Monthly Archives: April 2015

Episode 75: Competitive Rule Breaking

Carmen listened to Xorn’Tal’s line go dead as her competitor-turned-conspirator let her know that Zack was en route to an ideal launch point. Her feed to the race’s color commentary had started taking an unusual turn, as Mark Matthews and others were commenting on the fact that not one of the three racers who’d pre-qualified had yet come back from the other side of Mandrake. As that was in the neighborhood of the Phantom Matador’s last appearance, some people were starting to put the pieces together, even without any handy satellites to tell them what was happening in real time.

“It’s no secret that the Phantom Matador’s been bothering the other racers,” said Mark Matthews. “Could we be looking at an old fashioned rumble that left the beaten path to head down a rocky road? I’m sure we’ll have more details soon, race officials are already on their way out there to investigate. Speaking of rocky roads, though, we’d like to thank Galacticream Confectioneries for sponsoring this broadcast of the race, and providing complimentary ice cream to everyone here in the studio.”

“How right is he? Did you three decide to just abandon the race for a chance to apprehend me?”

Carmen closed her eyes. She’d been able to feel the Phantom Matador walking closer for some time now, just as she was sure that he’d be able to tell wherever she was on the rock. He’d hesitated before approaching, making Carmen think that he was nervous. He also had his own feed to listen to racing commentary… or he had hearing good enough to listen to hers.

“Walk away before I end you,” she said. “Find some quiet spot on the opposite side of the asteroid, and maybe I won’t get rid of your oxygen before we turn you in.”

“That’s harsh,” he said. “And you wouldn’t survive without breathing any more capably than I. And who’s to say that I wouldn’t be able to provide my own oxygen?”

“Geeze, even your trash talk’s flowery,” said Carmen. “I’m not talking about this. Either walk away or get ready to get wrecked.”

“I see,” he said. “I’m sorry that you-”

Carmen spun in place, pulled the blaster from within her jacket, and fired.

Zack was right. He wasn’t where she could see him now that she was looking in the other direction… but she’d been able to feel him just fine. Her petrakinetic connection to her asteroid let her know exactly where he was standing.

The bolt of the blaster fire visibly impacted something, and the image of the Phantom Matador spasmed, twitched, and fell to its knees before drifting to the left until it matched up with what her petrakinetic senses were telling her. He was stunned, and visible cracklings of electric charge were still covering him. He looked up and met Carmen’s eyes, a look of disbelief and stunned betrayal.

“You can’t… guns aren’t permitted.”

“Actually, it says that no firing of weaponry or launching of missiles between asteroids is permitted, a rule that’s always been understood to mean that I can’t shoot you if you’re on an asteroid other than mine. This is just self defense, and still legal. Even if we weren’t in interplanetary space right now, I think the law’d go easy on me since you’re trespassing and I used the lowest setting. But seeing as we ARE in interplanetary space…”

Carmen dialed up the power on the weapon, creating an audible change in its hum. The Matador glared and rose to a knee.

“Hey,” said Carmen. “No. Stay right there. We’re gonna put you away for a long time when we get off the race track, and it’d be a real shame if you made me fry you before we had the chance to do that.”

The Matador didn’t move, but Carmen’s vision began to water. He seemed blurry for a second. Carmen was mostly sure that he hadn’t moved visually, and she could still feel him on the same part of the rock, but he was definitely getting ready for something.

“None of that now,” she said. “Nice trick, but I’m pretty sure it won’t work here. No wonder I couldn’t land a hit on you back in Helix. Too much wood paneling and metal. Is that why no one caught you, even when they nabbed your asteroid? Using that trick of yours to stay out of sight even when people searched?”

“Do you want me to leave to the other side of the asteroid or not?” he asked.

“We’re past that now,” said Carmen. “Wait… no, you couldn’t have used this trick to hide that time, at least not for long. The racing federation has scanners that can look through asteroids, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be tricking those once they’re in range.”

“That’s for me to know,” said the Matador. “So is this how we’ll remain for the remainder of the voyage? Me crouching uncomfortably, and you aiming a weapon at a fellow racer without ever blinking?”

“I don’t need to keep watching you to know where you are while we wait for the authorities to get here. In fact, based on what Zack told me, it probably helps if I don’t do that.”

“The detective does possess a certain crude intelligence. Tell me, why was he jumping to Mandrake?”

“He wasn’t,” said Carmen, thinking fast. “We saw a chance for him to get to you and take you out. Didn’t quite go according to plan.”

“So that isn’t him jumping again, behind you? There’s a person leaving Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. You’d know that if you just looked…”

“Nice try,” said Carmen. “Look, what Zack does on his own time’s none of my business, and won’t be yours either after you’re in jail.”

“Perhaps we should ask Zack himself,” said the Matador.

With a lurch, Carmen felt her asteroid jerk toward Mandrake, quickly. She growled and shot the Matador. The beam of crimson energy made him spasm violently as he fell back. She looked into the sky, nearly dominated by the jungle-infested planet overhead and tried to regain control of her rock. She’d already been drifting too close to the planet, and now her ride was definitely heading down, and fast.

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Episode 74: Instruction: Jump

Zack released the vine and dropped to Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. The rock beneath his feet was comforting, and the strange plants growing about its surface were strangely welcoming. He’d been in deep forests before, and if Murk was to be believed he’d experienced the Underjungles of Ravelar, but this felt safer. The vivid flora on this asteroid weren’t growing from the asteroid but rather growing upon it, with unearthed roots stretching across the surface. The environment felt like a garden or greenhouse, strangely even warmer than the chilly atmosphere on Carmen’s asteroid.

He took a step and the vines and leaves in front of him began pulling back and shifting to the side, creating a gentle, meandering path. Zack laughed and felt genuine relief about being in a strange, new environment where not everything was calculatingly menacing. He started walking along the path, picking up his pace as he went. The path revealed by the plants was a fast one, and generally avoided the trickier rises that Zack might have been tempted to take to save time. Even the rumbles as Xorn’Tal’s asteroid bumped into the Phantom Matador’s seemed distant and harmless.

He continued walking until a particularly dense clump of bushes parted in front of him, revealing Xorn’Tal, a root-like entity that shared elements with pitcher plants and avocados in Zack’s mind. Zack almost stumbled back, surprised to so suddenly be right in front of the alien.

“Gamma: welcome. Hold.”

“What?” asked Zack.

“Hailing: Carmen,” said Xorn’Tal. Zack noticed the blinking device near what might have been one of Xorn’Tal’s necks, a device that resembled the communication devices he’d seen so far.

“Present: your guest,” said Xorn’Tal. “Safe.”

Zack smiled. It was strange to think that he was about to get down to Mandrake without any more complications.

“Negative: here,” said Xorn’Tal.

“What?” asked Zack. “What’s negative?”

“Carmen: belief,” said Xorn’Tal. “You: there.”

“I’m… where? Back on the Phantom Matador’s asteroid?”

“Asteroid: Carmen’s,” said Xorn’Tal. “Belief: Carmen, you: with Carmen. Belief: me, you: me. Belief: me, eye-fronds: mine.”

“As opposed to Carmen’s eye-fronds?”

“Ha,” said Xorn’Tal, though the translator gave it a hollow, metallic sound no different from the rest of his monotone. Zack couldn’t tell if Xorn’Tal actually found it humorous, or if the laugh was sarcastic.

“Why does she think I’m there?”

