She missed the sun. It was still there, of course. It would outlast her, she imagined
Hagne-Allon had caught up with the mass of former miners just before they could begin to dissipate into aimless hordes. She hadn't given much of a speech… but then, she hadn't had to; the promise of asylum was its own message, when they had no other options. Now, she roamed ahead of them, waiting for them to move past, before picking up and moving ahead again. She had given them general directions, but doubted their ability to find their way amongst the thickets of woodland and rock, all tending to blur together the longer one looked.
They have no sense of proper etiquette or hierarchy. Women are seen as often hunting for game as men are washing clothes and caring for children. You could hardly tell some apart until they took their clothes off to wash. They are beautiful specimens all — lithe, wiry, fit and firm. Comes from a lifetime of hard labor, I imagine. Now they put that experience to use every night, setting up a camp that could, but for the right materiel, be called a town proper.
She looked up from her writing, smiling at the sight of a young woman about her age, skin dark as coal, laughing and chasing another woman who had apparently snatched an apple from her. At some point, the dark woman dove for the other, knocking the apple aside, and began to kiss the other one with a deep, longing passion. Hagne's eyes widened, and she smiled.
There's a beautiful purity in their ignorance. Or perhaps naiveté in their society. I had initially suspected it to be mere joy earlier, but the longer you observe them, you notice men pairing with men, women pairing with women, not a care for offspring or proper mating ritual. They love whom they will, and all accept it. I know you are a strong and long-lived woman, Overseer, so I dare not question your judgment, but after having witnessed this group in battle, I cannot imagine that any attempts at reforming their primitive little society will be beneficial in the long term.
She had assumed the gathering group of people in the corner of her eye had been gathered for food, but the longer she listened, the more she heard voices rising in a cacophony of noise that began to sound belligerent. She rose, and rushed over to the mass. The miners parted for her, as they usually did to those deemed authority figures, to reveal the center of the conflict.
It was a woman, young-looking, but with the far too clean look and slightly unnatural sheen of a panacea-user. She flashed a smile at Hagne, showing teeth far too perfect to be natural. Her hair was red as blood, and close to the roots, Hagne could make out a pattern of stitching on her scalp. Her eyes were big, beautifully so, and unnaturally blue. Everything about her screamed of some manner of fraudulence or another.
"What is this? Another huckster?" Hagne snarled.
The woman leapt to her feet with easy grace. She was shapely, indicative of very good health, compared to the lean and sometimes malnourished forms of the miners.
"Huck? Huck… Huck, rhymes with fuck!" The woman grinned those blindingly white teeth again.
Hagne grunted and stepped up to her, clutching her spear close at hand. The woman seemed not to notice, "These people are under the protection of the Eighth Overseer. I am tasked with ensuring they reach Whore's End safely and unmolested. What manner of trinket are you shilling? Miracle cures? Low-cost panacea?"
The woman spread her arms apart innocently. For all her apparent healthy looks, she was dressed in a patchwork coat of thick cloths. Hagne thought she saw the subtle glint of metal underneath it.
"Check my pockets. Take my clothes; I carry no purse on me. I take no coin, nor whatever currency these people use. Hello, by the way. My name is Dodger."
Hagne tilted her spear, using the sheathed buttspike to keep the woman from approaching her, "Stand your ground. What is your business here?"
The woman — "Dodger", she claimed — glanced around, and shrugged again, "People are my business. Miserable, filthy, hopeless people."
"You prey upon them? Peddle them as slaves?"
"Why so pessimistic?" Dodger looked hurt, "I serve them. Not as food for others, before you start leaping to accusations. I've been blessed with much, as you can see," She turned herself around, waggling her hips in a crude manner perhaps meant to be suggestive, before turning to face Hagne again, "I am a vulture. A vampire. A ghoul. I am addicted to pleasure, and the only pleasure I get nowadays is seeing the smiling, happy face of a person I have helped. The happy sobs of a grateful individual is a more potent a sound than the loveliest music. The sight of a wounded person rising to their feet in good health is more pleasurable than the boldest sunrise. The crushing bear hug of an individual to whom you have given all that you could to help is more gratifying than the loudest, screaming-est orgasm."
Hagne-Allon's lip curled. She certainly saw the appeal of this woman to the miners. Lewd, crude, loud, and charismatic, and colorful to look at, "You'll forgive me if I have trouble believing it."
Dodger shrugged again, "You don't need to believe; it's the truth," She reached into her coat, withdrawing a small pouch and reaching in, "How are you, by the way? Is your body functioning properly?"
Again, she tilted the spear, to keep her from approaching, "I'm fine. Don't touch me." She looked up and down the woman again. She had brought a satchel with her, which was on the ground behind her. Unless she held a short blade within, she was completely unprotected.
"How have you lasted this long in the wilderness?"
The woman shrugged, "I packed supplies."
"I mean how have you avoided…"
"How has someone as pretty as I avoided the unwanted advances of violent men brandishing bludgeons?" Again she looked around herself, "The same way you all have; I do not walk alone."
"Where are your travelling companions?"
"Spread across the land. We have outposts every few miles or so," She smiled again, reaching into her coat to take out a small square bit of parchment. Printed on the front in fine dark-green type were the letters 'MCF'. The rear showed a small map of the region, from Whore's End to the Dumping Grounds East.
"What is this?" Hagne offered the parchment back to Dodger, but she refused it.
"It's a card. A… it's a bit of parchment."
"I know what parchment is, I can read and write. What is 'MCF'?"
Dodger smiled, and touched two fingers to the bridge of her nose, "Manna the power, manna the food, manna the drink, manna the entity and Manna the Entity — Would you wish me to leave?"
"I wish you to leave."
