Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
none by 20 - synthside
He had been right to move quickly. No sooner had Solomon crossed the threshold with Helena on his heels, than the portal lumbered shut. It didn’t close quickly, but clanged into place with a finality that stole away all hope - it wouldn’t budge. When it closed, it brought darkness so complete that it swallowed what weak light that had followed them in.
But this is what they wanted, a reprieve from the elements above, the wind, the slow-sickness of the land. They hadn’t necessarily considered the alternative, and now they were posed with this tunnel, which he had seen upon entering to be an immaculate metal shaft about three meters wide by three meters tall, shrouded completely in darkness.
The two of them had stood where they were before the light had vanished, like children waking in the dead of a moonless night, frozen, waiting for their eyes to adjust. Solomon wondered if they ever would, and began to doubt it. The darkness seemed utterly complete.
He felt like an arse, standing there, his arms slightly elevated, ready as a rat in a trap. Outside, on the wasteland side of the portal, both he and Helena had held their silence in what he took to be an effort to remain undetected by listening devices. The whole exercise took on a fresh absurdity; they were blind and now they were supposed to be mute? He didn’t feel like becoming another corpse for the machines to do gods knew what with, but if they were to make any progress they’d need to be able to at least communicate. Sure they could feel their way along the corridor, but it all amounted to the same, and in the end, they could stumble upon a trap and be just as doomed. At least he had decided as much.
Solomon froze. He could hear a rustling coming from somewhere. The sound was incredibly faint, and he cocked his ear to try and get a better read on its location. It grew a bit louder and then he heard clearly the unmistakable scrape of canvas.
Was that Helena? Had to be. Gods, being unable to speak and see was killing him.
Solomon waited a little longer, which felt like an eternity, before he had made up his mind to speak. He opened his mouth, but just as his lips parted, something rigid poked him in the ribs. Instinctively he jerked away and shot his hands down to grasp whatever it was. What he felt was flesh, leather, and cold steel. He gripped the steel in one hand and the flesh in another before letting go quickly. Still unable to see, he glared into the darkness, confounded.
Then he heard unmistakable huh-hum of a throat clear. If he could have seen her face, Solomon was sure he would have been greeted by Helena’s trademark look of disdain.
Sheepishly he reached his hands in front of him into the blackness and found the metal object floating where it had been when it poked him. He took it firmly in both hands and felt Helena let go.
Now that he had it, he still had to figure out what the damn thing was. He held it before him and turned it over in the dark, running his hands all over its surface. It was box of sorts, with a rounded notch in the middle on one side. There were two smooth round pieces that felt like glass and two rubber loops running to around one side to where they met away from the box.
Solomon almost couldn’t believe it. How could Helena be this prepared, and with a set of night-sight goggles that would fetch a small fortune in his village? He felt across the box until he found the soft rubber of what must be the on-off switch and pushed it. Immediately he could see a ghostly green outline of the floor between where he held his hands. Gods, she had!
Quickly, now that his suspicions were confirmed, Solomon slipped the rubber loops over his head so that one set crossed from his temples to the back of his skull and the other traced a line up and over from his forehead to the same place. The goggles slid into place over his eyes and as he looked through them he saw the portal and the woman standing in front of it.
Helena had one hand on the strap of her pack and the other on a cocked hip. He could see the thin line of her unimpressed mouth peeking out from underneath the bulk of her own pair of night goggles.
She had two! Gods, the woman and her father truly must be rich. The pieces began to fall into place as he remembered what she said when they first met. ‘My father’s a man o’ means,’ she had promised. And now, Solomon believed every word. Who her father was and how he had come upon his fortune, Solomon had never thought to ask for fear of prying, but now he began to imagine the wealthiest individual he could conjure; a sularium baron. It made sense, Helena was learned and tested in ways only wealth could seem to manage. Like the way she had patched him up after their run-in with a pair of Jotune she-angels. Her skill had impressed him at the time, but the anti-bios she had given him that saved him from limb rot, those were the real difference. His people had their own remedies, to be sure, but nothing like that. Only magic, wealth, or amputation could keep a man’s limb from festering after suffering a wound in the wastes.
He couldn’t help but wonder, what else had she got?
Helena jerked her head in the opposite direction, clearly indicating that she was ready to go. And so they set off and walked for hours. The same featureless alloy walls stretched on for what appeared to be infinity. As they walked they would periodically stop and examine an oddity, such as an especially large seam in the wall, or even once or twice when Helena deemed it necessary to wield her reflecting glass as a precaution against probable Synthien spy sensors. Other than that, the journey through the network was monotonous. The system was built seemingly without purpose - or at least any that Solomon could discern. In all the time they had been traveling they had not come to even one crossroads, and since walking in a straight line didn’t require any discussion, they continued in silence out of an abundance of caution. And so they walked in complete darkness with only their soft bootfalls to accompany them, unaware of their destination or any danger that might lie ahead.
It was during this time that Solomon, mostly out of boredom, began to think about their situation. They were an unknown distance underground, with an unknown distance to travel, and with no known means of escape. He wasn’t aware that he had suffered from a condition like claustrophobia before, but under the circumstances, he felt an acute twinge of anxiety. It had never been a question in his mind that were he to die in Synthien lands, that it would be anything less than violent and at the hands of a machine. Terrible sure, but somehow being deprived of his basic senses and trapped in this tunnel, unable to see the light of day, or a visible, tangible adversary with which to fight was more terrifying by far. His fate rather, would be to die slowly, of starvation or insanity in the dark, long after the power cell of his night-sight goggles drained away; unable to see, trapped, and utterly alone.
