In the grand scheme of things, Yaryl Rogers was not hideously ugly. He did not have a harelip, or missing limb. And his one true deformity was covered with a glass eyeball, and dark sunglasses, both filched from the piles for an extraordinary sum. But Yaryl was still bald, with yellow teeth, and a fat gut, which combined with the glasses, gave him a look of general distrustfullness.
In the early days, after the rot, the survivors had gone by on looks alone. Looks told you if you were dealing with a cannibal raider, or a phony trader, or someone that might be able to help you out. In the boonies, in the shadow of the dome, those prejudices still held on true. But they were not absolute. And here Yaryl had learned to be useful. Yaryl was the best and repairing archaic laptops around, which was how he had won his spot in the boonies in the first place. And he was good enough to sneak a favor, or a reward, from a certain crafty young jilly or two. Specially when he made his way to the trade. There were prostitutes and there were prostitutes, in this rotted-out world, and Yaryl met them both. for in his heart of hearts, Yaryl yearned to be loved.
It was always there, if you knew were to look. Desperate female flesh. Willing to put itself through almost anything, for an MRE or a ration. Or even a half raw hunk of meat. He never thought of them by name, or even remembered their faces. They were always flesh, ready, and made willing from their own desperation. It was the oldest job in humanity, and the first one a woman fell into when reduced to nothing.
Then came the droid, and the breaking of the council, and everything changed.
Most of the existing junked-up tech was replaced by new wonderments, the council had been squatting on in the dome. Whole heards of the boonies up and moved right into the dome, with its green growing wonders, and fancy tricks. Whole herds of folks that had been squatting around moved into the boonies. An actual by-god sick house was set up for the worst of folks dying of rot, called a hospice, which was such unbelievable foolishness Yaryl could scarce believe it. When he felt the least bit sick, or at all unwell, he did his best to hide it, in the manner of the traders across the waste. In this rotted-out world, your health and what you could do were the only currency you had. He hated the sick houses. He would throw all of them away, if he could. Why waste a bullet, for ones that were surely going to die? You could sell the bullet, leastwise.
He was on the far end of the piles, now. Past the officialy designated scavanging posts, where young junkers dug for bits and pieces of tech to go back to the dome. Past any sort of overwatch of Colonial Guardsmen. Dangerous indeed. Unless your object was to meet up with someone, shall we say, a little unsavory.
He saw the bike come in slick and quiet across the sands. Its paint was the same no color of desert, and its rider wrapped from head to toe in the same. A stealth vehicle. He felt the same pinprick of danger as every one of these meetings. A raider! Meeting with a raider, one of the cannibal hordes that would kill them all, God rot it! But then he summed up his resolve, and braced himself. The raider pulled up close enough to Yaryl so that he could smell the stink coming off its rags.
"You have it?" The man hissed, with no ceremony.
Yaryl held out the memory stick. "This is everything I could find." He said. The raider snatched it out of his hand.
"It had better be more than last time." The savage said.
"Do you have any idea of what I'm risking here?" Yaryl snapped. "What will happen if I'm found out? Its banishment, quick and neat, with a mostways option of blowing my own brains out if I feel like it."
The raider drew himself up to full height, towering over Yaryl. He drew back his rags, showing the ebony armor of the Black Century. On his hip was a sidearm, ugly and with that deep red rust that meant rot, for certain.
"Think of the options if you displease us." The raider hissed. "And consider your options closely.
"I was promised reward." Yaryl squeaked feebly.
"The ones that please the boss are rewarded." The raider said. "When we come for thisss dome, we will set them up in sssertain positions. The ones that anger him, will beg for death before the end. The Black Century does not forgive, and its memory is long."
With that the raider leaned back into the saddle of the electric motorcycle and the machine raced away. The dust it kicked up left a stench in Yaryls nostrils, despite the filter he wore. He wondered if he was doing the right thing. No, not the right thing, but the thing that would benefit him, in the end. He turned back toward the piles, and kept his thoughts to himself.
Mona lined up her troops at the far end of the market. "Alright." She said. "Who are we? Lets hear it."
"Junkers!" Was the enthusiastic cry, in return.
She smiled. "What do we always keep on?"
"Mask and gloves!"
"And what do we always stay inside?"
"Get out there and do us proud!"
