Monthly Archives: October 2014

Episode 39: The Vendril Safe

Chip entered Murk’s office, keeping his eye out for anything dangerous or useful. The room was sparsely furnished but pleasantly decorated. The wood paneling of the walls was gently lit by a small glowing dome on the ceiling, while two tables on opposite sides of the room held lamps that enhanced the dim effect to the point that it was almost bearable. A few paintings on the walls showed images of ocean life and vast wetlands on alien worlds, with a picture of a nebula on the wall behind the desk.

Zack pushed his way in after, keeping his eyes on Chip. Hobbar and Igneous followed, with Igneous carefully locking the door behind her. Zack walked to the desk and began a practiced sweep of the area.

“You’d think someone as successful as Murk could afford a few chairs,” said Hobbar.

“Pyrhians at his stage of life don’t really need to sit,” said Igneous. “They can fashion themselves into whatever form is easiest. Lying down, sitting, and standing amount to about the same effort for water people.”

“And he likes other people to be uncomfortable,” said Chip. “If you’re meeting him in his office, he wants you standing.”

“Nothing,” said Zack. “There’s nothing here. Nothing I can use, anyway. The entire desk is… it’s police-raid safe. Clean as a weatherman’s car. Only notes on legitimate business, personal finance… I pegged Murk as sloppier than this.”

“Oh, he’s sloppy,” said Chip. “He’s just careful about it. Check behind Vendril Eight Four Eight.”

“Behind what?” asked Hobbar.

“The picture,” said Igneous. “One of the first regions of space that Pyrhians colonized.”

Zack grabbed the painting and moved his hands across its frame until he found a latch. He pulled it, and the painting swung out on hinges like a door revealing a safe with a small control panel and four spaces for numbers.

“A secret safe,” he said.

“Murk was pretty open about it, actually,” said Chip. “I think he felt like he’d finally made it when he could afford that thing. He showed it to me the first time I met with him here. I didn’t even have anything he needed to put there. I’ve heard other people say that he shows it off pretty regularly. And the good news is that Murk is mostly transparent. The combination is Three Five Five Eight.”

Zack reached out to enter the code.

“Wait,” said Hobbar. “That’s an Eversteel safe. Eversteel safes can have false codes installed that can activate alarms.”

Zack glared at Chip, who smiled genially.

“They’ll also lock people out for an hour if there are too many failed attempts to open the safe too quickly. …which can also, at the owner’s option, set off alarms.”

“So brute forcing my way through the possible combinations isn’t an option,” said Zack.

“You really think we’d have that kind of time?” asked Igneous.

“Probably not,” said Zack. “Even with only three numbers it could take over an hour.”

Zack carefully looked over the control panel. He didn’t have the tools needed to check for fingerprints properly, but Pyrhians didn’t have fingerprints. Murk had a lot of pseudo-water that could be formed into fingers if needed, and while he might not need fingers to pick things up he still used them for interacting with human-made controls. Three of the buttons definitely had wear on them, as if they’d been polished from extra use.

“I think I can tell which buttons he’s used the most,” said Zack.

“Nice job,” said Chip. “But do you really think you can know what order they’re in?”

“Igneous, does the Pyrhian alphabet have an equivalent to the letter V?” asked Zack. “Is it the third letter by any chance?”

“Yes,” said Igneous. “To both.”

Zack entered a three as the first number, followed by an eight, a four, and another eight. Igneous groaned and Hobbar looked confused.

“What?” said Hobbar.

“Ordinarily I wouldn’t try something so obvious, but it fits the used numbers. Vendril Eight Four Eight. Unless you have any better ideas?”

“It’s a step up from using birthdays, at least,” said Igneous.

Zack grabbed the safe’s handle and pulled. The lights around the numbers turned a reassuring shade of green, and a moment later the safe’s door swung open. He breathed a sigh of relief.

“Not as confident as you seem?” asked Chip.

“I was worried that code for access would’ve been set to also be a code that sets off an alarm,” said Zack.

“I don’t think the safes are made to let users do that,” said Hobbar.

“That’s a mistake, then,” said Zack as he peered into the safe. “If I buy a safe, I always want to know when someone opens it, even if it’s me.”

The safe contained a number of files and papers near the front, and Zack could even see some bricks of paper money near the back. A box on top of a pile of folders caught his attention, and he quickly opened it. He smiled, and removed the box from the safe. He set it on the table and removed his Identification Card and his Purcellian Striker Pistols from within.

“One down,” he said. “Three to go.”

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Episode 38: Plan Of Attack

Chip Creep walked out of the shadows of the train tunnel. The guard on duty continued playing some sort of game on his handheld computer, not noticing the hacker’s approach at first. When Chip began an awkward attempt to rise out of the tunnel and onto the platform proper, he almost dropped the phone in surprise but held onto it long enough to put it away and help Chip up.

“Chip? What are you doing?”

“Walking. Thanks. I need to see Murk.”

“Where’s the train? Don’t you usually use a little train? The ‘Creeper Car’ or something?”

“Creep Car. I’m having some train trouble. Listen, I’ve got to talk to Murk, Zack Gamma’s escaped.”

“Escaped? How?”

“Help from the outside. We don’t have long, I really need to speak to Murk about this.”

“Right,” said the guard. He returned to the door and entered a short code on the door’s keypad. The door clicked, and he opened it. He had to quickly sidestep Chip as the hacker tried to move into the door.

“Hey!” said the guard. “You know I’ve gotta clear you first.”

“We don’t have time to wait for that,” said Chip.

A raucous thundering of footsteps came from the other tunnel. The guard stopped and turned to the train tracks, just in time to see a giant Pyrhian rock woman leaping at him, with eyes like brilliant embers. Chip and the guard both screamed as Igneous grabbed the guard and slammed him to the ground. Chip looked away, expecting a sickening sight, but moments later her gravelly voice rumbled to life without the unpleasant noises that he’d anticipated.

“All clear,” she said. Zack entered from Chip’s side of the tunnel, lowering the pistol he’d had trained on Chip during the execution of the plan, the very pistol that he’d stolen from Chip’s apartment. Hobbar entered from Igneous’ side of the tunnel, keeping his sharp eyes on everything surrounding them. Hobbar looked at the guard and breathed a sigh of relief that the guard was breathing, though he doubted the scorch marks on the suit would come out any time soon now that Igneous’ scalding hands had left their mark.

“Nice work, Chip,” said Zack. “He totally bought it and gave Igneous the opening she needed.”

“It wasn’t hard to mess up,” said Chip. “If the plan went wrong, he would’ve let me in and I would’ve been safe from you and I could’ve just told Murk what I know. No matter how this plays out, I’ll help somebody.”

“Right,” said Zack.

“Too bad it’s looking like it’ll be you,” said Chip.

“Thanks,” said Zack.

“Why only one guard?” asked Hobbar. “This is an obvious security problem.”

“I’m the only one in Helix with access to these tunnels,” said Chip. “If an assassin gets in this way, it’s because I helped. And, hey, look how it’s playing out.”

“Your honesty’s refreshing,” said Igneous. “What’ll we be dealing with once we get inside?”

