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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Tuuj is a scavenger struggling to survive when she discovers a crash site cache in the Holy Dunes.

Submitted: August 10, 2018

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Submitted: August 10, 2018



Even through the sandstorm, it was impossible to miss the juggernaut jackknifed in the sacred dunes. Its shadowed bulk menaced from within the massive sandrage lashing at the sky with a million million microscopic shards of glass and grime.  The ship’s silhouette was wrong, twisted and listing as if the metal leviathan lay prostrate in prayer with its stern distended skyward.

Tuuj lay flat at the base a low rise.  The thick fabric of her shiiziin cocooned her entire head.  She’d first picked up an unusual heatspike signature through her gogs in the vicinity of the Haashii barrows. The thermal readouts were too constant to be flaming wreckage and its crowning glow, nearly hidden within the storm’s mad thrashings, was too bright to be a regular crash flare.  One of its engines must have still been flaming, she decided. Tuuj adjusted the zoom on her gogs, but the storm hid all hints of detail. The juggernaut’s true shape was unrecognizable at this distance. It was Erdian, for sure; but the wreckage was too badly contorted to discern its function.

She frowned a hiss.  The Erdians knew better than to risk insult by breaking the no-fly truces of the Holy Dunes.  The juggernaut, like her, must have been caught unawares in the lightning blitz of wind and sand.  Belly to ground as she was, gritwhisps tore at both pairs of her gloved arms and tendrils of abrasive sand snaked their way against her scaly skin. Tuuj’s forked tongue darted in and out of her mouth inside of the rough shiiziin as she tasted the air.  All she could smell was the manic wind and the bite of silicon filth.

Tuuj was scavenge caste, one tenuous step above exile and death.  Barren females were all scavenge caste and bad scavengers weren’t tolerated long.  Her brood rarely visited the Haashii barrows and Tuuj had taken a risk on the vicious, storm-torn landscape to find new salvage sources.  Her gamble had failed, and badly. Tuuj had scuttled for shelter with barely enough time to abandon her paltry scrap cache to the rushing dust wall, at last finding refuge under a towering ridge of calcified tufa spires. As she cowered, the desert stood up on its hind legs and rampaged, sandblasting the stars and everything it touched below.

Hours had past without an end to the dirt torrent.  At its first sign of easing, the scavenger dug herself out of her bunker, scraped the visibility back into her gogs, and slinked low across the dunewalks.  It was then that she’d first spotted the juggernaut, and her scav instincts kicked in.

No more than a dozen ridges stood between Tuuj and the mangled wreck.  The storm yowled around her. Everything through the gogs was a wash of hot orange bedlam: orange dunes, orange drifts, an orange sky tortured by orange wind.  Only the shadowed Erdian hulk marked something solid.

Tuuj continued to slip crablike across the ground.  The dust was thick and brutal. Pieces of junk lay half-buried across the dunes.  Some of it was her scavenged cache savagely redistributed by the windstorm. Most of it, though, was new scrap from the Erdian hulk: twisted heat-shield plates, fragments of stray sensor arrays, tangled clumps of wiring torn out like Erdian hair.  With this much scattercache smashed into the sands, Tuuj was sure the juggernaut was an irreparable scrapheap. Irreparable, but not unsalvageable. Her gills tingled at the thought of being the sole scav with access to a treasure trove of this magnitude, a hidden scrapmine that could cement her place in the brood for years to come. She might be barren, but she could raise herself out of the lowest ranks of scavenge caste with this. She could be Queen of the Scavs.

The dustwind clawed at her shiiziin, desperate to pull back her hood and fill her nose and mouth with sand. Tuuj had her lockknot tied securely, though. Out in the Dunes, a scav was only as good as her facility with her gear. Her gogs may as well have been part of her body now. She knew the feel of every switch position and the location of each button. She could fix the lockknot on her shiiziin wrap during the fiercest wind. Her modular energy pistol could be stripped, cleaned, rebuilt, and reconfigured in seconds, if she needed it to be. That said, it rarely needed to be. She could count on one hand the times that she’d ever met anything more threatening than skratrats. There had been a few duners looking to set up moisture traps once. There was the time she’d had to fight off Old Pi’ziij from trying to steal her claim to an aging abandoned freight drop. And once she’d had to shove her whole hand, pistol included, down the gullet of a dorannt just to try and get past its armored scales. No, she thought, the real danger to scavs was the weather and the wind.

