Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Time - 2015 hours
Year - 889 AF (After Fracture)
“What do ya, stranger?”
Stranger. He wasn’t a stranger in this place. Far from it. That was precisely the point.
Solomon paused to wonder whether that was to his benefit or not. The company he kept these days was far from respectable, even by outland standards. But that was the point as well.
Beggars can’t be choosers, he mused, a smirk twitching at his lips.
By rights, he was more than a rung below that. Damn near the bottom of the barrel by last count.
“You gunna stand there wi’ yer thumb up yer butt, er answer the question, sally?” The ragged voice coming from the exhausted looking vox-com didn’t strain an ounce to hide its displeasure.
Solomon shifted the pack on his shoulder - it could wait. This little piece o’ heaven wasn’t the bustling metro it used to be, and judging by the vacant entryway in which he stood, there was no rush. Besides, he hated being called sally.
An acrid breeze gusted down the narrow, rubble-strewn alley, until it found the lone wanderer. Even through the many layers of his neck sleeve, head stocking, and high buttoned collar, Solomon could feel its stinking alkali kiss. It invaded his nostrils and he winced against the burn.
Solomon gave a thought to the porter impatiently waiting, somewhere inside the hunkered remains of the low-rise hulk before him. The building had likely been a part of a larger vibrant mercantile district, but it had long since collapsed into a heap of jagged metal and broken masonry. Like everything else in the world, it had gone to piss.
At some point in the long ago, the world his ancestors had labored to create came apart at the seams. Legends of the fall and how it had come to pass abounded. Some spoke of demons rising from great fissures in the ground; others of the wrath of gods punishing the hubris of man. To Solomon it didn’t matter how the apocalypse had come. The fact was that it had, and now he was destined to scurry over the stinking remains with the rest.
Why? Why keep scurrying? Why keep going?
Solomon wasn’t one for musing, but he had had more than his fill of that lately. The question of ‘why’ had never really occurred to him before. Why was because you could, and you must. Why was the living breath in his lungs and the rhythmic thud in his chest. Why was the clan...
“Seven shades o’ shat. Ar yer ars busted –“
Solomon tilted his gaze to look squarely into the dark eye of the optix where it watched from a rusted hole in the broken façade. The why for him had changed of late.
“Drink, grog, an’ p’raps somethin’ warm ta grab holda.”
There was a moment of silence, possibly stunned silence – which would be all the better. It lingered long enough that Solomon wondered if the porter had forgotten his original question. Forgetting was an enviable luxury, and had something to do with why he came to this place.
“Aye, aye. Grog is the onnun thing tha gits better wi’ age, but we got plenty o’ that an t'other.”
The porter drew out the word ‘that,’ seemed to relish it even, and Solomon suspected he knew. Gods damn him if he did, the world was filled with ghosts, what was the harm in a few more? Or a drink?
No sooner had the porter said his piece and a deep rumbling sounded from within the battered innards of the junk heap before him. It rose in a cacophony of clicks, clacks, and a disgusting grinding. Solomon didn’t flinch. The world was limping on; it weren’t pretty, but then neither was he. Maybe passing fair once, but not since –
A sharp metal clank told him to step forward, and he did so without hesitation, starting his descent. He took the four oily steps in the time it took the massive bulk of the portal to swing wide, granting him access to what appeared little more than a hole in the ground. He ducked as he stepped over the curved metal frame the porthole had vacated, not wasting time on second glances. No sooner had he put both boots firmly inside than the immense weight of the portal thundered shut behind him. Solomon didn’t so much as flinch, instead he eyed the room.
Solomon waited for the few inquisitive heads to turn back to their drinks before he allowed himself to remove his tinted sun shades. When he pulled them away from his soot-stained features, he exposed two white moons of clean flesh and a pair of gleaming brown eyes.
Exposed, they narrowed to slits against the haze of smoke permeating the room. He felt the brittle desire to screw up his nose and rub his eyes, but he wouldn’t allow himself the indulgence. Weakness, perceived or no, would bring attention, and attention could get you killed. For sport or gain, it amounted to the same. There wasn’t any room left for weakness in the world.
He hated smoke, sure, but not as much as he hated waste dust, so he would make do.
And beggars can’t be choosers, he thought. I used to be much more, I was one amongst many.
Solomon cut himself off. What was done was done, the world limped on, and so he would.
That question again.
You’ve lost all you’ve ever had. The only thing that matters. You’re less than a beggar, and now you scurry over the same remains as these -
Villains. Solomon surveyed the twilight expanse of the room. Behind him the entry and its enormous riveted metal portal, ahead a flight of scuffed metal stairs. They made a saw-tooth lane in the stepped balconies which descended into a depression, not unlike an amphitheater. At its heart, instead of a stage was a gas-lit bar, where the establishment served what grog they conjured from gods knew where. Only the most dangerous or imprudent inhabited the high seats ringing the barkeep. It wasn’t uncommon for a vagabond to lose themselves in drink and run off at the mouth, and when the real hardcases had heard enough, their last drink would be of their own blood.
