Episode 167: Rock Beats Pauper

“You sure picked a great place to head, Gamma,” said Chala, cutting through a branch with her machete.

“It looked close,” he said, wheezing as he followed behind. The pain in his chest was growing sharper instead of staying at the dull and hollow pain he’d been managing with. “And it’s… more or less on the way to the field where I landed. Carmen’s gonna need to get me off the planet eventually.”

“If she survived reentry,” Chala said.

“I don’t think she’ll be coming down on an actual asteroid, I think she’s gonna get a ship… Hope she hasn’t already landed, honestly. Hope she’s not too worried about me…”

“I think she’ll have other things to worry about, if you’re anything to go by,” she said. “How’re you holding up back there?”

Zack coughed and waved his hand dismissively. Chala stopped and looked over her shoulder.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I mean… I feel like I’m dying, but apart from that I’ll be good.”

“If you say so,” she said, turning forward again and resuming the walk. “We’re almost there, but between you and me I think that fight with Nectra took a lot out of you, and I’m pretty sure she was holding back.”

Zack didn’t comment, but continued his walk through the ill-defined “trail” that Chala was either discovering or creating as they moved. The scent of the world’s humid air, baking clay, steaming mud, and spongy trees wasn’t comforting. Why was he dying despite being, as far as he could tell, healthy?

Chala reached the edge of a clearing, but paused and held up a hand. The field before her was clear and covered with a crumbly, moss-like vegetation, and a cool wave seemed to be coming from it.

“What?” said Zack.

“We can’t go this way.”

Zack resisted the urge to say that it looked fine to him. He stared into the cool clearing and couldn’t see anything immediately dangerous. He glanced at Chala’s eyes and saw calculated concern, though not immediate worry.

“What’s the problem?”

Suddenly, from the trees above, a figure in a green robe dropped into view between Zack and Chala, an insect-like figure who swept his leg in an arc that immediately dropped Zack to the ground. The trajectory of the leg sweep continued, but Chala was both faster and had more time to react, jumping back and aiming her bow at the figure.

Zack looked up, and stared into the bug-like eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He jumped up and backward, twisting over Chala’s leg and throwing off her aim before landing. She twisted in place and fired the arrow at the alien, but Vox’s hand was faster, sweeping forward to connect with the projectile and continuing the arc to effectively throw it into a nearby tree.

“The next one goes into you or Gamma,” he said, staring into Chala’s eyes.

“That’s not likely,” she said. “My aim was off that time.”

“Mine wasn’t,” he said, smiling. “And it won’t be. The gift of the tea is fading, but I feel certain of this.”

“Tea?” said Chala, letting the tip of her arrow drop. The humidity seemed to intensify and the heat of the jungle seemed even worse than a moment earlier.

“I wouldn’t push him,” said Zack, shakily massaging his ankle. “I’ve never seen him do that before, but if he can do it once he can do it again.”

“You stay on the ground, Zack,” said Vox. “Until victory is assured, I won’t have you ambling about. You have a talent for misdirection, and opportunities for evasion are always in abundance.”

“Just lucky I guess,” said Zack.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Gamma. These opportunities are everywhere. You just know how to take advantage of them.”

“Get up, Zack,” said Chala, pulling another arrow from her quiver and feeling another wave of heat. “Even sick you were almost a match for Nectra. Between the two of us, odds are still on our side.”

“Before he could get to a knee or pull one of his pistols from his holsters, I would destroy your bow and nullify your ability to assist,” said Vox. “You seem martially sound, so I will do you the honor of not assuming that you would be dead so quickly, but that would follow shortly thereafter.”

“Martially sound?”

“He’s good enough at physical combat that he knows what he’s talkin’ about,” said Zack. “Studied it professionally, and that was before he joined the DMA and got hands-on experience. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, but he probably thinks he’s good enough to gauge how good someone is in a fight before fighting ‘em.”

“I may have overestimated my capabilities before,” he said. “But I’ve got an extra ace in the hole this time.”

Another wave of incredible heat rushed in, heralding the arrival of Igneous, pushing her way through the trees that singed at her touch. Her molten eyes glared with stern determination, and her gravelly fists easily cleared the path.

“You were right,” said Igneous. “They came right here. …Hello, Zack.”

Zack looked at the towering figure of Igneous and his heart sank.

“Well then… rock beats PI. We can’t win this, Chala.”

“So, what, you want me to just stand here while you kill Zack?”

“No,” said Igneous. “Vox and I have a deal. Zack lives.”

“For now,” said Vox. “If you wouldn’t mind, now that my reinforcement has arrived, would you help your friend up? We have a bit of a walk to go, and Gamma looks like he’s in no shape for it. Then again, neither is Igneous with how long it took her to arrive. She should bring up the rear to keep an eye on you two.”

Episode 166: Velocity

Captain Ortega spiraled out of the window, suddenly realizing the incredible danger that space presented without a rocket pack. He’d been adrift in the vacuum of space without a functioning rocket before, of course, but only rarely, and even then in friendlier space.

The display inside his helmet provided accurate, informative, and ultimately useless data about his location (related to both the Dyson ship and the nearby world of Veskid), the nature of his somersaulting through the void, and his proximity to the alarming pieces of sod, debris, and grass that were pouring out of the window with him.

Ortega took a deep breath, reminded himself that step one in these situations was to stay calm, and he flipped open the control panel on the left arm of his flight suit. Typically he removed as many of his suit’s automatic processes as he could; he almost always wound up in these situations on purpose as a result of a controlled risk, and he couldn’t count on the safety protocols to have his interests in mind. In this instance, though, the auto-stabilization servos needed to be reactivated.

He tapped in the command, and felt the ion jets in the suit activate, seemingly erratically though he knew they were all the results of heuristically determined calculations from his on-board computer. He saw the jets activate from panels on his arms, his torso, and once on his knee. He felt constricted as the armored flight suit became more rigid so that his own movements wouldn’t alter the intended results from the bursts of the ion propulsion units. In a matter of seconds, the wild, erratic spinning had been replaced by a gentle tumble that oriented him along the exterior of the Dyson vessel and matched its general velocity, though if it activated its engines to move anywhere even at a low speed he’d soon fall away from it. With luck he’d drift onto the ship soon, hopefully before anyone inside figured out where he was.

He craned his neck and took a look at Veskid over his shoulder. He didn’t expect the Dyson forces to honor the terms of the public display he’d sprung on them, but with any luck his success against the Emperor’s Herald would keep morale high and buy some time.

