This all happened some time back now, on the 51st day of the Season of Shelter. I’ve been trying to keep it secret from untrustworthy folk, and trying to make sense of it all. But, way things spread, they probably know already.
I was wandering around the east side of the Stygian crater when I saw a stranger ((courier5)) lying down in the sand. An older man, fairly slim, his weathered face frosted by sparse grey hair and beard. Looked like he’d just been at the bad end of a fight. But that wasn’t what I noticed right away. No, I noticed his long dark coat. And his broken leg brace. Remembering the notes on Frank’s rooftop, this guy looked for all the world like Courier No. 5. So I goggled at him like I seen a ghost, until I gathered sense enough to ask if he was all right — and if he was who I thought he was. He said he was indeed a Courier, and that his name was Edward.
From what Edward said, Frank wasn’t making things up when he said he killed a Courier out on the sands. He was just confused. The man Frank robbed and killed was an old work friend of Edward’s — a big beefy fella nicknamed “Mouse,” real name of Alex. While good to know, this seemed to be getting ahead of things a little, seeing how the old man was still bleeding pretty heavy. I’d figured that he had somehow survived Frank’s attack and dragged himself out here. But if Frank had killed another Courier entirely, who DID beat up this old man?
I wasn’t surprised to learn it was the ghouls of the Black Market. Edward said that his instructions were to take his delivery pack and head to North Yard for “further instructions.” But, being a headstrong old man who thought he could talk himself out of any trouble, he’d took a shortcut through the Junkyard. A gang of seven ghouls waylaid him — though he caught only the names of Lunesta and Smokey. They were all dead set on stealing his pack, though, just as if they knew he was coming and carrying valuables. And they’d succeeded.
His failed delivery seemed to pain Edward more than his wounds. He said it was the first time he’d failed in his duties – and that this delivery had been top priority. “I wish the ghouls would’ve killed me the way the others killed Mouse,” he moaned. I sympathized, but said there seemed to be far worse stuff going on — and that we might both be able to help each other, but only if he kept alive. I gave him a can of food to help him heal his wounds — and, well, let’s just skip over the part where it was poison.
Once he was recovered, he was just about to explain his side of the story — when we both spied the Ghoulcat prowling the sands not far away. He cried out in horror, saying she was one of the ghouls who’d attacked him. Fortunately, between the sun and the fungus, she seemed too addled to recognize him — just reassured him that she was out hunting scrap. Even called him “stranger,” like she remembered nothin’. She wandered on, but Edward’s terror was unflagging. He begged me to go after her and try to get his pack back. I tossed him another Flatbread, told him to hold tight, and pursued Kitty into the strange concrete structure of Ashvasta.
I tried to ask her about the pack, and if I could trade for it. Even in the shade of the bunker, she was either too forgetful or too untrusting to go for it. She said she didn’t have the pack, was only passing through, and never laid a hand on the old man, having nothing to do with the Market anymore anyway. Said she was only curious about what he could possibly want, out in Reaver Land — especially as the strange nomad, Augustsa, had given her some shoulder armor and told her to guard the North Yard border. I’d known Agustsa to be fond of that land, but so far as I knew, Reavers trusted its protection to nobody beyond their cult. Besides, few had seen him in moons, anyway. I shrugged it off as possible confusion. Along with, frankly, most other things she said. Who could I believe? A beaten up old man who’d been lying in the sun, or a ghoul who’d apparently forgotten him already? I suspected she knew more, but knew she’d only reveal it through one person in all the Wastes: the wiry and wily old ghoul called Syruss. Who, himself, puttered off to parts unknown for moons at a time.
One thing was clear, if nothing else: Kitty didn’t have the pack and didn’t much care. So I headed back to the old man, hoping he hadn’t snuffed it while I was gone.
He was feeling better, though – bandages wrapped around his wounds, and a little of the color come back to his face. He seemed more surprised to see ME alive. But I broke the news that I didn’t get his pack, and explained what I’d heard. He swore she was hunting and beating him right along with the rest, but I didn’t bother arguing. Just tried to reassure him that I’d get in touch with contacts to try to get his pack back, though he said it was prob’ly too late.
I knew that, given how sad he was over the pack, bringing up the loss of his friend would help nothing, either. But I figured, if I couldn’t deliver him his stuff, I could at least tell him what I knew about how his friend had passed, and at whose hands, and why we even knew about it all. So I decided to go all-in.
Edward seemed totally unaware of his role in all this. Or that he even had a role. Hell, when I asked him point blank if he was Courier No. 5, he laughed, said yes, and wondered why I even knew about that. And he seemed even more amused when I pulled out my notepad and started thumbing through its pages. “Is there some mystery I am unaware of?” he said with a kindly chuckle. “Oh boy, is there ever,” I replied.
