Wastelanders generally don’t have the time to think about the past. We’re too busy trying not to die before nightfall. And we surely don’t have the time to think of the past and present affairs of those distant settlements beyond our borders. But everyone comes from somewhere. Everyone has a story. There are Wasters running our streets today with stories unknown to everyone but themselves. Even though we know their faces. Even though we know their names. We speak with them, trade with them, and fight them. But, as the recently discovered journal in Malady Bog shows, there are countless others out there, wanderers and refugees, who never reach our horizon. We never know they existed. We never know they’re gone. And our life goes on unaffected.
But there are times – strange times – when their stories survive. On old scraps of paper, in battered diaries, or sometimes etched in ancient stone. We will never speak with them, trade with them, or fight them. And we will never know their faces. But with the power of the written word, we can know who they were, know what they experienced – and, sometimes, learn more about the Wastelands itself. And when we’re very lucky, we even get to know their names.
His name was Rolf.
Let me be all manner of clear: what follows is only my speculation. I could be completely and embarrassingly wrong about every last bit of it! If anyone else has theories, rumors, or other information that could help shed light on it all, I’d be glad to sit down with you and get it all written down. But, for now, here’s what I think about a few selected bits.
((Much of this writing is scrawled poorly in charcoal on very worn paper, each paragraph denotes a new entry.))
MePauh fund dis green book with gud paper in it today and gives it to me. MeMaw said I shuld praktis writtans. She sez its importunt becuz witoht it we cant learn frum duh pass or tell warns to duh futre. So I take time to be rightan all dee importunt days in here. Muhby I get so gud, I read old wurld books.
This makes me wonder how old Rolf was. Young enough to still be somewhat in the care of his parents, clearly – though families tend to look out for their own at any age.
It’s sum duh ys after duh duble moon of duh seasun of Voilent Winds. Maws’ been yappin’ at duh muties, tryin’ta make up fer when we assiduntily borrow’d der tent during tha sandstorm. Dey didn’ta like it wen we did it — but is nothin’ a few raw buzzrds can fix. Pauh usta say if yuh make a mutie angry give him sum food and share a story. Den all will be right. Muties love stories.
This was the first reference to any time. Rolf started this journal over one year ago. Their settlement seems to have some relations with Mutants, as well.
It’s been extra hot dis seasun of duh Fire King, I dunt remumber if it’s duh duble or tri moon. Tuhday Pauh showd me his secrit diggin spots, where he gets duh best scrap to trade. Lots of duh old wurl stuff dunt make sense to me or Pauh. On duh way to duh masheen Pauh shot an angry dog with his bow. We had a dog named Wrinkl, but we had to eat him durin tuff times. You culd say hes still wit us in spirit and body.
I’m as excited as anyone else that somebody, somewhere, has figured out how to craft the fabled Bow… but I’m more interested in the fact he mentions a Masheen. I’d always thought The Wastelands was the only settlement around that still had those mysterious Old World devices – and thought that was why so many of them came here. Perhaps they’re more common than we thought. Perhaps other Old World devices are, as well.
Wen we got to duh masheen wit our scrap, it wus jammd. We spunt all time dere tryin’ta fix it, move duh clog. We tought we dun got if fixt, but it started to smoke when we loaded duh dog and chafin fuel in.
Seems they discovered chafing fuel cans a little earlier than we did, as well. Who knows what weird strata of scrap is closer to the surface elsewhere in the world. Interesting to know, as well, that their Masheens sometimes just sputter out for some reason.
I tell Pauh, maby when duh metul man comes he will fix it like he always do. Pauh toll me dat he hurd rumors dat duh metal man dunt fix duh masheens no more, and dat he wanders duh sands lookin fer sumpin he cant find. I tink he will come. Dese masheens be here older dan time. Metul man can not fix dem right? is what he fer.
On my first read, I assumed that he was talking about the Tin Man. He’s always maintained the Masheens around here, and as fast as he flies, it’s not unreasonable that he’d maintain every Masheen he can reach. And he, too, has gone absent since The Incident. Fortunately, none of our Masheens have jammed since, so we’ve had no way to know if the Tin Man truly doesn’t fix them anymore. He has been seen bringing his wrath on those who fight near them, however. And our own rumors also say that the Tin Man is out walking the Wastes, ever since he ran off to the west.
