Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
30 by 20 jotside
Time - 1407 hours
Year - 889 AF (After Fracture)
The sun had gone past its peak over two hours ago, and on its synthside journey, was no less potent for it. Solomon felt the sweat beading on his brow and resisted the urge to arm it away. He was of the waste-folk; the sun and heat were brother and sister to him, to show an ounce of weakness in the presence of a stranger simply wouldn’t do.
He might have gotten away with it too. They had taken turns at the lead of their duo, one on point, the other guarding the rear. From the outset she seemed to understand his wariness to give her his back, and so she had offered to take the front first. Solomon respected that.
Not one without some wits, he thought, watching her stride confidently forward.
She still wore the same combat boots, utility belts, and light jumper she had a week before, but she had since gained a kitbag which was slung high on her back, a two-finger blade strapped to her left hip, and a holstered energy cell-shot lashed to her right. Though it was wrapped in linen, the unmistakable snout of a long carbine poked its muzzle from the top of her pack, wagging in-time to her step.
Not unprepared either.
He let himself smirk. Who wasn’t these days, that still packed a beating heart?
If they weren't, then they wouldn't be worrying for long.
And that was the truth.
Solomon watched as she wove her way through the scrub bushes that lined their passage, dodging briar and bramble with subtle ease. A few days of following in her stride, and he had grown accustomed to its measure - steady and confident. He saw it for what it was and was troubled. Prepared was one thing, but those were the footsteps of a–
A change in her course directed his attention up ahead to where an outcropping of high stones set a needle of shadow against the hardpan. Helena steered their course towards it without a word, but her message was clear - let’s stop here.
Solomon wouldn’t have kept the grin from creeping across his face even if he could. He had been doing that quite a bit more lately. It had been a good long while since he knew the comfort of company and its simple pleasures.
Enjoy it while ye can, he thought.
No, don't. It won't last. And when it comes to an end, what it gave it will take away again, prob'ly more. You'd konw that better'n most. Wouldn't you?
Solomon did, that was the truth. He might have mistaken the voice that spoke in his head for a ghost, but this one didn’t sound like any of his kith or kin. This voice was that of the wary and the wounded. It stank of defeat.
“Sod it, yer bugger,” he mumbled.
Helena paused a mere fraction in her step at the sound, noting what he thought to be beyond her hearing. Solomon marked it, and his respect for the woman deepened.
Treachery needn't walk behind. It can stalk jus' as well right in front o' yer face.
“Gods and demons quiet yer mouth!”
Helena stopped in her tracks on a slight incline, regarding him with an expression on the south side of sour. The midday sun cast brilliance against her upturned features and shone in the stray strands of auburn which escaped from the confines of her braided bobby-knot and played about her head. Solomon didn’t fail to notice that her holster had become unbuttoned as of late, and that the butt of her palm rested lightly on her cell shooter’s pommel.
They stood and regarded one another in silence, well past the point of pleasantness, before she finally broke the spell.
“Gods, demons, or ghosts?”
Solomon eyed her and considered the question.
“P’raps a bit o’ each.”
“I reckon there be plenty these days,” she said with a nod, relaxing. “’Specially t’ latter.”
“Aye, aye.” He said, lowering his gaze and nodding, “that’s the truth of it.”
She regarded him one last time before turning and continuing her journey to the waiting shade of the outcropping. Solomon watched her go, before reaching up to grab hold of the tinted sockets covering his eyes. He lifted the sunshades up and away to rest beneath the folds of his hood.
Gods, it was hot.
He armed away the sweat beaded on his brow, popped the sunshades back into place, and shifted the pack resting on his shoulder. Solomon took one glance behind him and then followed in the tracks that Helena had left.
The room was blanketed by the haze of rolled smokes, cigs, and what was supposed to pass for incense. It was dim besides, and colored lights played off the miasma to create the atmosphere of a dank dream. He looked the woman, who sat in front of him, up and down – she wore a light jumpsuit, heavy boots, and a brace of utility belts. Not a bit about her screamed murderer, but tonight Solomon had already been surprised once; and there was always more than met the eye.
