Monthly Archives: August 2014

Episode 12: Helix Hunt

“You’re certain that no one looking like this passed this way?” asked Vox Cul-Dar. “It is vital that I find them.”

The human behind the sandwich cart shook her head as she finished applying the mustard to his order. She started wrapping it into a paper to make it easier to carry without any mess while still making it easy to eat, a custom that Vox found quaint and typical of what few charms humans had. His people would generally prefer to rend a meal to pieces while worrying about the mess later, a custom he had learned was not always appreciated in some parts of civilized space.

“I really wish I could help you,” she said. “It’s been a slow day, though. I think I’d remember seeing them. You don’t get red hair like that every day, and that hat is… well, I think I’d remember. They don’t make antenna hats like that very often these days, do they?”

“No, they don’t,” said Vox, shutting off the holographic image projection. “Thank you for your time.”

“And thank you for the business!” she said. “Enjoy the sandwich.”

He paid a little extra… he felt sorry for anyone who tried to run a business in a place like Helix, and it was always good to foster goodwill in potential contacts in unusual places… and went on his way. Human food was rarely to his liking, but a heavy application of human condiments could make it surprisingly palatable. Perhaps that was why humans used them.

He reactivated his computer’s local network access, a feature he’d turned off to prevent anyone from the DMA from tracking him. While he didn’t think anyone knew that he had a lead on Zack Gamma, you could never be too careful. He was overdue for scrambling his network identification protocols as it was.

He began eating the sandwich as the computer connected, initially telling him that there was a message from Rendelac that he would check later. He entered a quick search scheme, telling the handheld device to seek likely associates of either Zack Gamma or Carmen Shift, entering what he knew about their known affiliations, associations and motivations. The fact that Zack and Carmen knew each other at all was a surprise… which was likely why Zack had chosen not to take the assignment from him when he’d offered it. It paid to keep that kind of association quiet. While he waited for the computer to finish its search scheme, he opened Rendelac’s message.

“I bring a message of guidance,” came Rendelac’s pre-recorded voice. “The child that gave you the tip was lying. I learned this when he attempted to break into your vehicle after you left. Police were contacted, but the child stole the identification node. I have already logged your identification node with them, and they will be on the lookout for any vehicles attempting to use it. More importantly: Zack Gamma and Carmen Shift may not be in the region that he described for you. Travel with wisdom, Vox Cul-Dar.”

Vox glared at his computer and resisted the urge to break something. He took a long, intentional bite of his sandwich, satisfying himself with destroying the food with his teeth. He would save the greater violence for Zack Gamma.

The search scheme concluded, and a list of possibilities appeared on his screen with a series of beeps. The top result was very informative: the asteroid racing coalition rented one of Helix’s medical offices due to the low rates and the fact that Helix was designed with hangars capable of holding regulation-size asteroids due to its construction as a super city that expected interstellar visitors of all sorts. A city like Helix was just out of the way enough that it might offer more secrecy than the other places affiliated with the races in Veskid City. Plus, if Zack needed some sort of medical attention after encountering the Phantom Matador, a regular hospital might be too dangerous.

Vox pulled up a map of the fastest route to the medical office and took a last bite of the sandwich, finishing it. He almost tossed the paper onto the ground in triumph, but recalled Rendelac’s words about the former glory of Helix. He would surely find a receptacle on the way.

***

Zack winced at the tingling, not-quite-painful sensation of the strange electronic wand that Doctor Zeta was rolling across his scalp where the Phantom Matador’s boulders had grazed him. Zeta had said that the injury wouldn’t be serious if it was treated soon, but the wand was taking a long time. He wanted to discuss the next step of his plan to get away, but was having difficulty thinking of ways to talk about the problem in front of the doctor. As much as Carmen said he was trustable, he didn’t want to take any chances; even an honest, friendly person might accidentally say something that sounded innocent to a friend while unfriendly ears were listening. He also knew that Carmen didn’t care about that kind of risk and had only been quiet so far due to his insistence. She might take any subtle hint as permission to say everything. The doctor, however, might be more informative.

“How long till your next race, doc?”

“Three days,” he said. “The Corona Circuit has concluded and the Corona Cup has been awarded to Carmen after her hard-fought victory, so it’s time for the second circuit of the year to begin. It’s just a preliminary race to ensure that all of the racers qualify. As the victor of the Corona Cup, Carmen already qualifies, so she could sit it out if she chose, or participate as normal with no risk.”

“You couldn’t keep me away, Zeta,” she said. “I’ve already won it.”

“Yes, well… there’s almost never a need for a medic during preliminary races,” said Zeta. “It’s a wide arc through the system that looks exciting on paper, but contains little in the way of hazard or tricky maneuvers. Still, if a rookie suddenly loses atmosphere or if two asteroids collide, I’ll be there to do my job.”

“Will it pass by any of the other planets in the system?”

“Well, some of the other planets will lie within the course’s permitted track on the date and time of the race, yes,” Zeta said. “Most racers would do well to avoid their gravity wells, barring some attempt at a slingshot maneuver. The speed gained from doing that wouldn’t even provide much of a net timing increase after the time lost in deviating enough to reach them.”

Zeta turned off the wand and looked pointedly at Carmen.

“That’s not a challenge, incidentally,” he said. “Everyone knows you could. We don’t need you to give any risky thoughts to the players who aren’t ready for the big leagues yet.”

“News time, Zeta,” she said. “When they race with me, they’re already in the big leagues.”

“All done with your shrink ray, doctor?” asked Zack.

“Stop calling it that,” said Zeta, smirking. “It’s got nothing to do with psychiatry or psychology, and I’m not licensed as a ‘shrink’ as you call it. The beam is intended for neurosurgery and the care of head injuries.”

“So… all done with your shrink ray?”

“Yes, we’re done,” said Zeta. “Take it easy, though. I give it a good two weeks until you’re back up to your usual strength. Invest in a hardhat if you plan on taking any other blows to the head. You might not be so lucky next time.”

“Don’t hit him in the head with any hammers, got it,” said Carmen. “You’re awesome, Zeta. Thanks again.”

“Oh, any time,” he said. “It really wasn’t anything special.”

“Yeah, well, I think it’s time we got going,” said Zack. “We’ve got a bit of a schedule to keep, Carmen.”

A gentle rapping at the door made Zack and Carmen exchange worried glances, but brought a smile to Zeta’s face.

“Wonderful timing,” he said. “I believe that’s my next appointment. Or my first, technically, since you asked for this one to be off the record.. Have a good day, both of you.”

Zeta opened the door of his office and found himself staring down the barrel of an energy rifle.

“Good to meet you, Doctor,” said Fletch, the rapid spinning of the mechanical reticle over her eye covering the room. “Step aside, please, I’ve got an appointment with your patient.”

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Episode 11: The Boy on Beta Street

Vox Cul-Dar parked his hover car at the public hangar on the side of the “street” that spiraled up and down the side of Helix. The planet of Veskid, and even more specifically the cities of Farport, Veskid City and Cortez, were founded near the end of the super city craze, and each of the three founding cities were developed with facilities meant to accommodate and create the massive, intelligent structures. Helix was nearing completion shortly after Veskid City had renamed itself (originally called Desperation by the settlers who crashed there on the way to the planned landing sight of Farport), but the market changed just before Helix would have become operational as a super city. Designed for short-range mobility, and even space flight in an emergency, Helix now towered over one of the far corners of Veskid City as a permanently grounded structure with its low-rent residential district running along the Alpha Street and the modestly successful business district running along the Beta Street.

Vox was only familiar with the more recent history of Veskid and only knew of Helix as an eyesore that was technically a separate city even though it was fully contained within Veskid City. It gleamed from a distance and had that particular style of curvature that humans had thought of as futuristic centuries ago, but now it looked old fashioned and outdated. Looking through the window of his transport he decided, not for the first time, that it could probably use a new paint job.

“I truly dislike coming to Helix,” he said.

“Mark my words and heed well my wisdom, Vox Cul-Dar” said Rendelac from the elongated hollow that he rested in just above the vehicle’s radio and communications terminal. “Carmen Shift and the one who is likely Zack Gamma took a hover cab here, based on what little public information I can glean from police reports and your quick… ‘interview’ with the witness who saw them leaving the hotel. If you wish to pursue Zack Gamma, then coming to Helix is a necessity.”

“I dislike coming to a place in such disrepair,” said Vox. Rendelac’s eye glowed and focused on Vox.

“It is in disrepair because of neglect,” Rendelac said. “It is unpleasant because those who neglected it disliked coming here. The former grandeur of Helix is lost to history not due to its age, but due to those who prefer not to walk within it.”

“Then I am as responsible for its current state as the humans who failed to maintain it?”

“Certainly not,” said Rendelac. “But you may share some of the responsibility for however people feel about it in the future. While you are here, you may breathe some vibrancy back into its still walkways. As the humans say, there is little sadder than an abandoned railway station.”

“Humans say a lot of things,” said Vox. “I shall return.”

Vox stepped out of the car and into the public hangar. He took a moment to feel the gentle breeze just outside the hangar’s launchway, enjoying the refreshing feel of it but knowing that it, like much in Helix, was minimized due to the unique architecture of the tower’s two roads and likely a force field; if he could actually feel the full force of the wind at this altitude, it might risk blowing him off the tower.

He stepped onto Beta Street, typed a security code into the hangar’s entryway, turned and immediately had to step around a small child that was running down the roadway. The child yelped and tripped, falling onto the ground. Vox gasped and leaned down to help him up, but the youth just looked up at him, smiled, and said “Are you all right, mister?”

“I’m fine,” said Vox. “Are you? You should watch where you walk.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone park there before.”

Vox realized after a moment that the child wasn’t actually human, though he looked close enough to it that he could easily pass for one. The loose-fitting clothes likely served to hide any non-human elements, as did the grey, flat-topped hat that he wore. The eyes were the biggest giveaway, truly round instead of the almond-shape of human eyes. Now that Vox realized it wasn’t a human, other little things became much more noticeable: the extra joint on the long fingers, the angular nature of the ears, and the disturbingly sharp nature of the teeth chief among them.

“Be that as it may,” said Vox after mentally filing away the appearance of the child, “the roadways aren’t safe places for people to run so cavalierly.”

“They seem safe enough,” said the child. “Almost no one drives on the road, it’s cheaper to take the elevators or monorail. I mean, on the lower segments of the tower, sure, but up here there’s no real need to drive on the road.”

“I see,” said Vox. “Forgive me, then, I am unfamiliar with the customs of Helix.”

“Need a guide?” asked the child. “No one knows this part better than me. I can getcha where you’re going in a flash, and I’ll be cheaper than buying a map.”

“I don’t know if the services of a guide are called for necessarily,” said Vox. “However, I am looking for two people. Perhaps you’ve seen them.”

He reached for the palm-sized computer in his robes and activated its photographic display mode. As he held it up, two holograms appeared in the air between Vox and the child. The first showed Carmen Shift from a video of her races, while the second showed Zack Gamma as he appeared in the DMA’s employee database. The alien boy smiled a razor smile of delight, gasping at the sight of Carmen.

“That’s the Crimson Cruiser, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.”

“I love the asteroid races. And you think she’s here? In Helix?”

“I believe so,” he said. “She’s an associate of mine. If you’ve not seen her, though, it’s more important to know if you’ve seen the other one. He should be with her, but may be alone.”

The child scratched the back of his head while looking at the image of Zack. He closed his eyes for a second as if lost in thought before they snapped open again.

