What had I gotten myself into?! I came to the Wastelands to get away from people and experience the freedom I once had as a street rat. Now I was thinking about becoming a domesticated rat … the kind I used to eat. I’d obviously eaten something bad or SEPH had fried my brain worse than I had thought.
I was so mad at myself. But there it was, I was giving serious consideration to Asa’s proposition. I knew squat about the guy really. I suppose I had to at least accept that some parts of his story were true as much as he accepted that some parts of my story were true. That scar in the middle of his chest certainly came from something unpleasant. But what really did I know about him.
He said his name was Asa Butcher. Everyone I’d seen interact with him had called him one or the other so I suppose that was his name at least as mine was Gurl Noname. He was in his early twenties if I had to guess but it was hard to tell. He had dark hair that stood up all over the place and scruffy facial hair that didn’t look like it would make a very nice beard. His eyes were kind of a hazel; they didn’t want to settle on any one color and they changed with his moods.
He wasn’t tall but wasn’t short either, and he was built wiry rather than bulky. He could move fast; I’d seen that when he pulled that gun when he and Carmine had taken on that road block; but I’d seen faster, had been faster myself at one point and might be again. His hands were steady; he’d taken out the chip behind my ear a lot faster than some would have dithered around about doing. He like tech and mech and it seems to be how he supports himself out here in the Wastelands; he’d been doing it at least six years if I believed his story, and maybe longer than that. He wasn’t averse to breaking rules as I remembered he’d claimed to have been arrested for hacking back before the Outbreak. With that in mind I revised his age up a bit to mid-twenties to thirty.
I knew that Asa knew how not to fight. That sounds stupid to people that don’t get it, but not everyone knows how not to strike back when they get hit. He could have hit me when I laid into him after I woke up with no clothes but he didn’t. He could have done me damage a couple of times but didn’t. If I was going to go play house with the guy that couldn’t change. I knew he had some issues but so did I so I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. It was whether our issues could work together or not.
I told Lily that she didn’t have to do anything with her body, that it was her choice. Mostly that’s true. You can be forced and I’d been lucky that it had never happened to me, but you can decide whether or not most of the time. You can give in to peer pressure and coercion but that’s still a choice. But for sure if you’re asked you can say yes or no. Asa was asking me. It all came down to whether I chose yes or no.
I woke up no closer to an answer than I had gone to bed. I camped in a crevice not too much bigger than me but it was a mistake. It was too near a watering hole. If it wasn’t the animals going there for a ship waking me up it was the bugs.
I was tired and hungry. The big meal the day before had stretched my stomach and it was complaining about being empty before the sun was up. I ate some of the dried fruit, a bit of jerky, and fixed a cup of tea from my back pack stash. Wandering around the previous day I spotted a patch of wild asparagus and I headed toward it after my breakfast. I decided it would be my lunch and dinner and it was heading back towards Gill’s settlement as well.
As I hiked I thought. Whether I said yes or no wasn’t all about Asa. It wasn’t all about why I should say no. I needed to know what would make me say yes. What would turning into a domesticated rat do for me?
First off, I wouldn’t be the only one looking for food. That would be a big plus, a huge plus. There would be two mouths but twice as many eyes on the lookout. Bigger animals would be easier to take. I had read that the pioneers had stored meat for the winter like fish and venison. Deer aplenty wandered each area I had walked through but I didn’t know what to do with them. I would need to ask Asa if he did.
Asa had shelter that he was willing to share. Shelter in winter meant warmth. Sometimes the only way to survive cold was to share warmth with some fellow rats. Asa wasn’t a street rat … but he was something close. And he seemed a bit of a loner like me only he’d been that long enough that he wanted to try something else. I decided I would need to ask him about how his shelter was fixed for water. Permanent shelter without permanent water was no good. If food, shelter, and water would be better as a team, compared to being a loner, then that would be good.
But food, shelter, and water couldn’t be the only reason I said yes. I might be a feral street rat but I was also an educated feral street rat; enough to know there was more to life than the basic three. If that was all there was then there would be no reason for me to be so happy that I had escaped SEPH and the future they had mapped out for me. I would have been content and fulfilled to live under SEPH rule and let my genitive profile and reproductive capacity determine my fate.
And I didn’t want that; didn’t want my fertility to be why someone – in this case Asa – wanted my company. He’d told me why he wanted company; he was lonely. He’d told me why he wanted me to be that company; similar experiences for similar reasons. Was that all? Could that be enough? No. It was a start but it wasn’t enough. If that was all I needed and wanted then I could have found a pack of other street rats to hang with. There were other cities that hadn’t been cleared. I could have gone back to my old life if I had really wanted to.
What had I come to the Wastelands for? Simply to escape SEPH; or to find something more? Freedom was what I came looking for. If I said yes to Asa was that giving up my dream of being free? Of being in charge of my life? That I didn’t know.
I was irritated that this kind of choice had been dropped on me so soon after I’d escaped from SEPH. Was it a trick that life was throwing at me? Or was it an opportunity? Was it neither or both? I hadn’t been this confused since I’d been sentenced to sensory deprivation for a week. That’s as close as I had ever come to breaking.
