the tanker’s undercarriage.
The moon was rising, enough light reflected off the pale sand to see into all but the deepest shadows of the canyon.
The pass was blocked. The piled-up wrecks she could see all looked to be from the warlord’s mad army.
She’d done it, Val thought. Furiosa had fucking done it.
Ace had sat in the shadow of the War Rig as the fight on the other side went from blows to bullets. He hadn't moved. It was like listening to a distant storm.
Eventually there had been a great roar of engines and the sound of whoever was left alive leaving the canyon. He had sat still and listened to the engines fade into the distance. He'd eaten a little, drank a little, but mostly he hadn’t moved.
The sun had sunk lower in the sky. He hadn’t moved.
The sun had set.
At some point he had realized he was cold. And now it registered that he was sitting next to two dead bodies that were starting to smell.
He should at least do something with the bodies, he thought. Didn’t seem right to leaves them to scavs, either animal or human. It was a concrete task that seemed achievable. Except the earth here was hard and flat, and he had nothing to dig with.
A pyre seemed the most practical solution. Plus it would keep him warm. The Rig’s jerry can was probably in the cab. He could fill it from the reserve fuel tank. He got to his feet, wincing at the stiffness in his limbs, and surveyed the wrecked cab.
Climbing up was a strange affair. He was used to climbing on the Rig, but now every handhold was sideways. Seemed appropriate given the state of things.
The driver’s side rear door was gone entirely. He lowered himself carefully through the hole into the back seat of the cab. Paused to wrap his scarf over his mouth against the sour-sweet reek of the old woman’s body.
It was dark in the cab. He fished in his pocket for the precious trench lighter, scavenged long ago. The flame cast a feeble, shadowy glow. He was looking for the jerry can and thinking about which would be less foul, dragging the old woman’s body up and out or pushing her through the broken window onto the sand, when a familiar silhouette caught his eye.
Furiosa’s SKS was leaning against the vertical dash of the Rig, jammed between the two front seats.
He wasn’t sure why it made his stomach clench, except that he didn’t think she would have gone anywhere without it if she had the choice. Holding his breath against the stench, he leaned over into the front seat and grabbed it.
The gearshift knife was still there too. When he pulled it out of the shaft he saw it was caked dark with dried blood. He tucked it into his belt and slung the rifle over his shoulder.
The jerry can was nowhere to be found. He’d have to scavenge something from one of the other vehicles.
He heaved himself out of the Rig and surveyed the twisted mass jammed between the narrow walls of the pass, moonlit flanks of metal and treacherous shadows. Should’ve thought to do this when it was light.
He moved carefully over the wrecks, on his knees, testing every surface to make sure it would hold his weight.
He was sliding down the smooth angled back of the Doof Wagon when he heard the click of a rifle.
“Don’t move,” a raw voice rasped. A woman’s voice. The moonlight caught the gleam of a polished rifle barrel, pointed straight at him.
The woman holding the rifle was sitting up against the undercarriage of the War Rig’s tanker, which lay tipped on its side a few paces beyond the last wreck of the pileup blocking the canyon. She had wild dark hair and what looked like dried blood crusted below her mouth.
“Who are you with?” she barked out hoarsely. Now that he looked carefully he could see her arms on the rifle were shaking slightly, but she looked like she knew how to use it.
Furiosa, his thoughts answered for him. “No one,” he said out loud.
“Drop your weapons.”
Moving slowly, eyes on her body language, he slid the SKS off his shoulder and let it drop into the sand below the Doof Wagon. He left the knife on his belt. He didn’t think she could see it from this distance in the dark.
The woman let out a sharp hiss as the SKS hit the sand. The wavering barrel of her rifle snapped back into place aimed squarely at his head.
“Where did you get that?” she snapped. “That’s hers.”
“Where did you get it?” the dark-haired woman repeated. “That rifle is Furiosa’s.”
Technically it was property of the Immortan, like the Rig and the produce and all of them. But that seemed a lot to explain. “Know it’s hers,” Ace said. The gun aimed at his head didn’t budge. “I’m—was part of her crew. Her second.”
“Her second what?”
“Her second in command,” he said, a touch of annoyance flaring up despite the weapon aimed squarely at his face. “She’s Imperator. I’m her second.” He couldn’t bring himself to say it in past tense. “Rifle was in the cab of the Rig.”
The part of the woman’s face he could see went pale at that. “She—” she stuttered.
“Wasn’t in there.” The woman’s shoulders relaxed a little. Whoever she was, she cared about Furiosa. “’N…who’re you, exactly?” Ace asked.
“I’m one of her people.”
“Mm. You an’ me both then.”
For some reason this made her glare. “I’m one of her tribe. That she was taken from as a child.” Her fingers flexed on the rifle. “We’re trained as sharpshooters from birth.”
“Makes sense.” Furiosa had been a better shot than most of the sentries when she was six thousand days old.
The woman’s arms were shaking again, but she didn’t seem willing to lower the gun. “Ain’t interested in hurtin’ ya,” Ace tried. “Just…wanna…” What did he want, exactly? “Wanna know if she’s all right.”
He waited. Very, very slowly, she lowered the gun, jaw ground tight as if she was in pain. She kept a solid grip on the weapon even as she rested it in her lap. “Dunno,” she muttered finally, her gaze flicking away. “Got hit back there.” She inclined her head toward the other end of the canyon.
Now he noticed the tourniquet on her left leg, the twist of her foot and the white edge of bone.
