The noise, a furtive rustle, made Max look up from the cog he was cleaning.
He was deep in the bowels of the Citadel, perched on a wide water pipe that angled down into the aquifer. Rock had crumbled from above into the pump that lifted up the water, clogging the gears. Max had an old, worn-down broom in hand and was carefully brushing the pebbles and dust away.
He was sure there were people who could do this better. Who knew how the pumps worked and which parts were most fragile. But Furiosa and Toast insisted that this was the Citadel’s weak point. Only a few highly trusted people were allowed this close to the wells.
Max wasn’t sure how he’d become among the “highly trusted.” He helped out when he passed through, didn’t ask for more than a full gas tank and a top-up on water and food. He could have bargained for more but it just didn’t seem right. Plus, there always seemed to be an extra packet of bean cakes or an extra bag of lizard jerky when, alone again under bright stars in the desert, he counted up supplies.
The noise came again.
Max set the broom down slowly, eyes and ears alert. Out in the desert it might be a lizard that could be food, or a Buzzard that could be the end of him. Here, deep into the rock, few things lived that weren’t human. And humans that didn’t want to be seen meant trouble.
Max’s hand slid to the gun that sat, always, at his hip. He lifted it with a small, slow, smooth movement, thumb switching off the safety, other hand pulling the slide back to put a bullet in the chamber.
The noise again, and he could locate it this time, behind a fall of rocks on the pathway leading to the pump.
Slowly, carefully, he swung his leg over the pipe and slid down to the catwalk below it. Keeping the pipe between himself and the source of the sound, he shifted bit by bit until the pile of rocks was directly across from him.
Then he waited, watching, listening, gun balanced on the top of the pipe, index finger just above the trigger. The Citadel had known peace for a while now, Furiosa said, with cooperation and a code of law. But Max knew that peace was maintained with bullets, too. He’d seen the guns at the new Imperators’ waists, holstered against thighs, peeking from underneath jackets.
His waiting was rewarded as a young War Pup–still wearing the white clay, they’d refused to give it up–made his way along the flat stone ledge toward the sound. The boy was walking carefully, placing feet gently to keep quiet, looking behind him often.
Max moved the muzzle of the gun from the rocks to the boy, so his shaved head was in the sights.
The boy knelt down beside the pile of fallen rocks. He reached out, arm snaking around behind them, out of Max’s sight.
Weapons stash, maybe? Food cache, for a boy who wasn’t supposed to be there? But that didn’t explain the noise… Maybe the entrance to another cavern, where men where hiding, plotting, planning to take the Citadel back in Joe’s name?
Max took a slow breath, eased it out, lowered the muzzle a fraction, ready to take a shot. He’d hit the boy in the leg, stop him running but keep him alive for questions.
The boy drew his arm back out, hand around a dark shape that– wriggled?
A tiny puppy looked up at the boy, who cradled it to his chest as he dug in a pocket with his other hand, offered a morsel of food that the puppy took eagerly from his fingers. His voice carried easily across the cavern as he told it, “Don’t worry. The Imperator said no dogs ‘til the food supplies are up, but she’ll see. You’ll be big enough to work in no time. We’ll find you a job and she’ll have to let you stay.”
Max thumbed the safety back on, slid the gun back into its holster. He’d let the boy be, for now. Wait until he was gone so as not to spook him.
But after that, darn it, he was going to go have words with Furiosa about the purpose and value of puppies.