It’s a trap!

Leave it to Martialla to be unremittingly (not totally sure what that word means honestly) hostile to the only person we meet that I want to befriend.  Whenever we meet some scabby dusty ugly future goblin man with a rusty sharpened piece of bloody metal clenched in their gnarled fist wearing a necklace of fingerbones she wants to make friends, but when we encounter a normal human doctor from our time she loses her God damn mind.  I tried to talk her down, explain that maybe, just maybe a woman in a functioning hazmat suit with medical training and an underground facility of some kind could be helpful to us but she was having none of it.  

The doctor and her leech-men drove away on their contraption, leaving us with Stabby and the Horseman.  Stabby had been willing to chat before, but Martialla’s attitude towards his doctor-lord must have offended him because he clammed up after that, watching us suspiciously and ignoring my witty remarks.  While Martialla stood there sullenly and returned their suspicious glares with some of her own I occupied myself examining the horse.  Since everything this horrible now I expected to find something strange and off-putting about it, like spikes on the knees or an extra set of eyes on the rump, but it was a normal horse seemingly.  Its mane and tail were both full of tangles but other than that it was just a horse.  

I asked the Horseman if I could pet it and he laughed and said “sure” in a way that made me think that it would bite and or/kick me.  So I didn’t.  But I wanted to.  I wanted to feed it an apple and comb those tangles out of its hair.  Although if I had an apple I would eat it myself.  Or better yet make some hard cider out of it.  I think you need more than one apple for hard cider though.  And brown sugar?  And probably like a jug or something.  I’m not really sure how you make hard cider.  And what makes it hard cider instead of just cider?

Maybe twenty minutes later another pair of brutes came our way, one on a little scooter and one on horseback to match their buddies, and riding on the back of the tiny scooter (instead of the giant horse) was one of the bee people.  This one was bigger that the field workers, maybe as much as four feet tall, and she was wearing a blindingly white speedsuit type thing only without a helmet.  That suit was by a wide margin the cleanest looking thing I have seen to date here in the future/present.  

She was carrying a machine (?) that looked like a cross between a tackle box and a charging station for a bunch of D batteries with a riotous explosion of tubes and wires coming out of it.  It kind of looked like what a nurse might have to do a work in a bloodmobile in our time but it also looked like something that a prop master would knock together on a Sci-Fi channel original movie.  Martialla shook her head at the sight. 

“I don’t like this.  How do we even know they have the filters?”

At this the new horseman, who I shall call imaginatively Horseman #2, held up two big canvas bags tied together and kind of shook them around so we could see that they were filled black canisters that kind of looked like those little propane tanks that caterers have for their chafing dishes.  Why are they called that?  Whenever I heard chafing dish it makes me think of a dish that they rake across your nipples as a form of torture.  It’s probably French or some bullshit.  

Martialla looked over at me “Is that enough?”

I shrugged “How the fuck should I know?  We’re didn’t go into this mission with a lot of details on what we needed.  Truth be told I was expecting a bunch of little white coffee filter things.  If this isn’t enough we’ll just have to come back.”

Martialla eyed the four men eyeing us back “I don’t think we’re going to be welcome back here a second time.”

“Oh pish, I have the feeling this is the start of a wonderful friendship.  Soon enough the three of us will be having slumber parties and braiding each other’s hair.  I love Indian food you know, maybe she has some good recipes she can make.”

Martialla scratched at her scalp “That reminds me, we should both shave our heads if we find a sharp enough knife, these lice are driving me crazy.”  

“Fleas Martialla, we have fleas not lice, get it right.  You can Uncle Fester yourself if you want but I’ll die before I cut my hair.”

“I mean probably, yeah.”

I turned to the little bug-woman who had been standing there uncertainly “So are you like the lab assistant then?”

She started like no one had ever spoken to her before, and surprised me almost as much by answering in a tiny piping voice “Y-yes . . . we help Doctor Baidyabhusan.”

“Oh shit, you can talk?!  Sorry, I didn’t mean . . .” I gestured at the even smaller bee-people tending to the fields “I just mean that I tried to talk to them and it seemed like they weren’t capable of answering me.”

She licked her lips nervously, which was such a commonplace thing that it became super freaky happening under two giant fly-eyes “I’m not like them.  I need . . . to get the samples.”

