Everybody just wants to be free

I picked someone out of the crowd at random – a gnarly looking guy (?) in wearing leather that looked like actual armor who had an actual sword (well not an actual-actual sword, it was made out of scrap) that I swear to you was no bigger than an eleven year old girl – and asked him what he thought we could do about the river poison situation.  He had arrived with some other people as stick-thin and spindly as pre-teen girls in a boxy red machine that looked sort of like a moving truck.  He looked back at them for support and then said a bunch of gibberish that I couldn’t understand. 

One of the vulture people (who I didn’t even know were there until that moment) came forward to translate.  I will ask again – how can these people understand my flawless unaccented mainstream American English without a hint of deviant Northern Cities Vowel Shift nonsense when they don’t speak it?  I heard this about different dialects of Chinese, someone might be able to understand a couple different dialects but only speak one.  Then again the guy that told me that was Laotian so who the hell knows?  I’ll never be able to wrap my head around it.  I should have paid more attention in linguistics class.  Also I should have taken a linguistics class.

Anyway the gist of the babysitter club sword and leather guy’s statement was that the Bosstown assholes had the water filters and weren’t sharing and therefore were assholes.  I guess I should have divined that was the case by the way the Bosstown people freaked out when he said his gibberish.  After some small amount of violence and childish name calling, I was able to get control of things again.  It’s a tough row to hoe when you have to rely on an interpreter to tell you what’s going on seventy percent of the time but as my grandmother always said “could be the way it was sown”. 

The good news is that I have both a silver tongue and a commanding voice.  My agent used to say that I had such a knack for convincing people to believe me or do things for me that he thought I was subliminally controlling people with modulation and pitch of my voice.  Not only that though, I also have an aura of natural authority, a sort of royal dignity and majesty that makes people stand in awe even if they don’t fully understand what I’m saying.  It’s like a magnetic attraction.  Plus I’m pretty, so, so pretty.  Everyone used to say so.

After some additional violence and childish name calling (is three people dying during a meeting good or is that too many?  I never really had a real job in an office so I’m new at this) it was established that most of the villages have cisterns (which is different from a well somehow) that will last them a while but something needs to be done.  It took a lot of convincing, and I’m great at convincing, but eventually everyone agreed that if Bosstown has any filters left from the last time this happened (they maintain that they don’t) it’s not enough for everyone.  At that point they all agreed the best thing to do was for everyone to attack everyone else in an orgy of violence and destruction and whoever was still alive at the end (if anyone) would use the filters. 

I suggested in the alternative that they could work together.  They looked at me like I just gave birth to a cocker spaniel puppy with the head of Tom Brokaw.  To get the ball rolling, I asked them where the filters came from in the first place.  They said that they had come from an underground building from the olden times.  When the river was poisoned once before and I quote “The strongest fighting men had gone up the river to the poisoned hills, had fought the things of shadows and fire and found the house of the ancients wherein lay the key to separate the good water from the bad”  Sometimes these primitive screwheads talk like they’re in the Fellowship of the Ring.  Martialla was going to be one of the ringwraiths in that movie but they said her boobs were too big.  Can you believe that?  True story. 

The solution seemed pretty simple to me, go back there and get some more filters.  They said that was impossible because of the balrog.  They didn’t actually say that, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  Other than that it is one hundred percent impossible to go get more filters because of the dangerous danger.  I took a break from my mediation duties to sit in J-Lo and drink some filthy water and eat one of the last of our hundred year old energy bars.  Martialla was toying with a small crossbow she had gotten from a guy that kinda looked like a samurai with a 1950’s woman’s haircut and three goiters the size of dill pickles. 

“You know what they’re talking about, don’t you?”

“I have no idea.  At one point I thought they were saying there were lavamen or something like that.”  I looked at the crumbly stale energy bar in my hand sourly “I would burn someone alive for just a bite of a Monte Cristo right now.”

