…Chapter 2…

Bad Deal

As nothing more than a bulb of fluorescently glinting gray against an endlessness of tans and creams, when viewed from a distance, if the Skimmer hadn't been kicking up an easily traceable path of sand in its wake, it would have been rendered nigh impossible to spot.

The Endless Dunes sported an immensity that rendered not only the travel of people and their equipment slow, sluggish, to non-existent, but it also created a buffer through which sound was diminished in its capabilities of reaching farther, and clasping the ears of listeners.

The location with which in distance was insurmountable for her to reach by foot from her home- the Collector –did not sound with the revving of the Skimmer's engine and the whoosh of kicked sand until both were directly on top of the zenith of her goal.

Khanu put on a gross display merely for her own amusement, the caterpillar's jumpy attitude was simply too easy to manipulate for her to pass the opportunity up.

"-Are you ready, Tek'?" She called over the drone of the motors, glancing down at the quivering insect in her lap. "-Time to fly!"

If Teksi could speak, she probably would have been cursing Khanu for all her tiny body was worth. The caterpillar's mandibles splayed in horror, and she wiggled and flailed over Khanu's legs to view over the lower brim of the cockpit.

"-It's just a hill, Tek'!" The Sindrossi gleefully cackled, gripping the Skimmer's controls. "-It'll be over before you know it!"

-That could've suggested a multitude a conclusions for her planned stunt, some of which blatantly terrified her companion/pet. But Khanu was confident, she could manhandle the Skimmer with perfection, something born over years of drifting throughout the lonely world at its hem.

The dune ahead rose for a chin and upwards slope, it was shaped like a ramp, and it gave Khanu's adventurous spirit a sick, sick idea. She approached the dune rapidly, angling the nose of the craft for its epicenter, she did not slow down, nor angle away, she in fact gunned the engine.

Teksi couldn't produce the same noises someone with a tongue could, but the shrill little squeak that hurled out from the insect couldn't have passed for anything but hysteria, Khanu promptly responded to her friend's distress by laughing in her face.

Metal bucked, superstructure groaned, the world dipped and their weight compressed into their bellies, before everything felt lighter, and particularly buoyant.

VvvWWHHKK-! –The Skimmer's hover equipment kept it just above the flesh of the dune, it shot like a bullet up the sand, and into the air beyond it, as a meteorite with a contrail of plush tan marking its path of airborne traverse.

Khanu compressed into the leather of the seat, her fangs bore as she rode out the sensation of falling with laughing glee, Teksi rolled up in a ball and hid her head under one of her legs. The Skimmer was by no means a flight capable vehicle, but it handled well enough, in actuality.

Rising, meandering, and then falling, the rotary blades kicked and spun, a motor roared, and the vents on the back of the craft kicked whimsically swimming bounces of heat that blasted sand in all directions. The flight avionics of the Skimmer saw it bounce off the proximity of the ground below, not the actual ground itself in their landing.

They both jolted up and down roughly in the seat, Khanu's laughter being cut in the violent tendencies of moves and actions the Skimmer was never really meant for. Teksi was immobile in her lap, a quivering ball of cowardly green.

"-That was fun!" Khanu defended, patting the insect's back. "You're such a baby."

The Endless Dunes partitioned from their usual consistency, the hills and slopes rounded and then cut away for a bowl-shaped valley, the size of a small town, and in its direct center was a grayish-black dot of civilization's touch.

The Collector was there, as it had been for… well, however long it had been there, inoperable, before she had fixed it. The bustling, silvery, synthetic metals making its hide vibrating and quivering whilst the Technodigger in its heart churned away at the earth under its toothed belly.

When she had first discovered it, it had been nothing more than a cap of synthetic metal, a reminder of the Marble Civilization, but after she had gotten the Skimmer and was able to frequent the location more often, she had toyed with the mechanics inside it, and had gotten it to work again.

According to all the books and datasheets she had found about the men of the west, they all had claimed that Marble technology was naught, and that it was not a subject of understandable manipulation.

She had never met a man of the west, so it was difficult to say how exactly the city-state goers thought and operated, and it was impossible to say what degree of the Marble technology they had at their disposal. But over time she had been convinced that for all the wonderful things and accomplishments humanity had made, they were terrible story tellers, or, just really bad at recording information properly.

