Monthly Archives: September 2014

Episode 26: Lair of the Lusca Vine

Zack was pulled along the rough floor, the roots and rocks of the artificial underjungle shaking and scraping him. The thin vine around his ankle felt weak enough that he might be able to break it off if he could get a moment to work at it, but the rubble was disorienting. He only had one hand to work with as the other hand was still clutching the lumisphere, something he was determined not to lose.

“This way, human,” said Igneous’ voice. “It’s dangerous that way.”

The voice was beginning to sound less and less like Igneous. He had no idea how that plant worked. Either he was getting out of its range, or the plant was recognizing that Igneous’ voice wasn’t what he wanted to hear and was trying to shift to something else that might be more persuasive.

The tiny strand of the Lusca Vine around his ankle snapped up suddenly, and Zack was tossed into the air. He collided with two other, larger vines that were stretched across the path between two trees. One coiled around the hand that held the lumisphere, the other twisted around one of his legs. Held in the air for a moment, the tiny vine shot up and wrapped around his ankle again as the three vines pulled him back down to the ground.

The rough track along the floor resumed, now with three vines the size of small tree branches holding him to the ground. There was something different about the larger branches, something beyond their raw strength, like they were pinching him repeatedly. A quick look to the hand with the lumisphere confirmed strange growths on the vine, growths that reminded him of the suckers on an octopus or squid’s tentacles.

“I’m over here, human,” said Igneous’ voice. “This way!”

“Workin’ on it!” shouted Zack. He grabbed at the vine that gripped the hand with the lumisphere, but he wasn’t able to loosen it. He only had moments to try, though, as a sudden collision between his back and a stumpy stalagmite shook his hands apart. Twisting one of the vines off would be tricky even if it wasn’t actively moving and shaking him, but it didn’t seem possible as it was.

He looked down the path the vines were following, trying to get his bearings. He twisted to avoid another rough impact with an impending tree and snapped his arm around it as he was pulled past. He shouted in pain as the sudden stop jolted his shoulder and the vines continued pulling. Zack tried to pass the lumisphere to the hand around the tree, but the vine pulling the arm made it impossible for the two hands to join under Zack’s terms.

“Where are you?” said Igneous’ voice.

“Closer to the Lusca vine, you lousy flytrap!”

The thicker vine around Zack’s leg loosened slightly, giving Zack a chance to secure his grip on the tree. The vine was only repositioning itself, however, and slithered around him enough to get a grip on his leg and lower torso as well. Zack shouted in pain as the pull of the vines increased dramatically, making his grip loosen.

“Flytrap?” came Igneous’ voice, echoing through the darkness. “What’s a flytrap?”

“It’s what YOU are, you stupid…”

Zack paused. The voice was sounding more like Igneous than it had since he first heard it.

“Igneous, is that you? Really you?!”

“Of course, you foolish human,” came a shouted reply. “Help me find you! I think I’m getting closer, but everything echoes down here. The acoustics are terrible.”

Zack remembered the plant insisting that the acoustics were bad, but shook the thought away. Any shot at survival was worth taking at this point.

“Some sort of vine thing’s got me!” shouted Zack. “It’s-”

A sudden concerted tug from the vines yanked Zack from the tree, and he shouted as the rough ride through the underjungle resumed. Moments later, Zack was pulled into a clearing of sorts. Other plants seemed to stop at an ill-defined treeline that surrounded a crack in the ground, a crack ringed by three stalagmites. And within the crack, made visible by the dim light of Zack’s lumisphere, was the Lusca Vine.

A writhing mass of vegetation all connected to an oblong, lumpy root in the center reminded Zack of a potato. The roots and vines emerging from it swatted the air, as three larger ones shot toward Zack as soon as the light from his lumisphere entered the clearing. Zack saw the sucker-like growths on these largest vines were more well developed than the ones that, so far, had merely been pinching him. They looked like tiny mouths with tiny mandibles, some meant for piercing others meant for grinding. These largest vines moved slowly, and looked less capable of entwining or ensnaring prey, but as one lifted into the air over Zack he wondered if, perhaps, the largest vines had a different purpose.

The raised vine positioned itself carefully and Zack mentally prepared to be clubbed by the equivalent of a small tree when suddenly the vines paused. The sudden stillness was eerie after the writhing movement moments before. Zack wasted no time in trying to pull the vines off of him, but the vines remained tight.

Then he smelled the smoke and saw the light. A dull, red light entered the clearing as a rocky figure pushed its way beyond the treeline, the branch it pushed out of its way beginning to smoulder and smoke. Zack gasped in recognition as Igneous’ light divided the Lusca Vine’s attention. A series of vines all shot toward her, and with her slower speed they easily ensnared her… before quickly recoiling as they began to smoke. Other vines moved toward her, but each of them started to catch fire at they came in contact with her as she slowly pushed her way toward Zack.

Zack felt the heat as Igneous approached, and found it hard to look away from what looked like a walking pile of volcanic rock barely holding itself together. His attention was brought back to his impending demise by the sound of creaking and groaning wood that came from the vine preparing to club him. The living cudgel sped down just as Igneous jumped into its path, grabbing it as it collided with her.

The vines surrounding Zack loosened and surged toward Igneous, each beginning to sizzle as they came in contact with her. She ignored them and wrestled with the largest vine. She looked over her shoulder at Zack, scowling from the effort.

Zack took the hint, scrambled to his feet, and ran. The two other clubbing vines attempted to smash him as he approached the treeline, but neither one had positioned itself as carefully as the first did, and with their slower speeds Zack was able to easily dodge them. He entered the jungle, held the lumisphere in front of him, and ran.

“This way, human!” came Igneous’ false voice from the distant telepathic plant.
Zack hoped that the plant’s voice wouldn’t prove to be disorienting as he tried to get away from the Lusca Vine. His running slowed as he realized that the jungle had other dangers, and he wasn’t sure which way to go.

While he was planning his next move, Igneous ran up behind him. She pointed and Zack moved. She was moving slower than he could, even slower than he remembered her, but she was stable. Zack looked back and saw many vines cautiously following.

Remembering Murk’s comment that the Lusca Vine was drawn to the light and deciding that Igneous would be light enough for the present, he squeezed the lumisphere until it reached its brightest setting. He tossed the lumisphere through the underbrush and was pleased to see the vines surging in the direction of the light that wasn’t accompanied by Igneous’ oppressive heat. Zack smiled, and turned back to follow Igneous’ path, hoping that he’d bought them some time.

“You’re getting close, human,” said Igneous’ voice, but from the darkness ahead.

“Igneous, wait!” said Zack.

Igneous didn’t slow down in time, and the vice-like maw snapped from the darkness, clamping onto her arm. Igneous looked at it for a second as the plant began to smoke before deciding that it was worth her time to pry the plant’s mouth open again and push it to the side. The plant recoiled, and Igneous and Zack passed it safely.

Soon, they reached the very door that Zack had found before hearing Igneous’ voice from the darkness. It was broken, though, ripped from its hinges by something from the other side. A staircase with a dim light existed beyond. Zack took an eager step through the door and collapsed onto the staircase, finally free from the recreation of the underjungles of Ravelar.

Igneous leaned against the door frame, exhausted.

Zack took a moment to look at Igneous. He could tell it was her, but she’d never looked this way. Extreme cracks covered her surface, and the glow from her eyes and the tips of her crown of stone were intense. A distinct odor of brimstone filled the air, a scent he could notice now that the overpowering aroma of the jungle was behind them.

“Igneous,” he said. “I can’t believe that you’re here. Listen, I don’t know if you’re interested in the bounty on me, but one way or another I’m grateful. A bullet from the DMA almost seems like fun compared to… well, you saw it.”

“I told you before, human,” said Igneous, slowly. She took a deep breath and her internal glow intensified momentarily. “I… owed you. I’m not… eager to collect… your bounty.”

“Oh?” said Zack. “When was that?”

“When I told you about… the bounty.”

Zack stared at Igneous and frowned.

“You did, didn’t you. You said I’d be dead in twelve minutes.”

“Of course I did,” said Igneous. “Are you more of… of a simpleton than you… than you appear?”

Zack shook his head.

“I think… I think I’ve been having problems remembering things lately.”

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Episode 25: A Voice in the Dark

Carmen paced in the police station’s waiting room, too exhausted to sit still. She’d searched the hangar where she’d woken up, but didn’t have any clue where to begin looking for Zack. She decided that checking with the professional law enforcement for Helix would be more effective than her own efforts, even though Zack had told her that he was worried that any contact with law enforcement would lead to his swift capture. If she’d known how long she’d have to wait in such an unpleasantly lit, stale room she might have reconsidered.

She knew she only had three days before her next race, and she’d been planning on spending at least some of the time before then practicing. She wondered, not for the first time, how horrible it would make her if, after two days, she gave up looking and focused on the race. Looking for someone who might be dead felt like a waste, and putting a race on hold for someone who might just be missing felt like even more of a waste. In the less-than-legal races she experienced back in the Penumbra League, there would’ve been no question; the team or family or gang would come first, the race would come later. Still, races in the Penumbra League could be formed, cancelled or rescheduled at the drop of a hat since there weren’t corporate sponsor deals on the line and media coverage.

She wondered, not for the first time, just how much of a sell out she was after three years, and how much selling out a person could do while still being cool. Not peer pressure cool, but internal, self-analyzed cool.

“Ms. Shift?”

Carmen paused mid-pace. A human woman wearing the green uniform of Helix’s police had stepped behind the force-shield protected service desk. Her helmet obscured most of her head, but left her face visible. It was emblazoned with a shield that contained the image of a star, which in turn contained the image of a double helix. The helix was set over the drawing of a thin scroll or banner that said Officer Tacara, followed by a long number that Carmen didn’t have the patience to read. She decided that the badge’s logo looked more impressive as the three-foot tall brass carving on the wall behind the desk. Carmen changed directions and approached the officer expectantly.

“Yes?”

“We were able to find some traces of your car on the ground outside Helix, but nothing that suggests where it might be now,” said Officer Tacara. “The hangar ports on that side have all either been searched remotely or aren’t in active use. More to the point, we looked into the hangars on landing fifty-three, but found nothing.”

