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|Weapons of Mass Destruction have reduced the world as we know it to a barren wasteland. America's largest cities stand empty, except for the long-rotted corpses of the citizens that died there, infected by genetically altered plague strains. Other cities were ground zero for nuclear warheads. Domesticated animal populations were also wiped out; others became wild or feral. Always, there are survivors. Nearly a generation and a half after the Apocalypse, life in the US has degerated to a new weird and wild western world.|
Influenced by the many post-apocalyptic, speculative fiction, and alternative history stories I've picked up and read over the years. From Audolus Huxley and Stephen Vincent Benet to William Gibson and Stephen King. Also some Bret Harte, Louis L'Amor, and the Deadlands collectible card game. And of course the ever-popular Fallout series. This intro probably doesn't make sense to anyone other than myself.
I am basing my NaNoWriMo novel on this story.
Word Count: 3293
Juana scratched Samson behind his soft mousy-furred ears. The pig snorted its pleasure and chowed down on the watergourd rinds, juices dripping from his gleaming tusks. The rest of the team snuffled around the trough, getting in meal after a long haul. Sooie, a red sow, snatched a guinea hen carcass away from Prophet. The smaller, wiser pig gave a whining squeal and moved on to another tasty bit of slop. Juana pushed her delicate sunglasses up her nose and wiped away sweat as she eyed the red sow. Sooie had been acting rather odd lately. Perhaps she was pregnant. Before Juana even had the chance to wonder how that would effect their courier service, her thoughts were interrupted.
“Yoo hoo!” Helen, the cyclist who rode drag for Arroyo Express, waved a gauzy scarf from a safe distance. She was afraid of the pigs, Juana thought.
“Have you seen my little black bag?” Helen was always misplacing things.
“It was on the green lockbox earlier,” Juana recalled.
“Oh, thank you, sweetie!” The blonde gushed and blew her a kiss from vermilion-stained lips.
As she watched the woman bounce away, Juana shook her head and smiled. Helen was far prissier than either of the real women in the company, and was the only one who wore face paints, though she wore them to excess. It was well known within the company that underneath all of the makeup, wig, and glam was a rather pretty young man. Nevertheless, Juana never thought of Helen as anything other than a woman. A rather high-maintenance woman.
Snowball, a pig streaked with sweat and road grime, snuffled at Juana’s feet. As Samson edged away in search of more slop, the young woman’s hand went to Snowball’s ears. The pig’s long, hairless, curled tail wiggled in a blur of pleasure. Of all her charges, Juana liked Snowball the most. In his pale fur and skin and his wet light-pink eyes, Juana found a creature like herself, though her eyes were a pale blue. Juana had specially prepared creams and salves for both her and the pig’s sensitive albino skin. The day had been cloudy and the road well shaded, though hot. Beneath the filth, the pig’s flesh looked undamaged by the lowering sun. A white outline of his harness showed through the grime. Juana gave him a final pat, picked up her saddlebags, and left the stables to find a bathhouse in this small outpost town, deep within the blasted lands. The sun was a good two fists above the horizon. She had plenty of time to get in a good scrub and get a beer before she had to check on the pigs again.
Center City only had one bathhouse that was also the whorehouse. Apparently women were as prized a commodity as water this far into the desert.
“We got boys.” Uptown Jim gave Juana a grin that was short a few teeth. “Unless you like the ladies, of course. Only six more coin and you get somebody to scrub the places you can’t reach.”
“No, thank you. I just want a bath. Hot water.” Juana took off her wide brimmed hat and scratched her head. She was tired of the grit and sweat. This fat, lizard of a man was beginning to annoy her.
“You know, if you ain’t got the jink for a good bounce, I can always use another girl here.” Uptown Jim’s gap-toothed smile widened, and the man gave a hissing laugh. “Pay’s good and get you a bounce that way too.”
Juana slid her sunglasses off, folded them, tucked them into her breast pocket, and buttoned it. She gave the bathhouse pimp a red glare from the palest of blue, her voice hard. “I got the jink. I want a tub of hot water. Don’t want to bounce.” She dropped a few smallcoins on the counter.
