Capable wanted Angharad here, now. She wanted her hard gaze and her sharp words. Without them she felt exposed as she faced the Organic Mechanic across a flat, stained rock. Everything she wanted to do, everything that Angharad had wanted she must do herself, alone and unarmed. She had said her piece, the same thing she wanted to say to everyone in power in the Citadel— Let them go. She steeled herself for his answer. He chewed on his lip, considering her words, considering her. “No one in the pit is worth anything but what we can cut out of them,” he said at length, slowly, lazily pointed. “Those parts go to the boys, you know, or to the People Eater if he were buying, rest ‘is soul.” He said that last part with a satisfied smile. That death had been good news for everyone, even the Mechanic. “We used to get good trades from that, but it’s a nasty business, I like to keep that material here.” Capable kept her face set. “See, would you please explain to me, what exactly you will do with the wretches once you free them from the pit.”
“I’m not going to do anything with them. They’re going to live their lives without you taking blood from them at every opportunity. And I’m not here to get your permission to release them, I’m here to understand what you think their use is.”
“Okay, girlie, I see, you’re going to let them go to waste. Okay. What place did you walk through on your way here?”
“I came through the Combs.”
“Yes, the Combs, full of dying boys. Do you know what’s wrong with them? Their bones don’t make good blood anymore. They become sicker and sicker and then they spoil. Joe, rest ‘is soul, would send them off, so long as they had the strength, to blow themselves up in a great flash of glory. It was a pretty death, not like the one you catch easily in the Combs, and it’s much, much quicker. Once they start going downhill it’s not a month or two before their bodies seize up like an engine with too little oil. The bloodbags keep ‘em going a while longer, it kept them energized enough for one last hurrah.”
“Joe was just propping them up so they could die as weapons,” she said. Capable fought to keep her even countenance.
“Correct! I like an observant girl. However, you miss something important. It wasn’t so much their own glorious deaths they look forward to, it is their brothers’ glorious deaths. Now that you can properly celebrate. A life full of glorious deaths you get to witness! But what would we have without the bloodbags? We would have scared boys with no last chances. Without it, once the fevers start to get them they’re too weak to fight. Now we have our healthy boys, who would be a waste on a suicide mission, and dying boys, who die lonely and never Witnessed. Nothing to celebrate here now, is there? There’ll be low morale, the boys will be beset by anxiety and nightmares. See? What a sad scene.” He leaned back out of the shaft of light that hit the table, smiling and digging at his teeth with one finger.
“It’s a sad and disgusting scene as it is now. I don’t think you’ve ever gone to the pit yourself.”
“I don’t need to, the Cutters do that business. Why should I tend to them? Keeping the boys healthy is my duty. The boys are our White Blood Cells, our immune system. Keep the killers working and the whole Citadel thrives, as it has been doing with Joe around. But they could just as easily become despondent, and they could turn against their host and eat away at the Citadel until it falls, bringing us down with it. Is that what you want?”
“No, but you have a narrow view of the ‘whole Citadel’. There are so many more people here than just the War Boys.”
The Organic Mechanic laughed loud. “Girlie! And who are they? They serve the Citadel as Joe saw fit, like I do, like you did. We are all merely organs of the Citadel. No need to upgrade a spleen to the status of a heart, or come to think of it, a womb to a brain. Upsets the whole. A spleen doesn’t work like a heart, they’ve got different things to do.”
She left that eerie little grotto filled with rage. She already knew how the Citadel’s organs were arranged and who that benefitted. Talking to the Mechanic had been a waste of time. She wanted Angharad here, now. Angharad would have known what to say to that disgusting little man, would have been able to turn his words around on him, humiliate him. The exhaustion she had been keeping at bay for days hit her again. The bloodbags kept them going for only a little while longer. If Nux had returned she would have seen him die anyway, packed into a little niche in the walls of this cave. Coming through the Combs the first time had been shocking. Today she felt that she could either take the strain or completely collapse under it. Around her a few of the niches had boys in them, they wheezed and watched whatever their delirious brains conjured upon the rock around them. She walked as quickly as she could.
“It’s— It’s a— Valkyrie!” a hoarse voice cried out. She stopped dead. A boy with staring eyes raised a shaking hand towards her. “Why are you here?” he said, with a cracking voice. “I don’t— I don’t deserve it. No I’m not on the road.”
“Why are you here?” he asked again, anger raising his voice.
Capable went up to him, though her body revolted, trembling. Angry incomprehension filled his eyes. She knelt down so that their eyes met. “Going to meet death is brave, no matter where death meets you,” she said with as much force as she could muster.
As she approached the vault door the Vuvalini woman guarding it gave her a quick nod and began to unlock it. If the Citadel was a body it was dead already, empty headed and shambling, like in those old tales. The vault, though it was the most secure place in the Citadel, was rarely occupied by any of them but Miss Giddy and Furiosa. The ground-dwellers, whom Joe had called the Wretched, that followed them up on the lift had dispersed throughout the cave systems, or took Imperator quarters, or just collected materials to build better shelters on the hard packed sand, rarely went to the higher places in the rock. War Boys and the new tenants alike avoided all of Joe’s old domain, the vault, his throne room, his quarters and workshop. The whole top part of this rock was therefore almost entirely empty. Even so the vault was usually kept shut. The guard at the door acknowledged her briefly. When Capable turned to do the same the guard reached out. “Are you alright? Did something happen?”
“No nothing happened, Tess. I just went through the Combs, and it made me think of Nux.” And Angharad. She wiped her eyes and Tess rested a hand on her arm.
“Alright,” Tess said softly, “that’s good.”
Inside it was bright and humid. The caves were always the same temperature, a temperature that would be pleasant if you didn’t have a fever. She tried to shake the images of the boys shivering in their niches. Furiosa was propped up on a pallet piled with blankets and cushions near the window, so that she faced outwards towards the northern rock and its gardens. Miss Giddy perched on the uneven sill nearby, like a ragged bird, reading something from the stack of books at her feet. Two former milk mothers talked softly to each other in the shaded side of the room. Capable waved at them. “Hello Querulous! Hi Crystal!” she said. Miss Giddy looked up and greeted her. Crystal waved back, “Capable! Hello!” Furiosa merely turned her head to see where Capable was and then continued to look out.
“Can I talk to you?” she said to the women.
“Just a moment,” Crystal said, and turned back to Querulous. Capable couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but both looked strained. She hung in the middle of the room. Furiosa had fallen unconscious a week ago, soon after they had returned, and had only woken up a couple days ago. She had stayed silent since. Everyone expected, and hoped, that she would speak soon. Until then the vault’s atmosphere was tense and quiet. Crystal came up to Capable and tapped her on the arm. “Let’s go out here,” she said, and led them to the vault garden.
“Can I ask you about the milk?” Capable asked.
“Certainly! What would you like to know?” said Querulous.
“Who was for, primarily? We got some, but it couldn’t have been for just us.”
“It was for the boys, like most everything else. Sick boys in particular but not too sick. It had a good effect on them, kept them strong.”
“Do you think it would do the same for the people in the pit?”
“The people in the pit are pretty far gone. The Mechanic uses them up as quick as possible.” Querulous said.
“Max came from the pit, and he helped us help you.”
“Ah, your feral. I’d say he was much stronger than anyone else down there. And it wasn’t just you and him who helped. We had been getting the pups on our side for months,” said Crystal.
