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.