It was late when you pulled into the Shantytown that sits at the foot of the Ascendant. After making your way to the bottom of the long ramp up, a dirty little runner boy told you that the Candies guard the gate up top, and anyone who tries to sneak up, will get tossed back down.
This Shantytown probably had fifty people living in it now, mostly travelers who came here for work and food, with some merchants who are trying to worm their way up the the bay to hawk their wares. Of course, Bank has stuff to trade, and she's made this run a number of times, so she plans on sleeping in the cab of her truck.
Parfait is cold and tired, she needs to bed down soon, Ro is eager to go up the ramp and see his sister.
What do you do?
About halfway up the ramp, a couple bright halogen lights are shone in your faces and you hear some unfamiliar female voice call down, "Get the frak down, idiots! You wanna get shot?"
Ro calls up, "It's me! Ro! I'm Star's brother! These are my friends, it's cool!"
"That's drek!" the girl calls back. "I heard of Ro. He's taller than you, and a drekload more handsome! Now get the frak back down till morning, or I will shoot your ass!"
It's Tootsie Roll, Jack. Although, you know her real name, don't you? What is it, and how do you know this girl?
I remember L'Oreal — I'm sorry, Tootsie Roll — from my time in Trench about a year ago. She was friends with Omo, if I'm not mistaken. I wonder if Omo is here! It's been ages since I've seen her!
Then you hear the sound of a vehicle starting up. The headlights shine bright over The Bay, then it turns and you see a Jeep come down the ramp towards you, nice and slow. Toot and one of Omo's best friends, a girl who wears a kerchief over her face named Payday. Oh, what does she look like under there? Rumors abound, from injury to massive shyness to a big mustache. What's the truth about Payday? Is she really a "she"?
Payday hops out and gives you her seat and Ro climbs in the back with your stuff. You clamber in with Parfait. Payday hangs back to walk up after you. The heater is blasting in this little jeep and it is INCREDIBLE, Jack.
"Holy frak, Jack! And Ro, drek, I heard so much about you!" Tootsie Roll says as she drives you up to The Bay. Then its a bunch of Candies, maybe a half dozen, all around you, introductions to Chunky, Spunk, Goodbar, Mamba, and after a minute, a squealing, running up to throw herself into Ro's arms, Starburst.
I practically melt when the warmth from the Jeep's heater hits us. It truly is a fantastic thing, given the punishing cold tonight. I hold Parfait's hands up to the heater, in hopes of warming her up a bit, and smile over to Tootsie Roll. "Yes, it's been a while — hasn't it?" I answer as we step out of the Jeep. I look around the group of women as introductions are made, and raise an eyebrow as Starburst runs over to Ro in such an extravagant display. I chuckle to myself, pleased they could be reunited. How fantastic!
After a moment of introducing Parfait to Tootsie and Payday, I ask, "Is Omo with you? Or is she still back in Trench?"
Ro and Starburst are walking back towards the ship, away from the edge and the jeep. Ro calls back, "Jack! Par! C'mon, we're gonna crash at the Candy Bar Clubhouse tonight, go to the infirmary in the morning."
Uh... I lean forward to Payday and ask, "I'm sorry, did you say two babies? As in twins?" I hear Ro calling to us and I nod over to him, "Yes, coming!" Then I turn back to Payday, patiently awaiting an answer.
Starburst jumps up on Ro's back and he gives her a piggyback ride to the lift. They're both laughing too loud and the folks who live in The Bay are all in shacks and tents and they probably hate them both right now, but they don't care really.
Let's take this one step at a time. I smile to Payday and nod, "good for her... And her children, of course. Perhaps I'll see her at the infirmary then..." I put my hand on the small of Parfait's back and whisper, "come my dear. Let's go see if the Candies will give us a place to sleep."
Parfait finally sees you watching her, looks up at you. She wants to talk, to say something, to scream out loud. You feel it in her. But she won't talk in front of Payday.
What do you do?
Parfait waits a few moments for them to go, then she looks up at you, "Jack, my love. I know this Abba Zabba. I saw her, when I was a child. I watched her beat my brother to death. She just walked in to the camp and started killing people. My... are they even my people anymore? She murdered them. We were sleeping! She... why do they call us monsters, Jack?!? We are hunters!" She glares at you, eyes watery, her face stricken and she looks so confused, so out of place.
"I know, my dear... I was there," I whisper, "Abba Zabba's last stop that night was in my mother's truck. I was paralyzed in the corner, completely immobilized by the ferocity of the voices that night... I remember the screams, and anger of them all. My mother attacked her, when she threatened me... I don't think there was much left of her after that..." I shudder at the thought... Our people can be brutal when we need to be.
