Monthly Archives: July 2015

Episode 114: Bite of the Red Guard

The sthenite shrieked again at the sight of Zack, standing over the corpses.

“This isn’t,” Zack started, honestly not sure where he was going with it. He looked at the two sthenites on the ground, and at the scorch marks that were left behind by their assailant.

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha!” he said again, holding his hands up in what he hoped was an acceptable sign of non-aggression. The sthenite slithered backward, a visual that Zack hadn’t been prepared to see. It tilted its head like a nervous bird.

“Shyese tzanara,” Zack said, slowly pointing to the two corpses just as the overseer had said, “Dojurbu Hansha.”

He thought about the situation. Was he actually pointing at the first dead sthenite that he had seen when he pointed at Dojurbu? Or the sthenite that he hoped was Dojurbu?

Another Sthenite rounded the ledge, and began climbing up the rocky path. Zack saw the red scales and cobra-like hood that he’d come to recognize as common among the physical laborers and guards. The new sthenite saw an alien in a green trench coat and horrible hat standing where and how a murderer might stand. The guard hissed and jumped at Zack, baring its fangs. Zack tried to dodge, but was too slow to avoid the lightning-fast strike.

***

“Zack!”

Zack coughed and sat up, feeling a sense of overwhelming dread.

“What?”

“Zack, I need to talk to you.”

He blinked. The light was dim. He was lying on a small bed made from woven reeds. Was he in a hut? Someone was sitting next to him.

“Chala?”

“Zack, how did you know Dojurbu and Hansha’s names?”

“How… the strange… thing that managed the trial, she told me what their names would be.”

Chala didn’t answer. Zack’s eyes were starting to adjust. It was definitely her.

“She told me that those would be the names of the first two sthenites I saw when I left the cave. I didn’t know that they’d be… I really don’t know why all this is happening. Someone followed me into the trial pit.”

“Not possible. The location of the exit is a secret to those who haven’t finished the trial.”

“She has a way of finding me. She’s an alien.”

“So are you. So am I.”

“No, like… not a sthenite and not a human. She’s a shangmere, and she’s got a way of tracking me.”

“How?”

“She says that it tracks Virellium Force Energy, and anyone who’s come in contact with it.”

Chala stood and walked to a wall. Zack dimly registered the image of her leaning against it, but she was right at the edge of his vision.

“The phrase you said to the one who found you with the bodies? It saved your life. She saved your life, I mean. She told the guard what you said, and stopped him during the venom injection. She said that you knew the names and that it was important.”

“That’s a relief.”

“There was a third murder,” she said. Zack tensed and stood, ignoring the sudden headache that standing caused after his venom injection.

“A third murder?”

“Someone else was killed in the same manner as Dojurbu and Hansha. She was killed in front of my hut in a different village. A messenger arrived to report it.”

“Do they think I killed her as well?”

“She died while you were in the trial pit. It lends some credence to the mystery surrounding your appearance outside the trial pit, a place you shouldn’t have found until much later.”

“The attacker in the trial pit, she wants to kill me.”

“And others as well, it seems. All while trying to find you.”

“That doesn’t make sense, though,” said Zack. “Why would she track me to your home in a different village?”

“Because of my forge,” she said, just as Zack’s eyes finished adjusting. “It’s where I keep all of my supplies. Everything I work on. And, unfortunately, where I’ve hidden a substantial amount of Virellium.”

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Episode 113: Tight Squeeze

Zack surged through the cramped tunnel toward the light ahead, thinking of it as the alley from his dream. Alleys were, as many had pointed out to him, his natural habitat, and he couldn’t deny a certain understanding of how they worked. His understanding of caves was shakier, but he trusted that Nectra would be as unfamiliar with them as he was with jungles and hoped that the shangmere wouldn’t be able to keep up without any real room to use her wings.

He rounded a corner and expected to see an opening that would lead him to the outside world, but instead saw the overseer of the trials, the primitive-looking Sthenite illuminated from above. She smiled as Zack stared, confused.

“I… thought you were sunlight. The way out. I thought that-”

“You don’t have long,” said the overseer of the trials, her voice not quite matching the shapes her mouth made.

“Until the exit? Or until Nectra catches me?”

“Either. But I meant the first. Your language delights again. Zack… Tzak… I am sorry that your trial did not go as planned. The alien that I plucked from your mind found you. She was more immediate than I guessed.”

“So what does this mean for the trial?”

“Oh, you are not done,” she said. “But as a sign that you are not leaving without my consent… Dojurbu and Hansha are the names of the first two Sthenites that you will see when you leave the cave.”

“So I… tell them that I know their names and they assume that you told me?”

“No, but tell the third Sthenite you see.”

“I don’t speak th-”

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha. Say that and gesture to the two you see.”

“You sure I can remember that?”

“No, but you have a remarkable mind for detail. I trust that you will at least warrant investigation if you do your best. The trial will continue beyond the cave. Dojurbu and Hansha will take you as their messenger. Go.”

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha?”

“Yes. Go.”

Zack didn’t waste time. He ran forward, looked over his shoulder, and almost imagined that he saw Nectra gently leap into the light just before it went dark. A fainter light was visible in the sudden darkness, one just around another corner.

Zack turned and resisted the urge to shout in triumph at the sight of a narrow crack in the wall with light pouring in. He raced for it, slowed as he neared it, and turned sideways. He gently started moving through the crack.

“Pretty tight in there, isn’t it?”

Zack took a deep breath and started moving faster. How close was Nectra? How long was this crack leading outside? He didn’t have the room to turn his head.

“Zack, I’ll catch you sooner or later,” she said, almost pleading. “This really isn’t doing anything except making it harder for me. I understand that that might be what you want… I wouldn’t want to just wait for someone to kill me either… but you can’t win, you know that right? I can track you anywhere and, okay, I’m not some super assassin trained on a distant planet like the DMA’s agents, but I won’t stop. They’re only worried about money. That’s not me.”

Zack ignored the shangmere’s voice. She was a good four feet behind him, probably just starting to move into the fissure. He picked up speed and shimmied the last foot out, taking a deep breath as he stepped out of a rock wall and onto a pleasant jungle trail.

Two sthenites, one with purple scales and feathers and the other with green scales and feathers, were on the ground, dead, with clean, cauterized wounds along their chests and limbs. Zack stared at the two corpses in shock.

“Dojurbu?” he said. “Hansha?”

A high pitched shriek, like a bird of prey declaring its kill, was accompanied by the sound of a basket dropping to the floor. Zack looked up to see another sthenite, green scaled, staring at him from along the trail with a woven basket on the ground, dropped in the shock from what it had just seen. Zack took a shaky breath.

