There was a lot outside of Bartertown proper where everyone dumped their vehicles. Well, not everyone - but certainly those who had one and couldn’t stash theirs within the walls. A small fraction of them had guards on them, but they were only concerned with their own. That was all their pay was worth. No guarantee someone would be grateful for having their vehicle saved and reward them for their efforts.
The rest of the lot was decidedly free game if you could manage to evade Bartertown’s own patrol. Parts were nicked off cars and buggies and bikes, both small and large, anything worth anything to someone in Bartertown that would pay for it. Sometimes it was mirrors, tire plates, glass from the headlights. Sometimes it was spark plugs, belts, a fistful of wires, something that would leave the vehicle broken and the owner shit out of luck. If they couldn’t fix it, they’d have to sell it. On occasion, there’d be a very happy vendor who managed to get the vehicle that was missing the very part he got traded ten minutes ago.
Only the bravest of the thieves - or perhaps just the most foolhardy - go for the vehicle itself. It requires skill, timing, and knowledge of their target’s mechanics to pull it off. Should you fail, you better be quick on your feet and disappear into the town or start running. Bartertown’s always looking for food for the maggot farms, and trying to steal a vehicle gives them a good reason to look your way.
On rare occasion, when the planets have aligned and the scales of karma tip in your favor, the perfect opportunity arises. There will be a moment, no matter how short it may be, when it would be stupid not to go for it. If you don’t deserve the reward, then surely the victim of the circumstances deserves the punishment. Very few people would let that opportunity pass by.
Royce certainly wouldn’t.
Bartertown wasn’t doing any good for him. There was no work to be done - or at least any that he was qualified for. Of course, he could do his best to offer work as a mercenary, as an extra body, but he knew he’d be Buzzard food before the week was out. The brothel was an option of last resort, but he would be more of a hole than what he’d prefer.
Begging didn’t work. Then again, it hardly worked for anyone. Definitely didn’t work if you weren’t young or old, weren’t handicapped, weren’t practicing your death rattle. Royce was miraculously full-life and able-bodied, and much of his clothing nearly had as many holes as there were intended to be. Instead of the upper class taking pity and helping him when he was a better investment than the others, they only wondered why he wasn’t one of them, and kept going on. They closed ranks. It was frustrating, of course, but there was no guarantee that Royce wouldn’t do the same thing. Share less, keep more for yourself.
Thievery became a way of life for him, and it had to quickly become an efficient practice. The other Bartertown rats were just as dangerous as the guards, if not more, because they would be fighting for access to the same supply. More thieves meant more guards and less supplies for them to get a hold of. Royce did better than most, despite their numbers; he was competing with much of the same people who found their success begging. Physically, he out-performed many of them, and his clothes and looks managed to let him pass off as someone better than he was. It worked for now, but he knew it wouldn’t work forever.
Today was a lot day. The Citadel had made their delivery yesterday, right on schedule. Like clockwork, everyone from all around came to Bartertown to get their own, and it was from the visitors that thieves made their biggest buck. Some of them didn’t know the protocol and thought there was safety in the number of vehicles piled up outside. Surely theirs wouldn’t be touched with so many other choices! That assumption was very wrong. It was just more vehicles to mill around and snatch stuff off of and out of, and every single one would get a visit. Royce’s satchel was empty save for the little food and canteen of water he had, and with any hope, it would be full to the brim at the end of the day.
He was walking through the poorly organized lines of vehicles when he saw it - a man moved to pocket his keys, but they fell instead and landed in the sand. The man couldn’t have heard it, otherwise he wouldn’t have kept walking. Royce didn’t give himself any time to wonder if anyone else heard it or saw it, and walked right behind him to scoop up the keys. He took a fistful of sand around them to muffle the sound and waited until the man had disappeared through the shanty to sift them out.
He knew what his parents would do. They’d go right after him - an elbow for attention or something, a whisper in their ear - and hope that he would offer something as a reward, a thanks. That’s only provided he didn’t think that they lifted the keys off of him in the first place. If they get something, they’re gracious. If they get nothing, they still hold their heads high and act as though the karma earned was good enough.
