Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
The Northern Wastes – Just Outside Harp’s Base
He looked back at the cacophony of light from which he traveled; squinting as he did, he could feel the muted warmth of tears slide down his weather beaten face. They weren’t tears of sorrow or joy, they were those of necessity, as are all things born of the wastes. He flicked a finger across his cheek as if he were shooing away a fly, then turned and continued on his way.
“My, my, my. Aren’t ya a sight fer sore eyes?”
Solomon hadn’t known what to expect, arriving once again at Harp’s stronghold, only mere weeks after he and Argus had made their escape from that very same place. It hadn’t been a time for parting pleasantries - not at all. They had left in a hail of gunfire and a shower of debris, it had been kill or be killed. Yet, miraculously, no one had the bill put in their stockings and taken the long nap that night. No. They had escaped almost entirely unscathed, and so had Harp and her partner the Gunslinger. All of them had made it out alive, and so they were still – for the time being at least.
A nest of raven’s hair spilled over Harp’s handsome features as she bounced forward, greeting them with open arms. It was a wonder that Solomon had hoped for, but not dared to suspect.
“Why now th’ long faces? Tha’ back then, it’s all dirt under th’ dune.”
Solomon blushed. He could still see the traces of their escaped blasted onto the face of their host’s home– and could only imagine what the inside looked like. Argus had punched through a techcrete wall after all…
“Johnny told me all about his parley with ya, that yer one of us.”
A knot stuck in Solomon’s throat. How many years had it been since he had words like that? One of us.
“Well, come on then. Come inside, no sense wastin’ more water standin’ in th’ sun!”
To his amazement Harp’s grin widened even more, before she turned in a flourish of raven locks and shining leather. She was a show-woman, sure, in every sense of the word, and Solomon was relieved to find himself on her good side.
He looked at his robotic companion, and though Argus’s face was as emotionless as ever, he thought he looked relieved too.
“I cannit do it,” he muttered to himself, “jus’ can’t.”
He stumbled, feet dragging, his toe catching on every stone in the wastes.
“I can’t. I jus’ can’t. I…” He mumbled, disconsolate. Then he fell.
“Mad Maggie.” Harp nodded her head, seriousness creasing her brow as if the name was the question and the answer unto itself. “She’s a scourge we could do wi’out .”
“Yar. I know ‘at all too well.”
Harp raised her eyes from her fist, a look of dawning concern flashing in her eyes.
“But I haven’t th’ worst, not a’tall, from th’ sound uvvit,” he said.
Harp dropped her eyes, “aye.”
“I - we know,” he said, as gently as he could.
Harp’s lips pursed. She drew herself in, arms hugging her waist, before nodding slowly.
“Tha’ woman deserves a’ t’ousand hells.”
“An’ that she’ll get,” he said.
She drew in a breath and nodded, “righ’ then. We need a’ plan.”
“Yar. Ye said her base was summ’er down… ‘ere?” He pointed to a map south and west of their present location.
“Aye, she makes her nest down ‘ere, near’r th’ Fracture,” she nodded to a point just west of Solomon’s finger.
Solomon straightened, hands on hips, taking it all in.
“She’s ‘tween th’ jaws o’ two beasts.”
“Aye, tha’s how she likes it.”
Solomon raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Bein’ close t’both Synth’ and Jotune keeps ‘way most intruders. An’ barters her services t’both, playin’ both sides ‘gainst th’ other.”
Solomon nodded thoughtfully, “conspicuously inconspicuous.”
“Right,” Harp said with a humorless grin. “An’ she’s dug in tight. Th’ only access above ground is ‘ere,” she said gesturing to a smaller map of the compound, likely drawn by Johnny. “An’ ‘ere, though tha’ one is only fer ventilation.”
“Large ‘nuff ta get’a man down it, though I reckon.”
“Exactly,” she said, beaming a smile. It was the first time he had seen her happy all evening, since they had started their briefing. Solomon was glad for it. “But th’ whole place’s heav’ly monitored…” She said, the mirth falling from her face.
“We need a distraction,” Solomon said.
“I think I migh’ know jus’ th’ thing,” she replied, a sly look spreading itself across her face. A shadow passed her eyes, “though ya might not like it.”
Solomon kneeled in the dirt looking at the palms of his hands. Red droplets welled into sickening flowers, bulging and threatening to pop. One did, and a rivulet of crimson streaked down his hand to disappear on the other side. Drip drip drip. He could hear the pitter patter as his blood stained the desert.
I’m disgraced, he thought, I can’t.
It had been years since the fire had come from the sky and burned away his life, his family, his kin. It had left its marks on him too in the form of mottled scars, but the worst couldn’t be seen by the naked eye. He was the last of his kith, and therefore an outcast; a pariah, a sign of ill-omen. He was Exsularian, but no more. To be of that tribe meant never to be alone, and now, that was all he ever was. So he would be until the day he died, such was the custom, the religion, of the wasteland folk.