“I think I saw someone with a hat like that a while ago,” he said. “The guy wearing it was with a woman with red hair but I didn’t see her face… maybe Carmen Shift? They stepped off a cab. You don’t see many hats like that these days. I don’t know where they went, but I can tell you where I saw them and which way they were going. What’s it worth to you?”

“Five Veskidollars,” Vox said, putting away his computer and reaching for his wallet. “Non-digital. Paper money.”

“Wow!” said the child. “Thanks mister! I was two twists up from here, I saw the cab drop them off at the grocery store where Beta connects with Elba. They made their way down Elba, walking deeper into Helix, heading for the park district.”

“Thank you,” said Vox, removing the paper currency from his wallet and handing it to the child, who gratefully took it and ran down the roadway, turning around a corner. Vox walked inward, following the signs until he could reach an elevator. The child hadn’t given him much to go on except that they would likely be two levels up, but he had a direction to begin walking while he started to search for Zack and Carmen’s known associates who might be in Helix.

***

It was saying “mister” that did it, Hobbar decided. Everyone familiar with humans in Helix… which was everybody… mistook him for a human kid at a distance, and while he certainly wasn’t an adult yet he was much more mature than most expected him to be. Resembling a human child of about eight years, he was chronologically not quite twice that old and knew how to make the disparity work in his favor. When people found out how old he actually was, people began to distrust him even if he wasn’t up to anything. Looking like a pale goblin didn’t help people to trust him very much either. Better to let people think he wasn’t even a decade old and call them “mister” or “miss” a lot.

He waited for the gangly, bug-like alien to follow his directions and walked back to the guy’s hangar. The alien had never suspected that a young ragamuffin might have watched the security code being typed in while running, or had likely not even thought about keeping the security measure a secret… it was such an automatic thing for most people. In the alien’s defense, he’d used seven digits instead of the four or five that most people used, but it was still a simple pattern.

Hobbar reached up and tapped the proper numbers. He stepped through the hangar’s arch and took a second to admire the skyline before turning to the car. Many forms of hover carriage existed, but Hobbar’s toolkit hadn’t met its match yet.

Within thirty seconds, he’d popped open the front door and an alarm sounded. He winced, trying to figure out what he’d done wrong, but quickly noticed the eye of a small computer set into the dashboard just above the radio.

“Mark my words and heed well my wisdom,” said Rendelac. “I have already contacted law enforcement. They will be here shortly to investigate your act of breaking and entering. All of the most valuable objects within the vehicle have tracing mechanisms of one sort or another within them. On a personal note, it is an act of wisdom to repay kindness for kindness, and after I overheard this car’s owner give you a fair price for your information I find it most distasteful indeed for you to turn on him like this.”

Hobbar wanted to smash the computer, but knew that if it had any black-box mechanisms it might just come back to haunt him later. Instead he reached under the control panel and removed the maintenance lid.

“The joke’s on your boss,” said Hobbar. “He didn’t pay me for information. I’d never seen that guy in my life. What, he thinks the first person he passes in a city the size of Helix is gonna know someone from a picture? I could’ve passed Carmen Shift in a crowd at lunchtime and not known it if she’d been wearing a hat, as busy as this place gets sometimes.”

“Close the maintenance panel and leave,” said Rendelac. “I have your voice and facial features on file, and will be turning them over to the police.”

“They already have my voice and facial features,” said Hobbar, grabbing the identification node. He didn’t have time for much, but a legal identification node could fetch a good price at the right market. “They’ve not been able to catch me yet. You seem like a nice computer with some snazzy software though, so I’ll do you a favor and not take you and the radio to sell for parts… the radio looks busted, anyway. But your boss has really gotta do better than this if he wants his stuff to stay safe.”

He closed the door of the car before he could hear the computer’s response and ran. He still had another minute before the police could easily respond if they weren’t already in the area… but he hadn’t stayed away from them this long by giving them the chance to catch up.

Episode 10: A Petrakinetic Brain Scan

Carmen opened the door to the doctor’s office, quickly looked around and nodded behind her. Zack stepped in, mechanically removing his hat as he stepped under the archway.

“I’ve already told you that it’s paranoid to have someone else open your doors for you, right?”

“At least twice,” said Zack. He walked to the window on the opposite side of the room, just behind the doctor’s desk. The glass was obviously Intelligent Glass, only allowing a very small amount of daylight to pass through. He instinctively touched the panel beneath the window and turned the opacity up a bit.

“It also slows us down like you wouldn’t believe,” she said, closing the door and hitting the light switch. “Plus it shoots a big signal flare into the sky for anyone who might be looking our way. Granted, unless they’re in the DMA then they’re not likely to be anyone who’ll actually do anything about us glowing like a neon sign, which means they won’t start anything that we need to worry about, which fails to give us incentive to move quickly, so we slow down even MORE, and this problem just gets worse and worse.”

“You might’ve said that once or twice, too,” said Zack. “Sorry for taking things slow, I’m just trying to do this by the book.”

“People write books on disappearing and going on the lam?”

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “Unfortunately, most of it’s theoretical since people in my situation don’t usually last long enough to win any Pulitzers. You said that this Zeta guy knows to expect us?”

“Yeah, he’ll be right over,” said Carmen, leaning against a wall. “We won’t freak him out waiting here. Most of the racers who see him wait here in his ship’s office. Moving around a lot means that he doesn’t have any luxurious waiting rooms.”

“It’s better that way,” said Zack, tossing his hat onto the seat of one of the comfortable chairs and sitting on its arm. “We won’t have to sit in a room with a guy whose lung is trying to escape through his larynx.”

“Escape through his larynx?”

“Right,” said Zack. “Because of his cough. A really bad cough. I don’t like waiting rooms.”

“Yeah, I think the last time we talked about hospitals you referenced a gunshot wound. A bad cough’s a step up the cheer-meter.”

“It’s been a good couple of years,” said Zack, legitimately seeming to perk up. He looked over the walls and saw official looking certifications with a name longer than Zeta, confirming his suspicions that it was a nickname. The door opened before he went to read one more carefully and a slender man with black hair and a clipboard entered, looking surprised to see people already in the office.

“Carmen!” he said with an almost musical voice. “I thought I’d gotten here before you did, the front door was still locked. Did the racing commission give you a key?”

“I handled the door, doc,” said Gamma. “Relocked it, just to be safe. Seemed sensible to make ourselves at home.”

“Zeta, this is my friend, Zack Gamma,” said Carmen. “He had a run in with some trouble at my hotel room; he needs to be looked over to make sure that he’s alright. We’d also like to keep this on the down-low if it’s all the same to you.”

Doctor Zeta looked at Zack and then looked at the hat sitting where Zack should be with a frown. He took a deep breath, turned to Carmen, and smiled.

“Absolutely,” he said. “No trouble at all. Besides, I owe you one if memory serves.”

“Appreciate it,” said Zack. “I’m probably fine, but I need to play it safe. The guy who did this used his mind to lift some rocks and throw them at me.”

“I see,” said Zeta, retrieving a plastic gun-shaped device from his desk. Obviously a piece of medical equipment, especially with what resembled a Radar dish at the end of what Zack couldn’t help but think of as a barrel. Zeta wielded it a bit too comfortably for Zack’s taste as he approached.

“If you don’t mind me asking, doc, what’s that for?”

“It’s an advanced neuro-scanner,” he said. “It’s nothing to be worried about.”

“I’ve seen neuro-scanners before,” said Zack. “What’s so advanced about that one?”

“Most hospitals wouldn’t use something like this,” said Zeta. “The basic model is fine for most people. In the races, though, the mind is a significant piece of equipment with its own unique problems, some of which need to be diagnosed in a matter of moments if they’re to be fixed. The unique brain patterns of those with psychic capabilities… and the more specifically unique brain patterns of those with petrakinetic powers… require an advanced neuro-scanner. So it’s the only one I have.”

“And those of us with regular brains?”

“Still get scanned,” said Carmen, impatiently. “Do you put up this much fuss if someone uses a high-definition camera to take your picture?”

“It pays to keep your face out of the spotlight, so I might start,” said Zack. “But I see your point.”

Zeta approached and held the neuro-scanner up to Zack’s head. Zack stared at Zeta’s eyes, biting down his concerns about hospitals and guns and waited for the telltale-

“…peration Eclipse depended on your help.”

Zamona crossed his arms, the lights on his two strength sapping gauntlets indicating that they were at full power. Zack could tell that even with the gauntlets at full capacity, Zamona was still holding himself back, touching the table gingerly. Was it force of habit that made him handle things with care, or did his surreal strength surpass even what the gauntlets could drain away? Most people wouldn’t be able to move while wearing those things at full power.

“Don’t think that I’ll help you any more just because I helped you before,” said Zack. “Those were different times. You were still in the ring. I’m sorry you had to leave that, by the way.”

“Nothing you could have done to stop that,” said Zamona. “Besides, I ended on top. The Iceberg left as a legend, not by being taken down by some hotshot punk who was fresh to the game.”

-click of the device.

Zack realized that someone was shouting at him. Carmen, she was shouting his name. Something was different. He was still looking at Zeta’s eyes… the wall hadn’t been right behind Zeta before. And Doctor Zeta certainly hadn’t looked terrified.

Zack shook his head. He was holding Zeta up against the far wall, away from where he’d been sitting. The neuro-scanner was in Zack’s hand, held up like a gun against Zeta’s chin. Zeta was holding his hands up, partially in defense but mostly as a show of surrender. Zack realized he was feeling waves of déjà vu strong enough to bring on a sense of nausea and dizziness. He let go of the doctor’s shirt and leaned back from the wall, dropping the neuro-scanner onto the ground. Carmen quickly picked up the scanner and pushed Zack back until he was sitting in a chair.

“What was that all about?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I was… in trouble or something. I remembered something, but I don’t know what it was or why.”

“I expect the results of the brain scan to be quite interesting, then,” said Zeta. “There are isolated… very isolated, I should stress… cases of people reliving old memories with astonishing clarity or subconsciously solving equations when a neuro-scanner is used upon them. Generally they don’t cause a physical reaction… it must have been a very tense memory.”

“It was,” said Zack. “A client, a guy I helped who used to be a professional wrestler. But we weren’t talking about his case, it was after we’d finished. But I haven’t spoken to him in years.”

“Very puzzling,” said Zeta. “Have you ever had head injuries like this before?”

“Not quite like this,” said Zack. “I’ve had my head banged more than a die-hard rock fan at a reunion tour, but nothing that I’d say was serious.”

“We’ll let Zeta figure out what’s serious,” said Carmen, handing the neuro-scanner back to the doctor. “You’ve got to take it slow until he figures out what’s going on. Leave the speed to the professionals.”

“It’s possible that you’re remembering a dream,” said Zeta, examining the neuro-scanner’s readout screen. “It wouldn’t be a memory you could access just as easily as others, might incorporate memories and people seen from unrelated events, and could involve heightened emotions that aren’t immediately understandable. I’ll know more after I examine the results more carefully… until then, though, I already have enough to prescribe some current treatments. You were very lucky; no serious injuries were scanned.”

“So I’ve got a clean bill of health?” asked Zack.

“Absolutely not,” said Zeta. “But the treatment should be simple.”

Much earlier, on another world…

The elevator chimed to herald the departure of a client as the doors slid apart, revealing a gruff, dirt-covered man. And yet, despite wearing the same clothes, having the same unkempt hair and the same grizzled beard… he looked different. He was still unremarkable… even more now that he had left the portion of the building devoted to the opulent bank… but people asked to describe the person who just passed would have used different words.

