Fun fact: the following story is based on a novel that I’m currently working on (working title being The Phoenix Relic). These characters and their setting feature in the story, though their story in Relic is vastly different. So consider this a taste of stories to come.
Desert Queens, by Alexander Paul Willging
Word Count: 826
It wasn’t even sunrise when the girls set out for another expedition across the Outlands. On Kairos, the skies were always a dark shade of red. Their four-wheeled off-roader blazed a trail through the desolate terrain. Hours passed without either of the girls seeing a single soul or picking up a clear signal.
But what they did care? They had each other.
Morgan sat in the driver’s seat, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on her gearshift. She never cleaned up as much as her partner did, but Julia could put up with a few smudges and some flat hair if it meant they were closer to finding the next piece of salvage. Watching Morgan sit at the wheel was like staring at a cat, languid and poised as it stalked prey, motionless right up until the moment it struck with effortless precision.
Julia, however, was more like a dog. Well, a fancy dog, given her taste for cosmetics and hair products. But she was loyal and hardworking, and no mistake. Morgan could drive without a care so long as her partner was rooting around the back of the caravan, cataloging every knickknack they’d bartered for at the Reclaimer’s Market, every scrap of tin and titanium they’d dug up in the wastelands outside Colina and south of the Armstrong Trail.
Whenever they showed up at the market, they let Julia do all the talking. The merchants and inspectors found her “approachable,” as they would say.
However, it was during a trip to the Scraper’s Bazaar at Gagarin’s Rock that they made their first mistake.
Morgan had only offered an innocent question when presented with an antique TyroCorp SN-11 comm beacon. She’d glanced askew at the retailer and asked, “And whose side of the war did this beauty come from?”
This was why Julia was better at haggling. The merchant was, it turned out, a patriot who’d fought on the side of the Free Kairos Brigades. Any implication that this beacon was, in fact, made to serve the money hounds in New Columbia was beyond outrageous. More like sacrilege. So it didn’t surprise Julia—when she had time to reflect on it later—that he’d summoned a small band of rough-and-tumble mercenaries to surround the two ladies.
“It’ll be all your silvers or half your bones broken,” the merchant growled. “I’m gettin’ compensated either way.”
Julia sighed when she saw the twinkle in Morgan’s eye. As sweet as her girlfriend could be in private, she just could not resist a challenge.
What had started out as a quiet morning exploring the Bazaar ended up with the two women hightailing it in the caravan, leaving behind one slighted merchant and a heap of bruised and battered mercs in the billowing dust cloud.
“We can’t keep this up,” Julia insisted. She’d stared at the back of the driver’s seat, trying to gauge Morgan’s reaction. “We’ll be arrested, sanctioned, and thrashed six ways to Sunday.”
“Mother Mary will provide,” was all Morgan would say.
Sure enough, Mother Mary did provide in her own peculiar way.
A call from the Order of Saint Buriana in the town of Augustine brought the two scavengers off their usual path. Sitting in an air conditioned tavern, Morgan listened with rapt attention to the old nun who promised them a generous sum in exchange for their aid in finding a precious relic somewhere deep in the Outlands.
“And may God go with you both,” she’d warned. “You’ll face bandits and worse that way.”
“Ain’t nothing to fear, Sister,” Morgan replied with an easy grin.
Julia said nothing, but she was afraid enough for the both of them.
Onward they rode, braving whatever the heart of the Outlands had to throw their way. Dust storms that blocked out the red skies. Bandit incursions and ambushes. Thunderbirds flocking across the entrance of Quicksilver Pass. And there was never enough time, not nearly enough time, to pause and catch their breath.
But they found the relic all the same. Bandaged and crusted with dry blood, unwashed and exhausted, Morgan leaned into Julia as they stumbled their way into the half-cracked vault deep inside the ruins of the Shirazi Citadel. Morgan only had the strength to offer one last cry of joy as she held the illuminated, gilded Bible aloft from the rubble—a rare import from distant Earth, preserved far below ground from light and heat.
And then the Bible had crumbled in her hands. Julia didn’t need to check the debris to know that the holy order’s precious relic was, in fact, an immaculate forgery.
Morgan had lost it then and there. She couldn’t even bring herself to cry, throwing dry heaves into Julia’s chest and murmuring about how truly fucked they were. And all Julia could do was stroke her hair and promise that there’d be another salvage hunt, another Reclaimer’s Market.
“Besides,” Julia had added, squeezing her tight, “you’re the only treasure I need.”
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