Monthly Archives: June 2015

Episode 101: Dyson’s Delay

“I regret to inform you that The Soul Survivor has escaped our custody.”

Emperor Dyson turned from his workbench, and Zamona was struck by how different he looked. The Emperor, when dressed in his full regalia, acted stuffy, regal, and rarely personable, though often polite. No longer wearing his mask, crown, or robes and wearing his work outfit, he seemed happier, or at least more in place. An understanding smile crept across Dyson’s face, and he shook his head sympathetically.

“That’s a shame, Harry,” he said. “I’d been looking forward to figuring out how he worked. If I could have. Reportedly, some of the Soul Survivor’s technology is a mystery even to him… I doubt that on some level, though. It’s possible all of his upgrades have come through simpler technologies that he finds more accessible, but I expect that he knows, on some level, how it all works together.”

“Do you really think you wouldn’t be able to work it out?” asked Zamona. “We’ve been able to reverse engineer every piece of alien hardware we’ve come across so far. You do have a gift for this, if I may say so.”

“I’ve been lucky,” said Dyson, turning back to the scattered tools on his workbench. “The right insight at the right time… even just living this long. There will always be mysteries outside of our understanding, and it’s possible that The Soul Survivor, through accident or intention, represents some technology that our dedicated team couldn’t unravel. Over the years, his escapades have demonstrated a bizarre talent for denying classification. Which reminds me, what of Captain Ortega?”

“In custody, and cooperative,” said Zamona. “For now, at least. The two Morcalans are not cooperative, and one of them has escaped twice. She’s got an excellent grasp of strategy and combat. Nothing we can’t contain, but it is putting a strain on our local resources.”

“Understood. Do you believe that you will be able to reclaim The Soul Survivor?”

“Maybe,” said Zamona. “He’s missing. We presume that he is with the pilot who had pointed us to the crates that contained the, uh… water cooler parts.”

“Water cooler? Tell me, can you confirm that we ever even had The Soul Survivor captive?”

“I can’t,” said Zamona. “I’d say we didn’t. Unfortunately, the pilot’s vessel has vanished entirely. It was in formation for our assault on the Veskid system, but then it stopped being there. It’s either some sort of advanced cloaking, or a new application for your Virellium Wave technology.”

“Amazing. I want a report on all the details surrounding that disappearance.”

“I’ll arrange that. Shall we continue delaying?”

Dyson picked up a tool on his workbench and slowly turned it in his hand.

“No,” he said. “No, without any possible new insights from The Soul Survivor, delay makes no sense. All communications in and out of the system need to stop. I won’t have our quarry get away.”

“This won’t kill it, you know.”

“I know,” said the Emperor. “But it’ll hurt it. We’ve hurt it before. It’s been dying for a long time now, but it won’t die without a little more effort, and every time we hurt it we get closer. Even if we don’t succeed in our true goal, the Veskid system will make a fine addition to this new empire. Begin the attack.”

Episode 100: Jungle Jaunt

The village was designed like a fort, with an outer wall made of sharp, interlocking trees and massive boulders. Zack assumed they were the remains of trees, at least; they looked less like the tree he’d used as a bridge and more like the trees he’d hidden inside to escape the Haktorash with Chala, but they were much larger and darker. The distant sounds of chirps, hisses and trills from Sthenites grew nearer as they approached the city, but Zack was sure that they were deceptive. He might have imagined the motionless guards in the bushes, but he doubted it. Chala didn’t wait long enough for him to take second looks, though, so he couldn’t be sure.

“I need to come back out here for a casual walk,” he said. “Figure out where everything is.”

“You don’t want to do that,” Chala said, stepping out of the tree line and approaching the wall, moving quickly over the red soil. Zack saw the fastest flicker of a serpentine head peaking over the wall as they left the jungle. He took a quick look back at the foliage.

“Need more yellow in my trench coat,” he said.

“What’s that?”

Zack started to repeat himself, but two massive boulders began to roll to the side. Giant sthenites, with orange scales and scarlet feathers, coiled into view, creating a titanic gate. Zack stopped walking and watched the massive snakes, each easily half as tall as the wall itself. Chala looked over her shoulder.

“Tourist.”

***

Captain Ortega watched the three researchers carefully. Two of them pushed a small trolley that carried a crate, a crate from Captain Calen’s Scuttler. Ortega clenched his jaw at the sight of it. He didn’t know what was happening to Calen and Trell yet, but knew that he wouldn’t want to be the person telling them that the Dyson Empire had plundered their ship.

He also prayed that no one ever found the frozen goblet she kept hidden away.

“Thanks for helping us out today,” said one of the researchers, a blond-haired man in a white contamination suit. “It’s amazing to have someone with your experience helping us out.”

“I didn’t have many options,” said Ortega. “My primary mission is to keep Doctor Rogers contained while I take him back to the Astroguard. Your would-be Emperor may not permit the second part of that mission, but I’ll definitely help with the first, Doctor…?”

“Williams, Gregor Williams. These are Doctor Amelia Degnan and Doctor Clarence Carnegie.”

“We’ve looked over all of your recommendations for waking Doctor Rogers,” said Doctor Carnegie. “We have everything prepared to reactivate his systems.”

“If you have any other recommendations during the procedure, feel free to let us know,” said Doctor Degnan. “We understand that a rigid set of guidelines would have potential for manipulation by someone with this degree of intelligence, so if any potential for danger exists as the situation unfolds, please inform us and we’ll adjust the procedure.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Ortega. “It’s a relief to not have someone being unreasonable about this kind of thing.”

“We work to understand new or alien technologies, and Doctor Rogers’ robotic body counts,” said Doctor Degnan. “Your expertise with his criminal activities, while not technological, is comprehensive and makes you the leading expert in the dangers that he represents. Shall we begin?”

“Whenever you’re ready,” said Ortega. His adrenaline had been slowly rising since they entered the room. All he needed was an opening after Doctor Rogers came back to life, an open door to the lab after Rogers was aware of what was happening. The researchers appeared willing to follow his instructions… could he push his luck far enough to make them take Rogers’ helmet out of the room?

Doctor Carnegie went to a hydromill installed on the far side of the room. Ortega assumed that it wasn’t connected to this vessel’s primary water supplies, and if he hadn’t been hoping for some easy way for Doctor Rogers to escape he would make sure it was the case before the experiment started.

Doctor Degnan moved to a control panel, one that would allow her to manipulate the flow of water from the hydromill and collect any unexpected data. She also activated a view screen, and Harold Zamona’s towering figure appeared on the wall, overseeing the situation. Ortega knew that it didn’t actually change his situation, but Zamona’s presence did make the room more tense.

“When you’re ready, Doctor Williams,” said Doctor Degnan.

Doctor Williams nodded and approached the storage crate on the research platform in the center of the room. He carefully broke the crate’s vacuum seal and removed the lid. Gently, almost reverently, he reached into the crate and pulled out the large, oblong dome that rested within.