“Three Virellium Coins,” he said to himself, walking through the building’s lobby, weaving through the bustling people on their way to and from the shopping center at the ground floor. “Three coins made of Virellium Force Energy. Three little coins…”

It was too much. He’d never be worried again. He’d calculated how much money he was owed before, of course. He knew in his head that he had earned the money, and knew exactly what it would be worth when he went to the bank. But he’d never really believed it. People like him didn’t get money. They kept their nose to the grindstone, worked their whole life, and hopefully managed to reduce their debt instead of increasing it. People like him didn’t increase how much money they had, a thought that cycled through his head as he left the shopping center and reached the city street.

And yet… here it was. It still felt like it wasn’t real. It was a dream that he’d wake up from in a moment. Or, worse, he’d done something wrong or misunderstood something… he’d asked the teller multiple times to repeat everything and to get it in writing, but he still couldn’t believe it. He walked down the sidewalk, mentally taking note as the crowds thinned out and the buildings became worse. Should he buy a car? He’d always wanted a car… public transportation and walking had always worked for him, but maybe he could afford a car?
Of course he could afford a car. He could afford all the cars. Should he get a new house? He needed to be smart with this money, not waste it all in one place. It wouldn’t be possible to waste it all in one place, though, no single place had enough to buy. He liked his neighborhood… there were a lot of fun memories in that house… he’d think about buying a new house. Maybe he could keep this one if he bought another one.

He stepped down the alley that cut four blocks off of the walk home, an old trail of gravel that likely hadn’t seen a regular car drive down it since they began flying. It cut in front of an abandoned business and between two tall buildings before opening up into the residential neighborhood that he called home.

“Been a good day?”

He stopped and looked over his shoulder. Two large men, one carrying a long piece of metal, had stepped into the alley behind him.

“Good enough. You?”

“Good so far. About to get a whole lot better, though.”

He took a steady breath and watched the two men begin walking closer to him. He turned back and saw a third man… no, some sort of alien that looked human apart from the red eyes and wild mane of hair that merged well with his worn coat. The alien was larger than the first two, and was quite effectively blocking his path.

Here’s where he got what was coming to him. No one gets a break this lucky for free.

He put a hand on his multiform tool for comfort, though he doubted that it would be useful as a weapon. The three men approached and he stepped back to the wall.

“Listen, I don’t want any trouble…”

“We’re not here to cause trouble,” said the man who’d spoken to him before. “We were just wondering if you might be able to make a donation. You’re Azar, right?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s my name.”

“Azar, good,” said the thug carrying the metal… it looked more like a pipe now that Azar could see it. “We’ve been waiting for you. Word is that you just made a lot of money. A lot of money.”

“Now listen, boys,” said Azar. “I put in decades of work for that, and I saved well. I earned that money.”

“No one’s saying you didn’t,” said the alien, revealing teeth far sharper than should have been legal. “We figured that we should put in some work today, too. I think a coin for each of us should work. That’s all.”

Azar wilted. He didn’t know how people had heard about it so quickly, but they clearly had. This was where money became a problem.

Except… it wasn’t. He reminded himself that money wasn’t a problem anymore. It was a solution. The wealthy didn’t deal with money, they dealt with opportunity. And people like these… dealt with debt. Azar stood taller and smiled.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, boys, but after I got my three Virellium coins, I opened two accounts at the bank. Savings and Checking. One coin went to savings… always good to prepare for a rainy day, after all… and two to checking. I’ve got nothing on me. Not a cent.”

The three thugs looked at each other, angrily.

“I came out here today to get some money,” said the alien. “And if I don’t get money, I’m going to have some fun.”

“I hate to disappoint you,” said Azar. “With the economy the way it is, it’s no surprise that you… enterprising young men have turned to getting your money like this. What say I give you boys jobs?”

“Jobs doing what?” asked the one with the pipe.

“I haven’t worked that out yet,” said Azar. “But I think that you’ll find the payment to be… satisfactory. Certainly better than whatever you do for a living now. So what’ll it be, boys? Will you pummel me to death for nothing, or will you see me tomorrow at, say, two in the afternoon?”

***

Azar waved farewell to his new bodyguards and closed the door behind him, locking each of the three locks and flipping the switch to activate the security grid. He deflated and walked to his living room, flopping into the chair like it was the end of any other day. That had been the most terrifying experience of his life, and he’d almost died more times than he could count on the job.

But it had worked. He sold opportunity for safe passage. Money hadn’t even traded hands. Largely because he kept the money unreachable, safe in the bank. Or so he’d told them. He’d meant it about opening up two accounts.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the one Virellium coin that he’d kept for himself, feeling the heat that it generated.

“What should I do with you now, little coin?” he asked it. “What shall I do with you now?”

Episode 9: Death At Airlock Two

The blast doors had been designed to withstand the best siege that a Morcalan war band could muster, but it only lasted seven minutes against the Empyrean Ray. Captain Andrew Ortega holstered the beam weapon over his back, feeling his space suit’s robotic receptacle stow it for quick retrieval later. With Doctor Silas Rogers lurking somewhere ahead, he knew he’d need it before the mission was over.

An explosion outside rocked the station beyond the capacity of the kinetic dampeners. The Dyson Wars, as they were coming to be known, were nearing the major trade routes at the edges of the Angelor Expanse, home of the Angelor Republic. Captain Ortega took a moment to right himself before staring down the red and green emergency lights that kept the hallway beyond the blast door visible even in dire situations.

“You’re a tenacious fellow, Captain,” said a harsh, metallic voice through the hallway’s communications unit. “I was certain that you would perish down on Morcala when the volcano erupted. In a cage, with a ravenous Morcalan Deathbird, suspended over the caldera minutes before eruption, none of your fancy gadgets or weapons left on your person… and yet here you are, thirty minutes later, fully armored and stealthily piloting one of my own emergency back-up rockets. The rocket’s sensors would have allowed you to detect my Invisible Star Base and pass through my shields, I know that much… but how did you ever manage everything else?”

“Don’t do this, Rogers!” shouted Captain Ortega. “The Morcalan people are barely fighting off the Dyson forces as it is! They’re the first major defensive stronghold that’s been able to hold out against this new so-called Empire! They can’t waste their efforts on whatever you’re planning!”

“Fine, don’t tell me,” said the voice. “I’ll learn about it later, once you file your report and it becomes a standard technique shown to the cadets at the Astroguard. And don’t call me Rogers, Captain. You know what my name is now.”

Andrew heard a buzz behind him and swore, recognizing the sound of a force field activating. It was a fear tactic, of course. Now that Rogers knew he couldn’t stop him from continuing, he wanted to shake him by removing any chance of escape. Andrew continued down the hallway until he reached a regular door. He tapped the control pad at its side, but it was predictably locked.

“I won’t humor your delusions, Doctor,” he said as he unholstered his Empyrean Ray Rifle, knowing that if he could open a blast door with its beam then a regular door wouldn’t pose any problem.

“You know what happened to me, Captain,” said Rogers’ voice. “I am no longer welcomed in the land of the living. My life ended when I became the sole survivor of that expedition, and so a new life had to begin.”

Just before Ortega could activate his weapon, the door chimed and slid to the side revealing a spindly, skeletal robot, its too-thin legs and arms supporting a nearly hollow frame. The skull-like head of the robot fixed Ortega with a red glare that grew brighter with every moment. He only had a second to leap to the side and avoid the eye-blasts. He returned fire and watched the purple lance of the Empyrean Ray slice into the robot, destroying it quickly.

“One of your Mindroids?” asked Ortega as he shakily stood. “I haven’t seen one of those in two years, and they were emergency backup units even then. Their mind-tracking feature is useless when I’m not trying to hide, Doctor Rogers. You’re really operating on a shoestring budget this time, aren’t you?”

Captain Ortega stepped into the light of the next room. The bridge of the Morcalan space station that Doctor Rogers had converted into his latest base was a wide, open space with a mostly transparent ceiling. The circular chamber was ringed by control stations and terminals that rose up the side of the walls, a ladder and two hydraulic lifts allowing access to the second and third levels, with a fourth level suspended in the center above the other three. Ortega couldn’t see the fourth level, but knew that Control Station Prime was sitting there. Whatever Rogers was up to could only happen on that level.

“A great mind uses all that he has available,” said Rogers. His voice was still broadcasting over the communications systems, but Ortega could hear it up above as well. He knew that the Doctor was capable of communicating solely through the ship’s systems if he so desired, but also knew that Rogers couldn’t resist the personal touch, either as an act of defiance against mortality or through a sentimental attachment to his former life as a scientist.

Ortega activated his suit’s flight pack and gracefully rose from the ground, obviating the ladders and lifts as he rose to the fourth landing. He touched down on the disc of floor that, if lowered, could functionally become the center of the second or third levels below as it descended through the ring of catwalks and operating stations, and saw what was left of Doctor Silas Rogers.

The mechanical hull of the robotic body was superficially similar to a standard space suit, but Ortega knew that the red, whirring form was solid, filled with pipes, wires, gears and drives, just like any other robot. Where the head should be, a dome-topped cylinder of glass had been reinforced and screwed into place, empty except for the gently bubbling water. It was a true miracle of science, Doctor Rogers’ mind somehow being fully transferred into this mechanical husk. Some researchers had claimed that minds and memories could be electronically copied and stored, but Captain Ortega had met enough of those to know that those artificially intelligent copies of biological minds were pale imitations of the original. Doctor Rogers, somehow, was the real thing.

“Again you face me at my moment of triumph,” said the voice synthesizer located at the base of the jar where Rogers’ head should have been.  “Again you seek to deny me my prize. You don’t even know what my purpose is today, and you oppose me still!”

“You violently escaped from prison, wounding five Astroguard officers in the process,” said Captain Ortega as he lowered his Empyrean Rifle. “Earlier today, you attacked me personally, leaving me to die. You stole this base, a significant theft of resources and technology that belongs to the Morcalan people. Even if you had no prior record, that would be more than enough for me to say: I hereby place you under arrest by the authority of the Astroguard for crimes against the Angelor Republic. Surrender peacefully. I’m certain you know by now that I have been approved to use force if you do not cooperate.”

Another explosion from the war outside the station exceeded the limits of the inertial dampeners before Doctor Rogers could reply. Captain Ortega rolled gently to the side to compensate for the change in orientation, his flight pack designed for contingencies of this sort. Doctor Rogers had more difficulty while being thrown toward the edge of his platform, but the servos in the suit’s arms activated faster than a human would, compelling him to grab a railing and right himself.

“I suggest that you take the offer of surrender,” said Ortega, smirking. “I don’t know how much longer your base can avoid those blasts.”

“You’re more right than you know,” said Doctor Rogers, turning to aim his bubbling jar at a screen. Captain Ortega again wondered why Rogers would physically turn to look at things since he lacked eyes and the bubbling fluid in the jar didn’t, as far as other scientists could tell, bestow any sensory input beyond what the suit’s regular optics could provide, and Rogers never told anyone when asked. Ortega assumed it was a habit left over from when he had a physical body. As usual, however, the situation demanded that those sorts of questions be put on hold.

“What do you mean?”

“The computer says that nothing was attacked,” said Rogers. “A missile launched toward our vicinity, and the Dyson vessel that launched it traveled in a wide arc away after launching. The ship and missile almost charted a semicircle around us.”