“Can still shoot.” Her hands clenched on the rifle.
“Have no doubt.” He held his hands up, trying to ensure she didn’t raise the rifle again. But she just kept her fingers clutched tight around it.
He slid down from the Doof Wagon onto the sand, moving slowly, keeping his hands where she could see them, making sure to land far enough away from the SKS that she wouldn’t think he was trying to make a move for it. She did nothing but glare.
“Left ya, did they?”
“Couldn’t stop. War party behind them.” Her teeth were gritted.
“Mm. Sounds familiar.”
The question that had been lingering in his mind for days finally pushed its way into the night air. “Why?” he asked. "What was she doing?”
The woman gave him a curious look, like he should already know the answer. “She was running. Trying…to get back to our home. Green place.”
Ace hadn’t heard of any green place, certainly not anywhere you could reach within a few days’ drive of the Citadel. He and his mother and sister had wandered for a long time when he was little before winding up with the rest of the starving masses at the base of the Citadel. It was the best to be had, if you could make yourself useful enough to be lifted up. Everyone knew that.
“’S…not there anymore. Gone sour.” The woman was blinking a lot. “So they…decided to go back.”
“To the Citadel. Take it over.”
“Why?” If it was a coup she’d been after all this time, there must have been an easier way.
The dark-haired woman was looking at him like he was stupid, and it grated, to be so close to the truth and still not smegging understand. “You said they. They who?” Because it had seemed clear enough by the way she had swept away their crew like loose sand off the Rig that whatever Furiosa was doing, she hadn’t wanted anyone with her.
“Furiosa and the other women. His sex slaves.”
“The what now?”
“Your warlord’s wives,” she gritted out. “She freed them. Helped them escape with her.”
“The hell would she want with his Wives?” Ace shook his head. He thought he’d been close to working things out, but it just got more confusing the more pieces got revealed, and the woman was still staring at him with that expression of disbelief, as if the answer was right there in front of him plain as day and anyone should be able to see it, and it made him vaguely angry in a way he didn’t quite understand.
The woman shuddered suddenly, her teeth chattering. He realized the shaking he could see around her shoulders was from cold.
He was cold, too. He seemed to remember it all at once.
“Gonna look for a blanket,” he said, gesturing carefully toward the wrecks beyond the Doof Wagon. “You want a blanket?”
She said nothing, her hands still clutched tightly on the gun. But she didn’t shoot him when he crossed in front of her to investigate the nearest wreck.
Valkyrie watched the man go rummaging through the smashed car, his back turned on her in a way he must realize left him exposed. She kept her hands tight on the comforting steel of the Rossi and tried not to think about how raising it to her shoulder had made her bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep from whimpering in pain.
Furiosa’s second, he’d said. She had no particular reason to believe him, but he didn’t seem to read her as a threat. And she wasn’t stupid enough to shoot someone who could stand and walk when she could not, unless she had a reason to. So she’d answered his questions even though talking hurt, because it certainly hurt less than trying to fight him. Even though he hadn’t dropped the knife on his belt when she’d told him to unload his weapons.
She told herself she could shoot him later if he turned out to be a spy. In the meantime maybe he would turn out to be useful.
Ace scavenged until he’d found two fetid blankets, a few more ration packs, another canteen and a kerosene lantern, miraculously unbroken. It was something to do while he tried to sort out the whole new mess of thoughts buzzing around his head.
There were more bodies here, the aftermath of the fight that had taken place that afternoon. He decided they weren’t going anywhere for now.
They decided to go back. The words pinged around in his brain. Take it over. It didn’t make any sense. Furiosa had always been loyal to the Immortan, his best warrior, entrusted with his prized Rig and the most important missions. She’d begged Ace to let her serve the Immortan when he’d found her hiding in the drainage tunnel all those years ago. He’d never seen her shirk a mission, do anything less than full-throttle war for him.
And his Wives…bloody hell, how did they factor into all this? He knew Furiosa had been one, once, and had failed at it—the only thing she couldn’t do, it seemed. Didn’t matter much to him; she was better at war anyway. But none of the possible motivations he could think of for her stealing them made sense.
They were going back. The strange sight of the Gigahorse tearing through the canyon alone came back to him. He couldn’t remember seeing her behind the wheel, but he’d only gotten the briefest glance. Although now that he thought about it, he didn’t think there’d been any Imperators riding on the back the way there normally were.
A part of him wanted to bolt back over to his bike and fang it back to the Citadel right now. Find her. Help her.
Can’t cross Buzzard territory at night, he reminded himself. The Buzzards lived underground most of the time; darkness was their friend and your mortal enemy in their domain.
The dark-haired woman was skittish and hostile, but she seemed loyal to Furiosa in some way he didn’t quite understand. If he couldn’t help Furiosa right now, she would have to do.
When he came back with the supplies she was sitting in the same position, rifle still in a death grip. He held out a blanket.
“Not too clean, but it’s what we got.” She looked at him suspiciously, and he saw the flinch when he got too close, so he dropped it in her lap.
He settled down against the Rig next to her and lit the lantern, wrapped his own blanket around his shoulders and started picking through one of the ration packs. The blanket stunk of someone else’s sweat and grime but it would have to do.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her put the rifle down carefully on the side of her body away from him and unfold the blanket. Her hands were bloody. He watched her make four abortive attempts at the motion she needed to swing the blanket over her shoulders before he muttered, “Here.”
