Shaadrim is a dry, desolate world past the Twenty-Sixth Spiral outwards from Xembor. It's even farther out from Riskail. Few people ever came this far along the pararail, especially since even the most far-flung Aqueduct causeways and canal extensions tend to terminate after the Thirtieth Spiral. So far. There were too many worlds in-between Xembor or Riskail and a dusty wasteland like Shaadrim to attract very many explorers, settlers or ecosculptors. Caravans never come here, tramp-zeppelins rarely bother to stick around any longer than absolutely necessary, and what few ships pass through the Sea Gates stationed at the equatorial zone tend to leave just as soon as they get their bearings sorted out, and as far as anyone they might have (deniably) left behind knew, they never looked back. Who could blame them?
No one who had any choice in the matter ever gave Shaadrim a second glance and only newcomers looked any too closely at the place and then only to make sure they were in the right place.
Groth scowled from under his dusty visor. It was a cool morning out on the shimmering turquoise dunes, probably just under 120 in the shade. The last thing he counted on running into was some derelict or drug-addled moron wandering lost just on the fringe of the shanty-town boundary.
"Son. You are in a world of hurt. Did you get tossed from the pararail? Or helldropped by some rich bastard for looking sidewise at their clonewhore?" Groth mumble-laughed at his early morning wit. Then he spit. An extravagant gesture. But an old habit. He could afford it this morning. It made him feel young again.
He watched the figure like a hawk. The fool just kneeled there, playing in the sand. Like nothing was the matter. Like some kid on a beach.
"Shaadrim. This is Shaadrim." The derelict-kid figure spoke like a dim child, but with the voice of an urgent man. The combination set Groth's wrinkled old skin to crawling. This was probably another one of those damn fool towersnots come a'slumming. He hated those little bastards. Groth reached up to his visor.
He didn't want to get tangled-up with no noobs or waifs or Dantes-cases. He'd had enough of tht crap his first thirty odd years on Shaadrim. It'd be better to leave this moron to die in the blue sands.
There was something peculiar about how the stranger stayed on his knees, one hand sifting through the coarse azure grit. Like he was panning for gold with his fingers.
It wasn't just odd.
It reminded Groth of something.
Groth's mouth went off like a mis-primed grenade before he could stop himself from getting involved.
"Well yes it is--so you do know where you are. You don't look like you're all that well set-up to survive the experience though. Where's your gear son?" Groth spat again. Damn idiot citykids--spoiled and stupid. this idjit probably thought that he could just beg for his supper or find a community teat. Dumbass'd be dead inside of a week. If'n he was lucky.
"No gear. Adapt. Trained. Learn. Make-do."
"No gear, huh? You're either a real hardass sonuvabitch, or else you're a real dead dumb sonuvabitch." Groth took a casual slip-step back and re-assessed the fellow. This wasn't some slummer, definitely not a larker--Groth felt a chill run up and down his spine despite the ambient heat and the suit's internal systems.
The man in the sand looked up at Groth.
Their eyes locked.
"Looking for someone."
"I never asked you your business." Groth was flustered. He'd seen eyes like that before. "We don't meddle in anyone else's affairs here. You know about Shaadrim, then you ought to know that."
The man remained in place. Slowly moving his hand through the sand. It was an almost hypnotic motion.
"Less then 300 autonomous personalities currently occupy Shaadrim. I'm looking for just one." He looked away. Groth realized that it wasn't him the guy was looking for. He nearly thanked the Madonna that he wasn't the one.
"There ain’t no census so no one knows just how many of us there are out in the hinterlands. Even the navigation satellites that have been allowed to take up geosynchronous orbits over the Sea Gates aren’t allowed to count us and besides, everyone maintains multiple false-accounts with the background servers. They can’t even begin to track us unless it’s an emergency on our end of things and we give the go-ahead. Most of us would die before doing that."
"You like your privacy. I remember reading that in the update before dropping out of the HangPod."
"Yeah. We do." There was a taste of blood in his mouth. Old memories fluttered up from the dessicated depths of his old soul. Nightmares stirred. Groth took another step back and away from the fellow.
"We don't cotton to visitors much around here." Groth was getting nervous. The suit's internal systems were readjusting his adrenaline levels.
"Not a visitor."
"There's not much in the way of support systems for welfarers..." Groth fell back on the familiar platitudes used to warn-off would be tourists. He was uneasy and something was just flat out wrong about this whole cockamamie scenario that he just didn't like.
"Don't need it." The fellow stood up slowly, easily, fluidly, obviously making an effort to not spook Groth.
"Really? You don't look like no desert rat--"
"Not Rat." The stranger straightened-up. The bastard was near seven foot tall and whipcord lean.
"Why did you come here then?"
"I came here to hunt."
"Hunt? what are you hunting after?"
"Not what. Who."
"Look son, you obviously have business to get on with and so do I. It's still early morning and what say you go your way and I go mine and ne'er the twain shall meet again?"
"What did you say?"
"You heard me Lieutenant. You were in the 523rd, back in the day. Back when our kind were still part of the military."
"Who are you?"
"I'm like you."
"No. A Rager."
"You're not looking for me?"
"Not this time."
"Good enough. I'm headed in to town. You?"
"I've got business out past those hills." The guy glanced over Groth's left shoulder.
"Mortrand's claim is the only--"
"I think I know why you're here."
"But you never saw me." Their eyes locked once more. Groth broke the link and stared at the blue dune underneath them.
"Fair enough. Just watch out for his dogs. He's a mean bastard, old Mortrand."
"Aren't we all?"
Groth smiled. "Damn straight. Good hunting. Whoever you are that I never met and ain't never seen."
He turned and started walking onwards to town. He didn't look back. There wouldn't be any point. There would be nothing to see.
Groth shook his shaggy old head. In a week or so he might just go take a gander over at Mortrand's old claim. He had a feeling it would be abandoned and open to reclaiming. It'd be a nice place to settle down for a bit.