Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Mad Maggie’s Lair - The Black Dread Base
There was a buzzing. It thrummed in his head, throbbing at his temples with a dull, tone-deaf ache. The buzzing didn’t come from anywhere because it was everywhere. It was inside him, rattling every bone in his body like the wings of bot fly until he was numb.
Solomon looked out at the rubble strewn across the courtyard. The techcrete barrier that had kept out the Black Dread’s enemies lay in massive chunks, as if a giant had kicked it in with the ease of a child tumbling down the walls of sandcastle. There were bodies amongst the rubble as well. Mercenaries who would never sell their guns for hire again. Sularia was probably a better place for it, but who was he to judge? Only hours before, many of those men were safe and sound asleep in their bunks. They had woken only to die, but such was life. This planet was an unforgiving place, and death was a friend here who never strayed far.
Speaking of death dealers, where was Johnny?
It dawned on him that he hadn’t seen his friend for quite some time. Johnny hadn’t been a part of his plan in the beginning, far from it, this was supposed to be a one-man job. He had decided that two nights ago, sneaking away from Harp’s hideout by the light of the moon. What she wanted from him then he couldn’t provide, so he was left with only one option. He had had his doubts, sure, but it really wasn’t a question as to path he’d choose. He was a pariah and he would die alone.
And that he would welcome gladly. After the destruction of his home, the death of his family, and exile from his people his life had only been a series of nightmares, a half-lived existence of guttering images, surreal and fleeting like recollections before waking. Perhaps it had all simply been a bad dream then, and he would soon wake to find himself next to his darling Jessa, her arm draped over his chest and her nose nuzzling at his shoulder? Yes, maybe he was lying in bed right now, and all these years had been dreamed in a few hours of sleep. His heart raced at the thought.
Yes, he thought, I’ll be home soon. And for that he would suffer all the pain in this world.
But Johnny… and Argus…
He shouldn’t have been surprised when they both caught him lurking around the perimeter of Mad Maggie’s lair, scouting the defenses and readying for his attack. It turned out that Dr. Lehner’s tin man was useful for more than his incessant deadpan commentary and the occasional dust up with unfriendlies. Solomon had a day’s hike on them before they even left and still they caught up to him, and that was with army’s worth of munitions in tow. Crazy Joe himself had blessed their mission in his own special way and given the pair enough explosives to blow Sularia back to the time of the Fracture. Though he wouldn’t admit it, Solomon was relieved they had found him. He had set off to die alone at the end of the world, and of that he was certain, but for the first time since he had resolved himself to his fate he was sure he wouldn’t be going alone. With the help of his friends, Maggie would be joining him.
Pvvvfff whack whack! The sound of cell fire pierced his fugue and the world narrowed back into focus. His vision sharpened and the scents of the battlefield returned – the acrid tang of burning oil and the coppery hue of ozone stained with blood. He heard the crackle of flames and the shouts of men.
An explosion bloomed and the ground shook in a shower of pulverized debris before more cell shooter fire added a final punctuation to a mercenary’s doom.
He needed to get up, he needed to return to the fight and help his friends.
Friends, he thought. He wasn’t supposed to have any of those. He touched his heart and then his head in the way of his people before looking skyward, voicing a silent prayer. If he was damned, that had happened long ago, there wasn’t anything to help it now.
Solomon got up from his perch and unslung his cell carbine. Maggie might yet live, and if that were so, he couldn’t stop now. He ducked low and ran into a bank of billowing smoke and the raging battle beyond.
The red light pulsed slow and steady. Such a lurid color, such a hateful color. It was the color of (blood) – he knew. That fact he knew with the same certainty as the one that told him he was male. Like breathing, it was, intuitive and unquestioned. So he didn’t. He also knew that color meant warning. Something was amiss in the world he had so rudely been dumped. First and always there had been only the blue fog, but then came the red light, and the silver web – and now this. He still held the shard of metal in his hands, ‘K.Y.Z.R.,’ it read, for this too he knew. But what it meant he did not, and for whom.