Her hand went to the revolver on her waist when he reached into her space (how many guns did this woman have?) but she let him drape the blanket over her shoulders.
“Thanks.” She turned her face away from him. “Ribs’re fucked.”
“Gonna lose that leg, most likely.” No use pretending otherwise.
“If I’m lucky.” She hadn’t seemed like the pretending type.
“’S an infirmary at the Citadel.”
She scoffed. “They told me about the sadist who runs it. Cut it off myself before I’ll let him touch me.”
Ace shrugged. “’S what she did. Wouldn’t say I recommend it.” He held out a piece of hardtack from the ration pack for her.
She stared at him a long moment before taking it. “Why’re you helping me?”
“Furiosa’s mate. All I need to know.”
She kept staring at him as she chewed the hardtack, grimacing a little at the taste. Finally she muttered, “Food in the tanker. Milk’ll be spoiled by now, but there’s water and meat and vegetables.”
He rummaged around in the hold, came back with some choice cured lizard, a bunch of long thin root vegetables and a fistful of different green things he didn’t know the names for.
He picked up a delicate dark green leaf, a little wilted but still perfectly good. “Never seen this one before.” He chewed it experimentally. It was surprisingly bitter.
“That’s spinach,” she said. “You…you don’t eat this stuff?”
“Had some of these.” He picked up another leaf, lighter green and much bigger. “The inside part, in a soup.” The stalks on which the leaves grew were veiny and tasteless, but palatable enough when boiled. “Those are for trading,” he explained, gesturing to the small dark green leaves. “And for the Immortan and his closest. Worth more’n your life to take something from the gardens you haven’t been given.”
“And I suppose the Immortan does all the planting and growing and harvesting himself?”
Ace chuckles at that. “Don’t reckon he does. Greenthumbs for that.”
“And yet somehow the Immortan ends up with all the stuff.”
“Ain’t no somehow about it. He’s the strongest. Got his sons, and his Imperators, and his mates at Gastown and the Bullet Farm. And plenty’a Wretched at the base happy to be lifted up in your place f’you don’t like how things’re going.” He bit off a chunk of lizard meat.
“It sounds like a terrible place,” the woman muttered.
Ace snorted. “Everywhere’s a terrible place.”
“Not…where we grew up. It was safe. It was green.” She had her face turned away from him again.
“Citadel ain’t all bad, y’know,” he said. “We…we had a good crew. Looked out for each other. Looked out for her.”
“She should have been with her people!” It burst out of her, and then she curled her hand around her ribs as if it had physically hurt her. She drew shallow breaths as she muttered, “Stead of…stuck with a bunch of…rapist-worshipping nihilistic zealots.”
Ace didn’t know what a few of those words meant, but her tone was perfectly clear. “We did all right, y’know. Might not be her people, but—”
“She is not yours,” the woman hissed. “She should have grown up with us. Safe. In her home.”
“Yeah?” He felt a flare of anger and suddenly didn’t care that she had two guns and he had none. “While your green place dried up and died? Least she had water.”
“She was taken!” Her hand was on the rifle and her teeth were bared as she glared at him. “They kidnapped her,” she snarled. “They killed her mother—”
“Raiders did that. Got nothing to do with us—”
“Slavers,” she spat. “Which slavery tends to create a demand for.”
“I didn’t make it that way, lady.” He’s up on his knees and can’t remember doing that, and she’s swung the rifle around enough that a pull of the trigger would leave him gutshot. “I took care of her. Taught her to drive, taught her to fight, made sure no one messed with her.”
A harsh bark of a laugh comes out of her. “Except your warlord, right?”
“’S that supposed to mean?”
Another scrape of hollow laughter. “You think she wanted to…be his wife?”
“Who wouldn’t want to be a Wife of the Immortan? Get all the shiniest stuff.” Plenty of War Boys’d be happy to, if they could breed.
“You—she—that’s not how it’s supposed to work. It’s not a transaction.” Another word he didn’t know. She was back to looking at him in that confused way, like he was some sort of pup, but at least she’d taken her finger off the rifle’s trigger.
“D’you…d’you even know it’s wrong?” she muttered. “If you don’t want to have sex with someone, and they make you do it anyway?”
“But…” His brain was grinding something awful, trying to make sense of it all. “Wives’re shine. Close to the Immortan. Best food, clean water, kept safe. Trusted to bear his sons.”
But even as he said the words, images were presenting themselves unbidden. The way she’d flinched so much at first, when anyone touched her suddenly or in the wrong way. The way she’d beaten the tar out of the War Boy who’d been stupid enough to grab at the cloth she used to bind her breasts. The way she’d had to work and work not to panic when someone was on top of her in sparring, and the way she’d screamed when he held her down to practice.
He’d always thought…he’d thought it had been from her time before the Citadel. Plenty of things to give you nightmares out there in the wastes. Somehow he’d never thought…
“You think…” the dark-haired woman said softly, “You think all those women wanted to be his wives? If they wanted it so much, why’d he keep them in a room that locked from the outside?”
Ace found he couldn’t say anything at all. His face felt numb and there was a weird buzzing under his skin. Because it wasn’t that he hadn’t seen. He just hadn’t thought…
“She didn’t want to be there,” the woman said quietly. “She didn’t want any of it. She was trying to get home.”
“Lotta…” His tongue felt too thick for his mouth. “Lotta things you gotta do you don’t have no choice about. Just how it is.”
“But that’s not how it should be.”