“Feels: others,” said Xorn’Tal. “Two.”

“Two? Nectra didn’t take me back to…”

Zack retraced the scene in his mind. There hadn’t been only two people on the asteroid when he’d left. There’d been three. And Nectra wouldn’t leave someone to just die, not if Zack was any kind of judge of character.

“I forgot the Phantom Matador,” he said. “Xorn’Tal, you’ve gotta tell Carmen that it’s not me, it’s the Phantom Matador! Nectra must’ve rescued him after I forgot about him when I was trying to escape!”

“Nectra: good person?”

“Debatable,” said Zack. “Tell her.”

“Phantom Matador: with you,” Xorn’Tal said, speaking into the “headset.” “Entities Nectra and Phantom Matador: your rock.”

A few moments of silence passed while Xorn’Tal listened to a reply. He rolled in place, facing Zack as well as he could.

“Carmen: understands,” he said. “Instruction: from Carmen: jump.”

“What?” asked Zack.

“Gamma: Jump,” said Xorn’Tal. “Sky-dive: perform. Seek: thrill.”

“But…”

“Carmen task: handle Carmen. Carmen: capable. Carmen message: Jump!”

Zack looked at Xorn’tal and then back at the asteroid. He closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath and turned back to the alien plant.

“Right,” he said. “It’s a racer problem now. Good luck putting this guy away, he’s tricky. He can… he can be in two places at once. Or… he can make illusions or something. He’s either making himself invisible and making it appear like he’s somewhere else, or he’s clouding people’s minds when he’s nearby.”

“Gratitude,” said Xorn’Tal. “Task: clear path. Follow. Handy launch point: not far.”

Branches and leaves parted, revealing another clear route. Zack looked at it and nodded.

“Good luck out here,” said Zack. “Sorry that the race didn’t go well.”

“Race: went well,” said Xorn’Tal. “False racer: apprehended.”

“Not yet he isn’t,” said Zack. “But here’s hoping.”

Zack turned and ran along Xorn’Tal’s path, putting Carmen out of his mind as he worried about his jump.

Episode 73: Working It Out

Zack ran across the surface of the Phantom Matador’s asteroid, moving as quickly as he could while trying to keep it from being obvious that he was just running to Xorn’Tal’s asteroid. In truth there were fewer than two hundred yards between himself and the vine alien’s rock, but the curvature of the horizon made it appear further away. Nectra seemed smart, but easily distracted. He hoped that she wouldn’t know what was happening until she was at Carmen’s asteroid and he was either on Xorn’Tal’s or, even better, halfway to Mandrake.

He ran to the top of a ridge and jumped to clear extra distance, but felt a wave of vertigo that pulled him down faster than he expected. Zack slammed into the ground and picked himself up. Half-remembered equations from school involving terms like “tidal forces” and “inverse square law” ran through his head, and he desperately wished he could remember exactly how they worked.

He looked up and could start to see Mandrake peeking over the corner of the ground below him, ground that had previously been above him back when he’d been on Carmen’s asteroid. A short distance away, strange vines colored in bright greens and oranges stretched from another rock, vines that loosely tethered the two asteroids together. Periodically the vine-covered asteroid would bob outward, creating a small chasm, only to have the two rocks be pulled together again with a tremor. Zack swallowed nervously, picked himself up and continued running, closing the distance.

Another sensation of vertigo flowed over him as he neared what he hoped was the place where the two gravity wells overlapped. Under any other set of circumstances he might wonder if there was something medically wrong as he felt pulled “down” in two different directions. He took a deep breath, picked a vine, and jumped.

Zack had overestimated just how strong the gravity “beneath” him was, and flew through the air much farther than anticipated. He frantically grabbed for his target vine before he sailed past it, and felt the leathery, sinuous textures of the alien vegetation from Xorn’Tal’s homeworld (or, alternatively, vegetation that was a part of Xorn’Tal. Zack wasn’t sure how it worked with this particular species, or even what Xorn’Tal’s species was for that matter.) His velocity yanked him toward Xorn’Tal’s asteroid furiously, making him wish that he’d been wearing gloves.

Another rumble shook through the vine as the two asteroids bumped together again, and Zack was relieved that traveling by vine proved more viable than running up to the physical point of connection between the two landmasses. He took a moment to collect his bearings, looked along the vine to the vegetation-choked rock ahead, and started the climb.

***

Nectra was terrified and elated.

It was a common misconception that her species could fly. Most alien races who came from planets with bird or insect analogues recognized wings for what they were, and reasoned that a species with wings could probably attain flight, despite the awkward weight-to-wingspan issue. A very tiny percentage of the shangmere population had the right combination of weight, muscle, wing-type, drive, and recklessness required to attain tiny increases in altitude, but everyone else had to be happy gliding (or, if they were wealthy, purchasing propulsion jackets or anti-gravity harnesses to supplement their wings to the point that they could truly fly.)

Low gravity situations could affect the nature of things, however, and while Nectra knew in her head that she was effectively just using her wings to control a jump from one place that would let her land on another, the actual flapping motions were similar enough that she felt very much like the dreams of flying she used to have when she was little. She was terrified that she’d hit a point that lacked atmosphere and ruin the illusion, but the good news was that Carmen’s asteroid was approaching so fast that it wouldn’t matter either way.

She spun in the air so that her feet were pointing “down”, opened her wings wide to catch what she could of the incredibly thin air, and pulled out her staff to help with the balance. Carrying the Phantom Matador in her hands would make an already tricky maneuver borderline dangerous, but she was convinced that she could handle it.

The human over her shoulder moved suddenly, and she repositioned her staff to try and keep the Matador secured.

“Unhand me!” he said.

“No!” she said. “No, no I can’t do that!”

A voice in her head told her that she’d just missed an amazing opportunity for being smug, and that saying something like ‘You really don’t want me to do that’ would help her seem more cool and collected than she felt, but she shushed the voice.

The human moved again and she heard a gasp.

“No! My asteroid…”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “You were knocked out, and we didn’t think you’d recover this fast! We had to leave quickly, or else all the atmosphere and gravity would start going crazy.”

Nectra hit the ground, hard. Her clawed feet helped to absorb the impact, but she still wound up rolling forward. She’d imagined a graceful somersault in her mind, but wound up face-planting into the ground and sliding. She dropped the Matador, but in an affront to everything fair about the situation he managed to perform the exact kind of roll that she’d visualized, ending with a hop back onto his feet. He looked over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes at her, contemplating.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I think I grazed my cheek. And arms. I’m… fine, but I need something in case of infection.”

“The odds of such injuries becoming infected in an environment like this are infinitesimal,” he said, turning to face her. He knelt down and looked over her face studiously.

“It all looks superficial, too,” he said. “I think that there’s a good chance of rapid healing.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s hard to say anything with certainty, but I believe so. Regarding infections, it may come down to the sort of environment that the racer maintains. Upon which asteroid did you alight?”

“I… don’t know, I don’t really keep track of sports,” she said. “Kinetic something?”

“Kinetic Kuiper?”

“That sounds right.”

He stared at her for a moment before looking over her shoulder. His asteroid was still visible, but already falling away, with two other asteroids crushing it between them, as if trying to manhandle it into a forced landing.

“My vessel is lost, at least for now,” he said. “But perhaps… the time has come to meet Miss Shift herself.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” she said. “Zack Gamma told me that you were causing problems for the racers, she might not want to see you.”

“And where is Mister Gamma?”