“I don’t know there are enough of us still willing to donate, for the boys or for the pit,” Querulous said. “We only just got free of those machines.”
“I’m not going to leave them down there in that condition. So what if they’re weaker than Max was? We can’t just not help them!”
“I don’t think either of us were saying that, dear! Were we saying that, Crystal? They’re just so sick, would we even be able to help them?”
“We have to try. Can you talk to the others who can donate for me?”
“Yes we will,” said Crystal, mollifying. They sat in amongst the hops vines in silence for a moment. The wind swirled around the ledge through the iron bars that enclosed them.
“How’s Furiosa?” Capable asked Querulous.
Querulous gave a noncommittal sound. “Her body’s willing but perhaps her mind isn’t.” She picked a leaf and spun it in her fingers. “You know, I got her out of here, I’ve lost count how many days ago. There wasn’t anything wrong with her. I was in charge of Joe’s wives’ health at the time. She was trying to starve herself so that her body would go infertile, instead I made her eat and gave her the right herbs whenever she needed them. I was dismissed before I could help the rest of them. I wish I had been around for them, and you all.” Her face was set but her eyes glistened. Crystal held her hand. “I know she recognizes me. And I know she trusts me, but she still won’t speak to me.”
“Everyone expects her to lead us, to be the new head. She’s the closest the boys have to Joe, they talk about her all the time.”
Querulous sighed. “I didn’t see her, after they threw her out of the vault. Not until she rose through the ranks and became a part of Joe’s parade. Whatever she did, what she learned in those days, I don’t know, but she became a leader. Is she the kind of leader we need now? I don’t know.”
Capable rose and stood before her. “Thank you for your time. And please consider using the strength of the milk mothers for those who have never received anything from the Citadel, those who have only been stolen from.” The women bade her goodbye and left the garden, talking closely to each other.
She was alone in the caged garden, listening to the soft sound of Miss Giddy’s voice as she read aloud to Furiosa. A moon ago she had been dreaming of a life off of these rocks, something so fantastic and so far from the reality of what she had seen out there that thinking of it now made her dizzy. So many things had happened since then. The promise of a green place, made, broken, and remade. Nux and Max, found and then lost. Angharad here and then…
The trade for Angharad went on for many days. When she had first been promised the nights were still warm and bright, but by the time she arrived the sunset ushered the wasteland’s fatally cold, starless nights. Whoever delivered her had finally gotten what they wanted from Joe, something exactly as valuable as the woman they were giving up to the Citadel. What that was, and how valuable it was Capable couldn’t guess, but she felt that it was very dear. She had listened to Joe’s complaints about the process with more interest than the rest of the women, putting aside some of her disgust at his talking about this “splendid” girl like a rare engine part. It said something to her. It was almost as if the other party were trying to take as long as possible, not merely holding out for a better offer. It sounded like someone was trying to protect her. No one had thought to protect her from Joe, her clan had considered it an honor. They must have known what they were selling her into, but she had been too young to understand. Perhaps they had considered her a loss necessary for the vision of the future Joe painted for them.
The “splendid girl” arrived in a knot of attendants, their hands clamped around her arms. She was tall, so tall, and strong. Capable was awestruck. The ground outside the door was scuffed from her digging her bare heels in. Two attendants had discolored knots forming on their faces. She looked at the assembled women and their attendants with burning contempt. Seeing them, and being here, meant her family had failed her, that four other families and clans and societies had failed these women before her. Capable saw her rage and, for the first time, wasn’t afraid of that emotion. It made her feel alive like the burning cold wind did.
Angharad never said where she came from, she would only say, “I’m here now, and that’s all that matters.” Capable felt like she was the first to start collecting Angharad’s words. “I’m here now…” Angharad, once she began to speak to them, which took some weeks, seemed to know both what to say and how to say it memorably. She was a poet. Suddenly learning sessions with Miss Giddy were livelier. She asked questions of the history-woman with a ravenous intensity. When there were quiet moments she would be picking over the philosophy books and writing on a slate, only to lick her hand and wipe it clean a minute later. She began to talk to all of them, individually and in groups. She wanted to know how they came here, what they did in quiet times, what the Dag thought of this novel, what she thought parts of that novel symbolized what, what Toast thought “body politic” meant, how they thought the Citadel worked, what could grow here, what Cheedo dreamt of that morning, what came to their minds when she said “anti-seed”. With her presence Capable found she talked to all of them more. She learned that Toast had been a mechanic for the oil wells at Gas Town. That Cheedo had seen a bird that was not a crow. That the Dag believed in a god no one else had heard of before, and that trying to explain her beliefs frustrated her, she thought they were self-evident. But she didn’t learn anything about Angharad other than the words she said that stuck to the insides of her skull, and the way she moved around them all, more curious and then ultimately more caring about them than anyone had ever been since they were locked away.
Capable climbed out onto the ledge where sometimes the gardeners would grow hops. These hops were for brewing into beer for the vault and its attendants alone, but there wasn’t anything growing out here now. She leaned into the iron bars, their coldness burning into her palms. She wrapped her blanket closer to herself and sat down. She would stay out her as long as possible, in spite of the cold, while her mind wandered around hazy memories. The dry, brittle sound of shuffling feet startled her from her reverie. She scrambled to find a hiding place, and then, once hidden behind a jutting rock she searched for the attendant that was surely out to drag her back indoors. But it was Angharad, without a blanket or a coat. She leaned her lanky frame against the bars and stuck her head out. She stayed in this position for an interminable time, while Capable tried to move from her hiding place without startling her. “Hey” she said softly. Angharad pulled her head back and gave Capable a desperate look. She hadn’t seen her look that way since they first dragged her into the vault, like they had all walked in on her humiliation. “You’re going to get way too cold that way. Come here.”
Angharad silently took her invitation and stood by her as Capable wrapped the wool blanket around both of them. Greasy, noxious smoke rose from the ground. The stars were gone behind high, formless clouds. Around them dead hops vines rattled in the breeze over little hollows lined with ice. “How do our lives matter, up here?” Angharad said, breaking the silence. “We’re cut off from our clans. We can only give our strength to that monster.”
“I don’t have any strength, and I don’t think my family thought I could give them any kind of strength, other than the honor they could garner by sending me here.”
“You have so much!” Angharad said, with an edge to her voice. “We have so much and it’s wasted here. What can you give? What’s in you that they didn’t see?”
“I don’t know”, she said, “You see us. You see us like no one else does. I didn’t even see them, Cheedo, or the Dag, or Toast. I used them to escape for a day, or as a buffer, or as a mirror of myself I didn’t want to look into. Until you showed me, I didn’t see them.” She breathed in the cold air in a shuddering gasp. “I don’t know what’s in me. I’m afraid I will find out it’s nothing.”
“I’m afraid we’ll never have an opportunity to know, because there’s something inside us all waiting to grow, to make connections and become something new. But we are trapped.” Angharad pulled the blanket tighter. They listened to the voices of the Wretched as they sang away the cold nights. In a much quieter voice she said, “It’s taking everything out of me to stay here.”
Angharad’s absence wasn’t a raw wound anymore, it had scabbed over and stiffened. She felt it when she moved, it moved unnaturally but it moved with her nonetheless. She knew it would always be in her, hardening until it became a shard of glass underneath her skin. Miss Giddy’s voice came to her again. She rose and sought that voice which had comforted them all those days before Angharad’s vision of escape became real.
