The two guards who had collected Apple from her cell were lying dead on the ground outside the door of the office. She stepped right over them without so much as a glance at their cooling bodies. Her thigh hurt as she hobbled after her two unlikely rescuers. They’d returned her pack to her and she took the opportunity to search through its contents. Most of her supplies were still there, including her weapons. She returned the gun and the knife to her belt, after checking that the former’s chamber was still fully-loaded. Unsurprisingly, the money Gomda had given her in exchange for the battery was unaccounted for. She shouldered the pack with a sigh and eased the gun free. Ahead of her, the man and woman darted down the corridors, stopping at intersections and looking out for more guards. Twice they ducked down and remained still. Apple did likewise, using the wall to support her weight as she put pressure on her injured leg. On both occasions she heard voices and boots ringing on the concrete floor, but they remained undiscovered. When they stopped like this, she looked at the pair, trying to read them and get a feel for the dynamic of their relationship. They had the wordless ease of people who’d known each other a long time, but not the closeness that indicated they could be lovers, though with cityfolk it was sometimes hard to tell. The woman seemed to be in command. The man, perhaps a little younger, automatically deferred to her at any rate. They were both fairly pale-skinned, and looked well-fed enough. To her, having grown up amongst people who bore the same ritual scarring that she did, their faces looked somehow unfinished and childlike. Except even a child of her people would have two simple scars below their lip, granted within at least a year of their birth.
“It’s not here,” the man was saying as he rummaged through Carek’s pack. The sound of footsteps faded away down an adjoining corridor.
“It will be,” his companion assured him. They spoke in hushed tones, but Apple’s hearing was sharp.
“I’m telling you it isn’t…”
“What are you looking for?” Apple asked them, creeping closer.
The woman shot her a look of mingled confusion and annoyance. “It doesn’t matter,” she answered, at precisely the same time the man said, “The map.”
She looked at him. “You mentioned that before. What map?”
His face was guilty, and his superior spoke for him. “It’s not your concern, marauder.”
“Did you come here to find it?”
“I told you…” Raised voices made her turn, still crouching, and the three of them held their breaths. The sound was coming from dead ahead, around a corner.
Apple pointed to their right. “That way?”
“No. That leads to the guard barracks,” she said.
“You know your way around then?”
The man gave a rueful smile. “A lot of our people have been held down here.”
“Why don’t you just tell her the whole fucking story, Jev?” The woman stood and quickly checked her pistol. “We’re going to have to shoot our way past. The only way out is through this patrol.”
“Jev?” Apple said as she rose and pulled out her own gun.
Jev gave her a weak smile. “That’s me. She probably shouldn’t have said that.”
“She’s under a lot of pressure. My name’s Apple.”
“That’s pretty. What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s an Ancestor word, I think.”
The voices were much louder now, and a moment later a squad of guards came into view. They were talking casually, moving with easy swaggers, their weapons held low. None of them had even spotted them yet. The woman didn’t hesitate, putting a bullet straight through the leader’s chest. He fell back with a cry and his stunned comrades stared down first at him, before they came to their senses and lifted their guns. Jev fired now, missing with his first shot but finding a target with the next two. Apple, raised to think of ammunition as a precious commodity, held her fire, scanning for a likely target. As a guard lifted his rifle to his shoulder and took aim, she levelled her pistol and took him right through his squinting eye. Jev and the woman ducked down as gunfire filled the corridor. Apple stayed on her feet. She sidestepped, compensating for her slight limp, and placed another bullet through a guard’s skull. They were charging now, furious, but also wary having seen so many of their number fall so quickly. Apple measured their pace and, when they were within a few metres, she pushed off on her good leg, vaulting right over Jev. The lead guards fell back, stunned by her sudden counter-charge and she whipped her knife from its sheath. The blade sliced through one guard’s throat, leaving a crimson arc across the pale wall, and she used the momentum of that swing to drive the point into the shoulder of the man beside him. Jev and the woman were up now, and they finished off the survivors with another swift volley of shots. As the last of them slumped to the floor, dead, there was a moment of silence.
“That was…” Jev started to say.
“Let’s go,” the woman said, pushing by Apple and jogging up the corridor.
“How did you do that?” he asked looking over his shoulder as he followed.
“Do what?” She wiped her knife clean on her trousers.
The woman was standing at the corner. “Come on!” she called back. “We’re nearly out.”