“He was running to the other side of your asteroid to try to use Mandrake’s gravity to pull him down so that he could more easily jump from your asteroid to this one.”

“Carmen isn’t on a vector to reach the other side,” said the Matador.

“Then why would he…” Nectra paused. She turned and looked back at the asteroid. A moment later she yelped and held a hand up to her mouth. She looked down, glared at the ground and wrung her hands around her staff.

“He tricked me. He could have just gone to another asteroid. Probably… the leafy one, it was closer.”

“People in his business earn their keep by outsmarting people more intelligent than they,” said the Matador. “It’s a rare talent, and useful. I take it you have business with him?”

“I need to kill him.”

“And you suggest that I cross a line by merely approaching my favored racer? Your priorities are skewed, and possibly psychotic.”

“I’m not crazy,” she said, turning to face him. He met her stare, examining her not-quite-human face and seeing her large eyes.

“I didn’t mean that literally,” he said, finally. “It was a poetic descriptor. Though… there’s a bite to your response. You may not be truly mad, but I recommend therapy. See if you can talk through some of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be going.”

Nectra nodded and watched him walk away. After he cleared a ridge on the asteroid’s surface, she turned back to the sky to look at the green, vegetative asteroid.

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold wasn’t a practiced investigator, but he was thorough. He crossed the ninth name off of the list of DMA Agents who’d been hired for protection work. It was hard to keep tabs on people who were used to working from the shadows, but he was, in time, able to figure out who most of the dozen were protecting, and once he knew that he also knew that they weren’t protecting Azar.

Three names remained on the alphabetical list, names he hadn’t crossed off either because he couldn’t locate who they were protecting or because there was something off about their protections. The fourth name on the list, Fulgurite Octave, was a pyrhian cyborg who went to a bar in a spaceport every Thursday for the last three weeks. From all visual signs, it looked as if Fulgurite Octave wasn’t working at all, but he went to a bank after the bar each time. Thanks to retrieved receipts, Harold could tell that he was depositing money each time, over and above what he was receiving from the Desperate Measures Agency for his alleged protection work. Azar had a lot of money to pay, and an extra fee might be helpful to maintain loyalty from hired protectors, and paying generously for loyalty was a habit Azar had developed if his previous employees were any indication.

The sixth name on the list was Hroob Hrowak, one of the only known surviving Vandecites. Hroob seemed to be protecting Alexander Hirsch, a politician trying to run for a position on the city council. He was running on platforms that could put a damper on a number of the illicit activities in town and elsewhere on the planet, and some very dangerous people had started to offer high prices for Hirsch’s head. Unfortunately, evidence from a bribed mortician earlier in the week suggested that Alexander Hirsch was already dead, so the person that Hroob Hrowak was speaking to through the back door of the Hirsch Recycling Plant couldn’t be Alexander… either that, or the mortician was wrong.

The final name on the list belonged to Zack Gamma, a person who seemed a little too “clean” for working at the Desperate Measures Agency. Harold knew it was unlikely that anyone could join the DMA with a completely clean record, but the work record wasn’t a matter of concern for him yet. Gamma’s job, like Octave’s, didn’t have a listed client, but Zack was going to a laundromat once every three days. After Harold determined the pattern, he was able to get eyes inside. Zack was speaking to one of the proprietors every day, and heading into a back room.

Harold tapped his pen against the last name on the list. Forcing his way into a laundromat would be more visible than he liked, but he didn’t have as many ideas about how to research the other two. Zack Gamma had just taken another job, but it’s possible that it was a dummy assignment meant to throw pursuers off the trail.

Harold smiled, and put the pen down. It was time to meet number twelve.

Episode 72: Rocket Boost

Captain Ortega shot forward, letting the floor of the ruined station’s makeshift landing bay drop away. He was moving faster than Captain Calen’s scuttler, but it had a good head start and would pick up speed quickly. After the lapse of concentration that slowed him in the hallway that led to the station’s exit, he was grateful for the extra seconds that Ensign Trell had bought him by fixing his flight suit’s systems faster than they could reboot on their own. If not for the thick, eerie mists of the Cypulchral Cloud that limited visibility, the scuttler would probably already be moving too fast to catch.

Ortega zipped through the mist, keeping his eye on it as it picked up speed. The mists began to obscure the ship, and Ortega knew that he was moments away from losing sight of it entirely.

“Keep tabs on the target,” he said. The display on the inside of his helmet drew a thin targeting outline around the scuttler, filling in the elements of it that were already too hazy. “Calculate appropriate vectors. If we can’t catch up to it before it leaves ten percent visual contact, go to maximum burn.”

After a second of calculation, a warning appeared on the display, suggesting the likelihood of both catching up to the scuttler and not crashing into it to be low.

“What about getting ahead of it, slowing down, and letting it catch up to me?”

His headset bleeped and information about the difficulty in getting ahead of it was displayed, along with information about how much trickier the local nebulaic conditions would make such a maneuver. Ortega knew that his in-suit computer wasn’t designed with emotions, but he always felt like that particular sound effect was the equivalent of a passive aggressive sigh. Ortega narrowed his eyes at the information and didn’t like what he saw.

“Let’s calculate the best trajectory for crashing into the scuttler. Figure out some way for me to collide with it that won’t leave me crippled, please. Banged up but field stable. Preferably not bleeding.”

The rocket pack burst to life, shooting forward at a speed that effectively blinded Ortega as he moved through the mist. He’d hoped to have a second to compose himself, but the calculations apparently decided that he needed to move immediately.

Suddenly he was along the side of it and rolling in its direction. The scuttler was moving faster, apparently using its scanners to avoid possible debris instead of running without unnecessary computer functions. Ortega banged into the side of it and yelped from the impact, registering even with the armor and inertial dampeners throughout his flight suit. He bounced off and forward as the rocket pack reduced its power.

He knew in his head that the scuttler was probably pushed to the side a bit by his impact as well, but from his vantage it stayed still while he bounced off and forward. With the reduced power of his jet pack, the scuttler moved forward from his point of view and he veered to the side again. This time he could brace for impact, but it didn’t help; his shoulder banged into the hull of the vessel, slid along it, and bounced off of a metallic extension causing him to not only ricochet off of the scuttler’s surface, but to spin in place. The spin caused him to lose ground as the scuttler continued, but ended with him facing the ship and rocketing into it. Having crunched into the metal more decisively, Ortega had the time to grab a metallic protrusion. The scuttler chose that moment to pick up speed.

The inertia almost knocked him off, but his computer knew the goal and helped to lock his arm into place as it held on to the side of the ship. Ortega took a moment to laugh. It wouldn’t be a comfortable climb to the nearest entrance to the ship, but he’d gotten to where he knew he needed to be.

Episode 71: Arretryp

Ortega jumped from the plinth of black marble, activated his rocket pack and shot for the door of the neon control room. The ion thrust provided by the pack wasn’t meant for confined spaces, but by rapidly activating and deactivating them it was possible to create a fast, reckless “skip” across the ground. His left foot touched the floor midway between the plinth and the door, and his right foot connected in a hop by the exit.

The long hallway toward the exit provided a safer venue for regular flight, and given the short amount of time available before Tan could take off and strand them in this space station forever he was willing to risk it. He propelled himself down the hallway of red metal, shooting beyond the crystalline structures that rested in the holes in the walls. He didn’t notice the crystal that changed its color as he moved beyond it.