“Miss Giddy, would giving the people in the pit and the Wretched more than they’ve been given before really be giving more than we can afford?” They sat across from each other on those sad little wire frame beds. Capable hated being here but it was far enough away that they wouldn’t disturb Furiosa, who had fallen asleep under the watchful eye of Querulous. “Because that’s the impression I get from everyone I’ve talked to.”
The old woman considered some text on her arm before venturing an answer. “Joe held this place in absolute thrall. There was no dissent among any of his higher level Imperators, in fact Furiosa was the first to make any move that contradicted his will. From them his power sprang, and they in turn held absolute control over their crews. In Joe’s world everyone paid their tax, in blood, or milk, and that strength flowed upwards to Joe, in turn they were granted their positions of power. You’ll see that people at all levels are loathe to give up what Joe has given them, even after he has no more power over them. And they will have to give something up, you and I included, and the boys will, and any Imperators that will return. But getting them to do that is another story.” She looked up at Angharad’s words on the bare rock wall. “I do believe we produce enough here to keep everyone alive, but it’s possible we do not, and the deaths from that deficit are unrecorded.”
“I don’t want those things to be taxes any longer, they should be freely given.”
Miss Giddy nodded. “It’s a good sentiment. As you know, those things are dear, and people must be inclined to give them. Joe made a system that made sacrifice its own reward, but only for the boys. Were they truly free to give themselves in death? What must people believe to give blood to their Citadel?”
Capable felt out of her depth. She said her thanks and started to leave. “It’s not that you shouldn’t try,” Miss Giddy said after her, “It’s that it’s quite a thing to change a mind. I’m sure it’s happened to you, and how did it feel when it did?”
Capable turned. Miss Giddy was sitting there beneath her words. “It felt like the sun had risen in the wrong place, until I recognized that it was my directions that had been mistaken.”
WE ARE NOT THINGS.
A line of men climbed a narrow stair, each carrying a pack loaded with oil, rags, and large blocks with with faded words on their sides and trailing wire tied to their tops. Capable slipped among them and marched with them up to the farm atop the rock. The farm was falling under the shadow of the mountains, and the men dispersed and set out to light it up again. They set torches in brackets and filled braziers with coal. Several men with their blocks went to three towers and wove the wires into their bases. Once they had all been carefully woven together they kicked over switches and the tops of the towers burned with colorless light. The harvesters began to stir from their dugout, pulling on jackets and setting baskets on their backs. She found the Dag talking to a woman who was wearing the most clothes she had seen anyone in the Citadel wear. She had two long coats, her head was almost entirely wrapped up by a scarf, and her feet were wrapped in cotton underneath her leather sandals. The Dag spotted Capable and waved her over. “Greener, say hi to Capable here.”
“Uh, hi,” said Capable.
“Hello,” Greener said, her voice a thin rasp.
The woman’s face was completely covered by the scarf, only her mouth showed with her broken teeth. “She’s the head gardener here, no one knows more about plants. I’ve been showing her Keeper’s seeds. We’re making a plan for them,” said Dag.
“Whoever that Keeper was she had a nice collection, no doubt. I wonder that we have the space for half of it even,” Greener said.
“I’ve been trying to talk her into planting on the ground but she won’t hear it,” said Dag.
The woman harrumphed. “You just don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Who does the all this food go to?” Capable asked.
“The good quality stuff went to Joe and his Imperators, and you girls of course. Then a little bit went to the War Boys. But much of it goes to trade and the absolutely bad stuff goes to the bug farm.”
“Trading for what?”
“Oh all sorts of things. Many vital. Gas for one, batteries, scrap metal.”
“Do you think we could allocate any more of the food to people here and not trade?”
The woman tugged on her scarf. “The Imperators usually take their cut for trade and then the rest gets parceled out. I’m not responsible for what happens to it after it’s grown and harvested.” So they would need Furiosa to override the other Imperators, Capable thought.
“If we grew more food that would make this a little easier.”
“Who needs the food?” the woman asked. It was a genuine question.
“The Wretched, the people in the pits, anyone who hasn’t gotten a single potato,” said Capable. The woman went still.
“Give me your hand, child,” Greener said, reaching out. Capable put her hand in hers, and the old woman enclosed her hand with the other. Capable noticed that the back of her hand was covered in swollen red blotches, and that bits of her hair poked out of the scarf. “I was once Wretched, and many 1000-days ago I demonstrated my worth to the Citadel. But you— you don’t need that, you don’t need to wait for some kind of proof of worth, you’re just going to help them…”
“Greenie, the Wretched helped us up when we came back, of course we’re going to help them! We already let them live in the caves,” Dag said.
“We couldn’t just leave them down there! How would we be any better than Joe doin’ that? By my hand!” Dag laughed. “He was just gonna leave them down there forever to rot. By our hands they got somewhere.”
“Girls, if I had my eyes…” She searched around for Dag’s hand so she could squeeze them both.
“But we can’t bring them all up into the caves, which is why I want to bring them food so even down there things are a bit better.”
“Of course, of course,” Greener said. “I’m just not sure how we’re going to do it.”
“It’s not a problem,” Dag said breezily. “We’ll figure it out together.”
Cheedo jogged over and went in to hug Capable, taking her by surprise. “Capable, I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages!”
“You saw me two days ago!”
“That’s too long you should come up here more often. You spend so much time in the caves with the boys, you should take more breaks.”
“What are you up to?”
“I’m helping the gardeners weed the plots.” She opened her dirty hand and showed Capable a clump of little plants, roots and all. “Feels kinda wrong to pull them up, they were just growing and now they aren’t. But they hurt the food plants so they have to go.”
“Weeds are just plants in the wrong place, there’s nothing wrong with them, but they do need to go,” Greener said.
“What are you doing in the caves all the time?” Cheedo asked.
“I’m trying to set everyone free.”
“They’re not free? Even with Joe gone?”
“Even with Joe gone. So many people here were put into cages much less visible than ours.”
Cheedo rolled the weeds in her hands, absorbing this. “That sounds like something Angharad would say. Invisible cages.”
Toast was the only one of the women who stepped over the threshold into Joe’s old quarters after their return to the Citadel. Capable didn’t know how she could stand it, but when she approached that dreaded door she understood it a little. The hallway outside was choked with piles of his belongings, broken furniture and shards of pottery littered the tiled floor. Inside there was nothing but a pile of large papers, covered not in words but precise drawings, a pile of clean paper, and a single desk with Toast sitting at it, pencil in hand. The evenly hewn walls were freshly whitewashed. Capable had vague memories of what had been on them before, a story in sequential pictures of the rise of the Immortan, his passage into death and his fight back into life, all in garish colors and looming figures, distorted over the crude vaulted ceiling. For a moment she forgot what she had come here for. Someone was saying her name.
It was Toast saying her name. “Capable, I’m sorry I made you come here. I was thought maybe it would be alright if it was completely different. Here look at this, a real pencil! I don’t have to draw with slate and chalk.” Toast handed the pencil to her. She guided her out into the hall and towards the balcony at the end of it. Toast looked into Capable’s face. “Hey, what did you do this morning?”
“I— uh, I was helping with the potato harvest.”
“Was that hard work?”
“May I hold your hand?”
Capable nodded and at the warmth of her hand her the world stopped spinning so quickly. Her breathing resounded in her own ears. She felt the sun on her skin. Toast’s words got farther into her head.
“We can do this later if you want. I’ll come to you in the caves, or wherever you’ve made your nest.”
