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.”

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