Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Synthien underground complex
The flare lay where Helena had dropped it, hissing and spitting, emitting a hollow red glare. The sounds it made faded as Solomon stepped through the portal and left the maze of underground corridors behind.
Death traps, Solomon reminded himself. The corridors they had walked through for hours – or had it been days? - weren’t simple dark deserted tunnels, they were pipelines for great gouts of flame. What nefarious purpose such a network served, he didn’t know, nor did he care to speculate.
Their travels through the underground network had been one calamity followed by another; first an oncoming wall of flame, then a monstrous serpent, and finally a trudge through darkness so long and featureless that it felt like it lasted forever. So when Solomon’s fingers found the first doorway in the labyrinth by sheer luck, the two of them had passed through it without hesitation. Any change had been a welcome one.
So eager was he, that when Solomon stepped across the threshold and into this new unknown, he did so with the abandon of a desert wanderer who spies an oasis – heedless and without caution.
The change that greeted him was so stark that it nearly took his breath away. This new area was unlike the others before. It was lit, albeit very dimly, but that was a good thing. No more walls of fire down pitch-black corridors, but…
Solomon ducked into a crouch by the nearest wall. He had seen something move out of the corner of his eye and he squinted as he hid himself, getting a better look. Helena followed quickly and took a knee behind him, her hand resting softly on his shoulder.
“What did ee’ see?” She whispered in his ear.
Solomon shrugged his shoulders enough to make his point – he wasn’t sure. The sputtering flare behind them cast weird shadows around the entry with its dying light. Though he hadn’t seen the tunnel before, but for a quick glimpse as they ran in, he knew this one was much smaller than the tunnel they had just left. He had spent an eternity running his fingers across the featureless finish of the corridor behind, and at a glance he remarked instantly on the condition of these walls. They were far less finished than those behind them, with their exposed guts of pipes and cables hanging between naked support struts and slabs of raw techcrete.
Solomon felt he knew what this meant and dared to hope, but Helena spoke first, “I think we’re outta th’ furnace thing.”
“Yar,” he said not daring to move, “I think so too. This place is less finished, prob’ly ’cause th’ fire would roast those necessaries ther’, outside.” Solomon motioned towards an especially important looking chord of wires. “No more fire.” When he finished his sentence it felt like a weight had been lifted.
“Aye,” Helena agreed, a tinge of relief in her voice as well. “We’re out.”
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and clung to him. Solomon was shocked by the gesture, was she having a breakdown? In all their time together Solomon had never seen her show an ounce of emotion, except during their first meeting. The woman had been implacable, but then, she was only human right? Horror and the threat of constant death could make anyone a little emotional.
Solomon shifted on his heels and Helena let him turn to face her. They looked into each other’s eyes, his surrounded by the mottled scarring left by the kiss of flames from years ago, hers framed by strands of handsome dark hair. Their gaze lingered and she moved first, drawing him to her breast and resting her head on his shoulder. The flare hissed one last thin dying wail before its light melted into the gloom. They stayed like that in the dark, bodies locked together in silence, emotionally bankrupt, drinking in what they could from another.
It was a feeling Solomon had long forgotten, holding someone this close, with only the sound of their steady breathing in his ear and the beating of their heart so close to his. With Helena here now, in his arms, he couldn’t fathom how he had gone this long without it. He closed his eyes and prayed that this might last a little longer, for he was too wise to think it would be forever. Just a little longer would do.
He opened his eyes and realized he didn’t have to strain to see in the gloom. Solomon raised his hand behind Helena’s back and saw its outline hovering in red relief. So there was light yet here to see by, all they had to do was wait for their eyes to adjust.
Helena seemed to notice at the same as him and she pulled away, letting her hands drift down his arms to rest in her lap. They sat like that, staring at one another like young lovers holding their breath in the full bloom of youth, surrounded by a hallway drenched in blood. Solomon looked about them and felt his skin crawl, the unfinished walls were a chilling replica of eviscerated innards in the low red light. Chords of wire and cables looked everything like bunched muscles and arteries, coursing through the exposed flesh of the corridor, and support beams flayed ribs. Solomon heard Helena draw her breath as she took in their surroundings as well. It rattled her nerves too then.
But he shook his head, this wasn’t meant for them, no human was destined to see this place, this was simply the necessary ambient glow for a machine to see. To their human eyes, the red light wasn’t much, but it would be enough to keep them from stumbling about in the dark, and for that Solomon was grateful. He looked at the walls again, with new eyes. Just cables and wire, he reminded himself.