“No… I think I’m fine. Talk to me about the water.”
“I got a lot to say about that but first I want to show you what I’ve been working on today.” Toast unfurled a piece of paper she was clutching. It was a beautiful drawing of a mechanical arm. “That’s for Furiosa. This is the ideal though. I need to know what kinds of materials are actually in the machine shops to know if I can actually build it. I was hoping you could help me there. The boys in the caves seem to like you. I don’t want anything to do with them, and I don’t want to be down there. Can you talk to the mechanics there and see if they can send me the material?”
“Yeah I can do that. It’s a beautiful thing.”
“Thank you” said Toast, with a short smile. “Anyway, I think we can run the pumps less often if we supplement the man-powered wheels with gas powered pumps…” Toast brought out her drawings and laid them in the sun on the dusty floor of the balcony. Capable felt like everything she had been working towards may actually work. It was a relief tinged with dread. It could work, but they could also slip, and fall. There were so many things that could go wrong.
She wasn’t sure why she was waiting, but still she stood in the tunnel just beyond the heavy door. The silence inside scared her. Miss Giddy wasn’t reading, the milk mothers had moved elsewhere, there wasn’t any wind against the cage that had once held her. If she could just take a step forward she could break the curse of silence that had settled over their kingdom. Miss Giddy appeared at the end of the corridor and spotted her standing there. She beckoned Capable in. The sun was setting and the room was shadowed. The lamplighters hadn’t reached the vault yet.
“Miss Giddy, we need to get Furiosa out of here.”
“Is there trouble? This is still the most easily defended room.”
“No there isn’t, not that I know of. The boys are waiting for her, they haven’t dared to make any moves.”
“Then what’s the urgency? Certainly she could heal more before we move her.”
“She won’t get well here.” Capable said shortly, and quietly. Miss Giddy was taken aback. She knelt by Furiosa, who picked up her head and gave Capable a bleary, unreadable look.
“How did it feel to hear everyone chanting your name? It felt amazing for me, I thought we had no allies but you. I thought we were going to get torn to shreds, but they took Joe instead.” She rocked on the balls of her feet. “Angharad didn’t like having you as an ally, not at first. She thought you were only playing along with us because you liked the idea of hurting Joe more than helping us. But you proved to be so much more powerful than the guard we thought you were, and she felt better about it. You know why? Because she saw that you were willing to throw out the power you had for us, it wasn’t just a passing fantasy of revenge for you.” Furiosa huffed and looked out through the bars of the vault. Bars no matter how fine the glazing was between them.
“We can help you too, you know. It doesn’t just have to be you protecting us. We can be true allies.” Capable stood up. “Take my hand.”
Furiosa’s gaze was still distant, but she put her hand in Capable’s. “Do you want to get out of here?” Capable said. She looked straight into Capable’s eyes and nodded.
The pups and boys of the Mechanic’s crew crisscrossed their path, Cutters with their belts of small, very sharp knives, and Swabber pups, who cleaned wounds and the cutting tables alike. They tried to push against Toast and Capable without fully touching them. They pleaded with them and cajoled them, telling them they didn’t have the stomach to go where they were going, that young women’s eyes shouldn’t see what they wanted to see, they were too delicate, too fine. They couldn’t be prepared for the reality of the pits. They should turn back. Toast stared all of the crew down, but Capable just walked ahead, down through each twisting tunnel, down and down to the roots of the rock.
They could hear the pits first. The crew began to fall away, realizing how serious the women were in their mission. They plucked at their sleeves a few more times, saying, come away, before stepping aside. The echoing sounds of crying and coughing cut through the women. Toast clutched Capable’s arm. “Good lord…” she hissed. Capable put her hand over hers.
“We can do this, okay?”
“I thought I could,” Toast said. “We’ll get them out,” she said, more to herself than to her friend.
The smell met them next, and they both pulled their gauzy scarves against their faces. A rough hole yawned before them, closed with crude, rusted grates. This is where the raiders threw anyone they found out in the waste surrounding the Citadel. Trapdoors let the Mechanic’s crew pluck whoever was still alive out of the pit for whatever use they had for them. The people in the pit had heard the crew approaching and they had grown quiet, only a few cried louder. Capable could barely bring herself to look over the edge into their faces, at the condition they were in. She saw them huddled in the center, facing away from the edges of the pit, desperately trying not to draw attention to themselves. She threw open the rusted grates. No one faced the open grates, no one even looked up. Whatever the women said they didn’t move. They shut out the voices calling to them.
“They don’t trust us,” Toast said, her voice drawn tight. “They think anyone coming here will hurt them.”
Capable swallowed her despair. Toast clawed through her hair and wiped her eyes. The crew pressed forward, stunned that their prisoners hadn’t leapt from the pit. Then they laughed, the harsh sound echoing off of the slimy walls. “Stupid blighters,” one spat. “That’s why those useless stains are down there,” another said, “they’re too stupid to know what’s good for them. Stupid enough to be wandering out there, stupid enough to get caught.” The crew went to kick the doors closed. “We never even needed to lock them in!”
“Stop!” Capable called out, feeling herself surge forward to knock the nearest Cutter away from the grate. He stepped back and gave her a twisted placating smile. “Alright we won’t close ‘em in again. It’ll just be that much easier to get them out when we need them.”
Toast stepped to Capable’s side. “We’ll get them out,” she said quietly. “I have an idea.” She motioned to the Cutters. “Close them in.”
“You need to make up your little minds,” a Cutter said, shaking his head. The grates screeched as they kicked them shut. The sound was unbearable. “What are you doing?” Capable hissed at Toast. Toast waved her off.
They pushed through the Cutters, who plucked at them. “Liked what you saw? They really are better off down there, don’t you think? You left them there so you must!” a Cutter jeered. Capable and Toast marched forward until they were free of the noxious voices.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Capable said.
“We can’t come at them from up here. We have to be down there with them,” Toast said.
“With them?” Toast smiled at her incredulous look. As they rounded a corner they saw a stocky War Boy with an arm in a sling, standing in a shadowed curve of the cave passage.
“I saw you going to the pits and the Cutters in a frenzy, then I heard them saying you were trying to get those people out of the pits.” he said.
“Yeah,” Toast said uncertainly. Capable’s heart raced.
“So did you? Where are they?” He didn’t sound angry, but Capable’s hands balled into fists, nails digging into her palms.
“What’s it to you?” Toast asked.
He hesitated at her tone but said, “You didn’t get them out? I want to help you. Help you get them out, I mean.” He shifted uneasily.
“What’s your name?” Capable said.
“My name’s Capable and this here is Toast.” Toast nodded. He gave them a quick salute. “Okay, Charge. Talk to your crew about it and meet us at the entrance to the chop shops at noon with whoever agrees to help you.”
Toast was wearing clothes borrowed from the Wretched, an amulet from Dag, which was a shriveled orange thing on a bright cord with feathers, and in those dirty folds she concealed a sharp file from Joe’s own workbench. She still had some injuries from the polecat attack, giving her a plausible enough wasteland wanderer look. In the empty chop shop’s dim lighting she looked appropriately disheveled.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Dag said, straightening the amulet on Toast’s neck. Toast just gave her an annoyed look and kept sprinkling dirt on her greased up arms.
“She’s going down there, Dag,” Capable said.
“Better you than me. I couldn’t go anywhere near those pits.”