His proximity alarm began keening and a red light on his display started tracking something moving toward him, and fast. Ortega turned to look and saw the massive, hulking body of Harold Zamona, clutching and steering Ortega’s rocket pack to his chest. Ortega lifted an arm, but it didn’t keep him from Zamona’s rocket-fueled collision, an impact that caused damage warnings to begin flashing across his screen. Ortega’s eyes were instead drawn to the timer that had been tracking his expulsion from the vessel, a timer currently putting the time since his defenestration at twenty-one seconds, a time even longer for Zamona.

“How?!” Ortega shouted, even though he knew that Zamona couldn’t hear. On the other hand, the massive monster of a former wrestler shouldn’t have been able to see him at all; a person’s eyes typically gave out after ten seconds when exposed to direct vacuum, and moments after that he should have lost consciousness. The display was beginning to detect faint traces of Cyanosis on Zamona’s skin that Ortega hadn’t initially spotted himself, so he was at least relieved to see that the asphyxiation was beginning to affect him.

“What did those aliens do to you?” he said, though Zamona gave no indication that he understood. Instead, the former wrestler glared with rage, took one hand off of the rocket pack, reached forward, gripped Ortega around the chest, and squeezed.

The alarms began to ring even louder in Ortega’s helmet, and he felt the intense pressure on his chest. Soon, in a moment, his vision faded to black, with his final sight being the ceaseless glare of Zamona’s eyes.

Episode 165: Collision Corps

“They’re definitely panicked,” said Vince Flashman, checking the exterior camera. “Something’s come up. Their hijacked spaceship isn’t a priority anymore.”

“Great,” said Carmen. “We might not have to blast our way out of here after all!”

“Observers: unseen: probability.”

“Good point,” said Vince. “But from what little I can see, anyway… there’s confusion. Some shouting… must’ve been some sort of accident elsewhere on the ship.”

“If there’s a moment when you can’t see anyone looking in our direction, let us know,” said Carmen. She kept her hand on the emergency ramp control, a button located by a terminal with deactivated camera features, likely a parting gift from The Soul Survivor. She wasn’t sure if the all-but robot was still locked in the bridge or had already made some sort of escape that didn’t rely on conventional exits, but she didn’t care. Xorn’Tal waited by the emergency ramp itself, ready to literally leap over and through the exit as it opened. While he was probably the most fragile of the three racers, he looked larger and intimidating, and bullets or lasers searing off his vines was likely to be more temporary than it was for the two humans, things he’d pointed out while volunteering for the most dangerous part of the plan.

“Are we still clear on how this goes down?” asked Carmen.

“Cessation requested: asking.”

“Sorry, Xorn’Tal. Jumpy, I guess.”

“Same here,” said Vince, keeping his eyes on his functional terminal. “Even if no one’s looking, the odds of us getting on unseen a-… no one’s looking, now, now!”

Carmen punched the control button and the ramp began to open, its magnetic seals breaking and pneumatic machinery rapidly lowering a ramp to make a quick hole in the side of their vessel. Xorn’Tal leapt over the dropping plates of hull while they were still articulating into a form acceptable for humans to disembark. The plant-like creature marveled at the complete lack of eyes on the ship, with only a few guards and hangar technicians in a nearby shed-like control room, all frantically looking over a monitor that he couldn’t make out. There were interior weapons trained on the ship, but none were activating, likely thanks to being based on manual controls instead of computerized ones. Xorn’Tal raised a signaling vine, and saw the hallway stretching away from the hangar, just alongside the control room.

Carmen and Vince jumped over the still-lowering ramp, and the three ran, Xorn’Tal only outpacing the two humans by virtue of a head start. As they passed the control room, the sight of an ambulatory tangle of vines and leaves rolling by followed by two humans in brightly colored professional racer garb caught the eye of two soldiers who gaped at the sight. One lifted an arm to point just as they fell out of Carmen’s view.

“They saw us!” she said. “Hurry, find a place to hide!”

“Juncture!” said Xorn’Tal. “Path chosen: left: obfuscate!”

“Left, got it,” confirmed Vince.

The trio neared the branching path where the hallway was joined by another, and immediately collided into the two soldiers who were darting around the corner. The five stumbled over each other, tripped, and sprawled across the ground, with only the multi-limbed Xorn’Tal maintaining some semblance of balance.

“Captain!” shouted one.

“Don’t worry about me, Trell, run!”

The two soldiers leapt to their feet quickly, with one of them surging in the direction the racers had just come from. Carmen noted the oddity of not being immediately apprehended or killed, as Vince shakily rose.

“Hey, lady, we don’t-”

The soldier identified as Captain pulled a rifle from the receptacle at her back and clubbed Vince in the skull, sending the racer staggering.

“I don’t know what moral transgression you committed in your past life to deserve getting in my way now, but know that I’ve neither the time nor inclination to let the one unsecured ship out of my clutches when a hull breach has-”

Xorn’Tal surged toward the soldier. Carmen expected the series of vines to verwhelm the humanoid, but the soldier easily bent her arm into a hook, swiped it forward to clear a massive section of vines, and head-butted the revealed root-like structure that comprised Xorn’Tal’s body. Xorn’Tal tumbled back, rolling onto the floor instead of instantly righting itself due to the soldier’s tentacle-sweep.

“Wait,” said Carmen. “Wait! I think we’re on the same-”

The soldier turned, running back down the hall but stopped at the sight of the second soldier returning.

“They were already moving,” she said. “Something tipped them off to-”

The captain held up a hand to silence the first, turned back to Carmen, and pointed.

“The same what?”

“Team,” said Carmen. “We’re… I think we’re on the same team.”

“Doubtful,” said the captain. “I’m Calen. Captain Calen, of Morcala.”

“Morcala,” growled Vince, standing and massaging his skull. “What are you-”

“That way!” shouted Trell, pointing down the hallway. “Hurry!”

The two soldiers ran around the corner and the racers took less than a second to organize their thoughts and follow behind.

Episode 164: The Shape of Fire

Igneous sat in the clearing by Vox’s tent, sweltering near the sculpted mound of dry ice she’d positioned in the fire pit. That the ice itself was shaped like a traditional human campfire wasn’t lost on her and, in fact, was part of why she decided to pick up the small mound of cardice for her supplies. The “campfire-shaped sculpture” was rough and clearly made for humans just looking for vague shapes at parties, but it served her needs to a degree. She’d informed its maker that the Pyrhian word for the shape was Comcora, a word that might do better at selling to other Pyrhians than “campfire-shape”. She doubted anything would come from it, but she’d always liked the word.

After the purchase, she’d considered breaking it up so that she could cover herself in the material, but the risk of shattering when in contact with extreme colds remained. She didn’t know how much longer she could last, but for right now she was willing to cool herself by the camp ice.

