“I’m bored again!”
“I still don’t care.”
“Because you’re annoying.”
Zephyr did a little wobble, a silent “fair enough”, before returning to circling the car in search of something to amuse himself. He paused at each window, watching the passing landscape of warehouses, industrial sites, and undeveloped scrubland pass by. Most of it looked abandoned, the occasional drone or vehicle on the road the only signs of activity and even those were rare.
Beyond that it was all terribly dull. A place between places, still but for the swaying of long grasses growing wherever it could take root. Hills rose in the distance, most covered in much the same way as the flat lowlands that surrounded them. A few were larger, casting dark silhouettes on the horizon, hinting at more interesting things happening somewhere else.
Not for the first time, Nic wondered if Master Orlin had somehow made a mistake with his directions. Two hours they’d been driving through this exact same environment with no end in sight. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting but the way Elmcroft had been talking, Nic had gotten the impression of a far more happening place. Or at least a place where humans were not in the minority to road signs. This looked more like the kind open field mobsters drove out to when burying a body in crime dramas. Certainly not Ronteele’s best kept secret, though Nic would not be surprised if it was just as unknown.
“Are we there yet?” Zephyr whined, having judged a suitable number of seconds had passed since the last time he’d asked.
“Why are you even here?” Nic asked.
“Because Orry told me to come. And he still won’t let me back in the tower.”
Nic scoffed, reaching over to open the car’s nav system. A screen appeared in the air, displaying a map of the area with their route represented as a glowing white line snaking through the middle. At the bottom of the screen lay what he was after, a summary of the remaining trip to their destination: Enroute Gibson Scrap – ETA 00:01:02
Nic narrowed his eyes, reading it over twice and watching the timer just to make sure it was still ticking down. As it dropped below a minute, Nic looked back out the window to scan his surroundings. He found only the same dull hills, plain buildings, and untamed weeds as before. Nothing to indicate they were a mere minute’s drive away from the alleged largest scrapyard in the city.
The only major landmark so far as Nic could see was one of the dark hills that dotted the horizon. He might have ignored it had the car not turned onto a gravel road and begun driving directly towards it, offering both a prime view and allowing Nic to make two observations.
First, the hill was much closer than he’d thought, size and perspective conspiring to make it look more distant than it was. From this angle, the truth of things became apparent, its smooth silhouette breaking into jagged edges as finer details appeared.
Second, and more importantly, it wasn’t a hill.
Or at least, not a natural one. It more than qualified for the name in every other respect, the sole distinction being that rather than earth and stone, this hill consisted entirely of metal. Great heaping piles of the stuff that soared high into the sky, reaching a scale that would overshadow most buildings. They all fell into one another, individual pieces that fused together into a single hulking mass. All without any obvious direction beyond brute gravity.
The result was a natural gradient that had formed over time, the lighter, brighter metals sitting atop the darker, heavier ones at the base. It only strengthened the comparison to a mountain, though whether it was closer to metaphor or simple fact was unclear.
Nic continued to watch in awe as the auto-car approached the front entrance. A simple chain-link fence was all that stood in their path, a gate over the road already sitting open as if in welcome. A line of large industrial bins were the first things to greet them, each filled to the brim with different metals. Everything from simple copper and steel to more exotic offerings of solemet, platinum and redstone. Nic even caught a sparkling glimpse of what could have been faerie silver, though they’d already passed it by when he turned to look.
Bots swarmed over everything, makes and models of every size, shape, and kind. From delicate disc shaped spotter drones that buzzed about like flies to the bulky industrial haulers bedecked in grabbing claws and lifting cranes. They all worked as one to ferry scrap from the nearby mountain, dropping it into the bins directly or feeding it into immobile crushers that were scattered about the area. An efficient model of process and recycling, all appearing to be completely automated, though clearly not enough to keep up with the raw supply.
