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.”

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