So many bright minds of the west reasoned that the Marble Civilization escaped the notions of common folk, and that only the most skilled of master engineers had figured how to work their remains and ruined items. She was some random Sindrossi exile scavenging the dunes, and she'd figured out their Collectors and Scanners just fine.

Maybe it's a human thing, she had thought. Maybe they just aren't as smart as the Ancrahki said they were.

-The Ancrahki. Their social class made her think of her father.

Her mood immediately soured, she made sure to drown it in the remembrance of her new addition in her lap. Normally she drained the Collectors by herself, but today, at least Teksi was here to keep her company while she worked, and there was…. positive energy in that, the insect was a sweetheart, Khanu liked having her around.

"Get up,Tek'!" The queen laughed, nudging the shivering caterpillar with her knuckles. "We're here, you can un-curl now."

The insect chattered and squeaked, and didn't move.

"-Fiiine," Khanu groaned, rolling her eyes. "-I promise never to do that again, now let's go, girlfriend, I have work I have to do."

Teksi slowly unwound and inched up the Sindrossi's arm, to her shoulders, where Khanu moved her neck forwards to better accommodate the caterpillar like a scarf over her back.

"What a baby." She poked Tek's mandibles and snickered when she hissed in retort.

The Skimmer's rotary blades wound, jolted, and started to pulse to slowness and gradual inactivity. Robotics whined and steam belched from previously hidden slots in the vehicle's pill-shaped underbelly, three spidery legs of pipes and stilts- the landing gear –snaked and unfolded from these storage boxes and stamped into the sand sharply.

The props spun lastly, and then the engine cut sharply, leaving them as silent, passing blades in front of the cockpit, before they too stilled and remained locked in place. Sand cartwheeled and danced in the air around them, concealing the now landed hovercraft from the surrounding dunes.

"How about Collector duty, there's nothing scary and loud about that." Khanu punched a rune by her seat's arm, and the cockpit jolted ajar above her, breaking the bubble of sealed atmosphere they had enjoyed.

Teksi didn't seem convinced, thoroughly regretting her participation in this trip to the dot. Khanu locked the controls and shoved the cockpit dome up and away from herself, she hopped out of the compartment and down the side of the Skimmer.

Though she was in a rush to rid herself of the confines of the cockpit, the grasp of all the swirling tan her vehicle had kicked up was no better, soon, the queen felt her airways clogging up.

"-Dust-!" She coughed in disgust, waving a claw about, sliding her goggles off her eyes. "-Damn Skimmer always makes so much of it!"

Teksi squeaked a few times and offered a supportive consideration to life's worst problems, and Khanu sighed at the modesty.

"-At least there is that, you're right." Clearing her throat, Khanu curled her long head back as best she could and stuffed her nostrils into the collar of her coat. "This shouldn't take too long."

Teksi chattered curiously.

"-I hope."

The Skimmer continued to growl, though the volume of this was in decline. She checked around the vehicle's flanks and the rear for any damage or wear that might've been incurred, found the results satisfyingly bland and normal, and rushed past the craft's nose.

"There's so many parts, Tek'." Khanu described with excitement, transitioning to a quadruped jog. "A real dream for a tinkerer."

The caterpillar inched across her back for better traction as she moved, the two of them remaining dwarfed by the ringing collar of dunes sealing the valley in beneath the fiery sky.

Just up ahead, the machine that Khanu was so adamant over was there, moving, growling, and clunking, kept alive by quick fixes and extra parts bolted into its ancient hulk. While Khanu had experimented more with technology from the west, the Marble technology wasn't too difficult for her to figure.

There was a degree of complexity that west man tech' did not enjoy, in that in the inventions of the Marble Civilization, there were more… medium sized moving parts. Khanu didn't really know how else to describe it to someone.

Western machines had a lot of pipes, and wires, and small moving parts, all put together for bigger apparatuses, Marble machines were all about movements and wears that normally required ball bearings.

Interestingly, the metal- commonly misconstrued as, ironically, and hence the name, marble –did not suffer the same results of friction and grinding as, say, steel or titanium would. In the west, the city-state goers had lifting and war machines that made use of rotatable turrets and swivel mounts, there required bearings, but if they were made from the mysterious metal of the old ones here, they would not have required the bearings.

There was a specific trait that only the white-metal of the Marble Civilization had, it could grind, move against itself, and have almost unlimited surfaces dragging against each other, and it could still work, in fact, it usually had a harder time working when surfaces weren't touching.