But what if that’s a bad assumption? What if this is not the same metal man at all – but another of the Rust Men? Gill — contemptible Gill — had bits and pieces of a Rust Man in his tent. An eye. A helmet. As durable as those metal men are, there’s no way of telling how old those things were. Maybe they were buried for uncountable years until Gill dug them up. Or maybe they were harvested more recently. His table also had that strange Hot Knife – something like a powered Flayer. Folks better at masheening than I said it looked like the blade of it would get real hot – hot enough to melt metal like hippo fat in a fire. Gill himself might not have had the strength to even lift that device – but he had the charm and the resources to have little trouble hiring help.
What if, after the Tin Man’s Incident, he somehow became aware of Rust Men in other places? What if they became aware of him? Gill, unreliable as he was, seemed adamant that the Rust Men were Old World agents of unscrupulous destruction. But our Tin Man, at least, refrained from killing everything he saw. Hell, it seemed like he only vanished those folks who were causing us harm. I don’t know that his metal skull holds any real compassion for us meatsacks, and he did seem to enjoy watching us beat each other up… but he didn’t seek out our suffering. Other Rust Men supposedly do. Who knows what other memories were encoded in that crystal – how fragmented they still might have been, after the assembly. But it seems like it would take one powerful threat to make it even look like the Tin Man had left his post.
Pauh said it is time to hoard dat duh dark days is comin’ again. We took sum of duh scrap we beed savin to duh masheen, but duh masheen wuz black like it wuz on fire.
This was apparently written near the start of the Season of Hoarding, either the one most recently past, or one before it. Ours went bust about midway through the Season of the Fire King, two spans of seasons past. Half a season is a fairly long difference, presuming this was in the same year. If that thing just went bad on its own, that’s one thing. But what if it was sabotage? Maybe the Brominites? Maybe Gill, on one of his long absences? It would take an old man some time to travel to other lands – and the presence of salvagers anywhere would inflame his desire for control. More questions than answers here. Still – they went to the Masheen expecting it to work. It’s hard telling just how long it’s been since the page written during the Season of the Fire King. It had been well enough in that he could compare it to past seasons… but if the heat was brutal enough, you could make a call like that after barely a half-moon.
If it was the very end of the season, though… hell, maybe this smoke was only a couple days later.
We spunt a few days lookin fer duh food man. He is scary ugly. He must walk duh sands a lot. When we find him he wuz on de edge of the villuge headin’ out. He travulz a lot and sees sum stuff — he sez dat duh masheen is broke and duh settulmunt will fall to duh sands.
So they’ve had to put up with that ugly old bugger as well. Makes me wonder if, in his sun-fried brains, he wouldn’t know a little about that place.
He goin east to the last great settulmunt duh wuztlunds. I laff becuz no one ever make it over duh great smulder mountun. He sez you has to go in and under to not get sick. He ugly and dum too. We trade a lot of scrap for food.
So, this settlement must lay west, where we’ve heard there are many mountains. But I’ve heard nothing yet of a smoldering one. The only burning mountain I know is the caldera of Fort Stygian, and that’s not quite the same thing. Mountains are bigger than that, trust me. “In and under,” though? That must mean there’s some tunnel through the mountain itself. Rolf apparently didn’t ask, dismissing the Trader as stupid. But someone who walks the wider Wastes for a living must know a thing or two about shortcuts…
It so cold at night. Maw wuz yellin at Pauh because we can’t make duh fire makers at duh masheen anymore.
And we never have. I know that, in days before my time, folks sometimes dug up boxes of Matches. Little sticks that made fire when you rubbed them on something rough. We’ve got enough well-tended fires that we don’t usually want for it – someone, somewhere’s, always got an unattended burning barrel you can catch a light from. But our Masheen has definitely never made any fire-makers. Yet.
A big beetle came into our home. Pauh killed it, den he showd me where it’s soft spots are so that I can kill one. I like cooked beetle, dey taste like nuts from duh ground.
Interesting beasts walk those lands. But it sounds like they can be taken down by one person – so long as they know where to strike. And there’s food on them, too! Maybe they’ll migrate to our parts, as well; one can only eat so much mold.
Pauh says we need to move, but Maw wants to stay. I think Maw is right to stay becuz its too cold. But lots of people have already left.