“Don’t matter how it should be, f’you got no power to make it so.”
“That’s why she did this.”
He didn’t say anything for a long time. The woman leaned back against the Rig, a pained hiss of breath escaping her now and then. She didn’t sleep. Her hands were still on the rifle, but loosely.
When the stars had spun through a quarter of a night, he said, “Got a bike on the other side. Can carry two. Should head for the Citadel at first light.”
She looked over at him, her face inscrutable in the dark.
“If she did take the Citadel, reckon she’ll need all the help she can get defending it. I know the place, and you seem like you’re not too mediocre with a rifle.”
She looked back at the canyon wall, but he thought he saw a twitch at the corner of her mouth. “Name’s Valkyrie,” she said without looking at him.
“They call me Ace.”
She was weary down to her core, to the point where she couldn’t tell where pain ended and exhaustion began, but she didn’t sleep. She sat against the Rig, the gun across her lap, while the Citadel man (Ace, she told herself) stared up at the stars and thought whatever thoughts he had. It seemed they’d struck a truce, but that didn’t mean she was fool enough to fall asleep next to him.
At some point she realized her bladder was making its presence known. She’d been so dehydrated it hadn’t been a problem before, but now that she’d ate and drank it was something she’d have to deal with sooner or later, and she had no idea how the fuck that was going to work.
If she’d been alone she would have pissed herself and called it a day. But the man was awake and right next to her and…fucking hell.
When she couldn’t ignore it anymore she eased the rifle strap over her shoulder and dragged herself a few excruciating feet away from the rig.
“Where you goin’?” he muttered from the dark behind her.
“Gotta piss.” She gritted her teeth and crawled for a spot that was out of his direct line of sight.
“Could help f’you need it.”
“Are all the women in your tribe raised to be stubborn?”
“Yes,” she spat, although in the back of her head she registered that this might be an attempt at humor.
She bit down on her lip and rolled herself onto her side. She managed to undo her belt and the laces of her leathers, but the curve of her spine needed to pull them over her ass sent daggers through her back. She still tried half a dozen times.
She closed her eyes, blinking back tears, and counted to twenty before she muttered, “All right. Help me.” And then swallowed and added, “Please.”
She thought maybe he hadn’t heard her, but then his boots were in her field of vision and he was kneeling on the sand. “Can’t…bend enough to get my pants down,” she mumbled, her face hot with shame.
She’d helped her older Mothers plenty when their bodies failed due to age or injury. It didn’t make it less galling when it was her.
She stared resolutely at the patched knee of his pants, focusing on her breathing while he wiggled her leathers down to her knees. His hands hardly touched her skin at all, and he withdrew as soon as it was done. She couldn’t tell for sure, but she thought from the twist of his torso that he was looking away while she tried to relax enough to relieve herself.
“How bloody is it?” she muttered after she’d finished.
“Can’t tell. Dark.”
He helped her work her pants back up, and there was a fair amount of sand inside them now, but really that was the least of her problems at this point.
“Could carry you back,” he offered.
“I’m fine.” He snorted at that, but he didn’t stop her from crawling on her raw elbows back to the Rig and hauling herself back to sitting up.
“Remind me of her,” he said some time after she’d caught her breath and banished the black spots from her vision. “She’ll slam into a wall before she lets someone help her.”
“Yeah,” Valkyrie breathed. “Sounds like her.”
“You two were pups together?”
“Yeah. Until she was taken. She was fourteen.” When he looks confused she does the math in her head. “About five thousand days.”
“Is she like what you remember?”
The young women had talked, that long night at the edge of the salt. Talked and talked and talked, pouring out grief and anger and relief at being listened to and understood.
Val had wished that Furiosa would talk, but she hadn’t. Just curled up silent against the front tire of the rig, blanket wrapped around her like armor, jaw clenched and eyes distant.
After everyone else was asleep Val had gone to sit next to her, pressed close against the body she’d stopped knowing at fourteen. The fire and thrumming energy she remembered was still there, but there was a hardness too. Not just the solid muscles under her skin, but the feeling that whatever she’d survived, she’d gotten used to carrying all the weight of it on her own.
She’d taken Furiosa’s hand and wanted to say something. But Furiosa had turned her head away.
“She’s the same,” Valkyrie said. “And different.”
In the quiet hour before light crept into the sky, Ace loaded up all the supplies he could find, scurrying back and forth to the bike over the dark backs of the wrecks.
There were more bodies than he’d seen at first on this side, and they were foul and bloated by now. He made a quick V8 over each one and left them.
There was a gap the width of a bike tire between the wheels of the Doof Wagon and the canyon wall. He dug at the sand, then shoved some of the small rocks aside until it was big enough for a person to slide through on their side. Hopefully.
She screamed when he pulled her through the gap, even though she was biting her lip and trying not to. He let her rest for a moment while he maneuvered the bike to be close to the canyon wall.
She nodded when she was ready and he picked her up, heard her choke back the noise of pain as he lifted her with arms under her knees and shoulders. She was feverish; he could feel it now that he was close to her.
For a moment his memory flashed to another day. Pulling Furiosa off the bike, the shattered bike she’d somehow coaxed back to the Citadel. The way her hand had clung to his belt as he carried her, white-faced and shaking, the bloody stump of her half-cauterized arm curled against her stomach.
Valkyrie growled through clenched teeth as he helped her ease her damaged leg over the bike to sit leaning against the rock wall while he climbed on in front of her. After a moment he felt her weight relax against his back, her hands on his waist. Her face was hot as a brand against his shoulder.
