Monthly Archives: March 2015

Episode 62: Triumvirate Trash Talk

A private channel snapped to life, originating from Xorn’tal’s leafy, vine-choked asteroid. Vince Flashman opened the channel, scanning the skies over his head even before Mark Matthews finished speaking. The final haunting notes of the mariachi fanfare faded into the background, a theme that had been growing a little longer with each race.

“Sign of: Interloper,” came Xorn’tal’s hollow, translated voice.

“Yeah, but no sight of him on my end,” said Vince. “How about you?”

“Negative. Adversary: elusive.”

A quiet chime heralded the arrival of a third member in the channel, the only other person invited.

“Any sight of him?” asked Carmen.

“No,” said Vince. “As much as it pains me to admit it, I’ve got a good look from behind you two.”

“Vector: rectifying. Solidarity: Commencing.”

“Guys, I don’t want to bail on the plan, I really don’t,” said Carmen. “But I’ve got a lot on my plate this race.”

“Right, the extra passenger.”

“No, the… right, the extra passenger.”

“Just tell him to sit tight, promise an autograph, and let him know what an amazing view he’ll have when you get to the checkpoint.”

“Her, actually,” said Carmen. “And she might have a weapon. I’ve got her in some of the caves in the rock, she went down there for some reason. But now she’s cutting her way out.”

“Danger! Carmen: dock!”

“Yeah, why haven’t you bailed yet?” said Vince.

Carmen looked over her shoulder at Zack, who was watching her curiously. He couldn’t hear the private channel, but he could hear her side of the conversation.

“I’m gonna finish the race, guys,” said Carmen. “If this was happening to a regular racer, they’d issue a flight hazard and make it easier to get rid of the hitchhiker. But I contacted them when we first started, and since I already qualify they won’t disrupt the race for my benefit.”

“Offer: sympathies, sincere,” said Xorn’tal. “Ruling: sensible.”

“Yeah, I agree with leaf boy,” said Vince. “I don’t like it, but I can see their reasoning. And winning a qualifying race… any race, really… isn’t worth putting yourself in danger.”

“Yeah, well, as the person in first place my opinion’s a little different.”

“Count again, Carmen,” said Vince. “You’re in second.”

Carmen looked at the rotating, star-filled sky above and ahead of her. She could just barely make out the rookie in the lead. She smiled at the sight of the new vector being taken.

“Just because you’re about to finish in fourth doesn’t mean I’m not crossing that finish line first,” said Carmen. “It looks like the would-be winner’s not heading to Mandrake. You know, a person could get a decent speed boost if they went that way…”

“Carmen, we said no surprises.”

“YOU said no surprises,” said Carmen. “And how is that a surprise? It offers a speed boost, it’s still in the legal racing territory, and it gives me a chance to get ahead of the wannabe.”

“Carmen. Fear: straight-shots.”

“Hey, I could take her on the straight-shots,” said Carmen. “But I’m far enough behind that I’m going to go for Mandrake.”

“We said we’d stick together, Carmen,” said Vince.

“Hey, that’s your call,” said Carmen. “I’m in the lead. If you think you’re more likely to find the Phantom Matador on your route, go for it.”

The line went uncomfortably silent for a moment.

“Matador: oblique angles. Mandrake: not atypical.”

“Xorn’tal, don’t…” said Vince.

“Vince: shaky flying/afraid? Analysis: chicken.”

“Hey, don’t call Vince chicken,” said Carmen. “If he doesn’t wanna go to Mandrake, that’s fine. He’s never done this course before, the guy deserves to see it how it’s meant to be seen. In fact, why don’t you stick to the main course, too.”

“I don’t need coddling,” said Vince. “I guess you’ll see me at Mandrake.”

“Vince, you don’t-”

“I’d say that I’d see you, but since I’ll be in the lead by then you won’t be in my skyline.”

“Fine!” said Carmen. “You’re on!”

“Maintain: focus,” said Xorn’tal. “Focus: Matador.”

Carmen clenched her teeth.

“Right,” said Carmen. “Focus on the Matador. Vince, you’re on until we get our first true visual on the Matador.”

Carmen leaned to the left, and the asteroid tumbled out of its flight path, heading toward the planet Mandrake. With speeds that had been gradually increasing since the start of the race, what had been a green speck earlier was now recognizable as more than a shiny star.

“Who are you talking to?” said Zack.

“Competitors,” said Carmen. “Trash talk. Don’t worry about it. Oh, but… okay, worry about it. The Phantom Matador’s around, and now there’s going to be at least two people right behind me when you make your jump.”

“My secret jump that no one can see?”

“Right,” said Carmen. “That one. Remember, if anyone asks, you’re a crazy skydiver.”

Episode 61: Cut And Run

The shangmere held the Virellium scythe over her head, and Zack stared at it, trying to determine if there was any way to jump at it as it fell, catching it before it struck him. She looked dangerous, and possibly unhinged, but she didn’t carry herself like a trained fighter. He prepared himself to spring forward, anticipating the scythe’s downward arc.

She held her pose, wringing the scythe in her hands. She stood motionless and Zack started to wonder why he wasn’t already being attacked.

“Why-” he started.

“You hear it too?”

Zack kept his eyes on the scythe.

“Hear what?”

“It,” she said. “That… creaking. Like pretzels being crushed in a bag.”

Zack tilted his head.

“No.”

“Are you sure? It’s in the human threshold.”

Zack almost denied it again but it grew louder, a shuddering rumble coming from all sides. The shangmere saw the look on his face.

“There! Now you hear it. What is it?”

“How should I know?” asked Zack. “It’s not my asteroid.”

The reverberations grew louder, and the inside of the cave rattled. The shangmere pulled her scythe closer as she watched the walls nervously. Zack carefully pulled off the blanket and slowly went from lying down to crouching.

With a sudden crunch, a slab of rock shot down from the ceiling of the cave, cutting the chamber into two sections. Zack screamed in surprise, reflexively pulling back from the falling rock moments too late for it to have done any good had there been actual danger.

“No!” came the muffled cry of the shangmere on the other side of the wall. Zack took a deep breath and eventually heard the sound of fists angrily banging against the other side of the rock. Zack smiled. He wasn’t sure how Carmen had known, but she’d come to his rescue just in time.

“It’s no use!” he shouted at the rock wall. “You can’t get to me now!”

The hammering on the other side of the wall subsided. Then, an iridescent blade of energy pierced the rocky wall, poking out from the darkness beyond. Zack jumped back to the wall behind him and watched the scythe’s blade begin to slide down, haltingly progressing through the rock as if being impatiently yanked and pushed by a nervous hand on the other side.

The rumbling returned, and with a sudden crunch the wall behind Zack fell away. Zack looked into the dark tunnel that it revealed. He reached for his packet of supplies and the dented remains of his hat, and ran down the dark corridor. Moments later the rock wall lifted again, hiding his exit from view.

***

Zack stepped out of the tunnel and found himself staring into the enormity of space, with no force field in place to alter the view. He had known on some level what it would be like to be standing on an asteroid, but somehow he’d never really appreciated how incredible it would look.

“Over here, Zack!”

He snapped out of his reverie and turned to look in the direction of the shout. He skittered across the pocked surface of the rock, and climbed over a short ridge. Dozens of feet away, he saw Carmen standing on a flattened plinth of stone, one foot forward as if she was posed in a perpetual lunge that reminded Zack of surfers or jet boarders. Small boxes of tools or supplies, and what looked like an ice cooler, littered the ground near her feet. She was staring forward and upward, picking which stars to use as her guideposts.

