Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
100 by 13 Jotside
Solomon consulted the faint glow of the data slate he held in his hand. Tiny letters scrawled out across its surface listed a myriad of mundane items: 16 meters of copper wire, 5 kilograms of rubber hose or scrap, 100 kilograms of techcrete (not mixed)… he slowly ran his finger up the right side of the data slate’s screen and the list scrolled further down to reveal: adamantine sheath (20 centimeter diameter, 3 meters in length), six cold circuit cores, 10 pairs of electrical clamps… the list went on and on.
A frown creased his forehead and he dropped the slate to his side to stare out across the rugged landscape. He and Argus had trudged over 150 kilometers in their search so far and it appeared they still had much farther to go. All for an assortment of scrap. As far as he could tell anyway. Only the good doctor knew for sure; and he had babbled a few things, sure, but most of it went far over Solomon’s head. His bargain hadn’t, and his offer of barter and coin was enough to rope the one known by the moniker “pariah.” What did a pariah have to lose? Nothing. So Solomon thought he might take a gamble on a gain. He had done so before, and it hadn’t worked out better than a knife in the back and a bit of heartbreak, but that was life. And the wasteland promised much worse.
He flicked a twig he had been holding as a toothpick out onto the cracked dirt beneath their feet.
Anudder day, anudder dollar, he thought and followed it with a gobbet of spit.
All one had to do was keep on walking, one foot in front of the other, simple as that. Simple enough even for a wastelander like hisself.
Solomon smirked, not dead yet. Close, but not dead.
He turned to the hunk of bolts standing next to him.
“Enney sign o’ life Argus?”
The thing didn’t so much as turn toward him before it replied, “negative, Solomon. I cannot detect anything other than the diminutive signs of wildlife.”
Solomon grunted. A waste rattler might be insignificant to his companion, but then he didn’t have the good fortune to be made metal – or have circuits for guts and he was prone to such inconveniences as dropping over dead.
“Lemme know if enney’a poisonous. Ye ken?”
Solomon spat into the hardpan again. He shouldn’t waste water, but he was frustrated. The bulky metal robot he had been traveling wasn’t much for company, or use as far as he could tell. Though he had seen him move once – fearfully fast, by the gods – anymore, Argus was simply a walking piece of sheet metal to reflect sun in his eyes and bake the back of his neck with redirected heat. It was already hot out, he didn’t need a piece of polished metal to make it worse.
But that wasn’t the half of it. Truth be told, Solomon didn’t trust the slag-a-brains. It wasn’t personally or anything like that, he didn’t trust any other machine for that matter. The only machines he had ever seen were long wrecked relics buried in the ruins of an ancient metropolises, long crumbled to rubble and heaped across the face of Sularia like radiation sores; and then there was the Synthien, mechanical men and monsters that would just as soon blast you from this world to the next before you could so much as wave a white flag or piss your pants in terror. So not much to feel warm and fuzzy about then, huh?
Besides, who could trust something that didn’t have anything but a couple of glassy optix or sensory nodes for a face? It just wasn’t natural – and it was creepy.
But here he was, stuck with the giant tin-man. The good doctor had paid him handsomely already, and had promised more if he were to return with the items on his list; so that was that. Brawn for hire couldn’t be too picky or choosey.
“I am detecting electronic transmissions emanating from a source 50 kilometers north-east.”
“Huh?” Solomon grunted, turning to his robotic companion who still stared off into the distance like a wistful wasteland poet.
“My apologies, Solomon. From a source 50 by 1 jotside from our present location.”
“Izzit th’ Synthien?”
“Unknown. However, based on prior data supplied about the Synthien race, this transmission does not appear to share any identifiable markers known to them.”
Solomon raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t like the Jotune to broadcast transmissions for no other reason than to entertain a few rocks and shrubs, and they were far from Synthien lands… so what did it mean? Was it a distress signal?
“I am able to relay the transmission now, if you wish to hear it.”
“Yar, acourse I would!” Solomon didn’t work to keep the frustration from his voice. In the days that he had traveled with the bag of bolts, it had never displayed a mere drop of common sense. It was oddly upsetting and somewhat patronizing that it couldn’t do the simplest task without his ‘confirmation.’
“Goah on then. Play it! Play it!”
“Very well.” And with that Argus went silent. Solomon waited impatiently before he was startled by an alarming click, a hiss of static, and then a blast of sound that was unmistakably a woman’s voice. His heart skipped a beat as thoughts of Maggie raced into his mind, but no, it couldn’t be. The voice wasn’t even the same. He was a fool to hope and a damned fool for wanting to see her again. She’d left him splayed out in the dirt with a cracked skull to bleed his last into the sand and had used him for weeks before that. Solomon knew he should be cursing her to both hells, but somehow he couldn’t. It was something about her smile and the way she had taken care of him when his body was peppered with shrapnel. He shook his head; those things had been a lie. She was a lie. And the only thing she was worth was letting go. Solomon pushed the thought from his head and listened to the voice booming from Argus.
