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?”
“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-”
“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.”
“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-”
“-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.”
“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.”