Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
5 by none - on the divide
The sun crested the seam of the horizon and spilled its orange glow across the retreating velvet night sky. Color seeped back into the landscape, and in shades, the twilight expanse lightened and regained a semblance of its meager life. In the gloom it had remained hidden, but with the growing light what emerged from the darkness took Solomon’s breath away.
The Fracture was no less spectacular now than when he laid eyes on it for the first time as a lad. The pitch black carcass stretched out before him like a colossal beast slumbering on the land. And at the sight, Solomon’s breath caught instinctively in his throat.
“Takes m’breath too.”
Helena sidled up next to him, so close that he could smell the scent of wild desert flowers that would forever make him think of her. He felt his blood rise in excitement to have her so close again.
“Aye, so it does,” he said, low and reverent.
Two days ago they had taken refuge under a rock spire for shade and shelter. Helena had something on her mind and diverted their course towards it to talk it over. ‘We’re drawing near’r to t’ Fracture,” she had said, ‘we’d best travel when few’r eyes could be laid upon us.’ It hadn’t taken much convincing before Solomon agreed wholeheartedly. He’d grown fond of the woman who had become his companion, and his respect for her deepened with each passing day. Besides, the plan to travel at night and under the cover of darkness was a solid one.
Since then, their way had been lit only by the scant light of the two brothers each night; twin moons that shone only slightly brighter than the surrounding stars. In the day, they had bunked in tight ravines or hideaways dug from the hardpan. On one such occasion, only enough space was afforded in the dugout to lay side-by-side, like a pair of crib mates. He had caught hints of it before, but in the tight confines, Helena’s scent filled the space, and for the first time in what seemed an eternity Solomon’s sleep was deep and dreamless.
“Let’s travel on before we hunker down on the synth side,” she said. “Those that dwell ‘ere haven’t need eyes to see us, but it shan’t hurt.”
Solomon knew precisely what she meant. The Synthien machine race used any manner of devices to achieve what humans called sight. Most of that was beyond his ken, but Solomon didn’t doubt that such creatures that had circuits for brains and gears for guts could see in the dead of night, with or without the help of the two brothers.
He grunted in the affirmative and they headed off down a scree slope that brought them ever closer to the open wound that laid bare the innards of the land. They were still dozens of kilometers away from where the chasm spanned from one corner of the world to the other, though they could see it on the horizon, a great blackness that appeared as much an ocean as Solomon would ever know.
Oblong in shape, the rift gradually tapered at its two ends, by and down, from an expanse as wide as the world, to canyons a man might think he could shout across, until finally staggering into the hardpan as little more than fissures one might leap across. He had never done it, but the thought of standing with one leg straddling jotside and the other synthside had always held an unusual appeal. He might never get the opportunity again to stand over something so great; like a mammy of a child who one day becomes a great man. Not everyone could say they paddled a king’s arse.
Solomon shook away the thought, it was just a crack after all.
With a shrug, he hiked his pack higher on his shoulders and followed Helena. The dawn was lightening the sky and more of the world was coming into relief, and the Fracture was no less spectacular for it. As shadows emerged from the darkness and painted depth across the land, what appeared a gigantic puddle of darkness resolved into the unmistakeable shape of a maw.
Where the land had torn away from itself or fallen into the abyss, what was left were the ragged teeth of titan, some as large as a city, others as small as hut dwellings, lining the chasm. They protruded and hung over the sheer drop, lopsided, threatening to fall in and disappear into the depths forever.
And what lay beyond? Solomon thought that even at midday it would be impossible to see the bottom of the Fracture which must lay leagues under the surface of Sularia; perhaps at the very heart of the planet itself. A chill ran his spine, thinking what must lay below in darkness; horrors grown gargantuan and ancient in the darkness.
What’er it be, may it stay there, he thought, forever.
Besides, they had more pressing concerns. The machines that made their home yonder were those with no affection for men of any stripe, and would not look kindly on any human interloper in their lands. And then there was Helena’s father, ‘a man o’ means,’ as she had described him. Solomon took that the mean he was wealthy, but now he had come to think of it, he wasn’t quite sure. In fact, what did he truly know about him, or her for that matter? Not much more than the bare facts, and that thought set as easy as a punch to the gut.