“All ya waste-heads better listen up! We’re surrounded on all sides by tyranny, oppression, an’ death! Jotune jotside and Synthien synthside, with th’ innocent caught in-between. If ya think that drawing breath an’ a heartbeat makes ya any better in the eyes of th’ Jotune than a machine, think again! They’d just as soon cut ya down azza they would ther machine enemies! And-
The transmission cut out.
“Would you care to listen to more?” Argus asked.
Solomon could have sworn he heard a hint of agitation in the metal man’s voice. He’d never heard of a machine capable of anger, or any other emotion for that matter. They weren’t supposed to be able to do anything other than follow commands, so it must have only been a figment of his already strained imagination.
“Nay,” Solomon replied, “I get th’ jist. Though I can ‘preciate th’ spunk’uv one picking a fight with both sides, Synthien an’ Jotune. Ye said it was comin’ from 50 by 1?”
“Then let’s head thattaway then,” Solomon pointed in the direction before hoisting his pack. Maybe the firebrand on the wire would make for better company than the lumbering dolt he traveled with; he could hope.
It was nightfall before they reached the speck of land that Argus had indicated as the source of the transmission, and after a brief check, they discovered an unexpected surprise. It appeared that the woman didn’tbroadcast at length and wasn’t prone to recording herself and replaying her message, not in the last eight hours anyway. What Argus periodically let through his comm vox was a cacophony of discordant music that sounded akin to saw blades tearing through rusty metal while a lunatic banged on barrel drum.
“’At’s enough,” Solomon had gasped, pleading with the robot to terminate the broadcast. He had, but as they drew closer still to the eccentric’s hideout they began to hear a rhythmic thudding in the distance. It sounded like a giant’s racing heartbeat, shaking the landscape as it lay exhausted on the ground.
Of course it wasn’t, but Solomon could dream while he knew precisely what it was – a cacophony someone probably thought of as music.
“It is from a heavy metal band called Kornknot Killas, quite popular with pre-fracture youth who preferred conflict and discord as a way to garner attention from their guardians instead of achievement and accolade.”
“Uh-huh,” Solomon moaned, almost a whimper.
“Yes. Yes, indeed. It’s quite fascinating really. Human children differ widely in their-“
“Jus shut it. Kay?” Solomon was in no mood for fascinating trivia. The “music” had already given him a headache and Argus was simply making it worse. He speculated that the robot was having a fine time tormenting him, but they were already close enough to the source that each individual piece of scrap being banged on was discernable in the sound. He thought he even heard the tortured screams of a small animal behind it al. Was that supposed to be part of the music as well, or had one of the waste creatures finally succumbed and lost its mind to the racket?
Solomon didn’t have too much time to speculate because before long he could make out the brilliance of what must have been hundreds, if not thousands of glow lumes. A fresh wave of awe struck him when he realized how much energy the massive network of voxes, broadcasters, and lights would require to go – certainly not all day and all night?? That would require a huge deposit of sularium to fuel, and to keep it going indefinitely… Solomon felt his mouth go dry thinking about the money that this woman had built her insane death metal palace on top of. He would be set for life if he could get his hands on just a small fraction of what must be powering the place.
It was a simple matter of drawing near enough to the place and casing it out, not too difficult when one could hardly hear oneself think over the racket…
A blinding light lit up his entire vision and Solomon instinctively covered his eyes, doing his best to shrink from the glare.
“Hold it right ther’ curs.” It was unmistakable sound of the woman’s voice again. Solomon realized with no small amount of shock that the music had cut out, and for a wonder he almost wished for it back. Between the silence and the blinding light, he felt like a rat caught in a trap – right before it got tossed to the dogs.
Without hesitation Solomon turned to run, but came up short when he saw the twin barrels of two cell shooters; one trained on him and the other on Argus.
“Not so fast, scum. You’re trespassing, and there’s a price to be paid for breaking the law. Put your hands up nice and slow. The machine, power down and eject your relay plug.”
Solomon squinted and the source of the voice stepped fully into the brilliant light of the flood lumes. What stared back was a man clad head to toe in khakis with a metal gun vest strapped neatly around his chest and a duster covering him from shoulders to boot heels. He wore a wide brimmed hat and a bandanna that covered much of his face but didn’t so much as muffle his smoky voice.
“Now. If you value drawing your next breath,” he said, and Solomon did.