“Murk’s office is near this door. I’ve got no idea what kind of schedule he keeps, but if he’s around there should be guards nearby. I’ve heard he’s no pushover in a fight by himself, though.”

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” said Igneous.

“You said that the holding cells are deeper down,” said Zack. “You sure that they’ll only have light security?”

“No,” said Chip. “I’ve seen them once, and didn’t really want to be there. I felt closed in. Seemed light at the time, only one guard. I’ve got no idea how it’ll look now, though, it’s been a couple years.”

“We’ll have to play that part by ear, then,” said Zack. “Getting Carmen out’s the priority, but it sounds like I’ll have a chance to grab my gear before then, assuming Murk’s still got it in his office. The office is also where we’ll have the best shot at finding the kind of evidence that Murk doesn’t want to be publicized, and that might give us some breathing room if we can get out alive with it. Let’s be quick and quiet about this. No surprises, got it everyone?”

He looked pointedly at Chip.

“Got it,” said Chip.

“Right,” said Hobbar.

“Good,” said Igneous. “The longer we can go without them suspecting anything, the easier this’ll be. Which means there’s probably a dozen or so people just beyond the door. Let’s see how our luck holds out.”

Zack pushed the door open, finishing the job that the guard stopped when Chip tried to slip in. The wood paneling and comfortable lighting beyond revealed a hallway bereft of armed guards.

“So far so good, Igneous,” he said. “Let’s go.”

***

“You’re sure this is where he was last sighted?” asked Vox Cul-Dar.

“The cameras tagged him as an Unknown Figure when he was standing upon the opposite building, looking in the direction of this one,” said Rendelac. “The Phantom Matador was in this location, and observing this building carefully. Barring some editing of the footage.”

Vox nodded. He’d parked his car a short distance from the somber building on Alpha Street, hopefully far enough that he wouldn’t attract attention from either of the large humans who stood on either side of the door. They were trying to look like they were casually loitering, but Vox could tell a guard at a post when he saw one.

“And you did suggest that there was some delay in the file, as if it was being sent elsewhere,” said Vox. “Barring the possibility of code designed to randomly place images of the Phantom Matador in footage, would you say that the time of the delay was more in keeping of observation than editing?”

“Affirmative,” said Rendelac.

“A building with two burly gentlemen who’ve donned clothing on the cheap side of expensive. A building that, if memory serves, is one of the most likely strongholds of Murk.”

“Heed well my words, Vox-Cul Dar,” said Rendelac. “I’ve finished a facial recognition algorithm on those two. They both have criminal records, and one of them does in fact have a known history of dealings with the criminal known as Murk. This building may be more dangerous than we expected when we first decided that it would be worth our time to track the Phantom Matador.”

“You are correct,” said Vox. “Caution is advised. Still, my profession requires bold steps. I do believe that Murk has a few prices on his head, and I’m sure that those in his organization are wanted as well. Just imagine if I could capture the Phantom Matador, while establishing a link between him and Murk’s organization.”

“Heed well my words,” said Rendelac. “Assuming a link there would be speculation. Especially when the Phantom Matador was observing the building rather than entering it.”

“You’re correct, of course,” said Vox. “Regardless, this building is my next stop. Wish me luck, Rendelac. It’s time to find my way inside.”

Episode 37: Search Pattern

Captain Calen turned to tell Trell to begin finding the coordinates, but the Ensign was already working quickly on loading the transmission. Calen turned back to the loudspeaker and addressed the voice again as her Scuttler fully drifted into the Cypulchral Cloud, obscuring the windows with a purple haze.

“What do you mean? What’s the signal, and how does it find us?”

“Keeping transmissions open gives it a door to you!” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I’ve note had long to try to figure it out, but I’d swear that it actively targets the most sensitive parts of computers. It transmits itself, and it comes so fast and frequently that it can overwhelm a system. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“How did it attack your systems?” asked Calen. “What happened first?”

No voice responded.

“Hello?” said Calen.

“I cut the transmission,” said Trell. “I’m sorry, Captain. I had the coordinates.”

Calen clenched her fist for a moment before shaking her head.

“No need to apologize,” said Calen. “It was… tactically sound.”

“I’d say this confirms the old stories about the Cypulchral Cloud uploading data onto ship computers,” said Captain Ortega. “Sounds safe enough now that we know what we’re looking for, though. If we just keep the signals down…”

“Don’t try to make this out to be easier than it is,” said Calen. “Just because we can fill in some missing portions on the map doesn’t mean there won’t still be dragons here. And don’t forget that we’ve still got the Soul Survivor to find. If you have any good suggestions for searching a dust cloud the size of a small moon for a robot the size of a person without using any sensors, I expect to hear them as soon as we rescue the poor soul lost in this infernal haze.”

“I’ve got a few thoughts on that matter,” said Ortega. “The Astroguard has some search patterns for regions like this. It won’t be easy, but they’re meant for times that the sensors have been disabled instead of times that we’re just choosing not to use them. We should have a bit of an advantage there.”

Calen nodded and walked to her chair at the center of the bridge.

“Glad to hear the Astroguard is good for something,” she said. “Trell, input those coordinates. I won’t be much good refining your directions without sensors, so feel free to take initiative on course corrections as needed. Ortega, make yourself useful and go stand by a window, see if you can get a visual on anything.”

Ortega nodded and approached one of the smaller windows. The view was significantly less useful than the viewscreen would have been in most other situations, but it gave him enough of a forward view that he could at least make sure that they wouldn’t be crashing into anything. As long as it didn’t come from the starboard side of the ship.

He was glad that Captain Calen hadn’t asked him for more details about the Astroguard’s nebula-searching patterns, as they weren’t any more advanced than most other organizations that had similar search and rescue operations. Someone familiar with even rudimentary military protocol… someone like Doctor Silas Rogers… would know how the patterns unfolded and could come up with a good plan for avoiding detection if they didn’t want to be found.

Ultimately, his plan for finding Rogers was based more on personal familiarity with his quarry. If Doctor Rogers had a specific plan for the Cypulchral Cloud that went beyond escape and evasion, it meant one of two things. Either Rogers would soon contact the nearest vessels to gloat and add to his personal legend once the plan was finished, or the plan would activate in some spectacularly visible way.

Unfortunately, tracking Rogers in that fashion meant that it would require waiting until he was done or nearly done with the scheme. Rogers was predictable, but capable. He didn’t think that Captain Calen would appreciate a plan that involved sitting and waiting… especially not in a place that Morcalans seemed to fear… but he knew that if he could count on anyone to help him act quickly once Rogers revealed himself, Calen and Trell would be not only willing but enthusiastic to leap into action.

Or, he might get incredibly lucky and locate Doctor Rogers using the search patterns. Luck would help him win the day one way or another. Or a lack of luck would help Rogers to win it.

“We’re approaching the coordinates, Captain,” said Trell. “He’s not very deep into the Cloud. Assuming that his calculations were right, we should be nearing him soon.”

“Good to hear,” said Trell. “We may all be claimed by the Cloud in the end, but we’ll make sure that whoever’s lost out here won’t die alone.”