“Are you sure?” asked Carmen. “The elevator definitely said fifty-three.”

“We personally sent officers to check landing fifty-three on the west side of Helix,” said Tacara. “Only seven of the original twelve hangars on that side are accessible anymore, the others were all decommissioned and sealed off.”

“Could someone be using one of the hangars that you think might be sealed?”

“Maybe,” said Tacara. “In fact, we’ve found some smugglers using sealed hangars before. We’re looking into the possibility, but opening sealed parts of Helix takes time; most of them were closed off due to safety concerns that need to be addressed.”

“Well, keep looking,” said Carmen. “Someone in Helix stole my car.”

“Ma’am, we’re doing everything we can,” said Tacara. “On another note… we found the remains of the tractor beam that you say acquired your car, and the fragments of Helix’s wall that held it in place.”

“So, you can confirm my story?”

“Mostly. Analysis of the rubble, and the portion of the wall it fell from, are consistent with the sort of molecular debonding that occurs with petrakinetic energy.”

Carmen drummed her fingers on the portion of the desk that was on her side of the force shield.

“I might’ve forgotten to mention a few things… but we were under attack. What was I supposed to do?”

“I’m sure you did what you thought was necessary,” said Tacara, making a note on the desk’s terminal. “The investigation will likely find that you’re in the clear, but it’s possible that the city of Helix will need to fine you for damages if it’s determined that you went over and above the necessary actions .”

“Right, sure, if that happens I can be reached through the racing federation.”

“We’ll be in touch, then,” said Tacara. “Do you have transportation back to Veskid City from here?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” said Carmen, turning for the exit. She hadn’t come in with high hopes of success given the state of Helix, but ultimately her car was replaceable. As she left the station and stepped onto the street, she wondered how long she’d have to wait, but as she passed one of Alpha Street’s alleys, the answer came almost immediately.

“I’m surprised that you risked blowing Zack’s cover over a car,” came a voice from the darkness between buildings. “Why would you do that?”

Carmen looked into the darkness.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

“Me,” said a voice behind her. Carmen spun and looked into the eyes of Fletch. Her blue suit crackled with energy as the stealth functionality powered down and the dangerous blaster in her hands began to power up.

“How…?”

“Ventrilospeak bounces my voice, and sneaking up on people is simple. Where’s Zack?”

“So the bounty’s still on his head?”

“Of course,” said Fletch. “It won’t leave. It’ll hound him until his dying day.”

“Awesome,” said Carmen. “Sorry, this was the fastest way I could think of checking to see if you people had found him or not.”

“What?”

“I figured Zack knows how you people work, so if he was worried about the DMA listening in on the police then it was probably right. So I figured talking to the police without mentioning him would bring some of you out of the woodwork to find him if he was safe.”

“So… he’s not with you?”

“No,” said Carmen. “And not with any of you people either. I’ll tell you what, though, if you want to assume I’m lying, go for it. Keep that reticle on me. It should help Zack to make his headstart that much bigger. And thanks again for the info.”

Fletch grimaced and powered down her blaster. She walked past Carmen, into the alley.

“You’ll definitely be watched, Shift,” said Fletch as she passed into the shadows. “But next time, stay out of our way.”

Carmen grinned as Fletch walked away. She turned back to the sidewalk and picked up the pace, secure in the knowledge that wherever Zack was, he was probably safe.
***
Zack pushed aside another handful of the rope-like vines, wishing that they wouldn’t grow so close together. In the dark, he could visualize them as coarse ropes, but he knew that if he turned the light on they would look disturbingly like green muscle and sinew. The evolutionary convergence of that particular kind of biological structure was well documented, even in plants (or the plant-like life forms that filled similar niches on other worlds), but merely documenting it didn’t keep the recreation from seeming unnatural.

He carefully activated the lumisphere after emerging from that particular vegetative clump and examined his surroundings. He only had Murk’s word for it that he’d ever been in the Underjungles of Ravelar, but he had a feeling that this recreation of them likely paled in comparison to the real thing, no matter what his own feelings of deja vu were telling him. The natural ecosystem of a true cave system would almost certainly develop differently than the constraints of the (admittedly massive) subhull structures within Helix would allow, and Zack felt that he was probably fighting through less foliage than he would be encountering in the real thing. The lumisphere’s dim light seemed bright to Zack’s eyes, and provided a glimpse of a number of narrow “trails” betwen some of the larger trees, stalactites and pipes.

He shut off the lumisphere and continued his walk. He was following a wall, to the best of his abilities, hoping to find a maintenance hatch or forgotten doorway that Murk’s attention to detail had overlooked. The growths of vegetation didn’t always make it possible, but he was able to follow what he hoped was part of the peculiar curve of what might have been an undersection of Helix’s strange roadways.

The situation was made worse by Zack’s exhaustion. He hadn’t had a full evening’s sleep since Igneous warned him about the Desperate Measures Agency’s bounty on his head, and he hadn’t had time to look into the mystery of why they wanted him in the first place. His best window for escape from Veskid would be with Carmen’s upcoming race, but Helix alone was proving harder to leave than he ever expected the planet to be.

The underjungle was making everything even worse. He wasn’t sure how a place could be both humid and clammy, but the plant-filled chamber was pulling it off. The oppressive scent of vegetation in all the states between initial growth and final decay would have taken a toll at the best of times, but under the circumstances it was truly exhausting.

He found a strange, oddly straight depression in the wall. It confused him at first until he recognized it as the shape of a door. He quickly located a handle and began turning, but his heart sank. It was locked. He backed up, took a deep breath, and ran at the door, striking it with his shoulder, but only succeeded in rattling it. He clutched his shoulder, mentally adding it to the ever increasing list of aches and bruises he’d been accumulating over the past few hours.

“Gamma? Is that you?”

Zack’s head snapped in the direction of the voice. It sounded familiar, but out of place in the darkness of the jungle.

“Hello?”

“This way, human,” said the voice. “Hurry, there’s no time!”

“Igneous?” said Gamma. “Is that you, Igneous? How’d you find me?”

“Half of Helix knows you’re here,” she said. “It’s not safe. Quiet, there’s a hidden way out.”

Zack took a step into the dark, moving away from the door.

“I think I found another way out over here,” said Zack. “There’s a door, but it’s patched up tighter’n a rag doll with a starch problem. Strong as you are, though, you might be able to break it.”

“Too risky,” said Igneous. “I’m closer to this way out. You probably just found a maintenance closet.”

“Right,” said Zack, stepping through the underbrush, moving away from the wall.

“Closer,” said Igneous. “Almost here.”

“It’s hard to tell where you are,” said Zack. “How far until I get to you?”

“Any step now.”

“Your voice sounds the same,” said Zack, stepping closer. “No louder.”

“The acoustics are strange here.”

“They are,” said Zack, clutching the lumisphere. “I’m going to risk some light.”

“No need,” said Igneous.

Zack activated the lumisphere anyway and recoiled at the sight of a plant with a vice-like maw. The trunk of the plant lunged forward, but slower than Zack could recoil.

“This way,” came Igneous’ voice. Zack looked at the plant creature. The voice he was hearing seemed to be coming from somewhere beyond the plant.

“How do you do that?” asked Zack. “Some sort of psychotropic pollen?”

“There’s no time,” said Igneous’ voice. “Just a little closer.”

“I didn’t think Lusca would be so easy to avoid,” said Zack. “Plus you seem pretty immobile. I’m guessing you’re not the vine Murk warned me about.”

Zack clutched the lumisphere until the light deactivated. He turned to walk away.

“This way, human. The way out is this way. That way’s dangerous.”

“Sure it is,” said Zack.

His foot connected with a vine that hadn’t been there before. He gasped as the vine wrapped itself around his ankle and pulled. Zack tripped and hit the ground, suddenly being pulled through the underbrush, dragged toward the deadly Lusca Vine.

Episode 24: Liquid Life

Captain Ortega watched Ensign Trell filling the crystal carafe with chilled water from the ship’s hydromill. Calen had ordered him shackled to the door on the opposite side of the ship’s medical bay. He had agreed to it on the condition that Doctor Rogers’ robotic body be similarly shackled to the medical chamber’s single bed.

The medical chamber was a small room, and built with the assumption that only one of the ship’s standard set of two crew members would be injured at a time, since any disaster large enough to incapacitate two Morcalan’s at once would probably be severe enough that everyone on the ship would probably be dead anyway. Ortega wasn’t close enough to the bed to interfere with the procedings, but he was close enough to see that Trell had enough sense to shackle Doctor Rogers’ body more securely than he had been.

“Is it true that the two of you are destined foes?”

“Excuse me?” said Ortega, turning from Doctor Rogers’ body. Ensign Trell was standing away from the robotic shell, holding the carafe.

“Destined foes,” said Trell. “It’s… I don’t know if other humans have a word for it. An enemy that you can share your life with. A foe who’s destiny is so entwined with yours that you can rely on their presence more than you can count on your closest friends.”

“I wouldn’t say that, no,” said Ortega. “Though it is true that Rogers is a greater repeat offender than any other I’ve arrested. I’ve discovered his plots dozens of times.”

Trell nodded, looking at the metal body on the bed.

“So you’ve… never hated someone so much that you can’t imagine your life without them?”

Ortega laughed and shook his head.

“No, no I can’t say that I have. I’ve never heard of that before.”

“So it’s true, then,” she said. “I thought it was just xenophobia, or maybe planetary pride.”

“What’s true?”

“The emotions of Morcalans are said to run deeper and fiercer than that of any other human,” said Trell. “Great poets speak of how our love and hate are stronger, and how our laughter and tears have more meaning and purpose. Other humans experience emotions, but we live them.”

“I don’t think that’s true, actually,” said Ortega. “I never met a human who didn’t have great emotions. Some just don’t express them. I will say, though, that your people do seem to live more… theatrical lives.”

