A collaboration with @Jeddaven.Almont, Upstate Wastes
At some point the night prior, Sanjay had gotten kicked out of the whorehouse. Hours of binge drinking and mixing every chem he could put his hands on had severely impaired his decision making: he wasn’t sure about the specifics, but he was pretty sure the fateful question of “can I put it in your butt?” didn’t go over well. His final resting place, after stumbling from closing bar to closing bar, appeared to be a ditch on the side of a cracked prewar road outside a decrepit looking and burned-out neighborhood. He awoke to orange rays of sunlight shining into his face and had obviously been robbed blind.
After patting down his pockets, he realized that everything had been taken from him. All his caps had vanished, his gun was absent from the holster, and the cool breeze flowed between his open toes where someone had stolen his boots. He had a pounding headache and smelled the pungent aroma of vomit in the skeletal frame of a dead bush. Sanjay gripped at the rocky lip of the ditch and, with great effort, heaved himself onto his feet. The world swirled around him and he took a minute to collect himself further before clambering back onto the road. Pebbles and rocks dug into his bare feet as he sighed and put his hands on his hips, looking back towards Almont.
The road back into town wasn’t actually that long, but Sanjay felt like he had just finished a marathon by the time he stopped for a breather at a burned-out suburban house. He plopped down onto an old degraded couch in front of a garage door where a prewar car had long since caught fire and burned itself out in the driveway. He looked around at the neighborhood, scarred and burned from the war. Nobody had thought to repair it, but instead the people of Almost had left it to the elements. It was strange to Sanjay: he was from the Bronx, and his neighborhood had even suffered the effects of an airburst atomic weapon during the war. That didn’t stop his ancestors from rebuilding.
He continued his walk through the streets, carefully stepping around piles of shattered glass or the sharp skeletal remains of those who were unlucky enough to be outside in the blasts. He didn’t quite remember coming out this way, but found himself back in the inhabited city soon enough. Sanjay approached a gate made out of junk and scrap metal, where two men stood leaning against the walls or sitting down outside. One of the guards, reading a magazine and sitting in a lawn chair, lazily called for Sanjay to stop before groaning and sitting up. He grabbed a laser pistol from a picnic table that had been dragged over before walking over to the drunkard.
“What brings you here?” he asked apathetically.
“I, uh, I’m just trying to get back in,” Sanjay stuttered, looking around at the checkpoint. The other guard had gone off to smoke a cigarette.
“And where do you come from?”
Sanjay stumbled for his badge, before realizing that had been stolen from him too. “I, uh, my name is Corporal Sanjay Knight, New York SecDiv!”
“I know who you are, dude,” the Gunner shook his head. “You’re wearing that goofy blue shirt like the rest of the drunk assholes from downstate.”
Sanjay narrowed his eyes. “Then, uh,” he searched for the words, “it would be wise for you to let me in. Official business.”
The Gunner shook his head again and shrugged. “Official what? You mean getting your shit back? The last shift told me some New Yorker was running shoeless out the gate chasing some thieves away, drunk as fuck. Must be you. You smell like a brewery, man.”
Sanjay turned around and then back to the guard. The only response he could offer was a meek yes.
“Heh, fine, I’m just giving you a hard time.” He gestured to the empty holster on Sanjay’s belt: “You obviously don’t have shit on you anymore, I’m just gonna let you in to go find your people. You New Yorkers like to hit each other with paperwork and that’s a fate worse than torture to me. Much rather just get the shit beat out of me and get it over with.”
Sanjay looked awkwardly at the Gunner, who chuckled as he returned to his lawn chair. He sat back down in the aged seat with a heavy thump before picking up his magazine. With a careless flick of his hand, he ordered the other guard to heave open the heavy junk fence. The other guard grabbed it by the edge and heaved until there was a person-sized opening along the road. “Head on in,” he said to Sanjay, who slipped through the opening with no further questions asked.
Back in Almont, the town looked as much like a carnival as a warzone. Broken bottles littered the grimy street, much to Sanjay’s annoyance. He tiptoed around the stains of vomit, some pools of blood, and even the corpse of a radroach that was blocking half the sidewalk. Other partygoers stumbled around like him, shambling back to guesthouses or apartments. A Gunner walked the streets, whistling a tune from the radio that played softly from one of the open windows nearby before stopping. He cocked his head as he sized up a hungover sailor before kicking a carefully-aimed can at the man’s legs. The sailor made a confused bark and looked around wildly before seeing the Gunner walk away laughing. Sanjay continued on.
