The war rig’s horn could wake the dead.
Furiosa opens her eyes. She sees Cab and Nada sitting across from her, Max in her lap, the wasteland rolling by them. She touches Max’s singed hair. “Yabby?”
“She’s up front with the Buzzard,” Cay says.
Nada shakes her head. “We’re almost to the Citadel.”
“Yes,” Cab says. “Look.”
Furiosa turns her head. Vik has taken them out of the main pack of northern cars; she’s keeping pace with them, but far enough away that nothing short of a sniper rifle is practical. There are four good-sized war rigs in the group and close to two hundred smaller cars with Buzzards still zipping between them, occasionally shredding a car, occasionally getting blown up. A group of fifteen or twenty Citadel cars is tailing Vik’s truck, the remaining Rock Riders behind them. They have half of the Riders and cars that they left the Citadel with.
“Gas Town?” she asks.
“We’re about to find out.” Cab stands.
Furiosa nudges Max, and he moves off of her. They all squint south. The sun is close to setting. A disorderly pack of Gas Town vehicles are boiling up out of the south, one tanker and maybe twenty cars and bikes. From the southwest comes the Citadel’s defense. Kero hauls on the war rig’s horn once more.
A single rocket arches from the northern war rig – they must be saving rounds for the Citadel’s walls. It’s aimed south, at Gas Town. The tanker is the target.
Furiosa knows what’s going to happen before it does. The tanker is full of Guzzoline. The explosion takes out half a dozen cars, and the rest veer wildly out of the way, a hole torn out of their core.
“So much for helping them crush us,” Cab murmurs.
The Citadel swarm reacts immediately to Gas Town’s tragedy: they transform from a cluster into a line, spread wide across the desert. The snipers on the war rig begin to pick off targets.
“Where’s my rifle?”
“Here,” Cab says, and hands it to her. The barrel and scope are badly scraped but intact.
Her test shot takes a northerner’s head off their shoulders. She watches Max try to stand.
He does it slowly, with great caution, balancing against the bumping and swaying of the truck, but his knees don’t collapse and his hands work well enough to hold a gun. He offers Furiosa a small smile.
Vik swings the truck east towards the northern war party; the pack following her takes that as a signal and swarms up around them. A few Rock Riders salute as they ride by.
“We should be out there,” Furiosa says.
“Both of you – probably all three of you – are concussed.” Cab stands. “Don’t push your luck.” She shoves the ramp down, then strides over to her motorcycle and knocks the kickstand up as she swings aboard. That War Boy representative Furiosa has seen so many times and never learned the name of climbs onto the back seat. She hadn’t even known he was on the truck. She watches them thunder off the tailgate, chewing up the sand, sprinting east.
Max fumbles a clip into a pistol. “Now what?”
“Don’t die.” She pokes at a loose bolt in her arm.
Max hums and brushes his knuckles down her back as she clambers upright, supporting herself with her rifle.
After a quick scan of the battle, she climbs on top of the cab. She sits with her feet braced on the hood, in the dent left by Nada when the other Rock Rider dropped on top of her, and sights through her scope as the Citadel defenders crash into the invaders. Kero takes the war rig straight through the middle of the pack. When it comes out the other side, one of the northern war rigs has smoke pouring from its engines. Furiosa picks off a few survivors making a stand on top of it, then turns her head when she hears a dirt bike growl.
Nada, alone, zooms across her vision.
Max hooks his elbows over the top of the cab. “You alright?”
“I’m fine.” She fires again.
The smoking rig launches three rockets towards the Citadel. They crash into the sand far short of their mark.
Max frowns and scrambles up next to her. They watch two harpoon and plow trucks latch onto the front-running northern war rig. A rocket flips one onto its side, but the chain doesn’t break, and Buzzards and Rock Riders ping bombs off of and into the rig until they blow out the engines. The smoking one peters to a halt. “Two left,” Max murmurs.
Kero’s rig opens fire. They have harpooners mounted on the top, lancing smaller cars to their deaths. One of the two remaining northern rigs begins firing off rockets indiscriminately as its compatriot charges for the Citadel.