But had he been alone? He had found companionship with Johnny, Joe, and Harp – even that rust bucket Argus. Was he truly?
It wasn’t the same. Honest, it wasn’t. Isolation was his penance, and all in the hopes that the ancestors would accept him when his time came, when he took the long nap. But they might not, and then he would be alone for eternity, and that would be a hell forever.
Solomon stood stock still, frozen by what Harp had just said. Her words felt like a wave that had washed over him, and now he stood soaking and shivering in its wake.
He didn’t move, her words sounded tinny, faraway. Maybe this wasn’t real? Maybe he would wake up from this nightmare next to his beloved Jessa, and then it would all fade away into forgetful bliss. Maybe…
“Solomon!” Harp drummed her fist on the table for emphasis. “I know this comes as a shock t’ ya, but it may be our only shot.”
“No.” It was all he could muster.
“No?! Ya would rather slink back in’ta th’ wastes, an’ let tha’ mad woman continue t’ plague Sularia?” Her face was red, furious, veins bulging.
“Tis not as simple as that,” he mumbled.
“I get it, yer an’ outcast-“
“Ye don’t ‘get it’,” Solomon snapped.
Harp backed off a bit, but wouldn’t let it go.
“We don’ ‘ave another choice. We need th’ Tunnel Rats, Exsularian or no. Yer jus’ goin’ t’ have t’ deal with it.” She turned and strode from the room.
Solomon slumped, staring through the maps before him. Was it their only option? Did he have no choice?
“Harp is correct.”
Solomon jumped, startled by the metallic voice behind him. He had forgotten Argus was even in the room. Damn machine.
“Conscripting the assistance of the Exsularian tribe known as the Tunnel Rats is the most prudent course of action.”
“Ye don’t think I know that?!” Solomon slammed his fist on the map on Mad Maggie’s base, wishing that could be the end of it.
“During my time here, I have been collecting information about the customs and ways of Sularia’s inhabitants. Kinship groups within the Exsularian tribes are of the utmost importance, permeating even to the spiritual level of one’s existence. To lose one’s ‘kith and kin’ is to lose one’s self, and therefore, to become outcast from the greater body of Exsularian society.”
“Get ta yer point, ye gods damned robot.”
“Your choice is between breaking the customs of your people, or doing right by yourself and those you presently find yourself in the company of. It is a conundrum.”
“What would ‘ee do then?”
“My native frame of time does not contain such dogmatic cultural standards, and as an artificial lifeform, with no prospect of an afterlife, I am not bound to making decisions based on ephemera. Therefore, I would take the most empirical action, based on the current available evidence. I would accept the assistance of the Tunnel Rats.”
Solomon thought about what Argus had just said. The machine had a habit of speaking around corners instead of cutting to the chase, and then there was the issue of –
“Frame o’ time? Where are ‘ee from again exactly?”
“Permission denied. You do not possess the appropriate clearance for such information.”
Solomon spat, “then t’ hell with ye then,” he said and stormed out of the room.
Solomon clenched his fists and rose to his feet. He had already come this far, there could be no turning back. He had started this journey alone, and now he would end it the same. There were fates far worse than death, and if his time had come, then he would welcome it gladly.
Harp, Johnny, Argus, and the Tunnel Rats wouldn’t be ready to assault Maggie’s base for days. That left him with plenty of time to do the deed himself. Maggie, Helena, whatever she called herself now, must die, and it would be by his hand.
He dusted off his pants with the backs of his hands, shouldered his pack, and continued his trek towards the Black Dread Base, towards his destiny.
He didn’t know when the first light of consciousness had lit in his mind. There was only the memory of dull awareness, a thundering hum, and of weightlessness. The world was a blue blur, soaked in glare, and blunted by a membrane that he couldn’t pierce.
But there was something behind the veil. Was it a face? A moon? The visage of God itself? It would hover just beyond his perception, regarding him, humming softly, moving with fluid grace. Then it would disappear for eternity, and he would be left alone again to float in the void, senseless, disconnected, inviolate.
An eternity, an instant, the blink of an eye. His was a world outside of time, with no signposts in seconds or minutes, hours could have been days, and the blink of an eye a lifetime.
But that all was shattered when the red light came. It drenched itself in the waters of his existence - glowing, lurid. Then it made the world shake, and for the first time there was sensation – pain. Icy fingers raced across the membrane and he could feel the distance between worlds evaporating. The fingers raced and crossed one another in a macabre web of sick white tendrils until there was a deafening crack, and the world exploded.
He stood for the first time, feeling the weight of a body he had never known. A chill ran across his (skin?) and a wetness dripped (the world) from him to pool beneath his (feet?). He knew without knowing, as recollection threatened to crown at the murky film over his consciousness. He used his (hands) to pick up a scrap of purpose cut (metal?). In the pulsing red glow, punctuated by dull thunder, he lifted the (metal) closer and saw four letter inscribed upon it: K.Y.Z.R.