I knelt down and held my arm out to her “Sure thing.  So a few days ago I was at a swap meet and there was a guy there who looked somewhat like you only he was bigger.  A friend told me that he was a ‘splice’ is that what you are?  Like gene splicing?”

She produced a thing that looked mostly like a butterfly needle set-up but there didn’t seem to be an actual needle, just a tiny black nozzle type thing at the end “You’d have to ask Doctor Baidyabhusan about that, I don’t know about anything we’re helpers . . .  with the research.”

“Did she make you?”

She stopped her work for a moment “Of course, where else would I have come from?”

Martialla snorted “Impossible.”

At this the four warrior types grumbled and started mad dogging us even more if that’s possible and even the little bee girl’s voice took on the tiniest bit of flint.

“Doctor Baidyabhusan is intelligent.  She’s working on a cure and we help her.”

Martilla all but rolled her eyes “A cure for what?”

The tiny woman’s voice took on a hint of awe “For everything, for all of it, for the world.”

Before I could say anything we heard a bell clanging loudly in the distance and the two horsemen quickly mounted back up and spurred their mounts up the path between the fields towards the northwest.  The second scooter-man grabbed the little bee girl bodily like a piece of luggage and kicked off on his comically small machine back towards the northeast as she hugged her little bloodwork kit and protected it with her body.  I turned to the original scooter-rider with his very interesting codpiece.

“What’s going on?”

“We’re under attack.  Interesting timing huh?”

Blood drive

When I didn’t answer right away the Indian woman gestured towards her minions “If they don’t answer in three seconds kill them.”

Is it racist that I’m always surprised when an Indian person speaks with a British accent?  Martialla drew her pistol and I held my hands up, appealing for calm.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, everybody chill.  There’s no need for any killing here, we’re all friends here.  We were cryogenically frozen in two thousand and two if that’s what you’re asking.”

There was enough room ithat the headpiece/helmet thing on her suit didn’t move much but I saw her head swinging back and forth inside “Impossible.  You’re lying.”

“No, honest inj . . . uh, I mean, for real we’re from two thousand and two.  Uh, George Bush is president.  Uh . . . Friends is still on but it sucks now.  Uh, some stupid movie about a girl on a swim team is number one at the box office right now.  Oh, wait, wait, check this out, I never thought I’d show this to anyone again.”  I dug out my driver’s license and held it up at her.  “See, issue date nineteen ninety-eight?  Uh, what else?  Y2K was bullshit, nothing happened.  Uh, who won the Superbowl?  Some skinny dude, I don’t really follow sports.  Help me out here Mar.”

“Queen Elizabeth celebrated her Golden Jubilee.”

I scowled at her “What are you talking about the Queen for?  Indian people don’t want to hear about the Queen!”

“India is part of the Commonwealth, I figured she’d know about it at least regardless of how she feels about the Queen.”

“Commonwealth?  What the hell are you talking about?” I turned back to the doctor “Ignore her, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  I assure you . . .”

She gestured with the sound of her crinkling plastic arm covering “Would you be willing to give me blood samples?”

“Sure. . . yeah, why not?  Actually were here to trade anyway so . . .”

“Where is your facility?  How many more of your people are awake there?  Do you have satellite access?”

“We can talk about all that, what we need is some water filters, downriver . . .”

I started as Martialla suddenly had her pistol in both hands in a shooting stance, shouting as she pointing it at one of the flukeman “Stay the fuck back!”  She barged back into me, kind of shouldering me back while gesturing with the gun at them “Stay in fucking front of me where I can see you.”

I held my hands up again, I almost stepped into Martiall’s line of fire but realized at the last moment that was a terrible idea and stopped “Hold on, hold on, hold on, everyone’s cool right?  We’re all getting along here.”

Martialla turned her weapon in the direction of the Indian woman and her five guards all instantly clumped together in front of her, protecting her with their bodies like the Secret Service “Lady tell your fucking mutant fucks to stay away from us.”

Her voice was significantly cooler than before “There’s no need for alarm, they’re just curious about you.”

I looked back at Martialla “Would you lower that please?” She kept both hands on her pistol but dropped it to her waist and I turned back to the doctor “No offense meant, you know how it is out there, dangerous world and so forth.  Sounds like we’re all on board with making a trade here right?  And maybe this will be the first step to a more cordial relationship between you and the folks downriver.  They certainly could use the help of a doctor down there and it looks like you have . . .”

