Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
none by 12 - synthside
All morning the distant sounds of battle had rolled across the dingy landscape. Solomon could hear the ghostly howls of laser shot, and the low thudding boom of mortar impacts far away in the south. All hell was breaking loose somewhere out there, and to him, it was oddly comforting.
Somewhere was kilometers from here, and that meant he could rest a little easier.
Solomon already had his fill of action. Not ten days ago, their tiny band narrowly escaped being caught between a host of raiding Jotune warriors and a counter-striking battalion of Synthien war machines. It had been a close call, and the memory of the charging she-angel, with her sword held aloft ready to end his life, was still fresh in Solomon’s mind.
He had gotten lucky, or at least what passed for luck these days, when a stray missile had blown the warrior-woman to the far end of oblivion. It had sent him sprawling too, and that should have been the end of him, but Helena had fared better, and with her help the two of them limped their way to safety.
Thinking back on the moments before the explosion, he recalled seeing Helena, her hair streaming, taking frantic shots with her cell shooter at an oncoming Jotune she-angel. He had estimated their chances of survival somewhere down of certain death, and as he watched the Jotune warrior dodge each of Helena’s attempts to end her life with a terrifying display of speed and agility, he adjusted it to none. He didn’t see Helena’s final moments on the hill with her attacker, when it was almost on her his attention returned to his own impending doom – the she-devil with the raised sword screaming oaths and profanities.
Had Helena dispatched the Jotune warrior engaged with her after all? Or did she get ‘lucky’ like him?
Solomon realized that he didn’t know, and Helena had been oddly mum on the issue. That troubled him.
He kicked the idea around a little more. Perhaps the advancing Synthien had drawn off the she-angel? Maybe Helena had finally gotten off a lucky shot? Gods. He was probably overthinking the thing. She had survived the encounter and helped him to safety, whatever else had happened didn’t matter.
The truth was that he had been alone for far too long; exposed to the dangers of the world without someone to watch his back, and it made him wary to not have complete control. But he wasn’t anymore, he had her, and Solomon had to remind himself of that fact. Putting trust in someone else again was scary, but truth be told, it beat the hell out of the alternative.
Good fortune, lucky shot, timely intervention – it didn’t matter. They had survived, and that was all that did. And that was their sole focus in the days after escaping.
For nearly a week they had simply hunkered down to regroup and lick their wounds. Of the two, Solomon had been hurt the worst. The explosion that had killed his attacker, had torn a gash a hand’s length and a knuckle deep in his leg, and his body was peppered with razor-sharp shrapnel fragments. He never suspected Helena at having any skill as a medic, but after she sutured his leg wound with a deftness that spoke of long experience and skillfully removed all but the most difficult shards of metal from his body, he hated to think what he would have done without her. A slow agonizing death would likely have been part of the equation. But thanks to her skill and a few precious anti-bios she had stashed in her pack, they were able to get back on the move in a matter of days with only a slight limp in his step.
Travel had been relatively easy since then. Something had drawn the fighting into the south and with it the bulk of the Synthien’s attention as well. For the last few days they only had to contend with sporadic patrols of shambling metal skeletons and hovering spy drones, and a few scattered outposts bristling with surveillance scanners along their route. Still, the pair had to tread carefully to remain undetected, and it had taken all of Solomon’s skill to keep them beneath the gaze of the machines. Were the Synthien mere men, and made of flesh and bone, it would have been as easy for him as breathing air. But these were the synthoids of the machine empire, each equipped with a suite of optical senses capable of seeing at great distance, in the dead of night, and as he had come to suspect, even through walls. He almost wished they were trudging through Jotune lands instead. A flash of blue fire crossed his thoughts and he heard the agonized screams of those dying in a conflagration. He shuddered. Almost.
What was a band of mercs doing this far behind Synthien lines anyway? Solomon had finally posed the question to his companion after they evaded the fifth in what would be more than a dozen sentry patrols. Helena had simply shrugged. ‘How should I know? They’ve bunked up inna cluster a’ruins synthside, is all I do.’ And that was that. It wasn’t unbelievable. The Black Dread could have struck a bargain with the Synthien for cohabitation, or if they were as formidable as their reputation claimed, then maybe the machines didn’t even know they were there. If Solomon was a betting man he’d put his coin on the first of those two unhappy options. Which didn’t bode well at all.