The junkers scrambled past her, into the nearby piles of refuse, from an earlier civilization. They were mostly young. Children, like she had been, scrounging among the scraps to survive. But this was a different breed than she had been. Most of the junkers here had grown up in the boonies, or in the dome, for the very youngest ones. Knowing the unmentionable luxury of an actual civilization, mostways. And as much as she hated to admit it, more than a few of them had started in this line of work, based on her story, which was well on its way to legend.
Everyone knew it by heart, it seemed. A Junker Girl had found a finger in the piles, which led to the rest of a Droid, a fantastic relic from before. The Droid had come to the boonies and liberated the dome from the clutches of a power hungry council, and then saved the Colony by fighting off an invasion from the Piss Yellow tribe of raiders. All of it had its roots in truth, but the facts were murkier than that.
There was a whole group of people not colored by the legend. Skip, who had helped guide her to the rest of the Droid, before losing his life to a raider sniper's bullet. Berks, who had helped guide her to the boonies, a place she had never been before in her life. And finally the many dead of the Colonial Guardsmen, who had sacrificed themselves in the battle against the Piss Yellows. But there was more than that, even. When Mona looked backwards in time she could see a trail of sorrow and misery that seemed to trace its way all the way back to when the Earth became the Whole Rotted Earth, and civilization lapsed back to the time before.
She shook her head to clear it. There was no time for any of it.
She was twenty-five now. It had been eight years since she had discovered Markus. Things had changed. The world around her had changed. After the battle with the Yellow's, there had not been another mass incursion from the raiders, from any band or tribe. And the boonies had pushed far out, in every direction surrounding the dome, all the way up to the piles themselves. There was actual green, even! The techs had gotten small gnarled trees to take hold, more shrub than tree. A hardy plant, in poisoned soil. But when it budded the buds were real and true. The folks called it a Marker tree, named for the Droid itself. The colony was different now, in that it thought of itself as an actual colony, not just the second and third class in the habs, the council in the dome, and the junkers and traders on the outskirts. With the rot and the raiders picking at the edges like a browning scab.
Arril yelped and held something triumphantely in the air. A collection of wires and circuits, that was most likely useless, but still Mona smiled and waved. He was only eleven. Had spent most of those years in the dome, or in the better part of the boonies. But he wanted this life for himself. To him, this was a game, still, finding the best parts to take back. He ran off in another direction. Mona glanced above him. A Colonial Guardsman was there, with a plasma rifle, standing watch. They had a retinue of three, and markers set not to push beyond. Her mind wandered and she thought back to that day with Skip. But it wouldnt happen here. They were far beyond this point, when it occured, and a sniper wouldnt come this far out.
At some point in the afternoon mona retreated to the back of the truck. There was a workbench set up in the trailer, where she was able to test finds for electrical capacity, or rare earth elements. She had a laptop from her early days that she used, which was nowhere near as efficient as the dome tech, but she thought it kept her humble. On the laptop she compared existing finds with bits the children brought in. There was history here. In the days before, the majority of waste was paper or food based, and composted quickly. Beyond that there were the plastics that just broke down into smaller plastics. But the ones before had been blessed with an overabundance of tech, and when something broke down, or simply was no longer needed, they threw it out. Such carelessness. Not thinking that a day may come, when everything would be scarce. Neccesary.
At the end of the day she sent the signal and the junkers straggled in. Most of them had pieces that would make good enough finds, and a few might even be functional. A few bits of metal were suspiciously flecked with rot that looked bad enough for her to toss. A good haul, overall. It was only when she gave the head count that she realized something was wrong.
"Where's Arril?" She asked. The junkers shrugged and murmurmed to each other. She activated her comm, and sent a signal, a simple message that meant come back now. It would lead to a loud buzzing in his ear. But a mechanical voice from an earlier time told her, "Message failed."
"Whats wrong?" A guardsman asked, his name tag identifying his as SGT. ALEPH.
"I'm missing one."
"Are you sure?"
"I counted twice."
"Its getting dark." He said. "We need to get back soon."
She shuddered inwardly. "Take them back." She said. "I'm going to stay here and look."
There were murmurings from the children. Aleph looked at her reluctantly. "Take them back." He told the other Guardsman. "Leave me the radio so I can get in touch." Mona felt a moment of relief, that was sucked away when the truck rumbled to life. One of the children in the back started to cry.
"Thank you." She told Aleph."
"We'll spend three hours." Aleph said. "After that, we'll go back, and come back tomorrow for a larger force. Okay?"
She nodded. He unstrapped a handgun from a hip holster. "Know how to use it?" He asked.
"Stick together, and be careful." And then they were moving, heading into the junk while the light died away.