Wit no food man and no masheen it is hard. Pauh is out almost all days lookin fer scrap or huntin’ in duh cold. I start to help and look too becuz I am hungry.
Sounds like the Food Trader was right – without the Masheen, the settlement starts to fall. But it sounds to me like it’s more because everybody left. Who knows, if they’d all stuck around and collaborated… eh, who am I kidding. If the Masheen first got jammed in the Season of the Fire King, they’d have been wise to start their travels then. The heat would have been brutal, but it would have cooled down a little during the Season of Hoarding, and depending on where they went, they might have found a new settlement by Withering’s Eve – or at least by Giftmas.
I found clan of mutants and trade them some spices and a story for them to help us make fire. Dey say is you hit metal on sum rock it makes the Fire King happy. Pauh wuz upset that I trade some spice for fire, but I think he happy we stay warm at night.
I’ve only heard the faintest rumors of spices before. They’re bits of plants that make your food taste better. They’re not a meal on their own – some taste downright awful if you eat a big mouthful of it. But a tiny amount can go a long way, and can make even the worst food a little more palatable. This settlement might have been fairly prosperous.
Our Tin Man has, on a couple rare occasions, been seen to dig up or otherwise recover Salvage Masheens. Since we’d never heard of other settlements with Masheens before, it might have been plausible that they were only recently dug up. But if these people have no knowledge of how to create fire without the Masheens, clearly it’s been a part of their lives and culture for years.
Tonight a big beetle came into our home again. I killed it. Maw made me a hat from its shell.
…I want a beetlehat. That is all.
Bad news! Pauh came home covered in blood. He said a big snake bit him and he has the inside sickness. Even when he wuz sick he found a book fer me. Pauh is very sick, so I will go to get food and medkits in the morning. Maw wants to stay to make him better.
Probably one of them Monstrous Rattlers we find the fangs of. Nobody I know of has seen one – they’re stealthy for their size, and the rattling actually warns you they’re there. They don’t usually just jump you. Usually. Still, when one does, you’re in for some trouble. Our Rattlesnakes can still deal some terrible poison – and they’ve only got the residue inside them.
Looks like Rolf met his goal, though – he’s reading Old World books.
I went to duh masheen, but I forgot it is broke. I wanted to trade for medkits for Pauh, but almost all people are gone. Dere wuz only one family left, but dey had no medkits to trade. So I go home, but I remember story from mutants about manimals who know what roots make sickness go away. I camp alone tonight to find them later.
I spend all day to go to yellow hills, but I do not find manimals. I only find ghoul sitting in water, I stayd away. I don’t like manimals, but I don’t like the dead more. Pauh says manimals are gross and dirty and stupid liars, but I need medkits real bad, and mutants say dey know. I keep all scrap I find to give to dem.
Seems like plants are more powerful than we’ve realized here – or perhaps we haven’t found or cultivated the right ones. I’ve heard of elders chewing bundles of leaves and roots for health, but thought it was old superstition. And there’s almost nothing more superstitious than a Manimal. But they’re not very good at masheening, Manimals – the worst of the lot can’t even figure out how buttons work. And as the Masheens are, at least in our parts, the centers of settlements – and since Manimals are typically wary of every other race (and much of their own,) they’d have to have other ways of healing.
I find big rat den in morning and eat rat, save some for later. I spent a lot of day in yellow hills. Maw sez yellow mold is good for you, but it is gross.
That’s the second mention of yellow hills – followed by a direct mention of yellow mold. Are these hills just covered in it?
At high sun I find a manimal at a dead trader camp. I wuz afraid becuz he prolly kilt them, but Pauh needs medkits so I hide and shout. Manimal find me but do not eat me. It is hard to talk to manimal, and I had to use baby words and draw shapes in the mud. He do not speak gud like I do. Manimal pull two roots and plant from sack. He chewed them up, eat them, then throw up into small jars. He want rat for vomit. I laff but he insist. Manimal don’t want scrap, so I leave it dere. I dunno but Pauh is sick so I make trade.
First off, gross. Secondly… okay, double gross. But, cunning as Manimals are, they typically don’t have the smarts to be deceitful on a deal. That sort of thing takes greater social skills. They might make bad trades, or jump you after you turn your back, but to actually run some crazy puke-scam is likely beyond their ken. I’ve never heard of such a treatment, but I’ve usually had medkits.