His trek to the “nicer” side of town, if one could call it that, was just as monotonous. It was dirty and grimy. The buildings, even the occupied ones, looked abandoned. Nobody cleaned in Almont, unlike the City. SecDiv would round up prisoners for minor crimes and work off hours from their sentence; Sanjay had done that guard detail a few times. It was mostly boring work watching thieves sweep trash into a dumpster under the supervision of a SaniDiv trashman. The worst part, at least for a man with a pounding hangover, was hearing the insane cackling voice of Hathaway.
By the river, he found what he was looking for. A cafe that was marketed as something like an oasis from the degeneracy of Almont. For every ten looking to drink, there was always the one straight man. They found solace here, with strong coffee brewed in the back and food that wasn’t a greasy pub affair. If there was anyone respectable left in town who could take him back to the City, they were here. Sanjay barged in through the door, huffing and puffing, before he collected himself. Taking a second to straighten his sweat-stained shirt and tuck it back into his pants that smelled of dirt and body odor, he became self-conscious that he still was barefoot.
He walked up to the counter where an attendant in an apron and a cocked chef’s hat was reading a magazine. Absorbed in the pages, he paid no attention to Sanjay. The SecDiv man simply stared at the waiter for a moment before gargling a painful-sounding “mhm” from his throat. The waiter looked up: “Damn, man, are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Sanjay answered. “I mean, maybe. You got any water?”
The waiter raised an eyebrow, then gestured for Sanjay to wait. He went to the back to rummage through a shelf and get what he was looking for. He tapped his foot while he waited, the shoeless foot making a slight sound against the tile floor. The waiter returned with a bottle of water. Sanjay instinctively grabbed it out of the man’s hand and popped the cap, chugging it. The liquid burned as it made its way through his throat: irradiated. He finished it in one pull, slamming the empty plastic bottle down on the counter.
“That’s, uh, one cap,” the waiter said annoyedly. He frowned at Sanjay, who made a show of patting his pockets.
“I, uh, shit,” he said in feigned surprise. “Fuck, I got nothing.”
“Well you gotta pay,” flatly said the waiter.
“Maybe there’s something I can do, man,” Sanjay bargained. “Like, uh, wash dishes or-”
Behind him, a towering figure appeared over Sanjay’s shoulder. He turned around to see a flash of scarlet and a brawny muscular man looking down at the both of them. Sanjay’s heart dropped at the sight of the man, who could easily pass as a wrestler.
Then, the stranger smiled. Strangely, it put Sanjay at ease. “Looks like our buddy here has had quite the night, eh?” he said with a thick and unfamiliar accent. “I’ll buy him the water.”
He withdrew a bright blue bottlecap from a pocket on his red coat and turned it in his fingers. “It’s no Nuka Cola, sorry,” he apologized. The cap had a red maple leaf adorning it.
“Cap’s a cap,” accepted the waiter as he took it. He tossed it into a mason jar filled with a variety of other bottlecaps.
The man turned to Sanjay and extended his hand.
"Sergeant Adams, Royal Canadian Mounted Police," the man said, beaming a friendly smile all the while his hands were protected by light brown leather gloves. "Wish I had some purified water to share with you, but we're on strict rationing until we get to New York."
Sanjay looked the man up and down, then frowned. He wasn't sure what to think of the fellow who didn't shake his hand and could definitely beat him up. He said he was mounted; sure, he was dressed like a rider. He blinked. “Where’s your horse?” asked the dumbfounded SecDiv man.
Adams laughed, shaking his head. "I'm here to protect a diplomat on a riverboat. When I'm not on shore leave, I mean! Horses don't like being on small, rattling watercraft, eh?"
“A diplomat?” Sanjay looked around at the town outside of the cafe. The maniacal laugh of the DJ echoed through the streets again. Someone fired a gun somewhere, but nobody cared. It was simply diplomacy in Almont. “Who the hell is trying to be diplomatic here?”
