Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
80 by 79 Synthside
“By the body of the man Judas.”
Johnny Cache tipped his hat back and nudged the hand of the corpse spread face-down before him. He had seen this countless times before; the gaunt complexion, the deathly pallor. People died just like any animal, and this fella was no exception.
“This one’s dead already,” he breathed before moving on.
But his boot stayed where it was, anchored in place by –
“Well I’ll be. He’s got some spunk left after all.”
Johnny stepped back and the pressure eased off his foot. He hunkered down next to the dying boy, careful not to touch him and asked, “what’s your name son?”
The response was little more than a husked whisper, but it was a sign.
“That’s right. What should I call you?”
It was an odd name, but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Wasteland folk had a taste for whimsy, and names were one of their favorites.
“Ok. Good then. What’s the matter son? Did someone hurt you, or –“ he let the question hang. Not a soul with a shred of their wits still about them would admit to rad poisoning or the kind of disease that left you wandering alone in the wastes, so he didn’t prod. If that was the case, maybe it would slip out and then he could put a slug in this one’s unfortunate skull and be on with his business. That would be the merciful thing to do anyway.
Seconds stretched out from his asking and there was still no response. Perhaps he was dead or perhaps he hadn’t heard him, so Johnny leaned in just a little closer. Gods dammit his curiosity was up now.
“Boy. I asked –“
“Yes, what about they?” He emphasized the last word, for it meant all the world in its telling.
“They did… this… to me.”
There it was. Johnny reached down and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and helped ease him over on his side. He sucked in a breath at what he saw. It wasn’t a boy at all, but a young man, and his face…
Odd lines ran the length of his features, and his skin was grey and waxy like none he had ever seen before. The man’s dim eyes shone with an unmistakable hint of red. Johnny had seen the likes of this before and he knew who might be behind it. But that didn’t true with the prey he hunted, unless…
“Who was it son? Who did this to you?”
“The hu-“ he stopped himself and winced as if in pain, before continuing, “the man - Solomon.”
Johnny sat back on his haunches, determination setting across his features. He knew that good for nothing wastelander was trouble, but he had never thought he’d be in league with her. All this time he had been chasing quarry more dangerous than he had ken, but no matter, justice would be had in any case.
“Come on son, let’s get you to cover.”
“Th- thank you,” came the husked reply.
Furtim didn’t hardly have any of his wits about him when the gun carrying man came upon him. But he had had enough to stop him, and that was all it took. He let the man wrap his arm over his shoulder and help him along towards a rock outcropping, even limping slightly and letting the man bear his weight. It was all for show of course. He wasn’t hurt, at least not physically. Though it was true that when the man had stumbled upon him, he had nearly lost his mind. But he hadn’t. The man’s arrival awoke something within him, a predator’s instinct per se. It had washed away his confusion and doubts and given him cold focus, like a dying piranha snapping at the scent of blood.
And what luck it was that the man who should find him and come to his rescue was the very same he had pitted not too long against the human Solomon! Now he could pick up right where he left off and bring about both of their deaths and catch two rats in one trap in the bargain. Not to mention the other – so called – Crazy Joe. They all would die tonight, and then he would reclaim the machine that walked with Solomon for the Synthien Empire, and return to finish the broadcaster woman.
Yes. It was all falling into place, better than he could have ever hoped. He was so elated he didn’t even feign to keep the grin from his face, the hapless gunslinger had his eyes fixed dead ahead, sure that danger was out there and not slumped right beside him.
Johnny eased the man down next to a boulder with a smooth flat side. The man slid to the ground and let out a grateful sigh.
“There you go. Easy now.”
He tromped a few steps before taking a seat against a likely rock and pulling down the bandanna covered his face. He was tired too and it felt good to take a rest, though he doubted he needed it more than the sorry soul across from him.
He cocked his head back and took in the twinkling expanse above him.
“They always look the same,” he said, “no matter when or where you are.”
It was true, the Great Pitcher and Hunter shone just as bright as they always had, sparkling above the familiar purple streak of the Milky Way.
“I never look.”
Johnny raised a surprised eyebrow and regarded his companion.
“It would take more effort not too.”
“Well, it’s just that… it’s been so long and…”
He stiffened slightly, there was something to this, so he prodded gently, “and?”
“I- I- I…”
“Take it slow. Take your time.”
The man took a deep breath and that seemed to help.
“I couldn’t see the sun or stars,” he paused before continuing, strain evident on his face, “for so long it seemed like a lifetime.”
He had only suspected, but this proved it. He was chasing the mysterious man and his machine companion, but it all lead back to her. That woman caused enough grief, and now here was evidence of more. Though Solomon and machine named Argus were likely only her lackeys, they deserved no less than she did. Johnny could feel the end drawing near and his pulse quickened. He always felt this way, right before the big moment, but there was still more that needed to be done, so he willed his nerves to stay calm. He needed more information.
He felt he knew the answer, but he prodded, “you were underground?”
“And they did this to you?” He gestured at the man and the meaning was clear.
Johnny’s features set, “you have my word; justice will be done.”
It seemed like a little miracle, but it was when the man cracked the weakest of smiles.
