Monthly Archives: May 2015

Episode 88: Spacewalk

“Reactor back online, Captain,” said Ensign Trell, watching the green and yellow glow from behind the fighter-ship’s protective field. “All reactor elements deneutralized.”

“Wonderful,” said Captain Calen. “I’ll go dark. Your power signature will stand against stricter analysis.”

“It won’t do anything for the… ‘window problem,’ though.”

“No,” said Calen. “We’re still vulnerable to visual inspection. My last trace indicated that a few other vessels were drawing nearer. Once your systems are active, you’ll likely have hailing frequencies waiting for you. Captain Ortega and… our friend are on their way back.”

***

“She’s going to kill me,” said Tan, his voice coming through Ortega’s communicator. With a little effort, it had been possible for Ortega and Calen to make a better spacesuit for Tan to wear. At first Calen hadn’t wanted to waste the time or effort, but Ortega pointed out that the previous suit had only barely worked thanks to the insulating properties within the Cypulchral Cloud. Tan’s survival was linked to theirs, and as such Calen eventually relented.

With a better suit, though still a rudimentary one, Pilot Tan had been released into space with Ortega there to guide him back to his own ship or, as Calen had put it, to ‘ward against treachery.’ Captain Ortega felt that Calen’s expectations of subterfuge were warranted for once. Tan had indicated no obvious hostility toward them, but he definitely maintained some degree of loyalty to the Dyson Empire. Besides, Tan’s suit didn’t have magnetic boots to make the walk easier, so he’d need the help.

“She may,” said Ortega, slowly stepping from the edge of the Scuttler to the edge of Tan’s vessel. “She hasn’t yet, though. I do think that if you keep helping us, she won’t feel the need. She’s violent, but I don’t think she’s murderous.”

“How well do you know her?”

“I met her about half a day before I met you.”

“You two go way back, then.”

“Ages. All kidding aside, it’s true that Morcalans are sincere when they threaten murder, but I’ll be around to make sure that doesn’t happen. If you just follow through with the plan, you should be fine.”

“So that makes you the good cop to her bad cop in this ploy to make me turn traitor?”

“That’s how it’s turned out,” said Ortega. “The difference, though, is that Calen and I aren’t on the same team, and most good cops are working with the bad cops. It’s not an act. Or at least… not as much of an act as it should be. I do approve of this operation, but I don’t approve of Calen’s tactics, or her alternate plans. She’s been a good host, though, letting me wander about when a different captain might have just tossed me into the brig.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is that you can reason with her as long as you meet her midway. Before the threat of the Dyson Empire became so apparent, my priority had been getting back to the Astroguard with Doctor Rogers in tow.”

“The Soul Survivor?”

“His name is Doctor Silas Rogers. But yes, him.”

“Are you sure?”

“About what?”

“His name?”

“Of course,” said Ortega, stepping around a protrusion of the outer hull as they neared the airlock. “Events from his personal accounts of the disaster match known details about himself from before the incident.”

“What if he was just a robot who got confused? A robot who happened to know a lot about Doctor Rogers?”

“No evidence suggests that to be the case,” said Ortega. “Even if that was the case, though, it wouldn’t change how Rogers saw himself.”

Ortega swung his leg into the airlock with a practiced step, grabbed Tan’s hand, and helped Tan to step through. He firmly set his feet on what would soon become “down” once the airlock began its cycling process, something that happened quickly enough to make him think that Trell was eager. The door behind them closed, and air began to filter into the small chamber.

“Doesn’t he see himself as the Soul Survivor, though? The mental instructions from when he brainwashed us all were pretty clear on that part.”

“Valid point,” said Ortega. “Odds are good that that’s simply a delusion, though, since he still remembers his old life. Now… let’s get you inside.”

As if on cue, gravity kicked in and Tan stumbled. Ortega was prepared to catch him and prevented it from turning into a prat fall on the floor.

“You must do a lot of this,” said Tan.

“Not as much as you’d think. I get the sense that you were rushed through your training. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take too long to get your space legs.”

The door in front of them clanged, shook visibly, and spiraled open to reveal Ensign Trell.

“Just in time,” she said. “The messages were starting to get threatening. We need you in the communicator’s chair, right now.”

She grabbed Tan’s arm and pulled him down the hall. Ortega jumped into place a step behind them. The ship had more interior space than the weaponry-laden Scuttler, but it was still a short run before reaching the “bridge”, a narrow area that barely qualified as more than a cockpit. Trell pushed him into the chair, stepped to the side, and pulled out her laser blaster.

“What’s that for?” asked Tan.

“Incentive not to double cross us, prisoner,” said Trell. “Don’t worry, I won’t need it if you play along.”

Episode 87: Starprey

Zack finally extricated himself from the parachute and looked up at Mandrake’s sky. It was a vibrant blue-green, an exciting color that he almost found more appealing than Veskid’s perpetually bluish-gray. He’d heard that one of the reasons humans didn’t like Veskid’s outdoors was because it was a lot like the sky on the ancestral home of Earth, but only if Earth was perpetually overcast and on the verge of bad weather. He’d never been to Earth himself, vast interstellar distances being what they were, but he assumed the people who said things like that knew what they were talking about even if he’d never minded the sky too much one way or another.

He knelt and started folding and packing the robotic parachute back into its compartment, a job that the parachute mostly did itself (making his misadventure on the Phantom Matador’s asteroid more bearable), but it helped him to focus. He was happy, and he wanted to enjoy it.

He’d done it. He’d actually gotten off of Veskid and onto another world. Being declared “dead” by the Desperate Measures Agency was a death sentence for most, but the twelve minute head start Igneous had given him meant he’d set at least two records, one for the amount of time survived and another for distance traveled. He wasn’t in the clear… he’d probably never be in the clear… but he had already beaten the odds. It was good to have a friend like Igneous who’d help him escape instead of collecting the bounty herself, someone he could actually trust even with the temptation of the huge payout. He owed nearly every moment of survival since that night to Igneous and, of course, Carmen.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d have to wait for Carmen, but he felt like he could enjoy it. Carmen was a risk taker, but she was smart enough to know that a calculated risk was better than a wild one. She selected this clearing specifically as his landing site and their rendezvous point, so he felt a certain amount of certainty that as long as he played it smart the local wildlife wouldn’t be killing him.

“Don’t move,” said the voice behind him.

Zack jumped and spun in the air, wildly unholstering one of his pistols. A bolt of black metal, fiberglass and plastic collided with his pistol and knocked it out of his hands. He found himself staring into the face of a human woman who was already putting another arrow into place and drawing it back. She was dressed in greens and browns and purples… camouflage appropriate to the jungles of Mandrake… and glaring at him intently.

“I said don’t move,” she said.

“Where did-”

“Let me talk,” she said. “Why did you come to Mandrake?”

He thought over Carmen’s original suggestion. It was best to keep stories straight between co-conspirators, and the question meant that whoever this archer was, she wasn’t a DMA agent.