“The harvesters agreed and they’re placing your food at the drain where you said.” Cheedo announced, coming in through the door. “Mothers’ mercy, you look awful!”
Toast grinned. “I’ve looked better. I’ve certainly felt worse. You’ve got those guards in place, Capable? Can’t have those Cutters interrupting.”
“Charge is there with five others.”
“Let’s do this then.” Toast said cheerfully before hunching into her wanderer character.
Furiosa’s old quarters were completely bare, having only a straw mattress on a long, deep ledge that spanned one side of the rough-hewn room. A few haphazardly placed holes let in light, but were too deep to see out of. Querulous carried Furiosa in and set her down on the mattress. The room felt eerier to her than even the vault did. She had been to the other Imperators’ quarters, now housing people from the ground, and those rooms had been full of odd little trinkets made by their crews as offerings. Somehow it didn’t fit, she knew how loyal Furiosa’s crew had been, yet there was no evidence of them ever existing here. Even in her private space there was a sense she distrusted her environment. But Furiosa seemed to relax, turning over to face a bright patch of light. “We’ll bring you some books if you like,” Querulous murmured, and Furiosa nodded slightly in response. Capable sat on the ledge nearby. Her breathing’s still a little ragged, she thought, and she looks small wrapped up like that. Furiosa shifted and peered over the edge of her finely woven Vuvalini blanket.
“Hey, how are you doing?” she said, resting her hand on Furiosa’s shoulder. Her eyes sparkled over the edge of the blanket and she hummed quietly in assent. She wasn’t sure how much of the aftermath of Joe’s death Furiosa remembered. When she had first come to, Max’s blood bringing her around, she panicked. Still too weak to move much, let alone fight, pure animal fear nonetheless galvanized her limbs. Max caught her foot in a weak kick and lowered her leg to the cab’s floor. Capable thought about waking up not knowing where you are or when, and having the first clue resolve as the screaming skull and wheel motif battered into the tin roof. “Hey,” he said to her in a quiet singsong voice, however rough. “Hey” again and humming a tuneless song. Dag, who had held one end of the line in her arm, patted her arm softly, and said, “Furiosa, it’s just us. We’re here and no one else.” Capable was certain Furiosa had accepted her death before going after Joe, like a good War Boy with no one but Toast to witness her. Finding herself alive was a vertiginous shock that she seemed to not have entirely recovered from.
She got her bearings, and slowly the fear drained away. Max helped her sit up, and she gave the whole cab the most grateful, gentle smile, teeth caked in old blood. In the next few hours, while the night deepened, Tess and Toast switched off driving, and Max dressed wounds, some being his own, and sewed up tears in dresses and pants. They tried not to think about the corpse they had stuffed in the back cab’s trunk. Capable let Furiosa lean on her. Dag kept asking Max questions about himself but he would only give noncommittal sounds in answer. Furiosa smiled weakly at each new non-answer, until their mysterious feral stopped saying anything at all, and merely gazed out the back window at the blue sky filled with stars and the black earth that rolled out beneath it. There was something miraculously peaceful about that time in transit, between one great big breath and then another, all was vast and quiet. The whole wretched world fell away from them. Toast and Tess were trading songs while each of them drove, to keep each other awake. Capable thought she recognized some of them. Max hummed along to one. Furiosa fell asleep on her shoulder and then she too fell asleep. In the morning they would be approaching the Citadel, and it would all come back to her.
Capable had held her up on the lift, rising to the chanting of the people on the ground. What did it mean that Furiosa no longer held her and the other women at arms’ length, but that she had to reach the end of her strength to lean on them? In her difficult recovery neither Dag nor Cheedo had visited often, though she knew Dag prayed for her constantly. They seemed to be afraid of her condition. Toast would come but never for long. She herself had spent so much time among the remaining War Boys. Was Furiosa trying to slip away, like Max did, but bound by her injuries could not? Had she chosen and embraced isolation, after seeing they wouldn’t return to support her? She fervently wished she knew where her silence came from, but understood she may not ever know.
“We tried getting the people in the pits out, but they wouldn’t come willingly. I would have never imagined that. I had no idea how much fear they lived in… I knew it was bad, but— I thought I could reach them, but they were so much further gone than I thought. You got Max to come around and he was in bad shape, but this… Toast had the right idea. If it wasn’t for her I would have no hope. How do you reach people with that much fear? I thought I knew. I thought Nux taught me. I thought I knew what it was to live in fear.” Capable sighed, “I’m sorry, how are you supposed to get better if I’m just here with bad news?”
Furiosa shook her head with a slight smile, as if to say, it’s fine, go on.
“I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing. Miss Giddy has said some things that I hardly want to consider. But I can’t keep them down there. Am I doing what’s right?”
Furiosa sat up and turned Capable towards her. Her voice, thin but firm, came to her. “Yes”, Furiosa said.
The War Boy stole softly into the empty chop shop that Capable was occupying that night. The light from the kerosene lamp he held made the rocks jump, and Capable snapped awake as it passed over her lightly closed eyes. She hadn’t really slept at all. “Charge? Do you have them?” she said. She felt dizzy and exhilarated.
“We’re getting them out now. Most of them are there with Toast, I think.”
“Thank you so much for helping us with this, Charge. I didn’t think we could find any boys who were willing to keep the Cutters back.”
“The other boys didn’t come from that place. The Cutters decided to promote me from being a bloodbag after I fought them off so many times. I got the rest of my family out too. My crewmates know that.”
“You’re not worried about not having them for blood after this?”
“Nah, I mean, it’s not worth it.” He made to keep speaking but didn’t say anything. He paced the room, tracing his scarred forearm.
“I’m worried about how the others will react. The Mechanic said that the boys only get blood when they’re on their last legs. It’s their final chance to be Witnessed.”
“Yeah…” Charge said uncertainly, still pacing. “That’s not the thing though, I mean, you wouldn’t know, you don’t know how it works. Being a Witness, it’s just seeing them go, right? But dyin’ soft, they don’t let you. I mean the Cutters and the Mechanic, they don’t let you into the Combs to see anyone they’ve picked out for being too weak.” he said, facing the wall.
“You’re not allowed in there? So dying soft is dying alone?” She saw his back tense up. She had been in there, she had seen only Cutters around the boys in their niches. The room dark and bright, the roving light. She felt ill.
“It wouldn’t be the same, but we could still Witness them there, if we could. Some boys wouldn’t think it was right, probably, Witnessing their mates there. But I would do it.”
“Of course,” Capable said, stunned. “Let’s go get Toast and everyone from that pit. Let’s end this.”
Toast pulled them through the vent, one at a time, into the calm desert night. Capable and Charge collected them and led them along the foot of the rock to a large unused drain pipe that Charge’s crew had cut the grate off of. It was poor lodging, but it would be cool during day and a trickle of water at the back would keep them from getting too thirsty. Cheedo’s delivery sat in crates along the walls, potatoes and greens and bars of compressed insects. There were crates of bottled milk, and Querulous herself with her herbs and tinctures to treat their wounds, aggravated as they were by the pits’ filth. Once everyone was inside they began to talk, softly, with rasping voices and much coughing. The women distributed milk while Charge went to rouse his mates so that they could stand guard at the pipe’s mouth. Toast touched everyone’s hands. “You and that amulet,” one rasped. “I can’t believe…”
She took it off her neck. “I told you all that it had the power to make me invisible to my enemies. No such magic exists… I had to make myself visible to you. So I have to tell you that I had to make myself one of you, even though I wasn’t stolen when you were, I was stolen many years ago, and misused much like you were. You feared anyone up above those grates. That fear was right. So I had to do this.”