“Why would they attack empty space?” asked Ortega.

“Think, you cretin! You never think!” shouted Rogers, his synthesized voice causing the speakers to crackle. “Missile detonations produce incredible amounts of energy! The visible light produced by such an explosion is a fraction of the full amount of power that they create! And while my Invisibility Generator is immune to visible light and can compensate for the background radiation of the universe on any given day…”

“…you don’t have the technology to compensate for a military-grade explosion without sacrificing shield integrity,” said Ortega. “That ship wasn’t attacking anything, it was creating a flash of light! Setting up a candle to see where the shadow gets cast!”

“And sensors actively scanning for that shadow could figure out where we were, what our size and shape is, and probably other relevant details depending on what they were looking for and how smart they are. Even you can see the facts once I spell it out, and they went into this knowing what they were doing. I can only assume that when you borrowed my vessel and travelled to this station, someone saw it and deduced that I was here. I expect the Dyson Empire will be contacting us momentarily.”

“That doesn’t change anything,” said Ortega, ignoring the jabs at his intelligence. “You’re still under arrest and coming with me, Rogers. One way or another.”

The mechanical remains of Doctor Rogers turned toward Ortega, somehow managing to glare at him even without eyes. The bubbling in the jar intensified.

“I told you, that isn’t my name anymore,” said Rogers. “My life ended when I lost my body, and only my soul remained, tethered to this world by my own mechanical ingenuity!”

“Your mind transferred into a machine,” said Ortega. “You didn’t die. It was miraculous, but you aren’t just a soul.”

“Oh, but I am,” said Rogers. “My soul lives on, even when everyone else died. And so I remain christened… The Soul Survivor!”

“I’m still not calling you that,” said Ortega. “No matter how many times you insist that I should. It sounds ridiculous.”

You’re ridiculous!”

Their argument was prevented from going any further by a beep from the computer. A holographic screen appeared at the edge of the platform, displaying the information that a call was incoming. The call’s identification data was simply the logo of the Dyson Empire. Rogers reached for the control panel but stopped when Ortega aimed his Empyrean Ray at the scientist.

“Don’t touch that panel,” said Ortega.

“Yes, you’re right,” said Rogers. “If I respond to their call, then they might come up with a reason not to launch a few missiles at us, and we certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on that experience. What was I thinking?”

Ortega landed on the platform, his flight pack powering down as his feet touched the metal. He approached the control panel, and Doctor Rogers leaped back.

“If you think you can get close enough to me to deactivate my combat systems so easily-”

“I’m answering the call for you,” said Ortega. “I’m not letting you activate a trap or contingency plan that easily. Especially not after last time.”

Captain Ortega answered the hailing frequency and opened a channel. The Dyson Empire’s logo was replaced with a video feed of a large man sitting behind a table. The man smiled a dangerous smile.

“I was beginning to wonder if your communications array was damaged,” he said. “Greetings. I am Zamona, Herald of Emperor Dyson. Clearly you aren’t Morcalan, though your station is. Or was, at least, before it was heavily modified. What is your purpose in this region of space, why have you hidden yourself from us, and when will you swear allegiance to the Dyson Empire?”

“I am Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard,” said Ortega. “And my purpose was to come to this sector to recapture Doctor Silas Rogers.”

“My purpose in this sector is my own business,” said Rogers, shaking a metallic fist at the view screen. “I care not for your war, and shall swear allegiance to none! Not even the strength of the Iceberg will sway me.”

“Iceberg?” said Ortega.

“Oh, surely you recognize him,” said Rogers. “He’s even wearing the gauntlets.”

“I haven’t been known as Iceberg in quite a long time,” said Zamona.

“And now I represent Emperor Dyson. If this… Doctor Rogers speaks for you, Captain…”

“He does not,” said Ortega. “But I only serve the Astroguard. While I do not currently have any orders concerning you, this Morcalan conflict or your would-be Emperor, I do believe that the Astroguard will soon muster its forces for the sole purpose of stopping your war.”

“This is regrettable,” said Zamona. “If I wasn’t very busy organizing our final strike, I might simply order your capture so that we might discuss this further. But as it stands right now, your termination will be swift. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

The view screen went dark and an alarm began flashing. Doctor Rogers read the readout on a screen and the bubbling of the water in his jar briefly halted.

“What’s the situation?” asked Ortega.

“Four missiles coming our way,” said Rogers. “Since my sensors are always correct, I can tell you with absolute confidence that a single one of them is strong enough to destroy this base. An entity like myself might survive aboard, I suppose… however, with four of them coming the blast would be deadly even to me.”

“Can’t you shoot them down?” asked Ortega.

“Believe it or not, Morcalan science stations like this aren’t designed with weaponry, and I only began modifying it as a base last week,” said Rogers. “I felt that stealth was the more important consideration.”

“Your shields won’t stop them?”

“Not missiles like these,” said Rogers. “They’re highly advanced.”

“Let’s run back to the rocket that I used to get here,” said Ortega. “We might just be able to launch it before impact.”

“There’s no time for that,” said Rogers. “Idiot.”

“So what’s your plan?” asked Ortega, growing more concerned.

“Plan?” asked Rogers.

“Your getaway plan!” shouted Ortega. “You always have a secret exit or an extra spaceship or ingenious invention that lets you escape when your latest base is destroyed! Is there at least an escape pod?”

“My dear Captain Ortega,” said Doctor Rogers, condescension dripping from his voice, “you do me far too much credit to assume that I plan these things out in advance.”

***

The explosion was just one of many in Morcalan space, unnoticed by most among others that were closer and more immediately dangerous to the available observers. The Dyson vessel that launched the missiles sped away before the station was destroyed, receiving orders to pull back in preparation for the Sunspot Maneuver.

The nearest vessel after the Dyson ship sped away hadn’t even registered the explosion as a destruction, its computers instead registering it as a miss, possibly caused by faulty wiring or a programming error. The two crew members aboard the Morcalan Scuttler were more interested in the movement of the Dyson forces. The humans of Morcala were, as always, more interested in the battles of the present than the battles of the past.

“They’re pulling back, Captain,” said Ensign Trell from the helm. She marked the nearest three targets instinctively, but all the Dyson ships on their system map were clearly beginning to scatter.

“Not acceptable,” said Captain Calen, striking the arm of her warchair. “I said that we’d scuttle five of their ships before the rest of our forces drove them back. I’ll have another of their hulls to plate our ship when we take it in for repairs, or I’ll chase them from the system and pull them back! Hurry, find us one more target, a straggler if we need it!”

“Captain, your bet with Admiral Cresh aside, we’ve all but won the day, and none of the other scuttlers have felled more than two of the Dyson vessels. Is there not more honor in allowing them to retreat with their lives, even if they be lives of cowardice?”

“No!” shouted Calen. “They nearly won the day during the first ten minutes of their assault. They were unprepared for Morcalan military tactics, and the severity of our fleet. But now they know. The fewer forces who live to fight another day, the less likely any future assault will be!”

Ensign Trell’s reply was interrupted by a warning from the computer. She scanned the information and began furiously typing.

“Captain, the exterior doors of one of the airlocks opened,” she said. “It received some sort of external signal that overrode our security measures.”

“What?” asked Calen. “Is this what Dyson’s forces resort to? I knew they were cowards and criminals, but I never took them for spies and saboteurs! By the Farthest Fleet, if we’re to die at our moment of triumph then our would-be murderer will see the fire in our eyes! Fetch my Maelstrom Ray, and arm yourself however you wish. Let us introduce this intruder to their death at airlock two!”

Trell jumped to the weapons locker, withdrawing a standard phase pistol and the Captain’s prize Maelstrom Ray. The weapon had been awarded to Calen shortly before she first joined the Scuttler fleet as a mark of recognition for her exploits. It was as much a work of art as a weapon, and Calen treasured it as both.

Trell barely had time to power her weapon after handing the Maelstrom Ray to the captain, Calen eagerly striding toward the door as soon as she was armed. A short walk through the port chamber later and they were already on the other side of the door that would let their intruders in. Morcalan Scuttlers were small and compact, the better for attaching themselves to enemy vessels for quick destruction.

“They appear to be inside the airlock already, Captain,” said Trell, examining the airlock door’s terminal. “Air is cycling in, and it looks like they’re already accessing the security protocols using whatever method they used to get in through the exterior door. It should open as soon as they have normal air pressure in there.”

“I’ve grown too accustomed to the captain’s chair, Trell,” said Calen as her Maelstrom Ray began to hum ominously. “It’s been far too long since I’ve felled an enemy at this close range. Let them come, and add their lives to those that we’ve already snuffed out this day!”

Trell nodded, aiming her weapon at the airlock door. Calen followed suit when the Maelstrom Ray finished powering up, just as the airlock’s terminal indicated that it had finished cycling the air. The dull thud and electronic click that accompanied the airlock unlocking signaled the arrival of the uninvited guests. Doctor Rogers came into view as the massive door rolled away, just long enough for a storm of plasma and electricity to issue forth from Calen’s weapon.

As the door finished opening, a second target wearing an armored space suit came into view, holding his hands up in the sign of surrender most common for humans. The red, smoking shell that housed Doctor Rogers spasmed for a moment and fell backwards.

“Captain, those aren’t Dyson forces,” said Trell.

“I can see that, Ensign, I’m not blind!” said Calen. “That’s an Astroguard uniform… Identify yourself, and explain why you and the robot were breaking into my ship!”

“I’m Captain Andrew Ortega,” he said, still not lowering his hands. “And he’s not a robot, he’s a criminal named Doctor Silas Rogers, a wanted fugitive from the Astroguard. I’d tracked him to a cloaked space station in your system and was arresting him when the Dyson forces figured out where his station was. They destroyed the ship, and we only had moments to leave. My space suit is designed for short-range trips through vacuum and Doctor Rogers’ body seems to be able to withstand a truly staggering array of situations. I’m sorry for breaking into your ship, but you were the only non-Dyson vessel that we had a prayer of reaching in time. And honestly, even the Dyson vessels stopped being an option once they all started getting out of our range in a hurry.”

“The cowards left before we could finish with them,” said Calen, still aiming her Maelstrom Ray into the airlock. “They chose retreat rather than death in battle or accepting surrender. Which do you choose?”

“What?” asked Ortega. He glanced at Ensign Trell who tilted her head toward Calen’s weapon. “Oh! Surrender, absolutely. Assuming, of course, that you plan on releasing me as soon as I can make arrangements to get back to where I belong with Doctor Rogers.”

“Agreed,” said Calen, finally lowering her weapon. “I’ve no issue with the Astroguard, as long as they remember their jurisdiction. And their place.”

“Is he okay?” asked Ensign Trell, nodding toward Doctor Rogers’ smoking robotic body.

“I’ve seen him like this before,” said Ortega. “He’s rebooting. If he hadn’t used so much power for the flight and force field required to get himself to your vessel, his shield would’ve protected him from your weapon. I think. That was an impressive round. I’m not lucky enough for it to have killed him off, so based on the green light near his helmet I’d say he’ll be fine.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t a robot,” said Trell.

“Legally he isn’t,” said Ortega. “And he doesn’t believe he is. That’s enough for me.”

The lights in the ship suddenly dimmed and a siren began sounding off. Trell and Ortega looked up in surprise, but Captain Calen kept her gaze steady.

“The fleet alarm,” she said. “Something’s happening that we all need to know about. Something bad.”