A rustling from the planet’s strange foliage heralded the arrival of Vox Cul-Dar. He slowly entered the campsite, pulling a net behind him, one that Igneous saw contained an unconscious Shangmere. She looked up at Vox as the bounty hunter dropped the ropes he’d been using to drag the net. He approached the campfire, eyeing the cardice carefully.

“You’ve replaced my fire pit with a block of ice, I see,” he said. “That explains why I’ll be chilly tonight.”

“You were expectin’ to be cold in this humidity?”

“Just a feeling,” he said. “Which is quite a feat if you’re around, I must say. You’re truly not looking well, Igneous. Are you certain that you’re up for catching Zack and Fletch.”

“Fletch and Zack,” she said. “Though I note that you’ve brought us neither. I thought you said you’d bear great fruits.”

“Oh, I have,” he said. “I know you want us to focus on Fletch first, and we will, but I believe this creature is imperative to locating Gamma at all. Zack will encounter her again.”

“Well, he is a stupid human,” she said. “He likes to help. I wouldn’t expect him to rush into danger just to rescue a friend who could probably handle themselves, but I saw him more or less do just that in Helix.”

“Igneous, are you suggesting that we send a note to Gamma, informing him that we have his friend held hostage and that we will terminate her if he doesn’t surrender?”

“No, but I thought you were going to,” said Igneous. “That seems like your way of thinkin’ when you can’t punch or kick someone into captivity.”

“Perhaps it is,” said Vox. “For Zack, though, we won’t need any such ruse. Behold…”

He reached into his backpack and withdrew a horrible, green hat with an antenna sticking out of the crown. Igneous took a step back.

“You were right on his tail, then,” she said. “How’d you get that?”

“I picked it up from her,” he said. “I had a hunch that I’d meet her, and the hat contained a note written in Zack’s handwriting.”

“You know his handwriting? Vox, you’re takin’ this hunt too seriously.”

“Not for the reward the DMA is offering I’m not, and neither is Fletch, wherever she is. In any event, this was a very helpful note, one that will, I expect, take us directly to Gamma when he finally rears his hatless head.”

Episode 163: The Rocketpark Screwjob

Captain Ortega fired the blaster again, but Harold Zamona, moving faster than anything his size should be able to move, jumped behind one of the arena’s ramps. Ortega used his rocket to move into the air, wary of a sudden approach by the former wrestler and worryingly aware by now that his blaster, even on deadly settings, was mostly ineffective. At the strongest settings, his blaster could take out steel walls in seconds, but he wasn’t detecting more than a light singe whenever he successfully fired on Zamona, and the neurological properties of the blaster on the lower settings never did more than daze. He’d encountered other creatures that were effectively immune to his weaponry before, of course… ethereal beings of energy, ancient beasts with thick skin designed for volcanic worlds, and military-grade robots had all shrugged of his blaster… but none seemed so close to a baseline human as Zamona. His primary weapon was simply not effective.

The wrestler appeared overhead, somehow at the top of a ramp that arced higher than Ortega had flown. The captain killed his rocketpack’s engine just enough to start dropping like a stone, reactivated it when he’d fallen far enough to miss Zamona’s initial downward punch, and propelled forward in a graceful arc that took him toward the massive, transparent window that composed most of the wall of the park-like chamber. Ortega activated his reversal thrusters to keep himself from colliding with the transparent wall, and was treated to a spectacular view of Veskid amid the stars just as he heard the sound of Zamona hitting the ground behind him. He looked back and saw the titanic figure standing up from a crouch, and tensed while Zamona took calm, easygoing steps toward him.

“You’re pretty nimble for someone in a beat-up space suit. I can keep this up all day, though. The Dyson Empire’s not eager t’see someone so capable foolishly throwin’ their life away. What say you throw in the towel and tell the folks at home that you’re surrenderin’, and that they should too.”

“Seriously?” said Ortega, smiling. “I’ve got you on the ropes.”

“Funny. I don’t think you’re gonna like how this ends, though. Parents, you might wanna send your kids out of the room if they’re watchin’ this.”

Zamona jumped forward and Ortega rocketed upward. Zamona’s fist connected with the window and a horrible crunching sound cascaded through the room. Ortega held his breath as warning alarms started chiming, but he relaxed when he saw the herald’s fist retract to reveal that the window had crumpled instead of shattered.

“Transparent metal instead of shielded glass!” Ortega shouted.

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“Makes sense for a window that size, it holds up better against air pressure,” Ortega said, touching down on the ground. Zamona raised a confused eyebrow.

“Not flying away? Rethought surrender?”

“Nah,” said Ortega, unlatching the rocket pack from his back. “Just switching weapons. Computer, go to full burn, head for the big guy.”

Ortega swung the pack forward just as the engines turned from red to orange, yellow, blue, and white. The pack rocketed toward a surprised Zamona, slammed into him, and pushed him into the window. The Herald struggled for a second, further increasing the structural damage on the wall behind him, as he reached forward and tried to manipulate the pack.

“Nice try,” he said. “I’ve still got just enough control to not let this thing push me out, though. And it’s just not gonna hit hard enough to hurt me.”

“Don’t need to hurt you,” said Ortega. He pulled the trigger on his blaster and fired, striking the window just over Zamona’s shoulder. Too late, Harold reflexively lifted a massive hand to ward off the blast, not realizing that he wasn’t the target. An orange glow accompanied the increased heat as the transparent wall distorted. Harold looked back.

“Wait-”

The combined force of the rocket pack and the herald’s shoulders took their toll. The diminishing cohesion of the window failed, and the wall ruptured. An intense rush of air defenestrated the former wrestler, and the rocket made sure that he vanished into the void before he could react to what was happening.

Captain Ortega felt the rush of air and reflexively activated the magnetic boots on his spacesuit, a futile action while standing on the grass and soil of the rocket park arena. In a moment he’d lost his footing and been pulled into the emptiness just outside of the ship’s hull.

Episode 162: Sneezing Powder

“Looks great, though,” said Zack. “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. Nectra gasped and held up her hands as the light and the scent of ionization flooded the air around her. The sounds of cheering Sthenites vanished, and she dropped the staff, not sure what was happening.

Silence ensued.

Carefully, Nectra lifted her eyes to look around. Zack was gone. She took a steadying breath and carefully looked up. The Sthenites were gone, but she felt something brush away from her ears and down her back. Alarmed, she jumped to the side, scooped up the scythe-charged staff, and twirled it toward the ground, stopping just before she realized that it was the same horribly dated green hat that Zack had tossed at her to wear.