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha?”

Episode 112: March From The Trial Pit

Zack knew the situation was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. He shambled along in the state between dreaming and waking, still trying to discern why it felt like someone was holding his arm behind his back. The path was long and narrow and dark, just like his dream had been.

“Not far now, Mister Gamma. This place is making my head swim. Do you ever say that?”

“Nnh?”

“The shangmere don’t say that. We don’t do a lot of swimming, though it’s really fun when we do. Our idioms are a little different. I love human idioms, though. And most of human society. I was really excited to move to the Angelor Republic proper. Humanity gets a lot of flak out there, but it always seemed so nice to me. It’s like your race is made up of social structures that clumsily get by on nothing more but dumb luck and mishmashes of traditions and quick-fixes, but all the individuals are so suave and refined.”

“Hhng… suave? Y… you think humans…”

“Well, not ALL of them, obviously.”

Zack shook his head. The conversation was pulling him out of his walking dream. He wasn’t in an alley, he was in a cave. The trial pit’s cave was stretching before him, and he could just see light ahead. His hands weren’t restrained behind him, they were just held in place.

“I mean, now that I’ve lived in the Angelor Republic for this long I know that even humans have their downsides. In some ways that makes you better, though, don’t you think? I mean, perfection would be boring. Everyone has to have their little quirks and failings, and humans pick ones that are-”

“Nectra? Is that… you’re Nectra.”

“Yes?”

So he hadn’t dreamed Nectra. He was really being escorted by the shangmere.

“I don’t mean to… I mean, I know you want to kill me, but could you have waited until after I was done in the trial pit? It’s really important that I finish this, and I’ve got a feeling that there’s some kinda penalty for taking a mulligan on spirit quests.”

“Oh, that’s what you were doing? Okay, that explains a lot. Zack, this probably isn’t the right time, but you know that you live the best life, right? I mean, you get to do so many fun things.”

“Yeah, try it for yourself some time, I think you wouldn’t like it so much. Listen, I-”

“And you’ve always got the perfect comeback lines. Do you think that if I wasn’t out to kill you and otherwise imprisoned for life that we might’ve been able to be friends?”

“People like me don’t get many friends, but I guess anything’s possible. Look, Nectra, you’ve gotta let me go back there.”

“One thing at a time, Zack. I need to kill you first.”

“You’re not thinking straight.”

“I’m not craz… well, maybe the fumes down here are getting to me.”

“Right,” said Zack. “And even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t think you were crazy. You’re a little eccentric, sure, and I think you’re a very… emotional person, but I don’t think you’re crazy.”

Nectra stopped walking Zack forward. She leaned into Zack’s field of view, and the almost-human, vaguely bat-like face slid into his peripheral vision.

“I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“Well-”

“You really think I’m not crazy?”

Zack stared into the wide, uncanny eyes of the shangmere and gave the question some serious thought.

“I really don’t,” he said. “You sound… well, you sound like someone who could probably stand to talk to some therapists about everything you’re going through, but I’ve met insane people before and you’re not like them.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Sure, I’ve only known you for…I lost track of time in there, about half a day maybe? So, I’m just working on first impressions here, and I’m not what you’d call an expert, but I don’t get an ‘insane’ vibe off you. You seem more desperate than anything.”

“Oh, thanks!” she said. “Zack, that really means a lot. Really. I know I’ve already said this, but I’m really going to regret killing you.”

“Then don’t kill me!”

“It’s not that simple.”

“I think it is,” said Zack. “Look, you’ve gone through some desperate times, I can tell that just by looking at you, so you’re jumping at some sort of straw to prove that you’re innocent of… something, I wasn’t clear on that whole situation, but the fact is the option you’ve been given is clearly immoral and probably illegal. I’ve helped a lot of people who wanted to turn to options like that… and believe me, some of my clients have been in pretty dire problems… but in my experience, when you’ve been thrown a bone like that to get out of trouble, you’ve not been given anything good to work with. You’ll keep your head above water, and maybe someday you’ll even get out of the jam you’re in, but you’ll have sidestepped a better life.”

“Wow,” said Nectra. “You might have a point. Was that off the cuff?”

“Well-”

“That’s another human idiom I like. We don’t usually wear the kinds of sleeves that humans do, which means we don’t really have shirt cuffs, so-”

“Yeah, it’s a great idiom. So, why don’t you let me go?”

“Oh, Zack, I wish I could,” she said, her eyes twisting into a recognizable expression of genuine sadness. Zack wondered if shangmerian eyes worked like that, or if she’d picked up the habit from humans.

“Why can’t you?”

“It’s great that you believe everything you just told me,” she said, leaning her head back so that she was entirely behind Zack again. “It makes me think of the great heroes of human books and movies. But do you really think civilization works that way? From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t.”

“It does if enough people work to make it work that way,” said Zack, feeling the gentle push to begin walking forward again.

“I think you’re right,” she said. “But that’s the fatal tragedy of humanity. I don’t think enough people will ever work together to make it something that sweepingly epic and beautiful. Human society can’t exist without its flaws, after all. It’d get boring otherwise.”

“Don’t make a joke to dodge actually thinking about the topic.”

“I’ve thought a lot about this, Zack, I was in prison for a while. And right now, killing you is the only way that I can prove that I’m innocent and that my research works.”

Zack sighed.

“All right. Nectra, I’m really sorry.”

“About wh-”

Zack jumped forward, dragging Nectra with him. He ducked and somersaulted, pulling Nectra into a whirl as she opened her wings to try to stop the pull of the air. The loss of momentum caused Zack to land on his back halfway through the twist, on top of Nectra.

The surprised shangmere, having just had the wind knocked out of her, loosened the grip of her clawed hands enough for Zack to pull his wrists away. He jumped up and ran down the corridor as fast as he could, heading toward the light.

“No!” she shouted. “No, don’t go! Zack! Get back here! I’ll find you! You can’t hide from me, I have a tracker!”

Zack ignored Nectra’s betrayed cries and moved quickly. He didn’t know how fast she could run, but wasn’t going to wait to find out.

Episode 111: Westminster Quarters

The alley was beautiful, dark and cold. Zack stepped through it and looked up at the sky. Stars shone overhead, glimmering with an immediacy that suggested an absence of atmosphere. It looked like the sky of a space station, one large enough to have a city. The alley was perfect, with just the right combination of narrowness and twistiness to be atmospheric but without the cramped quarters that Zack was familiar with from the many times he’d worked in alleys like these. His only complaint was that it was too clean. None of the grime from foot traffic, litter, or good old fashioned air pollution had settled into place, confirming Zack’s suspicion that he was on a space station.