“They’re talking about robots.”

I snorted “What?  Like those big arms that make cars in Detroit?  Why would anyone get scared of that?  I mean they are stupid, but they can’t be that dumb can they?  I suppose it would make sense that there would be a bunch of filters in a car manufacturing plant.  Cars have filters in them right?”

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean.  I mean like Terminator killer robots.”

I laughed “Get the fuck out of there, there’s no such thing.”

“I’ve been listening very carefully, and more importantly I’ve been watching the way these people act.  They’re talking about robots.  I keep trying to tell you just because we went into the deep freeze in oh two, that doesn’t mean that’s when everything stopped.  Maybe some bad shit was going down on the West Coast but maybe in other places technology marched on.  Maybe in twenty fifty they unleashed an army of killer robots and that’s part of the reason why everything is like this.”

I tossed the energy bar wrapper out the window – one good thing about the apocalypse, no need to be tidy “You’re crazy.”

“Think about the Roman Empire.”

“Do I have to?”

“People ask what caused the fall of the Roman Empire right?  But the question makes no sense.  Empires don’t fall overnight, they disintegrate slowly over generations.  Maybe the Goths invading was the nail in the coffin that broke the camel’s back but that doesn’t make it the cause any more than disease or climate change or inbreeding or whatever else was weakening them for however long.”

I shook my head “What does this have to do with anything?”

“What I’m saying is that while the Roman Empire was in decline, they were still also coming up with new stuff.  It’s not a one way street.  Some Roman dude probably invented a new kind of concrete or something while the empire was crumbling.  The same thing could have happened while we were in those tubes.  Maybe during the first thirty years we were asleep, parts of the world kept going just fine.  In fact, maybe the crisis accelerated the pace of technological advancement because people were trying to save their lives.  Oh man, I just thought of this, what if a bunch of people working on space travel got off the planet and are living in a space station or on Mars?!”

“You’ve lost your mind, woman.  Killer robots?  Space stations?  This isn’t a sci-fi adventure.”

“I’m just saying that . . .

I waved away her concerns “Yeah, yeah, whatever, it doesn’t matter because we’re going to find out soon enough.”

“We are?”

“Of course we are. Just like you said would happen, we’re going to have to go after those filters.  None of these brain donors is going to do it.”

Everybody seems so far away from me

I think we were in the same general area as where we first met the vulture mercs.  It’s hard to know for sure because there are no road signs (since there’s barely roads) and everything pretty much looks the same around here.  But I think it’s the same place.  It would make sense that they had set themselves up at a crossroads of traffic.  “Traffic” I should say.  Such as it is.  Everyone keeps talking about how important trade and movement is but we see like one car every other day it seems like.  If trade is so important, where are all the traders?  I asked Martialla about this and this is what she said right to my face –

“Once a man has changed the relationship between himself and his environment, he cannot return to the blissful ignorance he left. Motion, of necessity, involves a change in perspective.”

She’s becoming more unhinged by the day.  I’d slap some sense into her if not for the fact that she’d beat the life out of me with her giant man-hands and thick haunches.  Also why “a man”?  Why not “a person?” or “a woman?”  She has some serious gender issues.  I’d tell her that if I wasn’t worried that she’d tear my arm off like a mostly hairless Wookie. 

I’ve never been to a freak show but I imagine that the gathering before us would have given your standard freak horde a run for their money.  There were maybe two score and seven people there and most of them were as shrimpy and dirty and weird as you like.  There were some people from up in the mountains that seemed pretty normal which is odd because you’d expect them to be the most inbred of all right?  I certainly would.  And I did. 

There were three people there from Scrapbridge (I wonder what they have there) that weren’t puny and small like most of these future people, they were big blokes – and I mean big-big, not big by future standards.  I drifted over their way just because I was tired of feeling like a giant and wanted to be near some people taller than me, but they gave me some serious stinkeye so I drifted right back away.  And you can give some good stinkeye when you have an oversized eyeball that looks like it’s ready to fall out of your head.  Have you ever seen an eye turning around without a socket around it?  I have now. 