After a brief reprieve, I move a hand to Parfait's cheek, and brush it gently with my thumb, "My love... The hunting packs you are familiar with have a reputation out in the flats. My understanding is that the Candys were accosted by a hunting pack, and they lost several of their people in the raid... The brutal attack Abba Zabba brought down on our people was a retaliation. They believe the pack's actions are below polite society, and their actions are rationalized as monstrous because they have never been able to speak to us to know differently."
I look deeply into her eyes with a grave expression, if only to show her I understand her pain. "True Wendys, those who wear the paint, and terrorize the people of the flats with their brutality, perpetuate the myth that all people like us are incapable of being reasoned with. That we are sub-human. That we are monsters..." I smile, "but we are not incapable of being reasoned with. You know this. What you are forgetting is that we have chosen to interact with these people. To listen to them, and show them understanding and friendship... We are not like the others. We are a different breed... And until the tribe can learn to interact peacefully with these people, they will continue to be monsters to them. Of their own volition."
I wonder if they are even capable of such a thing... Some of them can barely function within the tribe, let alone under the complicated social structure that the Flats has introduced. I sigh, "Abba Zabba is a woman not unlike Aquafina... She is the victim of brutality she did not understand, and she could not cope with the consequences in a peaceful way. If staying with these people makes you uncomfortable, we could find another place to stay."
She steps into your embrace, willing you to hold her for a little while. Eventually, the one who introduced herself as Chunky, she comes out to check on you, "You guys okay? Need anything?"
Parfait steps back, turning her face away and wiping her eyes. She says low, just for you, "I am tired, Jack. I just want to sleep."
What do you do?
I look down on Parfait, and smile at her request, then look back to Chunky and say, "Forgive us... We're OK. My wife is just tired. Pregnancy, and a long day of travelling will do that. Could we have a bed?"
Parfait doesn't seem to care, she strips down nude and crawls into the bed. Chunky asks if you need anything.
Parfait shakes her head, "No. Just you."
Despite the noise, which includes some music, recorded electronic stuff on some radio, chatter from the girls and Ro, and bouts of laughter, Parfait is dead asleep in minutes. What about you? Are you able to sleep in this strange place with its metal walls and ceiling, with the odd hum of power that lights the lights and gives life to all the other amenities here?
Eventually I cannot feign sleep anymore — frustrated and tired, I carefully rise from the bed so as to not disturb Parfait, put some pants and a shirt on, and wander carefully out into the impromptu party. I eye the group of people with some curiosity. It would appear Ro is a different sort of celebrity here. He seems more human — more like the man I have come to know these past few months.
The trim girl with the tall hair, her name's Whopper you find out later, she's chatting with Toot and Payday. Pay has her kerchief down, she's drinking some swill. Whopper's chatting with her, telling some story or something, acting it out.
Toot sees you first, hollers, "Jack! Yo, man! Did we bother ya? Problems with the room service? Frakkin Chunky not put a mint on yer pillow?" She slap punches Chunky, who draws back, then realizes its a joke, laughs along.
Ro smiles wide, "Jack, man. Par okay? C'mere, man. Have a seat, have a seat!" He kicks a chair out towards you, and the girls shuffle around.
I sit down and nod over to Ro, "She's fine, thank you. Exhausted from the ride, but fine. This is certainly a colourful location you girls have staked out. How did you manage to get it?"
To your question, Starburst answers with a grin, "We run security in The Bay, and keep a handle on the lower decks. Omo set it up a while back, I'm just following through on her lead. It's been a tough few weeks lately, with water rations and saboteurs and spies in our ranks. This damn hole needs us."
Spunk and Whopper give a hell yeah, and they all take down a round. Starburst introduces you to Whopper and the savage guy, who she calls "DiDi", which makes the Candies all chuckle a bit and he just rolls his eyes.
Spunk asks, "You ever played Sixcup, Jack?"
Ro answers for you, "My man Jack doesn't drink. But I know Sixcup. I'm actually damn good at it. Lucky." The girls start moving around to sit for the game, grabbing chairs and scooting up to the table as Spunk pulls out a big six-sided die and some cups of different sizes.
Whopper walks over to put a possessive hand on DiDi's shoulder, "I'm gonna take DiDi offa y'all's hands now. C'mon, DiDi, I want some time alone, yeah?"
DiDi looks to you, "Nice to meet ya. See ya later. And, everyone else calls me Costco." He rises, Whopper puts an arm around him and starts walking towards the beds.
Whopper looks back, "Chunk, you're a drek drinker. You want in on this?"
Chunky looks up, sort of shyly, answers, "No, uhm... no thanks. Have your fun!"
The game starts up, and Toot asks, "What ya been up to lately, Jack? And more importantly, are you off the market?" She grins a toothy grin and toasts you.