After a silent moment, he broke away from her stare and called through a beaded curtain. “Nell! Get this lady some towels and put her in room three.” He snatched the coins up and dropped them into his lockbox.
A shriveled old woman scurried into the room, gray towels in her arms. She was agile for as old as she looked, Juana thought. Underneath the wrinkled leathery skin, the woman’s bones stood out. What little hair left on her head was white and wispy. Beady black eyes gave Juana a once-over before the old woman led her down a narrow hall. She heard giggling and grunting as she passed a closed door.
“We got running water, old style. You got to pump it, but it come out hot from the red one and a little cooler from the blue.” The old woman showed her through a door and set the towels on a bench.
The hag had fewer teeth than the lizard. The woman stood at the door a moment, and Juana was briefly puzzled. Then she remembered and gave her a couple of smallcoins. The hag curtseyed and turned to go. “The Glowing One bless your heart. You got one fist; this ain’t no hostelry.”
“Thank you,” Juana muttered as she locked the door behind the old woman. “And jam the Glowing One in your hole.”
Normally Juana would wedge a chair beneath the handle, but the small room was without a chair. There was only the wide bench, a large aluminum tub, a wooden stool beside it, and the pipeworks of the hot and cold faucets. The walls were neither thick nor solid. Juana could hear the thump of what was probably another of the wide benches against the wall from the next room. She wondered why the Uptown Lizard had been greedy. He seemed to be getting fine custom today, from what Juana could hear.
Juana set her saddlebags beside the towels. Sitting on the stool she unlaced her boots. Carrying weapons openly in Center City was against the law. All firearms and any knives longer than a man’s hand had to be left outside of city limits. No weapons were allowed in open view. She kept her single shot pistol in her left boot. Her rifle and six-shooter were stowed in a lockbox on the stagecoach. She worried for a moment that perhaps they should have set a watch on the pigs and the coach. They had only been to Center City once before and had no troubles on that brief stop over. They had set up a temporary camp in the ruins. Hopefully there would be a hotel room for all four of the employees of Arroyo Express’s Coach 136.
Juana shook her head and stood up. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly through her nose. Closing her eyes, Juana felt herself begin to relax and unlaced her pants. They dropped to the floor and she stepped out of them. Still taking deep breaths, she scooped them up and dusted them before folding them. She’d give them a wash, too, before her fist of time was up. She wondered, absently, if Uptown Lizard even had a clock in the place.
Her hempen shirt followed the matching pants, dusty and sweat-stained but soft and comfortable from long wear. She wore no smallclothes because she had nothing to hold down, unlike her trail mate Moretta. The other woman of Coach 136 kept her breasts wrapped in long cotton fabric so that they did not bounce as the stagecoach bounced across the uneven roads. Helen had a carpetbag full of all sorts of strange undergarments neither Lissa nor Juana could find any practical use for. Helen insisted that they were vintage, and worth a lot to other performers of her ilk. Neither Juana nor Moretta had any idea what she was talking about. But they tolerated Helen’s mild insanities since she was technically a business partner.
Sliding the deer bone catch open, Juana opened her one of her saddlebags and pulled out a bar of soap and another set of hempen clothes, equally pale and worn. Juana wore long sleeves year round, to protect her skin from the sun. She traded for the woven clothes in the borderlands to the south, with the Terrapin Station Clan. They had offered to dye them any number of colors she could want, but she wanted them plain and of a light color to better reflect the sun’s rays. She had also found her sunglasses at the Terrapin markets. The oldsters there recalled the ways of working glass, as well as those of growing hemp and other green life.
Naked, Juana moved to the red pump and took the handle. Her effort brought up a gurgle of brown water. There was the heavy stink of iron and sulfur as she continued to pump. Once the water began to run clear, Juana stopped up the drain in the tub and got a feel of how hot the water was. It was hot, but not scalding so she filled the tub without ever using the blue pump. The walls and she sweated as the temperature in the room rose.
Making sure her boots were within reach, Juana eased into the hot water. She ducked beneath the surface, wetting her colorless hair. Underwater she scrubbed at her head, trying to clean away the dirt and oil. When she needed air again she sat up in the tub and got to work with the bar of soap.