“I’m a… thrill seeker?”

“Thrill seeker?”

“I had a chance to parachute from space to a wild jungle world, and… wanted to see the sights until my ride picks me up.”

“Great. Nice job on the landing. You need to leave now.”

“I can’t do that until my ride gets here.”

“Listen,” said the woman, un-notching her next arrow and holding the bow at her side, “there are people on this world who’ve learned not to trust offworlders. Poachers, tomb raiders, industrialists, and other treasure hunters have come here looking for a quick buck, and it’s harmed their cultures. They barely tolerate me. If you don’t get offworld quickly, they’ll show up and try to finish you off because believe me when I say that they already know about you. They watch the skies for reentry, and they can figure out likely descent trajectories.”

“Thanks for the warning,” said Zack, experiencing a familiar feeling. “And the vote of confidence.”

“Vote of confidence?”

“You said they’d try,” he said. “Not that they’d finish me off. You think I’ll survive.”

“Oh, no, that’s not it at all,” she said. “Like I said, I’ve only just barely got their trust. If I think they’re about to show up, then I finish you off to save face.”

Zack took a step back and held up his hands.

“Hey now,” he said. “Hey, take it easy. I came in peace. Let’s not get violent. We’re both humans here, just trying to get by on an alien world, right?”

“Not anymore,” she said, resetting the arrow and aiming it at him again. “I’m a Sthenite now. And you’re Starprey.”

Episode 86: The Yellow Jacket Bounty

Amela jumped up from her chair as the mechanical door to her cramped apartment crashed off of its sliding track, through her living room and straight into her kitchen, an explosion accompanied by a rapid increase in heat. She grabbed the rifle propped by her viewscreen and turned back to the door just in time to see a towering, brightly glowing behemoth grabbing the rifle out of her hands.

The monster was squat, despite its statuesque height, and glowing like a coal. It generated heat as if it was made of fire, a property it demonstrated as it crushed the rifle between its two hands. While the obvious strength of the creature was apparent, the rifle also began melting at its touch, likely contributing to the ease with which it crumpled the device. It did so skillfully, avoiding the energy packs and capacitors within the rifle that could cause it to detonate. It tossed the former weapon over its shoulder as Amela cowered back into the kitchen.

“Get out!” she shouted at it, once her back was against the sink.

“No,” it said. “No time for niceties. My name is Igneous, and I’ve had a rough day. You’re a key lieutenant in the Yellow Jacket’s smuggling operations, and I want off world.”

Amela tried processing the information. After hearing it speak, she realized that the creature was probably a Pyrhian, though she’d never seen one with so much heat. She could make out a rocky hide that was nothing but cracks. She gulped and moved into business mode.

“You break into my apartment with no explanations and expect me to let you buy a ticket just like that?”

“You’ll give me a free ride,” said Igneous, the tips of the stony crown that ringed her head glowing white hot. “Paying for passage is traceable, even in an illegal venture like the Yellow Jackets. You’re a wanted woman, and I’m in the DMA. If I don’t get what I want from you, I’ll bring you in for the bounty and move on to the NEXT smuggling operation.”

Amela almost laughed at the suggestion that anyone would think it would be that easy, but she’d received an unsettling report earlier that morning. If the reports from the perpetual war of espionage between the competing outfits in Veskid were worth half of the expenses put into them, the late-morning discussion of a major problem with the Chrome Chids operation was worrying in the context of this intrusion. Details were sketchy, but several members of the gang, members who’d had protection bought from all the right legal agencies, were in jail and awaiting trials. It brought certain activities to a standstill on top of being an embarrassment.

“Are you saying… the Chrome Chids…”

“Disappointed me,” said Igneous. “They thought I was joking. I’m sure they’ll be on the streets again by tomorrow, but today’s losses will cost them. They’ll cost you as well if you don’t help me out here.”

“You can’t… you think there’s not going to be a bounty on YOUR head by this time tomorrow?”

“Do I LOOK like someone who’s worried about living much longer?” said Igneous. “I don’t have much longer until the metamorphosis.”

“But… metamorphosis isn’t dying…”

“It might as well be these days,” said Igneous. “If what they’re saying about Xol’s return is true at all, the fourth stage of the Pyrhian life cycle isn’t all I’m cracked up to be.”

Amela didn’t stop cowering, but she did raise an eyebrow at the turn of phrase.

“That was a joke,” said Igneous. “Laugh at my joke.”

“Ha…ha-ha?” said Amela. “Listen… if I can’t pull this off…”

“If you give an honest effort, you won’t end up like the Chrome Chids,” said Igneous. “But you can do it. I have every confidence that you can arrange my passage, and save me the trouble of tracking down any members of Mantis.”

“Those losers?”

“After the Chrome Chids and Yellow Jackets they’re the best smugglers in town. Not nearly as good as you, of course, but at that point beggars can’t be choosers.”

Amela nodded.

“Where to?”

“Mandrake.”

“Mandrake?! I don’t have any ships heading to Mandrake! No one goes to Mandrake!”

“I do,” said Igneous. “I’ve got a friend there I need to meet.”

“Why?”

“So that I can kill him before another friend beats me to it.”

Amela narrowed her eyes at the comment. She thought about asking for more details, but years of experience had taught her better. She sighed.

“Fine… Fine. Let me find my logbook.”

Episode 85: Triangulated Progress

Carmen stopped mentally prodding her asteroid and took a deep breath.

“Okay, we’re cool. I don’t think we’ll be crashing today.”

“That would’ve made an amazing news story, though,” said Vince, releasing his mental hold on the asteroid as well. “I can just see the headlines. ‘Flashman and Shift Missing on Mandrake: Racers Presumed Dead After Nebula Cup Qualifier.’”

“I think you got our names backward on that one. No way I’d get second billing to you.”

“They’re going alphabetically,” said Vince. He looked up from the rocky terrain of the asteroid and saw the comforting expanse of stars overhead. He knew that if they stood on the opposite side of the asteroid they’d see Mandrake filling the sky, and that its toxic rain clouds and vast jungles might just be discernible from this altitude. Instead, he saw the comforting image of three other asteroids, one being his own.

“Now we’ve just gotta get me back to my ride,” he said.

“Thanks again,” said Carmen. “Probably could’ve gotten myself out of the planet’s pull without help, of course, but I’d be having a mondo headache right now. One for the history books.”

Their headsets chimed, each with a tone that let them know that Xorn’Tal was trying to speak. They’d cut off the headsets to minimize distractions while tugging Carmen’s asteroid out of its fall to Mandrake, but now that they were done Xorn’Tal had something to say.

“Hope he’s not been waiting long,” said Vince as they activated their comm sets.

“What’s up, Xorn’Tal?” asked Carmen.

“Officials: nearing,” said the plant creature’s synthesized voice.