"Almont's the halfway point." He explained, following Sanjay's gaze. "The hosers've learned not to mess with us here. We've got an agreement with the DJ - he keeps the river clear for our traders, we help him fight the other Gunners."
Skipping over what a “hoser” was, Sanjay still sounded confused. He tried again: “So you’re a mercenary then.”
"It's a diplomatic agreement he has with my government. Canada. Ronto. Ever hear of Ronto, or see those stubby little drink bottles? Ronto's where those come from." Adams continued. The poor man was probably still just incredibly hungover, he thought. "The RCMP, we're Ronto's federal police. Bodyguard duty is part of our mission.”
“Ronto, Ronto,” Sanjay mumbled under his breath. He searched for the information. Most of the traders he accompanied stopped at Almost to transfer goods and went back home. He hadn’t met anyone who had traveled any further up the river. He had heard that it was dangerous, especially the further into the vast Upstate they traveled. Maybe he had seen some crates labeled “Ronto” before, but the mention of Canada meant nothing to him. “No, never met anyone from there,” he admitted after a while. “This is the farthest up I go. Only for the tour money, you see… New York only pays me to go to Almont and back.”
"Well, now you have!" Adams shrugged, patting his revolver. "We do a good job of keeping Northwest New York safe. You say New York's paying you, though... Does that mean you work for them? Government, or mercenary work?"
To Sanjay, Adams was practically living in a different world. And with his accent and dress, he may very well have been. Sanjay had never seen any of these “Canadians” in Northwest New York - which was a strange thing to call the Hudson side of the Bronx anyways. “Corporal Sanjay Knight, New York SecDiv,” he proclaimed with some measure of exhaustion and defeat. It hadn’t impressed the Gunner earlier and he felt like Sergeant Adams wouldn’t feel intimidated either.
“Some asshole stole my badge or else I’d show it to you,” he added meekly. He gestured to his shirt. “Still got this, though.”
Sanjay, unfortunately, was quickly proven right. Adams looked down at Sanjay's shirt, briefly noting the faded patch of a blue torch with an orange flame on his left shoulder and nodded, satisfied. "Did said asshole steal anything else? You look like shit - reminds me of when I first joined the Mounties. I got so skunked the first night that I felt like my head'd explode the next morning."
“I ain’t got shit,” said the SecDiv man. “I get the badge and the gun, but the shoes? Come on, man, that’s low.”
"At least you didn't get dragged off by raiders. You got a ride home, at least?" He replied, glancing back over his shoulder.
“Yeah, about that,” Sanjay chuckled nervously. “Found myself in a ditch in a bombed out suburb outside the gates. Maybe they tried dragging my ass off but I, uh, fought them off.”
Adams shook his head in disbelief. “You got a ride home?” he repeated.
Sanjay looked at his bare feet. “No, late for the boat. These old sea captains leave right when they’re supposed to. Don’t go looking for stragglers, SecDiv or not.”
"Well, sounds like you could use one, then. We're heading down the Hudson in a day or two, if you'd be so kind as to join us." Adams beamed. " 'Course, can't say I'm doing it entirely out of the kindness of my heart, eh? After all, we have been trying to get in touch with you New-Yorkers."
“I’m not authorized to do that,” said the SecDiv man. “I’m a Corporal. You’d have to talk to the City.”
“I mean, I’ll take the ride,” he added hurriedly. “Well, under one condition. There’s a friend of mine out here we gotta find. He never came looking for me since I didn’t make it to the boat. I think he’s still here too… he was pretty fucked up before I left with, uh, a friend.”
"Deal." Adams said, tactfully refusing to inquire further. He slipped off the glove on his right hand before holding it out for a shake.
Sanjay shook it, more confident than he was before in this stranger of a tall man. They finished their drinks in the cafe, Adams downing a cup of coffee while they made small talk about each others’ hometowns. They paid, or rather Adams fronted the bill, and left back onto the streets of Almont. Immediately overtaken by the flash of brilliant light in the streets, Sanjay took a second to compose himself again. The few bottles of water didn’t help much, but he knew Charlie was out there in town somewhere.
“You said we got a day or two, right?” Sanjay asked. Adams affirmed the timeline. “Well, Charlie is around somewhere. I say we head towards the bars again. This guy will probably be around there somewhere.”