“Preparing the hydromill transfer,” said Williams, reaching for a hose at his platform.

“Wait,” said Ortega. “That’s not-”

“Hydromill active,” said Doctor Carnegie.

“Begin the hydration.”

“Wait!” said Ortega.

The three researchers froze, each watching Captain Ortega carefully.

“You really don’t…” he started, words failing him.

“Captain Ortega, what’s wrong?” asked Doctor Carnegie. “Is there any danger?”

“Is… no. No, there’s no danger.”

“Then can we get back to the experiment?” asked Doctor Degnan.

“No point,” said Captain Ortega. “That’s not Rogers’ head.”

The three researchers all slowly turned to look at the glass dome in Doctor Williams’ hand. In his view screen, Zamona cradled his head for a moment before reaching for the screen controls, deactivating his end of the feed.

“Are you sure?” asked Doctor Williams.

“Well, look at it,” he said. “It looks like the top of a fancy water cooler.”

“I… suppose it might…” said Doctor Degnan.

“It looks like the one attached to the hydromill.”

Doctor Carnegie looked to his left at the hydromill’s beverage dispenser and took a surprised step back. Captain Ortega looked between the three researchers.

“So… if by some chance all those crates at your feet have spare hydromill parts in them instead of pieces of Doctor Rogers… where is he?”

***

Pilot Tan finished the modifications to his vessel’s Hydromill, connecting the “water cooler” more directly to the ship’s primary functions as per the instructions that had been echoing in the back of his head since landing at Xol’s ship. The Soul Survivor’s Plan A had been thwarted by Captain Ortega, and the restorative properties of Ortega’s helmet had muted the instructions long enough for Tan to miss the window on Plan B, brilliant though that plan would have been. Plan C had been perfect to implement when the echoes of the Soul Survivor’s manipulated Cypulchral Signal came back to his mind.

Tan had almost failed in his duties as a sleeper agent after he reawakened, too. The plan had suggested taking use of the ‘Tight Schedule’ trouble phrase, but had also been based on the belief that Tan wouldn’t have the chance or need to enact that protocol until later. Tan should have known to use the different phrase… but in the end, everything worked out.

The hydromill kicked into overdrive and bubbles began to surge furiously inside the dome that represented the Soul Survivor’s head, now attached to the machinery in Tan’s ship. After a few moments, the room’s communication channels kicked in.

“Excellent work, Tan,” said the familiar, sonorous tenor. “I didn’t know if my posthypnotic commands would survive beyond the purging that Ortega’s helmet would provide.”

“They did,” said Tan. “I can’t say that I liked selling him up the river like that, and technically this action makes me a traitor to the Dyson Empire, but it’s the least I could do to help you out.”

“Of course,” said The Soul Survivor. “Oh, these ship readings are delightful. We made it to the Veskid System this quickly? Amazing… Tan, you and I have much to discuss.”

Much earlier, on another world…

“My recommendation is Ravelar,” said Harold Zamona, looking over the screen built into the glass of the table. “We’ll be hard to track once we’re there, and we’re already difficult to track so we might be gone entirely, especially if the trip is financed in my name.”

“Ugh, there?” said Zack.

“Don’t want to go to Ravelar?”

“It’ll be so humid,” said Zack. “Horrible for my usual wardrobe. I decided a long time ago that I’d never be caught dead in a jungle on jobs like these, but I suppose just once wouldn’t kill me.”

“Most of the jungles are all underground, though,” said Sister Barris, tapping the table to read more information on the world. “There’s no real BristleCorp presence, too, and that could help us.”

“It’s got no DMA either, and police who look the other way a little too easily,” said Zack. “Don’t get me wrong, a pinch of corruption in a police force can do a lot of good, especially for jobs like this, but get too much and we’ll be sold to the highest bidder minutes after we land with no DMA there to protect us.”

“You really think it’ll be that bad?” asked Azar, trying to look around the three people on his payroll.

“I think it’s a risk,” said Zack.

“Zack is just letting us know about the worst case scenario,” said Harold.

“And letting you know that the worst case scenario isn’t unlikely,” said Zack. “There’s a lot of crime there. Most of the planet’s run by a Pyrhian mob boss named Murk. He causes a lot of problems for the DMA on Veskid, and that’s where we’re strongest. Not sure I want to see him running unchecked.”

“He’ll be checked by me,” said Harold.

“Raw strength might not be what we want in a place like this,” said Barris. “Subtlety is essential here, and the tourism industry, sketchy though it is, is designed for rich people who don’t want questions asked.”

“The hotels do look nice,” said Azar. “I think I could enjoy it there. For a while at least.”

“All right,” said Zack. “Let’s assume you go there. Harold, you’d be along for security?”

“Naturally.”

“And I’d stay here to work on legal action against BristleCorp,” said Barris. “They’ve clearly put an assassination order onto you, Azar, and while a case against them will be hard, laying the early groundwork without them catching on shouldn’t present an overabundance of difficulties.”

“Assuming they don’t already plan on us doing something like that,” said Zack. “This is a new situation, but they’re not stupid. And it’s not like there’s a single person you can trick or bump off to make this work. You can’t shoot a corporation.”

“Is that Faulkner?” asked Harold.

“What? No, it’s reality,” said Zack. “Barris, you can probably get the preliminaries set up, but they’ve likely already taken steps to cut any paper trails to link them to the assassination attempts.”

“Isn’t that what you’re for?” asked Harold. “Find the dirt on them. Reconnect the paper trails, find evidence that proves that only they would have the resources to coordinate this kind of attack on an individual, and prove that they’re the only one with the motive.”

“Motive’s the hard part, actually,” said Zack. “Pettiness is hard to prove for a corporation since they’re usually more concerned with making money than getting revenge for lost money, the actions of individuals within a company notwithstanding. But yes, I’ll be doing a bit of that. It’ll just be tricky to arrange that kind of investigation from Ravelar.”

“Why’re you going to be in Ravelar?” asked Harold. “I’ll be there. Don’t think I can handle anything that comes our way?”

Zack tapped the table and stared at Harold.

“I just… assumed I’d be there as well,” said Zack. “But I suppose you and Azar can be there by yourselves. Taking the resort vacation spots all for yourself.”

“Just how it turned out with our skill sets,” said Harold, smiling.

“Right,” said Zack. “Barris stays here, Harold and Azar can live it up in Ravelar, and I’ll go between both places while researching.”

“Do we need that kind of attention drawn to you, Zack?” asked Barris. “Traveling is noticeable, and Harold already tracked you down once. Someone else might do it again.”

“Maybe,” said Zack, watching the former wrestler carefully. “But I’ll feel better if I can keep an eye on the situation from both sides. Just in case.”

