Her vision cleared as if a dust cloud had begun to settle around her, and her neck ached as she turned her head to take in her surroundings. She was in a familiar room, though she couldn't yet place the reason for its familiarity. The chair in which she sat was comfortable but worn, clearly very ancient indeed - as was the droid in the chair on the opposite side of the room. She stood carefully, as it seemed that every part of her ached, and floorboards creaked underfoot as she crossed the room.
She bent to quietly examine the old droid, thinking that he may have been asleep; but instead found no signs of life at all. Just then a thought struck her, and she quickly ran an internal self-diagnostic; the results showed that while her key systems were in good working order, her memory core regulator was in bad shape. At least it was nothing life-threatening, but she resolved to get it replaced as soon as possible. She turned back to the old droid, and wondered if want of a replacement system was what brought his life to an end.
'Just can't get the parts these days,' said a voice from the doorway behind her. Startled, she turned to see a man partially silhouetted by the bright daylight outside. As he entered the room she wondered why she had not heard him approach, as the sound of his spurs accompanied every footstep across the bare wooden floor.
'Is that why he died?' she asked. 'Something go wrong he couldn't replace?' The newcomer faced her.
'Near as I can tell without taking him apart. Came into my shop some time a few weeks back, muttering something about needing something. Looked all round my shelves for a while but left empty-handed, so guess he didn't find it, whatever it was.' He looked down at the still form in the armchair, then back at her. 'He your husband?'
The question took her by surprise. Not for what it asked, or for who asked it, but because she had no idea of the answer. Her confusion must have been evident, because the stranger spoke before she could reply.
'You know, I seen you in town a few times before - out and about. Usually he'd be with you, so I figured you two were involved in some way, be it husband and wife or family. What I also figure is that his passing had something of a contrary effect on you; not seen either one of you out in the town since he came to my shop. There a problem with your systems?'
This was one question to which she did know the answer. 'I ran a check, said my memory core regulator was in need of repair.' The stranger nodded as if this confirmed what he had been thinking.
'Them things are tricky gadgets, you won't find a new one out here. I'll take a look at it myself and see if it can be repaired if you'd like; owning the parts shop I have a few skills in that direction.'
'That would be most kind, sir,' she replied, 'but unless I recall wrongly, I have little enough to pay you with.' As she said this, the shopkeeper looked uncomfortable for the first time since he appeared.
'Well, ma'am, that was sort of the purpose of my visit. See, low as we are on parts around here, it's starting to get so that more and more droids are expiring for want of replacements. All the mines and plants hereabouts have shut down, so we've been asking folk if they mind us using core parts from their deceased. It's none too respectful, I'm aware, but times are real hard these days.'
'I understand,' she said. 'You may certainly use his parts to help any that need them.' It wasn't as if she could clearly remember the old droid anyway, and it seemed selfish to withhold help for no practical reason. An idea came to her as she considered this. 'Will you be able to replace my memory core regulator with his?' she asked.
'Well we can try ma'am, but I reckon he's been gone too long. Most core systems'll keep near indefinitely, but peripherals need the constant power flow or they corrode up beyond repair fast as you like.' He turned and with a deft motion lifted the old droid from the chair onto his back. 'If you'd care to follow me, we'll take this old droid to the shop and see if there's anything we can do for you.' He moved to the door and stepped out into the dry sun-beaten street. She followed him, blinking to shade her optical units against the sudden brightness.
Despite his burden, he set a brisk pace along the main street and she frequently had to run to keep up with him. It wasn't far to his shop, though; the town itself seemed small enough that everything was in close proximity to everything else. They soon arrived and the shopkeeper told her to wait just inside the doorway while he took the old droid into the back room, presumably for salvage. His voice carried through the open door to her:
'I used to have hired help doing the actual salvage and the like, but what with all these folk upping and leaving, I'm more or less on my own in here lately. Not that I really mind of course, always been one to keep to myself. You might want to see this, ma'am: come on through.' She did so, anxiety rising in her as she entered the well-lit back room. The walls were lined with tools and parts, but the floor was scrupulously tidy and there were four workbenches arranged in the centre. At the nearest stood the shopkeeper, his back to her. On the bench in front of him was the body of the old droid - her husband, apparently.