Once her pale skin was scrubbed and pink, Juana leaned back in the warm water and relaxed. She began to breathe deeply as before and closed her eyes. As she floated, her body relaxed, and her thoughts traveled upwards. She no longer heard the occupants of the other rooms. Juana could feel the power growing between her eyes, high on her forehead. A breath later she felt herself connect.
[Greetings, All-Fathers.] Juana felt the familiar presence of the gods. [It has been long and long since we have communed.]
[Greetings to you, Pale Rider. Your mind has been closed to us. We welcome you back.] Ishi, the blue skinned, touched her mind, and Juana had the sense of new surroundings. They were seated around a campfire, on an open plain. The night sky was so heavy and vast that it pressed down on them and made Juana feel tiny. Ishi sat to her left, a gentle smile on his face.
[Have you found the Link-Beam?] Old John demanded from her right, bright green eyes shining above a bushy moustache and beard.
Juana frowned. [No, All-Fathers. I am still seeking. I am in Center City. Getting permission to see the vault here may be more difficult that I first thought. The folk here are a greedy, tightlipped lot.]
[Worry not.] Ishi reassured her. [A way will reveal itself to you.]
[Hope it reveals itself fast, Bluebelly.] Old John turned his burning eyes to Ishi. [Pale Rider, you must find the Link-Beam with all haste.]
[Tell me,] spoke the fourth figure at the fire, whom Juana knew as Long Tooth, [what are these Central City people like? Do they hoard their vault knowledge? Are they as lawless as other communities of the blasted lands?]
[There are law dogs here. They keep the peace and have a no weapons ordinance. No booze on Sunnyday. There is very little here, in truth. I would not know a vault lies somewhere beneath this city had you not told me. They do not mention it.] Juana reflected on her earlier time in the cantina. She had asked the tapman if he had ever heard of any vaults in the area, hinting that she was in for a little historical research. He had looked at her for a moment, and then spit a mouthful of tobacco chewed from a cigar on the floor before answering. “Heard there was one somewhere west o’ here.”
[It is there, Pale Rider, though we cannot tell you how to access it. We can only hope that you find the way inside. We must get a look at the database to see if it holds coordinates for the Link-Beam.] Ishi’s hand patted her pale arm.
Long Tooth rose from the opposite side of the campfire. [May your travels be safe, Pale Rider.]
[Aye,] Old John muttered. [And quick. We must find the Link-Beam!]
[Farewell, All-Fathers.] Juana felt the power between her eyes dim.
When she opened her eyes, she realized that the water had cooled. Her muscles felt loose and relaxed as she climbed from the tub. She wrapped a towel around her hair and another around her body. She took the soap bar in hand and began to scrub her dirty clothes, wondering how she could find a way into the vault that was somewhere below Center City.
* * *
Moretta was leaning against the bar, a nearly empty whiskey glass in front of her, when Juana found her way back into the cantina. The cigar-chewing tapman was gone, and a stocky charro with an oft-broken nose was cleaning up circles of condensation. His dark eyes watched every corner and person in the barroom. They lingered on Juana for only a moment, meeting hers, and hesitating before moving on. Moretta didn’t straighten as Juana settled onto the empty barstool next to her. It was the only vacant seat at the bar.
The room stank of stale wildweed, but Juana could smell the whiskey that made Moretta rest most of her weight against the bar.
“You get rooms somewhere, or do I need to go pitch my tent before it gets dark, woman?” Juana looked from Moretta to the charro as he stopped in front of her. She ordered, “Cerveza.”
The tapman never looked at her as he filled a clay mug from a tapped keg. Center City was in a river valley; grains grew in abundance in their hard-worked fields. The two powerful guilds in Center City were the Brewers and the Millers. It was one of the better places in the Wastes to get a beer, Juana believed.
“Three jink.” His eyes stayed on Juana’s pale ones as she slid the coins across the bar. The charro dropped a napkin and set the mug down before turning to drop the change through the slot in the lockbox.
“You can pitch your tent any time you like. I’m not paying fifty jink for an effing room, much less four of the damned things.” Moretta did not slur.
“Fifty jink? What the Eld for? All they got left is suites?” Juana was surprised at the cost. She knew places in the Wastes where a room with a pallet and a big breakfast cost only two more jink than her beer had.
