Cassandra’s van made good time through the dead plains. Every few hours, the battered road would pass by a functional relic, something with a function that no longer made sense, transformed, like an old two-story tractor serving as a gas station, or an old grain silo turned homestead.
Changing a tire outside the ruins of a munitions factory that burned in the 80s, Muhammad and Jesús had been quiet, pointing to skeletal trees and whispering.
That morning she ignored the blackened rubble and daydreamed about the gleaming Osage Turnpike that rose hundreds of feet over the Oklahoma plains, trying to catch a glimpse of the speeding cars and motorcycles that would have disintegrated into flaming curls of metal on the craters of Highway 69.
She’d gotten tired of the way that Jesús said “nice” every time he saw a highway 69 sign. Apparently the roving population of sign-annihilators felt the same way, as they were the only signs left intact. Everything else was pushed-in bare metal, leaving no indication as to what the ash-covered foundations and dead sheds had been.
Oklahoma had burned many times, and Jesús and Moe had been there for the last one. The air still smelled like chemical smoke, and seemed to put Doctor X into a foul mood.
“Looks like the apocalypse already showed up.” Jesús said. They hadn’t said much that day, and as the sun got high in the sky they’d stopped at a particularly gargantuan three-story combine turned refueling station. The attendant, a huge man in a flowing khaki robe, seemed to be in a zen-like trance in the locked, bulletproof cab. Hydraulic arms lowered to the van to bring the charging arms down. Behind him, batteries and fuel tanks were arrayed in the old hopper.
“Like we need another one.” Doc X said, giving the stained cup of imitation truck-stop coffee, a particularly caffeinated and acidic brand named CAF, a sneer. “When I was a kid, we thought it would be nuclear war, everything gone in a bright flash of light.”
“My money’s on some kind of plague from the Gulf.” Jesús said as they sat under the solar panels for a hint of shade. A busted concrete pad ran beneath the panels, which had a solar screen stretched out between them, covering some rusted tables and splintering wood benches.
Whirligigs passively pushed out air from pipes underground and fans blasted the seating area, cooling things down to a survivable degree, if a bit loud.
“Why would they be sick down south? The possum eaters may be a little dirty, Jesús, but it’s a good, healthy dirt. Beside. Look at Oklahoma. Half burned, half irradiated, all dried out, can’t drink the water, can’t stay in the sun. The end of the world came and went for this place.” Doc X said.
“Jesus Jesús, this IS the post-apocalypse. We are the flesh-eating mutants wandering the wasteland.” Cassandra said, tearing open a paper pack full of the vending machine vitamins you needed if you tried to survive off road food.
Moe paused, sniffing the burrito he’d gotten from a vending machine that accepted one of his crypto-chips. It said “chicken” on the wrapper, which always made him suspicious, and Cassandra’s talk of “flesh eating mutants wandering the wasteland” had put him off. He handed it to Jesús, who began eating it immediately.
“You said you two were here for the frack fires?” Doc X said, sitting with her hot caf.
“Yeah.” Moe took one look at Jesús gleefully bite into the lukewarm burrito before beginning his usual circuit of wandering, looking down at the ground for anything useful.
“I didn’t think there would have been anything to pick.” Doc X said.
“There wasn’t.” Some NGO out of California was paying big scrip to come do some bioremediation project - planting mushrooms, sampling dirt, bagging up dead animals, that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah! Paid a ton of scrip! Just like Moe said. Tons of scrip, Moe.” Jesús said.
Muhammad sighed. “Yeah. Of course the company store was total bullshit. Hardly had anything. Wore through our shoes, walked around bleeding till Jesús convinced some wandering roach herders to make us some out of possum leather and…”
“I never heard of roach herders west of the Mississippi.” Doc X interjected. She was going through the acrid caf pretty quickly.
“They weren’t literal roach herders, just some trash guys.” Moe continued. “Anyway, when the trucks pulled up and told us they were looking for firefighters, the guys on the truck didn’t just have shoes. They had boots.”
“Boots.” Moe fished his hands behind green metal panels. He pulled out a washer, and pocketed it.
“Boots. Real boots. And we were in possum skin with twist-tie stitches having coughing fits twice a day from the shit in the air - and they had rebreathers and air conditioning, and fucking sign us up already.”
Moe had found a coin and brought it over to the table. It was one of the many types he didn’t recognize, this one was small, and brown, like a “penny,” but larger.
“What’s that?” Doc X asked.
“Hell if I know.” Moe said, flipping it in one hand. “I think it’s Texan.”
Doc X looked past him. The strangely Zen looking man from the cockpit was standing there, in a broad khaki hat that matched his shirt and jeans. He was overweight, sunburned, and wearing tiny glasses that seemed to exaggerate his large face.
“She…” The man said. His voice was surprisingly deep as he indicated Cassandra with a swoop of the hand. “...said you two might know a thing about churches.”
“What kind of church?” Jesús asked.
“Whatever you can help me with.” The man said. “I’m Quinn Reagan, but most folks around here call me Q. Or Q-Ball.” He removed his hat to show a blindingly bald head.
“Like in pool?” Doc X offered.
Cassandra and Moe looked at each other confusedly. Jesús stopped what he was doing - licking the last bits of hot sauce off the burrito wrapper - and was suddenly on his feet, alive and excited.
“Wait, what’s Q in a pool?” Moe asked.
“Better than P.” Jesús said, stepping close to Q as he backed away. Everyone else groaned at the joke. “When someone’s trying to get church papers it’s best not to ask ‘What is it that you believe?.’ Ask ‘who out there believes in me.”
Q said nothing. “Who out there believes in you, Mr. Reagan?”
Moe, Cassandra, and Doc X were all watching, fascinated, as the weird boring man that had been sharing the van with them for the past day had suddenly come alive, but Q seemed rather taken aback. Moe was convinced sweat stains were growing under his armpits.
“Like… God?” Q asked, adjusting his big glasses.
“No, like got any buddies. Any priests or mullahs or preachers out there in the great big town of….”
“Tulsa.” Q said.
“Tulsa.” Jesús repeated with smile.