“Les go,” he whispered, rising to his feet, drawing her up by the hand. They needed to get moving.
Able to see again, Solomon moved with the grace of all his practiced stealth. He stepped lightly on the grated floor, first quietly placing his boot heel and then letting the motion of his step roll his foot seamlessly onto his toes. He could hear Helena clomp awkwardly a few times, before she was able to begin to emulate his step. It didn’t take her more than a few strides to mimic his gait and then the pair moved in silence. Solomon remarked on how fast she learned and felt an unconscious grin break his lips.
He had come to respect his travelling companion for her many talents, and it seemed adaptability was just one of many. A flush prickled across his neck at the thought. He was pariah, doomed to wander alone, such dreams could be only fantasy. His tribe, his family was gone, and that meant he would die alone. He clamped his lips tight and pushed the thought aside, and continued along the corridor. Solomon could feel Helena moving behind him, and he pressed on a little faster to open a gap between them.
The chilling thought occurred that these corridors might continue on as indefinitely as those that had come before. At least we’ll be able t’ see, he thought. That was a small reprieve, but it was enough. As soon as the thought occurred the hall ahead opened to a much larger chamber. Solomon stayed close to the wall as they approached, straining to see what lay beyond.
The room was lit in the similar low red light, with exposed cables and piping flying from the high vaulted ceiling down to drape across the grated and riveted floors. A flight of metal stairs lead to a raised portion that housed an odd array of what looked to be laboratory instruments. Amongst them was a giant clear tank filled with a bubbling liquid and a bank of lazy indicator lights blinking methodically away. Inside the room a new sound radiated from the machines, something like whoosing or the slow pumping of liquid.
“What is that?” Helena whispered.
“I dunno, let’s take a’ closer look.”
Solomon moved to the stairs, scaling them with the same care and stealth. It was only six steps before he reached the top and was standing upon a suspended gantry dotted with control panels and dim screened monitors. A bank of these monitors got Solomon’s attention and he moved to them. The screens were lit only barely and he squinted to make out what he saw. As his eyes focused, he had to work to stifle a curse.
Each monitor was a view of the perils they had passed through to reach this point, and more! There was a screen showing a featureless tunnel, obviously lit by night-vision tech, and then there was the central furnace chamber, the water in its basin bubbling with the menace of what slumbered below. And on others there were yet more familiar scenes, screens that focused on doors that opened to the wastes beyond, or panoramas of the featureless hardpan outside - and the portal through which they had just passed to escape the furnace tunnels.
Looking at the monitors, Solomon’s skin crawled. If anyone had been manning this station they would have seen their advance well before now and would have known that intruders were inside. Then why no alarm? Why hadn’t security forces been mobilized?
“Solomon… look,” Helena’s voice was barely above a whisper.
He turned from the monitors to where Helena held her rapt gaze and saw what must have been three dozen cables and countless wires dangling from a large object. It was a – a man!
There was a body suspended above the monitor banks and the whirring machinery, held in the mimicry of a wasteland execution of being lashed to crossed poles for a slow death under the blazing sun. It hung prone, its arms spread wide and its head listing limply to one side. The signs of violence and torture were about it, and though it hung naked, it was still hard to tell what it had been.
“Gods an’ demons,” Solomon hissed and the thing groaned. It was alive.
Sure enough, a bank of the monitors were dedicated to the vitals of the subject hanging above them, but to what end?
Helena shifted her footing to get a better look and her boots thudded dully against the metal grating below them. The thing groaned again, and this time the sound was more akin to words. Gods the thing was big, easily twice the size of a normal man. The realization hit Solomon like a ton of bricks.
The thing was a Jotune.
“Helena, this is bad,” Solomon whispered, reaching out for her elbow. “That’s a’ Jotune soldier. It’s minder can’t be far.”
“Aye,” she said, a weird glimmer in her eye.
“Les get outta here. Now. While ‘ee can.”
She didn’t seem to notice, but rather enraptured by the machinery and monitors about, looking at this, straining to get a better glance there.
“Helena –!” Solomon hissed.
The thing groaned again, this time louder and more frantic. Solomon turned to it and moved closer to hear.
“Whaddid ya say?” He asked the thing.
“What? I don’t understand.”
“K.. ki… kill… me.”
Solomon rocked back, his eyes wide. Ancestors be good, it was conscious enough to beg for mercy.
“What in th’ devil’s name ar’ they doin’ ta ya?” He asked more to himself, but daring to raise his voice above a whisper for an answer.
It didn’t. Instead it struggled weakly against its restraints, rattling a few wires, and groaning all the louder.
