A scavenger from the endless waste of the red desert rides into the city to trade. After an unexplained murder, she finds herself embroiled in a mystery that will take her further than she ever imagined possible. She is one of the last of her people, those that others call marauders – with good cause – a pariah marked forever as an outsider. But she may be the only one capable of discovering the true history, and the ultimate destiny, of the people whose world is a harsh, waterless desert beneath a pink sky.
Marauder is a brand new story taking place in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting that is much more than it appears.
She dug through the red-brown dirt with calloused fingers, shifting the clinging grit around the edge of the metal object that was half-buried in the ground. She ran her palm across one edge, revealing a corroded panel. She wasn’t sure what it was yet, but took a grip on one side and, with a grunt, dragged it free. She heaved it over and sat back on her haunches, cocking her head at her discovery. The sky was pale and the air was growing colder. The sun was low over the horizon, and starting to turn blue. There were hours yet until nightfall, but the temperature would drop murderously low before it became truly dark. She was running out of time. She leant in to the metal object again. It was tech, clearly, though she had no idea what it might have been used for by the Ancestors. What was important was the electrochem signal her sensor had picked up; there was a functioning power source somewhere inside. She peered closer, examining, then pulled her knife from her belt and rammed it straight into the metal casing. It was so badly rusted that it more or less completely disintegrated and she tore through it callously, reaching inside past wires and circuit boards, ripping them free to find the battery at the machine’s heart. She seized on the palm-sized block and dragged it out into the light. Its casing was as corroded as everything else and most of the unreadable markings had been lost to the ages, but the connecters looked sound and when she pressed her fingers against them she felt the slight tingle that meant there was still power in the cell. She allowed herself a small smile.
She stood, shielding her eyes against the bluing sky. In the distance, the shadowy bulk of the mountains, massive enough to defy any attempt to gauge their true size, loomed over everything, but for hundreds of kilometres in every direction there was nothing but flat desert. Her rotan pawed disconsolately at the sand a short way behind her and probed the ground with its trunk more in hope than expectation of extracting water from the desiccated soil. She tucked the battery into her pack and made her way back to her mount, patting it comfortingly on its chitinous shoulder plates. Deftly, she swung herself into the high saddle and, after taking a moment to sweep her sensor around the area in case she’d missed something else, kicked the beast’s flanks and headed off in the direction of the distant mountains. With luck, she’d reach her destination before the night’s chill set in.
The shadows were long and she’d been forced to swaddle herself in her robes by the time the walls of the city came into view. The rolling movement of the rotan’s stocky legs had almost lulled her to sleep, but she snapped straight into wakefulness as noise drifted through the clear air. The walls were lit by flickering torches set on spindly towers that cast a strange light across the desert. The gates were open, but a squad of surly guards were standing outside, nominally barring the road. They were in the process of harassing what looked to be another trader, a stooped, ragged figure pulling a wheeled cart that was piled high with scrap. She slowed the rotan with a gentle tug on the reins that looped its tusks. A lot of city-folk were nervous around the beasts, and at this time of night any disagreement could easily become violent. She wasn’t worried, but there were enough guards to make any consequences unpleasant. After a few minutes, the old trader was grudgingly ushered through the gates, and she rode up into the light. The leader of the guards turned and looked her up and down, rotan and all. “Business?” he asked.
“Trade.” She patted her pack for emphasis.
“Need a name.”
“Case you cause trouble.”
She leant down over the saddle and tugged down the robe that had been covering her face, revealing the elaborate scarring that surrounded her mouth and nose, climbing up onto her cheeks and finishing with a set of jagged points that seemed to crown her brows. “If there’s trouble, you’ll know where to find me.”
The guards’ leader had taken an involuntary backward step at the sight of her markings, but he recovered a little of his aplomb as he looked back at his squad and did some quick mathematics. He thought they could take her. He was wrong, but it was better to let him believe there was no danger. “What are you trading?” he asked after a moment.
“That’s my business.”
“I just told you…”
“All right.” He held up his hands. “Just get what you came for and leave.”