Her voice had turned absolutely frosty “I have no interest in those violent degenerates.”

I forced a laugh “I hear you there, they’re gross, between you me and the lampost I don’t really want to deal with them either, but when in Rome you know?  I was just thinking that if we all worked together then maybe . . .”

“They have nothing of value to me.  I’ll give you all the water filters you want for blood samples from you two.  I don’t want to hear from anyone else or see anyone else on my land.”

“Fair enough, fair enough, maybe over time we can help . . .”

She gestured curtly “Come to my lab.”

Before I could answer Martialla barked out “No.  We’re not going anywhere.  You want to draw some blood you can fucking do it out here.” She gestured at Stabby and Horseman “You want to bring Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum here back with you that’s fine but leave the rest of these freak show assholes in whatever slime infested kiddie pool you keep them in.”

I held my hands up yet again “Now hold on here, there’s no reason to be hasty, I think . . .”

Martialla’s face was like stone “I am not going anywhere near whatever Island of Dr. Moreau Mengele bullshit she has going on in there.”

The big sleep

When I woke up Martialla was already up scanning the area with the binoculars.  I’m not sure I’ve seen her sleep more than an hour or two since we “arrived” here in the future-present.  But she must be sleeping right?  Without the use of powerful stimulants no one can go without sleep can they?  I’ve heard people say that Leonardo Da Vinci and Tesla and other so-called geniuses certain kinds of people like to swoon over only slept two hours a day but that’s bullshit right?  Physiologically that can’t be possible can it?  If the human body only needs a nap every two hours what the hell are we doing sleeping all the time?  

Remember those old cereal commercials where they would say their bowl of sugar was “part of a complete breakfast” and they’d show the bowl of cereal along with a “complete breakfast” of more food than anyone would ever eat in one sitting?  There’d be a soft-boiled egg, and a huge tray of blueberries, and some scones with marmalade, and a grapefruit, and some orange juice, and some tea, and berries with cream, and an apple, and a pear, and a banana, and a short stack of pancakes, and some toast, and a cup of coffee, and a glass of milk, and some hash browns, and some eggs over easy, and some strips of bacon, and some sausage, and another stack of pancakes, and some toast with egg, and a crock of honey, and a loaf of bread, and some rolls, and a vat of butter, and some scrambled eggs, and some link sausage, and orange slices, and a jar of some kind of grain, and some cream?  

I would eat all that right now and feel just fine.  Instead my complete breakfast is a roasted beetle the size of a fist that looks like it’s going to come alive and attack my face, wrapped in a dirty piece of a tarp and a bottle of tepid cloudy water.  I don’t even want to know what’s going on in my bowel right now.  It’s like world war three in there.  Nausea, weakness, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, dizziness, that’s my complete breakfast now.  You know what the weirdest thing is?  I have an insane craving for salt.   I want to take a shaker of salt and just pour it into my mouth.  

I yawned and almost threw up from the bile that came up “Did Magic Slim do Raw Magic or was that Magic Sam?  I can’t remember.”

Martialla continued looking at whatever she was looking like, being very rude “The porn?”

I rolled my eyes “Har-har, you really turned it around on me there.”

“I have no idea, I’m ever so slightly less into Chicago Blues than you are you Ela.” She pointed “You see that?  I think that’s where the complex is where the doctor hides.   See those piles of humped dirt I’d bet you dollars to doughnuts those are collapsed underground passages.”

I yawned again, this time without almost puking “I’ll give you all the dollars for one doughnut.  One of those jelly filled ones.”  She came over to hand me the binoculars and I waved her away “I believe you.  Why would anyone build an underground facility here?  Was there an army base here?”

She pointed again “I don’t know, but you see the way the ground ripples outward there?  I bet you that’s a fucking missile strike.  Someone tried to blow this place up.”

“Wonderful.  Well since the fields are being tended by tiny bee children instead of army men maybe they succeeded.”

She pursed her lips “I’m wondering if she should try and sneak in there.  I see a couple spots, what do they call them, defiles, where it looks like maybe we can go straight through into the tunnels.  Assuming there’s still any tunnels down there.”

“That sounds like a terrible idea.  Why don’t we see what Captain Stabby Arm has to say before we go on a suicide tunnel crawl?”

Martialla frowned “He’s probably gathering a kill squad to come eliminate us right now.”