A smile cracked their face. “A toast to our Toast, the best, most good liar in this waste!”
The morning Capable went to visit Furiosa in her old quarters, Tess stopped her before she could turn into the corridor. “There’s quite a scene ahead, but I’ll take you in if you insist.”
“Someone came for Furiosa. We think he was one of Corpus’ men, but we’re not sure. He could have been acting alone.” She walked in front of her but didn’t quite block the view of a dead War Boy, slumped against the wall opposite Furiosa’s door. His hand clutched a crossbow.
Furiosa stood by the window, half leaning on the deep rock sill. She smiled briefly at Capable as she came in. “I have to thank you, you’re doing good enough work that we’re getting some motivated enemies. They think it’s me, of course. They won’t think anything of you, not for a while.”
“You’re feeling much better I can tell.”
“Attempts on my life are quite motivating.”
“I wanted to show you this,” Capable unfurled Toast’s sketches for the arm. “She’s working on it now, I just got her some materials. It probably won’t be as strong as the other one, we couldn’t find another engine like the one you had.”
Furiosa took the sketches and scrutinized them at length. “This is a good design.”
“You aren’t intending on leading us, is that right?”
Furiosa hooked her thumb into a belt and stood up straighter. “I don’t intend on becoming Joe’s successor, which is what the boys and Corpus expect. Corpus thinks this was a coup. The boys will probably accept me, most of them, but Corpus won’t.”
“There’s talk amongst the boys that the Immortan will return. Most don’t know how he died.”
“I was an Imperator, I was supposed to be guided by the hand of my god.” Furiosa said. “It’s not going to occur to many of the boys that I would even be able to turn my hand against him.” She handed Toast’s drawings back to her. “Leave the boys to me. I know what they’re looking for. If we can get them in line with us, we’ll be much safer, the Citadel will be safer, and maybe we can do some of what Angharad was dreaming of.”
She hadn’t heard her say anything like that about Angharad before. There was something in her manner, a kind of tugging at her belts, that said that while she was entertaining some of Angharad’s notions that none of them were real to her yet. She didn’t believe it. Even though Angharad had stayed her hand and Nux had lived to give everything of himself for their cause. Standing before her was the same figure that had appeared in their lives as another bar in their cage, and yet she saw her trying. She had learned to survive in a way that Capable knew she wouldn’t entirely understand, but she was really trying to understand them, the five women she liberated. She was trying to rebuild herself free of the bloody strictures of the Citadel. The Imperator was without a crew, and possibly wholly without powerful allies, for the first time since that time after she was expelled from the vault. That isolation must terrify her.
“Angharad had a vision for this place. I don’t think it’s my place to determine how that vision is carried out, but I will defend and support your leadership. You, Toast, the Milk Mothers, anyone who steps up.”
“Thank you,” Capable managed to say. “Then you should know that Toast released the people in the pits. There’s no more blood flowing from them.”
Furiosa raised her eyebrows. “This is going to be interesting.”
Three days after Furiosa regained her voice the day dawned white. The burning blue rimed with thin cloud, the sun a chrome disk hanging in blankness. Greener listened to Dag’s description of the dawn. She had been feeling the pressure change in her aching joints. “Go look at the barometer,” she instructed Capable, and sure enough the water level had risen. This was a dangerous time of year for anything growing. With every passing day the risk of frost grew, but the cold was unpredictable, like Buzzard raids. “There’s cloth rolled up at each patch which must be thrown over the plants if the temperature falls,” she said, “Go and find it.” Dag and Capable went to the potato patch and found the cloth, a dirty roll of gauzy material. Dag rubbed it between her fingers, “This must be the stuff. I looks familiar, doesn’t it? It wasn’t meant to protect us though.” They had both taken as much as they could from the Vuvalini’s chests of textiles, but not much of it had been in the shape of clothes. The Dag still wore her blue shawl, and a pair of Fixers’ overalls, with her gauze vault uniform underneath. She pulled her shawl closer. “I don’t remember it being cold at all when we were in the vault. It was so cold when we were out with Furiosa.”
“It was cold then too. I used to go out on the ledges whatever the weather.”
“Yeah, with Angharad,” Dag said with a quick grin.
The still morning was cut by a bell ringing from the nearest watchtower. Bells from the other towers answered it. They ran up and called to the lookout. He cried in reply, “Our War Party spotted! War Boys return! Three cars!”
Capable and Dag looked to each other. Dag was frightened.
“It’s just three cars… there must be a lot of trouble out there. They won’t be a problem,” Capable said.
“No it’s not that— If so few of the healthy boys come back, how are we ever going to defend the Citadel in the future? Gas Town is still out there, if they know what happened to Joe…” Dag pulled on her bone necklace.
“I don’t think anyone knows what happened to Joe but us.”
“Yes but what are we going to tell them?”
Capable waved her off and climbed the watchtower. Through the watcher’s hazy scope she saw a truck and two swift cars, though none were driving fast. They were still about a mile away, nearly lost against the streaks of sand and rock. They must have been driving through the night, which probably meant they were nearly out of water, and were driving in the cold for the sake of the engines and themselves. She climbed down and picked up a couple of jugs, filled them with cold water and set off to meet the party.
The Gigahorse still stood where the women had left it. Furiosa had its keys, which didn’t mean no one could move it. It was a simple thing for most boys to start a car, keys or not, but no one dared to approach it. Only, it had been taken over by a group of pups, between age eight and apprenticing age. At least one of their group was always in it, either lounging inside or standing as a lookout at the empty harpoon gun. They brought down food and water everyday to stockpile in the back of the upper cab. They had even managed to steal a stove from some place, as well as a kerosene lamp, two things a pup could never own, but they had them. Someone in Materials must have been sympathetic, or else they had yet to notice. The pups had seen the remnants of the war party coming before the bells had started ringing and set out to meet them.
“Hoy!” the pups shouted as they neared the ragged war party. “Hoy!” A distant voiced called back to them. They looked back and still the Citadel had not stirred to meet this party. The stillness of the whole Citadel since Furiosa returned with Joe made them nervous. The Wretched had gone up, they had seen their mates let them up. That didn’t feel wrong, but it didn’t feel right either. Things were confusing, with Joe gone. They started their club in the Gigahorse, thinking perhaps it would be upon them to leave and start a new society. All they needed was gas, and they could drive the Gigahorse away, some of them were even tall enough to drive, they had learned how from the older pups.
When the cars rolled up the pups cheered a hello. Each car was crammed full of boys, some sitting on the hoods. One jumped off a car and ran up. “Flywheel! Is the Immortan at the Citadel? Did he make it?” Flywheel just gaped and stuttered, “Gelus!” One of the smaller boys shouted, “The Wretched ate ‘im!”
Gelus stepped back. “What?” he said.
“What are you talking about, Grub? The Wretched didn’t eat him!” Flywheel said.
“Well no, but they did tear him apart,” the younger pup said, “But that doesn’t mean the feral didn’t eat his face first.”
“The feral?” Gelus was completely lost.
“He had a muzzle on before, so he was a mad one. Nux took him to the road. He came back with Furiosa and he wasn’t wearing his muzzle anymore and he had the Immortan wrapped up in white stuff, and he whipped back the stuff—” the pup mimed this motion dramatically, “— and there was the Immortan with no face!” The War Boy just stood motionless and laughed in painful disbelief. “And that’s why you muzzle a feral so he doesn’t eat everyone’s faces,” Grub concluded.