Vik slams on the gas, and Furiosa grabs Max to keep him from sliding. The crackling of sniper rifles becomes more prominent. Gas Town’s cars are a line of fire, some burning, some spitting bullets, most already retreating. Vik yells something that sounds like an insult in their direction.
Yabby punctures one of the charging war rig’s wheels, but it has seventeen others to bear its weight. A rocket smacks into the canyon between the buttes.
Furiosa pounds on the roof with her metal hand. “Faster!”
Vik snarls something incomprehensible back at her.
Another harpoon truck catches the rig – the last one they have. It slows down the rig just long enough for Vik to level with its rear wheels, and then gets blasted apart. The Rock Riders that stayed behind rally against the rig, dropping their bikes and clinging to the sides of its tanker.
Furiosa stands. Max stares at her when she hands him her rifle and takes the shotgun he’s holding to strap across her chest. She closes her fist. Then she jumps.
She catches the top of the tanker, loses her grip, and slips down the side until she can grab a hold on the rectangular beams supporting the tank, feet grazing the sand before she tucks them up, gripping a beam between her knees. Her thigh won’t hold for long.
Upside-down, she crawls up the length of the undercarriage. There’s no secret hold on this rig, no way through, but there are still wheels. She pulls the shotgun off her chest and fires at the two front wheels supporting the left side of the tanker and hitch. They shred, and the rig begins to list to the left.
Furiosa shuts her eyes and breathes. Then she hauls herself all the way to the left side of the rig and claws her way upwards until she can drag her body into the space between tanker and cab. She takes two steadying breaths and scales the cab.
The driver’s door swings open when Furiosa’s body blocks the light through the sunroof. White skin, tangled red hair, blue eyes, silver gun.
Furiosa drops to her stomach and grabs the driver by her hair.
She hisses and grazes Furiosa’s cheek with a bullet before she knocks the gun away with her metal hand. “You cannot kill a god; you will wish-”
It takes all the force in Furiosa’s body to throw her off the rig.
Rock Riders are still fighting northerners on top of the tanker when she looks back. But forward – the driver must have jammed the accelerator – the rock walls of the Citadel are a hundred meters away.
Furiosa jumps. Her right leg crumples when she strikes the dirt, and she hears herself scream. Then the rig hits the Citadel, and she curls into a ball.
The Buzzard stops the truck when she realizes what’s about to happen. A wheel bounces past them as the northern rig slams into the cliff and explodes. After the shock waves passes, Max slides onto the hood and points the Buzzard left, at a woman climbing to her feet.
She fires into the windshield as they approach. Max has to jump on her to keep the Buzzard from running her over. She tells Max he’s a demon, that they’ll all rot from the inside, that their souls will burn and freeze by turns as hers is raised into healing warmth. They tie her hands behind her back and the Buzzard shoves a bundle of cloth between her teeth.
The rest of the army is scattered. Their last war rig is out of rockets. They’re running it down as Max watches.
There are dead everywhere.
Max looks at the ruin where the rig struck the Citadel. He sees bent, wrecked crosses. He sees a person in the dirt at the edge of the crater, covered in sand.
“Max?” Yabby says.
Furiosa is alive. In the dirt, covered in dirt, bleeding. She is alive. She opens her eyes when he touches her face.
She smiles. Words take some time. “Fool.”
She sighs, then nods. “Leg.”
“Okay.” Max waits for her to sit up. He fits her right arm around his neck, slides under her shoulder. She plants her left foot in the sand and leans on him. Together, they stand.
After an hour of sniper fire, Rock Rider grenades, and lethal harassment by the Buzzards and remaining Citadel cars, what’s left of the northern invasion force puts the Citadel in their mirrors and flees back in the direction of the Bullet Farm. They let them go.
They put the redhead northerner in the same cell where they held their Buzzard captive. Her curses follow them almost all the way to the entrance.
As the sun sets, Furiosa sits on the hood of the flatbed with Max, safe in the shadows between the buttes. Vik is on the ground in front of the truck, warily letting the Dag splint her leg; it took ten minutes to convince her that the process was intended to help, not hurt. She’ll need crutches or a wheelchair for a while. Furiosa had been trying to explain the process, but gave it up until Polly or another suitable example appeared. Yabby vanished long ago to help chase down northerners.
