Zack stared into Vox Cul-Dar’s eyes and wondered if they’d always looked so alien or if something about this horrible moment made them seem worse.
“It’s been a sequence of close calls for me, Gamma,” said Vox. “I don’t like close calls. I’m sure it’ll look funny in retrospect, though… you leaving that diner when I’d asked for help tracking down the fugitive before I knew it was you, for instance.”
Zack pushed Chip off of him and got onto a knee, but Vox bared the razor sharp serrations on his arms.
“Don’t leave, Zack. You’re telling me you don’t find that funny?”
“It’s an absolute riot,” said Zack. “Look, you’ve got me… stop talkin’ me to death and just finish it now.”
“You must have a low opinion of me if you think it’s that easy,” he said. “We worked together at times, Zack. And you were a good coworker, even if you couldn’t be trusted with the more serious business at hand.”
“Then don’t do it,” said Zack. “Don’t kill me. It’s the worst system ever, and I’m convinced that me getting a death sentence like that was a mistake. I’ve never done anything that would hurt the DMA, and you know it. Imagine how much more you could make if you let me go, and then we both figured out who’s setting me up. Come on, Vox. For old times.”
“And now your opinion of me is too high, I think,” said Vox. “It’s just business, after all. You’d do the same.”
“You know that’s a lie,” said Zack.
Hobbar gasped and jumped to the side, staring down the hallway beyond the door that Vox had entered through. Vox blinked at Hobbar in surprise and quickly looked down the hallway, following Hobbar’s eyes. A large, Pyrhian rock man was hurtling through the air, rocketing straight for him, with a confident Carmen Shift guiding it from the hallway’s end. faster than any human could possibly avoid.
Vox inhaled as time, from his perspective, slowed down. He took a calm step back, entering a practiced motion that came from the years of physical and mental training that practitioners of his art learned from a young age, a living poetry that granted speed and balance in the most urgent and panicked of scenarios.
The rock man zipped through the space where he’d been standing and slammed into the wall, right next to a terrified Hobbar, and Vox’s head tracked the motion. He started turning his head back toward Carmen to say something snide about her aim, but paused when he saw Zack, on his feet and holding his second Purcelian striker pistol, aiming it straight at Vox’s head.
“Now, Zack…” Vox started.
Zack fired the pistol. The arc of magnetically charged energy hit Vox, and the alien twitched, spasmed, and fell to the ground. He began slowly moving almost immediately, but Zack retrieved his second pistol before anything else could happen. Carmen ran through the door and looked at the smoking alien on the floor.
“Is he dead?”
“Stunned,” said Zack. “Didn’t have time to change the settings if I’d wanted to.”
“Did you want to?” asked Hobbar.
“No time to get into that now,” he said. “Carmen… thanks for the save there. Do you know the best way out?”
“There’s a service entrance that goes through a kitchen by a security check point back this way,” she said. “I didn’t find it my first time out, but… someone left a lot of obvious security doors open on his way in that made it easier to find. I’m guessing it was your bug-eyed friend there.”
“Great,” said Zack. “Lead the way.”
“You can’t just leave,” said Chip. “What am I supposed to tell Murk? He’ll kill me.”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” said Zack. “Go and hide. He’s easy to avoid when there’s not a city-controlling hacker helping him.”
Zack and Carmen ran down the hallway. Vox twitched on the floor and, after a beat, Hobbar followed them.
“Where are you going?” asked Chip.
“Hey, I don’t have to explain anything to Murk, mister,” said Hobbar. “And I don’t wanna be here when the bug guy wakes up. Besta luck, though.”
Hobbar ran. And, moments later, so did Chip, though in a different direction, down another hallway.
Less than a minute later, Vox gave himself a final shake and sat up. His temples and legs ached, but he stared down the hallway, the way he’d entered. And, he reasoned, the way that Zack had left.
“Not this time,” he said, rising to his feet and sprinting toward the service entrance.
Carmen and Zack ran through the kitchen that was mercifully empty thanks to the hour, though they periodically passed a lot of unconscious, or in some cases possibly dead, members of Murk’s security staff. Zack shuddered as they opened a door at the far end of the kitchen and saw a small security checkpoint that was noticeably vacant.