On cue we saw a cloud of dust kicking up on one of the trails between fields.  We didn’t see where it started so maybe it did come out from under the ground.  It was a good ten minutes of slow zig-zagging around fields before they came into view.  Captain Stabby was there on his child-sized minibike and joining him on honor guard was another similar sized fellow with a mask on riding a horse.  That brought up a little catch in my throat.  I gave it up when I moved out West but back home I used to ride horses all the time.  I love horses.  It’s a childhood thing I never outgrew.  I dated a guy for a year for no other reason than he had horses on his ranch.  Seeing something that I Iove, something familiar, it hit me harder than I thought it would.  

Trailing them a little ways was a ramshackle (I say ramshackle 1,000,000% more now than I did in the old world) contraption that looked like two motorcycles lashed together to make the world’s shittiest car – and there are a lot of shitty cars in the running for that title these days.  Driving that pile of spare parts was a guy that looked way too much like the leechman from the X-Files, pale beyond the pale, hairless, and with a massive round monster-mouth.  In the “back” were two more leechmen and a figure in one of those suits like the doctors wore in Outbreak. 

They came to a stop a few yards away, Stabby and the Horseman keeping an eye on us while the leech trio helped the hazmat figure down off the ugly motor-cycle car.  Hazmat stumbled a little as they touched the ground, like a sailor coming back into land after a long time out.  I saw through the faceplate/mask thing that it was an Indian woman.  Like a normal Indian woman from our time I mean.  I was so amazed that I couldn’t say anything, I just stood there mouth agape like a dork at a strip club for the first time.  Her voice was kind of hard to hear through all the apparatus around her head.

“What year did you two go under?”

I’m just gone, just gone

We went down into the fields and tried to talk to the bug farmers but they wouldn’t make a sound, not even to each other.  They just stared at us.  I think they were looking at us anyway, it’s hard to say with bug-eyes if they were looking at us or not.  Up close they were even smaller than we thought, like just three feet high.  And they were very slight as well.  They kind of looked like kids only, you know, bugs.  Bug kids.  

We were resorting to bad mime (from Martialla I’m great at miming, I took a movement class) and pointing when we noticed a trail of dust coming down one of paths between fields.  A fella rolled up on us atop a comically small scooter type machine.  It looked a lot like an old “motorcycle” I saw in a museum that was really just a bicycle with a tiny motor the size of a can of peaches on it.  At the museum display there was a big blown up photo behind it of a lady in a huge old timey fluffy dress sitting on the thing sideways.  

The guy sitting on it was less humorous all around.  He was our height, which makes him a giant among men around here, and he was a big monger.  He was decked out in standard Mad Max S&M marauder gear with a little bit of flair for individualization – a couple tongues nailed to his giant codpiece (it was so big it was almost a trout piece, ba-dum-dum).  He was missing his right hand but that’s okay because he had a giant Jai-Alai killer hook strapped to that arm to make up for it.  This whole look was “post-apocalyptic murderer” so I admit that I was a little thrown off when he spoke in the clearest and most intelligible English we’ve encountered so far.

“Can I help you ladies?”

He said like we were marks in a pick-up bar.  He had pulled up next to us and kind of crouched/squatted on his little scooter in a casual way.  Which is tough to pull off, but he did it.  He had goggles on and when he lifted them to his forehead I saw that his eyes were a little wonky too.  Not like bug eyes, but something was funky about them.  Like his pupils weren’t the right shape or were too big or something.

“Uh, we’re from Bosstown and Smashweed, we came up here looking for some water filters.”

He nodded like this was perfectly normal “And they sent you on this mission?  Have they run out of warriors?”

“I think they’re keeping them in reserve so they can kill each other later.”

He paused a second like he was remembering how and then coughed something like a laugh “That does sound like that pack of savages.  Doc says that back in the sixties some of them came up here and caused all kinds of trouble, stole a lot of her things, not just filters for the river.  I don’t think she’s going to be happy to find you coming back again on their behalf.  As you can see she’s got things a little more organized up here now – just to avoid trouble like that happening again.”

“The sixties like a year?” He nodded “What year is it now?”

“Twenty ninety-seven or thereabouts.  I haven’t checked in a while but I think that’s right.  When you’re the only ones keeping track of the calendar it doesn’t really matter.  It’s important to the Doc though, probably for her research and such.  She’s fanatical about dates and times.”