I run home for two days, but have to hide in car trunk because of fly swarm. Dat ghoul wuz still dere, mebby he dead or maybe he just ghoul. In duh morning I bring Pauh medicine.
Probably Skinbore flies. They sure feel like they could pierce through metal, though.
((The next few pages are torn out))
We have to go now that Pauh is buried. I want to burn him like duh mutants do, but Maw want to put him in duh ground. In duh morn we take duh food and try to go to duh wuztlunds. It are far away and we dunt have sandhippo and cart like otha familes.
No telling how much time has passed since the last entry, or what all was written. Part of me desperately wants to know what happened in these days – if there are other mentions of strange creatures, people, or items unknown to us. But I think that’s not the point, and that I’d be missing a point that I think Rolf had figured out on his own at these times: that preserving stories and memories is all well and good, but that there are some things that words can’t do justice to. The act of writing helps – but the words themselves are too crude and too human, and too abstract and too ideal, all at the same time.
Something tells me that at least one of those pages was burned.
It bee many days now. Maw and Imake it thro green valley, but had to cover selves in stinkmud to keep the burn bugs off. Maw tries to not cry, but I hear her when I sleep. I try to be strong like Pauh so she no feel bad. I think it make her sadder.
Who’d have thought that anything remotely close to us was green? But it might not be plants – it could be Green Fungus, or lichens. I wonder if these ‘burn bugs’ are anything like those beetles that he’d seen before.
((This entry is almost unreadable)) Maw go to food. Snake bite. She cry all time. I say I am bad, you are good. You no go, I am good. Arm big now. Dog vomit taste so bad. Sleep.
Damned snakes. It’s a little hard to understand what he’s saying here, but amazing he could write that much when wracked with poison. At least the Manimal’s medicine is finding use for someone.
Sand hippo meat is rotten and water is filled with bugs. When I gots up, Maw wuz not here. I think I sleep for many days. Arm is sore, but not look like bloated river squirrel. I will wait for Maw, she probably on long scav run for medkits.
It be many days, and I call for Maw all times. It hard becuz I am sleepy, dog vomit make me feel better but gross.
It sounds like the strange medicine works. If nothing else, it seems to help you sleep – and maybe it makes the swelling go down, too. This could be no easy time for Rolf – unable to rightly defend himself, much less his only surviving parent.
((A page is torn out)) I think Maw is lost, so I will leave a write here so she know to meet me before Smuldering Mountun at the trader post. She did not take much supply so she not be gone too far right?
I wonder, again, how old he was. His settlement seemed relatively prosperous, which might foster some naivite. But on a hard journey like this, one has to keep hopeful. Fearing the worst for his mother would only have distracted him and put him in more danger.
I find a very old man today who live at edge of long flats. He say he saw a woman who look like Maw head to trader post many days ago. He trade me some bacon for yellow mold. Good deal for me!
The Wastelands does not exactly have an overabundance of old men. Much less very old men. Much less very old men who seem to live alone in the Wastes. The Food Trader looks somewhat old behind all those scars, but he’s already been mentioned by name. So I wonder if he didn’t meet that limping devil Gill.
((The writting is evidently strained)) I found Maw, she is dead now. Someone cut her up bad and took her things when she wuz sleeping. I will find dem, and I will kill. I burned Maw like da mutants do — so dat her rage could go to the sun, and burn our enemies in the day. Mutants say us paleskins cant handle the gaze of the Fire King, which is why we live underground. MeMaw and MePauh would want nothing less than revenge. I keep Pauhs’ book, and I keep Maws’ sandal.
Fuck it all.
It have been a long time, but the trader post is gone. It wuz good shelter for the night, but crawling with crag sliks by morning. Nothing but bone and tough skin on those. Not worth the fire to cook ’em on. I can smell Smuldering Mountun from here. I better make it across in a day. Pauh says you can’t sleep there because of the fumes.
You mention to me a missing Trade Post, and you know the first thing I think of. But this couldn’t have been Kronbelt. For one, I never heard of a “crag slik” in my life, and I was Guard for the Post for a good many moons. If there’d have been such things around, we’d have shot ’em. Second, that line before said something about “before Smuldering Mountun at the trader post.” Any mountains would have been well west of the Post, and we know this fella was tracking east. It’s possible to get lost, sure. But, regardless, I couldn’t even smell the fires of Stygian from the Post. This had to have been a fair bit away.