“Vox was sloppy getting in here,” said Zack. “Effective, but… sloppy.”
“No complaints here,” said Carmen. “Made my job easier. As soon as I saw that ghost thing talking to you in a cell, I knew I had to come back in here.”
“Well, that makes me feel like an idiot,” said Zack. “My rescue attempt didn’t exactly speed things up. Plus now Murk’s up and after me.”
“Actually, I heard a communicator activate on a guard just before I got to you,” she said. “Murk told everyone to stand down for now, and that they’d resume normal duties tomorrow. He sounded worried.”
“Good ol’ Igneous,” Zack said, running between the desks and opening the door that led outside. A narrow flight of stairs later, and Zack was in an alley, with the street visible a short distance away.
Hobbar speedily caught up with them at the top of the staircase, panting.
“You again,” said Carmen, clenching her fists.
“Look, lady, I’m just tryin’ to get outta there, same as you,” he said. “Think I’ll move to Veskid. Helix probably won’t be healthy for me for right now.”
“Want a lift?” asked Zack, briskly moving toward the street as the other two kept pace.
“Just to my place,” said Hobbar, pulling the van’s keys out of his vest pocket. “I’ve got a few things to pick up.”
Reaching the street, Zack pointed out the van, but Hobbar looked in another direction, spotting something else.
“Where are you going?” asked Zack. “I’m in a hurry! Vox will be after us any minute now.”
“I know!” he shouted. “Just get to the van! I’ll be there quickly.”
Zack winced at the delay, but Carmen pulled him in the direction of Igneous’ vehicle. Zack opened the back doors and stepped in, but Carmen paused.
“Why is there a hot tub in the van?”
“It’s more like a cold tub, actually,” he said. He looked in the tub and saw the faint outline of Igneous beneath the piles and piles of ice.
“And it’s got Igneous in it.”
“Igneous?” asked Carmen.
“Friend from work,” said Zack. “Trustable, though.”
Carmen nodded. Hobbar returned, grinning.
“What were you doing?” asked Zack, shutting the van’s back door after Hobbar stepped in.
“Returning something,” he said. “I’ll tell you soon.”
Hobbar hopped into the driver’s seat of the van, activated it, and sped away just as Vox emerged from the alley. He saw the van leave, noted the driver, and scowled.
He sprinted down the street, entering his flying car quickly. He activated it as Rendelac took notice of him, and was in the air before the computer could speak.
“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” it said.
“Not now, Rendelac!” Vox shouted. “Zack Gamma is getting away in that van. We can catch him, though… he has a head start, but this car can fly! There’s no evading us now.”
“Greater wisdom may be yours if-”
“Quiet!” said Vox.
“Your car has been-”
Vox muted Rendelac’s speaker systems and continued driving through the air, pushing away the guilt he felt at silencing his digital guide. He could just see the taillights of the van ahead of him, and the spirals of the roads would give him the edge.
A red warning light flashed on his status panel as his car began slowing, seemingly of its own volition.
“What?” asked Vox. “What’s happening…”
Rendelac’s eye shifted in color, indicating that the computer had something to say if Vox cared to hear it. Vox reactivated the speaker system.
“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “The boy who tampered with your vehicle after misleading you earlier returned to the car.”
“Did he steal something else?”
“No,” said Rendelac. “In fact, he returned the identification node that he stole.”
“That shouldn’t alter anything about how the car drives,” said Vox.
Red flashing lights appeared in the sky behind Vox. A message on the vehicle’s status screen appeared, indicating that his vehicle had been remotely apprehended by Helix law enforcement on suspicion of using a stolen identification node by order of an Officer Tacara.
“We registered it as stolen,” said Rendelac. “We have committed no crime, but the child may have caused us a significant delay in our pursuit as flagged identification nodes are of great interest to the law enforcement agencies across Veskid.”
Vox’s eye twitched as he watched the lights of the van disappear in the darkness ahead. With a gentle bump, his car landed on a remotely selected section of pavement while the vehicle behind him landed as well. As Vox saw the officer stepping out of the car in his rear view mirror, he gripped the controls of his own vehicle.
Zack might, in fact, prove difficult to apprehend after all.
To Be Continued…