Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
The Ruins of the Black Dread Base
He turned to look where Johnny had been. The trench coat silhouette raised its hand and tipped its hat in his direction before disappearing.
“Damn that man,” Solomon mumbled, a reluctant smirk staining his face. The dust was still settling from the gunslinger’s bit of vigilante heroics – and Solomon still recovering. His body ached from head to toe and he was covered in the powdered corpse of what was probably techcrete walls. Johnny could have at least warned him that he intended to blow this little portion of the world to smithereens, before he actually did. But no, there hadn’t been any time for that. As astonishing as it was, the locomotive-man looked to be gaining the upper hand on Argus and Johnny’s timing had been impeccable.
Solomon decided he wouldn’t think about what the gunslinger would have done if it were him down there, battling to save his life against the Black Dread’s champion, and it were his sorry arse in the blast radius. Best not.
He dusted himself off and looked back down to where Argus was striding about in the courtyard – what was left of it anyway – searching for signs of hostiles. The locomotive-man was nowhere to be seen, not even one shred of him. But was that a surprise really? Solomon was twenty meters away and behind cover, and he had still been thrown aside by the shockwave like a little girl’s dolly.
Dead is dead, is dead, is dead, he thought. No sense wondering or worrying about it now. He was here for one reason and one reason alone, he reminded himself. And then just like a djinn-wish and a clap of the hands, there she was not ten meters from where Johnny had stood when he fired his rocket. It was the woman he had come to kill.
She had seen him too, and by way of saying hello she raised cell-carbine to her shoulder, taking aim at his heart. Solomon could feel the heat from the blast as it screamed overhead. Were he doused in petrol he had no doubt he would have caught fire - it was that close.
Ooooff!! The sound escaped him unbidden as he slammed unceremoniously to the ground. Solomon took two hitching breaths as he struggled to regain the wind that had been knocked from him.
“Hostile detected!!!” Argus roared from the courtyard below.
“Verker! Get yer ass up!!” A woman’s voice, it must have been Maggie’s yelled; but who this Verker was Solomon didn’t know.
There was a titanic boom and the unmistakable sound of boulders crashing and then the roar of a man’s voice.
“It can’t be…” Solomon breathed, moving into a crouch, and peering down at the courtyard below. The locomotive-man – Verker – stood to one side of the clearing venting a tremendous amount of steam and heat. His body was a study in gore, gouged and cut from head to toe with oozing lacerations – and worse. Verker spread his arms and bellowed was so loud that Solomon squinted against the noise, but they widened with shock when he saw what was happening to the other man’s skin. He was glowing from the inside out like his body housed a great furnace within it. Verker looked like he might glow as bright as the sun… or explode, but before he did he quit he bellowing and his skin returned to a natural pallor. He looked everything like a man in his prime, miraculously without wound or laceration. Instead his body was criss-crossed by a new warring map of scars.
“Gods be good,” Solomon prayed aloud. How were they to kill a man who could withstand a direct hit from a shoulder fired rocket, and then heal his own wounds with the heat of some death-defying internal furnace?
Solomon didn’t have to wonder long for just when he felt there was no hope his answer came striding into the compound. A leg as large and round as a wasteland hut crashed down , relieving what was left of the compound’s outer wall from its long overdue existence. Three more followed it, supporting a bulbous head that threatened to blot out the afternoon sun. Two stubby arms swiveled smartly on their pivots and took aim, readying to rain death on those it spotted below.
Solomon saw the Synthien warhulk and understood that it would be the last sight he ever saw. He had survived Johnny’s rocket, but that was a mere plaything compared to the armament that a Hekaton Warhulk sported. So he did the only thing he could and closed his eyes, voicing a silent prayer.
It was ok. There would be a moment of hurt and heat, sure, but then he would see his family. That was, if the ancestors judged him worthy. That would come later, however, and there was nothing left to it now, this was the end. So he waited.
He didn’t feel the explosion, he heard it instead. It was followed by the grinding of metal and a screaming overhead. Solomon’s eyes flew open, he recognized that sound!
He looked up and saw a flight of Jotune Harriers screaming across the sky on the fiery wings of their jump packs. Some carried halberds, some carbines, and others grenade launchers. Two more unleashed salvos at the Hekaton and the group broke formation as the warhulk retrained its shoulder mounted laser and bank of surface to air missiles onto them. The rockets spilled from their nest in a dazzling display light and tracers of smoke, adjusting mid-flight to track the fleeing Harriers. A few of the flying Jotune soldiers aimed their carbines at the incoming rockets and opened fire. One or two exploded harmlessly mid-air, but a dozen others found home, each taking one or more Jotune to a fiery grave. The Hekaton didn’t relent with its small victory, its laser cannon immediately began pounding a deafening rhythm into the air, tracking those lucky enough to avoid the initial salvo of rockets.