'What have you found?' she asked, almost dreading the reply though she couldn't think what it was that caused this apprehension. What could he have possibly seen that would upset her, or even be of much interest to her?
'This old droid didn't die for want of parts, ma'am. Everything's in working order - or it was when he died. I've seen this in a lot of the dead I've brought back here; he just gave up and shut himself down.'
- - - - -
I don't recall everything as happened out in the wastes; the memories of the old towns are the clearest. But there's one thing I do remember true. A lot of bad things have been going on in recent times and I can trace them all back to where they began: that damned whore. All the proverbial workings came undone right at the very moment she screamed for help. But that's a good ways into my story, though the beginning itself is harder to place: I'll just start with what drove me to that whore's town.
All droids have a need for replacement parts. Old parts get worn out, or damaged, and when that happens your average droid'll head to the parts shop and get itself fixed. Me, I've been robbed of that luxury of late on account of this damned fool exodus back to the City, most droids abandoning their homes out in the wastes to go chase dreams. Maybe that's why they ventured out here in the first place, but way I see it both journeys are fool's errands. Whatever their reasoning, it means that the mines, workshops and parts stores are starting to fall down with no soul to tend them.
This spells quite the catastrophe for those such as I, though for all I know I'm alone in my ailment of needing near-constant replacement parts. Maker knows how this came about: damned if I can recall my own self why I am the way I am, but the fact is that there are no parts shops that can serve my needs. But fortune does occasionally smile on those in need, it seems, as this wave of discontent has kicked off not only the mass exodus back to the City, but also a rash of suicides in most every settlement you care to think of. I got nothing against others doing it, but you wouldn't catch me taking the easy way out; life's a fight and I'll be damned if I'm giving in that easy. One thing to be said in favour of suicide, though, is that it sure does provide an ample supply of replacement parts if you're fast enough.
The first corpse I cut open was a middle-aged female who kindly donated an optical processor. I don't full recall how I came across her, but I do remember how it felt to put the knife through her skin, revealing the circuitry and bare components beneath. It felt powerful, though it was clear it took little enough power to do it.
To the best of my knowledge, that first incident went unnoticed while I was in town. I stayed around for a few more days, haunting the back alleys and watching for any signs of suicides, preying upon the fresh corpses before the components had a chance to corrode, until I felt confident that I could get out of town with a fair chance of survival in the wastes before hitting the next settlement. I definitely had the impression that I should be moving on: there were rumours of what I'd been doing around town, and while the inflated stories of some dark menace lurking in the shadows provided me with no small degree of amusement, I figured it was time to be moving on.
So I set off into the wastes, pitted with abandoned mines and silent quarries, where the only souls you're like to see are those heading Citywards. I steered well clear of those Maker-forsaken convoys, drifting through the landscape like ghosts, everything about them screaming hopelessness and futility. Used their tracks to get me to wherever it was they came from, though, which in the first instance was a small one-time mining town up in some particularly inhospitable hills. Found only slim pickings there; for one reason or another the majority of droids had packed up and left town rather than ended their lives quickly and painlessly.
It wasn't a time to be picky though; I had parts that needed replacing, in particular my left motor periphery co-ordinator. Already I could feel my limbs on one side of my body responding sluggishly to commands, and it was only a matter of time before they packed it in altogether. Fortune smiled once more for me though, and I found a willing donor on the edge of town; seemingly he'd given up hope while staring out into the hills at the old mines, most like recalling finer days. Reckon if I'd found him a day later the parts I needed would have been useless.
My stay in that town was cut short by the untimely discovery of my victim, in spite of the fact I ditched him in a quarry pit. Some other lost soul must've wandered out for likely the same reasons as the first, my best guess. However it happened, it meant I had to get out of town in a hurry as there were a number of people looking for me with less than friendly intent. So I went out into the barren wastes again, and I'm guessing that death-hungry mob didn't dare follow me; ain't no need for a droid to venture out there unless he's running from something. That's why it's only me and the Citybound folk.
Memories of the wastes are most always hazy, one day blurs to another and the only thing as changes is my wretched shell wasting further away. This was the first time I got any close to perished out in the wastes, after being run out of that town. Few enough tracks around to show me the way to any other settlements nearby, so it took longer than I'd hoped, and I was in bad shape when a column of smoke on the horizon pointed me in the right direction.