“Good,” said Vince. “We can show them that we caught the Phantom Matador’s asteroid.”

“But the Matador got away,” said Carmen, glumly. “That… stupid bat.”

“Shangmere,” said Vince. “I don’t think they like being called bats.”

“Right, sorry,” said Carmen. “I’m just… we had him. The Phantom Matador was unconscious, on my asteroid, and officials were minutes away, and then that stowaway grabs him and leaps for Mandrake.”

“Look at the bright side,” said Vince. “He probably burned up in entry.”

“Right, but now we’ll never know who he was,” said Carmen. “I wanted him in jail. This’ll just give him a mysterious exit without knowing who he is. Watch, five years from now the racing federation’ll probably hire someone to be the new Phantom Matador and mess with racers again.”

“Maybe that’s what they did this time,” said Vince.

“I doubt it. The suits aren’t that creative.”

“Other concern: plasma report,” said Xorn’Tal.

“Plasma report?” asked Vince.

“Edge of system: racers/stragglers: watched. Sensors: long-range: energy signature: massive. Plasma storm: causeless.”

“I’m sure it’ll be on the news when we get back to Veskid tonight,” said Carmen.

“Hey, at least your friend’s jump went well,” said Vince. “You know. Eventually.”

“Right,” said Carmen. “I’ll need to pick him up eventually. You guys are still good not mentioning him, right?”

“Secret: safe.”

“Absolutely,” said Vince. “Gotta help out our fellow adrenaline junkies.”

***

Zack nervously watched the nearing ground, reflexively waving his arms even though he knew that the parachute would keep him safe. True to Carmen’s word, the robotic elements of the parachute were steering him toward a clearing, but the nearby jungle still loomed ominously.

He took a deep breath and braced for impact as he dropped the last dozen feet, but was surprised by the sudden jet of compressed air released by the parachute, providing some extra thrust to make the final moments of descent that much slower. The extra efficiency caused Zack to over-correct, and trip on his feet as he reached the ground.

He brought his arms up to keep his face from colliding with the ground. Just before he could get his bearings, the parachute fell as well, covering him. Already worried about the potential for jungle insects, Zack thrashed madly beneath the parachute, trying to extricate himself.

From the tree line, Chala watched him carefully, an arrow set in her bow. The newcomer certainly didn’t seem like the standard poacher, but he still had to leave.

***

Captain Ortega and Ensign Trell looked out the window of their dead ship, and witnessed the vast array of Dyson Empire vessels around them.

“This is… unexpected,” said Trell.

“Where are we?” asked Ortega. “I don’t recognize any of those stars. Was… was this a projected teleport? Can Dyson teleport ships? Some sort of jump drive?”

“It seems so,” said Trell. “But… I know it’s folly to try to recognize constellations from a variable position within a system, but I’ve crossed Morcalan space many, many times… something looks wrong about that.”

“Are you there?” crackled Trell’s communicator.

“Captain?” said Trell. “Captain, you made it with us?”

“It seems so,” said Captain Calen from within her Scuttler. “We seem to be in a mobile hornet’s nest, Trell… oh, the delicious targets… attacking now would be suicide, of course, we mustn’t attack yet…”

Ortega breathed a sigh of relief. Trell glared at him.

“I think Captain Ortega expected you to try to blast your way to victory,” Trell said.

“The thought crossed my mind,” said Calen. “Had we a dozen vessels I probably would, for victory then would be assured. But as it is now… we have a chance that we mustn’t squander. We’re in a dire situation, though, one that I’ve not yet solved.”

“And what’s that,” asked Ortega.

“How long until some ship captain looks out its window and realizes that we’re not a single vessel, but a depowered Dyson fighter being clutched in the talons of a powered Morcallan scuttler?”

A tense moment of silence filled the chamber.

“I’ll get to work on those reactor repairs, Captain,” said Trell.

“See that you do.”

Episode 84: Virellium Wave

“The system definitely has a numeric pad to the right of the pilot’s terminal, just like you describe, Captain,” said Ensign Trell, speaking into her communicator.

Captain Ortega looked at the console curiously, furrowing his brow.

“Input the numbers, then,” said Calen from the other side of the communicator. “Let’s not keep our dear pilot from his duty a moment longer.”

“Hang on a second,” said Ortega. “I was all over these computers earlier… that pad doesn’t do anything.”

“That pad is standard on most terminals like this,” said Trell.

“I know,” said Ortega. “That’s why I tried using it. I had to settle for the other numeric input along the top of the controls when the pad didn’t work.”

“You probably just had the number lock function disengaged.”

Ortega looked over the console more carefully.

“The button for that isn’t here,” he said. “I couldn’t engage or disengage it.”

Trell looked over the controls carefully before nodding her head.

“Captain, he’s right,” said Trell.

“What does that mean, then?” asked Calen.

“Stand by,” said Trell, kneeling beneath the console and removing a panel. Ortega prepared for a lengthy investigation, but was startled by a surprised gasp.

“There’s definitely a change here,” said Trell. “Definitely not standard.”

“What do you see?” he asked.

“It’s a rerouting,” she said. “Ordinarily I’d be spending minutes looking over the circuitry, but there’s a secondary circuit board here, it looks like it’s fed directly into the numeric pad. It also looks like there’s some rudimentary broadcasting components, probably capable of generating a low-power signal over a short distance.”

“Curious,” said Ortega.

Trell pushed her way out of the panel, smiling a more genuine smile than Ortega had ever seen. He stepped back so that she could stand up.

“One last thing,” she said. “You’re going to like this, Captain. The secondary circuity board that plugs directly into the numeric pad? It’s using the Phoenix Circuitry. The same style of circuits and materials used in this ship’s alternate systems are definitely being used in that one board. I think we’ve just found the Phoenix Circuit’s user interface.”

Ortega smiled and almost confirmed that he did, in fact, like the information, before he heard Calen’s low, rattling laughter from the other side of the communicator. He wasn’t the captain she’d been speaking to.

“That is delightful, Trell,” she said, amid triumphant chortles. “Hear me now: we’ve uncovered the weakness of Dyson’s impregnable defenses, the weakness that will lead to our final victory. I don’t know how, but this is the key to the Vaults of Vengeance. Input the numbers, Trell. Input the numbers and reveal the first true treasure to be pulled from the Cypulchral Cloud!”

Trell eagerly tapped Tan’s sequence of numbers into the panel. Quickly, and thankfully, the chiming alarm finally, finally stopped, prompting a relieved sigh from both Trell and Ortega. For a moment nothing happened, leaving the room in silence and stillness. Then, one of the screens over the console activated.

LAST COMMAND: 00:10:48:48

VIRELLIUM WAVE ACTIVATION: -00:01:12:12

“Virellium wave?” asked Ortega. “That seems… unlikely.”

“All Virellium functions through a wave,” said Trell. “Allegedly, at least. Morcalla’s never had much to work with. Most people talk about it like it’s a form of matter, but it’s actually a form of force energy, like in most energy weapons.”