She looked up again and listened carefully, hearing the distant murmured hisses and whistles of the Sthenites. She picked up the hat, and noticed a small, folded piece of paper tucked into the devices inside. She withdrew the paper, turned to walk to the shadows in the side of the pit that she’d entered from, but was surprised to see a lack of shade. She filed away that oddity to consider later, and instead moved to Zack’s side of the pit while she unfolded the paper.

She read the short message, and her worried look shifted into a look of surprise, but it was quickly followed by a smile. A sly grin stretched across her bat-like face, and with a surprising amount of grace she began to clamber up the side of the pit.

She reached the top and carefully looked about. Some Sthenites were near the huts in the distance, but none seemed to be actively watching. She had spotted guards on the gates of the city wall itself, and even a few hidden in the foliage around it, but the guards she’d seen were all focused outward and, more importantly, not upward.

She took some rapid, steadying breaths, scrambled over the edge of the pit, and moved to a mud-covered rock surrounded by scraggly shrubs. She awkwardly sat between them, hoping she was out of view from any casual glances in her direction. The wall of the city was just a short sprint away, but there were almost no good hiding places between there and her shrubbery. She looked at the sickly sky and wished that she could fly straight up to the potentially poisonous clouds for cover, but only the most athletic of the shangmere could easily gain more than a few feet with their wings when not in low-gravity conditions, and only dedicated fliers could attain the bird-like grace that a true flight to the safety of the clouds would require.

She was, however, athletic… or at least agile… enough to scale the wall and drop to the other side if she could get to it. Most of the Sthenites she could see were either unarmed, or only casually wielding the most basic of weaponry. She assumed the guards on the wall were still there, but they’d be looking out into the jungle, naturally? There was no way they were looking in, unless they were bored of the jungle, a possibility that Nectra dismissed as ridiculous due to the intrinsically interesting features of jungles. Unfortunately, she was trying to get to the side that they were watching, but with a bit of luck she could make it to the foliage before they riddled her with spears or arrows or throwing knives or whatever the guards might have had on hand.

Nectra took a pair of long breaths, took another quick look around, and inched out of her hiding space between the rubbery bush and the boulders. Free of the potential rustling that the bush might have caused, Nectra raced to the side of a small hit just at the base of the wall.

Some inquisitive trills from the distance suggested that she might’ve been spotted, but she didn’t hear any shouts. Maybe she was misunderstanding the Sthenites, or perhaps they only thought they’d seen an animal, but either way she quietly stepped to the wall of stone surrounding the city. She twirled the staff, bent her knees, and jumped.

The leap easily placed her over halfway up, and the wall’s rocks were rough enough that she could run up them with no issue, requiring only the faintest wing motions to maintain her balance. In a moment she was on top of the wall, with a yellow-feathered and green-scaled Sthenite staring at her in shock.

Nectra shouted in surprise, twirled her staff, and struck the guard on the head with, she was thankful to notice, the end of the staff that didn’t have a glowing blade of energy emerging from it. The guard fell back, hit the ground, and made a panicked whistling noise.

Nectra carefully watched the Sthenite, but it didn’t move. She reached forward to check to see if the creature was still alive, but she heard confused whistles and trills from elsewhere on the wall. She panicked, jumped, opened her wings, and gracefully flew toward the nearby trees. Even if she was spotted by someone on the wall now, or by a scout hiding in the underbrush, she could keep ahead if she just stayed high and hidden.

Nectra banked to the right to move behind a tree, and flew headfirst into a series of tethers and cords. The green and brown strands disconnected from the branches they’d affixed to, snapped down, and wrapped themselves around the Sthenite. Nectra looked around frantically, not sure what was happening, as the net that had ensnared her began swaying back and forth.

Before she could slash the cords with her scythe, a hand grabbed the net, steadied it, and turned it. Nectra found herself hanging upside-down and staring into the face of a green-skinned, not-quite-insectile creature with large eyes who was wearing a simple tunic and smiling genially.

“You are Nectra, yes?”

“Ye-”

“Of course you are. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I was beginning to think that I had my schedule wrong. But if you know what you’re doing, the tea here is never wrong.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, I believe I have you at a disadvantage. My name is Vox Cul-Dar, and we have a mutual friend named Zack Gamma.”

“You’re a friend of Zack’s?”

The alien chuckled, lifted a hand, and opened it to reveal a gray powder. He breathed across his palm, just a moment before Nectra realized what was happening. She sneezed twice at the dust blown her way, and everything went dark.

Episode 161: Starprey No More

“The Suzerain grants you welcome.”

Zack nodded, trying to avoid the irate looks that Chala was shooting at him. She was translating for the Suzerain during the Sthenite’s closing statements at the conclusion of his trial, but he could tell that Chala had more to say after she was done relaying the official’s words.

“You are free to move between any encampment that recognizes the leadership of the Suzerain, and afforded the protection and hospitality due any of the true people of this world. Welcome, Tzak, Starprey no more.”

The Suzerain finished speaking well before Chala did as she focused on translating, and the crowd of Sthenites reacted to the Suzerain’s statement well before Zack heard it in its entirety, with most hissing, whistling, and chattering excitedly to each other. He took a deep breath as he felt a single threat to his life suddenly nullified. He instantly regretted the inhalation as the moving air in the back of the throat triggered his cough again.

The Suzerain nodded approvingly and turned to leave, as did many of the other Sthenites who had gathered before the stage. Zack watched the majority of the Sthenites depart and quickly jumped to his feet. He didn’t have much time left in the head start that Fletch had granted him, and that was assuming he’d been keeping time correctly and that Fletch would honor her end of the deal.

He walked toward the perimeter of the camp, and moved to its outer wall, nodding to the two massive snakes who began pushing the boulder away from the way out of the camp.

“No! You don’t leave yet, Gamma!”

Zack winced. The boulders weren’t far enough apart yet. He couldn’t dive forward and race into the jungle. He turned around, saw the incoming fist, and nearly avoided Chala’s punch. He fell backward from the impact, tripped over his own shoes, and landed on the ground. Nearby Sthenites who had been chattering excitedly had begun whistling and murmuring nervously at the sight of the two human-Sthenites suddenly engaged in an altercation, and the two by the door paused, wondering if their services were still needed. Zack waved to them to continue as Chala pulled the bow off of her back and aimed it at him.

“How could you, Gamma? What you did there-”

“Look, if you’re worried about me shooting Nectra-”

“No! You didn’t shoot Nectra. I’ve seen that energy burst before.”

“Thought you might’ve,” he said, slowly inching back to his feet and massaging his chin.

“That was the Oborosian Stone!”

“Excuse me?” said Zack.

