Written by Matt Ochs | John Kimmel
none by 40 - synthside
“We made it!”
Solomon had a difficult time registering the words. He heard them, but he didn’t believe it.
He looked to where Helena pointed, through a break in the bluffs and crags that they had been navigating for the past two days. Off in the distance a ramshackle fortress built of corrugated steel barricades and other assorted rubbish hunkered on the deadpan. Even by outland standards the thing was shabby.
“Not much ta look at,” he mumbled, squinting and rubbing his eyes. It had been a month and a quarter since the two of them had embarked on their journey. They had traversed sun scorched wastes, been caught between marauding super-warriors and the machine outpost they attacked, braved the winds of Reaver – a spring storm strong enough to strip the meat from your bones – outran a wall of fire, navigated a pitch dark underground labyrinth, and escaped the clutches of a monstrous serpent. Oh, and then there was the thing about destroying an entire Synthien underground facility…
That last trick was a mere coincidence and they had been forced into it. With alarms blaring and an insane mechanical spider-thing in close pursuit, they had had to try something drastic to make their escape, and that’s what Helena came up with. She didn’t tell him what she was going to do when she strapped the last of their ammunition to an energy matrix and rigged it to blow sky high, but she had done it. And it worked.
They found their way to the surface in the chaos after, and had spent the last few days wandering the craggy wastes. Solomon wasn’t entirely sure of it, but the odd red hue he had seen down of their location seemed to have vanished too. Maybe the strange color in the sky had been brought on by Reaver in these parts, but either way, he felt better now that it was gone. So he spent the last two days following Helena’s lead as she steered their course due synthside. Solomon had his doubts – what band of mercs would put their outpost in such a remote location, and through hostile territory to boot? - but he took her at her word, and trusted that she knew where she was going.
And she did. They had finally made it.
“Yar, these mercs don’t have need o’ fancy masters’ chambers or other niceties,” she said, somewhat accusingly.
Solomon flushed, of course he didn’t expect a murderous band of guns for hire to be creatures of comfort, but that’s not what he meant. It was something else entirely.
“Tisn’t what I meant,” he frowned, “it’s not what I s’pected in terms o’ menace.”
Helena regarded him cooly, and he could still feel the heat of her glare.
“I mean, it doesn’t look terribly imposin’, not for th’ Black Dread Corps anyway. It looks kinda – shitty.”
Helena simply continued to stare, and though he didn’t dare turn away, Solomon hated it. It was almost as if her eyes were trying to burrow through his head and bust twin holes out the other side. A lesser man might lose his water if he were regarded so.
“I would’a thought a’ native outland son like ya would know better,” she finally said.
Solomon raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Such an inauspicious hideout tis th’ best way ta avoid attention, s’pecially from the likes o’ th’ Synthien just thataway.” She threw a thumb over her shoulder.
Solomon saw the logic in her point, but it still didn’t feel quite right. The location of the stronghold, the look of it – everything - felt wrong to him. Almost like they were walking into a trap.
“Aye, p’raps yer right,” he said, palms raised, surrendering. He had trusted her this far, why stop now? “Les go ‘ave a look then.”
He didn’t waste another word before taking the lead and navigating the last of the sharp outcroppings and ankle breakers that would lead them to the plain below. Solomon kept them close to the shadows of the cliff facings overhead, but soon they would be exposed and on open ground in clear view of any lookouts the base might have.
He raised a hand and hunkered, knowing Helena would take the signal and follow suit. They were on the edge of the plain and this was it, any wrong move would likely mean their end. Solomon peered out across the flatpan to the mismatched barricades that made up the fort. It was a collection of steel sheeting, wrecked pieces of warmachines, and other assorted debris, stacked and riveted together in place. Other than an obvious makeshift gate, there appeared to be no way in or out, except if the thing was raised for entry. Solomon looked to the top of the stronghold, expecting to see the stationary or bobbing heads of moving guards, but saw none.
“Where are they?” He mumbled, the skin on the back of his neck prickling with anxiety.
What had felt off, now felt completely wrong. Who were these Black Dread fellows, and what game were they playing? They were reputed to be the deadliest guns for hire, but this hovel didn’t look anything like the hideout of such a notorious gang of mercs. And no watch on post. A trained group of killers would never leave themselves so undefended.
“Gods, be good,” Solomon prayed and touched his forehead and then the center of his chest in the way of his people, before moving from the shadows and onto the plain.