She eyed the high walls with their burning torches and listened to the low buzz of thousands of human voices coming from within. It made her stomach clench. “Don’t worry: that’s the plan.”
The streets were too narrow for the rotan to move comfortably, so she paid for stabling in a livery yard near the walls, parting with the last of her coinage and proceeding a little awkwardly on foot. She found it hard to negotiate the crowds that thronged the city’s streets. Even at this hour, every business was still open with shopfronts lit by solid fuel lamps or, in a few of the wealthier establishments, flickering electric lights. The human traffic was made up of all kinds of people: city-dwellers in what appeared to her to be flimsy clothes for the time of day, squat subterrans in their bulky leather ensembles, wealthy icemen wearing steaming water-gems, outland traders in rags and even a gang of armoured mountain hunters, shouldering their way through the cowering masses. She gave them all a wide berth. There were none like her here, and there were plenty who had long enough memories to resent anyone with these scars. Given the lateness of her arrival, she knew she’d be forced to spend the night inside the walls, but as soon as the sun rose tomorrow morning she intended to be back out in the wastes. That was where she belonged.
Down an unassuming side street, she found the place she was looking for: a shack hammered together from tarnished steel, lit by a single candle whose provenance she knew better than to enquire after. One side was open to the street and a bent, wizened figure sat on an upturned crate within. At first she thought the old woman was asleep, but when she moved in front of the light her eyes snapped open and she looked at her suspiciously. One eye was milky white and the flesh around it was puckered and pink. After a moment, a smile spread across her wrinkled face. “Apple.”
“Hello, Gomda,” she replied, pulling another crate across the dirt floor and sitting down opposite the other woman. “How are you?”
Gomda shifted. She was city-born, but felt the cold in her old age, so was wrapped as heavily as Apple. From the way she moved, it was clear she was troubled by aches and pains, and there was a swelling on her neck she hadn’t seen before. “Alive. Barely. You?”
“Heard there was a storm away south a few months back. Didn’t get caught in it, I take it?”
“Saw it. Not close enough to do me any harm though.” She remembered those terrifying few days though: the rising columns of dust over the horizon, and nights darker than any she’d known before. It could have swung north at any moment, and if it had swept over her while she was out in the desert it might have stripped the flesh from her bones. Even the rotan, despite its thick protective plates, would probably have been left a lifeless carcass, half-buried in the sand.
“That’s good. Drink?”
She nodded. Gomda rose slowly from her seat, wincing as her knees cracked and waving Apple’s offer of help away. She crossed to the back of the small room and returned with a flask and a pair of battered steel mugs which she placed on the table, made from another upturned crate, which stood between them. She sat again and then decanted two measures of a thick, aromatic liqueur before pushing one mug towards her. Apple took it and raised it in a brief salute. It was insipid stuff that coated her throat and burnt her stomach, but welcome nonetheless. Her head swam for a moment as the alcohol hit. “Thank you.”
“Fine. Now, what do you have for me, my dear?”
Apple dug in her pack and pulled out the battery she’d found. It looked less impressive in the half-light. She put it on the table. “Well?”
Gomda examined it with her good eye. “Hm. Charged?”
“Can’t be sure, but I think so.”
“What was it in?”
“Metal box,” she said with a shrug.
“It had wires in it.”
“I see.” Gomda picked up the battery and turned it over. Apple noted how her hands shook now. “How much?”
“How much will you give me?”
“You know I don’t do business that way.” Gomda’s smile was shrewd, and there was a glimmer of her old self for just a second.
“I need two-hundred.”
Gomda sucked on her gums. “Can’t go that high. Not for this.”
“It was buried in the desert. Unused. It must be charged.”
“It probably is, but that’s not the problem.”
“What then? The damage?”
“No. It’s supply and demand, dear. Not as many electrics as there used to be.”
“So it should be even more valuable…”
“You’d think so,” Gomda said, “but it’s more complicated than that. Most systems have been stripped for parts. Not much left to power, see?”