The strange machines and weird structures behind the walls took note of the fastest behavior in the corridor in uncounted ages, a speed only noticed thanks to the existing damage. How long had it been since the last orders from on high? Death to Morcalans. Shatter the resistance. Activate the chronospores. Defend. Fall back and defend. Destroy the intruders.

This interloper didn’t have the raw life of the Morcalans, it had something different. And the species was the same. The orders were clear.

{ARRETRYP}

The sensation of the word rammed into Captain Ortega’s mind with the precision of surgical lasers and the force of an avalanche. The impact of the moment suggested that everything was wrong. Every way that Ortega had learned to look at the universe, every element of learned society and biological nature, it was all wrong. Not illusory just… wrong.

He wasn’t flying down the corridor. The crystal had grown from the walls to catch him, and had always been there. Where the rock held his arms and legs, the crystal burned. The burning spread like electricity through a highly conductive metal. Ortega screamed, dizzy.

{You fail,} came the words. {I died so long ago, but still see you fail. Yes… you’re a real hero now, aren’t you?}

The words were coming from somewhere. He wasn’t hearing them, but they were definitely issuing from somewhere. Some unknown sense beyond the standard five brought them. He’d always felt the input from the sense, but didn’t know it could provide different information. Didn’t he?

{Do you not wish to speak?}

“Who are you?”

The burning intensified for a moment.

{I would be you,} said the voice. {You are my escape, Captain Ortega. In this moment outside moments, let fear fade. I’ll bring you so many glories, Andrew… You are not of the Morcalans, but you are the same as they are. Let go of your senses for a time, I’ll only need one day to-}

“Astroguard protocol,” said Ortega. “Protocol. It… dictates the proper circumstances for acting as a temporary host for an alien entity. This isn’t unprecedented… none of the requirements are met here. This is not a peaceful contact. This is not… this isn’t right.”

{ARRETRYP}

The sensation of the crystal holding him in place and the burning returned, with a freshness that suggested it was the first time he had felt it. He’d heard about the first time it had happened to him, but no one believed those stories, did they? He screamed again. Something was wrong with what he was feeling right now. He wasn’t sure what, but something was wrong.

{You don’t need to let me become you,} said the voice. {I requested too much. I am fallen. I faded, as was appropriate. I miss it, so… I miss the stars. Long before the Pyrhians claimed their skies, I loved them. I ask merely for a taste. Let me rest in your mind, as a passenger. Surely you would do me this kindness?}

He’d heard about the first time he’d encountered this voice, but it always sounded like he’d been offered something that didn’t fit the proper protocols for being a host. This sounded different. It fit the protocols, didn’t it? What were they?

“The fool is trying to carjack you, and you’re actually considering it.”

Rogers.

“The Soul Survivor. Ortega, you know… you KNOW that the first protocol is your own common sense, and you’ve little enough of that as there is. How many times have you thwarted me by holding on to the belief that something was wrong? How often have you told your superiors that they were wrong, and needed to be reasonable? For once in your life, do something intelligent. You can’t expect me to-”

{ARRETR-}

“I’m not finished!” shouted Rogers in Ortega’s mind. The crystal and fire retreated, as if amazed at the voice they heard, but they quickly recovered.

{ARRETRYP}

There it was. Rogers’ had interrupted it, slowed the resurgence. It wasn’t as sudden as the last time. It wasn’t bad. It was unpleasant. It was definitely not the first time, too.

{I don’t need to be there in full, even,} said the voice. {The tiniest fragment can live on. Merely take me from here, in the back of your mind. I’ll leave you the moment I find a suitable new home.}

“If you’re not there to reason, how will you know a new home?” asked Ortega. “You might fail in reasoning, or never notice an opportunity.”

{I’ll wait as a seed,} said the voice.

“I don’t need to tell you how wrong that is,” said Captain Calen. “An invasive species is asking you for a foothold, and you won’t give one.”

{You’re interesting,} said the voice. {Most people use memories of their friends and loved ones to construct arguments against me. Why do you use memories of adversaries and unfriendly acquaintances?}

“Different points of view,” said Ortega. “Only a fool refuses to see the wisdom of someone who disagrees with them. Doctor Rogers has shown himself to be brilliant over the years, and Captain Calen has shown herself to be a tactical expert over… I think it’s been almost a day since I met her. A long, busy day.”

{ARRETRYP}

Ortega screamed. He could tell it was in his head, though. The scream didn’t happen. Was the pain happening? He forced himself to open his eyes.

He was flying down the hall, nearing the exit. He needed to quickly deactivate the rocket to avoid crashing. How could he let his mind wander like that?

{ARRETRYP}

Crystal and fire.

{You will not leave,} said the voice. {You will not leave while I am still speaking. You will remain outside of time until you agree. Perhaps… if you agreed to let me ride in a device? A CryptoBrick? Primitive… but serviceable. And secure.”

“Nothing’s totally secure,” said Ortega.

{Do you have a better option? Do you truly have some friend or associate with the expertise required to see the danger? I’m sorry, you don’t have those. Do you have an enemy to speak on your behalf?}

Ortega paused. Was there any reasoning beyond this? Friends, family, loved ones, enemies, allies, adversaries, and rivals flashed through his mind. None fit. There was another category, however…

“Promise it that you’ll send an investigative party to safely assess the situation,” said Captain Mayday. “It isn’t suffering in a way that demands immediate response. It’s the best you can offer, Cadet.”

{No,} said the voice. {No, this isn’t right. It’s not… you never even met him.}

“He didn’t need to,” said Captain Mayday. “I’m there for any Cadet who needs me. The Astroguard needs more people like Captain Ortega. And don’t think I don’t remember you from the time I encountered the Vishnari Viceroy.”

{What? No… he doesn’t know-}

“You see his mind,” said Mayday. “You see what he knows of me. You share minds with him, and a part of him can see your mind as well. I know what you know he knows. And what you know. It’s good to see you again.”

{That’s not-}

Captain Ortega gasped, tumbled, and rolled to a halt. Fortunately, his thruster was off and not pushing him into and along the ground faster and faster. He must’ve turned it off when he realized the flight was going poorly, a fortunate instinct grown from too many close calls over the years.

He stood, and saw the corridor’s exit. At the end of the platform outside, he could still see Calen’s scuttler lifting away. He grimaced, activated his rocket pack again, and launched toward it.

The crystalline bulb at the middle of the hallway flickered and went dark, its power expended. The sensors behind the walls detected the malfunction, issued a repair request that would never be received, and again waited for the next sign of an invasion.

Episode 70: Diplomatic Response

Captain Ortega’s eyes shot from Doctor Rogers to Captain Calen, knowing what would happen but not wanting to see it. Historically, the best tactic against Rogers’ ultimatums was to temporarily meet them, giving him time to talk until another opening presented itself. Instead, Calen narrowed her eyes at the request for unconditional surrender and launched herself across the room.

Rogers’ robotic body was faster than it looked, though, and stronger than most humans by far. Getting within arm’s length of it, even when catching Rogers by surprise, was usually the fastest way to lose a situation. Sure enough, as soon as Calen neared, his upper torso spun, and one of his arms slammed into Calen.

Rather than being knocked to the side, Calen latched onto Rogers’ arm and used the impact of the blow to spin around his metallic hull.

“What?!” shouted Rogers.

Calen didn’t respond. Instead, she made a fist and slammed it into the back of Rogers’ crystalline helmet. A crack formed in the metallic dome that sat where his head should have been.

