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I'm not calling you a ghost

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Max lay down in the Interceptor expecting to die. He was worlds and miles away from anything living, so many miles he didn’t even recognize the mountains anymore. Weeks of nothing but salt flats had done that, weeks of Silence and low water rations. After all of that, to cross the salt, and this was his grave? It was just another Wasteland. He wondered if he ought to be angry about that, or frustrated. Mostly he was just thirsty.

By the time he heard the growling of another engine, it was too much effort to do more than raise his head. A small caravan was headed this way, tires riding rough on the ruins of a road. One car, he might have shot his way out. Two cars, he might have bluffed. But three? A truck, a Rover, and a long van that must have been carrying supplies from how heavy it rode on the rough paving. It wasn’t a War Party, and it wasn’t scavengers, and that meant that Max wouldn’t shoot them. At least until they’d shot at him first. Things had gotten bad that way, after Furiosa. He’d remembered what it felt like to save people instead of killing them. Instead of letting them be killed. It was a bad way to survive, in the Wasteland.

The first vehicle went past him, and Max felt a sharp moment of relief. No unnecessary killing. But the second engine slowed down to an idle less than a hundred feet away, and Max closed his eyes for a long moment. It was one thing to choose to lay down in your car and die alone, finally. Dust to dust. But it was another thing entirely to let someone walk up to the thing that was yours and throw you out of it.

So when someone crouched down to look in the window to the passenger side, Max curled his hand around a pistol and pointed it right at the would-be thief. “Woah man,” the thief said, holding up both hands. “Chill out.” And then they looked back over their shoulder, like it was no big deal that Max still had a gun pointed at them. “Guys! We got a live one!”

From the direction of the van, he heard a faint, “Well, fuck.”

#

They called themselves Ghosts. It was funny, in a gruesome, Wasteland kind of way. They gave him water, food. Set up their tiny caravan with the Interceptor like he was family. Max sat at their campfire and listened to the endless talk of people who broadcasted for a living. Ziggy’d been the one he’d pointed a gun at, but they didn’t seem to mind.

“I bet that was one helluva ride back in the day,” they said, while Max leaned back against the broken tires. “But seriously, a sports car? In the desert?”

He considered that for a while. Across the fire, Gremlin and Inaya argued about who was going to do dishes. Jimi sat back with his legs crossed and tapped buttons on an ancient game controller. The electronic lights looked alien to Max after so long with nothing but oil fires to light the dark. X-orcist had headphones on and a old CD player, scratching numbers in the sand with a twig. Bee and Cat were leaning over a sun-stained map, smoothing out crinkled paper and lighting up their route with a little flashlight.

“It’s mine,” Max said at last, peacably. “Not much else is.” Ziggy nodded seriously, and Max felt a single strand of paranoia unravel. At least one thing in his shattered brain made sense to someone else. He cleared his throat, then, to ask a question. How many hundreds of days had it been since he’d asked a question of another living thing?

“Your broadcasts,” he said, and then hesitated because the words wouldn’t quite fit behind his teeth. “What distance do they get?”

“It depends. I mean, we don’t really keep track of who’s listening. Why, you got somebody to call?” The thought made Ziggy sit up straighter. “Hey man, you should’a told us if you had people, we could--”
“I don’t,” Max said, more harshly than he’d meant to. Ziggy paused, unfazed, and looked at Max. They waited for him to say something, to explain, but those words had never fit in Max’s chest, were too big to force out through his mouth. He looked at the fire and said, “They’re not with me. But. They’d want to know...” that I’m alive. “About the Outlands. ‘S far away. You’ve got good tech, they might trade.” It was too far away for trade, was probably too far away for even the radio to reach. Max hadn’t survived so long by lying to himself. But to other people, lying was easier. Easier to suggest trade deals and alliances when all he wanted was to make sure the Citadel still lived. That Furiosa was alive, and the Wives with their fierce smiles and clever hands.

“You got a frequency?” Jimi said, without looking up. Max felt his whole body seize in a viscious kind of surprise, barely managed to stop his hand on the butt of the pistol. The punk looked up at that, frowning through the pale light of his game system. “Sorry.”

Nobody else in the camp even looked up, though Max had come this close to killing one of them. He felt his heart trying to hammer its way out of his chest, but forced his hands back into open air, swallowing down acid and fear. He’d just...forgotten that there were seven people inhabiting his space, none of them armed and all of them dangerous. “S alright.”