She turned and ran the short distance to the small bridge, followed by Trell and Ortega. A voice was concluding an important message by saying that the message would repeat itself soon, and Trell jumped to her station to ready it for quick replay in case it didn’t repeat itself fast enough.

“That was Admiral Cresh on the photacyon receiver,” said Calen. “He wanted all of us to know something instantly, light speed wasn’t good enough for a regular message. He wasn’t concerned with security protocols either.”

“How far away is he?” asked Ortega. “The difference between photacyon and light speed communications shouldn’t make much difference.”

“About halfway between us and the Sun,” said Trell, pulling up the information on her terminal. “We wouldn’t have gotten the alarm for another thirty seconds or so. Here, let me replay his message for you.”

She accessed the file and the bridge’s communication system crackled to life.

“This is Admiral Cresh,” said a fierce, angry voice. “Our system is compromised… I don’t know how Dyson pulled it off, but we’ve just lost the Sun.”

As if on cue, the light outside the bridge viewscreen went dark. The sun at the center of the system, already dimmed by the ship’s sensors to below its normally blinding levels, suddenly went out, as if coated in shadow. Trell, Calen and Ortega stared through the viewscreen, stunned. A message beeped, and Trell’s terminal indicated that a new message was playing, and that it would begin playing after the current message ended.

“I don’t know why he did it,” said Cresh’s voice. “I don’t know how. Perhaps he means to freeze us off the planet before taking over. Perhaps this is the strange weapon that allowed him to steamroll through the other systems. But if his retreating ships are any indication, there’s more to this than we know. This message will repeat for any ships who haven’t yet heard it… good luck, and stay aware.”

“He can lay waste to a star?” said Calen in disbelief. “The fools don’t know a proper first strike if they hold this for when they retreat.”

“I’m not sure it’s gone,” said Ortega.

“What do you mean?” asked Trell.

“I think we’ve got a different angle on it than your Admiral had,” he said, gesturing to the edge of where the star used to be on the viewscreen. “It might just be my imagination, but I’d swear I can see a faint arc of light there… like a star’s edge.”

“Engines of History, he’s right!” shouted Calen. “It’s faint… but there it is. We’re a few radians further around the Sun than Cresh is, we might have a better view.”

“So if the Sun’s not gone, why can’t we see it?” asked Trell.

The computer clicked and whirred as the previous announcement loaded out and the new message began processing. As they watched the viewscreen, a tiny pinprick of light appeared in the center of the dark shadow that had replaced the star at the center of Morcalan space. This pinprick grew, becoming a circle of light, seeming to be brighter and more potent than the star’s light had appeared before. As the message began to play, Calen grumbled.

“Lightspeed messages… I detest seeing all this after the fact.”

“This is Admiral Cresh,” came the voice on the loudspeakers. “We’ve just witnessed… something horrible.”

The circle of light in the middle of the shadow intensified yet again, becoming more bright than should have been possible. Moments later, an unbelievably massive burst of light, energy and radiation shot from within the circle, coursing through the void of space like a titanic ray gun meant to destroy anything unfortunate enough to be in its way. The beam dissipated as it lanced through the void, but not quickly enough; alarms went off to signify the sudden loss of dozens of Morcalan ships. Calen’s Scuttler was not in the path of the beam weapon, but it was close enough to make the proximity alarm go off, warning of dire amounts of heat and solar radiation. As the beam of light vanished and the alarms began to cease, Admiral Cresh’s voice continued, clearly holding back great emotion.

“Morcalans do not surrender. Morcalans never turn from a fight. But… I have been contacted by Emperor Dyson’s herald. He… recommends surrender. I will discuss the matter with him.”

The message ended. A brief silence descended upon the bridge.

Captain Ortega stared through the window, still not coming to terms with what he had seen. Ensign Trell was similarly stunned for a moment, but quickly began readying the systems on the ship in preparation for the next order. Captain Calen clenched her fists, stared at the viewscreen and screamed, roaring with rage.

Episode 8: Rendelac Speaks

Zack heard a shout and felt his head start to churn. The shout meant something important, but he couldn’t remember what it meant, and whatever it was couldn’t possibly be worse than the way his head felt. He slipped back into unconsciousness for what seemed like no time at all before he felt someone shaking his arms and saying his name.

“Whmmph?”

“Zack? Come on, Zack, talk to me… stay awake, Zack…”

Zack’s eyes snapped open and he saw red hair held in place by a pair of goggles lifted over a human’s eyes that remained unfamiliar until the pain in his skull began to subside.

“Carmen?”

“Good, good… I was worried for a moment there. Size of the rock that grazed your head, there could’ve been some problems.”

“Rock?” asked Zack. Suddenly the entire scene returned to his mind. “The Matador! The Phantom Matador was here! He picked up some boulders with his mind and tried to kill me!”

“I know,” she said, trying to lift Zack up by the shoulders. “A few people saw the scuffle and called the main desk. Then a custodian came by to clean, saw you, screamed and came down just as I was hearing the rest of the story from the clerk in the lobby. You’re lucky the second rock missed the door and hit the wall outside the room, otherwise there might not’ve been anything left to wake up. Let’s get you to a doctor.”

“The rock didn’t miss, I shot it,” said Zack, slowly standing with Carmen’s help. He patted the floor and found his hat sitting nearby. He recovered it and put it on his head, ignoring Carmen’s look of obvious distaste toward the outdated fashion as he continued. “I shot the rocks with my pistols. Purcellian Strikers. The energy packs a positive magnetic charge, so when both rocks were shot they had enough magnetic propulsion to push each other away. If I hadn’t been able to shoot them, his aim would’ve been spot on and I wouldn’t be stumbling around like an alcoholic at a wine tasting.”

“You’re telling me your aim was good enough to hit two boulders moving fast enough to crush your skull, and you did it fast enough that they banked to the side, makin’ one miss the door entirely and the other just graze your head?”

“Hey, I’ve gotten through worse.”

“Don’t try to pull a fast one on The Fast One herself, Gamma,” she said, walking him toward the door. “I think I know a little about flying rocks. I’m stickin’ with the story that Mr. Matador’s aim isn’t anywhere as hot as he thinks it is.”

“Wait,” said Zack. He stopped walking forward and stared at the door that sat mere inches away.

“What’s wrong?”

“We can’t go to a doctor,” he said. “Someone at the DMA’s going to be keeping an eye out at the hospitals just on the off chance that I show up. I mean, I think we have a few doctors and nurses in the city on permanent payroll just to keep an eye out for bounties.”

“You need to see a doctor,” she said. “You might have a concussion. Aren’t there any doctors that you can trust to keep quiet?”

Zack thought for a few moments, a look of confusion briefly flashing across his face. Just as Carmen became concerned that some brain damage might have actually occurred, he shook his head.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “Not in this city. I thought I might, but she’s out of town. Do you know anyone?”

Carmen started shaking her head before smiling excitedly.

“Oh! Actually… yes, yes I do! Zeta!”

“Who’s Zeta?”

“He’s the medic on-hand at the races,” she said. “Always ready to hop on an asteroid and help out just in case someone crashes. Usually an accident on these courses is either no big deal at all, or completely fatal… but for those few accidents where something can actually be done about It, it’s great to have him around. He’ll be in town by now, and he owes me a favor.”

“Can he be trusted?” asked Zack.

“About as well as anyone,” she said. “Plus he’s not exactly up on local gossip. Unless he’s secretly a plant that some criminal overlord put into a sporting event six years ago just in case a racer brings a fugitive there for medical help, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Zack’s eyes narrowed and he tilted his hat down. He stared at the floor, pondering.

“Sweet jumpin’ jaspers, you’re actually considering that.”

“Well, it would be an ideal way to catch someone in this kind of situation,” he said. “It wouldn’t take much to set it up, either. Plus, we-”

“Shut up, hide your guns and go,” said Carmen. Without waiting for a response, she opened the door and left. Zack grimaced, holstered his pistols under his coat, and followed.

 

***

Vox Cul-Dar sat on the meditation mat in his apartment, letting his mind wander over the facts of the day. The asteroid racing job was a waiting game, one that could be predictably settled the next time the target appeared at a race. Alternatively, the Phantom Matador would leave another note for the Crimson Cruiser, and he could be captured then. The more pressing matter was Zack Gamma, so easily slipping away from right in front of him. On the table before him, a scale model of Rendelac sat, black and oblong with a central green eye rising from its center on a tower. The model of Rendelac stared at Vox, periodically adjusting the focus of its lens.

In the three thousand years since Rendelac began guiding Vox’s home world, the massive computer intelligence had proven itself to be a benevolent leader. The story of Rendelac’s rule was often seen as unsettling for outsiders, especially if told where an image of Rendelac was visible. Vox always found this amusing; while there had been numerous recorded incidents (and a few suspected but non-recorded) incidents of computer uprisings after too much of a civilization became automated, Rendelac appeared different. Perhaps its hands-off approach to rule made the difference, encouraging its subjects to do what they could for themselves. Perhaps its voluntary willingness to remove itself from active control of other machines or bureaucratic processes fostered trust, as Rendelac spoke to millions, and those millions then interpreted and acted on its words.

Some on Vox’s world saw Rendelac as divine, the voice of god made manifest through an oracular triumph of technology. A minority feared the opposite was true and cursed Rendelac’s presence as an abomination from the fetid swamps of the afterlife. Rendelac denied both of these, claiming to merely be what he appeared to be: a simple hyper-intelligent computer the size of a building that had good advice for Vox’s people, who treated said advice as law.

Vox was willing to take Rendelac at its word and, at a young age, joined an order of philosophical and martial teachings that dedicated itself to the computer’s guidance. He spent his formative years perfecting body and mind there, but the siren call of the unknown expanse beyond his world called to him and he eventually bought a one-way ticket to join the rest of the Galactic community. The few possessions he packed included the model of Rendelac. Not a direct link to Rendelac itself, the model was still a functional computer that periodically synchronized with the great mind back home. While it did not always approve of how Vox earned his living, it nevertheless pitched in where it could to help guide the mercenary on a route toward physical health, moderate wealth, and something approaching wisdom.

The model chimed and the eye’s brightness increased as the computer took note of a series of police reports.

“Take note, Cul-Dar, of my words: an incident has been reported that involves your work. The local law agencies were informed of an entity with a description matching that of the Phantom Matador, spotted as he telekinetically lifted a pair of boulders to attack another. This sighting occurred just outside the hotel room rented by Carmen Shift, the Crimson Cruiser.”

Vox opened one of his eyes and met the gaze of the small computer. He had taken it for sentimental reasons, but the years of familiarity and the knowledge that the computer was not truly Rendelac itself had bred a lack of reverence.

“Either the Matador was captured by the police at the time,” said Vox, “or it is already too late. He is slippery and intelligent. In either case, I have no need of involving myself just now.”

Vox closed his eye again and resumed meditating on the events of the day.

“Perhaps you could interview the one who was attacked,” said Rendelac. “Perhaps some insight may be gained, if he could be found. By the time the police arrived, however, the room was vacated. Witnesses report that Carmen Shift had left with an individual wearing a green coat and hat.”

Vox’s eyes opened.

“Green coat and hat? Is that all they said?”

“The hat was said to have an obvious communication device built in, an antenna that would have allowed easy connection to any local networks. The hats were in vogue in the last decade, and continue to have a level of popularity in certain circles.”

A nearby computer screen flickered to life, activated by Rendelac’s connections to the local network. Vox watched as a hat appeared, an unpleasant shade of green and hideously out of style.

