The Glitch

Sat, 16 Mar 2024

The sun beat down on Raya's young skin. The harsh light was like a merciless god, reflecting in this wasteland. Around her, bleached sand stretched to the horizon. Skeletal metal claws reached from the endless dunes, creating a scene of desolation that stretched as far as the eye could see. The year was 2142, or so the elders mumbled, their memories fractured by the years since The Glitch, as everyone called the 2038 crash.

The Glitch was a hazy legend whispered around flickering fires. Back then, according to the faded memories of the elders, the machines went mad with a cascade of system failures that crippled infrastructure and plunged the world into darkness and chaos. Power grids flickered out, planes fell from the sky, and the very fabric of society unraveled. By 2039, the news feeds had blared of wars occurring simultaneously throughout Africa, Europe, North and South America, and Asia. Wars, the elders said, wars over resources, over the ghosts of nations long dead. Raya had never seen a city, only the bleached bones of what might have been buildings, half-buried in the relentless sands. Now, all that was left were scattered tribes clinging to survival in the unforgiving desert.

Raya squinted at the horizon, her face creased with worry. Another sandstorm was approaching, a churning orange dervish. She adjusted the tattered cloth over her mouth, the harsh wind whipping sand into her face, a reminder of the desert's unforgiving nature. Then she tightened her grip on her sand-scarred staff, her only weapon.

Her tribe was a fragile bubble of life huddled around a single, life-giving well. Tensions were high. Water meant survival, and their well was dwindling. Today, Raya led the daily scavenging patrol, usually reserved for men. But men were a dwindling resource too; many lost in skirmishes with the Sand Jacks - raiders who scoured the wasteland for scraps. At 18, she was known for her scavenging skills, but lately, pickings were slim. The Glitch had left behind a desolate landscape, its treasures buried under layers of sand.

Suddenly, the sand shifted. A figure rose from behind a dune, the face hidden in a tattered hood. A Sand Jack. Fear choked Raya. She glanced at her companions, fear etched on their faces. Then more Sand Jacks materialized from the swirling dust. The Sand Jacks outnumbered them - a ragged band armed with crude weapons fashioned from salvaged metal. They were weathered predators, their eyes glittering with merciless hunger. Desperation surged through Raya. Even with her skills, they were no match for these hardened raiders.

"Supplies!" snarled the first Sand Jack, his voice raspy. "We know you carry 'em." His companions moved forward, encircling Raya's tiny scavenging band. "Drop yer gear, and maybe we'll let you crawl back to that hole you call home," rasped another Sand Jack, his voice weathered by the desert. A surge of despair washed over her, mingling with adrenaline. Raya's fingers tightened on her staff. She wouldn't let her scavenging patrol die here, not if she could help it.

"We have nothing for you!" Raya yelled over the howl of the wind, raising her staff defensively. The Sand Jacks laughed - a cruel, metallic sound. Time slowed as she searched for a path forward, but a shriek pierced the air. A Sand Jack lunged towards Mina, one of the younger girls. Raya moved on instinct, her staff striking out. The blow landed solidly, knocking the Sand Jack back with a surprised grunt. But their advantage was fleeting. Swords and makeshift spears clashed with sand-scarred staffs, and a scuffle broke as one of the raiders lunged for Tamir, a young boy at Raya's side. She fought with desperate fury, blocking blows, dodging salvaged blades, and cries echoing against the relentless wind. Yet the Sand Jacks were relentless, their movements honed by harsh necessity. A sickening scream split the air, and Raya saw with horror as Tamir collapsed to the sand, his blood soaking into the unforgiving earth. The sight of crimson-stained sand seared into her. Panic flared within her.

Raya fought with a ferocity born out of fear and desperation. She was a blur of movement, using her agility against the raiders' brute strength. But her eyes darted frantically to the ever-approaching sandstorm. Every fallen Sand Jack was a victory, but every fallen comrade was a death sentence for them all. With a choked cry, she saw Karim slump to the ground, a rust-red stain spreading across his shirt. They had to retreat. With a desperate surge, Raya broke through the fray, shouting to her dwindling band.

"Run!" she screamed, the word ragged in her throat. Her staff deflected a clumsy lunge from the nearest Sand Jack. She led them away from the raiders, their hearts pounding in time with their ragged breaths, their shouts echoing in the whipping winds. Adrenaline fueled her movements, but fear gnawed at her gut. Raya's heart pounded like a trapped animal. If they didn't make a break for it now, the approaching sandstorm would be the least of their concerns.

Desperately scanning for an escape route, to her right, she sees a jagged metal spire jutted from the shifting dunes, the remains of some pre-Glitch monstrosity. "To the ruins!" There was little hope it would provide real shelter, but it was a chance- a direction, a way to break their pursuers' momentum. As she ran, the wind grew teeth, the first tendrils of the sandstorm already scouring their backs. By the time the ruins loomed ahead, half shrouded in swirling grit, she was gasping, lungs burning. Her companions were scattered, some close behind, others trailing worryingly far. But their pursuers had vanished into the growing storm, the chase likely abandoned in the face of nature's fury.