Episode 99: Cooler Heads Will Prevail

“It looks different than I remember,” said Commander Sanchez, staring through the view screen. “I saw The Soul Survivor on the news once. The dome had a different curvature.”

“According to Captain Andrew Ortega, The Soul Survivor had a knack for reinventing himself,” said Pilot Tan. He stood on the bridge of the Morcalan Scuttler. His briefing on his own ship had gone well, but according to Commander Sanchez they wanted his insight into the vessel. Most of his information wasn’t anything that the Wraithstrike teams couldn’t figure out on their own, but he was able to identify the storage crates that contained the disassembled pieces of The Soul Survivor’s robotic body. Alsafi stood next to him, holding up the sturdy dome that Tan had identified as what passed for the “head.”

“Can I keep it?” asked Alsafi, holding it up to the light.

“The Emperor’s Herald says no,” said Sanchez. “The Emperor has an interest in unique and potentially useful technologies, and the still undocumented mechanisms within The Soul Survivor’s body count. Besides, even if it was the policy to allow Wraithstrike team leaders to keep trophies of this sort, that honor would fall to Wraithstrike Delta’s leader, not you.”

“Aww,” said Alsafi. “Stupid Delta team… Paul gets all the fun.”

“All the hypothetical fun, at least,” said Sanchez.

“The Soul Survivor can reactivate easily,” said Tan. “I don’t know how it all works, but Captain Ortega was adamant that no moisture be allowed in or near the helmet. I’m not sure if that warning stands when the helmet is removed from the body, but Ortega remained concerned about The Soul Survivor’s capabilities even when he was firmly in custody in the storage crates.”

“Your warning is appreciated and noted,” said Sanchez. “I will pass it on, and it will almost certainly be ignored. The Soul Survivor is to be interrogated If filling the jar with liquid is the way to do it, then it’s the way it will be done. We have rooms shielded from transmissions and researchers who don’t use the cybernetic lenses, though, so they won’t be at risk for the… ‘epileptic hypnosis’ that you described. It seems that traveling with Captain Ortega exposes people to outlandish scenarios.”

“The alternative was waiting, possibly forever, to be found in the Cypulchral Cloud,” said Tan. “It was worth the risk.”

“Plus talk about a war story,” said Alsafi. “Stranded in a hostile, uncharted region of space, the only hope of rescue being your enemies, contact with an ancient alien vessel… we should put this in our recruitment vids.”

“It does have all the right elements,” said Sanchez. “Just enough of the horrors of war to be exciting, and not enough to scare off recruits. Speaking of the horrors of war, you’ve both got ships to get back to. Wraithstrike Delta’s leader will drop you off on his way to bringing in this Scuttler for examination and possibly use during the second or third wave should they be necessary.”

“Stupid Paul…” said Alsafi.

***

“You need to get up, Captain,” said a voice. “I need some information.”

Captain Ortega groggily realized that he could think thoughts. His brain was still trying to reaffirm itself after the neural pulse, but he only had the dimmest recollection of that. He opened his eyes and took a moment to recall how to interpret visual stimuli. He was in a small meeting room. A metal table was in front of him, and he was sitting in a chair. He shook his head and looked up, seeing a familiar face on the other side of the table.

The man was tall enough that Ortega’s initial instinct was that he wasn’t even a human. He had dark skin and unbelievably thick muscles, especially in his arms. He wore a uniform that was cut to fit loosely on him, indicating to Ortega that the figure was not truly a part of the military structure but had a great amount of influence within it, a detail that wasn’t obvious from their previous view screen encounters. He also saw the massive gauntlets that the man war, as if he was a prisoner.

“Zamona,” he said. “Nice to meet you in person. It’ll be a relief not to end our conversation with you trying to blow up a ship that I’m in.”

“Yes, I do apologize,” said Harold Zamona. “Our first meeting didn’t give us a chance to get acquainted. I had a war to monitor and an Emperor to represent. That modified Morcalan science vessel needed to be destroyed. Imagine my surprise, then, when two days later I receive a transmission indicating that a self destruct sequence has been activated, and one of the faces captured by the ship before it explodes is yours. I looked up your record then… have I bitten off more than I can chew with you as a hostage?”

“Have I?” said Ortega. “I’ve not had time to look you up, but Doctor Rogers knew who you were, and seemed a bit star struck.”

“Yes, the… ‘Soul Survivor’ as he calls himself.”

“His name is Doctor Silas Rogers.”

“Mine is Harold Zamona, but sometimes people still call me The Iceberg. Old names can stick around.”

“He’s delusional. Calling him that feeds into his delusions.”

“I can respect that,” said Zamona. “I’ll be sure to instruct the technicians to only refer to him as Doctor Rogers when we wake him up for his interrogation.”

Any remaining grogginess left Ortega immediately. He tried to jump out of his chair, only now realizing the magnetic restraints that were holding his arms and legs in place.

“You can’t!” he said. “He’s deactivated, don’t risk waking him up. He needs to be firmly contained in a prison before he’s awakened, and only one with special containment procedures.”

“All precautions will be taken,” said Zamona, waving a gauntlet-clad hand dismissively. “We don’t intend to underestimate him. For starters, his apparent ability to hack the cybernetic lenses worn by many of our troops has been taken into consideration. The procedure will take place entirely within a network dead zone so that he can’t reach beyond the confines of the room, and the researchers will not be wearing the standard lenses.”

“I’m glad you think you’re taking precautions,” said Ortega. “He’s too smart, though, and he has technology in his body that are decades ahead of anything else.”

“Not decades ahead of us,” said Zamona. “Our Emperor is a brilliant scientist.”

“Perhaps a brilliant technologist,” said Ortega. “Everything I’ve seen other than the cybernetic lenses is just a reworking of an earlier technology, and the lenses themselves are based on a number of other pre-existing technologies. It’s impressive, definitely impressive, but not ground-breaking… except, perhaps, the Emperor’s Eye and the Virellium Wave.”

Ortega watched the Herald’s eyes carefully. They narrowed. There was a definite reaction to the names. If Zamona knew he’d been in Morcala for both events, was the reaction to the names themselves being known, or a reminder of just how much Ortega had seen?

“Incidentally,” said Ortega, trying to move on, “I’m sure you’re aware that cybernetic implants… which would include the lenses… designed to give subliminal suggestions to their users is a violation of a number of interstellar conventions. Conscripting soldiers is also generally frowned upon, especially in the Angelor Republic.”

“I’m aware of both facts. I’m also aware of the fact that conscript-based armies tend to have a higher likelihood of insurrection and mutiny, but we’ve been fine so far. Captain, I need to know what the Astroguard knows about Emperor Dyson, and what their intended plan is.”

“As far as I know, he’s just a matter of concern that they’ll prepare for,” said Ortega. “War with Morcala was likely as close as he could get to Astroguard jurisdiction without direct intervention. As soon as the public becomes aware that you can apparently make an entire armada jump further than any recorded single vessel, they’ll become very active in stopping you.”