A dark-skinned man leaned over from the stool to Juana’s left. Dangari men always called her “white girl”. They had some sort of legend about a White Girl, but Juana had never heard much about it. She had never been comfortable enough around one of the superstitious Dangari to ask about it. This man’s eyes were wide and bright with booze. “There’s a beer festival, starts tomorrow. Gonna go on all week, white girl. Feasting, mule races, too, if it don’t rain too much. You stick around and see. I know who’s gonna win the car races. Gonna win the big money, me. Buy everybody in here drinks.”
Moretta tossed back the last of her drink and muttered about hotels and highway robbery as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“They’s three hotels in this town, and ain’t a one of them gonna have a room cheaper than fifty jink. Eld, I work for one of them. I ought to know.” The white-haired Dangari man finished off his mug of beer and looked at it mournfully.
“And he don’t get no employee discount; I already asked.” Moretta lurched to her feet. “They don’t pay no better than Arroyo, and they ain’t hiring for any positions.”
Juana gave a startled chuckle. “The bathhouse was hiring bouncers.”
Moretta wrapped herself around Juana’s free arm and pulled at her clumsily. “Ha ha. I bet they pay better than Arroyo. C’mon, woman, walk me back. I’ll help you set up your tent. I’ll fill the air mattress.”
Juana did not even get a sip of her Center City beer. She had skipped having one earlier, with the rest of her traveling companions Helen, Moretta, and Billiam. She slid the fresh one over in front of the Dangari man. He threw a booze-riddled look at her, lifting his prodigious eyebrows in what Juana thought might actually have been surprise.
“Good luck on your mule race, mister.” Juana slid off of her stool to help her friend back to where they had stabled the pigs in the basement of one of the many ruined houses on the edges of Center City. Setting up camp in the ruins again did not sound like too bad of an idea. In the dark, Juana could imagine herself surrounded by homes with families inside them. She could think of herself back in her home. The snores of her companions became the night noises of her family at White River. She could remember the Elders, her grandparents who had helped found the small village at White River, and her Mama.
“Wait, white girl, and thank you,” the Dangari man had stumbled after her, the clay mug in one hand and the other outstretched offering her napkin. “Don’t forget this, miss.”
He handed her the napkin and headed back for his seat before it was taken. Moretta’s vacancy had already been filled. Moretta had managed to wrestle open the heavy door of the cantina, letting in a breeze that was only mildly cooler than inside the old brick building. Juana glanced at the napkin, puzzled, until she saw the tiny blue handprint under the name scrawled on the scrap of once-white fabric. She stuffed it into her pouch and pulled out a few smallcoins for the lockbox by the exit labeled “Tips”.
As she followed Moretta onto the promenade that led towards the fairgrounds and the ruins, Juana failed to notice the banners and festivalgoers’ tents that had sprung up in the open spaces since they had rolled into town that morning. She was too busy trying to figure out who Bert Pike might be. Moretta slid her arm around Juana’s waist and leaned more heavily on her.
“Hey, you don’t smell like pig. You smell good.” This time, Moretta slurred.
“That’s what a bath will do to you, woman. You should try it sometime.”
“We just always swam in the lake, back home. You’ll have to teach me how. Don’t think I can reach the middle of my back so good. And I hear soap is awful slippery.”
“The lizard guarding the lockbox at the bathouse would probably charge us extra for that.”
Once Juana got Moretta settled down beside the coach pumping up the air matress, she put up the tent. There was already a fire ring in the basement ruins the first time they had stayed in Center City. The sky was open above them, but crumbling walls surrounded them, and the pigs were safely corralled, though Juana knew they were too smart to wander too far away. By the time Juana had kindled a cookfire, Moretta proclaimed that the mattress was aired up and stumbled over to the fire.
“You gonna make some coffee, woman?”
“Yeah, but I ain’t making no damned beans. Billiam about killed me last night. Besides, it’s too late to soak them. I should have thought about it earlier.”
“Coffee beans, woman. Crunched up and boiled.”
“You got it. Got to give me a little time. Where’d Billy go anyway?”
“Said he’d be here at sundown if he didn’t meet us in the cantina.”
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