He felt the sweat beading on his back and felt a shake tremble in his hands. He had to take his mind off such morbid thoughts, so he did the only thing he could think of and began to guess at the purpose of the network.
By the time they had walked another thousand paces, he had come up with: sewage (but that was dismissed due to the machines obviously lack of necessary bodily functions, though he later conceded that it could be for other forms of waste), sheltered passageways from the hard weather conditions (again, the Synthien were immune to almost all sickness and weather elements, so not likely), secret passageways for covert travel (but then, they were in Synthien lands, so why would they need to travel secretly?), and finally, perhaps a grandiose building plan that endeavored to showcase the machine empire’s unmatched skill at creating exacting underground architecture.
By the end of it, he had decided on the latter. It seemed just as reasonable as the others, and why not? Couldn’t machines have vainglory enough to rival the Jotune? After all, those were their creators, and were likely made in their image as builders a wont to do. And then, Solomon had heard the whispers of the machine’s enigmatic leader, some artificial intelligence known as Animae Vox – or was it Aiemus Fox? Regardless, the thing was supposed to be as large as a giant skyscraper of old, with the power of an entire Jotune warhost, and of course, an ego to match. Considering the facts, an underground network for the hell of it seemed possible – likely rather.
Solomon smiled to himself. He was feeling much better now that his thoughts were drawn away from a shadowy death at the bottom of the world. But he still felt hot. The sweat staining his back hadn’t diminished, and now, he was keenly aware of the perspiration beading on his forehead.
He turned towards Helena and noticed that she had unbuttoned her jacket, exposing her chest and had rolled up her sleeves.
So it wasn’t only him then. The whole tunnel had gotten warmer since they started their journey. Odd… Nothing else had changed, or had it?
The green. That had changed. The view he was seeing through the goggles was only ever so slightly brighter, and he might have missed it for the monotony of their travel. What about behind them?
Solomon stopped and turned around in his tracks to look back the way they came. What he saw almost blinded him. When he looked down the tunnel a flare of white light shone in his goggles’ display. He cried out involuntarily, breaking the silence, burying his eyes away from the glare with his hands.
Helena had turned around as well, but after hearing him call out, lifted her goggles to rest on the top of her head.
“Solomon…” Her voice sounded distant and hollow.
Solomon looked up from his palms at Helena and her awestruck.
Reluctantly he raised his goggles and looked again.
The end of the tunnel, what must have been tens of kilometers away, was aglow with a bright yellow glare.
“By th’ gods, what is that?” She mumbled.
“Fire.” He said, and even to him his voice sounded distant. Helena seemed puzzled, and she didn’t move. Why hadn’t she moved?
“Helena, it’s fire and it’s coming this way! RUN!”
Without another moment’s pause they both turned and began sprinting in the opposite direction. There was no time for planning, or for hope; they had to move, and they had to move now.
Their packs, heavy with gear, banged against their backs as they ran and Solomon wasn’t surprised when Helena stuffed a few power cells into her pockets, took hold on her carbine rifle in one hand, and shrugged hers off. He did the same, leaving behind their spare rations, supplies, and extra ammunition. It was that or a sure death by fire, so it wasn’t a choice at all.
Lighter they made much better speed, and thankfully so. Solomon noticed that the passage was narrowing, and that it was beginning to slope upwards. If he hated having to outrun a giant wall of fire, he hated having to do so up an incline doubly so. But he was grateful for the change – any change. A difference in the tunnel meant that they might be nearer to some route of escape, or that there would be something – anything - they could use to their advantage.
Solomon gritted and bared his teeth, willing his legs to press on.
Soon he could see a dot of light up ahead. This was soft glow of illumination, not the blazing glare of a raging inferno, and for that he could have cried out in joy – had his lungs not been occupied with gulping down air. He knew he shouldn’t, but he chanced a glance back. The wall of flames had doubled in size and confirmed his worst fear – it was gaining on them, and fast.
The window of light up ahead continued to grow as they put every ounce of energy into their legs. Solomon’s breathing were ragged and the pounding of his heart filled his ears. He hadn’t moved like this in a long time, and never for a distance this long. He voiced a silent prayer to his ancestors that his legs wouldn’t give out before the flames overtook him, and then did the only thing he could – he prayed.
A boom came from behind them, and Solomon knew that it had finally reached the munitions in the packs that they had left behind. The inferno couldn’t be more than a few seconds behind them now, and Solomon gauged them making the doorway in thirty. It didn’t bode well for a longer, happier life. Not at all.
But still, the light ahead had materialized into the unmistakable shape of a doorway, and as they raced towards it, Solomon’s prayer became a simple pleading in time to the thundering of his heart. Please please please please please.
The heat behind them had trebled, and Solomon knew in his heart that they wouldn’t make it. Only the wind could outrun the flames, and they were far slower than that. He had the sickening feeling that he should slow down. Why die with so much effort? The end was the same anyway. What was once merely uncomfortable, was now unbearable. Each breath he took was a searing blaze that scorched his lungs and left his mouth desperately dry. His breath, once a dull wheezing, became a dry husk. To his horror he could feel the skin on the back of his neck begin to blister.
Not like this. No longer a prayer. He had seen death and destruction as no one else had, his entire village consumed in fire. He remembered the screams, and how they choked on the flames to crackling gurgles. He hated fire.
Not yet, he willed, we’re almost there. It was true, they could finally see what lay on the other side of the doorway, and it appeared to be some massive chamber. Solomon didn’t care if it was the chamber to lucifer’s bedroom chamber pot as long as it was anywhere other than this damned tunnel. He dug deeper and pushed his muscles to the point of screaming. It was so close, they were so close.
And then Helena fell.