“Good to know. Final question: will you assist us in waking Doctor Rogers, and making sure that he doesn’t trick us during his interrogation?”

Ortega hesitated. He didn’t want to do anything that might help the Dyson Empire, and an uncontrolled Doctor Rogers might be just the sort of wild card that could help to destabilize whatever Dyson was planning next. On the other hand, there was always the chance that unpredictable chaos might be favorably directed…

“Absolutely,” said Captain Ortega. “He’s bad enough without whatever you people would do to him.”

Episode 98: Trills and Whistles

Zack carefully balanced on the log that stretched over the ravine. It was wide, but the fallen tree’s “wood”, if he could call it that, was like a sponge. His shoes sank an inch into the pseudo-bark, and while it made the log “grip” onto his feet it also unbalanced him.

“It’s like a bouncy house,” he said, grabbing a branch at the three-quarters point to stabilize himself. He instantly regretted it as his fingers pushed into the pliant bark, but made himself hold on long enough to make sure that his next step would be a stable one. “A bouncy house in desperate need of cleaning. Or like walking on top of a weak force field.”

“Wouldn’t that damage your feet?” said Chala, standing on the other side of the ravine. She was polite enough to not reach out a hand for him, but ready to do so if he fell forward.

“Not always,” he said, slowly working his way across to the edge. “Energy walkways usually don’t, and they’re basically force fields.”

“Oh, right,” she said. “Okay, I get what you mean. I was on one once that had a weak power source or unstable connection, I think. My feet dipped low through it a few times, made me think I was about to fall. Something about gravity being stronger than the field’s strength or something.”

“Generally only a problem on older models,” said Zack.

“Fortunately, this tree’s pretty new,” said Chala. “It’s still growing, actually. The malleable trunk means that when the storm knocked it over it just rerooted itself. No falling through that thing. Worst that’ll happen is you’ll get a face full of sponge-bark.”

Zack shuddered at the mental image of tasting the loamy husk of the tree, a fate that seemed worse than toppling into the waters below. He used that image to power through the final few steps. Chala nodded as Zack cleared the final nodule of the tree bridge, and gave Zack the time to balance himself on the ground.

“Not bad for a city slicker,” she said.

“Felt like an eternity. Are there many bridges like that?”

“Just the one,” she said. “At least, just the one the way we’re going.”

A strange series of trills, whistles and hisses broke through the air, and Zack twisted to face a bush, reflexively reaching for his pistols. Chala put her hand on his shoulder to stop him from reaching for the weapons, stepping in front of him and shaking her head to emphasize the point.

“Don’t,” she said. “He’s friendly. To me, at least. And they know what guns are, so don’t make a bad first impression.”

“He?” said Zack.

Chala nodded at the bush and Zack stared at it. After a few moments he could make out a series of green, yellow and purples colors that blended well with the bush, scales and possibly feathers that were the same shade as the leaves.

“I see,” he said. “If it were a snake, it’d have bit me.”

“He is a snake,” she said. “Well… a serpent.”

She cleared her throat and issued her own whistles and hisses, though ones that sounded hollower and less crisp. After a moment the branches of the bush parted, and a strange, snake-like creature slithered from within. It was definitely snake-like, but it moved and carried itself in a decidedly non-snake fashion. Its multicolored scales and feathers were supplemented with actual wings growing from its back, wings that would likely be wider than Zack was tall if they spread to their full length. It had arms below its face, giving it a human-like torso-region. Its head faced forward like a primate’s, sitting just below Zack’s. He wasn’t sure why it didn’t just slither “forward” more to appear higher than Zack since it had enough of a tail dragging behind it to make itself taller by far than most humans, but it was possible that the creature’s skeletal structure wouldn’t hold a position like that comfortably.

“I think I’ve seen a few images of things like these,” said Zack. “A lot more impressive close up.”

“They’re the Sthenites,” said Chala. “A few have been recorded by researchers, and a very small number went to Veskid decades ago. Some even went voluntarily.”

“I see,” said Zack, mentally stepping around the uncomfortable historical thorns. “What was he saying, then? From the bushes?”

Chala slowed down and coughed while the Sthenite’s gaze kept moving between her and Zack, its wide saurian eyes never blinking.

“He asked if this was, uh… if this was how I encourage people or if it’s how I hunt starprey. It’s a joke. Zack, this is Baurik, the swift glider and torgan hunter.”

She then slipped into another series of whistles and trills while speaking to Baurik. It was almost comical for Zack to hear his name pronounced clearly in the midst of the euphonious gibberish of the Sthenite language, and the Sthenite shifted its weight at the sound of it. Baurik shook himself after Chala finished talking, ruffling his feathers and wings. He moved his mouth oddly, as if testing the shape.

“Tzaaak?” he said, stretching out the word. “Tzak… Szak. Szak?”

“Szak,” said Chala. She turned to Zack. “Does that work for you? It’s closer than my name was. Your name fits the way their language works better than mine.”

“Sure,” said Zack. “Reminds me of groceries, though.”

“I’ll introduce you as Szak, bearer of produce, then.”

“Don’t you dare.”

Chala spoke more to Baurik. Baurik shook his feathers again and trilled a reply before slithering into the underbrush and out of sight.

“Did that go well?” asked Zack.

“As well as it might’ve,” said Chala. “He believes me that we both dealt blows to the Haktorash and survived to tell about it, and now he’s off to warn the Suzerain.”

“Suzer-what?”

“Kind of like a unifying tribal chief. All of the tribes have their own autonomy, but when it comes to matters of inter-tribal conflict the suzerain settles disputes, and to a certain extent can pass and enforce laws.”

“I think I’ve heard about things like that,” said Zack. “That one… crazy planet that was in the news a few days ago because of that war, I think they’ve got something like that. Why’s Baurik got to warn her about us?”

“The Suzerain’s position is a delicate one,” she said. “She can’t show favoritism or weakness without risking a loss of the peace that she’s built. It’s a good peace, though some argue that a different peace would be more beneficial to everyone. I try not to have an input on the local politics, but I think they’ll be better off if she stays in charge for a while. I’m biased, though, since she’s helped me out more than she needed to.”

“So us showing up could give political rivals an edge,” said Zack. “Will it be better for us to lay low?”

“No,” said Chala. “Do that and I hunt you down and kill you as starprey.”

“Noted,” said Zack. “What’ll her options be?”

“She’ll prepare a group of trackers to find the Haktorash, and we’ll hope that there’s actually only one of those things and that my arrow’ll still be in it. She’ll probably also prepare a trial pit.”

“Trial pit?”

“Newcomers to a tribe often have to prove themselves through a series of deadly challenges, challenges that would test anyone. It’s a good incentive to stay in your own tribe. Death is likely.”

“We’ll have to go through likely death just to prove that we’re not worth killing?” said Zack.