“Carmen!” he shouted, running closer. “Carmen, thanks. That shangmere’s a bounty hunter. I’d guess inexperienced, but definitely dangerous.”

“Shhh,” said Carmen. “Voice down. If my crew opens a channel to tell me something, it’ll be better if you’re quiet. You’ll sound more like I’m talking to someone on another channel.”

“Right,” said Zack, getting closer. “You seem tense.”

“There’s a crazy killer on my ride, and I’m in second place. I don’t know who this rookie is, but she’s going down.”

“Right,” said Zack. “How’d you know I was in trouble?”

“Well, I thought it was kinda weird how you ended communications there. And then no bat guy ran up to me for an autograph. Then I focused on the rock. I could feel where you were, and someone pretty close to you. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I guessed it was bad news. He’s doing something, it’s cutting through my ride one cave at a time. I don’t think I can keep him down there for long. I’m already risking some structural problems with what I’ve done. Plus there’s only so much on-the-fly rebuilding of an asteroid you can do before you get investigated for cheating. When he gets out do you think you can keep ahead of him?”

“It’s a her actually. And… I don’t know. She was fast. Plus she’s got wings.”

“She doesn’t wanna use those up here,” said Carmen. “The atmosphere starts to end a few dozen feet up. Speaking of, do you still have your survival kit?”

“Grabbed it on my way out,” said Zack.

“Good,” said Carmen. “Although she’s pretty dedicated to getting to the surface. It’s almost a shame that you don’t have an excuse to run back into those caves to hide from her.”

“She’s got some kind of tracker, it wouldn’t help.”

“A tracker?”

“She said that it’d lead to me, that it tracks people who’ve come into contact with Virellium.”

“Oh, sweet, I’ve always wanted to see some of that stuff.”

“You’re in luck, then. She’s got a scythe that looks like it’s made out of it. Or at least some sort of energy enhanced by it, it’d be ridiculously expensive for that blade to be entirely Virellium.”

“Crazy. When’d you get the chance to handle it?”

“That’s just the thing,” said Zack. “I’ve never touched Virellium.”

“Never?” said Carmen.

“Never,” said Zack. He considered saying “Not that I remember”, but decided to stick with his answer. He’d had memory issues lately, he knew it. Virellium was so rare that he could rule out touching it even during memory gaps.

On the other hand, he also knew he’d never done anything to earn the wrath of the Desperate Measures Agency. He never liked it in cases when impossibilities came together, even though it usually meant that he was on the right track. He liked it less now that he was in the middle of it all.

Carmen scowled. She frantically moved her eyes across the sky.

“What’s wrong?” said Zack.

“Don’t you hear that?”

Zack held up his crushed hat. Carmen stared at it for a moment before she nodded to a small toolbox lying near her. He ran to it and opened it, finding two replacement headsets. He quickly put one on and heard the final notes of a mariachi fanfare.

“Someone on our racing team has spotted an intruder on the course, folks!” came an enthusiastic announcer over the sound of a cheering audience. “The Phantom Matador, scourge of the racing federation and ghostly artist of the quick escape has returned! I don’t think you need to run in a qualifying race to crash the scene later in the month, but he must not’ve gotten the race guidelines that we give to all the official racers. Just a reminder, folks, that the racing federation takes all such acts of interference in the races seriously, and… wait, there he is. Look at him go!”

Zack turned to look at Carmen. Rage was covering her face and she was arching further forward, balancing on her feet like an animal ready to pounce.

“Carmen, do you-”

“I’m getting him this time, Zack. Get ready to jump. I’m gonna get you to Mandrake ahead of schedule just to be sure.”

Episode 60: Course Correction

“Look here, another reference to an Operation Eclipse,” said Captain Ortega. He tapped the screen of the CryptoBrick, selecting the reference and tagging it. “We should try to cross reference it all, figure out what it is. It’s mentioned a lot, but generally only as a secondary priority. Captains having to defer authority to people acting in accordance with Operation Eclipse, all data regarding operation eclipse is to be delivered to superior officers without analysis, different tactical plans for when Operation Eclipse is enacted… but no actual references to what it is.”

“The heuristic analysis noted that, too,” said Ensign Trell. “There was a related search result, too. Operation Eclipse relies on Phoenix Circuits, technology that’s meant to be destroyed if any vessels are captured. I’ve never encountered the term before, and can’t guess why it’s so secretive.”

“I’ve heard of it before, but probably in unrelated contexts. People like naming things after phoenixes. So that’s two mysteries. A technology we’ve never heard of, and an operation that we don’t have any clues about.”

“My guess is that it has something to do with whatever made our sun vanish.”

Ortega’s eyes grew wide.

“Of course,” he said. “That makes sense. I mean, your sun wasn’t gone, we saw a faint sliver of it. How did I miss that?”

“It’s the prerogative of captains to miss fine details as long as they can delegate that task to subordinates while they focus on their own grand designs. You’re lucky that this is my job for now.”

“I suppose I am,” said Ortega. “I’ve not had an actual crew for a long time, not ever since AstroGuard made me a special operative. I should request one.”

“On Morcala, you would demand one when you knew you were ready.”

“We do things differently in the Astroguard. Speaking of different cultures… do you suppose Pilot Tan’s craft might still have Phoenix Circuitry?”

“His standing orders were to destroy it if his vessel was captured. Being boarded by an enemy while your vessel is incapacitated certainly qualifies.”

“You know that, and I know that, but did Tan know that?”

“Why wouldn’t he?”

“We found it by pouring through his computer data,” said Ortega. “Between you and me, I got the impression that he wasn’t given much of a military training. Even if he was told that order, I think that his experience in the cloud could have easily shaken him enough to forget to check the protocols, especially since he was limiting computer use while the Cypulchral Cloud’s signal was interfering with his ship. It’s worth a look.”

“I’ll run it by Captain Calen,” said Trell. “She won’t want to delay our time in the Cloud any longer than we have to, but taking a chance to understand the technology of our enemies may give us an edge that she’ll value.”

A soft chime came over the loudspeakers. Trell’s head darted in the direction of the noise, though Ortega was just confused.

“What’s that? It doesn’t sound like an alarm.”

“It’s a notification of a course correction being made by the captain,” said Trell. “Made from her station, not mine.”

“So?”

“So she’s activated some non-essential computer features that I deactivated while we’re in the Cloud. Probably not risky, but… not the kind of action she’d take. Even if she thought it was worthwhile, she’d just use my station instead of going to the trouble of making it accessible through her station. She’s not patient in the face of emergencies.”

“Plus she’s supposed to be interrogating Tan.”

Trell frowned. She rose and walked to the door.

“Where are you going?”

“I haven’t heard any screaming,” said Trell. “We should have heard something by now.”

“Wait, you mean she was actually planning on torturing him? I thought she was just… threatening it.”

Trell remained unresponsive, instead walking out the door with a grim determination. Ortega winced and ran after. Trell wasn’t running, but her brisk pace and the small amount of space in the scuttler meant that he only caught up to her as she opened the door to the bridge. Captain Calen turned in her chair to look at the two as they entered, and William Tan cheerfully waved from Trell’s seat.

“What is… that Dysonite doing at my station?”

“I think the Emperor decreed that we’re Dysonians, actually,” said Tan. “A shame, too, since Dysonite has some pop to it. Sounds like dynamite.”

“Captain?” said Trell. “Our prisoner is at my station.”

“Leave Ensign Trell’s seat, Tan,” said Calen. “Trell, it was necessary for the moment. You were occupied analyzing his computer, and we needed to make course corrections. Tan’s piloting skills are exemplary, and his calculations allowed my course corrections to stay on target.”