The science behind it was a mystery to her, the only reason she had figured it out was because she had toyed and messed with the stuff for years out here with nothing better to do. In the learning curve of it, she'd probably broken more relics than she'd fixed.

Can't find fault in that, she would reason. I shouldn't even be out here to begin with.

The Collector looked like a white bump sticking from a concrete platform in the sand, it had three sloping spines, with ribbed stacks of plates concealing its inner workings by the hips and feet. There were several pylons bolted into its flanks, four in total, to support the superstructure during the sand storms that periodically blasted the Endless Dunes.

Amazingly though, throughout the weather, the deplorable conditions, the rampant heat and the bone chilling cold at night, the surface of the Collector retained a marvelous amount of its white coloration, still keeping some semblance of its pristine origin.

It had looked a lot worse when she had first found it, the center spine, the round part kept aloft by the plates on the flank, it had fallen to the side and had been buried by sand strains, that was the part that supported the octopus-like arms that sifted the earth and collected the resources.

The Collectors were strange machines, surely, but the substances they could collect were even stranger.

Fuel sources were obviously hard to come by in a world where civilization didn't exist, and if anything else, the Endless Dunes would leave even a nomad colony wanting. It seemed there was nothing here but sand, rocks, dust, and more sand.

However the discovery of how to work the Collectors and some of the other relics lying about the place had proven a fascinating falsehood to those assumptions. In reality, the Endless Dunes were a hotspot for a clear, stinking, luminescent liquid, that her kind called- Dithoo –which in Sindrossian, literally translated to 'Liquid Refuse' –which, chemically speaking, it was.

The men of the west called it Lucidium, it was a type of fossil chemical that back in the Collectives, was worthless, as the Sindrossi did not have a means or use of refining it, and as far as Khanu was concerned, the west had acquired more specialized fuel sources.

Yet Lucidium was formed by the gradual erosion of limestone beneath the earth, when the limestone was introduced to the metal procured by the Marble Civilization, the white synthetic metal would erode the stone, and basically melt it into this clear, foul-smelling chemical.

The Lucidium may have been worthless to the rest of the world, but to Khanu, it was a godsend.

She used Lucidium for everything, it could be used as a solvent, a lubricant for machines, fuel for engines and electric power, her entire compound back home ran on the stuff. In addition to that, the Bio-Boxes she kept for food grew all of their material through fertilizer that was compounded from Lucidium, in effect, Lucidium was the only thing keeping her alive out here.

Whatever reason she continued to do so, at that. She didn't really know what the point of prolonging such a miserable existence was, seeing as all she had was Teksi and a bunch of scrap and machines to keep her company.

She was thankful for the caterpillar, but sometimes the atmosphere here was just… terrible.

She could say with confidence that she blamed her father.

Fucking bastard, she thought. I hope a JaenRaa eats him.

Teksi reclined and curled up in a ball on her back, intimidated by the bustling noises the Collector made, the three suspended humps moved lightly and occasionally jolted.

"-It's cool, right?" She snickered over her shoulder. "Watch this."

A lever stuck from the ground by the Collector's chin, wedged in a black trench for back-forth pulling. That and the concrete reformations around the base of the structure had been her doing, it had taken her almost three years to accommodate and reactivate this particular machine.

She clenched the eroded, brown-colored grip of the steel handle, and waited for Teksi to brace herself over her shoulders, before she huffed with effort, and tugged it towards herself. The lever screeched metallically and jolted backwards with a click of steel.

The Collector's murmurings silenced, and the rising humps stopped moving, there was a moment of silence…. and then-


-Teksi squeaked so loud, that Khanu was concerned the insect had shit herself in fright.

Patting the caterpillar's head, Khanu stepped back carefully as the center ridge of the Collector shifted, jerked, and then rose, kind of like the cockpit dome did on her Skimmer, by the hinges on its front nose.

The slope of white metal whined and groaned, shivering as gears clicked and turned, the machine yawned and revealed its innards for consideration, there was blackness everywhere, a complex mesh of mechanical arms, struts and ribs.

The octopi-looking grinders rose from the deep pit they had dug into the blackened earth within, machinery howled and shrieked.

"-You see the diggers?" Khanu called over the ruckus, pointing for the center of the splay of machinery. "-That's what I use to erode the limestone deposits under here-!"

The bladed digger-arms retracted on nano-folding joints and ball-point edges, fat gears that she had ripped out of an old hauler- the same that made her home miles from here –acted as the pulley to support the arms' weight.

