Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
80 by 79 Synthside
Solomon armed sweat from his brow. He limped along beside the hulking form of his companion and as he glanced up, he wished they could find some shade.
“Your respiration has increased 15%, Solomon.”
Solomon didn’t reply.
“And your speed has decreased 40%.”
Still, more silence.
“Conjecture: your primary energy stores and levels of hydration are nearing depletion.”
Solomon frowned. Damn robot. The only thing it seemed good for was stating the obvious. Oh, and for getting them out of very hostile situations. Hence their current predicament; trudging through the wastes.
In three days time they had hardly stopped for rest for fear of the pair following behind them. To be more precise, he had not stopped for rest; a machine like Argus had no need for any. Nor did he have need of food - or drink.
As much as he hated to admit it, Solomon was beginning to envy his metal companion.
“Yar. An’ quiet yer metal trap.”
And for a wonder Argus did.
The silence stretched out between them, punctuated only by the slow sifting scrape of his boots and the giant crunch of Argus’s metal feet. Solomon watched their shadows, now dwarfed in the noon sun, but couldn’t mistake the difference between the two. Argus was not human, but that wasn’t all about him. He seemed out of place, like he didn’t belong on Sularia.
As sweat rolled down his brow, Solomon thought about it for the first time. Was that why he despised the machine? At least when it came to the Synthien he knew where to stand. Fear, hatred, and respect. In that order no less.
But Argus was another matter. No matter how many times he saw the machine move with its deadly speed and strength would he feel the same awe and terror when watching Synthien war machines at their grisly work. Perhaps it Argus’s constant insistence of nonsense chit-chat. Solomon could never fear that which annoyed him, much less hold it in awe.
Why couldn’t that damn machine just keep its metal jaws shut?
Gods an’ demons it was annoying.
And it couldn’t take a hint, couldn’t it see he didn’t want any more of its inane chatter.
“I said shut up!”
As Solomon rounded on Argus with rage straining his face, the look quickly evaporated into shock as he took his next step. Where there should have been ground there was nothing, Solomon’s foot clipped the lip of a sheer drop and there was nothing to slow his fall.
The last feeling Solomon would experience was his stomach in his throat and all his body’s blood in the back of his head as he fell.
But he didn’t fall, instead he hovered over the cliff, feet dangling in the air, and loose rocks cascading down the cliff.
A metallic voice came from behind him, “Solomon, I attempted to warn you of this chasm.”
Solomon croaked his reply, a simple, “yar.”
Furtim Braccae saw the man Solomon step out over the edge of the canyon, and what was left of his human heart stopped. The machine known as Argus moved with its stunning speed and halted the man’s fall. Furtim steadied himself. There was no place for emotion in the grand design of machine perfection. He would have his revenge, all that mattered was whether the man Solomon met his end – by his hand or no.
Furtim zoomed out his optix. That sentiment was all well and good, but he would be kidding himself if he didn’t want the blood on his hands. He could feel the weight of the Red Eye in the back of his mind, pleasantly buzzing, giving warmth to his thoughts and cold purpose. He tried to recall a time when that presence was not in his cerebrum, but couldn’t. He didn’t want to.
The Red Eye was more faint now, so far from Centropolis and the Synthien lands. Furtim could feel errant thoughts invading his mind, and doubled his efforts to refocus.
Furtim had already scouted ahead of the traveling pair, the canyon housed a machine shop of sorts. He had never seen its like before, it resembled a bazaar common to the Exsularian and other nomadic tribes of the wastes, but it was unlike them in many other ways.
The first was the corpse of his brethren used as a macabre shell by the man who peddled his wares there. It was a noble Hekaton, scavenged from a battlefield no doubt, and this far north, it must have been from a conflict years ago.
Regardless, his primary objective was the destruction of the man Solomon and the reclamation of the machine Argus, but Furtim made a note to kill the proprietor of this blasphemy in the wastes.
“Gods an’ demons,” Solomon breathed.
The pair stood in the shadow of the canyon, looking up at the hulking form that crouched before them.
“The pinnacle of Synthien war machines and siege technology,” Argus chimed in.
“Yar. It is,” Solomon could forgive his partner this once; he was too awestruck. “What’s it doing here?”
For once Argus was brief, though Solomon was curious, he would take it.
“Well, less see who runs this joint.”
Man and machine approached and saw the gantries and rope brides spanning from the wrecked hulk to the sides of the canyon. Stacks of ammo crates and litters sprawled outside and a sign with jaunty lights flashed, ‘Crazy Joe’s Explosives.’
“Crazy huh? I’m not sure I’d want’ta buy boom from a crazy person.”
“Affirmative. Explosives are extremely volatile and not suited for the hands of the mentally unstable.”
“On tha’ we can agree.”
Solomon and Argus approached the portal that was hewn in the lower hull of the wrecked Hekaton. He raised his hand to knock, but before his fist found home on the metal door, it swung open with the ease of oiled precision. A man of middling age held the door open in one hand and stood back with a large friendly grin on his face.
“Welcome friends ta my humble gunney shack! My name’s Joe. Come in, come in!” He didn’t waste a breath before inviting them in with unabashed warmth.
Solomon looked at Argus, who was impassive as always, shrugged and stepped through the door.
Solomon had traveled long and far, and he had seen much, but he had never seen the likes of wait awaited him on the inside of Joe’s. The walls had been painstakingly covered with wood the like Solomon had never seen and lush enamel he didn’t know existed. Copper and gold fittings held glow lumes that lit the walls which were covered in the cured carcasses, hides, and heads of animals the like of waste hares to gargadons, and even some Solomon had never seen before.
The building was, of course, stacked with crates, litters, and shelves of bombs and mortars, mines and grenades. The spectacle of it was breathtaking.
“Yar, yar. This is me bode. It’s not much, but its home.”
Solomon was still wondering if Joe was being modest honestly or not, when their host continued.
“Sit, sit. I just got brindle boar out o’ th’ roaster. Tis delicious, meat falls off the bone. Ya’ll sit, ‘cept fer yer metal friend, he can stand.”
“Thankya,” Solomon said, gratefully sitting.
Joe retreated behind an open doorway to emerge with half a hog, roated and steaming on a platter. The smell was tantalizing and Solomon struggled to keep the spittle from his mouth from running over his chin. It was a little easier because he was so parched, then Joe laid two enormous pitchers of crystal clear water on the table.
“Yar. Ice cubes. I got me a freezerator in th’ basement,” Joe said with obvious pride. “It’s pre-Fracture.”
The last was said with a kind of awe, and so was Solomon his eyes wide with hunger and astonishment. He grabbed a boar’s leg in one hand and gulped down a tall glass of ice water in the other. He lost himself and grease and water ran down his chin and dribbled on his chest.
“Gods tha’ was good,” he said pushing back from the table with a full belly. Solomon hadn’t eaten so good in years.
“So boys, wha’ brings ya to my neck o’ th’ woods?”
Solomon glanced at Argus, and then back at their host before responding.
“Aye, how long ya got?”
“Let’s hear it all, from top ta bottom if it please ya.”
And Solomon did, talking long into the evening and then the night.