I hadn’t broken. In fact it made me stronger; it certainly solidified my hatred of my captors and all they stood for. But that was then and this was now. My headache wasn’t from lack of input but from too much. Back then I had few choices; now I was being given so many I not only didn’t know which one to choose, I’m not sure I knew how to choose.
I was still debating with myself when I got to the waterfall and found Asa there ahead of me. I had no sooner walked up than he tried to hand me something. When I backed up a step and refused to take it he urged, “Go on … take it.”
“What is it? I mean I can see it’s a memory button but …”
“It’s maps; survey maps from all over the Wastelands. It was one of the first projects Gill started after the bombs stopped falling. You can toggle back and forth between the old maps and what things look like today … or at least to the last time a survey was taken. I’ve … I’ve put notes on there about where you can find water, trails, settlements to stay away from. I figure you’re going to say no but I still … it’s dangerous out there for all the reasons I told you yesterday. I brought you a small kit of stuff that’ll help too … a flint, some …”
I interrupted him. “Why?”
I asked him, “Why do you figure I’m going to tell you no.”
“It’s obvious isn’t it. I’ve been thinking it over. I didn’t exactly make the greatest first – or second – impression. Then I was manhandling your … uh … components. I didn’t stand up for you to Carmine, totally missed that guy on the hill, just left you standing in the middle of the street, made out like I was pretty pathetic yesterday … I haven’t given you any reason to say yes.”
I looked at him and realized something. Asa and I did have similar experiences, lost similar amounts of our lives to similar types of people. Been hurt pretty bad by those people too. And it hadn’t broken either one of us, but I think maybe I came out less chipped and cracked than Asa had. And for some reason that made me angry at SEPH and their philosophy in a way I hadn’t been before. I was angry for more than myself now; it was a strange sensation.
I looked at him and said, “What you say might be true but only up to a point. You were locked up because you didn’t want Rosie to face the same fate you had … because you knew it would destroy her. When I gave you the keys you could have taken off but instead you stayed and got rid of the chip for me. You could have left me for dog chow but you didn’t. And no one has ever cared what happened to me except as a piece of property … or at least not for so long I can’t really remember what it feels like. I still don’t understand why you do … but I’m willing to believe you mean it when you say it.”
He had a blank look on his face. I wasn’t sure what that meant but decided to ask a few questions of my own. “This place you want to set up for winter … is it … I mean …”
“Let me describe it for you. It’s remote but that’s a good thing. There’s water year round but I dug out an old well last summer so I won’t have to haul water every day. Game is plentiful in the summer and there’s plenty of space for a garden. I need to build a smoke house but I’ve already got fish racks and other things that I’ve been hauling there for close to three years, including bank glass for the windows.”
“Do you know how to do that stuff? Garden and hunt big animals for meat?”
“Sure. You can’t make it in the Wastelands and not know it. Stores are few and far between out here and the ones that do exist – like the trading post you saw in Gill’s settlement – work on gold, silver, copper, and barter … but mostly barter so they can keep their stock up.”
“Ok. Next question.” I wasn’t sure how to approach it. “Look, I don’t like it when people try to manage me or force me to do something. I know I have issues but I come by them honestly. I’m more likely to do something if I’m asked that if I’m being pushed around. If I get pushed around I can turn nasty. I try not to cut off my nose to spite my face but it’s been known to happen. You don’t seem like a pushy kind of person but you seem like you could be a do gooder … and those have caused me just as many headaches as the people intentionally out to get me have. I want to be asked before someone starts arranging my life for my own good.”
He shrugged and said, “I’m not going to let someone stand in the middle of the road if a wagon is about to run ‘em down but if someone wants to drink themselves under the table I generally just stay out of their way. Out here people are supposed to be responsible for themselves. If someone gets a snoot full and then does some damage, someone else will take it out of their hide more than likely but generally people tend to go their own way … at least in the free settlements.”
“Fair enough I suppose but that’s not exactly what I mean. What I’m trying to say is I want a choice when it comes to stuff that affects me. I know I don’t know enough to be a boss but …”
It was like watching enlightenment dawn on his face when he finally grasped what I was trying to say. “Oh … well sure. Nobody wants to be a slave to someone else. I wouldn’t want to be bossed all the time either. It’s why I want a place of my own … but …” He stopped and he could keep he face blank no matter how hard he tried. “Are you really thinking of saying yes?”
“I wouldn’t be wasting time and putting up with these gnats if I wasn’t,” I told him while trying to fan away the annoying bugs that found my nose, mouth, and ears so irresistible.
“Ok, so … what would it take to get you to say yes?”
I warned him, “You can’t buy me Asa.”
Unthinkingly he let slip, “I wouldn’t want you if I could.” He winced when he realized how that had sounded. It was the first time I felt like smiling since he’d started me thinking.
“Good to know.”
“I … er … didn’t mean …”
“Yes you did but that’s OK. For this honesty is best don’t you think?”
He finally answered my smile. “Yeah.” But then he got serious again. “What I meant was if you’re not saying no, what’s keeping you from saying yes?”