His expression hardened as I told him I thought I knew who killed Mouse. I urged him to keep it all under his hat, lest word get back around and spoil my ability to learn more from my sources. Not to mention how it might get him killed for good. Back then, I thought Frank knew more than he let on, or was more than just a pawn in Ozgram’s game. Obviously, I’m less convinced of that now. (Sorry, Francis, but them’s the breaks.)
Edward agreed, and explained that a Courier is referred to by his number while on the course of duty. It’s the number on the pack he carries. Edward took sick on that fateful day — so Mouse, Courier No. 4, had taken up the No. 5 pack and walked those rounds. I figured that when Frank, a little shy on the literacy yet, saw the 5 on the pack, Mouse was the man he robbed and killed — disregarding the differences in size and age and lack of leg brace.
We were both baffled at this point — each knowing what seemed like half of a story, if that. A man who trades in messages for a living, I thought, and a man who’d lost a friend, had a right to understand what happened. So I started at the start, or tried to, skipping over some of it like a rock skimmed over water. “The only thing we had tyin’ anything to anything, when that girl died at the Bazaar, was her muttering about a Courier, an’ the Digger remembering that one o’ the Brutes, Madeye, left a note for him once, courtesy o’ one of your lot…”
I explained what I’d found at Franks. Read that hit note describing him to a tee. Edward’s eyes grew wide. “This is news to me…” he murmured. I mentioned the shack with the mattress, blood spatter, and bits of leg brace, fishing the latter from my pack and handing them over. He recognized them as pieces of his own old leg brace, which Mouse had fixed up. I told him we’d thought the blood-splat must’ve been HIM, at first.
And I asked him if he’d ever heard the names Lajka or Loonella.
The first name seemed not to ring with him at all, but on the second, he gulped. “Loonella? Did you say Loonella?”
Not that it’s a common name, but I clarified. “Slim girl.. weird tattoo on ‘er neck? You knew her?”
“Yes, yes! Have you seen her?!” he asked – more like pleaded.
And this was about where I wanted to burrow myself a hole and hide in it. I winced and looked at a random patch of sand a while, muttering “I said somethin’ earlier about a dead girl an’ the Bazaar, an’, well….” Summoning up whatever tact I ad left, I told him, “I’m… afraid there’s been some… trouble.”
His face just fell. Cold, numb shock seemed to creep over him – followed by heavy breathing and trembling and rising dread. “What did you say?” he asked me. I sighed, and tried to clarify things. “She’s… she’s how all this sorta began, on our end. We were all at the Bazaar, an’ she run up, beaten badly, an’ she collapsed… She muttered a few things to us… things what din’t make no sense. She knew us — knew us by name, but we ain’t ne’er seen nor heard o’ her in our lives…”
But he wanted it told to him straight. With a stony look on his face, he raised his voice and asked outright, “Is she dead?”
I could only nod. I told him there was nothing we could do, though we’d tried.
And he broke down in tears.
I seen many things out here in the Wastes. Killings and betrayals and all sorts of sadness. But nothing ever quite so raw as this skinny old man in the long black coat, beaten all to hell, lying in the sand and crying as if his heart had just been tore out of him. In anger he clawed a handful of sand from the ground and threw it – and of course it just became so much dust in the wind, and came drifting back to him, sticking to the sweat and blood and tears on his lined face.
I told him I was sorry… which never sounds like the right thing to say at these times, but then what does. And he composed himself after a couple moments, but was still racked with grief. In as soothing a way as I could, I told him, “It… it might help ye to know that… whate’er the purpose o’ it was… she seemed to carry out some o’ the deeds she set out to do, ‘fore she passed.”
Oddly, he grinned a little through the tears and dust. “That do not surprise me…. She always was a courier’s daughter.”
At about that time, Masaka came up. I introduced the man as Edward, Courier No. 5, and introduced Masaka to him as another person who was at the Bazaar the day Loonella came to us. He smiled, not so much at her as at his own memories, it seemed. “So you saw her too… She was always a beautiful girl. I could tell that on the day she was born…” Masaka gave me a sidelong glance. I absentmindedly rubbed my bloody nose.
The old man was suffering in about as many ways as a body could suffer, all at once, but I knew I had to give him the honest truth. “Yer a messenger; I’m a Press writer. We both know that there’s times ye just gotta tell it straight. I don’t wanna hurt yer feelings none, but… I don’t wanna lie, neither.” Wary, he eyed me over. “What do you mean?”