Their people are returning to the Citadel now – a small fraction of what they had in the morning. Three quarters of the Citadel’s cars are wreckage; a third of their fighters are corpses, and another third may not live to see the sunrise, or have new permanent impairments. More than half of the Rock Riders who rode out with them did not come back.
A single dirt bike separates out from the stream of cars heading home. Nada stops in front of the truck. Her hair and beard are crusty with dirt and blood. She shakes with exhaustion when she moves. She seems to think about climbing on the hood with them, then settles for leaning against it.
The Dag touches her leg, still kneeling next to Vik. “It’s good to see you.”
Nada shakes her head.
The Dag rises. “There’s someone who will want to see you.” She gestures at Vik to indicate that she needs to stay sitting, then walks around the truck into one of the buttes.
Furiosa’s left arm is around Max’s shoulders. She holds out her right hand to Nada, and she takes it.
The stream has thinned to a trickle when the Dag returns with Sapling in her arms and Cheedo at her side. Furiosa watched Yabby ride a motorcycle into the lower garage, but hasn’t seen Cab.
The Dag deposits Sapling on the hood of the truck, and she immediately wraps one arm around Furiosa’s calf. She does a tally to register Furiosa, Max, and Nada, and then cranes her neck to see Vik, who raises her eyebrows and sticks out her tongue. Sapling does a quick giggle, then frowns. “Where’s Namí?”
Nada bites her bottom lip. Furiosa looks at Max.
Sapling wraps tighter around Furiosa’s leg. “They promised.”
“They didn’t have a choice,” Nada says. She folds her elbows on the hood. “They had to do something, and people like you and me don’t get a say when those things happen. So they had to go, and they didn’t get to come back.”
“But they promised.”
“I know,” Nada says as her face crumples. A drop of water clears a black track through the dust on her cheeks.
Sapling looks around. “And they don’t get to come back? Ever?”
Furiosa shakes her head.
Sapling lets go of her and crawls over to Nada. “Did you get to say goodbye?”
Nada smiles through salt water. “I did. I was lucky.”
“Okay,” Sapling says. “I wish I got to. But if you got to, that’s okay.”
Nada nods. “We have a way to say goodbye when people are already gone. Tomorrow, I’ll show you. Okay?”
Cab doesn’t get to come back, either. When they convene the council after sunset, she and her War Boy copilot are both absent. The other War Boy and one of the white Wretched representatives are gone, too – the only other people who rode out that morning. Dixie and Polly both spent the afternoon on top of the Citadel with rifles, as did Toast and the two remaining Wretched representatives. Everyone is tired.
Furiosa leans heavily on her cane on the walk up, and sits between Max and Nada on the dais. The empty chairs glare at her.
Capable is the first one to speak, after a few minutes of silence and blank staring: “What happened to Bullet Farm?”
Furiosa shrugs, then remembers that the only council members who saw it are dead. “Northerners tried to take them. Didn’t see how it ended.”
“And Gas Town…?”
Furiosa shrugs again.
“They took one punch and collapsed,” Dixie volunteers. “Give it a couple days; they’ll send a tanker begging for water, swearing fealty. Whoever’s left there, anyway.”
“Fine.” Capable looks at Nada. “What will your people do?”
“I came with three hundred and eight,” she says. “I have a hundred and twenty-three left.” Her hands, shaking, clasp each other. “We need to burn and honor our dead. Some will want to go home immediately. I would ask for a few more days of shelter for the rest of us.”
Toast sighs. “We all lost something today.” She glances around the table. “If any Rock Riders want to remain here permanently… who would protest?”
The council is silent.
At the far end of the table, Polly shakes her head. “We need all the bastard freaks we can get to keep this place standing, it seems.”
Nada half-smiles. “Your hospitality is appreciated.”
“You won’t be the only one staying for a while,” Furiosa tells her. She twists her head. “Vik?”
Wheels creak. It takes Vik three tries to maneuver her chair through the door, until the Dag helps her make the angle. She mutters in Buzzard and rolls across the floor until she’s next to Nada. She scowls at the council.
“This is Vik,” Furiosa says. “She’s a Buzzard. And she saved all of your lives today.”