Furtim allowed his lips to part, not as much as he wanted to, but just enough to show what looked like gratitude and relief.
He was in fact, very pleased. This man, this gunslinger, seemed to be under the impression that his actual Synthien rebirth was a tale that fit into a narrative he already knew. Perhaps he did know. Maybe there were those close to the vigilante that had been taken by the machine empire and remade into glorious synth and steel just as he had. But no, he thought not. This rankled of something else, and though he was playing the hapless victim, Furtim resolved himself to uncover exactly what motivated his ‘rescuer.’ After all, it might provide to be entertaining diversion, but for now he would continue to pluck the man’s heartstrings, and push him into a collision course with his enemies beyond.
All the pieces were falling into place, it would only take was a few more nudges and then they would fall.
Johnny came up with a plan sitting there under the stars, and once the man he had found was stable, he hid him away in an outcropping with instructions not to move and set off for one last final confrontation.
Furtim had given him all the details he needed. He had explained how the pair had tortured him, and how they had taken the munitions dealer named Joe captive at his place of business to do the same to him. It had been shortly after they started ransacking the place and toying with their new captive that Furtim managed to make his escape and find his way to where Johnny chanced upon him. Furtim confided that he didn’t know if the renegade pair knew he was missing, but that was ok, Johnny would prefer a shootout on open ground. Last time the cramped quarters had played to their strengths, but in any case, this time he would have the element of surprise.
He said a few final parting remarks to the man he rescued, fastened his bandana over his face, and made his way towards the canyon below.
Johnny stayed low and hugged as much cover as he could as he neared the canyon ahead. Though he didn’t like the idea of a battle inside a munitions warehouse, he felt better about making his approach under the cover of darkness; though that was a small consolation. The machine, Argus, would be able to see in the darkness just as well as the day – and it didn’t sleep. Johnny touched the pendant under his shirt where is sat against his chest, he was going to need all the luck he could get.
As he made his way past outcroppings and brush, he was disappointed by no visible sign of the criminal duo. There was just a little more ground to go, so he took to his belly and crawled up to the lip, ready to peek over, ready for anything. Even with Furtim’s warning, the sight still took his breath away; it was just as he had said it would be, the massive shell of a long-dead Hekaton Warhulk loomed down below in the shadows. Even in its ruined state it still was fearsome, and Johnny thanked the powers that be that this one would never move again. As he looked at it he thought about what the man called himself, ‘Crazy Joe,’ and knew that he must be indeed.
Johnny took his time making his way down to the canyon floor, and though he could have crossed any one of numerous gangways leading to the munition dealer from higher on the wall face, he opted for the safer route. There was no telling what kind of booby traps or motion detection devices were rigged on those rickety wooden planks above, and if he were spotted up there, he would be caught in the open and as good as dead.
He kept moving, and stuck to cover as he approached the front entrance. A plank lead into the underbelly of the Hekaton to where a massive iron door stood guard. It was ajar just as Furtim said it might be. That was the route he had taken to escape - so it looked like his captors were still unaware he had fled.
Johnny thanked his good luck and slipped through the doorway.
The interior was lit by the low glow of lumes, enough so that one wouldn’t stumble in the night, but not so much as to cast away all the darkness. Furtim had told him that after he passed through the storefront behind the main entry there would be a large warehouse where the bulk of the munitions were stored, and true to his word it was just so.
In fact, it was too perfect. Everything was exactly as Furtim said it would be. He hadn’t seemed to miss a single detail, and though he wasn’t quick with all the forthcomings, something about this whole business still felt off. Johnny could have excused a missed detail or two, and that might have made him feel better. Hell, the man was tortured before his escape, it made sense that he’d leave something out – or get it wrong. And what about his absence? It rankled Johnny’s senses that the man’s captors hadn’t realized he had gone missing.
He had only had one run-in with the pair before, and they have proved formidable then, this just seemed too… sloppy.
Without warning the world erupted into blinding white light and it was out of pure instinct that Johnny dove for cover. He was right, too perfect.
“Hold it right ther’,” came a booming man’s voice. Even as he checked his surroundings, back firmly against a supply crate, Johnny could tell this wasn’t a voice he recognized. “Yer surrounded.”
And he believed him. Though the machine Argus moved as silently as possible, Johnny could still feel its footfalls drawing it closer on his blind-side, and though he couldn’t see Solomon or the bearer of the voice, he knew they probably had vantage points already staked out in the warehouse.
He was trapped, surrounded, and most likely moments from his death. The only logical thing would be to go down in a hail of gunfire and try to take as many of the renegades with his as he could. That would be the logical thing to do, yes, but he had a hunch.
“Alright, Joe. I’m coming out with my hands up.”
He holstered his cell shooters and put his hands in the air before stepping out from behind his hiding place, and as he did his hunch proved true.
“So this is th’ fella ye said was followin’ ya,” the man said to the person behind him, holding an enormous over-under shooter in his thick hands. He turned back to Johnny and cracked a wry smile through his bushy salt and pepper beard, “they don’t call me crazy fer nuttin’ so don’t try anythin’ stupid. Solomon take his guns.”