“Don’t be silly,” said Chala. “I went through it years ago. You’ll be doing it on your own.”

Episode 97: Triumphant Rescue

The blast of emerald energy arced from the intruder’s neural pulse pistol, striking Captain Ortega’s unprotected head before the suit’s danger-recognition features could activate the flight suit’s helmet. Ensign Trell watched the Astroguard captain fall to the ground and heard the sounds of panels quickly opening and rapid footfalls. She jumped to the door of the galley and tapped the door’s control buttons, causing it to slide shut just as another cysuit-clad intruder came into view. Trell punched the door’s locking feature to keep the new figure out and spun around to see the first assailant already on the ground and taking aim with her pistol. Trell jumped at the intruder, grabbed the wrist of the arm with the weapon, and shouldered the attacker into the wall.

Trell slammed the arm again the wall four times, stopping only when the attacker dropped the weapon. She pulled back her arm and launched it into the side of the intruder’s face, an act that loosened the observation crown on the woman’s head.

Too late, Trell registered the sound of the click and the whir of an energy weapon building a charge. She looked over her shoulder to see Tan, nervous and shaking, firing the neural pulse pistol.

***

“Hail Dyson,” said Alsafi, leader of the Wraithstrike Beta team, concluding her call. She turned back to Tan, smiling. She removed her observation crown now that it would no longer help with the call, revealing her unobstructed face for the first time. Her black hair was naturally cut short to accommodate the bulky headgear that was common among the special operations units of most major governments, group that Dyson wished to join.

“That went so much better than I expected,” she said. “When the scatterport-glitch split our party, I was sure we were done for. I still can’t believe that I took out Captain Andrew Ortega!”

“I know, right?” said Tan. “He really saved me from the Morcalans. I swear, those two would’ve killed me by now if he hadn’t been playing diplomat.”

“I kinda feel bad about it,” she said. “I’ve got a little action figure of him at home.”

“Seriously?” said Tan.

“Moment of weakness,” she said. “Honestly, it was just a repaint of a Captain Mayday figure. Enough about that, though. Commander Sanchez was surprised to hear that there was an Astroguard Agent here, and she’s conferring with the Emperor’s Herald to see if this changes anything. From what I’ve heard, Captain Ortega’s a more or less free agent, not really attached to any specific commissions or posts for more than a mission or two at a time, the only exception being the occasional seasons spent as a field instructor for their academy.”

“He wasn’t working with anyone,” said Tan. “His mission was just to capture The Soul Survivor, and once he finished that he started helping the Morcalans. He didn’t have much choice, really, but he wasn’t exactly eager to get away from them once he knew more about how effective our forces were.”

“It’s exciting, isn’t it?” said Alsafi. “I was worried that the system after Morcala would’ve been more prepared for us, but with the upgrade the Emperor installed we should be able to get anywhere we want, whenever we want to get there. Well, anywhere Dyson wants to go, at least.”

“Yeah,” said Tan. He leaned back and watched the ceiling, despite the amazing display of stars in the nearby window. “I’ve gotta say, I’m not sure I’m cut out for the war effort. I like helping, I do, but this is nerve wracking.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” said Alsafi. “As soon as we stop pushing out, the empire’ll probably be able to afford getting more regular recruits with fewer conscripts. And nobody’s gonna doubt your commitment if you step down after this first series of battles. I mean, you helped me take out Captain Andrew Ortega.”

“I suppose I did,” he said, smiling. “It seems strange, though… he’s normally one of the good guys.”

“I think he’s still a good guy,” said Alsafi. “He’s just opposing Emperor Dyson, that’s all.”

The cybernetic lens in Tan’s eye flashed more of its array of subliminal suggestions, just as it did for most of Dyson’s forces. Tan nodded.

“You’re right, of course. We’re not going to be hurting them, are we?”

He looked down at the still unconscious bodies of Captain Ortega and Ensign Trell, gently tapping Ortega’s shoulder with his shoe.

“I doubt it,” said Alsafi. “They’ll probably just be imprisoned for a while, something that’ll make sure that they don’t do any more damage after their brains get back into gear.”

“Good,” said Tan. “Didn’t much care for the Morcalans, but Ortega was nice. Besides, if we killed prisoners we might be the bad guys here.”

“Right. Anyway, prepare yourself for a communication from Commander Sanchez. She has some questions for you, and then we’ll need you to go back to the Morcalan vessel.”

“Why?”

“Just wrapping up a few pieces of the investigation. Besides, I wanna be there when they uncrate the Soul Survivor.”

Episode 96: Enemy Engagement

“Ensign Trell to Captain Calen. Come in, Captain Calen.”

Trell waited by the auxiliary communications array in Tan’s ship, sending a second hailing frequency to the Scuttler, ten minutes after the first. Her first instinct had been to open the hailing channel from the pilot’s seat, but remembered that a sudden call from Dyson’s forces might require a faster response from Tan that could interrupt her work. Her work at the moment, though, was calling her Captain, and she wasn’t receiving a response.

She walked from the auxiliary communications array to the ship’s dining chamber, a room even smaller than the Scuttler’s. Tan sat in one chair while Captain Ortega, still in his Astroguard flight suit, stood next to him.

“Trell!” said Ortega. “All wrapped up with Calen? I was just telling our host about-”

“No time for pleasantries,” said Trell. “Something’s wrong. I can’t get in touch with the Captain.”

“She’s not responding again?”

“Not at all,” said Trell. “She might have been occupied with some business the first time, but not for this long.”

“That’s starting to get suspicious,” said Tan.

“No, the first time was when it was suspicious,” said Trell. “If it happens twice, it means something has gone wrong.”

“Okay, let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Ortega. “Calen’s probably fine, but let’s play it safe and proceed as if she’s not. Could there be an issue with our communication’s array? Or with hers?”

“I ran a diagnostic the first time the message didn’t get through. We’re fine.”

“You were using the auxiliary array, though,” said Tan. “Could that cause a problem? Maybe communicating through the primary array at my station-”

“A problem like that would’ve been found by the diagnostics,” said Trell. “I checked.”

“Good,” said Tan. “I can’t count the number of times that I was sure I had a problem and there was just something unplugged.”

“Working from the primary station is also a great way to be caught on camera if your friends in the empire call,” said Trell.

“What are the odds of a communications glitch on Calen’s side?” asked Ortega, intervening when he saw Tan’s eyes narrow. “Have we sent any communications successfully since the simulated explosion?”

“Yes,” said Trell. “Nonverbal signals from computers mainly, but yes. Besides, if there was an error on that end, I’d receive a notification here. This is just a case of a channel getting to its destination but not being opened.”

Ortega tapped the wall with one of his hands. Usually he’d chalk up a situation like this to simple errors. This time, however, he had to factor in everything he knew about Captain Calen and everything he knew about the ways that problems occur in wartime espionage missions. A feeling began to creep up on him that he’d felt more often than he could count.