“Should I go slow?”
“No,” she gritted out. “Fang it. I’ll tap your shoulder if I think I’m gonna pass out.”
“Right, then.” He hit the ignition and they roared out of the canyon, the first grey light of dawn behind them.
Most of the ride back to the Citadel was lost in a haze of fever and pain. Valkyrie knew there was a moment when she’d almost fallen, and Ace had stopped to strap her to his back with a blanket, and she’d wanted to say that that wasn’t safe for either of them but the words wouldn’t seem to leave her cracked lips.
At some point they had crested a low ridge and Ace had yelled something over the roar of the engine that sounded like, “The water’s on!” Valkyrie didn’t know what that meant, if it was good news or bad, but he had seemed to speed up—
She was staring up at the ceiling of a stone corridor as unknown hands carried her on a makeshift blanket stretcher, and she thought she heard Janey’s voice say, “You’re all right, child,” but maybe she imagined it; there was so much noise and it echoed everywhere against the stone—
She was lying on something soft. Her body felt heavy and thick, and was the room rocking slightly, or was that in her head?
She opened her eyes slowly and a hewn rock ceiling drifted into focus. She could feel hardly any pain…not much of anything at all, in fact…and for that she was grateful. The sadist doctor must have had a few painkillers in his stock after all.
She lifted her head enough to see she was covered with a thin blanket. When she pulled it back she saw she was naked from the waist down except for a cloth wrapped around her hips like a child’s nappy. Her left leg ended in a thick swaddle of bandages around the knee.
As much as she’d known this was coming, it was still a numb shock to look and see a part of her body just…not there. She looked back at the ceiling and counted to ten and told herself this was by far the luckiest possible outcome.
She turned her head and Furiosa was lying next to her on the bed, propped up a little on a pile of blankets.
Her face was bloody and bruised, one eye swollen shut. Her skin was pale and damp. And her breathing…something was not quite right…a labored rasp in and out every time her bandaged torso rose and fell.
Valkyrie reached out a hand. It did not seem to quite obey her commands, but she managed to flop it near enough on the pile of blankets to touch a finger to an unbloodied spot on Furiosa’s cheek.
She was real. She was alive. And burning with fever.
Furiosa’s eyes drifted open, struggled to focus. “Val?” she breathed, her brow knitting up. “’M I dead?”
“By some fucking miracle, we are both alive. For now.”
“Thought so,” she rasped, face turning back to the ceiling as she concentrated on drawing the next breath. “Hurts.” A spasm ran across her face and she swallowed hard. “Thought you were….” A long rasp. “Wouldn’t have….”
“I know.” Val wormed her arm down by degrees until she could convince her fingers to give Furiosa’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.
Furiosa looked back at her, and now she saw the bandages and the half a leg that wasn’t there anymore. “Oh.” It was a sound of physical pain.
“Ssh. It’s all right,” Val lied easily, because Furiosa’s face was turned to the ceiling again, her good eye squeezed shut. “I’m here.”
“How’d…you…?” Furiosa breathed, teeth clenched as she drew another struggling breath.
“Your friend found me.”
“My…who?” The one green eye that wasn’t swollen shut was back on her.
“Ace? Said he was your second.”
Her face scrunched up, and Val couldn’t tell if the expression was pain or relief, or both. “’S…’s alive…” she whispered.
“Yeah,” Val said. “Helped me.” Furiosa looked close to crying. Val watched her silently fight down the tremor in her lips, until her face was calm again. Wondered how many times over the years she had done that.
“The warlord?” Val asked.
“Killed him,” Furiosa muttered. She gestured weakly to the room around them. “Ours now.”
“All is well, then. Sleep.”
Furiosa’s hand reached across her torso and found Val’s on her shoulder. Val twined their fingers together, inched herself a little closer to Furiosa’s body. She could feel the heat baking off Furiosa’s skin, and somewhere a flicker of worry tugged at the back of her brain. But mostly she was tired, and she let the drugs pull her back under again.
Ace hadn’t known what to expect as he rolled to a stop at the base of the lift and looked up, hands raised in surrender. He’d half expected a bullet in the head, but there was a shout—a woman’s voice, not one he recognized—and then the lift was lowering.
There were no hooded Imperators at the corners. On one side stood a Wife with brown skin and short hair, a clotted wound on her cheek and a revolver in her too-small hand; on the other a gray-haired woman dressed in the same layers of leather and cloth as Valkyrie, and with a long gun to match. She leveled it at him as the lift hovered a meter above the ground.
“Who are you with?” she asked.
This time he said the answer that was in his head. “Furiosa.” He nodded his head toward Valkyrie behind him. She’d gone still and limp and was very hot against his back, but he could feel her still breathing. “Brought one of your kin. Needs a medic.”
For a moment neither of the women moved. Then they exchanged a glance and the Wife made a signal to someone up above and the lift lowered all the way down so he could roll onto it. They kept their guns trained on him the whole way up.
The garage was eerily still inside, emptied of war machines and anyone who could fight. There were pups, though, lingering in the corners as they always did, and Ace wrangled four of them into holding the blanket as a stretcher so he could ease Valkyrie into it. She moaned softly, her brow slick with sweat.
“The Immortan?” he asked. He unslung Furiosa’s SKS from the bike, keeping it pointed down and his hands well away from the trigger so they didn’t mistake his intentions.