Ortega kept looking through the window, peering ahead. He couldn’t make out much at all. He shook his head and started to turn from the window but glanced down.

“Wait, there’s something,” he said. “We might be here already. Something’s…. under us. Not sure how far.”

“Full stop, Trell,” said Calen. “Captain Ortega, you’re dressed for a spacewalk with that fancy Astroguard flight armor of yours. Head to the airlock and try to get a better visual.”

“Sure thing, Captain,” he said, erring for a casual acknowledgement since he wasn’t familiar with the Morcalan military policies for addressing fellow Captains on their own ship. Calen didn’t react, so he decided that it would do for now.

He walked toward Airlock Two, the same airlock that he and Doctor Rogers had used to first enter the ship. He stepped inside and let the door close, activating his suit’s helmet. The familiar visor and protective plating slid into place around his head as the air began to cycle. He double checked that the sensors in his space suit were off just in case his own suit would be susceptible to whatever “the signal” was, and prepared to step directly into the cloud.

The airlock’s outer door opened. He saw a strange, ambient light illuminating the purple mist of the Cypulchral Cloud, making him wonder if elements of the cloud might be dangerously radioactive deeper in. He stepped through the airlock’s threshhold and started to fly.

He zipped down and slowed when the object became clearer. It wasn’t a full ship. Instead, it was a long piece of metal, almost half as long as Calen’s scuttler. A transparent tube ran along the center of the metal, with a coiling filament faintly glowing within. Ortega turned back to the scuttler, prepared to report that it wasn’t more than garbage, either a remnant of the fabled superweapon or of some other ship that became lost inside the cloud after the war.

Before reaching the scuttler, he realized that the ship’s stationary position at full stop made it a reliable point of reference. Spacial drift would occur, of course, but for short periods of time he should be able to perform short range scouting.

Ortega changed direction, and launched himself forward along the ship’s hull. He resisted the urge to check to see if he could see the window he had been looking through before since he wanted to keep his eyes firmly on the vision-obscuring mist. After moving ahead of the scuttler, though, he routinely glanced back to make sure that he could still see it behind him, knowing that he’d have to turn back if it became too hard to see.

The swirling vapor within the cloud parted as he moved through it. He made sure to look over and under his flight path periodically, just in case the ship wasn’t lying on his expected path, but the clouds seemed just as thick in that direction as any other.

Just as he was beginning to think that he should head back to the scuttler, he saw a dim shadow. He looked back and ensured that Calen’s ship wasn’t too poorly obscured before he pushed on and got his first clear view of the distressed vessel, a view that made him excited and pleased moments before making him uncertain.

The vessel was a one-man fighter ship of a standard, almost generic design. Only one of its engines was active, and then only if sparking violently could be considered “active.” But the thing that drew his attention the most was the symbol on the vessel’s hull that identified it as a vessel of the Dyson Empire.

***

Much earlier, on another world…

Sister Barris scrolled through the digital palimpsest, keeping fresh on all of the data regarding her client. Azar had little in the way of a public record, and much of it had been stored as hard copies instead of digitally. While the virtual record of Azar wasn’t nonexistent, he was one of the few true cases where Barris needed to find a literal paper trail. Which, unfortunately, meant waiting for the baristerbots to run their errands and scan the data. She wasn’t expecting to find any surprises that could hurt Azar’s case, but she knew that BristleCorp’s lawyers would be doing at least this much.

She was taking care of this particular batch of data sifting over a light lunch at a cafe that made the overcast day feel cozy. She traced her finger over the information on the flimsy screen, allowing the data to move past. She saw nothing upsetting, but there was less actual information than she wanted.

A man in a suit entered the cafe and scanned the room until he saw her at the table. The man approached her table and sat in the opposite chair. Barris looked up from her work.

“Can I help you?”

“Maybe,” he said. “You’re Sister Barris, yes? Representing Azar?”

“Oh,” she said. “Yes, I am. I was wondering if someone would be talking to me about that, actually. I didn’t expect to hear about it here. If you’d like to talk officially, my office would probably be more convenient.”

He shook his head.

“No, I don’t think we need anything so formal. In fact I’d like this kept quiet.”

“All right,” said Barris. “Maybe you can help me, then. My information on BristleCorp’s involvement is… strangely absent. Why can’t I find any official documentation for Azar’s project?”

“It was irrelevant information, so the records weren’t kept,” he said. Barris smiled.

“Seriously? That’s honestly the story you’re using? No one gets rid of data, not entirely.”

“It’s what I was told,” he said. “I don’t know all the details. I’m sure your client can tell you more.”

“He has, it’s just strange that the information isn’t officially there.”

“It may be a moot point,” he said. “You should drop this case. Tell Azar that our settlement options will be better for him in the long run.”

“I can’t do that,” she said.

“Why not?”

“For starters, I don’t believe that it’s true. He stands to make more money by keeping the money he has now, and the suggestion that it’ll cause negative impacts on the galactic economy is shaky. And even if it did, he’d have the money to easily remain unaffected.”

“I don’t think it’ll be better for him monetarily,” he said. “I think it’ll affect his quality of life. I’ve been hearing things from some of the higher ups… this isn’t an official meeting here. The official talk… it’s going to come later. And they’re already planning for you to disagree with them. It’s a formality. They’ve already contacted… unofficial people for when you tell them that you won’t drop it.”

“Unofficial?”

“I’d rather not go into it,” he said. “People unaffiliated with BristleCorp who can get their hands dirty. I don’t know exactly what it’ll mean, but if you don’t go along with BristleCorp, then they won’t have a reason to call these people off.”

Barris stared at the man’s face. She wondered if it was just a fear tactic, but she couldn’t see any sign of a lie on his face.

“I’ll think about it,” she said. “But I think I still won’t be abandoning my client.”

“Fine,” he said. “That’s good. For now. But when they really ask you later… probably at your office… I think you should change your answer then.”

“I won’t,” said Barris. “But thank you.”

The man nodded, rose, and left. Barris turned back to the palimpsest, but wasn’t sure she could focus on it. She expected a threat, but not a warning of a threat. Fortunately, the Order of Fierce Mercy had ways of protecting its clients. She’d just hoped they wouldn’t need them so soon.

Episode 36: Call from the Cloud

The Cypulchral Cloud loomed on the vidscreen, like a purple and grey wall of fog. It had a definite outer border, but tendrils of the cloud extended beyond its perimiter. Apart from its strange density, it didn’t seem all that special to Captain Ortega. He’d seen many nebulae in his time, most of them larger. Captain Calen and Ensign Trell, on the other hand, were staring at the cloud with a sense of trepidation that he hadn’t seen on either of them before.

As they neared, the cloud filled more and more of the viewscreen until it was all that could be seen. Ortega thought he detected the faintest hint of pixelation on the screen, but it left before he could put his finger on exactly what had changed.

“We’re hitting the first stages of the cloud now,” said Ensign Trell. “Motes of dust, and initial electromagnetic interference detected.”

“Will the scanners even be worth it in there?” asked Ortega.

“If the tales hold true, they won’t hurt,” said Calen. “The weird and uncatalogued energies within the Cypulchral Cloud will interfere with scanners, but won’t disable them. I’ll take a fighting chance to see any dangers before they come my way.”