Solomon looked at Helena again, watching her stride confidently forward.
Who ar’ ye really? He thought.
A flash came back to him from two days ago, when he saw the same confidence in her step. Wary she was, to be sure, but in all the right ways. This was no heiress to a waste fortune, couldn’t be.
No one without a bit of wariness in their step survives for long.
True. But that wasn’t the half of it. He had thrown in his truck with her when she had come calling, but why? Boredom? Loneliness? Lust?
He held all of those things, and each had likely played its part in sending him on this little suicide mission. She had admitted it herself, they were going to infiltrate the stronghold of the Dread Black Corps to rescue her father.
Gods and ancestors, that would be no small task. And what for compensation if his hide was still intact and should they escape?
A man o’ means. What means?
“Hey ther’, whoa,” Solomon called out.
Helena paused all too quickly, and turned to regard him with a look that was nothing less than dissatisfied; and sure enough, her holster was unbuttoned. And wasn’t her right hand straying just far enough out of sight for a concealed quick draw on her shooter?
His nerves tingled and he felt another bead of cold sweat dribble down his back. Mara help him, he might have stepped in it this time.
“Yar?” She didn’t so much as feign to keep the contempt from her voice.
“What’s yer plan? Thar’s a merc base somwher’ up ahead. What’s yer plan to get in?”
She stared at him evenly, not moving a muscle. The jotside wind tugged at her cloak and betrayed the hand waiting where it hung at her side. The wind still held onto a bit of the lingering winter’s chill, but Helena didn’t seem to notice.
“Ye are,” she finally spoke in a low tone.
Maybe he was, and maybe she was speaking the truth. Maybe she was as mixed up in this whole thing as much as he was now, adrift without compass or map. Maybe her plan was as simple as sneaking up and letting him take care of the rest. She had mentioned his reputation as a tracker, and his ability to get into and out of a tight places in their first meeting. And maybe her wealthy daddy even had head enough on his shoulders to teach his daughter how to handle herself and a shooter. Those were all within the realm of possibility. Maybe he was jumping at ghosts.
“Aye, ye’ve said as much. But what if I can’t get us in? What if t’ road ends at t’ walls of th’ mercs’ stronghold?”
Her eyebrow raised a fraction, and he felt her regarding him as if for the first time; and then she seemed to make up her mind.
“There’s always a’way in.”
There always was. But a way out could prove much more difficult, perhaps impossible. The Dread Black Corps was one of the most feared and infamous bands of guns for hire. ‘Deadshots all,’ Helena had said, but what Solomon cared about wasn’t their reputation with a gun.
The Black Death, as they were known, for they spared no one and no means to get what they desired. Were you to come across a Dread Corpsman, he was as likely to put you in the ground to have your boots as he was likely to kill you to achieve his mission. Only those with a death wish kept their company; and that was the stronghold they were going to be walking into, and he was the one to get them in.
Maybe she was that desperate, and all the rest of her guard and bluster.
“Aye, ther’ is.”
Her face softened and Solomon couldn’t help but love her for it. She was a truly beautiful woman, and he had been alone for far too long. At that moment he knew he would follow her on her fool’s errand to certain death or no. This was his second life after all, and he was running out of reasons to live.
She could be one, couldn’t she?
His thoughts turned to fire, and screaming, and pain – when he heard the unmistakable thump pop of a distant explosion. It reached them seconds before the ground rumbled, from the by-end of the Fracture’s lip, not two klicks from their current position. He could see a plume of fire rising from what must have been a synth outpost and brilliant purple lances of light streaked up into the sky as smaller explosions rippled across the landscape.
His heart stopped when he saw the trail of flames tracing across the sky. It had been years since he had seen such a sight, and one he never hoped to lay eyes on again. They looked like blazing angels’ wings, as beautiful as they were terrible and when he had first seen them, he had not known what they truly were or what they heralded.