They scrambled into the ruins, their ragged breaths echoing. The storm howled outside, a monstrous beast clawing at the structure, but the ruins offered scant protection. They had to focus. There was no time for mourning, not while the storm raged. "We need to find shelter somewhere deeper inside," Raya yelled, her voice barely audible over the storm. "This outer structure isn't sound." They hunkered down in the relative shelter of a tumbled wall; the sandstorm screeched like the howling fury of a thousand angry spirits around them. Raya's heart pounded a desperate rhythm against her ribs. She shielded her face as best she could, huddling close to the remnants of her scavenging expedition; exhaustion and grief etched their faces.

With a heavy sigh, she surveyed everyone. There had been eight of them - now they were five. Karim, Tamir, and Mina... sacrifices to the desolate wasteland. She swallowed hard, fighting back the sting of grief, fear mingling with the gritty sting in her eyes. They'd escaped the Sand Jacks, but nature seemed to conspire against them now. Dust swirled through crumbling walls, obscuring vision and painting the interior a gritty twilight. Each howl of the wind made the ruins shudder, threatening to collapse around them. They were lucky to be alive, but the storm's fury brought a fresh dread. Without shelter, supplies, and now with fewer hands to help, their small tribe was teetering on the edge of extinction.

The storm raged for what seemed like hours. The world was utterly transformed when they finally emerged from the crumbling building. The once-familiar landscape of dunes was reshaped by the storm's relentless force. Disoriented, they scanned their surroundings for any sign of their fallen companions but saw none. A wave of grief washed over Raya, but she forced it down. Survival demanded focus, and a glint in the distance caught Raya's eye. As they approached, the glint solidified. Half-buried in the bleached bones of a colossal structure was a machine, unlike anything she'd seen before. Its smooth, curved surface held an inscription, a string of symbols in a forgotten language, etched across its side.

Unease gnawed at Raya's gut. This machine was from before The Glitch when the ancients and their metal servants ruled the world. Her hands tightened on her staff, worn smooth by desert winds, knuckles whitening. What power and danger lay dormant beneath the layers of time and sand? Raya felt a chill down her spine, not from the fading desert heat but from a primal fear. Yet, necessity battled with instinct. Gathering her courage, she knelt and, with a hesitant hand, reached out and touched the machine's surface, sweeping her fingers across it and tracing the cryptic symbols. Unlike anything she'd encountered, the machine was smooth - not weathered bone or rusted scrap. It felt... wrong. This relic, unearthed by the storm, held the echoes of a forgotten world, a relic of a world that had consumed itself. Yet, the well was dwindling. For the tribe to survive, they needed water, food, and any advantage this wasteland might offer. As Raya looked at the machine, a memory flickered in her mind, something an elder had mumbled years ago: "Before The Glitch... machines... helped..." The words were a whisper lost in the winds of time, yet they stirred something within her. Perhaps, somewhere within this machine, lay a lifeline for her people.

The task of digging was arduous. The storm had reshaped the dunes, piling sand high against the structure. Raya and her companions toiled under the relentless sun, the harsh light making their eyes ache. Each scoop of sand revealed more of the machine's surface, and a more profound dread settled in Raya's heart with each inch. The tales whispered at night of rogue machines now echoed in the silent desert. They worked in shifts, blistered hands moving relentlessly. Fear and hope mingled, an acrid mix that sat uneasily in Raya's stomach. They'd lost so much already. What if their desperation birthed a new threat far worse than the raiders or relentless desert?

The machine, now fully unearthed, was larger and heavier than Raya had imagined. Even working together, they could barely shift its immense weight. Metal scraps were scavenged from the ruins and painstakingly lashed together to form a makeshift sled. Pulling the machine across the unforgiving desert proved an agonizingly slow task. Their muscles ached, and progress was measured in mere inches at a time. With each pull, Raya's heart sank. The weight of the machine felt a grim parallel to the burden she carried, the uncertainty about whether this journey would bring salvation or destruction. She'd already risked so much - Tamir, Karim, Mina, their lives lost on this desperate gamble. Had their sacrifice been to save their tribe, or had she inadvertently doomed them all?

The storm left a parting gift in its wake: a path leading directly toward the flickering lights of the tribe. But as they trudged homeward, the machine haunted Raya's thoughts. Could it be the answer to their dwindling well, an artifact of an age when water flowed at the touch of a button? It seemed impossible, even blasphemous, to seek salvation from the relics of a time that had ultimately led to ruin. Yet, the harsh world she knew offered little room for dogma or superstition. The legends warned of machines, but they also told of miracles before The Glitch. Raya reached the tribe's well just as the sun dipped below the horizon, casting the dunes in an eerie, blood-red light, a ragged band exhausted but alive.