“Captain, it may be worth our time to disable certain features of our computers,” said Trell. “If the reports can be trusted, the cloud’s ability to upload corrupted data can do serious damage to some systems. If we encounter the Soul Survivor it may also help us to prevent him from uploading his mind into our ship again.”

“Excellent plan, Ensign,” said Calen. “He took my ship before, but I’ll see him frozen in hydrofire before he does it again!”

“You mentioned drifting pieces of scrap before,” said Ortega. “Do you have any plans for avoiding them if our sensors go down?”

“Not one,” said Calen. “If I’m fast enough on the controls I’ll be able to bob and weave away at the first sign of trouble, but not before we take a few bruises.”

Ortega nodded. If not for the potential risk from Doctor Rogers, he would concede that the cloud wasn’t worth exploring. Even without the ghost stories that surrounded it, the Cypulchral Cloud’s hazards would warrant a ship more specially designed than the scuttler.

“Having second thoughts?”

Ortega looked at Trell. She’d caught him staring through the viewscreen, and likely had a good grasp on his feelings.

“Always,” he said. “A part of me is worried that Doctor Rogers knows nothing about this place. He might just be running here as a convenient hiding place.”

“Too late to back down now,” said Trell.

“Why?”

“Because we’re here,” said Trell. “Only cowards turn back from an engagement once the course is set. We’ve not even encountered any dangers that would warrant a tactical reevaluation.”

A chime sounded. Captain Calen snapped out of her studious examination of the viewscreen and Trell turned back to her station, looking nervous.

“What’s that?” asked Ortega.

“We’re being hailed,” said Calen. “Normally we automatically receive them and log the messages.”

“I removed our regular acceptance of hailing frequencies when I disabled some of the computer’s functions,” said Trell. “I didn’t want to take any chances with any features that allow external sources to automatically do things to our computers.”

“Should we answer?” asked Ortega.

“It would be safe normally,” said Calen. “But it’s also exactly the kind of thing that wouldn’t be safe in the old stories about this place.”

The chime sounded again. Ortega turned to look at the impending wall of purple mist and vapor. It didn’t look dangerous yet.

“I don’t see any ships that could be sending a hailing frequency,” said Ortega.

“There are none in the range of the scanners,” said Trell. “The scanners don’t penetrate the cloud, though. Neither do our eyes. A powerful transmitter from just inside the cloud could be hailing us.”

“Could we locate the source of the signal before accessing it?”

“Ordinarily, yes,” said Trell. “But not now. The amount of interference we’re receiving is already playing havoc with some of the data that our sensors are picking up. It might be safe to open the message and see what it says. If we’re lucky, we could close the signal if it appears to be nothing but a jumbled message.”

“Is it safe to do that?” asked Ortega.

“No,” said Trell. “Any exposure could potentially work faster than I could keep up with.”

“There’s one other factor we need to consider,” said Calen.

“And that is?” asked Ortega.

“It could be a distress call. I know we’re all thinking it… it’s the most likely reason to hail a ship out here. We can’t let our fear of what it might be keep us from answering it as we usually would. Trell, prepare to instantly close the message if it’s nothing but garbage. Ortega… if we’re lucky, this is The Soul Survivor realizing he’s made a terrible mistake and trying to find a quick rescue.”

“I doubt that,” said Ortega.

“As do I,” said Calen. “Regardless, it’s a risk we have to take. Trell, open the channel.”

Ensign Trell nodded and activated the communications array. Moments later a man’s voice rang through the bridge.

“-ease respond. To any ship in range, we need assistance. This is a repeating message. Please, respond. To any ship in range, we need assistance. This is a repeating message. Please, respond.”

Trell looked to Captain Calen as the message continued to loop. Calen nodded and Trell entered a command. Seconds later, the message broke off and the same voice, speaking in real time, came over the loudspeaker.

“Are you a rescue vessel? Really a rescue vessel?”

“Yes,” said Calen. “We’ve heard your distress call and can lend assistance if-”

“I’m transmitting my best guess as to coordinates,” said the voice. “I worked them out beforehand, they’re attached to the carrier as a secondary signal. The moment you have them, you need to cut transmission!”

“Why?” asked Captain Ortega.

“Because the signal will find you,” said the voice. “Assuming it hasn’t found you already.”

Episode 35: Breakout

Carmen visualized the security panel as clearly as she could after the brief look at it that she had when the door’s grate opened. She could feel the rock, and to a lesser extent anything that the rock was touching, but she had to hope that her memory of the buttons and controls on the panel were right where she remembered them. She mentally lifted the rock and punched it into the panel again, hearing the shouts of the two on the other side as they realized what was happening.

“Come on, I know the release button was around there somewhere…”

She hammered the rock into the panel, moving it slightly each time, hearing the frightened footfalls of the pair in the hallway rushing nearer. Just as the two arrived, Carmen propelled the rock into the control panel one last time and heard a click from her door.

“Ha!”

Carmen pushed her way through the door, not waiting for it to gently swing open. The door collided with Rillem, knocking him back into the rushing Jen and causing both of them to fall to the floor. Carmen twisted her hand back and the three stones spun back to her like a yoyo, two from her former cell and one from the Door Release button on the control panel.

Carmen picked a direction… the one away from the two on the floor… and ran. A staircase rose from the hallway, and Carmen took three steps at a time, leaving the sight of Jen and Rillem before they even made it back to their feet. She heard them shouting, and laughed. No one could catch up to her once it became a race.

At the top of the staircase, a dark alcove opened into another hall, stretching off in either direction. Carmen paused for just a second, considering both.

“Go to the left,” said a sonorous voice in the darkness.

Carmen spun and stared into the shadows. After a moment, she could just make out a figure dressed in black, wearing a red mask and a wide-brimmed hat with red lining. The Phantom Matador.

“You!”

“I was alerted to your plight by an associate,” said the Matador. “I told him you would not need my assistance, but felt it best to check on you myself. I’m so happy to see…”

Carmen leapt at the Matador, furious. He easily sidestepped her, twisting in the shadows with an unnatural speed.

“This is not a time for us to dance,” he said. “This is a time for you to escape these fiends.”

“I’d rather take you out and get captured again. And they’re not dances, they’re races! I don’t need a gatecrasher telling me what kind of sport I’m in!”

“We are all involved in a great dance, though, are we not? Life growing, developing on rocks that spin around stars in other people’s skies, in a dance that-”

Carmen jumped at the Matador again, and again he sidestepped.

“Stand still!”

“I hear her!” shouted a voice from below. Carmen looked down the stairs and heard the thundering steps of Jen and Rillem nearing. She looked back at the Phantom, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Carmen scowled and stepped through the door, looking to the right and left. Wherever he’d gone, he’d moved quickly and quietly. Carmen considered both of the routes of escape, considering the Matador’s words.

Carmen ran to the right.

Episode 34: Changing Plans

“I told your computer to cancel your order to send people after Carmen!” shouted Zack.