Cresting a rise, I spotted my target: not the town I'd hoped for, but the wreckage of some poor bastard's ride. Drawing near, I figured it hadn't been long since the thing gave out on him, and he might well still be in the area. Luckily enough for me, the tracks were simple enough to follow, and took me a mile or so away to a hunched form on the top of the next hill. As I approached, I loosened my knife in its sheath; there was no time to lose, as I'd already lost all feeling in my right arm and sight in one optical unit.
The corpse was sat in the dirt, in the same position as when he had given up hope and switched off. Wasting no time, I knelt down behind him and pushed my knife into the back of the droid's skull to get to the optics components; a working right arm would do me no good if my other optical unit shut down first. Last thing I expected was the sharp bite of a power discharge to run down my blade, as it had never happened with any other corpse. Thought nothing of it at the time, though, and it was only after I'd taken a new optical unit and right peripheral motor control from the guy that I realised what the difference was between him and the dozen other corpses I'd cut up and salvaged.
This guy had been alive when I'd cut him open.
- - - - -
'Why would he do such a thing?' She didn't know where the note of alarm in her voice had come from; maybe it was feelings toward the old droid coming back to her, or just a general revulsion toward the thought of ending one's own life in the way that he had. Perhaps the shopkeeper had made a mistake, perhaps he hadn't killed himself after all, but had been let down by a core component that the shopkeeper had missed.
'I wouldn't know the why-for, ma'am, but it's unmistakable,' he replied, seeming to read her thoughts. 'Awful lot of droids these parts are doing the same, it seems; other folk are grabbing their gear and setting off for the City, they say. With both going on it's getting mighty quiet in town of late.'
'And nobody knows why this is happening?' she asked. It seemed inconceivable that this would all be happening without a good reason.
'Not so much that they'd talk about it, leastwise not with me; but there's a real feeling going around that this life is far too hard, so hard that folk're just giving right up. Those that do either pack up and leave, bound for the City, or they just shut themselves off. I'm sorry to tell you that your friend here numbers among the latter.'
She thought about this, and got a strange feeling as she did. 'You said that he was in your shop not long ago, looking over your shelves. If he had no need of a new part, why would he do that?'
The shopkeeper was clearly as confused as she was, but told her there was little more he could do. 'I've got what core components I could from him, so you can take him away for a proper burial if you want.'
She figured that would be the right thing to do, and with the shopkeeper's help she took him to the pits on the edge of town, where the town disposed of its dead. The shopkeeper handed over the old droid to the pit-tender and bid them both farewell. She thanked him for his troubles and watched as he turned and strode back to his shop.
The pit-tender was a hunched figure, the legacy of a life of digging pits and carrying corpses. He never seemed to make visual contact with her, which made her feel slightly uncomfortable in his presence.
'Another one offed himself, has he?' he asked cheerfully. 'Tell you they're dropping almost faster'n I can bury them these days. Always keep a few fresh pits ready and waiting, I do - never know when another stiff's going to show up.'
He set about his business with surprising speed, laying the old droid out in a pit and starting to shovel the dirt back over him. She was left standing by, watching and not quite knowing if she was supposed to be doing something. She decided to attempt conversation, as uncomfortable as she was with the pit-tender.
'Do you know why everyone's suddenly dying or leaving?' she asked, it being the question foremost in her mind at that moment. The pit-tender paused in his shovelling and gave her a half-glance, still not meeting her gaze. As he spoke, he resumed his task.
'It's the despair what's done it, I reckon. Folk find life out here too hard, scraping a living out of the rock and dirt. Start feeling useless they do, no point to their lives. Start giving up on it all, either kill theirselves or head back to the City 'cause they forgotten why they left in the first place.'
'What about those that stay?' she enquired. 'Why don't they leave with the rest, or end their lives?' She couldn't place her reason for such curiosity, except perhaps because of the old droid she was now watching being buried, and who had apparently been her husband.