“I only know one person with a hat like that,” said Vox. “It seems that Zack Gamma may be interested in taking this case after all.”

Episode 7: The Price of Teles

Igneous had never felt this hot before.

Her rocky exterior sizzled and crackled as she sat in the bar’s metal chair. She’d picked the table that sat immediately beneath the old-fashioned air conditioning vent, just ordering a cold drink and a bucket of ice. She kept one hand in the ice bucket, watching as its contents quickly turned to water.

She’d been hot before, of course. She’d crawled through caves in the wall of a volcano while chasing a megalomaniacal bounty on Dentilles IV, she’d been shot with an experimental “death ray” that could melt the flesh off of a human skeleton, and she’d fought off a hive of mechanical ant-like robots while standing on the hull of a ship that was descending into a star while a friend frantically repaired the ship’s engine. She was perfectly aware of just how dangerously hot the universe could get. This heat was oppressive, however, and constant. Just three days ago she’d caught herself mistakenly agreeing with a human who’d been complaining about the humidity since he “couldn’t believe how hot it was”. As her metamorphosis approached, it was becoming harder and harder to stay cool.

She knew it wouldn’t be long until the heat started to radiate off of her, making it unpleasant for anyone around her. She’d been told that after her metamorphosis the heat would become bearable, even pleasant, but she wasn’t eager to find out for herself.

“Evening, Igneous,” said a woman’s voice from behind.

Igneous cursed under her breath.

“Hello, Fletch. I’m meeting someone here, so I don’t really have the time to talk to a human.”

Fletch walked around Igneous and sat in the opposite chair, looking her in the eyes. It was very rare for either of them to casually talk to someone who could kill them; Igneous knew that Fletch had the necessary gear to finish her off, and Fletch knew that Igneous was much faster and more precise than most of her species. Igneous took stock of the visible weaponry on Fletch’s blue techsuit, noting where she most likely kept all of her weaponry for quick retrieval. The electronic reticle that sat like a monocle on her left eye appeared to be looking Igneous over as well, likely documenting the best weak spots for taking Igneous out quickly.

“Where’s Gamma?”

“Off-world if he’s smart,” said Igneous. She knew this conversation would come, and had been practicing it in her head since she’d last seen the scrawny human. “I’d go somewhere far if I were him. Maybe Chargnar. They put a nice bounty on his head last night, and if he learned about it then he’s gone.”

“I want to talk to him about that bounty,” said Fletch. “I also know you spoke to him before midnight, security feeds in the library clearly show that even though we don’t have audio.”

“Yeah, he was finding a book for whatever his latest assignment was,” said Igneous. “Half an hour later and I could’ve nailed him. Don’t think I would’ve, though. He and I go way back.”

“I think you warned him,” said Fletch. “Somehow you heard the right two or three pieces of confidential information and put all the pieces together to figure out that he was going to have a bounty put on his head. And then you warned an enemy of the DMA that they should go into hiding.”

“Hey, what I say to people on my own time is my own business,” said Igneous. “And I don’t appreciate you callin’ me an idiot like that. Anyone in the DMA who helps Gamma’ll land in the same boat he’s in, human. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be hunting him down or anything, but I’m not stupid enough to stick my neck out for him that far.”

“I don’t believe that,” said Fletch. “But I couldn’t prove it, of course. You covered your tracks well. Know that I’m planning on finding him with or without you helping me, and I think it would be better if you helped me.”

“Too bad. There’s no rule that says that I need to aid in the capture of anyone with a contract. We’re mercenaries and bounty hunters, not police. Now, scram before my appointment shows. Someone with your rep’s bad for business.”

Fletch smiled. Igneous didn’t like it.

“Was your appointment with a purple-skinned fellow, about a meter and a half tall, with odd ridges around his skull?

“Yeah.”

“Funny thing about that. I was coming here to see you, and he was coming in. He had a non-trivial bounty on his head, wanted by local law enforcement for dealing in illicit substances.”

Fletch reached into one of the small compartments on her belt and pulled out two small bullet-shaped capsules. The first was covered with a thin layer of ice while the second seemed to glow through stylized channels carved into its side. Igneous felt her internal temperature rise a few degrees at the sight of them.

“He’s unconscious right now, I left him in a dumpster out back. I’ll be turning him in after we’re done here, but he had this on him. I’m no expert, but if I had to guess I’d say that you’ve got a dose of Teles between those two capsules. Very pricy, and not exactly easy to transport; if they’re handled improperly they could cause big problems, so smuggling both doses involves more than secrecy. Your kind might not have the right sort of nervous system to be affected by it like a human would, but that doesn’t make possessing it legal.”

Igneous took a deep breath and removed her hand from the bowl of ice, though by now it was almost entirely water.

“What makes you so sure he was going to be giving those to me?”

“Don’t play it like that,” said Fletch. “We’re both professionals, we both know how that conversation ends. You’ve been taking extra efforts to stay cool lately. In fact, lots of your people have. Ever since Xol appeared, attempts to lower core temperatures and stave off metamorphosis have been on the rise. And now you’re doing it as well. Does this mean that the rumors are true? That the metamorphosis isn’t the grand gateway to a new life that it used to be?”

Igneous stayed quiet, glaring at Fletch.

“So, yes then. For what it’s worth, I understand. Don’t think that I don’t. You need this to stay cool. Well… you need one of them to stay cool. I don’t know how much longer you have, but this could easily buy you a few more days. And the other one would probably cause the metamorphosis to start instantly. You’re not looking for a risky buzz, you’re trying to live longer. Teles is the only surefire way for you to do that. I’ll be holding onto it for now while I start looking for Gamma. As I said before, I think it would be better if you helped me.”

Igneous stared at the ice-covered capsule. She’d only tried it twice before, but she could still imagine the cool, refreshing sensation of it.

She locked eyes with Fletch again.

“And like I said before, too bad.”

“It really is,” said Fletch, putting the capsules back into her belt’s compartment. “I’ll hold onto these in case you change your mind. I might even have to have someone look at the hot one… convenient how they’re almost bullet shaped already, yes? Anyway, have a good day. I’ve got a traitor to catch.”

Fletch rose from the table and departed, presumably to retrieve her bounty from the dumpster. Igneous ordered another bowl of ice and asked for the air conditioner to be turned down again.

Episode 6: Meeting the Matador

Vox knocked again. After a few moments, the door opened to reveal Carmen Shift, better known to the public as Crimson Cruiser. He bowed his head, smiling in the matter most comforting for humans.

“Rendelac’s Eye is upon our meeting. I am Vox Cul-Dar, agent of the DMA, here to assist you with your situation.”

“About time,” she said, quickly grabbing a coat from a hook by the door.

“Let’s talk about this at the lunch.”

“Not necessary,” he said, waving his arm dismissively. Carmen ducked away from the waving of his razor-lined forearm. “My apologies, I never quite get that gesture right.”

She stared at the serrated ridges on his hands for a moment, mentally working through exactly how dangerous they might be in a fight.

“Not a problem,” she eventually said. “Those must be handy.”

“They have their uses, especially in this line of work,” he said. “In any event, I recommend staying here just for the moment.”

“It’ll be more comfortable in the diner,” she said. “More tables, music, people in the background.”

“Under the circumstances, I would advise against doing so casually,” he said. “The DMA’s files based on your communication indicate a possibility, however small, that this Phantom Matador fellow may be targeting you personally as a competitor. As the easy favorite to win all three cups this year, it may well not just be about the race. It may also be about you. Public locations won’t help our security efforts.”

Carmen looked over her shoulder quickly, before looking back to him. Vox idly wondered why she might look at the closet.

“Thanks for the input, but I’m not gonna let some headcase with rock slingin’ on the brain keep me from enjoying the town just because I’m the best at what I do,” she said. “Do you know how often the racing circuit brings me back to a big city? Only twice a season. And I want a burger.”

Vox tilted his head, considering the racer for a moment.

“Very well. I can stomach a second diner today. I had a bad experience at one earlier, narrowly missing a chance at a sizable bounty.”

“Too bad,” she said, stepping past him. “Tell me about it when I eat. We’ll make sure you don’t make the same kind of mistake again here.”

“Oh, believe me, I won’t,” he said.

Zack waited until he heard the sound of the front door locking to open the closet and step out. He breathed a deep sigh of relief and turned his pistols’ safety switches back on.

***

In the matter of seconds that they had to quickly discuss options when they first heard the knock on the door, the best plan that they came up with was for Zack to hide out in her hotel room and wait for her to come back. He left the door’s view screen on so that he could tell if she was alone when she came back, and the door to the closet open in case he had to act quickly.

Any number of better uses for his time came to mind as he sat in one of the room’s padded chairs, keeping an eye on the news networks. They were all things that would have been wonderful ideas had he had them during the few seconds that they had to think and act, but as it was he was stuck in the room. The good news was that he had next to no chance of being discovered on the streets if he stayed inside.

“Looks like Vox couldn’t find a rookie to pass the job to,” he said to himself as he flipped from one channel to the next. “Why couldn’t he get someone who wouldn’t know to check for daily bounty updates, or who wouldn’t recognize my name and face so easily?”

Without easy access to a computer, or at least a computer that wouldn’t immediately be traced to him, only the programs in the media center could help him to pass the time. He made a mental note to have his hat’s identifying signature scrambled for the next time he might want to access a network. Between the melodramas, game shows and serial adventures that he found, the news programs gave him the best chance to keep up with his only active case now that he was no longer a DMA employee: the Phantom Matador.

He was able to find three news stations that were talking about the Phantom Matador, two planetary and one interplanetary. They each showed the same groups of clips, likely ones that had been determined the most news-worthy and sensational over the previous day. There were two primary shots of Carmen and the Matador zipping past each other on their asteroids, standing on them in bizarre, inertia-defying stances, and two or three shots of the Phantom Matador by himself caught during previous instances of his interference with the races.

He wore a wide, black hat, and a black cloth was draped around his face. It looked casual and dramatic, but Zack could tell that it was hiding just enough to make it a challenge for any facial recognition software to get more than “probably human” in this part of the galaxy without the image being taken closer. The Glorien systems were rumored to have much more advanced software, and cameras that were able to zoom in to ludicrous amounts without distorting the image, but they were a distant and secretive branch of humanity that didn’t care to share news with the outside.

While Zack continued to watch the news reports a noise drew his attention to the door’s active view screen. A man dressed in black was using adhesive to attach a flower and an envelope to the door’s exterior. A man dressed in black who was also wearing a very familiar looking hat, with black cloth draped over his face.

Zack lifted his pistols, quickly charging their capacitors. He glanced at the television and saw the same figure, standing dramatically on the asteroid, his black cape flowing in a breeze that, were it not for the atmosphere imposed by his telekinetic powers, should have been absent in the void of space.  He quietly moved to the door. Just as the man in black finished affixing the foliage, Zack unlocked the door and pulled it open.

Zack pointed one of his pistols directly into the Phantom’s face, the other lowered but obviously ready for trouble. The Matador’s eyes were wide, his hands held up defensively and one foot already back, as if ready to retreat, but dangerously close to the railing behind him, protecting him from a two story drop.

“Looking for an empty room?” asked Zack. “No vacancies.”

The Matador’s eyes narrowed, his initial shock clearly replaced by anger. He took another step back and one of his hands reached down toward the phase sword hilt at his side.