It wouldn’t be for Royce; he thought karma was a myth. “Getting in the good graces of people that are above you can get you further than you think,” he could hear his mother say, but he didn’t believe it at all. He couldn’t trust it anymore. For all the good they’ve done, look where it got his parents. They were killed some hundreds of days ago by some shitwaste who had everything but wanted more; only bones would be left by now, but he’s sure someone would have taken them for the marrow.
Royce pushed memories of them out of his mind for now, not needing to feel guilty at all about his decision. He didn’t need them to question his choice to walk calmly over to the motorcycle that belonged to the man and straddle it as though he owned it. It was an out. If not an out, it was a means to something better, even if it was just coming back in a few days and trying to pawn it off. This was his big break, and he was not about to let it pass him by.
No one was watching. When he put the key in and turned the engine over, not one head turned. Perfect. He took care to back out of the spot, taking his time before aligning with a straight path out of the lot and into the waste. A quick look over his shoulder comforted him with the knowledge that no one was coming for him. Satisfied, he kicked the bike into gear and got the fuck out of there.
No one was yelling at him. No vehicles started behind him, no one was chasing him, but he shook all the same as though someone was. It felt like the heist of a century. It was the luckiest thing he had ever done, get this bike. Vehicles were worth their weight in food and water, and he knew that. Maybe the bike’s previous owner kept something around to fend people off, and hopefully there was still more than that.
Royce only stopped when he was a couple of hours south of Bartertown, camped out in a crack in the side of a ridge. The bike carried meager supplies, but he expected it. Some cloth, a spyglass, a couple of pressed meal bars, and a water bladder that was full of something that was definitely not water. Altogether, it was hardly enough to stay away for more than a couple of days, but it’s enough to let him stay posted out here.
There’s little to do in the shade of the rock face besides fantasize about the bounty the bike could earn him and at the same time worry about the man catching him red-handed. Royce has no doubt the man would have walked if he could afford it. Without the bike, he has to be stranded and not too pleased about it. He can only hope that the man gets caught up in the madness of Bartertown and loses his way. If he doesn’t, that bike is going to need find a very good place to hide before he can sell it.
What would he get? Maybe forty days worth of rations and water from the foodman, though he’d need to get it day by day - no way he was going to take the lump sum into his own little corner. That’s asking to get stabbed in the middle of the night. Maybe he shouldn’t be so hasty to trade it away. He could get work as a courier. Patrolman. Something to stretch out the vehicle’s worth. There was no easy choice in his mind, but he had a while to mull it over, and there was not much else to do but rest.
In the morning, Royce decided to choose on the way back. It was useless to worry over how each possibility could play out and try to act his way through them. Whatever would happen would happen, and he’d need to react on the fly. The worst case, he could only hope, was that it was back to the usual. The best case would be not having to worry about how he’d get his next meal.
In the time he had between being compelled to sleep and rummaging again through what he knew he had, he camped on top of the ridge and looked out over the wastes with his spyglass. It was entirely possible to spot wreckage from a road skirmish, and if he was lucky enough, he’d be the first to snag anything worthwhile. Mirrors, guzz, contraband that he knew someone would pay a fine price for.
It was in a circle that he spun - North, West, South, East - or at least he hoped he was keeping track of the directions. Royce wasn’t sure if he liked it or hated it. The chance of seeing something out there kept him going, but the frustration of finding nothing came at him from the other side. If nothing came, it was a waste of time and a waste of sweat. Sitting in the shade that the ridge provided him would be wise, but the what if was too strong. If there was anything to take, he wanted it.
At some point, surely in the afternoon, Royce became fixated on a shimmer on the horizon to the North-west. The spyglass wasn’t near big enough to reveal any more than the rolling waves of heat in the distance. Whatever it was had been the most interesting thing he’d seen, though it wasn’t saying a lot. What could it be? A car? Oil spill? Water? Now he was just letting the heat get to his head.
Still, he felt compelled to watch. It was another what if? that he couldn’t tear away from. His focus was so tight, in fact, that the faint rumbling that grew in his ears went unnoticed for too many minutes before it finally caught his attention and made him turn.
The sight to the South-east was unmistakable, even without the spyglass. A giant plume of dust rose behind them. Bikes, cars, and a tow truck, with pale men piled on everywhere they could be - about a mile out. It was a Citadel warband, and it was coming right for him.
In the moment before Royce began to move, he wondered if his parents would think he deserved it.