“It isn’t fair to judge every warrior by the same rubric. The strength of some is speed, the strength of others is physicality, the strength of others lies in their venom. You are weaker than most Sthenite warriors, though surprisingly fast for a human. But is speed sufficient? What will your greatest challenge be? Can you clutch victory from death and defeat?”

“Who’s there?” said Zack, looking over his shoulder. The alley was darker now. A familiar set of four notes chimed through the air, notes he always associated with old clocks. He turned toward the voice, reaching into his green trench coat and drawing his Purcellian Striker Pistols.

“You’re sure about this alley, then?”

Zack passed a storefront and paused. Why was the storefront wrong? He looked at it, and saw an analog clock ticking away the seconds next to a digital clock that flashed 12:00:50. It wouldn’t be long until the analog clock caught up to the flashing time.

Another set of notes passed through the air, four notes that seemed to answer the first four. It was strange to hear a break between them. Were they part of the same notes playing, or was there just a delay?

Zack turned left, ignoring the store.

“You’re alone,” said the voice. “You have friends. Have they abandoned you? Betrayed you? Or have you finally reached a place where they can’t save you? Your strength lies in webs of community. Will you finally get in a problem so deep that not even the most generous friends will be able to help you in time? After all, they can’t be everywhere you are all the time. And what sort of stranger would help you out without even knowing who you are?”

Four more notes echoed through the alley.

“You’re not sayin’ anything I’ve not thought about before,” said Zack.

“Then why do you keep going into alleys? You know what they say about people in your kind of work and alleys.”

“Lotsa work to do,” said Zack. “Long way to go yet.”

“There are miles to go before you rest,” said the voice. “And you won’t be able to help everyone you try to help. How can you when you can’t help yourself?”

“Shut up.”

“Did you help Azar?”

Zack winced, and everything went dark.

“That’s incredible. I’ve never seen a mental block like that. I suppose it’s possible for one to form through your own willpower, but it’s unlikely. Do humans possess such technology?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Zack.

“Then tell me about Azar.”

“I don’t know WHO you’re talking about,” said Zack.

Why did the storefront open onto an alley? That was the problem.

Zack turned and walked back to the alley, finding it closer than he expected. The clocks were nearly at the same time. A final set of four notes chimed, finishing the musical phrase, just a few seconds before midnight.

“Midnight is different in your mind,” said the voice. “It’s the turning point of the day in Chala’s mind. But for you… why fifty seconds later?”

“Chimes don’t end at midnight,” said Zack. “They end after midnight. Thirty seconds, a minute maybe, but never right at midnight unless you change the chimes to start before midnight arrives. There’s a clock on Veskid that rings, used to listen to it all the time. I timed it out to fifty seconds. I should go to Earth some day, visit the original.”

The chimes started ringing, announcing the arrival of midnight. Zack opened the door of the store and stepped in.

“Wait, who are you?” said the voice.

“Zack. Or Tzak, if you need me to be a Sthenite.”

A doctor’s office was inside the store, looking out of place after the clocks he’d expected on the storefront. Zeta, the Doctor that helped the asteroid racing federation, waited behind a desk.

“Hello again, Tzak.”

“Hi,” said Zack. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

“I can’t help you,” said Zeta, shaking his head. “No appointment, and no medicine here. Should’ve taken a different route to find medicine.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” said the voice.

“I don’t know what’s happening, but I feel like this is where I should be,” said Zack.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice. “I don’t know why this… this has never happened before, you’re supposed to be alone.”

“I’m not alone,” said Zack.

“No, but I can’t help you,” said Zeta. “I have a little time before my next appointment though, I might be able to administer another brain scan.”

“I don’t need my head examined,” said Zack.

“Right there with ya,” said Nectra, leaning in to Zack’s field of vision from the side.

Something was wrong.

“You’re not here,” said Zack.

“Yes I am,” said Zeta. “Are you okay?”

“I hate to do this to you, this looks important,” said Nectra.

“Stop,” said the voice. “No one is supposed to interfere. This is delicate. It’s meant to be solitary.”

“Hey, you okay?” said Nectra. “Zack, your eyes are… and your voice is weird, too. Snap out of it, okay?”

“Nothing’s wrong with my voice?” asked Zack.

“If you say so,” said Nectra. “But I’ve waited too long. You’re comin’ with me.”

Nectra put her clawed hand on Zack’s arm and suddenly he was in the cave. The Overseer of the trials was gone, and there was no trace of an alley, clocks, or chimes.

“N-” he said, feeling very ill.

“I think the air’s a little weird down here,” said the shangmere, smiling. Zack took a slow step back, but Nectra yanked his arm forward and spun his wrist behind his back.

“This way,” said Nectra. “We’re gettin’ out of the crazy death cave. And then, once we’re both safe and sound away from the flying snake people, I can kill you.”

Episode 110: Delicious Flaws

The cave was dark.

He had taken for granted the fact that he was descending. It was a reliable sensation of motion in a lightless environment, and along with the scent of damp stones and soil and the refreshing coolness of the air it was just a part of the backdrop for the trials he expected to start at any moment. What he wasn’t expecting was for the descent to stop so abruptly.

He shifted his gravity to avoid teetering over the edge, and adjusted his grip on the vines holding his platform. Did the vines stop lowering because there was no more vine to lower, or because the platform had reached solid ground? It felt like the ground. He tried rocking back and forth, but the platform didn’t sway beneath him. He carefully moved his hands up and down the vines, and felt the faintest hint of slack. He nervously reached down from the platform and felt solid stone.

Zack took more steadying breaths and cautiously stepped off the platform. He reflexively clutched his hand, but remembered that he didn’t have his lumisphere anymore.

“Where’d I put that?” he muttered, checking all of the pockets of his coat. He needed to start carrying actual light sources with him.

Except the light was dangerous, yes? The darkness was confusing but safe, while the light was illuminating for… whatever was in the darkness. That’s why someone told him not to use the lumisphere too often. Without the lumisphere there would, at least, be no risk of overuse.

“Hello?” he said, taking a careful step forward. “I’m looking for some sort of… trial? People who… don’t speak my language. Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala? Am I saying that right? …do tsaya and tsara mean different things, or are they different forms of the same word?”

A rustling came from the darkness in front of him. Soft hissing? Feathers ruffling? Shifting air pressure from an elevator closing on poor terms?