As he scanned the bar, Solomon saw just the types of scum to slide a piece of steel between your ribs without naught or nary. They were huddled about the curved metal awning of the bar-top like carrion crows, clad in an assortment of armor cobbled together with spikes, leather, and trophy fetishes. They perched on stools and hunched over the bar on sullen elbows, hair dyed in garish reds, greens, and blue, skin brindled with tattoos, and studded with thick metal and bone piercings.
Solomon's eyes widened when they reached the figure slouched at the end of the bar. It had the appearance of a massive lizard, its flesh inked with vermillion and turine, eyes injected with tartan to appear a sickly shade of yellow. As Solomon watched, a forked tongue flicked from between split lips in the most perfect imitation of a snake. A chill raced his spine. What he saw was a man, or it had been.
No sooner had he noticed the lizard-thing than a clamor from the bar took his attention. A red-faced outlander was raising hell, brandishing a bottle like a plas-blaster. He was being humored by his compatriots for the moment, but for how that would hold, Solomon wouldn't wager his last scrip. It could only take the space of a heartbeat for a pistol to be pulled and for the world to get a little less crowded.
Solomon marked the drunk and another wolf of a man who sat alone, oddly keeping to himself, before turning his attention to the rest of the room.
The remainder of the seats were scattered amongst low tables on the wide steps ringing the depression at the center of the room. A few annexes budded off into secluded corners, where discreet rendezvous could be made. Half a dozen girls wearing garb not fit to fend off a stiff breeze ambled amongst the tables, sometimes offering the contents of their serving trays, sometimes simply offering themselves.
Other than an outlander who was preoccupied by a vigorous serving girl in his lap and a game of trumps being played by five sullen characters, there were no other persons of note worth marking. True, a game of cards could go sour as quickly as the pickle back at the bar, so Solomon made sure to find a seat with a clear vantage over both. He shifted his pack and made his way to the rear of the where he spied a likely spot.
No sooner had he settled himself onto the cushions of his seat than a supple girl, with only a modest amount of pox clustered about her painted lips, greeted him. She smiled and revealed more gaps than teeth in her wicked grin.
“What’ll it do ya stranger?”
“A bit o’ grog, and whatever ye have 'ere to fill a belly.”
“What’s your price?” Her hideous grin widened a tad more, exposing some truly horrific gums. “Or would’ee like to feed another ap’tite?”
Her eyes told him should could sate any hunger he might have, so did the welling glistening at the corner of her mouth. Solomon felt a stirring and a rush of heat, and was horrified. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, it had been long since he had known the touch of a woman - his wife - but he was horrified nonetheless.
For a moment he lost himself, nearly slamming the scrip he scrounged from the depths of his pocket onto the table. The shock in the gilly’s eyes was proof enough.
“I’ll have whatever tack this’ll buy me,” he said in a cool tone.
Four scrip gleamed on the table, enough to buy the butcher’s best. The gilly eyed his coin greedily and her predator’s grin returned sevenfold. She put her hand on his shoulder and leaned in seductively, tantalizingly close, as she scooped up the offered coin.
“You can ave what’er ee’d like,” she said, her tongue caressing the solitary tooth left in the top of her mouth.
“Jus food and grog, if it do ya,” he said, attempting a smile of his own.
She dropped him a wink before drawing away and Solomon saw the nubbin of what looked to be a tail, wagging in-time with her sauntering hips. He leaned back into the bench, closing his eyes and allowing himself an exhausted sigh.
How far he had come. How far. How far.
Solomon was tired. More tired than he had known a man could be. He knew that no amount of companionship, food, or grog would bring him relief either. His was a weariness of the soul.
He unbuttoned the high collar of his coat down to his chest, and pulled away his head stocking. Thick matted tangles of sweaty hair showered down his shoulders, and he ran his hands back over his head, culling them into a neat tail. Freed at last, the mottled flesh of his neck and cheeks flushed a deep crimson seeming to inhale the dingy air. It had seemed like ages and his skin had healed as much as it would, but it was still raw. Never again would he wear the same flesh he had come screaming into the world with. Like everything else it was ruin, but it limped on.
“Sneakin’ up on a man wi’ his eyes closed is as good a’way as any ta’ get yers closed fer good.”
Though the bearer had tried to conceal his approach, Solomon had heard his footfalls.
“Yar, but sneakin’ up on a man wit’ his eyes closed is the best way to slit his throat.”
At the sound of the bearer’s voice, Solomon cocked one eye open in genuine surprise.
“Me name’s Helena, pleased I reckon.”
This was a true surprise. Solomon hadn’t noted the presence of a woman in the room when he had entered, other than the tavern girls – they were hard to miss.
He looked this one up and down – she wore a light jumpsuit, heavy boots, and a brace of utility belts. Not a bit about her screamed murderer, but Solomon had been surprised once already. Maybe there was more to this one than met the eye, of that he felt sure.
“Solomon. Go on an’ have’ee a seat,” he said, motioning to the chair across from him, “but keep both yer hands where I can see ‘em.”