Even then, it was hard to just come out and say. Still is, remembering that face. “She… weren’t lookin’ too good, when we saw ‘er. She was mighty beat up. Mighty bloody.” “Aye, she was not long for these parts,” Masaka affirmed. His battered body was racked with sobs again.
“Listen,” he told us through tears. “A long time ago, me and the other couriers found two babies left in a rusty barrel. A boy and a girl. We all became fathers to the kids.” They didn’t let themselves think much about how they got there. “Loonella was one of the babies.”
I nodded, but something he’d said itched at my brain. “The other was a boy?” He nodded, caught up again in memories and aching to share them with anyone who’d known her at all.
“We took care of the kids. But it didn’t take long until ‘Mother’ found out…” he said. “The boy’s name became Moy-Moy,” he continued with a small laugh. “It was his first words. But, of course, ‘Mother’ would giver him another name later…” “Mother,” he explained, was what the couriers called their employer, the woman who gave them all their missions. She took the children from the couriers, though they still tried to see “their” kids as often as they could. He implied that “Mother” didn’t much live up to her name.
But my brain was racing to figure out who this Moy-Moy was, what he’d been renamed. I couldn’t help but interrupt Edward’s reminiscence. “Ozgram?” I asked.
Edward’s face grew stern. “Ozgram… That is a man ‘Mother’ has great issues with. They have fought a long time. But still there is some sort of strange affection between them. I personally hate the man. A snob with a maniacal mind…” he said, the distaste plain on his face. That was all he knew of Ozgram, he told me. And, it seemed, all he’d want to sully his mind with knowing.
His face seemed to stay just as stern as he recalled seeing the kids less and less over time, until they didn’t see them at all anymore. Then one of the couriers heard Moy-Moy had “escaped after some incident between him and ‘Mother’ at some sort of mossy bloodswamp or something…” “Bloodmoss Swamp, I’d wager,” I said, and he said that was the place. Strange, I thought, given how long it’s been impassable.
By now, I was about as wary of this “Mother” as of anyone, and my suspicion must have been plain. “Now, you must understand, girls,” he went on, “I honor and respect ‘Mother’ a lot. She has been good to me. But I always knew she treated the kids wrong”
He told us of the day, not long prior, when they learned Loonella was missing. It wasn’t long after Mouse got killed. But, even though he had no idea where his daughter was, her death still came as a shock. “She was strong,” he told me. “She was raised half her life by couriers…”
I told him, for whatever comfort it was, that we’d buried her proper under a little cairn beneath the Desert Schooner. Said she’d passed along the key to the Mutant Witch, and that we’d found the stones in the girl’s pocket, hoping he might know something about either strange item. Unfortunately, he knew just as little as we do, saying only that Loonella liked to collect things. But, weirdly, he’d heard of the Mutant Witch — remembering a day when “Mother” was swearing mad at Loonella for talking on end about her. He didn’t remember the meat of the conversation, though, just the defiance.
‘Bout this time, Masaka ran off hunting a buzzard. So, having to worry less about keeping up with who knew what, I got a bit more blunt. I asked what he knew about “freeing the courier” in seven moons’ time — well, five then, and even less now. Or about the box that Frank claimed was in the pack. Edward shook his head on both counts. “Oh, we never know what is in our packs, and especially not each other’s. It’s against the rules.”
“Same’s true o’ the envelopes, then?” I asked, taking the ornately-stamped envelope from my notebook and passing it over to him, explaining where I found it. He agreed, saying it was Mouse who’d carried the pack and the envelope that day. But it hardly explained why the pieces from Edward’s old leg brace were found in the shack. Much less the envelope itself. Both were things only Mouse would have had access to.
So I told him what Frank had told us, about Lajka busting Loonella from the shack and calling her “Big Sister,” and how others had heard her say similar things (among the mutterings.) But Edward just repeated that Loonella had no sister, and that this Lajka must have been a close friend. Having never met Lajka at that point, I didn’t wanna say she was rumored to be a yammering fire-starting whackadoo.
Treading careful, I told Edward that Frank seemed eager to take ‘credit’ for killing Loonella, and admitted beating her for information on the key, but I said I wasn’t certain if he’d really dealt the killing blows. After all, if she’d been as wounded when she left the shack as she was at the Bazaar, she wouldn’t have got too far, and probably wouldn’t have survived that long anyhow. Edward guessed that Frank may have just lied, maybe killed Mouse in the shack as well.