Higher and higher came the diggers, until they followed the arching contour of the curvaceous slope of white metal capping them from the outside world, showing the two observers their dirt-caked, and narrow bellies.

If the diggers could be repurposed as weapons, Khanu was confident that they could cut through the armor on those western war machines she had been thinking of earlier. When she had been experimenting with another Collector many miles to the south, she had tested its digger arms on a boulder, and she remembered how freaked out she had been when the boulder proceeded to explode and be torn apart.

The Marble Civilization were as dependent on these things as she was, she could only figure that they would have prepped the Collectors exponentially for continued use. To survive the ages of the world, one had to figure out a way to best the rocks, after all, the rocks were the oldest of everything, older than the trees, and even older than the dirt itself.

Trees…. She thought, looking solemnly at the dunes at the edge of the valley. She missed trees.

Teksi bumped her little forehead into Khanu's jaw, motioning with her stubby legs to the Collector.

"…What? Oh, yeah, it's just bringing up the stinky stuff it got today."

Teksi quizzed her further, clicking and squeaking.

"It's different every day, hopefully today was a good haul…" Khanu sighed. "We're about to find out."

Beneath the diggers, another set of arms rose from the gaping depths of the torn-up earth, two stilted arrays of the special Marble metal, each tipped with hook-like pincers, clenching one above the other, over the rounded surface of a large, and fat tube.

The tube was made of a material similar to bullet-proof glass- again, it was the science behind Marble tech', and Khanu couldn't figure it out beyond that –it was connected to funnels located in the blades of the diggers, as they eroded the limestone, they slurped up the Lucidium running off the impacts, and stored it here.

The stinking liquid inside the tube sloshed and smacked wetly about the glass inside, grayed and made hazy by the filth matting the tube's interior. The silvery nozzle on top of the receptacle was clearly audible, still moist with the fluent stream of the fuel it had supported.

Roughly a third of a tank, in other words, deplorable. But Teksi's excited chitters and bounding hops on her shoulders lightened her mood, so Khanu brushed off the dread with a lighthearted chuckle.

"It's pretty decent." She lied, patting the insect's chitinous head. "-Watch this, it's removable."

Khanu reached her wrists out over the ravaged pit, and her claws clinked around the tube, where, in comparison to herself, it was as large as her torso, and weighed half as much.

The hooks registered resistance, and they popped clean off the tube's glass with twin- Pwnk-! –like sounds. Mechanical gears whined and moaned, the Collector began to recede and fold back up, awaiting the return of its container, so it could continue mining at a later date.

"-See I empty this stuff back home, and then I bring it back, and push the lever forwards, and then I put it back inside," Khanu explained, trudging back towards the Skimmer in the backdrop. "-Then it'll start collecting again, that's why we call them Collectors."

Teksi squeaked, examining the tube in her friend's grasp.

Who's we?

-The insect didn't mean to hit home like that, but, it still stung a bit.

"….I call them Collectors." Khanu harrumphed, sticking her reptilian snout to the sky in mock-offense. "-They work well enough for me."

The glass clinked as Teksi poked it with her frontal stubs, the ones tipped with black chitin.

"It's not a toy," Khanu hummed musingly. "We'll just store it in the back of the Skimmer, and-"

Teksi chattered excitedly, pressing her rounded, green head into the glass, eyeing its interior with fascination.

"…It's just fuel, Tek'," Khanu stopped in her weighed trot halfway to the Skimmer, still parked on the sand nearby, she lugged the tube in her claws bridal-style, and eyed the caterpillar with an annoyed expression. "-Come on, baby, it's fine, get off of it."

Teksi clicked her stubs on the glass furiously, chittering, and gesturing with her mandibles.

"-Why would I want to shake it?" The Sindrossi queen blinked.

The insect was insistent.

Khanu darted her eyes between her friend and the stinking Lucidium sloshing around in the tube, it was all hazy and dirty inside the glass, and she didn't see anything, nothing besides the fossil fuel.

Tek's been acting weird, Khanu realized. But this is a little much.

Experimentally- chancing fate, perhaps –Khanu humored the caterpillar, she rolled her shoulder until Tek' reclined and backed off, and then, she pressed the side of her slender, onyx head to the glass of the tube, and she gave it a little shake, just a tiny jolt.

She heard the liquid sloshing around, obviously, but… there was something… different.

Khanu blinked again, she craned to look at Teksi again over her shoulder.