“Two quick questions,” he said. “First, you’re absolutely sure that Doctor Rogers wouldn’t be able to get out of that shipping crate?”

“Those crates were designed with the quick imprisonment of enemies in mind,” said Trell. “That includes abnormally tech savvy ones like your great enemy. I wouldn’t think his helmet would have regrown by now, though.”

“I don’t think it would, but he’s always creating improvements for his body,” said Ortega. “It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he’s developed a faster repair system. I don’t think he’s a factor, but I like being sure… Tan, can this ship detect where people are?”

“I think so,” he said. “Why should we do that, though? We’re all here, and you say that the Soul Survivor’s not involved.”

“He’s not the only villain in the galaxy,” said Ortega. “Tan, have the vessel scan for other entities. Trell, do you think-”

With a bang, a panel in the ceiling burst down and into the room prompting a yelp from Pilot Tan. A woman in a black stealth suit with a six-eyed observation crown leaned down and into the room, holding a green neural pulse pistol aimed at Captain Ortega.

“No more time for subtlety,” she shouted, pulling the trigger and firing an emerald burst of light.

Episode 95: Wraithstrike

The explosion was little more than a flash grenade, a special effects prop made from emergency flares, fuel, and some spare parts to add an electrical kick. As Captain Calen released her Scuttler’s hold on Tan’s vessel, it provided absolutely nothing to the backwards drift that allowed the two ships to separate, appearing from a distance to resemble a celestial arthropod releasing an unfinished meal. It looked impressive, though.

***

“As you can see, I’ve almost finished the repairs,” said Tan. “The Morcalan vessel didn’t latch on as firmly as it might’ve. It’s an inefficient attack, one that almost requires the assistance of the other ship to pull off.”

Ensign Trell narrowed her eyes and shook her energy blaster in a manner that fell just shy of threatening. Captain Ortega smiled, getting the sense that Trell was finally growing to the point where she could tolerate Tan’s quirks. Commander Sanchez saw neither of them as she stared from the view screen.

“I see definite improvement,” she said. “The repair team is near enough, though. Do you believe you can truly finish the work on your own? Every ship’s participation is useful for making the initial strike more debilitating to our enemies.”

“I think it’s better to not waste their time,” said Tan. “If we get them back to the ideal position in our formation to do the most good for the rest of the fleet, it’ll help us. We’ve got a tight schedule, after all. I might be late to the party but I’ll definitely be there before the first wave of attack is over.”

Trell blinked. Something seemed off about their prisoner’s comment. She couldn’t say what it was, but the flow of conversation seemed wrong, and it gave her a sense of deja vu, as if she’d heard this conversation before.

“Very well,” said Commander Sanchez. “I expect you to be not just up and running, but combat ready in time for the strike. I’ll be altering your position to be in the final rush of fighters during our first wave instead of the third. That should help to accommodate any unexpected issues you have during your final repairs.”

“Understood, Commander,” said Tan.

“Hail Dyson.”

“Hail Dyson.”

The screen flickered off and Tan breathed a sigh of relief.

“Nice work,” said Ortega. “I think we’re just about in the clear to live through this.”

“Right,” said Tan. “What’ll you do now?”

“Hadn’t thought that far ahead,” said Ortega. “Trell, do you think Calen would be amenable to flying the Scuttler by Veskid? I could probably take advantage of their throughwave network to get a message to Astroguard Command. They couldn’t speak back to us easily, but it could let them know more about the nature of the Dyson threat and get them ready to respond.”

“Probably not,” said Trell, watching the pilot carefully. “But it never hurts to ask.”

***

Captain Calen paced from the Scuttler’s miniature galley back to the bridge. She trusted Ensign Trell to keep the prisoner on task, and to keep Captain Ortega from intervening unnecessarily. She had grown wary when the Dyson Empire’s repair vessel drew near, but it didn’t do more than get close enough to scan Tan’s ship for repairs.

She reached the door that led back onto the bridge, and paused at the sight of an unusual system message flashing at Trell’s station. She started to approach it, but when she stepped through the archway she saw the two black-clad soldiers standing on either side of her, pressed up against the wall to avoid visual contact until it was too late.

Their uniforms were cybernetic stealth suits, topped with observation crowns that both increased their vision and obscured their faces. It gave them the appearance of having six eyes, as three lenses could rotate into position for either eye to give different visual effects depending on what the environment called for. The suits were standard fare, but tweaked with the strange scientific flourishes that Calen was beginning to recognize as the Dyson Empire’s handiwork. The combination of unusual head-gear and cybernetic touches on the body gave the impression of an alien skeleton or shadowy mutant insect’s exoskeletal husk.

They had the undeniable advantage of position, equipment, and surprise, and if their prey had not been Captain Calen the attack would have worked flawlessly. Calen’s wild reaction allowed her to grab the arm of one of the intruders as it lifted a green neural pulse pistol, twisting it to the side to cause the weapon to fire harmlessly into the other side of the room. She continued the arm twist to spin the victim behind her, just in time for the second pistol to fire, striking the intruder and causing an instant loss of consciousness. She tossed the dead weight into her second attacker, but he jumped to the side.

“Spies and saboteurs!” she shouted. “You waste an ambush and must face me alone. Who trained you to throw away advantages like that? By the dread engines of the Farthest Fleet, you’ll suffer at my hand and be sent back to your precious emperor as the secondary payload of a bone missile!”

The intruder didn’t respond but instead fired again. Calen was already moving, easily sidestepping the blast before he pulled the trigger. She grabbed his weapon, pulled it from his hand, and lowered it at the surprised assailant.

“You’ve no training,” she said. “No training, no advantage, and no hope. I’ll give you your last words, because after this insult to the concept of weaponry puts you to sleep I’ll ensure that you never wake again!”

The third assailant, stepped out of the hallway, and fired at Calen. She never saw the attack, and spasmed furiously. She stilled suddenly and for a surreal moment it seemed as if she remained conscious through an act of furious will. She toppled forward an instant later, and the two remaining intruders breathed a sigh of relief.

“Wraithstrike Team Delta reporting full insertion,” said the third intruder as the broadcast channel opened through his suit. “Scatterport-glitch occurred resulting in one casualty, non-lethal. Vessel secured.”

“Copy that, Wraithstrike Delta,” said the voice of Commander Sanchez. “Await further instructions.”

Episode 94: Traffic Troubles

“We have a problem, sir.”

Vox Cul-Dar turned from the window by his seat and looked into the face of the ship’s captain. He knew that on a larger ship a discussion of problems would have been delegated to an underling, but the other crew were probably busy with essential tasks. Vox stared at the captain with his large, unblinking eyes, knowing that humans found it unsettling. The captain, used to shady employers and employees, took it as his cue to continue.

