I have heard it said that “cautious optimism” is something of a mental illness out here in the Zone, considering all the misery and danger that get heaped on every poor soul still breathing. Most folks suffer from this illness from time to time, usually when they’ve got full bellies, a decent place to sleep, and maybe somebody else to cozy up with until morning. Generally these fits of madness don’t last long, because sooner or later you’ll be hungry again, far from shelter, and on your own. That’s when you’ll return to a more sane and nihilistic outlook, where survival is the only thing. You’ll remember that the world ain’t getting better at all, it’s still the same hazardous ruin of a place as it ever was. It’s a vicious cycle of perspective and most of us are stuck in it, soaring with the highs of safety and abundance while riding out the lows of danger and scarcity, our states of mind pretty much dependent upon what we think we have.
I heard someone say once that a wastelander’s fate was to endure life in the constant grip of paranoia and hardship, towards no purpose but survival. Pretty dark stuff, and likely whoever said that had probably experienced the unique sensation of waking up from a restful slumber to the harsh reality of being slowly digested by a sentient cactus. That sort of thing can give a person the bleaker sort of outlook on life, the end of optimism, bottle caps having two sides and whatnot. At least that’s how I felt when it happened to me, like it would anyone else, then again, there’s always the exception to the rule, and that exception is Bart Rover.
As you are laying there, with your arms bound up in thorny pedals, watching your right leg dissolve thanks to the secretions seeping onto it from the cactus blossoms poised above your body, there’s a moment where one might insist that yes, optimism is for crazy people. To hear Bart tell it, the sight of his flesh slowly melting off the bone gave him a sudden and deep appreciation for the tenacity of life. In this scorched turd of a world here was a life form that had not just adapted, but found a way to thrive. As he looked up from his mess of a leg Bart could see that the endless barren miles of desert were obscured by dozens of large cactus plants that seemingly had appeared overnight. Needless to say it was something of a chilling sight.
Bart had been attempting to cross a particularly rugged part of the Zone on his range cycle, which wasn’t much more than a glorified dirt bike with a few pieces of armor over the gears and an extended rack for additional saddlebags. There was a salvage job waiting for him in a border settlement called Crystal Lake, which overlooked a deep and dry lakebed of the same name. Apparently some Prospector was crewing up and looking for a driver who could handle a wind skiff, presumably so that they could sail out into the lakebed and scrap one of the many beached ships from the old world. The silt was easily ten to twenty feet deep in most places, so skilled drivers who could pilot the skiffs were in high demand.
According to Bart he actually grew up in Crystal Lake, and before leaving town to explore his better fortunes he’d been quite the skiffer. Crystal Lake was deep Zone, and the border settlement was generally pretty isolated because of how long it took to get there from just about anywhere, and only a few dozen folk were ever living there at one time. If you were coming from the metropoli, or even frontier towns like Pump Station 8 or Tannerville, you had to take a long broken road, left over from the ancient world, which ran in a wide arc around the desert flats. That road, its name forgotten, connected many frontier towns and specifically the metropolis of New Anchor, which for all intents and purposes was on the other side of the world. Anybody who didn’t want to spend the better part of several weeks pushing their way across that lonely road, not to mention surviving the likely predations of banditos, mutants, dieselpunk gangs, or worse, had to move across the Zone’s brutal desert.
Our man Bart Rover didn’t get his last name for nothing, and figured he could make the run on his range cycle, packing light and watching his fuel expenditure. The first two days went without a hitch, just mile after sun-baked mile of flat desert floor and the occasional rock or tumbleweed. On the third night, just thirty or so miles out from Crystal Lake, Bart was too tired to keep driving, so he made camp. Which brings us to the part where he awoke to discover that overnight dozens of giant cactus predators had crept up on him and were in the process of liquefying his body and drinking him right up. There he was, in mortal peril, and he found himself overcome with how totally relentless and badass these plants had become. They weren’t the usual water-starved and sedentary plants he’d seen plenty of times in the wasteland, these cacti were healthy, hearty, and had progressed beyond meager survival. They were flourishing, I recall was the word he used, and in that moment he saw how a wastelander could truly live, assuming he didn’t die messy and end up cactus food.