“I must’ve forgotten to make sure that the computer listened to you,” said Chip, inching back into his chair. “I didn’t have time to approve your voice for administrative access on my computer, so it wouldn’t happen automatically. Plus I had your home invasion on my mind.”

“Don’t get cute with me, you conniving… creep! You think you can get away with this?”

“I made sure to get a good look at your record with the DMA when Murk got his pseudohands on you,” said Chip. “You’ve never taken anything close to an assassination job. Murk, meanwhile, has more than a little blood on his hands. Which of you am I more likely to survive by backstabbing? If I don’t take my chances to help Murk out, then just getting out of Helix won’t help me. Getting off the planet might not either.”

Zack lunged forward to grab Chip by the shirt, but was stopped midway by a strong, very warm hand clamping down on his shoulder.

“Calm down,” said Igneous.

“This snake just sold us out!”

“He’s trying to survive,” said Igneous. “Don’t judge him for trying to survive, human. It takes energy, and while you might have it to spare I can’t spare the extra exertion wrangling you. Now, I’m getting the sense that you know Carmen Shift… are we honestly talking about the racer?”

“Everyone’s talking about that racer today,” said Hobbar, keeping his eyes on the road as he drove the van.

“Yes,” said Zack, ignoring the Crinlian’s comment.

“You have strange friends,” said Igneous. “This hacker you tracked down sent the order to find the racer, probably because he knew you’d get mad.”

“Of course I’m mad,” said Zack. “I was finally almost out of this run-down tower that time forgot, and now I’ve gotta stay here even longer!”

“You were already going to stay,” said Igneous. “You needed to get your identification, your weaponry, and your money. If you’re angry about it, you’ll make mistakes. Murk won’t waste time throwing you into his simulated jungle if he catches you again. I still say that the best course of action is leaving town, but if you insist on doing this then at least be smart about it.”

“Right,” said Zack. “Right.”

“Being smart about it would be listening to the lady and getting out of Helix, if you want my opinion,” said Hobbar.

“Quiet,” said Zack. “Chip, you’ve got a lot to tell me and not much time before the goblin in the driver’s seat reaches our destination. Talk.”

***

Jen stepped from the stairwell to the lower hallway where Murk kept his prisoners. Rillem stood outside Carmen’s door, occasionally tapping controls on the security panel on the opposite wall. He nodded as she drew near.

“How’s she settling in?” Jen asked.

“She’s calmed down now,” said Rillem, looking at the security monitor. “She woke up in there and went kind of crazy. Pounded on the door for the better part of an hour, shouting all kinds of crazy things about the Desperate Measures Agency, her asteroid races, and Helix in general. Now she’s just glaring at the door. How’d it go with the cab?”

“No problems there,” she said. “The hangar guard’ll look the other way for the right price when its not my shift, but I didn’t even see him. Probably asleep at his desk. Any word on why Murk wants her to stay in town yet?”

“No, and I don’t like it. We’ve never gone this long without instruction, or at least explanation. I’ve called to see what I can find out, but Murk’s apparently busy and not to be interrupted, and no one’s heard about this order yet.”

“Best to just wait, then,” said Jen. “How’s the other… is he a prisoner? How’s the other prisoner?”

“Stable,” said Rillem. “All readings are normal, no indications of his voice. If he keeps his schedule, he’ll talk again in about an hour. I’ve not even looked at his camera yet, the guy freaks me out.”

“Yeah… he’s something else. Is that normal for Pyrhians?”

“I don’t think so, but I’ve mostly only met the rocky ones. And Murk, of course, but they say that he’s a bit weird too. More… ‘inky’ than most. Of course, ‘normal’ may be hard to pin down for them with Xol on the horizon.”

Jen looked skeptical and started to reply but a rapid pounding sounded from the other side of Carmen’s door. Rillem rolled his eyes.

“Great,” he said. “I think she heard us. We really need to soundproof more than just one of these things.”

Jen walked to the door and slid a metal panel at eye level to the side, giving her a full view of the cell. Carmen stopped hammering the door and glared through the panel.

“You!” she shouted. “Let me outta here!”

“Not enjoying the scenic route?” asked Jen.

“Not as much as I’m going to enjoy getting out of it. Thanks for getting that panel open for me, I think it’s locked from this side.”

“It is,” said Jen. “Anyway, calm down. We’ve all got a long wait, and banging on doors won’t change that.”

“Maybe not,” said Carmen, looking through the window. She nodded at Rillem who awkwardly waved back. “Fancy panel there. You’d think something like that would scan for weapons.”

“It does,” said Jen. She turned back to Rillem. “Right?”

“Right. She’s clean.”

“Ah, I get it,” said Carmen. “You know, in the Penumbra League there was always a little risk that a rival team might try to get the jump on us, or the cops might try to get us on some technicality. It’s good to always carry a few extras that scanners won’t pick up.”

Carmen reached into her pocket and pulled out three small stones. Jen quickly tried to shut the window as Carmen tossed the rocks toward her. One rock made it through, slamming into Jen’s hand as the others clattered into the metal door.

The rock hit the floor and Jen cradled her hand. Rillem watched, stunned. Jen glared at him.

“You didn’t check to see if she had rocks with her?”

“The scanner normally picks up weapons!” he said. “You know, guns, knives, that kind of thing.”

“You just trust the scanner?” she said. “You didn’t even check her pockets?”

“Hey, sorry,” he said. “Look, it’s fine now. No harm done.”

“Did you not see the rock hitting my hand? Harm’s done!”

“Right,” he said. “Look, we’ve got a medkit, we should at least be able to dull the pain a bit.”

“Oh, you’d better hope so,” said Jen. “Where is it?”

“End of the hall, right this way.”

Jen and Rillem turned from the door and began approaching the medkit. Midway there, Rillem stopped.

“Wait!” he shouted, turning around.

“What?” Jen asked, looking back. She gasped at the sight of the rock that hit her hand rising into the air before it propelled itself into the security panel.

Episode 33: Backseat Backstabbers

Igneous splashed her way out of the tub of now-warm water. Formerly a pile of ice cubes, the tub hadn’t lasted as long as she would have liked, but it did the job. She still felt hot, but it was bearable.

Zack sat on a back-facing seat of the van. His hat was on the seat next to him, and another human she didn’t recognize sat on the far seat. He was scrawnier that Zack, in a cheap, casual outfit with thin glasses. Hobbar sat in the front of the van, in the driver’s seat. He took his eyes off the road long enough to look in the rear-view mirror to see Igneous rise out of the tub, but quickly turned back to the road.

“Lookin’ good, Igneous,” said Zack. “No one’ll mistake you for a volcano now.”

“It won’t last long,” said Igneous. “We’ll need more ice. The tub’s freeze features aren’t keeping up.”

“Have you thought about something stronger?” asked Zack. “Liquid nitrogen, maybe?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” said the human in the glasses. “Liquid nitrogen’s almost definitely too cold. It might not freeze her solid, but it could make her brittle if it doesn’t kill her outright.”

“I’ve already got some,” said Igneous. “But your friend is right. It’s too early for that. Ice will have to do for now.”