“The Fact. Don’t tell me you don’t know what it does. This whole thing… this whole set up, you and Nectra were trying to steal it right from under my nose!”

“No!” said Zack. “Look, I’m sorry, but when I figured out what the stone did, I realized-”

“And you thought you could mask it with your guns. The Sthenites might know pistols, but you’d guess they don’t know what yours look like on the different settings.”

“Right,” said Zack. “You’re right about that. But only that. Look, I’m not trying to steal anything. You can have it back, even.”

“I can?”

Chala lowered her bow, but kept rolling her finger around an arrow. Zack watched the weapons carefully.

“Sure!” said Zack. “Look, when I figured out what it did, it was an accident. Tossed me back a few minutes in time, only shifting my position a little. I had… I had literally no idea what was happening until I saw the Sthenites carrying me back to the hut where they were keeping me.”

Chala looked at Zack uncertainly, but still accusingly.

“How did you keep it from the Sthenites? The Phantom Matador had it.”

“I lifted it off him when Nectra and I were moving his body through the jungle. Hid it in my hat, which would be a good hiding place even if it wasn’t teched out. A good smuggler always keeps a false top in those things, at the very least.”

“So you had the Fact… you recognized it while moving the Matador… hid it in your hat where no one thought to look for it… and then figured out it was the Orobosian Stone?”

“Well, I didn’t know it’s name,” said Zack. “I recognized it as a Fact initially and wondered what it was, then I just… look, you hear about time travel in stories all the time, and I was stunned to realize the Fact allowed it, but I couldn’t pass up using it. I wasn’t gonna kill Nectra… and frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t planning on it, the state I’m in. But I sure wasn’t gonna let her kill me either. This was an out.”

“You should have told me, Zack.”

“I couldn’t! You might have thought it was cheating, and you’re a Sthenite.”

“And you don’t think it was cheating?”

“It was guile. I brought the real murderer to justice here, and got the nod of approval from the Suzerain, who just needed an out herself, as you put it. I think the Suzerain, and the weird hallucinated snake-person who talked to me, would both be fine with this.”

Chala shook her head.

“You should’ve told me, Zack. I wasn’t done studying the Orobosian Stone, but I’ve figured out a lot. Plus, a Virellium energy wave is required to kickstart the Fact. If she hadn’t been wielding that scythe of hers when she activated it, I don’t think it would’ve worked for her.”

Zack blinked and rethought the last moments of the trial, considering how high he’d turned the damage on his Purcellian Strikers to help sell the show. He briefly considered Nectra’s last moment being a realization of betrayal and quickly pushed that thought from his mind.

“You’re right,” he said. “I should’ve mentioned something to you. So… fellow Sthenite, will you help me track down Nectra? I left a note for her in my hat, but I don’t know if she’ll find it, and even if she doesn’t a smart assassin like her’ll probably be just outside waiting for us, but no sense making her wait too long.”

“Especially since she’s Starprey.”

“Seriously?”

Zack and Chala stepped into the jungle, and the titanic, cobra-like Sthenites began rolling the boulder back into place.

Episode 160: Blinding Blasters

Captain Ortega instinctively activated his jet pack, and spun to a gentle stop. He shook his head, still not sure what had just happened but feeling like a grenade had detonated to the left of his helmet, which hadn’t been active moments earlier. Alarms rang in the suit’s audio notifier and flashed on the display inside his helmet relaying a substantial amount of damage, damage comparable to being struck by a mag-lev. He turned in the air, frantically looking for his assailant and seeing the titanic figure leaping, nearly filling his vision entirely. Instinct prompted the triggering of his jet pack more than rational thought, and the captain launched higher into the air, narrowly missing Harold Zamona’s enormous fist.

He zipped through the sky in the domed section of the vessel, saw a ring hovering in the air, and instinctively moved toward and through it, keeping his eye on the giant figure below. He issued a diagnostic command for both his suit and his weapon, using both the Astroguard standard commands and the customized diagnostic commands that a friend made shortly after it became clear that Doctor Rogers was taking their frequent altercations personally. While neither diagnostic program indicated any immediate tampering with his equipment (apart from damage comparable to crashing onto a slow Class-C asteroid on his helmet from Zamona’s punch), he decided to leave the processes running in the background.

As the antigrav thrusters built into the rocket pack sent him through the hovering ring, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, rotated to the side, and saw Harold Zamona leaping off a ramp at the top of a nearby hill. The former wrestler sailed through the air, propelled by the power of muscles alone, and just missed a chance to swat Ortega out of the air thanks to the captain’s quick downward dive. Ortega looked up and over his shoulder to see the monstrous figure clinging to the hovering ring up above.

“Don’t think you’ll hide down there,” shouted Zamona. “I know I said there was nowhere in here I couldn’t get to you, but at least make me work for it!”

Ortega eased into an arc that allowed him to skim just over the grass while he examined the environment. He raised the laser blaster, took aim, and pulled the trigger just a moment too late to hit Zamona, who dropped from the ring, fell, and landed in the soft grass, an act that left a noticeable impression in the soil. Ortega slowed, took aim, and fired again, just as Zamona charged at him. The blast of energy connected with the forehead, making Zamona slow down and shake his head, as if momentarily dazed. Ortega’s eyes widened, and he took advantage of the wrestler’s slower speed to zip into the air.

“No offense, but you move and take a hit like some of the meaner dinosaurs. Hiding’s a viable strategy!”

“Like you know how dinosaurs hit…” said Zamona, holding his hand to his head and scanning the skies for his target.

Ortega pushed away a memory of an ill-fated temporal engine that Doctor Rogers had employed and focused on his surroundings. The laser had affected Zamona, but it did little more than daze him, which shouldn’t have been biologically possible based on what he knew of the blaster’s stun setting. Neurological scrambling should occur no matter how much musculature a human (or even human-like alien) possessed, but the wrestler remained standing.

With a final shake of the head, a look of clarity crossed over Zamona’s eyes and his gaze snapped toward Captain Ortega. Ortega quickly flew further away, and adjusted settings on the rifle to increase its lethality.

***

Zack’s aim was off.

Nectra was zipping leaping through the air quickly and not, he noticed, making the mistake of opening her wings to slowly glide, exactly the kind of opening he needed to make her drop. While he didn’t expect the cheering Sthenites to be pacified by simply rendering an opponent unconscious, he’d rather have that case be made with Nectra being the one taking the nap.

He coughed violently, feeling it deep in his chest. It was stabbing now, and if he ever figured out just how he picked it up he was going to dedicate a portion of his increasingly short life to making someone miserable. He looked up just in time to see the shangmere fall from the sky, kick his shoulders with her claw-like feet, and strike his head with her staff.