He was a little more interested in where Frank was, and why he might have kidnapped Loonella at all. He seemed quiet enough as he asked, but I suspected he was prepared to use his every scrap of strength to destroy Frank, Madeye, and anyone allied. However… Frank hadn’t just up and decided to kidnap her. And I couldn’t let him think so. Especially not when the facts (or “facts,” comin’ from Frank,) might make more sense to Edward than to me.
So, tactful as I could, I told him, “The feller who hired ‘im to off Mouse, the feller who hired ‘im to kidnap Loonella, the feller who apparently will stop at nothin’ to get this key, whate’er it’s for…was Ozgram.”
“Ozgram! I shoulda known!” Edward shouted. He said it made a strange sort of sense – that Ozgram would never kill Loonella. Said that he and “Mother” had a love-hate relationship that made him think they must’ve been old lovers. Purposely trying to harm the girl “Mother” guarded didn’t sound like a cunning plan, to me. Edward asked whether I thought the Brutes were overstepping their assignments — and I could only agree. Since Ozgram seemed to want Loonella alive, and wanted the Courier Frank killed alive, to boot. Though I mentioned how obsessive Frank got about the key, and how he was already fit to piss on the name of Ozgram for things he wouldn’t mention, so Frank might of had his “reasons.”
Edward asked where the key was, if it was safe with the Mutant Witch as Loonella had asked. But I had no idea who held it, just that the Mutant Witch wanted nothing to do with it. He repeated that he had no clue what the key was, but looked entreatingly at me, saying “If Loonella wanted the key to go to the Mutant Witch, that’s where it should go. Would you see to it that Loonella’s wish comes true? I do not know what is so important about it, but I know I am to wounded and way too old to see it back to the Witch.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done, with someone as stone-stubborn as the Witch. But I said I’d do as I could – not that that’s much.
As for the stolen packs, Edward seemed to not care anymore. Said he quit the Courier business. Failed delivery or no, he was more concerned with Loonella. But he seemed to have faith that all of us together would be able to figure out what was going on.
“I believe that your questions will be answered if you keep up investigating. And taking that key, gathering that info and discovering the hidden messages might mean that you need to use force. […]Gather everybody you can, retrieve the key, and I shall head back and see what I can find out. I will not speak of our meeting, only to the other Couriers, whom I would trust with my life.” Having the key in the right place, he said, would get us the answers. “Find the key, bring it to the Witch. Finish Loonella’s delivery.”
And with a few parting words, he prepared for the long journey into the Outlands, wherever the Couriers dwell.
Needless to say, we Wastelanders don’t make anything an easy job. We doubt everything and everyone. Especially weird Outlanders. But this much seems clear: ain’t no man can fake as much grief as Edward showed at the news Loonella had died. Edward probably didn’t know everything, and may have been confused on some bits, but I’ll bet my shirt he wasn’t lying. Events since then have proved he wasn’t making it all up. We’ve even met Ozgram, who I can only guess is reading this paper as well. (And so what if he is. The more of us who know, the better we can dodge his lies. And there’s more Us than there is Him any day.)
At the end of that long talk — and even now, moons later — there was still nothing more I really knew about the key, about the stones, about Ozgram, about anything. And yet, knowing more about the Couriers – knowing Loonella as the couriers’ daughter, struggling to the last to deliver her final message, seems to make the mystery that much more personal.
This whole time, a lot of us have asked ourselves, “Who are these people anyway?” “What do we care for their troubles?” ‘Tis easy to dismiss the whole tale as nothing that matters to us. Or, on the opposite end, there’s all this talk of stones and cages and invincible monsters and other such hipposhit. Doom-saying nonsense out to cause panic and strife. All I know right now is this: the bones beneath the rocks are of a brave and tenacious daughter. And, somewhere out there, her proud and loving father walks the sands, carrying her memory. We saw her die right before our eyes, and it may have meant little to us – but to him, it means all the pain in the world. His only comfort is the knowledge that she died for a purpose. Died trying to deliver something to us, and out of the hands of Ozgram. Died trying to save one of her fellow fathers.
For all the talk of keys and stones, boxes and cages, this is not about things. It’s about family. We rarely think about those who reared us: the people we lost, the people we left, the people we couldn’t leave soon enough. But we’ve forged our own families here, in mentors, clans, and allies. When an enemy can mean your death, a friend can mean as much as life. So, if just for this – this and no time else – imagine if Loonella were your own sister. If those were her bones in the shadows. If that were your father on the sands. Seeking redemption for what was, and what never got to be.
We might not know what the key and stones are, or what they do, or what they’re for. It might not matter as much as we’re led to think. But to a daughter and her father, they mean everything. Maybe, just for now, that’s enough.
Finish the delivery.