“No,” he said. “Do you really think a single blow would-”

Calen punched the dome again, striking with enough force to make the robotic body stumble forward just to keep its balance. The crack was larger, spreading like a spiderweb. Tiny droplets of water began pushing their way through the transparent crystal.

“Fine,” he said. Electricity arced across his body. Calen screamed in anger, spasmed, and nearly fell off of Rogers, but managed to hold on. Some combination of willpower, experience, training and rage allowed her to push through. She threw her arm forward once more and shattered the crystal. Broken shards of the reinforced dome cascaded from the top of his red armor, carried by the falling water. Ortega was worried that the water would make the electricity more dangerous, but Rogers’ body stopped generating it the moment that his “head” was gone.

The red suit of armor that had contained Rogers crashed forward, falling onto the ground. Calen fell with it, splashing forward onto the floor of the neon chamber, but quickly pushing herself up.

“You and your enemy share one trait, Ortega,” she said.

“We don’t really have time t-”

“You both talk too much,” said Calen. “If he’d activated that electric surge before speaking, it might’ve ended me. Is your suit broken, or just repairing?”

“Repairing,” said Ortega. “But I’ve still got two minutes to-”

“Trell,” she said. “See if you can speed him along.”

“Calen, you need to return to your scuttler,” said Ortega. “Don’t worry about me, get to your ship before Tan takes off and strands us here!”

“Your noble act of self sacrifice isn’t reasonable,” said Calen. Trell ignored the two and ran to the plinth that Ortega had been placed upon when Rogers interrupted the armor. Trell began working on a panel by his arm. Ortega couldn’t see what was happening, but the repair meter on his display fizzled out, worrying him.

“It’s not self sacrifice,” said Ortega. “We need someone to get there quickly, so that all of us can leave!”

“Trell and I can’t make it back quickly enough,” said Calen. “Assuming that Tan has the ability to launch without my say so… something I doubt, but wouldn’t care to assume with any certainty… he’ll be long gone before any of us could run there. You’ve got a rocket pack built into your armor, though.”

“If we’re too far to catch up after running, I don’t think the extra speed of a rocket will help us to get there in time,” said Ortega.

“No, but you might be able to catch up to it after it’s left. With any luck at all, you’ll be able to catch that ship before we’re doomed to eternal seclusion in this haze.”

The display fizzled back into place, and Ortega was pleasantly surprised to see the status display readout indicating that all systems were normal. With a quick spinning of servos, he felt the joints loosen as mobility returned to his suit. He sat up on the plinth.

“His suit should be fully functional, Captain,” said Trell.

“Amazing,” said Ortega, stretching his arm and looking at it. “Thanks, Trell. Good work on-”

“We gained only seconds,” said Calen. “Don’t use them up speaking to us. Leave!”

Episode 69: Double Talk

Nectra dropped her staff and clutched her face. She was taking deep, panicked breaths of air, staring at the ground and shaking. Zack stared at her, again getting the sense that this wasn’t a trained assassin.

“We’re going to die!” she said. “What was I thinking? I just… I just jumped onto a moving asteroid to get out here, and then followed you off of it! And now we’re going to die…”

“Hey, take it easy,” said Zack.

“How can I take it easy?!” she asked. “We’re moments away from this place turning into a complete vacuum! Who knows how long a stunned petrakinetic can keep up something like this? We’ll either drift off and be frozen in space forever, or more likely be pulled into Mandrake, burning up in the atmosphere! Oh, I didn’t want it to end this way, I should’ve stayed in prison…”

“Look, it’s… not that bad?”

“It isn’t?”

Another tremor rocked the asteroid, shaking it violently as Vince Flashman and Xorn’tal’s asteroids worked to pull The Phantom Matador’s asteroid into a different, slower path. Zack looked into the sky behind, and saw Carmen’s asteroid coming up as well.

“Maybe it is,” said Zack. “I think we’re better, though. This isn’t the kind of place that a person should die, so let’s… not die here.”

“Okay,” said Nectra, nodding. “Right. Not die. How do we… not die here? What’s the plan?”

“For starters, I’d probably contact Carmen,” said Zack. “I don’t think my hat can transmit, though, even with the remains of the headset. You really did a number on it.”

“Oh, give it here!” said Nectra, eagerly reaching out with a hand.

“Why?”

“I can fix it.”

“You can fix this?”

“I’m very good at that kind of thing,” said Nectra. “It might even help me relax.”

“Okay,” said Zack. He removed his dented hat and passed it over to Nectra, who eagerly snatched it up and began to reposition the pieces of it. She reached into a pocket and removed a small box with a glass lid. Zack saw a number of unusual tools inside.

“Is that a miniature soldering iron?”

“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t worry, it’s fast acting. I probably won’t even need it.”

“That wasn’t what… good!” said Zack. He looked up at Carmen’s asteroid. It was nearing them, but slowly. It wasn’t moving in to crash into the Matador’s rock like the other two had, unusual restraint on Carmen’s part that meant she probably knew that he was on the asteroid somewhere.

“Do you think you can achieve escape velocity?”

“Maybe,” said Nectra, shaking some wiring inside the hat back into place. “It was easier when it was toward Mandrake and this place was between the first asteroid and the planet. We can’t try to blast off for Mandrake, though, we’ll burn up! I can’t very well kill you if you’re a cinder.”

“Right,” said Zack, taking a step back. “Look, I know we’ve got bigger problems right now, but why are you trying to kill me? I don’t really get a DMA vibe off of you.”

“Mind if we don’t get into that?” she said. “I just need to get your corpse back to civilization, okay?”

“No, it’s not,” said Zack.

“Then keep running from me once we escape,” she said. Before Zack could reply she held up the hat, triumphantly. Zack grabbed it, put it back onto his head, and opened the channel.

“Carmen?”

“Zack?!” said Carmen’s voice. “Zack, are you okay? I told Xorn’Tal and Vince to stop jostling the asteroid, but they can’t ease up too much without letting go.”

“I’m fine,” said Zack. “Well… okay, I kinda shot The Phantom Matador, he’ll be out for a good… let’s call it ten minutes. The shangmere lady followed me out here, but she’s putting a hold on taking me out since we’re moments away from losing our atmosphere with the Matador not able to actively keep the effect going. Unless he can keep his focus while stunned, which I doubt.”

“Great,” said Carmen. “I can pull in as close as I can, try to make it easier for you to get off.”

“What’s she saying?” asked Nectra. Zack waved to stop the second conversation, not sure how to carry on both at once.

“That’s great,” he said. “Look, Nectra thinks she can make it to you now.”

“Couldn’t you also run to Xorn’tal? He’s not that far from you.”

“I thought of that,” said Zack.

“Let her know to keep getting closer, it’ll make it less cold for us,” said Nectra.

“I don’t think she’s thought of that yet,” said Zack.

“Oh, I get it,” said Carmen.

“Right, that’s why you need to tell her,” said Nectra.

“Carmen, she wants you to get closer so that it’ll be warmer when she takes off. As thin as these atmospheres are, that’s a valid request. She’ll take off as soon as she thinks you’re close enough. Meanwhile, I’m gonna run to the other side of the asteroid, try to make it so you can pass between us and Mandrake before I jump.”

“Is that the actual plan, or are you just talking for her benefit?” asked Carmen. “You can probably jump from Xorn’tal’s asteroid more easily.”