“No swords here, this is a gun fight,” said Zack. “Don’t move. Now, if you don’t mind, we need to get you to another room, something with titanium bars and laser grids. I can either take you myself, or we can call ahead for reservations. Hands up, away from the weapon.”

The Matador’s hands clenched oddly before he raised them. Zack stared at his opponent for a few moments before realizing that he wasn’t sure what to do. He could take the Phantom Matador to local law enforcement agents, but that might hurt his cover. While the police likely wouldn’t have any reason to detain him, if any had been contacted by DMA members to keep an eye out for him it would make it that much harder to keep in hiding. Turning in the Phantom Matador might let the DMA know exactly where he was.

Movement behind the Matador caught Zack’s eye and his focus shifted. In the distance behind the Matador, on the ground in front of the hotel, a small collection of visually aesthetic boulders surrounded a scenic grouping of trees and a pool, something meant to give the hotel a relaxing look that might hide the fact that it was in the middle of a teeming metropolis. Two of those boulders were lifting, rising into the air until they were even with Zack’s eyes. Zack met the Matador’s gaze again and shook his head, bringing up his second pistol.

“Don’t you dare,” Zack said.

“You miscalculated, and led with the wrong foot,” came the Matador’s voice. The cloth didn’t muffle it as much as Zack thought that it might. It was sonorous, one trained for speaking dramatically.

“I led with a gun. If those boulders move any more, then you get blasted.”

“If I get blasted, then I don’t stop the rocks. Can you outpace two speeding boulders?”

Zack’s hands faltered. During the momentary hesitation, the Matador’s wrists flicked forward and the twin boulders hurtled through the air. Zack caught the movement of the rocks and saw the Matador quickly duck and roll to the side. With only two weapons for three targets and not enough time to roll to the side as well, Zack fired at the rocks.

Episode 5: Star-Crossed Stalker

Carmen heard the gentle chime that announced someone at the door of her suite and tossed the remote onto the bed. She touched the security panel by the side of the door and watched as its full-body screen activated, showing the view on the other side. She smiled and opened the door to see a haggard looking Zack Gamma.

“Mornin’,” he said. “Took a while on that door.”

“Zack! Get in here. You know, I kinda hoped that I’d see you today.”

“You did?” he said. He stepped into the sitting area of the suite, glanced at the media screen and saw the captioned text for a muted news program talking about the continuing efforts against the Dyson Armada several sectors away. Greedy despots who built up some power had a habit of beginning wars to try to build up more, and seeing news reports like that all brought on feelings of déjà vu.

“I did, yes,” she said, closing the door. “I’ve got a problem that might just be up your alley.”

“What a coincidence. I’ve got a problem that might just be up yours.”

He grinned and nodded at the news report.

“Not a standard show for you, if memory serves. I thought you got your news from the text feeds and saved the big screen for fiction.”

“Well, I make sure to catch the occasional news clip,” she said. “But you’re right. I’m keeping an eye on the news to see if my problem pops up. And every time it makes the news, I think it gets worse. See, there’s this guy who’s-”

“I need your help sneaking off the planet without going through any major ports that might catch my ID.”

Carmen stared, her eyes growing wide.

“Sorry to interrupt,” said Zack, “but my time’s running shorter than a midget sprinting down an escalator. I think it’s best to get all the cards on the table.”

“You want me to smuggle you across interplanetary borders?”

“Carmen, if I could think of any other way to do it, I would.”

“You see me for the first time in three years and you ask me to sneak you off the planet?”

“Believe me, I don’t want to involve you in this any more than I have to,” he said. “But it’s not exactly common knowledge that we know each other, so of all the friends that might help me out in a pinch you’re the one who’s least likely to get in hot water, and you actually happen to be in town instead of on the road so the timing works out.”

“No, it’s fine, man,” she said. “I’m just surprised is all. Wild ride. I mean, illegal, sure, but nothing I couldn’t swing, long as I’ve got time to coordinate it with the races. This’d be in exchange for your regular fee, though, right?”

“Fee?”

“Yeah, for my problem,” she said. She nodded at the television. “Another five minutes and the news would probably do a better job of explaining it than I could. See, there’s this guy… he’s crashing the races. He’s riding an asteroid onto the courses at the end of the races, especially the long ones where the racers would be exhausted by the last lap. He barrels in, either alongside or just ahead of the racer in first place, who usually happens to be me, and then he crosses the finish line first.”

“Flashy,” he said. “A colleague mentioned some of this to me last night, it’s honestly what made me realize that you were in the area. I doubt it’ll mess up your official stats, though.”

“It could!” she said. “In fact, in the last race for the Corona Cup, our gravity wells interfered, so technically it’s already influenced a game. And flashy doesn’t even begin to cover it. He’s got a mask and cape, all in black with red trim. He’s got this weird sword thing, too. To make matters worse, the media’s all over it. The racing league says that they’re doing everything they can to keep him off the courses, but I know they don’t mean it. They’ve even given him a name: The Phantom Matador! And they’ve made this weird trumpet fanfare that plays when he shows up. They’re not hindering this guy, they’re rolling out the red carpet for him!”

“I see,” said Zack. “That’s a little disturbing. Have they gotten law enforcement to look into it, maybe shore up their own security a bit?”

“They say they have,” said Carmen. “And technically it’s true. But law enforcement isn’t really equipped to chase asteroid riders so close to spectators, their vehicles lack the combination of speed and maneuverability required. Once the asteroid gets off the course they could catch up to it easily, but the rocks normally vanish as soon as they leave the circuit. The one time they found it, the so-called Matador wasn’t with it.”

“Just like the phantom they say he is,” he said. “Sounds like they might as well not even have the police then.”

“The only reason the police are there is so that they can dramatically say that he’s not yet been captured,” she said, glaring at the screen, though it was only showing an advertisement for a new model of home care robot. “I mean, this was supposed to be my year. I was going to be the rising star of the league this time around, and then this guy shows up. The spotlight’s not on me, it’s on the Matador! I’m going to start losing sponsors. And if I win at the end of the season, I don’t want the record books to put an asterisk by my name due to… I don’t know, suspected collaboration, or speed boosts I might get from his gravity well or something. I might be getting the trophies, but that’s not enough, man. I want the glory, too. And the Phantom Matador’s swiping it from under my nose!”

She lightly punched a wall, causing the monitor to rattle. Zack stepped back.

“So you want me to… figure out who he is?” he asked.

“Either that, or stop him from getting onto my race courses. Or anywhere near me, for that matter.”

“Sounds like a run of the mill glory hound with telekinetic powers,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised that he’s not already been found. A person like that wants attention, so the odds of their telekinetic ability being a complete secret would be slim… Unless that’s not what he wants.”

Zack thought about the situation. A few other details came to mind as well, details that mixed oddly with Carmen’s story. She had the news on, which was unusual, and from what he remembered of her she wasn’t one to watch things with the sound off. She had a tendency to rush into things, but he’d noticed a delay between when he’d heard her reach the door and when she opened it, as if she’d taken the extra time to check to see who was on the other side. She wasn’t normally that cautious.

“Carmen, have you had any other contact with this Phantom Matador?”

Her eyes narrowed.

“Now that you mention it, yeah. He’s been figuring out where I’ve been staying during the races, and leaving weird notes and flowers and things. It’s… honestly kinda creepy. I’ve not exactly talked about it to the other racers, but as far as I can tell he’s not given anything to anyone else.”

“This is sounding more and more like something that you should contact the police about,” said Zack. “That’s crossing the line from being a harmless crazy person that gives the sport a publicity boost to criminal.”

“No way,” she said. “Trust me, this guy wants media attention. If word gets out that he’s got some kinda star-crossed stalker crush, that’s an even bigger media story. Worse, anything I win gets him a mention. I’m not having any of that. No police. That’s why you’re here.”

“Right,” he said. “Ignoring my whole need to get offworld, at least.”

“Yeah, ignoring that. Makes sense that you’d pick up the case, though, if you’re on a rush to get somewhere else.”

“Oh, I didn’t take the case,” he said. “I just heard about it. I’m trying to keep my hands clean of it so that no one’ll even think that I’m coming to you for help.”

“You didn’t? Weird. Explains why you were early, then.”

“Early for what?”

“I’d set up an appointment for right about now when I called the DMA,” she said. “You were a few minutes early. I just assumed-”

There was a swift rapping on the door, the kind of rapping that someone with strong, fast hands might make. Zack’s face turned white.

“That’s probably them,” said Carmen.

Episode 4: The Strength of Zamona

“In the last month, four systems have fallen to Emperor Dyson,” said Harold Zamona. His massive body loomed over the table, an unsettling sight for Patrician Conipri. His people generally looked down on humans, their insectile faces on average a head higher. Harold was gigantic, however. The passive folding of his hands did little to disguise how easily he could crush various body parts, their chitinous exoskeleton not doing much to ease the mental picture. Conipri’s wings buzzed uneasily.

“Three of the systems so conquered fell due to our military force,” said Zamona. “This was due to our superior weaponry, not our superior numbers. The fourth fell peacefully, graciously accepting Dyson’s rule. Our hope is that your system will be the second to join Dyson’s Empire voluntarily.”

“The generosity of the offer is noted,” the Patrician said, quietly. “But I will need to confer with my council before making other decisions. Our way of life is vital. And… you do know that I cannot speak for the entirety of the system.”

“We are making similar negotiations with the leaders of each of the twelve significant countries on your world,” said Zamona. “By tomorrow we should begin speaking to the countries on the other naturally populated planet and the settled colonies terraforming the third world. When we conquer this system… and we will… our hope is that enough of the nations on your world will have sided with us to prevent our invasion from being… violent.”

Zamona tapped the controls on his wrist-guard computer and felt the cybernetic dampening gloves that contained his hands shift to a lower power setting. Strength returned to his arms as the inhibitors lost their charge, just enough to allow him to grip the side of the table and twist the metal. It bent horribly, a twisted wave of warped steel interrupting the otherwise smooth edge of the tabletop, gouges on the surface indicating where his hands had been resting. It was a clichéd show of force in human culture, but the peaceful Patrician Conipri winced visibly at the sight of it mere feet from where he sat.

“My Emperor awaits your decision eagerly,” said Zamona. “I don’t know what the other nations will decide… but I assume that there will be safety in numbers. We have prepared a suite of rooms for you while you make your decision.”

“We must return to our people to confer,” said the Patrician, still staring at the warped metal. “The council must deliberate… it cannot rest entirely with me.”

“The communication systems in the room will allow you to contact them,” said Zamona. “You will tell them what I have told you. And they will tell you their decision. And then you will be able to tell us, personally, if war with your people will begin.”

“I will not be allowed to return?” asked the Patrician.

“That depends on your answer, I suppose,” said Zamona, smiling.

He didn’t know anything about the Patrician’s biology or native customs. He had only been aware of the species’ existence for a fortnight. But the silence that followed was nearly universal, the intergalactic sign for the realization that you couldn’t win even though you had hoped for something better. After a moment, Conipri’s voice thrummed to life.

“The communication systems in my chamber will suffice. Thank you for your… generosity.”

Zamona smiled as the Patrician left before turning the power in his dampening gauntlets off. He felt the strength course back into his limbs and shoulders as calming music began to play. As necessary as the inhibitors were to keep him from accidentally demolishing everything around him, he always felt relief when the constant strength-sapping technology faded.

“Have the next table brought in,” he said. “And do inform the workers that they’ll be carting away this one as well, they seemed a bit surprised last time.”