“Igneous, meet Chip Creep. Haven’t figured out his real name yet. He runs the abandoned infrastructure of Helix, sells information to the highest bidder, is probably our best bet for finding Murk, and will probably stab us in the back as soon as we take our eyes off of him. Chip, meet Igneous. She can snap your spine like a twig.”

“Charmed,” said Chip.

“Why do you want to find Murk?” asked Igneous. “Shouldn’t you get out of Helix instead?”

“I don’t want Murk to decide that he needs to come after me even when I’m not in his territory. He’s also got my ID, cash, and striker pistols. Luxuries for someone in my position, but really handy luxuries.”

“Stupid human,” said Igneous. “You don’t need those things. And Murk’s likely to redouble his efforts to track you down instead of being cowed into patiently staying here. You remember what he was like on Ravelar.”

Chip looked pointedly at Zack and Hobbar glanced at the mirror again. Zack looked at the floor.

“Actually, I don’t,” said Zack. “I think that there’s something… off with my memory right now. I can’t… Igneous, I barely remembered that it was you who tipped me off about the price on my head. Murk was convinced that I would know him. I told him he had the wrong guy, but when he tossed me into that fake jungle, something about the smell jogged my memory. I’ve got no idea what’s wrong with my head at the moment.”

“There’s any number of poisons that could cause that effect,” said Igneous. “Is it possible that someone poisoned you?”

“No,” said Zack. “No one’s gotten close enough.”

“No one you saw, at least,” said Igneous.

“Or no one that you remember,” said Chip.

Zack glared at the hacker who raised his hands defensively.

“Hey, if your memory’s screwed up, you should look at all the options.”

Zack started to reply, but a chime came from Chip’s pocket.

“What was that?” asked Zack.

“Probably my phone,” said Chip.

“You brought your phone?” said Zack.

“You didn’t tell me to leave it behind,” said Chip.

“You didn’t search him for a phone?” asked Igneous.

“I was in a rush,” said Zack.

“You let me take my takeout, I didn’t think it was going to be a no-phones kind of trip,” said Chip.

“I was kidnapping you!” said Zack.

“Give me your phone,” said Igneous.

Chip looked at the rock woman, and at the fierce red glow from her eyes and the tips of the crown-like spikes at the top of her head. He sighed, reached into his pocket, and gave her the phone.

“No offense, but I hope I never have to deal with Pyrhians again,” said Chip.

“None taken,” said Igneous. “On average we can kill any human we meet. It’d be unsettling. You don’t have a security code on this?”

“I never expected to need it,” said Chip.

“It’s someone saying that they’ve secured Carmen Shift and taken her to headquarters,” said Igneous. “The racer? Isn’t that kind of kidnapping job a little high-profile for someone in your line of work?”
***
Vox Cul-Dar stepped into his car and indulged himself in slumping back into the seat. Years ago, when he’d still been on his homeworld of Skiwel, he wouldn’t have done anything that demonstrated such a lack of discipline, but the habits of humans could, as he had learned, be contagious.

“I see that you had no luck in tracking down Zack Gamma,” said Rendelac, his glowing eye shifting to look at Vox.

“No,” said Vox. “I’d have him here with me if I did.”

“The police reports indicate that there was quite a lot of violence when you went to check Carmen’s doctor. That was some time ago.”

“Fletch had beaten me there. Zack and Carmen managed to subdue her, if you can believe it. Zack slipped away, though. I’ve been trying to find him ever since. No luck, though. He knows how to stay unseen, I’ll give him that much.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “You may yet profit from this venture. The recognition software in Helix’s cameras is easy to view for me. I have searched it for people useful to you, and saw a clip of the Phantom Matador. It’s strange, though… the file came to me slower than expected. It’s as if all the security footage in this city is being filtered somewhere. Still, I have a last known location for the Matador if you wish to pursue him.”

“With how things went with Carmen earlier today, I doubt that I’ve still got that job,” said Vox.

“Carmen has not yet filed a request to remove you from her case,” said Rendelac. “She may not have had the time. Still, if you apprehend the Phantom Matador before she does, she would be oglibated to pay the Desperate Measures Agency.”

“And the DMA would be obligated to pay me,” said Vox. “Yes. You are correct. Tell me where this Matador was last seen, Rendelac. I may be able to eke a profit out of this city yet.”

Episode 32: Tale of the Cypulchral Cloud

“Trell, find a way for us to find out what’s happening back at Morcala,” said Captain Calen. “Start working out the safest route to go back. Or to get out of the system, if necessary.”

Captain Ortega watched Ensign Trell nod and return to the bridge. Calen rose to follow.

“Wait,” said Ortega. “Why won’t you follow him to this… cloud place?”

“Our priority is restoring Morcala, either by rushing to its defense or by escaping to return and fight another day. The latter option marks a defeat too great to bear, but the sooner we accept it the sooner we can return.”

“I have trouble believing that,” said Ortega. “I’d have thought that you would rush in to save your planet, no matter what the odds were.”

“If the war is still in progress, that’s exactly what we’ll do,” said Calen. “If the war is over… truly over… we’ll just be throwing resources away that would best be saved for the next war. And we’ll want to initiate that soon.”

“And this cloud? Why does it sc…”

Calen paused at the door and looked back at Ortega. He quickly rethought his question.

“Why does Trell telling us that he went to this cloud make him a lower priority? You were eager to track down Doctor Rogers for what he did to your ship, but now you’re letting him off the hook?”

“The Cypulchral Cloud is an ancient and dangerous place,” said Calen. “The space dust and gasses mark the remains of an ancient battle. It used to be a terrible weapon, a doomsday device that might have destroyed the system. Some reports say that it would have destroyed reality itself, but tales do have a nature to grow larger than their facts. A great force came together to destroy this weapon. The force was doomed to fail, but it gave a smaller group the chance they needed to covertly enter the weapon. They destroyed the beast from within, dying in the process. The explosion took out many of the surviving forces who gathered outside the weapon as well. From that day on, the cloud has… failed to disperse. The titanium mists are still charged with electromagnetic energy, making it impossible to scan or navigate safely. Remnants of the debris that weren’t vaporized can collide into a ship without warning. Worse, strange fragments of corrupted information have downloaded onto the computers of ships that have entered the region, data that rarely translates into anything meaningful, sometimes corrupting computers as the data integrates. Other stories suggest that it’s a haunted, evil place. Spacefaring superstitions aside, it’s as dangerous as any battle, but in a battle you can at least defeat your enemy. The Cypulchral Cloud is a needless death waiting to happen.”

Ortega looked back into his glass. The Spinewaster Ale still waited, daring him to drink it.

“I can see why you’re reluctant to go into this place.”

“I’m glad you see things my way. Your foe is dead, Captain Ortega. The Soul Survivor will be lost to us. He doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”

Ortega looked back at Calen.

“What if he does?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if Doctor Rogers had the same information you gave me? An ancient weapon converted into a scan-proof hideaway, that still has debris from the original weaponry within it? Stories about corrupted data automatically uploading itself to other ships? What if he learned more about what the weapon did, or where it came from? It sounds like the kind of thing that he’d want to get a closer look at.”

“No,” said Calen. “He’d never get near it. We keep a close eye on it with security satellites. Only Morcalan science vessels are allowed anywhere near it.”