Her tribe awaited with anxious murmurs, eyes fixed on the strange, unearthed machine. Jinn, their frail, wiry leader with eyes that held the wisdom of a thousand sandstorms, sat by the well, his gaze shadowed. Wrinkles lined his face like ancient riverbeds, a testament to decades of hardship. "What have you found?" His voice was weathered, a testament to the desert's relentless force.

Raya stepped forward and, with a mix of trepidation and determination, recounted their entire ordeal and presented their monstrous find. Shock rippled through the crowd, quickly replaced by whispers of unease. Jinn scoffed and turned away, his shoulders sagging with unspoken burdens.

"Fairytales," he muttered, his voice gruff. "We carve our own survival from this sand, not from cursed machines. Take it back to the sands; let it be swallowed again." The elders muttered in agreement, their faces etched with fear and superstition. Yet, Raya saw uncertainty flicker in Jinn's eyes. She'd known him her whole life, read the subtle language of his hunched shoulders and downturned mouth. Despite his bluster, desperation clawed at the very edges of his resolve. She took a step forward, her own voice steadier than she felt.

She gestured to the silent metal hulk. "Kai believes he can understand this machine, Jinn," glancing at a young man standing on the crowd's edge. The name brought a mix of amusement and exasperation to the faces of her people. Kai was the tribe's oddity, a boy more at home with rusted circuit boards than hunting spears. While some mocked him, calling it a waste of time to study the gibberish of dead machines and a sign of madness in this broken world, others scorned the 'cursed' machines, blaming them for The Glitch. But Kai saw them as a source of forgotten knowledge, believing these old relics held secrets, clues to understanding the world before The Glitch. He'd spent countless amounts of time poring over faded manuals and chipped circuit boards, piecing together the forgotten language of machines.

She swallowed, her mind racing. "I talked to Kai," she said firmly. "He has been studying their language and says he understands the markings on this," Raya continued, her finger tracing the cryptic symbols on the machine's surface. "He believes he can make it work." A hush fell over the crowd. They were a proud people, survivors sculpted by hardship. But desperation gnawed at their resolve, a relentless shadow mirroring the dwindling of their precious water supply.

"Words and wires," Jinn grunted, "They won't bring water." But his voice lacked conviction, and Raya pressed on. "We can't keep doing the same things, Jinn. Not when they're not working. Not when the well... when it's drying." Her voice wavered, the unspoken fear echoing in the tense silence. The tribe knew; thirst gnawed at them. They were a people clinging to the edge, and everyone knew a single misstep could send them hurtling down into extinction.

Finally, he sighed the sound heavy and resigned. "Fine," he relented. The crowd gasped, their eyes wide with apprehension and a desperate sort of hope. Jinn looked at Raya, his gaze steely. "You have three suns. No more. If your machine doesn't speak by then, back to the sands it goes."

The next three days were a blur of feverish activity. Kai understood the machine's markings - an industrial solar-powered atmospheric water generator, a relic of a forgotten age. Despite the ravages of time, the machine's core systems were surprisingly intact, a hulking testament to the world that was.

His knowledge, scavenged from the bones of dead cities, felt less like the curse of a Sand Jack and more like a sacred gift bestowed on him for this moment. He understood the software whispering through the microcontroller - a relic of a forgotten language of ones and zeros, the complexities of circuits, and the delicate dance of power flowing through the machine's veins. He understood the complexities of power systems and the delicate engineering needed to fix the machine.

Broken panels were replaced with salvaged scraps, components were repurposed, wires spliced with a practiced hand, filters scrubbed back to life, and Kai breathed life into the machine with a skill bordering on magic.

The fellow members of the tribe watched in awe. The younger ones, born into this harsh world, had never seen a machine function, and their elders' mumbled stories were dismissed as desert fever dreams. Raya, her heart both bursting with hope and clenched with fear, worked alongside him, passing tools and fetching supplies, her trust in him an unspoken prayer.

When the moment came, the air crackled with nervous energy. Kai triggered a sequence, his fingers flicking across a salvaged keyboard. The machine sputtered to life, its mechanical heart rumbling against the desert silence. A parched gasp rippled through the crowd, followed by silence heavy with anticipation.

The machine coughed out dust - then a gurgle. Next, the unmistakable trickle of water echoed. The tribe erupted in a frenzy of disbelief, tears, and laughter raw with the echo of years of hardship. Children splashed in the forming puddle, their faces alight with a wonder their parents had never known.

"With machines," Raya said, her voice filled with a hope she hadn't felt before. "With machines, maybe we can find more water, maybe even... remember." Kai looked at her, the flickering firelight casting long shadows on his face. His eyes held secrets from the world before, knowledge only whispered about in the legends of their tribes. Slowly, nodded. "Remember... and perhaps, even rebuild."

The sun dipped below the horizon, painting the sky with a hopeful orange glow. Like the desert sands, the future was vast and unpredictable, but anything felt possible for the first time in generations.