Polly rolls her chair around the end of the table. She says something in Buzzard.
Vik squints at her and responds.
Polly rattles off a long sentence, pauses to think, then says a word in a questioning tone. And then she says something that sounds like a name.
Vik stabs a finger at her and rushes out a string of garbled noise.
Polly says a lot of things and then “Polly.”
Vik throws up her arms. She looks at her chair, then at Polly’s, and cackles until she snorts.
“You know each other,” The Dag says.
Polly nods. “She’s my mother’s sister.” She holds out her wide, sun-browned hand so Vik can clasp it in her gnarled, spindle-fingered ones.
“Of all the days,” Toast mutters. She rests her face in her hands. “Does anyone have anything else to talk about? Our prisoner?”
“Kill her,” mutters the remaining white Wretched.
“She’s probably been brainwashed her whole life,” says the black Wretched. “Send some of the War Boys to talk sense to her.”
“Seconded,” Dixie says.
Toast and Capable looks at each other and nod agreement. Toast sets her hands flat on the table. “That’ll be done in the morning. For now, let’s everyone eat and get some sleep. We earned it.”
Max doesn’t tell Furiosa how many times he thought she was dead. He doesn’t tell her anything. He holds her, and lets himself be held in return, and he’s still there in the morning, breathing into her shoulder, and that’s enough.
They ride back to the Bullet Farm to find their dead, and learn that the war is not over. The war rigs are gutted and empty, the Bullet Farm’s factories and mines cold, slaves dueling invaders in the steel-shredded streets.
Some of the northerners run when they see the war rig. Some take one look, then fight harder, until the Citadel’s platoon of snipers put them out of their misery. A few – all women – try to lay down their weapons and surrender. They tie their hands, hobble their ankles, and gag them, but a few still get free to slit more throats before they’re shot down.
The last northerner to die is a man: short, stocky, barrel-chested. White skin, white hair, red-spattered white clothes. A submachine gun in each hand, looted from Bullet Farm corpses. Furiosa puts a bullet through his left eye. The rest run after that.
“I wonder if he was their god-king,” she says to Max a few minutes later, kneeling over the body.
“I thought he was on that big rig. They didn’t do so well once that went down.”
Furiosa shrugs. “Guess we’ll never know.”
If the Citadel’s forces were devastated, the Bullet Farm’s were shattered, and the pieces crushed underfoot. There is one surviving Bullet Farm War Boy for every ten or twelve slaves, and no one knows what to do. Furiosa and Yabby and Kero move between the groups – War Boys, gun factory slaves, ammo factory slaves, mine slaves – telling them to pick a few of their best, to arrange a council. Telling them that this is a beginning, not just an end.
They came to collect their dead, but they wind up spending the night, trying to help the Bullet Farm sort itself out. They make pyres for the dead that blot out the stars.
Most of the Rock Riders are burned together with the unsalvageable portions of their bikes. There’s a separate pyre for the Citadel – a few friends and kin claim bodies to be brought back to the Citadel whole, so they know which plant to kneel next to when sorrow gets too heavy.
Nada brings Sapling along on her bike, wrapped in Max’s too-big jacket to protect her from the sand, keeps her far back from the Bullet Farm until the fighting is done. They ride out together into the desert to find Amí, and make their own pyre as the sun sets.
It gets dark quickly, but Nada waits for Furiosa and Max to find them before she sets the spark. She found what must be Amí’s bike somewhere on the track between the Bullet Farm and Citadel, (Furiosa assumes because that makes it feel better, more complete, than having a random bike carry them out of the world) and laid them atop it. She doesn’t try to hide their face from Sapling, lets them stare up at the sky through the roiling smoke, and sits in the dirt so close to the fire that the tears evaporate before they reach her beard.
Furiosa sits further away, next to Max, with Sapling in her lap so she can play with Furiosa’s metal arm when the smoke hurts her eyes and she gets too tired to understand the depth of the grief surrounding her.
“Can I ask for something?” Nada murmurs once the fire burns down to scorched steel and embers.
Sapling is asleep in Furiosa’s lap. “Of course,” she says.
“I want to take some of them home. To the mountains. See what’s left of our people. But… can I leave some with you? For one of those trees?”