“I know,” said Ortega. “The rarity’s why it seems unlikely, though, not that Virellium would have a wave.”

“It may be a small wave,” said Trell. “It wouldn’t require much to cover a system with a low-effect or no-effect field.”

“What are you two blathering about?” said Ortega over the communication channel.

“The numbers activated a console, Captain. It’s registering a command that came through almost eleven hours ago, and saying that something called a Virellium wave will activate in… one hour, eleven minutes, and twenty-nine seconds.”

“Oh, that’s intriguing,” said Calen. “For the record, sensors are indicating that the Phoenix Circuitry you’ve uncovered is beginning to activate. It’s… glowing. Under certain scan images you even look like a bird’s skeleton, surrounded by a halo. It’s quite poetic, I think. These are the ashes from which Morcala will rise.”

“We need to die first, Captain,” said Trell. “I don’t think we’ve hit that point yet.”

“Agreed,” said Calen. “But it’s nice to know there’s an option.”

“I think you two are overextending and mixing the metaphor a little,” said Ortega. “Either way, it looks like we’ve got an hour to prepare for… something. This is probably a signal that’s been sent to the entire Dyson fleet, or at least a large subset of them. This may allow us to figure out what their next move is, but… if it requires the ship’s other features to function, we may be out of luck since we’ve not had time to repair the ship’s reactor since the scuttler’s Neutrino Load neutralized it. Can we repair the reactor in an hour?”

“If we’re lucky,” said Trell. “Probably not, though.”

“Work on getting it up and running,” said Calen. “If we can reactivate Tan’s vessel without it blowing up on us, it will be more useful. Assuming you’ll need more than an hour, though… if I activated the scuttler’s retrieval functionality, I think I would be within the field of energy that the Phoenix Circuitry is activating. Trell, can you calculate an appropriate point of attachment that won’t puncture the circuitry itself? Ordinarily I wouldn’t be concerned, but we may be able to let the scuttler’s engines guide Tan’s fighter, albeit clumsily.”

“Brilliant plan, Captain,” said Trell. “I’ll have that calculated in minutes.”

“Wait, what’s happening?” asked Ortega.

“The scuttler’s about to engage in some actual scuttling,” said Trell. “Scuttlers rarely use this function these days… and almost only use them to tear another ship apart in combat when it comes up… but due to the slow precision required, it’s an awkward combat maneuver, and has more use as a means for tugging deactivated ships around.”

***

Twenty minutes later, Captain Calen input Ensign Trell’s calculations. The scuttler closed in on Tan’s fighter vessel, and activated twelve drill-like lasers. It slowly drifted toward the fighter, matching its velocity and spin, and carefully punctured areas of the hull that would be more or less unimportant for the near future. As the laser drills twisted to more accurately cut into the ship, the field of phoenix circuitry energy enveloped the scuttler entirely.

Once the drills cut their holes, the beams stopped. Twelve metallic pincers dug into the side of the fighter, like a tick attaching to an animal. Usually a scuttler would flex, unflex, and twist its pincers at this point, causing it to shred and bring down most enemy ships, but Calen belayed that protocol before it became an issue.

“We have connection,” said Calen. “I think we’re good to go.”

“Understood, Captain,” said Trell, from the other side of the communicator. “I’ll begin the repairs to the reactor now. With luck it should be back online in two hours.”

“Hopefully we won’t need it before then,” said Calen, leaning back in her chair. “Keep me updated.”

Calen felt good for the first time since hearing Admiral Cresh’s announcement that Morcala was surrendering. She didn’t know what would be happening when the countdown ended, but she was certain that it was the next step to victory, and the next chapter in her glorious career.

***

Emperor Dyson steepled his fingers and smiled as he read the latest report. The Morcalan resistance was staying strong, but it was settling into a predictable pattern. They were causing damage… but it was all superficial and easily repairable. He felt they were probably enjoying the chance to play act as members of a resistance fighting against an oppressive regime. It was an annoyance, but as long as he didn’t try to stamp them out entirely, their acting could be a powerful asset.

The door to his throne room opened, and Harold Zamona crouched to make sure that he could enter without bumping his head. It was the closest that Harold ever came to bowing. Dyson was always cheered by Zamona’s willingness to be on equal terms with him.

“We are ready, sire,” said Zamona. “We can move on. Enough troops will be staying behind to keep up the defenses while the attack continues.”

“Wonderful,” said Dyson. “You know, it occurs to me that with the gathered energy we’re finally overcoming Alexander’s problem. There will never be an end of worlds to conquer, at least not in my lifetime.”

“Don’t spread yourself too thin,” said Zamona. “The ancient Romans had their conquered slaves whisper that victory is fleeting to their generals, and even that reminder didn’t keep them from collapsing in due time. And besides, conquering these regions is only a fringe benefit for our real job.”

“Of course,” said Dyson. “It is time to begin our primary work. As usual, I imagine that the components of The Emperor’s Eye have a different destination than the fleet?”

“Naturally,” said Zamona, smiling.

“Perfect. Would you care to do the honors?”

The Emperor gestured to the massive red and orange device at the edge of the throne room. Zamona smiled and approached the monolithic machine, opening the deceptively small cover over the circular input device. He reached into his shirt and pulled out the medallion he’d worn ever since entering Dyson’s service. He cracked it open and removed the colorful, curiously hot coin of Virellium energy from within.

He placed the single Virellium coin into the input device before closing it, briefly thinking to the moment of the coin’s acquisition. He pulled a lever at the side of the machine and heard the snaps of electricity from the internal diodes, the rumble of thunder within the crystalline orbs that surrounded the device, and the powerful energy within the coin cascading from the machine as it generated a wave that would affect Dyson vessels across the system.

The scent of ionization filled the throne room, and the sensation of a great fire surrounded everyone in all of the ships touched by the wave, Dyson and Harold included. The fire was hot, but strangely without pain…

…and then the moment passed where they ceased to exist…

…and then, in a cloud of plasma, the fleet reappeared at its next system.

“This is strange, folks,” said Mark Matthews, continuing his color commentary. “Long-range scanners keeping tabs on the race’s final stragglers are picking up a huge energy signature just outside the system! Technically out of bounds, but pretty close to the race track. Well, the race began with a party crasher, maybe it’s about to end with another. Just a few minutes before we get a good visual on the far side of Mandrake, though, so I should have news for you on that end soon!”

Episode 83: What Captains Are For

Captain Calen slammed Pilot Tan into Trell’s chair on the bridge. Tan glared up, but remained otherwise silent while Calen tapped instructions into the keyboard.

“Now, we’ll get to the bottom of this one way or the other,” she said. “Whether you’ve been trained well or not, you did successfully pilot a ship into Morcalan space, so you must know basic stellar navigation. Whether you remember anything or not, you did something, so we’re going to sit here until you work out just what it was. I caution you not to tarry long, for while the novelty of the exercise may stay my wrath longer than usual, we’re all in a hurry. However much time we have to act, know that you have less.”

