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.
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.
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?”
“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.”