Furiosa looks at her. “What kind?”
Nada smiles at the embers. “Those little red ones? Cherry?”
“We’ll do it as soon as we get back tomorrow. And you can go do whatever you need to.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
Max clears his throat. He leans forward, squinting at the fire. “They did save us, you know.”
“I don’t need you to tell me that. I was there. I saw. I watched them… become that lump of meat there.” Nada wraps her arms around her knees. “I know they’re not coming back. But don’t pacify me with some story about they’ll be remembered. You’ll forget them. The mountains won’t. That tree won’t.”
Max nods and withdraws.
Sapling still has his jacket, and their bikes only provide limited protection from the winds and the cold. Furiosa taps his shoulder and passes Sapling into his arms, then reaches into her motorcycle’s chest to find a pair of blankets. She hands one to Max, and limps over to Nada to wrap the second one around her.
Nada clutches at the blanket without comment, but she catches Furiosa’s eyes and nods.
Furiosa pulls off her arm and picks a spot in the dirt next to Max with Sapling curled between them. He tosses the blanket over all of them, and Furiosa reaches for his hand, tangling their fingers while she settles her head on the sand.
The fire burns to ashes with Nada sitting her vigil.
Sapling rides back with Furiosa and Max on the war rig. They sit on the very top, facing backwards, watching the Bullet Farm shrink behind them. Many of the cars following them are carrying bodies. They zig-zag between smoldering wrecks and craters in the sand, and occasionally one stops so people can climb out and tear through the remains in search of something that used to be a familiar face.
Nada rides with her people and Amí’s ashes.
They plant the cherry tree on the eastern rim of the gardens. Six Rock Riders help dig up the sapling from the nursery, and they and Nada move it, pick a spot, and plant it, quietly nudging Furiosa and the gardeners out of their way when they offer to help. Polly and Vik sit together in their chairs at the edge of the scene, cleaning guns and murmuring to each other.
Nada only spends one more night in the Citadel. The following morning, she leaves with almost a hundred Rock Riders. The rest are those too hurt to ride and their families, plus a few who have asked to remain indefinitely. Sapling sits in Capable’s arms and cries as the bikes empty from the garage. The Dag and Cheedo send them with seeds that might survive in the mountains, and a box of salves and remedies. Those who were trained by Furiosa’s snipers leave with rifles.
“You’ll always be welcome back here,” Toast tells Nada as she’s starting her engine. “Any of you.”
Nada smiles. “We’ll see.” She looks at Furiosa. “Don’t forget to tell those stories, yeah?”
Nada knocks a salute against her helmet. “Good luck, Lady Fury.” And then she’s gone.
Furiosa and Max stand next to Amí’s tree to watch the Rock Riders go. They cut straight through Buzzard territory, hopping dunes, skirting nuke scars, kicking up billows of dust that settle long after they’ve passed. Their mountains are just over the edge of the horizon.
Furiosa leans on her cane. “What will you do now?”
“There’s still a bike for you, if you want it.”
He shakes his head. “Nah, I’ll…” he trails off.
“Make your own way?” she murmurs.
Max shakes his head and points south. “Gas Town.”
There’s a tanker trundling up the road. Two of them, actually. Flying white flags.
The Rock Riders have become a smear in the distance.
Furiosa turns to head inside.
Max reaches for her and stops just short of her shoulder. She looks back at him. “I’m not…” He makes circling motions with his hands. “Not good.”
Furiosa glances at the tree next to him, at the dust-blotted Rock Riders, at the Gas Town tankers.
Max is faltering with his words. He gathers them up, cradles them carefully. “It’s good here. Feels good. Don’t know if that’s… right. For me. To be here.”
Furiosa clears her throat. “If you leave, you can always come back.” She faces him and waits until he meets her eyes. “But if you leave, it has to be because you want to, not because you feel like you have to.”
Max half-smiles. He stares out over the edge of the butte for a long second, caught in the tangle of his own brain, then turns back to her. “Want help with those tankers?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I’d like that.”
Max walks up to her. When she holds out her flesh-and-bone hand, he claps it, palm warm against her skin.
They take their next steps together, into the dark.