Perhaps it was meant for him, maybe even his name. He didn’t know a name, so this one would do. If anything he was adaptable.
K.Y.Z.R looked about the (room), its features illuminated by the pulsing red light. The room was silent except for occasional dull thuds. What was this place? He took stock of the cylinders crowding around the perimeter. They glowed an icy blue and within them… shapes floated. A wave of recognition washed over him. Blue (the world), his world, there were others like it! Did that mean there were others like him? He walked closer to the nearest cylinder, peering at its occupant. It was a bipedal shape, entirely hairless with two sunken sockets for eyes. It looked – unfinished.
K.Y.Z.R. looked down at his own hand, a metal claw run through with a red glowing light.
More red! K.Y.Z.R. jerked his hand down and away from his vision. Did that mean he was…
Another thud, but this one was much louder (closer) and the room shook, raining flecks of flaky material from above. The thing inside the cylinder jerked with a disgusting spasm. K.Y.Z.R. took a step back and saw something else in the cylinder that wasn’t inside it at all, rather upon it. He saw a reflection of something truly monstrous – himself.
Gunfire roared from across the compound. Johnny must be putting on one hell of a show, he thought. The Black Dread mercenary corps was one of the most feared and lauded bands of sell-shooters on all of Sularia, and second to none in marksmanship, or so they said.
‘They’ were wrong. Solomon had never met anyone deadlier with a cell shooter than Johnny. He was the surest shot Solomon had ever seen, and what their stock of explosives had started, he was finishing now one merc at a time.
Solomon crept low to the ruins of a wall and peeped over the side just in time to see Johnny dive into a dark entry way. His pistols fired a dazzling array of blue tracer fire as dove and just as many enemies fell with each shot, the blasts finding a home in a chest or head, incinerating it in blue flame or blowing a hole wide enough that no man could survive. And then, just like that, Johnny was gone, trench coat and wide brimmed hat and all.
“Thank th’ gods,” Solomon mumbled, “he’s on our side.”
Solomon ducked down at the sound of angry shouts and knew them to be reinforcements in pursuit of the gunslinger. He’d let his friend do what he did best, and in the meantime stay out of sight. For now Johnny would be the distraction he desperately needed to draw the attention of the bulk of the enemy forces while he searched for Maggie.
He hadn’t seen Maggie since the fighting began, but he knew she was here, she had to be. Whether it was the ancestors, gods, or devil himself, something told him that the end was drawing near. The last time he had felt this certain it had been before the fire came to claim his village and sweep his old life away. It felt the same as that, and then not at all. But he’d bet his dying dollar on it all the same.
“C’mon you louts! Step to!”
Shouts came ringing down what must have been a hallway and were rapidly drawing near. Sure enough, the sound of footfalls (boots) grew until they exploded into the room. Five figures emerged, four of which were heavily muscled men and one a stout woman. All of them were covered head-to-toe in a riotous assortment of battlegear: bandoliers bristling with shell casings, shining black armor plates, thick leather boots, and even a few spikes and fetishes here and there. They entered the room directly in front of the remains of his cylinder (world), skidding to a halt on their boot heels.
“Blimey, one’s loose!” The big one in front cursed. “Where’s the git gotten off to?”
The group looked around frantically, but not soon enough to notice one of their own was missing.
“Spread out an’ find it!” The big one yelled.
The remaining four readied their weapons and paced off in different directions, scanning for any sign of the breakaway. Only one remained where they had been standing, oblivious to the command of their superior. The big one stopped mid-pace, noticing his comrade lingering at the entrance to the chamber. He turned his head and shot a deathly glare.
“Oi! Roy, what gives? Get yer ass movin’!”
But Roy didn’t move, instead he simply stood where he was, staring blankly ahead.
At that the big one grew even more agitated, letting his weapon fall from his shoulder it bounced on the end of its strap as he walked briskly back towards to his comrade.
