It didn’t take Apple long to explore the limits of this underground stronghold. Though she found the constant ceiling above her heard oppressive and even, in unguarded moments, frightening, the connected caverns covered quite an expansive volume, and she had to admire the way the rebels had adapted them to their needs. There were creature comforts down here, but more importantly it was an easy place to defend. All the entrances to the network were heavily guarded, but even if some enemy should fight their way through, they’d need to pass through narrow tunnels that were overlooked by concealed sniper nests and carefully hidden traps. She discovered that there were places where one strategically removed rock could bring down a whole ceiling, burying dozens of potential attackers in rubble. There were secret exits too so that, if this lair should fall, some of its inhabitants could make their escape. Ellasa, who seemed to be warming to her somewhat, was happy to explain all of this. Apple wondered why she trusted her with such detailed information, but then realised that she could only leave this place with her consent anyway. They had no fear she would run to their enemies and tell them their secrets, if she’d even known who to tell them to. Evidently, they believed she’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the trust Carek had placed in her back in that tavern – for all that it was little more than a five-minute conversation – seemed to make her almost one of them. Still, she was followed by at least two burly guards wherever she went.
Apple was different from these people. They called her marauder, a name once intended as a curse and an insult, but which now sprang so easily to their smooth, unscarred lips, that it hardly bore any deliberate malice. She knew what cityfolk thought of her people. It didn’t bother her. There was no hiding what she was though, and those who still didn’t understand who she was or how she’d come to be here, would stare as she passed. She’d managed to count several hundred down here already, and she suspected there were more coming and going, on clandestine missions across the city. What they were doing, what the ultimate aims of this band even were, she couldn’t guess at. It was city business, as far as she was concerned, and while Ellasa had sketched out the politics involved, and named and described the most prominent Water Barons who were evidently their most hated foes, to Apple it was all so much petty factionalism. She was aloof. This was not her battle, whatever they seemed to think. All she wanted was to leave, reclaim her rotan – assuming it hadn’t already been sold or butchered for meat – and head back out into the desert where she belonged. There were no plans to let her go though, and Ellasa evaded any question she asked about it, until she just stopped bringing it up. They wanted her to remain here, perhaps out of fear of that potential betrayal or, more worryingly for Apple, because they had something else in mind for her.
They treated her well enough. She shared their food and their company, even talked amiably to some of them. The young man who’d helped rescue her, Jev, was even quite friendly. He seemed to have taken a shine to her, and she did all she could to gently discourage his interest. After all, to her he looked like a child, and even without that, she suspected they wouldn’t be a good match. Still, he always seemed to find excuses to be around her and strike up a conversation about something or other. One thing she was genuinely grateful for was the medical care. There was no shortage of medical supplies, since they were stocked for a siege, and they had skilled healers amongst their ranks. Perhaps a week after she’d arrived, one of them was checking her wounded leg, frowning at what she saw.
“What?” she asked the older woman.
Jev, who’d somehow conspired to be around again, leant over to look at her exposed skin. Apple wasn’t embarrassed, but she saw how his eyes widened at the jagged scars that covered her. “Your leg,” the healer said after a moment, “it looks healed.”
Still wearing a confused expression, she ran a rough hand over the place the bullet had entered. The scar tissue had formed well, and only a faint silvery mark reminded. Hardly one to be proud of, but it would do. “They removed the bullet?”
“I think it passed right through,” Apple said with a shrug. She turned her leg to show the healer the matching scar on the other side of her thigh.
“And you said it was a shotgun? At point-blank range?” She was looking up at her sceptically.
“Yes.” Apple was starting to get a little uncomfortable now.
Jev looked astonished, and before she could stop him he’d reached out and touched the mark too. She flinched away instinctively. “Sorry,” he said, his pale face turning red. He’d snatched his hand back, like she’d been hot to the touch.
She tugged her trouser leg back down. “What’s the problem?” she demanded.
The healer sat back on her haunches. She was a handsome woman, with grey in her hair, and a lean figure. Apple hadn’t caught her name. “I’ve treated wounds like that before,” she explained, “and most of the time had to amputate the limb. Your bone should have been pulverised. You’re sure it was a live round?”
“Felt like one.”
Her eyebrows lifted. “You’ve been shot like that before?”
“Of course.” Apple looked at her like she was simple.
“And…you healed like this?”
“Perfectly…at an accelerated rate…”
She was starting to feel lost. “I don’t know what you mean. This is normal, isn’t it? It was only a bullet. Not like the bitch slit my throat or anything.”