“Threaten me all you like, I don’t have any clue what to do here. This isn’t even laid out like my panel.”

“Tell me how it differs.”

“It’s… okay, it’s mostly the same, but it’s missing a lot of controls.”

“You probably had more functions at your station, as your vessel was meant to be piloted by one person instead of two,” said Calen. “While I pity the Dyson Empire’s inability to properly delegate controls, I have no doubt that even you can work out what does and does not need to happen between the two terminals.”

Tan narrowed his eyes.

“Stop insulting me, okay?”

“When you prove your worth, I shall.”

“You know, if this is how everyone in your society acts, I’m glad the Emperor picked your system to conquer.”

Calen made a fist and pulled back her arm, but froze before carrying through. She shook her head and slowly unclenched her hand.

“You’ll pay for that later,” she said. “We need you now, though, and knocking you out of this chair isn’t a productive use of our time. For your sake if not mine, stop triggering my patriotism. Now… you sat in this chair. You heard the tone. What happened before you reached Morcala?”

Tan looked at the controls and shook his head. After a moment without comment he reached for the controls. He easily moved through the sequence of powering the ship’s engines for forward thrust, and quickly moved through the standard checklist for interstellar flight before pausing and slumping his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I… don’t know what’s next. Something about navigation… inputting our final destination.”

“You mean your heading?”

“I… don’t think so,” said Tan. “I think our destination’s important.”

“You must keep it in mind, yes,” said Calen. “But it is more important to know your initial heading.”

Tan shrugged and tapped in a general heading that corresponded with the direction Calen’s scuttler was facing.

“That’s it, then,” he said. “Apart from launching and beginning the trip, of course.”

“But what does the signal mean, then?”

“Maybe nothing,” said Tan.

“Stop playing the fool,” said Calen. “What you’ve done so far is standard protocol. This might be a recreation of any launch sequence, not yours.”

“I can’t recreate the situation exactly,” said Tan. “There’s too many differences.”

“Then let’s ramp up the similarities.”

Calen accessed a communications terminal and opened a channel to Tan’s ship. A moment later it chirped when Ensign Trell responded to the hail.

“Captain?” she asked.

“I need a broadcast of the alarm you’re hearing,” said Calen.

“Is this really necessary?” asked Tan.

“Apparently,” said Calen.

Moments later, the strange, repetitive tone from Tan’s ship broadcast through the bridge. Tan shook his head, but his right hand moved to a numeric pad at the side of Trell’s keyboard, and input a string of numbers. Calen watched the numbers flash across the terminal’s display… like a location marker on a stellar cartograph, but too long… before the computer took the data and released the information that the input command meant nothing.

“Sorry,” said Tan. “It’s not jogging my memory at all.”

“Then what are those numbers?”

“Numbers?”

“The digits you just put onto the screen.”

Tan leaned forward and looked at the data, along with the ship’s reaction to it in the command line. He shrugged and turned back to Calen.

“It’s gibberish to me,” said Tan, turning to face Calen. “Like a bad imitation of a course destination.”

As he spoke, Calen saw a strange flash in his eye, the eye that she knew contained the cybernetic lens. His hand reached back to the number pad at the side of the terminal and input the same set of pseudo-coordinates. Calen smiled.

“And that’s what captains are for,” she said. “Tan, it appears that with good leadership, even you can produce results.”

Episode 82: Fire and Iceberg

Another trill chimed through the fighter ship, an incessant tone that suggested something important was about to happen. Captain Ortega turned away from the computer screen, growing nervous as the noise refused to stop.

“Is that you?” he shouted. A few moments later he heard the aggravated sound of tools being set to the side.

“No,” shouted Ensign Trell.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!”

“There’s nothing on my readouts,” he yelled, stepping away from the room to walk closer to Trell’s workspace.

“There wouldn’t be,” she said as he neared the hole in the walkway where she’d removed a portion of the floor to get a closer look at the Phoenix Circuitry. She stopped crouching and turned off the light she’d affixed to her shoulder.

“Right, I know,” said Ortega. “If the Phoenix Circuitry is completely separate from the rest of the ship’s systems-”

“It is.”

“Assuming it is,” said Ortega, “then there wouldn’t be a readout from anything I could see on a computer related to the ship’s primary terminals.”

“Then why check the readouts?”

Ortega felt a strange sensation related to the usual falling feeling he lived through whenever he spoke to a technologist aboard a ship, a sensation suggesting he was missing something. Usually any technologists he spoke to didn’t have the capacity to kill him, however, and while he was sure Trell wouldn’t impatiently resort to violence he was also sure that she had considered it at least twice since they started searching through the systems.

“I checked them just to be sure,” he said, carefully. “And when I saw nothing, that’s why I thought it might be related to something you were doing.”

“It’s not me.”

“Okay,” he said. “Good. Now, we need to figure out-”

“It’s the phoenix circuitry itself,” she said. “Its own hardware is set up to make that noise.”

“Good,” Ortega said. “Progress! Sorry, I should’ve asked if you knew what it was instead of assuming.”

“I just figured it out,” said Trell. “It’s gotten a little easier now that I’m working with the assumption that all of the hardware not connected to the main systems is related to the Phoenix Circuitry, but it still throws me for a loop every once in a while. No way to tell what it means, though. We should contact the Captain, and ask her to interrogate our guest further.”

***

“There’s a horrible hum on your ship, Tan,” said Captain Calen. Pilot Tan was secured in the medical bay, tethered to the gurney with a lengthy restraint. Tan had felt uncertain about the arrangement when he first awoke to it, but had gradually started to feel like his location was one of the few things that, for whatever reason, was keeping the Captain from slipping into her own brand of cruelty.

“Oh?” he said.

“Yes, yes there is,” said Calen, sitting in a chair and leaning back. “I can’t fathom what it is, but we know it involves that Phoenix Circuitry of yours.”

“Oh!” he said, his face filling with recognition for a moment before speedily clearing.

“Oh,” he repeated. “That. I don’t know much about that.”

Calen raised an eyebrow.

“Why don’t I believe you and that wonderful poker face of yours?”

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m really not… okay, I know that I shouldn’t tell you anything, Emperor’s Orders and all that, and while I’ve got no real love for this whole Dyson Empire thing I’ve also got nothing against it. But I’m also a prisoner here, and you’re being really nice under the circumstances and I know that you’ve already thought about killing me today, so I’d like to give you something, I would, but… I really, really don’t know what to do or say here.”

“Say that which will keep me from giving in to that temptation, the temptation that you just mentioned.”

“Killing me?”

“Let’s not dwell on the delicious specifics right now. Know this, Tan: I want to be the one to kill you, I really do, but I can be persuaded to kill others instead. Don’t tax me, and just tell me about the alarm.”