“Hey! I said-“ The big one stopped mid-sentence, his arm outstretched, ready to grab Roy’s shoulder inside one of his meaty fists. His words struggled to the surface, but were choked by a thick gurgle. As he struggled to mouth them, his jaw yawned wide into a silent horrified scream. Blood bubbled up from his throat and out his mouth like a river of lava erupting from a volcano. It cascaded down his chin to stain his chest and the floor beneath. Without another word, he rose into the air until only the tips of his black boots brushed lamely against the ground, Roy’s arm protruding grotesquely from his chest.
“Roy’s dead,” Roy whispered before tossing the big one’s limp body to the ground.
His shape wavered and his features twisted, flesh mottling across his face and harden into steel around his hands. Roy disappeared and K.Y.Z.R. stood in his place, still drenched in the big one’s blood. Now he knew what he was made for.
It sounded like two titans battling. The clangor of metal on metal rang out across the yard, sending ear-splitting shock waves and showers of stone with each strike. Solomon threw himself behind some rubble and clapped his hands over his ears. He grimaced as involuntary tears beaded in the corners of his eyes. He had, at last, found Argus.
The thing – the man – who squared off against Argus was a giant in his own right. Corded from head to toe in muscle, he stood two and a half meters tall. Metal plates encased his arms to where they ended in vicious metal gauntlets. Two silver skulls sat atop his shoulders, leering with massive toothy grins. The man flexed his great bulk and heat and steam radiated from grills in his chest, arms, and even two tubes protruding from his back.
“What in all th’ gods names is tha’?” He gawked.
Solomon had seen the super-men of the Jotune Empire, the freakish cyborgs of the Synthien, and a few other things besides, but he had never quite seen the likes of the man he did now. The monstrosity roared and charged Argus.
No matter how many times he saw it, Solomon still had a hard time believing how fast his robot friend could move. All two tons of bulky metal slid with perfect grace out of the path of the oncoming locomotive-man-thing, raising its fist to deliver a crushing side blow.
Argus’s attacker saw this feint, and spun his bulk to the side, swinging his arm up to intercept the strike. Solomon curled his hands over his ears just in time to protect them from the audible assault of two titan’s fists clashing. Reeling from the blow, Argus staggered back and slammed into a half-demolished techcrete wall. The ruin gave an admirable attempt at standing, but under the weight of a falling two-ton death machine, it finally gave way in a booming crack and an explosion of dust.
No sooner had Argus fallen upon the wall than its attacker had fallen upon him. The locomotive-man blasted another gout of heat and steam into the air and launching himself upon the fallen robot. With the same gut wrenching speed, Argus threw up an arm and batted the man-thing away.
The two of them looked like they could go on forever like that; and maybe they could.
Solomon glimpsed a figure on the far side of the compound. It was a trench coat clad figure with a wide brimmed hat, holding what looked to be a very big rocket launcher.
“Holy shi-“ was all Solomon could get out before he saw the blast of smoke and what it heralded. The rocket propelled grenade exploded at the locomotive-man’s feet, engulfing him in a blinding ball of flame as a shockwave raced out from the point of impact, flattening what little remained of the ruined courtyard into bits of flying rock and rusty shrapnel. Solomon tried to throw himself flat, but he was too late and found himself caught by the blast, knocking him flat in a shower of dust and debris.
Judas and the Josephine, did the damned gunslinger have to do that? His ears were still ringing when he lifted himself to his feet and the world a little less steady.
Solomon looked down into the courtyard – what was left of it anyway – and saw Argus slowly pacing about. He wasn’t surprised the bucket of bolts was still standing, but as for the locomotive-man…
He turned to look where Johnny had been. The trench coat silhouette raised its hand and tipped its hat in his direction before disappearing again.
“Damn that man,” Solomon mumbled, a smirk on his face. It dropped when his eye caught another figure, not too far from where Johnny’s had been.
There was no mistaking the shape of the woman he had come to know well – Helena, Mad Maggie, whatever you wanted to call her. It was the woman he had come to kill.