An electric hum sounded as a bright green crescent of light unfolded in the air in front of him. Zack stared at it, not sure why it looked so familiar. When it danced through the air, the way it moved reminded him of an old image of the Grim Reaper he saw a long time ago. Suddenly the light of the arc increased and he saw the manic smile face of Nectra, the shangmere assassin, illuminated by the light of scythe. Her wings spread and she seemed to surge through the air toward him, and Zack jumped out of the way. As Nectra drew nearer, he realized that she looked stranger than normal. Scales covered her face and her wings were graced with feathers, making them appear more like a bird’s than a bat’s.

The scythe vanished, and the light went with it.

“Nectra?”

“You are hunted,” said a voice behind him. Zack turned as his eyes adjusted. A dimmer light coming from somewhere above illuminated something that looked like a Sthenite but with vibrantly colored scales, fewer feathers, and strange spikes and ridges protruding from its skull.

“You speak English?”

“No,” said the creature. “But you can understand me right now. I should learn English, though. It appears to be the language of choice for Veskid’s children.”

“It’s a trade language,” said Zack. “Did I just see what I thought I saw?”

“An image taken from your mind. An assassin, Nectra. She was clearest, but colored by recent events. You are anxious about how the Sthenites will treat you… but you hold a deeper fear of being discovered.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t use Vox Cul-Dar or Murk. Or the… other one. The really scary one. …Fletch. She’s the DMA’s best.”

“By which you mean most skilled. Already I am learning some of the curiosities of English. Yes, there are many you fear discovering you. And many of them carry more weight than Nectra. But discovery, capture, loss of life… these are your strongest fears, but not your deepest. The one you saw tugs at your deepest fear as well.”

“Lady… sir?”

“Lady.”

“Lady, if you think I’m afraid of anything more than being caught by those people-”

“Do not presume to know your own psyche, just as a man who has never seen a mirror believes he knows his own face by the touch of his hands. So far we are still in the realm of fears to which you can give name. I would not be so cruel as to show you your greatest fears, the wordless terrors and designs that rise formless in the back of your mind. There are emotions you fear voicing and that your species has never defined, as well as racial memories of terror that go back a long way… I wonder what put them there? Charlotte had many of them as well.”

“Charlotte?”

The feathered snake creature tilted its head and a trill rolled in the back of its throat. She threw her head back and, despite the visual disconnect, Zack heard the sound of laughter.

“What? I don’t know any Charlotte.”

“The one you call Chala. It is more like the name of the Sthenites, and so she took it for her own before joining them.”

“Weird name for a human. Wonder why she didn’t tell me.”

“Hmm… dare I yield to temptation? There are so many ways to go… you already knew her name.”

“You sure about that? She’s not had long to tell me, you know.”

“And yet she has. It came up quickly. Close to your meeting with… hmm… the Haktorash.”

“Wait, the… giant worm thing? The Phantom Judge?”

“Yes…”

“Say, do you know if there’s more than one of those things? Or if there are a lot? Apparently there’s some debate about that.”

“I do know.”

“Would you tell me?”

“Would it matter? After you leave here, you will learn about the fungal spores that cause mild hallucinations in these caves. Not strong enough to cause something like me, but strong enough that you will always wonder if I was all your imagination.”

“So… are you my imagination?”

“No,” she said. “But I wish you good fortune in your endeavors to believe my claim later. For now I am the overseer of your trials. We must see if you are worthy of walking with the Sthenites.”

“Even though they don’t walk?”

“Ah… yes. Your language again… ‘trips’ me. So many delicious flaws… like the ridges and knobs on a log in a forest.”

“Yeah, sure. Look, for what it’s worth… I’ve got a feeling honesty’s important here. I don’t plan on being one of the Sthenites. I’m leaving as soon as my friend comes back for me.”

“Your friend may be delayed, though… she will need a way to land other than her asteroid.”

“Oh,” said Zack. “Right. …yeah, I’d… missed that.”

“So had she. And she has already encountered some troubles. Hmm… She guards this world, but not for the world’s sake. Only for yours. Friendship is admirable, as is your honesty. But neither are factors. The trial tests your worth, not your intent. And your worth shall, in fact, be tested.”

Episode 109: The View From Above

Carmen felt the crunch of the ship on the opposite side of her asteroid and scanned the skies for the next target. The nearly crippled law enforcement vessel that she, Vince and Xorn’Tal saved had given up trying to convince them to leave, and had instead left to find a dock where it could be repaired. More of the strange ships had blasted into the system near Mandrake, and most had ignored the racers, but four others had stopped to attack. Each racer had landed the final, crushing strike that left the ships drifting in the vacuum on two so far, and Carmen was eager to get to three before Vince or Xorn’Tal could.

Another ship neared Mandrake, bearing the same logo that Carmen had started to recognize, half of an eye’s outer edge with an entire pupil in the center. The ship was much larger than the flimsy fighter ships that she had been tearing apart.

“We might not want to take on that one,” said Vince.

“Show some backbone, will ya?”

“New ship: heavy structure,” said Xorn’tal. “Hull: strong. Aerodynamics: unimportant. Asteroid structure: weaker.”

“Maybe yours is,” said Carmen.

“Hey, Carmen, that shangmere lady carved up your ride pretty badly. It’s been a rush fighting off… whatever these are, but we’ve been taking some damage too. It won’t take them long to figure out that they can just target the single, mostly defenseless life form on each asteroid to end the problem. Besides, the police got away, so we’re not protecting the Phantom Matador data anymore.”

Carmen started to respond but a public channel began broadcasting. She switched feeds just as the incoming message started.

“Petrakinetic racers,” said the strong voice on the other end of the line, “do not interfere. We are the first salvo of The Dyson Empire’s attack on the Veskid system. We respect your desire to stand your ground. Understand that our fight is not with members of the federation, but with the authorities of Veskid.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were phrasing that to try and side with us by making the big tamales on Veskid seem like a common enemy,” said Carmen.

“What?” said the voice. “No, I’m not.”

“Seems like you are,” said Vince. “No different than corporations who try to look cool by paying celebrities to say they were paid to endorse their product.”

“Manipulation: not antagonistic: perpetual.”

“…What?” said the voice on the other end.

“He says that just because you’re trying to be hip, it doesn’t really mean that you’re wrong,” said Carmen. “It doesn’t mean that you’re right, either.”

“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter,” said the voice. “We’ll make a deal, though: you stop smashing our ships, we don’t blast your asteroids out of the sky. You can’t stop us from invading, but we’ll let you steer clear.”

“Not enough,” said Carmen. “I want you to stop passing by Mandrake. Don’t come near this planet when you invade the system.”

“Seriously?” said the voice. “It’s a major path, right on our route.”

