Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“Molly-olly oxen free!”

The old man’s voice boomed out from all four drones poring over the scrapyard heaps at once. One had to have only been a handspan or so away from the busted-up chassis Molly’d tucked himself into with some metal plates for cover. The sound was immense inside the rusted husk and he flinched.

“Shit,” he breathed, and slapped a hand over his mouth.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are, Molly, my boy!” the robots bellowed out a belly-laugh that ended in a ragged coughing fit. Whoever was on the mic side of things hawked his throat clear and spat. “Ah, but seriously, let’s get this business done with, you little shit,” the voice said. “I can’t play hide and seek with your ass all day, you hear me? I have errands to run, Molly. Errands!”

To emphasize just how pressing his errands were, one of the drones blew a spate of greasy flames from a nozzle on its dome-shaped head into a junk heap not too far from where Molly was hiding. With all the trash plastics and foam littering the place, the pile caught fire like a synthetic tinderbox. It burned hot and ugly, throwing up sickly, yellow flames and ink-black smoke that left sooty stains.

“Shit,” Molly said again, a little louder and a lot more concerned. When he heard the sound of more fiery squirts lapping at the garbage all around him, Molly knew he had to move.

He booted the spring metal sheet he was using as cover and sent it spinning through the air; he followed out the hole it’d left feet-first, tucked into a roll, and shot off like a bullet. The sheet flew with enough force behind it to set a close-by drone to staggering when it bounced off the machine’s metal carapace; the servos of its four, shield-shaped legs all whined as they struggled to keep their balance. A fresh crack ran through the lens that served as the drone’s eye, but its dome-head tracked Molly’s escape all the same. The other three drones spun their cams about and locked onto his movement just as he rabbited down a broken segment of concrete tubing that stuck up from a mound of trash like a giant, cement periscope.

Several loud, metal-on-rock clanks sounded overhead as Molly landed heavily on his knees sewer-side – even with his rugged-soled boots, he couldn’t have paid for solid purchase on that shit-slicked stone – and a harsh tick-tinkling wafted down the hole after him. On all fours, he looked up to see three spheres, each with its own flickering, red LED, rattling about as they navigated the concrete pipework like gumballs filing down a penny vendor at a pawn shop.

On his hands and knees, Molly couldn’t do much in the way of locomotion, so he did the best he could and rolled aside to avoid getting beaned by the heavy balls. They splooshed into the stinking stuff that sludged up the pavers underfoot. It was thick enough that the softball-sized orbs left puckered entry wounds in surface of the muck as they submerged. Molly wasn’t sure what to think at first, but then he heard them beeping. And now that they had come to rest, the beeping was getting faster.

“Shit!” Molly flapped like a fish across the sewer floor; he still couldn’t get any traction, but his failed crawl-roll scramble was at least putting some distance between his filthy body and the beeping balls of probably-explosives.

But it wouldn’t be enough distance. There couldn’t be enough distance, with all the methane cooped up in the caverns below the junkyard, and Molly’s scientific mind knew it without any real contemplation. He still scurried as fast as possible all the same, though, for no matter how certain his logical brain was of his impending doom, his lizard brain just kept yelling “RUN, RUN, RUN,” so that’s what his legs tried to do.

But then his logical brain did kick in, and Molly remembered that he had a few vials of casing foam in his jeans. Typically, he used it to take a live bounty – the stuff was damn near impossible to get through once you added a little water and let it work its magic – so he wasn’t thrilled at the idea of casing himself on purpose. If he did, he’d have no way of using the solvent, also in his pants, to break the foam down once he was plastered with it, so he’d be a sitting duck if the old man’s drones came looking for him, and he knew they would. And then he’d be in some serious trouble.

But, dammit, he’d rather be in trouble than in Hell.

Molly could still hear the beeping – barely so, but enough to know that it was coming to a crescendo. He was already covered in sewer goo, so he prayed in panicky little breaths that the slimy shit was water enough to react with powdered foam base. He popped the crimped cap with his thumb and sent a dusting of the stuff snowing toward his feet. As soon as it made contact with the sewer water, Molly may as well had let his feet set in a pan of sky blue quick-dry cement; he saw it coming, and tried to hop away to keep himself from being stuck. All he managed to do, though, was offset his balance when the foam caught his legs fast; he fell backwards, wrenching both ankles and bending at the knees. The foam powder flew from his fingers as he reeled and flung his arms out for balance. The vial spiraled once above his head and let loose a floury whitewash over Molly as he hit the sludge with a sucking smack.

“Sh-!” The foam set just as quickly as it had around his feet; as soon as the base coated Molly’s sopping and stinking body, his world went dark.