Amongst the Exsularians he had always been one of the best at camouflage and stealth, and now he used every ounce of that skill, dodging from bush to bush and waiting until the sun was eclipsed by clouds to offer a moment of dim vision. Not once did a sentry look over the top of the building’s ramparts, however, nor was there a single indication of alarm. In fact, Solomon couldn’t hear any sounds coming from the compound. Not those of laughter, or even something as simple as soldiers at drill. The feeling of wrongness he felt deepened, but what was there to do? They hadn’t come all this way to turn back at the doorstep, so he kept his head low and pushed on.
Finally they reached the patchwork barricade wall of the fort, and Solomon crouched low at its base. Helena moved with a fluid grace to join him and waited expectantly at his back for their next move. Solomon had only seen the one way in; the draw gate at the front. It wouldn’t do to simply go knock, so he started to look for other options. Looking up and down the wall he noticed holes in its construction. Maybe he could find one at eye level and get a glimpse inside?
Solomon shifted his weight and headed along the side of the barricade in a low hunch, stopping every so often to listen for sounds from behind the wall. Finally he caught the hint of something, but was unable to make out what it was. It sounded like the crackle of hot oil touching water, but not quite. He pressed on and then noticed a fist sized hole streaming light from the inside of the compound. He made his way over quickly and looked in. Solomon thought he was beyond surprise, but what he saw proved him wrong.
The inside of the compound was strewn with heaps of mechanical debris and clusters of supply crates and drums, all with tarps suspended over them from staked poles or the walls themselves. A few squat structures were dispersed amongst the heaps of junk and a taller structure sat and the center of a vast courtyard. There was no sign of life, except –
Solomon blinked and then looked again, not believing his eyes. There were maybe half a dozen tiny robots scattered across the compound floor, doing the gods knew what. Some seemed to be sifting through the piles of rubbish and others were organizing and ferrying parts to and fro.
That was it, this couldn’t be the stronghold of the Black Dread Corps, the mercs that had captured Helena’s father. They must have taken a wrong turn, or gotten the wrong intel on their location, or –
Solomon began to pull his head away from the hole, but before he could get a word out his vision exploded into blinding starbursts and then everything went dark.
Could those bugs keep it down?
Solomon heard them screaming through the haze. It was dark here, and nice. He was so tired and all he wanted to do was sleep, but those tiny little bugs were making so much noise. It was an awful noise, some of which sounded like screaming. Not like human screams, animal screams. Like those of a desert hare caught in the jaws of ripper rattler. Gods it was awful. Couldn’t they keep it down? Just a little?
But wait, was that the sound of a blaster? Why were the little bugs screaming? Was someone shooting at them? Solomon thought that might be the case, but who would want to do that? Then he heard a woman shouting.
Helena? Was that her? Whoever she was, she sounded so angry. Why? Helena was going to be reunited with her father today. That’s why they were here… the bugs – no – robots… they were inside the compound. Solomon had seen them and then –
Solomon’s eyes burst open. Too bright! He shut them again and opened them more slowly, allowing them to adjust to the blinding sun. They were bleary too, and as they cleared he could see the parched hardpan of the wasteland stretching off into the distance to meet the bluffs and ravines they had traversed to get here. His cheek burned where it lay against the cracked ground. Solomon’s head was killing him. There was a splitting pain radiating across his skull, and after he dragged an arm out from under him, he touched it delicately with two wobbly fingers.
They came away bloody. But why? Had it been Helena? She had been right behind him the entire time. Maybe the lack of watchmen on the base’s readouts was a ploy the Black Dread used, and one of the mercs had snuck up on them to take them both unawares.
Solomon dragged himself to his elbow and looked around. The world spun and he had to close his eyes and remain motionless until it stopped. He opened them again. Nothing.
The whip crack of cell shooter fire broke the silence and he heard a woman scream.
Helena! She was in there, and he had to hurry. Only the ancestors knew how she had found a way to fight off her captors, but how much longer she could keep them at bay, he didn’t dare to think.
Solomon staggered to his feet. There still was no other visible entrance to the compound, so he did the only thing he could think of, he put one boot in the hole he had used as a peephole and began dragging himself up the side of the rampart. The hodgepodge construction of the wall made it easier, and there were was no lack of handholds and footholds to help aid his ascent. He was about halfway up when he heard two more blaster shots from inside, this time further away and muffled, and Solomon knew he had to hurry. He pulled himself up the rest of the way and dragged his sore body over the uneven top of the barricade, letting himself dangle before dropping the remaining five meters back to the ground.
