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Book 5, Chapter 21 - Entering the City

 If one was to see Sandspire from overhead, he would undoubtedly be astonished by its sheer scale. Mountains of steel husks stretched into the distance rising as high as a hundred meters. They twisted among one another in an intricate, expansive maze in all directions. Sandspire City was hidden therein.

"Sandspire is up ahead."

Four figures picked their way through the rusted steel jungle like a small party of ants. Their limited scope made it impossible to understand the breadth of the place they found themselves in. It was easy to imagine one getting forever lost out here and dying from hunger and exposure.

Cloudhawk had lived for so long in the southern wastes, but he'd never heard of this place until recently. The wastelands were vast and he knew so little of it.

They came upon an oval-shaped building which rose like an iron dragon between two collapsed towers. From the outside it looked like an enormous, metallic bird's nest. Somehow both complex and natural, it had an artistry to it that was a mix between scientific accomplishment and natural flare. Of course, a thousand years of neglect had stolen some of its brilliance. Rust had crept into every corner of it.

Here was the famous Sandspire, nestled in a metal birds nest amid sprawling ruins. The only way you could know it was here was if you grew up in the area.

Sand Tiger was very respectful as he introduced Sandspire to Cloudhawk, walking by his side. "This is Sandspire City. Based on the information we've discovered this city used to be a manufacturing hub. In fact Sandspire itself was an industrial park in ancient times. Here they made robots and other machines. Whatever cataclysm destroyed the world turned this amazing place into rubble. All except the industrial park which we now call home."

Every corner of these ruins was thick with ancient history. As Cloudhawk walked among the collapsed structures he couldn't help but imagine how magnificent it used to be. Now it was like the shadow of a beautiful dream after waking - pieces and fragments of something you could never get back. He nodded. "Let's keep going."

Sand Tiger brought Cloudhawk and his two young charges into the city. He was very conscientious with everything he said to Cloudhawk. And of course he would, after what he saw Cloudhawk do to the orebiters. With that sort of ability, he could sweep away any opposition to his rule in the city. Cloudhawk could squish him like a roach if he wanted to.

He was even more respectful when he learned Cloudhawk's identity as a representative from Greenland City. Sand Viper's rule over Sandspire was thanks to backing from Greenland. That didn't mean there weren't any struggles, though. His rule was still on shaky footing and there was plenty of opposition. It was the nature of wastelanders to be ambitious and there were more than a couple covetously eyeing Sand Viper's position. Now was not the time to offend their backers, if ever such a time was appropriate.

This Greenland powerhouse had come at just the right time, in fact.

Cloudhawk didn't tell him everything. Sand Tiger thought he was just someone from the city, a messenger or liaison. He would've have been stunned to learn this was the city's Governor paying a visit. Even so the respect he showed was admirable and he led Cloudhawk personally through the city entrance.

***

Cloudhawk had visited many cities in the wastelands. This one was wholly unique.

From the outside it looked like any other piece of the wastelands. Unless you were someone in the know, you could walk by and never know you nearly rubbed shoulders with a population of eighty-thousand strong. It was thanks to its natural camouflage and the maze-like ruins surrounding it that Sandspire was able to survive and prosper.

On either side of the enormous gates to the city were two electric 'eyes.' They scanned anyone who tried to pass. Only once their identities were confirmed did the gates slowly open. Passing over the threshold was like walking into a completely different world.

If there was one thing that differentiated ruins in the cities from elsewhere, it was the sheer amount of science and technology on display. With every breath Cloudhawk could smell the slightly sweet smell of engine oil. Peering down every lane he saw machines at work, performing different tasks like miniature robots sweeping garbage off the streets. Robots also darted back and forth overhead, sentinels which watched the city for any trouble.

"Heeellooo and thank you for listening to Dunehunter Radio! Today our program -"

Cloudhawk stared in amazement as a small box squawked from the corner of a vendor's stall. It didn't look very complicated, but it had to be for words to be coming out of it. At the moment the voice was talking about different mutant beast sightings near the city to help hunters prepare for their work.

A wireless radio... Sandspire had its own broadcast station which it used to communicate with its citizens.

Sadly, they only worked in the city. The surrounding ruins had no infrastructure and were too choked with debris. The signal couldn't get far.