That was his error and it had been a fatal one. He and his clan had stared in awe at the blue fire as it rained down upon their village to consume earth and stone, brick and bone, and left nothing but charred ruin in its wake. In had only taken the space of minutes to lose his wife, his children - his entire clan. Over a hundred family and life-long friends perished, first in a wave of terror, and then in an inferno that shook the ground beneath their feet. To this day he still didn’t know how he had been the only one to survive that fateful day. Everything and everyone he had ever known taken from him before the end of the morning meal, and he had staggered from the smoldering ruins to see the nightmare vista his village had become. What little remained was a brittle blackened parody of its former self. And so was he, for he died that day too. Sure his wounds healed to scars, but what emerged from the wreckage was nothing more than a bad omen, a cursed thing, an outcast, a pariah, doomed to wander alone with neither the comforts of kith nor kin. For he carried with him the mark of death; the number of loneliness, and that number was one. It was tattooed on his soul, and it would remain with him forever. His body should have perished that day with his soul, but it did not, and so he was cursed.
Whether she why or not, it was Helena who shook the senses back into his terror filled eyes. She pulled him away from the scene unfolding and they scrambled for what little cover they could find.
The distant angel wings stopped and hovered in place, a blue glow building beneath them. The glow erupted into a hail of cerulean fire that rained down to the ground below in a deadly parody of falling stars. Purple light lanced upwards as the fire continued to fall, and a few lucky bolts even found home, striking the body that lay at the heart of those brilliant wings, incinerating their human shapes, and exploding out in a flicker of dazzling sparks and tongues of flame.
But it was too late for the defenders on the ground, regardless where each blue comet struck, hitting building or the bare ground, each bloomed into an inferno. A few frantic lances spent wildly into the air as the flames spread, either from ruined targeting systems or simply panic; and as he watched the inferno build, Solomon knew what must come next.
Each inferno ran together, congealing into a massive ball for what could only have been a fraction of a second. Solomon’s eyes held the spectacle in sick wonder, and he willed it to stay, to be contained, for what seemed a lifetime. This wouldn’t be the same fate that had come to his people, and if it didn’t, then maybe his family was still alive, instead of turned to ash. Yes, they were safe and sound at home, the blue fire had never come. It had never brought ruin, it had never taken his life, his world from him. His eyes strained and he could see the tension building within, pushing against an unseen membrane like a bubble in water. The pressure was unbearable, but he willed to it to stay, prayed for it. But then the spell broke, and time reasserted itself. And so hell was unleashed by the attackers.
Under the incredible temperatures the inferno created at its heart, metal melted and techcrete disintegrated, and the pressure building at its center escaped its bonds and blasted out in an incredible shockwave.
Solomon threw himself on top of Helena, and counted a two count before the blast rumbled past. It lifted him like a doll, and he clenched all the harder to hang onto her and the hardpan beneath. Just as he felt he might be taken by the wave, it passed and he settled back onto the ground. He peeked his head up and quickly brought it back down as debris showered from the sky.
Solomon’s hide was peppered with the sting of falling pebbles and motes of techcrete, but as he looked into Helena’s grateful eyes he couldn’t feel a thing.
“Let’s get outta ‘ere,” he said, and she agreed with a quick nod even as chunks of the base continued to fall from the sky.
No sooner had they risen from the dust than a squadron of armor clad women screamed overhead, their long hair flowing ethereally in the blue glow of their haunting energy wings. They ducked for cover, but when two of the women peeled off from the group, Solomon knew they had been spotted.
“We need t’a getoutuvahere now!” The words came out in one long panicked syllable, they weren’t prepared to take on Jotune shock troops.
As they scrambled in the opposite direction, Solomon shot a glance over his shoulder and saw clearly the looks of disdain and disgust on the twin angels’ faces, and he knew that could not bode well.
One carried an energized lithe blade that crackled from tip cross guard with yellow light, and the other a polearm that sizzling the same at its bladed tip. Running would do them no good, so he let go of Helena and put himself between them and her.
The she-angel with the blade didn’t waste a second glance before she plunged straight at Solomon in a fury of crackling blue energy and flowing skirts, her blade tracing a killing arc above her head. She came so quickly that Solomon didn’t have time to unholster his sidearm, so he launched himself in a headlong dive to get out of her path. He felt the singe of her energy wings across the backs of his legs, and the sweep of her sword narrowly miss his skull before he landed and scrambled to find purchase on the rough scree of the hillside slope.
He tumbled and slid before he found solid footing, and came up just in time to see flashes from Helena’s cell shooter marking the path of the second Jotune flyer. The she-angel nimbly dodged each shot while pirouetting towards her target. Solomon saw the inevitable coming, but the one with the sword was already making her return pass and was speeding towards him.
