Waves of scorching midday Sun fell on The Waste. Twelve year old Stephen Compton (nicknamed ‘Guppy’ by his mother on account of his permanent, far-away expression) concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and ignoring the heat as best he could as he towed the sled across the rocky basin of a dried-out riverbed.
No easy task: For one thing, peak-of-day temperature’s were hideous. Any scrap of exposed skin was liable to burn, breathing became laboured, sweat emerged from pores you never knew you had. For another, the sled was the size of a small bus. Even with grav-assist it felt like pulling a reluctant horse. And, to make matters worse, he had to stay alert for bandits . . . The plague may’ve ended before I was born, he thought with a bitter grin, but life didn’t improve much for the survivors.
All the same, he’d made good progress that morning, even found a few trinkets that might fetch a good price. Now it was time to head back to camp. He longed for the day to be over. The heat always won.
All at once his eyes caught something glinting midway up a nearby dune. He made to lift his binoculars then stopped. Why bother? If it was a trap it meant bandits were already watching him. Leaving the sled tethered he trudged across to where the baking clay met the beginning of the dunes.
It turned out to be a mechanical hand.
The spindly limb jutted from the drifting yellow grains like a partially-uncovered corpse reaching from its grave. Grinning with anticipation, Stephen knelt and started to brush the sand from the object. Within a short time he’d revealed the entirety of a huge robot arm – almost as big as himself. The limb had been severed at the shoulder. Wires trailed from a ragged socket, the metal was scarred and rusted. After a little bit of effort the thing slipped free. It was heavy as hell. Stephen stared at it in contemplative wonder for a few seconds then hurried off to fetch the sled.
Even with the sled’s assistance it took all his effort to get the thing stowed. Once this had been accomplished, Stephen sat down on the hot floor, drenched in sweat. He let his eyes wander the rippling infinity of peaks that lay between his present position and that of the camp.
His sharp gaze caught something else glinting upon the sand.