Book 5, Chapter 19 - Sandspire

One thing the wastelands didn’t lack was ruins. The former civilization that once spanned this world had been vast and glorious. What remained now, of course, was nothing but husks of their former splendor.

The skeletons of their buildings and neighborhood were now haunts for scavengers and nests for wild animals.

However, the ruins were anything but worthless. Often they were the final resting places of ancient knowledge. Tools, weapons or data were buried in the detritus, waiting to be unearthed. Usually, these places rich in ancient tech were referred to as troves.

The wastelands were vast and sparsely populated. It was a land mired in conflict, but also rich in opportunity.

One place where opportunity lived was Sandspire. Slowly rusting husks of buildings rose from the dunes like jagged teeth, marking a trove where it was said many legendary weapons were discovered. These stories inspired those who heard them, spreading among the masses and changing with each retelling.

For those who lived in Sandspire now, they would say those stories were their lighthouse.

They believed without a shadow of a doubt that Sandspire was a place where one’s luck could turn. Beneath their feet was a trove thousands of years old, hiding untold secrets just waiting to be discovered.

Attracting nearly ten thousand scavengers came with challenges as well. Sandspire’s complex maze ruins became a breeding ground for sin. Murder was an everyday occurrence. Hideous creatures also lurked in dark corners. They waited for unsuspecting wastelanders and picked off the weak.

Despite the danger, certain intrepid scavengers persisted. Gray Rabbit and Sister Bug were among them.

Out in the wastes, it was common for one’s name to reflect their abilities. Gray Rabbit was seventeen or eighteen years old, and with a name like that one figured he was quick. The gray part referred to his ashy skin. Little gray boy, quick as a hare.

He had a sister about his same age, Sister Bug. She was born small, frail and weak. Even though she was in her late teens the girl looked like she was ten years old. Her timid bearing earned her the name bug, timid little bug.

Without a doubt, the pair hung from the lowest rungs of the wasteland’s social structure. They didn’t dare cause trouble or start fights, and steered clear of any place where groups tended to gather. But this place… the stories were too wonderful. They managed to eke out a living among the cracks like frightened roaches.

The strong had their way of living. The weak did, too. Being strong didn’t always mean you lived longer than the weak.

Neither sibling was very good at hunting, so they dug through the rubble to survive. In the old days this trove had been a vast manufacturing site. All manner of machines and tools were made here, and made them well. Even after a few thousand years some of the things people found were still in working order.

Gray Rabbit spent his days picking out usable components which he squirreled away. More than just quick on his feet, Gray Rabbit was also clever. In true crafty fashion, he had his little trinkets hidden in several different places.

Little Bug was different from her brother. She was too weak to lift heavy things from the ruins. What she did have was a talent no one could match; she just seemed to know machines. Although she’d never been trained, she’d poured over the manuals they dug out to teach herself how these things work.

Brother and sister worked together in a simple and synergistic way. Gray Rabbit pulled out the pieces and Sister Bug put them together. When they had a working product they brought it to the market for sale. Their unique abilities helped improve their standing among the others.

Such was their way of making a living. So long as there was a way, even the smallest, frailest life could keep on.

Their dream was to one day unearth a particularly grand treasure. Such a find would change their fate like their predecessors, and they could add their stories to the many legends Sandspire already had. What a dream, safety and comfort in the city.

They knew nothing of the outside world, of course. To them, Sandspire was the whole world, the safest place they could be.

***

Bug wiped her hands, another project complete. It was an ugly hodgepodge of metal that looked like an insect.

It was covered in circuits, both inside and out. When Bug hooked them up to a crude homemade battery the propellers fastened to the machine began to whir. Ever so slightly the insect-like contraption rose off the table.

“Nice!” Gray Rabbit was thrilled. “We’ll definitely get a few scraps of meat for this one.”

Bug used a dirty sleeve to wipe the sweat from her brow and sighed in relief. It’d been days since they’d had a decent bite. If her efforts bought them a few scraps then it was all worth it.

They covered the contraption in a dirty cloth and set off to find a merchant willing to buy it. A good deal meant a brief respite to their hunger pains.

The nearest camp was small, less of a camp and more a temporary group of tents. Places like these mostly served as markets where goods were traded. No one lived here but there were a few hundred people gathered inside to see what they could get.

“Stop right there!” Right after stepping into the market, Rabbit and Bug were stopped by a fierce looking man. The two youths blanched, and Rabbit told his sister to run. But when she turned all she saw were two more hardened men barring their exit.