As if to prove her point, a metal sheet of scrap caught like a sail and tore through the air above her with a rippling twang. Had she not been on her stomach, chin in the sand, it probably would have sliced her head off; and while her lacertine body could regrow a severed tail or finger, a new head was more than it could manage. Tuuj kept low, belly to dune, and scurried with practiced ease across the sand’s surface. The wind could turn at any moment and she’d be exposed amidst the next raging trashblast. She crossed half a dozen dunes before she could make out more details of the Erdian juggernaut.

She cleaned the dust from her gogs again. It was a colonial transport, the kind in which the Erdians had first arrived. Long, decked out with shattered crystalsheet windows and a few defense cannons, this was what the Erdians used to creep through space from their dead world to hers. The thing had come to rest in a dune shadow. At the back, one of its engines was definitely slowly dying as it still attempted to fire the ship free of the sandstorm. Tuuj smiled under her shiiziin. A working engine meant plasma coils, insulator caps, ignition switches, solid booster fuel - all prime scrap. Queen of the scavs, she thought. Through her gogs, Tuuj could see that the ship had crash-landed, smashing its cockpit face-first into the side of a barrowdune and then falling backwards into its resting grave. It seemed to have spewed forth all manner of cargo and debris in front of it, much of which the wind was busy tossing around like deadly leaves.

Tuuj crossed three more dunes and then saw something through her gogs that caught her attention. There was a heat signature under the ship, a small sporadic flare, a spark in the orange dark.

She crossed over to the last dune separating her from the Erdian junker just as the wind picked up again. This close to the crash site, the wild stormwinds were full of scrapnel. Bolts flew like bullets. Stabs of glass ricocheted off of her scav suit’s armored shoulders. A steering wheel sailed over her head with ease, its loose cables whipping at her as it passed. She was going to be sliced apart if she stayed this high on the dunewalk, so tucking her arms in much like she’d seen wild dorannts do, Tuuj rolled until she came to a dizzying rest at the bottom of the barrow. The sand stung in a cut on her cheek and she could feel blood upon her rough lips. The air tasted like jet fuel and grit, and the wind was more ferocious down at the dune base.

Through her gogs, she could see the little flare spark under the wreck repeating regularly. It definitely originated from a single point, but her gogs were hopelessly dusty after the dune roll and she couldn’t make out its source. She crawled closer. In the everpresent orange dust haze, she could only make out rough shapes under the ship. Something looked tantalizingly like a tangle of spilled freight containers. Her pulse quickened. Queen of the Scavs.

Without warning, something pegged into the sand beside her head. Perhaps it was a screw. Perhaps not. Doesn’t matter what it is, you baht, she chided herself. Just be more careful. She reached for the tiny impact crater to fish out her near-death intruder. To her surprise, she found only a small blob of melted glass. Tuuj looked up at the ship in confusion, as if it might offer an explanation. In answer, all she got was another small heatspike flare from under the ship - followed by the telltale thhewpp of a plasma slug pounding into the nearby sand.

The storm wasn’t throwing screws at her.

Someone was shooting at her.

Tuuj scrambled sideways, shouting curses at the Erdians into the wind, rolling again, crawling again, shifting directions unexpectedly - anything to throw off her attacker’s aim. She could see the regular flares from the targeting plasma rifle with her gogs, but the storm and her erratic movements seemed to be keeping her safe as none of the shots came close to their mark. Her mind buzzed. If she wanted this cache - and she needed this cache - she’d have to deal with the shooter quickly. With a practiced flick, she unfastened her pistol catch and pulled the weapon up to her eyes.

