"They walk amongst skeletons of the gods"

"They walk amongst skeletons of the gods, and you treat the shells as such - they have a short temper"

That's the way you hear some of them describe one another, or, at least the more mystically-aligned of them. Others call them "tough bastards", and some just simply call them: Scavengers.

They spend almost every day working in the crashed hulls of spaceships across the world: going in, cutting up the innards, piling the cuttings up to be sold back into the metals market. Their work is like a surgical butchery, but from afar they look like ants picking apart a carcass.

Of the 100s of spaceship wrecks dotted around the world (and the 100s we don't know about), every 2nd one of them is, at some point, being scraped through by Scavengers. Analysts estimate that on a given day, 80 ships are being worked on, where only the few after picked clean. (At a certain point, navigating a shell is far too dangerous even for the most courageous)

"We go from shell to shell as we need to, our home travels with us"

It took me the better part of a year to build up the trust of one of these nomadic groups, even with one of theirs by my side as a guarantor. Their pop-up communities are insular and tight-nit by nature, as with any illegal life-or-death work, so what finally got me into their good books? Doing the work. The only thing that actually builds trust with Scavengers is scavenging - anything less is cowardice or exploitation (And as expected, the exhaustion is real, the hauling of heavy metal a fine art of strength, care, and recklessness).

At the centre of any town is a memorial to those who died at sites past & present. Once a way of remembrance, it's now it's own culture, each nomadic group having it's own monument: Some are spires, some are mounds, some are corkboards of photos. But they all share the same goal: to remember. Each Scavenger I talked to doing this had their own rituals, but the most common was to wake up, immediately go to pray at the monument, then go about your day having acknowledged those who died before you, guaranteeing you one more.

The towns themselves are built in the shadows of the spaceships; You wake up to see the man-made mountain over you, you spend your day in it, and then you go to sleep with it protecting you from the sunset's microwave of heat. For some Scavengers, the awe of these skeletons never leaves them. For others, they see them as rib-cages to pick apart, like a dead fox on the road.

How they persevere is a common question, with a straightforward-enough answer: They take apart the insides of the ship, not the protective hull. What that results in is a cool void of air that rarely gets warm - spaceship hulls are designed against heat exchange - so that, combined with the vastness of their hulls, makes a cave-system effect of cool air. The danger then comes from the hull in a different form: the exposed ribcage of metal, spikes jutting out in any number of ways. In some areas, you can smell the corpses without ever being able to see where they are.

"They don't ask because they already know the serial numbers for everything we give them"

The struggle to get the materials is constant, and the pay doesn't match the cost. It's an open (but well hushed) secret about who buys the metals, the silicon, the cabling, & anything else ripped out. Of course, you don't bite the hand that feeds you, and doubly so if that hand is a dominant force in the space-industry, and triply so if they negotiate contracts with PMCs on a regular basis.

At the end of the month (and sometimes more frequent) a convoy of trucks appears in the distance, always near the end of the day, always when it's cool but still light out, and always in a strict formation: a jeep, an APC, some trucks, then another jeep.

Compared to the nomads, these dusty, weathered machines are pristine - almost angelic in their cleanliness. Each one has their identification thoroughly scrubbed away. The drivers and officials are all non-descript in their own ways too.

When they arrive, the guards are the first to exit, and casually form a bubble. A few extra people get out soon after, clipboards in hand, some instruments to check the metals with.

The scavengers barter, glares are exchanged, some shouting, but the money always changes hands.

No matter what, no matter how much is being swapped, it takes one hour for the exchange.

After the deal is done, the officials get in first, the guards get in last. And as the sun sets, the shiny convoy rolls away.

As it gets dark, you see their lights finally clip past the horizon - the cover of darkness ready for when they get back to the city.

"May the shell cover you"

As my time ended with the nomadic tribe of shipbreakers, I remember a clear change in how I thought of them: I am loathe to admit I started this series almost purely as a study, as a document to note them in a journal for others to remark on. After breaking my back, sweating beyond my limit, I should state clearly that they deserve a respect we don't often give them from our cities. They may appear to be the bottom of the ladder, but they respect each other like they're at the top of it; Because if they fall, they'll be falling to the bottom of a very large drop, speckled in sharp metal. 

By Nathan A. Patton

(First published Nov 2091)

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