Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
80 by 79 Synthside
“Hold it right ther’,” came a man’s booming voice, “yer surrounded.”
Johnny titled his head back and rested it on the supply crate behind him. He was surrounded, he knew it. All his years as a lawman had taught him what a hopeless situation looked like, what a dead man looked like. He suspected that someday his time would come, but he never actually thought it would. Damn. Closing time was here and the tab’s due, but-
“Alright, Joe. I’m coming out with my hands up.”
He holstered his cell shooters and put his hands in the air before stepping out.
“So this is th’ fella ye said was followin’ ya,” the man said to the person behind him, holding an enormous over-under shooter in his thick hands. He turned back to Johnny and cracked a wry smile through his bushy salt and pepper beard, “they don’t call me crazy fer nuttin’ so don’t try anythin’ stupid. Solomon take his guns.”
“I ain’t either,” the other man said, “Argus, go on.”
Johnny felt vicegrips take hold of his wrists and he was lifted the tips of his toes. Judah and his brothers, the machine could move like a cat when it wanted to.
Just as quickly his guns were gone and he was back firmly on his feet.
“Now that’s over ya best get to talkin’,” the man who must be Joe said.
Johnny rubbed his wrists and thought it over. A hunch was a hunch, so he had better follow it. Hell, he was dead either way.
“The name’s Cache,” he said, a look of steel set in his eyes, “Johnny Cache.”
Joe grunted and his demeanor eased. “Aye, I’ve heard th’ name. Spokin’ in praise by some-“ He let his words hang.
“But cursed by most,” Johnny finished.
“Aye! Aye just so!” Joe burst out laughing. Solomon stood back with a look bemused wonder on his face, but he didn’t make a move – or peep.
The old man finished by drawing a long breath and wiping a swollen finger under his eye.
“This one,” he said pointing at Johnny, “is alright. Go ahead an’ give him ‘is guns back Argus.”
Solomon lurched forward, so fast that Johnny thought he might leave his boots where they were, standing empty.
“Beg yer pardon, but that man woulda soon as shot me dead two minutes ago. I’da soon as give him a knife to slit me throat.”
Joe simply shook his head and smiled. “I’ve heard tales of th’ lawman Johnny Cache. His name is cursed b’most, but that’s cuz most these days are scum deservin’ uvva good hangin’.”
“Gods an’ demons Joe, tha’ bloody man brained me an’ took both Argus an’ I hostage! If it weren’t fer Argus we’d prob’ly be hanging by ar’necks east a’here. An’ now ya want ta give em ‘is guns backs?”
“No more talk. Argus, ‘is guns.” His tone brooked no argument, and for a wonder, the machine complied.
“I say thank you,” Johnny spoke as he slid his shooters home in their holsters. They settled with a satisfying ssshh thump.
“Now, why were ya houndin’ after m’friend Solomon here.”
“I had reason to believe that he was a dangerous renegade.”
Joe guffawed at that. Still chuckling he said, “we’re all renegades.” Johnny took his meaning. Yes, we all are. Old habits died hard and Johnny had to remind himself of that.
“Not like that. Crimimals. Villains of the worst kind.”
Johnny thought it over and then reached up for the red bandanna that covered his face from nose to chin.
The look on both men’s faces as he pulled it down was enough to know they took his meaning now.
“Gods…” Solomon whispered involuntarily. Joe did a better job of hiding his emotions.
“Who did this?” The older man asked.
“A woman-“ Johnny began.
“Maggie,” Solomon finished.
So the wastelander did know of the Mad Black Bandit.
“And so ya thought Solomon here was in league wi’her.”
Johnny nodded and reached down, pulling his bandanna back over his face.
“I would have had the truth from him sooner, but he and his machine friend escaped before I could get to the bottom of the truth.”
“Yar,” Solomon shifted, crossing his arms, “after ya brained me an’ took me captive.”
Johnny shrugged. “Precautions.”
“Easy now fellas,” Joe said, “a misunderstandin’ is easy ta come by. Were yer positions reversed, ye’d likely don th’ same.”
Johnny looked at the wastelander, his lips pursed tight and he didn’t protest.
“You have my apologies Solomon, and a promise of reparations. It’s no blood debt, but...”
He thought it might, and that last bit got to the wastelander. He saw the tension drain from the other man’s body. Johnny had suspected that Solomon was of the Exsularian tribes, but this confirmed it.
“Yar, and I’ll take ya at that,” he said, the tiniest of smiles creasing his lips.
“So, this Maggie,” Joe piped up.
“Mad Maggie,” Johnny said, a snarl hidden under his bandana, “she calls herself, leader of the Black Dread Corps.”
“Aye. Solomon here has ‘ad some dealing wi’ ‘er,” Joe said gesturing at the Exsularian. “Not th’ same as ye, but treach’rous all th’ same.”
“Treachery and deceit are her playthings,” Johnny said, “and more. She has many agents, of which I thought Solomon was one. His companion there didn’t help,” he said flicking a thumb at Argus. “You don’t see many machines walking with man these days.”