“Only a great fool mistakes our lives for theater,” said Captain Calen from the door, stepping around Ortega as she entered the room. “We’re not actors on a screen, going through our daily motions. You get enough of that from other societies. I’ve set our course through the Egression Belt. With luck we’ll avoid attention. There aren’t enough asteroids to cause a steady cover… there aren’t even enough to cause any real danger, I’m sad to say. But I found three rocks large enough and with trajectories steady enough that we shouldn’t be seen even if the Dyson Forces look for us. Not that they’ll have much reason to.”

“I’m ready to revive The Soul Survivor on your order, captain,” said Trell.

“I still say this is a horrible idea,” said Ortega. “It’s a move of desperation that will add to our problems instead of alleviating them.”

“Captain Ortega, you are my insurance against that,” said Calen. “Your people may live lives bereft of the great antagonisms known to mine, but you still represent a great familiarity with this monster. If anyone can spot the Survivor’s deception, it will be you. Now, will I have your cooperation or will I have your tongue to keep you from speaking up further? This chamber is capable of acquiring either, and it’s your choice which it will be.”

Ortega recognized the look of determination in Calen’s eyes. It was a look he had seen… and, he was sure, a look he had displayed…whenever the final point of desperation had been reached with an uncooperative crew member. Knowing the reputations of the Morcalan people, he was sure that the threat wasn’t empty. He knew it was a bad idea, but it was going to happen no matter what he said or did.

He opened his mouth to agree, but Calen had already seen it in his eyes. She turned toward Trell.

“I’m ready,” said Calen. “My Maelstrom Ray is charged, and I’ve not faced nearly enough death today. Pour the water into his dome, and wake this monster. Be he robot or soul, he lives again on our ship!”

Trell tipped the crystal carafe into a hydraulic opening at the robot’s shoulder. She took the container, moist with condensation, back to the hydromill as Ortega heard the all-too familiar sound of the machine beginning to pump the cold fluid. Slowly, the dome at the top of the robot begin to fill with water as Trell filled the caraffe a second time. She poured the water into the machine again and began to return to the hydromill.

“That should be enough,” said Ortega.

Calen glared at Ortega who shrugged.

“It doesn’t take as much water as it looks like, and it doesn’t need to be full for him to be at full capacity. Believe me, you’ve got more than enough in there already.”

Trell looked at Calen, who eventually nodded. She set the carafe onto a medical counter as more and more water began to pump into the dome. In less than a minute, the noise from the hydraulics changed and the water beneath the dome began to churn.

The robotic body lurched forward with a speed that seemed impossible given its bulky frame, but the restraints on the medical bed held Doctor Rogers in place. After struggling for a few moments, he settled down. Even without eyes, Ortega could tell that Doctor Rogers was staring at him.

“Am I addressing The Soul Survivor?” asked Captain Calen. “Are you awake?”

Ortega heard the crackle of speakers activating within the robotic body. A cheerful, likeable voice crackled to life, one that Ortega could tell had been selected to make Doctor Rogers appear reasonable and nonthreatening.

“Yes, I’m awake, thank you!” said Doctor Rogers. “I see you’ve got Captain Ortega as well. Do we have you to thank for rescuing us?”

“You and the Captain broke onto my ship,” she said. “We decided not to cast you out into the void again.”

“Deciding to go with a friendly Alto instead of your usual commanding Barritone, Rogers?” asked Ortega. “It’s an interesting voice that you’ve picked for yourself.”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Rogers. “Am I to assume that we’re going to be taken somewhere secure? Or at least, somewhere on the way that you can drop us off?”

“You’re going to be helping us,” said Calen. “Emperor Dyson’s forces have conquered Morcalan space and are planning to move on from here very soon. We need your legendary mind to formulate a scheme capable of retaking the entire system before he becomes too well entrenched.”

“That’s a tall order,” said Rogers. “The strength of Dyson’s forces are traditionally defensive.”

“That’s what I told them,” said Ortega.

“Did you also tell them that Dyson’s forces tend to provide their own superstructure over societies, leaving the preexisting cultures and infrastructures largely in place?”

“No,” said Ortega. “How is that relevant?”

“It means that for all of the would-be Emperor’s strengths, he fails at integration and assimilation. …or succeeds at it, depending on your point of view. Alien technologies that don’t mesh with his own miraculous wonders are not useful on his timescale. He’s trying to conquer as much as he can before he’s noticed, and then as much as he can before he’s stopped. Most of the circles I listen to are of the opinion that after the war ends, business will resume as normal.”

“You haven’t made any contingency plans for him?” asked Trell.

“I can operate in a post-Dyson society just as easily as in a pre-Dyson society. And I doubt that I’ll need to… in my professional opinion as a working megalomanic, he lacks staying power. He’ll have to rely on preexisting soldiers and police forces to maintain his order. I don’t know how many non-automated troops he actually has in his army, but it can’t be nearly as many as it appears to be. It’s a well executed ruse, but a ruse is all it is. Hmm… Captain, it’s wonderful that you’ve added extra security measures on top of the standard Morcalan military security suite, but they don’t add much. Well, not much to me.”

“What?” asked Calen.

“He’s trying to access the ship’s network!” shouted Ortega. “Shut down the network!”

Trell spun in place and reached the nearest terminal. Captain Calen simiply activated her Maelstrom Ray. The mighty weapon launched a barrage of tightly focused plasma, electricity and light, impacting Rogers’ body. The robotics and hydraulics sputtered and sizzled before a painful noise heralded the final, grinding halt of the essential moving parts within the form. Most of the water in the dome-shaped helmet vaporized. The dome itself cracked and water spilled out of it, onto the floor.

“I apologize for killing your great enemy, Captain Ortega,” said Calen. “That right should have been yours. Still, I’m glad we attempted to deal with this devil. A weak one though he may have been.”

“He’s not dead,” said Ortega. “You just broke his dome.”

“He needs the dome to live,” said Calen. “And judging by the sound of it, his internal robotics suffered soundly.”

“This isn’t his first body,” said Ortega. “He can transfer. And even if he couldn’t… his bodies tend to be miracles of engineering. The last three bodies he’s used could repair themselves even after facing severe mechanical failures. The last one replaced the reinforced glass of his dome with a sort of shatter-resistant, self-repairing crystal. I imagine the dome’s already regrowing if this body’s anything like the last one.”

“Are you saying that he lives again and again as long as he eventually repairs and gets moisture into that dome?” asked Calen. “And he might well attack the ship’s network as soon as he comes back online. Trell, let’s take Captain Ortega’s advice and keep his dome free of any contaminating moisture for the rest of this escapade.”

“Yes, Captain,” said Trell, though she didn’t move from her position at the terminal. She tapped the screen and the keyboard curiously, trying to work through something strange.

“Is there a problem, Trell? This corpse won’t move itself.”

“Sorry, Captain,” she said. “The computer is reacting strangely. Any functions that require my clearance are denying me access.”

“We can reset your clearance after we make sure the ghost is buried and not coming back, Ensign.”

“I think it’s too late for that, Captain,” said Ortega. Calen turned to yell at the Astroguard captain but stopped when she saw him. He looked like he was on a battlefield instead of chained to a door. His eyes were quickly covering the room, like a tactician reevaluating a situation.

“What are you getting at?” she asked.

The loudspeakers in the room crackled to life and Ortega tensed.

“He’s already worked out my move,” said the voice of Doctor Rogers, speaking in the richer tones that Ortega knew so well. The speakers of the ship crackled as the voice adjusted to account for unexpected differences in the wiring and continued. “Captain Ortega is a great fool, but his experience on a battlefield is second to none! He knew I was already attacking the ship’s network, and that I had already cracked the security. He knew that I would not have announced such a thing unless it was almost certainly too late for you. This Morcalan Scuttler, Captain, is an ideal vessel for myself. Everything seems to be designed for rerouting, custom repairs, and cross-system cooperation. The water system on this ship was configurable enough that my autonomous virus was able to fashion a crude imitation of my usual robotic form. Not just a primitive copy of my mind, Captain, but my soul itself will live within your ship… which, ultimately, has become my ship.”

“Access Code Toten Toten Gamma Seventeen!” shouted Calen.

“Access Denied, Captain,” said the voice of Doctor Rogers. “I’ve been working in the Morcalan system long enough to know that I needed to disable the self destruct functionality before I did anything else. You people love a dramatic death more than life itself!”

“You’re delusional, Rogers,” said Ortega. “There’s nothing in the water systems that can hold your mind. Something about your software allows a complete transference of your mind. It’s a miracle of software and technology at work, but it would have functioned without changing the ship’s water system. And there’s no way that you’ll keep hold of this ship for long.”

“The science behind the transference of my life force would, of couse, be difficult to explain to one such as you,” said Rogers. “Perhaps I could begin if you sat through a number of lectures I have on mathematics, biology, physics, and psychology first to give you the grounding necessary to understand my work. Unfortunately, you don’t have the time.”

The ship’s artificial gravity ceased functioning, heralded only by the minor sensation of nausea that accompanied the alterations of gravity wells. The lights in the room flickered off, leaving only inadequette emergency lights. And finally, the gentle sound of the air system running in the background went silent.

Episode 23: Red Tape

“A frontal assault won’t work,” said Captain Ortega. “Dyson’s forces are largely defensive in nature. They appear offensive at a first glance with many small vessels designed to overwhelm initial resistance, but that’s largely a means of keeping a fleet occupied while the larger ships are established as a beachhead. In a typical scenario, if that isn’t enough to assure victory then the Dyson forces bring in their… weapon, whatever it is.”

“I understand, Captain,” said the lieutenant on the other side of the vidscreen. “I’ve logged your notes and sent them to Astroguard. I can’t personally do anything else to send you aid in this situation, though. Fleet Command has already issued their orders, and I can’t patch you through to anyone who can approve another ship to come get you. If you head back to the front, you can probably meet with Astroguard or an affiliated military.”

“By the burning fires of fate, you’re not listening to him!” shouted Captain Calen, pushing her way into the view of the camera and brandishing her Maelstrom Ray at the screen. “Even a Morcalan armada led by the Suzerain herself would take heavy losses! Your police force can’t stand against this true army if you won’t listen to the intel!”

Ortega had originally asked Calen to stop pushing her way into his official communications, but the breaches of protocol had grown on him after his call had been transferred for the fifth time.

“Ma’am, Astroguard is well prepared. Captain Ortega’s information is already on its way. Believe me, reports from a captain with his record will be weighted appropriately. Fleet Command knows what it’s doing.”

“You have a lot of faith in Fleet Command” said Ortega. “I hope you’re right. In my experience, they’re good people but they let procedure dictate their actions more than common sense. Is the fact that I have Doctor Silas Rogers in custody enough to change my situation?”

“There aren’t any prisoner transport ships in your area, and the ones closest to your region lack a security rating high enough for someone of the Soul Survivor’s threat level.”

“Do yourself a favor, learn to call him Doctor Rogers.”

The Lieutenant nodded.

“Aye, sir. I need to end the transmission. Good luck out there. Oh, and it’s big honor to meet you, sir, I’ve always been a fan.”

Ortega grinned and saluted before the transmission cut out. He collapsed back into his chair as the smile left his face.

“Fame makes you weary,” said Calen.

“These calls make me weary,” said Ortega. “Fame is nothing. He was just doing his job, and his job was to inform me that they won’t be listening to me.”

“A nameless, honorless curr like him lacks the spark of life. It’s people like him who cause your Astroguard to be self-shackling.”

“It’s people like him who keep the Astroguard running so that the people in the field can keep the operations going smoothly,” said Ortega. “Right now it’s annoying, but this is an unusual situation. And his name is Lieutenant Eldermar. It was written on the tiny plaque under the rank insignia.”

“Don’t make excuses for weakness,” snarled Calen. “On Morcala, someone in his position would be well served by ignoring the orders of his superiors and finding someone who could make a difference. It would lead to promotion.”

“That’s not unheard of for the Astroguard,” said Ortega. “It’s part of why I became a Captain so quickly.”

“So your culture recognizes greatness when it sees it, but doesn’t understand it enough to foster it,” she said with the faintest hint of a sneer. “Do you have any more plans, great one, or are you willing to accept my plan as superior?”

“Your plan has us flying back into Morcalan space to be shredded.”

“A glorious death in battle while fighting for a slim chance is a better fate than living on the run for the rest of our lives.”

“Emperor Dyson won’t spread far enough for us to worry the rest of our lives.”

“True conquerors don’t have a reason to stop. Unless you plan on making a run for Glorian space or finding a way to travel like the Void Pilgrim, I’m not convinced that there’s anywhere we could run that Dyson wouldn’t follow. Striking now is ideal, before he becomes fully entrenched! By the Farthest Fleet, you WILL acknowledge this!”

Captain Ortega slumped further into the chair.

“I’ve always agreed with that,” he said. “Time is crucial to any counter-offensive like this. I just disagree with your methods.”

“So if my plans are too dangerous and your plans are too cautious, how do we proceed?” asked Calen.

“Captain?” said Ensign Trell, looking in from the door to the bridge.

“Yes?” said the two captains. Ortega winced and noticed the look on Captain Calen’s face, not sure how much was due to him and how much was due to Trell’s interruption.

“Captain Calen,” said Trell.

“Do you have something to add, Ensign?” Calen asked, putting an extra emphasis on the rank.

“It occurs to me that we have access to a renowned strategist and master planner on this vessel. It wouldn’t be without risk, but the Soul Survivor might be able to formulate a strategy that would work for both of you.”

“His name is Doctor Silas Rogers,” said Ortega. “And absolutely not. His plans are more dangerous than anyone realizes. He’s brilliant, and possibly deranged. Reactivating him now when he’s finally powerless is madness.”

“Actually, I like this plan,” said Calen. “These are desperate times, and siding with another warrior is sound strategy.”

“I really don’t think-”

“Captain Ortega, I have tolerated your hesitations on MY ship in recognition of your reputation as a fierce and capable warrior and of your rank in the Astroguard, as much as I despise their methods. Since you and your guest arrived at our doorstep, you have stayed my hand and tried my patience too long, wasting Trell’s valuable time on cleaning away the condensation in the Soul Survivor’s dome.”

“Any moisture might be enough to reactivate him,” said Ortega.

“And right about now, that sounds like a wonderful idea,” said Calen. “Trell! Fetch a pitcher of water, and pour it into our other guest’s dome.”

“You can’t!” said Ortega, rising from the chair.

Captain Calen raised her Maelstrom Ray and aimed it at Captain Ortega. The champion of the Astroguard stared at the dangerous weapon for a moment before sitting back in the chair. He could tell by the way she held the Maelstrom Ray that it wouldn’t miss.

“Now listen to me,” said Calen. “Trell WILL reactivate Doctor Rogers. You WILL allow us to call him The Soul Survivor if we wish, as his infamy has earned him a title. And when he provides a plan for us, we WILL enact it.”

“How do you know he’ll just make a plan for you so easily?” asked Ortega.

“Oh, he will,” said Calen.

Episode 22: Dangerous Information

Three strong, slow knocks rang from the metallic door of Hobbar’s hideaway. The youth-like alien looked up from the table where he’d been evenly dividing his attention between a light dinner and two screens, one showing the latest news reports for the area and the other a game where teams competed to organize the fruits mixed in their fruit baskets in surprisigly violent ways. Hobbar’s people were skilled at multitasking, but the knocks on the door came with a resounding gravity that suggested someone who would want undivided attention.

Hobbar hopped from the table and opened the door expecting to see one of, perhaps, three people who knew about this location. Instead he was hit with a wave of heat and greeted with the sight of Igneous, the Pyrhian rock woman. She was leaning against the door frame, apparently exhausted, and covered with so many glowing cracks that it was hard to discern her usual facial features. She looked at Hobbar and pushed her way past, entering the marginally cooler room. Hobbar worried that it wouldn’t be cooler much longer.

“Igneous? How did you find this place. Maybe five people know about it.”

“More than that,” she said. She took a few deep breaths, the shade of light issuing from the cracks in her skin changing with the airflow. Hobbar almost thought she was done talking, but she coughed and continued. “I’ve made a point of keeping tabs on you ever since our working relationship began. Hope you don’t mind… occupational habit.”

Hobbar felt comfortable enough to scowl while Igneous had her back to him.

“I… suppose that’s fine,” said Hobbar. “How did you find me, though? It’s important.”

“No it’s not,” said Igneous. “No time. Where’s Zack. And who else knows about him?”

“I’ve lost track of Gamma,” said Hobbar. “He and that Shift lady got caught in a tractor beam before they left. There was an accident, but I’m pretty sure they were fine after the fact. I’ve not been able to find him since then.”

Igneous turned to look at Hobbar. Her rocky face became, if possible, less expressive.

“I’m not happy to hear that, Hobbar.”

“Hang on,” said Hobbar, taking a step back and holding up a hand. He didn’t think that Igneous would be the sort to take things out on him, but he’d seen her get violent once and wanted to stay as far away from that as possible. “If it helps, I know that the only person in town who’d know how to activate the city’s defense systems like that would be Creep.”

“Creep?”

“Yeah, Chip Creep. It’s a fake name, I’m not sure what he used to call himself, but everyone in town who knows about him calls him that. He’s some kind of specialized hacker. Every system that Helix’s government abandons or forgets about, he swoops in and figures out how to make it work again. Some people say that he keeps the city running; I think that he just likes to keep old stuff running as a kind of hobby.”

Igneous took a firm step toward Igneous, putting one of her hands on his shoulders before he even realized that she wasn’t leaning against the wall anymore. The heat was on the verge of painful, but not nearly as worrying as Igneous leaning down to look into his eyes.

“Where does he live?”

“I don’t know!” said Hobbar. “But he’s got little places all over town. A lot of the maintenance shafts and tunnels have side rooms, and he uses those as easy access terminals for his own systems.”

“Do you know where some of those terminals are?”

“Yeah, but they’re secured. Lots of trouble to get into one or access them if you do get in, and there’s no knowing if it’ll be one that he’s at.”

“Let me worry about that,” said Igneous, leaning back and finally releasing his shoulder. “Now, how about the question you…”

Igneous paused before coughing and wheezing for a moment. She shook her head and continued.

“How about the question you didn’t answer earlier? Who else knows?”

Hobbar had hoped that the rock woman wouldn’t have caught him giving more information about one question to distract from a lack of information about the second. As it was, he already felt like he’d given away too much about Chip.

“Hard to say for sure,” said Hobbar. “A lot of people are talking about Zack, though not many know much about him. There was a tall, skinny guy from the DMA who showed up, though. Looked a bit like a bug, wearing some sort of robe thing.”

“Might be Vox. Anyone else?”

“Probably. I didn’t keep a list of the names of people who’ve been talking about it. Mostly people like me, probably keeping tabs on it for people like you. I’d heard, though, that there was a lot of damage done to a medical office earlier today. Zack might’ve been involved, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

“I see. You’re sure that there’s no one else, then?”

Hobbar thought about the Phantom Matador. But technically he’d only told the Matador about Carmen Shift, not Zack Gamma.

“No one I know about, at least,” said Hobbar. “I’m not the only eyes and ears in town, you know.”

“Right,” said Igneous. “But you’re good at it. I also had a partner in town before you called me, checking a lead. Means she’s doing her job well to stay off the radar. This Chip Creep person sounds like he’d have eyes in a lot of places. That’d be a lot of informtion for sale, yes?”

“As far as I know, that’s his primary means of income.”

“Typical. Now be honest, crinlian: do you know if he works with Murk?”

“You know about Murk?”

“We’ve met,” she said. The glow in her eyes flashed. “As one of the most notable fellow Pyrhians on the planet, I’ve taken an interest. Plus I work at the DMA. About half of us are evenly divided between helping people like him and eliminating people like him. Since he’s based out of Helix, that puts him right on our doorstep.”

“Well, you’re right. Chip sells data to any buyer, but from what I can tell the primary customer is always Murk.”

“So even if Murk isn’t involved in Zack going missing, he’d have been told about Zack’s presence. Grab your things, Crinlian. You’re taking me to Murk, and don’t even pretend for a moment that someone like you doesn’t know the places that someone like him would call home.”

“Okay,” said Hobbar. “But I stay out of sight. If someone sees me showing you one of Murk’s major stations, that’s the end for me. It’ll be the end for you, too.”

“Don’t bet on it,” said Igneous.

Episode 21: Thrown to the Underjungles

Zack wrinkled his nose. The oubliette’s circular entrance allowed a fetid odor to escape, distracting even the two guards standing on either side of the chair. Zack had smelled sewers before and expected something similar when Murk’s men had taken him from the office where Murk woke him up to the chamber with this pit, but this odor was unexpectedly different. It was infused with something like the smell of rotting vegetation and fermented nectars.

“If you’re trying to start a flower shop, I think your stock’s gone bad. Location’s not great either. It lacks that Alpha Street charm.”

“Compared to the cultures of Veskid, it lacks a great deal,” said Murk. “But compared to the subterranean jungles of Ravelar, I think you’ll find that I did a fine job recreating the environment.”

“Ravelar? The moon in orbit around Skyrrin?”

“Has your memory cleared, then?”

“No. I went to Ravelar for a recent case, but I stayed in the cities, doing light espionage work for a monastery with a grudge against another. I never explored any subterranean jungles while I was there, and I certainly never met you. I’ve been hit in the head a lot the last few days, but I’m positive it’s nothing that would cause a memory lapse like you’re talking about.”

“A pity,” said Murk. He waved a watery pseudohand and the two men on either side of Zack grabbed his chair and pushed it forward.

Zack yelped, falling into the dark chamber below. He could see that it was only a ten foot drop, but he knew that an incorrect fall from even that short distance could be fatal if he hit the ground improperly. The chair he was bound to restricted his movement, but he twisted his shoulder to try and roll with the fall.

A dizzying moment later and his side collided with the surprisingly soft, peaty mud at the bottom of the oubliette. He had an instant of fear when he realized that he wasn’t landing how he wanted to land at all, but the ground was so much softer than expected. His shoulder ached from the impact, but he realized that the chair’s arm was loose. He looked up at Murk through the hole in the ceiling. Murk flowed into the chamber, suspending his face within the prison.

“Welcome to one of the deeper, intentionally forgotten secrets of a more barbaric period of galactic history,” said Murk. “The construction of the Super Cities was not without its uncivilized minds, those who felt it appropriate to take cues from unwholesome eras. Had Helix become the space-faring behemoth it was intended to be, this room would undoubtedly have become the final resting place of many enemies of the state, a place to dump criminals and simply forget about them. Or perhaps the jailers who built it had nobler intentions… perhaps it really was just meant as a form of solitary confinement, a tiny room for prisoners to fight off rats without any other company for days or weeks at a time in the hopes that they would have better manners when they were ultimately allowed to join the other prisoners again.”

“I’ve got a feeling it’s the first one that you’ve got in mind for me,” said Zack.

“Not at all,” said Murk. “I have no intention of forgetting about you. And I’ve also not developed any plans to make you be alone for so long. You probably can’t see it from where you are right now, but I’ve removed a portion of the wall behind you. What was once a tiny, vertical cell is now just the entrance to a much, much larger chamber. As I told you, I spent quite a bit of time recreating Ravelar’s jungles. The ecosystem was tricky to recreate in an artificial cave, but I managed. And that jungle has an old friend of yours.”

“I doubt that.”

“You may claim that you don’t remember our meeting on Ravelar, but know that there is a poetic justice to this end,” said Murk. “it won’t be long before you encounter the little Lusca Vine. Grown from the spores of the same one that you arranged to deploy upon my operations on Ravelar. I’m leaving you with a light source, if you wish to see your doom coming. But know that Lusca is attracted to the light. There’s not much of it down there, and it usually means that she has a meal.”

Murk flowed back, fully departing the oubliette. One of the guards tossed a lumisphere into the hole. Zack watched it land, naturally unlit, into the mud scant feet from his face. The hole’s entrance irised shut, hissing into place and sealing. Zack shook his aching shoulder and rattled the loose arm of the chair between himself and the floor. He knew that rolling the chair (and himself) over might make it possible to break the chair less painfully, but he also knew that he didn’t want to lose track of where the lumisphere had fallen in the darkness.

Gradually he felt the damage on the chair increase. He also discovered inefficiently tied segments of the rope holding him to the chair, most notably near his right ankle and right arm. The rope holding his left arm in place would gradually fail in time as well thanks to the broken chair arm no longer acting as a solid anchoring point.

While Zack was capable when it came to escape artistry, he knew very well that most of what he had was theoretical knowledge rather than practical experience. He made progress, but felt like he was moving much slower than he would like. He didn’t know what a ‘Lusca Vine’ was, but with every moment that passed he imagined the ropes binding him being joined by a vine composed of alien vegetable matter.

With a triumphant shout (mixed with more than a little pain from jerking his shoulder suddenly), Zack finally managed to break the arm’s chair. He gasped at the unintentional noise, but celebrated by lifting the left side of his face out of the mud. The rest of the ropes easily fell away as he untangled himself from the chair’s wreckage.

He took a moment to take stock. No pistols, forms of identification or hard currency. He had his hat, but without a device capable of connecting to a network the hat would be useless, assuming that any networks would be active this far down. And somewhere in front of him was a lumisphere.

Zack had a good memory and reasonable spatial visualization skills, as did any who lasted long in his line of work, but the circumstances still made it a challenge. Shaking himself free from a chair while lying in two-inch deep mud without any light altered his perceptions just enough to make him worried. If it had fallen much further from him, he might have wasted hours fruitlessly searching. Fortunately, one of his hands eventually touched on a round, smooth object that was out of place in the muggy prison cell.

He held it up and squeezed it gently. The sphere began to emit a gentle, white light from somewhere within, a dim light made almost painful due to the amount of time already spent in the darkness. After his eyes adjusted, Zack squeezed it again and saw the brightness increase. Another squeeze demonstrated the surprisingly bright third setting, followed by the fourth squeeze plunging the chamber back into darkness. Three settings. Zack knew that some of the higher end models were psychoreceptive and designed to always provide exactly the degree of brightness desired by the user, but Murk had clearly chosen not to waste that kind of expense on him.

Zack considered activating the lumisphere’s brightest setting before he remembered Murk’s warning that the ‘Lusca Vine’ would be attracted to a light source. He settled for the dimmest setting and found a hole in the wall, inexpertly carved out with blaster fire. Zack approached and stepped through.

A surprisingly large cavern existed on the other side, revealing the abandoned internal sectors of Helix. Likely intended as a chamber for residents to have an open “park” area while Helix blasted through the void of space, or possibly as a future extension of the dungeons to build more cells, Murk had obviously spent a great deal of time making it appear wilder and less controlled than before. Giant trees somehow stretched to the roof of the chamber, making Zack wonder just where the roots were going. The mud was an inch deeper here than it had been in the oubliette, and the distant buzzing of insects could be heard. Vines and bushes were scattered about, and the humidity hit him like a wall. But what Zack noticed more than anything was the smell.

The odor of overripe vegetation was even more apparent than it had been in the cell, but the more fragrant scents of alien flowers and mysterious pollens were almost overpowering. Mixed with the oppressive humidity, the scent of the jungle stopped feeling like a generic wilderness scent, but became something very specific and unforgettable, so unforgettable that it triggered a memory in Zack’s mind.

A wave of deja vu rolled over him as the aromatic sensation fired familiar neurons in his head. The underjungles of Ravelar were imprinted in his memories somewhere, and there was something important that had happened here. Or there, rather. He didn’t know what the sensation meant, but he knew one thing.

“I’ve been here before.”

Episode 20: Awake at Alpha Street

Carmen opened her eyes, slowly working through a dull throbbing in her skull. It was unpleasant, but she’d had worse hangovers in recent memory and was able to slowly push her way through it. The light wasn’t causing her headache to get worse, fortunately.

She was sitting on an uncomfortable rolling chair in what looked like an empty hangar. She shakily got to her feet, causing the chair’s wheels to emit a loud squeak. She winced at the noise and decided that she should give herself a few minutes to let her mind get back on track.

The environment was eerie and still. The lack of a ship or car in the small hangar gave it the expectant emptiness of deprived purpose while the lack of dust or disrepair made her feel like someone might walk in at any moment and ask why she was there. She wasn’t exactly sure why.

She approached the exit, opened the door, and gave her eyes a few moments to adjust to the (fortunately not too painful) brighter light outside. She saw an upscale, though old fashioned, walkway along a street. Her side of the street had small hangar spaces, while the opposite side featured signs that advertised restaurants or small gift shops. A holographic sign floated nearby, saying that this was Alpha Street.

Carmen remembered Helix, Zack’s checkup gone wrong, the failed attempt to fly away, and the elevator. She ran back into the hangar to look for any sign of Zack, but the space was empty except for the unpleasant chair. She found the hangar’s control panel in the wall by the door, and opened the only other exit to the room, the massive gate that allowed cars or small ships in or out.

The gate opened onto a scenic view of the nearby Veskid City at dusk. Carmen had hoped that there would be a lengthy flight tunnel which might contain a maintenance door, or something that would indicate a direction that she could look for Zack, but the drop from the hangar gate was instantaneous, blocked only by the faint blue hint of the energy field that prevented strong winds from blowing in.

She ran back out and saw Alpha Street. Zack was missing. If they’d been lied to, if Gamma had just been abducted by the DMA then he was already dead. If they hadn’t been lied to, Zack might still be somewhere in Helix. Someone didn’t want her to know where Zack was, though. She needed to find out why, and to find out where Zack went.

More importantly, she needed to figure out where to even begin looking.
***
“Wake up, Mister Gamma.”

Zack’s head pounded. He wasn’t sure who was speaking to him, or why the speaker’s voice wavered and rippled so much, but the the soothing tone didn’t do anything to make his head hurt less. A few more minutes would be perfect.

“I know you can hear me, Gamma. The poison’s effect does not last this long. I can understand a desire to sleep longer with the days you’ve been having recently, but we don’t truly have time for you to recuperate. At least, you don’t.”

Zack managed to get an eye open. He automatically went through the motion of rolling out of a bed, but found himself restrained. He thought more about where he was, and realized he was in a chair. In a very dark room.

Everything rushed back to him. So he’d been caught by the DMA after all. The people in the elevator had lied to him. The single light in the center of the room cast shadows that obscured the room’s edges, including the desk in front of him. He focused his eyes and saw a silhouette behind the desk.

“Who are you? Where’s Carmen?”

“Don’t concern yourself with Miss Shift… she’s been released into Helix, as missing celebrities bring more unwanted attention than missing detectives, especially with her impending races and your socially accepted fate of dying alone in a back alley. But your ignorance wounds me, Zack. After all that time we spent together, I would think my voice alone would give me away.”

“Good point. You sound like someone fitted for a pair of cement shoes who got dropped off in a wishing well. Not exactly the sort of voice you forget.”

“I see. Your predictable view of the people around you continues to be as out of date as your hat.”

“My hat’s fantastic,” said Zack. “Just wait for forest green to come back in style again, and another five years or so’ll make this look a classic. Just you wait and see.”

“Aheh… yes, I will. A pity that you won’t be around to benefit from such a poor choice in fedora. You may not remember me, but I can assure you that this last meeting of ours will be the final thing you ever remember.”

Zack searched his mind for any memory of this person. Perhaps they worked in a different department? One he’d worked with when he first joined, but not since?

“Look, if you want the DMA bounty, just finish me off and claim it. Congrats. You beat Fletch, and that’s saying something. She practically had me earlier today.”

“Oh? I hadn’t heard that the greatest assassin of the Desperate Measures Agency was in Helix. That’s… distressing on some level. Regardless, I do take pleasure in being the one to see you breathe your last, but I’m not with your beloved agency of thieves and murderers. Your death will be personal.”

“Okay, I give up. Who are you? If you don’t want the bounty, and you’re not a member of the DMA, then why do you want me dead?”

“This borders on insulting,” said the shadow. It stepped forward, though “stepped” was hardly the correct word. Its form seemed to flow and surge, most of its mass gently rolling over the desk while the remainder slid beneath, both portions merging with each other as the entity drew nearer.

Zack convulsed at the sight, even though it told him that the creature was liquid or colloidal in some form. He guessed Pyrhian even before he could see the creature properly in the light. It was dark blue, darker than most Pyrhian water people. There seemed to be an inky quality deep within it. It chose a human-like face with two arms and three pillar-like legs, likely to give it extra stability if needed. Zack exhaled once the creature was fully visible.

“That’s surprising,” said Zack. “I wasn’t expecting… anything like that.”

“I’m sure you recognize me now?”

Zack looked over the creature, baffled.

“No,” he said. “No, I’m sorry. Look, you’re… obviously a very memorable person. At least, for a human you would be. Pyrhians aren’t exactly common. Did I know you before your condensation? If I saw you premetamorphosis then maybe that’s why I don’t recognize you.”

“No,” said the creature, stepping forward. It covered ground quickly, with its three, loping legs stretching to cross the small distance with alarming speed. “We met when I was like this. We met, and after what you did I made sure that you would remember to stay away from me. I warned you not to come to Helix ever again. And you didn’t listen.”

“Buddy, I think you’ve got the wrong guy,” said Zack. “I’ve never seen you before in my life. I’ve never heard your voice before. I don’t remember ever meeting anyone like you, and I’ve definitely never been told to stay away from Helix. Whoever you think I am and whatever you think I did, you’re lookin’ for someone else.”

A look of genuine confusion crossed the Pyrhians face.

“How can you forget this? I refuse to believe that my contribution to your personal history would be so mundane as to be forgettable. And it’s simply insulting to think that I, Murk, would make such a gross mistake in identifying you.”

“Murk… wait, I know that name. You’re the one who…”

Zack thought about what he was going to say, carefully putting it all into place.

“Oh?” said Murk. “Has your memory been jogged?”

“No,” said Zack. “I mean, maybe. You’re allegedly responsible for a number of smuggling operations in Veskid City. Some people thought you might be based in Helix. Are you that Murk? Whether or not the reports are true, mind you, I’m not interested in that…”

“Of course I’m that Murk. You know very well the kinds of businesses that I run.”

“No, I don’t,” said Zack. “I just work with people at the DMA. Your name comes up sometimes.”

“Playing dumb doesn’t suit you, Gamma. Instead, let’s see how you fare at playing dead.”

Episode 19: Payouts And Take Backs

Zack looked over his shoulder when Carmen entered, letting his gaze leave the Pyrhian and two Humans as they recovered. Carmen saw Zack in open view and exasperatedly pointed toward the maintenance panel.

“I appreciate the thought,” said Zack, “but I wanted to get a good look at who you were dealing with out there. Plus I don’t do well in cramped spaces. Nice work on the rock man out there.”

“It wouldn’t have been that easy if he’d known I could do it,” said Carmen. “Fast movement, application of strength, and the right attitude can do a lot for shaking off my rock control. Some Pyrhians help out for training rookies in the minor leagues, but self defense isn’t usually on the books. Did you hear me talking to the last guy standing out there? He says they’re not with the DMA.”

“Yeah, and I don’t like it,” said Zack, turning back to look out the window. “I’m not sure why someone would go to this trouble to talk to me if the DMA wasn’t involved.”

“You think their boss is lying?”

“I think their boss is some sort of problem,” said Zack. “Maybe not a bigger one than the bounty on my head, but possibly a more immediate one. Also, just because they’re not with the DMA now doesn’t mean that they won’t be interested in getting that bounty later.”

“My vote’s for going out there and going with them in the elevator,” said Carmen. “We go back and say that we’ll go with them. Take the elevator up to whatever floor they’re taking us to, keep our eyes open for any way out, and as soon as we see one we rush ’em, speed past and find our way back to the streets of Helix.”

“It’s risky,” said Zack. “It puts us in the middle of a lot of people who’ll have guns ready for blazing.”

“In the middle of a crowd, the confusion’ll keep us safe if they’re not expecting it,” said Carmen. “Do you think they’ll risk shooting each other?”

“Depends how much they like each other, and how mean their boss is,” said Zack. “Don’t underestimate how dirty people can get when they play this kind of game. If what they wanna talk about is important enough, the right sadist with a gun might take down everyone else to make sure that we don’t get away. And even if they’re easy-going, friendly armed goons, once we get away from them they’ll be able to shoot us without worrying about it as soon as we’re not in the middle of them anymore. Plus your plan assumes that there’ll be a lot of guards. There might only be three or four.”

“Which we could take!” said Carmen. “And don’t worry about the getaway giving them a better shot at us, that’s why we wait for our opening.”

“Assuming a good opening exists,” said Zack. “Your plan takes all the kinds of risks that extraction jobs aren’t supposed to take.”

“Right, what was I thinking?” said Carmen. “I should’ve totally taken the risk-free option for getting you out of here. I might’ve missed something here, though, so catch me up to speed. What perfectly safe plan did you have in mind? Go ahead, lay it on me.”

***

Zack waved at the two humans and the rock man as he stepped out of Carmen’s car. The two humans nodded curtly; the Pyrhian remained still as a statue, keeping an eye on Carmen as she came into view.

“It’s not every day people like me so much that they activate a city’s supposedly defunct tractor beams just to keep me from leaving. Carmen tells me that your boss is looking for me. Who’s your boss?”

“Someone who likes secrets,” said the rock man, finally taking his gaze off of Carmen. “Someone who likes privacy. If he wants you to know who he is, he’ll tell you when you see him.”

“Well, let’s not keep him waiting,” said Zack. He stepped through them and into the elevator. Carmen and the other two humans followed.

“Not joining us?” Carmen asked the Pyrhian.

“We didn’t know you were petrakinetic,” he said. “Our boss must not’ve known who Mister Gamma was travelling with when the car activated. If it’s all the same, my friends would feel safer if there wasn’t a chance that you could bludgeon them to death with me in the enclosed space. I’ll catch the next one.”

The doors slid shut and the elevator began rising, Carmen adjusting to the shift in inertia more easily than the other three. She also felt the elevator moving at an unusual angle, probably due to Helix’s strange architecture. Zack’s head snapped to the ceiling.

“You feel that too, huh?” asked Carmen.

“I smell it,” said Zack.

“What?”

“What’s wrong with the air in here,” Zack said to one of the guards. The guard smiled.

“Gas,” he said. “Completely harmless, don’t worry.”

Zack coughed and put his arm over his face. He pulled one of his Purcellian Striker Pistols out of its holster and lowered it at one of the guards.

“Turn it off!” he said.

“I can’t,” said the guard, backing up and raising his hands. “It’s out of our control.”

“An old security feature,” said the other. “We’ll all be knocked out by the time we get to the right floor. We’ll be taken to sleep it off, and you’ll go straight to your meeting with the boss, Mister Gamma. Couldn’t risk you getting lost on the way.”

Carmen punched the second guard, knocking him into the far wall. The first guard pulled out his pistol and aimed it at her. Zack noticed the unsteady, wavering way that the guard aimed the weapon and took a chance and grabbed his gun arm, holding it up toward the ceiling before the man could fire. This did nothing to stop the blast.

The beam of energy collided with the ceiling, rebounding off the reflective metal even as it caused the ceiling to rupture. The concussive force of the blast knocked the elevator’s passengers onto the floor with an accompanying flash of light. Zack looked up and saw the angled shaft above the elevator through the narrow hole. A small pump perched on the top of the elevator, just barely visible through the damage; the pump had a cannister connected to it, with a label in a language that Zack couldn’t identify.

Zack saw a crack in the cannister at a point where the twisted roof of the elevator had collided with it. A rapid jet of gas was shooting from the cannister into the elevator, much faster and noisier than the pump had been administering it. Zack’s vision darkened quickly as he slowly tried to raise his pistol toward the cannister. Just before he could pull the trigger, everything went black.

Much earlier, on another world…

Azar handed the electrowrit to Maul, the alien who had joined two humans in attempting to mug him just two weeks earlier. Maul looked at the number written on the sheet and Azar could see the gratitude behind Maul’s tough facade. The sheet could be electronically transferred, stored at nearly any bank, or cashed in for the amount written upon it, and the electronic cells woven into its paper could be easily tracked if it somehow went missing between Azar’s hand and Maul’s financial institution of choice. Even better, the destruction of such a paper before it benefited the bearer could be easily tracked, meaning that the only thing between Maul and the money was however long it took him to get to the bank.

“You’re sure about me taking off early today?” asked Maul.

“Absolutely,” said Azar. “Stay too late, and you won’t be able to cash that until tomorrow. You’ve earned a weekend with that money. I can manage an extra hour.”

Maul smiled appreciatively, a look which Azar was still trying to process. Maul’s multitude of teeth and the mane-like tufts of fur made him look like a snarling lion when he was happy. The toothy grin left with him, though, and Azar felt good about his weekend.

The other two had left earlier that morning after Azar revealed that they wouldn’t be needed for the full day. In truth, Azar didn’t need them at all; the tasks he was having them perform were mundane. He had promised them work, however, and he was good to his word. A small fee to an investigation firm had been enough to covertly track down everywhere that the three had been employed before, information that Azar used to ensure that what he paid them went beyond fair; he wanted their salary to be bigger than anything they’d ever received. Each of them had big plans, or at least things that they’d like to be able to do some day; Azar made each of them promise to pursue those dreams with his funds.

He still hadn’t determined what to do about his residence. In the two weeks since he’d become wealthier than he’d truly believed possible, he had done little. The interest coming from the coin in the savings account would be more than enough to live on from here, even living every day as extravagantly as he could. Still, he’d heard many tales of those who had been blessed with money only to have it vanish in under a year through mismanagement and he was determined to keep a handle on those issues. He was thinking about a new location, however; he’d always known that he lived in a rougher part of the city, but he was only just beginning to notice how many dangerous people seemed to walk about it.

There was a knock at his door. He hadn’t had unexpected company for years. He looked through the peephole on the door and saw a smiling human wearing a suit. He undid most of the door’s security features, and opened it slowly.

“Hello? Can I help you?”

“Hello!” said the man. “My name is Carlton Mayfair, and I’m here to represent BristleCorp. May I come in?”

Azar froze. He recognized BristleCorp’s name. He’d worked for many different companies over the decades, but it was always through his early agreements with BristleCorp. He could see the pine tree logo on the man’s briefcase now, the bristlecone pine from which the company took its name. Azar swallowed and waved the man in.

Carlton entered and quickly looked over the apartment.

“Very nice place,” he said. “I imagine you’ve been looking for something a little bigger now that you’ve received your payout?”

“I’ve… considered it,” Azar said. There was the faintest tone of condescension behind the man’s words. Why wouldn’t someone want to live in a place like this? It was a fine apartment. “I may stay here. It’s a good neighborhood.”

“I’m sure it is,” said Carlton. “And speaking of your payout, that’s what I came here to discuss. I’m happy that everything’s worked out for you so well. I’m sorry to report that BristleCorp is requesting some of those funds back.”

“Why?” asked Azar. “I did everything right, didn’t I? I was promised that amount, and I was paid what I was due.”

“Yes, you were,” said the man. “The issue is that your work came through a rather unexpected sequence of coincidences, and the offer was made with certain assumptions in mind. It was never expected that someone would be able to put in over forty years of this sort of work. That’s part of why the hazard pay values were so high.”

“That, plus the work was dangerous,” said Azar. “More than a few of my friends lost limbs… or lives… working for you. Mining radioactive nebulae, welding those ships in a hard vacuum… we did it all for you. And we did it under the program the program that BristleCorp set up. And to my knowledge, that program never changed, even after the original research project concluded.”

“No, it didn’t change,” said Carlton. “But it should have. It was forgotten. The promise of a Virellium Coin at conclusion was ludicrous, and was carefully weighed against actuarial tables. And the investment opportunities were there to benefit those who had to leave the program early from taking injuries on the job, they weren’t intended for those who completed the entire program.”

“Now, look, the payout of three coins of Virellium Force Energy was promised from the start to anyone in the program. I double checked every five years that the plans were still in effect, and I was told every time that it still applied to me.”

“Yes, it did,” said Carlton. “But to be blunt… you were supposed to be dead. The hazard pay was high, but the danger was higher. No actuarial tables anticipated anyone making it beyond the first twenty years, and by the end your work was for a project that was no longer the company’s focus.”

“If you didn’t want to pay it, you shouldn’t have made the offer,” said Azar.

“My employers didn’t make that offer,” said Carlton. “Earlier leadership of BristleCorp and other corporations in the BristleCorp family made the offer. The company’s direction has changed in that time, and it will put us in financial difficulty if you retain ownership of the entirety of those funds.”

“You’ll get by,” said Azar.

“Yes, but at great cost,” said Carlton. “Many will lose benefits. Certain branches of the company may stop existing. Now, I’m not here to ask you to return all the money we’ve given you. What I’m here to ask is for a portion. You would retain twenty-one hundredths of one of those coins, more than enough to live comfortably for the rest of your life.”

“Are you sure about that?” asked Azar. “If your actuarial tables are wrong again, I might wind up in the poor house.”

“That’s not… with propper planning, you can still be one of the richest people on this planet and never have to worry about money again.”

“Look, Mister Mayfair, I gave your corporation decades of my life. The agreement was that by risking my life on zero-G rigs, terraforming operations, and experimental engineering platforms, I would become wealthy if I survived. And survive I did. The regular payment, the overtime, the degree compensation for the classes I took to understand some of the work we did, the hazard pay… the extra hazard pay… and finally the interest accrued. All three Virellium coins are mine.”

“That’s a matter for debate,” said Carlton, his smile fading. “The argument could be made that the program ceased to exist twenty years ago when the work was first shipped out to a subsidiary.”

“I worked for them, too,” said Azar. “And I was told then that the work would still count. And at each other subsidiary. I checked with BristleCorp, and with the subsidiaries. And I made sure to get it in writing, along with the names of the people I spoke to.”

“The vast majority of those people have retired or left their position by now,” said Mister Mayfair. “A number of them have died. This antiquated offer is not applicable.”

“You should have decided that decades ago before I signed on for the program,” said Azar. “It’s my money. It was signed off on and finalized when you gave it to me. I’m no longer an employee of yours, and I’ve been paid. As such… we have nothing more to discuss.”

“I’m sorry you see it that way,” said Carlton Mayfair. “I’ll likely see you again soon. Have a good day, sir.”

Mister Mayfair left, and Azar closed the door. He knew it couldn’t have been this easy. He knew that they wouldn’t want to pay him. But he’d heard how Mister Mayfair spoke… they weren’t demanding the money yet, they were requesting it. BristleCorp wanted the money, but didn’t automatically think that they could get it. BristleCorp would have lawyers, but they weren’t sure enough of their success to open with the lawsuit. They would probably have the best lawyers that money could buy.

But so would Azar.

Episode 18: Landing Fifty-Three

Chip witnessed the car, swinging like a hammer as the leveraging force of the still-active tractor beam caused Carmen and Zack to hurtle toward the outer wall of Helix. His finger zipped to the key for Function Four on his computer, the kill switch that could have cut the power to the beam, but he stopped himself. Physics wasn’t his area of expertise, but he knew that cutting the power at this point in the arc would propel the car like a slingshot into a lower portion of the wall or the ground.

He’d already wasted precious milliseconds on that train of thought, but he already had the Helix Defense System’s interface loaded thanks to the initial tractor beam. Instead of cutting power to the first tractor beam, he pulled up the interfaces for three other tractor beams and activated them simultaneously.

Forming a roughly triangular area around the region that would have been Carmen and Zack’s vertical graveyard, the beams activated and formed a pyramid with a point just ahead of the hurtling car. The car collided with the intersection of three other tractor beams, slowing instantly. Still moving at dangerous speeds, but hopefully nonlethal ones, Chip activated Function Four and saw the initial tractor beam power down. No longer connected to the car, the spire and chunk of wall that it was connected to finished tumbling off its perch, beginning its miles-long fall down to the base of Helix. Chip breathed a sigh of relief. He’d acted in less than three seconds, but knew that it had more to do with luck than actual skill. He typed a number of commands into his interface and saw the three tractor beams awkwardly work together to resume the car’s slow pull into one of Helix’s acquisition bays.

“My fault for improving the capacitors on those things,” said Chip, collapsing into his chair. “That’ll get me to think twice the next time I upgrade something.”

***

Carmen wrestled with the hover-car’s controls one last time before pushing them away angrily. She then shrieked as the spire that had generated the initial tractor beam fall in front of her car, narrowly missing it by less than a dozen feet. She took a moment to calm herself before turning to the other passenger.

“Zack, if you could wake up sometime soon it’d be great,” she said. The detective didn’t have the resistance to heightened G-Forces that she did, and had nodded off mid-arc. She’d considered shaking him, but wasn’t actually sure if he’d be any help right now. It might be better to let him sleep it off… though once they stopped being airborne and found themselves back in Helix his knowhow could come in handy.

They were entering a chamber in the wall of Helix, some sort of storage and acquisition hangar. another tractor beam within activated when her car was close enough to the gate, allowing it to be gently brought in while the other three tractor beams released them. The airlock doors shut behind the car, quickly cycling through a series of locks designed to withstand the harshest conditions of space, a leftover from the early design era of Helix when its ability to journey from planet to planet was still a priority. The beam set their vehicle on the center of the floor, but didn’t deactivate. Carmen groaned. She had briefly hoped that she might be able to activate the car within the hangar and cause some damage that way, but her vehicle was effectively in lockdown.

Facing her through the front window, the door leading out of the chamber appeared to be a standard blast door arrangement, but modified to act as an elevator door. If the entrance to the hangar hadn’t been so menacing, the rigid efficiency enhanced by the earlier age’s architectural stylings might have been an awe-inspiring first taste of Helix for any new arrivals. Carmen noticed the numbers on the elevator ticking down toward a highlighted number fifty-three in the center of the dial, accompanied by the cycling and spinning of the blast door’s locking mechanisms.