“We’re approaching Mandrake,” said the captain. “There aren’t any problems with your direct instructions as written, but the situation near Mandrake isn’t ideal for your drop. An alarming number of witnesses hovering near the planet, almost all on the side where you want to be dropped.”

“What sort of witnesses?”

“Mostly people from that group that races asteroids, so there’s a lot of rocks waiting right by where we’d fly, each with one or two petrakinetics. There’s also a few small ships connected to the organization, and one of their security ships. Worse than that, though, there’s a vessel from a news organization, so there’s a reporter mixed in with the witnesses.”

“So it’s more than just Carmen Shift and her friends now,” said Vox.

“You expected this kind of traffic?”

“It’s what brought me here. No matter; I can be seen taking this trip, even if it risks tipping my hand to competitors. Carry out the plans as discussed.”

“We’ll have to wait for a moment when we can carry out your instructions with more discretion.”

“I’m not paying for discretion,” said Vox, lifting one of his serrated arms to point emphatically as he spoke. “I’m paying to be deposited on that planet and picked up later.”

The captain looked at Vox’s insect-like arm and then back at his eyes, not phased by either.

“I think you misunderstand, sir. I didn’t say you had a problem, I said that we had one. We can’t be seen taking you to Mandrake. Unless you want to pay more than it’s worth to give us the license we’d need to make this trip legal, there’s no way we can safely land without causing trouble. We’ll be waiting for the traffic to clear up from a safe distance. With luck they’ll just assume we’re curious racing fans taking a detour from our shipping schedule to get a closer look at what’s happening.”

Vox narrowed his eyes, a habit he’d picked up from humans. He felt anger at the delay, but heard many of Rendelac’s teachings bubbling up in the back of his mind from previous times he’d let his anger carry him away.

“This is unfortunate,” he finally said. “Take your time, but please approach the planet the moment it becomes safe to do so.”

“Thank you,” said the captain, turning to walk toward the cargo hold.

Vox turned back to his window and stared at the stars outside. He wasn’t sure why the racing federation was taking so long on the other side of the planet, but knew that his lead on finding Gamma would evaporate if it lasted too long. Whatever the business was, he hoped it was worth it.

***

“I couldn’t be happier for Andara,” said Carmen, speaking to the reporter over her headset. “I’m glad to see a rookie do so well.”

“Miss Fugue will be happy to hear that,” said the reporter. “It’s got to be a shame to not come in first yourself, though.”

“Oh,” said Carmen, mentally keeping herself from grinding her teeth, “it’s not so bad. I was just racing for fun since I’d pre-qualified. Winning’s not im… winning’s not that important. I can handle not… finishing. It was more important that Xorn’Tal, Flashman and I try to take down the Phantom Matador.”

“And you came pretty close from what I hear,” said the reporter. “If not for the shangmere stowaway, you-”

“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” said Carmen. “I’m just glad he didn’t cross the finish line.”

“This makes the second time an asteroid of his has been captured without anyone being able to contain the Phantom Matador himself. Do you think he’ll ever be captured?”

“If he ever shows his face again, absolutely,” said Carmen. “Hey, this is starting to feel more like a press release than an interview, so could I-”

“Any thoughts on the Federation’s decision to include the Phantom Matador in the official statistics of the Corona Circuit’s races? It’s only been a few hours since they announced the decision, but it’s already-”

Carmen closed the channel, tapped her headset in frustration, and sent a call to Xorn’Tal. The alien plant creature answered almost immediately.

“Greetingage,” he said.

“Did they finally stop peppering you with questions, or did you get mad like I did?”

“Entity-None: angry: like Carmen.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Reporters: inquiry cessation. Discovery theirs: interview mine: difficult.”

“Yeah, I wonder why they felt that way. Any word from Vince?”

“Reporters: inquiry continuation: Vince.”

“He always did like a camera. Any thoughts on how much longer we’ll need to be up here?”

“Police: investigation pends. Asteroid: examination. Unit-Corona Champions: examination: medical.”

“Why haven’t we gotten our medical exam yet?”

“Doctor Zeta: delay. Ruling preference: examination medical: unnecessary.”

“I agree, but the fed’s gotta be sure that we’re okay. We were off the grid for the last third of that race. If nothing else, Zeta could use a petrakinetic scanner and make sure that no one’s being tricked by the Phantom Matador into thinking he’s not there. Last thing we want is for him to get away again.”

“Phantom Matador: escape: fact.”

“Maybe,” said Carmen. “I’m worried about the fact that I didn’t see it happen.”

“Rocksense: trustable.”

“Right, it is,” said Carmen. “I don’t think he could trick out what I was feeling on the rock. But if he could…”

Carmen looked at the plethora of asteroids in the sky above, a hemisphere filled with concerned racing officials.

“I don’t know how he would’ve hidden the bat from all of us. But if he could, I’d be more worried.”

“Likelihood: small.”

“Right,” said Carmen. “I’ve just seen one too many horror flicks where the mutant has one last power that nobody knows about. Like the one where the aquakinetic was also ferrokinetic and could send his mind through copper wires.”

“Movie writing: bad, implausible.”

“I hope you’re right, Xorn’Tal. I hope you’re right.”

Episode 93: Tight Schedule

“We’re glad you’ve been able to make repairs,” said the Dyson Forces Commander on the other side of the view screen, holding her hand to her temple. “However, protocol dictates that your ship will need an entire shakedown. Particularly with the Morcalan vessel affixed to it.”

“Understood, Commander Sanchez,” said Pilot Tan, nodding to the screen. “I do believe that I’ll be able to remove the Scuttler myself, though, and until I do that docking won’t be an option. You’d have to spend the time and resources to have a crew physically come over here, and that’ll delay both my schedule and that of the repair crew. I understand that we’re on a tight schedule.”

“Are we?”

“Super tight,” said Tan. “Incredibly tight. That was how I interpreted The Herald’s last instructions from Emperor Dyson, at least. We’re in a non-consecutive region of space, and most of our advantage comes from careful timing and the element of surprise.”

Commander Sanchez tapped a finger on the side of her head.

“This is irregular, but you’re right about the tight schedule. Given the circumstances… I’ll still be sending a repair ship your way, but work on them yourself to the best of your ability. The repair ship should be able to get to you before our operation in Veskid begins, but if you can get things finished before help arrives it’ll reflect well on you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Hail Dyson,” she said, saluting to the camera.

“Hail Dyson,” said Tan, returning the salute. The feed went dark.

Ensign Trell lowered her energy blaster and reactivated its safety mechanism while Ortega exhaled.

“Nice work, Tan,” he said. “I was worried for a minute.”

“We’re not safe yet,” said Trell. “We’ve still got to make enough of a change to the ship to make it look like repairs are progressing. We may also need to cause some superficial damage that will better reflect the kinds of issues that you reported, Tan.”

“Sorry,” he said. “It was all I could think of for some of the questions she was asking.”