Cloudhawk was struck with an inspiration. If they put together a radio station back in Greenland, it would be much easier to communicate with his people. Besides that, it would enrich the lives of his citizens. He couldn't imagine the tech to be too complicated. Maybe he could bring a few engineers back with him to Greenland to get them started.

He continued to follow his guide through the city. Around every corner was another strange sight to capture his attention. Incredible things he'd neither seen nor heard of. There were vendors selling things like radios, which to Cloudhawk were valuable treasures but seemed to be everyday objects in this place.

He was particularly surprised when they passed by a dark corner down an alley. A group of people were gathered round a screen. Behind them a small contraption was projecting images onto the screen with a flickering light. The pictures were moving. When he asked, Sand Tiger told him they were watching something called a 'movie.'

Because of its exceptional status and resources, Sandspire was home to a large number of scientists. They were the backbone of a world where ancient tech and modern wasteland science combined to create an amazing and singular culture. Both the crude and contrived style of the wastes and the high-grade scientific rigor of the old world could be seen in each of these machines.

"This place is even more amazing than I imagined." Gray Rabbit was trying to take in everything at the same time. He was filled with excitement. "I never thought the wastelands could have a place like this."

Bug's timid face was bright with excitement as well.

"You two haven't seen anything of the world. Compared to other places, Sandspire is nothing. I heard that somewhere very far to the North there's a place called Skycloud. Now that place is a paradise. Sadly wastelanders like us can only imagine."

As he said it, Sand Tiger gaze Cloudhawk a steady, pointed look. While he'd never been to Skycloud or met an Elysian, Sand Tiger had heard stories. Unless he was mistaken, the strange and amazing powers this man had shown were powers he got from that far away utopia.

The two youths were stunned. They'd spent all their lives scrounging for scraps in the ruins. They'd never even stepped foot out into the larger world. "Is that true?" They asked, eyes wide.

"Remember this; force a bird to live in a fish pond and it will be miserable, no matter how clear the water. Have a fish live in a bird's nest and the warm sun won't end the fish's sorrow. There's no such thing as a good place or a bad place. Only suitable and unsuitable." Cloudhawk turned his eyes onto the two young ones. "Don't be jealous. The more you know, the more you think, the more you worry. If the day comes when you're strong enough to survive in another environment, then the world will come to you."

Rabbit and Bug didn't know how to respond. This mysterious person's guidance was like a riddle they couldn't figure out. He talked like an old man who'd lived through a lot. That would explain how he got so strong and had so many amazing things.

A few minutes later Cloudhawk was resting in an audience hall. At Sand Tiger's request, a lean and old man had come to greet them. He was wrapped in a cloak stained with motor oil and his white hair was all in a mess. A thick pair of glasses magnified his eyes, and were constantly being adjusted by calloused hands. Nothing about his look marked him as a city leader or a noted engineer. He really just looked like an old repairman.

"I just heard what happened. Thank you for saving this undeserving waste of air." Although Sand Viper didn't look imposing, his abilities were obvious. He knew right away Cloudhawk had come from Greenland City but showed no reverence or awe. On the contrary, he was totally in control. "What are you doing still standing here? Get Master Cloudhawk a glass of tea!"

Cloudhawk waved a hand to indicate he didn't care. He settled back in his chair to speak with Sand Viper. "I came here today for two reasons."

"I'm at your service," the man responded.

"First, I'm hoping to improve cooperation between Sandspire and Greenland. We are willing to share food and water with you, and in return we want some of your talented engineers and some inventions we can migrate to our city."

Sand Viper nodded. It was not an unreasonable request. Anyway, why else would Greenland have propped him up in this position? What surprised him was the fact that he was proposing an exchange. Considering their history, he figured Greenland would simply demand goods and services. Instead they were offering food and water - resources that were much more precious than what they were requesting. Cooperation would mean a lot to Sandspire, and it was a deal tilted in their favor.

"Second, considering the special position Sandspire holds, we would like to make this place a base of operations for exploration missions to the south.

"What are you saying?" At this, Sand Viper's calm facade suddenly changed. "Explore the south? With all due respect you're making a dangerous request. They've been quiet, and waking a sleeping giant isn't something we can afford. Provoking the south is suicide."

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