“Are we going deeper into the cloud?” asked Ortega, looking at a monitor. “No objections, mind you, that’s likely where we’ll find Doctor Rogers, but were we done here?”

“We’d investigated the distress call, rescued the survivor, and retrieved the information from his computer. There’s nothing left to do.”

“Actually, Captain, there was one more reason we had to stick around. I’d like to search the Dyson…ian ship more thoroughly, and Ensign Trell thinks it’s at least worth considering.”

“We have greater concerns, Ortega,” said Calen. “Our destiny lies before us, and we’ve got to take you to your destiny within.”

“Are our scanners on?” said Trell, almost pushing William Tan out of her chair. “Captain, this is dangerous.”

“The scanners, though limited, will make navigation easier,” said Calen.

“Won’t that risk our own system’s contamination due to the signals in the cloud?” asked Ortega.

“We will, but we believe The Signal isn’t hazardous when handled properly,” said Tan. “I forgot to turn off my cybernetic overlay lenses when I was shutting down the rest of the systems on my ship, and we received a message. The Signal is being manipulated intentionally, now, it’s not just an engine of random chaos. By opening ourselves up to The Signal we’ll allow ourselves to more readily reach the one controlling it.”

A furious glare crossed Ortega’s face. He spun to the wall and kicked it angrily.

“Who controls it?” asked Trell.

“Doctor Rogers,” said Ortega.

“The Soul Survivor!” said a booming voice over the bridge’s speakers, almost at the same time as Captain Ortega. Moments later, the speakers crackled and a more reasonable voice sighed. “Ortega, you clod, that introduction was mine to make!”

“You’re predictable, Rogers,” said Ortega. “Predictable to a fault, and the only other known entity in the Cypulchral Cloud. It’s not hard to figure out.”

“He needs our help further in, Ortega,” said Calen. “We can lend him assistance. This should also help you to apprehend him.”

“That won’t happen,” said the speakers. “But the tenacious Captain Calen is correct. I do, in fact, need your assistance.”

“Captain, we don’t need to help an enemy of the state, especially when we have the situation with Morcala to deal with.”

“I think you’ll find that both Captain Calen and the pilot are very suggestible at the moment,” said Rogers. “Suggestible to me, at least. The cybernetic lenses that Dyson gives to his soldiers will apparently make it very easy for me to operate within this empire of his, short lived though I expect it to be. As you know well, Ortega, where there’s an output there’s a risk. Though by the end of this sentence, it won’t seem quite like a risk to you anymore.”

Tan gasped in surprise and the cybernetic lens in his eye flashed again. A bright glow filled the room.

Episode 59: Lens Flare

The CryptoBrick was a miracle of technology in the same way that a neanderthal’s cudgel could miraculously shatter a computer that contained advanced security clearance data. The question of needing a fast and reliable method of seeing if certain data could be hazardous to a computer had come up many times, often when the data in question was important enough for it to not matter. The CryptoBrick’s solution was to actually be a computer, a cheap and nearly disposable one designed to receive input in a number of ways but to only present its output through the screen built into one of its rectangular sides. Every model came with advanced cyber security features that allowed its users to clean files or quarantine and delete infected code, but it was understood that anything put onto a CryptoBrick wouldn’t be coming off again. The Astroguard generally only gave a few of them to each ship it sent on a mission, but Captain Andrew Ortega had specifically requested one as part of his equipment after a number of unusual digital crimes, most committed by Doctor Silas Rogers. Given his track record, the Astroguard was willing to grant the request.

“Cowardly but practical,” said Ensign Trell, turning the device over in her hands. “Spying on a problem without giving it a chance to strike back if it detects you may be effective, but it lacks something.”

She set the blocky box onto her workstation and watched its screen light up while its no-frills system booted quickly. Ortega awkwardly looked over her shoulder, not having much room for maneuverability in the closet-sized room marked as the “Technician’s Bay.”

“I wouldn’t say there’s no chance of it striking back,” said Ortega. “It takes a pretty unconventional virus to turn the CryptoBrick against its user, though.”

“How would it do that?”

“The first time I used it, I was trying to track down Doctor Rogers. He’d been using a few different pieces of code to steal some quick cash for another project. I put it in here to examine just how it worked. Apparently, he’d designed the program to detect that it was being installed into a CryptoBrick, and the program activated a secondary function that caused a pattern of bright lights to flash in quick succession on the screen. The effect triggered a pseudo-epileptic hypnotic aftereffect, and I wound up doing Rogers’ dirty work for the next two days.”

Ensign Trell’s eyes lit up and she smiled.

“Impressive. It doesn’t spread the virus, but it does allow some victory to come from containment. The Soul Survivor is a brilliant man.”

Ortega shook his head, but didn’t comment at the use of Doctor Rogers’ chosen title. Instead, he gestured to the screen.

“I think I was able to get everything. We should get started if we’re going to find anything worthwhile.”

“I can have a heuristic scan search for anything that might aid us,” said Trell. “The process would take minutes.”

“Sounds good, but I still think we should check for anything the scan might miss once it’s done. Any detail might be important.”

***

Captain Calen grinned at Pilot William Tan from across the brig’s table.

“Now then, you’ll be telling me everything I want to hear,” said Calen.

“Of course.”

“Don’t think it’ll be that easy for you. I’m sure you’ve had some training for this, but know that it won’t go as easily as you’d expect.”

“I don’t really know much,” said Tan. “I’ll tell you everything I can, and gladly, so-”

“Liar,” said Calen. “You’re a liar. You’re not just a pilot, I can see it in your eyes. There’s something nervous hiding within, and I’ll see the light stolen from them before I’m through.”

“That’s probably just my lenses,” he said. “Cybernetic overlays just over my eyes, said to be made by the Emperor himself. They boost my reaction time and can relay simple information to me. Sometimes I’m reading things they say instead of focusing on whoever I’m talking to.”

“That’s a habit you’ll want to break, and quickly. I hate to say it, Tan, but you represent the forces that took everything from me today, and I’ve been looking for someone to murder because of that. If it weren’t for the fact that Captain Andrew Ortega thinks you might have some infromation, this conversation would have started and ended with me blowing your ship out of the Cypulchral Cloud. Do you understand me?”

“Absolutely,” said Tan. “What do you want to knegh!”

The pilot lurched, clutching his skull. Calen leaned forward, not ready for this turn in the conversation. She’d been looking forward to building up to the point where she could start doing damage, but with Tan looking like he had a migraine she knew she’d have to abandon script.

“Tan?” she said. “Tan! Look me in the eye, cur. Focus!”

William looked up at Captain Calen. The readout on his eyes, previously only displaying general information about his location and Calen, changed. All previous data left his field of vision and new text flowed across it.

CPT. ORTEGA MENTIONED/NEAR/ABSENT. AWAITING SIGNAL.

“What?” asked Tan.

“I said Focus!” said Calen, rising. “Don’t push me, you sorry excuse for a soldier, it won’t take much to rush me along to where I finally get to hear your screams.”

SIGNAL RECEIVED. INITIATING FLARE.

A bright flash of light erupted from William’s eyes, and a series of lightning quick patterns appeared as afterimages in Calen’s eyes. William saw the same, less bright but more accurately focused as his cybernetic lenses shot the image straight onto his retinas.

A moment of silence passed before the two looked at each other, concerned.

“We’ve got to go deeper into the cloud,” said William.

Captain Calen hesitated but nodded.

“You’re right. I’ll probably die in this cursed place, but you’re right. It seems there’s no other option.”

“None,” said William. “The Soul Survivor needs our help.”