Somewhere he had lost his long-carbine, so he drew his blaster as she swooped in and landed neatly on her feet, facing him man-to-man on the ground. Her visage was furious, and what had previously been contempt was now replaced by all too evident hatred.
“You will die by my blade today, outland scum,” she swore, before diving into a sprint.
Solomon had only time to fire two shots before she was on him. He was a skilled marksman and both were aimed at her unprotected head, but to his horror, the she-angel batted both away with a series of lightning fast strikes from her blade and still she came.
Solomon’s vision was filled with what he knew would be his sight on Sularia. A woman of angelic beauty, leaping into the air, her two blazing blue wings trailing a blinding mane of fire, and the crackling blade poised above her head, ready to slice him in two from crown to boots. He had done all he could, and so he closed his eyes and waited for his fate. It would be over in milliseconds.
The impact threw him meters from where he stood, and he tumbled down the hill before finally coming to rough halt. Solomon lay unmoving, fully expecting the last of his life to drain out in the dirt and sand. He looked at the sky, ready to see his vision ascend to the clouds above, but nothing happened other than the maddening sound of klaxons ringing in his ears. It was Helena who appeared above him, and as she put her hands on his shoulders, her lips moved, but no sound came out.
She tried again when he didn’t respond, and he swore she mouthed, ‘are ye al’right?!’
Why was she mouthing the words, and not just saying them? Maybe she couldn’t find the strength, or perhaps she had to be quiet? Enemies might be nearby and she didn’t want to attract their attention. But what about the she-angel that had promised to end him? Where was she? Or the other?
All these questions hurt Solomon’s head, and then he realized that the ringing in his ears was all he could hear. He reached up and put a hand to one and took it away, examining the red sheen that slicked his fingers. Helena mouthed again, ‘let’s go,’ and then she was hauling him to his feet.
He had feet! And his legs! Gods and ancestors he didn’t know what had happened, but whatever it was it saved his life.
Helena took hold of him under his arm and he wrapped his over her, using her support like a crutch and they stumbled off in the direction of her choosing. Evidently she had regained most of her pack, and had scooped up what was his that she could find scattered about as well. Solomon was relieved to see the muzzle of his long-carbine poking from her kit.
As they retreated, Solomon couldn’t hear, but he could feel the explosions blooming in the distance and nearby. The heat wafted against his cheek, and he looked back to where they had been standing only moments before, and saw that it was as much a battlefield as down in the valley below. There was no sign of his she-angel, but the one that attacked Helena was currently engaged in a furious melee with a hulking mechanical brute wielding a sword with whirring metal teeth. She was distracted and Solomon thanked the ancestors for that.
He was thinking that he would have to ask Helena later what exactly had happened when the sight of a behemoth lumbered into view down in the valley. It strode on four titan’s legs, which supported a bulbous body with two heavily armed redoubts equipped with missile pods, a mortar cannon, and laser lance. He couldn’t hear the rumbling blasts as it hurtled mortar or missile, but he could feel them. Though well over a kilometer away, it looked every bit the titan it was, as it strode through the plumes of fire and explosions blooming around it.
That must’ve been what nearly blew me to t’ ancestors, Solomon thought in awe as a squadron of winged infantry flew over its monstrous carapace and dropped a salvo of explosives.
The blasts peppered the hide of the mechanical behemoth, but didn’t so much as leave a scratch. Instead it pivoted and raised its bulbous torso to regard the flyers and locked its position with an audible thunk. Solomon wondered what it would do next, and his answer came as a flurry of rockets shook its body as they spilled from their launchers like a swarm of furious wasps from a hive. Each traced a path towards a retreating flyer, and though they scrambled to avoid their fate, each rocket found home and blossomed into a bright ball of orange fire and a scattering of debris.
Solomon glanced at Helena’s eyes and wasn’t surprised in the least to see an expression of pure amazement. This was more than either of them had bargained for. They were caught between two of Sularia’s mightiest empires as they engaged in all out war.
They stopped to watch the battle unfolding in the valley below, and one thing became clear to both, this would be a conflict that no one on Sularia would be able to escape. Including themselves.