I exchanged a look with Martialla “Do you have any filters?  The river is polluted and it’s causing problems downriver.”

He blinked and I realized what was wrong with his eyes, they open the other way “Not the kind of thing that I would confirm for hostiles is it?  I tell you what we have up her and next thing I know your raiders are attacking us.”

I smiled “Hostiles?  Come on, do we seem hostile?”

His mouth moved in what may have been a return smile of some kind “No, you don’t, matter of fact, but I’m not some ignorant paddy peasant, those firearms on your hips speaks volumes.  You may not be dressed like warriors but that’s a great way to catch someone with their pants down.”

I dropped him a sassy wink “I do like catching people pants down.”  His reaction, or lack thereof I guess, was to stoneface me. “Uh, anyway, I assure you that we’re not here to cause any trouble, the villagers don’t even know you’re up here, they don’t even know what happened.  Maybe we can work out a trade.  Assuming that you even have the filters of course, which you are not saying that you do and I wouldn’t dream of asking.”

He kicked started his little machine, which barely made a noise as the engine fired “There’s nothing down there that the Doc would want to trade for, but I’ll let her know, go on back out of the fields and wait, I’ll let you know what she says about it.”

“How long might that take?”

He didn’t bother to answer, putting down his goggles and skidding slowly in a little circle and heading back the way from which he came in a cloud of dust and grit.

I can’t be the same thing to you now

Martialla is excited because she found a functioning solar battery (among other things) in the traders’ junkpile but since we have nothing to plug into it and I doubt we’re going to come across a hair dryer or a CD player, I don’t see what the big deal is.  Her priorities are out of whack. 

We’ve come to an area where the ground has big furrows in it like there’s a colony of giant moles digging around under the earth.  Martialla says that this is from the earthquake activity but that makes no sense.  Earthquakes make cracks in the ground, not lines?  Although now that I think about it, if two plates are pulling apart that means one of them has to be smooshing into a third one on the other side?  I should have paid more attention in geology class.  Also I should have taken a geology class.  

At one point I saw some eyes peering out from about ten feet deep in a crevasse.  All I could see was two tiny shining white pinpricks of reflected light but I got the sense they belonged to something much bigger than the eyes would suggest.  I had the perverse desire to stop and get a closer look.  Like a little fish blundering into one of those other fish with the light thing on their head.  Good thing Martialla was driving.  My wrist has been bothering lately and she’s better at handling this piece of crap buggy anyway.  

When we did come to a stop it was because she said that she saw a landmine sticking out of one of the furrows.  She was worried about possibly driving into a minefield based on the theory “why would there be just one landmine?”  I’m not totally convinced that she knew what she was talking about because I thought landmines looked kind of like Frisbees and this thing looked more like a thermos to me.  She spent a lot of time looking around with the binoculars and saying what we needed was some ground penetrating radar.  Yeah, I’ll see what I can do about that.  

I gestured at the sluggishly flowing greyish waters “You can’t put landmines in a river, can you?  Maybe we should travel in the water for a while.  It doesn’t look very deep.”

Martialla glanced at the gravy-esque ribbon besides us “You mean the river that’s full of poison?”

“I wasn’t suggesting that we drink the water while we do it.  I’m just trying to offer alternatives.  You’re the one who’s worried about a minefield in northern California.  I say we just drive on.”

“Ela, I feel like I’ve told you a million times that anything could have happened while we were asleep.  There’s some very real evidence that there was a Russian army invasion at some point, in which case it would make total sense for someone to be laying down mines.”

I scoffed “Why would Russia invade California?”

Martialla gestured helplessly “I have no god damn idea!  That’s my point Ela, we don’t know.  Think about all the shit that happened in the last hundred years before we were frozen.  World War One, World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, half the countries that existed in nineteen oh two aren’t around anymore.  Think of all the stuff that was invented!  Cars, planes, radios, lasers, battery powered sexual devices, computers.  People traveled to the moon Ela, the moon!  A hundred years is a long time!”

“Huh, I suppose you’re right.  My grandma was born in nineteen thirty, she must have seen a lot of stuff go down.”

For lack of a better idea, we tried the river.  It was too deep for the buggy to drive in but the thing is so flimsy and it partially floats so we struggled upriver pushing/dragging/carrying the thing through the water for maybe two miles.  (Martialla’s note – it was barely half a mile at best) It was a serious pain in the ass.  Eventually we gave up and dragged the thing out of the water on the east side and hoped there were no mines over there.  How big could a minefield be anyway?  I feel like even burying one square mile of mines would take forever and majorly suck.  I bet the people whose job it is to make minefields just toss down a couple, call it a day and go back to base to jerk each other off.  