Episode 58: Pressure in the Cloud

Pilot William Tan was thrown from the airlock onto the floor of Captain Calen’s ship. A helmet obscured his face, and his hands were fastened behind his back by a set of the Astroguard’s magnetic manacles. Calen lowered her Maelstrom Ray as Captain Ortega stepped in, just behind his prisoner.

“I wouldn’t expect you to treat war criminals so roughly, Ortega.”

“When in Rome,” said Ortega, removing his helmet. “Didn’t want to risk you thinking he was loose. Pushing him down meant he would be clear of any weaponry aimed his way.”

“You’ve a poor opinion of my senses if you think I can’t tell a prisoner from a boarder, Captain, and an even poorer opinion of my aim if you think you could protect him that way. Is our prisoner much use to us, or is he what passes for ballast in this cursed place?”

“He knows how to interpret the information I was able to pull off his computer,” said Ortega, removing a black cube from a compartment near his belt. “An active interpreter is more useful than a quick information grab, especially since the Cypulchral Cloud does things to sensors. He said he wasn’t able to shut his sensors off after The Signal took hold of his ship, so I’m hoping that they were thorough.”

Calen saw the black cube in Ortega’s hand and took a step back, eyeing it warily.

“What possessed you to bring something from that ship back here? I don’t want to risk my scuttler becoming infected with whatever spoils you’ve brought back. More than one tale of salvage ends horribly.”

“This is an Astroguard device, Captain,” said Ortega. “It was made with those kinds of situations in mind. All I need is a monitoring device, and I can use this to examine the data from his computer in isolation from your ship’s systems.”

Calen nodded, still looking over the cube from a distance.

“Permission granted,” she said. “You’ll do this under the supervision of Ensign Trell, though. Not to cast doubts on your techniques, Ortega, but I’ll trust a Morcalan engineer with field experience before I’ll trust the work of a team of technicians working from the safety of their own labs. Trell! Get in here!”

Moments later, the Ensign stepped out of the bridge.

“Trell, the good Captain’s got some information from the Dyson vessel. Help him to get to it so that there’s no chance of the data coming into contact with our systems. We’re playing with fire, today, and I’ll take no chances.”

“Understood, Captain.” Said Trell.

“Meanwhile, I’ve got a prisoner to interrogate,” said Calen. Before Ortega could react, her hand shot down, circled around the pilot’s neck, and slammed him into the wall.

“Wait!” said Ortega.

“No,” said Calen. “I’m sure you think you’ve gotten everything you can out of him, Ortega, and he may even believe he’s told you everything of value, but I insist on wringing our guest dry.”

“Can you at least wait until after Trell and I have more data from his computer?”

“What’s your name, boy?” Calen asked, ignoring Ortega. “I don’t like having strangers on my ship.”

A muffled response came from inside his helmet.

“Why’s he traveling without external speakers?” asked Calen.

“I turned them off during the flight over,” said Ortega. “Didn’t want him interrupting things before you’d had your say.”

“I thought he was being a little too polite for one of Dyson’s mongrels,” said Calen.

“Is that just a basic flight suit?” said Trell, looking at the prisoner’s outfit. “Those things barely have any insulation. Or heating. Captain Ortega, people can die from even brief exposure to space travel if this is all they’re wearing.”

“He’s fine,” said Ortega. “On the way over, my suit measured the temperature and pressure, and at this spot in the cloud it’s actually not bad. A little worse than the top of a standard planet’s highest mountains, maybe. He’s probably cold, but he wasn’t going to die.”

“That’s incredible,” said Trell, reaching over to the prisoner’s helmet and reactivating its external communications. “Pressure like that shouldn’t be possible in a gas cloud this size. Especially this close to the exterior. If only our sensors were working right now, I’m sure the data would be valuable.”

“-old, cold, cold, cold,” said William as the speaker on his helmet crackled to life. “Stop saying I’m fine, I’m cold, I’m cold.”

“We can hear you, Pilot Tan,” said Ortega.

“Good, then you know I need to warm up,” said the prisoner. “I went through blizzard training that was better than this.”

“You’ll warm up soon enough,” said Ortega. He looked up to see Calen nodding in surprised approval.

“What?” he asked.

“There’s a mean streak in you,” said Calen. “You hide it well. That’s a bit reassuring.”

“It can get the job done sometimes,” said Ortega. He walked closer and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“I don’t want you to sacrifice your technique here,” said Ortega. “I really don’t. But there’s something not right about this. Go easy on him during the interrogation.”

“Don’t go soft just when I’m starting to believe there’s hope for you, Ortega.”

“I’m serious,” he said. “There’s something off about him. Too calm. He’s practically a civilian, the way he acts. You might get something useful out of him, but I don’t think he’s worth getting blood on your hands.”

“Typical Astroguard morality,” she said. “You think he’s not dark enough to be worth getting blood on your hands. I may go easy on him for your sake, I may, but know that he’ll have to prove himself. My hands are primed for blood, Captain, and it’s up to him to see if he’s bright enough to be worth staying clean.”

Episode 57: Process of Elimination

Mister Darrus leaned over the railing, watching the asteroids as they grew smaller and began to arc away from his field of vision. The rest of the audience was moving from the seating while excitedly talking about the race, the crazy fan who’d just leaped onto a moving asteroid, and their predictions for which of the newcomers would qualify for the races. Soon, only Mister Darrus continued looking over the railing.

Mister Reese returned from the concession stand and leaned over the railing as well. He handed Darrus the pretzel that he said he’d get, and the two began quietly eating. Midway through his corn dog, Reese sighed.

“The shangmere who jumped onto the race course?”

“Yeah?”

“It was Nectra, wasn’t it.”

“Yeah.”

“Shame about that. I got the fried apricots she likes.”

“Sorry. I looked away for a second.”

“It’s fine.”

“She shouted something about the signal moving really quickly, though. I don’t think she was trying to get away from us.”

“No?”

“No. I think she’s doing her job.”

“Oh, that’s good then.”

“Yeah.”

Reese resumed eating. Darrus continued staring into the void of space.

“There really isn’t anything we can do until that asteroid gets back here at the end of the race, is there?”

“No, no there isn’t.”

Darrus nodded.

“Mind if I have some of those apricot things?”

“Sure. Go for it.”

***

Zack stared into the face of the shangmere. She was standing still, staring at him with her giant eyes and a smile that was designed for ripping soft things apart, things like juicy fruits or human arms. The shadows in the asteroid’s cave and the leering, draculesque smile made it very hard for Zack to not see the resemblance to bats. He swallowed and sorted through all the motions it would take to reach one of the guns in his coat under his blanket.

“Hey to you, too,” she finally said.

“Hiiii,” said Zack, slowly scanning the cave behind her, measuring the distance to the nearest curve leading out to the asteroid’s surface.

“Heeeeey,” she responded. “This is awkward. Um… Right. Hi. So… you’re Zack Gamma?”

Zack inhaled.

“No I’m not.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure,” said Zack.

“I’ve got a tracking device that says otherwise,” said the shangmere, reaching into a pouch that hung from her waist. She removed a small contraption that glowed with a sickly green light.

“Does your device measure… Zackiness?”

She blinked twice, a visually notable display with eyes like hers, and then started laughing. A genuine laugh that unnerved Zack just by being natural.

“That’s funny. It might be better to say that it measures… Gamma waves?”

Zack stared.

“Because you’re Zack Gamma.”

“No I’m not.”

“I’m sorry, but you are,” she said. “There’s only so many people who’ve come into contact with Virellium, and that’s what this measures. It’s a small enough number that once I remove the Pyrhian variances it’s usually easy to track the exact history of every individual who’s touched it.”