“Solid fuel is where the money is now.”
“I’m a scavenger, not a miner,” Apple sighed. “How much for this then?”
“One-seventy-five,” Apple countered.
Gomda sucked her gums again. “All right. Done.” She spat on her palm and held out her hand. Apple did likewise. The old woman’s saliva was streaked with crimson.
One-sixty-five was better than she’d expected, really. Two-hundred would have left her with a healthy profit margin and enough to get a decent berth for the night in the city. As it was, she’d have to settle for something more low-rent, and hope for better luck in her next trade. She found a tavern that offered bunking and realised she was famished too, so bought a plate of stew and a bottle of something a lot less strong than Gomda had served. She sat in a darkened corner and kept to herself, wary of the room full of strangers and their curious glances in her direction. She had to tug down her robes to eat, and hoped her scars wouldn’t be visible in the gloom. She was almost done with her meal when she noticed the shadows deepening and glanced up to see a figure looming over her. She swallowed her mouthful. “Yes?”
“This seat taken?” The voice was low and hoarse. Not a city voice.
“No. But there’s others. I’m not looking for company.”
The chair opposite was slid back and, ignoring her, the stranger sat down. He was an older man with a scrub of grey beard and pale eyes. He wore tough trader leathers and a misshapen hood that covered a head of lank hair. His face was scarred, but not deliberately like hers. “You’re a long way from home.”
She picked at what remained of her stew. “Don’t have a home. Is there something you want from me?”
“Depends. What do you have to sell?”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Nothing you could afford.”
“No…I don’t mean that…you’re a desert trader, right? Most of your folk are now.”
“So you came to the city to sell something.”
“Sorry, I did my business earlier. I’m heading back out as soon as I can.”
“That’s a pity.”
She frowned at him. “What’s this about? I told you I have nothing to sell.”
He looked away and idly drew a circle on the table between them. She noticed he had no drink of his own. “I have a business proposal.”
He fixed his gaze on her, and the intensity of his stare caught her momentarily off-guard. “I’ve been looking for someone like you.”
She bristled at that turn of phrase. “That’s not what we…”
“I know. But I don’t have time for niceties.”
“It would take too long to explain.”
She finished off the stew and pushed the plate away. The bottle was nearly empty too. She was tired. “Look, I’m not interested, all right? I’m only here for a night. Find someone else.”
“It has to be you.” He reached out and grabbed her arm.
“What does?” She looked down at his hand. His grip was strong, but she had little fear of this old man. If he intended to harm her, he’d find her people’s reputation was well-earned.
“There something I have to find. Only someone who knows the desert can help me.”
“Plenty know it besides me.”
“No. I have to go deeper than anyone ever has before. Beyond the mountains.”
She shook him off. “Even my people don’t range that far.”
“But they could. You can survive out there. You only come here to trade. If you had the choice…”
“I drink water like anyone else. This is where the ice mines are. No one can carry supplies so far.”
“You didn’t always need city water.”
She shook her head. “That was a long time ago. There aren’t enough of us left now.”
He leant closer, and now she saw that what she’d at first read as surety in his eyes was something more akin to desperation. “Please. They’re hunting me.”
“The water-barons. They don’t want me to find it.”
“The answer. The solution.”
She realised he was sun-addled. It happened sometimes, to people who weren’t native to the red desert. They misjudged the conditions, got caught at high sun without enough water and dragged themselves back to a settlement just in time, alive but never quite the same. The waste could do strange things to folk. “I’m sorry,” she said again, “I’m not interested. You’ll need to find someone else.” She stood up.
“Please!” His voice was loud enough to attract stares, which was exactly what she didn’t want. He was gripping her arm again, and his eyes were pleading. The woman behind the bar had stopped what she was doing and was looking over at them, probably anticipating some trouble. If anything happened, she knew who’d get the blame.
“Leave me alone,” she said firmly, “I want no part of whatever you’re involved with.” She left him at the table, still calling after her, and asked for directions to her bunk. The barkeep looked at her curiously. “What’s wrong with your friend?”