From out of nowhere another group of Harriers screamed overhead racing across the path of the Synthien warhulk. When they reached it, they each dropped a mine nearly as big as themselves onto its bulbous head. Great gouts of flame rose into the air with each impact and the Hekaton took two halting steps before faltering and finally falling.
Solomon thought about cheering, but before he could so much as raise his head, coruscating green laser fire lanced at the Jotune ambushers, coming from every angle on the ground below. Solomon peered over the other edge of his perch and his eyes widened in horror. There was an endless tide of marching machines stretching to the horizon in rows of ordered death. Their skeletal forms shambled forward with implacable speed, each rank studded with the lumbering forms of warhulks and their smaller reaver cousins. Synthien aircraft screamed overhead, breaking the flocks of Jotune Harriers, like falcons diving at a squadron of unruly crows.
A deafening staccato erupted, sending blinding tracers into the skies in punctuated lines, a perfect parody of a deathly rain falling in reverse. The Jotune had brought their own anti-aircraft fire, it seemed, and the Synthien fighters turned and rolled to avoid the incoming barrage.
A great roar erupted from Jotside of the compound and a flood of Jotune soldiers stormed the battered barricades, beginning to fight their way inside. Elite winged troopers joined them, their glowing blades and streaming hair flowing in the air, perfect visions of angelic grace, beauty, and lethality. Awe inspiring as it was, Solomon shivered at the sight as he remembered the she-angel that nearly took his life not three months ago. He had barely made it out alive that time, he wasn’t so sure he’d be that lucky again.
Synthien and Jotune forces had engaged in both the air and on the ground and the world had become one grand melee, a contest so large it was not simply for survival, but the eradication of an entire race. In the ruins of the Black Dread’s base machines tore humans limb from limb with great lumbering swords wound with wicked barbs and chains, and the demi-gods of the Jotune waded into battle with savage grace, dispatching two, three, even four of their adversaries with each sweep of their energized blades. The sight was terrible and wonderful to behold, and it nearly took the breath from him.
Solomon gathered his wits and reassessed the situation. The only thing he was still sure of was that he had to get to ground – and fast. Were he to be caught in the middle of a war between Sularia’s two most feared fighting forces, he would not last a minute. He turned from the ramparts – what was left of them anyway – to make his way to the ruins below and found himself staring down a woman clad in silver armor. Magnificent armor clad wings spread behind her, burning with blue flame. In a two-handed grip she held a sword almost as large as herself, glowing a soft azure, and her eyes burned with rage.
Solomon’s mouth fell open at the sight, and he stumbled back a few steps backwards. She paced towards him with deadly grace, her sword held at the shoulder.
“Uh… guh… guh…” He tried to plead for his life, but no words came, just a stream of innate babbling.
“Now you die, scum,” the she-angel said, raising her sword above her head.
Solomon fell backwards, squinting behind his upraised hands, a scream caught in his throat. Her blade would come, and he would die, cut in twain like a juri fruit under a carving blade.
Solomon felt the shock wave pass over his head and then saw it lift the Jotune warrior off her feet, casting her backwards like an unwanted dolly down a well, lost forever and soon to be forgotten. The blast took her all the way off the rampart and over the edge, her sword clattering the ground a few meters from Solomon’s feet.
He spun and looked over his shoulder. A figure sat, hunched under cover and hunkered over its absurdly large rifle. A twinge took in his gut, but it wasn’t Maggie. She had fired at him with a cell-carbine. This was a solid-shot rifle, the kind that spit hard caliber shells, not energy blasts. This was the weapon of choice used by the famed Tunnel Rats of the Exsularian tribes, doomed to be desert wanderers and damned to be eternal outlaws. These were his people.
The Tunnel Rat didn’t do him the courtesy that Johnny had, not dropping so much as nod before he trained his rifle on another target, fired, and then retreated to another position.
“Ancestors judge me worthy, even thou’ I’m not,” Solomon said.
He was forbidden from ever joining the company of his kith under penalty of death – or worse. Such was the lot of the pariah, cursed to live when all the rest of his clan had not. Solomon hoped that a bullet over his shoulder didn’t count as breaking that ancient code. He prayed that the bullet hadn’t saved his life, and then damned his soul in a single stroke.
“Gods be good,” he said and spared a glance to where Argus and the so-called Verker had battled. He was astonished to see his machine friend pummeling the oncoming hordes of Synthien constructs and the human-locomotive clashing with Jotune soldiers. The sight of a machine and a man battling against their own kind while an entire army of the same bore down on them was surreal. Everyone, it seemed, had their own motives these days – and vendettas.
Solomon didn’t spare another glance as he made his way down from his ruined perch. He had work to do, and only one person left to kill, and now he had to fight through two armies to find her.
He pulled the big one’s corpse into a dark place, the cramped space between two crates and a wall. It would be too late if they found him, if they found him at all. The human the big one had called Roy was stashed somewhere else, and since he hadn’t heard anyone yell out a warning, he assumed that body wouldn’t be found either. It dawned on K.Y.Z.R. that he wasn’t sure why he was good at this sort of thing, but he was; and that for the moment, was all that mattered.
He was also good at something else it seemed. He raised his arm and watched as it bulged and reworked itself into a shape that was indistinguishable from that of the big one’s arm. A smile spread across his face and he knew the big one was smiling for him.
A woman in black fatigues stood before him with a look of concern on her face. K.Y.Z.R. cocked one of the big one’s eyebrows and stared at her expectantly.
“No sign of the omega experiment, sir,” she said, shifting nervously in her boots.
“Then gather the rest an’ head topside,” K.Y.Z.R. said.
“But, Maggie said ta find the omega experiment.”
“I know what she said, ye git!” He barked. “Do you hear that rumbling up there? It won’t matter if we find it if we’re all dead!”
The woman opened her mouth as if to speak, but then thought better of it.
“Get goin’ godsdammit!” He yelled, and the woman turned briskly, before jogging out of the room and yelling orders to the others.
K.Y.Z.R. smiled the other man’s smile again. He was really good at this.
He weighed his options and decided that this “Maggie” individual would be his next objective. They seemed to be the one in charge here, and they wanted something called an “omega experiment” quite badly. If there were going to be answers, then they were likely to come from her.
K.Y.Z.R. circled the room and found a door that lead in the opposite direction from which the others had come. It was a simple fixture with two bisected metal halves and featureless otherwise. He approached it, and walked straight into it, expecting it to open. It didn’t, and instead his head rebounded dumbly off its unyielding surface.
Shit! He thought rubbing his forehead. There were some things he was still learning.
He took a step back and looked at the door. Nothing. Then he saw a series of buttons in a neat grouping next to it on the left side, slightly below chest height. There were thirteen in all, in a three-by-four grid, with one large one set apart below the others. There were symbols on the twelve grouped buttons that he couldn’t read; the last button, however, was featureless. He regarded them, and then reached for the only sensible choice. The door hissed open as his – the big one’s – finger pressed the large button. No sooner had the door opened then he found himself standing face-to-face with a red-haired woman.
“Gerrick, did you find him?”
So the big one’s name was Gerrick.
“No,” he said bluntly, not knowing who she meant by ‘him.’
“Then where th’ hell were ya goin’?! I said find ta th’ omega experiment before ya did anythin’ else!”
So this must be Maggie, K.Y.Z.R. thought, and before he knew it, his hands were around her throat.
She looked shocked, probably not expecting her own man – and a high ranking one from the sounds of it – to be throttling the life out of her, but that surprise didn’t last long. Her right hand went from struggling with her attacker’s to her right hip, and in one fluid motion she drew her firearm. Without uttering a single plea or whimper, she fired. There was a flash of light, then the sounds of glass crashing and the rush of liquid escaping its confines. The liquid ran the length of the floor and splashed against his boots, staining them blue. His hands still around her throat, Maggie struggled to look down as the color in her face built to an ugly purple.
What she saw was a perfect hole in the gut of the man she believed to be Gerrick, a dangling cord, and a thick blue goo oozing from his wound. A look crossed her eyes, and then K.Y.Z.R. realized what the omega experiment was, at the very same instant Maggie realized who he was.
He jerked her neck in a single swift motion, hearing it snap with a single sickening crack, and tossed her lifeless corpse to the ground.
Like a great deal many things, K.Y.Z.R. didn’t know why he felt a sense of vindication at killing the woman, but he did. He looked down at the wound in his torso and watched as the flesh closed and the fatigues he was wearing reknit themselves. He smiled Gerrick’s smile and strode over the corpse and onwards towards the battlefield above.