“Pyrhian variances?”

“Yeah, they tip the scale sometimes. It’s a different kind of energy, but my detector picks up on it. There may be more to the old stories about Xol than we think, am I right?”

“Ye-es?” said Zack, stretching the word out to a second and even third syllable somehow. He’d successfully moved the hand behind his popcorn bowl beneath the blanket, and was hoping that he could reach the gun while this conversation was still merely awkward.

“Anyway, once I lock out the signals from the Pyrhians I can find all the people who’ve come into contact with Virellium. For just humans, that gives me twelve possible people in range, and eleven of them were known factors. If all the other humans aren’t Zack Gamma… then you are!”

She nodded eagerly. Zack frowned.

“Aren’t you supposed to say that more ominously?”

“What?”

“The thing about me being Zack Gamma, you’re talking like you’re excited, not like you’ve cornered me.”

“I am excited,” she said. “I worked it out. Just one of life’s little brain teasers, and I had fun cracking it. How I feel about it doesn’t change the fact that you’re Zack Gamma.”

“Lady, you’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. “And I’ve never come into contact with Virellium in my life.”

“Oh, but you have,” she said, inching forward. “I can prove it.”

“H…how?”

“With this,” she said, twirling the staff in her hand. “Don’t be scared. Virellium energy sticks around. And if I’ve finally found someone who’s come into contact with it, your energy should be enough to activate this for the first time in ages!”

“This?”

“Stand still!”

Before Zack could reach for the gun, she pushed her staff forward and bopped him on the forehead. Zack’s head was pushed back an inch, leaving him more surprised than wounded.

“Hey!” he said.

“Shh! Watch it.”

She twirled the staff again, and Zack noticed a faint glow that moved along the metalwork. It had appeared to use simple workmanship before, but the designs of metal in the wood seemed to become livelier as they filled with a green glow. The light ran up the length of the staff, seeming to come from the place where Zack had touched it, swiftly moving to the opposite end. Then, at the top of the staff, the light emerged from within it. A pane of green and blue and violet and red shimmering light came out of the side of staff, continuing the workmanship in a single, arcing path. As the light finished, Zack recognized the familiar shape of a scythe’s curved blade, a scythe of Virellium Force Energy, suitable for reaping any harvest.

“Only eleven people to rule out, Zack,” said the bat person, the light of her staff making her already unsettling face more ominous. It cast a horrible shadow on the walls of the cave behind her, making her seem even taller and more spindly than she was. “You’re number twelve. I don’t like saying this, but it’s time for you to die.”

Episode 56: Hyperwave Silence

Carmen and dozens of asteroid racers achieved liftoff, each propelling themselves forward and upward through the archway that signified the starting line. Carmen could feel the atmosphere of the event, a palpable tingling of excitement in the first second of racing that grew from the combined thirst for thrills and need for speed. There was a momentary sense of vertigo that accompanied the rapidly vanishing crowds who fell away from her peripheral vision, but it vanished after she took note of which racers were already drifting behind her. This was going to be a tense race no matter how it played out, but the start remained unsullied.

The weak forcefield grew nearer as she passed between the spires that ran along the runway. Some had audience members or crew members trying to get a better view of the final moments before the asteroids passed into the hard vacuum of space, others were purely decorative. One was the home to a temporary concession stand that sold overpriced drinks, snacks, and souvenirs to anyone desperate enough to spend a huge amount of money on the launch station instead of just waiting a few hours to get a cheaper rate on the surface of Veskid.

As she neared the concession spire, the troubling shape of a humanoid figure stepped over the fence that separated the audience members from the fifty foot drop to the course below. Carmen tried ignoring the figure as she neared it, knowing that she needed to focus on the race instead. Sometimes dedicated fans thought it would be fun to get onto the race track, though usually from a safer location. Sure enough, a warning ping sounded over her headset, alerting her to someone entering the track in her vicinity.

Carmen expected to see an emergency lift slide into place to catch the falling fan, and the lift did, in fact, move to an appropriate position. However, the fan kicked away from the wall and pushed through the air toward the asteroids. Just as Carmen passed the spire and the figure began to move out of her line of sight, Carmen witnessed the unfolding of leathery, bat-like wings.

Moments later, Carmen felt the impact of someone crashing into the side of her ride.

Moments after that, the asteroid passed the forcefield and moved into the empty void of space.

“We seem to have a party crasher on the course, folks!” said Mark Matthews. “A stowaway just boarded Carmen’s asteroid, landing less than a second before the racers passed the forcefield! A shangmere, if I’m not mistaken. An amazing sight to see! Uh, one that we absolutely don’t advocate, of course, due to the dangers it presents to audience members, racing staff, and the racers themselves. Hopefully the stowaway’ll be content to just sit tight.”

Carmen groaned. The last thing she needed was a crazy fan messing up the race.

Carmen’s headset buzzed, with an indication that Zack’s channel was trying to reach her. She rethought her priorities and decided that this call was actually the last thing she needed. She ignored the call for a few moments, but then her headset answered, seemingly on its own.

“Did he just say that there’s a stowaway?”

“Zack?” she said. “Zack, yeah, he… how are you talking to me, I didn’t answer that.”

“An old trick, you can bounce what looks like an emergency signal through channels like these to force an electronic answer as long as there’s no mechanical reason for the device not to answer. This is just a model I know. Look, he said stowaway.”

“Yeah,” said Carmen. “Don’t worry, he’s not talking about you, it’s probably just some fan.”

“I know it’s not me,” said Zack. “I’m not shangmere, I’m human.”

“Look, he’ll probably just scrabble around the rock until he finds me, I’ll promise him an autograph if he just sits still and gets off at the next checkpoint, and I’ll be delayed, like, two seconds getting him off the asteroid. Then it’ll just be you and me again, and I’ll clear things up with security after the fact so that the poor guy doesn’t get thrown in the slammer for the next decade or two. If anything, this’ll help your cover.”

“What makes you think it’s a him?”

“It’s always a him,” said Carmen. “Statistically, the sports fans crazy enough to jump onto the race course during a race are guys, bonus points for the ones who jump onto asteroids moments before leaving atmo.”

“This has happened to you before?”

“Of course it hasn’t happened before! It’s a bat-person flying onto a track with gigantic, multi-ton rocks at high speed and landing successfully. Most crazed fans just run across the track with a flag or something, or try to get to the asteroids before the race starts.”

“I don’t think they like being called bat people,” said Zack. He reached across the ground in his hideaway and picked up one of the bowls of popcorn that he’d made for the trip.

“Fine, right,” said Carmen, sounding more and more annoyed over his headpiece. “Look, I’m gonna try to get this person to be quiet so that it doesn’t use up too much of our air here, but in the meantime we should follow suit and not talk. Got it?”

“Okay,” said Zack. “How about some code words so that I know when the person’s there? Like, say howdy when you see them, and cozy when you’ve gotten them to settle down so that I know that it’s okay.”

“I’d never say that,” says Carmen. “I’ll say… uh… Well, hey there!”

“I can live with that,” said Zack.

“And I’ll say something like just sit tight once I’ve gotten him to agree to sit down.”

Zack nodded to himself.

“Until then, though, let’s keep the signals quiet.”

Zack reached over to pick up the book he’d brought, and saw someone else in the cave. A tall, gangly woman with wide eyes was peering at him from the shadows, smiling a toothy smile.

“Well, hey there!” Zack said.