Zack fell back as Nectra lit on the ground, twirling her weapon as the multicolored blade of Virellium-fueled force energy activated. At first she was backlit by the bright sun hanging in Mandrake’s green sky, making her seem like a moving shadow with a single blue-tinted rainbow of a blade swooping away from her staff, but she thankfully stepped closer and reduced the glare. He couldn’t easily see her face during the fight, but standing closer to her now she looked genuinely morose. She shuffled forward, clutching her staff, but moving with a purpose that Zack never liked to see.

“Y’look like a kid who’s gotta put down a stuffed animal,” he said. He lifted an arm with one of his Strikers, but Nectra was still moving fast; she twirled her staff to knock the weapon out of his hand, and sighed.

“Bye, Zack,” she said, lifting the curved energy blade over her head. “I’m really gonna miss you.”

“Wait,” he said. “Nectra, there’s still a few ways this can go down. We didn’t really have time to talk earlier-”

Nectra’s eyes flashed and she looked up at the ring of Sthenites.

“I think the time for figuring out a quick escape was before we got here. This is… this is probably the worst time to say that you didn’t want to try to run away. They don’t sound reasonable. I don’t… I don’t think what you’re thinking will work. I thought you were going to k-… Zack, is this a trick? Is this-”

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely a trick. But not against you. It’s a longshot, but… look, we’ve got less time than a fish out of orbit. Win or lose, would you like my hat?”

“What?” asked Nectra, blinking a confused blink with her giant, unsettling eyes.

“If I die here, keep it,” he said, taking the green hat off of his head with a practiced roll of the arm. “But I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna need that back. Think you can hold it for me?”

“I… yes?” said Nectra, stepping forward.

Zack tossed the hat to the shangmere, who caught it easily. Nectra held it up, examined it, and carefully put it on her head while the cheers of the Sthenites became confused mutters and started the transition into angry hisses.

“This is weird,” she said. “I couldn’t wear this while flying. This would… not stay up, I’d need a pin or something.”

“Looks great, though,” said Zack. “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. A tangy scent of ionization filtered through the air and mixed with the incredible stench of the superheated mud, breathing new life into the sensation for Zack, now alone in the trial pit of the Sthenites. The crowd looked stunned, but, after a few cautious verbalizations of approval, transitioned into a chorus of cheers and screams. Zack shakily rose to his feet, coughed, and looked up.

First, he saw the Suzerain, crossing her scaly arms and baring fangs approvingly. Then he saw Chala’s angry glare.

Episode 159: Trial By Combat

Zack stepped from the preparation cave and into the arena. A circular, rock-festooned pit made of the world’s ruddy soil, coupled with Mandrake’s oppressive sun, created a humid, radiating heat and a cloying odor that made it difficult for him to breathe. The opposite side of the arena wavered in the heat, but Zack assumed it wouldn’t be an issue for most of the combat. Sthenites slithered around the top of the pit, eagerly looking down to witness the first true trial by combat since their leader became the latest Suzerain.

Nectra clambered in from a preparation cave on the opposite side of the pit. She twirled her staff while looking around, saw Zack, and waved cheerfully. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and drew his pistols. Nectra took a step deeper into the arena and almost convulsed when she left the shadow covering her edge of the pit. She waited, allowed her eyes to adjust to the brighter light, and finished moving fully into her starting position.

Zack noted the reaction to the light after the shadow. It was stronger, he thought, than his own reaction to the smell, and while he could get used to the ever-constant mephitis of what amounted to damp, baking mud, the shangmere might have more difficulty with transitions between the shade and light thanks to her larger eyes. He’d need to cross all the way to her side of the pit to take advantage of that fact, though.

The susurrus of hissed conversations above subsided and Zack looked up. The cobra-like Suzerain had crawled into position, flanked by two smaller guards wielding spears. She began speaking, repeating phrases in the Sthenite tongue that Zack couldn’t begin to understand, though a few words were becoming recognizable. She continued speaking and waving her arms meaningfully, but without context Zack’s attention quickly drifted to Nectra, who was alternating between the Suzerain and Zack. She pointed at the Suzerain inquisitively, but Zack shrugged, just as lost as she was.

Whatever she was saying, she was reaching a crescendo, and the rest of the Sthenites were muttering and hissing to themselves, quietly at first but quickly getting louder as their leader did. Within moments, her speech was practically being shouted, and her audience was cheering and chanting with it, some even brandishing weapons at the sky, or the Suzerain, or even, Zack noticed, at the competitors in the arena.

Suddenly, the Suzerain cried out and struck an imposing pose, with her fist raised skyward. The crowd grew tense and the hundreds of serpentine eyes focused on the pit, their collective gaze almost having a weight of its own. Zack and Nectra looked at each other, uncertainly.

On the rim of the pit, resting just opposite the Suzerain, a yellow-scaled Sthenite twirled a bone from a recent meal, and struck the gong that had been quietly erected while Zack and Nectra’s eyes had been focused on the Suzerain. The two competitors jumped at the unexpected sound, a quick motion that prompted the crowd to begin cheering. Taking the cue, Nectra jumped into the air and stretched out her wings while Zack carefully took aim with his Purcellian Striker.

***

Captain Ortega let out a long, low whistle. He had envisioned a smaller room, and possibly a platform surrounded with the traditional electro-tethers, or possibly even archaic ropes depending on Harold Zamona’s wrestling preferences. Instead, the room reminded him of a pack-park, with patches of green grass interspersed with ramps, staircases, and spires on the ground, along with floating rings, hovering catwalks, and even a waterfall suspended high above that fed a gentle pond. Rocket-pack and jet-pack enthusiasts would compete on similar fields of play that weren’t half as detailed.

“Pretty picture, I say,” said Zamona. The captain of the Astroguard tore his eyes away from the room and watched the towering herald of the emperor swagger up next to him.

“I’d say so,” said Ortega. “Not quite what I was expecting.”

“Took some time to get it made. The hovering hydromill gave us problems of all sorts. Believe it or not, it was already partially finished when you went and made a fool of yourself in front of Veskid.”

“Lots of jet-pack joy-riders in your conscripts?”

“Keeps the morale high,” said Zamona. “I think you’ll find there’s nowhere in here that you’ll be able to jet to that I can’t get you, so I still don’t know how you expect to survive.”

“I’ll get by. Really going through with this?”

Zamona snapped a gauntleted finger, an action that produced a surprisingly musical chime, and soldiers bearing the logo of the Dyson Empire approached, one carrying the rocket and the other carrying Ortega’s Astroguard-issued blaster. Ortega nodded and began strapping the rocket to the back of his flight suit, hearing the familiar click of the internal motors that held the hardware in place.