“I wouldn’t call it a plan exactly,” said Zack. “I’ll reopen communications if anything changes.”

Zack looked to Nectra who watched him expectantly, her giant eyes not blinking. Zack shook off the unease of being stared at and gestured to Carmen’s asteroid.

“How close does it need to get?”

“The closer the better,” said Nectra. “Well, to a limit. I mean, at a certain point if it gets too close then this asteroid will start pulling toward hers faster, and if your friend’s still thinking about this as a piloted asteroid then she might not adjust properly and the two will start to rapidly drift toward each other and collide, probably killing everyone involved. Honestly, after a point, if it gets closer it’s worse, but until that point then getting closer is better. We probably don’t want to go all the way to that point, though, since that’s dangerous. It wouldn’t be a point of no return, but it’s a point of new dangers. My point, though, is… I’m saying point a lot. What I mean is-”

“I get it,” said Zack. “Get ready to jump, I’m gonna make my way to the opposite side of the asteroid, see if I can make it back to Carmen’s more easily from over there.”

“Be careful,” said Nectra. “We’re getting close to the point where things won’t start ‘drifting up’ towards Mandrake so much as they’ll start ‘falling up.’ Wait, was getting to Mandrake your plan? Oh! Oh, that’s why you came with a parachute.”

Zack looked back at Nectra. She was excited by putting the pieces together but it put her dangerously close to figuring out what he was doing. In a moment of inspiration, he nodded to the fallen form of the Phantom Matador.

“Actually, I was helping Carmen to catch this guy,” he said. “He’s been a a pain to the racers for too long.”

“That’s nice of you,” said Nectra. “Especially with everything that’s going on in your life.”

“Thanks,” said Zack. “Look, I’ve gotta get going, we don’t have long.”

Nectra nodded, and Zack ran off. She watched him go and looked back down to the Phantom Matador.

“Oh! Better not forget you,” she said. She stooped down, and picked up the dazed figure who groaned and shifted. Nectra helped reposition the mask of black cloth that was almost drooping off enough to make his face visible, took the wide-brimmed hat off of his head to make him easier to carry, and put the Matador over her shoulders.

“Let’s get you somewhere safe.”

Episode 68: Crash of the Cuadrilla

Zack felt thrilled. He wasn’t sure how much of his leap from Carmen’s asteroid was caused by the gravity of the planet overhead, how much was caused by Carmen pulling away, how much was caused by the robotic parachute he was wearing, or how much was due to his own two legs, but the fact remained that he was experiencing a successful jump straight into the air. Achieving escape velocity, seemingly under his own power in spite of what he knew about the situation, was nearly remarkable enough to make him forget the near-death situation he’d been in moments earlier. He hadn’t been expecting the sudden deployment of the breathing apparatus, and the sudden cold as he transitioned from the thin atmosphere of Carmen’s asteroid to the thinner atmosphere of the far, far reaches of the uppermost levels of Mandrake’s atmosphere.

His parachute was perplexed. The programmed trip had been from a moving asteroid to the surface of a planet, and by the time it had activated the collision with the incoming asteroid was effectively inevitable. It was still an interesting job, one that it was happy to do of course, but it certainly wasn’t expected when it activated moments after Zack’s jump. Based on the way its wearer was responding, its wearer wasn’t expecting it either. With weary disappointment, the parachute began steering Zack’s ascent/descent toward the incoming asteroid in a route that would, hopefully, be safer than just crashing into it. Milliseconds later, it triggered the proximity alarm, the closest alarm to to the current situation based on what its logic sensors could tell. Finally, it opted not to activate the one-use heat shield. The trip to the next asteroid would be uncomfortably cold, but it would be survivable for the few seconds that it lasted.

“What now?” asked Zack, looking over his shoulder at the parachute. The alarm was worrying. He thought he could see Carmen trying to pin Nectra on the surface of the asteroid below. Suddenly, his orientation shifted as the parachute on his back activated its thrusters, spinning him upside-down. Zack screamed at the sudden spin, not ready for his view to be filled by the green planet that had been overhead moments ago.

Zack took a few deep breaths. The spin made sense. His parachute would want him to land feet first, and it would be better to do that now instead of much, much closer to the surface.

Zack’s view of Mandrake was suddenly blocked by another landmass as another asteroid careened into his path. Zack waved his arms frantically and futilely, not noticing a second set of thrusters activating to cancel the spin and guide his descent. The parachute located a wonderful landing patch, flat and uncomplicated. Even better, someone was already there to lend assistance in case this sudden landing didn’t go as planned. It might not be the trip that the parachute expected, but it was turning into an incredible journey just the same.

Zack prepared for impact as well as he could. Thanks to the relatively small size of the asteroids, only a few moments passed before he saw the asteroid’s controller below him. He’d instinctively expected to see another racer, but grimaced at the sight of the only other option. The Phantom Matador looked up at him, raising a glowing phase sword in greeting.

Zack’s robotic parachute guided his descent, furiously firing the thrusters so that Zack landed with a grace that surprised him. The thrusters and balancing arms in the parachute folded, and he glared at The Phantom Matador as the mysterious man in black spun his sword in a circle, as if preparing for a duel.

“So the fair lady Carmen, greatest of the Asteroid Racers and truest of the petrakinetics, devised a ruse. Rather than hiring people to wait outside of the race to catch me when I arrive or depart as the Racing Federation did, she hires an investigative bodyguard to wait on her very vessel. An ingenious plan. I don’t mind saying that I’ve not anticipated it.”

“What?” asked Zack. Instantly, it occurred to him that the Phantom Matador was the one significant adversary in his life who didn’t know that there was a price on his head.

“Right!” he said, correcting himself. “Carmen’s idea, one I was happy to execute. I admit I’m not used to jumping between asteroids, but I figured it was the best option.”

“I have many prepared steps for dancing with Carmen,” said the Matador. “Many methods of prolonging the celestial chase. But I admit that I’m eager to try my hand at improvising. Don’t expect this to go as well for you as it did at the hotel.”

“Buddy, you’ve got the wrong idea about you and Carmen,” said Zack, drawing his pistols. “If you think she wants to dance with someone who uses a word like celestial, I think you’ve got the wrong idea about her. She’s not interested.”

The Matador’s eyes narrowed. Zack couldn’t see the rest of his face due to the mask he wore, but he imagined from the furrowing of the brow that the Matador was contemplating something. After a moment he deactivated his phase sword and turned from Zack to stare into the sky.

“I know,” he said. “She will almost certainly never see me in that way. But the sport she perfected… the techniques she refined… they will not be denied to me. In time, perhaps she will accept my contributions to the field.”

“If you think any of the racers see what you’re doing as contributing-”

“Why not?” he said. “The rabble adores me, the Federation supports me… I’ve even learned that my statistics will be included in the final listings for the season.”

“What?” asked Zack, his pistols dropping. Something seemed off about that information. Off in a familiar way.

“I won’t be listed as an official racer, of course. My scores will be modified to reflect the fact that I am not registered, and that I always entered races well after the starting line. But perhaps, in time, I can continue my work as a true racer from behind the mask. No career has had such a storied start as mine.”

Zack smiled as the pieces went together. He leveled his weapons at the Matador again, changing the settings to stun.

“Sorry,” he said. “The mask just came off. For me at least.”

“What?” asked the Matador, turning back.

“I know who you are,” said Zack.

The Matador’s eyes narrowed again. The sword in his hand reactivated.