The casing foam worked just as well as it had in the past. Molly was stuck. In fact, you might say that he was “encased.” And he was completely dead to the world when the drones’ timed charges went off not seconds later and filled the sewers with so much fire that gouts of yellow flame vaulted from the end of the broken, concrete tube that Molly’d sidled down and about two dozen others just like it across the Old Man’s 100-acre yard. It was like some pyrotechnic victory celebration for a job well done, and the Old Man’s gravelly laugh sounded out from his drones in unison once more – not that anyone could hear it over the explosion, if there were any ears to hear it otherwise, but the Old Man was used to speaking mostly for his own benefit anyhow. Aside from the robots he repaired and repurposed, he didn’t have much in the way of company, the Old Man.

But that was about to change, at least for the near future. His drones quickly spidered down into the sewers the same way Molly had to check the damages done by their charges, and of course, they came upon the ragged-edged, Molly-filled slab of superfoam left in the now all-but-bare tunnels. They recovered the bluish chunk by firing micro hooklets into the foam and dragging it in with thinnish tow cables.

As the machines skidded the slab across the unkind terrain on their way back to their headquarters, a casual observer might question whether the drones had a full understanding of the protective quality of the casing foam, or if the machines were somehow personally offended by the man stuck inside. Either way, the stuff held up through the journey’s roughness like a champ. Watching the spectacle through the camera lenses of the trailing drones, the smiling Old Man was curious to see if the fellow inside was faring as well or not. He hoped not, but it would provide fair information for future experiments regardless.

The drones were closing in on their docking bays where Molly would be collected, and it wasn’t looking good for the man they called The Hatchet. Stuck in the same casing foam he’d used a number of times to bring in folks who were facing down some town’s Wasteland justice for cash or parts, his still-wakeful sense of irony was tickled by his predicament. And that same sense of irony was fairly certain that if he didn’t get some outside help, and soon, he’d be the victim of another man’s idea of what justice looked like after the Bomb. Which would have been fitting, but –

Sorry, Irony, he thought, I’m not quite done yet.

– Molly Thatcher did indeed have some outside help on the way. And that “outside help” was his partner, Blue Mahoney. And the “way” she was “on” was the same one the robots carried Molly’s closed-cell prison upon at present.

As the Old Man’s drones took a bend around a ragged jut of rock that shot up from the earth, a hot, green bolt of something sticky and radiant slammed into the lead robot’s headpiece, rocking its body backward and covering its lens-eye with a neon splatter that popped and fizzed as it burned at the metal and glass underneath. The remaining three working heads swiveled in the direction the shot came from, and not too far away, standing atop a rise in the topography, was a blue-haired she-devil in tactical trousers and a sports bra staring down the barrel of a bulky, two-handed rifle that looked for all the world like a SuperSoaker. Instead of a tank on the back of the beastly gun, though, it was fed through multiple thin tubes that snaked around Blue’s side and plugged into ventilated ports on the backside of her bare ribcage. Her eyes shone the same neon green that flew from the nozzle at the end of the weapon she referred to as her “Gooper.” She fired twice more, the Gooper’s quiet thoop-thooping report lost even at the short range she fired from. The globules both hit their marks, slapping onto the “faces” of two more drones with a deceptively heavy impact; one of them actually fell to a mechanical knee under the force.

The Old Man was yelling now, his voice indistinguishably distant from the mic – likely, he’d gotten bored of watching the ’bots trek across his territory and had gone elsewhere. But when the warning klaxons on his monitors started hooting and ringing about failing systems and structural damage, you’d better believe he came running.

The last drone spun its body to face the woman, who was now glistening with sweat and breathing as heavily as she would’ve been if she’d just finished running a half-marathon, and locked onto its target.

“Sweet Edgar!” she shouted at it between breaths as she let the rifle fall to her side, exhausted. “Get it!”

Four barrels in a 2x2 array poked out from the robot’s core and began to spin up to firing speeds, but before they could even make a handful of rotations, a steely vice clamped onto the entire apparatus. The grip wasn’t just strong enough to keep the motors from spinning the barrels; it began to deform them altogether, crushing the four tubes into a single, crumpled mass of metal. The drone may as well have been made from recycled beer cans, it looked to Blue, though she knew better. She let the muzzle of the rifle at her side drop to the dirt and leaned on it. Sweet Edgar had the situation well to hand. Quite literally, really.

As sparks, smoke and hot metal smells began spewing from its gunport, the robot shifted its gaze from its target downward to see what the holdup was. What it found was a humanoid figure, more machine than man, standing below its main body and holding onto the mess of what used to be its primary armament with a pneumatic hand. He met the camera eye with his own cybernetic visual instruments, one a very distinctly camera-like lens not unlike the drone’s, while the other was much more akin to a human eye, though also obviously artificial.

“What the hell?!” the Old Man’s voice only sounded from two of the drones; Blue’s Gooper goo was still working through the three struck, sizzling its way deeper into the robots, but it hadn’t quite destroyed the speaker on one of them just yet. It had killed something in there, though, as the voice was watery, like the Old Man was yelling from out from a shallow pond. “Where did you come from?!”