“Normal?” Jev was shaking his head. “This is normal for you?”
“It’s normal for everyone…isn’t it…?” She looked from one to the other, seeking reassurance, but finding none. They were in a small chamber off one of the bunkrooms, private but not divided by a door or even a curtain. Two of the men who’d been subtly shadowing her that day were now peering in, looking as bewildered as the others.
The healer exchanged a glance with Jev. “Not for us,” she said softly, without looking at Apple, “and not for anyone I’ve ever met. But then, I’ve never treated a marauder before.”
“Cityfolk are soft, I suppose.” Apple stood up. Her leg didn’t even really hurt now. It was a little sore around the wound, but that would pass in a day or so. Did these people really break so easily? How did they ever get anything done?
“No human should be able to survive an injury like that unscathed.” The healer straightened and dusted off her hands. “I have no explanation for this.”
“What explanation do you need? My people survive in the desert…or we did…we have to be tough to do that. It makes perfect sense.”
“I suppose it does.” She went to go, then stopped and turned, looking a little embarrassed. “Do you think I could examine you?”
“Medically, I mean. Run some tests. I have some equipment down here. I think I can persuade Karnel to let me borrow a battery. Just so I can understand you a little better.”
“If I knew how you – how your people – heal so fast, maybe it’s something we could replicate? If there’s a genetic component, I mean, I don’t know how that would have evolved and…”
She babbled on, using words Apple didn’t understand. Eventually she agreed to whatever it was she wanted to do, if only to get out of the room. She was uncomfortably aware of the stares that now followed her. Knowing how cityfolk gossiped, she expected news of this to be all over the complex in a matter of hours.
It was Ellasa who found her eventually, snoozing in one of the sniper holes she’d discovered. She was used to being alone beneath a high desert sky and, confined though this spot was, it at least had the virtue of offering her some privacy. Ellasa crept in beside her, having to crouch to enter beneath the low entrance passage. She was moving to gently wake her, but Apple had woken the moment she’d heard her footsteps. She now fixed her with a stare.
“Hello,” Ellasa said, then added, “Am I disturbing you?”
“You want to go, don’t you?”
“I think I’ve almost persuaded my mother to let you.”
Apple pushed herself up. It was dark in this little bolthole, but she could see the other woman’s eyes gleaming in the thin torchlight from outside. “Persuaded?”
“She agrees you aren’t a threat to us. You just got caught up in our business.”
“I told you that right from the start.”
“Since…what happened…she’s convinced there are conspiracies around every corner. She thought the Barons had sent you.”
“I didn’t even know who they were until a couple of days ago.”
“She thought you were lying. Tricking us.”
“Her distrust does her credit, given your circumstances, but I am who I say I am.”
“I know that.” Ellasa looked away for a moment. “The thing with the bullet wound didn’t help, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“It made it look like you’d lied about being shot.”
“The scar is right there…”
“Yes, I understand. But we didn’t know…I mean, about marauders…that you can…”
“Everyone is different,” Apple interrupted, “we’re not as strange as Icemen or Subterrans. Humans come in many shapes and sizes.”
“Of course.” She didn’t sound convinced.
“You’re keeping something from me,” she guessed.
“Mum wants Dr Ulin to examine you.”
“Ulin? Oh, the healer.”
“The doctor, yes. She says that, when she’s seen for herself that you really were hurt, she’ll be satisfied that you’re what you claim to be, and we’ll let you go.”
“You don’t mind?”
Apple thought about it. “I do mind,” she said, realising it herself as she said the words, “but I want to get out of here and back to my rotan.”
“We can’t let you back out in the city.”
“It’s too dangerous. We have tunnels with exits beyond the walls though. We just have to sneak you out that way.”
“I won’t abandon my mount,” Apple insisted.
“It’s just a beast…”
She struggled to understand what the city-woman was talking about. “No…it’s my rotan.”
“We can try to source funds for a replacement and…”
Apple held up her hand to stop her. “I’m not going to buy an inbred city-broken whelp,” she said, “I need my own animal back. It’s from my own herd.”
“Your own herd…?”
“My tribe’s herd.”
“Oh.” Ellasa nodded, and Apple felt relieved that she’d finally realised how stupid she was being. “It’s the last link you have to your family. I didn’t realise that.”
“What? No…it’s…” She cocked her head, trying to think like a city dweller. They had no rotan, of course. They wouldn’t understand, would they? To them, they must just be large beasts of burden, a means to an end. They didn’t – couldn’t – grasp their importance to the nomadic peoples of the Great Red Desert. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, “it’s my problem, not yours. I’ll find a way to get it back by myself. You just show me the way out.”