The computer chirped its understanding as information began cascading across the numerous screens in the meeting room. He read the one nearest the window and groaned; less than an hour until the next negotiation. The gauntlets were seeing a lot of use this day.

“You could always keep them off for a session,” chimed a voice from the communication terminal. Zamona dutifully turned from the window and approached, seeing the now-familiar sight of a human on a throne, wearing the most extravagant and trendy styles that could be attained through acts of blatant piracy and guerilla warfare.

“The gauntlets protect those around me, my emperor,” said Zamona. “I am a danger to those around me when they remain inactive. A careless gesture or simple trip could end the life of the next ambassador if my strength is not sapped by the gauntlets. You know this.”

“After the trouble I went to to redesign them for you so that they could be removed or lowered in intensity, I expected to see you take them off occasionally,” said Emperor Dyson, mindlessly tapping a control panel on the arm of the throne. “And the laws that bound you to those shackles mean little enough. Within a month the sector where that law was decreed will be within my domain. And even if opposition could be mustered against me, I believe the courts would care more about what would doubtlessly be called treason and war crimes on your part for joining me.”

“Be that as it may, I feel more comfortable if they remain active,” said Zamona. “I believe that Patrician Conipri will accept your rule without question. The call to his people will doubtlessly be an explanation rather than a deliberation.”

“How deftly you dodge the subject at hand,” said Dyson. “But I’m glad to hear it. His nation is small but respected. Acceptance there may sway those who are still mulling it over. And Operation Eclipse?”

“Concluded,” said Zamona. “All personnel home, all materiel back in storage, no questions asked.”

“See to it that it stays that way.”

“I’ll keep an eye on the situation,” said Zamona. “But I do think that we could have treated our compatriot better.”

“Oh, dear me, is the mighty Iceberg starting to warm up on us?”

“The mighty Iceberg hasn’t been on the job for a long time,” said Zamona. “Harold Zamona, however, wants to keep you from burning bridges right at the start of your empire.”

“Noted,” said the emperor with a wave of his hand. “Continue to prepare for your next session. That will be all.”

The screen went dark for a moment before being replaced with the placeholder logo that Dyson had selected for the empire. Zamona stared at it for a moment before returning to his seat and closing his eyes. He hadn’t heard the music in the chamber during the conversation with the emperor, but it was all he needed to hear now.

Episode 3: A Deal on Midnight Milkshakes

When a person of Zack Gamma’s stature needed to lay low, the obvious place for doing so would be a seedy bar as far from the Desperate Measures Agency as he could get in a hurry; the kind of place where someone like him might have a few shady friends from years back who all had special skills that could help a person like Zack hide until the heat was off; the kind of place where no one was innocent, but everyone was just a bit better than the trouble waiting for them outside; the kind of place where the drinks all came in dirty glasses.

It was such an obvious place that Zack instead decided to go to a nice diner that had clean tables, friendly waiters, comfortable booths and a special deal on Midnight Milkshakes. At nine after midnight it wasn’t quite as far away from the DMA as he’d like, but he didn’t want to spend the whole night running recklessly before he knew more about what was up.
After ordering a Panini and shake, he switched on the transceiver in his hat so that he wouldn’t need to use the public access channels when he activated his computer. He ignored the looks from the college students a few booths away when the antenna in his hat started to glow. It was in style ten years ago, and he didn’t care how it looked now.

Sliding his finger over the screen of his computer, he accessed the remote version of the DMA database, logging in with account information that he lifted off of a higher ranking desk agent a few years back. At the time it was just for fun and made him feel more like a super sleuth so soon after joining as an investigative agent. He’d never thought that he might actually need it. He was honestly surprised that the password hadn’t been updated in all this time when the security glyphs turned green an instant before the database opened up.

“I’ll have to remind him about basic network security if this turns out to be nothing,” he thought. The database revealed dozens of categories, including Employee Dossiers. He opened it, alphabetized the names using his preferred dialect of English, set first names to be first, and scrolled to the bottom to reach his name.

His image began floating in the air just in front of the screen, rotating slowly. He wasn’t wearing the green trench coat he put on this morning when he heard an erroneous forecast suggesting that it might rain, but apart from that it was him, right down to the hat. It listed him as a Tier Four Investigation Agent, his ownership and basic competence with his CLI Striker Pistols, and noted that he was currently working on a case for a monastery on a moon near the newly arrived Xol territory which was listed as a ‘corporate espionage’ case even though the connotations were all wrong in a case of two rival religious sects spying on each other. He had been researching their tenets, the rival order’s tenets and, while he was there, what little information was available on Xol after the strange, sun-like body appeared on the outskirts of civilized space. He had sent a message to Igneous that morning since her people had coined the name Xol for it based on some legends in her own culture, though he didn’t know if she was of the opinion that the new Xol truly was the legendary place, or if it was just reminiscent of it in some way. She’d never responded to that message, and intercepted him at the library just as he was getting to that part of his research.

The screen dimmed and a message appeared, indicating that the database was being updated to reflect the night’s changes from the home computers. He slid the tablet-like computer away from him, knowing he might be waiting for a few minutes. It occurred to him that it was a little odd for Igneous to react that way right after his request for help. Had she not gotten the message? Perhaps she hadn’t wanted him researching Xol, and was trying to spook him into hiding?

He dismissed the thought almost immediately. She was notorious for not checking her messages, and it wasn’t as if the information in the DMA’s library couldn’t be accessed elsewhere.

“I didn’t know that the illustrious Zack Gamma frequented fine dining establishments like this,” said a voice behind him. Zack’s blood ran cold.

“Vox Cul-Dar.”

The alien took a seat on the opposite side of the booth, his green skin blending in with both the color of the cushiony seats and with the strange, toga-like robe that he wore. Either he didn’t own anything else, or was indistinguishable from dozens of other identical outfits that Zack had seen him wear in the years since he joined the DMA. He was taller and thinner than most humans, making Zack feel like Vox was constantly looming, like a praying mantis or viper getting ready to strike. That feeling was made stronger by the serrated series of yellow, tooth-like ridges that ran up his legs and forearms. He usually worked investigations like Zack, but had the physical combat requirements necessary to act in the more violent capacities that the DMA offered. Zack didn’t know much about Vox’s people, except for the fact that the symbol near the toga’s shoulder represented some sort of incredible computer from Vox’s planet that held near-religious significance for them, and that he must be bald by choice since his species grew hair and rarely went bald with age.

“You’re supposed to wait for the server to seat you, Vox,” said Zack.

“I like to live dangerously. And besides, why would I pass up a chance to sit near Zack Gamma? I always thought we worked well together.”

“We worked together once, and that was years ago,” said Zack. “You’ve had a knack for scooping up the choice assignments before I could get them ever since, if memory serves.”

“Your memory doesn’t serve you so well,” said Vox. “We’ve worked together twice. But business is business. I wouldn’t begrudge you the same. And we’re coming up to a time when people might need partners.”
“Why do you say that?”

“Word around the water coolers is that someone took the wrong job. Someone at the DMA is helping out someone who shouldn’t be helped. Any day now, we should know who it is, and how much the DMA is willing to pay us to finish off one of our own.”

“I always thought the benefits package around here could do with some updating,” said Zack. The spinning icon on the tablet indicated that the update was still happening, but it wouldn’t last much longer. Would Vox notice the updated file? Vox was a skilled combatant, and could probably end a fight before Zack could reach for the guns at his belt.

“For the amount they pay us, I can live without benefits,” said Vox. “But if the rumors are true about how much the price on this traitor’s head will be, then everyone will be after him. Not just here, but off-world. It seems to me that wisdom dictates the combination of resources… I’ll need a partner who can get the job done just as well as I can. Someone insightful. Someone tough. Someone terrifying.”

Zack’s Panini and milkshake arrived then, carried by a cheerful waitress.

“Here you go, sorry about the delay,” she said. “Anything else that I can get for you?”

She glanced at Vox, meaningfully, as he raised an eyebrow at Zack’s selection.

“Vitris Fillet, please,” said Vox.

“And could I see a dessert menu?” asked Zack.

The waitress nodded, wrote down Vox’s order and set a small menu in front of Zack. Zack opened it as the waitress walked away, making a show of perusing the contents while Vox stared at him disdainfully.

“As I was saying, there is strength in numbers, and it occurs to me that if the two of us were to agree to split the earnings now then we would have an advantage when the actual orders filter down from on high.”

“I think I’ll take the cheesecake,” said Zack, setting the menu onto his tablet to obscure the screen. “As for your offer… I’ll think about it. Depends who it is, I suppose. I’ve never been fond of the DMA’s shadier rackets.”

“Understandable,” said Vox, nodding. “You do lack the killer’s instinct… but the offer stands if you’re interested. You wouldn’t happen to have any insight into who might have taken this huge case?”

“Not a clue,” said Zack, which was true enough. “I’ve been off-world for a few months now with my last job, and my current case is just some monastic espionage. I’ve not exactly been keeping an eye on high profile material.”

“Don’t sell monastic work short,” said Vox. “Not even the guiding intellect of my world could keep those feuds down.”

Zack shrugged as he worked on finishing his milkshake and sandwich. Eating too fast might raise suspicion if Vox was familiar with the human ailment commonly known as the “ice cream headache.” Plus, while he and Vox had never exactly been friends, they were generally civil, and wrapping things up too quickly might be suspicious on its own.

“How about you?” asked Zack. “Any interesting cases at the moment?”

“Three equally tedious assignments,” said Vox. “Determining if a political candidate has any sordid secrets in his past, determining if a businessman is unfaithful to his wife, and basic security for an asteroid racing circuit. I doubt I’ll even take that last one.”

“Asteroid racing?” said Zack.

“Yes, a mundane circus for a particular breed of stone-sensitive telepaths to showcase their abilities. Or ability, I should say… they just move rocks with their minds while standing on them. Prizes are awarded to the ones who can move rocks faster than others. A simplistic use for a remarkable ability.”

“I’m familiar with it,” said Zack. “I’m just not sure why they’d need security.”

“Someone keeps sneaking their own asteroid onto the race course and stealing the thunder from the actual racers. Interested in taking it off my hands?”

“No,” said Zack, though ordinarily he would’ve jumped at the chance. “No, that sounds like something for a rookie. I’ll probably be heading off-world soon, honestly, depending on how my current case goes. “

The thought of the race intrigued him, however, and he knew just the racer that might be able to help him out. He couldn’t have Vox thinking that he had a connection to the races, though. He took a final bite of his rushed Panini as the waitress returned.

“Vitris Fillet for you,” she said, putting the pile of sliced, orange meat in front of Vox. She turned to Zack. “Decided on your dessert?”

“I’d been thinking the cheesecake,” he said. “But honestly, I think I’m full. I should just pay up and head out. Enjoy your fillet, Vox.”

“Rendelac will look out for you, Zack.”

He stood as Vox raised a limb in salute. Zack handed the dessert menu to the waitress, holding on to his tablet as he did so. He paid at the front register, and stepped outside. It was obvious that it would begin raining soon, so he wasted no time in hailing an air cab to take him home quickly. He had a feeling that he would need to do some rapid packing.
As he sat in the back seat of the cab, feeling his stomach drop as the vehicle lurched into the sky, he checked the tablet and saw that the update had finished.

Zack Gamma: Tier Four Investigation Agent.
Weapon of Choice: CLI Model Purcellian Striker Pistols (registered).
Active Assignments: N/A.
Status: Deceased.
Date of Death: