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.

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