“When I finally caught up with Doctor Rogers, he was using a stolen science vessel as a base of operations. One he’d outfitted with his own signature cloaking device. If any ship would be designed to get into this cloud, it’d be that one. What if he wanted to try and learn more about this ancient weapon? Or worse, what if he already knows something and wants to reactivate it?”

“Do you believe that the Soul Survivor is mad enough to try that?”

“For the right sort of power or leverage? I think Doctor Rogers is mad enough to try anything.”

Calen turned from Ortega and walked back to the bridge. Ortega considered drinking the rest of his Spinewaster Ale, but resisted the urge to try when he recalled the intense sensation of near-pain that it caused. He followed Ortega the short distance to the bridge. Trell was busy at her station, intently listening to something on her headset.

“New orders, Ensign,” said Calen. Trell looked up from her station, revealing a stunned face. “Trell? What’s wrong?”

“It’s a message from Admiral Cresh. I don’t…”

“Play it,” said Calen.

Trell removed her headset and loaded the file into the public address system. Moments later, Ortega heard the voice of Admiral Cresh again, a voice filled with regret.

“This is Admiral Cresh,” said the recording. “We have finally finished our negotiations with Emperor Dyson’s herald. There are still terms to discuss, but… our government has agreed to surrender, and to aid Emperor Dyson’s forces in their future conquests. We will fight on, under his banner. All vessels still in range are ordered to immediately return to Morcala for their new assignments.”

The stony silence that followed made Ortega more aware of the ambient ship noises than he had been before. A look at Calen revealed a face of sorrow and rage.

“Ensign Trell, set a new course for the Cypulchral Cloud to track down The Soul Survivor. We’ve been ordered to die. We need to make it official.”

Episode 31: The Frozen Goblet

“Any luck yet?”

Captain Ortega had been pacing near Ensign Trell’s workstation for the better part of the last hour. He’d been trying not to hover, but the ship was too small for him to stay far away. He knew that he could get restless when he didn’t have much to contribute to tense situations, so he’d tried to limit himself. Trell had been patient so far, but it was obvious by the way she glared at the screen that she was getting frustrated.

“No,” she said. “Reconstructing everything he did is challenging. He worked around the software some of the time that his mind was within our equipment. Usually the ship can create a simple log of everything it does, but that’s a function of the software itself and not something that gets recorded when the hardware is acting on its own. Or… at his direction. Whatever your great enemy is, he was acting as a secondary control program while he was outside of his own body. Without a log, I have to reconstruct all the possible changes. The only clues I have are our own location, speed, and the entry from when he returned to his own body to leave through the airlock. I’m close to figuring out where he escaped, but there are still a lot of variables to sift through.”

“Right,” said Ortega. “Sorry to trouble you.”

Trell nodded and continued working. She hadn’t even looked up from the screen. Andrew backed away quietly.

“Stop pestering my crew,” said Captain Calen, rising from her chair on the bridge. “Trell will give us updates as soon as she has them. We’ll find your terrible foe, but we’ll do so on our time. Now, join me in the dining hall.”

“I’m not very hungry.”

“That’s not a request, Ortega,” said Calen. “Don’t forget that you’re my prisoner here. I don’t have to confine you to the cell while you’re well behaved, but right now you’re bothering Trell while she plies her essential trade, and I won’t have you marring her exemplary work. Over to the dining hall before you feel the wrath of my Maelstrom Ray!”

Ortega knew that Calen was joking, but there was a frightening sincerity in her eyes when she spoke. He’d heard it said that Morcalans loved metaphor and hyperbole so much that it didn’t take much goading to turn such statements into reality, and he could believe it based on the short time he’d spent with Calen and Trell.

A short walk later, he and Calen entered the tiny dining room that was generously called a “hall.” Calen entered a security code and opened what appeared to be a refrigerated safe. She removed two slender glasses and a dark green bottle from within. As she poured the chilled drink into the glasses, Ortega got a look into the safe and nearly gasped. In the back of the chilled vault was a goblet of a dull yellow color that was studded with jewels. In another context it might seem gaudy, but something about its position in the back of a box with a layer of frost gave it an allure that he couldn’t quite express. Calen obstructed his view of the goblet when she returned the bottle, and removed it from sight entirely when she closed and locked the safe. She sat on one side of the hall’s small table and waved for Ortega to sit at the other.

“Let’s see if the Astroguard’s finest prepares their palates for true challenges. Spinewaster Ale, strong even by Morcalan standards.”

“Spinewaster?”

“Named for the Spinewaster province,” said Calen, sniffing the beverage in her glass. “A region conquered over two centuries ago through a particularly violent method of assassinations. They say that the spine-tingling sensation it provides is a happy coincidence, but I’ve always wondered if the for-hire murderers of the region didn’t repurpose their poisonmaking prowess for mixological amusements. I don’t believe that it’s truly an ale, but that’s a minor failing for a mighty drink.”

“It must be good to foster a local legend that way,” said Ortega. “It would make people doubt the rumor just enough to purchase it.”

“On any other world, I might agree with you,” said Calen. “For Morcalans, boasting that we drink even the poison that slays our enemies would be a stronger selling point. There is just enough dishonor in such history to make it possible, if the original brewer was as meek as an offworlder.”

Ortega raised an eyebrow.

“My apologies,” said Calen. “Come. Be this poison or brew, let us enjoy it now. Between Emperor Dyson and The Soul Survivor, we may never enjoy another drink again.”

Calen enthusiastically drained her glass. Ortega drank a modest amount, but stopped moments after the first gulp. A shooting sensation, not unlike pain, ran up his back. He had expected a tingling shake, possibly a tickle. Instead, he was reminded of a time when he’d been attacked by a driftmaw jellyfish. The poison kept him out of duty for the better part of a month. The beverage didn’t actually hurt, and it didn’t come with the fevered hallucinations, but the sensation was so similar to the initial sting that he shuddered involuntarily. Calen laughed raucously as he stared at the drink in shock.

“Now you’ve had a real drink, Captain,” she said, raising her glass in salute. “I won’t think less of you for not finishing it.”

“No?”

“You’re not Morcalan,” she said. “The bar starts low. I grow weary of how softly most off-worlders need to be treated. You can at least keep up. That may not be the strongest drink I could have offered you, but it’s not a tame one, either.”

“Even so, I’ll see if I can finish it off,” said Ortega. “Though I doubt I’ll ever try it again.”

“Likely not,” said Calen. “Even on my world it’s rare. I received that bottle for rescuing cargo from pirates. The rightful owners were rich and grateful, and could spare it. I try to only crack it open on special occasions, such as our imminent demise. Just another treasure for the collection.”

“You do seem to have an eye for value.”

“I appreciate craftsmanship and practicality. Everyone does. I just know that it’s worth holding on to.”

“Where did you get the fancy goblet in the refrigerator, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Calen paused and poured more of the Spinewaster Ale into her glass. She considered the drink.