A few hours later (we didn’t get blown up by mines obviously) the ground flattened out and we saw fields.  Actual cultivated fields with channels from the river for irrigation.  Aside from the scale, which was small, it looked like something approaching modern agriculture.  Although it looked like it belonged in the Midwest, not California.  I have no idea what they were growing, corn and soybeans are about the extent of my ability to visually identify, but it looked like grain of some kind.  Wheat maybe?  Sorghum?  Sorghum is a thing right?  

We watched for quite a while because there had to be people somewhere and eventually we saw them.  It’s hard to say without getting closer but they seemed especially short even for future people.  They also had huge red bug eyes – and I mean literal bug eyes with all the little cells, not like Steve Buscemi.  Other than that, they didn’t look very buggy.  The guy at the bazaar that we saw looked more buggy than these people with chitin and such, also he was much larger.  

“Is this it then?  This doesn’t seem like the kind of place to get water filters.”

Martialla took the binoculars away from her face and gave me one of her patented “Look, you keep asking me things like I somehow have more information than you do.  It’s really getting on my nerves.  How the hell would I know if this is the place?”

It’s no different when you’re leaving home

After making sure the five men we just murdered were well and truly murdered, Martialla first collected up their weapons, stacking them carefully in a little pile.  After doing that she searched them more thoroughly, pulling a couple ceramic canteen-type things and various other odds and ends off their dead bodies.  After doing that she took a look at their strange vehicles before she turned to poking around in their wagon full of trash.  At that moment I was struck by how much it reminded me of a childhood memory.  

Each spring back home they’d have a scrub day where everyone could put out whatever you wanted for the trash collectors, expect paint cans, you can never get rid of paint cans.  Old TVs and mattresses were common choices but there was all kinds of stuff you’d see out at the curb.  Whenever the scrub day would come around so would the junk collectors who would drive around in big pickup trucks hauling big trailers looking for trash worth collecting.  My dad generally never got mad, he was a mild guy, but he used to lose his mind whenever the “pickers” were out there blocking the road while they mulled over how many broken lawn chairs they wanted to pull off the curb.   

I was still sitting where I fell.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t move, there just didn’t seem to be much point.  I dropped the gun out of my hand because guns are heavy and it was dry anyway.  Martialla will probably be disappointed in me for that.  Seven shots and I only killed one person?  Very wasteful.  I watched her for a moment, picking through the trash, and at one moment she leaned so far forward that her shirt and little FBI prop jacket rode up to her mid-back.  I always thought she was kind of gangly and stick-like but now she looks strong to me.  It would be wrong to say that she seems like she’s in her element here because this is no one’s element but she seems more confident, more in control.  I think she would have done well in prison.  

At one point she turned and said something to me but my ears were still ringing so it just sounded like “merfer-merfer-merfer” and then she climbed into the wagon to get a better look at something.  I suppose she was telling me to keep a watch in case there were more of them around.  That would be smart.  It’s the kind of thing she would have said.  By the time she climbed out of the junk wagon and crouched down by the pile of weapons to start examining them, I could hear pretty well out of one ear.

“Do you think warriors in olden times got PTSD and just no one cared back then?”

Martialla was examining a boxy rifle looking thing “Uh . . . maybe.  Probably it depends on the culture you’re talking about.  From what I’ve read Samurai sound like they were pretty emo.  They wrote poems about death and worried about what would happen to them after they died, things like that.  I read somewhere that’s why when Christian missionaries started showing up in Japan, the Samurai were the only ones who liked them.  Being enamored with a redemptive religion seems like they had some remorse.  On the other hand the Cossacks don’t seem like they give a shit about slaughtering entire races.  So . . . you know.”

“You know what Doctor Katz would say to me?”

Her head jerked up “What? Why would you bring that up?”

I frowned slightly “Why wouldn’t I?  Killing someone seems like the type of thing you’d mention to your therapist.”

She shook her head slowly “It’s just . . . I . . . Kurt loved that show is all.  I hated it but he watched it all the time anyway.  It’s weird that you’d bring it up now.”

“What are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about my therapist Doctor Katz.”