“So, the Immortan— is dead? Tell me what happened,” he said to Flywheel. The younger pup protested but Flywheel hushed him.
“It’s almost like what Grub said— Furiosa came back on the Gigahorse, with the breeders. They had the Immortan, and he was definitely dead. The feral was also with them, but we haven’t seen him since that day. He probably went off to be feral again. But no one ate anybody.”
“It was Furiosa, she sicced that crazy feral on Joe,” Grub said.
The War Boys, who had climbed from the cars and gathered around while the pups chattered, sank in defeat. They had been shifting rocks for days, and never found any part of the Gigahorse or the Immortan. He must have escaped the rock fall and wreck they found there in the canyon, they concluded. Only the War Rig had been at the front of the pileup, with Nux tangled up inside. Last reports had the Immortan in front of it. The War Parties wondered at the wrecked War Rig when they found it. Had Nux taken them by surprise and tried to kill the breeders and Furiosa by flipping it? If he had why were they nowhere to be found? Had Joe already taken them back? They pulled Nux’s body out, he had to be honored after all, whatever he had done it looked impressive. Nux had always been a bit of a showoff. His body would be brought back with the rest of what could be salvaged from the rig. Now what the pups were telling him was that the breeders, the Imperator, and the feral had been with Joe when the rig flipped, that’s the only way they could have survived, and now Joe was dead.
Nothing made any sense. Why had Furiosa gone rogue in the first place? What did the breeders have to do with it? And now the Immortan, dead by whose hand, and when? But they had to keep moving, there were many injured in their party. It felt cruel that they had to return to this, a quiet Citadel with the Immortan gone on after fighting through the mountains for days. They had failed, so utterly and completely that he had to push the thought from his mind. The Immortan was the Immortan, if he was dead like these pups said, and there’s no reason to lie about something so unthinkable, then all they had to do was keep to the rituals, and their Redeemer would one day return. If they lived to see it. It was time to move.
“It was Furiosa,” he repeated to the pups and himself. “She started this whole thing.”
Capable clutched the water she carried, the jars vibrated with her pounding heart, her ears full of rushing blood. Should I go to Furiosa first? she thought, but forgot at the next turn as she wended her way down the labyrinthine stairs through the rock. What are you going to tell them, she demanded of herself. Her mind replayed Angharad demanding Nux see what she saw: that Joe was an old man who had exploited all of them. He hadn’t seen, and they had pushed him out of the rig. He seemed to fall so slowly as they all looked on, a single insignificant, incompetent boy who had lunged at Furiosa, who had tried to stop their flight. He didn’t see allying with them as a worthy cause until his own fake, self-styled, and sadistic god rejected him. Those precious few days they had riding with the Vuvalini he had absorbed their creed and carefully observed their rituals like a man who had lost his faith entirely, and was desperately trying to grab on to something else before he was swept away into the indifferent sands. But these boys, riding towards their home, starving and dehydrated have no such despair. They probably think that Joe is still alive, having made it through and recovered all his wives. Angharad couldn’t talk sense into Nux. Her words which had worked upon all of them, even Furiosa, took so much time and care to take root. Then she felt herself slipping, and she hit the next landing hard. She pulled herself up, shaking, to see a few pups rushing towards her.
“Careful, lady! What’s the rush?”
“Pups! Help me with this water. Some of your brothers are returning.”
“Which ones?” one pup said warily, while hefting a jar.
“I don’t know, maybe you can tell me when they arrive.” They set off, Capable carrying one jar and the little boy the other. “Tell me something, were you some of the pups who let us up?”
The little boy looked up at her. “Yeah I was at the elevators.”
“You don’t think it was scary, what happened to Joe?”
He looked straight ahead. “No, he was scary. He was supposed to be a god, the Immortan, and now he’s dead. It must be that he was lying, right? What god goes and gets himself killed.”
“Did you not believe in him then?”
The boy shrugged in response. “Maybe it’s like the other boys say and he’ll come back. But—“ he adjusted the jar in his thin arms. “I don’t have to believe, do I?” He looked up at her again.
“No, you don’t have to believe it.”
“The boys told us that Joe was our grandpa,” another pup piped up. “Are grandpas supposed to be that scary?”
Capable shook her head. “No one in your family is supposed to be scary.”
“Our crew is our family.” the boy carrying the water said firmly.
“Nuh-uh,” a pup of about seven said, “I went and visited my mama in the milk room, even when they told me not to, even when they chased me out or kicked me. She said our families are supposed to have mothers, not just brothers. Joe’s not our dad or our grandpa, he’s a big monster!” he looked shocked at himself even as he said it.
“You were part of Joe’s crew, weren’t you?” the boy with the jar asked.
“No, he wanted us to be family but we weren’t. A family or a crew is something you can choose to be in, like believing, no one should force you to be a part of something you don’t want to be.”
It was only when she arrived at the elevator and looked down upon the gray plain at the foot of the rocks that she remembered Furiosa. She imagined that the Imperator had gotten the news, and was training her gun upon the War Boys as they arrived, and her heart pounded at the thought. She could see some pups on the ground with them. Capable knew those pups as the Gigahorse club, and she frowned, knowing that they distrusted her. She approached the guard at the lever, but she didn’t need to say anything. He just nodded and lowered the elevator when she and the pups stood on it.
Their three battered cars were parked behind the Gigahorse, which some War Boys had warily approached with the encouragement of the club. When the lift started to move they startled away from the fearsome car, and stood at attention. They didn’t know who was coming down, some of them still had the faint hope they would see their Redeemer standing there, and the pups’ ghastly stories would be forgotten like a nightmare. When they first caught sight of Capable, flanked by pups, they didn’t understand what they were seeing, and their strict formation wavered and deformed. She saw their shock and curiosity— curiosity was good. The War Boys had never seen the women, they had always been secreted to the Citadel in special convoys, and seldom brought to the balcony. They wouldn’t know what to make of her, and she could take advantage of their being off-balance.
“Welcome back, brothers of the Citadel! Take this water and bring us the injured, quickly.”
They grabbed the two jugs and passed them around between them. The cars limped onto the lift. “Did you see, there was definitely blood around the drivers’ seat.” one muttered to another, who replied in a low voice, “The pups can’t be lying, but seeing it is chilling.”
“And who are you, then?” said one War Boy, standing as close to Capable as he could manage, which was not very close. The rest hung back near the cars.
Thoroughly intimidated, thought Capable, with inward satisfaction. “I was sent by the Valkyries” she proclaimed, while thinking, Mothers’ Spit, am I really doing this? “My sisters and I have brought Joe to the other side.”
The War Boys gaped in awe. “He really is gone,” a War Boy said in a small voice. “But why?” said another, more angry.
“Because we saw that Joe carried a curse from the Old World, one that was sickening this one as well.”
“But will he be back?”
“Only your faith can tell you that.”
“What kind of curse?”
“The curse of memory, the curse of repetition. He sought to return to the Old World, which is gone forever. The Valkyries could not let this world crumble under the dream of the old. Do you remember the Old World, do you love it? No, you were born after its death, and he was ready to sacrifice you for its image.” She wasn’t sure what effect this would have on them. What good would talking of future be for boys who knew that they had little time? What good would the present be to them as well? She only hoped she had sounded commanding.