“An’ Maggie is one to dabble wi’ such things.”
Johnny nodded. “There still is one loose end however.”
Both men looked at him with unabashed curiosity.
Solomon raised an eyebrow, but Joe stayed stoic.
“Pardon, but that name has no meanin’ ta me.”
“A pale youth with red eyes and artifice woven into his skin.”
A few shades drained from Solomon’s face at the description, and Johnny suspected that meant something to him.
“It couldn’t be…”
“Mayhap,” Joe said turning to the Exsularian.
So, it seemed that the older man was quite intimate with Solomon’s story. It was Johnny’s turn then to learn the particulars.
“Tell me, Solomon. Who is this Furtim?”
“I think it’d be best if ya heard th’ whole story, from th’ top,” Joe said and Solomon nodded.
“It started with a woman named Helena…” Solomon began and his story continued long until the sun had come up.
“… an’ we ended up here,” Solomon gestured to the room that surrounded them.
Johnny sat where he was - they had all ended up cross-legged on the floor at some point - and took in what he heard. Solomon’s tale was extensive, spanning the face of Sularia over and again. The woman he met that introduced herself as Helena proved to be the treacherous Mad Maggie, and the pair had unwittingly stumbled upon an underground Synthien compound where the machines were converting a Jotune with their macabre technology. Solomon had taken that unfortunate for dead when they made their escape and sabotaged the facility with a massive explosion. Maybe the captive they found had survived, and then maybe there were more. Johnny hadn’t quite ruled out that the bionic man wasn’t the product of Maggie’s insane experiments, but Solomon felt certain that Furtim had come from the machine empire. Which was troubling in its own right.
“I’ve never heard of such agents coming from Synthien lands,” Johnny said, breaking the silence. “They have always relied on might and the strength of their numbers in the past.”
“But things are a’changin’. Even machines can adapt an’ grow,” Joe said, sage-like.
Johnny nodded, it seemed true enough.
“So this Furtim is still ou’there?”
“Last I had seen him I laid him to rest in an outcropping not two klicks from here.”
Joe’s face was downcast, “he could be out ther’ still.”
“Perimeter scans indicate no life forms other than your own, organic or inorganic,” Argus said, striding into view.
Judas that thing was quiet. Johnny was constantly reminded of its ability to make itself fade into the background and remain unseen and unheard.
“He’s avoided our attentions before I wouldn’t be surprised if he could do it again,” Johnny said, flicking a clod of dirt from his boot as he got up.
“Ye’ve got a plan then?” Joe asked, rising a little more slowly.
They had decided to move as soon as possible, newly outfitted with armaments from Joe’s stockpile. Solomon and Argus were to scout south and circle back east in ten day’s time, where they would rendezvous at a location south of Harp’s stronghold. From there they would press on – if the savior was good – with a band of Exsularian sharpshooters at their back for the lair of Mad Maggie and her Black Dread mercenaries.
Johnny was calling a favor from a favor, and nothing about it was techcrete. The leader of an Exsularian clan owed his partner, Harp, a debt, and Johnny was staking his claim that they would be able to collect. ‘Worst comes, we storm ‘er stronghold arselves,’ Solomon had said. Johnny and Joe agreed that sounded like a bad idea. After some discussion Solomon had agreed as well, they would wait for reinforcements.
It seemed odd, but even though the Exsularian didn’t come out and say it, Johnny suspected he didn’t want reinforcements from his kin. Why he couldn’t say. His dealings with the desert people were passing, and he wasn’t versed in the nuance of clan politics. What made Solomon so hesitant would remain a mystery for now. Johnny resolved himself to keep an eye on the wastelander all the same. There was something going on here, and he’d be damned if he didn’t get to the bottom of it before they were through. But for now they had more pressing concerns.
The trio had clasped hands before they departed and Johnny headed into the east for Harp’s. Doubts nagged in the back of his mind, but Johnny shouldered them and pressed on into the noonday sun as the silhouettes of Solomon and Argus faded into shimmers of heat at his back. Johnny wasn’t one to fly, half-cocked, especially with strangers he had only come to know hours before, but this was different. Maggie had a death debt piled to the moons and it was threatening to spill over. Solomon’s story had proved it, she was up to something other than her usual dark dealings. They had best move, and soon.
Johnny’s fist clenched. He had a score to settle, and for him that was enough.
Furtim watched as the gunslinger parted ways with the man Solomon and the machine Argus. Disappointment broiled within him. No blood had been spilt, not one drop. All the humans yet lived, and but for the consolation prize of the knowledge he had gained, he plans had yet to bear the fruit he so desired.
There was time yet. The new fellowship hoped to storm some mercenary woman’s base and exact their vengeance. Funny, he was looking for retribution of his own. Maybe they could all find theirs there then.
He smiled and turned back towards Synthien lands. It was time to move more pieces into positon, and his pawns were larger than theirs.