“Thanks,” he said, picking up his rifle and checking it for signs of tampering.

“No problem,” said Zamona. “We’ve already started filming.”

Ortega looked up and around the environment. He couldn’t see any cameras, though he knew that hidden or microscopically small cameras didn’t need to be visible, though he didn’t imagine Zamona wanted to skimp on the spectacle.

“We have?”

“Oh, yes. Since you and I walked in. We have any viewers yet?”

Zamona glanced back at the entrance to the park where a small booth held a soldier who checked a readout and gave a thumbs-up.

“Well… glad we have an audience, then,” said Ortega. He looked to the far wall of the park and saw a massive window that revealed the stars beyond. Veskid was just rolling into view as the ship continued its rotation. He smiled, relieved to finally know exactly where in space he was.

“Same here. I didn’t much care for you trickin’ the poor folks of Veskid into thinkin’ that we had a deal. But since I never back down from a fight or back out of a deal, I wanted to make sure it was the best these people could ask for.”

“So, when do we start?”

Harold Zamona’s massive, boulder-sized fist slammed into the side of Ortega’s head, almost too quickly for his flight-suit’s collision-detection to snap the protective helmet into place. The powerful impact sent Ortega flying, rolling through the air and dropping to the ground at the base of the spire.

“Right now!” shouted Zamona.

Episode 158: Dressing to Kill

Zack wiped the sweat from his brow and looked over the array of daggers, spears, and swords before him, barely suppressing a cough. He could tell from the cloth of woven reeds that these were wrapped in that the Sthenites kept these weapons with care, but none of them truly felt appropriate for the situation.

“And the Purcellian Strikers are definitely out, then?”

“They’re only permissible if your competitor agrees to it,” said Chala. “And if your competitor has a suitably comparable weapon. Nectra doesn’t have a gun.”

“I’m telling you, she doesn’t need one,” said Zack. “Her staff is deadly, and I might die out there otherwise.”

“There are plenty of staves and cudgels here that you could take,” said Chala, gesturing to another rolled up parcel of woven reeds. “I think there’s one not unlike a shillelagh from Earth over there, actually, it might even be superior to her staff, weapon-wise.”

“Her staff can turn into a virellium-powered energy-scythe!”

“So you say,” said Chala, unrolling the new parcel and withdrawing a sturdy looking branch. “For what it’s worth, this is a legendary item that the Sthenites believe to contain magical properties. You won’t need to escape from your hut again to go looking for better weapons.”

“I’d rather use my strikers,” said Zack. “If she has a weapon she’s comfortable with, then I should have one as well. And I didn’t escape.”

“Fine, but pick another weapon anyway in case the Sthenites don’t let you use them. And you might not call it an escape, but when you get out without the guards seeing you I don’t think the Sthenites will know what else to call it.”

Zack sighed and looked over the options. One dagger in particular seemed dangerous enough to deal actual damage while also being simple enough for him to use. It was a hard, red substance not unlike chitin, and bent at the tip so that it was almost a sickle. He picked it up, and felt its weight.

“What can you tell me about this one?”

“It’s made from one of the mandibles of a threzh, a kind of cantankerously territorial plant creature. If it still has any of its poison in it, that could be a useful counter to a fast-moving energy scythe.”

“What’s the poison do?”

“A threzh can use it to slow or weaken its prey, sometimes fully paralyzing a creature for hours to make it easy to drag the prey back out of its territory. The Sthenites would only leave this weapon here if they thought it still had some of its kick, but this isn’t the first ritual duel it’s been available for. It’d probably slow down a person’s metabolism, at least, and make them slower.”

“That might give me an edge where a speed-freak like Nectra’s concerned,” said Zack. “I’ll take it. But I still want to use my blasters.”

“Great,” said Chala. “Hold onto them. I’ll make sure that Chala’s preparations are going well as well. If she’s using her staff, that might give you grounds to use your own weapon of choice. And practice with it a little instead of your pistols, it smells light lightning in here.”

“Wonderful. And I will.”

Chala turned to the door but stopped at the frame.

“So… are you really going to kill Nectra?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “I don’t want to. I don’t think she wants to kill me either, but she was definitely willing to not too long ago. You’re one of the Sthenites yourself since you endured your own trial, right? Do you know of any such trials by combat ending peacefully?”

“No,” she said, stepping through the door. “Good luck, Gamma.”

***

“You look surprisingly relaxed.”

Nectra’s massive eyes fully opened without, it seemed, any transitional time from being fully closed. Chala mostly succeeded in not flinching as she gestured to the two pillars of stacked rocks in Nectra’s guarded hut. The shangmere herself was hanging upside down, using her feet to clutch the staff that stretched between the miniature towers. Nectra’s mouth stretched into an alarming smile, one almost made less disconcerting by being flipped.

“Thanks!” said Chala. “I’m trying to meditate before killing Gamma.”

“That answers that, then.”

“Answers what?” Chala’s wings opened and beat once, flipping her upright and letting her perch on the staff.

“I wasn’t sure if you were actually planning on killing Zack.”

“I don’t think I have a choice,” said Chala, her smile crashing into a morose frown. “The Sthenites will kill him anyway if I don’t… and while I’m not happy with blood on my hands I have to admit that this was what I wanted to do anyway when I first started hunting him. And sure, Zack said he could help reopen my legal case using evidence gathered here on Mandrake, but if I kill him I wouldn’t need that anyway and now I just wish I hadn’t made friends with him first.”

Nectra stood, stretched out her arms and wings, and fell back. Chala gasped, but realized that the shangmere was falling slower than a human would, and that she was falling onto the bed of reeds that the Sthenites had given Nectra to use when they remanded her to the hut. Chala watched Nectra lie motionless for a few moments before she sighed, rolled onto her side, and pulled one of her wings over her face like a blanket.

“This shouldn’t be so complicated. Or… actually, it should be complicated. I like complicated. I can work with complicated. This shouldn’t be so simple and horrible. The Sthenites have awful customs if this is what they make people do, just awful. If I kill Zack, do you think he’ll be mad at me?”

Chala didn’t mentally stumble over the question, but felt like it was a question that should cause stumbling. She walked to the mat between the rock pillars and knelt by the bat-like alien.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think he’d be mad at you for killing him. He’d probably prefer the alternative, but he understands how delicate the situation is. He’s constructed a situation where a Suzerain might even be able to step in to prevent a trial from being completed. With a different Suzerain who had more support from the different tribes, that might even be a remote possibility.”

Nectra flapped her wing back into place and sat upright.