“No you don’t,” said The Matador.

“Oh, I do,” said Zack. “Well… eighty percent sure. Put your sword down, and land on Mandrake unless you want me to shoot you again.”

“You’ve never shot me,” said The Matador. “You only shot the rocks I propelled at you at the hotel.”

Before Zack could reply a thunderous quake ripped through The Phantom Matador’s asteroid, throwing Zack to his knees. Irritatingly, The Matador rolled with the tremor, rocking his legs to keep his footing. The two looked in the direction of the noise and saw another asteroid, slammed into the surface of The Matador’s.

“Flashman,” said The Matador. “The child seeks to interfere.”

Another crash from the opposite direction caused the two to spin. Zack saw an asteroid covered with vines and plants impacting The Matador’s rock. Vines from the new asteroid quickly shot out to wrap around protrusions upon the Matador’s little world.

“No,” said The Matador. “The interlopers have conspired against me.”

“Sorry,” said Zack. “You had to know that this wouldn’t last. Now, put down your weapons before-”

The Phantom Matador spun in place, and like a ballet performer leaped through the air toward Zack. The phase sword in his hand swung down an instant after Zack leaped back himself, the glow of the energy blade ionizing the air in front of him and leaving the scent of evaporating rain. Zack fired with his pistols at close range, but The Matador bent to the side with nearly supernatural speed. As another tremor shook the asteroid from the two racers on either side of the rock working together to bring it down, Zack twirled his weapons and faced his enemy, thinking about the footwork he’d just seen.

“Awful fast there,” he said. “Too slow to peg me, but too fast for me to hit at point blank range?”

“Don’t count on being lucky a second time,” said The Matador, leaning back into a defensive stance, holding his blade ready. Zack took a deep breath and focused on the ground, keeping a close eye on The Matador’s feet.

“People like me don’t get lucky,” said Zack. “Doesn’t stop us from getting people like you.”

The smallest displacement of dust an inch to the left of The Matador told Zack everything he needed. He fired his pistols frantically, and The Phantom Matador tried dodging again. This time the dodge intersected with the blast of energy from the Striker pistols. The Matador screamed in surprise, his sword flickered and deactivated, and he fell to the ground.

“Head games,” said Zack. “Minor illusions. Not enough to really be in two places at once, but just enough to be a little ahead of the curve. I’m betting the mutation that gives you petrakinesis also lets you dabble in that kind of thing, just like Carmen’s gives her some say on how gravity works around her. Am I right? Or are you just ridiculously fast? If so, then I guess I was wrong; I do get lucky.”

The Phantom Matador groaned a response, too stunned to reply, or likely too stunned to be aware of what was happening. Zack saw the hilt of what would be the phase blade if it was activated and kicked it away just before The Matador’s twitching hand could reach out to reclaim it.

“I’m guessing it’s also helped you to stay undetected, but you can explain that from behind bars. Sad to say that I can’t stay around for the trial, but since it looks like Carmen and her two friends will be able to cart you off to jail there’s really no need for me to do that, is there?”

Zack turned The Phantom Matador over with his foot and looked into the stunned eyes of the would-be racer. He leaned down and grabbed the brim of The Matador’s wide hat and the black cloth mask with his hands.

“No reason I can’t satisfy my curiosity and see if I’m right, though. Let’s see who you really are…”

Two clawed feet landed on Zack’s back, propelling him forward and away from The Phantom Matador. Zack rolled to a stop and looked behind him to see Nectra landing between him and The Matador, a mad look in her eyes and a twirling staff in her hand, apparently no longer carrying a sufficient charge to maintain the scythe blade. After a moment, she held up a finger as if asking for a moment while her wings wrapped around herself. She breathed heavily, shivering.

“Nectra?”

“So… cold…”

“In the space between asteroids? Yeah, it’s cold,” said Zack. He noticed an unusual chill in the air, though, something even colder than the already cool air on the surface of the Asteroids. He looked in the air behind Nectra and saw Carmen’s asteroid, closer to The Phantom Matador’s than it had been even when he’d made the jump between the two.

Nectra finished warming up and excitedly looked to Zack.

“Well then,” she said. “We need to finish this. I really am sorry, but it’s the only way.”

“Hold on,” said Zack. “You shouldn’t have been that cold. You were freezing. How long until-”

“Wait, is this asteroid’s racer unconscious?” asked Nectra, seeing the Matador on the ground.

“Well… stunned, maybe,” said Zack.

“This asteroid is completely uncontrolled,” said Nectra, suddenly terrified. “He can’t keep his focus like that. No guidance. No speed. …no one to maintain our atmosphere. Zack, I think we’re moments from total decompression!”

Episode 67: Escape Velocity

Mandrake was a green, chaotic planet named for its sprawling, reportedly dangerous vegetation. The jungles and regions of poisonous gasses gave the world a green glow that was visible even on Veskid. That same glow was now filling most of the sky over Zack’s head as Carmen steered her asteroid closer and closer. Zack had his eyes on the ground, though, as the shangmere’s energy scythe slowly carved an exit to the surface. Zack opened his coat and withdrew his Purcellian Striker pistols, powering them up to get ready for a fight.

“Can’t you just… take the floor away from her, make her fall back to the center of the asteroid?”

“Wouldn’t really work with the way that I’m trying to keep the gravity working,” said Carmen. “And even if it did, I don’t think the asteroid can crunch much more before falling apart. Plus she’s, like, a bat person, right? Doesn’t she have hook hand thingies that could just hang onto the wall long enough to get out?”

“Shangmere, not bat person,” said Zack. “But… yeah, good point on all counts.”

“What’s that blade made out of, anyway? It’s cutting through the rock faster than… well, about anything I’ve seen used on it.”

“Some sort of energy,” said Zack. “She talked about Virellium. From what I’ve heard, that stuff can cut through stone like a knife through warm milk.”

“Virellium?” said Carmen. “Seriously? How’d she get that much?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s not pure. It’s probably some other energy being shaped by trace Virellium particles. Weird thing is she said she could activate it through bits of Virellium still on me.”

“When did you get your hands on some Virellium?”

“Never happened,” said Zack.

“Sure about that?”

“Even with my memory going like a sieve, I’m pretty sure I’d remember encountering Virellium.

The ground near the protruding blade crunched and dropped before coming to an abrupt stop.

“Ow!” said a muffled voice from beneath the rock. Zack let his pistols drop for a moment as the stone slab began uncomfortably rocking from side to side.

“Not quite up to the standards of most people who kill you, is she?,” said Carmen. Her face twitched and her gaze snapped to the left horizon. “No!”

“What?” asked Zack, turning. Another asteroid was coming into view, rising and taking up a large portion of the sky. Zack could barely make out the image of another human standing on top of it, waving like a tourist on a nearby mountain peak. Carmen tapped her headset.

“Not gonna be that easy, Flashman,” said Carmen.

Zack couldn’t hear Vince’s response, but another rumble from the stone slab refocused his attention on the shangmere. With a rolling toss, the stone pitched to the side and fell into the revealed tunnel. With an acrobatic flip, the shangmere rolled from the tunnel and onto the surface of the asteroid. Zack aimed his guns at her, while she looked up with a mad grin.

“Hi!” she said.

“Stay back,” said Zack. “Look, the Desperate Measures Agency’s bounty isn’t worth it if you’re not alive to spend it.”