“Kiiillll… meee,” it moaned, becoming more desperate and making even yet more noise.
The situation was promising to get out of hand, and fast. They needed to end this thing’s misery or move – and probably both, the sooner the better.
“Helena, we have ta end this thing’s mis’ry. Helena –“
Solomon turned to see her staring raptly at the clear chamber of fluid, its glowing contents shimmering in a nauseating pattern across her face.
“Dammit, woman, I –“
She spoke with a distance that told him she was lost to him and perhaps to everything else, “They’re changin’ ‘im into unna them.”
Solomon gaped at her and then looked back at the thing hanging above their heads. The cables, the wires, the pipes were all plugged into its skin, and a number of those lines had the same eerie glow of the tank into which Helena stared.
Solomon had made up his mind and reached for the last remaining weapon he had, his sidearm cell shooter strapped to his hip. He pulled it from its holster and thumbed the indicator; a high pitched whine told him it was armed and ready to fire.
“Tsk tsk tsk.”
“Did you?” He turned to look at Helena, but she was looking about with the same confused expression that he felt.
“Think you could sneak in here and wreak a little havoc, did you?” The voice again, this time Solomon could tell it wasn’t Helena’s. It sounded metallic, like it was coming from a scratchy vox speaker. He didn’t dare say a word, but kept scanning the room for its source. It could have been a vox device, or it could be a machine, hiding somewhere in the shadows.
“Yes, that’s what you thought. You’d come in and have a little fun.”
Solomon could hear something moving now. It sounded like sharp metal clicking.
“This one made for a good addition to Lord CR-1’s experiments, you on the other hand…”
With the last word it spoke, Solomon realized where the voice was coming from – directly overhead.
He spun and pointed his blaster to the ceiling in time to see a nest of glowing red eyes looking at him. Without a moment’s hesitation, Solomon squeezed off two shots. The blasts of energy slammed into the roof in a brilliant flash of light and sparks that blinded him with their glare. Solomon stumbled, and tried to regain his footing, but he couldn’t see. He hit the railing of the gantry and felt his momentum start to carry him over, until a pair of hands grabbed his collar and hauled him back.
“Let’s go!” Shouted Helena, already dragging him towards the far side of the room.
“But the Jotune!” He cried.
“There’s no time,” she said, and Solomon knew it was the truth. There was the rapid click click click of metal on metal, and for all the world it sounded like a massive mechanical spider.
“- Must die!” The creature finished in its mechanical voice, and Solomon saw what looked like the stuff of pure nightmare.
A bladed arm lashed out, aimed at striking his head from his shoulders, but Solomon ducked and squeezed off another salvo from his shooter, forgetting to close his eyes again. Blinded he stumbled and relied on Helena to guide him.
“Run if you must! You won’t get far!” It screeched after them.
Solomon knew he wouldn’t be able to hit the thing in the low light – maybe not even in the best of conditions either, instead he trained his firearm on the bank of machinery he knew that was still behind them and fired off another burst of s blindly.
A cacophony of explosions, pops of electricity, and breaking glass erupted from the gantry above and the spider-thing screamed out in inarticulate rage.
It made a series of high-pitched clicking noises and the previously low burning lights brightened before flashing out and rising again in what must have been the pattern of warning klaxons. If they had remained undetected by the Synthien host before now, that was no longer the case.
The pair darted through a doorway with Helena in the lead.
“What’s th’ plan?!” Solomon yelled, all pretense of stealth abandoned.
“I saw a’ reactor chamber on a map in yonder room!” She yelled back. “Got any more cells left?”
Solomon patted his pockets, though at a run he would have felt the familiar weight of cell packs bouncing in his pockets if they were there. He had only one left, and that was in his shooter.
“Jus’ one,” he said.
“That’s all we’ll need!” Helena yelled back. And Solomon hoped that was so.
They ran heedless down the winding corridor, the rapid flicker of the lights disorienting enough to almost cause him to trip and fall. Twice he stumbled and ricocheted rudely off a metal pipe jutting from the wall, but he stayed upright and running.
“There!” Helena yelled, slowing her pace and reaching out her hand.
Solomon didn’t give it another thought, he popped the cell from his sidearm and slapped it into the waiting palm. Helena spit something into her other hand, pressed it to the side of cell and dove into the reactor chamber.
What happened next was a blur. The room they entered was filled with Synthien, everyone one of them prepared for battle. Later Solomon would remember only a succession of images: screaming as they ran through a deluge of incoming gunfire, Helena slamming the cell against a round metal object, and then, after that, all he remembers is black.