Surprised and caught reclining, Zack couldn’t react before the shangmere jumped at him. She punched a hand forward, and a staff of wood and metal swung out from it like the arm of a massive clock. It swept away his green hat and the headset beneath it.

“Hey!” shouted Zack.

The shangmere didn’t respond, instead continuing the calculated arc of the staff until she held it over her head. She slammed the staff onto the hat, repeatedly crushing the fedora, the antenna emerging from it, and the headset within it, effectively silencing all communications.

“Right, I’ll say it just like that,” said Carmen, scanning the asteroid around her as best as she could while still keeping her eyes on the race course and the other asteroids. “Like I’m trying to tell you about it without tipping him off. Hyperwave silence now, though, right?”

The empty buzz of a silent channel came through Carmen’s headset.

“Yeah, like… that,” she said. “Must’ve signed off early.”

Episode 55: Go

“It’s a beautiful day for a race, folks,” said Mark Matthews, his voice channeling through every speaker set to cover the race’s progress. “The amazing constellations around Veskid are always a sight to behold when the asteroid racers converge for the Nebula Cup.

Carmen stood on top of her rock, the asteroid known to fact hunters as Kinetic Kuiper. She inhaled and felt the rough edges, jagged corners, and unyielding density of the stone that she’d felt when she first located it. It was the fourth asteroid she’d raced on that she could truly call her own, but it had lasted longer than any of the others. Her petrakinetic connection to it told her more than just the asteroid’s size, shape, and weight, though: she could feel her own weight standing on top of it, and the metal of the platform that it rested upon. She was dimly aware of Zack inside the asteroid, sitting in place and probably listening to Mark’s pre-game spiel She felt the atmosphere pushing down against the asteroid, the easily-forgotten weight of air pushing against it, a weight she would need to maintain.

“Over the next month we’ll be bringing you eleven races related to the Nebula, folks, as these eager competitors square off against each other,” said Mark. “Two regular races every week, with the first of those just two days from now. Those eight races naturally lead up to the championship race on the twenty-ninth, and the traditional Challenge of Atlas, while not weighed against the official score of the race will be happening roughly midway through the series. We couldn’t keep the racers from an Atlas Run if we tried, I think. That’s neither here nor there, though, as we’ve got the first of the races coming up in just moments, the qualifying match that will separate this season’s racers from the hopefuls! Scores of promising petrakinetics from around the Angelor Republic have proven themselves in one way or another, and this is the race that tells us which of them will be in, and which need to head back to their home courses for another season of training!”

Carmen focused on the weight of the atmosphere. She could feel the strange ripples in the air current as the other racers around her did the same. Each had slightly different ways of handling it, ranging from those who could psychically spin the wind to those lucky anaerobic aliens who simply didn’t breathe oxygen. Carmen focused on her own mind, and used her secondary gift to make sure that her atmosphere would stay in place beyond the force field.

Zack huddled in the cave of the asteroid, listening to Matthews over his headset and watching a video screen that cycled between different views of the course, starting line, and the stands of cheering audience members. He noted three locations for audiences, one at the starting and finishing line, one at a small, ring-shaped space station through which the racers would soar, and a final set of stands on a massive asteroid itself, though one with a technological force field keeping its atmosphere in place rather than through any petrakinetic means. Those would be the tickets that sold for the most as the location allowed the spectators to get a taste of what it might actually be like to stand on an asteroid in the races.

“Carmen, what do you think the odds are of the Phantom Matador showing up for this race?”

Carmen winced at the question when it came over her headset. She fumbled with the control at her ear and cleared her throat.

“Why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” said Zack. “I’m keeping my eye on the final set of seats, the bleachers on the asteroid.”

“That’s pretty close to the end of the race,” she said. “If everything goes according to plan, you’ll be off the asteroid before we get there. Aren’t we here to worry about your problems today?”

“Look, I’ve got a hunch but might not be on time to ring the bells. You’ll need to be my eyes.”

“What?”

“Hugo. Never mind, just… just keep your eyes open. If the Phantom Matador shows up, keep a close eye on his flight path, especially in relation to those bleachers.”

“You think he’s sneaking in with the audience and… keeping the asteroid he’ll ride on there somehow?”

“If I wanted to pull a stunt like that on this particular course, that’s how I’d do it. That doesn’t mean anything, though, since I’m sure the police have also tried-”

“Hate to cut you off, Zack, but we’ve got less than forty-five seconds. Let me focus. Can’t mess up my atmo, you know.”

Zack turned off his headset. After a second, he turned it back on.

“How do you maintain the atmosphere?”

“What?”

“You’re petrakinetic, that’s not got anything to do with air currents. How-”

“You’re asking me this now?!”

“Sorry, you talked about maintaining atmosphere, and it reminded me of-”

Carmen turned off her headset and inhaled. She didn’t need to be distracted by Zack’s technical questions, or by his talk about the Phantom Matador. Right now, all that mattered was her atmosphere, her rock, and her speed, and for that she needed to keep her attention on what was happening right now.

“There’s the race conductor, folks,” said Mark Matthews, his voice reaching all of the audience members and racers. “He’s approaching the top of the Talonite Trilithon that arcs over the starting line, the same Trilithon seen in the Nebula Circuit’s logo. He’s observing the racers, reaching for his hilt, and drawing the customary Angelor Light Blade. He’s raising it over his head… the racers are all watching for the ceremonial swing that will signal the start… and they’re off!”

Much earlier, on another world…

Sister Barris put down the newspaper at the sequence of raps on the door. She grabbed the Decryption Napkin that she’d hastily written yesterday. Three staccato knocks followed by two longer hollow ones meant that it was safe. She crossed to the door, knocked twice, and heard the first four knocks of a standard Shave And A Haircut sequence. She opened the door an inch and saw Zack Gamma’s hat, sitting on his head.

“Everything’s good?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Did you use the Napkin?”

“Yes…”

“All right, let me in.”

Barris opened the door the rest of the way and Zack stepped through. He looked at the table by the door and saw the Neuralization Ray sitting out in the open and, worse, not in Barris’ possession. He closed the door and looked at Barris who held her hands up defensively.

“I don’t want to use that,” said Barris.

“Barris, your track record suggests that you’re more dangerous in a tough spot than I am.”

“Neuralization Rays can cause brain damage.”

“That’s never been proven. How’s everyone’s favorite rich guy?”

“Stressed. He’s in the sitting room.”

“Great.”

Zack crossed the entryway and reached the sitting room. Azar sat in his chair, watching a film on a screen that was generated inside an artistic frame. Azar looked up when Zack entered, and snapped his fingers. The movie paused. Zack flipped his hat off his head, tossed it onto the sofa adjacent to the chair, and took a seat next to it while pointing at the screen.

“Handy feature. How long did it take to program?”

“Not long at all. What did you find out?”

“Good news, bad news,” said Zack. “The good news is that Bristlecorp is no longer holding people on retainer for the case against you, at least no one who wouldn’t be on retainer anyway. There’s no more big legal action being readied, which confirms our suspicion that it’s just saber rattling on their part. Their case was flimsier than a kite made out of paper airplanes.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Azar. “Am I safe, then?”

“That brings me to the bad news. There’s some… talk… in certain circles that began almost immediately after they stopped the legal prep. Someone with lots of money to throw around, or lots of money on the line, is looking to hire the sorts of people who break legs. You get me?”

“I think so,” said Azar. Zack nodded expectantly, waiting for his client to continue, but Azar just stared at the floor, looking worried and weary. After a few tense moments passed, Zack cleared his throat and continued.

“I still don’t like how Bristlecorp set up their legal action. It was sloppy. Rushed. These are people who make Faberges acting like they want to make an omelet.”