One, two, three quick shots kicked out of her pistol. As she waited, the wind picked up and buffeted threateningly against her tympanic membranes. Right on beat, the heat flare fired off. The shooter was still active.

The grime in her nose clawed at the back of her throat. Her eyes burned. She was tired. Her gogs told her she was only about 90 Erdian meters away from the shooter. Without warning, she sprang to her feet, scrabbling her way across the sandy valley. The flare shots continued. Tuuj dodged, zigging left and right as she ran.

With a searing thud, one of the rifle slugs found their mark in her shoulder. She spun around and landed hard on her back, knocking her breath out to mix with the whipping winds. Still the rifle continued its regular firing. Tuuj herked herself around onto her stomach and fired wildly. Her cry of rage was eaten by the storm. She squeezed off rounds until the firing mechanism overheated. It’d be many minutes before her pistol could cool down enough to retaliate again.

She lay there in the dust and the debris, waiting to die, but the rifle shots missed her. They were still constant, but now Tuuj could tell they were aimless. Staying low, she slithered through the dirt and the hunks of scattered crash trash. The pain in her shoulder threatened to make her pass out with each move. For an eternity, she writhed the final twenty meters across the sandfloor, past destroyed crates and twisted steel sheeting, past something that might have been a leg in a boot and something that was definitely an Erdian head.

Under the junked juggernaut, the wind retreated. Somewhere far off, either the storm or the dying engine roared. Maybe both. There was the taut snap of a flapping tarp. Before her, Tuuj could at last see an Erdian body. Her legs splay out before her and her body was propped half-slumped against a supply crate. Her head lolled to one side with her reddish Erdian hair dancing in the few vestiges of stormwind that still found their way under the ship. In one arm was a bundle. The other arm was part of an odd contraption. The Erdian’s hand had been duct-taped to the trigger of a small tripod mounted rifle. Every few dozen seconds the rifle would fire, its heat gauge would spike, and it would kick into cooldown mode. After it cooled, the rifle would fire again. The Erdian’s arm was tied to a makeshift tarpaulin sail that caught the wind erratically, swinging the limp arm side to side on the tripod pivot. A number of blast points on the body showed that Tuuj’s shots had found their mark. But it hadn’t mattered. The Erdian must have known it was dying and rigged up the improvised defense mechanism long before Tuuj tumbled down into the dune valley.

Tuuj crept up to the body, careful to avoid the random blastrifle shots, and cut the hand free of the trigger with her packknife. The firing stopped. Suddenly the bundle in the Erdian’s other arm moved. Tuuj fell backwards, dropping her pistol. She tried to catch herself with her injured arm and collapsed hard onto her shoulder with a pained cry. In answer, the bundle in the Erdian’s arm began wailing. Tuuj crept forward cautiously.

In the dead mother’s arms was an Erdian young, pink and soft, so hairless and vulnerable and weak. Tuuj reached down gingerly to inspect it and its tiny hand wrapped around her finger. A cut on its forehead was already scabbing over and it cried endlessly, but otherwise it seemed healthy, if hungry. The scavenger looked around. Most of an Erdian body hung nearby in a nest of exposed wiring. Tuuj pulled her finger from the baby’s hand and moved over to the wrecked ship. She stuck her head into the nearest gaping tear and hollered a greeting she thought survivors might understand. The ship’s hull whistled in the wind through its ragged holes, but there was no other sound. The only movement was the clank of safety harnesses as they fluttered in the sandy breeze.

Tuuj returned to the infant. Barren females were all scavenge caste; but now Tuuj had a child - an Erdian child - and the power that gave her within the tribe was incontrovertible. Forget Queen of the Scavs. She would be Matriarch and order her own team of scavs to strip the jackknifed juggernaut clean, to sort and process the scrap cache into piles for trade, and then she’d sell the Erdians back their own bloodsoaked wreckage. Tuuj smiled under her shiiziin as she carefully lifted the baby to her chest.

“I shall name you Haashii, she of the Holy Dunes,” she hissed at the child. “And together we shall own the wind.”


© Copyright 2018 Jesse Harlin. All rights reserved.

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