“Dead by Furiosa’s hand,” the gray-haired woman said. “We run the place now.”
He supposed he should be shocked, but the Immortan had always been just a man—a man with power, but still a man—and if anyone could have been fit to take that power from him, it was Furiosa.
The old woman’s rifle was still at the ready, but he could see her gaze flicking between him and the pups and Valkyrie on the blanket.
“She’s hurt.” It came out of the Wife’s mouth unbidden, and the older woman shot her a sharp look. “But alive.”
“Wanna see her.” He could see the old woman’s attention being pulled away by her injured kin. The Wife was blocking his path, shoulders squared despite her small stature, and her hand was not quite steady on the gun, but not quite a stranger to it either. “Please,” he added.
Another one of those looks exchanged between the women. Then the Wife nodded for him to follow.
“Should put a poultice on that cut,” he said as the Wife walked next to him up the passageway away from the garage. “Gonna scar otherwise.”
“I hope it does,” she said, her jaw set. “Got it fighting him.”
They walked a few paces in silence before she shot a glance at him. “You don’t remember me.” Ace shrugged. “You brought me from Gastown. I was taken from my family, and then I was traded. Furiosa had a different rig, and you were in the back.”
And he did remember now. The girl, dirty and hollow-eyed and Wasteland thin, hair long and tied up in thick braids around her head, being loaded into the back of the cab of the old rig with her wrists and ankles bound. She hadn’t struggled, hadn’t cried, but had kept up a steady low stream of pleading the entire way back, ignoring the crossbow he pointed at her, her attention directed at Furiosa and no one else. “Let me go. I know how to survive out here. Just cut the ropes and turn your back. I’ll be gone. You don’t have to do this. Help me. Help me.”
He’d wanted to say that she was lucky, that she’d be taken care of, that she didn’t need to be afraid. But Furiosa had said nothing to her and he had followed her lead. Eventually Furiosa had muttered, “Shut her up,” and handed him a bit of gun-cleaning cloth to stuff in her mouth.
He remembered the other part too, when Furiosa had stumbled over to puke behind the rig after they rolled into the garage, swearing about Gastown rotgut as he handed her a canteen and shielded her from view of the rest of the crew, still newly assembled and a bit twitchy. The Wife had still been in the cab then, and he wondered if she’d seen and if this was why she trusted him enough to take him to Furiosa now.
With a sudden lurch it occurred to him that maybe the rotgut hadn’t been to blame.
Before he could think on that more, there was shouting up ahead in the corridor. They rounded a bend and found a pack of Wretched jamming the passageway, pressing in against a closed door.
From the center of the crowd, a woman’s voice, gravelly but commanding: “Back, I said! We ain’t given anything out until we know how much there is.”
“Our families’re starving now!” someone shouted back, and there was a roar of assent. “How we know you ain’t gonna keep it all for yourselves?” yelled someone else.
“We’re not like him, we’re different—” Another woman’s voice, but it was cut off by a shriek as a scuffle broke out somewhere in the center of the crowd.
“Hey!” The short-haired Wife was running, pistol raised, and fucking hell, Ace followed, elbowing his way to the center of the crowd where another gray-haired woman and another Wife, this one with flaming red hair, were pressed against a padlocked door. It was a storage room, Ace knew from thousands of days in these passageways, but he’d never been allowed inside.
The short-haired Wife was waving her gun around at every shuffle of the jittery crowd, and any fool could see this was an inch from going sideways. Ace sidled up to the old woman. “Better give ‘em something, or there’ll be blood soon,” he muttered. She shot him a look that said who the hell are you, but also maybe you’re right.
“Don’t wanna go making more enemies that we’ve already got,” he said under his breath, just as a toothless man made a grab for the short-haired Wife’s gun. He shoved himself between them before the fight could escalate. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the old woman take a ring of keys out from inside the cloth wrapped around her chest. He had no idea where she’d gotten them, but one fit the lock on the door.
The storeroom had an electric light inside, and Ace marveled at how full it was: ration packs, dried meat and greens, blankets, bandages, even precious cases of ammunition and thunderstick heads. This wasn’t even the main storeroom—those were by the kitchens, he knew, and closely guarded—but an auxiliary one that must have been prepared in case that part of the Citadel fell to invaders.
He passed out stacks of mealworm bricks—they were filling and nutritious, and there was a whole shelf of them in here—while the old woman guarded the door. Winced as he heard the red-haired Wife making promises she shouldn’t—“There’ll be more, enough for everyone, it’ll be different from now on”—and was about to tell the old woman that they should take a careful inventory of the weapons in there when the light went out.
“Know where the generators are?” the old woman said quietly to him, not taking her eyes off the crowd.
They made their way down to the lowest level of the Citadel in time to find the lock to the generator room smashed open, half the generators smoking and the main lines sliced clean through.
Eves—they’d traded names on the way down—swore creatively and swung her gun into the shadows, but the culprit was long gone.
“I’ll put some blackthumb pups on it,” Ace said. An experienced blackthumb would have been better, but apprentice pups would have to do.
“They listen to you, eh?” She raised an eyebrow.
“They’ll listen. Used to train ‘em.” It suddenly occurred to him that he probably knew more about the Citadel than anyone else here, other than Furiosa. Maybe a lot more.
“We’ll get ‘em fixed,” he said. She was still staring at him with suspicion. She hadn’t taken her finger off her rifle’s trigger the whole way down. Not a trusting lot, these women. But he supposed you didn’t live long enough to go gray in the Wasteland by trusting too easily.