Apple just shrugged. “Too much drink or sun. And I never met him before, actually.”
She didn’t look convinced, but handed over the chit for the bunk anyway, and Apple took it gratefully. The bunk proved to be little more than a padded shelf with a pull-down shutter that had a lock on the inside that fit the metal chit she’d been given. She’d slept on much worse. Although it was claustrophobic – not just in the dark, airless bunk, but in the city itself – she stilled her mind the way she’d been taught to since she was a child, and was asleep in moments. She dreamt, as she always did in a populated area, of the empty desert beneath a huge pink sky, the rotan herds following ancestral trails a thousand kilometres long and the distant cries of hunters returning to camp. She was a child again, with unbraided hair and only her birth scars, watching the towering figure of her father untie the carcass of a mordell from behind his saddle. A good hunt, to bring in one of the vicious beasts. They would eat well for many nights to come.
Apple was woken abruptly by the sound of a gunshot. Her eyes flew open and, for one disorientating moment, she wasn’t sure where she was. She flailed and her hand bashed against the shutters. With some effort, she extricated herself from the bunk and swung her feet onto the cold concrete floor. The room was quiet – the other bunks were either empty or the shot hadn’t woken their occupants. For a moment, she considered staying put. What was a gunshot to her? This wasn’t her city, and she cared nothing for the people here. But it had sounded close by; probably in the street right outside. She might be in danger, and she’d prefer to meet that standing, not lying on a comfortable city bed. She checked her knife in its sheath and the pistol she rarely used on the opposite hip. The bunkroom had direct access to the street from the door opposite the one that led back into the tavern. She opened the lock from the inside and stuck her head out into the street. Night had truly set in now, and her breath misted. Still, it wasn’t unbearably cold – the city with its people and buildings provided a kind of natural insulation, like being huddled together in the tent when she was a child, and she felt no need to go back for her thick robes.
There was no sign of anyone close by. The street was empty. Maybe it was nothing? She stepped out of the door, careful to make sure it wouldn’t slam closed behind her and did a quick reconnoitre a few meters in both directions. It was on the way back to the bunkroom that she almost tripped over him. As her foot found soft flesh, she heard a low grown and jumped back, instinctively adopting a defensive stance. He wasn’t going anywhere though, not to judge from the dark pool that surrounded him. She crept closer and turned over the unfortunate man. The first thing she saw was the wound in his chest, punched straight through his clothing. His hand was pressed to it, but weakly now, and his fingers were covered in blood. Then she glanced up at his face and was startled that she recognised the worn, scarred skin and pale eyes. It was the crazed fellow from earlier. He rolled his eyes towards her. He tried to speak, but blood bubbled on his lips.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. There was blood on her hands too now. She looked around, as if the culprit would still be here. This was none of her business. She didn’t know this man, or why he’d been shot. Probably nothing more than a random attack. Maybe he’d approached the wrong person with his strange request and they’d reacted even worse than she had. She looked back down at the wound. The bullet had left his chest cavity a bloody ruin, and it was clear he would die soon, with or without help. She glanced towards the tavern. Get him inside? Try to send for a doctor, if there was one to be found at this hour? Did she even dare chance moving him? And, again, why was this her problem? It wasn’t, and maybe the desert dream was just fresh in her mind, but old instincts kicked in. You don’t leave a person to bleed to death in the dirt. She bit her lip and slid her knife free. One quick slice would be all it took. She was nervous all of a sudden.
A door banged open, metal on metal, and Apple looked up. Light spilled from the door of the tavern and the barkeep, dressed for bed, was staring at them both. She had a shotgun in her hands, pointed directly at her. Without thinking she was up on her feet, brandishing her knife. The shot took her in the thigh, and she went down, numbness spreading across her lower body. She’d blacked out before she hit the ground.