I ended up with Martialla, leaning against J-Lo and watching the gathering of wasteland ambassadors standing around looking at each other like kids at a fifth grade dance. 

I looked over at Martialla “You know I would kill everyone here for a lemon blackberry tart.” 

She nodded “Yeah, but that was true before.”

I couldn’t help but smile, well I could, but I didn’t “I do have a sweet tooth.”

“How did you stay so thin eating dessert all the time, that’s what I want to know.”

I crossed my arms contentedly “Well you know me Martialla, I was a work out monster.  I tore it up all day every day.  And of course the cocaine helped.”

“Of course.  Does cocaine really make you lose weight though, or is that an urban legend?  The only cokehead I ever knew was that hump Franky and he was a fat bastard, the hump.”

“I got fired from Urban Legend you know, Brad Dourif caught me going into his trailer to use the bathroom.  I offered him a handjob to keep his dumb mouth shut but he said he was married so he couldn’t do that.  What a little bitch.  Sadly we’ll never know, the value of illicit drugs as weight loss tools was never properly studied before the collapse of society.  It’s a shame really.” I looked around appraisingly “Do you think we could get some coke?  Would coca leaves grow here?”

“That’s where chocolate comes from.”

I frowned “What?  Cocaine doesn’t come from coca?”

“Coco-ah you mean.”

“What?”

“What?”

“Are you saying that cocaine and chocolate come from the same plant?”

Martialla thought for a moment “Uh . . . no?”

With that scintillating exchange out of the way, I decided to take the bull by the scrotum and get things going.  I explained to the assembly of disposable fuggoes that we were all there because the river had been poisoned and instead of resorting to violence and childish name calling, we were there to talk things through like gentlepeople and find a solution that would help everyone.  After I said this, no one said anything, they all just stared at me.  “Can you understand me?” I asked and they assured me that they could by bobbing their bulbous and pustule ridden heads.  And then continued saying nothing. 

It’s still raining, up here

Smashweed is so called because it’s surrounded by grey colored weeds that are tough as wire.  The people of Smashweed spend all day every day bending these weeds’ roots back and forth until they eventually break.  If you’re good at it, doing this takes about twenty minutes.  If you’re a little kid learning how to do it, it can take hours.  Once the weed is broken, you harvest it and then you boil it in some kind of brown water for a couple days and then you can hammer it until it breaks open and you can eat it.  This is the food that sustains all the people in the area.  I guess it’s better than gathering mud all day in Bosstown but only by the slimmest of margins. 

Unlike Bosstown where it seems people can breeze in and out as they wish, Smashweed is surrounded by a “wall” of smooth unbarked trees that look like they’re made of stone.  I guess they’re petrified but I’ve seen petrified wood before and it didn’t look like that.  The wall is heavily guarded (mostly by people with spears but still) on account of outsiders are not welcome in Smashweed.  At all.  They didn’t let us set one foot in the place.  That’s how worried they are and how valuable this paste they hammer out of iron grasses is. 

Also unlike Bosstown there’s no boss here, or maybe it’s more appropriate to say there’s a bunch of bosses.  Smashweed is run by committee and it seems like a dozen different people came to talk to us as we cooled our heels outside with the vulture tribe.  But in every group situation there’s always someone who’s the real power no matter how democratic you try to be.  I identified two as the real leaders of the place.  One of them was a little man (even by the standards of the day) with macular rashes all across the torso (no shirt for his fellow) and a kind of long twisted Mohawk.  I think he’s the “we are all equal but some are more equal than others” of the group. 