Without warning, the auto-car came to a halt, starling Nic as he lurched forward in his seat. He grew only more confused as he looked around, seeing nothing to indicate this wasn’t just a random spot in the center of the yard. It wasn’t even at the end of the road, which continued for some distance before vanishing around a corner.
“Car, confirm destination,” Nic said.
“Destination: Gibson Scrapyard and Waste Disposal was reached at 2:27 PM,” the car replied. “Would you like to set a new route?”
Not convinced, Nic pulled the nav screen back up. It displayed the exact same information as before, including the small map, the icon representing him sat firmly at the end of the line. As far as the car’s systems were concerned, this was Gibson Scrapyard.
Turning back to the window, Nic scanned back and forth, scrutinizing the terrain for details he might have missed. It wasn’t until the third pass that he saw the building, a pithy, prefab construction that was so old and worn down it was hard to tell it apart from the surrounding scrap. One whole side was in fact buried under a pile of unsorted metal, melding together so naturally that it was hard to tell one from the other. In the part nearest to the car sat a pair of glass-fronted doors, heavily streaked with dirt and with a sign stenciled the front. MAIN OFFICE, it read in heavily faded letters.
“What a dump!” Zephyr exclaimed.
“Yeah, that’s one word for it,” Nic said, taking up his bag. “Come on.”
Nic stepped out of the car, ordering it into lockdown before turning to walk towards the building. Zephyr zipped out just as the car doors sealed, immediately beginning his usual routine of buzzing around every nook and cranny of the place like a cat.
Ignoring the antics, Nic instead approached the office door. Close up, the dirt streaks were somehow even worse, forming an impromptu frosting on the glass that made it impossible to see inside. Trying the handle, he found the doors firmly locked. Seeing no buzzer or intercom, he instead raised a hand to knock on the glass. No one came to the sound, not even after he repeated the action a second time.
“What’s the matter?” Zephyr asked, appearing at his shoulder.
“Oh,” Zephyr said, sounding bored again. “You tried them?”
“No Zephyr, I just stared at them real hard until I figured it out.”
“Oh,” He paused again. “Did you try pushing?”
“Yes, I tried pu-” Nic paused, leaning forward to push on the handle. To his great relief, they did not move. “They’re locked.”
“Oh, okay,” Zephyr drifted from his perch, entirely unconcerned with the predicament. “What now?”
Nic sighed, assessing his options and finding them quite few. Neither Master Orlin nor Elmcroft had mentioned anything about how to proceed and Nic had been relying on their being someone here to explain it to him.
“Can you scan for any open networks? Maybe they have a sign-in or something.”
With a chirp, Zephyr began flying about in lazy circles. Through his eyepiece, Nic could see the thin strands of spellcode reaching out from his spherical body, questing for any reciprocating code or magical auras. It reminded Nic of a clump of seaweed drifting underwater, the long strands wafting away as they searched wide into the unknown. Searched but did not find, none of the strands ever making so much as a twitch of contact.
“Nothing?” Nic asked.
Zephyr did not respond, continuing his lazy circles through the air.
Still no answer. Nic carefully began to move closer, taking great care not to put himself in a position where he might touch the little sprite. Rule one with magical constructs exhibiting strange behavior: you did not touch them directly. There were more than a few one-handed practitioners to demonstrate why. Instead, Nic took the tried-and-true method of getting someone’s attention.
“Hey!” He shouted.
“Hm?” Zephyr asked, halting his flight, showing no sign he’d just been completely unresponsive. “Why we shouting?”
“What’s wrong with what?”
“With you!” Nic snapped. “Why weren’t you answering me?”
Zephyr wobbled back and forth. “I was looking for networks.”
“Well, did you find one?”
“No, there’s nothing like that here.”
Nic let out a grumble of frustration before continuing.
“If there’s no networks, why are you still looking?”
“Cuz there’s a whole bunch of other cool stuff here!”
“Buncha stuff,” Zephyr said, resuming his circles.