Something I should have said about Bart at the beginning was that he’s not only one of the nicest people I know, but he’s also one of the most dangerous. That guy could kill a room full of people with his hands tied behind his back and his eyes closed. Not because he has more guns and hustle than the next guy, but because he’s got patience and the will to do what needs to be done. He and the cactus have that in common. Instead of thrashing about and getting more wounded by the thorns, further sapping his strength, which is what most of us would do, Bart just laid there nice and calm. He watched as more and more of the cactus closed in on him, and still he waited. His leg was in pain, but more that dull achy kind and not the stinging white-hot pain you’d imagine, must have been something in the goo coming from the blossoms that was numbing him.
The thing is that Bart had nearly lost his right foot in a pretty nasty auto collision, the bone was sheered in half at a sharp angle, though enough meat had hung on that he’d been able to keep the foot. Now wasteland medicine being what it is, the bone never quite re-attached all the way, even though his muscle and skin grew back over the wound like it should have. He had trouble putting much weight on it, and walked with a cane, but he got around ok. As he waited more and more of his leg was dissolved until finally all the flesh connecting his leg to his foot had fallen away. That’s when Bart made his move, and yanked hard with his leg, detaching himself from the sticky mess that used to be his foot. Now Bart had a gleaming white bone spike that he used to slice and stab at the cactus. I’m not making this up, I swear. It didn’t take long for him to be covered in the pulp and juices of the nearest cacti, and pretty soon the rest of them started backing off. They’re predators after all, not fighters, and they weren’t about to risk getting wounded and losing precious fluids and vitality. Bart knew that they’d just hang back until he was weak enough to be overtaken again, and he wasn’t about to give them that chance.
Bart reached Crystal Lake not long after, leaving the cacti in the dust, having jammed his stump into the gas pedal so he could keep the engine going, all the while still marveling at their adaptive advantages. If a dumbass plant could find a way to thrive out here, then dammit he could to. He’d had enough of just surviving, and to hear him tell it that’s what got him started on the bus.
The bus is the thing isn’t it?
I figured you’d recognize that particular tall tale. Yessir the Bart Rover of this story is The Rover you’ve heard about, maybe seen in the distance, the crazy old bastard who drives the armored bus across the Zone. When Bart got to Crystal Lake he wasn’t about to let a liquefied leg stop him, and so he bartered his way into a leg-rig that would let him use his bone peg to pilot the skiff, and he took the Prospector’s salvage job. They got lucky out there on the dead lake, and instead of suffocating in ten foot deep silt drifts or falling victim to wind stalkers they found a ship that hadn’t been picked over yet. I don’t know what they found, Bart never told me, but whatever they scored was prize enough that he was able to buy a mountain of parts and several junkers which he cobbled together to make that armored bus of his.
Bart figured that if the folks of the wasteland were gonna thrive one of the first steps would be reliable public transportation. So he started making passenger runs, starting with Crystal Lake to Tannerville, then as word spread he started moving bodies from Pump Station 8, and these days you can ride all the way out to New Anchor. It’s dangerous work, sure as sure, considering that he’ll give a seat to anyone who can pay the fare, but somehow it works. Ask most anyone and they’d say that trying to operate a public bus in the Zone is closer to having a death wish than a grand idea about making life a little bit better in the wasteland. People often place bets on how long the Rover will last until someone takes him out, but the thing is, despite the occasional marauder gang or bandito that tries and dies, it’s actually a pretty safe way to travel. All things considered, the Rover is, in his own small way, making wastelanders more connected to each other. He and his bus are bridging that gap of distance and danger as they ferry people away from trouble they might not have otherwise been able to escape or towards opportunities they might not otherwise have been able to seek.
Cautious optimism is most definitely a mental illness, and when things are at their worst may we all be gifted with such madness.
*More like this available in Wasteland Survival Guide