“Honestly, I think I would’ve told them more or less the same things. You didn’t have a lot to work with. You moved us out of the frying pan and into a different pan a little closer to the oven’s controls.”

“So, the first step should be removing the Scuttler?” asked Ortega. “Just calling Calen and asking her to unhook would probably be too fast. How long should we wait to make it believable that one person could fix that kind of issue?”

“Two hours, which is too long,” said Trell. “I’m willing to bet that there’s not a lot of data on the lesser known functions of Morcalan specialty vessels, though. We might be able to make twenty minutes believable if we simulate a controlled explosion near some of the pincers. We can even claim that Tan did it to speed up his work.”

“Good plan,” said Ortega. “Up for some more acting in a bit, Tan?”

“If I need to,” he said. “Still don’t feel great about this.”

“Must be rough, keeping your friends out there from blasting you to death,” said Trell. “We’ll keep the contact minimal, so you won’t need to do it often. We’ll keep working here, and with luck the Dyson Empire won’t know we’re coming for them until it’s too late.”

***

“He wasn’t wrong,” said Harold Zamona. “We are, as he says, on a Tight Schedule.”

“He was very emphatic, sir,” said Commander Sanchez, speaking to Zamona through her view screen. “He wanted that point to be made, and he made it. It could be nothing, but I felt it best to inform you.”

“Yes,” said Zamona, steepling his gauntlet-bound hands. “Tight Schedule isn’t the trouble phrase until tomorrow. It should be Random Sensor Glitch today. Still… you were right to call me.”

“One of my officers suggests that he might be operating with local time instead of Dyson Mean Time. It would account for the error. As would a simple mistake when memorizing trouble phrases.”

“It might,” said Zamona. “Prepare to send your repair team as promised, but inform them that I will send some specialists along for the job, Commander.”

“Understood, Herald.”

Episode 92: Haktorash

Zack tried ducking, too late for it to have done any good. Chala’s arrow sailed past his ear, and collided with something just behind him. Zack spun and saw a towering creature, like a centipede magnified to incredible size and pushing its way out of the earth. The segmented arms spasmed painfully, reacting to the arrow embedded between plates of its exoskeleton. Zack jumped from it and toward his dropped pistol as one of the arms lashed, an instant too slow.

He scooped up the Purcellian striker and took a better look at the creature. He saw other injuries on the thing, scars and scratches along with some still-protruding arrow shafts and larger pieces of wood… nothing as advanced as Chala’s arrow, however.

He looked at Chala and was surprised to see her running, furiously covering the grass of the clearing and heading for a tree line. He turned back, but the beast was gone. The clearing grew eerily silent apart from the distant noise of insects and Chala’s receding footfalls. A large hole in the ground was the only sign that the creature had ever been there.

Time froze. Part of Zack’s brain was arguing against the evidence of his own eyes, rationalizing that nothing so large could move so quickly or quietly. Another part of his brain was screaming, furiously, that whatever he’d just seen COULD move that quickly and quietly, and was likely doing so right now. Why was Chala, who seemed at home in this dangerous environment, running after a successful hit? Time started to unfreeze and slowly picked up speed as the shouting part of Zack’s brain gradually overruled the rational, confused part.

He ran. He followed Chala. Something large and heavy slammed into the ground behind him. It continued slamming in a long, rumbling roll. He risked a look over his shoulder and saw the creature falling like a tree, its arms prepared to grab and slice and a nearing pincer-ringed maw opening wide. It was falling faster than he could run.

Zack screamed and jumped to the side, too-late realizing what evolution had made the creature realize millions of years earlier: you could crush more prey beneath you if you could change the direction of your fall. It twisted at a segment in its armor, altering the vector of its descent to match Zack’s attempted zig-zag.

Zack fell on his back and reflexively lifted the hand holding his pistol. He pulled the trigger and a surge of energy blasted up and into the monster. The creature shrieked and reared back, more surprised than wounded. Zack didn’t hesitate to clamber to his feet. He was too slow.

Denied its chance at crushing its prey, the creature snapped its head forward toward the fleeing detective. Zack never knew how close the jaws came, running for the thick collection of trees ahead of him. He saw, for the second time in less than thirty seconds, Chala staring at him, pulling back her arm, and releasing an arrow. Again it sailed past Gamma, this time striking the beast in its mouth.

Zack ran past Chala, made it almost a dozen feet into the tangle of vegetation, and tripped over a vine. He fell onto the ground, looked up, and saw Chala staring into the clearing. He slowly got to his feet, looked behind her, and saw an empty field. Once again, it had softly and suddenly vanished away.

“What was THAT?” he asked.

“Haktorash,” said Chala, almost reverently. “It roughly translates to ‘Phantom Judge.’ Last year an industrialist from Veskid wanted to name it The Boojum, but fortunately it killed him before he could get the venom he wanted from it.”

“Shouldn’t we keep running?”

“It won’t follow us into the trees,” she said. “I don’t know why. I think the roots give it trouble when they get thick enough. It’s an incredible creature, really… logically I know there must be more than one of it, but every time one is seen it still has all the scars and injuries from the warriors who’ve failed to kill it.”

“Maybe there are dozens of them and they’ve all got their own collection of black eyes. Has anyone ever really cataloged each injury on it to make sure they’re the same each time?”

“I think the guy last year did, but his data would’ve been lost on his ship when it went down in Swamp Savage, grabbed by a noose tree. It’s probably still there if you want to go look. Keep away from its gallows vines, though, they’ve got a longer reach than you might guess.”

“I think I’m fine,” he said. “Like I said, I’m only here a few hours, a day at most.”

“And like I said, you don’t have that kind of time. Although you might’ve just gotten lucky.”

“How?”

“Haktorash is the Phantom Judge,” said Chala. “In some ways it’s the measure of evolutionary adaptability, in others it’s the measure of a warrior. It attacked us. We survived.”

“You survived,” said Zack. “I got lucky.”

“Luck is part of survival. The Sthenites acknowledge the favor of fate as a trait that can make a good warrior, though it’s impossible to train for it or rely upon it. Luck means you live, at least for today. And I live because of a little less luck, and a little more skill. We both left our marks on it, you from an energy blast and me from an arrow. Here’s hoping I’m lucky enough for at least one of those arrows to stick in it…”

“How’s that lucky?”

“It’ll bring prestige,” she said. “I’m an outsider. I could claim that I hit Haktorash and survived, but no one would believe me on my word alone. My arrows, though, are unique on this world. No one who sees Haktorash with an arrow like that in it could doubt that the arrow came from my bow.”

“Nice,” said Zack. “What’s it mean if the arrow doesn’t last, though?”

“Nothing for me, it’d be about the same as telling a big fish story. It would be bad for you, though.”

“Why?”

“Because then it looks like I’m just trying to protect a member of my former tribe,” she said. “If the arrow doesn’t last, you will be no longer judged fit to survive by Haktorash and will once again be valid for the hunt.”