She made an ugly confused face “You mean that you actually had a therapist named Doctor Katz?  That was a show on Comedy Central.  It had that stupid animation where it was all blurry.  Sara Silverman was on it.  I think Tom Snyder created it or was a producer maybe.”

“That smarmy old fuck from the Late Late Show made a cartoon about my therapist?”

“No . . . look, forget it, you were saying?”

I threw my hands up “I don’t even fucking remember what I was saying!  The gist is this though, how are you okay with this?  Do you have some deeply rooted personality flaws that make it so you can kill someone and be unphased by it?  I’m freaking out over here.”

She looked at me for a minute “You seem fine.”

I slammed a fist into the ground “I’m not fine!  Well, actually, I am kind of fine, I’m just trying to wrap my head around this.  Self-defense is self-defense but it’s still killing someone.  Were you a hitman when you worked for the government?  Have you already made your philosophical peace with murder?  Is that why you’re so calm right now?”

“I was basically a secretary Ela, you know that.  Didn’t you bash cows in the skull with a sledgehammer or yank the heads off chickens on the farm?  I’m surprised you’re so squeamish.”

“I grew up on a farm, I didn’t work in a slaughterhouse!”

Martialla stopped fiddling with the weapons for a moment and thought for a while before answering “Okay, I can see that you’re upset here, I want to help you, but I don’t know what to say.  This is how it is now.  What did your yoga instructor always say?  You don’t get frustrated by things or angry about them, you just notice them and put them in your mind.  Maybe in three months I’ll have a total breakdown, but this is the world.  You may be struggling with it but at least you’re able to pull the trigger.  I don’t know that everyone would be.  You can handle it.  I mean if you were surfing and a shark came at you and you bashed its head in with your board would you feel sorry for it?”

“No, but that’s different, it’s an animal.”

She turned back to examining the weapons “Exactly, animals don’t know what they’re doing so they don’t really have it coming – people do.  So killing them should be easier if anything.”

Look away from the sky

We were told that where we were going the terrain would get too rough for J-Lo, so we were loaned a thing that was kind of like a dune buggy but barely bigger than a four wheeler.  I was surprised at the offer since a vehicle seems to be the most valuable commodity around here.  But I suppose we are going to save everyone and everything so it’s the least they could do really.  Martialla drove that thing, which I have named Modest Mouse, while I trailed her in J-Lo until we could find a good place to stash her. 

I’ve never been one of those people that got emotionally attached to their cars.  They’re like coffee makers to me, as long as they work I could give a shit about them.  It’s funny how living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland can change your viewpoint on inanimate objects.  I’ve come to view J-Lo as our home and leaving her behind was tough.  It seems like there’s no chance that someone won’t come along and steal it or it will just fall in a crevasse after an earthquake or something.  It felt like I was a turtle being asked to leave my shell behind.

Walking out of Cryogenics West was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  Just being “out there” I felt so exposed and vulnerable, like anything horrible could happen to us at any time.  Once we got that car the fear of death went down a full eight percent, which is pretty good under the circumstances. 

And I don’t think it’s just because it’s covered with armored plates, I think it’s more having a base of operations – or just something that’s ours.  I assume this is how old timey nomads felt about their horses or camels or wives or whatever they rode around on.  It becomes your whole life.  I never thought that I would be capable of loving a car, but here we are. 

Once we had J-Lo stashed away, we made our way upriver and the land did get pretty rough but Modest Mouse handled it like a champion.  At one point we saw some guys with spears watching us from not that far away.  We had been told that there were exiles up here that weren’t able to fit into even the loose civic standards of a mudhole like Bosstown.  I can only imagine what kind of kill-crazy lunatics they must be if they can’t hack it in what passes for “civilization” around here but they didn’t do anything.  What could they do?  They had spears. 

Late in the day we came across a couple of mud-brick huts with roofs that looked like they had actual shingles on them.  What is that about?  When did shingles become a thing?  Is the shingle an older technology than I think?  Can you make shingles out of mud?  The place looked abandoned but we did find some saddles and other leatherwork in a half-shed type thing, so maybe it was a ranch or a farm.  We also found out that one of the things we thought was a storage shed or a small building was actually an armadillo shell (skin?) that, I kid you not, was the size of a VW Van.  What the hell do you do with something like that? 