The dreams of her childhood mingled with harsh memories of later days. The rotan herds were slaughtered now, their rotting corpses littering the parched earth. Too much meat to take with them; they had to leave it to putrefy in the sun. She saw her father weep for the first time in her life. A little village built around a near-exhausted ice mine, set aflame in an orgy of impotent violence. A shattered people, raging at the world. The sky was as red as blood as they thundered across the wastes, gunshots cracking, war cries singing from a hundred throats. It was a confused jumble of images, and she woke sweating, frightened. She rolled over on the bare concrete floor, pawed feebly at the walls and tried to remember who she was and how she’d come to be here. Her leg throbbed. The cell was completely dark. She had no sense of the passage of time, and she found that maddening. It was deeply disturbing not being able to see the sky like this. She was certain the food the guards brought came at odd intervals too, just to disorient her further.
The door clicked. She backed against the far wall (was it the far wall though?), trying to give herself space to fight if it came to it. They hadn’t laid a finger on her yet, but surely it was only a matter of time. Eventually they’d want to ask her questions, and because they wouldn’t like her answers, they’d hurt her until she gave ones they did. Pain didn’t bother her – the wound in her leg was bad enough as it was – but there was no endgame here. She wouldn’t leave this city alive. She cursed herself for choosing to stay in such a dive and putting herself in danger. She’d have been safer out on the streets. The door opened, and she blinked in the light. A figure stepped out of the bright rectangle and stood over her. “Up,” it barked. A man’s voice, gruff.
She rose slowly, wincing, hands still raised. “You know I didn’t…”
He struck her across the jaw. In her confused, weakened state, it actually staggered her. “Come with me,” the man ordered brusquely, and she decided not to argue.
He led her out of the cell into a cramped, dirty corridor. The illumination was provided by two hanging lamps, and was a watery, bleak kind of light, but it still made her squint. There was another guard outside the door, carrying a rifle. He glowered at her beneath a sort of peaked cap. The guard who’d collected her was a portly, red-faced man who looked like exactly the sort she’d expect to hit a defenceless prisoner. She pushed down her anger though. It’d do no good, unarmed, injured and disorientated as she was. They led her through more corridors and clanging iron gates, into a sort of office, where a tall woman sat at a desk. The guards stepped outside. There were no other chairs, so she stood, swaying slightly on her feet, determined to ignore the pain in her thigh. At least they’d taken out the bullet and stitched her up. It’d heal. The woman looked up. She was dark-eyed, with very sharp features, looking more rodent than human. She drew her lips back in a sneer. “Marauder,” she said.
Apple didn’t argue this time, just bobbed her head in acknowledgement.
“You killed a man inside my walls.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “No? You were found over his body holding a bloody knife.”
Apple shook her head. “I was there, yes, but he’d already been shot.”
“I don’t know. I heard the shot and went out to investigate.”
She had no answer for that, so she just shrugged. The woman leant forward on her desk, eying her. Apple took the opportunity to look around the room. The walls looked like solid brick or stone, but it was surprisingly cool. She wondered if she was underground. “You were seen talking with the victim a few hours before you killed him.”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“Did you talk to him though?”
“How can you talk about nothing?”
“He sat at my table. I never met him before that night. I don’t even know his name.”
“All right. Well, Carek approached me.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “He just sat down and started talking to you?”
“More or less.”
“What did he want?”
“To do business.”
“What kind of business?”
Apple sighed. “I don’t know. I told him I had nothing to trade. He was talking about…” Suddenly, she didn’t want to mention what the man – Carek – had said to her about his business proposition. It seemed like the kind of thing she shouldn’t mention to the authorities.
“I don’t know. Nothing important. Just trader talk.”
The woman seemed to give that some thought. “You’re a trader then?”
“But you just said you told Carek you had nothing to trade.” She smiled, as if she’d caught her in a lie.
“I’d already done my business in the city.”
“Is that where you got the money we found on you?”
“Yes. Where else?”
“A lot of money for a scrap trader to make from a find…”
“I don’t sell scrap.”
“Is that why you have this then?” The woman reached under her desk and produced her battered sensor.
“An electrochem scanner? Expensive technology for a marauder.”
“It was my mother’s.”
“She was a trader too?”