‘Out’ proved to be a relative term. They reached a cramped chamber filled with pipework and panelling. Jev and his companion levered open one of the panels, revealing a narrow metal tunnel beyond. They slipped through wordlessly. Apple had to move more carefully. Her burst of activity had dislodged the crude dressing on her thigh, and she could feel the blood beginning to seep through the bandages. The tunnel was cramped, and she proceeded in a low crouch, now uncomfortably aware of the pain from her injury. When she was past, Jev went back to replace the panel. They were now in total darkness, but a moment later the woman switched on a handheld electric light. Its glow was eerily pale and clean.
“I know his name,” Apple said to her, “what about yours?”
She looked like she was going to bite off another annoyed reply, but then for some reason decided to relent. “Ellasa.”
“Are you going to tell me why we just killed all those men?”
“Do you wish we hadn’t?”
“They were going to torture me to death. I’d say they got off easy.”
That made Ellasa smile wryly. “Yeah, I suppose they did.” Jev was making his way back towards them.
“So what’s your problem with them? You didn’t go to all this trouble for a map. Who’s Carek?”
“That would take longer to explain than we have right now. They’ll be discovering all those bodies soon enough, and if we’re still in here, we could expose our whole movement.”
“What’s the hold up here?” Jev asked in a hoarse whisper as he crawled up.
“Nothing. Come on. Let’s get back to base and decide what to do next. If Carek’s dead…well…we’ll see…”
“Maybe we should check for the map. If it’s not here, we’ll have to go back and…”
“No,” Ellasa said firmly. “It’s useless without Carek anyway.”
Apple didn’t ask any more questions. Her only desire was to get out of this city as soon as possible and have nothing more to do with any of these people. The cramped tunnel was profoundly uncomfortable, both physically and mentally, and she was only too happy to get moving. Ellasa led the way, with her in the middle and Jev taking up the rear. Their route was as labyrinthine as it had been through the corridors and Apple soon lost all sense of direction. In the desert it was unthinkable for her to become so disoriented, but she was out of her element in these black tunnels, and found her mind wandering, as if she were dreaming again. The white bobbing light Ellasa held became the sun, climbing and descending the sky, moving from horizon to horizon. She stood alone in the vast, flat waste, not even the familiar line of mountains disturbing the perfect symmetry of the scene. She was in the deep, deep desert, far beyond where even the most foolhardy city scavenger would venture in search of buried riches. This was her land – the land of her people, who were sneeringly called marauders, as if all there was to them was violence and bloodshed. Only they knew the secrets of survival in this harsh emptiness, for all that mattered now.
The light stopped moving and Apple almost crashed right into Ellasa. She was about to ask what was happening when she heard a clang and the light disappeared, moving directly upwards. She could hear the sounds of someone climbing metal rungs. Feeling along the ceiling, Apple found the entrance to the vertical shaft Ellasa had just entered. Craning her neck upwards, she could see the bobbing light again. She fumbled for the rungs and, upon finding them, hauled herself up. It was all she could do not to cry out from the agony in her thigh. She bit her lip so hard she could taste blood. After a heartbeat or two to calm herself, she pressed on, but each metre she climbed was paid for with exquisite pain.
Finally, after just a few minutes, there was another clang above her and dim light filled the narrow shaft. She could see Ellasa climbing through a circular hatch. It took her a little longer to cover the distance, but when she reached the top she was helped through and nodded her thanks as she stepped down onto solid ground. They were still apparently underground, but now the walls and ceiling were ragged red stone, and they stood in a wide cavern with a number of exits leading in several directions. Jev followed her out of the hatch and then closed it behind him. He gave an audible sigh of relief after turning the handle on the top, presumably to seal it.
“Where are we?” Apple asked Ellasa.
“Beneath the city.”
She looked around, impressed despite her discomfort with the stone ceiling above her head. “This is under the city?”
“The old ice mines,” Jev explained, shifting Carek’s pack on his shoulders. “They stretch for kilometres.”
“They found ice in these caves?” It didn’t seem possible. For one thing, it wasn’t cold enough.
“A hundred years ago, ” Ellasa said, “this whole chamber would have been filled with ice.”
Apple blinked, trying to imagine so much water in one place. “You’re making fun of me…”
Ellasa turned with a frown. “What? No, I’m being serious. Why do you think they built a settlement here? This was once the wealthiest ice mine in the hemisphere.”