The other fellow was wearing a veil like a belly dancer and was swaddled in furs and robes that looked to be of decent material.  He also had shinbones that were about twice the length that you would expect.  He seemed to have a pretty difficult time getting around because of this.  His job is to deal with traders that come by so that the rest of the folk don’t have to sully themselves by talking to outsiders.  He’s the one who had the idea of hiring the vultures and I had him pegged pretty quickly – his thought process is if you need something dangerous done, have someone else do it because who cares if they die? 

It was slow going to make any progress because the Smashweedian leaders would only come out to talk to me for a few minutes at a time.  Longshanks would speak with us for longer than the others but even he acted like it was a real chore.  It was like being out from behind their walls was like being underwater – you do it for a moment and then you need to pop back out.  I suppose given all the dangerous shit out here I can’t blame them. 

Rashy claims that Smashweed can trace its history back to my time.  He claims that there was a flash-flood, followed by a monsoon that drove people to this place from Durham, Palermo, Sacramento, and other actual cities.  The fact that he even knows the names makes me think his story has some merit.  They were able to scavenge enough supplies from the ruins to start a farming community.  He claims there were thousands of them in those early days.  Two years later, ninety percent of them were dead.  But the community survived.  Later when the choking weeds took over their farms, two-thirds of them died again, but they adapted to be the “thriving” village they are now. 

Of course they had no information about what caused the flood or why there would be a monsoon in northern California instead of India. 

They claim that they hired the Vultures purely for self-defense because the Bosstowners would attack them to get the weed-mush if they didn’t give it to them, which they aren’t because of the filter situation.  The one thing both sides agree on is that there was an earthquake and now the river is fucked.  They are very bitter about how they feel Bosstown is not sharing their water filters. 

When I pointed out rationally and attractively that it made no sense for Bosstown to hold out on them because they needed Smashweed’s smashed weeds, they were dubious. 

“What’s their end game?  If you guys all die there’s going to be no food for them right?  Then they also die.”

They remained adamant that the Bosstowners were trying to destroy them by not sharing the filters.  Putting on my best negotiator hat I asked them, just for the sake of argument, pretend that Bosstown actually doesn’t have any filters either – what would they do then?  ‘Die’ was their answer.  Everyone would die.  They have a one track mind, these future people. 

I persisted in badgering them about it.  My point was clearly they didn’t make these filters because they suck (I said it nicer than that), so where did they come from?  Eventually they grudgingly admitted that there was a place to the north where they had originally gotten the filters from the last time the river turned to poison but it was impossible for anything to go there now.  And by impossible they meant that it was dangerous in some unspecified way.  No matter how much I pried, they wouldn’t say what was so terrible about the path to the vague land of water filters. 

When I suggested that what we should do, since this was a problem that affects everyone who needs the river to live, is gather a representative from each of the villages in the area to talk about potential solutions to the issue, they acted like that was the craziest thing they ever heard.  “What if it’s a trap” they cried. “That’s why you send someone you don’t care about as a representative” I replied intelligently in a smooth sexily seductive voice.  This they were intrigued by.  Not so intrigued that they let us in their stupid honeycomb hideout for the night, but you can’t have everything. 

The Vultures had moved on by that point so Martialla and I were left to camp out on our own once again.  The bad news is that a snake jumped on me.  The even worse news is that there’s jumping snakes now.  The good news is that snake meat is by a wide margin the most palatable thing I’ve eaten since we woke up. 

Martialla looked at me as she gnawed on a snake-scrap like a Neanderthal “You know we’re the ones who are going to get those filters right?”

I nibbled daintily and sedately “Of course, I’m the protagonist and you’re my loyal handmaiden, who else would go?  But if we get everyone together to talk about it first maybe we’ll get some supplies, and perhaps they’ll send some extras with us to get killed in the final climatic battle.”

“Plus then everyone will know that you did it.”

“That too, how else will they know what to make the statue of me look like?  Maybe they should call me Ela the Peacemaker instead of Ela the Savior.”

Martalla spit out a snake fang “Why not both?”

“Why not indeed?”