Tan held up his hands in a strange combination of fear and exasperation.

“But I don’t know!” he said. “I can’t help you! If I knew more, I probably would, but I can’t! You’ve already got my name, rank and serial number, so can we move on?”

“You have a serial number?”

“Yes,” he said, defensively. He thought for a moment. “Did I not already tell y… Three Twenty-Two?”

“Is that your serial number?”

“Yes,” he said. “I think. It’s… it’s on a card back at my ship, you can have Captain Ortega or Trell-”

“Ensign Trell.”

“-Ortega or Ensign Trell pick it up if you want. But if you want information on that… noise, or the Phoenix Circuitry or the Emperor’s Eye, I can’t tell you much. They’re all connected, I know that much, but I’ve barely heard anything. I only heard the noise you’re talking about twice before.”

“Before what?”

“Before now.”

“No,” said Calen. “Tell me what event the noise preceded. That sound sets off something or readies something, and I need to know what procedure you followed. Where were you when it happened?”

“Piloting my ship,” said Tan. “Just before leaving my home system, and then once more before getting to your system.”

“So it lets you know to launch?”

Tan closed his eyes.

“Maybe,” he said. “It’s… hazy. I can’t remember much.”

Calen narrowed her eyes. She stood, walked to the gurney, and entered the commands to unlock his manacles. She grabbed him by the shoulder and began pushing him to the door.

“Wait!” he said. “Wait, no, don’t kill me!”

“I’m not killing you, coward!” said Calen. “That’s too good for you. I’m getting to the bottom of this noise once and for all.”

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona touched the brick wall of the laundromat, feeling it. It would break easily if he wanted it, but so might the gauntlets.

Since the horrible day of the abduction, he’d been growing stronger. It was wonderful at first, but he quickly reached the point where it was incapacitating. He couldn’t touch anything without breaking it, and his entire record in the wrestling ring was called into question. After destroying his apartment building one night in a series of accidents that started when his dinner was delivered, he was found legally not guilty of endangerment but was required to wear the gauntlets.

They worked marvelously, and his strength dropped to manageable levels. He couldn’t go back to being a full time wrestler again, of course… even if his weakness wasn’t artificially generated his mental stability had been in question since his claims about the abduction… but he could function in normal society. No one doubted that he’d met aliens… humans had been on the Galactic scene for quite some time, after all… but the ethereal, dream-like details of incomprehensible experimentation, coupled with a total lack of evidence (apart from his incredible strength) made it sound like a bad conspiracy theory. Only the sorts of people who believed in sightings of the Void Pilgrim gave much credence to his story.

The Iceberg did eventually reenter the ring on one amazing night, however. The influence of the gauntlets was reduced so that he could compete against four of the other hardest hitters of the day. As amazing as “The Night Where The Gloves Come Off” had been, he realized two weeks later just how fragile the gauntlets were; his strength was still increasing, and the gauntlets could break through use.

Four years and three pairs of gauntlets later, it was harder and harder to use them carefully. He didn’t like having to file for new gauntlets, and the required week of gingerly touching everything in the fragile world around him. As such, while he knew in his head that he could break the laundromat’s wall, he’d also noticed the telltale sparks and signs of wear and tear. He didn’t even know if the next model of gauntlets had been designed for him yet, and breaking them now could put him out of commission for months if he was unlucky.

Harold gritted his teeth and hoped that the worst wouldn’t happen before pushing forward. The wall buckled, the gauntlets sparked, and the bricks tumbled in.

Someone screamed, a woman’s voice. Possibly someone who worked in the laundromat? The smoke and dust kicked up by the collapsing wall cleared, but the scent of the crumbling dust remained. He scanned the comfortable sitting room, a sure sign that he was on the right track. After a moment, he saw the determined face of Zack Gamma, leveling a pair of Purcellian Strikers at him. Harold watched the DMA Agent sizing him up… before a look of surprise and confusion overtook the dedicated focus on his face. Zack’s pistols drooped.

It was only a moment’s hesitation, but it had served Harold well since he started this job. No one expected a minor celebrity to be their adversary.

Gamma was recovering, but Harold was already moving. Just before the pistols could point at Zamona, he swiped his arm to the side, knocking away the weapons.

“Where-” started Harold, just before Sister Barris fired the neural scrambler ray from the kitchen.

Harold felt nauseous, and the room started spinning.

“Shoot him again!”

“Zack, that’s not-”

“Look at the size of him, he’ll recover faster! Higher setting, shoot!”

Another beam of neuralizing energy collided with him and the world went dark.

***

Azar waited for the noise to settle down before opening the door to the bathroom, looking back into the rest of Zack’s safehouse.

“What happened out there?”

“Hi, Azar!” said Gamma, strangely chipper amid a scene of fallen bricks, settling dust, and sparking electricity. Sister Barris was dragging a dark, titanic man with massive gauntlets, moving him to a wall and a sitting position while Gamma was looking out of a hole in the wall into the alley. Zack gestured to the body with one of his pistols.

“You had some company. Same thing happens to me; right when I hop into the shower, that’s when someone knocks on my door. Fortunately, my plan of freezing like a midnight snowman distracted, uh… The Iceberg?… well enough that Barris could take him out.”

“You didn’t freeze, you were surprised,” said Barris, eyeing the sparking gauntlets on the attacker’s hands warily. “I’m also not convinced it’s The Iceberg.”

“It’s totally The Iceberg,” said Zack. “Look at him! Just imagine him with shorter hair and sunglasses.”

“Everyone who looks like him would look like The Iceberg with shorter hair and sunglasses.”

“Yes, but not everyone with a face like that would also have biceps the size of a grizzly bear on steroids.”

“Who is The Iceberg?” asked Azar. Zack pointed at the body, and Barris rolled her eyes.

“He was a wrestler, a champion,” she said.

“Yeah, until he went crazy a few years back,” said Zack. “He started talking about some sort of alien abduction story, saying these skinny gray folks with big eyes and weird ships stole him away one night and did experiments on him. Naturally, he was delirious the whole time and didn’t have many strong details.”

“Doesn’t sound that crazy,” said Azar. “Why would someone kidnap a wrestler, though?”

“No reason,” said Zack. “And there was no evidence, so odds are good that whatever he remembered isn’t what happened. A few months later, though, and his strength goes out of control. So strong that he was kicked out of his job, and couldn’t wrestle again. Who he is isn’t important right now, though,” said Zack. “What’s important is that we get you moving, Azar. If The Iceberg found you, then other people can’t be far behind.”

Episode 81: The Collectible Kuiper

“And the winner is… Andara Fugue, the furious first-timer from far off Fenris! Winning by a wide margin, this is her first race on a federation-sanctioned circuit. While it won’t have a direct effect on the season’s standings, this qualifying race should already have the bookies scrambling to adjust her odds for the Nebula Circuit. Still no official word from the Corona Cup victors on why they’re so far from the finish line, and they’ve maintained radio silence since seemingly stalling by Mandrake, but we’ve got officials nearing their position to find out what’s up.”