“Barris says that they’re acting like a dying animal in its death throes.”

“They are. And that’d make a lot of sense if you were being chased by a wounded orangutan or space tiger that no one had noticed roaming around town before, but major interplanetary corporations can usually keep themselves together a little better than this.”

“Can I trust you?”

“Of course,” said Zack, smiling. “Why couldn’t you?”

“Sister Barris has told me that the people in your line of business aren’t just about protecting people. She’s told me that some of you are hired to track down people like me. Sometimes, the Desperate Measures Agency winds up eliminating targets for the right price. She says she trusts you… but she’s also said some terrible things about the kinds of people who work with you.”

Zack narrowed his eyes and looked out the door into the entry hall. Sister Barris was reading the newspaper at the little table she’d set up for herself, but suddenly looked like she was trying very hard not to listen in. Zack turned back to Azar.

“All the cards on the table,” said Zack. “The Desperate Measures Agency has assassins. It does. I’m not proud of that. Keeps me up at night sometimes. The DMA’s one of the shadiest rackets in the shadiest city of a shady planet. The city’s name used to be Desperation, and renaming itself after the planet hasn’t done much to improve it yet. But I’ve never taken that kind of job from them, and I never will.”

“I’m supposed to trust that?”

“You’re supposed to trust Barris. She’s the cagiest, craftiest, and most aggravatingly thorough lawyer I’ve ever met, and she needed a quick friend in a low place. She and I’ve done a little work together before, even if it was different from this, so she knew a little about me before this all started, but trust me when I tell you that if I hadn’t been trustable then you wouldn’t be talking to me.”

“What if no one is trustworthy?”

“If no one was trustworthy, you wouldn’t have gotten your money in the first place,” said Zack. “If the society had gotten that hopelessly corrupt, you wouldn’t be in so much danger. Now, as to my company… the DMA won’t offer its employees a job to work against you since Barris already hired me, but that won’t stop some of the people there from getting the job elsewhere. Ultimately, the problem’s still the same: any assassin, bounty hunter, or hitman for hire might be approached about this job, and if the DMA’s not offering their employees the bounty then people will start taking a look at the agents who’re protecting people. It’s going to be a little riskier for me to come talk to you directly, at least for a while, so part of what I need to set up is a system for contacting you that won’t be noticed. It might even help if you and I aren’t on the same planet, but I don’t want to rush into that. Rushing leads to mistakes. My guess is that you won’t have to wait long before this starts to blow over, but in either case we can get through this by going slow and steady. Sound good?”

***

Maul hid behind the dumpster, watching the far end of the alley. He patted down the tufts of fur around his head, worried that they might stick out too far and give away his position, but so far no one had looked between the two buildings or even walked in front of them. He might be in the clear.

He closed his eyes, inhaling and exhaling slowly to calm his nerves. He’d been hiding for three minutes. He’d give it another two.

The brick wall behind him burst apart and a massive, manacled hand shot through the flying bricks and debris. Maul screamed as the bricks and mortar spiraled, moving with a precision and calculated grace, somehow falling around him without immediately crushing him. The hand, bearing the legally mandated gauntlet that was known to thousands of irate fans across a dozen worlds, clamped onto Maul’s shoulder.

Soon, it was silent. The clattering of bricks had stopped, and the only sound was Maul’s panicked breathing as he stared into the stern face that he’d seen so often when he was just a cub. The human… if he was a human… appraised Maul with an appropriately glacial speed before speaking.

“You used to work for Azar.”

“N…”

The faintest twitch of a finger on the gauntlet and spasms of pain shot through Maul’s shoulder. The news reports hadn’t been exaggerated.

“Yes!” he said. “Yes, he hired me! Me and my friends!”

“I’ve spoken to your friends. Where is Azar now?”

“I don’t know,” wailed Maul. “I don’t know. He left a chip for each of us. There was over a year’s pay on mine with a note saying that he probably wouldn’t be able to rehire us. Said some scary people were looking for him.”

“Good,” said the man. “Your friends said the same thing… either you got your stories straight in advance, or you’re all telling the truth.”

“Just don’t hurt me, okay? I don’t… I don’t know where Azar is, and I don’t want to die.”

“I’m not going to kill you. I just need a little help.”

“Okay. But… look, that job’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Azar’s a good guy. I don’t want to hurt him, okay Iceberg?”

There was a moment of silence before a pained sigh. The man’s gauntlet released Maul’s shoulder, and the lion-like alien dropped to the ground, clutching his upper arm.

“I’m not The Iceberg anymore. It’s just Harold now.”

Episode 54: Interrogation Techniques

“Be ready to blow that ship out of the sky.”

Ensign Trell looked over her shoulder, surprised at Captain Calen’s order. The Captain sat in her chair, watching the view screen intently. Calen noticed Trell’s scrutiny and sat up straighter.

“Is there a problem, Trell?”

“No, Captain. I was just surprised.”

“That ship is a representative of the Dyson forces, and no matter what our guest believes that makes the ship’s crew party to the conquering of Morcala. Our home, world, and culture were all taken from us today, and I’ll taste vengeance eagerly at the first sign of any treachery.”

“Captain Ortega’s out there, though,” said Trell. “He’s almost reached the Dyson vessel. Destroying it now would kill him.”

“He knew the risks when he volunteered to suit up and fly over there. And don’t forget, Ensign, that the Dyson vessel’s not the only one over there capable of treachery.”

“Do you honestly think Captain Ortega would betray us?”

“He might assist the vessel in eluding us. Ortega knows how we feel about this act of mercy, and that any act of resisting on the part of the Dyson vessel’s crew would make it no longer worth our time to answer this distress call. If the legends about Captain Ortega are true, he would rather help a criminal like that escape than face certain death at our hands.”

“And if he escaped alive, we would be the villains of that story,” said Trell. She looked back at the view screen and saw the image of Captain Ortega’s rocket pack pushing him through the Cypulchral Cloud, nearly at the Dyson vessel.

“There’s no shame in being the antagonist in another’s tale of glory, Trell,” said Calen. “You’ve got a long career ahead of you, so it’s best to learn that lesson quickly. But we must strive to be the heroes in our own glorious tales. Captain Ortega and the Astroguard aren’t our steadfast allies, and their values differ from ours in many ways. Power up the weapons.”

***

Captain Ortega drifted through the outer airlock door, grateful that whoever built the vessel had designed it to accept the basic entry commands most well known throughout the Angelor Republic. Either that or the pilot of the vessel had altered the commands to make it easy for him to get in. Few had more experiences with far-flung human technologies than Captain Ortega, and fewer still had more experience with alien vessels, and he’d expected from the beginning that the Dyson ships were primarily made using local parts. The Empire was presenting itself as a foreign force that was gradually assimilating the cultures it conquered, but everything Ortega had seen of it so far seemed just a little too “local.”

A red light signaled the start of the cycling process, and Ortega promptly activated the magnetic locks in his boots so that he wouldn’t crash to the floor when the gravity turned on. Cycling the air and repressurizing the room happened quickly, and soon the door to the true interior of the ship rolled open. A man with scraggly black hair and a clean cut beard stood on the other side, wearing a simple uniform with a Dyson Empire symbol and a shaky smile.

“Oh, thank you!” he shouted. “I can’t believe it. I was certain that I’d be drifting through this horrible cloud forever.”

“Glad to be of service,” said Ortega, still wearing the helmet of his flight suit. “I want to point out that this isn’t exactly a friendly rescue, as you’ll be taken into custody as a prisoner of war.”