“Look, either stay far enough from Mandrake that you’re not showing up on local channels, or know that you’re going to have to slow down to tangle with us until you take us down. Yeah, you’ll probably blast us out of the sky eventually, but how sure are you that it’ll be soon enough to keep us from being a liability?”

“Pretty sure,” said the voice. “I’m especially certain if we don’t let the first few waves against you be the model you’re used to fighting.”

“You’re telling me your military plans’ll seriously be hampered by going a bit to the left or the right for however long Mandrake’s orbit keeps it in your way?”

The voice went silent, but in the background Carmen heard muffled discussions. Soon, a new voice was heard.

“We’ll consider your offer,” said the new voice. “While we consider, would you give us time for this vessel to retrieve the ships you’ve disabled? We’re detecting life signs, but they may need medical attention.”

“Deal,” said Carmen. “Signing off for now, call us when you make up your mind.”

Carmen switched off the main channel and opened the private one between herself, Xorn’Tal and Vince Flashman.

“I don’t trust ‘em,” said Vince.

“Obviously,” said Carmen. “They’ll try to push through before too long.”

“Consideration: withdrawal?”

“Wouldn’t be a crazy idea to pull back,” said Vince.

“Not just yet,” said Carmen. “I think we can slow ‘em down here for a bit longer.”

“Xorn’Tal and I can. Is your asteroid really up to it?”

Carmen concentrated and felt the structure of the Kinetic Kuiper. It was bad. There was a lot of density to it, but it wouldn’t be long before she was juggling multiple objects instead of propelling a single one. It was still repairable, but only just.

“It’ll have to be,” she said. “I’ve still gotta get my friend off that planet.”

“With just an asteroid? With no landing or retrieval gear?”

Carmen blinked.

“I’ll solve that problem when we get to it,” she said.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack looked through his binoculars, an old fashioned approach that didn’t leave an electromagnetic signature like most long-range visual scanners and didn’t leave cyber footprints like redirected satellites. From his camouflaged tent on scenic Mount Porthinel he counted the seconds while watching the resort hotel that housed some of the richest and most celebrated people who ever wanted to relax without answering any uncomfortable questions.

Another thirty seconds and the doors to the gated pool area opened to reveal Azar and the towering form of Harold Zamona behind him, right on schedule. Over the last month, Zack had found the six best places on the mountain for observing Azar and Zamona. It had been rough going, but he was willing to accept the fact that Zamona legitimately meant no harm to Azar after so long. The two had enjoyed the luxuries offered by Ravelar, and Zamona hadn’t once done anything suspicious. Either Zamona was playing a very, very long game, or he was genuinely willing to assist Azar on this life of leisurely adventure.

Zack’s timer chimed. He took a deep breath and put away his binoculars. It would take him time to get off the mountain and even longer to walk to the space port, plus he should add time to dress in a manner that would make it look like he hadn’t been camping on a mountain for a month. He’d given himself two hours, but it would likely only take Azar and Zamona ten minutes, giving them plenty of time to enjoy some poolside fun. He’d have more of a head start than he’d need.

***

“He didn’t send a message saying that he’d missed the flight, did he?” asked Azar.

“No,” said Zamona, watching the passengers collecting their luggage. “But unless he’s not with the passengers of the Daring Dozen, he’s just not here.”

“I don’t like this,” said Azar, watching a blue-skinned cross between a mosquito and a jackal retrieving its luggage from the baggage claim.

“I know.”

“He should have let me pay for it all.”

“And miss my chance at testing out my infiltration technique?” asked Zack, walking up behind them. Azar spun in place, laughed at the sight of Zack, and gave the detective a quick hug. Harold Zamona merely smirked.

“You’re telling me you got on that plane without anyone knowing?”

“I had an earlier flight, actually,” said Zack. “I just knew that I’d be presentable by the time the Daring Dozen was disembarking. You don’t want to see a person right after they’ve been hiding by a Pestle Reactor for half a week.”

“You were hiding by the Pestle Reactor?” said Azar.

“No, but it’s fun to tell people that I can,” said Zack.

“I was about to say, that could cause brain damage, if not outright death,” said Azar. “I should know, some of my money came from working near an unshielded one for two hours a day to help Bristlecorp’s project finish on time.”

“You wouldn’t believe the things this guy did,” said Azar. “He’s been telling me all of the things he got his payment for. Can you believe they’d send someone with three Ph.D.’s into space just to do some soldering?”

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “But only because I’ve been doing my homework, and having a few other people do homework for me so that my poking around wouldn’t raise too many red flags. They needed the best and brightest to do the work, and with all the ethical concerns about programming artificial intelligences to be willing to toss their lives down the drain for projects on this level, they went with good old fashioned human laborers for suspiciously large payouts. Azar, we always knew that you were lucky to survive there, but I think I’ve found evidence that you’ve been even luckier than you knew. Some of those projects were all-but designed to kill off workers before they finished their work.”

“What?” said Azar, his brow creasing.

“Absolutely,” said Zack. “Don’t worry, though, it might be our ace in the hole. Sister Barris and I were hoping to find evidence that would link BristleCorp to the price on your head in a way that would make them hyper-liable if anything shy of natural causes did you in, but we weren’t expecting quite so much. Seriously, Barris is good at her job.”

“She does seem diligent,” said Azar. “She could make sense of a document that I’d never be able to understand.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, smart guy,” said Zack. “Or her, either. Some of the riskier documents she procured through less than legal methods. I won’t tell you that she almost strangled the friend of someone who pulled a gun on her, and I won’t tell you that she now knows that her WimpHelm will, in fact, stop a knife.”

“You sure you need me on this security job?” asked Zamona.

“Absolutely,” said Azar. “Zack can’t be both here and investigating my case back home.”

“Right,” said Zack, thinking over the last month of mountain-side camping and spying on people who were paying for the privilege of not being spied upon. “Though with some of the dirt uncovered by the people I’ve been asking to do side research for me, it’s possible that I might be able to stick around for a bit longer than planned.”

“Excellent!” said Azar. “It’ll be wonderful to have you around.”

“Is it necessary, though?” asked Zamona. “A third party might draw more attention.”

“There’s a little risk, yes,” said Zack. “Unfortunately, I think it’s necessary. There are a few things I need to find out, and you’ll be the best person to ask, Azar.”

“I’ll help however I can,” said Azar.

“Good,” said Zack. “Because we’re going to figure out each and every way that BristleCorp tried to kill you.”

Episode 108: Jungle Predators

Igneous pushed aside a branch, stepped through, and removed her hand just as it started smoking. She didn’t think there was any real danger of her presence starting a forest fire amide these trees… most of them appeared too damp, and sometimes too spongy, to catch flame easily. Still, the occasional clouds from the branches she touched were beginning to worry her.

