A frail figure stood at the counter of the weapon shop, trying their best to hide how nervous they were.
“You sure that’s the one you want, then? That gun’s bigger than you are.” A grizzled man loomed overhead, clearly not impressed by what he saw.
Lying between the merchant and his would-be customer was a gun. The store was full of guns of all different makes and models, many a lot more impressive than the one on the counter.
“F-Fully automatic… M16-X… M16-X5, right?” Anxious eyes searched for a positive response.
“It’s also got modified stock. Enhanced 50 bullet magazine, three spares.”
“Yes, that… that’s it, right!” The kid nodded.
“It’ll be 4000 Silvs.”
The old man let out a tired sigh.
Over the years, Scavengers of all sorts bought weapons here. Most were regular customers, and some were like this kid, here for their very first gun.
“Shinies”, they were called. Their clothes may have been as grimy as any veteran but their equipment was shiny and new, just like that look in their eyes. The look of a fool who didn’t know what sort of dangers they would encounter out in the silver wastes.
There were two kinds of Shinies. Splurgers were the rarest, usually folk from behind the wall walking the Iron Streets for one reason or another. They always bought mountains of equipment, half of which they’d never get a chance to use before they croaked.
The other kind were the slum rats. Desperate to scrape their way out of the gutter, they took to scavenging when stealing stopped putting food in their bellies Barely the funds for real gear, and most of it was probably stolen. They’d head out unprepared, and most likely never coming back. He’d seen it more times than he could count.
This kid was clearly the latter. Her clothes were dirty and she was skinny as a twig, but not to the point of starvation. She had curly black hair and big brown eyes, and as she counted out the money he took note of how soft her pale fingers were. Like anyone past the wall she’d clearly lived a hard life, but hadn’t grown any tougher for it. The shopkeeper clicked his tongue.
What a pity. She’s a cute one, too, in a few years she’d be a real beauty…
“You sure this is what you want now?” He asked, surprising even himself. He’d learned a long time ago not to bother trying to talk Shinies out of their suicidal endeavors. But he found himself pitying the poor thing.
“Is-Is there a better model?” The kid asked, confused for a second. “This is the Mysha told me to get…”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” the old man muttered, shaking his head. “I mean, do you really want to be a Scavenger? A girl with a face like yours, there are a lot of safer ways to make money if you’re desperate-“
The kid’s face twisted with crimson embarrassment and they slapped the money down on the counter. “I’m a MAN!”
The man was so startled by the outburst he didn’t say another word, he just took the money and watched the waifish Shiny exit, barely able to carry his purchase.
Nyk’s face burned with frustration as he left the gun store. That old lech had just been the latest in an endless string of people who kept mistaking him for a girl. What?! Because he was short? Because his skin was soft and delicate? Was it his eyes?! His face?!
Growing up in the slums hadn’t been easy for a boy who looked like a girl. If it wasn’t for Mysha, Nyk probably would have been forced to do a lot of things he would have regretted just to survive. But Mysha had always looked after him as his “big sister” and now… now he was a man. And he had his Scavenger’s License from the Central Government to prove it.
Nyk walked up the Iron Streets towards the massive wall that loomed in front of him. It was a barrier that separated the Tops of Central City from the people in the slums. He didn’t give it a second glance, places like that weren’t for him. No, his destination was one of the buildings just outside of it, the Collection Office.
Collection Offices were scattered across the outside districts, and were the hub of the Scavenger lifestyle. One part tavern and one part appraiser, Scavengers frequented them to find jobs, sell the goods they’d scavenged from the Towers, or just as a place to relax after a hard day’s work.
Nyk had always been too afraid to enter one, but now that he was a Scavenger himself, with his very own gun, the time was right. He was just like them, they wouldn’t look down on him as some slum rat!
The first thing he noted when he entered was the smell. Stale beer and cigarette smoke flooded his nostrils and nearly sent him on a coughing fit. He looked around warily, and relaxed when he saw that no one had given him a second look. All the Scavengers were occupied with their drinks, their food, their stories, or their women.
It was the wildest assortment Nyk had ever seen. People of all shapes and sizes with equipment Nyk could only dream of purchasing! From hulking mountains of men in power armor carrying guns bigger than he was to women who had been so thoroughly supplanted with machinery there was scarcely anything organic left, and all manner of augmentation in between.
And in the center of it all was Mysha.
She was beautiful. In a sea of artificial augments she remained pristine, untouched by even the tiniest of upgrades. A single scar across her left eye was the sole blemish upon her, and even that gave her an air of dangerous edge to go with the rifle resting against her chair.
Her eyes lit up when she spotted him.
“Nykki! Over here!” She waved eagerly, her scarlet braid swinging behind her. Nyk blushed and walked to her table, trying to look a little tougher in spite of the huge weight in his arms.
“This is the friend you mentioned? Him? Do you really think he’s up for joining us?”
There were many Scavengers that worked alone, to keep all the profits for themselves. But there were also ones like Mysha, who teamed up with other Scavengers to brave the dangers of the wasteland. They were seated around the table with appraising looks on their faces as if they were sizing him up.