Carmen jumped out of her chair and opened the emergency panel in the floor of the small standing area behind the driver and passenger seats. She removed the spare machinery and instruction manuals designed to make the car easily repairable in the event of a minor malfunction, and took out the first aid kit, box of rations and winter blanket loaded beneath it all.

She looked out the main window. Her ship’s external microphone picked up the noise of a gentle chime as the elevator reached the hangar door. The blast doors hadn’t finished unlocking yet, but likely wouldn’t take much longer.

Moving fast, she removed Zack’s safety harness, pulled him out of the chair, and dragged him to the emergency panel. Right before she could begin hiding him, his eyes fluttered open and he shook his head.

“What’s…?”

“Good, you’re awake,” said Carmen. “G-Forces knoacked you out. Hide yourself in here, see if you can get the blanket over you and close the emergency panel from inside. Might not fool a DMA Agent, but it’s the best I can arrange right now.”

“What?” said Zack. “Wait, the tractor beams! Carmen, did…”

“No time!” she said. “We’re alive. Someone’s coming, I’m going to buy you some time. They’re not after me, after all.”

Without waiting for another word, Carmen opened the side door and let herself out of the car. Zack looked into the uncomfortable security panel and at all the gear that needed to be packed inside.

***

Carmen reached the blast doors as they opened, revealing three people. Two of them were humans, but the tall one in the center was a Pyrhian Rock Man, a bipedal creature made of a form of living stone. A small ring of thorn-like protrusions around its head almost made it look like it was wearing a crown, and the dull orange of its eyes indicated that it probably hadn’t been long since its last metamorphosis. Carmen angrily marched to the rock man, ignoring the two humans reaching for weaponry beneath their coats.

“I don’t know what you’re up to, but no one jacks my car, especially not when I’m driving it!”

“Sorry,” said the rock man in a rumbling, gravelly voice. “We don’t want your car. We want your passenger, Zack Gamma.”

“So you’re a DMA operative, then?” asked Carmen. “Look, I don’t know why you people want him so badly, but if you want the DMA bounty you’re going to have to go through me!”

“We aren’t in the-” started the rock man. He was interrupted when Carmen lifted a hand, causing him to shoot into the air, knocking him into the ceiling. With a flick of the wrist, he rocketed from the ceiling into one of the two humans, causing him to drop his weapon. The second human stared in surprise. He tossed his phase pistol onto the ground and held his hands up.

“Smart,” said Carmen. “You people really don’t know who you’re messing with, otherwise you might not’ve opened with a Pyrhian. Now, how do I get out of here?”

“You won’t,” said the man, taking a nervous step back.

“You’d better tell me something else, and fast,” said Carmen. “Unless you’re in a real hurry to see how long you can dodge the walking pavement over there.”

“No, please!” he said. “Look, we’re not with the DMA. My boss just wants to talk to Zack Gamma while he’s in town. I sure can’t open the airlock, and there’s no place you could take the elevator that won’t have more of us! I don’t know what the boss wants, but I’m pretty sure he’s not with the DMA!”

Carmen narrowed her eyes.

“All right, let me talk this over with Zack,” said Carmen. “I’ll keep my eye on you, though… if it looks like you’re getting on a comm-link or doing anything I don’t like, I’ll try my hand at some rock and roll again. You get me?”

The rock man convulsed suddenly, and it opened its eyes. Shaking its head, it slowly rose to its feet. The man watched the unsteady Pyrhian rising before turning back to nod at Carmen.

“Good,” she said. “Tell your friend about the deal, then, and I’ll be back.”

Episode 17: Imprisoning Pull

“Shouldn’t we cycle this thing’s airlock?” asked Zack.

“You planning on taking a civillian car into space?” asked Carmen as she powered up the engine.

“No, but isn’t it better to be prepared?”

“It’s better to get us out of here,” she said. “You wanted out of this town fast, and I’m going to get you there fast.”

“Right,” said Zack, activating his seat’s safety harness. “Sorry, I’m just paranoid today.”

Carmen muttered what was probably an agreement. The hover-pods activated, providing enough lift to let her rotate the car until it was facing the exit. The forward thrust rocketed them out of the hangar and into Helix’s air space before it quickly slowed down. Carmen, confused, flipped a few switches experimentally. Zack didn’t notice and, in fact, seemed to be enjoying the change.

“Okay, that’s a relief,” he said. “Just getting out of that town, I feel better.”

An alarm sounded, and Carmen flipped the switches faster, pushing her foot all the way down onto the thruster control pedal.

“What’s wrong?” asked Zack.

“Tractor beam,” said Carmen, checking her dashboard. “We’re being targeted by a tractor beam. From Helix.”

The car finished slowing down, coming to a momentary complete stop in the air.

“Why does a city have a tractor beam?” asked Zack, nervously looking back. Through the rear window he could see the green energy lancing through the air from a horizontal spire that jutted out from the super city. The green field of energy was slowly spreading over the car. Looking up he could see it beginning to cross the top window.

“I guess it’s a leftover from when they were planning to make Helix go into space before that whole plan got scrapped,” said Carmen. “It’s one of the perks to the racing federation housing a lot of its work here. It’s not come up yet, but if an out of control racer can get close enough to Helix, the tractor beam could pull their asteroid in.”

The car began to float backwards, pulled toward the tractor beam’s emitter like a fish being pulled toward a fishing rod by a patient fisherman.

“No, no, no,” said Zack, watching the creeping green glow. “We can’t let this happen. This is on purpose. Whoever’s doing this knows that we’re here.”

“Right,” said Carmen. “Fix it.”

“Fix it?” said Zack. “How should I fix it?”

“i don’t know, use your crazy superspy knowledge. Don’t you have some emergency gadget or know some secret about the frequency of standard tractor beams so that you can disrupt them?”

“What?” said Zack. “No. Why would I know that?”

“I don’t know, you’ve just got that… paranoid vibe about you. You know things.”

“Well why don’t you fix it?” he said. “Use that crazy mind power you’ve got to shake us out of here. Give the car an extra boost.”

“I’m petrakinetic, not ferrakinetic,” she said. “I can’t move metal. Does this look like an asteroid to you?”

“No,” said Zack. “But you can keep an atmosphere on an asteroid, so I thought maybe you could do other things.”

“Well I can’t do THIS thing,” she said, angrily. “There’s not enough rock in this ship for me to propel it.”

The green glow finished enveloping Carmen’s car, and the gradual backward pull became smoother. Carmen gave a final, frustrated rev of the engines before powering it down entirely.

“So, I’m guessing there aren’t any rocks down in Veskid you could use, then? Or loose chunks of Helix’s structure?”

“Not that’d be big enough to do any good,” said Carmen. “I’d have to try ripping something off of one of its walls. I’d need to get a good grip on it, and that’d be hard. Cement and concrete are trickier than good old fashioned stone. It’s too hard to get a grip on it. Mentally speaking.”

Zack stared back at the spire that was generating the tractor beam. He disengaged his safety harness and stood, pacing to the back of the car.

“So, that’s it, then,” he said. “I guess it’s no real surprise. No one’s ever gotten away from the DMA before, not when it’s one of their own. I should’ve turned myself in as soon as I heard of it. …I wonder if they’d have let me donate my own bounty to charity. A little late to do that now, though. I never should’ve thought there was any hope at all.”

“Oh!” said Carmen. “I just thought of something, actually.”

“What is it?” said Zack, leaping to Carmen’s chair. “I’ll take anything. Anything at all.”

“Well, I don’t think I could dislodge a chunk of wall large enough to knock us out of the tractor beam,” she said. “But I might be able to dislodge something else.”

“Really?” said Zack. “Like what?”

“Shh,” said Carmen. She closed her eyes and furrowed her brow. Zack watched her for a moment then looked back at the tractor beam’s emitter.

“So what are-“

“Shhhh!” said Carmen.

A hairline fracture developed on Helix. With some thought, Carmen was able to work that fracture, extending the crack and widening it. Too thin to see, it was all that she had to work with.

The tractor beam pulled them ever closer to Helix. Zack watched nervously as the car was maneuvered toward a section of the outer wall. A gate opened, an old-fashioned blast door with interlocking connectors that reminded Zack of a terrible maw. He couldn’t see through the shadows inside this hangar, and he doubted that it was one of the standard hangars available to the public. Zack grew more and more nervous the closer to Helix he came.

Carmen grew more and more confident the closer to Helix she came. While her petrakinetic powers could work over great distances, proximity helped. The inverse square law applied, in a fashion, both to the raw power of her abilities and to the finesse with which she was able to apply them. The fracture widened and began to carve a circle in Helix’s outer wall. The circle went deeper, and the edges started to carve inwards. A semicircle of stone was very slowly dug out.

Zack heard an alarm. A quick check of the sensor readout indicated an environmental hazard.

“Carmen, I don’t know what you’re doing, but…”

Suddenly, the chunk of wall holding the tractor beam was ripped from the side of Helix, causing the entire ship to shudder.

“Ha!” shouted Carmen, looking up through the window. The glow of the tractor beam began to fade and flicker, though the aura maintained itself.

“What happened?” asked Zack.

“Since I couldn’t save us, I thought I’d take out the beam,” said Carmen. “Only… shouldn’t the tractor beam shut off? I would’ve snapped the cables connecting the beam to the city’s power supply.”

“You might’ve shut off the power supply,” said Zack. “That might not shut off the power if it had capacitors installed.”

“Shouldn’t capacitors shut off in the event of a system failure like that?” asked Carmen.

“Helix was built before those safety standards were fully in place,” said Zack. “It would be a good idea, but… it looks like it didn’t.”

Carmen and Zack looked up at the now-teetering spire that created the beam. It tipped forward and the ship suddenly dropped, held steady in relation to the spire through the aura’s inertial manipulation.

“Hang on,” said Carmen. “This might be the ride of a lifetime.”

The spire finally fell out of its place on the wall, causing the car to enter a downward arc, whipping itself toward the outer wall of Helix at a deadly speed.