A band of mercenaries allied with the machine empire was not an enemy you cared to make. But then, there was nothing much to done about it, Helena’s father was their captive, and Solomon had agreed to assist in his escape. He wasn’t a merc, and wouldn’t cut cord on his agreement, no matter how dire the consequences – or unlikely his survival.
That felt good, because it felt right. He had wandered alone with no real purpose for far too long, and with no one to care about other than himself. That wasn’t the way of his people or the way he had lived the first nineteen years of his life. He hailed from a tribe that was as close as kin, blood relative or no, and solitude was worse than death. And yet he was alone, and had been for years.
No longer. He had Helena now. Though he didn’t know what would happen when they found her father, and shepherded him to safety, he didn’t care to think that far ahead. He wanted to live in this moment. It felt right, and that felt good.
They had been trudging along for hours , swathed crown-to-boot in travelling cloaks, their heads bound up in wraps, and faces covered in rebreather masks. They moved with chins tucked into the folds of their clothes, and foreheads tilted into the synthside gale of grit and sand, when he spotted the shell of an ancient ruined building. It was little more than two distressed walls and a pile of rubble, but it was enough to get them out of the elements to catch their breath, so he steered their direction towards it.
They each took a wall inside what must have been a long abandoned way-station. Helena slid down one to sit with her back propped against its dusty surface. As she did an alarming amount of the thing crumbled away, but she didn’t seem to notice. Eyeing his wall suspiciously, Solomon thought better of it and hunkered on his haunches in the style of the waste-folk next to it. He tried to hide the wince that creased his face as pain shot through his leg, but as he settled, soon enough the pain subsided. Both pulled their rebreather masks up onto their foreheads and Helena immediately took in a long, luxurious breath that ended in a satisfied sigh.
“Always hated those things,” she said, looking at him then gesturing up with a flick of her eyebrows.
“Yar, stale air makes fer unpleasant travl’in,” he said knowingly.
Truth be told he didn’t mind the filtered air or the mask covering his face. They were far better than the alternative.
“Beats lung-rot,” he said with a shrug.
She looked at him, long and hard, before throwing back her head, laughing with obvious pleasure.
Solomon shifted uncomfortably, and then finally cracked a half-hearted smile. He didn’t feel like laughing, but hers was infectious.
Helena sighed and sank further against the wall.
“Where did ya get those burns?” She said gesturing with a nod.
“Ah. They love’ta burn things.”
Solomon’s jaw clenched. He recalled the day they had squared off against the two she-angels, flying infantry of the Jotune. Before the debacle that had put a limp in his step, they witnessed a host of harriers congregated above a Synthien outpost down in the valley below. They watched as the Jotune host unleashed a fiery blue inferno that decimated everything it touched: building, machine, techcrete, and steel. He knew that were he standing outside his village the day the Jotune arrived years ago to burn it and everyone he loved to the ground, he would have seen the same sight. The thought brought the taste of bile to his throat.
“Aye. They do.”
He saw Helena nod her head in quiet agreement. She wouldn’t ask him why. She knew that his people’s punishment could have been for a crime as small as daring to exist on this gods forsaken planet. And in the end, questions of why were irrelevant. Life was short and brutal. The hate he saw in the she-angel’s eyes, as she charged him with her sword ready to cut him from top to tip, it was borne of his very existence, and that was why enough to end him. End a whole village.
“Ye know, my people could claim ances’try to th’ Jotune. An’ yet they razed my village to th’ ground. Killed man, woman, an’ child. Killed ‘em all.”
“An’ ye were the only to survive?”
She nodded her head and then tilted it back to rest on the wall, regarding the wind that howled above.
“Somethin’s are supposed t’be.”
“And ye’ wander alone…”
“Cuz I’m a pariah.”
“Kin is everythin’ t’ my people. Th’ number one is an ill omen amongst th’ Exsularian. Tis a number o’ death. T’ be alone is t’ die.”
She nodded slowly.
“Th’ wastes are an unforgivin’ place.”
“This world is,” he said, his tone grave.
“Yar. Yar it is,” she agreed.
The two of them sat and listened to the howling overhead, and somewhere in the south, the sky turned as red as if the gods had spilt their blood upon it. But for now they didn’t notice, for all they heard was the wind, patter of grit on stone, and their own steady breathing.