“That was originally in the storehouses of the Quicksilver Prince, the war merchant who laid seige to the moons of Zorminten. I lead the assault that broke his embargo. I forced my way through the command ship’s walls. I rescued the Zorminten Council of Rulers, and returned each to their moon. And when it was time to face certain death at his hand to spare the lives of two of those worlds, I conquered his lair, escaped his Neon Menagerie, and sabotaged his teleportation chamber when he knew that the day was no longer his. We dueled then in single combat. I won’t bore you with that story since it should be obvious which of the two of us died. Victory was mine that day, at greater cost than I care to say. His riches were mine to plunder. From everything that I beheld of his riches, I chose only the goblet.”

“Did he have nothing else you valued?”

“Everything he had was something of value. The goblet was the only thing of worth. That precious chalice will serve me well the day I become an admiral. Should I take a husband, that is the glass that I will use when I make the first toast in his honor. When I die, my ashes will fill that goblet, so that some will be cast to the sea and the rest will be launched to the stars. I don’t know the details of my life yet, captain, but that goblet will guide me through some important moments.”

“Not just any glass would do, then.”

“Of course not,” said Calen. “Why should I settle for anything less than the best?”

“It seems strange to me to define the rest of your life by a piece of treasure you found.”

“Not the rest of my life, Ortega. Just a few moments that became clearer the moment I claimed the goblet as my own. Did you not get an immediate sense of your future, your changing destiny, as soon as you first became a captain?”

“Yes, but I became a captain during a field promotion when everyone in my squad was being taken out by a giant insect living in a newly settled mining colony,” said Ortega. “I knew my destiny was to either play the part well, or die trying.”

“There may be hope for you yet, then,” said Calen, leaning back in her chair and raising her glass of Spinewaster Ale. “Dangers are meant to be experienced, and fears are just challenges for accepting.”

Ortega didn’t think he agreed with that sentiment, but as Calen drained the rest of her glass he thought he could imagine why the Morcalans would see it that way. Trell leaned in from the hallway, looking grim.

“I’ve found him, Captain,” she said. “The Soul Survivor’s escape trajectory is mapped with eighty percent certainty, assuming he’s not content to drift forever in hard vacuum.”

“Wonderful!” shouted Calen. “Let’s not waste any time in finding this monster, and destroying him once and for all for what he did to my ship.”

“You should know that his trajectory sends him through the Cypulchral Cloud.”

The room suddenly felt emptier. A look of concern crossed Captain Calen’s face, a look that seemed out of place based on what Ortega had seen before. Her normally boisterous, borderline violent mood seemed to have receded, like a monstrous and happy crustacean pulling into its shell when a more dangerous creature drew near.

“I have wonderful news, Ortega,” said Calen. “Your great enemy has perished. And if he hasn’t, then he’s no longer someplace that I’m willing to follow.”

Episode 30: The Scenic Route

Carmen climbed into the taxi and nodded to the driver.

“I need to get to Veskid City.”

“Where in Veskid City?” asked the driver. She was a human, though possibly a modified one. Carmen couldn’t tell if the green hair was a minor genetic splice or a well applied dye job.

“Just let me off when I get there,” she said. “I can make it to the hotel once I finally get out of Helix.”

“Not a fan of our fair city?”

“Nah, it’s not that,” said Carmen, settling into the seat and closing her door. “It’s… been a hard day. I’ve just gotta get home and hope that I can get in touch with someone.”

“I get that,” said the driver. “Buckle up, I’ll get you home soon.”

Carmen ignored the driver’s advice as the taxi lifted off the ground and merged into the hover-road that followed the gently curving land-road meant for ground traffic. The knowledge that Fletch had no idea where Zack was didn’t calm her as much as she hoped it would. Any number of less efficient assassins might have found him without letting the DMA know.

“Hey, isn’t the best way out of the city through that turn?” asked Carmen.

“It seems like it if you’re not around here very often,” said the driver. “The way the city curves and spirals can mess with you. I thought I knew the city before I got this job, but then I figured out just how much I had to learn.”

“Are you sure?” said Carmen. “It looks like a pretty straight shot. I can see Veskid City.”

“That’s not approved airspace. I know it looks clear, and it’d probably be safe enough, but they’re strict about me sticking to the regulations. The good news is that this’ll at least be scenic.”

“You’re not trying to run the meter up on me, are you?”

“Nah. Though I’ve gotta say that it’s tempting. I don’t meet a celebrity very often.”

“I appreciate it,” said Carmen. It was usually awesome to be recognized, but given the day she’d had she was starting to think that Zack might be right about getting a wig, at least until she got him offworld. Assuming she could find him before the next race, at least.

The taxi lifted higher, rising between a series of archways that connected two buildings.

“Is this seriously still approved airspace? Getting this close to a building?”

“I couldn’t resist, sorry. We’re only out of bounds for a few moments this way, and views like this make the scenic route worth it. Say, do you think you could sign an autograph for me?”

“Uh, sure,” said Carmen. “I don’t have anything to write with, though. Or paper.”

The cab suddenly stopped under the archway of the bridge. Carmen felt the inertia jolt her forward, but she rolled with it easily, narrowly avoiding a disorienting crash with the seat in front of her.

“Hey!” she shouted.

Her door was ripped open. There was a tiny walkway under the bridge, and someone had stepped from the shadows to quickly wrench open the door. He was reaching for her as two other humans stepped out as well. Moving fast, she grabbed the man’s hand and yanked him into the car, tossing him into the other seat.

The other two thugs paused, surprised. Carmen pushed the advantage and jumped out of the car. The cab driver shouted something at her, but Carmen didn’t wait to hear it. She didn’t have time for people who set her up.

“The next one who tries something goes down to the street instead of into the cab,” said Carmen. “And they’ll take the fast route.”

One of the two remaining men unholstered a pistol and aimed it.

“We’re supposed to keep you in town,” he said. “One way or the other.”

“Yeah, that’s not happening,” said Carmen. “Look, I don’t know who’s paying you, but it can’t be worth what’s going to happen to you if you don’t let me walk outta here. If someone’s that eager to meet me, they can go through my agent like everyone else.”

As she finished speaking, she caught motion out of the corner of her eye. She risked a glance across the underside of the bridge where another figure waited. A black outfit comprised of a mask, cape, and wide brimmed hat, all complete with red trimming. The Phantom Matador.

“You,” she said. She turned to the man with the pistol. “You’re working for him? Seriously, him?”

A jolt of electricity came from behind as the thug in the car reached out and touched the base of her neck with a metal rod. Carmen spasmed and, after a moment, collapsed on the ground.

“Took you long enough, Rillem,” said the driver. “I was worried you three were going to let her get away.”

“She surprised me,” said Rillem as he and the two outside the car started getting Carmen back into the taxi. “Why’s Murk need her, Jen?”

“No clue,” said the driver. “Chip’s message wasn’t clear on that. Which one of you let slip that we were working for Murk? We shouldn’t exactly be advertising that.”

“None of us did,” said one of the thugs outside of the car. “She just looked across the bridge and… I don’t know.”

Jen looked across the expanse to the walkway on the other side of the bridge. There was nothing there.

“Nothing to worry about, I suppose,” she said. “Let’s just get her back to Murk. I’ve gotta get the cab back soon as it is.”