While we were debating staying the night there, we heard the sound of engines approaching.  Good job us for not being caught off guard for once!  We sprinted (well Martialla sprinted, I was a few steps behind, there’s no reason for both of us to run right?) into cover at the edge of the compound and saw a pile of trash coming our way.  It looked very much like the wagon of the peddlers we met at the cryo place, only it was being pulled along by these freaky little things that looked like the front half of a motorcycle attached to the back of an El Camino.  Martialla called them half-track motorcycles which is a dumb name.  There were three of them pulling the heap of garbage like it was a chariot in one of those old homoerotic sand and sandals movies.

The people driving/riding them looked a lot like those traders as well.  I guess it’s like a family resemblance?  We yelled out at them not to come any closer but they didn’t listen.  Or maybe they didn’t hear us, those things they were on were awful loud.  They pulled right into the place with us and seemed surprised when we brandished our pistols at them.  Overall they were a lot less skittish than their cousins we met before.  Their leader (or at least their spokesperson) had a piece of metal strapped to his forehead for some reason and wore a black pelt that looked shiny like it had oil on it or something.  He seemed more annoyed than frightened that we had them on overwatch.  That’s a term right?

“Digger hi baker!” I yelled at them hoping that it wasn’t a deadly insult. 

We put our weapons away once it seemed they had no hostile intent and they just wanted to trade.  Although they were kind of hostile about the trading itself.  Hostile like a pushy car salesman hostile.  I told them we weren’t interested and even if we were, we didn’t really have anything to trade but they wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Like a telemarketer, oily pelt insisted that I look through their mountain of refuse.  There was a crowbar and some nails, things like that, but most of it was trash.  What am I going to do with broken pieces of brick or some old empty toothpaste tubes? 

Oily kept asking me what I wanted and eventually to shut him up, I said that we were more interested in information than things.  I asked what they could tell us about what we might find upriver.  His response, reasonably, was to ask how much it was worth to me.  I told him again that we didn’t really have anything to trade and he was barking up the wrong tree.  He said that we must carry a lot of food since we’re so huge and we could trade that.  Rude. 

Before I could say anything in response, there was a crack of thunder and I have to admit that I hit the deck like a frightened mongoose.  Martialla had blown one of the other traders away.  Literally, I saw him get lifted off his feet by the force of the bullet and he was airborne for a second with his ratty clothes puffed up around him like he was a kite.  She immediately spun and started firing at someone who appeared at the side of one of the buildings holding a rifle. 

Oily Coat brought up what looked like a literal hand cannon.  It was as thick as a pipe under a bathroom sink – I think it actually was a pipe of some kind.  I can’t remember why but Martialla had told me to put my gun on my left hip even though I’m right handed.  So when I ducked down (cringed might be more truthful) and my hand went to my right side and I felt nothing, I thought my gun was gone. 

On the ground was a machete that we had found in one of the buildings.  It looked like it was made out of fiberglass or something but it was sharp as hell.  It had a big chip out of it about a third of the way down that made it look like an elongated Easter Island head.  I kind of grabbed it and swung it up at Oily Coat’s hands in the same motion as I was straightening out.  He kind of turned to point the pipe-gun at me at the last second.  I don’t know if I hacked into it and it went off, or if he fired at the same time, or if the damn thing exploded – all I know is the next moment I was flat on my back with my ears singing and his mouth was open in a scream I couldn’t hear while he clutched his bloody wrists together.  I’m glad I didn’t get a good look because just in profile, his fingers looked like shredded cabbage. 

His other friend came at me with a blade that was so bent it looked like a boomerang.  Why do people in the future not like straight blades?  Is there some reason you want a thing like that instead of a knife?  I finally remembered I had a gun on my left hip and I grabbed it.  Apparently I can only shoot when I’m sitting on my ass in the dirt.   I fired at least seven times and I didn’t hit him once, but a fifth guy (from where?) coming up behind him with a speargun looking thing got hit several times and kind of stumbled/crumbled onto his face.  It reminded me of when someone sacks a quarterback by taking out their knees – they don’t fall so much as they collapse. 

Boomerang knife ran at that point but Martialla chased him down and bashed him a couple dozen times before walking back and knocking Oily Coat down and putting her knee on his throat until he stopped moving.  She looked over at me with her knee still on the man’s windpipe. 

“Are you okay?”

At least that’s what I think she said, I still couldn’t hear anything.

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?”