He didn’t extend a hand of greeting, but nodded with his head at the seat across the table.
“Solomon. Go on an’ have’ee a seat, but keep both yer hands where I can see ‘em.”
She did, raising them in a half-hearted mockery of surrender and sat, regarding him rather coolly. Solomon liked that. This one wasn’t much of a talker, and what was talk good for? Getting your throat cut.
An' fillin' t' empty spaces.
That too, sure. The silence could get lonely. Would get lonely, hence his present situation. And by gods he hated the smoke.
“Ye be Solomon.” Not a question, far from it. “Solomon t’pariah, outcast from yer people, the last of yer tribe.”
First she had avoided his attention until she was close enough to send him to a very shallow grave, and now she was in the process of recounting his intimate history - unknown to any living soul this side of the Fracture. It was taking an incredible amount of self-control to keep from fidgeting, much less hide the strain threatening his features. He felt an insane urge to unholster his sidearm and blow the witch back to the seven-hells from which she probably came.
“I don’t know who told ye all that,” he said leaning in on his elbows, hawkish. “But’ee will want to keep tha’ close to yer chest as it matters not.”
The woman – Helena – kept regarding him with the same cool gaze.
“It does. Ye have a reputation as a man o’ skill and it precedes ye. Som’thin bout doin’ odd jobs.”
A fox-grin slowly spread itself across her features revealing a set of incredible teeth. Solomon had never seen a set of teeth so white or straight, not in the head of an adult. These looked like they had sprung fresh from her gums with nary an ounce of tarnish nor wear.
Helena held her grin, and Solomon was thankful for it. She was a handsome woman with strong cheekbones, intelligent blue eyes, and a charm that couldn’t be denied. He thought about the poxy women circulating through the tavern in which they sat, their tallow features and sad trumpish attire. This woman shared as little with them as a wolf does a rat. She held firm control of her destiny and was unmarred, if not untouched, by the hardships that permeated outland life. It was all written in the look of her.
Solomon was well-versed in the dangers and pitfalls that an outland tavern could muster. Truly they were laughable. An experienced tracker, Solomon had no difficulty in avoiding the hooligans at the bar or the pick-pocket predations of the serving wenches. This woman had something the others did not, however, and in spades. She had guile.
Solomon leaned back in his seat, interested at least in this newest development and the diversion it offered.
“Yar, p’raps it does and p’raps I do. So what be it to you?”
Her smiled widened, and Solomon felt the corner of his mouth twitch.
“I have need of a man of skill. Tell me, have you heard of the Dread Black Corps?”
Now it was her leaning forward, genuine concern creasing her brow.
“Can’t say that I ‘ave,” he said with a shrug.
He had, in fact, but it was best to hold his cards close for now, so he played bum.
The dispirited look that crossed Helena’s face almost made him wish he hadn’t, so he offered, “judgin’ by the name they’re a band o’ mercs.”
A light crossed Helena’s eyes. “Yes, one of t’ most infamous corps near the Fracture. Tis said they’re the deadliest guns for hire. Dead shots all.”
“Then a likely crew to stay wide of,” Solomon spoke honestly.
“Nay, nay, but I would if I could.”
Helena slumped in her seat and her pitiful stare became vacant. She remained motionless, and when Solomon felt he needed to give her shoulder a shake, she seemed to come back. Slow at first, but with rising fervor.
“You must help me. They have my father, a great man! He’s one of means, and he’ll reward ye well!”
“Shush. Hush now, girl.” Solomon had retreated into his seat and peeked around nervously, this sort of attention simply wouldn’t do. He extended his hand, beseeching her to quiet.
“Talk ‘bout riches, and rewards is likely to get yer pockets turn’d out at the wrong end of a shooter, and then the rescue for yer father would be all the worse for the wear.”
Helena nodded and composed herself.
“I know I can’t take ‘em head-on, only one of the high houses of t’ Jotune could manage sumthin’ as grand as that.”
She leaned in further and whispered, “We sneak in.”
Guile indeed. Solomon knew she had him, that he would take on her mission, but for one thing.
“I have a price.”
Helena smiled, “I did say my father was a man of means.