“I guess we’ll just have to cross that road when we come to it. Thanks for not saying anything about claws earlier.”

“What?”

“When I talked about getting blood on my hands. I’ve used that expression before… sometimes I have humans stop expressions I’m making where I talk about hands, saying I should use claws instead. I love human expressions, though. And that expression involves hands.”

“You don’t exactly have claws, either,” said Chala. “They’re a bit pointier than human hands, but they’re definitely hands.”

“I know, right?” said Nectra. “Though I sorta do if you count my feet.”

“Those aren’t really-”

“Nah, my feet have claws. They’re really good for catching fish.”

“I-”

“Like, amazing. I’m great at catching fish. Fishing for humans is so slow, they just get in boats and wait for ages forgetting that the point is catching fish, thinking that waiting in a boat is the point, and I normally really like how humans do things, but catching fish is supposed to be active. Fly over the water, wait to see the ripples, splash in, and bam! Lunch. And, yes, I know that some humans hunt fish with spears, but there’s still a lot of waiting involved in that even if it’s more proactive. And don’t get me started on humans who fish with nets.”

Chala nodded, following the conversation flow.

“The Sthenites prefer hunting the native fish equivalent with spears. A few tribes use nets. Some just slither into the water to see what they can grab with their bare hands.”

“Ooh, now that’s nice… I couldn’t do that. I don’t see underwater very well if I’m actually under the water.”

“Speaking of nets and spears, though, I’m supposed to ask what sort of weapon you intend to use for the trial?”

Nectra pointed at the staff stretched between the rock pillars over Chala’s head. Chala glanced back up at it.

“Because there are plenty of weapons we can also offer-”

Nectra shook her head and pointed at the staff again.

“My staff can turn into a scythe around Zack. An energy scythe. Why would I use anything else?”

“Are scythes actually good as weaponry?”

“They’re better than good,” said Chala. “They’re awesome and cool as weaponry.”

“But are they capable?”

“Look, I’m using the scythe. Even if for some crazy reason a scythe wasn’t a good weapon, it can also be a staff which is also an amazing weapon, plus Zack is scared to death of this thing. You should see the look on his face whenever I activate it.”

“Zack feels there’s a disparity here, and that he should be permitted to use his pistols if you get to use your staff.”

“That seems fair,” said Nectra.

“For him to have a ranged weapon while you only have-”

“My awesome scythe? Of course it’s fair. I’m a little insulted by this anti-scythe attitude you’ve got.”

“Fair enough,” said Chala. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll take my leave now. Good luck prepping for the fight. Someone will be along shortly to deliver some fruit and… if you’re interested… I can have them include some fish as well.”

“Oh, yes, please,” said Nectra, rising to her feet and leaping back to her perch on the staff. “I’d love to give some of the local food a try.”

Chala nodded and walked out while Nectra clutched the staff with her feet, rolled forward, and resumed her attempts at meditation.

***

“Where is it?”

The Phantom Matador lifted his head and turned to look back, expertly revealing only his eye as Chala entered his hut. The two Sthenite guards rose to a firmer attention and lifted their spears at the sight of the new company, though the humans ignored them. The Matador turned back to resume looking at his cell wall, tapping his foot and creating a gentle clink as the wrought-iron manacle at his leg jingled.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, his sonorous voice echoing through the room, theatrically enhanced by either natural skill, his deceptive psychic abilities, or some quirk of the acoustics of the hut. “I do, however, see that you have my hat and my mask.”

“These are to trade. I give these to you, and you tell me what I need to get it back.”

“I think I agree… but sincerely, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The Oborosian Stone,” said Chala. “The Fact. You broke into my hut and stole it, Starprey.”

“Oh, that was your hut? I’m sorry, I should have known. Knick-knacks from Veskid and articles of clothing not suited for the serpentine form, and you being the only humanoid I’ve seen here apart from Gamma and myself should have made it obvious.”

“Now that you know what it is, how about that deal?”

The Matador tapped his foot again and sighed.

“I would agree, but I can not help you. I don’t have it.”

“Then where did you hide it?”

“I didn’t. The… Oborosian Stone? The Fact wasn’t on my person when I woke. I assumed that, like my hat and mask, it had been taken by Gamma.”

“He didn’t take those,” said Chala. “He’d passed out by the time the Sthenites located him. They removed your hat and mask.”

“Then they have the Fact. Or Gamma does. Or the bat.”

“Nectra.”

“So she told you her name. She may be a brilliant researcher, but she knows nothing of maintaining mystique.”

“She knows it’s childish and accomplishes nothing.”

“It’s an art. I won’t be appreciated in my time. Now… considering that I don’t have what you want, and don’t know where it is, I have no more to offer you. Might I have them back as a matter of courtesy?”

“Why? Zack seemed interested in knowing who you are.”

“You mean he still hasn’t come to see me?” said the Matador, turning to look at Chala. She’d already seen his face when the mask had been removed, but she was still struck by how memorably average he looked. His face didn’t quite match the back of his head, with neither appearing strange except in relation to each other. She considered the possibility that he was using his psychic abilities to confuse something about his appearance in her mind, but dismissed the level of effect it might have.

“No,” she said. “Like I said, he passed out after you did. You woke up before he did. He’s not had time.”

“Not even to gloat?”

“He’s on the run from someone.”

“Nectra, yes, but I thought they were patching things up.”

Chala coughed, not sure what to say to that.

“Wait… are you telling me there’s someone else after him? Even here on Mandrake? That poor man… he’s blessed with an inordinate amount of bad luck.”

“That might be true,” she said. “I don’t know many details myself, only that he’s in a hurry and Nectra’s on his side. He and she will be fighting to the death soon, and then he has to leave.”

“I feel that I’ve missed something,” he said. “Please explain. I still haven’t picked up on the finer points of the language, and I doubt my wardens would be talkative even if I had, but under what circumstances do people on the same side fight to the death?”

“No,” she said. “You don’t need to know anything while you wait for your trial. Which will begin shortly after Zack’s concludes.”

“I see,” he said. “Then we have little more to discuss. Except for… my hat and mask?”

“Why do you need it on a world where I already know what you look like and literally no one else cares?”

“It’s an art form,” he said. “You’ll appreciate it after my time. I’d ask for my sword to complete the picture, but as I understand it I’m being tried as a criminal, so that might not be reasonable.”

Chala narrowed her eyes but cautiously folded the mask and set it into the hat before tossing the wide-brimmed sombrero cordobés to the prisoner. He smiled, bowed his head, and extended the hat forward with his hand as if having just doffed it.

“Many thanks. Even without the sword, I have everything from my Traje de Sombras. I can finally dress to kill.”