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?”
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.”
“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.