“Was? What do you mean?”
She looked at her like she was simple. Maybe, in a sense, she was. “The only ice to be found now is much deeper than this. So deep it starts to get warm all over again. The mines are exhausted.”
“Why do you think we’re doing all this?” Jev grinned.
“Well I don’t know – you actually haven’t told me what it is you’re doing yet.”
Ellasa had begun to walk away, making for a dark tunnel mouth up ahead. “You don’t need to know.”
Apple felt a flash of anger. “You rescued me because I spoke with this Carek man before he died. That’s significant for some reason. I’d like to know why.”
“We need to know what you know, Apple.”
“Not ‘we’ as in the two of us…”
“What?” She had to hurry to keep up with them as they disappeared into the darkness, relieved only by Ellasa’s torch. They didn’t answer, just moved on purposefully.
“What happened?” Ellasa asked after a short while.
“Oh. I don’t know.”
“You said you were with him.”
“I told you: he got shot.”
“But you don’t know who by?”
She shook her head, futile as it was in the darkness. “The sound of the gunshot woke me. I was bunking in a tavern.”
“Carek was in a tavern?” Jev’s voice sounded incredulous.
“You said he spoke to you…”
“And then he was shot, close enough for you to hear it.”
“Kind of a coincidence,” Jev observed.
Apple didn’t like his tone. “Do you think I killed him?”
“Judging by your performance back in the stockade, I think if you had you wouldn’t have stayed around long enough to be captured.” Ellasa’s voice sounded oddly wistful.
“Like I said, when I found him he’d already been shot.”
“How…how did he go?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. His whole chest was blown away. I guess whoever did it was within a few metres. It was a bad wound. He couldn’t have survived it.”
“I see.” She sounded cold, emotionless.
“If you want to know the truth, I was planning to grant him mercy.”
“Mercy?” Jev asked.
“He was suffering. Amongst my people, when someone is beyond help we cut their throats. It’s senseless for the herd to carry a walking corpse.”
“It would have been a kindness,” Ellasa said, “thank you.”
“So, in a way,” Jev added, sounding thoughtful, “you actually were going to kill him…”
“The gunshot killed him. My knife wouldn’t have made any difference.”
Neither of them offered anything further, and they carried on down the tunnel in silence. There was enough room to walk comfortably and the floor was worn smooth. Eventually they came to a short flight of steps carved into the stone. As Ellasa shone her torch over them, Apple could see how deep the grooves were worn into the treads, and she wondered how many people had used them and for how many years, decades or centuries. At the top of the steps was an iron door, heavily barred. She approached it and then rapped smartly and rhythmically in the centre. Apple figured the distinctive knock was some sort of secret code. After a moment, the door began to creak open. Yellow light spilled through the entrance. Ellasa strode through, and Jev was quick to follow her. Apple hesitated. She still wasn’t sure who these people really were, or what their involvement with the man they called Carek was, or indeed why he had been so insistent on talking her into some nonsensical quest. But this was her only chance to escape this city, and so she went through the door too.
The first thing she saw in the chamber beyond was the two men pointing guns at her. One turned to Ellasa, who now stood to one side. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“She’s with us.”
“That’s not what I asked, Ell.”
“Her name’s Apple,” Jev supplied. He gave her a slightly crooked smile. “She helped us.”
“She’s a marauder,” the second man said.
“I’ll explain later, once I’ve…”
“Ellasa!” A woman entered the chamber from another adjoining passage. She was older, with greying hair and a lined face, but her back was straight and she looked hale. She was unmistakably related to Ellasa.
“You foolish girl!” She struck her across the cheek.
Ellasa’s face hardened, and Apple noted how she didn’t move to rub the red mark that was forming. “What were we supposed to do?”
The woman, Ellasa’s mother, turned away, a hand over her eyes. “Wait, child. You think they’d just kill him? They have leverage. We could have come up with any number of…”
“He’s already dead, mother.”
She stopped, and her hand dropped. Her eyes were very wide. “What?”
“Before they found him, most likely. He was gunned down in the street.”
“How…how do you know this?”
Ellasa pointed straight at Apple. “She was there.”
The woman seemed to notice her for the first time. She took her in, scars, rough clothes, braids and all. “You were there?”
“Then tell me how my husband died.”
Apple didn’t say anything, she just stared at Ellasa, who met her gaze for a moment and then looked away, chin raised defiantly.