Carmen felt the boots of Vince Flashman landing on her asteroid, and took the welcome opportunity to stop listening to Mark Matthew’s color commentary. She opened a channel with Vince, preparing to coordinate.

“Welcome to my ride,” said Carmen. “Don’t track mud all over it.”

“Right,” said Vince. “Carmen, this feels… off. I knew you had some tiny caves in the Kinetic Kuiper, but this doesn’t feel structurally stable.”

“It was that stowaway,” said Carmen. “She had some kind of energy weapon. I tried ripping rocks to fence her in, but she just started slicing her way out. So about twice as much damage happened as I intended.”

“Think you’ll still be able to use it?”

“I hope so. Took me forever to find one this nice.”

“I bet. It was hard to believe its stats on the federation’s cards when I read ‘em.”

“You pick up the federation’s collectible merch? Dude, the band shouldn’t wear its own t-shirts to a gig, it’s tacky.”

“Hey, I won’t apologize for the hobby. I only joined the federation last year, and I had the Kinetic Kuiper’s card two years ago.”

“Well, I’m sure the Federation appreciates your donation in exchange for digital collectibles.”

“Never did the digicards,” he said. “I bought the physical ones.”

“Nice,” said Carmen. “Want me to sign it after we’re out of here?”

“You already did.”

“What?”

“Yeah, two years ago after you won at the Ray’s World Races. You had a few minutes to sign things before dashing off, you got it signed then.”

Carmen remembered the race. Ray’s World wasn’t on the beaten path. Most of the spectators there were already racers, but on unofficial courses. Most of the people sticking around to sign things were already doing well for themselves in the semi-legal racing on that world, or they were looking for good chances to network and find better chances at better races. She signed a lot of things there, and couldn’t recall any faces clearly.

“Whoa,” she said. “Man, I’m sorry, I don’t remember you from that.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You didn’t know me then, and you had a lot of people wanting autographs.”

“Not as many as usual,” she said. She winced, realizing that sounded like she was bragging.

“I mean, the crowd there was a good one, they were the real deal,” she said. “I should be able to remember people from that group. I’ve gotta stop being a sell out.”

“Carmen, you’re not a sell out,” he said. “Are we going to keep talking about if you’re awesome enough to be an asteroid racer, or are we going to work on tugging you out of this death spiral?”

“Right,” she said. “Sorry, I’ve just not thought about Ray’s World in a while. With two of us, moving up and out should be a breeze. Let’s roll.”

***

Vox Cul-Dar scrolled through the options in the Rythnian Boutique’s catalog. He loved the way they were organized by lethality. Death in an hour, half an hour, a third of an hour, a fourth of an hour… the bizarre effects were almost secondary to the artistry of application.

“The finish line has been crossed in the qualifying race for the Nebula Cup,” said Rendelac, the computer’s eye switching from orange to green.

“I don’t want to hear about Carmen Shift,” said Vox. “She fired me from her assignment, and as such only interests me as a lead for catching Gamma. Do you think a poison is more effective through an injury, skin contact, inhalation or ingestion? Applying poison to a weapon has a bit of poetry to it, but I’d need to find one that would affect Zack without affecting me.”

“The winner was not Carmen Shift,” said Rendelac.

“No? Did The Phantom Matador surprise everyone again?”

“Yes and no,” said Rendelac. “The winner of the race was newcomer Andara Fugue. The Phantom Matador, while present on the race, did not win.”

“Well, I suppose my services would not be required even if I was there, then, if the Matador isn’t crossing the finish line.”

“The Matador appeared near the world of Mandrake. As it so happened, Carmen shift, Vince Flashman and Xorn’Tal were all heading in that direction. Mandrake itself, while a valid location in the race course, was off the beaten path. A theoretical speed boost is possible, and racers of their caliber are certainly capable of achieving positive results from such a risky attempt, but it’s an unusual coincidence that they would all try it.”

“If they were trying to show each other up, I can certainly understand them trying it together,” said Vox.

“The Matador and the three racers moved to the far side of Mandrake, and then seemed to vanish. Glimpses of them have been seen from long-range scans, but they’ve not returned yet from that side. Perhaps they joined forces to subdue the Matador, but complications arose. They don’t appear to be in danger, but they are suspiciously silent, not even communicating with their racing crews.”

“You’re correct that this is strange,” said Vox. “If they subdued the Phantom Matador… or if the Matador were assaulting them in some way… they would communicate. Are you suggesting some other secrecy in play?”

“Racers are known for sticking together in the face of what they view as unnecessary consequences from authorities, even among rivals. If one of them has a secret, it would be easy to convince the others to maintain it.”

Vox considered this. Xorn’Tal and Flashman were unknown factors and could have any number of secrets. But Carmen…

“Gamma,” he said. “Could someone hide on one of those asteroids?”

“It’s possible,” said Rendelac.

“And from the far side of Mandrake, no one could see an asteroid land to let off a passenger, and that would take time…”

“It’s more likely that the Matador caused some delay, and that a passenger would jump,” said Rendelac. “An asteroid that lands on a planet is very difficult to retrieve.”

“Of course,” said Vox. “Regardless… it sounds like Carmen’s been hiding Zack in plain sight.”

“Hidden inside an asteroid and revealing him on the opposite side of another planet where no long-range scanners are positioned to see anything is hardly pl-”

“I’m setting an order for poison, Rendelac,” said Vox. “I need to go off world. Have my order delivered so that I can pick it up on the way.”

Episode 80: Desperation and Danger

Zack tumbled through the air, experiencing the vertigo-inducing transition between jumping away from something and falling to something else without changing direction. The leap from Xorn’Tal’s asteroid had been uneventful, a rare problem-free attempt at executing a plan without difficulty.

Zack’s robotic parachute was happy. It had worried, to the extent that its code allowed worry, that the interruption of Zack’s initial jump would have prevented it from achieving its planned operation. The only change now was that its operator had, apparently, somehow moved to another, leafier asteroid without requiring its services. An analysis of the space around its operator revealed an abnormal asteroid density in the immediate vicinity, but nothing in the way of the current descent.

Zack double checked his heat shield to make sure that it was active, unsure of what he would do in the event that it wasn’t. There had been rare accounts of drops from this height without a reentry shield, but no humans had done it to his knowledge. Fortunately the shield was holding up nicely.

The jets within the parachute kicked in and began steering him toward the still distant ground. Flashes of orange and red flame began to appear in his vision, flaring into existence mere inches from his face and, when he looked reflexively, all around him. The flames of reentry licked hungrily against the invisible shield provided by his reentry device, and he wasn’t sure if the temperature actually began to increase or if he was just imagining it becoming warmer as the wreath of flame about him became more constant and steady.