Apple bared her teeth. “No. She was a warrior.”
The woman flinched, but recovered herself. “What did you trade?”
“And where did you get it from?”
“There’s nothing like that worth scavenging for a thousand kilometres. Everyone knows that.”
She reflected on that. “They say your people know the wastes better than anyone else. Still, there’s a good chance you stole it.”
“I’m not a thief.”
“You’re all thieves,” she said dismissively, “and murderers. My parents were killed by your kind.”
“But not by me. And neither was Carek.”
“I only have your word for that, and the word of a marauder isn’t worth shit to me.”
“He was killed by a gunshot. Anyone can see that. Examine his body.”
“You had a gun…”
“But you said I was holding a bloody knife in my hand. Which was it?”
“I expect you were going to butcher him for meat.”
Fury coursed through Apple and she had to clench her fists until her knuckles turned white to restrain herself from leaping across the room and throttling this loathsome woman, injured leg or not. “My people aren’t cannibals.”
“There’s no depravity your kind won’t stoop to,” she sneered, “you rotanfuckers are all the same.”
She worked her jaw and reminded herself there was no fighting her way out of this. “Do I get a trial?”
The woman laughed. “A trial? You think a magistrate would look more kindly on you than me?”
All Apple had been thinking was that she stood a better chance of finding an escape if she got a hearing, fair or not. “So what? Execution?”
“Ah. So some torture first?”
“We prefer to think of it as…” There was a noise from outside the office. She looked up with another frown. Then there was a loud bang, a shout, and the unmistakable sound of a gunshot. The woman stood up, reaching for her own sidearm, but before she could even loosen the weapon in its holster the door flew open and a man and a woman burst in, toting guns of their own. Apple stared at them and opened her mouth. A shot rang out. The woman behind the desk stared down at the bloody hole in her chest. “Quick!” the man shouted. His shotgun was smoking.
The other woman, holding a pistol, rushed forward as the dead official sank down to the floor. She rustled around behind the desk and hauled two packs onto the top. “Hey!” Apple said, “that’s mine.”
The man looked at her. “Who are you?”
“I’m…who are you?”
“No time for this,” the woman said. “This looks like Carek’s stuff.”
“Is the map there?”
“We’ll check later. Here.” She tossed the pack over to him and he caught it.
“What do we do with her?” he asked as he shouldered it. The gun was pointed at Apple.
“You know Carek?” she asked them.
“You know Carek?” he countered.
“I was…I’m here because they think I killed him.”
The woman’s shoulders slumped. “So it’s true then, he’s dead?”
“Well…” Apple realised she hadn’t actually seen him die. “Probably.”
“We always knew that was a strong possibility,” the man said, “let’s get out of here.”
“Did you kill him?” the woman asked her.
“Then why did they think you did?”
“I was…with him.”
“When he died?”
“When he…well…after he was shot.”
The man waved his gun at her. “Who shot him?”
“I don’t know!”
“How are you connected to this?” the woman demanded.
“I don’t even know what this is.”
“We should kill her,” she told her companion.
He hesitated. “She’s a marauder.”
“What if…you know…”
“She comes back? They’re savages, not demons.”
“No, I mean, her tribe might…I don’t know…vow revenge…or…” he trailed off unconvincingly.
“I don’t have a tribe,” Apple told him, “if that makes you feel better. But you still shouldn’t kill me,” she added.
“Why not?” the woman asked.
“Because I don’t know what’s going on, and if you get me out of here, you have my solemn promise I’ll leave this city and never come back.”
“Seems it’d be easier to kill you…”
Apple decided to gamble. “That wasn’t the only time I met Carek,” she said.
“He spoke to me a few hours earlier. In a tavern.”
The woman looked suspicious. “About what?”
“He wanted me to help him find something, beyond the mountains. Does that mean anything to you?”
They exchanged a glance. “We can’t kill her,” the man said.
“Agreed. She comes with us.”
“Can you fight?” he asked her.
She stared at him incredulously. “I’m a fucking marauder, remember?”