She checked her tracker again. The signal from Zack’s landing site was drawing nearer. It wouldn’t be long before she was in visual range.

She pushed between two thorny bushes that probably would have killed most humans attempting to travel by the same route, and paused at the sight of the small ravine in her path. A narrow bridge was formed by a fallen tree. She stared at the soft, spongy bark of the tree and wondered if she could maintain her balance on it. She also wondered what her chances would be of the tree not catching on fire and burning itself apart while she walked over it.

She took a deep breath, again wishing she knew if deep breaths or rushing winds would feed the heat inside her. She stepped back as far as the thorny bushes would allow, and ran forward. Her usual speed was diminished in part by ground much softer than the city streets or space stations that she frequented, and she had a moment of panic as her final footstep touched the edge of the cliff and propelled her forward.

She soared through the air, realizing that she wasn’t going to go as far as she usually could on a jump. She wondered if the soft soil was to blame, or if she had grown weaker than she realized while holding off her metamorphosis.

She dropped like, as the humans would say, a stone, arcing down too sharply. She pulled an arm back and, in a moment of desperation, punched the dirt inches below the ravine’s edge. Her fist dug into the soil of the cliff, and her fall halted in an outward explosion of muddy dirt and stone. She took the chance and reached up, putting an arm over the top of the cliff. She paused and, after a second without falling, began to laugh her low, rumbling laugh. The laughing lasted much longer than it had in recent memory, but it stopped abruptly when she realized that the edge of the cliff was starting to droop down toward her.

She dug her highest arm into the ground and scrambled up, pushing herself to finish the climb before too much of the cliff gave way. Moments of worry later, she pulled herself over the edge while piles of soft dirt fell behind her. She stood, jumped away from the edge, and walked a good thirty feet before looking back.

The bridge formed by the fallen tree remained in place, and the now-wider jump where she had attempted it looked maddeningly treacherous after what she knew about the soil structure.

“Next time, jump over the bridge instead of the empty air,” she told herself.

She checked the scanner again, got a fix on Zack’s landing site, and walked through the trees. She had work to do, and no time to dwell on the close call, but an observer familiar with Pyrhian facial expressions would tell you that her usual look of stony determination had been replaced with a genuine smile.

***

Vox Cul-Dar reached into the wreckage of the robotic parachute with the tweezers he’d included in the poison mixing kit. He held back a fold of the cloth with one hand while sifting aside chipped fragments of debris until a tiny, glowing dot came into view.

“There it is,” he said. “Rendelac, I’ve found it. We can begin the examination.”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac. “We have a disparity of goals.”

“What do you mean?”

“You wish to remain undetected and surprise Zack Gamma,” said Vox Cul-Dar. “You also wish to examine the remains more carefully. In the clearing we are visible. In the jungle we can hide. Your desire to examine the parachute itself is, while thorough, a risk greater than any rewards you are likely to glean. I suggest taking the tracking device with us into the trees and returning it after our examination is complete. Leave the parachute.”

“Sensible as always,” said Vox Cul-Dar. “I would know more of this parachute, though. The odds are against it, but it may have other useful information.”

“It is a possibility,” said Rendelac. “And though I advise against it, if the computerized elements of the parachute remain intact, it is possible that I could discern some of what caused Zack Gamma to abandon it here.”

“Oh, yes,” said Vox. “I would very much like to know this.”

“Seek a Minyural connection,”

“That’s one of the triangular wires, yes?”

“Indeed.”

Vox looked over the parachute and found a Minyural connection port. He retrieved Rendelac from his pack, found a Minyural cord in the secondary supplies he’d brought at Rendelac’s recommendation, and connected the computer to the robotic parachute.

“Processing,” said Rendelac. “Yes, there is data here. It appears that Gamma used the parachute twice.”

“A jump before leaving Carmen’s asteroid?”

“No,” said Rendelac. “A jump after.”

“After? How is that possib-”

“Urgent, we are not alone!” said Rendelac. “Scanners indicate another!”

Vox spun in place to scan the tree line, just in time to see Fletch swinging at him with two batons, ancient Earth weapons known as escrima sticks. He raised his arms and caught the two wooden weapons with the serrated edges of his limbs.

“Too slow!” he shouted, locking them in place against each other and preventing Fletch from manipulating them. The assassin snarled and jumped back just before he kicked the air where she had been with enough force to kill. He stomped onto the ground and pulled his arms apart, an act that caused the blades to slice through the weapons, destroying them.

Unfortunately, the arm blades also severed the high-voltage wires located within the rigged weapons. The batons released their charge into both of Vox’s arms, jolting him and causing him to stagger back. In a daze he looked up at his enemy, saw the stun rifle in her hands, and blacked out when the burst of energy passed through him.

Fletch tossed the rifle to the side, stepped to the parachute, and lifted Rendelac off the ground, keeping the Minyural wire plugged in as she did so. Her cybernetic reticle scanned the trees quickly and, convinced that she was alone, lifted the thin computer high enough to look into its green, softly-glowing eye.

“You’re Vox Cul-Dar’s pet computer,” she said.

“I am no pet,” Rendelac said. “I am an adviser and councilor, meant to instruct and-”

“Pet computer,” she repeated. “Word around the DMA says that he doesn’t listen to your advice unless it’s convenient for him. You’re a sentimental reminder of his past, I’m guessing.”

“I have often considered this,” said Rendelac. “You are speaking half-truths to rattle me. I know what is true of your statements, and what is not, and though I have emotions I do not have the emotional ties required to be confused by emotional manipulation. Humans have a wonderful gift for using emotions to outsmart those who are smarter than themselves, but Rendelac has never been swayed by such tactics. I speak both of the true Rendelac and myself when I say this.”

“Fine,” said Fletch. “No tricks. Just options. You’re here for Gamma.”

“Correct,” said Rendelac.

“Awfully honest there.”

“Deception is rarely warranted. I gain nothing with a lie at this time.”

“Great. You’re going to tell me everything about Vox’s work here. How did he know Gamma would be here, how he found this clearing, what his plans are for actually catching Gamma, everything. I’ve already worked a lot of this out, and if I get the sense that you’re leaving out an important detail then I snap Cul-Dar’s neck followed by three puncture wounds to vital organs since I know that neck snapping won’t kill him immediately like it would for a human.”

“Then why-”

“So he’ll die in pain,” said Fletch. “I took special precautions to avoid anyone else being on this planet. Just me, Gamma, and the locals. I don’t have time to deal with you and Vox. You’re the kind of complication that made Zack too tough to pick up back at Helix.”

“Very well,” said Rendelac. “I will tell you everything you want to know.”