“How long you been out here alone?” Cat asked gently from her spot next to the map. She wasn’t pointing the flashlight at him, was looking at some mountain range he couldn’t see the name of. Max thought about not answering. If he tried to name any date, any range of days, it would be a lie. He couldn’t remember.

In the end, he blew out a small, panicked breath and shook his head. “Long time,” he said, and that was it. After a while, when he could breathe again, he told Jimi the short wave frequency the Citadel had been using last time he’d been there, broadcasting their signals far and wide because there was no one in the Wasteland to overhear them.

#

Impossibly, at the other end of that frequency there was an answer. Max sat in the van with Ziggy, hunched over the bucket seat like a gargoyle, spreading sand across the floor. The static cleared just enough to hear unfamiliar voices, words scattered into the void to be scavenged like the rest of the world.

“Hey guys, this is the Ghost Radio Project, checking to see if anyone’s home at the...Citadel? Yep, Citadel. Anyway, if you’re there--”

“The slag is this?” An old War Boy’s voice came on, echoing Citadel slang. “Who’s there? Milk for martyrs, if this is Canner, get your ass back on patrol and stop calling in fakes.”

Ziggy glanced sideways at Max, as if to say, What the hell? Max felt the edge of his mouth twitch towards a smile and held out a hand for the radio. “It’s them.”

“Go to town,” they said, whistling out a long note. “Uh, don’t mean to pry or anything, but are you from   Australia? Cause that dude kind of sounds like it.”

Max only snorted. In a world where kingdoms were made of how far you could drive in one day, he didn’t feel like explaining his hundred-day journey across the Silence. To the radio he said, “I’m looking for Furiosa. I’m. It’s. Max. She’ll know me.”

In front of him, Ziggy mouthed, Furiosa to themself, shook their head, and ducked out of the van.They left the door open just a little, to let air in. Max could hear them start up conversation with the others, enthusastic and a little crazy, but he didn’t really get a chance to eavesdrop. On the other end of the radio, crackling silence filled the van for a moment.

“Max, like the Max that crewed the War Rig? He’s dead mate, hasn’t been seen in a Wretched age.” But the Boy didn’t sound certain of it.

“Get Furiosa. She’ll know.”

“I can’t just put the Imperator on, I’d--” the voice cut out for a moment or two, leaving less than static in the air. Max ground his teeth and waited, and waited. Outside, one of the Ghosts laughed.

“The living legend,” Bee drawled, and added something that he couldn’t hear.

“I’ll get her,” the Boy on the radio said tensely. Max nodded twice before remembering that this talk was one way.

“Good,” he said, but the static was already back and he wasn’t sure anyone heard.

After a long silence, a voice he could not help but recognize crackled out of thin air. “This is Furiosa JoBassa,” she said, sharp even through the static. “Who are you?”
“My name is Max,” Max felt his voice soften to match her sharpness. It was out of instinct, not deference. “You always called me a Fool.”

Faintly, as if she’d turned away and forgotten the mic, he heard her say, “It’s him.” Then, more clearly, “Where are you?”

Max huffed out a silent laugh. She would understand the irony of his answer, at least. “Two hundred days across the salt,” he said. “Found some Ghosts with good radioes.”

Furiosa did laugh with him, and it made his face twitch towards a smile to hear her sounding strong. “You said yourself there’s nothing out there. What changed your mind?”

“I didn’t,” Max said mildly, and of course she knew what that meant. The two of them had never needed words to understand each other.

“So you found a radio--”

“The radio found me. Ghosts are reliable out here.”

“Why did you call, Max?” Furiosa sounded wryly tolerant; he could see as if she stood next to him the roll of her eyes, the way her weight would shift to the side with her prothestic.

Because I could. Because I’m alive and you are too. Because being with these Ghosts are the most alive I’ve been since Fury Road. Because I miss the man I was and it was you who saved him.

“You’d want to know they’re here. Over the salt. Got the tech you need.” It wasn’t a lie, and because it was Furiosa, she would hear the things he’d meant to say anyway. She sighed, a wave of static over a thousand Wasteland miles.

“We’ll keep an ear on this frequency,” she said reluctantly. Just as Max opened his mouth to say good-bye, Furiosa beat him too it. “Stay alive, Max,” she said, and meant, Stay safe.