The one who’d expressed his doubts was tall and thin with wiry black hair. His name was Calum. Nyk had met all of them at one point or another through Mysha, but this was their first time talking as equals. Calum was a calm, analytical person. The upper left side of his face had been augmented with a cybernetic ocular scanner. His organic eye was just as cold as his artificial one as he assessed Nyk.
“Gotta say, Calum might be right, he’s definitely a Shiny,” Dolly said with a frown. The tan girl looked normal compared to her companions, but underneath the table her artificial legs told a different story. She could have kicked him clean out of the building if she wanted to, but her wildness was tempered by her friendly demeanor.
The last member of Mysha’s team, however, was not the friendly sort. His name was Axel and he towered over the others due to the cybernetics augmenting his upper body. Most of his torso had been replaced by machinery to support his artificial arms, which were each as large and thick as a drum barrel. With each hand he could wield a gun designed for two grown men and did so with pride, a testament to the power of a cyborg.
He looked at Nyk like he was a piece of trash.
“A kid this scrawny wants to be a Scavenger?” He bellowed, his bald head gleaming in the low light. He rose to his full height, nearly eight feet tall, and glared down at him. “I won’t have it. The brat’s so puny and weak he’ll get us all killed.”
A gruesome sneer stretched across Axel’s scarred face and he barked out a cruel laugh. “Just run on home. Wasteland’s too much for you, kid, wouldn’t want anything… bad to happen to you…”
Nyk gulped. The way he said that sounded like a threat. He glanced at Mysha, whose face flashed with concern, and immediately felt guilty.
What? Am I just going to rely on her to fight my battles forever? Mysha had always looked out for him, but now he was a Scavenger. He had to stand on his own two feet.
“I-I’m a Scavenger, same as you,” he asserted, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his shiny new Scavenger License. “And if Mysha wants me on her team, then I’m going.”
Axel’s massive fingers snatched the license out of Nyk’s hands. He raised it up and spat on it before dropping it onto the floor.
“Sure thing, kid,” he sneered. “Make it back today alive and maybe we’ll see.”
Nyk recovered his license, clenching his gun. He could turn it towards the man and pull the trigger, it would be so easy… Since the day they’d met Axel had always looked down on Nyk and mocked his goal of becoming a Scavenger. But what would shooting him prove? No, he would show what he was capable of when they got to the wasteland.
They’d been driving through the wasteland for hours, and Nyk was struggling to keep his eyes open. The silver desert stretched out in an endless sea of nothing. Their destination was the one notable landmark in this barren expanse, the Towers.
Three large towers of gunmetal grey rose above the horizon, stretching as far up as the eye could see. The one in the center was the broadest of them but all three dwarfed even the vast walls of the city. This was where every Scavenger made their bones.
The Towers were home to all manner of technology from the ancient world. Scavengers would plumb its depths in search of treasures to bring to the Collection Office. Computer terminals, weapons, food containers, anything scavenged from the Towers’ bowels would fetch quite a lot of Silvs.
But reward wasn’t without risk. Nyk clenched his gun in anticipation. It still felt awkward in his hands, even hours later.
There were monsters in the tower. Nyk had never seen one, but he’d heard the stories. Not quite animal, not quite machine, but a bizarre mix of both; those were the Sentinels.
He’d only had the Silvs to buy three spare magazines. He hoped it would be enough.
“Look at the kid. He’s trembling in his boots.”
Nyk flinched. The drive through the wastes wouldn’t have been so hard to tolerate if Axel wasn’t here. But no such luck. The human juggernaut had taken up most of the space in the back of Mysha’s truck, and with Mysha up in front and Dolly driving there was only the Calum to keep Axel on his best behavior, and he hadn’t said a word.
“You know what the job is, right Shiny? We’re going to raid that tower for as many relics as we can scavenge! That means Sentinels.” He smirked, glancing disparagingly at Nyk’s gun. “Hopefully you’ll get off a few shots with that shiny new gun of yours before they devour you whole.”
Nyk shivered and clenched his rifle closer to his chest.
“What, scared?” Axel sneered. “Real Scavengers don’t mess their pants at the thought of some action. Though I guess if you’re not man enough, there’s still time for us to turn around and drop you off.”
Axel’s taunts were starting to get to Nyk. But he forced himself to ignore them, thinking about what Mysha had said before they left.
“Axel’s right you know. You don’t have to do this. If you think you need to repay a debt to me or something, that’s-“
“No, it’s not,” Nyk had said. “I want to do this because I can’t keep relying on you forever.”
Mysha had treated Nyk like a little brother all their lives. But he didn’t want her to see him that way. He wanted her to see him as a man.
Her smile had been a reluctant one. “Well, I promised you that if you became a Scavenger, I’d give you my full support. Let’s do this Nykki. Together.”
The fist bump she’d given him, acknowledging him as her equal, was a treasure that would be worth more than anything they’d be able to find in those ruined towers.
“I’m… a Scavenger,” he mumbled to himself. “I can do this.”
When most people looked at him they saw a frail girl, or a helpless kid. But that would change. Nyk was going to prove to everyone what he was made of!