"Or — OR! Would you let me roam the ranks of your freed miners, my hands extended, offering everything I have to give, food, drink, medicine, until I have nothing left but the clothes on my body — or not even those? Would you truly deprive these people of any bit of help they can receive?"
Hagne stared at her long and hard, waiting for some sign, a facial tic or unwarranted smirk, any excuse to vehemently reject the woman and send her off. The woman didn't even blink.
"Fine. Stay. But you will receive nothing from me should you choose not to leave before we reach Whore's End. And should you continue on, you will submit to the Overseer's authority, in what-ever she might wish to do with you."
Dodger nodded, and smiled to her, again with her incoherent chanting, "Because Manna helped us, what can we do but share that same help with all of their children?"
Someone had spread the rumor once that the longer you lived on panacea, the more likely you were to forget your own name. They hadn't meant it literally…
"Anna Sobotka," She said aloud, her own name for just over four thousand years.
The ironic part — was it irony? — was that she had entirely forgotten who had said that to her. She'd always pictured the person saying it as being a woman like her, short and blonde, big nose and short hair. Then she saw a portrait in her main hall, and remembered it wasn't the person who had told her about panacea; it was a serving girl of hers, dead for at least 80 years. Her petrified body was in the mausoleum she'd established at the top of her cliff-side tower.
"Honey Pot," She said aloud. That had been the girl's name. Her parents named her that, and she'd stubbornly refused to change it.
Everyone knew where she was; "Whore's End" they called it. They said it was named for her, but it had been called that long before she set up camp here. The river running through the land had been pristine at some point after the Fall. It was the last clean river for miles in every direction, and remained so for hundreds of years. Then erosion uncovered a stockpile of some manner of chemical waste. She didn't know; it was already ancient history by the time she'd found the place. The river became polluted, and started to stink of sulfur and chlorine. People who drank from it or waded in it felt it burn their skin, and called it "Whore's End", making light of a hypothetical young woman forced by circumstances to prostitution, succumbing to the bodily rot of some unknown venereal disease or other.
Her enemies had taken to saying it referred to her, withdrawing to her wretched home at the end of her life. It was somewhat frustrating, but she refused to change the name. To do so would admit defeat, and admit that the place was indeed named for her.
She had plenty of patience and more than enough time. The world around her had already dissolved into a thicket of savage tribes, people no longer identified as Americans or Canadians or anything else. Such words were older than ancient. They pre-dated myth. Men fought and died and established dynasties and empires lasting hundreds of years atop the burial mound of the greatest, richest, most technologically advanced civilization the planet had ever birthed.
That civilization had reached space. They had eaten and slept beside small windows, outside of which they could bear witness to thick clouds of dust and ash that covered the world during the last days leading up to the Fall. How must they have felt, believing themselves to be the very last of their civilization, of their species?
Anna only felt joy for them, convincing herself that they had turned away and gone in search of another home. She imagined now an entire civilization sprawling across a distant solar system, colonizing planets, mining comets and asteroids, and soaking in energy-abundant sunlight for hours every single day.
Niggling doubt drove her on. Doubt that anyone had survived in the stations long enough to start moving. Doubt that they could even reproduce effectively enough in a zero-g environment. Doubt that even if they had made it out, their descendants arriving successfully on some life habitable planet, that they would even have survived long enough to become spacefaring again.
That drove her here on Earth. A people perpetually ignorant, illiterate, living on legends, myth, fanciful stories of a version of the past that never existed. Believing themselves to be different from one another, and thus incapable of co-existing peacefully. Every little minor kingdom that advanced sufficiently was more likely to be broken and beaten by a lesser group, their scrapes at technological prowess erased, and the species as a whole back to the stagnancy of perpetual feudal living, spears and shield combat, pestilence, and hand-to-mouth living.
The other Overseers didn't help matters. They only cared for eliminating each other, and carving out a following on Earth that would elevate them to living Godhood. Short-sighted, unsustainable, doomed to failure. The only thing that would work with creatures like that was violence.
The thicket of savage tribes had to be burned down. Those who resisted had to be killed. Those who fell in line would remember their old tribal identities and their old lives as stories, while taking upon a new identity. Not a tribal one… but a human one. A single, monolithic culture, for a single, monolithic species. One that would breach the clouds that coated the Earth, and be able to once again see the sun any time they wanted.
She missed the sun. It was still there, of course. It would outlast her, she imagined; outlast everything and everyone, panacea be damned. The clouds just made it impossible to see for months, even years at a time. Nothing could grow. Entire species went extinct. Vegetation was almost nonexistent, with the added benefit of the deluge of life-strangling ash, soot, fallout, and chemicals that had escaped from their containment once the infrastructure had completely rotted.
Containment… She had nearly forgotten. All those Keter-class anomalies, run rampant for millennia. Or hell, there were Euclids and Safes that could wreak global catastrophe if left to their own devices. The fact that she still stood here, on solid ground, with thousands of living people around them, meant the best case scenario had occurred when the Fall happened.
"This place smells like a swimming pool," She said aloud. It was starting to hurt less to speak. Her jaw had been replaced the year before, and it still wasn't healing properly. She didn't want to have to rely on copious amounts of panacea on such a vanity, and so had relied on conventional treatment to help it along. She wasn't at risk of dying — worst case scenario, she use up the last of her panacea reserves, then hunt for more later on.
"I like the smell. It's pleasant. Even by comparison with the outside," She smiled. It hurt badly. Her teeth no longer clicked together when she spoke, but she couldn't stop the twitching in her jaw that made the right side of her jaw itch insufferably. That had been another vain excess she'd insisted upon; salvaging what remained of her face. It meant the prosthetic would be all the more noticeable by being mismatched in tone.
"It's hot in Topeka."
The medicus behind her looked up. She smiled to herself, not turning to face him, "The pain is becoming more bearable. You can leave early today. I will see you next week."