“I’m not interested in the b… wow, Mandrake looks amazing!”

The shangmere rose to her full height and stared into the sky, watching the massive green orb overhead. Zack stared at the would-be assassin, marveling at the complete focus. The planet was actually visible in her eyes, their larger surface area making such reflections more discernible than when they happened on humans.

“It… does,” he said. “You’re not interested in the bounty?”

She stopped looking at the planet and snapped her head toward Zack.

“What? Right, no, I’m not. Just you.”

“I don’t recognize you,” said Zack. “Are you not a member of the DMA?”

“Oh, no, no I’m not,” she said. “Sorry, I’m not good at this. I’m Nectra, I should’ve said that sooner.”

“Hold onto your hat!” shouted Carmen, leaning forward. The stones of the asteroid creaked and individual pebbles upon it rattled. After the inertial shaking calmed, she looked over her shoulder at Nectra. “Lady, I’m fine giving you a free ride, but don’t tangle with my friends while you’re on my rock. I’ve got too much on my plate today.”

“Can I have your autograph?” asked Nectra.

“Only if you stop trying to kill Zack.”

Nectra sighed with disappointment and jumped at Zack, spinning her scythe in a wide arc. Zack narrowly fell back, tripping over his own feet to stumble backward. Scowling, he fired both of his pistols. The beams of energy bent through the air, diverting from their path and impacting the blade of the scythe. The staff-like handle in Nectra’s hands glowed brilliantly for a second, crackling at the base and harmlessly discharging. Zack gaped at the sight and Nectra exhaled, relieved.

“I’m so glad that worked! I wasn’t sure it would.”

“What?” asked Zack. “You… didn’t even try to dodge. How… how?”

“I don’t have the reaction time needed to move out of the way from a ray gun before you pull the trigger,” said Nectra. “And after you pull the trigger, the beam moves at light speed, so it’s too late to dodge. Fortunately, your files said that you favor Purcellian Strikers. The magnetic charge it carries is divertable. I repurposed my scythe to act like a lightning rod for that kind of energy, letting it harmlessly discharge. Ooh, your hat!”

“What?” Zack said, just in time for it to register that his hat was gently lifting off of his head. He reached up and held it down.

“I meant it about holding on,” said Carmen. “Mandrake’s gravity is pulling us, and the asteroid’s not strong enough to fight that for long, even with me helping it!”

Zack looked up. The planet was filling the sky. Zack looked back at Nectra as she twirled her scythe, preparing to leap again. He jumped back before that could happen, and propelled himself further than intended, almost crashing into Carmen.

“What’s the escape velocity here?” asked Zack.

“Low enough,” said Carmen.

Nectra ran towards the two, sprinting across the surface of the asteroid at a speed that Zack couldn’t believe. He took a deep breath, crouched, and jumped straight up. The ground fell away from him, dropping away at a dizzying rate. Nectra’s bat-like wings unfolded, and she jumped as well, only to have her ankle grabbed as Carmen, jumping at a more practiced angle, passed just beneath her. Carmen yanked down hard, throwing the shangmere to the ground as she landed.

“Don’t!” said a voice in her headset.

“I know what I’m doing, Vince,” said Carmen. “The stowaway tried to interrupt my friend’s jump.”

“I meant your friend shouldn’t jump now!”

“Why?” asked Carmen, looking up. Her eyes widened.

Zack was rocketing through the air, no longer rising from the asteroid so much as beginning to fall toward the upper atmosphere of Mandrake. From the other horizon, hurtling faster than her own rock, came another asteroid. It was zipping on a near-collision course toward Zack.

He was going to crash onto the asteroid of the Phantom Matador.

Episode 66: Standoff

“I’m impressed,” said Doctor Rogers, turning back to the geode display. “I didn’t expect such acting from Morcalans. Typically they only play the role of an idealized version of themselves.”

Captain Calen narrowed her eyes and flicked a switch on her Maelstrom Ray. The device charged, issuing the sound of a higher power level, one midway to its valence setting.

“You’d do well to face me when you speak ill of me and mine,” said Calen. “Ortega says you’re nearly impervious to any killing blow thanks to that suit you call a body, but I’ve never seen the suit of armor I couldn’t break.”

“Calen, calm down,” said Ortega. “Let me talk to him. I hadn’t quite gotten to-”

“I’ll sign to the Farthest Fleet before you talk any further, Ortega,” said Calen. “You’d try diplomacy on an earthquake and haggle with a forest fire to talk it down to a copse. I’ve had enough of your talk, oh legendary captain, and think that your monster hunt needs to end now!”

Trell kept her laser blaster aimed at Doctor Rogers, but her eyes flickered from their quarry to her captain, and then back to Ortega.

“Captain, perhaps our guest has insight here-”

“No, Trell, not this time,” she said. “Captain Ortega has captured and lost this great enemy of his for years, and I’m beginning to suspect that it has less to do with the skill of his adversary than his own incompetence.”

“I won’t have you besmirching the name of Captain Andrew Ortega of the Astroguard,” said Doctor Rogers, turning in place. “He may be a cretin, a fool, and a meddlesome idiot of the highest caliber, and he might also set boundless records for stupidity, but he’s the only one who’s ever apprehended me.”

“Not anymore,” said Calen.

“Any failure to keep me incarcerated is on the part of his superiors,” said Rogers, pacing closer to Calen. “The Astroguard’s facilities are staffed by clods even greater than he. Anyone who doubts Ortega’s abilities must therefore be fools greater than they. In fact…”

“Don’t!” shouted Ortega, interrupting Calen as the finger on her trigger twitched.

“And why not?!” asked Calen.

“He’s baiting you,” said Ortega. “He knows something we don’t, either about this location, his position, or your weapon. He’s trying to lead you to the point where you’ll fire, which will trigger… something. It’s generally a stalling tactic he uses when he’s honestly not sure how to proceed, but knows that he’ll need a quick distraction to get into a better position.”

Doctor Rogers’ metallic body twisted at the waist to glare at Ortega, and the crystalline jar at its top bubbled furiously. Calen growled.

“Trell?” she asked.

“It’s possible,” said the Ensign. “I don’t know what this room is doing, but there’s a lot of ambient energy here, of a lot of different types. It’s possible something here would nullify the… unique behaviors of your Maelstrom Ray, or redirect them.”

“Then let’s not waste time,” said Calen. “Trell, give me your weapon. Shackle this beast, so that we can drag him back to the scuttler. We’re overdue for escaping this cursed place, and as soon as we’ve stopped the madman from working his will we’ll be able to take our leave.”

“Don’t be so sure,” said Rogers. “It’s curious to me that you don’t have a full party assembled… I take it your pilot was left behind?”

“Ortega didn’t use his fancy helmet on him,” said Calen. “He said it wouldn’t be useful until we could be sure that you wouldn’t just reuse his cybernetic lens against him. Then he stopped me from blinding the fellow.”

“A sensible suggestion on Ortega’s part,” said Rogers. “But not, I fear, an intelligent one. The Dyson soldier is still my dear friend, then, and as such the messages I’ve been submitting ever since you two interrupted my chat with Andrew will have been acted upon.”

“What messages?” asked Ortega.

“They don’t translate directly to a spoken language, electromagnetic transmissions of universal symbolism being what they are,” said Rogers. “But know that unless you all surrender to me now, unconditionally, the Pilot will fly away from this space station, and out of the Cypulchral Cloud, leaving us stranded here until the end of time.”