“I guessed that,” said the man. “I didn’t think Morcalans took prisoners. But judging by your uniform, you’re not Morcalan. Unless there’s some sort of partnership between them and the Astroguard.”

“Nothing more than a few non-aggression pacts,” said Ortega. “I should warn you that the other two people with me are Morcalans, though. They’re eager to have your head for what the Dyson Empire did to Morcala.”

The man grew quiet and drummed his fingers together. Ortega looked at his demeanor, curiously.

“What’s wrong?”

“I actually don’t know what happened out there,” said the man. “I came into the system running into the cloud. What did we do, exactly?”

“The Dyson Empire successfully convinced the Morcalan armada to surrender. Officially, at least. Knowing Morcalans, there are probably all sorts of ragtag pockets of resistance forming.”

“Wait, we actually did it?” said the man. “That’s amazing. Between you and me, I didn’t think Morcala would fall.”

“Your troops eventually fell back,” said Ortega. “Then some sort of… weapon was pulled into play. What was it?”

“What was what?”

“The weapon,” said Ortega. “It temporarily blacked out the sun, and destroyed dozens of Morcalan vessels.”

The man became quiet.

“I’m really not supposed to-”

“You’ll talk,” said Ortega, lunging forward and causing the Dyson soldier to leap back. “I’ve got two angry Morcalans back at the ship, and they’re going to need something. We’re going to be taking your computer and all the information on it, but that’ll take time to process. What won’t take time is you telling me about the weapon, this dangerous super weapon that’s allowed Dyson to steamroll over every system he’s invaded. You’ll tell before I reach the limit of what the Astroguard’s interrogation techniques allow, or you won’t have the time to tell the Morcalans before they start their interrogation techniques. Take this offer now, soldier, it’s the best you’ll be getting.”

“Right,” said the man. “Right. Sorry. I’m not used to this whole… prisoner of war thing. Right.”

“Let’s do this right,” said Ortega. “I’m Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard, officially interrogating you, and yes my suit is recording this conversation. Your name please?”

“I’m Wi… wait, Andrew Ortega? Are you th-”

“Yes. That’s not important now. Name?”

“Pilot Wilson Tan, non-conscripted soldier of the Dyson Empire.”

“Non-conscripted?”

“As far as I know, the empire’s not needed to enact its conscription protocols yet. I’ve only encountered volunteers and robotic or computerized soldiers so far. I joined up about a month after Dyson conquered Mancala.”

“Why’d you join up so readily?”

“The money was good,” said Tan. “It pays better if I die in action but I’m trying to avoid that, much as I’d like my folks to cash in. And Dyson’s rule hasn’t exactly been too bad.”

“Oh?”

“No, it’s almost identical to how it was before. We’re using the same money, keeping most of the same politicians in charge… from what I’ve seen, he’s hands-off.”

“You’re not worried about the potential changes that might happen after he’s taken over more territory and stops focusing on the war?”

“Of course I am. There’s not much I can do about that, though. Every time I hear about a resistance movement or some counter-invasion, it never goes anywhere.”

“Naturally,” said Ortega. “Now that we’ve got the basics cleared up, you’re going to tell me about that super weapon, the thing that blacked out the sun. What was it?”

Pilot Tan hesitated and thought carefully about his words. Ortega raised an eyebrow and tilted his head in the direction of the airlock. Wilson wasn’t sure if Ortega was referring to the hard vacuum mere feet away or the Morcalans back at the ship he’d come from, but either way he continued.

“What you just saw was The Emperor’s Eye.”

Episode 53: Get Set

Carmen ran back to her asteroid and climbed up the short staircase along the side of it. She grabbed the headset from the rocks when she jumped off of the stairs, and put it on her head. The roar of the audience through it was exciting as always, but she changed the headset’s channel to the one she’d set up for Zack as “Crew Member Zero”, a channel name that would probably freak Zack out for being too conspicuous, something that she hoped to tell him about years down the line just so that she could see the look on his face, assuming he survived the assassination attempts. Realistically, she knew that the only people who would see the channel names were technicians and assistants for the different racers, so it would be fine despite Zack’s hypothetical concerns.

“Back,” she said. “Sorry, I took a detour.”

“About time,” said Zack. “I was starting to worry that you’d miss the start of the race.”

“That’s crazy talk.”

“What was the detour?”

“A couple other racers wanted to talk before the race.”

“About what?”

Carmen started to answer, but wondered just how Zack would take the information that she’d agreed to a truce between three other racers that might get in the way of covertly dropping him off on Mandrake.

“Shop talk,” she said. “And lots of sports-appropriate insults to let the other people know just how badly they’ll lose. Also a few pre-set agreements about who would be taking on whom, and how. Howm? How.”

“Okay,” said Zack. “Okay, good. Standard procedure then.”

“Here’s a crazy hypothetical that’s come to mind, though,” said Carmen. “Dropping you off on Mandrake sort of assumes that it won’t be inconspicuous for me to take the big detour since I’m one of the only racers crazy enough to go for the glory on a ridiculously slim chance for a speed boost, right?”

“Right.”

“It occurs to me that the other two crazy racers who might do that are also in this race, and have a good shot at being right behind me. I can time your drop off so you know when to jump when we’re the least likely for you to be picked up by a satellite, but these two have pretty sharp eyes. Does that change your thoughts on this at all?”

Zack didn’t respond from the other end of the line.

“Zack?”

“That’s bad,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. That’s why I’m letting you know about it and looking for input.”

“Well, if they follow you, can you slow down so that they don’t see?”

“No way, man.”

“Carmen, I know this race is important to you, but I can’t be seen.”

“Dude, I’m not saying that for me, I’m saying it for you. If they ask me after the race why someone went skydiving from my rock by Mandrake, I can give them some sort of explanation. If I suddenly slow down, though, that brings more eyes to me. If I make it look like I’m hiding something, then it gets mondo suspicious, you get me? That strands you on the planet with everyone who watches asteroid racing wonderin’ why The Crimson Cruiser’s trying to cover something up. I know you’ve got more experience with this Desperate Measures Agency, but I’m guessing that since the cat’s out of the bag that you and I know each other, at least for two of the people after you, someone’s gonna put two and two together to figure out where you’re hiding.”

“Right,” said Zack. “Right, sorry. I’m not thinking this through.”

“Plus I don’t plan on hurting my chances to win here unless you absolutely need the save.”

“Your concern is truly touching. If anyone asks… tell them that I’m doing some sort of survey of the jungle, and don’t want to hurt the environmental conditions by setting up a permanent landing site with a ship for as long as I’d be there. Since I’ll be there so long, it’s more ecologically beneficial for me to dive in, and you’re helping.”

“Pass,” said Carmen. “That breaks all kinds of racing regulations. I’d only do something like that if I wasn’t racing.”

“Got any better ideas?”

“You’re a mad crazy thrill seeker, looking for your next big dive and wilderness trip: space to surface to survival of the sickest. I’m giving you the boost, and I’m doing it during a race to cover up for your lack of interplanetary papers since you’re on house arrest ever since you got caught climbing a skyscraper.”

“That’s horrible.”

“No, it’s awesome.”

“I mean, my idea broke racing regulations, but I’m guessing yours does as well. How’s it any better?”

“Because in mine, you’re breaking the rules to break the rules, but in yours you were trying to do something noble.”

“How is that worse?”

“Trust me, the racers I’m worried about aren’t snitches. They’ll keep an adrenaline rush secret before they’ll keep a ‘jungle survey’ secret. Now, settle down and get comfortable, Gamma, because the race is about to start.”

“But-”

“Trust me,” she said. “No more time to plan. Only time to shine.”