“I came from behind your droids while they were blind and distracted,” the metal man responded. His voice was smooth, surprisingly pitched toward the higher end of the male average, and accompanied by only a hint of white noise. “Good night,” he said, as he drove a second mechanical arm, this one fitted with scissor-like blades that hummed with miniscule, but impossibly fast vibrations, up into the drone’s body. The blades pierced the housing there as if instead of the metal of a robot, Sweet Edgar was ripping into the papier-mache of a pinata. There was a loud pop as an arc of electricity danced down Sweet Edgar’s arm and into the earth like a microbolt of lightning, standing the blond mop of hair on his head at attention, and the machine went limp, spitted on his hand. With a casualness that betrayed a demeanor matching his mostly-machine frame, Sweet Edgar tossed the large robot aside like the broken toy it was. When he looked around him, Sweet Edgar saw that the Gooper had done its work on the three Blue’d tagged; the robots all fiddled, fumbled, and sagged about. They were fried, he was sure; they just didn’t know it yet. Satisfied, he looked to Blue and waited for further instruction.

“I don’t know who you are, but I’ve got more ’bots coming for your asses! You don’t know who you’re messing with! I’ll make you pay, you hear me?!” The voice came only from the one drone whose audio capabilities were all but gone, sounding less like it was coming from a pond now, and more like it was coming from inside a melting candle; it started off warbly, but toward the end of the threat, the speaker was all but dead, and it came out as more of a buzzy “moo” than anything else.

“Sweet Edgar,” Blue huffed as she came up to the cyborg, using the rifle as a makeshift crutch. He tilted his head, which was his sign that he understood he was being spoken to. “Good job. But let’s try to be a little more punctual next time, please?” She tossed hair from her eyes and wiped sweat off her face. “I’d like the thing dead before it’s got guns pointed at me.”

After a moment of consideration, Sweet Edgar nodded once. “Understood.” After another thoughtful pause, he asked, “Would you prefer I compromise my position for the sake of your safety in the future?”

She nodded “Yes, Sweet Edgar, I’d prefer that.” She tunked him on the chest with a knuckle. “You’re more machine than muscle, and at this point, another metal patch or two won’t make much difference. Plus, if its got moving metal parts, Molly can fix it. But me?” She rapped on her own chest. “I’m still squishy. And Molly can’t fix it if it bleeds. Do you understand?”

Sweet Edgar again considered before responding with another single nod. “Understood.”

“Good man.” She slapped his shoulder and squatted over the sheet of casing foam with a Molly-shaped middle, pulled out a flask, and popped the top. As soon as she did, she thrust it away, turned her head, and pulled an ugly face; she always forgot how bad the solvent stunk. It was like kerosene, if kerosene could mildew. She covered the opening with her thumb and sprinkled some of the rank stuff over Molly’s face. It took a few moments, but the casing foam visibly began to soften. When it did, she began to paw at it until it gave way in viscous clumps. She didn’t want Molly to suffocate when he came out of the foam fugue. Not after all the trouble she and Edgar had gone through to get him, anyway.

As soon as his face was clear, Molly not only came out of the foam-induced fugue state, he came out hard. His face had been locked mid-“shit,” and that’s more or less where he picked up as soon as his brain turned back on. Except instead of yelling “shit,” he was just yelling. Or screaming, rather. Blue sighed and let him go on for a minute or two before she slapped at his face.

“Come on now, quit bawling, you’re fine.” She was grinning; the spectacle was funny, but she also didn’t mind the opportunity to slap Molly up. He may not deserve it now, but he surely would in the not-so-distant future. He couldn’t help it, she knew; he was just a natural-born asshole, in most respects. A likeable asshole, sure, but still – he’d have it coming eventually, so she just saw it as a “pay-it-forward” sort of deal.

Molly opened his eyes finally. They had to readjust to the light, though, so he scrunched his face into a hard squint. “Blue?” His voice cracked; his throat was dry like you wouldn’t believe. “Oh, thank God. I was expecting an old fatbody with a rack of tools and bad intentions.”

Still grinning, she pointed a finger pistol at him. “Don’t you dare try guessing at my intentions, Molly Thatcher.” She looked over her shoulder and called, “Sweet Edgar,” and after his eyes found her and he tilted his head, she added “Come gimme a hand with this, will ya? I doubt the Old Man was lying when he said he’d have cavalry on the way. Let’s get Molly up and get hustling.” She wiped more sweat from her face, then grimaced when she realized she wiped some of the solvent on her brow. “I don’t think my body could take much more from the Gooper today, and I left my other shit in the Truck.”

Sweet Edgar nodded, then held out a hand for the solvent.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2