“’M on your side,” he said, although he didn’t know if she believed him. “Her side.”
He finally reached Furiosa’s room to find it guarded by two of the largest, softest women he’d ever seen. One held a machete and the other a shotgun he was quite sure had recently been in the possession of a Brakeman Imperator. Neither looked afraid to use them.
It took Eves wheezing up the corridor behind him to convince them to let him in. “Hush now,” she whispered as Ace swung the door carefully open. “She’s sleepin’.”
The air inside the room was hot and thick in the late afternoon heat. Furiosa lay on the bed, pale and damp with sweat, her breathing strained against the bandage wrapped around her ribs. One side of her face had been sliced up something good, her right eye swollen shut and blood smeared all down her neck and jaw.
Valkyrie was pressed up next to her, her fingers laced through Furiosa’s and her head resting against her shoulder. They’d taken her leg off at the knee.
He’d seen Furiosa hurt plenty of times before, but somehow this felt different. She looked small and weak in the bed, naked without her arm, and suddenly, terrifyingly mortal.
He felt a strange urge to pile in on Furiosa’s other side like a pup, but there wasn’t enough room in the bed. Instead he settled down on the floor next to the edge of the mattress, close enough for whenever she woke up.
He jerked awake hours later. It was dark in the room and he couldn’t remember deciding to sleep there.
Furiosa was muttering in her sleep. When his eyes adjusted to the moonlight he could see her brow was furrowed, her face painted with sweat. Her hand had unlaced from Valkyrie’s and twitched suddenly on the blanket covering her legs, as if grabbing for something out of reach.
“Max,” she rasped.
Valkyrie was awake too. “Who’s Max?” she whispered to Ace. He shrugged.
She rolled over with a wince and put a hand to Furiosa’s cheek. “She’s burning up.”
He stumbled to his feet, grumbling at his stiff muscles to do what he wanted. The ledge near the door held a water pitcher, bowl and cloth. He poured some water and pressed the damp cloth against her burning face and neck and chest, feeling the heat bake through under his hands. Furiosa moaned, lost in some fever-dream.
He wet the cloth again and gently wiped away the blood on her face and neck, being careful not to reopen any of the cuts that had clotted closed. Then he rinsed it out and left it folded neatly against her forehead, hoping the nighttime cool would help her fever break.
He didn’t realize Valkyrie had been watching him until he sat back against the wall. The look on her face was inscrutable in the dark.
“What?” he muttered.
“Nothing.” She eased herself back down next to Furiosa.
When he woke next the first light of dawn was coming in the window. The sweat had dried on Furiosa’s brow and she seemed to be breathing a little easier. He held a hand half an inch away from her face, enough to feel that the fever had broken. He hadn’t even noticed the tight knot of worry he’d been carrying in his chest until it unclenched.
He didn’t touch her. She could startle awake so easily.
He got up silently and left the room.
When he came back Furiosa was still sleeping, but Valkyrie was awake. The gray-haired woman who had greeted them at the lift was quietly checking her bandages.
“Got something might help ya move around,” he whispered, jerking his thumb toward the hallway outside the room. On any normal day this would have been enough to wake Furiosa, but she slept on.
He motioned to indicate picking Valkyrie up, and the other woman hissed, “You really shouldn’t—” Valkyrie ignored her and let Ace lift her into his arms.
The thing he’d gone off to look for had been down in the eerily empty War Boys bunks, just where he’d remembered it being, and now sat waiting in the hallway: a metal chair with spiked wheels and the Immortan’s skull painted onto the leather back of the seat.
He lowered Valkyrie carefully into it, watched as she gritted her teeth and adjusted her position slightly, pulling a strap tight around her waist. “Call it the Mediocre Chair,” he said. “For War Boys mediocre enough to hurt themselves too bad to do walking, but not bad enough to go out shiny and chrome.”
A War Boy would have found it funny, but he wasn’t sure Valkyrie’s people had the same sense of humor. There was a twitch of a smile on Valkyrie’s face though. “Thank you,” she said.
“Val?” The voice that rasped from inside the room sounded exhausted and raw, and Ace’s throat was suddenly tight. He rolled Val’s chair back inside. There was something in one of the wheels that needed grease.
Furiosa was awake. Her one good eye found him as soon as he entered, and something that looked like pain flickered over her face. She opened her mouth to speak but the gray-haired woman said, “Ssh, now. Save your strength,” and Furiosa looked too weary to answer. While the woman was checking her dressings, her eyes drifted closed again.
There was a de facto war council in Furiosa’s room that morning. Furiosa, propped up on a pile of pillows, still pale and weak but no longer feeling like an engine run too long in the midday sun. The four Wives, Valkyrie, and the two old women who were never parted from their long guns. A Milker, a vast woman with hair in elaborate tiny braids all along her head. A Wretched man, more clear-eyed and less lumpy than most.
Ace stood in a corner on the edge of the circle, not sure whether he was intended to be part of it but unwilling to leave Furiosa’s side with so many strangers in the room. But the woman who’d let him up on the lift—Janey, he’d learned—turned to him straight away.
“Val said you heard the war parties leaving the canyon?”
That seemed like ages ago. Ace nodded. “Goin’ round, seemed like.”
“Twelve days, then,” Furiosa rasped. Her voice was still strangely quiet and raw, and she worked for every breath. “Maybe fourteen.”