Gray Rabbit pulled out a small rusted dagger. He held it forth with a trembling hand. “The fuck do you want?!”

“Want?” The biggest one stepped forward with a nasty grin. “Word is you grunts make cute toys. What I want is for you to show me what’s under that cloth.”

Bug held the bundle tightly to her chest while her brother screamed at the men. “Hell no!”

“You think I’m askin’?”

Gray Rabbit felt it before he say anything. A pain in his wrist, then his dagger tumbled into the sand in two pieces. He turned to try and run, but a nasty kick caught him and sent him flying. The two henchmen picked him up and held him fast.

“Take it! Here, just take it!” She cried in a frightened voice and held out the bundle. “Let my brother go!”

“You want him to live? We can arrange something.” The leader eyed Bug hungrily. “Not a lot to look at, but a hole’s a hole. Work for us, warm our beds, and we’ll let this punk live.”

Gray Rabbit struggled against the two larger men. “No! Don’t do it!”

In a fit of rage the leader smashed his fist into Gray Rabbit’s face, loosening his teeth.

“I-I’ll go,” Bug said meekly. “I’ll go with you.”

“Good choice.”

The leader grinned and waved at his comrades to grab her. But as they moved in a voice stopped them in their tracks.

“You’ve got some balls, roughing up Sand Tiger’s guests.”

The thugs paused, and a moment later terror crossed their faces.

A man came into view, dressed very differently from the other scavengers milling around. He was maybe in his thirties, with a shaved head and covered in all kinds of metal ornaments. He was clad in strange robotic armor that made him look like some kind of spider. With him was a large masked figure.

Sand Tiger!

Trepidation stole the color from the thugs’ faces. Sand Tiger was not a man to be trifled with. He was a mystery. No one knew where he came from. As far as most knew he was an important person in Sandspire and held high status among the people who lived there. Every few days he made the rounds to these market camps, trading food and weapons for the things scavengers dug up. Sand Tiger had real clout with the lowly sort around here for being generous and treating them fairly. 

Sand Tiger had dealt with Bug and Rabbit maybe a dozen times.

“Mind your own fuckin’ business!” the larger man threatened.

This earned a dark chuckle from Sand Tiger. “Those are my trading partners you’re laying hands on. If you drag them away, it hurts my business. How can you tell me to mind my own business when you’re fucking with my livelihood? Now, walk away while you still can.”

“Who the fuck do you think you are!” The thug’s fists were curled tight. “Talkin’ down to me like some kind of big shot? Let’s rip this shithead apart!”

Such was life in the wastelands. A simple disagreement could lead to death. Life was cheap. As for Sand Tiger’s background? Fuck it – won’t matter once the asshole was dead. All they’d have to do was find somewhere else to set up shop. No one was going to bother combing the wastelands for a few thugs.

“You really are lookin’ to die.”

The large masked figure with Sand Tiger stepped forward, standing between him and the angry men. A hair-raising squeal of metal on metal sounded as their weapons impacted and cut away clothing. What was revealed was a body made of steel.

“The fuck is this?!”

Two shocked expressions looked up at the masked face. Two lightning-fast punches followed.

One after the other, both men’s heads exploded like overripe watermelons. Bits of bone and brain matter splattered across the area. Their leader, standing a little behind with wide eyes, recognized his folly. This giant thing wasn’t human, it was a robot.

He screamed and turned to run away. A deafening shot rang out from behind him, and when he looked down he saw the gaping hole in his chest. Trembling fingers explored the wound in disbelief.

“All that big talk, and this is the best you could do?” Sand Tiger blew the smoke from the large caliber handgun in his grip. He then turned to the two young scavengers. “I’ve been watching you for a while. You two got skills. Weak, though – if you stay here, sooner or later someone will finish you off. Better you stick with me. I’ll take you into the city.”

The siblings looked at him and then at each other in shock. 

“But… we have nothing to earn our way.”

Sandspire was the largest city in this part of the wastes. It wasn’t unheard of for scavs like them to buy their way in, but it was expensive. There was also a monthly tax that was levied, which by itself was more than the two could manage.

“Heh, that’s how it used to be. Now my father, Sand Viper, is the Governor. My word goes.” Sand Tiger made no secret of his identity. “So long as you stick with me, Sandspire will find a use for you!”

The Governor’s son? Since when did Sandspire have a governor?

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