“All right then. You know, the more I learn about you, the more I want to know about where you came from, and how your people live.”
“Lived,” Apple corrected her.
“Why are you apologising? You were a child when it happened.”
“No, I meant…” She shook her head. “Ignore me. I’m just curious like that. I guess I get it from dad.” She looked away a moment, then took a breath and controlled herself. “I’m sure how we live seems strange and fascinating to you too.”
“Not really,” Apple told her as she rose into a crouch and scrambled past her to the passage leading out of the darkened nook.
The healer, Ulin, gave her some privacy this time. They convened in a small chamber sealed from the rest of the complex with a heavy metal door. The cramped space was littered with hefty-looking crates, a number of which had been opened. As Apple entered, pleased to be able to leave her guards on the other side of a closed door, she was just searching through them, pulling out unusual devices and setting them up atop other crates.
“What’s that?” Apple asked, pointing to a thing that looked like an electric lamp.
“Just a bio-scanner. Nothing to be afraid of.”
“I’m not afraid.” She sat down on an unopened crate. “I make a living scavenging tech. This could make you good coin.”
“I’m sure,” Ulin said with a tight smile. She placed a hand on the scanner thing. “These belonged to my mother, and before that her father, and his father, then I think it was my great-great-grandmother…I’m not sure before that. Either way, this equipment has been in my family for generations. We’ve restored it all a thousand times, replacing parts as they’ve worn out. Some I don’t even know how to use any more, not really.” She sighed. “So much knowledge, lost with each year that passes. It feels like all we do is reclaim scraps of the Ancestors’ civilisation from the dust, try to get some use out of it, strip it for parts or preserve it like a holy relic, but never invent anything new. Never push things forward. It’s like the system is winding down, you know? There’s no new input, just a lot of people carving up a world with less and less to offer us. I mean, look at these exhausted mines.” She waved a hand over her head.
“Can we get on with this?”
“Of course. Sorry. I get a little maudlin sometimes when I think about these things. It’s why I’m here, after all.” She picked up the scanner and turned it over. Apple saw a switch near the base, although the way it had been wired in showed her it wasn’t the original, but a crudely patched replacement, though even that looked ancient. The casing on the machine was faded and worn too, and many dents and scratches marred its surface. It could be a thousand years old, or would be if any original parts had even survived. When Ulin flicked the switch, nothing happened. “Hm.”
“It does this sometimes,” the healer said, although she didn’t sound very sure of herself, “if I haven’t used it in a while.” She fiddled with some of the exposed wiring.
“Battery?” Apple suggested.
Ulin opened part of the casing and turned the slot it revealed towards the light. Apple peered over and saw the corroded cell nestled within. “I’ve already borrowed a battery for this lamp,” she said, gesturing up towards the electric bulb hanging from the ceiling. “Can’t do this kind of work with a flame, you understand.” She looked thoroughly crestfallen.
“Maybe it isn’t that,” Apple said, “check it.”
“Check the battery.”
Ulin was looking at her with that expression that was starting to become annoyingly familiar. It was the one that made her think she’d sprouted a set of extra arms or something. “I don’t have another device it fits…” Ulin said weakly.
“No, not like that.” Apple took the scanner from her unresisting grip and pried the battery from its holder. Rust flaked away around the contact point. “That might be your problem,” she smiled, “but let’s see.” She set the scanner aside and held the battery between her index fingers. There was a little jolt of charge; not much, but maybe enough. “All right; you have some power left, but only a little. How long will this scan take?” She looked up again and Ulin was staring at her with eyes like round rotan eggs. “What…?” Was this another one of those things that seemed second nature to her, but was apparently some strange mystery to the cityfolk?
“Huh?” She looked down, and then started at what she saw. Threading across her arms where she’d pulled up her sleeves, ghosting across her scars in a strange, eerie fashion, were patterns of blue-green light. There was the occasional flash of text or even a coherent image. For one tantalising moment, something that looked like a diagram showing mountains and valleys spread across her forearm, before breaking up as quickly as it had formed. She glowed, filling the chamber with a pale luminescence. “What…what’s happening to me?”
The battery died. She felt the electro-chem buzz fizzle out, and then the strange lights disappeared.
“What was that?” Ulin breathed.
“It was…a map…”
“This time,” Apple told her, “it really isn’t.” She stared down at herself again. What had those bastards done to her while they’d had her locked up?