"Get on the ground," Khanu whispered, nodding for the sand nearby. "Get off of me, quickly."

Teksi gave a panicked squeak, standing upright on the Sindrossi's shoulder like a marsupial.

"Get back, Tek'!" Khanu grunted with annoyance. "-There's something inside this, and I don't know what it is! Get some distance, for your safety, you know?"

The caterpillar ground her mandibles and begrudgingly complied. Khanu waited until the pokes of Tek's stubby legs went down the back of her coat, down her leg, she heard the insect hiss in complaint of traversing the sand.

Offering the tube a wide berth from her face, Khanu suddenly found herself reclining from the thing, like she was holding something disgusting, or frightening. The Sindrossi scanner her eyes about the hazy glass.

What was that noise? She kept repeating the same question in her head.

She glanced at Tek' one last time, the caterpillar stood idle on the ground, looking up at her inquisitively, and with a tint of fearfulness.

Khanu swallowed, and she carefully, in a turtle-like fashion, put her other hearing hole against the glass of the tube, and gave it a tiny bounce in her claws.


-Something inside moved.

It was liquid, there was something solid floating around in it.

The Collectors were designed to filter rocks and chunks of earth, and the machine was functioning perfectly, which meant that there had been one of two things. One, there was a serious glitch she had not noticed, which was impossible, seeing as she knew the Collectors like the back of her hand.

Two, the Collector had sucked up an object it had registered as correct harvesting material, its scanners had gone over it, and taken it despite its solid nature.

Khanu had never heard of Lucidium crystallizing, and she had never heard of any organisms or materials that consumed or absorbed it.

The Sindrossi was thoroughly frustrated with the sudden buzz of concerns, she angled her chops, and grunted.

"-Alright smart guy…" She muttered, maneuvering the tube in her grasp, until the butt pointed for the ground between her feet. "-What's the problem here?"

The tube thudded against the sand below- thmp –as she put it down, she gripped the safety clamps on the metal, black lid's flanks, her hands quivering and jolting down with each she unlocked.

Steam kicked from the silvery nozzle, and soon, she was cringing and flaring her nostrils from the awful smell that emanated from the tube's innards. Metal slipped, and the grooved nozzle of the tube's cap ground noisily.

She turned the cap like a steering wheel, unscrewing it from the glass structure.

"-Stay back, Tek'," Khanu warned, her voice muffled by the distortion she sported on her features from the smell. "-Ugh, this stinks…"

Lucidium may have been a godsend, but it still stunk like crap, and that, she would maintain until her dying day.

The cap popped off- thmp! –and she slowly raised her hands, and then put it beside the tube on the sand, upside down, so the nozzle kept it elevated, like an angled, black saucer by her foot. She gripped the rims of the tube and stuck her head over the space to look inside.

The same pool of clear, awful fluid was inside, a quarter of the way towards the top, meager and insignificant. But the actual sight of the plain liquid, not through the dirty glass, told Khanu a very different story than what her eyes had firstly offered beforehand.

The liquid's gray mass was permeated and interrupted, by a roughly pylon-shaped disruption, one that orbited, and slowly revolved in the stasis of its buoyant floatation in the fuel. Coughing, and suffering from the stench, Khanu forced herself to lower her head and look closer.

Teksi hopped on the ground nearby, with terrified chirps leaving her mandibles.

"-Calm down you baby…" Khanu gagged lowly, narrowing her eyes. "…It's just a…"

-She was about to say it indeed really was a rock, but a rock, it was not.

Khanu forgot all about the smell of the Lucidium, and the sand, and the dunes of the valley.

She remembered her commentary about Lucidium crystals.

Well, the item inside didn't look so far from that hunch. It was narrow, and jagged, multi-faced, and a pale whitish-gray in color, its mass glistening with the thick moisture of the fossil fuel. As long as her forearm from elbow to wrist, the stone was brilliantly drab, and its colorless nature was made intriguing by the tint of darker gray in its heart.

Before her was no Lucidium crystal, and no normal rock.

It was a gem, one she had never seen before.

Khanu swallowed another lump, she glanced at Teksi, who had inched closer and was looking through the hazy glass of the tube at the unexpected find as well.

"…It's not a rock, at least…" Khanu muttered. "That means the Collector's working."

Teksi chattered quietly.

So why did it suck up the gem?

"…I don't know." Khanu admitted, lost in the stinking depths of the tube. "I have no idea."