He landed in a heap, but his adrenaline was up and he didn’t feel it at all. Soon he was back on his feet and looking for signs of – anything. The compound looked as much as it had before; piles of junk, stacks of supplies, except that a few of the neatly stacked barrels and crates had tumbled over and there were half a dozen small machine corpses sparking and smoking on the ground.
“What in the seven hells?” Solomon breathed.
There wasn’t even a single sign of human life and yet all the robots he had seen earlier, busy at their menial tasks, were dead.
“What’s goin’ on here?”
Solomon didn’t have much more time for questions, there was a huge raucous of banging metal and yelling coming from the central building. He sprinted for it, but came up short when he spied a laser carbine in a heap of debris beneath the shade of a tarpaulin. The thing looked serviceable, and when he flicked off its safety and it whined to life with a green charge indicator, Solomon thanked the gods for his good luck. He shouldered his newly found weapon and made his way into the building, scanning as he went.
He had to stop twice to stifle a wave of nausea, but Solomon was able to make his way through the confines of building undetected. It was a ramshackle place, just like the outsides, but there was a higher level of detail paid the finishings, and lazy blue-green glow orbs hung from the ceiling to light his way. Solomon passed through what must have been a mess hall, complete with a table and a few items that passed for dishware. A piece of cheese still sat on its cutting board with a knife plunged through it. Solomon’s stomach grumbled, but he didn’t have time to stop for a snack. He could hear voices ahead and he stalked closer with his rifle raised, looking down its sight and ready to fire.
“You’ll be coming wi’ me,” he could hear a woman say from up ahead, through an open doorway.
Light streamed through and Solomon squinted to keep his eyes focused. He moved closer and crouched at its entrance, letting his vision adjust.
“Ah, and to what end?” This time a man’s voice.
Solomon shielded his eyes and scanned the room. Then he spotted her.
She laughed in response, that same dry laugh he had come to love. She stood with a hand resting on a cocky hip, the other lazily holding a shooter. Just like it was nothing, nothing at all.
“Fer this an’ that. We always have need’uv a man o’ yer skills.”
“And who would that be exactly?” The man asked.
“The Black Dread Corps. And myself. You can call me Maggie. Others call me mad, but then aren’t we all, at least a little?”
A cold shot ran the length of Solomon’s spine and his stomach clenched before running itself in a double knot. Helena – Maggie, had deceived him, and for what? To capture this man, that must have been why. But who was he?
Solomon decided he didn’t care, his fury had built and he was beyond throwing caution to the wind. He stepped from the shadows with his carbine tucked neatly into his shoulder and put the woman he had once called a companion in his crosshairs.
“I might call you dead,” he said.
To her credit, Maggie didn’t flinch, nor did she break eye contact with her prisoner. Solomon did notice her gun hand take a more solid grip on its weapon, however.
“Solomon,” she said, trying to inject as much sugar into her voice as she could. “Thank th’ gods yer here-“
“Save it… Maggie,” he spat the last word with the contempt he felt.
“Ah,” she said, and then spun with a speed that was terrible to behold.
Solomon was firing and diving more from instinct than anything else, the flash of his muzzle dazzling his vision and the streak of return fire blinding and sizzling as it cracked past. He hit the ground hard and rolled to take a knee, but before he could find the traitorous woman he had once called a friend, he saw a huge automaton rumble into view and swing its huge fist. There was a huge crash, and then all hell broke loose. Small arms fire lit the room and the machine strode again raising its massive arm, easily the size of a full-grown man and brought it down onto the ground. Solomon saw a flash of flowing hair and leather and knew Helena – Maggie was making her escape.
“Argus, after her!” He heard the man yell, and without hesitation the machine, easily four meters tall, squeezed itself out the door and rumbled down the tight hallway in pursuit.
Solomon made it back to his feet and back over to the man Maggie had tried to take captive. He leaned against a table, visibly shaken, and holding his arm. In his other hand he still held a large switch, and judging by the torn wires dangling from the wall, that must have been where the automaton had come from.
Solomon held his carbine loosely, letting it dangle in his grip.
“My thanks, traveler,” the man said. “Your timing was impeccable, in fact, miraculous. If not for you, I wouldn’t have been able to activate Argus, and then, well –“ He trailed off. “Who are you?”
Solomon flipped his carbine up onto his shoulder and smiled.
“Solomon Fayd o’ th’ Exsularian, at yer service. And ye be?”
“Dr. Peter Lehner, at yours, and well met.”