“Bit low on troops, ‘f you don’t mind me saying,” Eves muttered.
“Pups can fight,” Furiosa said.
“They’re children,” the red-headed Wife protested.
“Been trainin’ for it. Might as well be now,” Ace said. He could’ve added that Furiosa had been taught to shoot, and shoot to kill, when she was younger than many of the pups were now.
“Everyone fights.” Furiosa’s voice was soft, but the command was still there.
“Got a few War Boys in the infirmary, might not mind one last chance at Valhalla,” Ace added. The red-haired Wife looked slightly horrified, but the brown-skinned one was nodding.
“What about them?” It was the youngest Wife, the one with long dark hair who had slipped in like a shadow and settled against the bony legs of the sharp-eyed blonde one. She nodded to the Wretched man. “More of them than any of us.”
All eyes turned toward the man, who shifted like someone unused to being paid attention to. But his voice was steady when he said: “We got no loyalty to Joe. Dunno how many have got loyalty to you lot yet.”
Ace heard the rasp as Furiosa took a breath. “Stay or go,” she said. “Double rations for those who fight. Enough water for everyone if we win.”
The man nodded. “I’ll take it back to our council.”
“Need inventory,” Janey said. “We found the main storerooms, but seems like the bastard had stuff squirreled up all over the place.”
“Ace can help you.” And there was a second, a split second, when her eyes caught his and something happened. It was the same look, the old look that said they were in this together, and then it wasn’t, and it was something else entirely, something he’d never seen on her face before. Something lost. She looked away quickly.
“Anything you need,” he heard himself saying, although he didn’t really pay attention to what was said next. Didn’t pay attention to much of the rest of the meeting, truth be told.
There was assigning of tasks and then shuffling around and then everyone was leaving the room, Janey pushing Valkyrie in her chair and talking about sniper positions. And then he was alone with Furiosa for the first time since her gun had collided with his face what seemed like half an eternity ago.
He shuffled his feet awkwardly, not sure what was supposed to happen, or even what he wanted to happen.
It didn’t feel right, standing over her like this, so he sat down on the floor next to the bed again.
She had her face turned away from him, and her body was shaking silently. It took a moment for him to realize she was crying.
She hadn’t even cried when she lost her arm.
“I’m sorry,” she choked out, and then her hand clenched over her mouth as if to keep in whatever feral thing was fighting to get out of her chest. “I am so sorry.”
Half of him wanted to reach out and pull her into his arms, and half of him was still in the desert staring down at Dodge’s broken body. So he did nothing.
“If I’d had—if I’d known a different way—”
“Why?” The question finally hung in the air between them. “Jus’…wanna understand why.”
“Had to—” Her breath hitched painfully. “Get away. From him. From this.” Her hand waved vaguely around the room.
He told himself that this did not mean them, but who really knew anymore?
“Your mate Valkyrie—” It was easier to stare at his hands than to look at her. “Said…you didn’t want to be a Wife.” He picked a chip of paint off his wrist. “Always thought…it’d be shine.”
A rasping breath that might have been laughter on a better day. “It was not shine. It was awful.” She swallowed, still not looking at him. “What did you think? When I had nightmares, when I didn’t want to be touched? Where did you think that came from?”
“Always thought…was from before here,” Ace said. “Always…. Always thought a lotta things, I suppose.” And then, “You could’ve told us.”
“Could I have?” She looked at him for the first time, and the side of her face that wasn’t swollen and bloody was streaked with tears. “You worshipped him. You bowed to him.”
“You bowed plenty.” It slipped out, and from the way her shoulders hunched up in response he might as well have slapped her.
“I pretended. Because I had to survive.”
“And.” He swallowed. “All that crew stuff. Suppose that was pretend too?”
“No.” The wrinkle in her brow was back, the one that appeared when she was trying to hide pain. “That was real. Made things…complicated.”
“’S one word for it.”
“I didn’t want—if I’d figured out a way—I tried and I tried and—the run had to look normal; there was no way I could—”
“You chose them. Over us. Over your crew.”
“I chose myself,” she said through gritted teeth. “I was angry. I wanted to hurt him, and I didn’t care who was in the way.”
That, at the very least, sounded like her.
Her hand was back over the undamaged side of her face. “I thought…at least…if I brought them somewhere better maybe—” She breaks off with a shaky breath that looks like agony. “Now I’m back in this stupid rock.”
“You run this stupid rock.”
“I don’t want to,” she said. “I don’t know how to build anything.” She draws a shuddering breath. “All I do is destroy.”
“Built a pretty good crew. You ain’t winning any arguments by saying you dunno how to lead people.”
“I’m tired,” she sighed, and he didn’t think she was talking about her body. “I am so tired.”
He didn’t know if he was going to say it, but when he did, the words left his mouth feeling right. “Good thing you ain’t alone then, Boss.”
He found Valkyrie in the storeroom, sorting bullets. She wordlessly handed him a box of ammunition to inventory.
“Reckon we’ve got four quality sharpshooters, half a dozen War Boys too sick to be afraid of death, couple dozen pups, some Milkers and Breeders who got nothing to lose, and a buncha half-starved Wretched who may or may not be on our side,” he said.
She tested an unfamiliar round in her Rossi. “I’ve seen worse odds.” She sighted down the barrel for a moment, adjusting her position in the chair a little to draw up to her full height. She still winced when she brought her arms down, but her gaze was steel.
She nodded for Ace to take the handles of her wheelchair. “Show me the defenses.”