I suppose Toot and some of the other girls here might be a little surprised that I don't drink anymore; because I do, in fact, drink — I have simply given it up for the duration of Parfait's pregnancy. It seems only fair. I stand when the self-described Costco corrects the Candy's oversight regarding his name, and shake his hand with a respectful smile, "A pleasure, Costco." Of course once he's gone, I turn to the girls with a bemused grin, and whisper, "DiDi?"
I shift out of the way for the game of Six-cup, and watch attentively. I shrug indifferently when Toot asks what I've been up to, "travelling, working, being lucky, then being shot... I am indeed "off the market". The lovely Parfait has claimed me. We're expecting our first child some time in the early summer." I would say it's fairly obvious a great deal has happened to her since I saw her last, "How long have you been running together as a group?"
Chunky rolls and drinks a medium-sized shot, then makes a sick face. Toot answers you, "The North Candies been together a year or so? I just came along a month ago. I'm a nomad, pretty much. I'm hoping they'll take me on full. Just hanging around and helping out till they do. Since I can ride, shoot, drink and dance as good as any of them, I'm pretty sure I'm in!"
Payday playfully backhands Toot's arm, "You can't outride or out-shoot Mamba, bitch!"
"Neither can you, but they let you in, Pay! I guess I got that much!" Toot answers with a grin. It's funny, because Payday normally would have started a fight over that. Whenever her mask is down, she's super sensitive about everything. But she lets it slide, even chuckles a bit.
Payday rolls, gets a five, and takes a tumbler full of whiskey, which puts an odd expression on her face. She's a thin girl, she's going to get completely trashed at this rate. She looks at you with suddenly hard eyes and says, "You know, Jack, Omo really liked you. You missed out, big time. No offense to Parfait or nothing, but you missed the boar, dude."
Chuinky giggles and raises a clenched fist, "To Spree!" The other Candies follow suit, even Starburst.
I raise an eyebrow at Payday's "confession" about Omo "really liking me" — aside from the casual sex, and her generally pleasant demeanor, I never would have guessed. "Considering she up and left me one night, without so much as a warning or a trace, it was particularly easy to miss..."
... This news unsettles me. The Omo I knew was a fantastic woman in her own right, and I could easily see an alternate universe where we had stayed together. In fact, I had offered her that chance the night she left — to join me in my travels, and see the world... She was silent in response, what I took at the time to be exhaustion. In retrospect, I always assumed I had asked her to do something impossible. I stayed in Trench for three days after the fact, looking for her at all the usual locations... When I realized the effort was futile, I resigned myself to leave... I hadn't worked up the courage to return to Trench since. If she liked me, why didn't she talk to me? Send a message out after me? Anything?
Now don't take this to mean I am eager to rekindle a lost flame — a year has passed, a year with both heartbreak, and finding love. Parfait is not a consolation prize — she is in many ways a better match for me than Omo would have been. Parfait and I have history together, and a mutual love and adoration for each other. We have the same goals in life, and appreciate the same things. Payday saying I "missed the boar" does offend me, because it dismisses out of hand two things Parfait gave me that Omo never did — acceptance, and partnership. I am simply not bitter about it, because she can't understand why I would be happy.
I smile, and raise my fist in solidarity with their cheer... "To Spree," I mutter along — there but for the grace of the gods, I suppose.
Payday doesn't add any more info about Omo. She's always been real protective of her best friend. Maybe she imagined it. Hell, maybe she likes you. She is actually sitting here with her mask down in front of you, that says something, right?
Spunk ends up rolling a one, and downs a little shot. Then Ro gets a one as well. Star makes a joke about the dice being loaded, and of course, Ro says he's just lucky.
Then Toot reaches for the die to take her turn and says loudly with a grin, "Well, Ro, how can I get lucky?" She rolls the die, it comes up a four. The girls all laugh, and slap the table while Toot drains a small tumbler of grain alcohol, no chaser. She makes a face like she just licked sandpaper, and the girls and Ro laugh again, even harder.
Ro says, "Keep drinking, Toot. I'm sure we can figure out something later!"
Then Star says, "No way, Ro!" She looks across the table at Toot, then the others and says all serious, "Ro here is off limits. I don't want any o' y'all frakking my big brother. No backtalk, or I will shove a boot up yer ass!"
Toot makes a pouty face, but she doesn't say anything. Even Chunky slumps a little, giving an almost silent, "Awww."
I'm quite comfortable playing people watcher when Toot propositions Ro — I smile to myself, certain the back-and-forth of flirting is something Ro' has been looking forward to. What I don't expect is Starburst's immediate dismissal of their banter... I raise an eyebrow, and look between them. Is this a protective gesture? Or sibling rivalry? Or is this a matter of gang politics? "I'm frakking your brother" is a rather large piece of leverage in a social structure such at this...