“So are you immorta then?” one pressed.
“No, I have my mortality.”
When the lift stopped Querulous and Furiosa were there waiting. Querulous went to help pull the injured from the cars immediately. “Eh? The Mechanic isn’t here?” a War Boy asked. “I am a mechanic of the body, you would say,” Querulous responded. The boys eyed Furiosa warily while Querulous worked. She and some apprentice aged pups loaded them onto stretchers and carried them to niches where they could be taken care of. Furiosa stood by Capable and said, “I would have come with you, to keep you safe.”
Capable just shook her head, “I know it sounds insane, but if I’m ever afraid of them, we’re lost. I almost went to you, to tell you not to shoot them under any circumstances.”
“That’s foolish. Come to me next time,” she said. Capable saw her anger glinting behind her stern eyes. So she’s afraid, afraid of losing us. “Even Joe had guards—” She caught herself and looked away.
Querulous came up to them. “We’re going to lose some of them, they’ve been without help for too long. They’ve gotten bad infections.” She had already informed the informal crew of this, and their faces ranged from blank to stricken. “You can’t take them to the Combs yet, okay? Just keep them here awhile,” a crew member murmured.
“We’re not taking them to the Combs,” Capable said. “Are you ready to Witness them here?”
“What are you saying? They haven’t done anything, they’re just dying soft” the War Boy said, voice cracking. “We came all the way here and they’ll just die here like worms, like soft things.”
“What’s your name?” Capable asked him.
“Gelus,” he said.
“You don’t have to stay, Gelus, or any of you, but if you do, know that you’re here to Witness,” she said. They looked to each other. No one wanted to move. They had never been allowed in the Combs. Gelus leaned over the dying boy in the niche. “Kit? You hear me? Do you want us to Witness?” Kit turned his head, and seemed to understand through the haze of his fever. He nodded, then looked to Capable. “You, you’ll send the Valkyries for me?”
Capable touched his shoulder. “Yes.”
“Good deal, good.” he said. His crew gathered around his niche, a crew who hadn’t been his crew before they left the wreck of the War Rig, but became his as they fought their way over the mountains. He had been defending them from a rock rider attack when he was shot in the abdomen. He looked at all of them, “Witness me,” he said softly. The crew stood around him, and then sat around him, and then slept around him. Some left and came back, others left for good. He fell unconscious. The crew touched his hands periodically. They were hot. By the next dawn, which came up red in the featureless sky, his hands had grown cold. Gelus held them anyway. “Witness,” he murmured, and the rest of them followed along.
After they moved Kit’s body, Capable found them all sleeping in a secluded part of the caves, faces drawn in exhaustion, their limbs all touching each other’s lightly, as if to reassure themselves of each other’s life. She set down a crate of bug bars and milk. Gelus still held a tassel from Kit’s lances. Capable left them and made it a few paces through the passage before falling under the weight of her memories of Nux and Angharad, and for the first time since their deaths, forgot herself in grief and let the sobs roll through her. When her mind surfaced and she had a chance to breathe, she looked up to see Gelus standing a respectful distance away, with his back half turned.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to disturb you…” he began. “It’s not soft, is it?” he said, almost to himself. “It’s hard for all of us, no matter what happens.” He walked up to her and handed her a bottle of milk. “We could both use it.”
Capable reached the farm, feeling as if she were floating, like her limbs were weightless, and her breath passed through her without reaching her heart. The sun was climbing, it could be hot today or not. The early shift of gardeners were just beginning to wrap up their work, taking clean vegetables to the store rooms and setting out sprinklers. Cheedo, Dag and Toast stood near the edge looking out over the wasteland. Dag turned as she approached, “You look awful, what happened?”
“Thanks,” Capable said flatly, “Its— life is hard is all. I’ll tell you about it later.”
“Sometimes I’m jealous of this creature,” Dag said, patting her belly. “It’s going see a much better Citadel than what we saw. Life is going to be worth making for once. I haven’t even thought of a name. What do you think I should name the creature?” Capable hadn’t thought about Dag being pregnant for a while.
“I already gave you a name,” said Cheedo, poking Dag playfully.
“Cheedo Jr is not a name!” Dag said, scoffing theatrically.
“What! It’s my name!”
“Cheedo Jr is your name? There weren’t any Cheedoes before you.” she said matter-of-factly.
“What! I’m the daughter of the Great Cheedo, thank you very much. You have offended Cheedoes everywhere.” she managed to say, before they both fell to giggling too hard.
They sat down at the rock’s edge, and Dag handed out some baked potatoes for breakfast. “Isn’t it beautiful? We were going to be out there, maybe we would have found something, maybe we would have gotten lost forever in the salt. But we’re here, and I’m fine with that.”
Toast tossed her potato into the air and caught it. “When he said ‘go back’ all I thought of was the vault. All that time we told ourselves we were leaving this place forever, we thought we couldn’t live here at all. This place is enormous. I don’t even think I could see all of it if I explored it for the rest of my life.”
Capable ate slowly. Perhaps they had been too hasty, letting the people out of the pits, opening the Combs. Maybe there would have been more careful, more politic ways of changing this system. She remembered Angharad confronting Furiosa, not for the first time, her towering frame against the Imperator’s tightly wound and compact menace. “You’re hurting us, standing there never moving, not doing anything, just as surely as Joe is. Take out that knife and cut me next time. Maybe if you cut me each time I’ll soon be free of this!” she shouted, while the rest of them tried to hold her back. Capable was sure the woman would snap and take it as an invitation to really hurt them. But at her challenge something in the Imperator was cut, the bonds that held her limbs in that rigid guard stance went slack. They all looked on in horror, Angharad shocked silent, as she began to cry. Not just little tears pricking her eyes, but big, wracking sobs. Capable, against her better judgement, went to her, Angharad following hesitantly. The Imperator sunk to a crouch, and clutching her head she hid her face. As Capable knelt beside her, she flinched. She reached out to touch a shoulder but her hand hovered above the woman’s shirt. A cold realization flooded her. The same. This woman, an Imperator, was one of them. Here, in the vault, she was truly one of them. She must feel as powerless here as we do, Capable thought. That feeling of helplessness that Angharad fought in them and herself every day, this hard woman had felt. She looked at Angharad, whose face was blank. Did she see that fabric too? Did she already know what bound them together? She could have shook Angharad, for being so stupid, and impulsive, and scary, but she also loved her, and that incandescent rage. She marveled at that moment from this distant one, this present where she was free. They didn’t know what she had done, and what would happen to them because of it, but Angharad had pushed something sleeping inside the Imperator awake. Their future was born there, with Angharad by her side, that Angharad herself would never see. She hated Angharad’s impulsivity, but she had to honor her for it. It had saved them, and they in turn could save as many people as they could.
“Yeah?” said Dag, not quite listening.
Capable laid back. The clouds had broken into thin wisps, like white hair floating in a bath. She felt as if she were flying upward, lifted by a crane. Their future, the future of the Citadel. This was the first time she could take the future in as 10-days or 100-days, not just endure it in days or hours or even moments. More boys would return, and the Imperators who had lived. She didn’t know what would happen with that, or whether Gas Town would try to attack. These thoughts didn’t frighten her. She listened to the harvesters work around her, and felt the rock below her. She feels the whole thing turn about her, like a slow cog in a machine that reaches to the edges of sight, revolving forever.