“Maybe the great wisdom of Rendelac’s got something going for it after all,” said Fletch.

“I’m sure I don’t gain anything by saying so, but Gamma’s bounty can’t be worth this trouble. Money doesn’t buy happiness.”

“I’m not an assassin or bounty hunter for the money,” said Fletch. “I’m in it for the glory. The money’s a really nice fringe benefit, though. Now, no more stalling.”

***

Igenous pushed through the trees around Zack’s landing site, took one look at the scene, and instantly stepped back into the forest. A dazed-looking Vox Cul-Dar was on the ground, and Fletch was speaking to a computer, probably the Rendelac model that he used. She had known that she would run into Fletch sooner or later, but had hoped it wouldn’t be this early. She needed to move away from the clearing. Gamma obviously wasn’t anywhere near here, and the second that Fletch looked in her direction the cybernetic reticle would register her heat signature.

Igneous pushed away from the clearing, trying to think. If the tracer had been left behind, likely in that wreckage, then how would she find Gamma? And how had Vox gotten here? There was too much information she didn’t know.

The only thing she knew for sure was that if Fletch was around, then her supply of Teles wouldn’t be too far.

Episode 107: Public Hearing

The Suzerain of the Sthenites was a monstrous snake creature, and Zack initially mistook her for one of the guards. She wore the same gold-colored armor that the guards wore around their torsos, and featured the same red and orange scales and cobra-like hood that he saw on the guards, menial workers, and others who relied on strength. She slithered around a fire that was the focus of an amphitheater, hissing and rattling and yawning strange words that reminded Zack of a grizzled police chief he once knew.

The Suzerain stopped on the far side of the fire and stared down at Zack. He stood on the slope that led up to the gigantic gourd that had been carved into the stage in the center of the city, and a crowd of other Sthenites watched curiously.

“Kneel,” said Chala, quietly speaking behind him.

“What?”

“Kneel,” said Chala. “Ordinarily you’d fall onto the ground, but they let me just kneel, so here’s where you kneel.”

Zack awkwardly looked into the emerald, predatory eyes of the Suzerain. He dropped to one knee and looked at the ground leading up to the fire. The Suzerain resumed speaking and, judging by the sudden appearance of orange and red scales between him and the flames, she resumed slithering as well. Soon she was out of view again, her oddly bird-like voice the only sign that she was still present.

“Now stand,” said Chala.

Zack rose and the Sthenites behind him began whispering rapidly to each other, creating a tense skirring of voices and feathers.

“Say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”

“What?”

“It means ‘I agree and await judgement, Suzerain.’”

“You didn’t say Suzerain.”

“They don’t speak English. You need to say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”

Zack stared into the eyes of the Suzerain. They seemed predatory, but not cruel.

“Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala?”

The Suzerain growled with a purring rumble. Soon she began circling the fire again.

“She accepted it,” said Chala. “We need to work on your pronunciation for later, though.”

“What did I agree to?”

“Not important right now,” Chala whispered.

The Suzerain continued finished a circuit around the fire, coughed twice, and began speaking again. As she spoke the voices of the Sthenites behind them became louder and more scattered.

“What’re they concerned about?”

“They’re just debating the decision the Suzerain reached. Some feel she’s made the right call, some feel that she’s being too merciful. Others feel that she’s been too harsh.”

Chala’s voice was distant, further away and no longer whispering. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw Chala no longer standing just behind him. Instead, she stood on the ground near the other Sthenites.

“Chala?”

“I can’t help you in the next part. You’ll be fine.”

“Next part?”

A large, cobra-like guard surged from the crowd and grabbed Zack by the arm, trilling angrily in Zack’s face.

“Hey!”

“Don’t fight him,” said Chala. “Yell or scream if it’ll make you feel better, but don’t resist it. He’s following the Suzerain’s orders.”

Zack was already being slithered down the ramp and through the crowd, but listened to Chala’s instructions. The guard pulled Zack through the gathered Sthenites and across the village to a small building made of stone. Some smaller, green-scaled Sthenites chirped excitedly at the approaching guard and worked together to open the heavy stone door.

Zack saw torchlight through the door, a green fire burning from the alien tree branches within. Something about the scenario felt off to Zack, but it was too late to avoid being pushed into the enclosure. He landed on a surprisingly soft bedding of leaves and branches.

“Good luck in there,” said Chala, peering from behind the other Sthenites.

“I thought you said I’d be in for some kind of… trial pit?”

Before Chala could respond, the bed of leaves and branches shuddered and started to descend into a hole carved in the floor. Zack saw four winches controlling ropes on the platform as it began descending into darkness. He instinctively moved to step off, but Chala held up a hand, warning him to stay on.

Zack watched the floor rise up and looked back at Chala, locking eyes with her until the ropes lowered him out of sight.

Episode 106: The Expected Clearing

Igneous opened the cold tub and instantly regretted it.

The sweltering humidity of the jungles of Mandrake crashed into her, overwhelming what little of the tub’s chill that hadn’t already been subsumed by the heat she generated.

She willed herself to be stone in that moment. The rock men and rock women of the Pyrhians were, with some noteworthy exceptions, the strongest and most stable of the others, and that strength was often mental and spiritual just as much as it was physical. She reached over the side and pulled herself into the sweltering heat.

The clearing was wide, and much like she had expected. Before Carmen had programmed Zack’s landing site into the robotic parachute, Igneous had attempted to determine which part of the planet, and if possible which landing site, the racer would select. Few people realized how easy it was to predict the decisions of others if those decisions were based on standard computerized methodology. Without adding qualifiers like ‘one of the top fifty-three results’ or even ‘I’m trying to avoid detection, mix it up a little,’ replicating such strategies was easy enough. After determining what clearing on the planet would fit the most variables, she selected one near to it; Zack had no reason to suspect that she would follow him to Mandrake, and dropping off her tub right next to him could lead to uncomfortable questions.

Igneous reached into the cold tub and withdrew her small package of supplies, feeling like she was swimming through the atmosphere with every motion. She wanted to collapse onto the ground and take the time to acclimate to the oppressive environment, but knew that her time before metamorphosis was more likely to be measured in hours or minutes than in days. After a quick visual inspection to make sure that nothing was damaged, she withdrew the heat resistant tracing module. As expected, the tracker pinpointed Zack as waiting in the clearing where Carmen dropped him off. She smiled at the break in her fortune, hoisted a liquid nitrogen cannister out of the tub and over her shoulder, and moved out of the clearing.

***

Vox Cul-Dar stared at the gouge in the red soil, not knowing what it meant but assuming it was a problem.