There is disappointment in the air. I decide to lighten the mood with a joke. I raise my hand, "does that extend to me as well?"
Sixcup continues for a couple more rounds. Chunky tries to quit when she rolls a six. A huge glass of half-beer, hald-grain alcohol awaits her. Toot and Spunk try to egg her on to drink it, but she knows she'll get sick if she does. Starburst is letting it play out, barely paying attention, chatting with Ro.
What do you do?
I rise slowly, and crick my neck as I make my way over to Ro. I put a hand on his shoulder, "sorry to interrupt. I'm going to take another crack at sleep... I want to get Parfait to the infirmary bright and early. Will you be joining us? Or would you like some time to wander the Ascendant?" I sincerely hope he does join us... I'm somewhat afraid of getting locked in a room alone with Omo and Parfait.
But that's when Chunky decides to try to get up, "Hey, Ima gonna show you a... a bed, Ro..." The world spins for her, and she staggers away a couple steps, then sure enough, pukes on the deck. Spunk jumps up, while Toot puts a hand up to shield her face.
"That's our Chunky. Really knows how to be the life of the party!" Starburst says with a laugh, then she gets them organized around taking care of the mess while she takes Chunk to the head to get rid of the rest of it.
Ro shakes his head, "Perfect timing, Jack."
He follows you into the sleeping room. And yes, Whopper is buck naked off to the right, riding DiDi as he lies on a cot. He tries putting his hands on her pierced nipples and she slaps his hands away fiercely, "Stay down, dog. You touch what I say." Then she puts her hands on his chest and grinds herself down on to him.
As you both head off to where Parfait is sleeping, Whopper looks up, right at both of you, like some dog with a bone, like she's showing off. She wraps her fingers around DiDi's throat, but doesn't choke him, just "controls" him while she grunts and ruts away.
Ro is transfixed by this. He's half shocked, half horrified and somehow, even though mathematically impossible, half-turned on.
What do you do?
I'm not sure someone like that could truly be with Ro — a man who has had more luck, more consistently on a daily basis than most people have in their lives. He needs someone who can ground him without bingeing on him, and bringing him down. He needs an optimist. Someone who is practical, open-minded, and adventurous — without the violent tendencies these Candies seem to exhibit. There are few women I know who would fit that description... Omo might have been one of them, if I had the opportunity to know her better.
I put a hand on his shoulder, and whisper, "I remember hearing in Armour that a man named Proper has set up a show here in the Ascendant. Are you familiar with his shows? Why don't we go as a group tomorrow night?"
You come up to the bed, and Ro finds an empty cot nearby, starts getting ready for sleep.
He pulls back the sheet from the cot, and pauses before he slides under it, "Jack, I assumed you came here for your baby, right? Or is there some other reason?" You can tell he's checking to make sure Parfait is asleep, that this is something he's been curious about for a while.
Off to the right, you hear DiDi grunting hard for a moment, giving up the ghost, as it were. After a moment, Whopper says, "That wasn't too bad, dog. Now get the frak outta my cot, an check yerself back into the brig." She laughs a snide laugh and you hear Costco groan as he gets shoved out of the cot. He picks up his clothes, and heads out.
I also look to Parfait when Ro starts asking why we're here. I know she is self-conscious about her illness, but it would help to have more support pillars in her life. I opt to confide in him... "Well," I whisper, "not entirely... We are here for the child, yes, but more importantly, I am here for Parfait. She suffers from a condition that affects her moods — a condition that's plagued her since adolescence — and it pains me greatly to see her suffer it."
I lean forward, "I had hoped that the doctor here could help us mitigate the effects, so that we might be better prepared for the arrival of our son. I would appreciate if you could keep that to yourself... As you know, Parfait has issues with trust — but I know she trusts you, and I trust you too, which is why I have no issues telling you this now." I smile, "we have not met many people like you, Ro. You are a blessing from the road."
The you ask him to keep the secret, and compliment him. And even though he gets compliments often, special treatment, the like, he genuinely smiles, a little surprised. "I'll keep your secrets, Jack. Par's, too. You're both, well. You know, most folks are always trying to take advanage of me. My good fortune, stuff like that. But you two, and Topps, too. You're real friends."
He slides into the cot, but looks back at you, "Topps isn't a wanderer like us, though. The three of us, we're three of a kind. I'm real happy tagging along, Jack."
After a moment's silence, I add, "we're happy having you Ro — and in light of recent events," I stretch my shoulder, which is still quite stiff, "involving certain accusations... If ever you have any questions, I want you to know I would answer them truthfully."
He pulls the cover up over his chest, "Good night, Jack."