'Can't speak for all of 'em, that's for sure. But as for myself, well you can plainly see I got myself a purpose here, grim as it is to other folk. Keeps the despair at bay, you might say. Sure I figure eventually town'll run outta customers for me, but until then I'm thinking I'll tick over just fine.' The pit-tender chortled to himself quietly. 'The droid from the parts shop, though, he got hisself a whole different reason for sticking around. Determined to help everyone, that droid; ever since I put his wife in the ground a fair old time back. After that, he started tending the parts shop and barely a day'd pass he wouldn't be out in the streets helping anyone he came across. Even dug me a few pits this one time when a whole family offed itself.' He patted the dirt flat and straightened as much as he could, bidding her good day as he shuffled off further into the pit-yard. She paused at the pit's edge, thinking about the old droid and wishing she could remember more about him.
With these thoughts in her head she turned and walked back through the dust-choked streets to the building that was apparently her home. It was just as bare and quiet as when she had left with the shopkeeper earlier. She decided to have a look around, though there were few enough rooms to investigate: just an upstairs bedroom and what appeared to be a workshop or study in the back. The walls in that room were lined with various tools - trowels, brushes, spades and knives hung next to shelves covered in strange pieces of metal and stone. On the workbench was a battered book entitled Archaeology, from one rudimentary printing press or another.
Flicking through, she found scribbled notes in the margins of the pages, giving opinions or dates and locations. They were in two differing hands, one of which she assumed was hers, the other her late husband's. One of the notes caught her attention, from the urgency with which it appeared to have been written:
Where is it?
It was in the margin next to a section headed 'Rumours and Conspiracy Theories'; the paragraph appeared to be about a vault in which there was some sort of relic from long ago, though the exact nature of it wasn't made clear. But with a sudden clarity, she knew that this was what the old droid - her husband - had been looking for in the parts shop: clues to find this vault. The more she looked around, the more she realised that this was what most of the items on the shelves were. Each was labelled with the time and place it was found, and what she presumed to be a page reference for the book. She sat on the basic stool in front of the workbench, and thought about all she had discovered. It appeared that the shopkeeper and the pit-tender weren't the only ones who had discovered a reason to stay.
- - - - -
So it seemed I'd killed a droid for the first time, but speaking plain I didn't much care. Guy had given up on life and was most like going to sit there and expire anyhow: I just helped speed up the process and put parts to good use as would else have gone to waste. Best of it was that his central motor control fixed the problem with his bike, so I took his spurs and set off in the direction he had come from. It'd been a goodly long while since I'd last cruised along on one of those machines, and they were damned rare, but it felt good when I sank the spurs into the starter sockets and heard that first roar of the motor.
It took me far less time to get around in this fashion, so it wasn't long afore the town appeared in front of me. First thing that occurred was that it was far bigger than most I'd seen in my time, with a great many grand buildings. Second thing that occurred was that it'd be mighty tricky to track any one droid down in a place of such size, and that I might have finally found somewhere I could stay for a spell without no mobs or nothing nipping at my heels. I stashed the bike a way outside town, figuring some folk may recognise it and start asking less-than-welcome questions regarding its previous owner, and walked into town.
I had no true pressing need for any new parts as such, so I decided to set myself up with lodgings, as I was planning to stay a goodly while. With this in mind I wandered round the streets taking in what this town seemed to offer, though much of it was falling into disrepair. Of most interest, though, were two buildings sat next to each other: the larger was a brothel, full of droids both beautiful and expensive, and less so on each score. These places were a regular feature of towns across the wastes, but the size of this one was like nothing I'd witnessed with my own two optical units. The smaller building, however, was a truly strange sight; bars across the windows like it was a bank afraid of being robbed, but a bank it sure weren't. Sign above the door said 'LAW'.
Now I'd never really run into seriously organised rule-enforcement afore now, aside from one town which had what it called a Head Droid. Gave the guy a badge and a hat, he wandered around that small town as if he owned it, telling folk what to do and what not to do, generally making a real nuisance outta hisself. Eventually got to be so much of a thorn in everyone's side that they beat ten buckets of sense outta him and left him for dead. He didn't have an office of his own though, and something told me that the 'LAW' in this town could well be a force to be reckoned with. Figuring they had no way to know if I'd broken their rules yet or not, I crossed the street and entered the squat building.