“I don’t understand,” he said. “Gamma was here, I can feel it. But something else was, too…”

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac, chiming in from Vox’s backpack. “Some of the detritus crushed on the ground is not native to this jungle. It appears to be mechanical in nature, and still partially functional.”

“Where?”

“Twenty meters down the channel.”

Vox followed the track in the ground, stepping over the twigs and flattened grasses. Soon, he found a device made of black metal, crumpled flat by something of immense weight. It was as if an incredibly tall-but-thin tree had crashed violently exactly where Zack’s gear had been dropped, but no sight of the tree remained. The hole in the ground near the start of the channel might have been the location of a stump, but no trace of it remained either. Vox turned his mind from the oddity and turned the remnants of the device with his slender hands.

“It appears to be a robotic parachute. A signal is issuing from it, likely from another device stored within.”

“Intriguing,” said Vox. “Perhaps the signal is how Zack planned on being found again after landing. A third party must be arriving to get him off of Mandrake again. Something happened here, though, making Zack leave the rendezvous point.”

“That is one possibility,” said Rendelac. “You could destroy the signal and prevent there being any chance of rescue. Or, you could keep the signal active to increase the likelihood that Gamma’s rescuers will arrive and have some way of drawing him back to this location.”

“Either way, his fate lies in my hands,” said Vox, sifting through the debris. “This is a golden opportunity, Rendelac. We would do well not to waste it.”

Episode 105: Cerulean Bloom

The yellow, saucer-shaped ship dipped into Mandrake’s atmosphere. Saucers had some advantages at incorporating stealthy technology and didn’t make people as naturally suspicious as the even stealthier “black triangle” ship design, and as such prospective smugglers both had more chances to purchase them from military surplus dealers and had more desire to modify them for their purposes. Re-entry fire was hard to avoid, but for those who cared enough and could invest in the right technologies it was possible for a skilled pilot to minimize it to almost nothing.

The Amber Sting spun and the lights surrounding its perimeter spiraled so that anyone with the right vantage point would see the dizzying, and by some reports nearly hypnotic, display as the energy from the propulsion systems transitioned to the hovering systems. The properly selected clearing, a small one laced with flowers around its edges, had its grass-like flora pressed in a circular form as the saucer rotated and stabilized. Slender legs unfolded and gracefully touched the ground before a sturdier protrusion began to lower. A staircase was revealed on the ramp, and an equally graceful figure began to descend. The back lighting gave Vox Cul-Dar a wonderful view of the clearing as he stepped out of the vessel and onto the surface of Mandrake.

“It’s more beautiful than I imagined,” he said, scanning over the environment with his large, oval eyes.

“I still don’t know why you picked this place,” said the captain, stepping down behind him. “A safer clearing less than two kilometers from here would have been just as easy to reach.”

“I am aware of that clearing, Earth man.”

“Hey, I was born on Veskid,” said the captain. “Earth’s not my home world.”

“My apologies,” said Vox. “I am aware of that clearing, human. I intend to visit it soon enough. This clearing needed to be my first stop, though, and as grateful as I am for your services I won’t pay the extra for a short hop through the jungle. I can handle myself that far, at least.”

“Suit yourself,” said the captain. “As a reminder, it may be a while before we can get to you. Against my better judgement as a low-life smuggler who’s more interested in money than in the well being of his passengers or cargo, I would ask you to please reconsider being dropped off here so that the Yellow Jackets may benefit from your business again in the future.”

“Your concern is noted and your offer declined,” said Vox. “Thank you for everything. When my business is concluded, I will attempt to request your services again. My hope is that this military action near Veskid won’t last more than a day.”

“Suit yourself,” said the captain. “Don’t get killed out here. The first explorers didn’t name it Mandrake for nothing.”

Vox raised his hand in farewell, and the captain turned to walk back up to the stairs, shielding his eyes from the disorientingly bright light. He hoped that the Yellow Jackets would fix that light before they returned to pick him up.

The ship reactivated its hover systems as the ramp began to lift back into the saucer. The legs slowly folded up as the Amber Sting began to spin. Vox removed his backpack and set it on the ground, not even watching as the ship lifted above the trees and zipped away. It never occurred to him that the ship might go elsewhere on the same planet.

“Heed well my words, Vox Cul-Dar,” said Rendelac as Vox lifted the computer’s slender black frame out of his pack, “I have finished your calculations and am ready to assist, though would again ask you to consider other ways.”

“Thank you, Rendelac,” said Vox, carrying the computer to the flowers at the edge of clearing. “And thank you also for arranging for the delivery at the star port. All of the ingredients from the catalog arrived, and now we only need the final ingredient. This poetry requires only two more lines.”

“There is no poetry in this, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“I would think that a computer would have a marvelous grasp of the beauty of mathematical progression. Half an hour, one third of an hour, one fourth of an hour…”

“I am familiar with the pattern that has obsessed you since we left Helix,” said Rendelac. “I will perform my duty and locate the flower you need, and in truth it is already located. I ask that you not dwell on the grisly details of your poison any further.”

“The details are already playing out,” said Vox. “Poisoning Gamma will merely be the nail in the coffin to this chain of events.”

“We know of no details playing out, and that destiny has not yet been etched in stone,” said Rendelac. “Gamma’s fate need not be a grim one.”

“If not me, then someone else,” said Vox. “No one escapes the Desperate Measures Agency, especially not one of its own employees.”

“Gamma has,” said Rendelac. “The bounty may exist, but if you simply stop pursuing him, all evidence suggests that he may live out a full life of simple obscurity.”

“A life hiding in shadows is not a life to support, Rendelac. One cannot properly live under those conditions.”

“Nor can one properly live under yours,” said Rendelac. “The blue flower amid the green ones, sixty degrees to your right is the blossom you seek. Do not touch the green flowers, for they will attack you with thorns if you so much as brush against them.”

“Thank you,” said Vox. “Once this business is behind us, we will never need to stoop to these measures again, Rendelac. We will simply deliver Zack to his destiny of dying alone in some back alley… or in some copse of trees as the case may be… and retire to a life free from strife.”

The flower was large, almost as large as one of Vox’s hands, and had glistening sparkles in its cerulean coloration that set it apart from the maw-shaped green flowers that surrounded it. It was not poisonous on its own, but the Rythnian Boutique explained how, when mixed with certain other exotic materials that it sold, the flower could become the secret ingredient to one of the most insidious poisons ever discovered.

“Money does not bring peace, Vox Cul-Dar.”

“No, but it can rent a great deal of stability,” said Vox. He leaned forward and very gently pinched the blue flower between his fingers before severing its stem with the serrated blades of his arm.