I made it across Smuldering Mountun, but it took three days of hiking. I feel really sick. Duh food man is probably right, I wish I knowed dat tunnel. A days rest and I should be ready to head to Bludmoss Swump.
That’s a hell of a big mountain. You could chop off my legs and all but two fingers, and even I could still probably climb the High Mesa in one day – this must be unimaginably bigger. And why does it smolder? Is it full of that same hot blood of the land that’s welled up in the Stygian caldera? That stuff surely doesn’t smell like Frut, but I’ve never known anyone to get sick from being too near it. And besides, that’s not so much a ‘smoldering’ crater as a ‘blatant searing-hot pool of horrible flaming death.’ Yellow hills, green valleys, smoldering mountains… he’s writing this for himself, and he knows what he’s talking about. He’s got all the lore of his homeland. But it’s too vague for us utter strangers to fathom what he’s telling us about.
((This final entry seems slurred and loose in writting)) Dah Bludmoss wuz blooming. Br~~~ i ~~~ rd. One more day and I should make it to dah w~~lunds. But~~~eed to rest first. ~~~~~
Reading all that makes me curious, sure, about all the details we don’t know. About the bugs, and the snakes, and the roots, and the bow, and especially the very old man. It makes me curious, sure, about what other records might be lying in the muck, or otherwise hidden just outside our reach. It makes me curious, sure, about what Rolf’s past could tell us about our future.
But more than anything else, reading all that makes me curious about who Rolf could have been in the present, if it hadn’t all been snatched away at the very last goddamn minute.
All of that – all the risk, all the pain, all the endurance that it took in mind and body just to get anywhere even close to here… and he arrives right at the rare time the godsbedamned Bloodmoss is in bloom, and the toxic spores and swamp gases and everything else is going mad, and there’s no damn way to survive it all. He lost his Paw, he lost his Maw, he almost snuffed it himself, and he makes it just far enough to die a single step inside our borders. And that damned moss that took his life has the gall to wrap around him and take his face as well. Reduced to another strained and morbid memorial, for scavenging Wastelanders to stumbling over as they run their daily rounds. I figured he and his fellow bog-mummies were simply those too stubborn or stupid to heed the signs, to flee Bloodmoss before the toxins and gases proved fatal.
Poor Rolf, he was just in the right place at the wrong time. Any earlier, and he’d have found a relatively quiet swamp community, and a working Salvager just within the border. He’d have found folks to trade with, and maybe a shelter for the night. And when the darkness began to fade, he’d have likely climbed up the sandy, mossy mounds at the border and walked on the roads of the Wastelands proper. He’d have seen, for the first time, those things we’ve run past each and every day for years. He’d have seen, for the first time, some of the faces we find so familiar. And we’d have spoken with him. Traded with him. And fought with him. And he’d soon have his first taste of hot, tarry asphalt as he lay face down in the road. And he’d get up again, as we all do, and brush himself off, as we all do. And he’d have looked out, towards the unreachable East, as the tender light of dawn crawled over the jagged rooftops. And he’d see a gritty, hard-bitten, ruined town, no promised land at all – and smile. Knowing that, by surviving, he had kept a promise to himself, and to Paw, and to Maw, and to all those of his settlement whose days and ways he could, in time, tell to whatever allies he might forge. And all those sad and empty pages of his journal could instead have been filled with seasons of new stories, written in part by all of us he ever chanced to meet.
Rolf, he did not make it. But we have. We Wastelanders are a tribe of acquaintances, enemies, and friends, all of us struggling for one more day of life in this broken and blighted land. All of us with our joys, our sorrows, and our mysteries. All of us with a past. And, all gods willing, all of us with a future. Rolf never got to be one of us. But, as strange as its creatures and features may be, we can read his words and learn his tale and see our own stories within his. Which might remind us that we can see our own stories within each other, strange as they may be. There’s no way of changing Rolf’s unfortunate past, and only time will tell if his story has any bearing on our future. As ever, as always, there is only today.
Rest in peace, Rolf. And may the King of Fire visit fury upon those enemies you had no chance to destroy.