It was none too bright in there, and the air had a distinctly unfriendly feel to it. There was a droid sat at a desk near the door who bore an uncanny resemblance to the building itself: he was short, squat and had law writ large on his black shirt. Beyond him was a short corridor bordered by cages on either side, a few of which were occupied. The droid in the black shirt looked up at me as I walked in, and his gaze continued his seeming similarity with the building: there was little in the way of welcome to be found. But I've never been one to be put off by a simple lack of welcome, and told him I was new in town and needed to know what rules they had so as I didn't go breaking any without knowing.
'New in town?' said he. 'Yeah, you'll be wanting to stay on the right side of the law here. Whyfore'd you leave your last town?'
Told him I'd been wandering the wastes long as I could remember, never really had a true home but thought I'd try my hand at it in this place 'til such a time as I tire of the life or such. He seemed suspicious, but something told me he always did. He dug his hand into a drawer of the desk and pulled out a slender book which he pushed across the surface toward me; unsurprisingly, the single word on the cover was 'law'. I took the book and thanked him for his time, getting little more than a cursory grunt in way of a reply.
Back in the street I continued my leisurely journey through the town, flicking through the book as I went. Seems most things were frowned upon by the law-men in these parts, but I was most interested to find there was nothing stated about them having a problem with the cutting up of corpses. Guess if they had a rule against it the parts shops and the like would go out of business pretty quick - what with all the fleeing droids and suicides, a whole load of them are starting to salvage from corpses. Industry itself seems a fair corpse at this point.
Being a creature of habit, I wasn't like to change my ways just on account of some droids with badges who were too big for their boots and lived for bossing people around. So I found myself an abandoned home as they were sure easy enough to come by, and set myself up in this little hideaway. The first night came down fast, and it wasn't long afore the street was black and empty, save for a few pools of light around hanging lamps. I set out on my first night of business, with a shopping list from my self-diagnostics.
As I'd not been around this town too much, I stuck to the fringes so as to stay clear of most of the people. Thought it was a real stroke of luck when I happened upon an old storage shed, half a mile out of town, with a faint light spilling out from between the boards. There was nothing else even close by, but I crept up nice and quiet just to be sure. From the size of the thing I figured it couldn't easily hold more than two droids at once, and as I got in close I heard sounds that told me that were exactly what it was holding. I considered heading back to town and finding a droid on its own somewhere, an easy mark; but there was no chance I'd find a spot this quiet, so I figured I'd try my luck.
I moved silently to the back of the building and peered through a gap in the boards. He had her against one of the side walls, and her head was turned toward the back wall. They both had their optical shades closed, and were making enough noise to cover anything I might have done, so I slipped round to the front and very quietly opened the door. They made no sign to show they'd seen or heard me, and I silently took up a pick axe from against the far wall.
The doorway provided just enough room to swing it, and its point sunk heavily into the bottom of the guy's back, a spot which my previous activities had told me would irreparably damage his lower motor functions and stop the bastard running for good. He stiffened and fell back, lodging the pick firmly where it had hit; the girl stared and then started to scream. I didn't know if it was loud enough to reach folk in town, but that wasn't a chance I was about to take. The pick was unusable now, but I grabbed a sledgehammer and swung it at the bitch; first time she dodged well enough and it went through the wall, but on the second try I struck her clean in the head and it was that as went through the wall. Never did find it myself, but I figure it was beyond salvage anyhow.
I worked quickly, taking components I needed from the guy's head and the girl's body, then split. Hared it back to my room and waited for the morning; thought as I ran that I saw a light moving around on the edge of town, though what it was I didn't stick around to find out.
Morning came bright and clear as it always did, and I decided to head for the saloon to calm down from the night's activities. It was on the way there that I noticed something that changed my thinking on this town's law-men: nailed to many a wall down the street was a notice headed with the word 'MURDER!'. Reading down the page it became clear that not only were the law-men here powerful and determined, but they also had the respect of the people. On top of this, the poster made clear that one of their nightly patrols had glimpsed a shadowy figure fleeing the area of the crime. All these facts together were going to spell trouble for me, I knew. Looking back, I should have got out of there right at that moment; but I figured I'd be fine, long as I was careful. Not sure as I've ever been more wrong.
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