Zack wasn’t sure how long the fall would take, but dimly remembered that a fall from the generally agreed upon boundaries of “space” for most human-friendly worlds would take three to five minutes for an unpowered craft that was dropping like a stone, but since he had a smaller surface area than an escape pod and since the robotic parachute would be steering him and slowing his descent he expected to take over a quarter of an hour once he was more firmly within Mandrake’s atmosphere.

He could already see the brilliant greens and vibrant oranges and reds of the jungles that infested the planet. Far denser than the recreation of the underjungles of Ravelar that Murk had shown him, Mandrake’s vegetation was what had drawn humans to the Veskid system in the first place after long-range space probes had revealed its presence. After getting closer and seeing the heart-pounding reality of a jungle more dangerous than anything they had prepared for, the settlers instead opted to take a closer look at the comparatively barren, but still usable, world of Veskid, effectively agreeing to the Desperation that their first city was named for when they crashed upon approach. It was old hat among the citizens of Veskid to remark how the settlers who founded the city had chosen desperation over danger.

Historical goals are long lasting ones, however, and in the ensuing decades Mandrake had been examined more carefully. It would never be a friendly place, but over time numerous expeditions, adventure seekers, scientific researchers and insane treasure hunters had gone there, mostly to be heard from again.

The parachute beeped and propelled Zack to what he was prepared to call the west, though he had been disoriented by the drop. He wasn’t sure where Carmen had set up for his landing sight and ultimate rendezvous point, but he started watching eagerly, hoping to see some clearing ahead even though he knew he was still miles away from achieving planetfall.

***

“More fire from the sky, Chala.”

Chala turned from her work at the primitive forge and saw Baurik nearing. The bright feathers and serpentine scales that covered him still seemed surprising, though fortunately no longer threatening, not since the inter-tribal peace began.

“What sort of fire?”

“Small,” Baurik said. “We almost missed it. I am bound to report this to the Suzerain, as you know.”

“I know,” said Chala, turning back to the forge and shaking a joint into place. “I’m surprised you haven’t already.”

“Every fire brings change,” said Baurik. “As an agent of change, you have the most to lose.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said Chala. “I’ve got everything under control.”

“The Suzerain has everything under control,” said Baurik. “And she agrees with you when you petition for peace… individually. As do I. But the Suzerain cannot… will not… continually leash the tribes from pursuing starprey. She would rather put out brushfires than the sun.”

“I can’t blame her,” said Chala. “I’ll talk to whoever it is. I can convince them to leave. It’s probably just another treasure hunter.”

“And if you can’t?”

“I sided with the Suzerain, and she’s got my back when I play nice,” said Chala. She grabbed her bow… the alien device of metal and plastic that Baurik still found hard to imagine. Chala had explained the process of molding “plastic” and other materials, building component parts up instead of whittling component parts down, but it still felt wrong seeing such a common device in an uncommon way.

“You will… encourage him more strenuously?”

Chala looked at Baurik. There was a trill in the back of his throat that suggested something like coyness, or teasing. She smiled and shook her head.

“I’m in the tribes now, Baurik,” she said. “If he doesn’t go when I first warn him, then I get to hunt starprey.”

Episode 79: Cross Purposes

Carmen felt the first traces of a headache, a sign that she was overexerting herself. She ignored it and continued to mentally pull her asteroid up from the nosedive that the Phantom Matador had tried to engineer by pushing it too close to the planet’s gravity well. Gravity was a weak force, and easily overcome in small doses, but when dealing with the amount of gravity that might be generated by an entire planet’s pull on an asteroid it was better to find non-petrakinetic means. There were reasons for starting most races outside of a planet’s atmosphere, and similar reasons for using much, much smaller rocks on surface races. By pushing as hard as she could, she was just keeping herself from dropping any closer into the atmosphere.

“Carmen?” asked Vince, his voice coming over her headset.

“Busy!” she said.

“Carmen, you’re falling!”

“I noticed!”

“Hold on,” he said. “Hang on, Xorn’Tal and I are coming your way, we’ll help tow you a bit.”

“I got this,” said Carmen. “Don’t worry here.”

“Human: Foolish,” said Xorn’Tal, chiming in over the headpiece.

“Look, you can’t help me without getting to the asteroid,” said Carmen. “There’s no way you’ll be able to do anything from your rock, so offering to help means offering to touchdown over here. That’d get you a pretty good idea of what it’s like, might give you an edge in future races.”

“…Seriously?” said Vince. “That’s your hang up here? Carmen, you’ve got a plan to land that thing safely and get it back somehow? That’s a pretty big mover’s fee on any planet, and Mandrake’s not exactly known for being tourist friendly.”

Carmen started to reply but a sudden shake made her asteroid dip down sharply. She wasn’t sure if the shake came from the gravity’s sharp increase over a short distance, or if it was some strange turbulence from the upper reaches of Mandrake’s atmosphere.

“Okay. Okay, maybe you’ve got a point. Ugh… okay, think you can get down here safely?”

“Sure. Think you’ll be okay with how close I’m gonna skim overhead before trying?”

“I’ll see you soon, then. Good luck. Thanks.”

“Anytime,” said Vince. “I always liked the Kinetic Kuiper, it’ll be nice to see it from on top for once.”

Suddenly, Carmen felt the impact of two clawed feet behind her, right by the Phantom Matador. She resisted the urge to spin around to see what was happening, knowing she needed all her focus, and little things like a comfortable direction needed to be maintained.

“Nectra?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. Carmen felt the body lying where the Phantom Matador had dropped being picked up again. “Sorry, didn’t want to bother you. You’re really busy.”

“Nectra, leave him alone.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt him,” said the shangmere. “You don’t like him messing with the races, I get that. I’m just going to take him with me so that you don’t need to worry about him.”

“Nectra, he needs to go to jail!”

“Who’re you talking to?” said Vince.

“Zack said you hired him to catch the Matador,” said Nectra. “And he did! He’s great at his job. And the Phantom Matador’s great at his. Did you ever see someone so mysterious?”

“Nectra, he’s dangerous…”

“Right! So, while I don’t know if the Matador will be good as bait for Zack anymore… especially since Zack lied about wanting to go to Mandrake… I think the Matador increases my chances of finding and killing Zack by a percent or two.”

“Nectra, you can’t do this,” said Carmen, clenching her fists.

“I don’t have much choice! I need to optimize my chances here, and having the universe’s only Gamma-Tracker wasn’t enough the first time! I’m really sorry, I really, really am, but this just can’t wait!”

Nectra’s clawed feet scrabbled away, hopped once or twice, and lifted off of the ground. Carmen blinked and breathed heavily, soon feeling the feet briefly touch ground again, most of the way to the horizon behind her. Another hop happened near the underside of the asteroid and, soon… nothing.

“Carmen?” said Vince.

“My stowaway,” said Carmen. “I think the crazy bat just decided it’d be safer to burn up in the atmosphere.”