Nic’s no doubt witty and devilishly clever response was cut short by a great rattling. He jumped at sudden noise, watching as a portion of the wall next to the door slid aside to reveal a screen built into the structure. It had been so hidden amongst the many overlapping panels that Nic would never have even thought to look for it.
The screen flickered to life and, after a moment of static, displayed the image of a cartoon smiley face. Little more than three rectangles arranged in the proper configuration, it nonetheless managed to immediately lock eyes with Nic in a fashion that was at once impressive and creepy.
“Hi!” it exclaimed in a chipper tone. “Welcome to Gibson Scrapyard and Waste Disposal Services! My name is Eddy, how may I help you today?”
Nic was taken aback for a moment, marveling at just how mismatched all the various pieces of this was. He shook it off, stepping up to face the screen properly. Zephyr intruded before he could speak, buzzing in close with a flurry of wind and hissing displeasure.
“Stop that!” Nic scolded.
“I don’t like it,” Zephyr said, zipping over to hide behind Nic’s shoulder. “It’s suspect.”
“Where did you even learn that word?” Nic asked before thinking better of it. “Actually, you know what, never mind. Just go bother someone else.”
Zephyr clearly did not like the idea but obeyed nonetheless, retreating to a safe distance to watch. Nic shook his head before returning his attention to the screen.
“Uh hi, are you voice responsive?”
The face gave a little two frame nod. “This unit is fully equipped to assist you. How may I help you today?”
Nic winced internally. That it was already repeating phrases was not a great sign for how flexible this thing’s intelligence was.
“Right um, I was told that I could salvage parts here?”
The screen did its two-frame nod again. “You were told right. What are you looking for?”
“Rig parts, specifically for the power supply and a distributor if-”
Nic trailed off as the face went very still, ceasing even the minimal movement it had previously displayed. Nic couldn’t tell if he’d somehow managed to crash the thing or if it was just that badly designed that it couldn’t hide its processing load. He was about to speak again when face suddenly jolted back to life.
“It sounds like you want: Specialty Salvage Permit. Is this correct?”
“Uh, what does that get me?” Nic asked.
“Specialty Salvage Permit: for a one-time fee, customer is permitted to personally salvage within designated areas. Weight and size limits apply.” The words were steady and monotone, clearly a prewritten pitch hardwired into the system. “Is this what you are after today?”
“Yeah, that sounds perfect,” Nic said.
“Excellent,” it said, a small text box appearing on the screen beneath the face. “Total on screen now. Tap or e-transfer is accepted.
Nic balked at the price displayed. It was far more than he would have expected for what was basically permission to dig around in someone else’s garbage. Still cheaper than buying new but suddenly Elmcroft’s wonder secret seemed far less wondrous. All the same, Nic raised his tablet and hit the transfer button, wincing as he watched the little numbers drain away into the void.
The face nodded in approval, Nic wondering if it was the only emote it knew when suddenly it froze again. After several seconds, a large drone emerged from a hidden compartment and floated over next to Nic. Little more than a mid-sized bin with an anti-grav generator on the bottom, it quickly scanned Nic with its optics before flashing a green light and settling into place at his heel.
“All salvage must fit into this drone,” the screen said. “Weight will be calculated on site. Please do not tamper with or exceed its limits.”
“And that limit is?”
The screen didn’t answer, instead continuing its pre-programmed routine.
“Maps of authorized zones are available on its personal data store. Please do not wander into unauthorized zones. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
Nic stared at the screen, debating the merits of arguing with a system that wouldn’t care one way or the other. Deciding it wasn’t worth the one-sided frustration, he shook his head.
“No, that’s everything, thanks.”
“Thank you for choosing Gibson Scrapyard. Happy salvaging!”
The screen gave him a horribly animated wink before flicking off. The panel slid back into place, hiding all evidence of its presence and left Nic alone with nothing but a glorified skip for his trouble.
What a fun day this was turning out to be.
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